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Tourism advocates raise specter of Rick Scott’s veto in Visit Florida fight

Tourism industry leaders hope to escape the Legislative Session with a least a reasonable portion of Visit Florida intact, notwithstanding hostility in the House toward economic incentives that many members consider corporate welfare.

“Never underestimate the power of the veto pen,” Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said during the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s Capitol Days symposium.

“I know for a fact that there are a lot of freshman legislators who really believe, ‘If I hold strong, I’m going to get these (local) projects to take home.’ At the end of the day, I think they’re forgetting that there’s this pen, and one man holds it. And we all know what he wants.”

She referred to Gov. Rick Scott’s insistence that the Legislature fund Visit Florida, Enterprise Florida, and other economic development initiatives he sees as the key to his jobs agenda.

David Hart, the Chamber’s vice president for government affairs, noted that the House wants to cut Visit Florida’s budget by $50 million — or about two thirds. The Senate — particularly budget chairman Jack Latvala — support the incentives.

Still, Hart expressed concern for what might happen when Visit Florida money lands in conference committee. He referred to reports that the economic incentives could become a bargaining chip for Senate President Joe Negron’s $2 billion Lake Okeechobee plan.

“That does get us in the zone of the governor’s veto and possible special sessions beyond as we go into May, June, July,” Hart said.

“That would be nuclear,” Dover said.

“I hope we’re not there, but it’s too soon to say that’s off the table,” Hart added.

When it comes to legislative triage, Dover said she supports Enterprise Florida but continued, “We only have so many chits in the basket when you’re a lobbyist. And my chits are in the Visit Florida basket.”

Visit Florida originally relied more on private dollars, and was created so marketers could escape the bureaucratic restraints the House now wants to impose, said Dan Olson, the program’s No. 2.

Dover, who sits on Visit Florida’s board, conceded missteps.

“As a board member, it never crossed my mind that, as we were getting more and more money from the government, we needed to shift our business model,” Dover said.

But the House bill would be too onerous, she said. For example, businesses contracting with the agency would have to disclose employees’ salaries.

“They’re just not going to do business with Florida. It’s too cumbersome,” Dover said.

“We’re not trying to say we don’t need to be transparent. We’re trying to take some of the real onerous, bureaucratic transparency that will shackle them from doing their jobs.”

During every recent crisis that might have dampened tourism — the Pulse shootings, two hurricanes, Zika — Visit Florida launched marketing campaigns within 24 hours to tell out-of-staters it was still alright to come.

The House bill would require sign-off for such spending from the governor and Legislative Budget Commission, which meets quarterly, she said.

“We could be sitting here with devastation from a hurricane, and we can’t do anything until all three branches of the government look at our plan and decide if we can spend the money.”

Is it time to panic?

Dover shook her head.

“I really believe in the House. I believe in Richard Corcoran,” she said “I know that Land O’ Lakes is not a tourism (hub) but he is the speaker of the House,” she said.

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Tougher texting-and-driving ban sails through Senate committee

Legislation to make texting while driving a primary offense was passed Wednesday unanimously by the Senate Transportation Committee.

Miami Republican Rene Garcia sponsored the legislation (SB 144).

Florida was one of the later states in the country to adopt anti-texting laws, not doing so until 2013. But the fact that it’s a secondary offense has led critics to call the law toothless. Under Garcia’s bill, police could pull over drivers for texting while driving.

In the past, some lawmakers have expressed concerns that such legislation could allow law enforcement to profile black motorists racially.

“The current Florida ban on texting laws is almost impossible to enforce, and the general public knows this,” said Lake City Police Chief Argatha Gilmore, speaking as a representative of the Florida Police Chiefs Association. “If texting while driving was made a primary offense, we believe it would deter this potentially deadly driving behavior.”

“As an industry, we lose between five and ten of our employees are killed nationwide by people who are distracted while driving,” said Charlie Latham, Florida Chair of the National Waste and Recycling Association.

Voting for the bill was Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley, who outed himself as a chronic abuser of texting while driving, adding that he’s always opposed such bills in the past because it represented another loss of personal freedom.

Baxley said that he didn’t believe texting was a problem per se, but distracted driving is.

There is a companion bill in the House sponsored by Democrat Emily Slosberg (HB 47).

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Bill banning steroids for greyhounds headed to House

A bill that would ban injecting racing greyhounds in Florida with anabolic steroids is heading to the House floor.

The House’s Commerce Committee approved the bill (HB 743) on Tuesday.

Florida is home to 12 of 19 tracks in the United States and one of the few places where the use of steroids is permitted. It’s banned in Great Britain and Australia, where the sport remains popular.

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith — the Orlando Democrat who is the bill sponsor — says the use of steroids only keeps female greyhounds from going into heat and losing racing days.

He equates the drug use to “pre-game dog doping.”

Representatives from Florida’s greyhound industry argued steroids don’t enhance performance. Some legislators discussed the possibility of an amendment that would allow exemptions when medically necessary.

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Officials use Orlando man, attempted insurance fraud, as example of abuse

Orange County and state officials are making an example of a man who attempted to collect a bogus insurance claim on his car after reporting it stolen, accusing him of arson and insurance fraud.

Michael Abrams, 43, is now held on $50,000 bond in an Orange County detention facility, a statement said Wednesday.

Abrams is charged with arson, insurance fraud, filing a false insurance claim, false reports in the commission of a crime and grand theft by the Orange County state attorney’s office, Orange County records show. He stands accused of devising a plan to have his 2016 Toyota Camry stolen and destroyed so that he could collect an insurance payout totaling $10,000, the statement continues.

“More often than not, acts of arson are committed in order to collect insurance payouts or to cover up a larger crime,” said Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. “To concoct the plan that he did is an elaborate act of fraud — one that undoubtedly drives up the cost of insurance for every Floridian. I’m proud of our investigative team for getting to the truth and putting this man behind bars where he belongs.”

In early December 2016, a crew from the Orange County Fire Rescue (OCFR) department responded to a vehicular fire. The car had previously reported stolen from New York state by Abrams.

Suspicious, a supervisor with OCFR reached out to the Florida State Fire Marshall’s Office to investigate the cause and origin of the fire and that’s when Abrams’ story didn’t add up.

After being questioned by investigators, he admitted paying another man $300 to destroy his car while he simultaneously reported it stolen.

Abrams admitted to also actively participating in the fire, which was interrupted when the fire and rescue crews were called to the scene of the crime.

“Upon confessing to an active role in the burning of his car and the filing of an unlawful insurance claim, Michael Abrams was arrested and charged with several felonies,” the statement said. “Abrams was booked into the Orange County Jail, bail was set at $50,000.”

He faces 20 years in prison if convicted.

Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Jeff Atwater, a statewide elected official, oversees the Department of Financial Services, serves as Florida’s State Fire Marshal, and is a member of the Florida Cabinet.

Atwater’s priorities include fighting financial fraud, abuse and waste in government; reducing government spending and regulatory burdens that chase away businesses, and providing transparency and accountability in spending.

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Joe Henderson: Time to get rid of red-light cameras, but turn up heat on texting

Depending on your point of view, red-light cameras in Florida are either: A) Of great benefit to public safety by making drivers think twice when approaching a changing traffic light; or B) a cash grab by communities that amounts to a backdoor tax.

Just we’re clear, I’m on the side of Option B.

While several communities throughout the state have discontinued use of the cameras for reasons best explained by Option B, the Legislature has never mustered enough support for a complete ban on them.

Bless ‘em, though, House members keep trying. They are scheduled once again to take up a proposal (HB 6007) by Rep. Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, and Spring Hill Republican Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, to repeal laws that permit the cameras.

Maybe they will succeed this time. I wish they wouldn’t stop there, though. I wish that for once, lawmakers could finally put their foot down on the practice of texting while driving. Currently, it is only a secondary offense, punishable by a fine only if officers can stop a violator on another charge.

The state transportation committee will consider whether to recommend toughening the law by making it a primary offense — meaning that if an officer sees someone obviously texting while driving, they can be pulled over for that.

Sadly, even something so obvious is complicated after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it takes a warrant to search a cellphone. It’s unlikely a motorist about to be hit with a big fine for texting would voluntarily turn over their phone. I appreciate the complication.

It’s worth the battle, though.

So why the battle against cameras but support for a texting ban?

Simple.

In 2015, the state reported nearly 46,000 accidents due to distracted driving. That’s more than 12 percent of all crashes in Florida, and we’ve all had the experience of watching drivers weave in and out of highway lanes while they’re focused on their phone instead of the road.

Red-light cameras, on the other hand, appear to contribute to crashes as well as being the aforementioned cash grab. The News Service of Florida reported in a four-year study of 148 intersections with cameras, across the state, crashes increased by more than 10 percent.

Rear-end collisions were the main culprit.

Add to that the fact that cameras are operated by an out-of-state firm and that appealing the fine can result in even heavier costs and points on your driver’s license. People usually give in and pay, and that’s not what a law like this should be doing.

Get rid of the cameras.

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Joe Negron adds to committees’ strength during Dorothy Hukill’s recovery

While Sen. Dorothy Hukill recovers from cervical cancer, Senate President Joe Negron has named additional members to committees on which she serves.

In a memo dated Tuesday, Negron said Sen. Anitere Flores will help out in the Education Committee, which Hukill leads.

“Sen. Hukill will remain the chair of the Committee on Education,” Negron aide Katie Betta said. “Under the Senate rules, the chair designates a senator on the committee to serve in her absence on a week by week basis.”

Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala takes a seat on the budget Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto will serve on the Health Policy Committee. And Ben Galvano will sit on the Transportation Committee.

The appointments take effect immediately, Negron said.

“I appreciate your willingness to take on this additional responsibility on behalf of the Florida Senate,” he wrote.

“Sen, Hukill is still on all of these committees,” Betta said.

Hukill has been absent from Tallahassee during the Legislative Session, but has been following proceedings remotely.

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Bill would require city officials to file state financial disclosures

A bill that would require elected city officials to file detailed financial disclosures got thumbs up Wednesday morning from the Florida House Government Accountability Committee.

House Bill 7021, introduced by Republican state Rep. Larry Metz of Groveland, would require mayors, city council members and other municipal elected officials in perhaps half of Florida’s cities to file full and public disclosure of their public interests on the same forms now used by state and county elected officials.

The bill, which the committee approved unanimously, also creates a statewide registry for local lobbyists.

The municipal financial disclosure provisions, which Metz has sought for several years in similar bills that never quite reached the governor’s desk, would apply only to cities that have annual revenues of at least $10 million. One witness estimated that would eliminate about half of the 412 cities in Florida from the requirements, leading some committee members wondering why. The bill also only applies to elected officials, not candidates.

Metz responded that the disclosure provisions should be brought in incrementally, starting with those cities where more is at stake.

“We should not let pursuit of a perfect ethics reform bill be the enemy of a good ethics reform bill, which this is,” Metz said.

Democratic state Reps. Emily Slosberg of Delray Beach, Joseph Abruzzo of Belle Glade, and Kristin Diane Jacobs of Coconut Creek pushed in vein for broader requirements.

“As past audit chairman, we had numerous cases, and the majority of them were small cities where public corruption was taking place,” Abruzzo said.

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Chamber laments the rise of trial bar’s influence with Florida Legislature

The business community believes trial lawyers hold the upper hand in the Legislature for the first time in years.

The business community is not happy about that.

“Their bills are on rocket fuel and are moving through the process,” Mark Delegal, a partner at Holland & Knight, said during a panel discussion at the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s annual Capitol Days symposium.

“We are sounding the alarm about what is going on. Let’s make this just a two-year anomaly. We’ve got to lock down as a community, as businesses, and stop this aggression that’s going on, and move back to where we are on the offense.”

Delegal participated in the discussion with Steve Kopnik, chairman and CEO of Beall’s Inc.; Barry Gilway, president and CEO of Citizens Property Insurance Corp.; and Quentin Kendall, vice president for government affairs for CSX Transportation.

Business priorities this year include workers’ compensation reform and assignment of benefits abuse.

But the panel also spent time decrying legislation that would give plaintiffs the opportunity to receive prejudgment interest on legal claims. The Chamber produced a video to warn the business community against the measure.

The bill stalled last week during a hearing before the Senate Rules Committee, but isn’t dead.

Kendall lamented that tort reform seems to be languishing in the Legislature, following good years beginning under former Gov. Jeb Bush and a subsequent equilibrium with trial lawyers.

“This prejudgment interest bill symbolically represents the turning of the tide, and the ongoing march of the trial lawyers to decrease the already low, 44th, ranking we have in legal climate in the United States,” Kendall said.

The bill would discourage defendants from fighting meritless claims, and defendants couldn’t recover their litigation expenses if they prevail, he said.

He surveyed the landscape. In the House, the bill’s sponsor is Shawn Harrison, who holds an “A” rating from the Chamber. It went through the Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee, whose chairwoman, Heather Fitzenhagen, “works for John Morgan,” the plaintiffs’ attorney.

“This isn’t the Onion, folks,” Kendall said.

The House bill passed out of that committee on an 11-4 vote, despite efforts by “our champion there,” Jay Fant.

“Jay said, ‘Quentin, they’re laughing at us. They’re just laughing at us now.’ ”

Even in the Senate, “we needed two Democratic senators to hold this thing up,” Kendall said.

“There were no questions about how this would affect the business community,” he said.

“We need to understand what this represents. This is a slippery slope of where the future is in our position vis a vis the Florida Legislature unless we’re able to stop this and turn the tide.”

Delegal recalled a time when Democrats controlled the Legislature and trial lawyers would try for one or two pieces of legislation each year, retreating when Republicans captured both chambers.

“The last 20 years, we’ve been on the offense. We’ve not always successfully prosecuted our bills, but many times we have.”

Now, “we have seen a radical sea change in just this year,” he said.

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By two votes, House ‘whiskey & Wheaties’ bill cleared for floor

In another squeaker, the House version of a bill to allow retailers to sell liquor in their main stores cleared its last committee by just two votes.

The House Commerce Committee on Wednesday OK’d the legislation (HB 81) on a 15-13 vote. It’s now ready to be considered by the full House.

It previously cleared the Government Operations and Technology Appropriations Subcommittee by a 7-6 vote. And it hobbled out of the Careers and Competition Subcommittee on an 8-7 vote.

“Any time you have an issue that revolves around alcohol, you’re bound to expect it to be somewhat controversial for some of the members,” bill sponsor Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, told reporters after the hearing.

The proposal would repeal a Prohibition-era state law requiring retailers to sell distilled spirits in a separate shop. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

Avila amended the bill to make it nearly identical with the Senate version (SB 106), which goes to a final vote in that chamber Thursday. For example, it too requires miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and would be phased in over several years.

Lawmakers have been weighing the wishes of big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart, who want a repeal of the liquor “wall of separation,” and independently-owned liquor store operators, who say they will suffer.

If the proposal becomes law, “we are finished,” said Kiran Patel, who owns liquor stores in Melbourne and Palm Bay. “There’s no way we can even compete with” big box stores, which will “put pallets and pallets” of booze out in the open.

But state Rep. Tom Goodson questioned that; the Rockledge Republican noted that Patel and other small businesses already compete on selection and price with chains, just with their liquor offerings in a separate store.

Goodson also was skeptical of claims that mixing whiskey and Wheaties would lead to higher rates of theft or teen drinking, including right in the stores: “If you try to open a Jack Daniel’s bottle these days, you need two knives and a screwdriver.”

Target lobbyist Jason Unger of the GrayRobinson firm told lawmakers the bill meets “customers’—and your constituents’—demands” for more convenience, adding that “competition is good.”

Skylar Zander, deputy director for the pro-free market Americans for Prosperity-Florida, said the separation law needs to be “abolished.”

“This is about consumers, allowing businesses to innovate and to make the market more free,” Zander said in an email.

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At Florida Chamber gathering, a vigorous defense of economic incentives

Florida is, too, open for business, representatives of the state’s economic development arm and business insisted during a panel discussion organized by the Florida Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.

“We’re a high performing business that’s open for business. We’ve just temporarily shut down the marketing and sales department. What we’re trying to do is make sure that’s not a permanent situation,” said Mark Wilson, the Chamber’s president and CEO.

“Florida has a lot going for it. What we need to do is fight to make sure to tell the rest of the world about it. And that we don’t, in the middle of this argument with each other, we don’t accidentally take Florida backward, and let other people brand Florida as something that it’s not.”

Discussion of whether Florida was open for business came on Day 2 of the Chamber’s annual Capitol Days, coinciding with the Legislative Session.

The “argument” is the debate over whether to abolish Enterprise Florida and other state economic incentives programs. The House has already voted to do so, although the Senate is resisting.

The mere debate has already served notice that Florida is withdrawing the welcome mat. Mike Grissom, interim director of Enterprise Florida, said the office recently lost a key prospect over fear of “instability in government.”

The state brings inherent economic advantages to the competition, including a friendly regulatory environment and labor laws, and low taxes, said Florida Power & Light President Eric Silagy.

”But we are now facing some challenges from a standpoint of perception,” he said.

“We have to be very careful managing Florida’s brand — the perception beyond our borders. It’s a fragile kind of system and, if you’re not careful, you can break it.”

Grissom and Cissy Proctor, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, attempted to refute complaints that these programs constitute “corporate welfare.” Applicants are carefully vetted for economic and reputational strength, Proctor said. Incentive payments go out only after companies have lived up to their promises.

Wilson linked such complaints to the Occupy Wall Street movement, amplified by the libertarian Koch brothers and their Americans for Prosperity.

“Any politician who says, ‘This is just a slush fund that we hand money out to people,’ that’s malpractice. Any reporter who says that’s how it works, that would be fake news,” Wilson said.

Meanwhile, economic development officials in other states are capitalizing on the Florida controversy.

“They love what’s going on right now in Florida, because it’s truly creating an opportunity for them to retain companies that were looking to leave or attract others from other states who are looking to relocate,” Silagy said.

But these programs are the key to diversifying the state’s economy, he continued.

“It is not a question of whether or not there’s going to be another recession. It’s just when, and how deep will it be,” he said.

“What I worry about, if I can be blunt, is this state is going through amnesia. It wasn’t long ago when we had an economy that was absolutely in the tank and leading the country in going down the tubes that way, because our economy was not nearly as diversified as it could have been, should have been.”

Florida needs to learn from Texas, he said, which suffered much less because it had diversified its economy from oil and gas following the collapse of fuel prices during the early 1980s.

“Before I invest capital anywhere, I want to make sure I’m going to a market that wants be to be there, that welcomes me,” Silagy said.

“And that I have a view that it’s going to be good place to do business for a long period of time. One of the best ways to do that is making sure that location is invested in me. So when things do go badly, they’re standing next to me.”

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