Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

House Speaker: Rick Scott’s focus on Enterprise Florida is misdirected

Gov. Rick Scott should spend less time talking about Enterprise Florida, and more seeking reform of the workers compensation system and assignment of benefits abuse, if he really cares about protecting jobs, House Speaker Richard Corcoran said Thursday.

“We’re talking about a tremendous amount of bandwidth going to Enterprise Florida, going to Visit Florida,” Corcoran told reporters during a wide-ranging news conference.

If the House prevails in its bid to kill Enterprise Florida and other economic incentive programs, and clips Visit Florida’s wings, the savings to taxpayers would amount to $100 million, Corcoran said.

“And the governor’s traveling the state, visiting individual members’ districts, and saying, ‘This is terrible for jobs! This is terrible for jobs!’

“I can tell the governor what’s terrible for jobs — what affects every single business across the board, small and large; what affects every single person out there who owns a home, small and large — is assignment of benefits and workers’ comp,” the speaker said.

Corcoran referred to a 14.5 percent increase in workers’ compensation premiums that began to take effect in December. The House Insurance & Banking committee approved a fix on March 14, but the Senate version has not yet come up for a hearing.

That could cost $550 million in increased premiums. “That’s in year one,” Corcoran said.

“And 14.5 is the initial recommendation — you could see higher increases. And they probably won’t be enough. You could see billions of dollars in increases on every single business.”

Similarly, absent AOB reform, homeowners could experience insurance hikes of as much as $4,000 per yea, Corcoran said, amounting to additional billions.

The House committee approved an AOB reform package the same evening as the workers’ comp bill.

“If I was to give encouragement to the governor, I’d say: ‘Go keep traveling. Start talking about workers’ comp and assignment of benefits, which have far more effects than Enterprise/Visit Florida on jobs,” Corcoran said.

“How can you just be silent on what really will hit jobs — really will cost people dramatic increases, homeowners and businesses? And he’s focused on $100 million that has little if not zero impact on jobs,” he said.

“Go over to the Senate and … get those guys on board for jobs,” Corcoran said.

House votes to steer most BP oil spill settlement money to the Panhandle

The Florida House voted unanimously Thursday to direct two-thirds of the $400 million the state is due from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster to the worst-affected counties in the Panhandle.

HB 7077 requires 75 percent of all payments that Florida receives from the settlement agreement between the five gulf states and BP be transferred from the general fund to the Triumph Gulf Coast Trust Fund.

“This disaster took money out of the hands of families and hard-working small busineses in the Pahnhandle,” said Jay Trumbill, a Panama City Republican who was one of a number of Northwest Florida House members who spoke in favor of the legislation.

“I am excited today that we are now enduring this money will be put back in the hands of the people hurt most.

The vote was 112-0.

Under the proposal, the Triumph Gulf Coast corporation can award funding for several things including:

— Public infrastructure projects to enhance economic recovery, diversification, and enhancement in the disproportionately affected counties;

— Grants to local governments in the counties to establish and maintain equipment and trained personnel for local action plans to respond to disasters;

— Early childhood development and educational programs; and

— Grants to support programs to prepare students for future occupations and careers at K-20 institutions that have campuses in the communities.

The proposal requires Triumph Gulf Coast to give 14 days’ notice its intent to make an award, and requires the corporation make sure each of the eight disproportionately affected counties directly benefit from the awards.

The committee also approved a bill establishing a trust fund.

House votes to bar use of red light cameras to monitor intersections

The Florida House voted Thursday to ban the use of red light cameras to enforce traffic laws in the state.

The vote on final passage went 91-22.

Supporters argued the cameras don’t save lives and have become money-makers for vendors, some of them located out of state.

“It has become less about public safety and more about revenue,” said Larry Ahern, the Seminole Republican who presented the bill.

The state is sending $35 million to out-of-state vendors, he said. Yet the cameras are not stopping repeat traffic offenders — there were more than 150,000 of those recorded in the state, he said.

HB 6007 repeals state authorization for red light cameras and bans their use by local governments. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.

Infractions linked to the cameras have generated about $18.8 million for the state thus far this budget year, according to a legislative analysis.

Al Jacquet, a Democrat from Lantana, argued that the cameras violate the 6th Amendment right to confront witnesses.

“With the red light camera program, they have no opportunity to confront that camera, because a camera is not a law enforcement officer,” Jacquet said.

“It is a revenue program, not a safety program,” he said.

The cameras had their defenders. Larry Ahern noted a more than 50 percent decrease in accidents at intersections.

“It does change drivers’ behavior. I think red light cameras are saving the lives of Floridians.”

Chamber laments the rise of trial bar’s influence with Florida Legislature

The business community believes trial lawyers hold the upper hand in the Legislature for the first time in years.

The business community is not happy about that.

“Their bills are on rocket fuel and are moving through the process,” Mark Delegal, a partner at Holland & Knight, said during a panel discussion at the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s annual Capitol Days symposium.

“We are sounding the alarm about what is going on. Let’s make this just a two-year anomaly. We’ve got to lock down as a community, as businesses, and stop this aggression that’s going on, and move back to where we are on the offense.”

Delegal participated in the discussion with Steve Kopnik, chairman and CEO of Beall’s Inc.; Barry Gilway, president and CEO of Citizens Property Insurance Corp.; and Quentin Kendall, vice president for government affairs for CSX Transportation.

Business priorities this year include workers’ compensation reform and assignment of benefits abuse.

But the panel also spent time decrying legislation that would give plaintiffs the opportunity to receive prejudgment interest on legal claims. The Chamber produced a video to warn the business community against the measure.

The bill stalled last week during a hearing before the Senate Rules Committee, but isn’t dead.

Kendall lamented that tort reform seems to be languishing in the Legislature, following good years beginning under former Gov. Jeb Bush and a subsequent equilibrium with trial lawyers.

“This prejudgment interest bill symbolically represents the turning of the tide, and the ongoing march of the trial lawyers to decrease the already low, 44th, ranking we have in legal climate in the United States,” Kendall said.

The bill would discourage defendants from fighting meritless claims, and defendants couldn’t recover their litigation expenses if they prevail, he said.

He surveyed the landscape. In the House, the bill’s sponsor is Shawn Harrison, who holds an “A” rating from the Chamber. It went through the Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee, whose chairwoman, Heather Fitzenhagen, “works for John Morgan,” the plaintiffs’ attorney.

“This isn’t the Onion, folks,” Kendall said.

The House bill passed out of that committee on an 11-4 vote, despite efforts by “our champion there,” Jay Fant.

“Jay said, ‘Quentin, they’re laughing at us. They’re just laughing at us now.’ ”

Even in the Senate, “we needed two Democratic senators to hold this thing up,” Kendall said.

“There were no questions about how this would affect the business community,” he said.

“We need to understand what this represents. This is a slippery slope of where the future is in our position vis a vis the Florida Legislature unless we’re able to stop this and turn the tide.”

Delegal recalled a time when Democrats controlled the Legislature and trial lawyers would try for one or two pieces of legislation each year, retreating when Republicans captured both chambers.

“The last 20 years, we’ve been on the offense. We’ve not always successfully prosecuted our bills, but many times we have.”

Now, “we have seen a radical sea change in just this year,” he said.

Tourism advocates raise specter of Rick Scott’s veto in Visit Florida fight

Tourism industry leaders hope to escape the Legislative Session with a least a reasonable portion of Visit Florida intact, notwithstanding hostility in the House toward economic incentives that many members consider corporate welfare.

“Never underestimate the power of the veto pen,” Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said during the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s Capitol Days symposium.

“I know for a fact that there are a lot of freshman legislators who really believe, ‘If I hold strong, I’m going to get these (local) projects to take home.’ At the end of the day, I think they’re forgetting that there’s this pen, and one man holds it. And we all know what he wants.”

She referred to Gov. Rick Scott’s insistence that the Legislature fund Visit Florida, Enterprise Florida, and other economic development initiatives he sees as the key to his jobs agenda.

David Hart, the Chamber’s vice president for government affairs, noted that the House wants to cut Visit Florida’s budget by $50 million — or about two thirds. The Senate — particularly budget chairman Jack Latvala — support the incentives.

Still, Hart expressed concern for what might happen when Visit Florida money lands in conference committee. He referred to reports that the economic incentives could become a bargaining chip for Senate President Joe Negron’s $2 billion Lake Okeechobee plan.

“That does get us in the zone of the governor’s veto and possible special sessions beyond as we go into May, June, July,” Hart said.

“That would be nuclear,” Dover said.

“I hope we’re not there, but it’s too soon to say that’s off the table,” Hart added.

When it comes to legislative triage, Dover said she supports Enterprise Florida but continued, “We only have so many chits in the basket when you’re a lobbyist. And my chits are in the Visit Florida basket.”

Visit Florida originally relied more on private dollars, and was created so marketers could escape the bureaucratic restraints the House now wants to impose, said Dan Olson, the program’s No. 2.

Dover, who sits on Visit Florida’s board, conceded missteps.

“As a board member, it never crossed my mind that, as we were getting more and more money from the government, we needed to shift our business model,” Dover said.

But the House bill would be too onerous, she said. For example, businesses contracting with the agency would have to disclose employees’ salaries.

“They’re just not going to do business with Florida. It’s too cumbersome,” Dover said.

“We’re not trying to say we don’t need to be transparent. We’re trying to take some of the real onerous, bureaucratic transparency that will shackle them from doing their jobs.”

During every recent crisis that might have dampened tourism — the Pulse shootings, two hurricanes, Zika — Visit Florida launched marketing campaigns within 24 hours to tell out-of-staters it was still alright to come.

The House bill would require sign-off for such spending from the governor and Legislative Budget Commission, which meets quarterly, she said.

“We could be sitting here with devastation from a hurricane, and we can’t do anything until all three branches of the government look at our plan and decide if we can spend the money.”

Is it time to panic?

Dover shook her head.

“I really believe in the House. I believe in Richard Corcoran,” she said. “I know that Land O’ Lakes is not a tourism (hub) but he is the speaker of the House.”

Joe Negron adds to committees’ strength during Dorothy Hukill’s recovery

While Sen. Dorothy Hukill recovers from cervical cancer, Senate President Joe Negron has named additional members to committees on which she serves.

In a memo dated Tuesday, Negron said Sen. Anitere Flores will help out in the Education Committee, which Hukill leads.

“Sen. Hukill will remain the chair of the Committee on Education,” Negron aide Katie Betta said. “Under the Senate rules, the chair designates a senator on the committee to serve in her absence on a week by week basis.”

Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala takes a seat on the budget Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto will serve on the Health Policy Committee. And Ben Galvano will sit on the Transportation Committee.

The appointments take effect immediately, Negron said.

“I appreciate your willingness to take on this additional responsibility on behalf of the Florida Senate,” he wrote.

“Sen, Hukill is still on all of these committees,” Betta said.

Hukill has been absent from Tallahassee during the Legislative Session, but has been following proceedings remotely.

At Florida Chamber gathering, a vigorous defense of economic incentives

Florida is, too, open for business, representatives of the state’s economic development arm and business insisted during a panel discussion organized by the Florida Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.

“We’re a high performing business that’s open for business. We’ve just temporarily shut down the marketing and sales department. What we’re trying to do is make sure that’s not a permanent situation,” said Mark Wilson, the Chamber’s president and CEO.

“Florida has a lot going for it. What we need to do is fight to make sure to tell the rest of the world about it. And that we don’t, in the middle of this argument with each other, we don’t accidentally take Florida backward, and let other people brand Florida as something that it’s not.”

Discussion of whether Florida was open for business came on Day 2 of the Chamber’s annual Capitol Days, coinciding with the Legislative Session.

The “argument” is the debate over whether to abolish Enterprise Florida and other state economic incentives programs. The House has already voted to do so, although the Senate is resisting.

The mere debate has already served notice that Florida is withdrawing the welcome mat. Mike Grissom, interim director of Enterprise Florida, said the office recently lost a key prospect over fear of “instability in government.”

The state brings inherent economic advantages to the competition, including a friendly regulatory environment and labor laws, and low taxes, said Florida Power & Light President Eric Silagy.

”But we are now facing some challenges from a standpoint of perception,” he said.

“We have to be very careful managing Florida’s brand — the perception beyond our borders. It’s a fragile kind of system and, if you’re not careful, you can break it.”

Grissom and Cissy Proctor, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, attempted to refute complaints that these programs constitute “corporate welfare.” Applicants are carefully vetted for economic and reputational strength, Proctor said. Incentive payments go out only after companies have lived up to their promises.

Wilson linked such complaints to the Occupy Wall Street movement, amplified by the libertarian Koch brothers and their Americans for Prosperity.

“Any politician who says, ‘This is just a slush fund that we hand money out to people,’ that’s malpractice. Any reporter who says that’s how it works, that would be fake news,” Wilson said.

Meanwhile, economic development officials in other states are capitalizing on the Florida controversy.

“They love what’s going on right now in Florida, because it’s truly creating an opportunity for them to retain companies that were looking to leave or attract others from other states who are looking to relocate,” Silagy said.

But these programs are the key to diversifying the state’s economy, he continued.

“It is not a question of whether or not there’s going to be another recession. It’s just when, and how deep will it be,” he said.

“What I worry about, if I can be blunt, is this state is going through amnesia. It wasn’t long ago when we had an economy that was absolutely in the tank and leading the country in going down the tubes that way, because our economy was not nearly as diversified as it could have been, should have been.”

Florida needs to learn from Texas, he said, which suffered much less because it had diversified its economy from oil and gas following the collapse of fuel prices during the early 1980s.

“Before I invest capital anywhere, I want to make sure I’m going to a market that wants be to be there, that welcomes me,” Silagy said.

“And that I have a view that it’s going to be good place to do business for a long period of time. One of the best ways to do that is making sure that location is invested in me. So when things do go badly, they’re standing next to me.”

House gambling bill clears Ways and Means Committee on 11-7 vote

The House Ways & Means Committee voted Tuesday for legislation that would extend Indian gambling in Florida but otherwise restrict the growth of the industry in Florida.

The bill (HB 7037), by Rep. Mike La Rosa, passed out of the committee on an 11-7 vote.

La Rosa argued the bill is the key to negotiating a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe.

“I think they’re trying to get the best deal. That may mean other games or, of course, paying less revenue. At the end of the day, we’re representing our constituent base here in the state of Florida. We’re going to get the best deal for them,” La Rosa said.

La Rosa chairs the Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee, which already OK’d the measure 10-5. The next stop is the Commerce Committee.

The debate Tuesday pitted members skeptical of gambling against those who see it as expanding jobs and the economy.

For example, when ranking Democrat Joseph Abruzzo protested language restricting pari-mutuel betting, La Rosa said that was the point.

“Philosophically, I’m not a proponent for expanding gaming. And if we give them more, we would be expanding gaming,” La Rosa said.

Proponents also worried about Florida’s brand as a family-friendly vacation destination. Democrats including Joseph Geller objected to “poison pill” language that might steer gambling proceeds to charter schools.

“We have gambling now. It just doesn’t define us. I hope it never will,” said Jeff Kottkamp, representing the Florida Greyhound Association.

Abruzzo remarked that many gambling interests were absent from the hearing.

“They’ve been dealing with this year after year after year. At some point, they just want anything to move past our committee processes, and anything to move in the Senate. So we can get to conference, and everything can be negotiated and changed,” he said.

“I’m not, honestly, focused on what they’re (the Senate) is doing,” La Rosa told reporters following the vote. “I’m focused on what we need to get out of here. Then we’ll sit down and chat with them.”

He said House members are talking to the Seminole Tribe — which has indicated “they like our bill better than what the Senate has proposed.”

There are many contrasts between the House and Senate legislation. The Senate’s gambling bill (SB 8) has cleared all its committees and is awaiting a hearing on the chamber floor.

The House bill would outlaw designated-player card games, but the Senate would let “all card room operators … offer designated player games.” 

The House also would prohibit the expansion of slot machines, while the Senate generally expands the availability of slot machines.

Moreover, La Rosa’s legislation would divert the state’s cut of the Seminole gambling money — $3 billion over seven years — for education, split three ways among K-12 teacher recruitment and retention bonuses, schools that serve students from persistently failing schools, and for “higher education institutions to recruit and retain distinguished faculty.”

Abruzzo, of Boynton Beach, withdrew amendments that would have allowed slot machines and traditional casino games including blackjack and roulette upon approval by a vote of county residents and the city or county government involved.

The operations would have to turn over 35 percent of their take to the local government.

If the voters or local government says “No,” the matter cannot be raised again for five years.

He said he hope to pursue those options later.

Rick Scott reviewing options in Aramis Ayala death-penalty situation

Gov. Rick Scott wouldn’t say Tuesday whether he would permanently suspend State Attorney Aramis Ayala.

But Scott insisted his special prosecutor would be the one to seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd, despite Ayala’s challenge to his order reassigning her.

Under questioning by reporters at the state Capitol, Scott said only: “We are going to review our options.”

Ayala’s “no death penalty” policy has drawn widespread protests, and House member Bob Cortes urged her suspension from office and reassignment of all of her cases.

Scott did not say how long his review would take.

“On Thursday, when I reassigned the case to (5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney) Brad King, she signed off on it. And then, Monday morning, for whatever reason, she changed her mind,” Scott said.

What’s next?

“I’m going to review my options,” Scott said.

Loyd is charged with murdering his pregnant girlfriend Sade Dixon and Orlando Police Master Sergeant Debra Clayton.

Ayala, state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties, said Monday she would challenge Scott’s order in court.

On other topics, the governor criticized the House for — along with a wide range of state economic incentives — voting to eliminate the Florida Defense Alliance, an arm of Enterprise Florida that encourages the military to maintain bases in the state.

“The military has a major presence in our state, with our unified commands and all our military bases, on top of our National Guard. I think it’s important to make sure we continue to help them fulfill their missions, and that’s what this does,” Scott said.

“I would be shocked that anybody would vote to hurt any military base’s ability to fulfill its mission.”

Scott was asked whether he has confidence the House and Senate could agree on a state budget. The chambers are divided on a host of issues, including economic development programs and whether to roll back local property taxes for schools.

He noted that the budget is the only bill the Legislature must pass each year.

“My expectation is they’ll pass a budget. At that point, I’ll review it.”

Scott thanked the Senate for advancing his proposal to require polluters to notify the public of accidental toxic discharges.

“I can’t imaging why anyone doesn’t want to make sure that people have proper notification if there are any spills in their area,” he said.

“With regards to the Everglades, I’m very supportive of trying to figure out how we move water south,” Scott said, pointing to the more than $200 million per year he’s pushed for storm water treatment and other environmental initiatives.

Asked specifically whether he wanted to acquire land south of the lake, Scott said: “Whatever comes to my desk, I’ll review it.”

Of the GOP health care bill in Washington, Scott said, “I’m encouraged,” adding that Republicans in Congress understand their proposal needs improvements and are working on it.

“I want free-market health care. If you allow the private sector to work, make sure we have more competition, make sure people can buy the insurance they want to buy, reward people for taking care of themselves, and sell insurance across state lines, I think the cost of health care would come down.”

Scott spoke after reviewing displays and greeting visitors to National Guard Day at the Capitol. He bestowed the state’s Veteran Service Award on 54 guardsmen and –women, and himself received the Charles Dick Medal of Merit, bestowed by the National Guard Association of the United States upon political leaders who have “distinguished him/herself over an extended period of time in their support to the National Guard.”

People don’t understand how much the Guard does for Florida, Scott said.

“They’ve been deployed over 100 times since 9/11, and we all know they show up any time there’s a disaster in the state, and they do a great job.”

Settlement reached in Gulf Power’s bid for $106.8 million base rate increase

Gulf Power Co. will settle for nearly $62 million per year in increased rates for its customers in Northwest Florida, rather than the $106.8 million it had planned to seek from the Public Service Commission, the parties announced Monday.

The deal would guarantee the utility a return on investment to Gulf Power’s stockholders averaging 10.25 percent — more than the Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers before the PSC, had argued was justified.

Hearings in the highly technical base-rate case before the PSC had been scheduled to begin Monday afternoon and run for as much as five days. The monthly fixed charge on residential would have climbed from the existing $18 to nearly $50.

According to the company, the average monthly bill will climb from $144 to $151.

Also opposing the rate increase were large customers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Most parties indicated they could at least live with the agreement.

The settlement document bears the signatures of Jeffrey Stone, counsel to Gulf Power, and Public Counsel J.R. Kelly.

PSC Chairwoman Julie Immanuel Brown said the commission would hear arguments on the merits of the agreement on April 4, and could vote on it then. She’d seen the agreement for the first time only an hour before the hearing began, she said.

Charles Rehwhinkel of the public counsel’s office said negotiations had broken down but resumed over the weekend. He and Stone committed the terms to writing only late Sunday night. “It’s better than filing after the meeting,” Rehwinkel said.

“It’s one of the better settlements I’ve been a part of,” Rehwinkel said. “The revenue increase, we felt, was a good compromise that resolved a lot of things in the customers’ favor.”

“The public review process is all about folks coming together and finding out what works best for customers. I think we achieved that today. It is in the hands of the Florida Public Service Commission moving forward,” said Jeff Rogers, a spokesman for Gulf Power.

“We are glad that Gulf Power has agreed to do the right thing,” Bradley Marshall, an attorney for Earthjustice, said Monday in a written statement.

“Raising this fixed charge on monthly bills would have unfairly penalized people who use less energy, and that makes no sense,” he said.

The opposition said customers had swarmed public hearings regarding the increase in Panama City and Pensacola, and sent more than 1,000 protest letters to the PSC.

“The voices of the citizens were instrumental in this decision. This shows that people are paying attention, getting educated on issues that affect them and speaking out,” said Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

However, the League did not join the settlement. Neither did the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Those groups cited “other concerns.”

Representatives of the alliance said the base-rate hike was an attempt to shift onto Florida ratepayers costs associated with two coal-burning plants in Georgia, where long-term customer agreements were winding down.

It would have undermined Florida customer’s efforts to control their own costs through adoption of alternative energy sources including roof-top solar, they said.

“We are pleased that the element we thought most egregious is going away,” Stephen Smith, the alliance’s executive director, said in a telephone interview.

It would have set “an extremely bad precedent,” he said. “It would have damaged people’s ability to manage their costs from their side of the system.”

“We are glad that the fixed charge increase has been removed from Gulf Power’s rate restructuring,” said Tory Perfetti, chairman of Floridians for Solar Choice and Florida Director of Conservatives for Energy Freedom.

“This removal is a common-sense decision, meaning customers will now retain their freedom to manage their own power use regardless of whether that means being smart with their electricity use every month or investing in rooftop solar,” Perfetti said. “Consumer choice is a staple of Florida’s economy, and this fixed charge hike would have been a step in the wrong direction.”

A dozen senior citizens wearing red and white AARP T-shirts attended the PSC meeting. One of their number, Mattie Gammon, said the group was well pleased.

“It would have, would I decide whether I get my prescriptions filled this month or do I get a loaf of bread,” she said.

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