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Rick Scott enlists state bonds chief in fight for Visit Florida funding

Gov. Rick Scott has distributed a letter by Ben Watkins, director of the Division of Bond Finance, to the House and Senate budget chairmen, warning that cutting Visit Florida could damage the state’s credit rating.

The letter, dated Tuesday, addressed to Jack Latvala in the Senate and Carlos Trujillo in the House, warns that cutting back on tourism promotion has harmed the economies of states that have attempted it, including Colorado and Pennsylvania.

“Even a 2 percent reduction in visitors would result in a loss of $2.2 billion in travel spending and $225 million in tax revenue,” Watkins wrote.

“If funding for Visit Florida is reduced as much as the Florida House has proposed, the credit rating on our cities and counties could be negatively impacted, especially for communities that rely heavily on tourism and tourist-related revenues,” he wrote.

“I believe it is important for policymakers to be informed about the important spending decisions and their financial and economic consequences,” he said.

The proposed House budget would provide $25 million for Visit Florida, and the Senate would provide $76 million. Scott has asked for $100 million.

The warning came as House and Senate negotiators worked toward a framework to resolve nearly $4 billion in differences on spending for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Jack Latvala, Larry Ahern trade budget jabs on Twitter

With 10 days until the scheduled end of the 2017 Legislative Session and no allocations on the desk, it’s fair to say things are getting a little heated in Tallahassee.

Case in point: An exchange between Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala and House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Larry Ahern on Twitter over the House’s proposed standard operating, or continuation, budget.

As news spread Sunday the House had offered a so-called continuation budget, Latvala, a Clearwater Republican took to Twitter to question why the offer was being made.

“A continuation budget is just putting our names on former legislators’ work,” he tweeted around 8 p.m. Sunday night. “Aren’t we better than that?”

That tweet hung out there until about 3 p.m. Monday, when Seminole Republican retweeted Latvala’s quote and asked: “What are you doing as Appropriation Chairman to facilitate a compromise that makes it unnecessary?”

Hours later, Latvala shot back asking Ahern why he couldn’t “find a single project worthy of funding in Pinellas?” Latvala is the chairman of the 10-member of the Pinellas County legislative delegation, of which Ahern is a member.

Ahern’s response came this morning: “My project funding approach is more statewide. Over half have some benefit directly to Pinellas. About 9 million dollar’s worth.”

Latvala, who spent most of his morning in the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting, hasn’t replied. The House Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, passed its so-called standard operating budget during a meeting this morning.

LIBRE Initiative releases Spanish-language ad calling for end of ‘corporate welfare’

The LIBRE Initiative is calling on the Florida Legislature to put an end to corporate welfare.

In a new Spanish-language digital ad, the organization calls on Floridians to contact their lawmakers and tell them “the game’s over; end this corporate welfare.” The 60-second spot is similar to one released earlier this month by Americans for Prosperity-Florida, which compared economic incentives to gambling and said the incentives “haven’t paid out.”

Both the LIBRE Initiative and Americans for Prosperity-Florida are aligned with the Koch brothers.

“Hispanic families and small business owners across Florida deserve a fair, competitive free market where the government does not pick winners and losers. This is why the Florida Senate should pass a responsible budget that doesn’t fund corporate welfare and special interests,” said Cesar Grajales, the coalitions director of the LIBRE Initiative, in a statement. “Ending these wasteful, unfair programs is an important step toward breaking down barriers to economic growth and opportunity. Stopping this broken system will lead to economic progress and increasing prosperity that benefits everyone – not just well-connected corporations.”

The House budget does not include funding for Enterprise Florida and associated economic incentive programs. The Senate, however, has approved a 2017-18 budget that includes funding for Enterprise Florida.

The LIBRE ad comes as state lawmakers are working to resolve a budget stalemate.

See the ad in Spanish:

Here’s the ad in English:

AFP-FL urges Senate to keep incentives out of Triumph Gulf Coast bill

A Northwest Florida Republican plans to amend the Senate’s version of a bill to send millions of dollars to the Panhandle communities impacted by the 2010 BP oil spill to allow money to be spent on economic incentives.

The Panama City News Herald reported this weekend that Sen. George Gainer said he plans to file an amendment to the bill (SB 364) so that it allows funds to be spent on economic incentives for companies in the region that provide high paying jobs. Gainer, a Panama City Republican, sponsored the Senate bill to funnel $300 million of settlement funds from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to Triumph Gulf Coast.

The House bill (HB 7077) unanimously passed the full House on March 23. Rep. Jay Trumbull, the Panama City Republican who sponsored the bill in the House, told the News Herald that adding economic incentives — something the House has opposed — into the bill could kill the bill.

But Gainer, according to the report, said the Triumph program was meant to help the region and incentives can help spur growth.

The House sponsor isn’t the only one who appears to be critical of the addition of incentives, though. In a statement Monday, Americans for Prosperity-Florida state director Chris Hudson said the Senate would be wrong to “direct disaster relief money towards incentives.”

“That money should be used to help ensure the Panhandle’s affected natural resources, beautiful beaches, and critical infrastructure needs are addressed. Handing that money over to a few select private companies is another form of corporate welfare and is wrong,” said Hudson. “We call on Senator Gainer to not file his amendment and vote on the house bill as it stands. He should put the Gulf Coast ahead of politics and not kill this bill over corporate welfare.”

Gainer’s bill is ready for a vote by the full Senate, and could be heard in the next few days.

Joe Negron says no to House’s proposed ‘continuation budget’ as talks stall

Senate President Joe Negron has rejected a House proposal to settle some $4 billion in state budget disagreements with a “continuation budget.”

Negron said in a memo to senators Monday that House negotiators made the proposal over the weekend.

“Despite serving as the Appropriations chair in both the House and Senate, I had never encountered this term in state government until it began to appear in these negotiations,” Negron wrote.

“I understand the concept of a ‘continuation budget’ to be a Washington creation where Congress is habitually unable to pass a budget and then simply carries forward the current budget for years at a time, with additional spending.

“I have no interest in adopting this ineffectual practice.  Our constituents deserve and expect more.”

This year’s state budget amounts to $82.3 billion.

The move left budget negotiations stalled, at least for the time being, as the Legislative Session entered its final two weeks. House and Senate leaders indicated last week that conference committee members would have to know by early this week how much money they’d get to spend.

By law, any compromise would have to be available for scrutiny for three days before any final vote.

Asked how things were going in his office Monday afternoon, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala said: “No comment.”

A continuation budget would be just fine with Broward Democrat Evan Jenne.

“Last year’s budget was widely respected by both chambers and both parties. Grand total, there was 149 yeas and one nay, when you combine the two chambers,” Jenne said.

“Granted, a lot of that means that individual member projects would go by the wayside. But we’re not here for individual member projects. We’re here to get the budget done.”

A Senate aide argued that would not provide for Senate priorities.

“I think it points to the fact that we’re not going to get done on time,” said Jenne, who’s been following progress through member-to-member contact with Republicans knowledgeable about the talks.

“I hope we do, but I don’t have warm feelings about that happening, just given the lack of communication and lack of time at this point. I mean, we’re down to it now.”

Florida TaxWatch president and CEO Dominick Calabro was gloomy, too. The House and Senate aren’t quibbling over dollars, he said, but over fundamental policy disputes.

“It’s highly unlikely they’ll get done on time,” Calabro said.

The House has passed an $81.2 proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. It sets aside $200 million to create a “schools of hope” program that would shift students from failing schools to charter schools; includes $22.8 million for pay increases for corrections officers; includes $25 million for Visit Florida; and funds 46 new counter-terrorism positions.

The House proposal, however, doesn’t fund Enterprise Florida or a host of economic incentive programs associated with the public-private economic development agency, and does not include across the board pay raises for state employees. The Senate’s $85 billion proposal includes both, plus first-year funding for Negron’s $1.5 billion Lake Okeechobee plan.

House and Senate negotiators last week “exchanged meaningful and productive offers on proposed budget allocations and significant policy issues,” Negron wrote in his memo.

“I value the extraordinary amount of creative energy members of the Florida House and Senate have contributed to build their respective budgets over the last six months. I do not wish to set aside that work product and instead settle for last year’s base budget,” he continued.

“I will insist on a budget work product that reflects public testimony from our fellow citizens, input from the constituents we represent and the thousands of informed decisions – big and small – elected legislators have made since November 2016.

“Accordingly, I stand ready, willing, and able to respond to a budget and policy counteroffer from the House, with both the House and Senate negotiating in a principled way to agree on allocations and policy for the upcoming fiscal year.  Before the appearance of the “continuation budget” from the House, many budget and policy issues had been amicably resolved.

Donald Trump names Floridian Heather MacDougall to OSHA Review Commission

Heather MacDougall

President Donald Trump has named employer relations expert Heather MacDougall of Melbourne to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Since January, MacDougall has been acting chair of the Occupational Safety & Health Review Commission. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama nominated her to the Commission in 2014, unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

MacDougall brings 20 years of experience in labor, employment, occupational safety and health law, most recently with Akerman LLP law firm based in West Palm Beach.  In addition, she served as Chief Counsel to OSHRC Chair W. Scott Railton in 2002-2003 under the George W. Bush administration. OSHRC is the independent federal agency as an administrative court deciding contested OSHA citations. MacDougall also served as associate general counsel of a Washington, D.C. trade association standing for human resources executives of Fortune 500 corporations.

Earlier in her career, MacDougall was Associate General Counsel to the HR Policy Association, a public policy organization that advocates for human resource officers of major employers, where she stood for the association as amicus curiae in U.S. Courts of Appeals and Supreme Court cases. As a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), MacDougall also gave expert guidance to employers on all aspects of the employer-employee relationship.

She received her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and a J.D. from Marquette University Law School.

St. Pete fire crews called to Collier in wildfire fight

Nearly 7,000 homes are covered under mandatory evacuation orders in Southwest Florida as wildfires continue to rage just outside Fort Myers.

On Sunday, a St. Petersburg Fire Rescue crew was dispatched to Collier County to help battle the spread of fires in the area.

The Tampa Bay Reporter writes the St. Pete crew is part of a Bay Area Strike Team – composed of a district commander and five fire engines from the Tampa Bay area. Either three or four firefighters will staff each engine, and they are expected to work in Collier for 72 hours.

Accuweather reports the 30th Avenue fire is only 10 percent contained and has burned 5,500 acres so far. Fires destroyed nine homes.

As Frank Artiles departs, Dwight Bullard contemplates return to Senate

Dwight Bullard, the Senate Democrat unseated by Frank Artiles last year, may be looking to return.

Jessica Bakeman of POLITICO Florida reports that former Sen. Bullard is “seriously considering” a run after Artiles resigned Friday morning after the fallout from a racist and sexist tirade he made Monday at Tallahassee’s Governors Club.

“I’d be lying if I said interest wasn’t there,” Bullard said, “but I still need time to process it all and make a final decision.”

In 2016, Bullard had lost re-election in Senate District 40, a district that went 57-40 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Although Bullard had support from the Florida Education Association, which gave $825,000 to his campaign, Artiles won 50-41 percent.

Bullard said his loss to Artiles came after the Cuban-American Republican catered to the Latino majority in the newly redrawn (and Democratic-leaning) district, while “patently ignoring” black voters.

It was “ironic” that pressure from black Senate colleagues caused Artiles to step down for using a slang form of the “N-word” about white GOP senators, he added.

“That same community that he chose to ignore are the ones who led to his demise,” Bullard told POLITICO. “That should resonate with anyone thinking about running for the seat, whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican.”

If Bullard, a Miami public school teacher, should run again, he hopes the Republican Party doesn’t spend “almost a million dollars … to tell everyone that I was a terrorist sympathizer, since that was the approach they took in that campaign.”

“They painted me out to be the boogeyman to a group of people who didn’t know who I was, to begin with,” he explained. “And so that was the narrative that won.”

Lizbeth Benacquisto: Frank Artiles made the ‘best decision for himself and his family, his constitutes, and the Florida Senate’

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto said she believes Frank Artiles’ decision to resign was the “best decision for himself and his family.”

Benacquisto, the Fort Myers Republican who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said Sen. Perry Thurston has withdrawn his complaint against Artiles, and as such “no further action on the part of the part of the Rules Committee is warranted in connection with this matter.”

Artiles resigned his seat Friday rather than face a hearing that could have resulted in his explusion from the Senate. He made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee Monday night. Thurston and Gibson are black.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. While Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday, many said it wasn’t enough and called for his resignation.

“I believe Senator Artiles made the right decision for himself and his family, his constituents, and the Florida Senate,” said Benacquisto about Artiles decision. “I join my Senate colleagues in wishing Frank and his family all the best.”

Thurston, the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, subsequently filed a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his explusion.

 

Florida Dems welcome Frank Artiles resignation, begin fundraising for a special election

The Florida Democratic Party is claiming victory amid the announcement that Frank Artiles has resigned his post.

“The Florida Democratic Party began calling for Artiles’ resignation as soon as news hit of his racists and sexist remarks toward his Senate colleagues,” said Stephen Bittel, the chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, in a statement. “Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate and the Republican Party of Florida have been content with letting Artiles off with just a slap on the wrist — his roommate, Republican Representative Jose Oliva even saying that Artiles has ‘acted honorably.’”

Artiles resigned his seat Friday rather than face a hearing that could have resulted in his explusion from the Senate. He made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee Monday night. Thurston and Gibson are black.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. While Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday, many said it wasn’t enough and called for his resignation. Thurston, the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, subsequently filed a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his explusion.

“We are pleased that the residents of District 40 will no longer bear the burden of being represented by someone with a history of violence and bigotry and that they will have the opportunity to vote for a Senator that represents their values,” continued Bittel.

A special election be held to fill that seat. Democrats are already begun fundraising off Artiles resignation, sending an email to supporters Friday afternoon telling them they need to raise “another $10,000 in our Special Election Rapid Response fund before midnight tonight.”

“Here’s the thing: Nationwide, we’ve seen Democrats make BIG gains in ruby-red districts during special elections. If we want to flip this seat, we have to bring that same enthusiasm to this special election,” the fundraising email read. This race will be the first major election that Floridians face since November’s disastrous results.If we’re able to deliver a big win and take this seat back, it will send a crystal clear message that Floridians aren’t going to stand for Donald Trump and Frank Artiles’s extreme, racist right-wing agenda.”

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