Michael Moline - SaintPetersBlog

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

Conferees bump university foundation-control question to budget chairmen

House and Senate higher education conferees agreed Saturday to trim cuts to developmental education programs at state colleges, but sent a disagreement about control of state university support foundations up the chain of command.

Lead Senate negotiator Bill Galvano indicated at one point during an afternoon meeting that the developmental spending might have to be referred to the House and Senate appropriations committee chairmen — Carlos Trujillo and Jack Latvala, respectively.

But House negotiator Larry Ahern agreed to a Senate offer to reduce the cut by $30.2 million. The original Senate budget would have cut around $90 million.

Developmental programs are intended to help nontraditional students cope in the classroom.

The foundations — also known as direct support organizations, or DSOs — were another matter.

“The House has its DSO position, and we are not going to the House position on it. That’s something that the big chairs are going to have to discuss and figure out. We just left it open,” Galvano said.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran entered the budget process intent on exerting control over the foundations, including opening more of their books to public scrutiny.

The committee didn’t reach formal agreement on the foundation policy bill, HB 5601, or on SB 374, spelling out the Senate’s reorganization of the state college system.

“They’re not necessarily bumped. Those policy issues are really not in controversy,” Galvano said.

Attendance by conferees during the meeting had declined markedly since negotiations opened on Thursday — “more and more as we closed out issues,” Galvano said.

“I think we had one of the more cohesive budget conferences. A lot of these big issues were Fourth Floor issues” — of interest to the presiding officers — “and have been around in both chambers. So when we came together, there was not as much to fight over,” he said.

House, Senate moving closer on civil and criminal justice spending

The main things separating the House and Senate on civil and criminal justice spending is whittling down Senate member projects and construction costs in the juvenile justice and prison systems.

That’s according to Rep. Bill Hager, the lead House negotiator, speaking following a conference subcommittee hearing Saturday morning.

“These are really not sticking points. It’s really the philosophical difference,” Hager said.

The talks opened with a $200 million gap between the House and Senate positions — the former intending to spend $4.8 billion, the latter $5 billion.

“The Senate proposed budget was substantially higher that the House. They’ve come down. We’ve shown goodwill — we’ve come up on some issues,” Hager said.

He figured the next meeting, sometime late morning, would resolve “90, 95 percent” of the remaining differences.

“It’s been hard to get to their numbers in the House, but we’re getting there,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, sitting in for Sen. Aaron Bean as lead Senate negotiator while other business occupied Bean.

Both sides agree that Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala should have fewer prosecutor slots, since she’s vowed never to seek the death penalty, although the Senate started out with a smaller cut, designed to shield Ayala’s human trafficking program — $622,000, compared to $1.3 million in the House, representing 21 positions.

“It’s not a cut of positions; it’s an allocation of positions consistent with work. It needs to be articulated that way, because that’s what it is,” Hager said.

The meeting was the occasion of rare public comment when Jack Cory, lobbyist for the Florida Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs, told conferees of the complicated administrative process grant recipients must go through to get paid.

Legislative leaders have stressed that conference meetings would offer opportunities for public participation but, thus far this year, there have been few takers.

“Talking with the members, I think there’s been some misunderstanding that mentoring programs, juvenile prevention programs, and in fact many of the programs that you all have funded, that on the first of July the state writes us a check and pats us on the head and we just go our way. Nothing can be further from the truth,” Cory said.

In fact, oversight is such that his clubs were reimbursed for July 2016 expenses only on Oct. 1, he said, following multiple levels of oversight.

“As chairman of Government Oversight and Accountability, I’m encouraged we have that much accountability,” Baxley said.

Environment and natural resources conferees go light on details

If you can read a spreadsheet, you might be able to figure out the offer the House made Friday morning on the agriculture, environment, and natural resources budget.

If you can’t — well, lead House conferee Ben Albritton wasn’t willing to explain it to you.

Albritton distributed a spreadsheet listing the House position, but declined to discuss it. Even when asked by Rep. Loranne Ausley.

Sen. Rob Bradley, chairing the hearing, conferred with Albritton — inaudibly, to the audience — then announced:

“We’re not going to do that publicly at this time. The document reflects the two sides. This is a public document.”

Bradley added: “At our next gathering, we can have a discussion about the remaining differences. But at this time, we’re not going to do that.”

Albritton did offer that the line items for specific House changes had been highlighted. They included agreement with the Senate on items including citrus greening research and sea turtle restoration.

Following the meeting, Albritton and Bradley exited through a rear door.

“I’ve been here before. This is not the way it’s been done in the past,” said Ausley, who returned to the Legislature last year following a hiatus.

“The speaker started this session saying this was going to be the most transparent session ever. This process, to me, is not transparent,” she said.

“I’ve been going to the other conference meetings, and they’ve been going line by line. Last night, we got a sheet, so I thought today we’d at least get more information. It’s helpful to the public to go through this as well,” she added.

“It remains to be determined whether supporting this is in the best interest of the people of Florida. I don’t know, because we don’t have enough information at this point,” Ausley continued.

“It’s clear that a lot of decisions have been made not in these rooms. It would be helpful to the public and to those of us who are ultimately going to make decisions to know what the background is, and what’s going on with all these things that are important.”

Senate offers to cull $21 million in projects as higher ed conference opens

Sen. Bill Galvano delivered the bad news first as the House and Senate opened conference negotiations on higher education spending Thursday evening.

The Senate would have to cut at least $21 million in projects from its version of the budget to reach the level agreed upon with the House, he said.

“Many of you on this conference committee, as well as advocates for your positions in the audience, have what we traditionally call placeholders, in the hopes that somehow these placeholders will find additional dollars as the process goes on,” Galvano said.

“I just want to manage expectations in that regard. Because when you are starting with a significant reduction, it’s highly unlikely that a placeholder is going to move in the upward direction, as opposed to either staying where it is or in a downward direction.”

The higher education conference subcommittee was the among first to meet after Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran announced how much each subcommittee would have to play with, and who would serve on those panels, earlier in the day.

The panel has $7.8 billion to spend.

Galvano, serving as chairman of the higher ed conference, made the Senate’s first offer; Rep. Larry Ahern, the vice chairman, was expected to present a counter-offer around 8:30 Friday morning.

“The gist of what the Senate is proposing, with regard to projects, is a significant reduction — a $21 million reduction,” Galvano said.

“The other two big takeaways are the mitigation of the developmental ed funding in the college system, as well as the restoration of the performance funding in the state college system.”

Meaning the final budget won’t hurt the 28-member state college system as badly as expected.

About those projects — the Senate had voted to spend $71 million on them.

Galvano expected similar bad news for House projects.

“For sure, for sure. We’ve got to get where it balances out and move on. We had the difficult exercise of being the offerer in a budget scenario where our allocation required us to start by negotiating against ourselves. It should get easier for us here. Maybe not so much for the House.”

Ahern thought the opening meeting went well.

“It all has to start somewhere. We were able to come together and agree that this is a good place for both of us to get started. It looks like a pretty good offer at first blush — at least something we can work with.”

Rick Scott’s demand for budget priorities leaves Carlos Trujillo unfazed

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo did not appear especially intimidated by Gov. Rick Scott’s tough talk on the state budget Thursday evening.

That $200 million Scott seeks to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike, for example? Not likely.

“That showed up about a week ago, and we’d already gone a far way down the road as far as crafting our budget,” Trujillo told reporters.

“It’s something I wish had been included in the original budget, and its something I wish we would have had an opportunity to discuss and debate early on as we crafted our own budgets,” he said.

“I think there’s merit in doing it. I don’t there’s merit in ever lending the federal government $200 million that they should be responsible for.”

Trujillo sees no need to build a veto-proof majority.

“We just have to pass a budget. If he vetoes it or he doesn’t veto it, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

He believes House Democrats “have had a meaningful seat at the table the entire time,” and have supported key House spending priorities.

“You look at our House budget — in committee, only two Democrats voted against it. On the floor, we had a substantial amount of Democrats vote for it — much more than a veto-proof majority.”

House and Senate leaders finally reached agreement in principle Thursday on an $83 billion state budget for next fiscal year, and put conference committees to work on refining the deal.

Scott all but demanded his way on his own priorities — also including boosting Visit Florida’s funding to $100 million, and providing business incentives money for Enterprise Florida.

The House-Senate budget deal provides about $25 million for Visit Florida and no incentives money for Enterprise Florida, although that agency would be allowed to live.

Scott figures the Legislature can afford his projects because of the $1.5 billion in Low Income Pool, or LIP, money promised by the Trump administration to reimburse hospitals for charity care.

Neither of the House or Senate plan on spending close to that amount for the care. Still, Trujillo was reluctant to spend the federal money before it’s in hand.

“We’re still waiting for the terms and conditions before we can figure out how much we can actually use,” he said.

“We are including the money, but it’s outside of the budget. We will appropriate it depending on the terms and conditions” imposed by the Trump administration. He was still negotiating how to handle the matter with Senate budget chief Jack Latvala.

Regarding Lake Okeechobee, the House does plan to take up SB 10, Senate President Joe Negron’s $1.5 billion restoration plan, which would not pay for the repairs to the dike around the lake.

“We’re making a lot of progress in getting that passed in our chamber,” Trujillo said of the overall Lake O plan. “I don’t know if we’ve agreed to bond, but we’ve agreed in concept to the policy.”

Kevin Rader carries campaign against lobbyist into the Capitol’s lifts

If you entered an elevator in the Capitol Thursday, you might have spotted a piece of paper resembling a wanted poster bearing the pixelated photo of a smiling woman.

“Senator Kevin Rader would like to know… Where is ‘Concerned Citizen’ Mary Beth Wilson,” the letter-sized document announced.

Surrounding the photo were six red question marks — three per side. In the top left corner, the Senate seal.

The woman pictured looked an awful lot like Lisa Miller, a lobbyist with clients including Demotech Inc., a company that rates Florida insurance companies.

Rader, a Democrat from Boca Raton, asked Gov. Rick Scott in February to look into whether Miller had posed as “concerned citizen” Wilson during a conference call between Demotech and industry figures.

A number of Tallahassee lobbyists were certain they recognized Miller’s voice, as Jeff Grady, president and CEO of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, reported on his blog (password protected).

Miller and Demotech president Joe Petrelli have strongly denied it.

Asked about the elevator sheet following the Senate’s session, Rader issued a non-denial denial.

“That wasn’t Lisa Miller. It was about Mary Beth Wilson,” he said.

But he acknowledged his hand in posting the fliers.

“It’s just a reminder that I would still like the governor to take a look into it,” Rader said.

“When you have, allegedly, a lobbyist impersonating a fictitious person on behalf of her client, I think that says really awful things about that profession,” he said.

Had he received any response from the governor?

“None,” he said.

“Remember, to file a Senate complaint with the Rules Committee, you have to have first-hand knowledge. Which means you would have had to be on the phone call. I wasn’t on it, so I don’t have the ability of filing a Senate complaint.”

How many elevators got tagged?

“I think it was 12 — I’m not 100 percent. We had someone who did it.”

Any reaction?

“I haven’t had any negative reaction. Obviously, people have seen them, and are curiously interested in how this person is still operating as a lobbyist.”

Rader hadn’t heard from Miller, either.

Was plastering someone’s face around the Capitol perhaps a little extreme?

“I didn’t plaster her face. When you look it — I showed several people — most people thought it was a young boy, actually.”

But it was Lisa Miller?

“I’m not sure how it was created, but it was created.”

He added: “I don’t think any person who’s related to this process is shedding a tear on what I’m doing.”

Miller hadn’t responded to a voicemail message seeking comment as of this posting.

Budget conference committee gets down to work, with time running short

The House-Senate budget conference committee convened Thursday, exchanged pleasantries, and dispersed to begin working toward a compromise $83 billion spending plan for next fiscal year.

“Let the games begin,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, who’ll serve as chairman of the conference.

“We look forward to making quick and aggressive counter-offers, and we look forward to passing a budget on time,” said Carlos Trujillo, the House budget chairman and vice-chairman of the conference.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron attended the gathering. They’d appointed the members earlier in the day.

Members of the committee, including various subcommittees, were scheduled to work through the weekend to place a compromise budget before the House and Senate and adjourn on time on May 5.

“It’s Thursday, and so we’re hoping that the committees will move quickly with offers and counteroffers. But I think we have plenty of time for all the members to be engaged,” Negron said.

Getting here required resolving competing priorities, Negron told reporters. He mentioned House proposals to boost charter schools and Best and Brightest scholarships, and his own ambitions for higher education.

The House even accepted Negron’s Lake Okeechobee restoration plan, which would require floating bonds.

Under aggressive questioning by reporters, the presiding officers resisted giving a line-by-line account of the trade-offs.

“There are other issues that both sides care about, and I think it’s incumbent on me as the presiding officer in the Senate to make sure that priorities both of us share get passed in the last week,” he said.

“You’ve seen it all in the open, including amendments. We’ve traveled the state and talked about all those things that are priorities of the Senate and priorities of the House,” Corcoran said.

“I know all of you wrote that it was going to be a train wreck, we were going to go into 18 special sessions, we’re never going to get done. But now that we have come together, we’ve worked out our differences, and now we’re having a conference, I think it’s going to be a spectacular session,” Corcoran said.

“There’ll be no crashes, despite your reporting. And I think it’s going to be a good day for the state of Florida.”

Latvala spelled out some of the details. The Senate got a commitment for $50 million for beach restoration — “the magic number we’ve been looking for,” he said.

Visit Florida would receive $25 million, and Enterprise Florida would be kept alive with operating money but none for incentives. “That’s a long way from where the House was when they wanted to do away with both of them,” Latvala said.

He said he has been in contact with Gov. Rick Scott, who has pressed for his economic incentives programs this week via press releases. Scott has been meeting with House members and senators since returning from a trade mission to Argentina.

“The governor is very committed to the economy of the state of Florida. He’s committed to economic development. He’s committed to jobs. There’s nobody I know who pays more attention and focuses more on those issues than the governor,” Latvala said.

The Senate wins an across-the-board pay raise for state employees, with extra money earmarked for police and corrections officers, but has agreed to steer state workers — except for high-risk employees — who don’t express a preference into private-market retirement-savings plan rather than the traditional state pensions. They’d have nine months to choose.

The House gets its way with the required local effort — the minimum property tax rate for schools. The rate will be rolled back so that the amount paid will stay the same as it is now, notwithstanding rising property values.

House and Senate settle budget allotments, appoint conference committees

The House and Senate agreed upon the outlines of a state budget Thursday and appointed conferees to work out the details, beginning that afternoon.

Senate President Joe Negron said the deal would provide an across-the-board raise for state workers — their first in about nine years, according to Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, for whom the raise was a priority.

“This has not been the least difficult negotiation that either of us has ever been in,” Latvala told Negron from the floor.

“It’s been a long negotiation. We’ve had a lot of reports that we were done when we weren’t really done. But we’re here now to start the conference process,” Latvala said.

Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran together settled the major points of contention between the two chambers, Latvala said.

Conference subcommittees have until noon Saturday to complete their negotiations, he said. Anything they can’t settle will go to the full committee. Any controversies still unresolved will go to the presiding officers by noon Sunday.

The House-Senate budget conference has nearly $83 billion to spend. Hereis how the allocations break down.

The biggest pot is for health care — $34.2 billion. Next come PreK-12 education, at $15 billion; transportation, tourism, and economic development, at nearly $13 billion; higher education, at $7.8 billion; civil and criminal justice, at $5 billion; agriculture, environment and natural resources, $3.6 billion; and general government, at $2 billion.

There’s about $1.7 billion for “administered funds/statewide issues.”

Senate sends Groveland Four resolution to the governor and Cabinet

The Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to apologize to survivors of the Groveland Four — African-American men who were brutalized in 1949 following a false accusation of rape.

The senators first voted, 36-0, to sign on as cosponsors, then approved the resolution on a voice vote.

“This is a great miscarriage of justice,” sponsor Gary Farmer said.

“This is Florida’s version of the Scotsboro Boys. This is our To Kill a Mockingbird. We cannot change the hands of time. We cannot go back to this terrible event and undo it. But we can acknowledge our wrongs. And we can bring peace, and healing, and closure to the families who have suffered so long.”

Those family members traveled to Tallahassee to watch the House approve the resolution on April 18 and could not return for the Senate vote, Farmer said.

“But I have met with the survivors, and they have told me of the years of dealing with this, and the years of shame and injustice that they have had to endure.”

He credited former Sen. Geraldine Thomspon, who sponsored the apology legislation in past years. “I only picked up the torch that she lit,” he said.

The resolution, CS/HCR 631 declares that injustice was done toward Charles GreenleeWalter IrvinSamuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, offers an official apology on behalf of the state of Florida, and urges Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to exonerate them.

It urges Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet to pardon Irvin and Greenlee, the two who lived long enough to be convicted and imprisoned.

“(W)e hereby acknowledge that Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, who came to be known as ‘the Groveland Four,’ were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history,” the resolution reads.

tourism

Continuing sales pitch for Visit Florida, Rick Scott warns of hit to state revenues

Gov. Rick Scott has issued another missive urging full financial support for Visit Florida.

This one is a memo written to Scott by Christian Weiss, in-house economist to the governor, who warns that cutting the tourism-development program by $50 million — as House and Senate budget negotiators are considering doing — would result in a $210 million decline in state revenues.

Two thirds of that would comprise sales tax receipts to the state, Weiss wrote; the rest, sales tax distributions to local governments and gas, rental car, and other taxes.

Earlier in the day, Scott issued a statement in support of economic incentives programs including Visit Florida. On Tuesday, his office distributed a letter from Division of Bond Finance director Ben Watkins to the House and Senate budget chairmen, warning that cutting Visit Florida could damage the state’s credit rating.

Nearly 113 million tourists visited the state in 2016, Weiss notes — a nearly 6 percent increase over 2015, and the sixth straight record-setting year. They spent $109 billion here.

“These expenditures are felt throughout the state economy, spurring economic growth and employment in all areas of the state,” Weiss wrote. “Promoting and marketing the Florida brand to potential visitors is crucial to not only maintaining but also increasing the number of visitors.”

More than of those visitors were lured by the state’s marketing, he wrote.

“Consequently, any decrease in advertising will negatively affect the state economy.”

State economists have estimated that Visit Florida’s efforts help create nearly 20,000 jobs annually.

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