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The Buzz

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

A hidden tax on Florida's working poor? Tax collectors think so

Florida license tags for sale at a county tax collector's office

Florida license tags for sale at a county tax collector's office

Did the state House just impose a new hidden tax on cash-strapped motorists in Florida? No, say lawmakers. Yes, say Florida's elected tax collectors.

Every session, private agencies that renew car registrations and licenses seek a greater foothold in the nation's third-largest state, a lucrative market. They succeeded in getting language in a must-pass tax cut package that allows them to charge drivers a new "convenience fee." (Republicans in Tallahassee don't like to use the word "tax.")

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, was included in the same bill that includes a cut in the business rent tax, back-to-school sales tax holidays and other forms of tax relief. Read the Brodeur amendment here.

When Rep. Lori Berman and a few other Democrats asked Brodeur why private vendors should be able to charge a fee that tax collectors can't, Brodeur said it's for the convenience of motorists who may want to renew their tags on nights and on weekends. He said the amount of the fee would be regulated by the market. …

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Senate's vetting of 'schools of hope' has been vastly limited compared to House

Stuart Republican and Senate President Joe Negron, left, and Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, talk with reporters during a press conference in early April.

Phil Sears / AP

Stuart Republican and Senate President Joe Negron, left, and Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, talk with reporters during a press conference in early April.

Nine minutes.

That’s how long senators on the Appropriations Committee spent this week to hurriedly describe, amend and approve their version of one of the most high-profile, substantial and costly education policy changes the Legislature will enact this year affecting K-12 public schools.

Senators did not even debate their pair of bills Tuesday that counter a House Republican-approved $200 million “schools of hope” incentive for specialized charter schools. The one person from the public who wanted to weigh in was cut off after 56 seconds.

That’s not the picture of open, thorough and public debate Republican Senate leaders painted a couple of weeks ago when they agreed to send the House bill directly into budget negotiations and vowed transparency in those talks with the House.

Senate leaders had pledged they would have enough time — and would take the time — to properly vet the House “schools of hope” legislation and develop their own ideas on how to improve educational opportunities and services for students, mostly poor and minorities, who attend perpetually failing neighborhood schools. …

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More warnings from Rick Scott's office against cutting Visit Florida

As the Florida Legislature steams towards a budget deal that increasingly looks like it would gut funding for Visit Florida, Gov. Rick Scott's office put out a letter warning of dire fiscal consequences if lawmakers don't change course.

The Florida House and Senate appeared to be nearing a budget deal that would cut Visit Florida's $76 million budget to just $25 million next year. Scott had called for $100 million for the agency to market the state.

If the Legislature goes through with the cuts, the state could see a big drop in revenues, according to Christian Weiss, policy coordinator of finance and economics for the state Office of Policy Budget.

In his memo to Scott, which Scott shared with the media on Wednesday, Weiss said based on his review of a study of Visit Florida's return on investment, the state could lose $210 million in state revenues by cutting the agency that deeply. …

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Opposition mounts in Miami to new plan for casino

Armando Codina, Miami real estate developer who opposes gambling expansion in the county.

Miami Herald files

Armando Codina, Miami real estate developer who opposes gambling expansion in the county.

Armando Codina, one of Miami's most prominent developers, is sounding the alarm about the announcement Wednesday that the Florida House has agreed to a Senate plan to bring another casino to Miami-Dade County, arguing that while the revenue will help the state, it will cost the county, and leave the community with infrastructure and social problems. 

"I'm well-informed, but this surprised me how it was snuck in without any public debate,'' said Codina, chairman of Codina Partners, LLC, a real estate investment and development firm based in Coral Gables, in an interview with the Herald/Times.

"These guys are going to send casino money to Tallahassee and leave us with all the infrastructure issues and all the social issues that come with it,'' said Codina, who has long been a critic if expanded gambling in the county. "They are voting for something without any understanding of the impact and without any idea of where the money is going to go. It's a crime being perpetrated on the City of Miami." …

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House to consider allowing patients with chronic pain to use medical marijuana, permit vaping and edibles

In the first big step toward agreement on the issue in Tallahassee, the Florida House is expected to adopt sweeping changes to its medical marijuana proposal Friday.

New language (HB 1397) released Wednesday afternoon by Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, includes a number of changes pushed by advocates who came to public hearings:

* Patients with chronic, nonmalignant pain would qualify for medical marijuana.

* Doctors would not need a 90-day relationship with patients before they recommend the drug.

* Edibles and vaping would be allowed.

The language would maintain the House's slower ramp-up of licenses, granting licenses immediately to the seven growers under Florida's existing, limited medical cannabis program as well as an additional license to a black farmer. Then, the next licenses would kick in at 150,000 patients and 200,000 pateints. …

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House votes to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients

Rep. Travis Cummings


Rep. Travis Cummings

Some low-income people who rely on Medicaid may have to meet new work requirements to keep their health care under legislation passed by the Florida House on Wednesday.

Medicaid recipients who are able to work would have to prove to the state that they are working, actively seeking work or enrolled in a job-training program. It wouldn’t apply to people with disabilities, the elderly and children, groups that make up the majority of Florida’s Medicaid enrollment.

Failure to meet the requirement will result in a loss of coverage for a year.

The provision, which was tucked into a broader Medicaid bill (HB 7117), passed 81-34.

Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Orange Park, the Health and Human Services chairman, said it was a “responsible” policy that would help encourage people to get back into the workforce.

But opponents say kicking people off Medicaid will end up costing the state and federal government money. They say that instead of seeking preventive care, sick people will go to hospital emergency rooms, where taxpayers and those with private insurance foot the bills of the uninsured. …

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House Speaker said horse-trading yields 'bad policy.' Now, it's OK - sometimes.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes

Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes

When Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran were asked two months ago if their legislative priorities in higher education and K-12 public schools, respectively, would end up becoming bargaining chips this session, Negron wouldn’t rule it out.

But Corcoran offered a definitive response: “No.”

And he’s now backing away from that — and making a key distinction — as the two chamber leaders have, indeed, agreed to horse-trade significant education policy in budget talks to ensure they get their priorities into law before the scheduled end of session on May 5.

More here.

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Rubio meets with St. Pete development group

Sen. Marco Rubio continues to meet with Florida groups at a steady clip, and today he sat down with the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.

To his left in the photo is former Tampa Bay Times journalist Joni James, now CEO of the group, a nonprofit "focused on promoting urban (sustainable) growth and redevelopment."

St Petersburg Downtown Partnership is working to bring more jobs to @StPeteFL. Appreciated our discussion about making it happen.

Floridians need to have reliable, low-cost energy options. Talked with FL Electric Cooperatives which serve more than 2 million in our state

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Ex-Miami Rep didn't file tax returns for 9 years

From Patricia Mazzei and Jay Weaver of the Miami Herald:

For eight years, Erik Fresen served in the Florida House of Representatives, leaving office last November due to term limits.

During all eight of those years, Fresen never filed a federal income tax return.

Fresen, a Miami Republican, pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to failing to file a tax return for 2011, a year in which he received $270,136 in income he didn’t report to Uncle Sam.

But in all, Fresen admitted he actually failed to report his income to the Internal Revenue Service from 2007-16, according to a statement filed with his plea agreement. His tax troubles with the IRS arose before his political career, including the year before he was elected as a legislator.

In total, Fresen still owes at least $100,000 in back taxes, excluding fines and penalties, federal prosecutor Harold Schimkat said.  …

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House says applicants for college, university presidencies should be a secret

Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples

Florida Channel

Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples

Floridians would have no way to know everyone who applies to be the next president or other top administrator of a public college or university, under a proposed exemption in the state’s public records law that passed the House on Wednesday.

Lawmakers voted 103-11 to approve the carve-out, which was sought after a former Republican lawmaker unsuccessfully applied to be Florida Gulf Coast University’s next president this year.

It’s unlikely the bill (HB 351) will become law this spring, because the Senate version was never taken up in committee for senators to consider. Nevertheless, the measure has raised concerns.

The exemption would greatly diminish the transparency of how colleges and universities fill influential positions — which lawmakers themselves frequently apply for after, or even before, they leave the Legislature.

More here.

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Bill Nelson says Trump will face 'flood of opposition' to oil drilling move

Sen. Bill Nelson


Sen. Bill Nelson

WASHINGTON - Sen. Bill Nelson on Wednesday vowed bipartisan opposition to a coming move by President Donald Trump to open up oil drilling off the Florida coast.

"I hope he refrains from issuing this executive order, but if he does, this senator and a bipartisan delegation from Florida will fight," Nelson said on the Senate floor.

Trump's order is expected Friday and details are still unclear, though White House officials signaled it will target a late Obama-era restriction on offshore drilling and gas exploration in the Arctic Ocean and parts of the Atlantic.

Oil interests have long yearned for more access to the waters off Florida. Nelson invoked the BP oil spill and its damaging effect on tourism. Even if oil did not spread down the coast, as feared, people saw pictures and stayed away, Nelson said.

Trump can "expect a flood of opposition," Nelson warned.

Indeed, bipartisan voices have already spoken out.

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Meet the new president of the Florida Democratic Party

Sally Boynton Brown

From her DNC campaign

Sally Boynton Brown

Florida Democratic Chairman Stephen Bittel is hiring the former top administrator of the Idaho Democratic Party, Sally Boynton Brown, to be the Florida party's new "president," which for some reason is the new term for executive director.

Brown, who earlier this year ran unsuccessfully for Democratic National Committee Chairwoman, succeeds Scott Arceneaux, the top party administrator for seven years.

If we were snarky here at The Buzz, we would note that Idaho has a Republican governor, two Republican senators, an all-Republican Congressional delegation, an all-Republican Cabinet, supermajorities in the legislature.

"Sally shares my optimistic, idealistic enthusiasm," Bittel said in a press release. "Her national profile and experience as President of the Democratic State Party Directors are a testament to her impressive party and infrastructure building skills. I look forward to her bringing her knowledge of state party management to Florida as we work to turn our state back to blue."

From the release:  …

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Jeff Atwater still not certain on departure date

Florida's Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater is still not certain when he will leave his current position and take a post with Florida Atlantic University.

Atwater, a Republican from Palm Beach County, told The Buzz today that he may still be in office when the Cabinet next meets on May 27.

In February, Atwater announced he was taking a position at FAU, but only after the Legislature finishes it's annual session on May 5. There was no specific date he intended to leave. Gov. Rick Scott and the other two members of the Florida Cabinet had treated the last Cabinet meeting on April 11 as Atwater's last meeting. They gave him going away gifts and saluted his tenure in office.

Because Atwater is leaving with more than 18 months left in his elected term in office, Scott has the authority to select Atwater's replacement through the 2018 election. Scott has not said who he is considering for the position.


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House agrees to give Miami new casino, other concessions

The Seminole Tribe will get new craps and roulette under proposed House gambling deal.

Miami Herald files

The Seminole Tribe will get new craps and roulette under proposed House gambling deal.

After years of impasse over how to update Florida's gambling laws to reflect the changing times, the Florida House agreed to a series of major concessions Wednesday, including bringing a new casino to Miami-Dade County, ending the mandate that horse and dog tracks conduct live racing and a willingness to give the Seminole Tribe the ability to offer craps and roulette.

"We know that time is running out, so we wanted to make a substantial offer to the Senate,'' began Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, the House's chief negotiator on the second day of a gambling conference between the chambers.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the proposal "was a substantial offer that tells me that you came in here ready to get the ball moving down the field." …

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Rick Scott : 'Shortsighted' lawmakers would slash jobs, tourism

From Buenos Aires, where he's on the third day of a four-day trade mission, Gov. Rick Scott issued a statement Wednesday warning the Legislature not to carry out planned budget cuts to Enterprise and VISIT Florida. Here's Scott's statement:

"Lawmakers cannot be shortsighted at the expense of Florida families by cutting funds for tourism marketing and economic development. I would be absolutely shocked if politicians in the Florida Legislature put their self-interests before the interests of our families and small businesses. Let's remember, fully funding VISIT Florida and Enterprise Florida is only 0.24 percent of Florida's state budget. But reducing this funding will have a significant impact on state, county, city and local tourism and economic development boards' revenues by hundreds of millions of dollars."

The governor initially proposed $85 million for Enterprise Florida's economic incentive programs and $76 million for VISIT Florida's tourism marketing, and last week hiked his VISIT Florida request to $100 million.

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