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Agency for State Technology gets softballs in Senate committee

On Tuesday, the Florida Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee heard from the Agency for State Technology.

The AST, legislated into existence in 2014, appears on the outside to be in flux.

A recent audit of the AST hammered it for a lack of internal controls.

Meanwhile, CIO Jason Allison is on his way out the door, headed to Foley and Lardner to do public affairs (or what committee chair Dennis Baxley called “newer and higher callings.”)

“I have a real concern about how we buy IT around the capital,” Baxley said, by way of introducing Eric Larsen, the interim executive director.

That concern, sadly, did not translate into a robust discussion.

Larsen offered a positive, big-picture narrative that went unchallenged by committee members.

Larsen contended that there have been improvements in Florida’s IT sector and policy since 2014, citing one independent authority (the Center for Digital Government) calling it “most improved” in 2016.

Larsen also discussed the state data center, noting that all costs expended are recovered from agencies.

Larsen also extolled facility consolidation as being “on time and under budget,” and discussed the agency’s role in IT security.

“There is no one size fits all approach to cybersecurity … no silver bullet,” Larsen added.

“We must protect the state’s data in our custody,” Larsen continued, noting funding was needed for continuing efforts.

Larsen advocated for a chief data officer also.

Despite the blistering audit earlier this year, the committee did not deliver tough questions that might have been asked. Or any questions at all, really.

Sen. Baxley lamented the lack of a “high-quality map” of his recently redrawn Senate district.

Baxley pointed to the agency’s “outstanding improvement.”

“I hope we will better use your obviously competent service,” Baxley said, thanking Larsen for handling “cybersecurity.”

“It’s good to know somebody’s watching. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” Baxley concluded.

After a blistering audit that raised myriad questions, one might have expected more from this committee than was delivered.

Meanwhile, the Florida House Government Operations & Technology Appropriations Subcommittee addresses the same material Wednesday afternoon.

Ridesharing bill advances 21-1 in House committee

A bill to create statewide regulations for ridesharing companies easily advanced in its last committee stop Tuesday in the Florida House, but not without some dissent from a handful of Democrats on the panel.

The bill (HB 221) is sponsored by Tampa Republican Jamie Grant and Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls, and officials with Uber and Lyft are hoping that this is finally the year that such legislation is finally passed.

The bill would require transportation network companies to have third-parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers. People would be prohibited from becoming rideshare drivers if they have three moving violations in the prior 3-year period; have been convicted of a felony within the previous five years; or have been convicted of a misdemeanor charge of sexual assault, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, hit and run, or attempting to flee a law enforcement officer within the past five years.

It also calls for drivers to carry insurance coverage worth $50,000 for death and bodily injury per person, $100,000 for death and bodily injury per incident and $25,000 for property damage when picking up passengers. Coverage would jump to a minimum of $1 million in coverage in the case of death, bodily injury and property damage while a passenger is in the vehicle.

The bill also tells local governments they cannot set their own conflicting regulations, which is why the Florida League of Cities opposes it.

All told, 21 of the 22 members of the House Committee on Government Accountability supported the bill. The lone dissenter was Miami Gardens Democrat Barbara Watson, who said she has severe concerns about safety, specifically taking issue with the fact that background checks on ride-sharing drivers will only take place every three years.

“This bill is lacking in so many ways,” she said. “So many public safety issues are brought to bear.”

Democrat Kristen Diane Jacobs said she continues to consider the fact that the bill does not mandate signage on rideshare vehicles to be “problematic.”  She stated that the problem is now acute at the Fort Lauderdale airport and seaport.

“Somewhere along the line I hope we realize that signage is not only good for the company, the company’s already doing it, it’s good for those who are calling for the service, and I also think it’s really important for those governments that are having to do with so many drivers on governmental property,” Jacobs said.

“It’s been a cluster,” Orlando Democrat Carlos Guillermo Smith cracked regarding the lack of uniformity of ridesharing from city to city in Florida. “The reality is when tourists come to our state, they’re coming from around the country, they arrive in airports in our state, and they’re confused because they’re able to request Uber and Lyft rides at certain airports, but they’re not able to request them in other airports.”

Like Watson, he also expressed concerns about the safety standards on ridesharing vehicles. The Sprowls-Grant bill (sponsored in the Senate by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes) does not require mandatory vehicle inspections, as happens in most local jurisdictions regarding taxicabs and limousines.

“Our work on this bill, I think is far from done,” Guillermo Smith said, blasting the notion that the Ubers and Airbnb’s of the world are the future of the workforce in America. “I hope not, because most Uber drivers are driving for supplemental income,” he said.

The taxicab industry remains unsatisfied as well with the progress of the bill.

Louis Minardi, the owner of Yellow Cab Company of Tampa, feared that the bill allows for very limited oversight of ridesharing vehicles, “because most cities and counties will quit doing what they were doing before,” regarding regulations.

Other critics, like Dwight Mattingly from Palm Beach County, said that with more public transit agencies partnering up with Uber and Lyft, TNC drivers “must conform” to the same regulations that public for hire vehicles have had to adapt to.

Sprowls disagreed, saying those transit agencies can place those regulations in contracts with those companies. “If they want to add more onerous regulation than we have in our bill because they feel that they want to…they are able to do that,” he said.

A former prosecutor, Sprowls disputed the notion that a Level II background check is more rigorous than the ones that ridesharing drivers will be subjected to. “The FBI database has 95 million records. These multistage databases that we specifically outline in the bill, have 500 million records,” he said.

After passage of the bill, Uber and Lyft representatives were ecstatic.

“Today’s bipartisan vote is an encouraging indication that lawmakers recognize the safety and economic value of statewide access to ridesharing,” said Javi Correoso, public affairs manager with Uber Florida. “At Uber, our highest priority is the well-being of riders and drivers alike. Our commitment to innovation has created a layered system using the latest technology to protect all involved.

“Today’s approval of the ridesharing bill by the House Government Accountability Committee clears the way for this important legislation to be voted on by the full House,” said Chelsea Harrison, senior policy communications manager for Lyft. “We are grateful for the advocacy of Reps. Sprowls and Grant on behalf of the millions of passengers and drivers who benefit from ridesharing in Florida. We look forward to continuing to advocate for consistent statewide rules for ridesharing that expand economic activity, prioritize public safety, and encourage innovation across the state.”

State economists see tourism growth canceling out lagging housing starts

Nothing emerged during a numbers-crunching exercise by state economists Tuesday to change the economic picture the Legislature will confront this year — growth in tourism and slack housing starts will offset each other as overall growth produces about $31 billion in general revenues.

“Those are going to compensate for each other. So, overall, you end up about where you were, on the same path where we were heading,” said Amy Baker, coordinator for the state Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

Together with unspent money left over from the current fiscal year, legislators will have about $32.3 billion in general revenues to spend during the fiscal year that begins July 1. That doesn’t count taxes and fees that feed trust funds dedicated to specific programs.

“Florida has been moving in lock step in line with our forecasts for several years now. We have not really had any big surprises. I think that will continue to be the case,” Baker said.

“It’s positive, from the fact that we continue to see some strength. But it’s not going to change what they’re facing this year.”

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed an $83.5 billion state budget for next fiscal year, but House appropriations subcommittees are taking a more pessimistic view of state revenues and are looking for programs to trim.

Economists from Baker’s office, the Legislature and the governor’s office reviewed data suggesting growth of about 4.5 percent in the tourism sector, notwithstanding declines in overseas visitors, including Canadians. Yet a long-anticipated increase in housing starts has yet to materialize.

Multifamily housing starts ought to be growing faster than they are, Baker said — particularly given young people’s penchant to cluster in rental apartments in cities. The economists suspected a lag time to put together construction deals. Or perhaps builders were awaiting the results of the presidential election.

Overall, construction “is growing with population growth, because our population is growing. But the amount it grows per new person is pretty steady,” Baker said.

“Even with the ginormous growth rate we’ve had — we’ve had double-digit growth rates for three of the last four years — we’re still nowhere back to normal.”

The prospect is for weak private housing starts through next fiscal year. “But then we have really good growth rates next year. So you’re coming back to where we were” before the recession “and going slightly ahead” in years to come.

Zika virus has not seriously crimped tourism, but Baker hadn’t expected that it would yet. The economists last considered the Zika factor last fall — going into the winter, when mosquito activity declines.

“The question is, as we go back into a higher period of time for mosquito activity, will we start off with no Zika effect or will we get back pretty fast to where we were, with an increase,” she said.

“Because we think of it as a black swan” — a big surprise — “we’re not building a Zika problem into our forecast. But that would be a threat because it’s such a strong part of our forecast.”

Senate education committee approves mandatory recess bill

Mandatory recess could be on the horizon.

The Senate Education Committee voted 7-0 to approve a bill (SB 78) that requires school district across the state to provide at least 20 minutes of recess each day to students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Under the proposal, the master schedule at each school containing elementary grades would need to reflect the requirement for 20 consecutive minutes of daily recess.

“It’s time for recess,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, the bill’s sponsor.

The measure, which has bi-partisan support in the House and Senate, is similar to one that moved through the Legislature during the 2016 session. That bill received overwhelming support in the Florida House, but failed to gain traction in the Senate, despite calls from parents and lawmakers to support the proposal.

Former Sen. John Legg, who was the chairman of the Senate Education Committee at the time, declined to hear the bill, saying he considered it a local issue.

Supporters of Flores’ proposal said they tried to address the issue at the local level, but made little progress. Angie Gallo, the legislative chair for the Florida PTA, said after the 2016 session her organization went back to county councils to discuss options, but only one school district implemented a recess policy.

“Would we prefer this be a local issue, absolutely,” she said. “We’ve always asked for local control.”

According to a recent report by the Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability, 11 school districts across the state had a school board approved recess policy in 2015-16. Eight districts, including Miami-Dade and Lee counties, required recess for students in kindergarten through fifth grade; while while three district encouraged recess but did not require it.

But the report, which was presented to the Senate Pre-K through 12 Educations Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this month, found district policies regarding time and number of days varied from district to district.

“While many would argue we shouldn’t need the Legislature to intervene, we feel without a state mandate, many kids would be denied access,” said one mother who spoke to the Senate committee Tuesday.

The bill now heads to the Senate PreK-12 Appropriations Committee.

VIDEO: Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense takes the Capitol

Michelle Gajda, the Florida chapter leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, spoke to reporters in the Capitol’s rotunda Tuesday as the group’s members met with lawmakers about gun-related legislation.

Monday’s story about the organization is here.

A Periscope video of Gajda’s remarks to news media is below:

House lobbying ban extension cleared for floor

A measure to increase the ban from two years to six years on former lawmakers and statewide elected officers lobbying their colleagues after leaving office is now cleared to be considered by the full House of Representatives.

The House Rules and Policy Committee OK’d the measure (HJR 7001) unanimously on Tuesday. As its second and final review panel, it’s now available to be discussed on the House floor when the 2017 Legislative Session begins March 7.

Extending the lobbying ban is a plank of GOP House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s program to create a “culture of transparency” in state government.

The proposal, which requires a constitutional amendment, addresses “the perception, if not the reality, of the ‘revolving door,’ ” said state Rep. Larry Metz, the Yalaha Republican who is sponsoring the bill.

“The public is entitled to have the perception corrected, at a minimum,” he added. Metz chairs the Public Integrity and Ethics Committee.

The six-year ban, which would be the lengthiest in the country, already has raised some constitutional concerns over free speech and restraint of trade.

The bill’s own staff analysis notes that “provisions of Florida law that regulate lobbyist activity have been challenged on grounds they violate First Amendment protections.”

President Donald Trump last month “issued an executive order prohibiting executive branch appointees from lobbying the agency which they were appointed to serve for five years after termination of employment,” the staff analysis adds.

Thirty-four states in all have some lobbying ban on former state lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“While no state currently has a post-service lobbying ban longer than two years,” the Missouri House of Representatives is considering extending that state’s “lobbying ban applicable to former legislators and appointed state officers (who require confirmation by the state senate) to five years following vacation of office, from six months,” the analysis says.

Metz’s bill was changed Tuesday to remove “appointed state officers,” such as executive-branch agency heads, whose ban would remain at two years.

The rules committee also unanimously OK’d a second measure (HB 7003) that would codify the ban extension into state law and have an earlier effective date.

Measures that create state constitutional amendments have to be approved by three-fifths of each chamber of the Legislature. And any amendment needs 60 percent of the statewide vote to be passed.

 

Jeff Brandes files bill to crack down on insurance fraud

St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes filed a bill that would strengthen the state’s ability to fight insurance fraud.

“Insurance fraud in Florida is evolving, and policyholders are forced to pay for it through higher premiums every year,” Brandes said. “This is a hidden tax on every Floridian who drives a car, owns a home, rents an apartment, or pays for health insurance.”

In a Friday press release, Brandes noted that fraud cases can account for up to 10 percent of an insurance company’s yearly losses.

SB 1012 would require insurers to develop and submit anti-fraud plans to the Division of Investigative and Forensic Services and would require anti-fraud training for employees involved with fraud prevention.

The bill also requires an annual report on fraud trends to be submitted to the Florida CFO, who could then assign or re-assign special prosecutors around the state based on crime trends.

Key Largo Republican Rep. Holly Raschein, who will sponsor the bill in the House, said she was “proud to sponsor this common sense solution that will better align the resources that we already have in place.”

“We must do everything possible to help hold the line on rising insurance rates—rates that are particularly high in South Florida,” she said.

Francisco Gonzalez

Personnel note: Francisco Gonzalez leaves James Madison Institute

Francisco Gonzalez, formerly Vice President of Advancement for The James Madison Institute, has left the organization after nine years.

He’s been named the Director of Philanthropy for the National Review Institute, the parent organization of National Review magazine, founded by William F. Buckley, Jr.

Gonzalez, who will continue to reside in Orlando, starts Feb. 27, He’ll further NRI’s mission with supporters across the country. He says he wrote a blog post last week that revisits his 9 years at JMI.

“While I am departing JMI, my loyalty to its mission will remain strong as it continues the legacy and vision of our great founder, Dr. J. Stanley Marshall,” Gonzalez said. “As a Floridian who believes in limited government and free-market principles, the success of JMI remains important to me and to this great state.”

He added: “I look forward to working to help NRI spread its mission, support its talent, and strongly promote conservative intellectual ideas at a very pivotal time for our country.”

Florida House, Rick Scott again at loggerheads over VISIT FLORIDA

House Speaker Richard Corcoran offered a compromise Monday in his plan to kill the public-private VISIT FLORIDA tourism marketing agency, but Gov. Rick Scott rejected it as a “massive cut.”

One day before a bill (HB 7005) aimed at eliminating the organization gets its second and final committee review, an amendment to be offered by GOP state Rep. Paul Renner would save the agency, but slash its budget to $25 million. Its latest budget is nearly $80 million.

The amendment also would require the agency submit to a list of demands, including making it “submit a detailed operating budget each year,” having its CEO be confirmed by the Senate, and “remov(ing) the public records exemption for marketing projects and research.”

Moreover, the bill would still get rid of the public-private Enterprise Florida economic development organization.

“The Florida House is proposing a 67 percent cut to tourism marketing,” Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in a statement. “More than a million Florida families rely on jobs in our tourism industry and are threatened with this massive cut.

“Unfortunately, some politicians in the Florida House think fighting for jobs is simply hysteria and don’t understand that jobs are not expendable to families who have to put food on the table,” she said.

Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, is out to kill VISIT FLORIDA, Enterprise Florida, and most of state government’s business incentive programs – what he calls “corporate welfare.” Scott, a Naples Republican, says they all help create jobs.

Earlier Monday, Corcoran called defenders of VISIT FLORIDA “increasingly hysterical, complete with their ‘Chicken Little’ predictions of economic collapse, state income taxes, and tens of thousands out of work.”

The agency faced criticism for keeping secret a promotional contract it negotiated with South Florida rapper Pitbull. Corcoran sued to get the contract released to the public, but Pitbull himself published a copy of the contract via Twitter, revealing he was promised a maximum of $1 million.

“The burden is now on the defenders of VISIT FLORIDA to decide if they are willing to accept accountability and transparency or if they are looking only to return to the good old days of operating in the shadows,” Corcoran said in a statement. “… Rest assured, the House will not spend another penny on VISIT FLORIDA should accountability and transparency measures be rejected.”

Schutz responded, “Gov. Scott believes in transparency and accountability for any taxpayer dollars used and that is why he has demanded changes and brought in new leadership at VISIT FLORIDA.”

CEO Will Seccombe stepped down after Scott called for his resignation, and Ken Lawson moved from being secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to now head the tourism agency.

Meantime, GOP state Rep. Joe Gruters of Sarasota, a Scott ally, has filed legislation to overhaul the agencies, not abolish them.

The bill will next be heard 1 p.m. Tuesday by the House Appropriations Committee.

Carol Dover still fighting for tourism marketing money

When it comes to supporting the state’s hospitality industry, Carol Dover won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

Despite the Florida House’s opposition to spending money on tourism marketing in the state budget, her Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association is seeking $1 million to do just that.

And the funding request is being sponsored by GOP state Rep. Jay Trumbull of Panama City, who already voted for a bill to kill VISIT FLORIDA, the public-private tourism marketing agency.

On Feb. 7, Dover – the association’s president & CEO since 1995 – asked for the money for an “In-State Marketing Program to Promote Florida Tourism.” Trumbull, first elected in 2014, is listed as the House sponsor.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran requires requests for project money in the budget to be filed separately and publicly; the submission is on the House’s website. He is also crusading against incentives as “corporate welfare” that should be stopped.

“Funds are transferred from the Hotels and Restaurants Trust Fund to contract with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Inc., to develop a coordinated marketing, media and events program to promote Florida tourism to residents of the state,” the request explains.

“This campaign requires a private matching program and is conducted throughout the state, as approved by and monitored by (the Department of Business and Professional Regulation) and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Inc., for the purpose of promoting tourism.”

One day later, the House Careers & Competition Subcommittee, of which Trumbull is vice-chair, cleared a measure to eliminate VISIT FLORIDA, as well as the Enterprise Florida economic development organization, and a bevy of business incentive programs.

Dover – who had broken her leg the weekend before – attended the hearing on crutches to oppose the bill, saying it would “destroy our tourism industry.”

She’s known as a tenacious fighter; Dover is a breast cancer survivor who first learned of her diagnosis on the opening day of the 2003 Legislative Session.

By Feb. 14, Gov. Rick Scott‘s statewide tour to promote his proposed 2017-18 budget made a stop in Trumbull’s district. According to MyPanhandle.com, Scott “wasted no time criticizing those who voted … to defund the agencies.”

“In Tallahassee, there (are) some politicians that don’t understand the importance of a job,” Scott said. “I am shocked that Rep. Jay Trumbull voted to abolish Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.”

Trumbull later “said his vote was not an attempt to limit jobs, but to start a conversation about transparency and accountability within the agencies,” the site reported.

The next day, Trumbull filed the 1-page bill (HB 3343) that goes along with Dover’s tourism funding request.

Trumbull could not be reached by mobile phone: His voicemail was full and he did not respond to a text message.

Dover was unavailable Monday and a request for comment is pending with the association’s communications director.

On Friday, Fred Piccolo, Corcoran’s spokesman, said the speaker was unaware of the FRLA’s request and had no comment.

The bill to kill the agencies and incentive plans has a second stop in the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday.

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