William Patrick - SaintPetersBlog

William Patrick

House Speaker Richard Corcoran making good on transparency, accountability promises

House Speaker Richard Corcoran began his two-year speakership in November by promising a “transformational leap” in government accountability and transparency.

“The Florida House will set the standard for others to emulate,” he declared.

Such pronouncements are often uttered by politicians, especially those who may aspire to higher office. But one week into Florida’s annual legislative session the hard-charging Republican reformer from Land O’Lakes has a lot to show for his audacious accountability talk.

While the final outcome is far from certain, under Corcoran’s leadership the House voted to kill Enterprise Florida, the state’s chief businesses recruitment organization, and restructure Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing corporation, while cutting its funding from $76 million to $25 million annually.

Enterprise Florida’s $350 million Sanford Burnham deal that failed to create 300 jobs over 10 years, and Visit Florida’s $1 million payment to rapper Pitbull for a “Sexy Beaches” tourism promotion are symbols of Corcoran’s “corporate welfare” outrage.

The House passed the tough accountability reforms 87-28, and 80-35, respectively, despite intense pressure from Republican Gov. Rick Scott and economic development and tourism marketing beneficiaries across the state.

Lobbyists are also feeling the pressure. On Friday, the House passed the toughest lobbying ban in the country.

By a vote of 110-3, lawmakers agreed on a 6-year lobbying ban for legislators and statewide elected officials once they leave public office. The measure extends a current two-year “revolving door” restriction, and applies to all state agencies and the government bodies the elected officers formerly served.

Corcoran previously said extending the ban would eliminate the “looking to lobby” mentality that can manifest in an official’s final term. After Friday’s vote, the Speaker tweeted, “Proud that @myflhouse just passed the strongest lobby ban for fmr. legislators in the nation with a bipartisan vote of 110-3.”

All three items are central to Corcoran’s legislative agenda. Whether the state Senate will emulate his efforts remains to be seen.

Meantime, the Speaker’s transparency push continues in the lower chamber.

In a manner befitting Sunshine Week, an annual mid-March open government initiative, Corcoran is imposing additional restrictions on lobbyists with the aim of shedding light on their activities and reducing undue influence.

Before being allowed to lobby House members, lobbyists now are required to file electronic notices of appearance disclosing the specific issues they seek to influence. The disclosure is necessary to eliminate “the mystery of who is lobbying what issue,” according to a House statement.

Lobbyists also are prohibited from influencing House lawmakers via email, text message or other forms of electronic communication when the chamber is voting or when a member is in a committee meeting. It’s a practice that “if widely known to the public would engender justifiable outrage,” the statement says.

Additionally, House members are no longer allowed to travel on private jets owned by lobbyists, enter into business deals or financial relationships with lobbyists, or lobby local governments that they oversee.

Private contracts also must be disclosed if lobbyists are representing public entities or any related institution receiving taxpayer funding. “Taxpayer money being used to lobby the Legislature for more taxpayer money is a vicious cycle.”

Lawmakers and lobbyists would be subject to one or more of the following penalties for violations: public censure and reprimand, civil penalties up to $10,000 or restitution of any pecuniary benefits received in violation of the rules.

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Should police get a sneak peak at body-camera footage?

A bill that would allow police officers to review body camera footage before making an official statement in an officer-involved shooting is making its way through the Florida Legislature.

But not without reservations.

Lawmakers on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard the proposal for the first time last week. It was initially characterized as a “common sense” measure to help law enforcement ensure minor details would be accurately documented in police reports, such as the color of a suspect’s shirt.

When several lawmakers pressed further, they revealed some possible objections.

“This isn’t only for minor issues, this is for essentially everything,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “This isn’t just to make sure that I’m correct in my statements, it’s to be able to watch everything, and essentially watch the whole episode play out again before a formal written report.”

“You are correct,” replied Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a law enforcement advocacy group.

The admission raised some concerns.

“How can we make sure there’s a proper check and balance system in place?” asked Brandes. “One side gets a replay and the other doesn’t.”

Matthew Feeney, an analyst with the Washington D.C.-based Cato Institute, said he is skeptical of such body-camera review policies when they extend to the most serious kinds of interactions between law enforcement and the public, particularly shootings.

“The legality of use-of-force incidents often hinges on what an officer believed or thought at the time of the incident. The problem with these kinds of proposals is that they give officers an unfair advantage that is not given to citizens,” Feeney told Watchdog.org.

A presentation by the police-friendly training group Lexipol, referenced in the bill’s staff analysis, states that non-police witnesses would not have the same opportunity to view footage before speaking with police.

Feeney said a compromise solution would be for police to write down their memory of events and what they think happened after violent interactions, then later review body camera footage and note anything they’d like to change, with both documents becoming part of the official record.

In a phone interview last month, Puckett told Watchdog.org that the PBA approached Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, for help on the issue. Steube filed the body camera bill, SB 624, on Feb. 1.

Pitched as tools

Body cameras are portable electronic recording devices worn by law enforcement officers to record audio and video of enforcement-related encounters and activities.

The devices became a national concern in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. Speculation about the nature of the incident fueled arguments for-and-against the officer’s actions, which video footage could have clarified.

Thirty states have passed body camera laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and studies have shown the cameras reduce both the use of force by police and citizen complaints.

Florida does not require law enforcement agencies to use them, but 107 of 368 agencies reported using them last year, according to the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission. Each individual law enforcement agency is responsible for developing its own policies and procedures for using the devices.

Puckett told Watchdog.org that Florida developed its body camera laws and guidelines two years ago after intense public outcry. Expressly authorizing the review of footage after an incident was “one of the things we feel was left out,” he said.

Puckett described a case in Palm Beach County where an officer was grilled by a defense attorney regarding a discrepancy in the officer’s police report and courtroom testimony.

“The officer described a weapon that the suspect pointed at him. He said it was a blue weapon and it ended up being a silver weapon. The attorney pounced all over the officer because of that. Had the officer reviewed his body camera footage prior to writing that report, he probably would’ve gotten the color correct,” Puckett said.

He further explained that when an officer is involved in a shooting, an administrative investigation ensues but is not immediately considered a criminal investigation. “It may turn into that,” he said, “but it depends.”

Prior to a criminal investigation of an officer, Puckett told lawmakers last week that under the bill the officer would be able to view his or her body camera footage immediately after an incident occurred if they chose to – even on a computer in a police vehicle.

“We live in a different world now,” he said. “Body cameras were pitched to law enforcement agencies as tools. If we can’t review footage before writing reports, then they’re not tools.”

‘Things can happen very fast’

Some other states have similar laws.

In Texas, law enforcement agencies are required to have policies allowing police officers to access to body camera recordings prior to making statements.

In Connecticut, officers can review footage capturing the use of force and other incidents leading to disciplinary investigations with an attorney or labor representative prior to making official statements.

“I came in here ready to vote for this, but I have some concerns about it now,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.

In the end, the bill passed unanimously on the assurance that the concerns raised during the meeting would be addressed in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill’s next stop, where Steube is the chairman.

“I was in the military,” said Steube. “Sen. Brandes was in the military, and we both know that things can happen very fast and there’s a lot of things that happen that you’re not going to remember.”

“Giving an officer the ability to go back and renew that video to refresh his recollection to make an accurate statement, I don’t think that’s asking too much,” he said.

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Assessing Visit Florida beneficiaries’ assertions, predictions and anecdotes

As the debate over whether to fund or eliminate Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida escalates at the Florida Capitol, it’s important to consider that those who directly benefit from the mostly taxpayer-funded organizations are among their most vocal supporters.

It’s natural, and predictable.

It’s also entirely appropriate that incentives and tourism marketing recipients have the opportunity to make their case for continued funding. But their appeals shouldn’t always be taken at face value.

Take Amy Lukasik, director of tourism marketing for the Flagler County Board of County Commissioners. She was one of dozens of individuals who implored House lawmakers last week not to eliminate Visit Florida or its $76 million annual appropriation.

Ken Lawson, Visit Florida’s recently appointed president and CEO, made rousing statements against the plan to kill his public-private corporation. Chris Hart, president and CEO of Enterprise Florida, did the same in his own way.

What else were they going to say?

Lukasik’s brief testimony was different. She evoked compassion while detailing positive results and robust return on investment.

“Following Hurricane Matthew, within days, Visit Florida and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association made it a priority to visit with us.

“At Visit Florida’s expense, they hired a video production company and through assistance of our office produced four videos with two more committed — in rapid fire they were posted by paid advertisement on the Google network display and all of their social media platforms. 

“Collectively, over 3.2 million people viewed the video within one month’s span and it’s growing. On our behalf and also on their expense, Visit Florida pitched a culinary trail feature of our destination with a focus on Flagler County and provided us with additional co-op programs at a rate that we could never afford on our own.

“The effort has shown dividends to our small-business owners. In just one month, our collections rose 16 percent over the previous years. This would have never happened without the support of Visit Florida.”

This testimony, along with remarks from nearly a dozen others during last week’s packed House committee meeting, was included in an official press release from Gov. Rick Scott’s office.

Scott wants $85 million for new Enterprise Florida incentives, $23 million for Enterprise Florida operations, and another $76 million for Visit Florida this year.

Lukasik’s claims about Visit Florida successfully benefiting small businesses in her community and boosting revenue collections by 16 percent was reported by the Orlando Sentinel.

“This would have never happened without the support of Visit Florida,” the Sentinel quoted.

Watchdog.org also repeated Lukasik’s comments.

“They viewed our damage and had conversations on how they could help immediately overcome national attention stating our destination was closed for business,” we reported.

FlaglerLive, a local nonprofit journalism watchdog, is intimately familiar with the situation, and offered a different take:

“I don’t know where Lukasik got the notion that the place was closed for business. I certainly hope that’s not what she and her boss Matt Dunn, the local tourism director whose relationship with facts is often a fascinating study in surrealism, conveyed to the marketers from on high: Flagler Beach started reopening its beaches within two weeks of the hurricane, and as local media screamed it within a couple of days of the storm, nothing else was closed for business (Washington Oaks Garden State Park aside), least of all the businesses along A1A.

“I’ve never known Flagler Beach to be the sort of town that’s ever depended on tourism’s equivalent of kitty-cat videos on randomized sites to take care of itself: the city was back in business, including its beaches, thanks to its volunteers, its city commission and city manager, and of course its businesses, all of which screamed “We’re Open!”

Pierre Tristam, author of “The Live Column,” continued:

“Lukasik claimed to the House panel the video plug “has shown dividends to our small-business owners.” Her proof? “In just one month following Hurricane Matthew our collections rose 16 percent over the previous years.”

“I’m not sure where that number comes from, or whether Lukasik has her timeline right, but the month after Matthew was November, and in November — the last month for which data is available to us — collections were down 9.2 percent.”

Other public comments from the House meeting — some included on Scott’s press release — took the form of unverifiable assertions and predictions. Some had the tone of scare tactics. All of them were first-person narratives.

“Because we are a local economic development organization, everything we do involves Enterprise Florida. We work together in ways that transcend brokering incentives,” said Scarlett Phaneuf, vice president of the Bay Economic Development Alliance.

Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, was more assertive. “If you take this economy on, I can guarantee you the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars,” Dow said.

“I moved here because it’s a no income tax state, but the bottom line is you have no choice. If you pass this bill, you are going to go to an income tax or increase sales taxes or cut services. That’s not acceptable,” he said.

Keith Overton, president of TradeWinds Island Resorts, said that eliminating Visit Florida would eliminate the voice of independent hoteliers.

“What happens when tourists get shot like the Germans?” he asked, referencing an incident from two and a half decades ago. “What happens when we have Zika Virus? What happens when we have an oil spill? Who’s there to defend us? Are we going to leave that to the national media,” asked Overton.

Expect more of the same.

Scott is touring the state this week to promote Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. He’s holding public events with local business leaders, and economic development and tourism officials, similar to those who lined up to speak in favor of continued funding last week.

On Monday, Scott visited Flagler Beach for a town hall-style meeting. Not by coincidence, Flagler County is home to Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, who is sponsoring the bill to abolish the taxpayer-assisted programs.

Scott was also in Tampa Monday for a public event at the Museum of Science and Industry, squarely in the district of Rep. Shawn Harrison. He voted for Renner’s House bill.

On Tuesday, Scott visited Panama City Beach and hosted a roundtable discussion. Rep. Jay Trumbull voted for the House bill and hails from Panama City Beach.

On Wednesday, Scott will host roundtables in Sunrise and Riviera Beach. A lot of promotional claims will be made.

Regardless of whether one supports publicly assisting private businesses, $151 million in funding is at stake this year alone. Those who directly benefit from the largesse are predictably going to be among the most fervent supporters, but they also may be among the least reliable.

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Ridesharing bills could pave the way for transformational changes

On the same day an Uber- and Lyft-friendly ridesharing bill passed its first committee stop in the Florida House, state Sen. Jeff Brandes was presenting his vision of where he believes the transportation industry is headed.

“We’re in a generational shift from the horse and buggy to the Model-T,” Brandes said Wednesday evening at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee.

The St. Petersburg Republican was the main presenter at a public event focusing on emerging transportation technologies. He’s also sponsoring legislation similar to the House ridesharing bill.

If successful, the measures would create uniform insurance and background check requirements for participating drivers, and prevent local governments from issuing conflicting regulations.

The reforms could be a first-step in a much larger sequence of changes.

“The industry is evolving,” Brandes said. “Auto manufacturers, tech companies and all kinds of groups are working hard to get into this space.”

As with carpooling, ridesharing allows for multiple passengers to share vehicles during their commutes – often at the touch of a smartphone app.

Cutting transportation costs, such as vehicle maintenance and gasoline, and reducing traffic congestion and vehicle emissions are just a few benefits.

The higher the ride-sharing occupancy rate, and the more people are allowed to use the services, the less cars would be needed – or so the logic goes.

“I think if the cost per mile continues to go down, and if insurance is a bundled service, it’s going to be pretty compelling for some people to use shared cars as their second cars,” Brandes told Watchdog.org in an interview.

When considering shared driverless cars and electric ridesharing vehicles, the potential for change is even more dramatic.

Brandes explained: Electric vehicle operators won’t pay gas taxes. Fewer vehicles mean fewer title fees for the state. Local governments could lose revenue from fewer traffic citations. Parking revenues would decrease, as would demand for urban parking garages.

“This has the potential to change cities, the electric grid, the insurance industry and even health care,” Brandes said, referring to the probability of fewer car accidents.

“It’s all of these different things and it’s going to begin happening within the next 10 to 20 years,” he said. “So how do we get our minds around this?”

Large financial institutions are already engaged.

“The market for private automobile ownership is likely headed for disruption,” predicts Morgan Stanley. A video presentation by Adam Jonas, head of global auto research for Morgan Stanley, provided context for Brandes’ remarks.

In part, the vision was described as an impending evolution in mass public transit that doesn’t require massive taxpayer-funded public transportation projects.

“When you know something big is going to happen but you haven’t begun to feel the effects yet, the focus should be on maximizing our options,” Brandes said. “We’re in a fascinating time.”

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers approved last week’s ridesharing bill, 14-1. The measure faces another House committee and floor action before heading to the Senate, where previous attempts at preempting local government regulations have failed.

New Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is expected to be more receptive this year.

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Another day, another ding for Florida’s economic incentive programs

As the debate over whether to fund Florida’s state economic incentive programs rages at the Florida Capitol this week, a new government study offers plenty of fodder for critics of such programs.

In a new report by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a nonpartisan legislative research office, researchers evaluated eight state-level economic incentive programs over a three-year period beginning in fiscal year 2012.

Key findings include:

  • 232 projects received 295 incentive awards in the form of cash grants, tax refunds and tax credits.
  • Most of the incentive awards went to existing Florida businesses that have more than 1,000 employees.
  • Incentive projects were awarded $156.2 million during the three-year period, and $597.4 million since their inceptions.
  • 134 incentives (45 percent) were terminated due to lack of performance during the review period.
  • Seven counties received most of the award money, while 31 counties received no incentives.

The report singled-out several of the eight incentive programs for under-performance and lack of oversight.

The Innovation Incentive Program gives cash grants to selected organizations and accounts for the highest percentage of incentive awards at 49 percent. The return on investment has been dismal.

“Most Innovation Incentive recipients have been unable to achieve job goals and several left the state prior to contract completion,” the report says.

Notably, Sanford Burnham medical research institute is listed as one of the cash recipients that hasn’t met employment or capital investment goals.

The Department of Economic Opportunity is currently trying to claw-back half of the $155 million Innovation Incentive award received by the Orlando institute. The project failed to create its required 303 jobs over 10-years. Sanford Burnham says it has no intention of paying back any taxpayer money.

Since the Innovation program’s inception, the state has paid out $435 million in grants to nine companies, which created a total of 927 jobs.

The report further pegs the New Markets Development Program as needing “enhance(d) oversight.”

The New Markets Development Program encourages capital expenditures in low-income rural and urban communities, but there are no formal criteria for allocating the program’s tax credits.

New Markets projects are primarily located in just two counties, Miami-Dade and Hillsborough. While all of the program’s available incentive awards have been allocated, legislative analysts said assessing the impact of the program was hampered by “inadequate reporting requirements.”

“If the Legislature funds additional New Markets tax credits, it could direct the Department of Economic Opportunity to use scoring criteria to allocate them,” the report states.

Another incentive program, known as the Enterprise Zone Program, under-performed on economic and social indicators to the extent that it will be phased out by 2018.

On the bright side, program auditors determined that the projects receiving government incentive payments during the review period created 13,378 jobs and made $1.3 billion in capital investments.

But DEO terminated 134 incentives for 124 projects during the three-year period because the recipients failed to meet contractual performance goals.

They were supposed to create 12,822 jobs and make $195 million in capital investments. They didn’t.

Instead, only 213 jobs were created, or 1.7 percent of those committed by contract, and $2.7 million in capital investments were made.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran is an outspoken opponent of taxpayer-funded incentives for private businesses. Corcoran rejects publicly subsidizing private companies and has vowed to block Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s $85 million funding request for Enterprise Florida, the state’s top incentive wielding job-recruitment organization.

Scott and other supporters say the programs are necessary for job creation and economic growth, as well as persuading out-of-state companies to relocate to Florida.

Legislators from the House and Senate are scheduled to discuss the report Thursday during a joint auditing committee meeting at the Capitol.

The incentive evaluation is the second report in as many months conducted by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. A December report showed Florida’s incentive programs were under-performing compared to competitor states.

House lawmakers filed a 172-page draft bill to eliminate Enterprise Florida last week.

Scott told reporters on Friday at an Orlando jobs summit that he is confident the House bill won’t become law. “We’re on an unbelievable roll right now. We’ve got to keep this going,” Scott said.

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Small dairy farmer seeks First Amendment protection from state regulators

Five years ago, the Florida Department of Agriculture turned its regulatory power on a small third-generation dairy farm in the Panhandle’s Calhoun County, population 14,462.

The Ocheesee Creamery, as it’s known, was caught being a little too honest.

Institute for Justice
FIRST AMENDMENT: Mary Lou Wesselhoeft, owner of the Ocheesee Creamery, was told by state regulators that she must inject additives into her all-natural skim milk or call it “imitation milk.”

Mary Lou Wesselhoeft, owner, was selling all-natural pasteurized skim milk — whole milk with the cream skimmed off — and labeling it exactly what it was: skim milk.

But in a strange twist with First Amendment implications, the state said Wesselhoeft was misrepresenting her product. After a decade without complaints or confusion, newly enforced regulations required artificially injected additives — something Ocheese Creamery had never done and wasn’t about to start doing.

As a result, the department issued an ultimatum: either stop selling skim milk or label it “imitation milk.”

Wesselhoeft, whose website header includes the Bible verse, “The hills shall flow with milk, Joel 3:18,” opted to stop selling her locally popular item rather than comply with a condition she believes is dishonest.

But not without a fight.

In March 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida ruled in favor of the Department of Agriculture.

The First Amendment’s protection of free speech extends to commercial speech, the court said, adding that while Wesselhoeft’s label is literally true, the department has the authority to establish a “standard of identity.”

On Jan. 24, the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, argued her case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit Court in Jacksonville. The firm has represented Wesselhoeft since 2014.

“The state has turned the dictionary on its head,” managing attorney Justin Pearson told Watchdog.org.

“The state admits that Ocheesee Creamery skim milk consists entirely of pure all-natural skim milk. But because it doesn’t add any other ingredients, the state has ordered the dairy not call it what it is. That violates the First Amendment,” Pearson said.

According to the department, skim milk can only legally bear the name “skim milk” in Florida if it contains the same amount of vitamin A as whole milk. If it doesn’t, vitamin A must be artificially added.

That puts Wesselhoeft in a bind.

Ocheesee Creamery’s milk is separated so the cream rises to the top. But because vitamin A is fat soluble, it’s largely removed when the cream is skimmed.

Institute for Justice
OCHEESEE CREAMERY: The Calhoun County dairy farm west of Tallahassee produces all-natural milk items from grass-fed cows.

“The thing that’s different about our creamery is that it’s pasteurized, not homogenized, and our milk goes in glass bottles and is all-natural,” Wesselhoeft said in a video produced by the Institute for Justice.

Commercial milk is typically homogenized — a mechanical process that breaks down fat globules from the cream and suspends them, along with vitamin A, throughout the milk.

The dairy’s all-natural products are produced from grazing grass-fed cows. Many of its customers frequent the small business precisely because its products don’t contain additives.

“Many older people enjoy our items because it reminds them of their growing-up days when milk in glass bottles was the norm,” the dairy’s website says.

The three-employee farm also includes a storefront where guests can watch how the family operation bottles its milk.

According to the lawsuit, department regulators routinely tested and approved the farm’s skim milk prior to October 2012, when the state issued a stop-sale order and demanded that Wesselhoeft refrain from listing any nutrient or health claims on its labels.

But not because it’s unsafe.

The state doesn’t dispute that the creamery’s skim milk is safe to drink without the full amount of vitamin A, explained Pearson. The state also agrees that the creamery’s skim milk is legal to sell without any additives, he said. It just won’t allow them to call it “skim milk.”

Institute for Justice
TRADITION: The small third-generation farm has three employees, and includes a storefront where guests can watch how milk is bottled.

In 2013, Wesselhoeft proposed alternative labels, including “Pasteurized Skim Milk: No Vitamin A Added,” “Pasteurized Skim Milk: No Lost Vitamin A Replaced,” and “Pasteurized Skim Milk: Most Vitamin A Removed by Skimming Cream from Milk.”

The suggestions were denied.

“If we would have ignored the Department of Agriculture, they could’ve come and pulled our permit and shut us down completely, and we could not have sold any of our products anywhere,” Wesselhoeft said.

According to the lawsuit, in addition to canceling permits and issuing fines, “selling pasteurized skim milk without complying with Florida’s labeling laws could result in incarceration for the Creamery’s owners.”

The farm has managed to continue operating, but not without losing money. It sells dairy items containing cream, but since the leftover skim milk cannot be sold, it’s discarded.

“Every day we can’t sell it, it hurts our livelihood and we lose customers. We cannot continue on. It hurts us in a big way,” Wesselhoeft said. 

The Agriculture Department refuses to back-off its labeling prohibition despite the lack of public safety concerns. Court documents show the state’s interest is in “establishing a standard of identity and nutritional standards for milk” for the purpose of interstate commerce.

Ocheesee Creamery sells its products exclusively within the state of Florida.

Pearson said that amicus briefs were filed by large farm organizations, including the International Dairy Foods Association, on behalf of the state government’s position.

“It’s clear that giant international dairy farmers don’t like the idea that small, authentic creameries could offer alternative choices. I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” he told Watchdog.org.

The Eleventh Circuit is expected to decide the case before summer. The lawsuit doesn’t seek monetary damages, only the ability to call the product skim milk.

“We think the judges understood what we were saying,” Pearson said.

For Wesselhoeft, the challenge is a simple matter of right and wrong. “We should win this case because we want to tell the truth,” she said. “Someone has to stand up.”

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Reverends, priests and pastors show support for juvenile civil citation reform

Lawmakers vying to make civil citations mandatory for first-time misdemeanor offenders under the age of 18, received some added support at the Florida Capitol last week.

Pastors, reverends and priests representing churches from around the state stood alongside Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, as she spoke to reporters about her “second chance” juvenile justice reform bill.

Civil citations are an alternative to arrest, detainment and enrollment into the state juvenile criminal justice system. The pre-arrest diversion program requires accountability in the form of community service and behavioral health counseling. The problem, said Flores, is that local law enforcement agencies issue civil citations unevenly.

“In Pinellas County, 94 percent of youths eligible for civil citations – the first time they’ve ever been charged with a misdemeanor – receive them,” Flores said. “If you cross the Skyway Bridge and go into Hillsborough County, then that number drops to 34 percent.”

The two counties are socially and economically similar, Flores explained. “So how is it there can be such a difference,” she said.

Pastor Ron Clark of Hurst Chapel African Methodist Church in Winter Haven, said the proposed legislation would provide equal access to youth civil citations for all children.

“In my church, there was a young man who took a short cut on his way home from school – never been in trouble before. He was arrested for trespassing and now has a criminal record,” Clark said.

“When I was kid, I trespassed. I went swimming in a private pond and fished,” he added.

Clark said he went on to serve as an officer in the U.S. military, a school board member and a mental health counselor in addition to being a pastor for the past 30 years. “If I was living in Polk County and got arrested, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to serve this great county and this state in the capacity that I have,” he said.

Last year, about 550 minors were arrested for trespassing in Florida despite qualifying for pre-arrest civil citation programs.

Eligible offenses are limited to possession of alcoholic beverages by persons under age 21, battery, criminal mischief, trespassing, retail and farm theft, fighting, rioting, possession of small amounts of cannabis or controlled substances, possession or sale of drug paraphernalia and resisting an officer without violence.

Statewide, about 19,000 minors committed eligible offenses last year; about 10,000 were arrested, according to Flores.

‘Arrests close doors’

Studies have shown that civil citations and other pre-arrest diversion programs lead to better long-term outcomes.

Research conducted by the Tallahassee-based Children’s Campaign shows that children arrested for minor crimes are twice as likely to re-offend as those issued civil citations and assigned to intervention programs.

A criminal record also can carry lasting consequences.

“Without a doubt, arrests close doors to youth for future education and employment,” said Roy Miller, the group’s president.

Father John Tapp of Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon expressed support for the reform measure on behalf of the Counsel of Catholic Bishops.

“There are many Catholic parishes throughout the state of Florida that support this effort for civil citations and the work of the bishops of the state on this issue speaks for itself,” Tapp said.

Rev. Jay Kowolski of East Lake United Methodist Church in Palm Harbor and Pastor Rusty May from Messiah Lutheran Church of North Fort Myers both spoke in favor of the bill. Other clergy stood in support without speaking.

Ken Wooten, a parishioner of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, shared his personal testimony.

“My son was arrested for marijuana back in 2013. He received a civil citation and was able to complete the program. He got drug counseling. He paid restitution. At the time he was kicked out of his high school, but they took him back and he’s now gainfully employed,” Wooten said.

‘Discretion in every situation’

Law enforcement officials say they’re not opposed to civil citations outright, but they are wary of making them mandatory.

“The Florida Police Chiefs Association strongly believes that law enforcement needs to have the discretion in every situation whether to issue a juvenile civil citation or make an arrest.  The FCPA opposes mandating that law enforcement issue a juvenile civil citation,” the association’s list of legislative priorities reads.

The Florida Sheriffs Association also “opposes a statewide mandate of issuing civil citations to all juveniles,” according to its 2017 legislative platform, saying only that it “supports improving the current program with enhanced data collection to ensure deputies have the most up-to-date information available to them before issuing a civil citation.”

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has a different take. The state juvenile corrections agency says the diversion program is “vital” to reforming the juvenile criminal justice system, and states on its website that the department wants “to enhance pre-existing civil citation programs and to promote and expand the civil citation process statewide.”

The department also asserts that civil citations “save millions of dollars that would otherwise be spent if youth were arrested and required to go through formal delinquency processing.”

Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, sponsor of a matching House bill, said on Wednesday that at $4,500 per arrest, the state could have saved $45 million last year if all eligible youth received civil citations.

According to the Children’s Campaign’s most recent research findings, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties together comprised less than one-tenth of the state’s citation-eligible arrests last year, despite representing 30 percent of the state’s population.

Duval, Hillsborough and Orange counties were responsible for one-quarter of all youth arrests for eligible misdemeanors, yet represent only 18 percent of Florida’s population.

Twenty-one school districts, 13 counties and 150 law enforcement agencies issued no civil citations at all, and instead relied solely on youth arrests.

“One or more civil citation or similar diversion programs shall be established in each county,” the bill states, each extending to “serve all juveniles who are alleged to have committed a violation of law which would be a misdemeanor offense if committed by an adult.”

The citation and other diversion programs apply as long as a juvenile suspect admits to committing the alleged offense and has a clean criminal record.

According to the bill, law enforcement officers would have  discretion to issue civil citations for second and third misdemeanor offenses, as well as offenses outside of the prescribed list of misdemeanors.

If a minor opts to participate in a civil citation program, the bill calls for no more than 50 community service hours and the completion of intervention services, which include family counseling, urinalysis monitoring, substance abuse and mental health treatment services.

Failure to complete intervention programs would cause the initial criminal charge to be referred to a state attorney.

Flores’ bill was approved by the Senate Criminal Justice committee last week, 5-2, and will be debated next in the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

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Florida’s economic development efforts are ‘underperforming’

Florida’s state economic development efforts are “underperforming,” according to a new legislative report.

 

An undesirable label by any standard, critics and lawmakers already skeptical of providing taxpayer support for private businesses are likely to seize on the bureaucratic euphemism and underlying findings to bolster their anti-incentives position ahead of the March state legislative session.

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a nonpartisan legislative research office, conducted a comprehensive review of Enterprise Florida Inc. and the Department of Economic Opportunity —the state’s two most prominent development organizations— and found the results of their economic development activities wanting when compared with other states.

The analysis spans 10 years and focuses on job creation in targeted industries as well as economic growth. These two areas are the main justifications for awarding taxpayer-funded subsidies to selected businesses, and for their proponents’ significant annual funding requests.

In the report, auditors compared Florida to seven competitor states with tax-incentive agencies and programs: Alabama, California, Georgia, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Overall, from 2006 to 2015, Florida experienced job growth in only two of six targeted industry sectors, management of companies and enterprises, and professional, scientific and technical services. The state ranked third and seventh in the job categories, respectively, when compared with the other states.

Additionally, Florida ranked fourth out of the eight for high-wage job creation in manufacturing, sixth in both wholesale trade and finance and insurance, and seventh in information services.

“Further analyses showed little or no employment growth in these industries relative to the nation,” the report said.

Texas, a state often compared with Florida because of their comparable size and rapid growth, received first place rankings for employment in five of the six tax-incentive targeted industries.

The report also compares Florida with its competitor states according to several economic indicators commonly used in studies that examine state economic outlooks and business climates — gross domestic product, GDP per capita, unemployment rate, and personal income.

Florida fared best in the area of unemployment, with the third-lowest rate in 2015. However, among large states in the competitor group, New York and Texas outperformed Florida on all four measures, and California outperformed Florida on three measures, auditors determined.

On the whole, Florida ranked fourth out of eight states in economic terms, besting North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama.

‘Lack of marketing’

Beyond jobs and economic growth, the review highlighted a major flaw with respect to Enterprise Florida’s financing, and noted the stark lack of incentive assistance directed toward small, minority and rural businesses.

According to the report, private-sector cash investments “represent a very small portion of Enterprise Florida’s overall budget.”

However, state law requires that the public-private partnership obtain private-sector financing in the amount equal to its taxpayer appropriations, but it never has — and it’s not even close.

Established in 1996, Enterprise Florida was supposed to achieve public-private match funding by fiscal year 2000-01. It didn’t, and it hasn’t grown its private funding resources over the past decade.

“Private sector cash contributions during OPPAGA’s review period rarely exceeded $2 million, while state appropriations averaged about $20 million per year,” the report says.

Auditors added that by investing $122 million of incentive funding — money committed but not yet spent — in a state trust fund instead of a commercial escrow account, the state could double that return, adding another $2 million to the pot.

Whatever its source, very little of the money is going to small businesses.

Although 96 percent of state businesses employ fewer than 50 employees, auditors found that most state-level economic development programs, particularly business incentives, benefit large companies.

The report says a “lack of marketing may affect participation.”

More glaring is the low rate of participation in the state’s Black Business Loan program, which made only 12 active loans in fiscal 2015.

Participation in the Rural Community Development program has been even lower. Since 1996, the program has made only 17 loans, or just one loan every two years.

Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, both Republicans, are currently at odds over the future of Enterprise Florida. Scott wants a new $85 million appropriation. Corcoran helped block a $250 million funding attempt in 2016.

Corcoran is on record saying that if he could, he’d abolish the quasi-state agency.

Last year alone, state officials appropriated $1.08 billion to Enterprise Florida and the Department of Economic Opportunity. All but $25 million went to DEO.

Enterprise Florida coordinates its economic development partnerships with the department, which in turn collaborates on development contracts and acts as the contract manager for Enterprise Florida incentive agreements.

A House legislative discussion is scheduled for Wednesday at the Capitol, where lawmakers will “review the return on investment” for Florida’s economic incentive programs.

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