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, , , , , , , , , ,

School Funding in the Tank

The Save Duval Schools organization has been making the rounds to alert Duval County citizens about the lack of school funding. While lawmakers pat themselves on the back for protecting public schools, the fact is that school budgets for the upcoming year will be held together with duct tape and paper clips; or rather, federal stimulus dollars and local property taxes.

Legislators (in a sleight of hand) say they’re boosting per-pupil spending for the upcoming school year. In reality, state funding is going down – way down. Here in Duval County, it will drop by about $500 per student according to Save Duval Schools.

What will happen when the federal stimulus funds disappear in 2 years and local property tax revenues which go to fund schools continue to drop like a rock?

Filed under: Jacksonville, ,

A Transparent Florida on the Way

Some good news for Florida’s citizenry:  on Wednesday, Governor Crist signed the Transparency Florida Act into law – making it easier for citizens to track state spending down to state workers’ cell phones and agency cable television charges. The legislation requires the Governor’s Office to create a website that provides information on every appropriation found in the General Appropriation Act for each branch of state government and state agency. At a minimum, the data must include expenditures, appropriations adjustments, the status of spending authority for each appropriation, and position and rate information on state employees (but not their names).  

The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee will oversee the website and will propose additional phases of information to be made available. The committee will provide a proposal by March 1, 2010, to be submitted to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, that will include a schedule of additional phases of information by the type of information to be provided for specific governmental entities, including local government units, community colleges, state universities and other government entities that receive state appropriations.

The first installment of expenditure information will likely be available to taxpayer scrutiny by July of this year.  While the Transparency Forida Act is not necessarily everything one could want in terms of level of detail (the required information for now is restricted to information currently available in the financial management system and for expenditure information extends to the name of the payee, the date of the expenditure, the amount of the expenditure and the statewide document number), it certainly is a big step in the right direction.

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

Busy Week on Tap for Governor and Taxpayers

While the 2009 legislative session saw the Florida Legislature passing the lowest number of bills since 1998, the governor will have plenty of opportunities to make people happy or mad (or both) this coming week.  A whole host of legislation (with a deadline for gubernatorial action fast approaching) is on the governor’s desk waiting for his return  from  the holiday weekend.   These bills include some of the session’s most controversial and significant proposals:  workers compensation attorney’s fees, cigarette taxes, increased motor vehicle fees and taxes, and the budget.  The governor can sign, veto, or allow to become law without signature any piece of legislation that comes to his desk.  In addition, he can exercise line item veto authority on the budget. 

But while taxpayers are waiting and watching for the governor’s actions on bills that could potentially end up costing them more money, lobbyists are sitting safe at home counting their cash.  While the legislature was grappling with a $6 billion budget hole, it seems 4 lobbying firms were raking in the money.  According to the St. Pete Times, GrayRobinson PA, Ronald L. Book PA, Smith & Ballard, and Southern Strategy Group made more than a million dollars between January and March 2009.  Since the two-month legislative session straddled two quarters, lobbyists earned even more money to influence legislators and Crist’s administration during the entire session that ended May 8th. 

AT&T hired more than three dozen lobbyists and spent as much as $1 million, more than any other company.  U.S. Sugar Corp. spent the second-highest individual sum on lobbyists, up to $476,000.  Gambling interests spent a maximum of about $1.3 million on lobbyists, while the energy industry spent about $1.4 million.  The tobacco industry spent as much as $689,000.  

Many of them will find out this week whether or not their money was well spent.

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

Growth Management Legislation Could Boost Hometown Democracy

According to an article in the NY Times:

More than 300,000 residential units sit empty across Florida, 64,588 properties were in foreclosure last month, second only to Nevada, and real estate prices are still plummeting.

Nonetheless, state lawmakers are making it easier for developers to add even more.

Gov. Charlie Crist now has a bill on his desk, which he said Wednesday he “probably will” sign, that would ease government oversight and exempt many areas from a requirement that says builders must pay for road improvements if traffic generated by their projects exceeds the local capacity.

Now that Florida’s citizenry has seen exactly what the Legislature intends to do with Florida’s growth management laws, could the hometown democracy constitutional amendment gain new steam?  The ballot initiative currently has an unofficial 665,499  out of a needed 676,811 signatures in order to be placed on the 2010 ballot.  But if Governor Charlie Crist signs SB 360 into law, I think we can look for a rise in signatures to occur.  So far, SB 360 has gained criticism from local governments, growth management advocates, and environmentalists from far and wide throughout the state – with a normally staid group like the Florida Association of Counties calling on Crist to veto the bill.  With that kind of opposition, could passage of the Florida Hometown Democracy Amendment be far behind?  Only about 12,000 more votes are needed by January 31, 2010 in order to assure that the constitutional amendment makes it on the 2010 ballot.  If you’re interested in Florida Hometown Democracy, click here for more information.

Read the rest of the NY Times article here.

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

Duval County Legislative Budget Allocations

The Florida Legislature recently released the county-by-county budget allocations.  Here’s the list of Duval County projects:

Project       Program       Amount     
SR 111 (Tallulah) From E End/Moncrief Creek BR to SR 5 (US 17) Main St       Resurfacing       2,574,590     
SR 200 (US 301) from SR 10 (US 90) to Nassau County Line       Resurfacing       2,730,966      
SR 9A from Main Street to New Berlin Road       Resurfacing       8,884,050      
I-95 @ Airport Road. from Access to JIA/ROW to Flyover       Right-Of-Way Land       1,256,624      
I-10 Marietta Interchange (Hammond Blvd)       Right-Of-Way Land       10,612,448      
I-95 S Hampton & Hendrix Ave Overland Bridge #720153       Right-Of-Way Land       15,591,832      
Jaxport Development Projects       Seaport Development       2,800,000      
SR 9A Overhead Signs       SIS/Intrastate Highways       3,675,000      
I-95 from Lem Turner to Heckscher Dr       SIS/Intrastate Highways       1,885,800      
Duval Co. TD Commission Trip And Equipment Grant       Transit       1,417,687      
Jacksonville JTA State Block Grant Operating Funds       Transit       3,933,351      
Florida State College at Jacksonville – Adult Handicapped Programs       Vocational Rehabilitation       226,644      
Edward Waters College       Historically Black Private Colleges       2,896,790      
UF (Jacksonville)       Autism Program       790,404      
University of Florida Health Science Center at Jacksonville       Diagnostic & Learning Resource Center       577,858      
University of North Florida       College Reach Out Program       54,431      
WJCT-TV, Jacksonville       Public Broadcasting       434,837      
WJCT-FM, Jacksonville       Public Broadcasting       87,287      
Florida State College at Jacksonville       Community College – Baccalaureate       113,142      
Florida State College at Jacksonville       Community College – Lottery Funds       8,637,290      
Florida State College at Jacksonville       Community College Program Funds       67,321,484      
University of North Florida       Universities – Education & General Activities       70,296,212      
University of North Florida       Universities – Lottery Funds       8,968,320      
University of North Florida       Universities – Student Financial Assistance       483,840      
University of North Florida – Util/Infras/Capital Renewal/Roofs (P,C,E)       PECO – Universities       2,021,330      
University of North Florida – Science & Humanities Building Ph II (P,C,E)       PECO – Universities       5,585,435      
Florida State College at Jacksonville – Gen ren/rem, Infrastructure And Site Improvements       PECO – Community Colleges       2,411,088      
Florida State College at Jacksonville – Rem/ren Clsrms/Labs Bldgs N,P,Q,R,U & W1w/addn-South (ce)       PECO – Community Colleges       1,129,601      

For the entire list of county-by-county allocations, click here.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, ,

Bad Cops Bill Has a Jacksonville Connection

Seems there’s a story behind the story of the Bad Cops Bill – and this story has a Jacksonville connection.  

I was  disappointed to learn recently that Sheriff John Rutherford was intimately involved in the negotiations of the compromise language of the Bad Cops Bill – the version that was ultimately passed by the Legislature.   When the Sheriffs Association (and the Police Chiefs Association) decided as the bill neared passage in the Senate not to support the compromise language (and having read the bill and the Miami-Dade Police Chief’s letter to the editor, I can understand why they might have changed their minds considering the taint that might rub off on them from the bill), Sheriff Rutherford quit the Sheriff’s association.  While I don’t know the reasoning behind Sheriff Rutherford quitting the association, I do know that I can’t possibly agree with or support the bill he apparently played a large part in negotiating.  If these are the kind of bills our Sheriff is going to support, it must be time for Jaxpolitics to kick off the citizen’s review panel crusade.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Jacksonville, ,

Thoughts on the Legislative Session

From Howard Troxler, columnist for The St. Petersburg Times:

How bad is the Florida Legislature these days?

It’s historically bad — the worst since the infamous “Pork Chop Gang” that was in charge of our state during the 1950s and 1960s.

The Legislature of recent years is simply incapable of governing Florida wisely. It lacks the intellectual horsepower, the will, even the desire. It’s a machine for collecting laundered campaign money, paying back that money with favorably written laws, and getting itself re-elected.

Good grief! The joint lacks gravitas, ballast. It is a collection of superficial sloganeers. These days, a wacky idea pops up on a Tuesday and is a proposed amendment to the state Constitution on a Thursday, no questions asked.

Look at the major policy areas challenging our state. Insurance? We’re worse off than ever, a sitting duck for storms. Taxes? The tax structure is as brutally unfair as ever, thanks to attempts to govern by gimmick and catch phrase (“drop like a rock”).

Not only are we not planning for Florida’s future — the 2009 Legislature’s biggest idea was to weaken the past quarter-century of growth-management laws. Our current Legislature shows a perverse hostility to the future, cutting university budgets, attacking the state’s land-buying program and the Lawton Chiles tobacco trust, and even out of the blue at the last minute, without the slightest study or deliberation, trying to throw open Florida waters to oil drilling.

On top of it all, this spring a grand jury in Tallahassee indicted the immediate past speaker of the state House and in a critical report blasted the way the Legislature operates. The Legislature’s response has been, more or less: Yawn.

On the bright side, if your biggest concern is whether Florida should ban “truck nuts,” which was last year’s headline fight, or this year’s attempt to plaster an image of Jesus on a state license plate — well, this is just the Legislature for you.

His full article here.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics,

Bills the Governor Should Veto

Newspapers have already been calling for the Governor to veto numerous bills passed by the Legislature.   Here are some excerpts:

Insurers – The governor that championed needed reforms of the state’s property insurance industry went missing this year, hiding from the horde of lawmakers — many from his own party — who eagerly wanted to do the underwriters’ bidding.

They did that and more, most appallingly by removing the authority of regulators to determine when rate hikes requested by large companies are excessive.

All that regulators would be able to do is determine whether those companies’ rates are too low. Right. Like that’ll be something they’ll have plenty of opportunities to evaluate.

Mr. Crist needs to reassert himself and the interests of homeowners by vetoing the insurance reforms rollback. Lawmakers did need to reduce some of the state’s risk, and they agreed to trim the size of Florida’s Catastrophe Fund by $2 billion a year. The fund provides the industry with cheap backup insurance it needs to pay claims after catastrophic storms.

But lawmakers also should have capped the price of backup insurance sold privately. Their failure to do that could result in insurers passing on the exorbitant cost of backup insurance to policyholders — the very thing that sent rates soaring two and three years ago.

Water managers – Senate Bill 2080 looks fairly placid, from a distance. It requires that regional water managers provide Florida-friendly landscaping ordinances for local governments to use as a model. Fine, as far as that goes.

But wade beyond the thickets and there’s a carnivore waiting. The bill would work to effectively devour the authority of water management district board members. They would no longer vote on requests to withdraw water from the aquifer, rivers, lakes and other sources.

Instead, the districts’ executive directors would make those decisions — and largely out of view of the public, which now is allowed to attend regularly scheduled board meetings.

If that isn’t enough to make Mr. Crist, Florida’s environmental governor, break out his veto pen, here’s the kicker: Board members get to weigh in only if the district’s executive director decides the permit is harmful and denies it.

In other words, developers who are denied withdrawals would get a last chance to plead their case to board members.

Hardly what the public needs.  Orlando Sentinel 
Read the rest of this entry »

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

Legislature to Vote on Budget Today

Today, the Legislature will vote on a budget built on one time non-recurring monies,  and loaded with fees and taxes (although some Republicans are now calling them “surcharges” to avoid the T word).  With Democrats threatening to vote a big no, and even some Republicans wavering, it looks like the Legislature’s vote on the budget will be interesting, but likely to pass. 

With all those fees and taxes, wonder where all those Grover Norquist “no new taxes” pledge Republicans are? 

Read more about the budget here and here.

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

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