Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

The Hometown Democracy Debate Heats Up

Amendment 4, also known as Hometown Democracy, will be the ballot initiative to watch in 2010.  The highly-controversial amendment cleared another hurdle yesterday when the Florida Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion to Attorney General Bill McCollum stating that a revised financial impact statement now complied with state law.  

“Local governments will incur additional costs due to the requirement to conduct referenda,” the court opined.  The impact on state government; however, “will be insignificant.”

Amendment 4 would require that any comprehensive land use plan changes approved by city councils or county commissions go before the public in the form of a ballot referendum.  Critics say that requiring the public to vote on all comprehensive changes would clog up local ballots and could necessitate dozens of referenda throughout the year.  On the other hand, proponents contend that local politicians are too dependent on large developers for campaign funds and have been quick to approve amendments in the past.

The recent legislative session only served to further heighten the stakes as the Legislature moved to strip much of the existing growth management policies currently in place in an effort to jump-start the state’s flagging real estate industry.  To the dismay of many, Charlie Crist—a self-proclaimed environmentalist—went along with the Legislature’s efforts. As a result, many previous opponents of Amendment 4 are beginning to change their tune, including Florida Times-Union Columnist Ron Littlepage.  Littlepage cited the Legislature’s near-stripping of concurrency requirements and the on-going Craig Airfield controversy in announcing his shifting position on the initiative.  (Interestingly enough, several local governments, including Weston, Key Biscayne and Miami Beach, have filed suit to block the rewrite of growth management laws.  They argue that eliminating concurrency created “unfunded mandates” for local governments.)

Despite their opposition to the recent moves by the Legislature in regards to growth management, the St. Pete Times Editorial Board is not convinced that Amendment 4 is the answer.  They cite the “St. Pete Beach experiment” in detailing their distaste for the initiative.  St. Pete Beach, the Times said, demonstrates that “land planning via referendum is a messy, unpredictable business that leads to higher government costs due to litigation and a stalemate when it comes to development.”

On its face, some argue that the amendment demonstrates an abdication of voter responsibility.  If the voting public is unhappy with politicians rubber stamping the requests of developers, they argue, then voters have an obligation to show up at the polls in support of individuals who pledge their commitment to uphold the comprehensive plan.  

One thing is for certain—it will be a high-stakes, expensive war as the Florida Chamber, developers and real estate interests make an all-out effort to prevent the amendment from reaching that magical 60%.  

The ad wars on YouTube have already begun.  A sampling, including a satirical reprise of the 1970’s era “Crying Indian” PSA, can be viewed below. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: 2010, Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, , , , , , , , , ,

Florida Last In Stimulus Dollars

Charles Dharapak

Charles Dharapak

Despite Charlie Crist’s very public embrace of Barack Obama and Obama’s federal stimulus plan, Florida ranks dead last in dollars received per person according to a study by the Palm Beach Post.  Crist’s endorsement of the stimulus, which brought the Governor considerable heat from deficit hawks within his own party, gave the President a much-needed bipartisan boost as he sold the plan to the American public earlier this year.  That involvement seems not to have paid off to many Floridians.

Florida TaxWatch’s Dominic Calabro placed the blame on Florida’s elected officials.  In an interview with the Palm Beach Post, Calabro alleged that the low return per resident showed “how inept Florida’s government officials are.”

The Post questions the ability of the stimulus to improve Florida’s unemployment rate—something the President promised would be a result when he touted the stimulus in a Florida stop in February.

The low distribution has left many Floridians confused and left the President potentially vulnerable in a battleground state.  Read the Post’s article in its entirety here.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, , , , , ,

Wall Street Journal Slams Charlie Crist, Says FL Headed For Disaster

Tagging him “Hurricane Charlie,” the conservative Wall Street Journal slammed Florida Governor Charlie Crist this week.  The newspaper cites Crist’s recent veto of property insurance reform as one of the major reasons Crist wants to get out of Tallahassee “before the next hurricane hits.”  His veto, says the Journal, “all but guarantees a state disaster.”

The bill would have trimmed the cost of a state-run enterprise that insures homeowners against storm damage. The program has an $18 billion unfunded liability and has taxpayers on the line for tens of billions in property losses from the next major hurricane. The Republican legislature tried to reduce those future losses, but Mr. Crist sounded like Barney Frank rolling the dice on Fannie Mae in declaring there’s nothing to worry about.

By way of background, two years ago Mr. Crist gave a big gift to coastal property owners by converting the state of Florida into one of the world’s largest property insurers. The Citizens Property Insurance Corporation provides below market-rate insurance policies directly to homeowners. Meanwhile, the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund (CAT) regulates how much private insurers can charge homeowners and requires companies to purchase low-cost reinsurance from the government. Mr. Crist didn’t invent these programs, but he vastly expanded their reach — to about one million policies today. He transformed Citizens from insurer of last to first resort.

Here’s the problem: This system isn’t even within a coastal mile of being actuarially sound. The state government acknowledges that in many high-storm risk areas the premiums are from 35% to 65% below what is needed to cover potential claims. That subsidy has made Mr. Crist popular with many coastal residents even as the state plays Russian roulette with the weather.

You can read the rest of the article here.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Politics, , , , ,

Crist Backtracks and Signs Controversial Water Bill

Despite a prior statement that he was “leaning towards” vetoing SB 2080, the controversial water resources legislation that would severely limit accountability in the water consumption permitting process, Charlie Crist backtracked today and signed SB 2080 into law.  JaxPoliticsOnline.com had written about this legislation on more than one occasion and nearly every major newspaper in the state (as well as Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton) had called on the Governor to veto it.  He had previously given every indication that he would.  Until he quietly signed it today.

It’s a sad day for Florida’s aquifer and the St. Johns River.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Politics, , , ,

GOP Senate Primary Starting To Heat Up

With today the last day of fundraising for the 1st quarter reporting of the US Senate race, the Republican primary is starting to look interesting.  Incumbent Governor Charlie Crist entered the race as a hands-down favorite, but former Florida Speaker Marco Rubio is beginning to make some headway.

According to a new Mason-Dixon poll released yesterday, Rubio’s support has surged among Republican voters.  While Crist still leads the race by an impressive 51% to 23%, Rubio appears to be gaining ground.  According to the poll, only 52% of GOP primary voters had heard of Rubio.  But, among those who were familiar with the former Speaker, Rubio trails Crist by only 2 points—33% to 31%.

More details are available at the St. Pete Times.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Politics, , ,

To Hike Taxes or Not To Hike Taxes, That is the Question

As Jacksonville prepares to enter a tax hike debate that is certain to eclipse the contentious Trail Ridge debate, a civilized conversation about the future of Jacksonville and its finances is looking like a goal that may be rather difficult to acheive.  Several days ago, JaxPoliticsOnline.com published an article that included some of the public responses to the Mayor’s millage rate increase proposal.  The responses reviewed, which came from the Times-Union public message boards, were overwhelmingly negative.  While some were politely worded and focused on opposing the concept of a “growing government” and tax increases, many were devoid of civility in stating their opposition.  Part of the reason for the harsh tone may be a defensiveness of taxpayers who are nervous about the current economic state of the country, but a great deal of it might also lie in the manner in which the Mayor rolled out his plan.

Radio talk-show host and former Florida House Representative Andy Johnson was one of the most vocal in expressing his displeasure with the Mayor’s approach.  Johnson called the Mayor’s discussion of closed fire stations “unfair”.  Johnson argued that it was “wrong” for the Mayor to “threaten that [he would] close fire stations if [he] didn’t get what he wanted.”

Johnson’s reaction was hardly unique, as another e-mail respondent insisted that the Mayor “stop these fear tactics.”  Another e-mail from Don Welfare, a city employee, asked the Mayor if he planned on personally embracing some of his own recommendations by having he and his staff take the furloughs he proposed for the rest of city employees.

In Sunday’s paper, the Times-Union editorial board said it best when they expressed their concerns over “another rush job” by the Administration.  Perhaps more than anything, that “rush job” is at the core of what troubles Duval County voters.

The Mayor has cited the recent JCCI study that called for additional revenue sources in proposing his tax increase, but he has chosen to ignore another crucial recommendation in that JCCI study—rebuilding public trust.  An Administration with a series of high-profile missteps will not rebuild public trust by proposing a property tax hike without first engaging the public.  That failure to engage before a major decision is something that has plagued John Peyton from day one.  People do not wish to be told you are “open to listening” after you spring a “recommendation” on them, they want to see you out listening before the “recommendation” is made.  Jacksonville’s budget woes are hardly new, so why the need to spring a tax hike on voters with barely a month for voters (and the City Council) to react?  Wouldn’t it be likely that responses would be less reactionary if an ongoing conversation between the Mayor and voters had been taking place for several months?

Tax hikes are never easy and the public is rarely thrilled.  However, increases are much more palatable when the public is firmly convinced that its government has taken every possible step to ensure existing dollars are being well spent.  While Duval County’s millage rate is one of the lowest of any major metropolitan area in the country, there are still concerns over the expenditure of current tax revenues.

In early May, JaxPoliticsOnline.com published an article that discussed the continued growth of AMIO positions.  For those not familiar with these positions, AMIO’s are Assistant Management Improvement Officers and are often special positions that are typically filled through a process that involves no formal job qualifications, established responsibilities or pay ranges for the positions.  While the Mayor pledged to reform this process four years ago, these positions have grown dramatically—from 125 AMIO’s making $7.5 million in 2005 to 166 AMIO’s making nearly $11.2 million today.  The individuals in these positions currently include the children of a former council member and a former mayor, as well as a former council member himself.

The situation with AMIO’s is hardly unique in Jacksonville government.  Voters have repeatedly expressed frustration over issues ranging from the ongoing pension crisis to the assertion that the budget for the Mayor’s Office and the City Council has burgeoned over the past eight years.  All of these unaddressed issues make acceptance of a tax increase incredibly difficult for the average Jacksonville resident.  The many who are passionate about funding the arts, believe in the missions of the city’s non-profits and are absolutely convinced the city must invest in its decaying infrastructure, are wary of a tax increase being proposed before they have witnessed a good faith effort to clean up wastefulness within the existing budget.

With the cat already out of the proverbial bag it’s hard to know where to start on the current proposal.  It’s problematic to have a discussion when one party’s mind is already made up before the conversation begins.  Nevertheless, it is time Jacksonville begin a conversation on our future.  If the Mayor has any hope of convincing a wary public to back his plan, he might want to restart the process.  If he could rush through a tax hike, perhaps he could also move quickly to engage the unions on the pension issue.  He could move to immediately scale back AMIO’s within his Administration and eliminate any position that exists without clearly defined job responsibilities, qualifications and a pay range.  He could also trim his staff, as well as the City Council’s.  He should engage the public in requesting recommendations for areas that can be trimmed.  Then, and only then, should he move forward with a tax increase.

The hike may very well be inevitable, but shouldn’t it be the last step in solving our budget woes, not the first?

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , , , , ,

State Farm Continues Pullout After Crist Vetoes Bill

After Gov. Charlie Crist announced that he was vetoing House Bill  1171, widely known as the “State Farm Bill”, State Farm announced that they planned to continue with their plans—expressed on Tuesday—to exit the state’s home insurance market within the next two years.

Crist had previously expressed reservations over the bill, stating that it had “no provisions that [allowed] consumers to renew options and make a choice that best [fit] their needs.”  According to State Farm and their supporters; however, the bill would have allowed them to raise rates to more “realistic” levels to cover potential losses, without being subject to state regulation.

The Republican-controlled Legislature, which overwhelmingly supported the bill, is not pleased with Crist’s veto.  House Speaker Larry Cretul called Crist’s veto a “disappointment” and prominent leaders in the House and Senate are now hinting at efforts to override the Governor’s veto.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Politics, , , , ,

Questions for Florida’s Gubernatorial Candidates

With Tallahassee having proven itself too small to contain the political ambitions of Charlie Crist, the race for Florida’s next Chief Executive is wide open.  Alex Sink, the state’s CFO, looks as if she will sail to the Democratic nomination without any opposition.  Bill McCollum, the state’s Attorney General, has so far failed to draw a primary opponent, although State Senator Paula Dockery is said to be considering challenging him.  Regardless of which candidates are put forth, there are serious questions that should be raised of the candidates on both sides of the ticket.

Jeb Bush was arguably Florida’s most powerful governor in recent history.  During his tenure, the role of of the Governor was expanded like never before.  Prior to 2003, Florida’s Governor was merely one of seven equal votes on the state cabinet.  The cabinet voted on all executive level decisions, which meant an alliance of four votes could override the Governor on any executive level decisions.  In 2002, with Jeb Bush’s backing, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that shrunk the cabinet to three positions, greatly expanding the power of the governor.  At the same time, voters approved an amendment that eliminated the Board of Regents, which governed the state’s higher education and shifted that responsibility to the new Florida Board of Governors, which are appointed by the Governor.

Charlie Crist has continued to expand the role of the governor while in office, using his position to push through the deceptively named “Save Our Homes” Amendment.  (Deceptive, in that it marginally cut property taxes while negatively impacting funding for local governments.)

With those those two most recent chief executives in mind, here are five questions Duval County voters might want to ask as they begin to think of how they will vote next November.

1.  Where does the candidate stand on the expanded role of state power at the expense of local governments? The candidate’s position on this issue should begin to emerge rather quickly as they hit the campaign trail.  Are the candidates pushing an agenda that includes cutting property taxes?  If so, they are most likely masking an effort to further weaken the ability of local governments to provide essential services to their citizens.  They are also removing the option to cut taxes from local governments and consolidating it in Tallahassee.

2.  Does the candidate support the Crist practice of using non-recurring revenues and trust fund raids to balance the state budget? Sink was quick to announce her opposition to trust fund raids, but McCollum has remained ominously silent on the issue.  The practice is dangerous for Florida and something that will have dire consequences in the long term.

3.  Where does the candidate stand on water issues? This is one that will be quite difficult to pin any candidate running for statewide office down on, but it’s one that North Floridians should be very concerned about.  The recent decision by the St. Johns River Water Management District to allow Seminole County to remove up to 5.5 million gallons of water from the St. Johns River each day will not bode well for the long-term health of the river.  Central Florida has known for years that their growth is not sustainable, but will a gubernatorial candidate be willing to upset the vote-rich I-4 corridor to state the obvious?

4.  Where does the candidate stand on the sales surtax that Gov. Crist vetoed? This is an issue of particular importance to Duval County residents.  Duval is at a disadvantage when compared to every other county in the state because of the inability of our elected commission—the city council—to levy a sales tax surcharge to fund indigent care.  Crist inexplicably vetoed a measure that passed the legislature unanimously that would have allowed Jacksonville to shift the burden for indigent care from the city’s operating budget to a half-cent sales surtax, freeing up much-needed funds for other services.

5.  Where does the candidate stand on the Fair District Florida effort? Fair Districts Florida is an effort to put two amendments on the ballot  that would fundamentally alter the redistricting process in Florida.  Redistricting in Florida has grown increasingly partisan in the last several decades.  Groups have been marginalized and districts throughout the state have been drawn in ways that make no geographic sense—it’s glaringly apparent that they exist for one of two reasons:  To either protect an incumbent or minimize a specific segment of the population.  It’s important to know where the next Governor of Florida would stand on this issue—after all, she (or he) would play a major role in drawing new districts after the 2010 census.

Of course, these are just five of the many issues facing the state, but they are a start.  It will be interesting to hear both sides address them as the election nears.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Politics, , , , ,

Did Jacksonville promise battery maker $7 million in cash?

The Peyton Administration celebrated a major coup several weeks ago when news broke that Saft America, a division of Johnson Controls, was looking to build a $200 million high-tech battery manufacturing facility at Cecil Field using $100 million in DOE federal stimulus grant money.  According to the Mayor’s Office, the plant could add up to 800 jobs in Jacksonville.

The plant, however, is not a guarantee.  The decision to locate in Jacksonville would be contingent upon successful negotiations with the City of Jacksonville and the State of Florida regarding the utilization of available incentive programs related to capital investment and job creation.  It also depends on the state allowing the city to use the federal stimulus grant program—provided Saft is awarded the highly competed for DOE grant funding—for the construction of the facility.  This could explain the reasons behind the Mayor’s hosting of a fundraiser for Charlie Crist, even though he has had long standing differences with the Governor over Tallahassee’s continued erosion of local government authority.

Stimulus dollars, however, aren’t the only issue Saft is seeking to overcome.  On May 13th, the Mayor’s staff personally arranged a meeting between Saft America officials and Congresswoman Corrine Brown.  The topic at hand was Saft’s concerns that PHMSA (the US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) was not representing their interests. The Air Line Pilot’s Association was pushing for the FAA to take over hazardous goods regulation  and Saft was concerned that it could lead to potential tightening of U.S. regulation of lithium batteries in transportation.

Regulation issues aside, The News Herald in Morgantown, North Carolina, has reported that Saft chose Jacksonville because of the city’s offer to pay $7 million in cash.  Saft already has a plant in Valdese, North Carolina and Valdese had been in talks with the company to build an additional plant.  The plant, according to Jeff Morse, the Valdese Town Manager, would have added 150 jobs to the local economy in the first three years, with the potential to add up to 700 jobs over the next 15 years.

Valdese competed rather aggressively for the new plant, even flying in North Carolina Governor Beverly Purdue to meet with company officials.  In the end, however, the company chose Jacksonville.  According to Morse, it was for one reason—cash up front.  Morse told The News Herald that “the town, county or state doesn’t offer cash to companies. If the state plunked down cash to each company it tried to recruit,” Morse went on, “it could bankrupt the state.”

While the opportunity to develop manufacturing jobs is something Jacksonville should be focused on, it is important to make sure adequate protections are in place to ensure any taxpayer dollars that are spent are not wasted.  If Jacksonville did indeed pledge $7 million in cash to secure the relocation of the Saft plant, it’s important that Duval County taxpayers understand where those dollars are coming from and how their interest would be protected if the plant—and the promised jobs—failed to materialize as promised.

After all, last Thursday, Saft’s stock dropped as much as 16% after the company announced that 2nd Quarter sales were down 10%.   The warning came on the heel of the news that the company was refinancing debt at higher spreads than on its existing debt.  Additionally, there are always the concerns that a limited supply of lithium could end the manufacturing boom before it even gets moving.

Transparency is something that has been spoken of quite a bit lately, perhaps this would be a good opportunity for the city to deliver.  Growth is good, jobs are important, but let’s make sure the taxpayers are protected in the process.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Charlie Crist Raking in the Dough

The St. Pete Times reports that Gov. Charlie Crist is prepared to release some rather impressive 1st quarter fundraising numbers next month.  While governing the state, Crist has somehow managed to squeeze in plenty of fundraisers from Jacksonville to Key West.  He’ll even travel to Washington, DC at the end of June for another one hosted by such GOP heavyweights as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

The impressive numbers will not be all that surprising; however.  As Adam Smith writes in The Times, Crist has delivered for some of the biggest donors in the state by signing bills that have loosened restrictions on developments, capped attorney’s fees in workers compensation cases and required insurance companies to pay out-of-network doctors.

An incumbent Governor always carries significant fundraising weight, but Charlie Crist takes it to an entirely different level.  It will be interesting to see what Marco Rubio, his GOP primary opponent, reports in the same time period.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Politics, , , , , , , ,

Blog Stats

  • 181,324 Visitors This Year