Statewide Archives - Page 5 of 743 - SaintPetersBlog

Florida’s unemployment rate drops to 4.5%, Tampa at 3.8%

Florida’s unemployment rate dipped to its lowest rate in nearly a decade in April, state officials announced Friday.

The state Department of Economic Opportunity announced the unemployment rate dipped to 4.5 percent in April, down from 4.8 percent one month earlier. The drop marks one of the lowest rates since September 2007, and is only slightly higher than the national unemployment rate of 4.4 percent.

The Tampa Bay-area led the state when it came to job demand, with 47,412 job openings. It also ranked first in the state for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) openings with 14,898 openings in April.

The region’s unemployment rate was 3.8 percent in April.

Of the Tampa Bay numbers, Gov. Rick Scott said: “It is great news that Tampa area businesses created nearly 32,000 jobs over the year in April. The Tampa area also led the state in job openings, which means there are thousands of opportunities for Floridians to find the opportunities they need to succeed in Tampa Bay. We will keep fighting to make Tampa, and our entire state, a top destination for job growth.”

“Florida businesses have excelled over the past six years thanks to the policies of Gov. Scott and his administration,” said Cissy Proctor, the executive director of the DEO, in a statement. “Unemployment continues to drop, private sector jobs are on the rise and Florida families are flourishing. We must not give up on our efforts to make Florida the best place to start and grow a business.”

The DEO reported there were more than 8.5 million jobs in April, up 215,400 jobs compared to a year ago.

Professional and business services saw the largest growth, adding 39,500 jobs over the year in April; followed by trade, transportation and utilities with 36,600 new jobs; construction with 34,400 new jobs; and education and health services with 32,700 jobs.

Twenty-three of the state’s 24 metro areas saw over-the-year jobs gains, according to the DEO.

Orlando once again led the state in job creation, adding 42,700 private-sector jobs year-over-year in April. The unemployment rate in the Orlando metro area was 3.6 percent.

“I am proud to announce today that the Orlando area continues to lead the state in job creation, which is great news for families and business in Central Florida,” said Scott in a statement. “Florida’s unemployment rate has also reached a nearly 10-year low, which is sending a message across the country that our state is a top destination for new jobs and opportunities.”

Leisure and hospitality saw the largest growth, with 13,400 new jobs; followed by trade, transportation and utilities with 8,800 new jobs; financial activities with 4,800 new jobs; and manufacturing with 1,600.

The Orlando-area was second among metro areas for job demand, with 37,024 job openings.

Scott is expected to highlight the job numbers during an event in Miami later today.

Big-box chains, others make one last push for ‘whiskey & Wheaties’

Costco now is joining Wal-Mart, Target and others in one last push to get Gov. Rick Scott to sign a bill to remove the ‘wall of separation’ between hard liquor and other goods.

Their Floridians For Fair Business Practices coalition on Friday released a tranche of letters sent to Scott encouraging him to OK the legislation (SB 106) known by the nickname “whiskey and Wheaties.”

They also include representatives of Whole Foods Market, the Distilled Spirits Council and the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.

It could be an uphill fight—as of Wednesday, the Governor’s Office reported 2,649 emails opposed to the bill and 315 supporting, as well as 3,245 people who signed a petition against the bill.

The office also took 177 calls against and 123 for, and 569 printed letters opposed and seven letters in favor—all from pro-bill coalition members, spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said.

The governor has till May 24 to sign the bill into law, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature. His office has said Scott will “review” the legislation.

It remain whether the “jobs” governor will be swayed by opponents—including independent liquor stores—who are calling the proposal a job-killer and asking Scott to nix it.

The bill passed both chambers on close margins: 21-17 in the Senate and a razor thin 58-57 in the House. Also, five House members who missed the vote voted ‘no’ after the roll call.

Filed every year since 2014, it removes the 82-year-old ‘wall of separation’ between hard liquor and other items enacted in Florida after Prohibition. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles.

Among other things, the bill requires miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and allows for a 5-year phase-in. It further calls for employees over 18 to check customers’ ID and approve sales of spirits by cashiers under 18.

Florida’s own ABC Fine Wines & Spirits also opposes the measure, as does the Publix supermarket chain, because of its investment in its many separate liquor stores.

What is really happening with community input for the I-395 project

Bridges are about connections, hence the word “bridge.”

But a Miami-Dade plan to design a “signature bridge” — an $800 million proposal for rebuilding the I-395 overpass — is doing more to divide than connect.

Adding to the confusion is the Miami Herald, where some argue has been slanting coverage to favor one bidder over another on the Florida Department of Transportation project.

While the Herald has given significant coverage to the I-395 Signature Bridge Project — over 25 years in the making — many facts have not been reported correctly.

On May 16, the Herald’s Douglas Hanks reported that Miami-Dade officials were urging the FDOT to postpone the award of the I-395 project.

“Florida agreed to let local leaders help pick the design of a ‘signature bridge’ overpass by the Adrienne Arsht performing arts center,” Hanks writes, “but selected the proposal that received lower scores from the local panel.”

According to the Herald, Sally Heyman, who sponsored the resolution calling the FDOT to postpone handing winning bidder Archer Western the contract, arguing the state “should be more interested in hearing from the public.”

“They’re asking for the public input,” Heyman said. “Why not respect it?”

But that’s not quite accurate.

In 1996, after community opposition initially blocked the project, little attention had been paid to the adjoining Overtown neighborhood. By 2004, the project directive had changed to not only provide traffic solutions but also to promote the revitalization of surrounding communities, including Overtown, which surrounds the I-95/I-395 exchange.

After that, between 2004 and 2009, the FDOT conducted approximately 150 presentations, involving over 2000 community members — earning a national award just last year for its outstanding public input process on the project.

As a result, public support for the I-395 project rose from 20 percent to a high of 80 percent as of the official public hearing held Aug. 25, 2009.

The broader vision was for a signature bridge, reconnecting neighborhood streets and development of a green community space underneath the expressway.

FDOT continued to hold advisory meetings until 2013, with the formation of the local Aesthetics Steering Committee (ASC), with stakeholders taken from the County, City, FDOT, the Miami Downtown Development Authority, and the Performing Arts Center.

For the next two years, the ASC was the driving force behind the aesthetic review criteria of the request for proposal (RFP). In February 2016, the FDOT issued the RFP, which set off a so-called “cone of silence” to check possible influence and keep politics out of the selection process.

In August 2016, another local Aesthetic Review Committee, chaired by County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, (on its own) approved 7 of 18 signature bridge design submissions.

Those designs would then be forwarded for scoring by the full selection committee — taking in account technical and aesthetic qualities, construction timetable and price.

Once again, the ASC added input and scored the visual elements of each design, with Edmonson eventually giving the winning design an “excellent” score.

In the process, the joint-venture team of Archer Western and the de Moya Group was ranked Best Valued Proposer. While the Herald incorrectly claims Archer Western was the lowest score, it was, in fact, ranked second in aesthetics out of four.

Also, the group came in first overall on technical design, as well as aesthetics, time to build and price.

With any aesthetic design, there will always be critics — everyone has an opinion — but that does not mean the process was “Jerry-rigged” to secure a “narrow win” as suggested in the Herald.

Local leaders had a seat at the table, and the overall best value bidder based on RFP scores was selected. It’s that simple.

After reviewing all the facts, any claim that community input was ignored is both false and disingenuous.

FDOT, spending as much as $800 million on the rebuild of I-395 — a combination of Federal and State dollars — allowed a committee of local officials set the aesthetics criteria, shortlist the designs and score final proposals.

One design winning over another is not due to a “lack” of local input, by any objective measure.

The I-395 project is a quarter century old, and it is a bridge in every sense of the word — connecting communities and varying interests.

It is time to put aside the petty differences, look to the future and fix the I-395 traffic mess.

Martin Dyckman: Home mortgage interest deduction, the third rail of real tax reform

There’s a $71-billion federal welfare program that costs more than aid to needy families, more than the earned income tax credit for working families, and almost as much as food stamps, but goes in great measure to people who don’t really need it.

I’m on that dole. You may be, too.

It’s the home mortgage interest deduction, the largest of the loopholes in the tax code, and the one that almost nobody in Congress or the White House has the guts to talk about, much less touch.

An article in the May 14 New York Times Magazine argues convincingly that the mortgage interest subsidy has contributed to making homeownership “the engine of American inequality.” It’s the big reason why the average homeowner has 36 times the net worth of someone who rents.

Florida aggravates that inequality with its generous homestead exemption for owner-occupied residences. That issue deserves some thought before voting to make matters worse, as a constitutional amendment on the November ballot would do.

The Times Magazine author, Matthew Desmond, won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2017 book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” He quotes a 1996 study that concluded that eliminating the mortgage interest subsidy and the real estate tax deduction would depress home prices by as much as 17 percent. Turn that around, and it means the government has artificially inflated the value of what constitutes the principal asset for many homeowners. Meanwhile, it puts far less money into assistance for renters, who are the ultimate victims of this policy.

“The MID allows homebuyers to collect more after-tax savings if they take on more mortgage debt, which incentivizes them to pay for more for properties than they could have otherwise,” says Desmond. “By inflating home value, the MID benefits Americans who already own homes — and makes joining their ranks harder.”

Even if it could be fairly argued that homeowners deserve government handouts that renters don’t, the mortgage interest deduction is skewed, like virtually all deductions, entirely in the wrong direction. That works three ways.

The larger one’s mortgage, the more the interest you pay, and the more that the government effectively refunds to you. The higher your marginal tax bracket, which usually reflects how wealthy you are, the greater is the percentage of that government refund. And if you don’t have enough deductions to itemize them, or don’t figure it’s worth the bother, you’re not on the dole at all.

The only limits, for joint returns, are a $1-million cap on the amount of deductible debt for a primary residence and $100,000 on deductible home equity borrowing.

In 2014, Desmond points out, there were 1.5 million households earning between $40,000 and $50,000 a year whose tax returns claimed the interest deduction, receiving an average benefit of $14 a month. Meanwhile, 6.5 million households with earnings above $200,000 deducted mortgage interest for an average benefit of $391 a month.

“What this means in aggregate,” Desmond writes, “is that households with at least six-figure incomes receive more than four-fifths of the total value of mortgage interest and property tax deductions.”

Real tax reform — not such as we’re likely to see from this Congress or this president — would ideally end all deductions and cut everyone’s tax rates. A middle ground would be to lower the maximum deductible mortgage debt and fix everyone’s deduction percentage — not just for real estate but for all deductions — at the lowest of the tax brackets. But two of Washington’s most potent lobbies, real estate and charities, don’t intend to let that happen.

Speaking of tax reform, how long has it been since Florida had one?

Forty-five years.

Gov. Reubin Askew, elected in 1970 on a promise to make Florida’s consumption-heavy tax code fairer by taxing corporate income, pushed the 1971 Legislature to pass the necessary constitutional amendment and got the voters to ratify it, with 70 percent in favor, in a special election.

At his insistence, the 1972 Legislature used part of the new revenue to remove the existing sales tax from household utility bills and most residential rentals.

That was the last time Florida did anything for renters.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s pending constitutional amendment would increase the existing $50,000 homestead tax exemption for every qualifying residence assessed at between $100,000 and $125,000 or more. The exemption would cancel up to another $25,000 of taxable value. That this applies only to county, city and special district taxes and not to school taxes doesn’t make it fair. The Senate’s staff estimated that it would cut nearly $795 million from affected budgets by fiscal 2020, assuming tax rates stay the same.

So to avoid closing fire stations, parks, libraries and other attributes of a modern functional modern society, local governments would have to get that money back from somewhere. That somewhere will likely be commercial property and, yes, those oft-forgotten citizens, the renters. You don’t think their landlords will eat the tax increases, do you?


Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

Office of Insurance Regulation veteran Belinda Miller announces retirement

Belinda Miller, a stalwart of Florida’s insurance regulation efforts since 1985, will retire on July 2, but plans to keep her hand in the industry via consulting work.

”I’m going to retire from the state,” Miller said during a telephone interview Thursday. “It’s just time. I’ve been there a long time, so I’m going to play a little bit.”

She expects to do some work for Celtic Global Consulting, the firm former Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty set up after he left office last year.

“I’m not going to sit on the porch and retire,” Miller said.

Miller joined the old Department of Insurance under Bill Gunter, when the insurance commissioner was an independently elected member of the Cabinet. She started out in the receivership office, taking over insolvent insurance companies.

In 1999, she became director of the Division of Insurer Services — overseeing most of the work the Office of Insurance handles now. Miller later served as deputy commissioner for property and casualty and as general counsel, before becoming chief of staff last year.

She was a candidate to replace McCarty after he stepped down, but the job when to David Altmaier. At the time, Florida Politics wrote of her:

A force in her own right, Miller is one of the smartest and knowledgeable people in insurance regulation today. The long-standing general counsel and current chief of staff of OIR, Miller is one of McCarty’s closest allies. Her ties to McCarty and record as a super voting Democrat may not put her views for moving OIR forward in line with those on the conservative Cabinet.”

In 2014, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners gave her its Robert Dineen Award for outstanding service to the field of insurance regulation.

Not getting the top job had nothing to do with her departure, Miller said.

“I’m happy that David is the commissioner,” she said.

“He is very good. I worked with David for maybe nine years now. We have a good team. I hate to leave that group of people. They’re wonderful.”

Altmaier praised Miller’s “almost 30 years of dedicated public service” in a written statement through his office.

“She was instrumental to the office through several significant market events, including the rebuilding of our property market after the 2004-‘05 hurricane seasons and economic crisis, the examination of the asymmetrical use of the death master file by life insurance companies, and the receivership of several significant carriers in our state,” Altmaier said.

“Her knowledge of Florida’s insurance market and her steadfast devotion to consumers is unparalleled.”

Carlos Guillermo Smith, Amy Mercado say special session needed to end cannabis legal limbo

Saying that the current limbo of law is bad for doctors and patients, Democratic state Reps. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Amy Mercado pleaded with Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Legislature leaders to call a special session to deal with medical marijuana.

“We are here because 71 percent of Florida voters approved the constitutional right to medical cannabis. But we also are here because unfortunately once again Tallahassee politicians have thwarted the will of the people and they have refused to implement Amendment 2, medical cannabis,” said Smith, of Orlando. “They should be ashamed.

“While the out-of-touch, old-fashioned conservative majority in Tallahassee continues its hand-wringing over whether or not cannabis is actual medicine… or whether they can actually get over themselves and listen to the voters, qualified patients are dying, qualified patients are waiting,” he continued. “And there is no question that the governor, the Senate president of the senate and the speaker of the House need to be leaders and officially call for a special session and demand that the Legislature implement the will of the voters immediately.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has called for a special session to pass implementing legislation to fill out the laws for the Amendment 2 medical marijuana initiative approved by 71 percent of the voters in November. Senate President Joe Negron and Gov. Rick Scott have not. The Florida Legislature failed to pass the implementing bill on the last day of Session earlier this month.

Cannabis activist and author Gary Stein argued that the lack of implementing laws means that the qualifying patients – and the doctors who assist them – are caught in legal “fog” between what should be authorized under Amendment 2 and what little cannabis law and regulation exists based on the 2014 “Charlotte’s Web” bill the Florida Legislature approve.

Mercado, also of Orlando, talked about how her grandmother went through chemical and radiation therapy for stage 4 cancer, and she and the family wanted to try everything and anything. “Had medical cannabis been available, I’m pretty sure we’d have tried that too,” she said. “So we need to make sure, and ensure, that no one gets the way of patient access to medication that makes them feel better.”

Smith and Mercado also called on the Florida Department of Health to lift rules that would not be allowed under Amendment 2, but which slow down or prevent people from using medicines derived from cannabis.

Among them, they called for Florida to:

– Waive the 90-day waiting period for patients to access the medicines after they have been certified as qualified patients.

– “Stay out of the sacred patient-doctor relationship.”

– Stop rules that prevent qualified patients from getting access.

– Protect employees who can be legally fired from their jobs for using medicines derived from cannabis in their homes.

– Expand qualified conditions to include non-malignant chronic pain.

– Open the market to allow more competition, including to minority-owned businesses.

– Allow for smokable cannabis.

Florida Supreme Court rules against Gretna track, slots expansion

A unanimous Florida Supreme Court has ruled against a North Florida racetrack seeking to add slot machines.

The 20-page decision, released Thursday, means that gambling facilities in Gadsden County’s Gretna and in seven other counties that passed local referendums allowing slots also will not be able to offer them.

In doing so, the court upheld a decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal that agreed with state gambling regulators who denied the track a slots permit.

In sum, the ruling comes as a loss for the state’s pari-mutuels and a win for gambling expansion opponents. If it had gone the other way, the decision might have led to the single biggest gambling expansion in the state.

“The good news is there will not be thousands of slot machines coming to Florida without further action by the legislature,” said John Sowinski, president of the No Casinos anti-gambling expansion group.

Sowinski also chairs Voters in Charge, a political committee trying to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2018 statewide ballot to give voters “the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling.”

Lawmakers, many of whom have bitterly complained of judicial overreach into policy, failed to agree on a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s gambling laws this Legislative Session.

*   *   *

At issue in the Gretna case was “whether local voters can authorize the operation of slot machines in counties outside of Dade and Broward.”

Statewide voters in 2004 approved a constitutional amendment legalizing slots at existing jai-alai frontons and horse and dog racetracks only in those counties and only if voters there OK’d it in referendums there.

Since then, voters in Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington counties approved slots.

But the opinion, authored by Justice Charles Canady, found that “nothing in (state gambling law) grants any authority to regulate slot machine gaming to any county.”

Specifically, the “general power of non-charter counties to ‘carry on county government’ does not constitute authorization to conduct a referendum to approve slot machine gaming,” the opinion said.

(“Charters are formal written documents that confer powers, duties, or privileges on the county,” according to the Florida Association of Counties.)

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices C. Alan Lawson, Barbara Pariente and Ricky Polston concurred in the decision. Justice Peggy A. Quince had been recused.

Oral argument in the case was last June but Lawson, appointed to the court in December to replace retired Justice James E.C. Perry, “fully participated after reviewing all of the materials including the oral argument video,” spokesman Craig Waters said.

Justice R. Fred Lewis also concurred, but wrote separately to note “the confusion in this area of the law.”

“Because slot machines are generally prohibited, Gadsden County does not have and cannot assert home rule powers as a basis to support a referendum on slot machine gambling,” he wrote.

Any other construction of the law is “misplaced,” he added.

*   *   *

The horse track, known as Creek Entertainment/Gretna, is managed and operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. Spokeswoman Sarah Bascom said they were “disappointed the Florida Supreme Court did not agree with our interpretation of the law.”

“Because of this ruling, we are now unable to create new jobs,” she said. “We are considering our options on how to proceed.”

Track lawyer Marc Dunbar, also a part owner, told justices in oral argument that the Legislature intended to allow for an expansion of slot machines in the state, saying counties were empowered under state law to decide whether to allow slots.

The track, about 30 miles west of Tallahassee, had asked the court to let it have slot machines because voters approved them in 2012.

Attorney Dan Gelber, the former House Democratic leader who represented No Casinos at argument, countered that lawmakers “would not have allowed slots but for that constitutional amendment.” He served in the House 2000-08.

“The idea that in implementing that amendment that they would, under the table, give 65 other counties that same right is sort of absurd,” he said. “If that had happened, I know a couple of my colleagues’ heads would have exploded.”

A decision the other way also likely would have broken the exclusivity to slots outside of South Florida enjoyed by the Seminole Tribe of Florida. That would have entitled the Tribe to reduce or stop paying money to the state.

“The Tribe is continuing to review the decision, but it looks like very good news for the State of Florida and for the Seminole Tribe,” spokesman Gary Bitner said.

And Stephen Lawson, spokesman for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates gambling, said the agency was “pleased that the Florida Supreme Court agreed with us on this important issue.”

“We will continue to follow the law,” he added.

Florida’s hurricane fund remains strong heading into season

The Florida fund that helps private insurers pay out claims after a hurricane continues to be in strong shape ahead of storm season.

Estimates prepared by Raymond James show the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund will have $17.6 billion available this year. This marks the second year in a row that fund has more money than it would need to pay out if storms racked the state.

The estimates are expected to be formally approved Thursday by a panel overseeing the fund.

The financial health of the fund is important because the state can impose a surcharge on most insurance policies to replenish it if the money runs out. Some critics have called the surcharge a “hurricane tax.”

The fund has grown because Florida has avoided major hurricanes since 2005.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Constitutional panel agrees to follow state budget language

The Constitution Revision Commission met on Wednesday for the first time to to go over their controversial rules while meeting in Tampa.

A rules committee first met before a public hearing, scheduled for tonight, starting with a lengthy discussion kicked off by GOP former state Sen. Don Gaetz.

The 37-member board should abide by budget language pending before Gov. Rick Scott that the commission adopt a budget, and do it with a vote of two-thirds of the board, he said.

It would also require that commission Chair Carlos Beruff receive approval from a majority of the panel before hiring employees.

“I think it’s probably not a first good step to be a half-beat off from what the Legislature has developed,” Gaetz said.

Because the governor hasn’t signed the budget (and in fact could veto it), CRC member Tim Cerio questioned whether it was appropriate to support Gaetz’s motion.

The former Senate President (2012-14) countered that if the governor vetoed the budget, he would come back and strike the language out next month.

The committee also supported a motion from former Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa to have Beruff select a vice chair to fill in for him when he is absent.

Joyner had raised that issue in an interview for the March 23 edition of Sixty Days, Florida Politics’ email that comes out during legislative sessions.

“I’m concerned about the fact that we don’t have a vice-chair,” she said. “So there’s no continuity in the event that (Beruff), for some reason, becomes incapacitated and can’t act. That affects how people feel about the integrity of the process if one person is controlling who presides and we don’t have a succession plan if he can’t function.”

Still no decision from Joe Negron on special session on pot referendum

Senate President Joe Negron has yet to decide to join House Speaker Richard Corcoran in calling for a Special Session on medical marijuana implementation, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Negron, a Stuart Republican, is still “in the process of having discussions with senators in response to the memorandum he sent last Thursday,” Katie Betta said in an email. 

Negron had sought input from fellow senators after the 2017 Legislative Session ended without a bill to guide state Health regulators on the state’s medical marijuana constitutional amendment.

An implementing bill gives guidance and instructions to state agencies on how to enforce state law.

A state law provides that the “President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, by joint proclamation duly filed with the Department of State, may convene the Legislature in special session.”

Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, last week called for a Special Session during WFLA-FM radio’s “The Morning Show with Preston Scott.”

“I do believe and support the notion that we should come back and address and finalize dealing with medical marijuana,” Corcoran told Scott. “Does that mean a special session?” Scott asked. “It would, absolutely,” Corcoran said.

Others chiming in on social media for a Special Session include Sens. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican; Dana Young, a Tampa Republican; Travis Hutson, an Elkton Republican; and Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who also penned the only “formal response” as of Friday.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham and Orlando trial attorney John Morgan have called for a session on medical marijuana, with Morgan doing so in a nearly nine-minute video on TwitterMorgan has been behind the amendment since it was first filed for 2014, when it failed to get enough votes.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons