Takeaways from Tallahassee: The week that was in Florida politics

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The capital city took a collective deep breath this week as lawmakers, lobbyists and advocates packed up their holiday decorations and prepared to unpack their bags for the 2012 Legislative session now only a few days away.

As Iowa voters went to their caucuses and chose a pair of favorites that reflected the GOP’s apparent identity crisis, candidates amped up their respective political machinery in Florida in preparation for this state’s presidential primary Jan. 31. The event may determine the Republican Party’s champion in its attempt to unseat a precariously perched incumbent.

Meanwhile, gambling interests got a look at the latest rendition of a bill that would allow resort style gambling venues, initially in South Florida, to enter the state. The gambling legislation, arguably the most heavily lobbied issue of the session already, has been a moving target as competing interests position themselves on an issue that may prove too heavy a left for an election year legislative session.

A round-up from the News Service of Florida.

GAMBLING:

Late Friday afternoon, a 170-page rewrite of SB 710 was released. The amendment, which will be brought up Monday in the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, makes a number of changes to the original version sponsored by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, that would allow the state to approve three resort/gambling venues.

Among its provisions, the bill would apply a 10-percent tax on a destination resort’s gross receipts. Existing pari-mutuel facilities would be allowed to offer slot machines and would see their tax rate drop from 35 to 18 percent once a destination resort opens its doors.

Pari-mutuels would also be allowed to offer limited gaming and be taxed at a 10 percent rate if voters in the county they reside in approve the idea. The bill sets a Dec. 31, 2014 deadline for such referenda.

The new proposal will likely provide the grist for renewed debate next week over an issue that has split the business community. The Florida Chamber of Commerce has emerged as one of the most-outspoken critics of casino gambling. South Florida chambers, however, this week gave qualified support for the mega-developments, which backers say would most likely look to South Florida.

COURTS

The new year is expected to be a busy one for the courts, which will take up a number of issues ranging from drug testing for welfare recipients to governance of the state university system.

Last week, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and others filed paperwork with the Florida Supreme Court to resolve a long-running dispute about the power of the university system’s Board of Governors to set tuition and fees.
The group filed a brief Dec. 30 asking the Supreme Court to take the case. The request came more than two months after the 1st District Court of Appeal sided with legislative leaders in the dispute, which stems from a 2002 constitutional amendment that created the Board of Governors.
In an Oct. 12 ruling, a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal rejected the group’s arguments and said lawmakers have the constitutional power to decide how the state raises and spends money.

The group, which also includes former Florida State University President Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte and former U.S. Rep. Lou Frey, contends that voters gave the power to set tuition and fees to the Board of Governors.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up a Florida case over whether a drug sniffing dog’s sniffer can be used without a warrant. The case involves Franky, a drug sniffing dog that helped bust an alleged drug dealer, whose attorneys argue was improperly searched.

Some challenges, however, won’t go any further. Opponents of a proposed repeal of the state’s ban on tax dollars going to religious organizations announced this week they won’t challenge a new ballot summary written in response to an earlier challenge.

The proposed amendment, Amendment 7, would remove a ban in the constitution on state dollars going to religious organizations. Opponents see the proposal as an effort to allow more tax dollars to go to private religious schools.

Also, state officials on Friday released the results of an investigation into the firing of two mortgage fraud investigators in the attorney general’s office. Conducted by the inspector general for the Department of Financial Services, the probe found that Bondi acted appropriately last summer when she fired June Clarkson and Theresa Edwards, the latter of whom said the terminations were politically motivated.

“During the course of the inquiry, there was no specific allegation of wrongdoing made by any person and no discovery of evidence of wrongdoing on the part of anyone involved in the matter,” Inspector General Ned Luczynski concluded.

The report sparked criticism from Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who said she was unsatisfied with the results.

“While no one suggested any law was broken, what was suggested is that the pact between the attorney general’s office and the duty to protect consumers was broken with the dismissals of Ms. Clarkson and Ms. Edwards,” Sobel said in a statement.

EVERGLADES ADVOCATES GET GOV’S SUPPORT.

Reiterating his early support, Gov. Rick Scott told members of the Everglades Coalition that he will push lawmakers to spend $40 million on restoration efforts. Echoing his budget proposal,, the governor told attendees of the coalition’s annual meeting that the state’s economic health is linked to the viability of the glades.

Speaking a reporter, Scott also said he would oppose any moves to privatize water rules, maintaining that water should remain a public resource and not a private commodity.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The 2012 presidential race officially took off this week as voters in Iowa went to their caucuses, emerging to anoint two candidates. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, came out on top, but received only eight votes more than second place finisher Rick Santorum. The outcome sent candidates scrambling to gear up their Florida operations in anticipation of the state’s Jan. 31 presidential preference primary.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “With 10 media markets, it’s not Iowa,” John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, on Florida – and why the Iowa caucus results aren’t that meaningful in predicting the outcome of this state’s primary later this month.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.