Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

FL House Votes Down Stimulus Money

From the St. Pete Times:

The House just voted unanimously to extend the length of unemployment benefits up to 20 weeks, but after an emotionally partisan debate Republicans rejected $444 million in federal stimulus dollars to expand who is eligible for compensation.

Democrats assailed the move as heartless and misguided, saying the state can scale back on eligibility after the crisis has passed. Republicans suggested that would be “fraud” and said the expansion would cost businesses more and hurt the economic recovery. The Democratic amendment failed 45-70.

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House Committees Slap Happy With Taxes….er…um…Fees

Florida House committees were certainly slap happy with taxpayers’ money Thursday morning.  The House Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee passed a bill that significantly increases driving-related fees, doubling the fees in many cases.  But these additional fees won’t go into the State’s Transportation Trust Fund where they were previously directed.  No, these increases are going straight to the State’s General Revenue Fund. 

Of course, the committee didn’t pass the bill without some high drama according to Miami Herald’s Naked Politics.  It seems the committee didn’t have the votes to pass the chair’s proposed committee bill, so the committee recessed for about an hour, found three Republicans, and quickly reconvened and passed the bill 8-5 along party lines.  Duval delegation members Jennifer Carroll and Lake Ray voted for the tax, er, I mean fee increases.  Local representative Audrey Gibson voted against them.  

I’m not sure which I am more incensed about – the $686 million in fee increases to motorists after House legislators couldn’t bring themselves to get rid of sales tax exemptions on such things as charter boats and skyboxes, or the fact that our representatives robbed the funds received from the increased fees to put in the State’s General Revenue Fund to try to plug the budget hole. 

Read the rest of this entry »

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Honest services fraud prosecutions rising

A New Jersey lawmaker was convicted of the crime in November after he used his power and influence to obtain a $35,000-a-year job at a state School of Osteopathic Medicine after he helped steer $10-million in state grants to the school. A former dean at the medical school was also convicted of rigging the hiring process to create a job for the legislator. 

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

There were some differences between the New Jersey case and that of Ray Sansom according to a St. Pete Times article.  However, I bring up the example to point out that, at the federal level at least, honest services fraud prosecutions are on the rise. 

What is honest services fraud? 

The [federal] law presumes a public official owes the public a duty of honest services. When the official fails and does so using the mail or telephones — or perhaps e-mail or BlackBerry — while concealing a financial interest, it becomes a crime. 

Efforts to put an honest services fraud clause in to state law have so far been unsuccessful, but Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, says he is making another attempt to get legislative approval of the measure this year. Gelber, a former federal prosecutor, said it is a “useful tool that should be part of the arsenal that state prosecutors have.” 

A good look inside some of these cases might make Florida lawmakers and lobbyists thankful for the 2005 law that prohibits lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators. Assuming, of course, that everyone has obeyed the law.  [St. Pete Times]

Evidently, numerous Tallahassee criminal defense attorneys have begun boning up on the law pertaining to honest services fraud.

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Legislature agrees on budget cuts

The House and Senate conference committees came to an agreement on the $2.4 billion budget cuts this morning. From the St. Pete Times:

The House and Senate agreed this morning on the how to raid trust funds and savings accounts to close the state’s $2.4 billion budget deficit, sparing the State Transportation Trust Fund and shielding housing trust fund money from the deepest cuts.

That means the budget will be printed today, laid on members desks and be ready for final approval Wednesday.

The agreement appears to leave a $400m cushion in the budget in case the economy and state tax collections continue to nosedive. At a glance, here’s what the $2.8b plug/Sunday agreement looks like:

*$1.2b in total spending cuts, plus the following raids, sweeps and trims:

* $400m from the Budget Stabilization Fund

* 700m from the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund

$190m from the Housing Trust Fund

$381m from other trust funds (we’ll find out which ones later)

$1.5m cut from the governor’s office (insted of just $1m)

$100,000 by getting rid of a state aircraft.

Next up, closing a $4-5 billion dollar budget hole during the regular legislative session that begins in March.

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Special Session priorities?

Our legislators have such an interesting set of priorities considering the huge budget hole they are staring down. 

One of the first things House members did today was to vote down 70-42 (along party lines), Rep. Waldman’s bid to get his bill to increase cigarette taxes heard.  Rep. Waldman’s proposal would have raised up to $700 million.   According to the Tallahassee Democrat,

House Majority Leader Adam Hasner of Delray Beach said the Democratic attempt was misguided and poorly timed in a statement he issued immediately after the vote.  “There are too many unknowns right now about an increased cigarette sales tax, such as how much it would collect and when we would start to realize the new revenue, to add this issue to the condensed agenda of the Special Session at this time,” Hasner said in the statement.

I wonder why that same logic didn’t apply to raising fines for speeders. 

As for the Senate, one of the first thing its members did today was vote on a resolution expressing their solidarity with Israel. 

Who elected these people?

Both the House and Senate refused to take a look at Florida’s current sales tax structure with it numerous exemptions during the Special Session.  However, to his credit, Senate President Jeff Atwater promised it would be a subject of the Senate’s when it begins meeting in regular session in March.  I hope he has more success in getting rid of the sales tax exemptions than one of his predecessors – former Senator (and former Senate President) John McKay.

BTW, the House approved its budget on a 73-40 vote; the Senate, 27-13. The House-Senate conference committees will work over the weekend to reconcile differences.

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The Special Session today

Today’s special session saw the House and Senate finally closing their hearings on the budget and getting ready to vote on their respective proposals tomorrow according to an AP report

While they are fairly in agreement on cutting nearly $1 billion in spending and raising traffic fines, two main questions divided the House and Senate: Whether to cut spending for road building and other transportation projects and how much money to borrow from the state’s tobacco settlement endowment.  The House wants to take $235 million out of the State’s transportation trust fund and use that money to offset shortfalls in the general fund.  The House plan would take $400 million from the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund, while the Senate’s package would remove $700 million.

The House and Senate versions also differ in other areas:

Affordable Housing:  The Senate would remove $140 million from the affordable housing trust fund compared to $283 million under the House plan.

Budget Stabilization Fund:  The House would nearly drain the budget stabilization fund by removing $600 million while the Senate would take out $200 million.

Education:  Both packages would require pay cuts for school employees in financial troubled districts, but they differ on the details.  The House amended its version during floor debate to exempt teachers. It would go into effect if a district’s cash balance falls under 2 percent of its general fund budget. Under the Senate plan, salaries for all district employees including teachers, administrators, school board members and non-teacher employees would be cut only if a district is unable to pay its bills or make payroll.

Conservation:  The Senate proposal would cut the state’s Florida Forever environmental land-buying program by $4 million for the rest of the current budget year and $20 million annually, while the House proposal would leave the program untouched.  BTW, the Senate cuts in this program would affect projects here in Jacksonville:  Ft. George State Park, the Jacksonville-Baldwin Rails to Trails expansion, Ocean Hammock Park, and  Town Center Park. 

Once the House and Senate vote on their proposals, they will have to conference to resolve the differences between the two proposals.  Then Florida law requires that they wait for a three day cooling off period before they take a final vote on the budget.

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Sansom definitely not out of the woods

Ray Sansom’s shenanigans are being turned over by North Florida State Attorney Willie Meggs for a Leon County grand jury investigation.  Once the grand jury is empaneled on Jan. 26, Meggs will give the complaints to jurors, leave the room and let them decide whether it should be investigated.  If jurors vote to investigate, Meggs said they would develop a plan for the investigation. 

Read more about it here.

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Questions still abound over Sansom jet hangar deal

While several different newspapers (including the TU) have published editorials praising the House Speaker for resigning his cushy school job, numerous questions still abound about the jet hangar deal for his buddy, Jay Odom. You know, the jet hangar that Sansom apparently is attempting to now sell off as a totally separate emergency management building at his college.  But the St. Pete Times isn’t going to let Sansom off that easy. Their editorial board has called for a criminal investigation in the matter. 

According to a St. Pete Times article today:

A year and a half after slipping $6-million into the state budget for an emergency facility at his hometown airport, House Speaker Ray Sansom led a hastily arranged meeting with local officials to explain how they might use it.

The meeting, held Dec. 10, came four days after the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau reported that the airport building was originally proposed by a friend of Sansom’s, Jay Odom, a developer who wanted to park his jets in a taxpayer-funded hangar.

Sansom had secured state funding through an account designated for capital projects at colleges, and he called the meeting in his new role as vice president of Northwest Florida State College, which will own the facility and use it to teach emergency response classes.

But e-mails show that Sansom’s Tallahassee staff helped coordinate the gathering.

“It’s CYA time,” said former Destin Mayor Ken Beaird. “They got caught and now they’re trying to justify … an aircraft hangar.”

Let’s be honest.  At the end of Sansom’s current term in two years, we all know where he will likely be – in the same cushy Northwest Florida State College job that he took on the same day that he was sworn in as House Speaker….with his friend Odom’s jet parked in the hangar.

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This is a budget cut?

I am still trying to figure the following bill out – especially how it figures into the budget cutting equation. 

Representative Ellyn Bogdanoff, (R-Broward and Palm Beach Counties and Majority Whip 2006-2008) has filed House Bill 11A.  Essentially, this bill would require that any time the State outsourced human services related to mental health, substance abuse, child welfare, or juvenile justice and passed a new governmental mandate that was not in place when the human services were contracted out, the State must renegotiate the contract  if there is a “material adverse financial impact” on the contractor. 

A “material adverse financial impact” is defined in the bill as increase in reasonable costs that is the lesser of 1) 5% of the maximum obligation amount or  unit price of the contract; or, 2) $10,000 in the aggregate for all new governmental mandates taking effect during the calendar year of the contract term; or an action that affects the core and primary intent of the contract.

In addition, the contractor’s employees’ cost-of-living wage increases are tied to raises given to state employees.  There are also a bunch of new reports and recordkeeping requirements placed on the state agencies.

So exactly how is this a budget cut? 

I thought it was supposed to be cheaper to outsource, but when you are paying private employees the same pay increases that you are giving state employees, requiring the State agencies to do more analysis, and essentially guaranteeing contract modifications for additional government mandates by giving the contractors a right to a hearing if the agency refuses to modify the contract, where are the cost savings? 

Maybe I’m missing something here.

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Nothing really to report on Special Session

Nothing really to report from the first day of the Special Session other than the Legislature (the House specifically) has refused to hear any bills dealing with cigarette “user fees” (bill by Rep. Waldman) or “taxes” (bill by Rep. Pafford).   30+ placeholder bills have been filed in the Senate.

From the TU:

A push to raise cigarette taxes by $1 per pack to finance health care, rejected earlier by legislative leaders, failed on a voice vote in the House.

Sansom and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, agreed to allow discussion of minor changes in some state fees.

Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, said Monday that legislators should be examining a wide range of tax breaks for businesses, saying some aren’t justified when the state is financially strapped.

“Our economy would be in a lot better shape, and our budget, … if we look at closing these loopholes,” he said.

He said the reasons for those tax breaks were outweighed by the potential for cuts to affect government services that many people depend upon.

“We’re talking about people’s lives,” he said. “We’re talking about children, we’re talking about the elderly.”

Oh – I am sure we will all be happy to know that our Representatives had plenty of time to consider and adopt a resolution introduced by Rep. Hasner (and co-sponsored by members of the Duval House Delegation, among others) supporting solidarity with Israel.   Sorry, I don’t remember that subject being mentioned in the call for the Special Session.

Read more of the TU article here.

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