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Rick Scott calls proposed cuts to Visit Florida ‘irresponsible’ in new web ad

Gov. Rick Scott is continuing his push for money for Visit Florida, releasing a new digital ad hitting lawmakers over proposals to cut funding for the state’s tourism marketing agency.

In the 60-second spot, released by Scott’s political committee Let’s Get to Work, the Naples Republican is shown saying “Florida’s been winning, now a group of politicians in Tallahassee want us to lose.”

“That’s irresponsible,” he continues. “It’s real simple, if the politicians in Tallahassee say they don’t want to market our state and we lose tourists, then we’re going to lose jobs. The politicians in Tallahassee don’t get it. Ever job is important, every family is important to our state. There is not a job that’s expendable.”

The new digital ad, which was first reported by POLITICO Florida, comes with just eight days left in the 2017 Session. State lawmakers could begin final budget negotiations are early as this afternoon, and the latest deal reportedly funds Visit Florida at $25 million, a more than $50 million cut from the current level.

“If Rick Scott wants to condemn a self-serving Tallahassee politician who’s wasting Floridians’ tax dollars to promote his own political agenda he should look in the mirror,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, about Scott’s new ad. “Throughout his years in Tallahassee Scott has always looked out for only person – himself – while Floridians who actually work for a living are paying the price.”

Scott, who has spent much of the week in Argentina as part of a trade mission, has lashed out at the decision. His office released a memo from Christian Weiss with the Revenue Estimating Conference that suggested the proposed cuts could reduce state revenues by about $210 million. His office also released a letter that Ben Watkins, the director of the Division of Bond Finance, sent to Sen. Jack Latvala and Rep. Carlos Trujillo, which suggested Visit Florida cuts could have “negative impacts on bond ratings across the state.”

The governor is scheduled to meet with 10 state senators — including Latvala and Oscar Braynon, Anitere Flores, Bill Galvano, and Wilton Simpson — today. He also has a meeting with Rep. Scott Plakon on his public schedule.

Budget deal struck, House and Senate leaders appoint conferees

There is a deal.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron announced a settlement Thursday on the major points of difference between their chambers on an $83 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and appointed conference committee members to work out the details.

The conferees were to begin work at 1:30. They have until noon Sunday — any differences remaining at that point would go to Corcoran and Negron to settle.

“I am confident we can produce a final, balanced budget that incorporates the priorities of our constituents,” Negron said in a written statement.

“Over the next few days, we can and we will complete our work in a timely manner that appropriately meets the needs of our growing state and responsibly plans for Florida’s future,” he said.

“The reports of the demise of session have been greatly exaggerated,” Corcoran said.

“We look forward to working with our friends in the Senate to produce a budget that is balanced, provides tax relief, funds critical needs, and preserves the fiscal security of future generations.”

The news of a budget deal came after days of will-they-or-won’t-they over the state’s multi-billion dollar spending plan.

The two chambers appeared to reach a stalemate early this week, after a weekend of negotiations. The House has approved a “standard operating budget,” or contingency budget, adhering mostly to the budget the Legislature approved last year for the existing fiscal year.

But as the week progressed, there was word of movement, with many expecting the House and Senate to unveil an $83 billion budget Tuesday. That afternoon Corcoran said the House was “very, very, very close to having allocations agreed to with the Senate,” and even predicted budget conference would begin that evening. But that proved to be overly optimistic, by late evening Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Joe Negron Negron, said there would be no conference.

Budget breakdowns appeared to stall again Wednesday, when another day passed without budget allocations or conference meetings.

The budget framework could give Corcoran and Negron their top priorities while delivering a likely-fatal blow to Enterprise Florida, the public-private economic development organization Gov. Rick Scott wants full funding for.

No budget deal yet, Jack Latvala says

With just days left in the 2017 Legislative Session, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala said Tuesday morning there still isn’t a budget deal.

“There is no budget deal,” the Clearwater Republican said, as of 8:15 a.m.

About 15 minutes later, Latvala tweeted “when an agreement is reached on the budget it will be announced by the President and Speaker.”

Senate President Joe Negron wants to see everything in writing, and sent back the House offer within the last 12 hours with changes he’d still like to see made, said Latvala.

The House and Senate were expected to unveil an $83 billion budget Tuesday. The budget framework was expected to give House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Negron their top priorities while delivering a likely-fatal blow to Enterprise Florida, the public-private economic development organization Gov. Rick Scott wants full funding for.

On Tuesday afternoon, Corcoran said the House was “very, very, very close to having allocations agreed to with the Senate,” and even predicted budget conference would begin that evening. But that proved to be overly optimistic, by late evening Katie Betta, the spokeswoman for Negron, said there would be no conference.

The House has approved a “standard operating budget,” or contingency budget, adhering mostly to the budget the Legislature approved last year for the existing fiscal year.

On Wednesday morning, Kristen M. Clark with the Miami Herald reported Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon told Senate Democrats during their caucus meeting the only thing that is firm is allocations. Everything else, Braynon said, “is in play and it’s stuff we have to vote on.”

Braynon, according to Clark’s report, said he expects conference committee members to be named during the floor session today, and meetings to begin tonight.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco says he is ‘very disappointed’ Jack Latvala is putting political ambitions first

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco is criticizing Sen. Jack Latvala for standing in the way of what he calls a big win for Pasco County.

“I am very disappointed that Senator Latvala is putting his political ambitions ahead of the needs of the state,” he said.

As the battle over the 2017-18 budget continues to wear on, several hometown projects could be on the chopping block, including $4.3 million for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.

The money, according to the Times/Herald, will be used to create the Florida Forensic Institute for Research, Security and Tactical Training. The forensic laboratory, located in Land O’Lakes near the Pasco County jail, would teach law enforcement officers and students, all the while focusing on an estimated 16,000 unsolved murders and missing person cases in Florida.

The Miami Herald reported Tuesday that Latvala said it was ironic that the “single largest project in the budget is for” House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

“I haven’t criticized the project,” said Latvala, according to the report. “”I’m just saying that it’s ironic: He’s against projects, but the largest single project in the budget is for him … It’s do as I say, not as I do.”

Corcoran said the project is for the “entire state.”

The project’s leaders include Nocco and forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who led the research that unearthed the remains of young boys buried in unmarked graves at the Dozier School for Boys.

Nocco said he’s surprised Latvala’s Tallahassee politics could be blocking a win for Pasco and the state.

“He said he would not be our biggest cheerleader, but he also said he would not stand in our way,” said Nocco.

Nocco also doesn’t understand why Latvala won’t support a project that will be based in Pasco.

“He does remember that part of his district is in Pasco County,” he said.

Jack Latvala, Larry Ahern trade budget jabs on Twitter

With 10 days until the scheduled end of the 2017 Legislative Session and no allocations on the desk, it’s fair to say things are getting a little heated in Tallahassee.

Case in point: An exchange between Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala and House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Larry Ahern on Twitter over the House’s proposed standard operating, or continuation, budget.

As news spread Sunday the House had offered a so-called continuation budget, Latvala, a Clearwater Republican took to Twitter to question why the offer was being made.

“A continuation budget is just putting our names on former legislators’ work,” he tweeted around 8 p.m. Sunday night. “Aren’t we better than that?”

That tweet hung out there until about 3 p.m. Monday, when Seminole Republican retweeted Latvala’s quote and asked: “What are you doing as Appropriation Chairman to facilitate a compromise that makes it unnecessary?”

Hours later, Latvala shot back asking Ahern why he couldn’t “find a single project worthy of funding in Pinellas?” Latvala is the chairman of the 10-member of the Pinellas County legislative delegation, of which Ahern is a member.

Ahern’s response came this morning: “My project funding approach is more statewide. Over half have some benefit directly to Pinellas. About 9 million dollar’s worth.”

Latvala, who spent most of his morning in the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting, hasn’t replied. The House Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, passed its so-called standard operating budget during a meeting this morning.

Business leaders lobby Tampa Bay-area lawmakers on regional transit

As for discussion over a proposed Senate regional transit bill for the Tampa Bay region, it’s all about timing.

A group of a dozen local business executives arrived for a lobbying trip to Tallahassee just one day after a contentious Senate committee meeting where three Tampa Bay lawmakers clashed over a bill seeking to overhaul the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA). The nonprofit Tampa Bay partnership arranged the trip.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that in a heated meeting of the Senate Community Affairs Committee, Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala watched in frustration as Republican colleagues Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Tom Lee of Thonotosassa amended the bill.

The bill, originally approved April 17, was changed to require legislative approval for any local spending proposal that would include a light rail system and also prohibit TBARTA from financing a voter referendum on light rail.

Many saw the amendments as a significant blow to the TBARTA’s independence.

“The timing could not have been better for this trip because the bill was at a critical point,” Tampa Bay partnership president Rick Homans told the Times.

Among those in the business delegation were Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik; University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft; Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes; Ron Wanek, founder of Ashley Furniture; Tampa attorney Rhea Law, as well as Tampa executives of TECO Energy, BlueGrace Logistics, the BayCare Health System, PNC Bank, Vology and Florida Blue.

While the group’s agenda included supporting Latvala’s transit bill, ride-sharing legislation, and a creation of a regional Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Times noted that TBARTA received special emphasis.

“It’s not dead,” Homans said. “It’s very much alive.”

The amended bill now includes a feasibility study ahead of any forward movement of a light rail system, and would require approval by a majority vote of each Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) of the county or counties where the investment would be made. If a rail project is planned for Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, for example, each of the affected counties would need to approve the project.

Also, any rail project must get preapproval from the Legislature – since Tallahassee would be fronting much of the money anyway.

“They were not poison pills,” Brandes explained. “They were logical, reasonable steps that would largely have to be followed.”

Rick Scott says he will sign ‘Uber bill’

Gov. Rick Scott tweeted on Monday that he will sign into law a bill creating statewide regulations for ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft.

“I look forward to signing the @Uber/ @lyft bill,” Scott tweeted from his official account, @FLGovScott.

Colin Tooze, Uber’s director of public affairs, tweeted back, “Many thanks for your leadership, @FLGovScott ! All of us at @Uber are excited to have a permanent home in the Sunshine State.”

Lawmakers had considered legislation for four years before passing a bill this year.

The Senate finally approved a House measure (HB 221) on a 36-1 vote, with Sen. Jack Latvala the only ‘no’ vote.

The legislation, among other things, requires Uber, Lyft and similar “transportation network companies” to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged into the app, but hasn’t yet secured a passenger.

When a driver gets a ride, they need to have $1 million in coverage.

The bill also requires companies to have third parties run criminal background checks on drivers. It also pre-empts local ordinances and other rules on transportation network companies, or TNCs.

Legislature at stalemate over new state budget

With time running out in this year’s regular session, Florida’s legislative leaders are at a stalemate over a new state budget and are starting to lash out at one another over the breakdown.

The first but crucial round of negotiations between the House and Senate fell apart on Sunday. The session is scheduled to end on May 5, but state law requires that all work on the budget be finished 72 hours ahead of a final vote.

The lack of a budget deal can also derail other crucial legislation since many times stand-alone bills get tied to the spending plan or are used as leverage in negotiations.

The growing divide prompted Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran to lash out at fellow Republicans in the Senate, comparing them to national Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders.

“There are no limits to their liberalism,” Corcoran said.

Sen. Jack Latvala, the Senate budget chief, said that Corcoran was acting as if “everyone was a liberal but him.”

“I just think it’s very unfortunate for the process, where we start calling names and broadly classify people instead of trying to constructively work out solutions,” Latvala said.

The House and Senate are working on a new budget to cover state spending from July 1 of this year to June 30, 2018. The two chambers started their budget negotiations with a roughly $4 billion difference in their rival spending plans.

For more than a week, the two sides privately traded broad offers that outlined how much money would be spent in key areas such as education, health care, the environment and economic development.

Gov. Rick Scott has been highly critical of a House plan to shutter the state’s economic development agency and to sharply cut money to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing corporation. Scott has urged Senate Republicans to stand firm against House Republicans.

Part of this broad framework also included how much money the state should set aside in reserves.

Corcoran said one stumbling block was that the House wanted to place more money in reserves because of projections that show a possible budget deficit in the next two to three years if spending continues to increase.

“We refuse to let the state go bankrupt,” said Corcoran, who also said such a strategy could force Florida to raise taxes.

Unable to reach a deal, the House over the weekend offered a “continuation” budget that would have kept intact state funding at current levels in many places. That would have allowed legislators to end the session on time and avoid the need for a costly special session. But it would have meant that there would be no money for any new projects.

The Senate, however, rejected this idea. Senate President Joe Negron, in a memo sent out to senators Monday morning, called it a “Washington creation where Congress is habitually unable to pass a budget.”

Reprinted with permission of The Associated Press.

Is this ‘whiskey & Wheaties’ last hurrah for 2017?

A troubled measure to undo the requirement that retailers sell distilled spirits separately from other goods is back on the House calendar for this week.

But a number of amendments were filed Friday night that could continue to muddle the legislation’s path to passage.

The House on Tuesday will again consider the “whiskey & Wheaties” bill (SB 106/HB 81), after postponing it twice in recent weeks. The Senate’s version passed last month. 

The most recent snag came after lawyers for Publix, the Florida supermarket chain that opposes the measure, said their reading of state law suggested teenage employees would no longer be allowed to work in stores if hard booze was sold there. Publix’s opposition has been rooted in its investment in separate stores.

Indeed, one amendment filed by Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, would clearly make it “unlawful for any vendor licensed (to sell hard liquor for consumption off premises) to employ any person under 21 years of age.”

Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the Appropriations Committee, raised concerns as early as February that the bill would allow retail employees under 18 to be around liquor.

Moreover, “I just don’t see the fervor,” he added, during a Senate Rules Committee meeting. “This is not a problem I have heard anyone urge me to fix.”

Another Friday amendment from Al Jacquet, a Lantana Democrat, says no business can sell booze if it “received, or continues to receive, state subsidies such as tax credits, tax incentives, sales tax refunds, or grants … , has at least 10,000 square feet of retail space …  and is located in a slum or blighted area.”

That would include locations of Wal-Mart, one of the corporations pushing the repeal.

A version of the bill—which started as a one-line repealer—has been filed for four years running.

It aims to do away with the Prohibition-era state law requiring businesses, such as grocery chains and big-box retailers, to have separate stores to sell liquor. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

Pure-play alcoholic beverage retailers, such as ABC Fine Wines & Spirits and independent operators, have complained the bill is being pushed by big retailers looking to expand their market reach.

But Wal-Mart, Target and others say tearing down the wall of separation between liquor and other goods is simply a “pro-consumer” move toward added convenience.

As Hialeah Republican Bryan Avila, the House sponsor, said recently: “Trust me: I can tell you with certainty I have experienced every thing imaginable that could possibly happen in the legislative process with this bill.”

Sabato’s Crystal Ball calls Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial race a ‘toss-up’ in initial ratings

With so much uncertainty about who is in or out of the 2018 Florida gubernatorial race, it’s not surprising that at least one political seer has deemed Florida too-close-to-call.

Initial 2018 gubernatorial ratings released Thursday by Sabato’s Crystal Ball ranked Florida as one of 10 states considered a “toss-up” going into the 2018 election cycle. The ratings found more than half of the 38 gubernatorial races on the ballot next year either start in “competitive toss-up or leans Republican/Democratic categories.”

The report noted Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has been “gearing up for a gubernatorial run for years” and is seen as the favorite on the Republican side to succeed Gov. Rick Scott. But with several other Republicans considering a run, authors Geoffrey Skelley and Kyle Kondik report it is “hard to say just how clear his path to the nomination will be.”

Putnam has been touring the state meeting with local Republican and business group to talk about his vision for the future, and has been building up his campaign coffers in advance of his expected bid. State records show Florida Grown, the political committee expected to fuel his gubernatorial bid, has raised more than $10.5 million since 2015, and had more than $7.7 million cash on hand at the end of March.

The Bartow Republican is scheduled to have a barbecue in his hometown on May 10, just five days after the expected end of the annual 2017 Legislative Session. The event, according to the Tampa Bay Times, will be held at the Old Polk County Courthouse.

But Putnam could face competition from Sen. Jack Latvala and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, both of whom are believed to be considering a 2018 bid.

Latvala, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, raised more than $246,000 for his political committee, the Florida Leadership Committee, in the days leading up to the start of the 2017 Legislative Session. That one-week fundraising haul in March came after one of his best fundraising months to date, when his committee raised nearly $1.1 million in February.

The Democratic side isn’t any easier to predict, according to the team at Sabato’s. While the authors write it might “come down to Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and ex-Rep. Gwen Graham, both of who could be considered rising stars in the party,” the team does note there are “some wealthy wild cards who could self-fund, such as 2010 Senate candidate Jeff Greene, businessman Chris King, and well-known attorney John Morgan.”

Gillum and King are the only Democrats who have filed to run, but Graham is widely expected to jump in the race soon, as is Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who could fall into the self-fund category.

State records show Levine pumped $2 million of his own money into his political committee, All About Florida, in March. Levine has spent the last few weeks touring the state meeting with community members.

Both Gillum and King have been staffing up. Gillum announced this week that Scott Arceneaux, the former head of the Florida Democratic Party, would be joining his campaign as chief strategist; while King unveiled a host of key hires, including Raymond Paultre as his director of strategic engagement and Stephanie McClung as his finance director.

Gillum announced earlier this month he had raised $765,000 — spread between his official campaign and his political committee Forward Florida — since the start of 2017, most of which was raised since March 1. Meanwhile, state records show King brought in nearly $1.2 million for his official campaign in March. That sum included a $1 million contribution King made to his own campaign.

But a crowded field could be an issue for Democrats hoping to turn Florida blue, according to Sabato’s Crystal Ball. The rankings noted that although Democrats came close to winning in 2010 and 2014, they “haven’t won a gubernatorial race in Florida since 1994 … so an extremely crowded field in an expensive state with a late primary could be problematic for them.”

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