Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

Alex Sink: “Lawton Chiles Meets Minnie Pearl”

Dan Ruth of the St. Pete Times has a rather interesting column about Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate for Governor.  He looks at Sink’s efforts to portray herself as a folksy daughter of a farmer in an effort to head off Republican criticism of her banking career:

Until she retired some 10 years ago with a pot full of farewell money, Sink was a bare-knuckled, hard-charging, body-part-crunching executive who eventually rose to become Florida president of Bank of America. She knows her way around a boardroom as well as Rambo knows how to snap a windpipe.

And yet since she announced her gubernatorial plans, Republicans have tried to suggest by virtue of Sink’s banking background she’s responsible for the Great Depression, the Irish potato famine, the collapse of Zimbabwe’s currency and the nation’s current economic crisis.

That is even more disingenuous than blaming the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Bill McCollum, for being complicit in the Guantanamo torture memos simply because he was a former judge advocate general lawyer as well as a congressman before he left office in 2001. After all, McCollum did suggest last month at a Suncoast Tiger Bay meeting that he doesn’t consider waterboarding to be torture.

Now it is understandable that Sink would want to introduce herself to voters as a doting mother and wife. But her decades in the financial community are also a significant part of who Alex Sink is as a person — the parent who may have kissed her son’s boo-boo in the morning as well as the bloodless suit who cut the knees off a corporate foe in the afternoon. Think of June Cleaver morphing into Joan Crawford.

For the record, I consider attacks on her banking career to be rather lame.  (I know, what a surprise coming from another banker.)  They also have the potential to backfire.  Jeff Atwater, the GOP’s current candidate for CFO is a long-time banker, and one whose bank has received a bit of unwanted publicity as of late.

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CFO Candidate’s Former Bank Among State’s Weakest

The Republican Party may want to re-think their strategy against former Bank of America Executive Alex Sink and her bid for the Governorship with this news about Jeff Atwater, the presumed front-runner for the GOP nomination for Florida CFO.

Riverside National Bank, where Senate President Jeff Atwater worked as a regional president, was again ranked among the weakest banks in the nation, according to a list from TheStreet.com. The bank, based in Fort Pierce, was also identified as deeply troubled and given one of the lowest safety ratings last month from BauerFinancial. Our story about that here.

Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, left the bank in February, but the association could haunt him in his upcoming campaign for state chief financial officer. The Republican Party of Florida, for example, opened the spin cycle of the 2010 campaign season by identifying Democrat Alex Sink, the state’s current CFO who is running for governor, as “banker Alex Sink.”

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Read My Lips, No New Taxes

Grover Norquist, the President of the powerful Americans for Tax Reform, has threatened to go after Florida Legislators who violate the anti-tax pledges they signed with his lobbying group when they first ran for office.

It’s the read-my-lips moment that some Florida lawmakers dread: having to break a pledge not to raise taxes.

A state budget $3 billion in the hole has the Legislature considering raising the cigarette tax, the biggest single levy to gain serious momentum in the Capitol in nearly 20 years.

Dozens of fees are being jacked up or created. Corporate income tax breaks are being reviewed. Some sales tax exemptions may be closed.

This has caused palpable anxiety in Tallahassee, where the Republican majority is about to reverse position on a founding principle against higher taxes.

But the pain is most acute for those Republicans who put it in writing.

At the top of that list? Governor Charlie Crist, Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater.

Perhaps Charlie Crist might want to review this old video…”They’ll push and I’ll say ‘no’, they’ll push again and I’ll say ‘no’…”

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State Farm Agent Takes on Senator

Interesting exchange from the Palm Beach Post between a State Farm agent and the president of the Florida Senate.

State Farm agent Bill Knight peppered Atwater, who has been on the warpath against property insurers for what he believes are excessive rates, with questions about the state CAT fund and other insurance questions, often interrupting the president and ultimately shutting down the session.

State Farm recently announced it was leaving the state and canceling its 1.2 million clients over the next two years after state insurance officials turned down its request for a 47 percent rate hike.

The state’s catastrophe fund has about $8 billion in cash on hand, but needs to cover about $28 billion in losses if a major storm occurs.

“We are heading out and there’s no turning around at this point. Where are the dollars going to come from if we were to have a Category 4 or 5 storm hitting Tampa or Pinellas County or anyone else in the state?” Knight wanted to know.

“We would be in a world of hurt if this occurred,” Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said.

But that didn’t stop Knight.

“How are you going to get private companies to come into the state? We are being basically chased out of the state. I’ve got a real problem with it and I’d like to hear your solution,” he persisted.

“Well, probably, let me just say this. I think you have a valid point. My hope would be that as you see the state and our policies loosen the restrictions so that there is a greater sense of market rate being provided by these corporations in Florida that private players will validate that those things are working and they will come here,” Atwater offered.

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Opening Speech Written By Lobbyists?

There was an oddly curious development on the opening day of the legislative session in Tallahassee today. Senate President Jeff Atwater (R) made his opening speech available to the media in Word format.  When the document was downloaded; however, Sen. Atwater did not show as the original author of the speech.  The author?  Public Concepts, a Palm Beach-based lobbying firm headed by political heavyweight Randy Nielson. Nielson’s company pulled in over $4.5 million in work from Republicans over the past legislative cycle, assisting Florida Republicans with bucking a national trend that leaned Democratic.  Was writing the Senate President’s opening speech of the legislative session also a form of payment?  Check out the document and the accompanying story at the St. Pete Times blog located here.

Humorous side note about the speech:  Atwater (or Public Concepts) referenced “a sextant, a navigational tool utilized by explorers from the 16th through the late 19th centuries.”  One problem.  16th century explorers would have had some difficulty using an 18th century invention.  Oh well, maybe those lobbyists will get it right next time…

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Legislature could’ve closed easy loopholes – and still can

Timely article below from the Tampa Tribune discussing how the Legislature could have easily fixed some tax loopholes during the Special Session.  They still can fix them during the upcoming regular session.  The question is:  do they have the wherewithal to do it?

TAMPA – Although the Florida Legislature slashed budgets for schools, children’s health care and living assistance for the elderly in its recent special session, it ignored a couple of easy fixes – loopholes in corporate tax law – that could have produced revenue to avoid some of the worst cuts.

In its regular session in March, facing an even bigger deficit in the coming year’s budget, the Legislature almost certainly will have to look at those and other ways to increase state tax revenue.

In the special session that ended Jan. 14, Democrats reacted angrily against the refusal of Republican legislative leaders to consider two measures in particular:

•Closing a loophole that lets corporations sell high-value properties without paying the documentary stamp tax that’s supposed to apply to all Florida real estate.

•Enacting laws that prevent corporations from “exporting” profit to other states, therefore avoiding Florida corporate income tax.

Those fixes could have produced an estimated $500 million in revenue, roughly what the Legislature cut from public schools, Democrats said.

“Even a few dollars would have been helpful in preventing some of the things we did that hurt people,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, who proposed legislation on the “doc stamp” tax. “It’s not a new tax, just closes a loophole people have been taking advantage of.”

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist says he thinks the Legislature cut more than they should have, and he may veto some cuts.

Republican legislative leaders gave several reasons why they wouldn’t consider any measures to increase revenue in the special session, called to fill a gap in the current year’s budget.

“The bottom line is our constituents have voiced very loudly, we cannot afford to pay more taxes right now,” said state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa. “Seven percent of our constituency is on unemployment. The last thing we want is government digging deeper in our pocket

Victor Crist added that with even bigger budget cuts looming, the state wanted to hold back any revenue cards until the regular session in March.

“That’s going to be a very wrenching experience,” he said.

Concerning the doc stamp tax, he said, “We didn’t want to do anything to hinder an industry that has been brought to its knees.”

Asked why he opposed considering revenue increases in the special session, House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, told the Tribune: “We agreed that takes time for the committee process and to let citizens have input on what we’re doing. That really is a regular session issue.”

Democrats countered that closing the loopholes is a simple matter of tax fairness.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Sink objects to funds raid

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer, Alex Sink, has objected to the Governor’s plan to raid state trust funds to balance the current budget deficit. Sink notes that Crist is attempting to raid 87% of the current balance of the Chiles Fund at a time when the fund’s balances are quite low—all in a short-sighted attempt to find a quick fix. Consider this Ms. Sink’s opening salvo in her US Senate race. The letter can be found here.

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Legislative update for Wednesday, January 7th

The various House and Senate committees met today continuing to go over the budget cuts.  House bills have been placed on the Special Order calendar for that big discussion (the House Session) that Speaker “Criminole” Sansom has scheduled to run from 3pm to 6pm tomorrow and reconvene if necessary on Friday.  The Senate bills are still under discussion at the committee level tomorrow, with the full Senate set to meet in Session at 9:3o am Friday morning.

House Dems issued calls to slow down on the budget cuts and wait for the federal stimulus package from Washington, DC.  While the Senate Dem caucus voted today to vote against the budget bills tomorrow in committee hearings and again at Session on Friday morning.

You can view the filed House appropriations bills and proposed Council bills, and the Senate’s proposed Committee bills here.

Footnote:  Not to be outdone, Rep. Waldman filed another cigarette tax bill today (HB15A).  Let’s see if the House refuses to introduce it again or if the bill is just left to wither on the vine.  Waldman is nothing, if not persistent.

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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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Special session: A trip to a casino?

Great opinion piece from the Miami Herald this morning that the special session’s limited focus gambles on Florida’s future.  Unfortunately, lawmakers won’t be able to discuss any new fees or consider revising Florida’s tax structure without a 3/4 vote of the Legislature.  You see, that subject wasn’t included in the call for the special session.  So legislators will be forced to work within the confines of the agenda set forth by Governor Charlie Crist and agreed to by Ray Sansom, Speaker of the House, and Jeff Atwater, Senate President.

When economy trips, Florida falls hard

With Florida facing its worst budget crisis in decades, it is at least hopeful that state lawmakers have scheduled a two-week special session beginning Monday to deal with the crisis. However, merely scheduling the special session is where the optimism begins and ends. The special session, sorry to say, will be more like a trip to the casino than a serious attempt to resolve Florida’s long-term financial problems: The odds are set before the action starts.

Read more here.

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