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Rick Scott orders flags at half-staff for Central Florida officers

Gov. Rick Scott has ordered flags at half-staff to honor two first responders killed in Central Florida.

The governor issued the directive Thursday.

“My wife Ann and I join Floridians across the state in praying for these officers and their families during this unimaginable time,” he said. “We ask that God provide them with much needed healing, comfort and hope.”

The U.S. and Florida flags will be flown at half-staff at the County Courthouse in Orange County, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Orlando, and at Orlando City Hall from sunrise to sunset this Friday and Saturday.

Authorities said Master Sergeant Debra Clayton of the Orlando Police Department died Monday in a shootout with Markeith Loyd, who is wanted on a murder charge related to the death of his pregnant girlfriend in December.

An Orange County sheriff’s deputy, Norman Lewis, later died from a car crash while he was traveling to the scene on a motorcycle.

“Any act of violence against our heroes is cowardly and shameful and our state will not stand for it,” Scott said. “I know the entire Orlando Police Department, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are working diligently to bring justice and ensure the Orlando community is safe and secure.”

In the past year, “our officers have faced challenges like never before,” he added. “But even after the terrorist attack at Pulse nightclub last summer and the attack at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport last week, our law enforcement officers still wake up each day and choose to put their lives on the line in order to protect our state.”

The deaths of Clayton and Lewis serve “as a sobering reminder of how important it is for each one of us to take every opportunity to thank these heroes for their service and sacrifice,” Scott said.

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Bill Galvano files 112-page gambling bill for 2017

This year’s first big gambling bill has something for everyone: Lottery ticket sales at gas pumps, fantasy sports, more slot machines, and a provision to finally OK the long-delayed gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

As he promised, state Sen. Bill Galvano filed this year’s bill (SB 8) on Thursday afternoon, coming in at 112 pages – with a 16-page summary separately provided.

One notable highlight: It would expand blackjack from just the state’s Seminole casinos to South Florida’s pari-mutuels, including Pompano Park.

Coincidentally, the legislation came the same day that Atlantic City’s casinos posted “their first revenue increase in a decade,” according to The Associated Press, helped largely by internet gambling. New Jersey casinos “won $2.6 billion from gamblers in 2016, an increase of 1.5 percent from a year earlier.”

No Casinos, the state’s anti-gambling expansion organization, tweeted its opposition Thursday night.

“This bill massively expands gambling throughout Florida by legalizing new forms of gambling at tribal facilities, and legalizing slot machines outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties, allowing for two new casinos in South Florida and expanding blackjack,” the group said. “…We will vigorously oppose this bill and urge legislators to stop Florida from becoming the next Atlantic City.”

Galvano, a Bradenton Republican expected to be Senate President in 2018-20, called his bill “an important step in the development of a comprehensive, statewide approach to reforming current gaming laws.”

“This legislation in large part builds upon Senate work that has taken place over the last several years,” he said in a statement.

“My goal has been to address all aspects of gaming in a comprehensive manner that balances the interests of an industry that has contributed to Florida’s economy for nearly a hundred years, our ongoing revenue-sharing agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and the authority of local voters, while maximizing revenues to the state.”

To avoid complaints that the measure represents an expansion of gambling, Galvano – an attorney – included provisions to pare down the number of state gambling licenses, for instance.

The changes to gambling law “represent a myriad of ideas advocated by various Senators and address industry concerns regarding antiquated and ambiguous provisions of current law,” he added. “The bill balances the will of the voters who have authorized additional games and locations with a retraction of gaming permits across the state.”

State Rep. Mike La Rosa, the St. Cloud Republican who chairs the House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee, earlier Thursday had told reporters he hadn’t seen Galvano’s bill.

But he hoped “it would be the best deal for the citizens of the state of Florida, and we’ll see what happens,” La Rosa said.

In an email, spokesman Gary Bitner said “the Seminole Tribe prefers to carefully review the bill before commenting.” Expanded gambling is a condition for the tribe to stop sharing revenue from its casinos.

Galvano admitted “further negotiations to reach a new agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida are necessary … While this legislation represents an important step, there is still a great deal of work to be done.”

A great deal of work is already in the bill, however. In order, the bill would:

Allow lottery tickets at “point-of sale” terminals – This could include customers could buying lottery tickets at the gas pump, an idea proposed before.

Critics had worried about minors, lower-income Floridians and compulsive gamblers having easier access to tickets. Galvano’s measure restricts sales to minors and wouldn’t allow games to use “slot machine or casino game themes.”

Approve a new Seminole Compact – Gov. Rick Scott and tribal representatives agreed on a new deal for continued rights to blackjack in exchange for $3 billion over seven years. But that agreement couldn’t get to either floor for a vote last Legislative Session.

This year’s bill would ratify the new agreement – with conditions. The tribe must agree that all ongoing legal actions over the agreement will be dropped, and accept “revised exceptions from exclusivity” on slot machines and certain card games now being offered at pari-mutuel facilities with card rooms.

But the tribe would get craps, roulette, and could offer blackjack at all its casinos in the state.

Make clear that fantasy sports play is legal in Florida – The bill would “find that fantasy contests … involve the skill of contest participants,” and thus aren’t games of chance, i.e. gambling.

It sets up an “Office of Amusements” to regulate fantasy contests in the state, similar to Senate President Joe Negron‘s measure last year.

That means sites like DraftKings and FanDuel, now seeking federal approval of a merger, would have to have a state license and contract for independent audits.

Provide for ‘decoupling’ at horse and dog tracks – Under the bill, the state would no longer require dog and horse tracks to run live races if they wish to offer other gambling, such as slots or cards. The move is known as decoupling.

Pari-mutuels say they want decoupling because the audience for dog and horse races – and thus the money bet on them – continues to decline. But horse and dog interests say it will kill their industry.

The bill “would change Brand Florida to Brand Mississippi, would cost over 3,000 Florida families their small businesses and put over 8,000 beautiful greyhounds at risk,” said Jack Cory, spokesman for the Florida Greyhound Association.

Establish a pari-mutuel permit reduction program – It would authorize the state to buy back “and cancel active pari-mutuel permits.” The money would come out of the revenue share payments from the Seminoles, up to $20 million.

A pre-condition of a sale could be something “most likely to reduce gaming in Florida.”

Expand the availability of slot machines – The legislation amends the definition of “eligible facility” so that “any licensed pari-mutuel facility” could get slots.

But the tracks must be in a county where voters OK’d slots by referendum, such as Brevard, Duval and Palm Beach, and have “conducted a full schedule of live racing for two consecutive years.”

The bill could also allow for one extra slot machine license each in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Expands blackjack beyond Seminole casinos – It OKs blackjack in South Florida pari-mutuels, but at no more than 25 tables per facility.

Wagers may not exceed $100 for each initial two card wager,” the summary says. “Each pari-mutuel permitholder offering banked blackjack must pay a tax to the state of 25 percent of the blackjack operator’s monthly gross receipts.”

Among other provisions, the legislation reduces the state slot machine tax from 35 percent to 25 percent, would allow slots and cards to be played 24 hours a day, and let “all cardroom operators … offer designated player games.”

In banked card games, players bet against the “house,” or the casino, and not each other. In traditional poker, people play against each other for a pot of money. Designated-player games are a hybrid, where the bank is supposed to revolve among the players.

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Ratings agency warns in brief against ‘dramatic expansion’ of Sunshine Law

An insurance organization that proposes workers’ compensation coverage rates in Florida defended itself in pleadings to a state appeals court this week, seeking to overturn a lower court ruling that it had violated open-government laws.

Attorneys for the National Council on Compensation Insurance, or NCCI, submitted their arguments in a brief filed Wednesday with the 1st District Court of Appeal. The state office of Insurance Regulation is also a party to the suit, filed by Miami workers’ compensation attorney James Fee.

“The trial court’s order is flawed in numerous respects, fails to follow decades of binding precedent, ignores the plain language of relevant Florida statutes, and makes factual findings that lack record support and are directly contrary to the uncontradicted evidence,” the brief says.

“Florida’s Sunshine Law applies only to boards or commissions of governmental entities,” the document says. “NCCI is a private corporation, not a governmental entity, and no governmental entity has delegated the performance of its public, rate approval purpose to NCCI.”

Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers ruled in December that NCCI and the insurance office had violated the Sunshine Law in formulating a 14.5 percent in workers’ compensation premiums that will take effect through the end of this year.

Gievers pointed to statutory language requiring state-sanctioned rating agencies, like NCCI, to conduct their business in the sunshine. NCCI, she said, had been obligated to open its internal committee work on the rate to the public, as well as relevant documents.

The 1st DCA allowed the rate to begin to take effect pending the outcome of the appeal.

In its brief, NCCI argued that it lacks the sort of committee contemplated in the law. It once maintained such a panel, the summary says, comprising of representatives of Florida insurance companies. But it dropped the board in 1991 over antitrust concerns.

“Undisputed record evidence demonstrates that NCCI does not now, and did not at any time relevant to this proceeding, have a committee with responsibility for Florida workers’ compensation insurance rates,” the brief says.

Instead, a single employee — Jay Rosen, NCCI’s lead actuary for Florida — was the sole “decision-making authority” for the filing, although he worked on it with his staff.

He submitted his findings to peer review within the organization and to employees who would explain it to state regulators.

The brief says NCCI posted on its website, in advance of regulatory hearings, “hundreds of pages of documents” that the organization relied upon.

“The OIR’s process allowed for significant public participation during the hearing, as well as before and after. The OIR received substantial input from interested stakeholders and the public, including persons in favor of, and opposed to, NCCI’s filing.”

Ultimately, regulators approved a smaller rate hike than NCCI had proposed.

“If allowed to stand, the trial court’s order will mark a dramatic expansion of the requirements of Florida’s Sunshine and Public Records Laws, as well as an expansion of (the insurance code) beyond their plain language, in violation of clear binding precedent,” the NCCI brief says.

“Any such expansion would greatly inhibit the ability of private entities, as well as government entities, to conduct business in Florida.”

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Florida Chamber head still bullish on incentives (with an explanation)

The head of the Florida Chamber of Commerce Thursday defended the state’s handout of economic incentives, but said they were only ever meant to stoke job creation in a targeted way.

“In very, very limited cases, incentives are in play,” said Mark Wilson, the organization’s president and CEO. “We shouldn’t be using incentives for every job we create. In fact, they should rarely be used.”

Wilson and others, including dozens of former and current lawmakers, spoke at a press conference in the Capitol.

The organization rolled out its 2017 Competitiveness Agenda, “a blueprint of legislative priorities built on jobs, growth and opportunity for Florida families and small businesses.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Americans for Prosperity-Florida, a free market advocacy organization, have inveighed against them as “corporate welfare.”

In questions and answers after the press conference, Wilson explained incentives are best used for targeted industries, such as advanced manufacturing and life sciences.

“When we can compete for those kinds of high-skill, high-wage jobs … in those very limited cases, incentives make sense,” he said. “Incentives and marketing dollars are incredibly important and when they’re used, they’re the difference maker.”

Corcoran has said, however, he expects requests for taxpayer-financed economic incentives to move through his chamber despite his personal objections to them.

This year, Gov. Rick Scott is requesting $85 million in incentives for a broad range of business deals to attract businesses to Florida.

The governor had last year proposed a “Florida Enterprise Fund” of $250 million for business incentives, a proposal that didn’t get funded in the 2016-17 state budget.

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Lawmakers get ready for Seminole Compact, gambling debate

The chair of the House’s gambling policy panel Thursday made clear what the elephant in the committee room would be this legislative session.

“Everything we do is connected to this gaming compact,” said state Rep. Mike La Rosa, referring to the pending renewal of an agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. 

Indeed, the Legislature’s real work on gambling won’t start till the Senate files its gambling legislation for 2017, expected later today (Thursday).

La Rosa, a St. Cloud Republican, and Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee members heard from legislative economist Amy Baker and Department of Business and Professional Regulation Deputy Secretary Jonathan Zachem, the state’s top gambling regulator, and Jason Maine, its general counsel.

Maine mentioned that the state’s deadline to appeal a federal court ruling on Indian gambling is next week, but didn’t say what the state would do. 

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in November that the tribe can continue to offer blackjack and other “banked card games” to its Hard Rock Casino customers in the state.

Hinkle had said the state had broken an exclusivity deal with the tribe, part of what’s called the 2010 Seminole Compact, allowing it to keep its blackjack tables until 2030 even though the blackjack provision expired in 2015.

Also in the mix is a Supreme Court case over whether a Gadsden County race track can offer slot machines because voters previously approved them there.

If the court rules in Gretna Racing’s favor, it could open the door for slots to be added in other counties where voters OK’d a local slots referendum.

But if slots are expanded, it would allow the Seminoles to reduce the gambling revenue they’re required to share with the state.

State Rep. Tom Goodson, a Rockledge Republican, asked Zachem whether the state’s tax on slots might make up any lost revenue from the tribe. Zachem answered – essentially – that he didn’t know.

“It’s not a clear-cut, thumbs up or thumbs down,” he said.

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Philip Levine announces final term as Miami Beach mayor, to launch statewide listening tour

Philip Levine will not be seeking another term as mayor of Miami Beach.

In a video “state of the city” address released Thursday, Levine talked about how he “rolled up his sleeves and got to work” on such issues as sea level rise, traffic congestion, the Zika virus and lower property taxes.

With that, Levine adds that this will be his last term as mayor.

“Now I look forward to ways of how best to serve my community and my state,” he says in the nearly 3-minute video. “How to make Florida a 21st-century leader in the world economy.”

Levine, an entrepreneur in the cruise industry and media, was first elected to office in 2013. As a multimillionaire, many insiders speculate Levine — as a popular South Florida municipal leader — would possibly seek higher office.

Levine adviser Christian Ulvert says: “Over the coming months, Mayor Levine will travel across Florida to listen to Floridians on how best to serve the state he loves. He will be making a final decision on his plans for continued public service in the spring.”

The video is also available on YouTube:

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TCC serves up coffee, corporate welfare, and confidentiality

At Tallahassee Community College (TCC), they’re serving up a venti cup of corporate welfare with a side order of unnecessary and possibly illegal confidentiality.

The school is shelling out $500K in “unrestricted funds” to peddle coffee — more specifically, Starbucks coffee — at its downtown “Center for Innovation” located just spitting distance from the state Capitol.

TCC’s stated goals include providing students with “hands-on entrepreneurial experience.” You’d think that Starbucks never hired college kids — or high school kids — without a subsidy from their mommies, daddies and college presidents.

TCC began brewing this exercise in innovation and job creation in 2015 when it tried, and failed, to persuade three local coffeehouse proprietors that there was a pony of a business plan inside its under-trafficked downtown location.

The bean counters and bean roasters at Redeye, Lucky Goat and Catalina Café saw only a pile of horse feathers. In an impressive exercise in graciousness, diplomacy and understatement, Lucky Goat’s Ben Pautsch told the Democrat, “The timing and economics didn’t make sense for us as a local business.”

Maybe it would have made sense if the local coffee guys had the kind of high-powered negotiators available to multi-billion dollar players like Starbucks. The Colossus of Caffeine talked TCC into a “confidential nondisclosure agreement” which precludes release of details of its discussion with Starbucks. That’s just as well for House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s blood pressure, considering what the parties are not embarrassed to disclose. In addition to picking up the $488,000 construction tab, TCC paid a $30,000 licensing fee and will be giving Starbucks 7 percent a month off the top once the place opens.

For regular people, a handcrafted mocha choca latte ya ya Creole Lady Marmalade skinny Frappuccino is a very occasional luxury, if that. For TCC trustees, it’s a good reason to raid the stash of “non-restricted money which can be used for non-instructional services.”

Tallahassee is full of local businesses that could use a $500K transfusion. TCC is full of teachers who could use a raise, and students who could use gas money. What TCC trustees could use is better judgment about how they spend the slush funds.

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John Rutherford recovering from ‘acute digestive flare-up’, not cardiac episode

Congressman John Rutherford, the first-term Jacksonville Republican who had a medical emergency in Washington Wednesday, is “on his way to a full and swift recovery,” his chief of staff said.

Notably: contrary to much reporting, Rutherford did not suffer a heart attack.

Kelly Simpson, Congressman Rutherford’s Chief of Staff, said, “Congressman Rutherford is recuperating at a local hospital on his way to a full and swift recovery.”

“On Wednesday evening, Congressman Rutherford experienced significant discomfort while just outside the House Chamber.  Mr. Rutherford received medical attention and treatment in the Capitol before being transported to a local hospital for further evaluation.  After ruling out more serious concerns, testing showed that he is experiencing an acute digestive flare up that is generating the discomfort,” Simpson said.

“He did not suffer a heart attack as widely reported.  In fact,” Simpson added, “doctors are happy to report that all of his vitals look great.  While he will briefly remain in the hospital to treat the inflammation, the Congressman’s care providers expect that he will be back to full strength in little time.  John and his family are so grateful for the outpouring of prayers and support from friends and neighbors in Northeast Florida and colleagues here in Washington, and they salute the physicians, EMTs, and staff for their exceptional response.”

The 64-year-old, elected in November, had collapsed in the House of Representatives, according to reports.

The former Jacksonville sheriff was then “wheeled out of the House chamber on a stretcher to a nearby elevator and taken to the hospital. He appeared to be receiving oxygen through a mask,” The Hill reported.

Rutherford’s north Florida colleague, Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, offered a statement.

“My thought and prayers are with John and Patricia Rutherford during this time, as he deals with this very difficult health challenge,” Lawson said. “John is a good friend and colleague.

“During the past few weeks, we had been discussing issues we could work on together for our community,” he added. “I ask the people of Florida to join me in praying for John and his full recovery.”

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Treadwell Nursery hires Gunster lobbyists Joanna Lee Clary Bonafanti and J. Larry Williams

Treadwell Nursery appears to be sticking with Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart.

Joanna Lee Clary Bonafanti and J. Larry Williams registered with the state to lobby the Florida Legislature on behalf of the Central Florida nursery on Dec. 13. The nursery, which was one of several applicants seeking a permit to grow and distribute medical marijuana, enlisted the help of two other Gunster team members earlier in 2016.

State records show Derek Bruce and Cameron Yarbrough registered to lobby the Legislature on the nursery’s behalf in August and July respectively. In October 2016, the nursery also enlisted the help of Jeffrey Sharkey and Taylor Patrick Biehl with Capitol Alliance Group.

In April, Treadwell Nursery filed a petition for formal administrative hearings in response to the Department of Health’s decision to approve San Felasco Nurseries as a northeast Florida dispensing organization.

The nursery challenged how the Department of Health responded to a new state law, saying it had no criteria or timing outlined about how and when it would award additional licenses.

Treadwell Nursery, a more than 40-year-old family owned nursery in Central Florida, was one of eight nurseries in the central region to apply to be a dispensing organization. The nursery lost out to Knox Nursery. A second nursery in the region, San Felasco Nursery, won its administrative challenge and was eventually issued a licenses.

The fight over who can grow and distribute medical marijuana will surely heat up in the coming months, as state lawmakers and health department officials begin to craft rules and implement the medical marijuana constitutional amendment, which went into effect on Jan. 3.

The new law allows people with debilitating medical conditions to use higher strength medical marijuana if recommended by a licensed physician. According to the Associated Press, there are nearly 1,500 patients in the state registry and about 340 physicians have registered.

The industry is also expected to experience significant growth in the coming years. A recent report from New Frontier Data and Arcview Market Research showed Florida’s market will grow to $1.6 billion by 2020 at a compound annual growth rate of 140 percent. The report notes that the Sunshine State could make up 14 percent of the medical marijuana market by 2020.

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House panel begins discussions about economic incentives

A Florida House subcommittee took its first stab at addressing economic incentives during a panel discussion Wednesday.

While the two-hour House Careers & Competition Subcommittee meeting gave experts a chance to weigh-in on economic incentives, the crux of the discussion centered around a single question from Rep. Halsey Beshears, the committee’s chairman.

Beshears asked the panel — which included Chris Hart IV, president and CEO of Enterprise Florida; Cissy Proctor, the executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Development; and Fatima Perez, the regional manager of state government affairs for Koch Companies Public Sector — why the House should, or shouldn’t, modify the current economic incentive policies. The response? Well, that was mixed.

“Economic development does not happen without an investment,” said Proctor. “We believe in a strong economic development package, and we have to have (incentives).”

The House blocked an effort in 2016 to create a $250 million business incentive fund under Enterprise Florida. And House Republicans appear to be the poised to do the same in 2017.

Led by Speaker Richard Corcoran, the Florida House appears poised to oppose economic incentive proposals. Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican, has derided Enterprise Florida as a dispenser of “corporate welfare” and has vowed to lead the effort  to end taxpayer funding to the organization.

“All of the members here, we’ve heard the Speaker passionately argue against corporate welfare and we want to get a better handle on it,” said Beshears, a Monticello Republican, who went on to say the House is having discussions to figure out how to move forward.

Perez said her company supports ending “corporate welfare.” And that should come as no surprise to capital watchers. Americans for Prosperity-Florida, which led the effort against economic incentives last year, is backed by the Koch brothers.

“While Florida lawmakers are continuing to look at this, we believe there is plenty of room for improvement,” she said.

But supporters said incentives are just one tool in the toolbox, and are only one part of the discussion state and local officials have with companies looking to move to Florida.

“They are not an entitlement, (but) they tip the scale in our favor” said Kelly Smallridge, the president and CEO of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County. “Incentives are only one policy discussion.”

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