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Enterprise Florida business incentives

Jose Javier Rodriguez files Enterprise Florida reform legislation

Enterprise Florida (EFI) would have to hire outside auditors “to verify compliance” of businesses getting incentive money under legislation filed Tuesday.

Jose Javier Rodriguez

New state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami-Dade Democrat, filed the bill (SB 216) on the state’s public-private economic development organization.

The legislation, which does not yet have a House companion, would require the organization to then “publish on its website the results of each audit performed by the independent third party within 48 hours after receiving the results,” it says.

The bill could be the first of many times the beleaguered organization stares down a legislative gun this year.

Last session, Gov. Rick Scott‘s attempt to create a $250 million business incentive fund under EFI stalled and died.

His ongoing support of incentives puts him at odds with House leadership, especially Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has derided Enterprise Florida as a dispenser of “corporate welfare.” Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, has said he’ll lead an effort to end taxpayer funding to the organization.

Rodriguez, a former House member, mostly agrees.

“I think the public has largely been fleeced – and I guess ‘fleeced’ is a strong word – but if these public-private partnerships really do work, we deserve to know that they work and how,” he said in a phone interview. “Over the years, hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed from taxpayers into private hands, and that money has been more about corporate welfare than true economic development.”

In September, the Republican Scott announced he would include $85 million in his 2016-17 budget for Enterprise Florida for economic incentives. But he added he plans to push for legislation to restructure the agency.

Last month, Chris Hart IV, a former state lawmaker and president and CEO of CareerSource Florida, was tapped to take over the CEO role at Enterprise Florida. He starts Jan. 3.

Hart replaces Bill Johnson, who left in June after questions over his hiring and expenses.

Scott and the EFI board have since agreed to streamline operations of the 20-year-old agency, including eliminating jobs, closing international offices, and canceling some contracts with outside consultants.

Among other things, Rodriguez’s bill would make EFI’s head “subject to confirmation by the Senate” and pushes it to disclose more information on the “return on investment” from its economic development programs.

The bill would mandate deals to “be approved by a two-thirds vote of the (agency’s) entire board of directors” if the company has business relations with a board member. That member wouldn’t be allowed to vote.

It would ensure that Enterprise Florida’s “state operational funding” isn’t greater than its “private sector support.” And its employee bonuses would have to be based on a “goal or result (that is) quantifiable, measurable, and verifiable.”

EFI spokesman Nathan Edwards said agency officials will review all legislation that affects the organization and “looks forward to working with the Legislature.”

Southwest Florida correspondent Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster contributed to this post. 

Rick Scott hands Pam Bondi complaint to new prosecutor

Gov. Rick Scott has assigned a complaint filed against Attorney General Pam Bondi to a prosecutor in southwest Florida.

The complaint stems from scrutiny this year over a $25,000 campaign contribution Bondi received from President-elect Donald Trump in 2013.

Bondi asked for the donation around the same time her office was being asked about a New York investigation of alleged fraud at Trump University.

A Massachusetts attorney filed numerous complaints against Bondi, including one that asked State Attorney Mark Ober to investigate Trump’s donation.

Ober asked Scott in September to appoint a different prosecutor because Bondi used to work for him.

Scott assigned the case Friday to State Attorney Stephen Russell, who has one year to decide whether the complaint has any merit.

After Asay decision, anti-death penalty advocates call for commutations

The state’s leading death penalty opposition group is calling for more than 200 Florida death row inmates to have their sentences reduced to life imprisonment.

Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP) says a Florida Supreme Court decision on convicted killer Mark Asay out Thursday means that many are “entitled to be resentenced.”

The court determined that this year’s U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Hurst v. Florida, requiring Florida juries—not judges—”to (determine) the facts necessary to sentence a defendant to death” does not apply retroactively to Asay and many others.

But the opinion can be retroactive for certain death-sentenced inmates whose “cases were not final” when another related U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Ring v. Arizona, came out in 2002.

That’s when the court first said juries alone must decide on “aggravating factors” for the death penalty. As of Friday, there were 384 convicts facing capital punishment in Florida.

Resentencing efforts could cost Florida taxpayers more than $100 million, said Mark Elliott, FADP’s executive director, in a statement.

“Florida taxpayers could spend more than $500,000 for each complex death sentencing phase that may or may not result in a sentence of death,” he said.

“Commuting these death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole would save many millions of critically needed criminal justice dollars,” Elliott added. “These funds could be reallocated to hire and train more law enforcement officers and better protect those who protect us.

“Now is the time to be both tough on crime and smart with taxpayer dollars.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott said the governor’s lawyers would review the ruling but did not immediately indicate when executions will resume.

The last person put to death in Florida was Oscar Ray Bolin Jr. in January. Scott holds the record for presiding over the most executions as Florida governor – 23 – since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Department of Corrections.

Havana Cuba

Rick Scott to Raul Castro: Bring “absolute freedom and democracy to Cuba”

Gov. Rick Scott is telling Cuban President Raul Castro to bring “absolute freedom and democracy to Cuba,” in a letter released Wednesday morning.

The letter, in English and Spanish, was delivered to Cuban ambassador Jose Ramon Cabanas Rodriguez in Washington.


Scott tells Castro, whom he addresses as “Mr. Castro,” that “following the death of your brother Fidel, the streets of Miami were packed with people celebrating.”

Castro is brother of Fidel Castro, died Nov. 25 at the age of 90, who was dictator of the island nation after overthrowing Fulgencio Batista‘s government in January 1959. He handed over power to brother Raul in 2008.

“The celebration represented the hope for an end to the decades of torture, repression, incarceration and death that you and your brother have caused the people of Cuba,” Scott wrote.

“While many are hopeful for the future of Cuba, it is thus far clear that nothing has changed,” he said. “Like your brother, you are known for firing squads and imprisonment of those who oppose you. You have said that you plan on retiring in 2018, but the leadership that you have picked to come after you is designed to keep your oppression intact, and to keep your people trapped.”

R. Castro

“… My prayer for you and the Cuban people is that you listen to Pope Francis and focus on bringing absolute freedom and democracy to Cuba,” the governor wrote. “I pray that you open Cuba to freedom of the press and religion; release all political prisoners; provide unfettered access to the internet; allow ownership of land; provide reparations to those whose property was confiscated; bring all Cuban military home and allow for free and fair elections with international supervision.

“… Or, you can continue on the other path. This path is best characterized by oppression, tyranny, wrongful imprisonment, torture, and murder. This is the path that hates freedom, the path that does not trust every man and woman to make their own decisions, the path that opposes all those who honor and worship God.

“… I have no doubt that the people of Florida stand ready to flood Cuba with prosperity,” Scott added. “No one thinks you will choose the way of freedom, the way of democracy, the way of peace. People will mock this letter and call it naïve. But, for the sake of the Cuban people, I pray change will come.”

The full letter in English is here, and in Spanish here.

Seminole Tribe pays state nearly $20M in gambling money

The Seminole Tribe of Florida has paid the state nearly $20 million this month in gambling revenue share, according to public records released Tuesday.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation‘s “licensing and revenue intake system” shows two deposits of $9.75 million were made last Thursday. The agency regulates gambling in the state.

That intake system is limited to single deposits of no more than $10 million, DBPR spokesman Stephen Lawson explained, so the $19.5 million payment had to be split in two. The money will go into the state’s General Revenue Fund, Lawson previously said.

The Tribe is seeking to extend a “compact” with the state to exclusively offer blackjack in return for a cut of that revenue, even though a federal judge ruled the state broke the original deal and the tribe can offer “banked card games” through 2030.

The Seminoles offer blackjack at five of their seven casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa.

“As further evidence of its positive approach, the Tribe is continuing to make monthly payments to the state that will total $306 million this year,” spokesman Gary Bitner told earlier this month.

The original 2010 deal actually wound up being worth more than $200 million per year in revenue share to state coffers. Blackjack and other gambling, including slots, has brought in billions for the tribe.

A renewed blackjack agreement struck by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year promised $3 billion over seven years in revenue share to the state, but it failed to gain approval from lawmakers.

Both House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron say they support bringing that deal back before lawmakers in the 2017 Legislative Session.

But while Corcoran says there must be a reduction in overall gambling in the state, Negron says he’s OK with expanding gambling opportunities.

Rick Scott picks C. Alan Lawson for Supreme Court

Conservative appellate judge C. Alan Lawson will become the next Florida Supreme Court justice, Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday morning.


Lawson, who will replace retiring Justice James E.C. Perry, is chief judge of the state’s 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach. Perry’s retirement is effective Dec. 30; Lawson’s first day is the 31st.

“He’s got a 20-year track record, he’s been a public servant, he clearly believes in following the rule of law,” Scott said, standing next to Lawson – his first ever Supreme Court pick – and his family. “He is going to do a good job … and he’s not going to legislate from the bench.” (Video of announcement here.)

Lawson now makes a third conservative vote on a seven-member state Supreme Court that often splits 5-2 on matters of public policy. To date, Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston have been the court’s most reliable conservative voices.

In a statement, both men “applaud(ed)” the appointment, calling Lawson “a true leader (who) brings strong conservative principles” to the court.

Conservative lawmakers and business interests have long derided the court – specifically its liberal-leaning triumvirate of Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy A. Quince and R. Fred Lewis – for “judicial overreach,” saying the court often breached the separation of powers between the lawmaking and judicial branches.

Recently, they denounced decisions chipping away at protections afforded business owners in the state’s workers’ compensation law, striking down caps on attorney fees and ordering disability benefits extended for injured workers.

The state’s highest court also becomes more white; Perry is black. With his departure, Quince is the now the lone African American on the court.

This isn’t Lawson’s first attempt to join the court. Perry, whom Lawson is replacing, beat him in 2009 for the opening created by the retirement of Justice Charles T. Wells.

Lawson appeared with his wife Julie and son Caleb, as well as his father and mother, Charles and Velma Lawson, sister Laurie Lawson Cox and brother-in-law Thomas Cox.

Lawson, whom Scott had first mistakenly introduced as “Lanson,” told reporters that the judiciary’s mandate to interpret laws “came with a promise, that it would be exercised with judicial restraint.”

“There are a lot of precedents from the Florida Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court that details what judicial restraint means and is not supposed to mean,” he added. Many critics have noted that “judges and courts have moved away from what is clearly laid out … that says, ‘this is what courts are supposed to do.’ “

When asked if he could name decisions in which judges have “overreached,” he said, “No. It’s not ethical for judges to comment on issues that could come before the Supreme Court.”

Lawson was then backed by “religious conservatives and the National Rifle Association,” wrote politics reporter William March in a February 2009 story for the now-defunct Tampa Tribune, while Perry was favored by “liberal groups and black leaders.” Those backers were largely silent this time around.

The appointment created a quandary for then-GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, March wrote, “pit(ting) conservatives in his own party (then Republican) against a minority community Crist is courting.” He eventually picked Perry, who joined the court the next month.

Lawson, born in Lakeland, grew up in Tallahassee. He graduated from Tallahassee Community College and later Clemson University with a degree in Parks, Recreation & Tourism Management, according to his online bio. He got his law degree from Florida State University in 1987.

He was in private practice for several years before becoming an assistant county attorney in Orange County and then a circuit judge in 2002.

Lawson also was a Florida Bar exam question writer and grader. He moved to the 5th District appellate bench in 2006. Both his judicial appointments were by Republican former Gov. Jeb Bush.

In 2012, he was a member of a three-judge appeals panel that considered a custody battle between two women who were formerly in a relationship.

The majority said both women have parental rights, but Lawson wrote “a blistering dissent,” in which he said a child can have only one mother, according to the Associated Press.

The court shouldn’t recognize two mothers “unless we are also willing to invalidate laws prohibiting same-sex marriage, bigamy, polygamy, or adult incestuous relationships on the same basis,” Lawson said. In a 4-3 opinion, the state Supreme Court later said the non-birth mother could seek shared custody.

Scott picked Lawson over two other conservative finalists for the post: Wendy W. Berger, another judge on the 5th District Court of Appeal, and Dan Gerber, an Orlando civil-trial defense attorney.

Scott “had three excellent candidates to consider,” Florida Bar President William J. Schifino Jr. said in a statement.

“I applaud the governor, the Judicial Nominating Commission and the process, and very much look forward to working with soon-to-be Justice Lawson in the future,” Schifino said. “He has demonstrated himself to be an excellent jurist and someone who has the best interests of all Floridians at heart.”

Business interests also commended the pick.

William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, a group created by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said Lawson’s appointment is a “reaffirmation of our system of checks and balances between the three branches of government.”

Scott “based his decision on the precepts that judges should strictly adhere to the rule of law,” he said in an email. The governor’s “thoughtful choice in this solemn duty will have a profoundly positive impact on Florida for a long time.”

Tom Feeney, CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, added that his members have been “anxious for the day that a majority of the Florida Supreme Court can restore respect for the constitutional separation of powers, including legitimate powers of the popularly elected members of the legislative and executive branches.”

“If the Florida Supreme Court will exercise only those legitimate judicial powers, such as deciding controversies of fact and enforcing the language of our duly enacted statutes and Constitution, as opposed to arbitrarily injecting their personal and political preferences, a constitutional balance can be restored.”

Scott could have the opportunity himself to put a conservative majority on the bench. Pariente, Quince and Lewis face mandatory retirement in early 2019, and Scott said he plans to replace them before he leaves office that January.

“I will appoint three more justices the morning I finish my term,” he said.

House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz quickly reacted, saying she was “deeply troubled” by Scott’s position.

“The Supreme Court is no place for political gamesmanship,” she said in a statement. “If Gov. Scott follows through on this assertion, he risks setting off a contentious legal battle with his successor that would mar the transition process and throw our state’s highest court into uncertainty.

“The governor should look to the example set by Govs. Buddy MacKay and Jeb Bush in 1998 and do the right thing on behalf of Floridians,” she added, referring to their joint appointment of Quince.

Federal judge asked to block part of Florida abortion law

A federal judge is being asked to block additional parts of a contentious Florida abortion law.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed a lawsuit late Monday on behalf of several ministers, rabbis and organizations that provide abortion counseling services to women.

The lawsuit contends that the law violates constitutional rights by requiring groups to register with the state and pay a fee if they advise or help women seek abortions. The lawsuit also challenges a provision requiring groups to tell women about alternatives to abortion.

Legislators passed the sweeping abortion measure during their 2016 session. A federal judge already blocked two parts of the law this summer, and the administration of Gov. Rick Scott didn’t appeal the decision. One part of the law required increased abortion clinic inspections.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Where’s the Seminoles’ gambling money? State’s not clear

A state agency that reports to Gov. Rick Scott isn’t clear on the location of millions of dollars the Seminole Tribe says it’s still ponying up from its gambling operations.

A spokesman for the tribe last week said they have a “continuing desire to finalize a new gaming (agreement) with the state of Florida” that includes continued exclusive rights to offer blackjack.

“As further evidence of its positive approach, the Tribe is continuing to make monthly payments to the state that will total $306 million this year,” Gary Bitner said.

What wasn’t clear was what the state was doing with that money.

A recent request for explanation to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), which regulates gambling, was responded to with a chart showing past payments and projected future payments.

(When asked whether those payments would end if no new agreement is approved this year, Bitner said, “As has been noted many times, it is the Tribe’s policy to not discuss the specific content of its compact negotiations with the state.”)

Those payments “are made to the Department of Revenue,” according to a DBPR statement, “which should be able to provide more information about the types of accounts those funds are deposited into.”

Revenue, however, responded with puzzlement.

“The Florida Department of Revenue does not post, reconcile or distribute Indian gaming revenues shared with the State of Florida under the Compact,” its statement said.

In fact, state law “specifies that the (official) compliance agency (DBPR’s Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering) is designated as the state agency having the authority to carry out the state’s oversight responsibilities under the Compact,” the statement added.

“They are the best resource on this,” it said.

A request for clarification to the Governor’s Office is pending.

Personnel note: Developer Sydney Kitson named to universities board

Sydney Kitson, a former professional football player turned developer, has secured a one-month appointment to the Board of Governors of Florida’s State University System.

Gov. Rick Scott announced the appointment Thursday, subject to Senate confirmation.

Kitson will complete what’s left of former governor Morteza “Mori” Hosseini’s term. Hosseini stepped down in March to become a trustee of the University of Florida.

The term ends on Jan. 6. Lauren Schenone, an aide in the governor’s press office, could not say what Scott’s plans are for the seat after that date.

Kitson is chief executive officer of Kitson & Partners in Palm Beach Gardens.

He made headlines in 2006 when his business purchased Babcock, a 91,000-acre cattle ranch in Charlotte and Lee counties. He sold 73,000 acres to the state in the largest land preservation deal to that date.

In June 2015, Kitson was named to a one-year term as Southwest Florida regional board chairman for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

He holds a bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University and played as an offensive guard for the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys.

Scott “could not have made a better choice,” said Dominic Calabro, president and chief executive officer to Florida TaxWatch.

“Syd was highly effective serving as the innovative chairman of the TaxWatch Center for Health & Aging, helping TaxWatch be a leader in securing legislation on telehealth and expanded scope of practice for nurse and allied health professionals in the 2016 Legislative Session,” Calabro said in a written statement.

Supreme Court candidate interviews will be live streamed

The Florida Channel plans to live stream the interviews of candidates for an opening on the Florida Supreme Court.

The interviews are open to the public, but they will be held in Orlando next Monday, instead of Tallahassee.

They’ll be at the offices of the GrayRobinson law firm, where Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission chair Jason Unger is a shareholder.

The commission previously voted to interview all 11 applicants for the vacancy on the court created by the December retirement of Justice James E.C. Perry,

The interview schedule is:

Noon-12:30 p.m. – Wendy W. Berger, a judge on the 5th District Court of Appeal.
12:30-1 p.m.– Alice L. Blackwell, a circuit judge in Orange County.
1:00-1:30 p.m. – Roberta J. Bodnar, an assistant U.S. attorney in Ocala.
1:30-1:45 p.m. – break
1:45-2:15 p.m. – Dan Gerber, an Orlando civil-trial defense attorney.
2:15-2:45 p.m. – Sylvia Grunor, a Central Florida trial lawyer.
2:45-3:15 p.m. – Brad King, state attorney of the 5th Judicial Circuit.
3:15-3:30 p.m. – break
3:30-4 p.m.– C. Alan Lawson, the chief judge of the 5th District Court of Appeal.
4:00-4:30 – Larry Metz, a Republican state representative from Yalaha.
4:30-5 p.m.  Michelle T. Morley, a circuit judge in Sumter County.
5-5:15 p.m. – break
5:15-5:45 p.m. – Michael J. Rudisill, a circuit judge in Seminole County.
5:45-6:15 p.m. – Patricia L. Strowbridge, a circuit judge in Osceola County.

The nominating panel will forward six names by Dec. 13 to Gov. Rick Scott, who will then name Perry’s replacement. This is Scott’s first chance to pick a state Supreme Court justice.

In Florida, justices are picked through a “merit selection” process, beginning with a nonpartisan, nine-member commission that reviews and evaluates applicants.

Because Perry represented the state’s 5th appellate district, applicants must be from that area, which includes Brevard, Citrus, Flagler, Hernando, Lake, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Putnam, Seminole, St. Johns, Sumter, and Volusia counties.

The commission also invited written comment on any of the applicants. Comments should be sent via email to Unger at

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