Scott Powers - 7/29 - SaintPetersBlog

Scott Powers

Jeff Atwater’s surprise departure makes CFO job the hottest in state

Never mind who’s running for Governor in 2018, Floridians want to know which Republicans are in the running for Florida Chief Financial Officer now that CFO Jeff Atwater announced he is leaving this year, with speculation starting with Tom Grady, Tom Lee, Will Weatherford and Teresa Jacobs and including seven or eight others.

Grady, a securities lawyer who is a former state representative who also has held several positions in state government, is widely reported as a close friend of Gov. Rick Scott, who will select a replacement for Atwater for the nearly two full years left in the term.

Weatherford, a venture capital and business consultant, is a former Speaker of the House who draws praise from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and who recently announced he’s not running for Governor.

Jacobs is the Orange County Mayor and a former banker who always sounds like she’s already someone’s chief financial officer, and who reportedly has been exploring a possible state run for that job in 2018 when she’s term-limited from the mayor’s office.

Names tumbling around Tallahassee  – some with more spin than others – also already have included Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, former Speakers Steve Crisafulli and Dean Cannon, state Sens. Jack Latvala, Aaron BeanJeff BrandesLee and Lizbeth Benacquisto, state Rep. Jim Boyd, former state Sen. Pat Neal, and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

Atwater was once a widely-speculated candidate for Governor himself, but that buzz cooled to nothing and on Friday he surprised much of Florida’s political establishment by announcing that he’s planning office to become vice president for strategic initiatives and chief financial officer at Florida Atlantic University after the Florida Legislative Session.

Besides overseeing the states’s financial operations and financial and insurance regulations, as well as the state fire marshal’s office, the job is a full-voting position on the Florida Cabinet. It’s normally filled by statewide vote, for a four-year term, and Atwater was to be term-limited out with the 2018 election.

Atwater’s office’s imminent availability is so fresh almost no one has had time to actually declare interest in it. No one has filed to run in 2018.

Said Brandes in a tweet Friday, “I haven’t talked to the governor yet, but if I was asked, I would carefully consider it.”

Grady, from Scott’s hometown of Naples, has been looking around. He recently was interviewed for the open president’s post at Florida Gulf Coast University, and last cycle talked briefly about running for Congress in Florida’s 19th District. Last year he declined an opportunity to become the state’s insurance commissioner. He’s on the state board of education, is a former commissioner of financial regulations and a former interim president of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. the state-chartered insurer of last resort.

Once this is done there may be another opening on the cabinet, as state Attorney General Pam Bondi remains a widely-speculated prospect to move on to Washington as part of President Donald Trump‘s team.

Janet Cruz ready to support Richard Corcoran on Enterprise Florida

After laying out Democrats’ priorities for the House this session, Florida House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz said she would support Republican Speaker Richard Corcoran’s attacks on Enterprise Florida and VISIT Florida.

Speaking before journalists gathered for the Florida Legislative Planning Session, Cruz, of Tampa, pledged that Democrats would continue to fight for increasing funding for public education, particularly for teachers, health care coverage for low-income Floridians and support for public hospitals.

Afterward, pressed for where that money might come from, she offered to do away with corporate development incentives provided by Enterprise Florida, incentives that were vigorously defended by Gov. Rick Scott, but targeted by Speaker Corcoran for major reform, at the same conference.

“I understand the importance of attracting business, but in a good economy, do we really need to spend that money to attract businesses? Won’t they come to Florida?” Cruz challenged. “I think in a good economy these corporations find their way to Tampa without incentives.”

Cruz offered that she sees both sides on corporate incentives, but added, “we still have teachers that are some of the lowest paid in the country. We have school funding that is 50th. You know, that’s why I say we have misplaced priorities.

“Maybe we make cuts on some of the Enterprise money; maybe we start there,” Cruz said.

The priorities that she laid out are not new to Democrats. Cruz said the party and leadership have to do a better job of making a case for how the priorities would help Floridians.

“I don’t think as Democrats we’ve done a good enough job of articulating our core values have a direct impact on ensuring Florida’s families can continue to climb the economic ladder to success,” she said. “It comes down to the simple idea that we need to get more money into Floridian’s pockets.”

Those priorities include that:

— Every child deserves a quality public education. That includes re-expansion of the Bright Futures scholarship program.

— Every Floridian should have access to quality, affordable health care.

— Florida protects and preserves the environment for future generations.

— Florida creates “safe communities” where families can live without the threat of violence.

— Floridians all deserve the same equal a uniform treatment under the law.

— And “everyone deserves a fair shot to achieve their version of the American Dream.”

In question and answer, Cruz took to defending hospitals for criticism and state subsidy cuts, saying they had become like public schools and teachers, vilified by some Republicans for opposing Republican initiatives, and then cut.

“Years ago this started where we villainized teachers, and we villainized the unions that support them. Now I think that all has changed in the direction of public hospitals. Hospitals are not accustomed to being villains, but they are being villainized. You hear, ‘Oh, the hospitals are too large. They need to be privatized.’ All of this is an attempt to privatize. So we Democrats are standing up for our safety-net hospitals.”

Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold threatens to pull Tri-Rail’s state money

Blowback erupted from another direction for the South Florida Regional Transit Authority late Friday over its big and controversial Tri-Rail operations contract when Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold questioned the agency’s accountability and threatened to cut off its state money.

Boxold sent the transit authority’s Executive Director Jack Stephens a letter late Friday questioning the SFRTA’s accountability and saying the department now will be reviewing state funding for the commuter rail system, “and may elect to withhold such funding in the future.”

The trigger for Boxold’s response came when the SFRTA Board of Directors voted on Friday afternoon to award a long-term railroad operations and maintenance contract to Herzog Transit systems – after the transit authority’s staff first tossed out five competing bids, including some that would have cost up to $115 million less.

The rejected companies challenged their rejections in court last week but lost. Yet, saying “it just didn’t look right,” state Sen. Jeff Brandes issued a stern warning Thursday to the SFRTA board that it should hold off on the contract decision for a while, to allow time for more scrutiny.

On Friday, by a 6-2 vote, the board awarded the contract to the only proposal left after the staff review. That deal calls for the SFRTA to pay Herzog $344 million to run the trains for seven years, with three annual renewal extensions that, if exercised, would push the total bill to $511 million. At least some of the other proposals – all rejected by transit authority staff in late December on technical grounds that the companies are disputing – were as low as $269 million for seven years and $396 million for ten.

FDOT’s official representative on the SFRTA board, District IV Secretary Gerry O’Reilly, voted against letting the contract, as did board chairman Tim Ryan, a Broward County Commissioner.

Boxold characterized the contract award as being in defiance of concerns  that the department had previously about fiscal accountability at the authority.

“This action heightens the department’s overall concern regarding the authority’s accountability for expenditures of the state funding that the department provides for authority operations and maintenance costs,” Boxold wrote.

Boxold noted the SFRTA gets $42.1 million in state money to subsidize the railroad, which runs commuter trains through Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

“Based on the authority’s action today, and the authority’s position on the ability of the department to impose state law controls on the authority’s expenditures, the department is reviewing all discretionary funding it provides the authority and may elect to withhold such funding in the future,” Boxold warned.

Boxold made reference to an apparent running dispute between the state department and the regional transit authority about whether the state has oversight on accounting for state money that goes into Tri-Rail.

“The authority has made it clear that it does not believe that the department has the power to comprehensively require the authority to account for its expenditure of those funds beyond the initial review of a proposed authority procurement,” Boxold said. But he wrote that the department’s inspector general determined in the fall that the state does have that oversight for the transit authority’s state money.

Earlier Friday Brandes expressed deep concerns about the board’s approval of the operations and maintenance contract, and said he would explore options to hold SFRTA accountable. His concerns, combined with his frustration that the board ignored his request that it postpone the contract vote, also signals a potential threat to Tri-Rail’s finances. That’s because Brandes chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development. Tri-Rail’s future proposed state subsidies must go through that committee in order to make it into the state budget.

Tri-Rail’s half-billion dollar, single-proposal deal raises questions

On Friday, the South Florida Regional Transit Authority will consider awarding a deal to run the state’s largest public commuter railroad, Tri-Rail — worth up to $511 million — after tossing all competing bids, including some asking far less money.

The SFRTA’s board of trustees is being asked Friday to award Tri-Rail’s operations and maintenance contract, which could be good for as long as 10 years with extensions, to the only qualified proposer left, Herzog Transit Services Inc., of Texas, after the agency’s staff disqualified all five other proposals.

Some rejected bidders, including Tri-Rail’s current operator, Maryland’s Transdev Services, are fuming and challenging. This month, Transdev went to court to block the award; initially getting a temporary restraining order.

Two other disqualified bidders, Bombardier Mass Transit and First Transit, joined in. But after a hearing last Friday, Circuit Judge Barbara McCarthy of Broward County lifted her order Monday.

The issues the challengers have raised questions on how much latitude the agency’s staff has in deciding whether a proposal meets requirements, how staff members can make judgment calls and assumptions that go beyond stated prices, and how they do so without contacting the bidders for clarification.

In depositions filed in the Transdev court case against the transit authority and obtained by FloridaPolitics.com, the agency’s procurement director Christopher Bross testified that he had the power to accept the bid prices at face value, but chose instead to interpret that some bidders had included conditions on their pricing; so he disqualified them.

Bross did so, he testified, without asking the bidders to clarify.

Transdev argued in court that the bid price was, as the law required, clearly stated and not conditional, and would not have been changed as Bross had testified he assumed to be a prospect. The company argued that too much is at stake for the public agency and the public for the process to wind up with a more expensive contract this way.

“We have never seen a process in which five of six bids were thrown out because of a staff member’s interpretation. We certainly have never seen a bid of this size in which no questions were asked of proposers and no interviews conducted,” Transdev Executive Vice President Richard Alexander said in a statement to FloridaPolitics.com.

“Then to find out the remaining bids were $35 to $100 million lower than the one remaining bid raises questions of whether this decision is in the public’s best interest,” Alexander added.

Transit Authority spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold declined to comment Thursday, saying that, as required by law, the whole procurement process is under a “cone of silence” until the board acts.

The contract would take effect July 1, combining four functions now covered by four separate transit authority contracts: operations, equipment maintenance, station maintenance and dispatching.

Tri-Rail runs 50 commuter trains on weekdays and 30 trains on weekends along 72 miles of track through Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, with 18 stations, while averaging about 14,000 riders a day on weekdays. The line, the largest, busiest and oldest commuter line in Florida, includes state and federal tax dollars among its revenue.

At 9:30 Friday, the SFRTA board meets in Pompano Beach to consider awarding the operations-maintenance-dispatching contract to Herzog for seven years with options for three annual extensions. The seven-year award is for $344 million. If all three renewals are executed, the total comes to $511 million.

Bombardier’s proposal reportedly was for $269 million for seven years and $396 million for ten years — $115 million less. Transdev’s was for $318 million for seven years and $473 million for 10 — $38 million less. No information was available for the other companies that made pitches, First Transit, Amtrak and SNC-Lavalin Transit.

As is normal, the proposals covered far more than just money, and the price only accounted for 20 percent of the agency’s judging on the bids. Eighty percent of the judgment was to be on the technical merits.

On Monday, after McCarthy lifted the injunction, the SFRTA board’s evaluation committee awarded Herzog all 20 points on pricing, because it was the only proposal considered, and 68 points on technical merits. The other five proposals were not evaluated.

McCarthy’s court ruling concluded that the transit authority, under its rules, had the right to determine entirely on its own that the proposals from Transdev and the other challengers were “conditional,” and then to reject them.

In his deposition, Bross had testified the conditional determinations were made based on reports he received from the transit authority’s technical and commercial committees in December. Those committee meetings and reports were not public.

In Transdev’s case, that condition appeared to be interpreted from the company’s statements in its proposal that it had not yet received or priced insurance, and that it could not know yet the condition of the trains or how much maintenance they might initially need, according to court documents. Bross testified that he interpreted those statements to mean Transdev’s stated bid price could be changed, once the insurance and train maintenance costs were better known.

But Bross also testified that, as procurement director, he had explicit discretion to refuse any and all requests from a winning bidder, to change prices and to hold them to the stated bid price.

The deposition and other court documents do not make clear why the other four proposals also were found to be conditional.

But McCarthy suggested it doesn’t matter.

“SFRTA only conducts competitive procurements pursuant to its own Procurement Policy. Thus, the RFP provided: ‘SFRTA, at its sole and absolute discretion, reserves the right to reject any or all proposals and reserves the right to make an award based solely on the written proposals as submitted,'” she wrote.

She also cited minutes from a pre-proposal meeting in which the agency warned companies that “SFRTA reserves the right to reject any or all proposals including proposals that are conditioned.”

Yet McCarthy also cited timing as a factor in her decision Monday. She noted that there are only just over five months before the new contractor must take over four different duties, all with public safety involved; contract extensions to buy more time might not practical for the transit authority. So she cited public safety of rail passengers as a consideration for no further disruption of the contract process.

tourism

Tourism business up 4 percent in 2015 to $108 billion, VISIT Florida reports

Florida’s tourism economy grew by nearly 4 percent in 2015 and brought almost $109 billion worth of economic activity to the Sunshine State, according to a new survey released by VISIT Florida Wednesday.

The growth was slower than was seen in the previous five years but still added $4.1 billion in new money to the state’s economy, according to the “Economic Impact of Out of State Tourist Spending In Florida” study produced for VISIT Florida by Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics Company.

Still, the 3.9 percent growth in the tourism economy for Florida exceeded the full state’s economic growth, just as the sector has run ahead of the statewide economic growth every year since at least 2010, according to the report.

New VISIT Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson said the study offers a “much more comprehensive and accurate picture of the true economic impact of Florida’s out-of-state visitor spending, and what it tells us is that the tourism industry is driving the growth of the Florida economy.”

Among the specific highlights of looking at 2015 compared to previous years:

– The direct, indirect and induced impacts of out-of-state tourism in Florida generated $11.3 billion in state and local taxes and $13.1 billion in federal taxes in 2015.

– Out-of-state visitor spending supported an estimated 1.4 million Florida jobs directly or indirectly, generating $50.7 billion in activity. The sector represented 17.3 percent of the state’s total non-farm employment. Of those jobs, 852,000 are directly supported by tourism. That was also up 3.9 percent in 2015, or an additional 32,000 jobs.

– All business sectors of the Florida economy benefited from tourism activity either directly or indirectly through increased sales to local firms who supply the tourism industry or through increased sales to local firms by resident spending of income they earned in tourism.

– Per-tourist spending also increased, requiring fewer total tourists per tourism job.

There were a few small clouds mixed in with the sunshine.

The growth declined slightly in 2015 compared with that of previous years; the increase was 6 percent in 2014 and 8 percent in 2013. Visitors cut back on retail spending and local transportation, the latter partly due to the drop in gas prices; both of those sub-sectors declined in 2015. Spending by international visitors, particularly those from Canada, fell sharply in 2015, partly due to the value of the U.S. dollar.

The tourism jobs also continued to be typically low-paying. Across the four largest sub-sectors that directly benefited from out-of-state tourism – the food and beverage industry, the recreation and entertainment industry, the lodging industry, and the retail industry, which combined for 748,000 of the 852,000 direct jobs – the average job provided just under $28,400 apiece in annual pay, according to data in the study.

Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and a VISIT Florida board member, credited Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature, the private sector and VISIT Florida for spurring the growth in the tourism industry, saying it is not a fluke.

“The study proves collective investment and collaboration amongst public and private sectors effectively promotes economic prosperity for all Floridians,” Dover stated in the news release.

Universities, colleges paint depressing picture of dealing with 10 percent cuts

Asked to prepare for 10 percent budget cuts, Florida’s state university and college leaders pledged to try to avoid affecting students but told the House Subcommittee on Higher Education Appropriations Friday the impacts would still be profound.

“The target reductions are set at 10 percent for each entity,” Subcommittee Chairman Larry Ahern said after spelling out the challenges faced by the larger House Appropriations Committee of possible 10 percent budget cuts this year to deal with a $1.7 billion shortfall.

Florida University System Chancellor Marshall Criser III, Florida Department of Education Secretary Pam Stewart and others laid out preliminary plans that all involved cutting jobs, primarily from administration and support services, delaying programs and expansions and digging in.

If the universities make their own proposed cuts, that will amount to $274 million out of the 12 state universities’ $2.74 billion in annual budgets. Criser said he would hope the cuts would come from there rather than from scholarship programs and other programs to assist students.

Criser also said such cuts could challenge progress the universities are pursuing against the performance standards set three years ago to elevate the quality of Florida’s universities, particularly among the smaller schools.

At some schools, that would mean slicing through administration and services ranging from computer support, to institutes and research, said Martha Saunders, newly-installed president of the University of West Florida, which could have to deal with a $10 million annual cut. Everything from mentoring programs to faculty recruitment would be at risk, she said.

“I would much rather be here to talk to you today about spending money instead of not spending money,” she said.

Both she and University of Central Florida Provost Dale Whittaker expressed a deeper concern that their universities and many others already have been striving for more and more efficiency over recent years by serving more and more students without raising tuition.

For UCF a 10 percent cut would equal $26 million.

“We can’t absorb a 10 percent cut simply by enhancing efficiencies,” Whittaker said.

“This reduction would interrupt the momentum that you helped us build toward achieving several of the state’s key impact measures, including providing broad access to high-quality academic degrees, meeting the state’s workforce needs, and driving innovation and economic development,” Whittaker said.

Under questioning from Ahern, Whittaker did allow that the university could perhaps absorb a 10 percent cut by delaying new programs and expansions, but said that would only work for a year.

The presentations brought forth concerns from some subcommittee members about the prospect of cutting education, particularly higher education.

“I’m not for these cuts, and your presentation has made me even more convinced,” said state Rep. Larry Lee Jr., a Democrat from Port St. Lucie. “We need to look at other ways to deal with this budget situation. Education is key to our economy, our way of life in America.”

Ahern, a Republican from Seminole, advised Lee that he may be right but that those decisions and debates would have to take place on the full House Appropriations Committee, which would have the opportunity to weigh priorities from one state agency or system to another.

The prospect steered some of the discussion toward the absurd. Noting that the campus is just a few miles from the Alabama border, state Rep. Julio Gonzalez, a Republican from Venice, asked Saunders whether the university has many students from Alabama, and wondered if the University of West Florida ought to seek funding from Alabama.

“Never thought about going to the Alabama Legislature,” Saunders replied. “We could do that.”

Bills would restrict local regulation of vacation rentals

Proposals from state Rep. Mike La Rosa and state Sen. Greg Steube would restrict how local governments may regulate vacation rentals, a move that could help preserve that market for the rapidly-expanding Airbnb phenomenon and similar home-sharing services.

On Tuesday La Rosa introduced House Bill 425. Like Steube’s Senate Bill 188, introduced earlier, it would prevent cities, towns and counties from adopting local laws, ordinances and regulations of vacation rentals, leaving their oversight largely to the state.

Both La Rosa’s House District 42, which covers Osceola and Polk counties, and Steube’s Senate District 23, which covers much of Sarasota and Charlotte counties, are home to huge numbers of vacation rentals — houses, condominium units and apartments that are rented out short-term, usually to tourists.

La Rosa said he is not aiming his proposal at Airbnb or any other operator, but at local officials whom he said appear to have, in too many cases, gone too far in trying to regulate vacation rentals, imperiling a segment of Florida’s tourist industry. He said the local governments often identify a specific concern but rather than try to deal with the matter, they just restrict vacation rentals in broad ways.

“It’s not just in my district, I’ve watched closely of local governments around the state. I get concerned when they discuss, or pass, frankly overreaching ordinances. I don’t know where it’s going to go next. I’m surprised every day with something new,” La Rosa said.

The vacation rental market has existed a long time in Florida, primary through investors who purchased houses or other residences, renovated them into vacation rentals and applied for state lodging licenses and other authorities to operate them. Especially in parts of Osceola and Polk counties, there are thousands of such properties, typically offering multiweek vacation housing options to Walt Disney World visitors who can afford extended stays and prefer more homelike environs. It’s quite common for European and other international tourists.

However, the market took a whole new twist in recent years with the emergence of Airbnb and other services that allow ordinary homeowners to list their properties or even their spare bedrooms on the internet. In some cases, the new phenomenon has frustrated and stymied local jurisdictions because it is so easy for the homeowners to do so without pursuing licenses or zoning or other local requirements.

Airbnb, in particular, has been working with its clients and county tax collectors to close that window, but primarily for tax collection purposes.

Sarah Bascom, spokesperson for AirbnbWATCH Florida, a group seeking tighter oversight of the service and other operators like it, said her organization would be closely monitoring HB 425 and SB 188 this session.

“While these bills might serve well the interests of out-of-state websites wanting to inject commercial lodging activity into every corner of this state, their impact on Florida communities could be very serious,” she said in a statement sent to FloridaPolitics.com. “AirbnbWATCH Florida’s focus will be on encouraging lawmakers to protect the safety and well-being of local neighborhoods, which includes having Airbnb pay its fair share of taxes in a verifiable manner. Florida residents have serious concerns over the unchecked growth of unlawful short-term rentals, which can upset long-standing investments in real estate and the profitability of existing legal businesses, including small bed-and-breakfasts.”

Airbnb’s business in Florida has doubled in each of the past two years, and last year saw 1.5 million visitors at 32,000 guest homes.

Airbnb Florida spokesman Benjamin Breit said the bills were not theirs, but that “Airbnb is proud to support Florida’s tourism agenda as well as to engage with policymakers at the state and local levels about the economic and community benefits of home sharing.”

Scott Arceneaux out as Florida Democrats’ chief

The first shoe has fallen in newly-elected chairman Stephen Bittel‘s reorganization of the Florida Democratic Party with executive director Scott Arceneaux on his way out.

The party announced Tuesday that Arceneaux, who has served in that role through the tenures of three previous state party chairs, is stepping down, though not immediately.

When Bittel won a resounding election Jan. 14, the tone that the Miami Beach developer established set the expectation that there would be a shake-up at the party, and he said he’d spend last week evaluating the staff.

Bittel also is bringing in some of his loyalists, with the announcement that Juan Penalosa of Mercury LLC and Reggie Cardozo and Tessa Bay, who both had key roles in the Hillary For America Florida campaign, are being hired to the office staff.

The transition may look more sweeping at this point than those of Bittel’s predecessors, Allison Tant, Rod Smith and Karen Thurman, but looks nothing like when Blaise Ingoglia took the chair of the Republican Party of Florida two years ago. Ingoglia locked out the staff from the office on his first day, and only a few returned.

In this case, Bittel and Arceneaux exchanged best wishes, as the rest of the staff remains, awaiting any future changes.

In a release issued by the Florida Democrats, Bittel praised Arceneaux for setting fundraising records, professionalizing and expanding the staff and building “the strongest digital and communications program of any state party in the country.

What Arceneaux could not do was win many statewide elections despite having a voter-registration advantage, and that record led as much as anything to the ascension of Bittel, a wealthy Democratic donor, to the chair.

“We wish him all the best,” Bittel said of Arceneaux.

“Our goal is to build the strongest statewide grassroots operation in FDP history, and I know Juan, Reggie and Tessa will help put us in the position to do just that. They bring a wealth of grassroots organizing experience and deep Florida connections to the FDP, and I’m thrilled to have them on the team,” Bittel added.

Arceneaux was first hired by Thurman in 2009 and stayed on through the tenures of Smith and Tant.

In the release, he thanked them and then said: “I am excited to help Stephen begin his tenure as Chair and look forward to the energy and vision he brings to the job. I know he will take the state party to the next level.”

The party is launching a nationwide search for a replacement and Arceneaux expects to stay on until one his hired, said party spokesman Max Steele.

Bill Galvano’s higher-ed reform bills sail through Senate committee

Two bills that would increase Bright Future scholarship benefits and rework how colleges and universities measure progress and deal with top professors sailed through the Florida Senate Education Committee Monday.

Senate Bills 2 and 4, both introduced by Sen. Bill Galvano, drew some concerns about how they might affect nontraditional and working students but little opposition, as Galvano assured committee members, he shared and would be addressing those concerns.

“The thrust of this bill is not to somehow put additional pressure on a student, or mess with the opportunities they have by putting additional requirements on what the students achieve,” Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, said of SB 2, which took up the bulk of the committee’s discussion and drew the most concern. “The thrust of this bill is to make sure the institutions that they attend are achieving the highest levels of excellence. and within the definition of excellence is the ability to attend and achieve regardless of your financial background.”

That bill would do several things, most notably:

— Re-establish the Bright Futures Academic Scholars Awards to a level that would pay 100 percent of tuition and certain fees;

— Expand eligibility to the Benacquisto Scholarship Program for eligible out-of-state students;

— Double the state match to the First Generation (in college) Matching Grant Program to two dollars for every dollar the student pays;

— Strengthen the program that has two-year state colleges sign automatic matriculation programs with four-year universities; and,

— Modify the state accountability metrics and standards to reward universities for getting more students to graduate in four years.

That latter point was the only one drawing much concern. Galvano’s overall intention was to encourage students to not waste time in graduating, which could run up additional student debts and cost additional money. And no one on the committee seemed to have a problem with that.

But several public speakers and committee members, notably Democrats Gary Farmer and Perry Thurston Jr. and Republican Tom Lee, raised concerns about unintended consequences of pressuring the schools — with funding formulas — to push for four-year graduations. That, they argued, could lead the schools to start reducing opportunities to nontraditional students, many of whom are lower-income, and can only attend while working at the same time, or must take semesters or years off to earn money.

“It’s a pipe dream that they could ever finish college in four years,” said Lee, of Brandon.

Thurston, of Fort Lauderdale, cautioned that some schools such as Florida A&M University specialize in such nontraditional students, and those schools could be hurt for doing so.

Galvano assured he would work with them to prevent those concerns from playing out.

Farmer, of Fort Lauderdale, said he appreciated and accepted Galvano’s intentions.

“There are so many great things in this bill I will be ultimately voting for this bill today,” Farmer said. “I share the goal of making our university system a great university system …. We’re tired of hearing people talking about North Carolina or Virginia or Michigan, and Florida should be mentioned right up there with them, and Florida State.”

The companion measure, SB 4, would create a program for universities to identify, hire and retain star faculty members, and establishes programs to improve quality and prominence of graduate programs including those for medicine, law and business. It drew little discussion before being approved.

Bob Rommel files bill to shield college presidential searches from Sunshine Laws

A new bill introduced by state Rep. Bob Rommel would keep secret the identities of candidates for the presidencies and other top executive positions at Florida’s state colleges and universities through most of the selection process.

House Bill 351, introduced by the Naples Republican Monday, would create exemptions in Florida’s open records and open meetings laws.

The proposal seeks to keep secret “personal identifying information” of applicants for president, provost, or dean of a state university or a Florida College System college. It would waive any public meeting requirements for meetings held by public bodies meeting to identify or vet such candidates, including interviews.

Ultimately, in Rommel’s bill, the names of the finalists would be released before taking a final vote on the hire. But there is no clear definition of how those finalists would be determined.

Rommel was not immediately available Monday to discuss his proposal.

College and university boards of trustees and their executive search consultants have often complained over the years that the openness of Florida’s Sunshine Laws could prevent qualified candidates at other colleges and universities from even bothering to apply. And that concern shows up in the bill’s language, citing a “chilling effect” that Florida’s Sunshine Laws can have on the applicant pool.

“Many, if not most, applicants for such a position are currently employed at another job at the time they apply and could jeopardize their current positions if it were to become known that they were seeking employment elsewhere,” one section states. “These exemptions from public records and public meeting requirements are needed to ensure that such a search committee can avail itself of the most experienced and desirable pool of qualified applicants.”

But at the same time, Florida’s boards often have pursued a strategy not followed by many other states, of hiring former politicians with little or no backgrounds in academia to run the state’s universities and colleges, rather than experienced college or university executives.

Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation said that the bill gets introduced pretty often and said it is not about trying to improve applicant pools, but rather “because they want to keep all of this a secret,” and said college and university presidents are too important to have their hirings shrouded in secrecy.

She pointed out the process three years ago that led to the hiring of former state Sen. John Thrasher as Florida State’s president. While she praised Thrasher for the job he’s done at FSU, she said the process was initially shrouded and his pick controversial, offering “proof of why we need transparency in this process.” She also said that there is a slippery slope, and that if university presidents are exempted from Sunshine Laws she can see additional bills extending the same to others in government.

The next university presidency to be filled is that at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, which services Rommel’s district. which is near Wilson Bradshaw of FGCU is scheduled to retire, and a search for his successor is underway. The last presidency to be filled was that at University of West Florida. Newly-installed President Martha Saunders began her presidency this month.

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