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Black clouds loom over this year’s gambling bills

Ed. Note: A version of this story ran previously in Saturday’s “Takeaways from Tallahassee” email.


It’s long been a Capitol cliché, but there are few pronouncements on a piece of legislation as inauspicious as calling something “a heavy lift.”

Saying a bill is “a heavy, heavy lift” sounds even more portending of defeat.

Yet that’s how House Speaker Richard Corcoran referred to the omnibus gambling bills now on their way to conference. They include a new agreement for continued exclusive rights for the Seminole Tribe of Florida to offer blackjack in return for $3 billion over seven years.

“It’s got a long way to go,” the Land O’ Lakes Republican said in a press conference after Thursday’s floor session.

Generally, the House holds the line on gambling expansion; the Senate is open to some expansion, including allowing slot machines at pari-mutuels in counties that approved a slots referendum.

Having blackjack money for the upcoming $80 billion-plus state budget could mean an extra $340 million-$350 million.

“It’s a heavy lift. There’s a reason it hasn’t been passed in decades,” Corcoran said. “But this is the first time, probably that anyone can recall, where you have two bills moving … That puts them in a posture to see where a negotiation goes.

“But I would still say it’s a heavy, heavy lift … We’ll see how it unfolds.”

Another sign: Neither chamber factored gambling revenue share from the Seminole Tribe to the state into their respective budgets, he said.

“I think it’s generally considered an irresponsible budgeting practice to budget money” that you don’t know you have, Corcoran said.

Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who’s the Senate’s point man on gambling, said any gambling revenue—assuming a deal is struck—”would come in at the back end.”

The Senate passed its gambling package (SB 8) Thursday; the House Commerce Committee cleared its bill (HB 7037) later that day. It’s set to be discussed next Tuesday on the House floor.

Galvano, speaking to reporters after the Senate’s floor session, said getting both sides to ‘yes’ won’t be easy.

“I told the members here today that I couldn’t guarantee we’ll ultimately have a final resolution,” he said. The House is “interested in seeing something move …  My conversations with the Seminole Tribe have been positive.”

The Tribe had sent a letter to Corcoran, Gov. Rick Scott and Senate President Joe Negron saying “neither (bill) would satisfy the requirements of federal law nor satisfy fundamental tribal concerns” and called them “not acceptable.”

The Tribe’s concern was that it would be financially squeezed by the Legislature’s current proposals without getting enough in return. It offers blackjack at five of its seven casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tampa.

When told his warning to his colleagues “sounded ominous,” Galvano said, “I have to manage expectations,” adding the chambers were still “light years ahead of where we’ve ended in the past.”

That is, nowhere. And still in wait is a state Supreme Court decision on whether Florida dog and horse tracks outside South Florida can have slot machines. That could add additional revenue to state coffers, but would cross the Seminoles, who have slots exclusively outside South Florida.

Moreover, a Leon County circuit judge recently ruled that slot-machine looking games known as “pre-reveal” (one example is here) can’t be legally defined as slots.

The Tribe has disagreed, saying such games also violate the existing agreement, the Seminole Compact, between the Seminole and the state. That would entitle them not to pay any more slots money. Galvano said he doesn’t believe the games violate the Compact.

Still, “if we can’t get to where we have the votes in each chamber to pass, then we have to walk away,” he said.

Was Jack Latvala against Enterprise Florida before he was for it?

Sen. Jack Latvala has backed Gov. Rick Scott in his defense of Enterprise Florida—but that wasn’t always the case.

The Clearwater Republican, who now chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, had some choice words for the public-private economic development organization back in 2015.

That’s when he was chair of the Senate’s Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations subcommittee.

That’s also when the agency, which the House now is trying to eliminate, was seeking more money for its business development efforts.

“They’re asking for $85 million for ‘tools,’ ” Latvala told reporters. “I helped create Enterprise Florida. My first observation is that at that time Enterprise Florida was supposed to be a public-private partnership and all of these corporations were going to contribute.

“Well, steadily, through the years, the percentage of corporate contributions has declined and state budget allocations have increased,” he said, echoing the current argument of House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The speaker has called the group a dispenser of “corporate welfare.”

“Why do they want (more state) money when others could use it, when other communities have very worthwhile projects?” Latvala said at the time. “It’s just irresponsible.”

The entire clip is available on YouTube or watch it below:

Seminole Tribe: Judge’s slots ruling could cost state ‘multi-billions of dollars’

If it looks like a slot machine, and plays like a slot machine, it’s a slot machine, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is telling state leaders. 

An order by a Tallahassee judge, first reported by FloridaPolitics.com, declared that certain slot machine-style entertainment devices aren’t slot machines under state law.

The Tribe disagreed. It now says those games violate a deal between the Tribe and the state, known as the Seminole Compact. That could have “massive consequences costing the Tribe and the State to lose multi-billions of dollars,” according to the Tribe’s recent court filing.  

In a letter sent last Wednesday to Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Tribal Chairman Marcellus Osceola said the games were “an expansion of gaming” and a “serious violation” of the compact, which guarantees the Tribe exclusive rights to slots outside of South Florida.

If so, that would entitle the Tribe to stop paying the state a cut of its gambling revenue. So far this year, the Seminoles have paid $40 million for January and February – despite a federal judge’s ruling that the state broke another part of the deal governing blackjack exclusivity. That decision is under appeal.

Negron last week said he wanted to use the Seminoles’ money – expected to total $306 million this year – for the 2017-18 state budget. Moreover, his chamber’s gambling legislation, which includes a renewed blackjack deal, will be on the floor starting this Wednesday.

“The letter is the subject of pending litigation, (and) for that reason, President Negron does not have a comment at this time,” spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an email. A Scott spokeswoman said she would “look into it” and did not immediately comment.

Osceola wrote that the “Tribe is advised that a significant number of these games are being operated in Florida based on this decision, and that thousands of additional games are likely to be added in the near future.” Gary Bitner, Tribe spokesman, said there would be no further comment.

Earlier this month, Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled that a specific kind of game, usually called a “pre-reveal” game, was “not an illegal slot machine or gambling device.” Other states, such as North Carolina, have found pre-reveal games to be illegal gambling, however.

The court action began when agents from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) found one of the games in a Jacksonville sports bar and at least one other location, records show. The games have since been found across the northeast corner of the state.

Players must “press a ‘preview’ button before a play button can be activated,” the judge’s order explained. The outcome of the next game is always known, thus it’s not a game of skill or chance, he said. 

Two days after Osceola’s letter, the Tribe’s lawyer asked the judge to reconsider his decision, court records show. That request piggybacked on one filed by the DBPR, which regulates gambling.

Its filing says “what the player does or does not know about any given outcome is irrelevant … machines which are set to play themselves and record a certain win/loss ratio are inherently infused with chance.”

Attorney Barry Richard, who represents the Tribe, wrote in his filing: “The degree of slot machine exclusivity was an essential element of the Compact in order to obtain federal approval. In the event of an infringement on the Tribe’s exclusivity, the Tribe has the right under the compact to discontinue payments to the State.

“The offering of (pre-reveal games) and any similar gaming system to the public is an infringement on the Tribe’s right to exclusivity under the Compact and threatens to disrupt a contractual relationship between the Tribe and the State that has been highly beneficial to both parties,” he added.

Osceola, in his letter, also said: “The Tribe trusts that the State will take prompt action to remedy this violation.”

Richard Biter among dozens applying for state transportation secretary

Richard Biter, one of two unsuccessful finalists for the top job at Enterprise Florida, now has thrown in his hat to be the state’s next Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.

Biter is one of more than 80 applicants for the open position, created when former Secretary Jim Boxold resigned in January to join Tallahassee’s Capital City Consulting firm.

It would be a homecoming for Biter: He’s a former assistant secretary of the department.

But he may not be on the short list. The Florida Transportation Commission, the advisory board that will interview applicants and nominate three candidates for Gov. Rick Scott’s consideration, recently extended the application deadline to May 1.

Jay N. Trumbull, the commission’s chairman, had said the panel needed more time “to complete a robust search and conduct the interview process post-Legislative Session.”

Biter last year was a finalist for CEO of Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private economic development organization, along with Mike Finney, the former president of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Finney withdrew, choosing instead to seek a teaching job at the University of Michigan, and Scott eventually tapped Chris Hart, the president and CEO of CareerSource Florida.

Hart suddenly quit earlier this month, however, citing a lack of “common vision” with the governor.

Before serving at FDOT, Biter was a transportation consultant, according to his LinkedIn page. He also has been an administrator with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the now-defunct Interstate Commerce Commission.

Other applicants include Alexander Barr, the department’s Bicycle and Pedestrian coordinator for its Treasure Coast-South Florida district; and Phillip Gainer, its District Secretary for northwest Florida. 

Out-of-staters include Brandye Hendrickson, who was Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation under then-Gov. Mike Pence; and Brian Roper, a supervisor at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

As is often the case with high-level state openings, dozens of fringe candidates also have filed for the job, including those who list their current place of employment as “Waffle House,” “Grub Burger Bar” and even “Florida Statue University.”  

Carlos Beruff: Constitution Revision Commission won’t waste taxpayers’ money or time

The newly-formed Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) won’t spend time on changes that can’t pass at the ballot box, its chairman said Monday.

“If the public doesn’t feel overwhelmingly supportive of (a proposed amendment), then why do it?” said Carlos Beruff, the Manatee County homebuilder appointed by Gov. Rick Scott. The panel held an organizational meeting in the Capitol.

“It just doesn’t make sense (when) we have a threshold of 60 percent,” he added. “We don’t need to waste the taxpayers’ money or their time with proposals we don’t think are going to meet that.”

The 37-member panel meets every 20 years to suggest rewrites and additions to the state’s governing document, but its suggestions have to be approved by 60 percent of voters during the next statewide election.

When asked if he’ll authorize polling to know what will make the cut and what won’t, he said, “That’ll probably be part of the plan but I’m not sure.”

He quickly added with a laugh: “I’m not much on that stuff, though. I spent money on polling; I know how that works.” Beruff, a Republican, unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in last year’s primary election.

He did announce the schedule for the first of a series of public hearings for ideas for amendments: Next Wednesday in Orange County, April 6 in Miami-Dade County, and April 7 in Palm Beach County. Times and exact locations are yet to be decided, he said.

Beruff also postponed a vote on the commission’s rules, including already contentious provisions on public records and open meetings.

The First Amendment Foundation (FAF), an open government watchdog, earlier Monday asked Beruff to apply open meeting standards to any meeting of commissioners, not just meetings of three or more.

The current draft rule tracks the Legislature’s rule that two people can meet without requiring notice and availability for public attendance.

Former Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, an appointee of Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, said she was concerned there was no provision for a vice-chair.

“There’s no continuity in the event that he, for some reason, cannot act,” she said of Beruff. “That affects how people feel about the integrity of the process.”

As governor, Scott chose 15 of the 37 commissioners, and selected the chairperson. Richard Corcoran, as House Speaker, got nine picks, as did Joe Negron as head of the Senate. Chief Justice Labarga is allotted three picks. Republican Pam Bondi is automatically a member as the state’s Attorney General.

The commission has met twice before, in 1977-78 and 1997-98, but this will be the first to have been selected by a majority of Republicans, virtually ensuring it will propose more conservative changes to the state’s governing document than previous panels.

Chad Poppell quits as head of DMS

Another one bites the dust: Chad Poppell has resigned as Secretary of the Department of Management Services, the state’s real estate manager.

His resignation will be effective on March 31, Gov. Rick Scott announced on Thursday evening. Poppell has been head of DMS since 2014. 

“Chad Poppell has done an outstanding job and I want to thank him for his hard work to improve efficiency and foster innovation in state government,” Scott said in a statement. “Under his leadership, Florida has remained a leader in government efficiency and provided the critical support to our state agencies to ensure Florida families and businesses receive the services and support they need.”

The announcement did not give a reason for his departure.

“Chad has been a valued member of my team since 2013 and I am proud of the great work he has done for Florida families. I wish Chad and his family the very best in their future endeavors.”

Before becoming DMS Secretary, Poppell was chief of staff at the Department of Economic Opportunity.

From 2011-2013, he worked as the Director of Employee Services at JEA, a municipally owned electric, water, and sewer provider in Jacksonville.

Poppell also was appointed by then-Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton as Human Resources Chief for the City of Jacksonville. He received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Valdosta State University.

Poppell now joins other Scott-appointed agency heads to have exited the administration recently.

Last month, Jason Allison left as head of the state’s Agency for State Technology for a job with the Foley & Lardner law firm.

Before that, the Foley firm stole another Scott appointee: Jon Steverson, the secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.

And Jim Boxold resigned in January as Secretary of the Department of Transportation to join the governmental affairs firm Capital City Consulting.

Rick Scott rallies allies for VISIT FLORIDA

With VISIT FLORIDA chief Ken Lawson acting as hype man, Gov. Rick Scott held a rally inside the Florida Capitol to “save” the embattled tourism organization.

Scott, not typically a high-energy performer, worked up the crowd of hundreds in the building’s rotunda with the help of CFO Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. In the background, Lawson hollered, “That’s right!” and “Yessir!”

“We need to remain the tourist capital of the world,” Scott said to cheers and whistling.

Meantime, dozens of hotel and restaurant employees and others in tourism-related businesses packed the Plaza level, many holding signs of support, such as “Tourism = Tax revenue,” while others recorded on their smartphones.

“I find it so hard to comprehend that all of you needed to leave your businesses to come here to fight for what the most obvious brand of Florida is, a family-friendly tourist destination,” Putnam said to applause.

He added that many agritourism and ecotourism attractions are thriving because “VISIT FLORIDA was there to help give them a leg up.”

The House voted last week to rein in VISIT FLORIDA, a public-private partnership largely funded with taxpayers’ dollars. It acts as the state’s tourism marketing agency, subsidizing advertising and PR for the industry.

The House wants to subject it to stricter oversight and reduce its budget. Republican Speaker Richard Corcoran took aim after the agency was embroiled in controversy after striking a secret deal, later revealed to be worth as much as $1 million, for Miami rap star Pitbull to promote the state through song, video and social media.

The House also passed a bill last week to abolish the Enterprise Florida economic development organization and a host of business incentive programs.

The Senate, however, generally backs business incentives and tourism subsidies, suggesting the House effort won’t find traction there.

Supporters said the agency gave their marketing boost that they couldn’t alone achieve with their smaller budgets. Putnam urged lawmakers to stay the course, and continue to promote the state.

“As Lawton Chiles used to say, it’s a poor frog that won’t croak in his own pond,” he said.

Scott later told reporters VISIT FLORIDA “is important for jobs in our state. And people care about jobs.”

When asked if he would veto a budget that cut money for the organization, he added, “I never talk about what I’ll do at the end of a (legislative) session.”

“… I can tell you this: I’m going to fight every day for VISIT FLORIDA because it’s about people’s jobs. Look, it’s about families.”

Rick Scott stumps for economic development, tourism dollars in Tallahassee

Proponents of keeping Enterprise Florida and VISIT FLORIDA have been repeating the talking point that even Coca-Cola, king of market share, still advertises.

And so on Monday, Gov. Rick Scott kept driving home his counter-frame to House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s “corporate welfare” narrative that killing the state’s economic development organization and tourism marketing agency will kill jobs.

“Here in Tallahassee, we need to diversify the economy, we need to get more tourism, we need to get more manufacturing companies,” he said, at a business roundtable at the Danfoss Turbocor Compressors plant.

“It’s not going to happen if they shut down Enterprise Florida and if they decimate VISIT FLORIDA, so I’m going to be working every day, traveling the state fighting for jobs. This about making sure every family in this state doesn’t have the struggles mine did when I growing up.”

Scott is barnstorming against last week’s 87-28 House vote to kill Enterprise Florida and its 80-35 vote to rein in VISIT FLORIDA, both public-private partnerships that are overwhelmingly funded with taxpayers’ dollars.

But the legislation is likely to find far from a warm reception in the Senate, whose leadership generally backs business incentives and tourism subsidies. That fact didn’t daunt Scott’s enthusiasm to keep up the political battle.

When asked if he were still confident that the Senate was still on his side, Scott said, “everybody should be on our side because it’s about families’ jobs. So I’m optimistic, but look, I’m going to fight for jobs.”

At the event, he kept up the praising of those who voted against the legislation and the public shaming of those who sided with House leadership. That put him in the unusual position of giving attaboys to Tallahassee’s two Democratic lawmakers, Loranne Ausley and Ramon Alexander, and vilifying Republican Halsey Beshears of Monticello, who voted for the bills.

“I don’t how he could this,” Scott said of Beshears, as he was flanked by Enterprise Florida interim CEO Mike Grissom, VISIT FLORIDA CEO Ken Lawson and Department of Economic Opportunity director Cissy Proctor. “How do you vote against basic job creation?”

Scott also was asked about Senate proposals to tighten oversight and increase transparency of the agencies.

“There’s always things you can do better, but what you don’t do is shut it down,” Scott said.

The disagreement began when Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, threatened to sue VISIT FLORIDA last year it refused to reveal a secret deal with Miami rap superstar Pitbull to promote Florida tourism. The rapper eventually disclosed the deal himself, revealing he was set to be paid up to $1 million. This session’s bills followed suit.

Scott’s offensive continues Tuesday with a “Fighting for Florida Jobs Tourism Rally” at the Capitol.

DEP responds to House records request, defends payment of legal bills

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection on Friday night released its response to the House of Representatives’ request for documentation of the legal billing in a longstanding river water use fight against Georgia.

Interim DEP Secretary Ryan Matthews also sent a letter, saying his agency had “denied more than $3 million in expenses and hourly charges submitted by outside counsel.”

A cursory review of the records shows not only invoices for legal fees but also, for example, a $272,000 contract between DEP and the University of South Florida for oyster reef research. Another file showed a Nebraska company was paid $49,000 for “video production in support of (the) litigation.”

The 16-year long court fight centers around upstream water use from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers in Georgia. They meet at the Florida border to form the Apalachicola River, which empties into the Apalachicola Bay, on which oystermen have depended for decades for their catch.

The department had planned to ask lawmakers for an additional $13 million to pay ongoing legal bills from the still-unresolved case.

The litigation already has cost the state tens of millions of dollars, and a federal court official last month ruled in favor of Georgia by recommending against tough water consumption limits on the Peach State.

Meantime, House Speaker Richard Corcoran said his chamber wouldn’t entertain any more funding for the lawyers without a detailed audit of how DEP officials spent legal money already appropriated.

The speaker also was perturbed when former Secretary Jon Steverson quit for a job at the Foley & Lardner law firm, one of the outside law firms he approved payment to.

Corcoran tasked state Reps. Dan Raulerson, a Plant City Republican, and David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat, with looking into the billing from outside law firms. Both men are CPAs.

Interim DEP Secretary Ryan Matthews provided House general counsel Adam Tanenbaum with the records and the letter. (The records are available via this link.)

“For 26 years and under five administrations, Florida has been fighting for its fair share of water due to Georgia’s reckless water use,” Matthews said. “Our fight is to protect our communities, marine fisheries and the vital economic impact of Apalachicola Bay which supports thousands of jobs.

“Based on (the) Latham Watkins (law firm’s) expertise, the Attorney General’s Office retained them on this case and I want to thank Attorney General Pam Bondi and her team for fighting for families in Apalachicola Bay,” he added.

“As evident in the records, DEP staff carefully reviews every invoice to verify that the expenses comply with the terms of the contract with outside counsel and Florida law,” Matthews said.

“In instances where outside counsel does not comply, the expenses are denied,” he said. “In fact, since July 2015, DEP has denied more than $3 million in expenses and hourly charges submitted by outside counsel retained on this case.

“Our scrutiny of expenses also ensures compliance with Florida’s per diem and travel policies as defined in law. DEP also carefully analyzed all hourly charges to ensure they were in compliance with the contract and rejects all charges that are not previously authorized or do not fall within the contracted terms.

“DEP will fight for families and the thousands of jobs at risk in Apalachicola Bay and we are optimistic we will prevail.”

Rick Scott says ACA replacement is a work in progress

Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday that he thinks Florida would be treated unfairly under the current version of congressional Republicans’ Obamacare repeal bill.

Scott did not tell reporters he opposed the bill after meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan in Washington, D.C., though he did say the repeal bill needs to be fair for states like Florida, which did not expand Medicaid. He also said the bill needs to give autonomy to run their own Medicaid programs.

States like Florida which didn’t expand can’t get treated unfairly,” he said. He also called the current plan “a work in progress.”

The newly unveiled proposal would allow states that expanded Medicaid to keep their extra federal funds for the next few years until the program phases out in 2020. The bill would also tie Medicaid funding to the number of enrollees in each state.

States that did not expand Medicaid would get an extra $10 billion over the next five years under the bill and would also have spending cuts for safety net hospitals lifted in 2018, 2 years ahead of Medicaid expansion states.

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