Florida Gov. Rick Scott this week found his policies on the receiving end of numerous challenges as the governor’s calls for less government, privatization and less red tape wound their way through the courts.
Meanwhile, the governor’s quest to bring 700,000 jobs to the state was made both easier and more difficult depending on which economic data you choose to hang your hat on. While unemployment remained uncomfortably high, brisker home sales, slow but steadily increasing state revenue collections and government-backed efforts show the state’s economic engine is at least engaged.
A wrap-up from the News Service of Florida.
BUSY WEEK IN THE COURTS
It was a hectic week in legal circles. The Florida Supreme Court early this week ruled that Scott overstepped his legal bounds when he put a hold on proposed agency rules until they could be reviewed by the governor’s office.
Scott, who in his first act as governor suspended agencies’ ability to make rules, immediately called the 5-2 opinion nonsensical, while attorneys for a blind woman who sued over the new requirement said the ruling would help preserve the ability of Florida residents to participate in the process by which new regulations that affect them are put into place.
The state’s highest court said that agency rules are largely an extension of legislation, which makes Scott’s action a separation of powers issue.
Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston, disagreed with the majority, saying the constitution gives the governor “supreme executive power.”
“If supreme executive power means anything, it must mean that the governor can supervise and control the policy-making choices — within the range of choices permitted by law — of the subordinate executive branch officers who serve at his pleasure,” Canady wrote in dissent.
Scott faces another challenge next month for his attempts to privatize a hefty chunk of Florida’s prison system. A Tallahassee circuit judge, Jackie Fulford, this week scheduled a hearing for September on a motion for summary judgment in the Florida Police Benevolent Association’s lawsuit challenging a plan to privatize several state prisons.
The PBA is challenging a Scott-backed move to privatize prisons in South Florida, an effort backers say will save millions.
Critics including Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, are skeptical of such savings, and got information this week that might make them right – internal documents show the prison system is worried about a $25 million price tag related to corrections officers losing their jobs, payments for things like untaken vacation or sick time. Scott told reporters this week that if the savings don’t materialize, the privatization won’t be done, simple as that.
Meanwhile, a Florida appeals court ruled that agencies must take into account collective bargaining agreements when they look to trim employee health costs. The Second District Court of Appeal this week ruled that the Polk County school district couldn’t bypass collective bargaining in imposing insurance changes.
JOBLESS RATE REMAINS HIGH, BUT STEADY
Florida’s 10.7 percent unemployment rate for July was unchanged from an upwardly revised June figure. The legion of jobless remains just shy of 1 million as the state claws its way back to economic prosperity.
On Friday, the Agency for Workforce Innovation reported that the number of jobs created since Jan. 1 had shrunk from previous estimates, a drop that negatively affects Scott’s promise to add 700,000 jobs to the state’s economy in the next seven years.
The drop of 21,200 immediately became fodder for politicians – Democrats quickly put out a statement questioning what happened to all those jobs, jobs, jobs.
State employment officials, meanwhile, cautioned that the unemployment rate, which represented a 0.1 percentage point uptick from preliminary June figures, was not unexpected as the state crawls its way back from the biggest economic downturn since the 1930s.
“You need to look at the long term trends,” said AWI Chief Economist Rebecca Rust. “There will be fluctuations month to month.”
Tourism-related employment continues to make steady headway while construction jobs remain well below historic levels.
A number of the job losses were in the government sector – something that also continued this month.
Though their number didn’t show up in the July figures, 134 workers were laid off from the South Florida Water Management District in the last week, saving the district $9 million in salaries.
Included in the group are 20 scientists with an average of 15 years of service. They join 19 scientists who took a buyout in June and several others who found jobs at different agencies or institutions before the layoffs.
Unlike construction and water management sectors, the lobbying business appears alive and well. We learned this week from new disclosure filings that despite the state’s economic woes, legislative lobbyists earned as much as $52 million for the quarter ending June 30, up from the $49.3 million spent on lobbyists that same time last year.
Lobbying firms Gray Robinson; Ron Book; Smith & Ballard and Southern Strategy Group earned the most, with each reporting income of greater than $1 million for the quarter.
Speaking of jobs, Associated Industries of Florida this week named insurance lobbyist Cecil Pearce the business group’s interim managing director. Pearce replaces the talkative and provocative Barney Bishop, who is stepping down as president at the end of the year.
Despite jobless rates that have remained higher than national averages since 2008, signs of economic rebirth were there this week if you looked. Favorable interest rates and ample inventory helped boost home sales in July by 12 percent compared to a year ago, with some markets seeing much higher increases.
The statewide average belied much heftier increases in some markets. Sales jumped 47 percent in Miami and 57 percent in Tallahassee as buyers appeared to be taking advantage of lower prices in those markets, where median prices fell 8 percent and 10 percent respectively. Statewide, prices held relatively stable, falling 1 percent year to year, from $137,700 to $136,500.
Doing its part, the state began a $291 million road project in Jacksonville to be financed by the Florida Turnpike Enterprise and repaid by tolls. The First Coast Outer Beltway project will be one of the first of a series of new projects aimed at jumpstarting infrastructure construction while the economy is slumping, taking advantage of low costs for the work, and – the Scott administration hopes – helping to lower the state’s unemployment rate.
The project is a harbinger of things to come as the state weans itself off fuel taxes to pay for roads. State transportation officials expect to lose $5 billion by the end of the decade in gas tax revenue that traditionally pays for roads, bridges and other infrastructure that connects Floridians.
The Florida Transportation Commission found out Tuesday that the effects of improved gas mileage will have an even more immediate impact, reducing 2011 revenue by $24 million and reaching $500 million a year by 2015.
Florida’s recovery efforts will also get some help from the feds. The state will get nearly $100 million in federal money for small business loans.
Meanwhile, BP Oil has, as of this week, paid Florida individuals and businesses more than $2 billion in payouts. But federal officials overseeing the payouts said the going may get tougher for some with more stringent requirements for future payments under the $20 billion program.
All is not rosy on the business front. Florida businesses could see an 8.9 percent increase in workers-compensation insurance rates next year, as costs slowly creep up after several years of massive declines.
The National Council on Compensation Insurance, an organization that files workers-
compensation rate requests for the industry, submitted the proposed increase Thursday to state regulators.
Businesses were hit with an overall hike of 7.8 percent last year, after enjoying years of rate cuts that stemmed from lawmakers overhauling the system in 2003.
Lawmakers redrawing Florida’s political boundaries took their caravan south this week as they took testimony from interested parties from Stuart to Key West. Given the range of testimony, it will be no easy task.
At a Wednesday hearing in downtown Miami, lawmakers got a checklist of sorts, from Cubans and other Latinos to Haitian immigrants to African Americans. Even the gay community called for a seat or two — though the chairman of the Senate committee charged with drawing maps said he doesn’t even know how that would be achieved.
Several candidates in the U.S. Senate GOP primary are preparing to debate this weekend in a debate co-sponsored by the Florida Family Policy Council and The Central Florida Tea Party Coalition. Confirmed candidates are Adam Hasner, George LeMieux, Mike McCallister, and Craig Miller.
The field is also set for the election to replace former Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, who quit the Legislature to go work for Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown. The overwhelmingly Democratic Senate District 1 takes in parts of Duval, Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia counties.
Four candidates qualified to be on the ballot: Audrey Gibson and Terry Fields, who are both former state representatives; and Ramon Day and Leandrew Mills III. The primary is Sept. 20.
Former House Speaker Ray Sansom this week filed an ethics complaint against state attorney Willie Meggs who prosecuted Sansom on corruption charges that were eventually dropped, but only after Sansom lost his job as speaker and had to leave the Legislature.
The complaint alleges illegal and unethical behavior by Meggs in pursuing the case by manipulating a grand jury and illegally releasing testimony to the public. Sansom agreed to pay $300,000 to the state after being accused of misappropriating state money in the budget.
Progress Energy Florida brought its case to state regulators this week as the utility asked to pass along about $140 million in nuclear costs to customers: Attorneys for consumers and business and environmental groups repeatedly tried to cast doubt on the company’s hopes for meeting 2021 and 2022 target dates for the project.
The Florida Public Service Commission is expected to decide Oct. 24 whether to grant Progress’ request, along with a $196 million nuclear-cost request by Florida Power & Light.
MOVE OVER DORA THE EXPLORER:
Pre-kindergarten programs should test their students more extensively, argues David Lawrence, the head of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation. Lawrence said this wouldn’t be a “baby FCAT,” but instead a loose assessment of a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive skills in order to determine progress.
Next week, the State Board of Education will take up a draft legislative budget request for next year that asks for $4.6 million to begin offering voluntary pre-kindergarten assessments at a cost of $25 per student.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott’s effort to vet all pending rulemaking in a central office is wiped out by a state Supreme Court majority that said the governor doesn’t have the power to meddle in rulemaking in such a way, because that’s a legislative function.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The complaint won’t undo what Mr. Meggs did to me. What I do hope it does is prevent Mr. Meggs from doing this to another innocent family,” Former House Speaker Ray Sansom in regard to his ethics complaint filed against State Attorney Willie Meggs.