Gary Fineout - SaintPetersBlog

Gary Fineout

Federal authorities launch probe into city of Tallahassee

In a move that could shake-up next year’s race for Florida governor, the FBI has launched an investigation into redevelopment deals involving prominent business owners and developers in the state capital.

Federal grand jury subpoenas this month seek five years of records from the city of Tallahassee and a local redevelopment agency that involve high profile projects and developers including an ally of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

Gillum, one of several Democrats in the 2018 governor’s race, is not named in the subpoenas to the city and agency, which were provided Thursday to The Associated Press in response to a public records request.

“We expect the city to respond fully and completely to the subpoena and we hope the situation is resolved quickly,” Geoff Burgan, a spokesman for Gillum’s campaign, told the AP.

The subpoenas ask for any documents and communications between the redevelopment agency, the city, their officials, and a list of people and corporations. The material is to be turned over to the grand jury in July.

The companies cited have developed the Edison, an upscale restaurant frequented by lawmakers and lobbyists in a city-owned building; and Hotel Duval, which features a steakhouse and a rooftop bar blocks from the Capitol.

The Edison received financial assistance from both the city and the local Community Redevelopment Agency. Gillum sits on the agency board and one of the owners of the restaurant is a lobbyist who once served as his campaign treasurer.

The list of individuals, corporations and entities in both subpoenas include donors to Gillum and a political committee backing his run for governor. One of them is the chief executive of a company that has been setting up medical marijuana dispensaries in the state.

Amy Alexander, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida, said she had no public information about the investigation.

Lewis Shelley, the Tallahassee city attorney, said by email that the FBI has requested records and “that other than the request for information by subpoena, the City has no further information on this matter. City staff is fully cooperating and has begun gathering the requested records.”

Gillum has been viewed as a rising star for Florida Democrats and had a speaking slot at last year’s Democratic National Convention. He was just 23 and still a student at Florida A&M when he became the youngest person elected to the Tallahassee city commission in 2003. He was elected mayor in 2014.

But he has already weathered controversy during his bid for governor. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Gillum used $5,000 in city money to buy software from a Democratic Party vendor to aid in sending out campaign emails. He paid the city back and apologized after the report.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida residents who lost citrus trees challenge Gov. Scott

Homeowners whose healthy citrus trees were torn down by the state of Florida are taking Gov. Rick Scott to court.

A group of homeowners and their attorneys asked the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday to undo Scott’s veto of more than $37 million.

The Republican-controlled Legislature agreed to pay homeowners in both Broward and Lee counties whose trees were torn down in a failed attempt to eradicate citrus canker. The money was to pay off judgments that had been won against the state.

In court filings, attorneys for the homeowners argue Scott lacked legal authority to veto the money because a court had already ruled the state violated the private property rights of homeowners.

Scott said in his veto message that he vetoed the money because there are other citrus canker lawsuits still ongoing.

Updated 2 p.m. — The court has asked the governor to file a response on or before noon of next Monday. The petitioners can file a reply on or before noon of the following day.

Citing water losses, Florida insurer approves rate hikes

Florida’s state-created property insurer, contending that it is dealing with a flood of suspicious water-related claims and lawsuits, is asking state regulators to raise rates for thousands of homeowners next year, including those in the most heavily-populated areas.

The board that oversees Citizens Property Insurance voted unanimously Tuesday to raise homeowner rates an average 5.3 percent and commercial accounts by an 8.4 percent average.

Citizens has more than 451,000 customers, many of them living near the coast or in South Florida. The corporation was created by state legislators to act as the state’s insurer of last resort when Floridians cannot get coverage from private companies.

The proposed rate hikes vary by the type of policy purchased and location, but the rate hikes will fall hardest of homeowners in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties who will pay as much as 10 percent more a year. Residents in other coastal counties such as Collier, Santa Rosa and Pinellas, however, will see their rates go down.

Citizens officials assert they have to raise the rates to cover rising costs associated with water damage claims that are not connected to weather events such as hurricanes or tropical storms. Florida has avoided major damage from hurricanes for more than a decade.

Citizens is also putting in place other programs, including putting a limit on how many water damage claims homeowners can file over a three year period and a $10,000 cap on how much the company it will reimburse homeowners for water-damage repairs. A homeowner, however, can avoid the cap if they agree to participate in a new Citizens-run program that links them to specific contractors.

“These proposed rate increases and product changes are critical for Citizens’ efforts to bring some relief to a market that is being made increasingly expensive by unnecessary litigation and out-of-control water loss claims,” said Chris Gardner, chairman of the Citizens board. “Unfortunately, we are making it more expensive for many of our customers to own a home.”

Citizens and others in the insurance industry have pushed for legislators to change state law regarding the ability of homeowners to sign over insurance benefits to contractors who do home repairs. They say this practice results in lawsuits and that the work is sometimes done before adjusters can inspect the damage.

While some in Florida’s business community have suggested these rising claims are fraudulent, Citizens officials and top regulators have stopped short of backing up those accusations.

The Florida Legislature wrapped up its session this year without passing the bill to deal with these “assignment of benefits” that was being pushed by the insurance industry. Some senators including Sen. Gary Farmer, an attorney from Fort Lauderdale, have said the water-damage related lawsuits have been driven by Citizens practice of refusing to pay legitimate claims quickly.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

With school funding in jeopardy, Florida GOP at odds again

An effort by Florida’s Republican leaders to put aside recent acrimony and reach a new budget deal was falling apart on the eve of a three-day special session.

If legislators can’t reach an accord, Florida’s public schools could be in danger of losing billions for the upcoming school year.

Legislators are scheduled to return to the state Capitol on Wednesday. They plan to pass a new budget for the state’s public schools and set aside money for top priorities of Gov. Rick Scott, including spending more money on tourism marketing.

Scott last Friday vetoed nearly $12 billion from the state budget that takes effect on July 1. Most of the money was tied to the main account used to pay for school operations. Scott zeroed out the money with the expectation that legislators would return this week and increase the money that goes to each student by $100 over this year.

But Senate President Joe Negron warned Tuesday in a memo to senators that he has “made no agreement that would dictate an outcome for this special session.”

He also said that the Senate may try to override some of Scott’s other budget vetoes that were aimed at state universities and higher education. The governor last Friday vetoed more than $400 million in projects from the budget, a quarter of which were tied to the state’s 12 public universities. It would take a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to override any vetoes.

Negron added that the Senate would also seek to dip into reserves to offset $100 million in cuts that legislators had made to hospitals during the session that wrapped up in early May. And he said that the Senate wants to use a rise in local property taxes – all of it coming from new construction – to help boost public school funding.

The Senate leader’s comments drew a scathing rebuke from House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who called the Senate school proposal a tax hike and said House Republicans would not support tapping into reserves to “pay for corporate giveaways.”

“Without question, the House will not allow funding for our schoolchildren to be held hostage to pork barrel spending and special interest demands,” Corcoran said in a statement.

The new drama unfolding with the Legislature came after it seemed that Scott had brokered a deal with legislative leaders to resolve a long-running feud.

For weeks, Scott had harshly criticized GOP legislators for cutting money to the VISIT Florida tourism-marketing program and greatly scaling back the state’s economic development agency. The governor had repeatedly warned he could veto the entire budget.

But last Friday at a hastily arranged news conference at Miami International Airport, Scott announced a deal under which he said legislators had agreed to boost school funding, while also setting aside nearly $140 million that would eliminate cuts to VISIT Florida and pay for a new grant program that would help businesses. Both Negron and Corcoran stood by the governor while he announced the agreement and the special session.

But other senators said that Negron was not involved in the negotiations, and a spokeswoman for him said he joined the news conference because he was invited to it.

McKinley Lewis, a spokesman for Scott, said that the governor was “very clear” about what he wants legislators to do this week and that he would not support legislators passing any other items that were not part of last week’s budget agreement.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Rick Scott defends record-setting budget vetoes

Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Monday defended his latest round of budget vetoes, which set a modern-day record for a governor but came from a long list of spending projects, including money intended for public universities and compensation for homeowners whose trees were torn down by the state.

Scott late last week vetoed nearly $11.9 billion from the state budget as part of a private deal he worked out with legislative leaders.

Legislators will return to the state Capitol for a three-day special session where they are expected to pass a new budget for public schools that will be higher than the one they adopted in early May.

Scott’s veto total – which was about 14 percent of the entire $82.4 billion budget – included the main state account that goes to public schools. But the governor also vetoed roughly 400 projects worth nearly $410 million that were placed in the budget by Republicans and Democrats.

For weeks, Scott had feuded with legislators because they refused to set aside money for his top priorities, and he had threatened to veto the entire budget. But under the deal, legislators will use money vetoed by Scott to pay for tourism marketing, a new fund aimed at attracting businesses to the state, and to increase school funding by $100 for each student.

But Scott’s vetoes hit hard, especially for the state’s public universities, which lost more than $108 million. Scott also eliminated $37.4 million that was going to go to homeowners in Broward and Lee counties whose healthy citrus trees were torn down in a failed attempt to eradicate citrus canker.

Some counties that are home to top Republican legislators – including Miami-Dade, Pasco and Pinellas counties – had a long list of budget vetoes. Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, who had several projects vetoed, tweeted out that “we won’t stop fighting for the worthy projects Floridians need, want and deserve.”

During a stop in Panama City, Scott maintained that his vetoes did not target any legislators who had upset him this year.

“We look at every line to see whether it’s good for Florida families,” Scott said.

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican who had pushed for the canker payments, downplayed the vetoes and said that a lot of other things he pushed escaped Scott’s veto pen.

“I’m an optimist,” said Diaz, who lost nearly $54 million to budget vetoes. “There were a lot of important things for my community that did not get vetoed.”

Republished with the permission of The Associated Press.

There’s a real “He-Man” on Florida ballot

Voters in Florida are going to get a chance to pick a real “He-Man.”

State election officials on Tuesday agreed to let Christian “He-Man” Schlaerth qualify for a special election.

Schlaerth is joining a crowded field of candidates seeking to replace a state senator who resigned earlier this year after using a racial slur and vulgar language in a conversation with two African-American colleagues.

The special election in Miami-Dade County will be held Sept. 26.

State rules allow nicknames to be placed on the ballot if it can be shown that the candidate is known by the nickname.

Schlaerth turned into state officials an affidavit that contends he did not create the nickname to “mislead voters.” He also included an affidavit of a friend who says he was introduced to Schlaerth as “He-Man” last year.

Fate of program for disabled children rests with Rick Scott

Debby Dawson, who lives in southwest Florida, has a simple message to Gov. Rick Scott: The state’s existing scholarship program for disabled children is “life changing” and has helped her 7-year-old autistic son “develop by leaps and bounds.”

Dawson is part of a chorus of parents from around the state who have mounted a campaign through letters, emails and phone calls urging the Republican governor to sign a sweeping education bill that will soon come to his desk.

But that same bill has sparked an outpouring of an even larger negative reaction to Scott both directly and on social media.

School superintendents, the state’s teacher union, parent-teacher groups and Democrats have called on the governor to veto the bill. Even Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the leading Republican candidate for governor in 2018, called the legislation a “train wreck” on Tuesday and said Scott should take a “hard look” at vetoing the bill.

That’s because GOP legislators crafted the 300-page bill largely in secret, and included in it portions that would steer more state and local money to privately-run charter schools. The legislation (HB 7069) also mandates recess in elementary schools, expands virtual education courses to private and home schooled students, and tweaks Florida’s testing system.

Scott, who supported the creation of the scholarship program, has not yet said what he plans to do.

But if he vetoes the bill, however, he will wipe out an extra $30 million for the Gardiner Scholarship program that provides tuition, therapy and other services to roughly 8,000 disabled students. Legislators included $73 million in the state budget for scholarships, but those who operate the program say it is growing and they may not have enough money to serve everyone without the extra money. Additionally, legislators passed a separate bill that would expand those eligible for the program.

That’s why Dawson wrote Scott asking him to sign the bill. She said without the extra money her other son – who is about to turn 3-years-old – may not get a scholarship in the coming year.

“As a parent who has seen how life changing this grant is, and knowing my second child may not have the same opportunities as my oldest, it is heartbreaking, to say the least,” Dawson wrote in an email to a reporter. “This grant opens up doors for our children where the doors were once shut and locked tight.”

Legislative leaders have not given a detailed explanation on why they put the extra money for the scholarship program in the bill, which was not released publicly until two days before a final vote. Initially, the state Senate had more than $100 million in its budget for the program but then agreed to lower it during budget negotiations.

Sen. Jack Latvala, the budget chairman, said the decision to include the money in the bill and not the budget was at the urging of House Speaker Richard Corcoran. When asked Corcoran called it a “compromise” since the House did not include the higher amount in its initial budget.

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat opposed to the bill, argued that legislative leaders crafted the legislation this way in order to make it harder for Scott to veto the bill.

“I was deeply disturbed that (the families of disabled children) were hijacked and used as pawns to mollify opposition to an otherwise bad bill,” Farmer said.

School choice advocates, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, are asking Scott to sign the bill. Former Senate President Andy Gardiner, who has a son with Down syndrome and helped create the program, said he hopes the “governor is mindful” that the bill isn’t just about charter schools and that many families will be affected by his decision.

Barbara Beasley, whose 9-year-old daughter receives a Gardiner scholarship, says it has dramatically improved her daughter’s life, but she said that “lawmakers sold us down the river with their backroom dealing on the education bill.” She said other parts of the legislation are detrimental to public schools and should be stopped.

“I beg Governor Scott to order lawmakers back to session to fix their mistakes, separate these items from the bad and push them through,” Beasley said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Rick Scott has a friend in White House and foes back home

With a friend and a political ally in the White House, this was supposed to be a moment of triumph for Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

For years, Scott complained and criticized President Barack Obama and contended he wasn’t helping Florida. Now with Donald Trump in office, Scott has worked out a deal with federal officials to provide at least $1 billion for the state’s hospitals and he obtained a promise to move forward with repairs to a federally-operated dike that surrounds the state largest freshwater lake.

But that didn’t help him with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Instead by the end of this year’s session, Scott’s legislative agenda was in tatters, ignored by GOP legislators he has feuded with for months and criticized during visits to the lawmakers’ hometowns.

And on Tuesday, he bashed the newly-passed $83 billion budget, giving his strongest sign that he may veto the spending plan and force the state House and Senate to reconvene in a special session. He criticized legislators for assembling most of the budget — which covers spending from July of this year to June 2018 — in secret and for refusing to set aside money for his top priorities including money for business incentives.

“I ran for governor to fight career politicians and it’s backroom deals like this that make families think politics is nothing more than a game,” Scott said in a statement. “Just like I do every year, I will make my decisions based on what’s best for our families because my job is to wake up every day and fight for Floridians.”

The Florida Legislature wrapped up its session late Monday, passing a series of budget-related bills that included a pay raise for state workers, a measure to cut funding to the state’s tourism marketing agency by two-thirds and a small boost in money for day-to-day school operations. They also passed a sweeping education bill that includes more than $400 million for teacher bonuses as well as money for charter schools that enroll students now attending failing public schools.

Scott contends the new budget could harm the state’s economy and suppress job creation.

The big question, however, is whether Scott will take the political risk of vetoing the budget since it was passed by overwhelming margins. A Florida governor hasn’t vetoed the entire budget in more than two decades.

Scott, a potential candidate for U.S. Senate next year against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, could be embarrassed if legislators return to the Capitol and override him. It takes a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, meaning Republicans would need Democrats to join with them.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has derided Scott’s requests for business incentives as “corporate welfare” and has ridiculed VISIT Florida for deals such as the secret one where the rapper Pitbull was paid $1 million to promote the state. The Land O’ Lakes Republican has defended his strong stance opposite Scott and criticized politicians he says have flipped positions. Scott backed strong anti-immigration moves in 2010 but then backed off later. The governor also flipped on whether to support Medicaid expansion.

“There’s a war going on for the soul of the party,” said Corcoran, who says he thinks the Legislature has enough votes to block Scott’s veto. “Are we going to be who we say we are?”

Senate Republicans say they tried to back Scott’s priorities and have urged him to sign the new budget. Sen. Bill Galvano, a top Republican from Bradenton, said Scott’s situation was a byproduct of negotiations in order to get a final budget.

“The reality is what it is,” Galvano said. “There’s got to be some give and take.”

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon from Miami Gardens said Republicans should not assume that Democrats will join in an override, especially since there are measures, including the education bill, that were opposed by Democrats.

“You can’t predict that until we see what he vetoes,” Braynon said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida may restore college aid lost during Great Recession

Nearly a decade after the Great Recession, Florida may finally restore one of its main programs that aids students headed to college.

The state Legislature late Monday approved an overhaul of the state’s higher education system that is intended to lift schools in the Sunshine State into the ranks of elite counterparts.

A key part of the legislation now headed to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott would require the state to cover 100 percent of tuition costs for top performing high school students who attend a state university or college. Florida used to pay 100 percent of tuition for those eligible for the top level of the state’s Bright Futures scholarship, but it was scaled back when the economy soured.

Those students eligible for the top award would also be able to use their Bright Futures scholarship — which is paid from lottery ticket sales — on summer courses for the first time.

Senate President Joe Negron, who called for having schools in Florida rival other public universities such as University of Virginia and University of North Carolina, pointed out that legislators agreed to spend nearly $600 million to increase financial aid and to boost spending in state universities. The new state budget nearly doubles the amount of financial aid provided to low-income students.

The Stuart Republican asserted the changes in the bill (SB 374) would encourage students to graduate faster.

“I believe Florida taxpayers will see a return worthy of their investment when our top Florida students attend our own colleges and universities, complete degree programs on-time, and then graduate with job opportunities in high-demand fields needed in our growing communities,” Negron said.

Some Democrats questioned why the state was not boosting money available in other scholarship programs. Some Tampa Bay area legislators also were upset because a last-minute change pushed by Negron prevented University of South Florida from being eligible for money intended to the state’s top universities. Currently, only the University of Florida and Florida State University qualify for the extra money.

Rep. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, said her hometown school was “cheated” by the maneuver.

The House voted 85-27 for the bill, while the Senate approved the legislation by a 35-3 vote.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Rick Scott to rail against Legislature in state tour

Gov. Rick Scott is going on a statewide tour over the next three days to blast the Republican-controlled Legislature for ignoring his top priorities during its annual session.

Starting Wednesday Scott will visit 10 cities where he will call out legislators. Scott is upset that legislators are planning to cut funding to the state’s tourism marketing agency and the economic development agency that helps lure businesses to the state. These cuts were pushed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has called the funding “corporate welfare.”

Republican leaders have also refused to endorse Scott’s push to set aside $200 million in state money for repairs to the federally-operated dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee.

Scott maintains that Florida could “lose hundreds of thousands of jobs” if legislators do not give him the money he’s requested.

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