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Guest Author

Matt Gaetz: Fix Florida’s Everglades, avoid distraction of costly land buy

As a former state legislator and now a member of Congress, I’ve been proud to support investments in protecting Florida’s natural resources, including the Everglades. While located far from the Emerald Coast, the Everglades are about as iconic in Florida as the Blue Angels, the Space Shuttle, and the orange. Everglades National Park alone welcomes 1.1 million visitors annually with an economic impact of more than $103 million.

Recently, I joined my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in encouraging President Donald Trump to remain on the current path to Everglades restoration. In a letter delivered by Congressman Francis Rooney, we made the case for why Everglades restoration is critical to preserving such a unique and treasured ecosystem. Congress has already invested $1.26 billion into this ongoing effort. The smartest scientists say these projects are having a meaningful impact on restoring Florida’s “River of Grass” and addressing concerns over water quality issues around Lake Okeechobee. For these reasons, we must complete the comprehensive array of fully-vetted projects that are designed to restore the Everglades and reduce the discharges from the lake.

At the heart of the current debate over fixing Lake Okeechobee is whether additional land should be purchased by the government using state and federal dollars through a bonding scheme that relies on future generations paying off the debt. At a time when 42 percent of all land in South Florida is already owned by the government, we should be looking for ways to get government out of the real estate business – not deeper into it. And with Washington so focused on cutting costs, there simply isn’t enough money to buy more land, especially for projects for which land has already been acquired by the government.

Instead, the dollars committed by Congress and the state should be going toward projects that the science says can provide communities with tangible benefits for flood protection, storage and water treatment – the most quickly and at the best price.

Land buys are not only costly to taxpayers, but also to those who rely on the land to help put food on our tables. According to the conservative James Madison Institute, more than 4,100 jobs will be lost as a result of the proposed land buy. The study also found the plan could cost Florida up to $700 million in economic output, mostly in already struggling Glades communities.

In the case of the proposed plan to purchase 60,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee, the major landowners have signaled they are not willing to sell. Many of these are multigenerational family farmers. So, without a single seller, why does the debate continue? One has to wonder that if the sellers are anything but willing, is eminent domain really at work?

Instead of a futile land buy, Florida needs to stay the course on completing the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which has enjoyed bipartisan support from our

Congressional delegation since its inception under Governor Jeb Bush and President Bill Clinton in 2000. The plan keeps taxpayer dollars focused on addressing the water quality issues in coastal areas of South and Southwest Florida while also building additional storage at points north, east, south and west of Lake Okeechobee. Most importantly, it does so in a way that respects private property rights and agricultural communities, which play a crucial role in Florida’s economy.

Whether you are from North Florida or South Florida, we can all agree that Florida’s Everglades are a national treasure we cannot afford to lose. Finishing the projects that were started in 2000 will help to ensure the “River of Grass” will be around for generations to come. We need to stay the course and not get distracted by another government land buy that won’t solve the problem but will harm some of our struggling rural communities.

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Matt Gaetz is the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 1st Congressional District, stretching from Pensacola to Holmes County.

John Couris: Open letter to the community from Jupiter Medical Center

John Couris

This legislative session, a group of lawmakers with a shared free-market philosophy are working to eliminate an important health care planning process called the Certificate of Need (CON) program. They believe by deregulating health care, costs would be reduced and quality would be improved. We disagree.

While we believe our legislators want to do the right thing, eliminating this program is not good for our community or state. It currently requires health care providers to obtain state approval before offering services in Florida. But eliminating CON and deregulating health care could trigger a chain reaction that reduces quality, increases costs and makes it harder to obtain necessary services.

At Jupiter Medical Center, we are passionate about caring for your health and wellness. As a community hospital, we invest in many unprofitable services and heavily subsidize others because they are essential to you, our patients. This includes services like obstetrics, diabetes care and our free clinic. CON helps ensure that we are able to continue to provide these vital services.

It is important that we all understand the facts surrounding this issue. Here’s how eliminating CON could affect you and your family:

Loss of Vital Services — Community hospitals across our state could no longer afford to offer many critical health care services. With no regulation, boutique health care businesses can move in and choose to offer only profitable services, instead of balancing these with the vital services the community needs. That means losing many essential programs you and your family may depend on.

Reduced Quality — It is well-documented that the more times a hospital performs a procedure, the better the outcome. Adding more hospitals spreads out the patient volume, leaving providers performing complex procedures only a handful of times. Think about it — would you rather have neurosurgery in a hospital that performs 100 of these sophisticated procedures a year, or only four?

Higher Costs — While eliminating CON is being touted to create more competition and drive down costs, the opposite is more likely to happen. We compete against other hospitals in our area every day, and that’s a good thing. But delivering health care is not like selling widgets. Bring more widget sellers into a market and sure, prices will go down. But let more health providers come into a market without any oversight or planning to determine the need for more services, and costs will rise.

CON is working in Florida. It’s an effective tool that protects the quality of your care and ensures you have the opportunity to provide your view on whether a new service or facility is actually needed in your community. Under these proposed bills, your voice would be taken away.

You should be concerned about the negative consequences of eliminating CON and the effect it could have on your health care. We encourage you to reach out to your legislators and tell them you do not support Senate Bill 676 and House Bill 7. You can find your representative by visiting

You can find your representative by visiting www.flsenate.gov/Senators/Find or www.myfloridahouse.gov/Sections/Representatives/myrepresentative.aspx.

We also welcome you to contact John Couris, president and CEO, at jcouris@jupitermed.com to share your concerns. Additionally, you can read more about his stance on this issue either through his blog (Inventinghealth.blogspot.com) or by connecting with him on LinkedIn (Linkedin.com/in/jcouris).

With Congress currently working on massive changes to our U.S. health care system, now is not the time for Florida to make wholesale changes to our state regulatory structure. Join us and make your voice heard on this harmful legislation that could critically impact you, your family and our community.

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John Couris is CEO of Jupiter Medical Center. Couris and 15 members of Jupiter Medical Center board of trustees signed the above open letter.

Audrey Brown: Long-term care key to quality of life for Florida Medicaid seniors

Audrey Brown, president and CEO of Florida Association of Health Plans, Inc.

In 2011, the State of Florida elected to move long-term care (LTC) into the Statewide Medicaid Managed Care (SMMC) program, as the escalating costs of providing care at more institutional-style settings, like nursing homes, to an aging baby boomer population was creating a looming health care crisis.

For most families, the decision to move a loved one to a nursing home or institutional setting is difficult and saddening.  Many people would prefer to be at home and not institutionalized, if at all possible; but, until the implementation of the SMMC program, the hope of transitioning out of a facility was dim and the possibility of having the necessary services to keep someone at home was slim.

The fundamental strategy to allow Florida’s health plans to coordinate long-term care for our state’s most vulnerable and frail Medicaid beneficiaries was to enhance care in institutional settings, while simultaneously reducing the reliance on nursing homes by increasing the utilization of appropriate community-based alternatives.

Since its implementation, the program has been successful, as the LTC program now works both in terms of achieving cost savings and expanding meaningful benefits.  First and foremost, this program delivers the right amount and type of care to address individuals’ needs.  Often this appropriate type of care is delivered through more cost-efficient, home-based care services, which not only offers a less-restrictive setting for those eligible, but has also resulted in more than $400 million in cost savings.

Moreover, health plans have been able to leverage their resources to offer expanded benefits, such as support to transition to the community; emergency financial assistance; dental, hearing and vision services; transportation and many more.  These expanded benefits were valued at $9.5 million in 2015 and are financed by the health plans — not taxpayers.  Further demonstrating its success, 77.4 percent of Medicaid LTC recipients recently indicated in a survey that their quality of life has improved as a result of the SMMC LTC program.

Despite these documented successes and high satisfaction rates, some have expressed interest in regressing to the old model, wherein more of Florida’s most vulnerable populations would once again remain in institutional settings, where they are often not better served, with fewer opportunities to transition to more appropriate, less restrictive settings.

The Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) also recently took a look at the impact that regressing to the old fee-for-service model would have on the state and found that the result would be calamitous.  Noting in a bill analysis, AHCA said that this move would result in additional costs amounting to $284 million for FY 2014-2015, $432 million in FY 2015-2016 and an estimated ongoing cost avoidance of $200 million annually.

Further, to demonstrate the real-world benefits Florida’s health plans deliver to patients, including in LTC, the Florida Association of Health Plans, Inc. (FAHP) recently launched a campaign, Florida Patients Matter, which showcases a series of videos focused on health plans’ commitment to being patient-centered.  In one video, a health plan member, Carol, discusses how after being diagnosed with stage four Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, she was successfully transitioned home after being in a nursing home for three and a half years. Carol, now in remission, receives in-home care and assistance with medication, setting up doctor appointments and more from her health plan.

As Florida lawmakers discuss long-term care this session, FAHP urges them to keep the current LTC program in place, as it is truly improving the quality of life for seniors and their families.

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Audrey Brown is president and CEO of Florida Association of Health Plans, Inc.

Dennis Ross: Obamacare a mistake; time to repeal, replace

This month marks seven long and daunting years since Obamacare was signed into the law.

Seven years of broken promises. Seven years of skyrocketing premiums and fewer options. Seven years of tax increases, mandates and penalties. Seven years of families and hard working Americans having to make the choice between putting food on the table, buying cost-prohibitive health insurance under Obamacare, or facing federal mandates and penalties.

This is no way for Americans to live, and we cannot let it continue. We must pass the American Health Care Act (AHCA) so we can repeal the failures of Obamacare and replace them with a robust and vibrant health insurance market where people will have more freedom and flexibility to get the affordable plans they need and prefer.

Since its enactment, Obamacare has kicked 4.7 million Americans off of their health care plans and forced double-digit premium rate increases on families. Today, one-third of U.S. counties have only one insurance provider, and multiple insurers are pulling out of the federal exchanges because of the economic strain Obamacare has on our nation.

Even leading Democrats, like former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Chuck Schumer, have admitted Obamacare was a mistake and has left Americans with less coverage.

In Florida alone, premiums will increase by 19 percent this year, and nearly 72 percent of Florida counties have only one or two insurance providers to choose from on the exchange. This is not choice.

Instead of kicking Americans off of their plans, the AHCA will kick bureaucrats out of doctors’ offices and put patients back in charge of their own health care decisions. This patient-centered legislation will lower health care premiums by 10 percent, reduce the federal deficit by $337 billion, cap Medicaid spending for the first time, and provide $883 billion in tax relief for middle-income families and small businesses.

The AHCA further eliminates the individual and employer mandates that impose burdensome requirements on small businesses and families. It also reduces federal mandates and regulations that force health care plans to be filled with services people do not want and cannot afford. The AHCA will allow for a seamless transition that provides continuous coverage for those currently enrolled in the health care exchanges, while helping Americans purchase their own plans through tax credits and Health Savings Accounts so no one has the rug pulled out from under them.

Through this legislation, we are also protecting families and the unborn by allowing children up to 26 years old to stay on their parents’ health care plans, preventing health insurers from denying coverage to patients based on pre-existing conditions, and blocking abortion providers from receiving federal funds.

This a beginning, not an end. We are going through the proper regular order and transparent process with this proposal, and are open to suggestions and ideas, something President Obama and Democrats were unwilling to do when they rammed Obamacare through Congress in the middle of the night. The AHCA is the first of three necessary and needed phases to fully repeal and replace Obamacare. This first phase allows us to immediately get the ball rolling by taking full advantage of the budget reconciliation process that will avoid Senate Democrats’ attempt to filibuster a full repeal and replacement.

After phase one is accomplished, we will quickly move on to phase two, which includes administrative actions, notably by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, to stabilize the health insurance market, increase choices and lower costs. The third phase will then allow Congress to introduce and pass additional legislative policies, such as allowing Americans to purchase coverage across state lines, which by Senate rules cannot be included in the reconciliation bill in phase one. Each phase has a thoughtful and strategic purpose in order to accomplish our long-awaited goal.

If we do not act, this disastrous health care law will continue in its death spiral, hurting American families and businesses, and threatening the next generation. After seven years of the American people telling us that Obamacare is not working, and after seven years of Republicans telling them we will repeal and replace it, the time for action and to fulfill our promise is now. We cannot, and will not, let this opportunity slip through our fingers. We must unite and put American patients first.

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U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross represents Florida’s 15th Congressional District.

Maria Wells: Assignment of Benefits — A growing problem for Florida families

Maria Wells

Florida homeowners need to start taking action regarding an escalating problem that will lead to increases in their insurance premiums in the near future. Abuses of the Assignments of Benefits (AOB) process have already led to substantial insurance rate increases in South and Central Florida and it is only a matter of time before those premium hikes spread statewide.

The most common AOB arrangement involves transferring your home insurance policy benefits to a home repair vendor after an emergency, such as a plumbing leak or roof problem. With the contractor and their attorney now in control, claims can be inflated with unnecessary or phantom costs and attorney fees. And make no mistake, these inflated costs are passed on to policyholders when insurance companies calculate their rates.

Large areas of the state, particularly the tri-county area of Southeast Florida, have already been hit with double-digit property insurance rate hikes with more increases on the horizon if something isn’t done. State-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has calculated what will happen if lawmakers do not fix the problem.

In Palm Beach, for example, coverage for a residential structure with a value of $155,000 would rise from $2,210 this year to $3,559 in 2022. In Broward, that premium would jump from $2,390 to $3,850, and in Miami-Dade, the premium would increase from $2,926 to $4,712. Premiums for more expensive homes would go up even more.

For most Floridians, their home is their largest investment. Homeownership is still the key to the American dream and is vital to building strong communities. Floridians on fixed incomes are particularly vulnerable to increases in the ancillary costs of owning a home, such as property taxes, insurance and maintenance.

It is heartbreaking to see hard working families scrimp and save to be able to qualify for a mortgage only to learn that these overhead costs end up busting-the-budget.

These premium increases, mostly due to AOB scams, are already putting homeownership further out of reach for many families in South Florida and will start to impact families in other areas of the state without prompt legislative action.

The Assignment of Benefits process was envisioned as a tool to aid homeowners with disputed insurance claims. Unfortunately, it has been hijacked by unscrupulous contractors and attorneys who are enriching themselves at the expense of Florida families. That is why Florida Realtors® have joined the Consumer Protection Coalition to help put a stop to AOB abuse. Go to www.fightfraud.today to learn more and consider joining our effort.

Also, make sure to tell your state senator and representative to support meaningful AOB reforms that allow consumers to quickly and effectively repair damage to their home but also stop scammers from attempting to transform legitimate insurance claims into personal gain.

We all put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay; they should do the same.
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Maria Wells is the 2017 president of Florida Realtors.

Matt Thompson: SB 1040 & HB 853 — Serving up beer the right way in Florida

Matt Thompson

At the three local Tallahassee establishments I own, Madison Social, Township and Centrale, we serve more than 30 types of beer from breweries all across the country.

And, I sincerely enjoy and have an appreciation for each of their unique qualities and love to share them with our patrons.

But in my establishments, like most bars and restaurants, we sometimes don’t have access to one key element that would improve the beer-drinking experience for customers — the right glassware. To explain, in Europe, different beers are served in different glassware depending on the style and brand — from tulip and pilsner glasses, to snifters and chalices. This glassware serves a real purpose, because the glass a beer is served in can draw out that beer’s unique quality and flavor profile.

Take for example a Belgian-brewed blonde pilsner; it is meant to be served in a chalice-style glass because they are designed so every curve serves a discrete purpose to how the beer should be enjoyed. The authentic shape encourages the perfect balance of CO2 and liquid, enhancing head retention and flavor. Overall, this enhances customers’ beer-drinking experience.

While many bars and restaurants, including my own, would enjoy the ability to serve each different type of beer in the appropriate type of glassware, we are often not able to do so because we lose inventory to breakage and theft, and simply cannot afford to keep the various glasses we need on-hand.

In the same vein, the beer industry would often like to supply us with their branded glassware in an effort to elevate consumers’ experience as they enjoy their product. Yet, due to a current Florida law, the industry is prevented from giving retailers, including bars and restaurants, their appropriate branded glassware at no cost.

But there is good news on the horizon for establishments like mine, the beer industry and beer connoisseurs alike. There is an effort underway in the Florida Legislature, House Bill 853, by Representative [TomGoodson and Senate Bill 1040, by Senator [FrankArtiles, that would allow the industry to provide the appropriate glassware to accompany their beers to Florida bars and restaurants.

At the end of the day, retailers, along with the beer industry, are all trying to provide consumers and beer lovers with the best experience possible, and that includes serving their beer in the right glass. And, as the beer scene continues to be an exciting industry space, which is especially true now with the craft beer scene continuing to flourish, I hope we can evolve to serve these unique beers in the appropriate glassware.

I thank Representative Goodson and Senator Artiles for sponsoring these bills and hope my fellow restaurant and bar owners, as well as Floridians across the state who wish to enjoy their beer the right way, join me in asking the legislature for their support of House Bill 853 and Senate Bill 1040.

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Matt Thompson of Tallahassee is an alumnus of the Florida State University School of Communication and owns Madison Social, Centrale and Township.

Jennifer Sullivan, Aaron Bean: Foster care program for teen drivers deserves support

As young people transition to adulthood, earning their driver’s license provides a certain level of independence and economic mobility — a vehicle, if you will, to go places in life.

Whether heading to school or work, the doctor’s office or the grocery store, having the ability to drive is a necessity most Floridians take for granted.

Until recently, however, getting a license — not to mention paying for car insurance — was nearly impossible for teens in the state’s foster care system. Three years ago, in fact, only 20 youth ages 15 to 18 in the foster care system anywhere in Florida received their driver’s license before the age of 18.

In response, Florida legislators unanimously passed the Keys to Independence Act, an innovative three-year pilot program funded by the Florida Department of Children and Families and managed by Community Based Care of Central Florida.

The program, which launched in 2014, helps children as young as 15 get a learner’s permit by enrolling them in driver’s education courses and monitoring their progress until they earn a license. In addition to covering fees associated with the licensure process, it also reimburses the expenses for each licensed driver’s car insurance, which averages about $200 a month.

Keys to Independence has been a resounding success. In just a short time, the number of teens in foster care who have a driver’s license has almost tripled, and 1,035 participants are currently enrolled, including more than 330 in Tampa and Sarasota.

The program is impacting lives across Florida, providing newfound opportunity for young people just like Jake Whitmeyer, an 18-year-old from Cocoa.

Thanks to Keys to Independence, Jake passed his driver’s test on his first try and can afford the monthly insurance premiums. Now he drives to church, extracurricular school activities and his part-time job at a restaurant. Soon, Jake will drive to Eastern Florida State College for classes over summer break.

Simply put, Keys to Independence is opening doors for thousands of children who, through no fault of their own, must overcome a wide range of disadvantages.

That’s why we are sponsoring a companion bill during the upcoming legislative session to make this program a permanent fixture for Florida’s youth.

We urge our fellow lawmakers to once again give Keys to Independence their full support. We have seen how it has improved lives, and we look forward to its continued success far into the future.

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Florida state Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, a Mount Dora Republican, is sponsoring House Bill 217. Jacksonville Republican state Sen. Aaron Bean, is sponsoring Senate Bill 60. For more information on the Keys to Independence program visit www.KeystoIndependenceFl.org.

 

Matt Gaetz: Keep working to repeal and replace Obamacare

President Trump has endorsed a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. His plan, called the American Health Care Act, is described as the first of three immediate steps occurring to end this nightmare. Remember, Obamacare was implemented over several bills, with tons of executive overreach. Administrative corrections and legislation clearing the 60-vote Senate threshold must follow.

For this bill, we need 51.

I’ll be frank — I’m not crazy about it. I wanted to like it, especially after hearing from Obamacare’s victims: prices skyrocketing, premiums rising, plans closing, coverage decreasing. I wanted to like it because the thought of government forcing people to buy anything — much less health insurance — disgusts me.

We know Obamacare is a wet blanket over our economy, smothering the job-creating ambition of small businesses. I wanted to love it; I just didn’t.

We should be going bolder. We should get the federal government out of health care completely, not just diminish its role.

Then I remembered Tom. I met him at Waffle House. His hash browns were smothered and covered; his question was direct: “How will you decide which way to vote on stuff?” he asked while wiping ketchup from his mustache.

I told him I’d vote for bills that got power out of Washington — and against ones that didn’t. He grumbled on the way out, “Don’t lie to me” — and took a bumper sticker.

There is no debate that the American Health Care Act means less power for Washington. Specifically, under Trump’s plan, the federal government cannot provide taxpayer dollars to Planned Parenthood; enroll illegal aliens in health care entitlements — only to check their status later; tax people for not buying government-mandated health insurance; stop associations or groups from forming their own risk pools; punish businesses for hiring more employees; or force you away from your doctor or plan.

It also reduces the deficit by $337 Billion over 10 years and constitutes $1 trillion in tax cuts by repealing 14 Obamacare taxes. These are big conservative wins.

With several key changes, this bill would be much bolder. It wouldn’t be perfect — but better.

First, there should be a work requirement.

Able-bodied, childless adults who can work and choose not to should not expect America to borrow money from China to pay for their health care. Everyone can contribute to society — if not through a job or skills enhancement, by volunteering. This will help curb costs and engage all Americans in productivity.

Second, Medicaid can’t keep expanding.

The bill currently takes the position that Medicaid can expand for two-and-a-half more years before it is ultimately contracted. Already, 1 in 4 Americans is on Medicaid. This is like hoping to lose weight by planning to diet in two-and-a-half years — and eating everything in sight until then.

Finally, states should be totally in charge of Medicaid.

The federal government has proved an incompetent operator of the Medicaid program. We need 50 laboratories of democracy, totally unconstrained, innovating for better health care and lower costs. Some states will get it right; others will copy.

It’s easy to vote “no” and just blame others for not bending to my will. It’s harder to persuade others that the conservative way is the Better Way.

I serve on the Budget Committee. Earlier this week, my conservative colleagues and I offered Budgetary “Motions of Instruction” to address these issues. Thankfully, they passed, meaning the Rules Committee can accept our amendments to drain this swamp even lower.

I voted in favor of President Trump’s plan to keep the conversation going — to keep the legislative process focused on free-market, patient-centered health care. Giving up or accepting failure simply because the initial version of this bill underwhelms is not an option.

The American people won’t give us unlimited bites at the apple — it’s time to get health care reform right, or be stuck with the disaster that is Obamacare forever.

I owe Tom a strong fight to make President Trump’s bill far better. I also owe him whatever vote gives him more power, and Washington less.

Let’s keep working.

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Matt Gaetz is the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 1st Congressional District, stretching from Pensacola to Holmes County.

 

Pat Neal: Prosperity for our families and future

Pat Neal

Thanks to the efforts of Governor Rick Scott and the state’s committed business leaders, Florida has one of the strongest economies in the country. With our unemployment rate under 5 percent, Florida continues to exceed the nation’s annual job growth rate and tourism, one of the state’s economic drivers remains strong, with just under 113 million visitors in 2016, an increase from just 86 million visitors just three years ago.

Much of this success has been a result of Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.

Their contributions are critical to our state’s recovery and continue to be important drivers in Florida’s economic well-being. The two organizations are responsible for helping create thousands of jobs in conjunction with private businesses, and the organizations allow us to compete with other states for businesses and visitors, many of whom have significantly increased their business and tourism marketing programs to entice companies and visitors.

It is important to have a business climate that allows companies to flourish, people to be able to find high-paying jobs and to ensure that we are economically competitive on a national level.

Political differences in the Capitol are putting the success of the Sunshine State at risk. Members in the Florida House have filed numerous pieces of legislation taking aim at Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. The bills call for drastic cuts or the complete elimination of the two public-private partnerships, outcomes that would undoubtedly slow down or even reverse the good economic fortune of Florida.

As an employer of hundreds, I hear every day how important it is for Florida families to have good jobs that pay well and build a more prosperous future for our children.

Research from Florida TaxWatch shows that Florida’s targeted economic development incentives have generated positive return on state investment by enticing qualifying businesses to bring high-wage jobs to the state and diversifying the state’s industry portfolio. Incentive programs also have numerous protections, such as sanctions and clawbacks, in order to ensure that the hard-earned dollars of Florida taxpayers are not spent unwisely.

We must compete with the millions each year of incentives paid by other states, counties and municipalities.

The data also backs up the power of tourism marketing in attracting visitors to the Sunshine State. Continuing to fund Visit Florida will bring hundreds of millions of people to the state.

Every 76 visitors to Florida support one job. This investment is diversifying the Florida economy, creating jobs and improving the income of Floridians.

If the legislature were to make significant cuts to, or eliminate, Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, it will put Florida at an economic disadvantage versus the rest of the nation, stifling job creation and slowing economic development and extinguish the hopes of hundreds of thousands of Florida workers who seek a more prosperous future. We must continue to fund our incentive and tourism marketing programs. We must remain a state open for business.

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Pat Neal, former state senator and the former chair of the Christian Coalition of Florida, currently serves as chairman-elect for the board of directors of Florida TaxWatch, the state’s independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute and government watchdog, and the president of Neal Communities.

Glenn Burhans, Jr.: #CashMeOutside – Another Florida pol tripped up by campaign finance laws

Glenn Burhans, Jr.

Another Florida politician has been nicked by the feds.

Former Florida State Rep. Dwayne Taylor was recently indicted on nine counts of wire fraud stemming from the alleged embezzlement of campaign funds. He is accused of taking more than $62,000 in campaign funds via ATM withdrawals, checks and petty cash, and depositing them into his personal bank account or using them for personal expenses. Taylor is also accused of submitting fraudulent campaign expenditure reports to cover up the alleged embezzlement.

While not readily apparent from the expenditure reports, one red flag the feds seem to have focused on is a number of ATM withdrawals by Taylor from his campaign account. Candidates for state office in Florida would be well advised to avoid using campaign debit cards for cash withdrawals and personal purchases. Using campaign checks made out to “cash” can also be problematic because the use of petty cash is tightly restricted. While misusing campaign cash or violating the petty cash limits could lead to an election law violation, it was the alleged use of ATMs and computers networked to servers located outside of Florida (“wire communication in interstate commerce” in fed-speak) that led to Taylor’s federal indictment even though he was a state candidate at the time.

If convicted, he faces a harsh penalty: up to 20 years in federal prison for each count, plus forfeiture of the funds (or property he purchased with those funds).

Do we see a pattern?

This past September, then State Rep. Reggie Fullwood pleaded guilty to two federal counts related to the alleged misuse of campaign contributions. He was similarly charged with diverting the money into the account of a limited liability company that he owned, and then using it for personal use. He was also accused of submitting fraudulent campaign expenditure reports. Fullwood, like Taylor, acted as his own campaign treasurer.

We all know the old adage about a lawyer who represents himself …; while candidates are allowed to serve as their own campaign treasurer that could lead to trouble or at least inadvertent mistakes. Regardless, many candidates do so, believing it will save them money by not having to pay a professional. Leaving aside the criminal aspects of the Taylor and Fullwood incidents, using a professional accountant is just good policy as both Federal and State campaign finance laws are complex; candidates intending to comply can unwittingly violate the law.

Here a few tips to avoid some common miscues:

– Contributions and expenditures can only be made for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election – do not use them for any other purpose.

– Campaign funds cannot be used for personal expenses, except for costs incurred by a candidate or family member for transportation, meals and lodging during campaign travel. When in doubt, ask your campaign attorney.

– Candidates should not serve as their own campaign treasurer; instead, appoint someone that is independent and experienced in campaign accounting, preferably a CPA.

– Keep campaign and personal accounts segregated.

– Expenditures must be made by check drawn on the campaign account; only campaigns for statewide office can obtain and use campaign credit cards for travel related expenses.

– Track and report the amount, date, payee and purpose of each expenditure.

– Petty cash may only be used in amounts of less than $100 and only for office supplies, transportation expenses, and other small dollar campaign necessities.

– Individual petty cash expenditures need not be reported, but the total amount of petty cash withdrawn and spent must be reported; retain all petty cash receipts.

– Deposit cash contributions into the campaign bank account; never commingle cash contributions with petty cash.

The law is complex and the cost of non-compliance can be significant. When in doubt, consult your friendly neighborhood campaign finance professional to avoid costly consequences.

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Glenn Burhans, Jr. is a shareholder in the Stearns Weaver Miller law firm. Based in Tallahassee, he specializes in complex litigation, governmental investigations and election/political activity law.

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