William Patrick, Author at Florida Politics

William Patrick

House speaker’s ‘corporate welfare’ crackdown runs into Senate roadblock

Enterprise Florida Inc. could survive 2017 after all.

Established in 1996, the taxpayer-funded organization has awarded nearly $2 billion in economic incentives to private businesses to create jobs and boost the state economy.

Its record is mixed, and its reputation has been scarred by exorbitant executive pay, high-profile taxpayer losses and a failure to match private funding with public appropriations — a statutory requirement.

As a result, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, is spearheading an effort to put the controversial business recruitment agency out of business permanently.

Earlier this month, the House passed a bill that would eliminate Enterprise Florida and nearly two dozen tax incentive programs. The House passed an additional “corporate welfare” bill that would subject Visit Florida, the state’s taxpayer-funded tourism marketing corporation, to the same accountability standards as state government agencies while cutting its annual funding from $76 million to $25 million.

The Senate apparently didn’t get the memo.

Both reforms ran into a roadblock this week when the Senate unveiled its 2017-18 budget proposal. It includes more than $80 million for Enterprise Florida programs and $76 million for Visit Florida. The funding totals align with what Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has requested.

Scott, an unabashed proponent of incentives, issued a statement Wednesday endorsing the Senate proposal.

“I want to thank the Florida Senate for listening to our families and job creators by proposing to fully fund Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida,” said Scott, who serves as chairman of Enterprise Florida’s board of directors.

“Unfortunately, at this time the Florida House has chosen to continue ignoring the Floridians they serve. The House’s decision to severely cut the budget of Visit Florida is especially shocking when we look at how disastrous this has been in other states,” Scott said.

Corcoran has yet to release a statement, but has continued to make his case publicly since both House reform bills passed during the first week of the annual legislative session.

“Instead of picking winners and losers in the marketplace, which does more on its own to lift people out of poverty, they ought to be using that money for education, for infrastructure, for giving back taxes to the people or broad-based, fair tax cuts in the business marketplace, which is why people move here more than any other reason,” Corcoran told the Panhandle Tiger Bay Club.

Amy Baker, the Legislature’s top economist, told lawmakers in January that 70 percent of the state’s incentive programs fail to deliver a positive return on investment.

Scott and other incentive advocates contend that taxpayer resources are necessary to entice businesses from going to other states.

“Over and over again, politicians in the House have failed to understand that Florida is competing for job creation projects against other states and countries across the globe. Eliminating Enterprise Florida means we will not be able to effectively compete for new opportunities,” Scott said Wednesday.

The Legislature is constitutionally required to pass an annual budget. Corcoran said in his Tiger Bay remarks that he’s ready for a special session beyond the May 5 regular session deadline if the Senate is unwilling to abolish Enterprise Florida, which he referred to as an “absolute cesspool.”

Will Florida pre-empt local governments to complete next-Gen wireless connectivity?

From smartphones to smart cities. The next generation of wireless connectivity will require enough signal coverage to support the exploding demand for consumer data use, and innovative new technologies such as driverless cars.

But it will take a massive influx of wireless communications infrastructure to achieve, according to Beth Cooley, state legislative affairs director for CTIA, a nonprofit membership association of wireless communications companies.

“Look at your iPhone or cellphone,” Cooley told a Florida House legislative panel in February. “In the upper right-hand corner, you’ll see 4GLTE (Fourth Generation Long-Term Evolution). That’s today’s network. The rollout of 4GLTE was completed in 2010.”

Cooley said wireless providers will need to “densify” existing networks to support 5GLTE. The proposed solution is to place small-cell towers on utility polls on public rights of way to complement coverage from large, traditional communications towers, especially in high-traffic network areas.

A pair of bills advancing through the state Legislature are paving the way for the hockey puck-to-pizza box-sized small cells – but not without opposition.

“I think every city and county in the state is against this,” said Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Boca Raton.

The main objections raised Monday in a Senate Government Oversight Committee were aesthetic — seasoned with a dose of worry about the loss of a potential revenue source.

Florida law authorizes the state Department of Transportation and local governments to prescribe and enforce reasonable regulations for placing and maintaining structures within public rights of way.

“In return, we get rent,” said Eric Poole, deputy director of policy for the Florida Association of Counties.

Senate Bill 596, approved 5-1 by the Oversight Committee, would shift local control of right of way access for small-cell technology to the state. It also would create a 60-day time limit for permit applications, and cap pole attachment fees at $15 per year.

According to a staff analysis, Jacksonville’s municipal utility service charges $1,236 per year for each small-cell site. The DOT receives $1.8 million annually for one of its small cell leases.

Cooley said such costs — along with the cost of new poles if access to existing utility poles are denied — will be passed on to consumers. Cooley told a House Energy and Utilities Subcommittee last month that small cells are needed on every seventh pole in high-congestion urban areas.

“The spectrum it’s going to operate on doesn’t travel as far as a large macro-tower,” she said.

A representative from the Florida League of Cities called the legislation “outrageous,” adding that the $15 annual fee limit is inadequate and that the small cells present a “nightmare for public safety.”

The Senate committee’s chairman, Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican, said the rights of way belong to everyone.

“Having served in local government and statewide government, there’s always a tension on how to balance having thousands of entities to deal with in order to achieve a goal, and at the same time honor each community and its needs,” Baxley said.

“We need to move on a path of expanding technology,” he added.

Wireless infrastructure providers have begun deploying small cells in select jurisdictions, and have reported being hampered by some local governments, including the cities of Tallahassee and Fort Lauderdale and Pinellas County, either through regulation or temporary bans.

Fort Lauderdale recently extended a small-cell moratorium from six-months to more than 30 months.

Pre-empting local control and capping pole attachment fees would expedite 5G infrastructure deployment necessary for an expected 2020 rollout. All existing pole-attachment agreements would have to comply with the new legislation by Jan. 1, 2018.

The bill’s critics are crying out for home-rule, even even while acknowledging the demand for expanded wireless connectivity.

“When we come up here to Tallahassee, I think we just forget where we come from,” said Rader, the lone dissenting vote. “On the other hand, every one of my constituents wants this type of service.”

Under the legislation, local governments would be allowed to charge permitting fees as currently outlined in Florida law. If charged, the local communications services tax would have to be reduced by 0.12 percent. Forgoing permitting fees would allow for an increase of 0.12 percent in the local communications tax.

“Everybody is data-hungry,” Cooley told lawmakers. “That’s only going to increase.”

The Senate bill will next be referred to the Rules Committee. A companion House bill has advanced to the Commerce Committee after sailing through its previous stop, 12-2.

 

‘Safety valve’ wanted for mandatory-minimum drug law

In 2008, an Orange County, Florida, judge sentenced William Forrester to 15 years in prison for 15.6 grams of oxycodone, or about 30 pills.

Forrester was on disability insurance and had a lung surgically removed due to cancer not long before his arrest, according to court documents. But possession of the oxycodone, combined with a forged prescription to obtain it, turned him into a narcotics trafficker under Florida’s mandatory minimum drug law.

“If was an option, then certainly we would talk about it. But my hands are tied by the law, and I have to sentence you to 15 years, and there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” said Judge Mark Blechman.

Forrester will be 65 years old upon his scheduled release in 2021.

According to a new policy brief by the James Madison Institute, a conservative Tallahassee-based think tank, there are 2,310 inmates serving mandatory minimum prison terms in Florida for hydrocodone and oxycodone trafficking offenses.

Not all of them are in for selling pills.

The highly-addictive opioids are legal pain medications when prescribed by a doctor, and can leave some people hooked after their prescriptions expire.

Florida’s tough drug laws, passed in 1999, were meant to punish drug dealers. But mandatory sentencing for hydrocodone and oxycodone — ranging from three years to life in prison — can be triggered by as few as 27 hydrocodone pills, or 14 oxycodone pills.

Under the law, illegal possession of small amounts of the pills is considered drug trafficking.

Patients recovering from surgery often receive a one-time prescription of 30 to 60 hydrocodone or oxycodone pills, and in forms containing acetaminophen, or Tylenol, according to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a legislative research office.

An attempt to illegally obtain an equal amount qualifies for an automatic prison sentence.

Author Laura Krisai, a JMI adjunct scholar and director of criminal justice reform at the Reason Foundation, says it’s time for the Legislature to adopt a “safety valve.”

“Public safety is not enhanced when individuals are incarcerated for years longer than necessary,” Krisai says.

A safety valve provision would allow judges to exercise discretion when sentencing individuals in cases where Florida’s mandatory sentences don’t fit the crimes.

“Safety valve legislation neither eliminates the underlying mandatory minimum sentencing law, nor does it require judges to sentence offenders below the minimum term. It is a narrowly tailored exception for certain offenders and under certain circumstances,” the brief says.

An analysis of Florida Department of Corrections data shows that 83 percent of prisoners incarcerated for hydrocodone and oxycodone trafficking have never been to prison before, or had only previously served time for nonviolent offenses.

The Department also considers 435 of the trafficking offenders to be elderly, defined in the state prison system as over 50 years old.

A safety valve measure, the brief says, also would save millions of taxpayer dollars.

In fiscal year 2014-15, the DOC reported an average cost $53.49 per day to house an inmate in a state correctional facility. The 2,310 hydrocodone and oxycodone traffickers cost a combined $123,562 per day, or $45.1 million per year.

If the 83 percent of first-time and nonviolent traffickers had their mandatory prison terms reduced by one-year when they were sentenced, the state would save $33.3 million.

“There’s no evidence from Florida or elsewhere that shows when judges are allowed to determine sentences — or, to judge — public safety is threatened,” Krisai concluded.

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

Lawmakers aim to create jobs by cutting occupational licensing red-tape

Braiding hair without a license could get you in trouble in Florida.

So could cutting and wrapping hair, manicuring fingernails, auctioneering property, landscaping, interior design and timekeeping at a boxing match.

If you want to earn money or start a business in dozens of job categories, Florida requires a state-approved license – and they don’t come cheaply.

Barbers are required to complete 1,200 hours of training – equivalent to 25 hours a week for one year – to be eligible for licensure. Applicants then must pass an exam and pay a $223 fee.

A cosmetology license requires 1,200 training hours at an approved state Board of Cosmetology school, which costs between $5,000 and $20,000, according to BeautySchools.com.

Interior designers need a combined six years of board-approved education and work experience under a licensed designer, then pass a three-part exam costing $1,065 to legally design commercial spaces.

Working without a license has its own costs: up to $500 fines per offense, restraining orders or court ordered injunctions against performing undocumented labor activities.

Critics say such regulations discourage would-be workers, and state lawmakers are considering a bureaucratic downsizing.

bill that would rollback red-tape for nearly two-dozen professions passed an important House appropriations subcommittee Tuesday at the Florida Capitol. The bill was approved with bipartisan support, 12-2.

“We’re trying to lower barriers in order to create jobs,” said Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, the bill’s sponsor.

The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, pegs Florida as the fourth most restrictive state in the country with respect to occupational licensing regulations. In a study called License to Work, it identified 45 of 102 low-and-moderate income jobs as having burdensome licensing requirements.

“Occupational licenses, which are essentially permission slips from the government, routinely stand in the way of honest enterprise,” the nonprofit firm says. “Instead, they are imposed simply to protect established businesses from economic competition.”

‘Protect the public welfare’

About a dozen industry representatives appeared before the legislative committee, and stated independently that Florida’s occupational regulations ensure public safety and create jobs themselves.

“We regulate not to keep people out of business, or to create barriers to business, we regulate to defend the public and protect the public welfare,” said Owen Chad Johnson, secretary and treasurer of the Florida Auctioneers Association.

David Roberts, of the American Society of Interior Designers, told lawmakers that they’ll put people out of business if they deregulate. Stephanie Borras, owner of two Tallahassee salons, said the bill would increase the quantity of workers, but not the quality.

Curtis Austin, executive director of the Florida Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges, said the bill’s proposal to reduce cosmetology training from 1,200 hours to 600 hours would cause a health crisis.

“We are moving in the direction not of red states and blue states, but in the direction of Turkey,” Austin told committee members. “If you look at those places where they deregulate these issues in cosmetology, up to 85 percent of people contract skin diseases.”

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said he thought some of the arguments made sense and some did not.

According to bill’s staff analysis, the state Board of Cosmetology issued 28 disciplinary orders against licensed hair braiders, hair wrappers and body wrappers during the 2012- 2015 fiscal years.

“These actions generally did not involve consumer injury, but were technical scope of practice violations,” such as practicing with an expired license or failing to timely renew a license, the analysis states.

Beshears’ bill would eliminate all Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation restrictions against interior designers, hair braiders, hair and body wrappers, boxing announcers and boxing timekeepers, and would reduce mandatory training hours for barbers, nail specialists and facial specialists.

The Department of Regulation would no longer regulate labor organizations, business agents, talent agencies and auctioneers, but established industry standards and civil and criminal actions would still apply.

Architects, landscapers, geologists and asbestos abatement contractors would no longer be required to obtain certificates of authorization in addition to obtaining their licenses.

Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, an outspoken critic of occupational regulations, said the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“I believe there are 366 occupational licensures in the state Florida,” Grant said. “I’ve yet to be compelled by any argument that any form of license or regulation is in any way as significant to make a consumer whole as an insurance policy.”

Insurance premiums are much less expensive than an entire bureaucratic scheme, he said.

‘A bunch of arbitrary hoops’

Grant also questioned the licensure education industry.

“One of the things aligned with occupational licenses that I have a very keen interest in exploring is the number of tax dollars that we spend subsidizing higher education for curriculums that are a requirement,” he said.

Lisa Waxman, chair of Florida State University’s interior design program, told lawmakers there are 19 design programs in Florida and urged the committee to “keep things as they are.”

“Florida is a model for the rest of the country,” she said.

Justin Pearson, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, offered that Florida is one of only four states in the country that requires a license for interior designers.

Inconsistencies were also noted. Emergency Medical Technicians, or EMTs, need 34 days of training, while massage therapists are required to complete 117 days of training.

“I represent first-generation Americans, minorities and lower-income individuals who want to pursue the American dream,” said Pearson. “But they can’t take a year off of work to jump through a bunch of arbitrary hoops.”

Sal Nuzzo, policy director at the conservative James Madison Institute, called the bill a “good first step,” and said that lowering employment barriers would help released prison inmates find work.

“What are the trades these individuals are learning when they’re incarcerated? They’re learning how to be barbers, cosmetologists and electricians,” Nuzzo said.

In his closing remarks, Beshears said his legislation would help people who can’t afford to pay $5,000 and take 1,200 hours of training before securing a job. “This is about giving that person an opportunity,” he said.

The bill has been referred to the House Commerce Committee. A companion Senate bill passed its first committee stop, and is slated for review in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Ridesharing bills could pave the way for transformational changes

On the same day an Uber- and Lyft-friendly ridesharing bill passed its first committee stop in the Florida House, state Sen. Jeff Brandes was presenting his vision of where he believes the transportation industry is headed.

“We’re in a generational shift from the horse and buggy to the Model-T,” Brandes said Wednesday evening at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee.

The St. Petersburg Republican was the main presenter at a public event focusing on emerging transportation technologies. He’s also sponsoring legislation similar to the House ridesharing bill.

If successful, the measures would create uniform insurance and background check requirements for participating drivers, and prevent local governments from issuing conflicting regulations.

The reforms could be a first-step in a much larger sequence of changes.

“The industry is evolving,” Brandes said. “Auto manufacturers, tech companies and all kinds of groups are working hard to get into this space.”

As with carpooling, ridesharing allows for multiple passengers to share vehicles during their commutes – often at the touch of a smartphone app.

Cutting transportation costs, such as vehicle maintenance and gasoline, and reducing traffic congestion and vehicle emissions are just a few benefits.

The higher the ride-sharing occupancy rate, and the more people are allowed to use the services, the less cars would be needed – or so the logic goes.

“I think if the cost per mile continues to go down, and if insurance is a bundled service, it’s going to be pretty compelling for some people to use shared cars as their second cars,” Brandes told Watchdog.org in an interview.

When considering shared driverless cars and electric ridesharing vehicles, the potential for change is even more dramatic.

Brandes explained: Electric vehicle operators won’t pay gas taxes. Fewer vehicles mean fewer title fees for the state. Local governments could lose revenue from fewer traffic citations. Parking revenues would decrease, as would demand for urban parking garages.

“This has the potential to change cities, the electric grid, the insurance industry and even health care,” Brandes said, referring to the probability of fewer car accidents.

“It’s all of these different things and it’s going to begin happening within the next 10 to 20 years,” he said. “So how do we get our minds around this?”

Large financial institutions are already engaged.

“The market for private automobile ownership is likely headed for disruption,” predicts Morgan Stanley. A video presentation by Adam Jonas, head of global auto research for Morgan Stanley, provided context for Brandes’ remarks.

In part, the vision was described as an impending evolution in mass public transit that doesn’t require massive taxpayer-funded public transportation projects.

“When you know something big is going to happen but you haven’t begun to feel the effects yet, the focus should be on maximizing our options,” Brandes said. “We’re in a fascinating time.”

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers approved last week’s ridesharing bill, 14-1. The measure faces another House committee and floor action before heading to the Senate, where previous attempts at preempting local government regulations have failed.

New Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is expected to be more receptive this year.

Small dairy farmer seeks First Amendment protection from state regulators

Five years ago, the Florida Department of Agriculture turned its regulatory power on a small third-generation dairy farm in the Panhandle’s Calhoun County, population 14,462.

The Ocheesee Creamery, as it’s known, was caught being a little too honest.

Institute for Justice
FIRST AMENDMENT: Mary Lou Wesselhoeft, owner of the Ocheesee Creamery, was told by state regulators that she must inject additives into her all-natural skim milk or call it “imitation milk.”

Mary Lou Wesselhoeft, owner, was selling all-natural pasteurized skim milk — whole milk with the cream skimmed off — and labeling it exactly what it was: skim milk.

But in a strange twist with First Amendment implications, the state said Wesselhoeft was misrepresenting her product. After a decade without complaints or confusion, newly enforced regulations required artificially injected additives — something Ocheese Creamery had never done and wasn’t about to start doing.

As a result, the department issued an ultimatum: either stop selling skim milk or label it “imitation milk.”

Wesselhoeft, whose website header includes the Bible verse, “The hills shall flow with milk, Joel 3:18,” opted to stop selling her locally popular item rather than comply with a condition she believes is dishonest.

But not without a fight.

In March 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida ruled in favor of the Department of Agriculture.

The First Amendment’s protection of free speech extends to commercial speech, the court said, adding that while Wesselhoeft’s label is literally true, the department has the authority to establish a “standard of identity.”

On Jan. 24, the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, argued her case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit Court in Jacksonville. The firm has represented Wesselhoeft since 2014.

“The state has turned the dictionary on its head,” managing attorney Justin Pearson told Watchdog.org.

“The state admits that Ocheesee Creamery skim milk consists entirely of pure all-natural skim milk. But because it doesn’t add any other ingredients, the state has ordered the dairy not call it what it is. That violates the First Amendment,” Pearson said.

According to the department, skim milk can only legally bear the name “skim milk” in Florida if it contains the same amount of vitamin A as whole milk. If it doesn’t, vitamin A must be artificially added.

That puts Wesselhoeft in a bind.

Ocheesee Creamery’s milk is separated so the cream rises to the top. But because vitamin A is fat soluble, it’s largely removed when the cream is skimmed.

Institute for Justice
OCHEESEE CREAMERY: The Calhoun County dairy farm west of Tallahassee produces all-natural milk items from grass-fed cows.

 

“The thing that’s different about our creamery is that it’s pasteurized, not homogenized, and our milk goes in glass bottles and is all-natural,” Wesselhoeft said in a video produced by the Institute for Justice.

Commercial milk is typically homogenized — a mechanical process that breaks down fat globules from the cream and suspends them, along with vitamin A, throughout the milk.

The dairy’s all-natural products are produced from grazing grass-fed cows. Many of its customers frequent the small business precisely because its products don’t contain additives.

“Many older people enjoy our items because it reminds them of their growing-up days when milk in glass bottles was the norm,” the dairy’s website says.

The three-employee farm also includes a storefront where guests can watch how the family operation bottles its milk.

According to the lawsuit, department regulators routinely tested and approved the farm’s skim milk prior to October 2012, when the state issued a stop-sale order and demanded that Wesselhoeft refrain from listing any nutrient or health claims on its labels.

But not because it’s unsafe.

The state doesn’t dispute that the creamery’s skim milk is safe to drink without the full amount of vitamin A, explained Pearson. The state also agrees that the creamery’s skim milk is legal to sell without any additives, he said. It just won’t allow them to call it “skim milk.”

Institute for Justice
TRADITION: The small third-generation farm has three employees, and includes a storefront where guests can watch how milk is bottled.

In 2013, Wesselhoeft proposed alternative labels, including “Pasteurized Skim Milk: No Vitamin A Added,” “Pasteurized Skim Milk: No Lost Vitamin A Replaced,” and “Pasteurized Skim Milk: Most Vitamin A Removed by Skimming Cream from Milk.”

 

The suggestions were denied.

“If we would have ignored the Department of Agriculture, they could’ve come and pulled our permit and shut us down completely, and we could not have sold any of our products anywhere,” Wesselhoeft said.

According to the lawsuit, in addition to canceling permits and issuing fines, “selling pasteurized skim milk without complying with Florida’s labeling laws could result in incarceration for the Creamery’s owners.”

The farm has managed to continue operating, but not without losing money. It sells dairy items containing cream, but since the leftover skim milk cannot be sold, it’s discarded.

“Every day we can’t sell it, it hurts our livelihood and we lose customers. We cannot continue on. It hurts us in a big way,” Wesselhoeft said. 

The Agriculture Department refuses to back-off its labeling prohibition despite the lack of public safety concerns. Court documents show the state’s interest is in “establishing a standard of identity and nutritional standards for milk” for the purpose of interstate commerce.

Ocheesee Creamery sells its products exclusively within the state of Florida.

Pearson said that amicus briefs were filed by large farm organizations, including the International Dairy Foods Association, on behalf of the state government’s position.

“It’s clear that giant international dairy farmers don’t like the idea that small, authentic creameries could offer alternative choices. I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” he told Watchdog.org.

The Eleventh Circuit is expected to decide the case before summer. The lawsuit doesn’t seek monetary damages, only the ability to call the product skim milk.

“We think the judges understood what we were saying,” Pearson said.

For Wesselhoeft, the challenge is a simple matter of right and wrong. “We should win this case because we want to tell the truth,” she said. “Someone has to stand up.”

Reverends, priests and pastors show support for juvenile civil citation reform

Lawmakers vying to make civil citations mandatory for first-time misdemeanor offenders under the age of 18, received some added support at the Florida Capitol last week.

Pastors, reverends and priests representing churches from around the state stood alongside Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, as she spoke to reporters about her “second chance” juvenile justice reform bill.

Civil citations are an alternative to arrest, detainment and enrollment into the state juvenile criminal justice system. The pre-arrest diversion program requires accountability in the form of community service and behavioral health counseling. The problem, said Flores, is that local law enforcement agencies issue civil citations unevenly.

“In Pinellas County, 94 percent of youths eligible for civil citations – the first time they’ve ever been charged with a misdemeanor – receive them,” Flores said. “If you cross the Skyway Bridge and go into Hillsborough County, then that number drops to 34 percent.”

The two counties are socially and economically similar, Flores explained. “So how is it there can be such a difference,” she said.

Pastor Ron Clark of Hurst Chapel African Methodist Church in Winter Haven, said the proposed legislation would provide equal access to youth civil citations for all children.

“In my church, there was a young man who took a short cut on his way home from school – never been in trouble before. He was arrested for trespassing and now has a criminal record,” Clark said.

“When I was kid, I trespassed. I went swimming in a private pond and fished,” he added.

Clark said he went on to serve as an officer in the U.S. military, a school board member and a mental health counselor in addition to being a pastor for the past 30 years. “If I was living in Polk County and got arrested, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to serve this great county and this state in the capacity that I have,” he said.

Last year, about 550 minors were arrested for trespassing in Florida despite qualifying for pre-arrest civil citation programs.

Eligible offenses are limited to possession of alcoholic beverages by persons under age 21, battery, criminal mischief, trespassing, retail and farm theft, fighting, rioting, possession of small amounts of cannabis or controlled substances, possession or sale of drug paraphernalia and resisting an officer without violence.

Statewide, about 19,000 minors committed eligible offenses last year; about 10,000 were arrested, according to Flores.

‘Arrests close doors’

Studies have shown that civil citations and other pre-arrest diversion programs lead to better long-term outcomes.

Research conducted by the Tallahassee-based Children’s Campaign shows that children arrested for minor crimes are twice as likely to re-offend as those issued civil citations and assigned to intervention programs.

A criminal record also can carry lasting consequences.

“Without a doubt, arrests close doors to youth for future education and employment,” said Roy Miller, the group’s president.

Father John Tapp of Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon expressed support for the reform measure on behalf of the Counsel of Catholic Bishops.

“There are many Catholic parishes throughout the state of Florida that support this effort for civil citations and the work of the bishops of the state on this issue speaks for itself,” Tapp said.

Rev. Jay Kowolski of East Lake United Methodist Church in Palm Harbor and Pastor Rusty May from Messiah Lutheran Church of North Fort Myers both spoke in favor of the bill. Other clergy stood in support without speaking.

Ken Wooten, a parishioner of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, shared his personal testimony.

“My son was arrested for marijuana back in 2013. He received a civil citation and was able to complete the program. He got drug counseling. He paid restitution. At the time he was kicked out of his high school, but they took him back and he’s now gainfully employed,” Wooten said.

‘Discretion in every situation’

Law enforcement officials say they’re not opposed to civil citations outright, but they are wary of making them mandatory.

“The Florida Police Chiefs Association strongly believes that law enforcement needs to have the discretion in every situation whether to issue a juvenile civil citation or make an arrest.  The FCPA opposes mandating that law enforcement issue a juvenile civil citation,” the association’s list of legislative priorities reads.

The Florida Sheriffs Association also “opposes a statewide mandate of issuing civil citations to all juveniles,” according to its 2017 legislative platform, saying only that it “supports improving the current program with enhanced data collection to ensure deputies have the most up-to-date information available to them before issuing a civil citation.”

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has a different take. The state juvenile corrections agency says the diversion program is “vital” to reforming the juvenile criminal justice system, and states on its website that the department wants “to enhance pre-existing civil citation programs and to promote and expand the civil citation process statewide.”

The department also asserts that civil citations “save millions of dollars that would otherwise be spent if youth were arrested and required to go through formal delinquency processing.”

Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, sponsor of a matching House bill, said on Wednesday that at $4,500 per arrest, the state could have saved $45 million last year if all eligible youth received civil citations.

According to the Children’s Campaign’s most recent research findings, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties together comprised less than one-tenth of the state’s citation-eligible arrests last year, despite representing 30 percent of the state’s population.

Duval, Hillsborough and Orange counties were responsible for one-quarter of all youth arrests for eligible misdemeanors, yet represent only 18 percent of Florida’s population.

Twenty-one school districts, 13 counties and 150 law enforcement agencies issued no civil citations at all, and instead relied solely on youth arrests.

“One or more civil citation or similar diversion programs shall be established in each county,” the bill states, each extending to “serve all juveniles who are alleged to have committed a violation of law which would be a misdemeanor offense if committed by an adult.”

The citation and other diversion programs apply as long as a juvenile suspect admits to committing the alleged offense and has a clean criminal record.

According to the bill, law enforcement officers would have  discretion to issue civil citations for second and third misdemeanor offenses, as well as offenses outside of the prescribed list of misdemeanors.

If a minor opts to participate in a civil citation program, the bill calls for no more than 50 community service hours and the completion of intervention services, which include family counseling, urinalysis monitoring, substance abuse and mental health treatment services.

Failure to complete intervention programs would cause the initial criminal charge to be referred to a state attorney.

Flores’ bill was approved by the Senate Criminal Justice committee last week, 5-2, and will be debated next in the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

Florida’s economic development efforts are ‘underperforming’

Florida’s state economic development efforts are “underperforming,” according to a new legislative report.

An undesirable label by any standard, critics and lawmakers already skeptical of providing taxpayer support for private businesses are likely to seize on the bureaucratic euphemism and underlying findings to bolster their anti-incentives position ahead of the March state legislative session.

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a nonpartisan legislative research office, conducted a comprehensive review of Enterprise Florida Inc. and the Department of Economic Opportunity —the state’s two most prominent development organizations— and found the results of their economic development activities wanting when compared with other states.

The analysis spans 10 years and focuses on job creation in targeted industries as well as economic growth. These two areas are the main justifications for awarding taxpayer-funded subsidies to selected businesses, and for their proponents’ significant annual funding requests.

In the report, auditors compared Florida to seven competitor states with tax-incentive agencies and programs: Alabama, California, Georgia, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Overall, from 2006 to 2015, Florida experienced job growth in only two of six targeted industry sectors, management of companies and enterprises, and professional, scientific and technical services. The state ranked third and seventh in the job categories, respectively, when compared with the other states.

Additionally, Florida ranked fourth out of the eight for high-wage job creation in manufacturing, sixth in both wholesale trade and finance and insurance, and seventh in information services.

“Further analyses showed little or no employment growth in these industries relative to the nation,” the report said.

Texas, a state often compared with Florida because of their comparable size and rapid growth, received first place rankings for employment in five of the six tax-incentive targeted industries.

The report also compares Florida with its competitor states according to several economic indicators commonly used in studies that examine state economic outlooks and business climates — gross domestic product, GDP per capita, unemployment rate, and personal income.

Florida fared best in the area of unemployment, with the third-lowest rate in 2015. However, among large states in the competitor group, New York and Texas outperformed Florida on all four measures, and California outperformed Florida on three measures, auditors determined.

On the whole, Florida ranked fourth out of eight states in economic terms, besting North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama.

‘Lack of marketing’

Beyond jobs and economic growth, the review highlighted a major flaw with respect to Enterprise Florida’s financing, and noted the stark lack of incentive assistance directed toward small, minority and rural businesses.

According to the report, private-sector cash investments “represent a very small portion of Enterprise Florida’s overall budget.”

However, state law requires that the public-private partnership obtain private-sector financing in the amount equal to its taxpayer appropriations, but it never has — and it’s not even close.

Established in 1996, Enterprise Florida was supposed to achieve public-private match funding by fiscal year 2000-01. It didn’t, and it hasn’t grown its private funding resources over the past decade.

“Private sector cash contributions during OPPAGA’s review period rarely exceeded $2 million, while state appropriations averaged about $20 million per year,” the report says.

Auditors added that by investing $122 million of incentive funding — money committed but not yet spent — in a state trust fund instead of a commercial escrow account, the state could double that return, adding another $2 million to the pot.

Whatever its source, very little of the money is going to small businesses.

Although 96 percent of state businesses employ fewer than 50 employees, auditors found that most state-level economic development programs, particularly business incentives, benefit large companies.

The report says a “lack of marketing may affect participation.”

More glaring is the low rate of participation in the state’s Black Business Loan program, which made only 12 active loans in fiscal 2015.

Participation in the Rural Community Development program has been even lower. Since 1996, the program has made only 17 loans, or just one loan every two years.

Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, both Republicans, are currently at odds over the future of Enterprise Florida. Scott wants a new $85 million appropriation. Corcoran helped block a $250 million funding attempt in 2016.

Corcoran is on record saying that if he could, he’d abolish the quasi-state agency.

Last year alone, state officials appropriated $1.08 billion to Enterprise Florida and the Department of Economic Opportunity. All but $25 million went to DEO.

Enterprise Florida coordinates its economic development partnerships with the department, which in turn collaborates on development contracts and acts as the contract manager for Enterprise Florida incentive agreements.

A House legislative discussion is scheduled for Wednesday at the Capitol, where lawmakers will “review the return on investment” for Florida’s economic incentive programs.

Under Donald Trump, Florida’s premium cigar industry could escape job-killing FDA regulations

On the verge of being snuffed out by Obama administration regulators, Florida’s traditional and culturally distinct premium cigar industry has a chance at new life.

Late last week, U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the incoming chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, met with President-elect Donald Trump and submitted a list of 232 items that could be repealed immediately after Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

“We must undo Obama’s harmful regulatory regime that has hurt hardworking Americans across the nation,” the group said in language akin to Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

One item in the report entitled “First 100 Days: Rules, Regulations and Executive Orders to Examine, Revoke and Issue” recommends stripping the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of its authority to regulate tobacco products.

The move could save at least 2,600 Florida jobs currently at risk and spare many businesses, according to Mark Pursell, CEO of the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association.

Progressive-liberal firebrand U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., who’s no fan of Republicans, urged the executive branch agency to back off premium cigars when it first began targeting the industry through a proposed administrative rule in 2014, but to no avail.

In a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, Grayson said that “the premium cigar industry is responsible for employing an estimated 20,000 Americans, and realizes almost $2 billion in annual revenue.”

The incoming Trump administration could extinguish the economic hardship on Day One, according to Meadows.

Under Obama, the FDA launched an aggressive crackdown on tobacco and began treating cigars the same as cigarettes.

According to the agency, the restrictions are necessary to reduce “death and disease” from tobacco products, and the “dramatic rise in youth and young adult use of tobacco products such as e-cigarettes, waterpipe tobacco, and continued youth and young adult use of cigars (mainly cigarillos).”

Others see it differently.

“Premium cigar retailers already institute a wide range of controls to prevent youth access to these cigars, and all the taxation, labeling and testing requirements that FDA has instituted will accomplish is limit the diversity of products on the market, curtail innovation and raise prices,” Pursell said.

The FDA’s restrictions also ban free tobacco samples, institute new manufacturing equipment standards and abolish the delivery of cigars to American military service members overseas.

Last week’s Freedom Caucus report said: “the threat of FDA restrictions has loomed over the cigar business ever since the FDA took control over cigarettes.”

In 2009, a Democratic-controlled Congress amended the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to include the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, giving the FDA sweeping authority to regulate tobacco. President Obama signed it into law in June 2009.

What started as a harsh focus on cigarettes expanded into a harsh crackdown on all forms of tobacco — something even Grayson, a staunch liberal, considered mission creep.

“Premium cigars should not be subject to FDA regulation,” he said five years after supporting the FDA oversight legislation.

“I urge the FDA to exempt premium cigars from the proposed regulation, consistent with Congress’s intent when passing the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, for which I voted personally,” Grayson said.

Premarket review

“The worst fear of cigar manufacturers and smokers alike has been that the FDA will impose the same onerous premarket review requirements on cigars that it currently places on cigarettes,” the Freedom Caucus report said.

That fear became a reality in August, when the FDA implemented a finalized rule two-years in the making requiring new tobacco products, as well as those made since February 2007, to undergo an expensive premarket review process, or as the administration defines it, “rigorous scientific review.”

Altering the size, shape, packaging and blend of any cigar product also triggers government approval.

“This process requires that manufacturers prove their products meet certain requirements before they can go to market by submitting hundreds if not thousands of hours of paperwork per product,” said Azarias Cordoba, owner of Córdoba and Morales Cigars, near Orlando.

“Since the FDA defines new cigars to include new blends, which can change seasonally for smaller manufacturers, the compliance costs could overwhelm many small-cigar businesses,” he said in an op-ed co-written by Chris Hudson of Americans for Prosperity.

According to Cigar Aficionado, an industry publication, the FDA confirmed in May that new product applications could “cost hundreds of thousands of dollars” per application. As a result, manufacturers effectively would be paying the government to regulate them out of business.

“That’s part of their game,” Eric Newman, president of J.C. Newman’s Cigar Co., a 121-year-old family business, said of the outgoing administration’s enormous new fees.

“Cigars are to Tampa what wine is to Napa Valley and what automobiles are to Michigan,” Newman said when U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., visited his Tampa factory three weeks before the Nov. 8 presidential election.

Newman’s Cigar City Co. is facing $2.5 million in new compliance costs that would have to be, in part, offset by laying off up to half the factory’s workers, he said.

“Anyone that has common sense knows that a premium cigar is simply not consumed the same way a cigarette is,” said Rubio. “It’s not a public health threat.”

Speaking in both English and Spanish, Rubio said he hoped a bipartisan bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to exempt premium cigars would pass Congress before the end of the year. It won’t, just as several other attempts previously failed.

The Obama administration added insult to injury for Florida’s cigar producers and workers in October, when it announced in that Cuban cigars are now allowed in the United States as a result of the administration’s outreach efforts to the communist island government. But the new tobacco requirements won’t apply to Cuban tobacco products.

Cordoba, a Cuban-American, said his family business was once taken when Fidel Castro’s regime shut down factories across Cuba.

“I admit that the FDA’s actions are far less extreme than that of Fidel Castro. But the sting of government control over the economies and lives of people comes at a high price: the possible loss of a thriving business,” he said.

Via FloridaWatchdog.org.

Millions in taxpayer incentives later, Office Depot leaving business-friendly Florida

Office Depot is packing up its corporate bags and shipping out of the Sunshine State, but not before scoring millions in state and local taxpayer incentives.

The Boca Raton business giant announced this past Wednesday that Staples Inc., its chief office supplies competitor, is buying the Fortune 300 company and moving its South Florida corporate headquarters out of the state.

It’s unclear exactly what the future holds for its 2,000-plus employees. Florida Watchdog contacted Staples but did not receive a return response.

Just 14 months ago, Office Depot was awarded a state and local government incentive package worth $5 million — about $3 million from the state that has not been paid out, $1.5 million from the city of Boca Raton and $500,000 from Palm Beach County.

All it had to do was stay put in its existing corporate facility.

Months later, however, the company was ripe for acquisition.

“Staples began discussions to acquire Office Depot in (September) 2014,” an Office Depot statement says.

Now, the company is all but gone. Only shareholder approval of Staples’s generous offer and an antitrust regulatory sign-off stand in the way of finalizing the deal. Office Depot says it should be completed before the end of the year.

The sale is great news for Office Depot shareholders who are set to receive a 44-percent return on the stock price (as of Wednesday). It’s even better for Office Depot CEO Roland Smith, who after little more than a year on the job will pocket a cool $9 million, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

Ron Sargent, CEO of the Framingham, Mass.-based Staples, called the deal a “transformational acquisition” that will create a combined revenue stream of $39 billion.

Florida taxpayers, Office Deport-based Boca Raton employees and the local economy might not share his excitement.

In 2006, Office Depot scored a separate tax incentive package worth $4.9 million, $3 million of which it gets to keep.

Christopher Koopman, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said tax incentives are often short-sighted arrangements that leave taxpayers on the hook.

“Politicians grab headlines and give the appearance that they’re creating jobs, and businesses benefit because they’re getting the incentives,” Koopman told Florida Watchdog.

“Ultimately, it’s the taxpayers who lose because they pay for the incentives in the short-term and they pay for any consequences in long-term,” he said.

At the time Florida officials pledged the last round of incentives, Office Depot had merged with its rival office supplies competitor, Office Max. The sweetheart deals went a long way to keep Office Depot’s corporate headquarters in Florida, according to a company statement.

Florida, one of the lowest-taxed business-friendly states in the country was apparently competing with Illinois to land Office Depot’s corporate headquarters after the merger. Office Max was headquartered in Naperville, Ill.

It was the Sunshine State’s business “climate” that won the day, Enterprise Florida CEO Gray Swoope said in December 2013.

“Thanks to the business-friendly climate Governor (Rick) Scott created and our effective economic development model, a Fortune 300 company like Office Depot knows they can be successful in our state,” Swoope said. He did not mention the incentives at the time.

To be clear, all Office Depot did was stay in its existing 625,000-square-foot Boca Raton corporate campus rather than move to the corporate home of Office Max in Illinois.

An Illinois legislator told Watchdog.org at the time, “Government should not be picking winners and losers.”

“People are quick to blame the companies,” Koopman said. “It’s the politicians who are afraid that some other state is going to poach their businesses.”

Sometimes, it happens anyway.

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