William Patrick – Florida Politics

William Patrick

William Patrick is Watchdog.org’s Florida reporter. His work has been featured on Fox News and the Drudge Report, among other national sites. He’s also been cited and reposted by numerous statewide news organizations. Patrick can be reached at wpatrick@watchdog.org.

Private nonprofit, for-profit universities could soon get regulatory relief

Bad press, combined with federal rules and regulations disproportionately targeting the higher education alternatives, have taken their toll on nonprofit and for-profit universities in recent years — but that could soon change.

For-profit and private nonprofit colleges and universities offer career-building options separate from traditional public universities. Small class sizes, hands-on training and flexible schedules are common features designed to help students obtain degrees, practical jobs skills and employment-related certifications.

Student bodies also are diverse, and not just demographically. Active military members, veterans, adults at various stages of life, and those with jobs and children are more intentionally accommodated. As a result, enrollment has skyrocketed over the past two decades.

But regulatory change is afoot. In February, Arthur Keiser, chancellor and CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based Keiser University, was named chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.

The committee will make recommendations to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — a noted Florida education reformer — regarding accreditation and institutional eligibility for federal student financial aid.

Keiser University is a private nonprofit school with nearly 20,000 students enrolled across 18 Florida campuses. It offers 100 degrees at the doctoral through associate level, and employs 3,800 staff and faculty, according to its website.

Other large Florida private nonprofit universities include Nova Southeastern, St. Leo, Barry and the University of Miami. Together with Keiser, they serve about 87,000 students.

More recently, the U.S. Department of Education signaled a potential policy shift when it allowed additional time for postsecondary schools to appeal “gainful employment” determinations issued by the Obama administration in its final days.

“This action is taken to allow the Department to further review the (gainful employment) regulations and their implementation,” a statement from the acting assistant secretary for the federal student aid office said in March.

Billed as an accountability measure, outgoing Education Department officials released the first student loan debt-to-earnings rates on Jan. 9, pursuant to regulations finalized in 2014. At stake is access to federal student financial aid, the lifeline for for-profit and nonprofit career schools.

Industry representatives viewed the 11th-hour release as a parting shot from an administration overly hostile to higher education alternative career schools.

Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities, a membership organization of 470 campuses offering career training programs, said the decision was “all about political motivations and harming institutions” and had “nothing to do with expanding higher education access and opportunity or creating sound public policy.”

“It is time to stop the war,” Gunderson said in a statement.

Schools now have until July 1 to submit appeals and comply with formerly enacted regulatory disclosure requirements.

The former administration regulatory actions were bolstered by high-profile disasters in the career training space in which it played an active role.

For-profit colleges made headlines when California-based Corinthian Colleges International closed or sold off more than 90 nationwide campuses in 2014 amid allegations of falsified job-placement data and predatory lending.

Last year, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accused ITT Tech of pushing high-cost predatory loans on vulnerable students. The school closed after DOE required it “to boost its cash reserves,” and ultimately cut off access to federal student aid.

The industry also has received negative publicity for high student loan default rates, which some scholars say is on par with public universities when comparing similar student body demographics.

Federal gainful employment regulation

The federal gainful employment regulation is supposed to protect students and taxpayers from dishonest career programs that don’t deliver enough postgraduate earnings to justify tuition costs, and thereby student loan debt.

According to the DOE, the law requires that most for-profit programs and certificate programs at private nonprofit and public institutions prepare students for “gainful employment in a recognized occupation.”

“That is a high bar in a global economy known for not only job redundancy, but also radical sector disruption, often before a career school grad has earned his or her associate’s or bachelor’s,” contends Forbes education author James Marshall Crotty.

It also singles-out for-profit career schools, and to a lesser extent private nonprofit schools, as their students overwhelmingly depend on financial aid. Legally, for-profit institutions can receive up to 90 percent of their funding through federal Title IV student aid programs. Private nonprofit schools can receive 100 percent.

Cutting off Title IV student loans and grants would effectively bankrupt the schools.

Industry groups are looking to the Trump administration to relieve existential pressures imposed through harsh evaluation standards embedded in the framework of the Obama-era regulations.

Under the gainful employment rule, colleges whose graduates have an average annual loan repayment rate of less than 8 percent of their total earnings, or less than 20 percent of discretionary earnings, will receive a passing grade for their gainful employment program.

A graduate repayment rate between 8 percent and 12 percent of total earnings, or between 20 percent and 30 percent of discretionary earnings, is labeled “the zone.” Repayment rates above 12 percent of total earnings, or 30 percent of discretionary earnings, is considered failing.

If a college registers two failing grades in any consecutive three-year period, it loses all federal Title IV student aid. Four consecutive years of the zone also will lead to a loss of all federal student aid funding — a death sentence.

According to the Jan. 9 news release from the DOE, over 800 programs serving hundreds of thousands of students failed the Obama administration’s accountability standards, and an additional 1,239 programs are in jeopardy of failing. Ninety-eight percent were programs offered by for-profit colleges.

The concentrated figures appear to be evidence of what many critics have characterized as a biased regulatory crackdown.

“There is no for-profit that hasn’t had an investigation or lawsuit action,” said Eric Juhlin, CEO of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, at a Cato Institute panel discussion in Washington, D.C., two weeks after the November election.

“The allegations alone are so damaging that those institutions will oftentimes pay whatever is necessary to resolve that move it forward just to get it out of the press,” Juhlin said.

Neal McCluskey, director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, said the previous administration placed an “unfair focus” on for-profits and “somewhat of a demonization to the exclusion of looking at all sectors.”

“It’s not like there aren’t a lot of problems in for-profit higher education, because there are. There’s good reason to scrutinize that sector,” he said. “But there’s good reason to scrutinize all sectors.”

The Obama administration first unveiled its gainful employment proposal back in 2010, before the implosions of Corinthian College and ITT Tech. One year later, Keiser University switched from a for-profit institution to a private nonprofit university.

Composite scoring

A related, but entirely different holdover regulation, is set to take effect July 1.

Known as composite scoring, new financial health rules will soon be applied to nonprofit and for-profit colleges and universities across the country. Public universities, backed by the full faith and credit of their respective states, are not subject to composite score tests.

A composite score will signify the overall financial health of the higher education institutions along a scale of -1.0 to 3.0. A score of 1.5 or higher is considered financially responsible. A score of 1.0 to 1.4 is still financially responsible but invites oversight from DOE, including cash monitoring.

Schools with scores of less than 1.0 are considered financially irresponsible and can only participate in federal student financial aid programs under a provisional certification.

Sixty-five nonprofit institutions currently fall into the failing category, according to the National Association of College and Business Officers. The Washington, D.C.-based postsecondary advocacy group says an additional 62 private nonprofits are in the 1.0 to 1.4 range.

“NACUBO and other associations have long questioned (the Department of Education’s) methodology in calculating the composite scores,” the organization explained in a statement this week.

It’s not yet clear how the Trump administration will address the Obama-era regulations, but the options are clear: stay the course, rollback unnecessary overreach or effectively scrap the new rules altogether.

According to the Department of Education, composite financial score ratings, like the gainful employment rule, “is not a reflection of the quality of education at a given school.”


William Patrick is a Florida reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at wpatrick@watchdog.org and @WmPatFL.

Sunshine Week: First Amendment Foundation goes to bat for Florida’s right to know

It’s Sunshine Week in the Sunshine State, and not just because it’s Spring Break.

Since 2005, open government and freedom of information advocates have designated March 13-19 as a time to celebrate public transparency and raise awareness about the critical importance of access to government records.

Sunshine Week is timed to coincide with the birthday of James Madison, author of the First Amendment.

True to form, the First Amendment Foundation has been busy at the Florida Capitol battling to ensure the public’s right to know. The Tallahassee-based nonprofit helped restructure a bill this week that would have severely limited access to information if the government decided not to comply with public records laws.

Florida’s “sunshine” law says that “it is the policy of this state that all state, county, and municipal records shall at all times be open for a personal inspection by any person.” But the only real recourse against a government officer or agency that refuses to hand over public information is to challenge them in court.

That can be expensive. As a safeguard, if a judge rules that the government violated public records laws, then the government must pay the record requester’s attorney’s fees.

The mandatory provision “creates a level playing field for someone who can afford to pay for an attorney and those who cannot,” according to the First Amendment Foundation. 

Putting aside the issue of awarding attorneys’ fees with taxpayer money, a new bill would have made the mandatory fee provision optional. By changing the word “must” to “shall,” a judge could deny fees even if the court rules in favor of the citizen.

The potential consequences are enormous.

“Without a penalty provision when the government is wrong, there is no incentive to be transparent and provide citizens with access to information about governmental decision-making.  The result will be fewer challenges brought by citizens, which will certainly result in less government transparency,” says the First Amendment Foundation.

But Tuesday, a compromise was reached and the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved it.

“Under the bill as amended in committee, the fee provision remains mandatory,” Barbara Petersen, the foundation’s executive director, told Watchdog.org.

Petersen sounded the alarm about the proposal in February, then outlined a fix, and recently worked with Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, the bill’s sponsor, and the Florida League of Cities to amend the bill.

As part of the compromise, the bill also includes a five-day notice requirement that would alert a public records custodian of a pending records request before a lawsuit can be filed, and an additional provision that allows courts to crack down on “improper” records requests – the issue Steube’s bill initially sought to address.

His approach, however, also would have penalized legitimate inquiries and legal challenges.

In recent years, lawmakers have decried a “cottage industry” of records requests that are intended to trigger sunshine violations. Petersen calls them “predatory” requests.

“They’re designed to fail,” she told Watchdog.org. “When the agency doesn’t respond, or doesn’t respond quickly enough, then the requester files suit in civil court. A few days later, they call up the agency and offer to settle for a financial payout with the promise of dropping the lawsuit.”

In 2014, the issue became a statewide concern when a circuit court judge ruled that Jeffrey Gray, a self-described civil rights activist from northeast Florida, was engaged in “a baiting gesture meant to achieve personal financial gain,” rather than a genuine effort to obtain public information.

According to the Florida Bar, the ruling said Gray had been a plaintiff in 18 separate lawsuits involving public records requests in Duval County, and that Gray’s lawyer had paid him when attorneys’ fees were recovered. The judgment said the practice was “nothing more than a scam.”

Knocking out Florida’s mandatory fee provision would halt frivolous, harassing and disingenuous records requests designed to force sunshine violations, but not without collateral damage.

“In doing that, the bill wouldn’t just punish the people who are taking advantage of the system, but the 99 percent of people who make requests because they’re legitimately seeking public records,” Petersen said.

The amendment adopted this week should fix that.

If Steube’s amended bill becomes law, not only will courts continue to award attorneys’ fees when the government wrongfully withholds public information, but courts also would be able to assess attorneys’ fees against anyone who attempts to profit from scamming Florida’s public records system.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran making good on transparency, accountability promises

House Speaker Richard Corcoran began his two-year speakership in November by promising a “transformational leap” in government accountability and transparency.

“The Florida House will set the standard for others to emulate,” he declared.

Such pronouncements are often uttered by politicians, especially those who may aspire to higher office. But one week into Florida’s annual legislative session the hard-charging Republican reformer from Land O’Lakes has a lot to show for his audacious accountability talk.

While the final outcome is far from certain, under Corcoran’s leadership the House voted to kill Enterprise Florida, the state’s chief businesses recruitment organization, and restructure Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing corporation, while cutting its funding from $76 million to $25 million annually.

Enterprise Florida’s $350 million Sanford Burnham deal that failed to create 300 jobs over 10 years, and Visit Florida’s $1 million payment to rapper Pitbull for a “Sexy Beaches” tourism promotion are symbols of Corcoran’s “corporate welfare” outrage.

The House passed the tough accountability reforms 87-28, and 80-35, respectively, despite intense pressure from Republican Gov. Rick Scott and economic development and tourism marketing beneficiaries across the state.

Lobbyists are also feeling the pressure. On Friday, the House passed the toughest lobbying ban in the country.

By a vote of 110-3, lawmakers agreed on a 6-year lobbying ban for legislators and statewide elected officials once they leave public office. The measure extends a current two-year “revolving door” restriction, and applies to all state agencies and the government bodies the elected officers formerly served.

Corcoran previously said extending the ban would eliminate the “looking to lobby” mentality that can manifest in an official’s final term. After Friday’s vote, the Speaker tweeted, “Proud that @myflhouse just passed the strongest lobby ban for fmr. legislators in the nation with a bipartisan vote of 110-3.”

All three items are central to Corcoran’s legislative agenda. Whether the state Senate will emulate his efforts remains to be seen.

Meantime, the Speaker’s transparency push continues in the lower chamber.

In a manner befitting Sunshine Week, an annual mid-March open government initiative, Corcoran is imposing additional restrictions on lobbyists with the aim of shedding light on their activities and reducing undue influence.

Before being allowed to lobby House members, lobbyists now are required to file electronic notices of appearance disclosing the specific issues they seek to influence. The disclosure is necessary to eliminate “the mystery of who is lobbying what issue,” according to a House statement.

Lobbyists also are prohibited from influencing House lawmakers via email, text message or other forms of electronic communication when the chamber is voting or when a member is in a committee meeting. It’s a practice that “if widely known to the public would engender justifiable outrage,” the statement says.

Additionally, House members are no longer allowed to travel on private jets owned by lobbyists, enter into business deals or financial relationships with lobbyists, or lobby local governments that they oversee.

Private contracts also must be disclosed if lobbyists are representing public entities or any related institution receiving taxpayer funding. “Taxpayer money being used to lobby the Legislature for more taxpayer money is a vicious cycle.”

Lawmakers and lobbyists would be subject to one or more of the following penalties for violations: public censure and reprimand, civil penalties up to $10,000 or restitution of any pecuniary benefits received in violation of the rules.

Should police get a sneak peak at body-camera footage?

A bill that would allow police officers to review body camera footage before making an official statement in an officer-involved shooting is making its way through the Florida Legislature.

But not without reservations.

Lawmakers on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard the proposal for the first time last week. It was initially characterized as a “common sense” measure to help law enforcement ensure minor details would be accurately documented in police reports, such as the color of a suspect’s shirt.

When several lawmakers pressed further, they revealed some possible objections.

“This isn’t only for minor issues, this is for essentially everything,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “This isn’t just to make sure that I’m correct in my statements, it’s to be able to watch everything, and essentially watch the whole episode play out again before a formal written report.”

“You are correct,” replied Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a law enforcement advocacy group.

The admission raised some concerns.

“How can we make sure there’s a proper check and balance system in place?” asked Brandes. “One side gets a replay and the other doesn’t.”

Matthew Feeney, an analyst with the Washington D.C.-based Cato Institute, said he is skeptical of such body-camera review policies when they extend to the most serious kinds of interactions between law enforcement and the public, particularly shootings.

“The legality of use-of-force incidents often hinges on what an officer believed or thought at the time of the incident. The problem with these kinds of proposals is that they give officers an unfair advantage that is not given to citizens,” Feeney told Watchdog.org.

A presentation by the police-friendly training group Lexipol, referenced in the bill’s staff analysis, states that non-police witnesses would not have the same opportunity to view footage before speaking with police.

Feeney said a compromise solution would be for police to write down their memory of events and what they think happened after violent interactions, then later review body camera footage and note anything they’d like to change, with both documents becoming part of the official record.

In a phone interview last month, Puckett told Watchdog.org that the PBA approached Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, for help on the issue. Steube filed the body camera bill, SB 624, on Feb. 1.

Pitched as tools

Body cameras are portable electronic recording devices worn by law enforcement officers to record audio and video of enforcement-related encounters and activities.

The devices became a national concern in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. Speculation about the nature of the incident fueled arguments for-and-against the officer’s actions, which video footage could have clarified.

Thirty states have passed body camera laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and studies have shown the cameras reduce both the use of force by police and citizen complaints.

Florida does not require law enforcement agencies to use them, but 107 of 368 agencies reported using them last year, according to the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission. Each individual law enforcement agency is responsible for developing its own policies and procedures for using the devices.

Puckett told Watchdog.org that Florida developed its body camera laws and guidelines two years ago after intense public outcry. Expressly authorizing the review of footage after an incident was “one of the things we feel was left out,” he said.

Puckett described a case in Palm Beach County where an officer was grilled by a defense attorney regarding a discrepancy in the officer’s police report and courtroom testimony.

“The officer described a weapon that the suspect pointed at him. He said it was a blue weapon and it ended up being a silver weapon. The attorney pounced all over the officer because of that. Had the officer reviewed his body camera footage prior to writing that report, he probably would’ve gotten the color correct,” Puckett said.

He further explained that when an officer is involved in a shooting, an administrative investigation ensues but is not immediately considered a criminal investigation. “It may turn into that,” he said, “but it depends.”

Prior to a criminal investigation of an officer, Puckett told lawmakers last week that under the bill the officer would be able to view his or her body camera footage immediately after an incident occurred if they chose to – even on a computer in a police vehicle.

“We live in a different world now,” he said. “Body cameras were pitched to law enforcement agencies as tools. If we can’t review footage before writing reports, then they’re not tools.”

‘Things can happen very fast’

Some other states have similar laws.

In Texas, law enforcement agencies are required to have policies allowing police officers to access to body camera recordings prior to making statements.

In Connecticut, officers can review footage capturing the use of force and other incidents leading to disciplinary investigations with an attorney or labor representative prior to making official statements.

“I came in here ready to vote for this, but I have some concerns about it now,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.

In the end, the bill passed unanimously on the assurance that the concerns raised during the meeting would be addressed in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill’s next stop, where Steube is the chairman.

“I was in the military,” said Steube. “Sen. Brandes was in the military, and we both know that things can happen very fast and there’s a lot of things that happen that you’re not going to remember.”

“Giving an officer the ability to go back and renew that video to refresh his recollection to make an accurate statement, I don’t think that’s asking too much,” he said.

Does splitting bill in two edge Enterprise Florida closer to chopping block?

Democratic lawmaker David Richardson appears to be getting his Enterprise Florida wish from his conservative House colleagues.

The Miami Beach state rep won’t be getting a grant from the taxpayer-supported economic incentive organization; rather he’ll soon have a chance to help abolish it.

House leadership, headed by Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, will be splitting a bill aimed at eliminating Enterprise Florida and reducing Visit Florida’s taxpayer-funded tourism marketing budget by 67 percent into two bills, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

The move incorporates feedback from a House Appropriations Committee last week.

“I have very little good to say about Enterprise Florida and the way it has been conducted in the past,” Richardson said during the committee meeting, echoing sentiments from the organization’s toughest critics.

But after recounting several issues, such as the public-private partnership’s 90-10 taxpayer-to-private funding ratio, poor performance and a cash “slush fund” used to purchase furniture and pay for travel, Richardson voted against cutting Enterprise Florida.

He disagreed with the proposed funding reduction on Visit Florida, so said he had no other choice but to cast a dissenting vote because the two organizations were packaged together.

“But if you pull out Enterprise Florida … I’d be happy to kill it for you,” he said.

Splitting the bill in two also honors Rep. Paul Renner’s, R-Palm Coast, commitment to Democratic Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, to allow for further debate on Visit Florida funding. With that promise, Cruz, the highest-ranking House Democrat, voted to eliminate Enterprise Florida last week.

Richardson, Cruz and other Democrats will have an opportunity to vote with their GOP counterparts, perhaps by late next week.

HB 7005 is scheduled to be split Monday in the House Rules and Policy Committee. All references to Visit Florida will be moved to a new bill, HB 9, and the remaining language would eliminate Enterprise Florida, as well as the Office of Film and Entertainment and 22 other incentive programs.

The formal legislative session begins Tuesday, and House lawmakers could schedule floor votes on both bills before the end of the week.

Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, is vehemently opposed to eliminating Enterprise Florida and reducing funding for Visit Florida. Scott wants $85 million and $76 million for the taxpayer-supported organizations, respectively, this year.

Corcoran and Scott released dueling videos last week in an attempt to build public support for their positions. Corcoran’s message, Session is Coming, focuses on ridding the legislature of “corporate welfare,” while Scott’s Fighting for Florida Jobs features business leaders and economic development officials touting the benefits of public assistance.


William Patrick reports for Florida Watchdog. Contact him at wpatrick@watchdog.org and on Twitter.

Task force would seek to remake Florida’s criminal justice system

Florida’s state lawmakers increasingly are embracing criminal justice reform policies that break with the state’s “tough on crime” past. But a sea change could be in the works.

But a sea change could be in the works.

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, and the GOP-controlled legislature approved one of the most far-reaching civil asset forfeiture reforms in the country, repealed a 10-20-life mandatory minimum sentencing law, and expanded health care delivery for mentally ill inmates. Mental health advocates say as much as 40 percent of Florida’s prison population needs treatment.

Dozens of reform-related bills already have been filed ahead this year’s state legislative session.

Now, it’s time to go big.

Seizing on momentum, Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg wants to remake the entire system.

“If you look around the country, many other states are leading on criminal justice reform. It’s a wave that’s just starting to hit Florida,” Brandes told Watchdog.org.

“It’s time to look at a holistic view about how to transform the system,” he said.

Brandes is seeking legislative approval to form a task force to conduct a comprehensive review of Florida’s criminal justice, court and corrections systems.

Ultimately, the task force would submit a report with findings, conclusions and recommendations to be molded into legislation for the 2018 state session.

Overhauling state prisons may be the first priority.

“We have prisons that are in a kind of crisis mode right now. We’re having a tough time hiring guards. Contraband rates are through the roof. Our education of prisoners is at rock bottom, and recidivism is a struggle for the state,” Brandes said.

Membership must reflect the racial, gender, geographic and economic diversity of the state, as well as the diversity and demographics of the state’s prison population, according to the proposal. The 28-member group would include members of the House and Senate, judges, academics, faith leaders, victims’ advocates, public defenders, law enforcement officials and even prison inmates in good standing.

Brandes said he has been in contact with groups such as the Crime and Justice Institute and Pew Research Center to discuss how to approach the issue and what possible outcomes might look like.

The task force would use a data-driven approach to arrive at sentencing and corrections recommendations for the purpose of:

— Reducing the state prison population.

— Decreasing spending by focusing on serious offenses and violent criminals.

— Holding offenders accountable through research-based supervision and sentencing practices.

— Reinvesting savings into strategies known to decrease recidivism, including reentry outcomes.

“We think states like Texas are thought leaders in criminal justice reform. It’s time for Florida to follow Texas’s lead on the criminal justice issue and to get serious about criminal justice reform,” Brandes said.

Florida is often compared to Texas both economically and demographically. In 2007, Texas instituted a nationally recognized reform package, and has added to it ever since.

When asked to describe possible obstacles, Brandes said, “Most arguments in the Legislature are fortress versus frontier arguments. I’m, almost to a fault, with the frontiers.”

According to the proposal, task force members would receive no taxpayer compensation for their work.

Assessing Visit Florida beneficiaries’ assertions, predictions and anecdotes

As the debate over whether to fund or eliminate Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida escalates at the Florida Capitol, it’s important to consider that those who directly benefit from the mostly taxpayer-funded organizations are among their most vocal supporters.

It’s natural, and predictable.

It’s also entirely appropriate that incentives and tourism marketing recipients have the opportunity to make their case for continued funding. But their appeals shouldn’t always be taken at face value.

Take Amy Lukasik, director of tourism marketing for the Flagler County Board of County Commissioners. She was one of dozens of individuals who implored House lawmakers last week not to eliminate Visit Florida or its $76 million annual appropriation.

Ken Lawson, Visit Florida’s recently appointed president and CEO, made rousing statements against the plan to kill his public-private corporation. Chris Hart, president and CEO of Enterprise Florida, did the same in his own way.

What else were they going to say?

Lukasik’s brief testimony was different. She evoked compassion while detailing positive results and robust return on investment.

“Following Hurricane Matthew, within days, Visit Florida and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association made it a priority to visit with us.

“At Visit Florida’s expense, they hired a video production company and through assistance of our office produced four videos with two more committed — in rapid fire they were posted by paid advertisement on the Google network display and all of their social media platforms. 

“Collectively, over 3.2 million people viewed the video within one month’s span and it’s growing. On our behalf and also on their expense, Visit Florida pitched a culinary trail feature of our destination with a focus on Flagler County and provided us with additional co-op programs at a rate that we could never afford on our own.

“The effort has shown dividends to our small-business owners. In just one month, our collections rose 16 percent over the previous years. This would have never happened without the support of Visit Florida.”

This testimony, along with remarks from nearly a dozen others during last week’s packed House committee meeting, was included in an official press release from Gov. Rick Scott’s office.

Scott wants $85 million for new Enterprise Florida incentives, $23 million for Enterprise Florida operations, and another $76 million for Visit Florida this year.

Lukasik’s claims about Visit Florida successfully benefiting small businesses in her community and boosting revenue collections by 16 percent was reported by the Orlando Sentinel.

“This would have never happened without the support of Visit Florida,” the Sentinel quoted.

Watchdog.org also repeated Lukasik’s comments.

“They viewed our damage and had conversations on how they could help immediately overcome national attention stating our destination was closed for business,” we reported.

FlaglerLive, a local nonprofit journalism watchdog, is intimately familiar with the situation, and offered a different take:

“I don’t know where Lukasik got the notion that the place was closed for business. I certainly hope that’s not what she and her boss Matt Dunn, the local tourism director whose relationship with facts is often a fascinating study in surrealism, conveyed to the marketers from on high: Flagler Beach started reopening its beaches within two weeks of the hurricane, and as local media screamed it within a couple of days of the storm, nothing else was closed for business (Washington Oaks Garden State Park aside), least of all the businesses along A1A.

“I’ve never known Flagler Beach to be the sort of town that’s ever depended on tourism’s equivalent of kitty-cat videos on randomized sites to take care of itself: the city was back in business, including its beaches, thanks to its volunteers, its city commission and city manager, and of course its businesses, all of which screamed “We’re Open!”

Pierre Tristam, author of “The Live Column,” continued:

“Lukasik claimed to the House panel the video plug “has shown dividends to our small-business owners.” Her proof? “In just one month following Hurricane Matthew our collections rose 16 percent over the previous years.”

“I’m not sure where that number comes from, or whether Lukasik has her timeline right, but the month after Matthew was November, and in November — the last month for which data is available to us — collections were down 9.2 percent.”

Other public comments from the House meeting — some included on Scott’s press release — took the form of unverifiable assertions and predictions. Some had the tone of scare tactics. All of them were first-person narratives.

“Because we are a local economic development organization, everything we do involves Enterprise Florida. We work together in ways that transcend brokering incentives,” said Scarlett Phaneuf, vice president of the Bay Economic Development Alliance.

Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, was more assertive. “If you take this economy on, I can guarantee you the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars,” Dow said.

“I moved here because it’s a no income tax state, but the bottom line is you have no choice. If you pass this bill, you are going to go to an income tax or increase sales taxes or cut services. That’s not acceptable,” he said.

Keith Overton, president of TradeWinds Island Resorts, said that eliminating Visit Florida would eliminate the voice of independent hoteliers.

“What happens when tourists get shot like the Germans?” he asked, referencing an incident from two and a half decades ago. “What happens when we have Zika Virus? What happens when we have an oil spill? Who’s there to defend us? Are we going to leave that to the national media,” asked Overton.

Expect more of the same.

Scott is touring the state this week to promote Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. He’s holding public events with local business leaders, and economic development and tourism officials, similar to those who lined up to speak in favor of continued funding last week.

On Monday, Scott visited Flagler Beach for a town hall-style meeting. Not by coincidence, Flagler County is home to Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, who is sponsoring the bill to abolish the taxpayer-assisted programs.

Scott was also in Tampa Monday for a public event at the Museum of Science and Industry, squarely in the district of Rep. Shawn Harrison. He voted for Renner’s House bill.

On Tuesday, Scott visited Panama City Beach and hosted a roundtable discussion. Rep. Jay Trumbull voted for the House bill and hails from Panama City Beach.

On Wednesday, Scott will host roundtables in Sunrise and Riviera Beach. A lot of promotional claims will be made.

Regardless of whether one supports publicly assisting private businesses, $151 million in funding is at stake this year alone. Those who directly benefit from the largesse are predictably going to be among the most fervent supporters, but they also may be among the least reliable.

Another day, another ding for Florida’s economic incentive programs

As the debate over whether to fund Florida’s state economic incentive programs rages at the Florida Capitol this week, a new government study offers plenty of fodder for critics of such programs.

In a new report by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a nonpartisan legislative research office, researchers evaluated eight state-level economic incentive programs over a three-year period beginning in fiscal year 2012.

Key findings include:

  • 232 projects received 295 incentive awards in the form of cash grants, tax refunds and tax credits.
  • Most of the incentive awards went to existing Florida businesses that have more than 1,000 employees.
  • Incentive projects were awarded $156.2 million during the three-year period, and $597.4 million since their inceptions.
  • 134 incentives (45 percent) were terminated due to lack of performance during the review period.
  • Seven counties received most of the award money, while 31 counties received no incentives.

The report singled-out several of the eight incentive programs for under-performance and lack of oversight.

The Innovation Incentive Program gives cash grants to selected organizations and accounts for the highest percentage of incentive awards at 49 percent. The return on investment has been dismal.

“Most Innovation Incentive recipients have been unable to achieve job goals and several left the state prior to contract completion,” the report says.

Notably, Sanford Burnham medical research institute is listed as one of the cash recipients that hasn’t met employment or capital investment goals.

The Department of Economic Opportunity is currently trying to claw-back half of the $155 million Innovation Incentive award received by the Orlando institute. The project failed to create its required 303 jobs over 10-years. Sanford Burnham says it has no intention of paying back any taxpayer money.

Since the Innovation program’s inception, the state has paid out $435 million in grants to nine companies, which created a total of 927 jobs.

The report further pegs the New Markets Development Program as needing “enhance(d) oversight.”

The New Markets Development Program encourages capital expenditures in low-income rural and urban communities, but there are no formal criteria for allocating the program’s tax credits.

New Markets projects are primarily located in just two counties, Miami-Dade and Hillsborough. While all of the program’s available incentive awards have been allocated, legislative analysts said assessing the impact of the program was hampered by “inadequate reporting requirements.”

“If the Legislature funds additional New Markets tax credits, it could direct the Department of Economic Opportunity to use scoring criteria to allocate them,” the report states.

Another incentive program, known as the Enterprise Zone Program, under-performed on economic and social indicators to the extent that it will be phased out by 2018.

On the bright side, program auditors determined that the projects receiving government incentive payments during the review period created 13,378 jobs and made $1.3 billion in capital investments.

But DEO terminated 134 incentives for 124 projects during the three-year period because the recipients failed to meet contractual performance goals.

They were supposed to create 12,822 jobs and make $195 million in capital investments. They didn’t.

Instead, only 213 jobs were created, or 1.7 percent of those committed by contract, and $2.7 million in capital investments were made.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran is an outspoken opponent of taxpayer-funded incentives for private businesses. Corcoran rejects publicly subsidizing private companies and has vowed to block Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s $85 million funding request for Enterprise Florida, the state’s top incentive wielding job-recruitment organization.

Scott and other supporters say the programs are necessary for job creation and economic growth, as well as persuading out-of-state companies to relocate to Florida.

Legislators from the House and Senate are scheduled to discuss the report Thursday during a joint auditing committee meeting at the Capitol.

The incentive evaluation is the second report in as many months conducted by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. A December report showed Florida’s incentive programs were under-performing compared to competitor states.

House lawmakers filed a 172-page draft bill to eliminate Enterprise Florida last week.

Scott told reporters on Friday at an Orlando jobs summit that he is confident the House bill won’t become law. “We’re on an unbelievable roll right now. We’ve got to keep this going,” Scott said.

SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch and ‘over-criminalization’

President Donald Trump’s nomination of  Neil Gorsuch, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, sparked a predictably hostile response from Democrats. But Gorsuch’s record on criminal justice reform offers a rare opportunity for bipartisan agreement.

Gorsuch tipped his hand at a gathering of conservative attorneys in Washington, D.C., three years ago by addressing the issue of “over-criminaliztion.”

NEIL GORSUCH: President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee has publicly addressed the explosion of criminal justice laws, sometimes called “over-criminalization.”

Speaking at the Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention in 2013, Gorsuch said, “we have about 5,000 federal criminal statutes on the books, most of them added in the last few decades, and the spigot keeps pouring, with literally hundreds of new statutory crimes inked every single year.”

“Neither does that begin to count the thousands of additional regulatory crimes buried in the federal register. There are so many crimes cowled in the numbing fine print of those pages that scholars have given up counting and are now debating their number,” he continued.

“What happens to individual freedom and equality when the criminal law comes to cover so many facets of daily life that prosecutors can almost choose their targets with impunity,” he asked.

The question highlights an alarming problem, but one that hasn’t gone unnoticed in some quarters of both the left and right.

“From federal agencies independently attaching jail time to otherwise noncriminal behavior to U.S. lawmakers punishing crimes best dealt with by states, the problem of over-criminalization is growing,” explains the libertarian Cato Institute.

The conservative Heritage Foundation cites the explosion of criminal laws as a major area for reform, and the American Bar Association hosts an over-criminalization task force to educate attorneys on the “urgent problem.”

The left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union has turned its attention to confronting social inequities born from criminalizing broad swaths of everyday life. It launched a Criminal Justice Reform Project to reduce “excessively harsh criminal justice policies” that result in racial disparities and disproportionate sentencing.

One outgrowth of having too many criminal laws is what critics call “mass incarceration.”

“America, land of the free, has earned the disturbing distinction of being the world’s leading jailer. Representing just 5 percent of the world’s population, we now hold 25 percent of its inmates,” the ACLU says.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research organization, says over-criminalization and high rates of incarceration go hand-in-hand to “undermine our communities and national well-being.” The group cites Florida as having one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.

“Historically, ‘crime’ was a term restricted to morally blameworthy actions, but today, many ordinary activities are captured by the term,” says Right on Crime, a project of Texas Public Policy Foundation.

In his Federalist Society remarks,  Gorsuch cited absurd examples of overreach.

“It’s now a federal crime to misuse the likeness of Woodsy the Owl,” Gorsuch said.

“Businessmen who import lobster tails in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes can be brought up on charges. Mattress sellers who remove that little tag? Yes, they’re probably federal criminals too,” he said.

The full speech can be seen here:

Proposed legislation could break the cycle of debt for many caught in Florida’s legal system

It’s a vicious circle: Poor people who can’t afford their court-related costs and penalties incur escalating costs for not paying, further indebting them to the state.

“It’s a circle that some people get stuck in and they can’t get out,” Christopher Torres, a Tallahassee defense attorney and former Florida assistant attorney general, told Watchdog.org.

Compounding the problem is the state’s practice of suspending drivers’ licenses as both a punishment for delinquent payments and an incentive to get people to pay up. For those who can’t afford their financial obligations, the suspensions only add more obstacles to meeting debts and ultimately moving on.

A new reform bill aims to break the cycle.

Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg is proposing legislation to modify legal-debt payment terms and prohibit drivers’ license suspensions statewide for individuals demonstrating an inability to pay court obligations and other legal penalties.

The St. Petersburg Republican is teaming up with state Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Tampa Bay-area Democrat, to push the reform measure. An identical bill, also sponsored by Brandes, died in an appropriations committee last year despite unanimous support from fellow legislators at two separate committees stops.

Brandes sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and helped pass a landmark civil asset forfeiture bill in 2016. A second attempt at reforming legal system costs and burdens indicates renewed confidence that the reforms could pass this year.

Local clerks of court are required to accept monthly debt payments equal to one-twelfth of 2 percent of a person’s annual net income. It’s a flexible standard meant to accommodate various income backgrounds.

But payments are often arranged inflexibly and at higher rates.

“In Florida, this presumption is often ignored and payment levels are set at fixed amounts,” states a Brennan Center for Justice report on criminal justice debt.

Brandes’ bill would cap annual payments made to local clerks of court at no more than 2 percent of annual net income, unless an applicant agrees to pay more.

In Florida, clerks of court also turn over unpaid accounts after 90 days to private attorneys or debt collection services. State law allows them to tack on 40 percent surcharges to underlying debts.

The proposed legislation wouldn’t abolish the surcharges, but it would limit the amount of time private collectors could pursue legal system debts to no more than 5 years. It would also deny any additional charges beyond what clerks of court contractually negotiate through an open bidding process.

Suspension problems

With respect to drivers’ licenses, prohibiting suspensions for low-income people would help tackle the inherent inefficiency of obstructing good-faith efforts to drive to work and earn an income.

“Most people in Florida are dependent on driving,” Torres said. “If you can’t drive then it’s harder to work or find employment. … Getting caught driving illegally means new problems added to old problems, maybe even an arrest, and the cycle starts over again.”

According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, 1.5 million notices of suspension were issued in 2014, mostly originating from “failure to comply” or “failure to pay” offenses.

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a legislative research office, reports that a large percentage of license suspensions relating to delinquent court costs take more than two years to reinstate.

Reinstatement requires full payment of all financial obligations, enrolling in a payment plan (if not already enrolled), or a court order granting relief.

The amount of time and money involved for many suspension reinstatements leaves the door open for illegal driving. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators estimates that as many as three-fourths of drivers with suspended or revoked licenses continue to drive.

Torres said the penalties for driving with a suspended license hinge on intent. If a law enforcement officer determines that an individual was driving “without knowledge” that their license was suspended, then the penalty is a civil offense punishable by a traffic ticket.

If an officer determines that a driver was “knowingly” driving with a suspended license, then the offense is criminal and warrants arrest.

Under current law, hardship exemptions for business or employment purposes do not apply for failing to pay court obligations and legal penalties, even though they’re available for many driving-related suspensions, such as driving under the influence.

Prohibiting license suspensions for indigents, disabled persons, bankrupt individuals and government assistance recipients could enhance efforts to pay off legal obligations and reduce the cycle of escalating burdens and taxpayer resources required to sustain the merry-go-round process.

The question may be whether the state and local governments are willing to lose the revenue streams.

Revenue vs. debtors

According to a legislative staff analysis, if Brandes’ 2016 bill would’ve passed it would’ve caused significant government revenue losses.

“The bill would likely have a negative impact on local tax collectors and clerks of court who retain a portion of revenues from certain drivers’ license sanctions when issuing reinstatements, in addition to other fees retained by them associated with drivers’ license suspensions and revocations.”

The Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, a statewide association, estimated clerks of court would suffer annual losses ranging from $24.7 million to $82.4 million, depending on the success of the reforms.

If 15 percent of collections were lost because of the new payment plan modifications, licensing reforms, or the bill’s promotion of community service as a way to pay work off debts at minimum wage, then clerks of court could lose an estimated $24.7 million in revenue.

If participation jumped to 50 percent, then $82.4 million in estimated losses could result.

Add on another $7.5 million in annual recurring funds for new full-time employees and IT support for payment plan maintenance, and legislators might balk at the reforms again.

But the issue isn’t going away. Criminal justice reformers are confronting financially burdensome, and sometimes insurmountable, legal system practices across the country.

Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, says the cycle of escalating court obligations and legal penalties is too expensive in both human and taxpayer costs.

“While there is a legitimate role for fines and fees, their use has skyrocketed over the last few decades, with the penalties appearing to be more tied to generating revenue for government rather than legitimate public safety purposes,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union asserts that “state and local courts have increasingly attempted to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision.”

The debate between revenue and reform will be heard at the state Capitol when the annual legislative session convenes on March 7.

Last year, the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers association reported $894 million in total collections for court costs, monetary penalties, fees, service charges and other costs. The collection rate was 73 percent.

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