Lloyd Dunkelberger – Florida Politics

Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger is a Tallahassee-based political reporter and columnist; he most recently served as Tallahassee bureau chief for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Pell Grant students trail in graduation rates

Florida’s public universities graduated 57 percent of low-income students receiving federal Pell Grants in six years, but that trailed the graduation rate of non-Pell students, a new study shows.

The analysis by Third Way, a Washington, D.C.- based think tank, used newly reported federal data to track a 2010 cohort of first-time, full-time Pell students in 1,566 four-year institutions across the country, including public and private schools.

“As colleges continue to bill themselves as mobility machines for students, this new data lets us (home) in on how well institutions are serving Pell students, who need the economic security of a college degree the most,” the report said.

The Third Way analysts found a majority of the four-year public and private schools nationally do not serve Pell students well and that the six-year graduation rate for Pell students is 18 percent lower than for non-Pell students at those institutions.

“We already know we have a completion crisis in higher education — and this new data shows us that this problem is even more acute for low- and moderate-income students,” the report said.

Florida universities performed better than the national average. The 57 percent graduation rate for the 2010 group of Pell students in Florida schools was well above a national average of 49 percent for public institutions, although three schools were below the average: Florida A&M University, 39 percent; Florida Gulf Coast University, 41 percent; and the University of West Florida, 47 percent.

An average gap of 5 percentage points between Pell and non-Pell graduation rates in Florida was significantly below the national average of 16 percentage points for public schools, according to the report.

The largest gaps were at New College of Florida, 14 percentage points; Florida A&M, 8 percentage points; the University of Florida, 7 percentage points; Florida State University, 7 percentage points; and Florida Gulf Coast, 7 percentage points.

On the positive side, the University of South Florida and Florida Atlantic University had higher graduation rates for their Pell students compared to non-Pell students. Florida International University and the University of North Florida graduated Pell and non-Pell students at the same rate.

The Third Way study put a particular focus on four-year institutions that serve large numbers of Pell students, who received an average award of $3,740 last year. More than three-quarters of those students came from families that earned $40,000 or less a year. The study defined the higher Pell institutions as having at least 37 percent of their 2010 cohort receiving the federal aid.

Under that criteria, USF finished as a top-10 performing institution among the “Pell-serving institutions,” graduating 68 percent of its Pell students within six years, compared to 67 percent for non-Pell students. Forty-one percent of its 2010 cohort was on a Pell grant.

“Since 2009, student success has been a focus of the university as we sought to implement programming, practices and policies to support students on a timely and successful path to graduation and fully prepare them for what lays beyond,” Paul Dosal, a USF vice president, said in a statement. “This student success movement has been built on our fundamental belief that all students will succeed if given the opportunity. It is very satisfying knowing our initiatives are working.”

Florida International graduated 56 percent of its Pell students, while serving a cohort with 52 percent of the students on the federal aid program.

Florida Atlantic graduated 51 percent of its Pell students, above its 49 percent graduation rate for non-Pell students. It had 39 percent Pell students in its 2010 group.

Florida A&M had the highest number of Pell students, with 72 percent in the 2010 cohort, graduating 39 percent of them in six years compared to 47 percent for non-Pell students, the study showed.

The University of Central Florida graduated 65 percent of its Pell students, although that was 6 percentage points below the non-Pell student graduation rate. Pell students represented 31 percent of its cohort.

UF (82 percent) and FSU (75 percent) had the highest graduation rates for Pell students, but each rate lagged the non-Pell students by 7 percentage points. Pell students make up less than 30 percent of the 2010 cohorts at those schools.

Florida Polytechnic University, which was not a fully operating institution during the time of the survey, was not included in the report.

The number of students on Pell grants is growing in Florida schools, with a 2.4 percent increase since the fall of 2010, according to the state university system’s Board of Governors. Some 39 percent of the undergraduates were on Pell grants in the fall of 2015, with Florida A&M and Florida International having the largest numbers.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Adam Putnam maintains fundraising edge in governor’s race

In the Republican race for governor, new financial reports show Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis continue to pursue different strategies in their quest for their party’s nomination.

Putnam, a two-term Agriculture Commissioner, raised more than $2 million in April and spent $2.4 million, including more than $1.8 million launching his first television ad, the new filings with the state Division of Elections show.

DeSantis, a three-term congressman from Palm Coast, raised $819,000 in April and spent $570,000, the state records show. DeSantis has yet to run any television advertising but is relying on frequent appearances on Fox News to connect with Republican voters.

With total contributions of $28.85 million, Putnam maintained a solid hold as the strongest fundraiser in the governor’s race, among both Republicans and Democrats.

Even with his expenditures, Putnam had approximately $19 million in cash on hand as he moved into May.

DeSantis has raised nearly $8 million and had more than $7 million in cash heading into May, the reports show.

Putnam’s largest contributions reflect his status as the Tallahassee establishment’s favored candidate.

His political committee, Florida Grown, in April received $375,000 from the business-lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida, as well as $215,000 from a political committee affiliated with the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The committee’s April haul included $100,000 from Publix Super Markets and $100,000 from William Becker, owner of Peace River Citrus Products, last month. And Putnam’s committee received $75,000 from pari-mutuel interests, including $25,000 from Patrick Rooney, president of the Palm Beach Kennel Club.

Phosphate companies contributed $50,000 to Putnam in April. He also received $25,000 from Geo Group, a private prison company, and $25,000 from St. Joe Co., a major developer.

The largest April contribution to DeSantis’ political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, was $100,000 from Ahmad Khawaja, the California-based founder of Allied Wallet, an online payment-processing company.

DeSantis’ committee also received $25,000 from a company affiliated with MCNA Dental Plans, a company that has provided dental care for Medicaid patients in Florida. The state is currently reviewing bids for a new contract that will separate dental services from the main Medicaid managed-care program.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran who announced this week he would not run for governor and endorsed Putnam, raised $49,500 for his Watchdog political committee in April, state records show.

Corcoran raised a total $6.9 million, with about $2 million left at the end of April. He has said he may use some of the money to support Republican efforts to maintain majorities in the state House and Senate.

Among Democrats, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham had the strongest fund-raising month in April, the records show. She raised more than $1 million, with a total of $7.4 million in contributions to her campaign account and Our Florida political committee. Graham had more than $4.7 million in cash in the accounts moving into May, the reports show.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, the first Democratic candidate to run TV spots, spent $1.8 million on ads in April, the latest campaign finance reports show. Levine has raised a combined total of $9 million in his official campaign account and All About Florida political committee, while also loaning $5 million — including $2.2 million in April — to his campaign.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum received $445,000 in contributions to his campaign account and political committee, Forward Florida, in April, the records show. He has raised a total of $3 million, and had $1.4 million cash on hand heading into May.

Winter Park businessman Chris King raised $115,000 in April, according to reports reflecting contributions to his campaign account and Rise and Lead political committee. He has raised a total of $3.76 million and has also loaned his campaign $825,000, including $400,000 in April.

Adam Putnam, Ron DeSantis tout conservative positions

In their first joint appearance of the campaign, the two leading Republican candidates for governor Saturday night outlined a series of conservative stances on abortion, gun rights and education

There were few differences between Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who each took questions in separate half-hour sessions before the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative advocacy group that opposes abortion and gay marriage.

“Our party would be in a pretty bad place if there were broad disagreements in front of the Florida Family Policy Council,” said Putnam, a two-term member of the state Cabinet and a former congressman and state lawmaker.

Both candidates oppose abortion, with Putnam telling the council members that he would support a “heartbeat bill,” which would prohibit doctors from performing abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Iowa’s Republican governor signed such a bill Friday, setting up a legal fight that supporters hope could lead to a test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

“If the heartbeat bill gets to my desk, I will sign it,” Putnam said, recounting listening to the heartbeat of one of his four children before birth. “That life is real. It should be protected. It should be defended.”

The Florida Democratic Party issued a statement late Saturday that blasted Putnam on the abortion issue, describing him as an “anti-choice extremist.”

“Instead of laying out a positive vision to move Florida forward, Putnam is putting forward an extreme, far-right agenda that would hurt women’s health and undermine working families,” Democratic Party spokesman Kevin Donohoe said.

DeSantis, a three-term congressman from Palm Coast, was not asked directly about abortion legislation, but he is a co-sponsor of a bill that would provide protections for fetuses “born alive” during abortion procedures. He recounted seeing an ultrasound of his son, who was born this year, calling it “a powerful example of science reinforcing something that I believe.”

Putnam and DeSantis are expected to face each other in the Aug. 28 Republican primary for governor. Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes is also considering the race, although he has not announced his decision.

Issues addressed during Saturday night’s event could be important as the GOP candidates try to appeal to conservative primary voters.

Asked about the state’s response to the mass shooting at Broward County’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, DeSantis said he would have approached a school-safety bill, which included new restrictions on gun sales, “differently because I think it scapegoated law-abiding citizens in terms of their Second Amendment rights.”

DeSantis said the system failed at the local and federal levels to protect the 17 students and staff killed and wounded in the Valentine’s Day shooting.

If he were governor, DeSantis said he would have removed the Broward County sheriff, and he said FBI members who received two calls about the alleged shooter prior to the incident and “didn’t do anything” should be fired.

“They have not been fired. How do you have no accountability and expect to get good results?” he said.

The bill, which the Republican-dominated Legislature and GOP Gov. Rick Scott approved, includes increasing the minimum age for buying rifles and other long guns to 21. The National Rifle Association has filed a federal lawsuit challenging that restriction.

Although giving credit to Scott and lawmakers for “quickly moving” on the school tragedy, Putnam questioned how a 20-year-old could get sent on an overseas military operation “but can’t go to a sporting goods store and buy a shotgun.”

Both DeSantis and Putnam said the state needs to do more to keep weapons away from people with mental illnesses and to improve the security of school campuses.

Both candidates were asked by Frank Luntz, a Fox News analyst who moderated the event, about legislative battles over the public bathrooms that can be used by transgender people. The issue centers on whether transgender people should be required to use bathrooms that correspond to their sex at birth or whether they can use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

“As a father, I am not going to sign a bill that lets men into my daughters’ restrooms,” said Putnam, the father of three daughters.

DeSantis said he would oppose efforts to have “unmarked” bathrooms.

“That’s a totally inappropriate use of government to do that,” he said. “Getting into the bathroom wars, I don’t think that is a good use of our time.”

On education policy, Putnam said he would emphasize the importance of vocational and technical training for high school graduates in addition to students getting four-year college degrees.

He also said he would create an “ombudsman” position in the state Department of Education to help families with children who are home-schooled or who are looking to use other education opportunities outside the standard public-school system.

DeSantis said he would make civics education a top priority in his administration. Florida voters will consider a state constitutional amendment in November that would require a law to “promote civic literacy” in the public schools.

DeSantis also praised Florida’s school-choice programs, including scholarships that allow students with disabilities to obtain special services or to attend private schools. He said he would expand the alternative school programs by providing similar scholarship accounts for low-income students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches.

On other topics, Putnam said he would create an “Office of Faith-Based and Community-Based Initiatives” in the governor’s office to encourage a volunteer network that can help the state in various activities, including responding to hurricanes.

DeSantis talked about his relationship with President Donald Trump, who has praised his gubernatorial bid, and support for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He said he will attend the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, an event that Scott also plans to attend.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

New tax law raises questions for state ‘piggyback’

Kelli Stargel

Florida lawmakers are dealing with the consequences of the new federal tax law, which sharply cuts the amount of taxes paid by corporations.

Lawmakers are trying to understand the impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which took effect Jan. 1 and cut the federal tax rate paid by major corporations and businesses from 35 percent to 21 percent. It also changed deductions and other accounting methods that can alter business’ tax liabilities.

Since Florida’s corporate income tax, which is 5.5 percent, is based on federal tax liability, changes in federal law can affect the amount of tax revenue the state collects from businesses. Last year, Florida collected nearly $2.2 billion in corporate taxes, making it one of the state’s most significant revenue sources, outside of the sales tax.

Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, is sponsoring an annual bill (SB 502) that conforms or “piggybacks” Florida’s corporate tax law with the federal tax code, adopting or modifying changes made at the federal level.

But the piggyback bill, which is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, has taken on much greater significance this year because of the sweeping nature of the federal tax changes. It also must accommodate the new Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which was signed into law this month and also includes some changes in federal tax law.

“This is a very complex issue for our corporations who look to this bill each year to try to clarify how they’re going to file their corporate income tax,” Stargel said before her subcommittee unanimously approved the piggyback bill last week.

“We’re trying to recognize that right now it’s just early for everybody, so we’re trying to give some accommodation to the parts that are the most significant swings from maybe what it was last year,” Stargel said.

State officials, businesses and others are waiting for clarification from the federal government and the Internal Revenue Service on how many aspects of the new tax law will be applied.

In fact, the uncertainty has left state analysts unable to say exactly what the fiscal impact of the piggyback bill could be on state revenue, although the assumption is it could have an undetermined “negative” impact through the end of this budget year and the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. In the long term, it is anticipated to have a more positive impact.

To offset the initial negative impact of the federal law, Stargel’s piggyback bill is “decoupled” from the new federal tax code on several key provisions, including a measure in the federal law that allows corporations to immediately deduct the cost of new equipment and other capital.

Under Stargel’s bill, Florida corporations would have to spread the “federal bonus depreciation” over seven years and lessen its impact on the state tax collections, rather than trying to claim it immediately.

The decoupling is a routine occurrence for Florida and other states, according to a Jan. 29 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures on the new federal tax law.

“The goal is to incentivize businesses to invest more and grow the economy, but states that conform would likely see a reduction in revenues in the short term,” the legislative policy group said about the depreciation measure. “Most states have already decoupled or modified the existing federal bonus depreciation provisions.”

But while some federal tax law changes could reduce state revenue, Florida officials and national analysts also say other provisions could increase tax collections for the states.

One issue still being analyzed is how state tax collections will be impacted as corporations bring back, or “repatriate,” overseas cash and assets to the United States.

“This would raise revenue for the states in the short run as businesses bring back monies held overseas, but tax experts seem divided on whether this will be a small amount or a windfall,” the NCSL report said.

In acknowledging the uncertainty and complexity of the federal tax changes, Stargel’s bill also would direct the state Department of Revenue to create a workgroup to continue to analyze the revamped tax code and offer recommendations.

The workgroup would begin offering periodic updates in May, with a final report to state lawmakers and the governor by next Feb. 1, about a month before the start of the 2019 legislative session.

Stargel said the work group will provide “the opportunity to give a little bit of time for us to figure out what this is doing and report back.”

Constitution panel could look for clemency fix

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission may wade into the state’s process for restoring voting rights of ex-felons, after a federal judge ruled the current clemency process is unconstitutional.

Members of the commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee unanimously agreed Friday to explore ways to consider the issue, either through additional committee meetings or by amending a proposal when the full commission meets in March.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker found the current process – in which ex-felons must wait years to have their clemency cases considered and only a small number are successful in getting rights restored – to be arbitrary and unconstitutional. He also asked the state and lawyers who challenged the system to file plans to resolve the problem by Feb. 12.

“I don’t know if there is anything we can do, should do, where we would go from here, et cetera,” said Commissioner Hank Coxe, a Jacksonville lawyer who heads the commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee. “But we’re here, it just happened and so we have it.”

Commissioner Sherry Plymale of Palm City said she and other members of the committee have an understanding of the problems in the current system, after they participated in an in-depth review of the clemency process.

“We were unhappy particularly with the number of people that are in the queue, which was thousands,” Plymale said. “I felt all along that we needed to find an opportunity to work on this.”

As of Oct. 1, the state had a backlog of 10,377 cases in which ex-felons are seeking to have civil rights restored, including the right to vote, according to commission analysts.

In Walker’s order, the federal judge noted that 154,000 Floridians had their rights restored under former Gov. Charlie Crist, who set up a process in which cases could be reviewed by the state parole commission.

But Gov. Rick Scott changed that policy after he took office in 2011, leaving the rights-restoration decisions up to him and the three members of the state Cabinet, although the governor has sole power to reject any application.

Since that time, only 3,000 applications have been granted, with Walker noting the process has resulted in nearly 1.7 million Floridians being denied the right to vote, including more than one out of every five voting-age African-American residents.

“I do think we owe it to an awful lot of people in Florida to have this process work a lot better than it does,” Plymale said. “Even if they don’t want to restore rights, OK. But they’re not even getting a hearing, which is really not fair.”

Former Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who is a member of the ethics and election panel, expressed regret that lawmakers did not address the issue during his 10 years in the Legislature.

“We didn’t do what perhaps we could or should have done if we had known then what we know now,” Gaetz said. “It’s obvious that the clemency process in our state is not only broken but it’s scandalously broken.”

The commission considered several proposals aimed at automatically restoring voting rights for ex-felons. But those proposals were withdrawn when the political committee Floridians for a Fair Democracy obtained enough petition signatures to place an initiative, known as Amendment 4, on the fall ballot. That amendment would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, excluding those convicted for murder or sexual offenses.

As commissioners debated the ex-felon proposals, several members raised the possibility of “ballot confusion” if the commission placed a measure on the 2018 general election ballot in addition to Amendment 4.

Coxe, the chairman of the ethics and elections panel, said if the commission now takes up a proposal, he expects it to be focused on the clemency process rather than on the automatic restoration of voting rights.

“I’m not concerned about ballot confusion if one deals with clemency and it clearly does,” Coxe said.

Gaetz said he expects Amendment 4 to fail to gain the required 60 percent support from voters because it is “too broad.” While it excludes murderers and sex offenders, it would automatically restore rights to other felons who have committed serious crimes, such as kidnapping or carjacking.

He said he would not like to see competing proposals on the ballot, “but I think that we should not just give up on the opportunity to fix the clemency process even if we can’t fix the broader issue because of the way it is drawn so expansively.”

The commission, which meets every 20 years, has the unique ability to place constitutional amendments on the 2018 ballot. Ballot measures must be supported by at least 60 percent of voters to be enacted.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

State colleges could get spot in constitution

The Florida college system would remain under the State Board of Education in a proposal approved Friday by a panel of the Constitution Revision Commission.

The commission’s Education Committee approved a measure (Proposal 83), sponsored by Commissioner Nicole Washington of Miami Beach, that would put the existing governance system for the 28 state and community colleges into the state constitution.

Washington, who is a member of the board of trustees at Florida A&M University, said the proposal would give colleges equal footing with the kindergarten-through-high-school system and the state university system, which already are included in the Constitution.

“The intent of this proposal is to recognize the Florida college system and their mission,” Washington said.

She also said it is a recognition of the system’s impact in higher education, noting its enrollment of some 800,000 students, its role in sending students to state universities through the “two-plus-two” program and its degree and certificate programs aimed at spurring economic development.

Malou Harrison, president of two campuses at Miami Dade College, spoke in support of the measure.

“Establishing our Florida college system as a critical segment in the Constitution is important, as is solidifying the current governance structure,” Harrison said.

Michael Brawer, head of the Association of Florida Colleges, said the 28 college presidents support placing the college system into the Constitution alongside public schools and universities, while also recognizing the “local control and governance” that exists with the current system.

However, the proposal is at odds with a bill (SB 540) that will be taken up Wednesday by the Senate.

The legislation, sponsored by Senate Education Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, a Port Orange Republican, would place the colleges under a new 13-member statewide board. The colleges were previously under a separate board until 2003, when the system was moved under the State Board of Education, which also oversees public schools.

Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican and member of the Constitution Revision Commission, voted against Washington’s proposal and a measure (Proposal 25), sponsored by Commissioner Sherry Plymale of Palm City, that would have put the college system into the Constitution but would have had a separate governance board, like in the Senate bill.

“I think the discussion should take place in the Legislature, and we should make that determination there,” Sprowls said.

The Education Committee rejected Plymale’s proposal.

Washington’s proposal now heads to the full commission, which must approve any amendments before they are placed on the 2018 general election ballot. Constitutional amendments ultimately require support from 60 percent of voters before they can be enacted.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Lawmakers grapple with ‘Bo’s bridge’

Florida lawmakers are looking to salvage a fiscally failed project known as “Bo’s Bridge” near Pensacola.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee Tuesday approved a bill (HB 1281) that could allow the state to refinance and acquire the Garcon Point Bridge, which spans a portion of eastern Pensacola Bay and has been in default on its bonds since 2012

The 3.5-mile toll bridge, which originally had the backing of former House Speaker Bolley “Bo” Johnson, a Milton Democrat, has never been able to attract enough motorists and generate enough tolls to pay off the bonds. The bridge opened in 1999 in the same week that Johnson was convicted of tax evasion on issues unrelated to the bridge, a conviction that led to a two-year federal prison sentence.

With the bonds in default, all of the toll money goes to bondholders, although it does not cover the full cost of the debt, which has ballooned from the original $95 million bond issue to $135 million in debt as of July 1.

In addition, there is no money going to the Florida Department of Transportation, which under the original lease agreement with the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority must operate and maintain the bridge.

The authority owed the Department of Transportation about $33 million as of last July, including an unpaid $7.9 million loan and $25 million that had been spent on operations and maintenance.

The operations and maintenance duties cost the DOT about $1.5 million a year, with the number expected to rise to $1.8 million in the next decade. Bondholders have called for an increase in the bridge’s toll, which is now $3.75 for a one-way trip.

“What a mess this thing is,” said Rep. Kristin Jacobs, a Democrat from Coconut Creek, as the House panel reviewed the bill Tuesday.

A study by the state Division of Bond Finance gives lawmakers several options in dealing with the bridge, including doing nothing, although the report warns that could lead to legal action by the bondholders seeking to force a toll increase.

Another proposal would have the state acquire the facility from the bridge authority by issuing new bonds through the Florida Turnpike, based on more realistic projections of the bridge traffic and toll revenue

However, those bonds are likely to raise somewhere between $75 million and $100 million, leaving the bondholders short between $35 million and $60 million on what they are owed.

Rep. Jayer Williamson, a Pace Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said he is offering the proposal to let lawmakers decide what they want to do with the bridge, which has long been a controversial issue in the western Panhandle.

“Even though it may not be favorable personally or politically for me, it’s time to try to take action and find a resolution that will be best for the community and the state,” Williamson said.

He also said state action would be dictated by what the new traffic and revenue study showed.

“By the passage of this bill we’re not tying any hands and saying we have to do anything,” Williamson said. “It’s saying that we may. So we can always walk away from that deal if the T and R (traffic and revenue) study doesn’t represent the numbers that we think it should.”

But Williamson noted that if the state does nothing, it will continue to face the rising costs of operation and maintenance on the facility. And he said that as the bridge ages, and as long as the bondholders are owed money, the state may be required to do major repairs and even replace the bridge under the original agreement.

“It’s a bad situation,” Williamson said. “This is in hopes of trying to find some type of resolution that while maybe not making anybody happy but finally moving forward with something.”

The Senate Transportation Committee is scheduled to take up a similar bill Thursday (SB 1436), sponsored by Sen. Doug Broxson, a Gulf Breeze Republican.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

House Speaker rejects state aid for Miami’s Amazon bid

After playing the key role in reducing and revamping Florida’s economic development program last year, House Speaker Richard Corcoran said Thursday he has no interest in developing a state incentive plan to bring Amazon’s new headquarters to Florida.

Florida suddenly became a contender for the giant online retailer’s second headquarters — dubbed HQ2 by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — after Miami emerged as one of 20 finalists for the project, which could generate some $5 billion in spending and lead to 50,000 jobs.

Miami, which was competing with 238 other cities, was the only finalist in Florida, although the Miami bid also includes sites in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Gov. Rick Scott, who has supported using state funding and incentives to bring major employers to the state, said it was “great news” that Miami is a finalist.

“With our low taxes, unbeatable weather and world-class airports and seaports, there is no doubt Florida should be the number one choice,” Scott tweeted.

In an interview with The News Service of Florida on Thursday, Corcoran said he was doubtful that Florida would end up as the location for the Amazon project, citing remarks by Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a Hialeah Republican who formerly served in the state House.

Bovo told The Miami Herald in October that Miami-Dade’s transportation challenges would ultimately eliminate Miami from contention.

“What was the reason?” Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, asked. “There’s not enough money? We didn’t throw enough incentives? No, (it’s) because of their infrastructure and their transit issues.”

Corcoran listed the items he said “site selectors” consider when relocating.

“Here’s what we ought to do as a state. I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face,” Corcoran said. “There are five things that site selectors look at. The most important being having a great educational system.”

Corcoran said the key factor in Florida losing out to Boston in trying to attract the General Electric headquarters was that the Boston area had better schools, from kindergarten through the university level.

He said Florida — the third largest state in the nation — in contrast only recently had one of its schools, the University of Florida, make the U.S. News & World Report top 10 list of public universities.

“That’s a problem,” Corcoran said. “There’s where the investments should have been made and should continue to be made. If you have low crime, low taxes, low regulation, a good infrastructure and you have, more than anything, a great educational system, we will not have a single problem luring all the businesses and all the people in this country here.”

Corcoran’s remarks are in line with his effort last year to overhaul economic incentive programs in Enterprise Florida, the state’s top economic development agency. The final result was an $85 million “job growth” fund that can be used for regional projects but not for incentives aimed at individual companies.

Counties face increased pension costs

Florida counties will have to contribute an additional $66 million to the state pension fund in the new budget year, according to legislation that has started moving in the Senate.

As a result of a decrease in the assumed rate of investment return on the $160 billion pension fund, counties, school boards, state agencies, universities, state colleges and other government entities will have to increase their contributions in the 2018-2019 budget year to make sure there is enough money to pay retirement benefits in the long term.

The increased payments total $178.5 million, including $66.4 million for county governments, according to legislation (SB 7014) approved by the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee last week.

School districts, whose employees represent about half of the 627,000 active pension participants, will have to contribute an additional $54.4 million.

State agencies will have to contribute another $31 million. Universities will have to contribute $11.8 million and state colleges an additional $4.8 million.

A handful of cities and special districts that participate in the state retirement system will face a $10 million contribution increase.

County governments, which face the largest contribution increase, will have to accommodate the added expense as they shape their 2018-2019 budgets.

“Counties are closely monitoring the FRS (Florida Retirement System) contribution but remain committed to a program that provides retirement security to our dedicated public servants,” said Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties.

The bulk of the other contribution increases are part of overall budget challenges facing House and Senate members as they craft the 2018-2019 state budget, which takes effect July 1.

The $54 million increase for school districts, for example, will be in the mix as lawmakers address overall public-school funding. Lawmakers are already having to accommodate an increase of more than 27,000 new students next academic year, and the House and Senate remain at odds over using increased local property tax collections to boost school spending

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a Republican from Fleming Island, said the state pension fund in the Senate budget bill will be “fully funded with the new assumptions.”

“It’s an obligation of the state,” Bradley said. “And we are comfortable with the current level of (pension) benefits in the Senate, with the understanding that when you change the assumptions, that requires more money to go to that area.”

The Florida Retirement System Actuarial Assumption Conference lowered the projected rate of return on the pension fund’s collection of stocks, bonds, real estate and other assets from 7.6 percent to 7.5 percent last fall.

It was the fourth year in a row that analysts have lowered the assumed rate of return on the fund.

The decision came after new evaluations from independent financial consultants projected a 30-year rate of return for the pension assets in the range of 6.6 percent to 6.81 percent.

With a 7.5 percent assumed rate of return, the Florida pension fund is expected to be able to pay 84.4 percent of its future obligations, with a $27.9 billion long-term unfunded actuarial liability, according to the consultants.

Public employees who participate in the pension plan have been required to contribute 3 percent of their annual salaries to the fund since 2011.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Supreme Court ready to wade into water war

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Monday in a decades-old legal fight between Florida and Georgia over water flow into the Apalachicola River.

A court-appointed special master ruled in February that Florida had not proved its case that a water-usage cap should be imposed on Georgia to help the river and Apalachicola Bay, one of the most productive estuaries in the country, known particularly for its oysters.

Florida is asking for the case to be returned to the special master to develop a more “equitable” distribution of water between the states from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. In briefs filed with the court, Florida has argued that an increase in water consumption by Georgia, including in the Atlanta area, since the 1970s is “effectively strangling the Apalachicola region.”

“For decades, Florida has done everything it could to avert that result – and Georgia has fought it at every turn,” a Florida brief said. “This litigation represents Florida’s last opportunity to stem Georgia’s inequitable consumption, and protect these irreplaceable natural resources, by apportioning the waters equitably between the states.”

In a brief asking the Supreme Court to uphold the special master’s report, Georgia said Florida is asking for “dramatic and costly reductions in Georgia’s upstream water use – cuts that threaten the water supply of 5 million people in metropolitan Atlanta and risk crippling a multibillion-dollar agricultural sector in southwest Georgia.”

Georgia has argued that even if the court ordered a new water-distribution plan, it wouldn’t guarantee that Florida would receive more water, since water flow is controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through a series of reservoirs and dams in the river system that, in effect, control “the spigot at the state line.”

In his report, Ralph Lancaster, a Portland, Maine, lawyer who served as the special master in the case, said that because the Corps was not a party in the lawsuit, it meant that a court ruling could not “assure Florida the relief it seeks.”

But citing subsequent comments from the Corps, Florida said the federal agency would adjust its water policies in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system based on the court’s decision.

“It is at the very least reasonable to predict that the Corps would respond to an equitable apportionment by this court just as one would expect – by adjusting its operations to effectuate that decree consistent with this court’s decision and other applicable law,” Florida said in a brief.

A key legal issue before the Supreme Court is Lancaster’s finding that Florida failed to prove “by clear and convincing evidence” that imposing a cap on Georgia’s water use “would provide a material benefit to Florida.”

In its briefs, Florida said it has provided evidence that Georgia’s water usage has damaged the Apalachicola River system. It cited Lancaster’s finding that “real harm” was occurring from decreased water flow into the system and from Georgia’s “largely unrestrained” agricultural water use.

But Florida’s lawyers argued that Lancaster erred in further applying the “clear and convincing” evidence standard to the yet-to-be-determined water redistribution plan.

“Never before has this court found both injury and inequitable conduct (as the special master did here) and yet held that the court is powerless to do anything about it,” Florida said in a brief.

Georgia said Lancaster was following precedents set in other multi-state water disputes and that he “correctly held Florida to the exacting burden of proof that this court has imposed on states seeking to upend the status quo at the expense of a coequal sovereign.”

Georgia’s position was supported by Colorado, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief raising concerns that a court ruling in the case could impact water agreements in the western portion of the country.

“The court has consistently made clear that the complaining state faces a heavy burden to prove both its injury and its right to relief by clear and convincing evidence,” Colorado said in its brief. “This court has never held, as Florida suggests, that the burden decreases, or `the equation changes,’ after a complaining state has proven only part of its case, namely, an alleged injury.”

The Supreme Court case is the result of a lawsuit filed by Florida in 2013 after the collapse in the prior year of the Apalachicola oyster industry, which normally supplies 90 percent of the oysters in Florida and 10 percent of the nation’s oysters.

But the fight between the states over water flow in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system has gone on for decades, leaving officials in both states bitterly divided over the issue and resulting in costly litigation.

Last spring, the Florida House Appropriations Committee estimated that Florida had spent some $72 million in legal fees in the fight from 2001 to early 2016.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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