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New equipment should boost Lottery revenues, agency says

The Florida Lottery projects an increase in sales from new vending machines and other equipment provided through a new multi-million dollar agency contract.

Lottery representatives on Wednesday presented to the state’s Revenue Estimating Impact Conference, a roundtable of state economists. Lawmakers use their projections to craft the state budget each Legislative Session.

Details on the actual numbers should be available later Wednesday.

Agency officials said it was negotiating a deal with a “big-box retailer,” which it didn’t name, to sell even more Lottery tickets in the state.

That’s part of a push to increase the number of places where people can buy Lottery products, which now stands at 13,000 retailers and has been “stagnant” in recent years.

Lottery proceeds go into the state’s Educational Enhancement Trust Fund, which helps pay for public education.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran had sued the Lottery last year, saying the Lottery was guilty of “wasteful and improper spending” and “signing a contract that spends beyond existing budget limitations.”

The contract is for new retailer terminals, in-store signage, self-service lottery vending machines, self-service ticket checkers and an upgraded communications network.

He won and the Lottery appealed. In December, the Lottery agreed to tweak the deal to require legislative oversight and approval. The appeal was later dropped.

The Lottery, which reports to Gov. Rick Scott, disclosed changes in what was originally a contract worth $700 million over an initial 10-year period, with three available 3-year renewal options.

Among others, the changes include reducing the number of “full-service vending machines” and requiring the vendor, International Game Technology (IGT), to “support the Lottery’s marketing efforts” by kicking back $30,000 a month.

Special Session on school funding appears dead

With Republicans lining up in opposition, a Democratic attempt to spur a Special Legislative Session on education funding appeared dead Tuesday.

After a request by Democrats triggered the process, lawmakers are being polled this week about whether they want to hold a Special Session.

Three-fifths of the members of each Republican-dominated chamber must support the request for a special session to be held. For the House, that means support from at least 70 of the current 117 members. The Senate needs 23 yes votes from the current 39 members.

But the Department of State released results late Tuesday afternoon that showed 52 House members opposed to a special session and 36 in favor.

Even if supporters could round up the remaining 29 votes — which is highly unlikely — they would fall short of the 70 votes needed in the House to hold a session. In the Senate, 11 Democrats had supported holding a Session, while nine Republicans had opposed it.

Lawmakers have until noon Thursday to vote.

Tally shows early GOP opposition to Special Session

Early polling shows many Republican lawmakers don’t support a Democratic proposal to return to Tallahassee this summer for a special session to address public-school funding.

The Department of State on Monday released results from lawmakers who had responded to a poll on a special-session request by Rep. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat, and Miami Democratic Rep. Nicholas Duran.

As of 4:30 p.m. Monday, 27 House members had voted in favor of a special session, while 36 had voted against the idea.

Three-fifths of the members of each Republican-dominated chamber must support the request for a special session to be held. For the House, that means support from at least 70 of the current 117 members. The Senate needs 23 yes votes from the current 39 members.

Republicans Reps. Julio Gonzalez of Venice and Kathleen Peters of Treasure Island have joined House Democrats in supporting the proposal.

With just 13 members of the Senate responding as of Monday afternoon, the tally was seven Democrats for the special session and six Republicans opposed, with the opponents including Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, and incoming President Bill Galvano, of Bradenton.

The polling is one of two ways lawmakers can spur a special session. The other is for the Senate president and House speaker to jointly call for lawmakers to return to Tallahassee.

Lawmakers have until noon Thursday to respond to the poll.

TaxWatch stumps for property-tax cap on November ballot

Asked for a 30-second ‘elevator speech‘ on why voters should choose ‘yes’ for Amendment 2 in November, Florida TaxWatch president Dominic M. Calabro didn’t blink.

“If you don’t vote ‘yes,’ either you or your neighbors will see massive tax increases and great deal of property tax dissatisfaction … anger even, if we see property taxes jump by 20 percent,” he said Tuesday, at a press conference in Tallahassee.

The proposed constitutional amendment by the Legislature would cap property tax hikes at 10 percent on properties that don’t have a homestead exemption, such as vacation homes, apartment complexes and undeveloped lots.

“If approved, the amendment removes the scheduled repeal of such provisions in 2019 and shall take effect Jan. 1, 2019,” according to the ballot summary. Voters passed a non-homestead 10 percent tax cap in 2008.

“Failure to make permanent the non-homestead exemption cap could result in Floridians paying as much as $700 million more in property taxes annually,” the organization said in a follow-up press release.

When asked whether that would mean $700 million less in tax revenue for government services, TaxWatch vice president of research Kurt Wenner said a vote for the amendment just means keeping current law intact.

“This is what’s happening now, so it’s not a question of taking money away from government,” he said.

Not passing the amendment “would take money out of the economy,” Calabro added, saying property owners would have less spending power.

The measure also is supported by the Florida Association of REALTORS® and by the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“It allows business owners to plan for the future by having a better grasp on their budgets, so they can expand and create more jobs,” said Carrie O’Rourke, vice president of public policy for the REALTORS, in a statement. “It helps renters continue to afford their housing as they save to one day purchase a home.”

“Before the non-homestead tax cap, nearly three out of four non-homestead properties in Florida had taxes increases of more than 10 percent year to year,” O’Rourke added. “In 2006, 30 percent of non-homestead properties were hit with an 80 percent hike from just the year before. Florida cannot continue to move forward with these kinds of tax hikes.”

TaxWatch’s report on the amendment’s impact is here. It’s one of 13 proposals voters will decide in the Nov. 6 general election.

Democratic lawmakers call for special session on K-12 funding

Two South Florida state lawmakers plan to ask the Legislature to increase the public education budget, which they say was insufficiently funded during the 2018 Legislative Session and anticipate a budget shortfall exacerbated by mandates passed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.

The Legislature officially adjourned in March, but on Monday Democratic Reps. Shevrin Jones, of West Park, and Nicholas Duran, of Miami, said they’re preparing a push for a special session to increase appropriations to school districts statewide.

Schools, the lawmakers claim, were blindsided by provisions in SB 7026, the school safety bill passed in the wake of the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland.

The sweeping package appropriated $67 million to a program designed to arm non-teacher personnel in schools, resulting in an estimated $101.5 per-student increase to education funding. But the program is optional, and some of Florida’s largest school districts have already opted out of it. That’s led some to claim that the actual increase in base allocation per pupil is closer to 47 cents.

Superintendents, as reported by the News Service of Florida, said in March that they would not be able to staff at least one armed person at each school, another provision included in SB 7026. The Times/Herald bureau reported earlier this month that nearly all of 23 school districts sampled in a survey indicated they anticipate a shortfall in funding.

“School Districts across the state are hurting,” Jones said in a prepared statement. “They are asking us to rectify this egregious oversight. We will not stand idly by as we see the integrity of Florida’s educational institutions crumble because our leadership fails to provide us a proper foundation to build Florida’s future.”

To cover the mandated costs, Jones said schools will be forced to “hemorrhage qualified educators and the resources necessary to function at the most basic level.”

Added Duran: “This is yet another attack on our public schools cloaked under the pretense of good intentions. At the end of the day, leadership did what they wanted to do and not what’s best for Florida’s children.”

Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest school district, expects a .11 percent decrease in its budget, and has cited concerns of teacher retention and maintaining employment levels, according to the news release.

The announcement from the lawmakers echoes concerns raised by school superintendents even before SB 7026 was signed into law. As well, the Florida Teachers Union has consistently pushed for lawmakers to reconvene to unlock funds trapped in the optional armed-personnel program.

Following Jones and Duran, the entire Democratic bench in the race for Governor issued statements supporting a special session.

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum said “students and teachers have been shortchanged for decades.”

“If we fail to secure this special session this year, I will push for one next year as Governor,” Gillum said.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, also a Democratic candidate for Governor, made a similar promise.

Cutting corners “to foot the bill is unacceptable,” he said. “A forty-seven cent increase to Florida’s per-student education funding is embarrassing and a failure to our children–as Governor, I will make sure that the Legislature stays in session until they properly fund our public schools.”

On Twitter, Orlando businessman Chris King and former Congresswoman Gwen Graham also chimed in with support.

There are two methods by which lawmakers can reconvene for a special session, per Florida law. Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran can jointly call on lawmakers to come back to Tallahassee, or 20 percent of members can request the two chambers reconvene — though that would have to be approved by three-fifths of the Republican-led Legislature.

Requests for comment are pending with Corcoran and Negron.

Lawmakers’ hobbies amuse and confuse on social media

From karaoke to ballroom dancing to ice sculpting, the hobbies of Florida’s legislators are legion.

A Florida Politics reporter recently noticed and tweeted that Rep. Carlos G. Smith, an Orlando Democrat, listed but one “recreational interest,” karaoke, on his legislative info page.

That sparked a number of responses on social media last week.

TCPalm reporter Ali Schmitz noted that outgoing Senate President Joe Negron declares “courthouse architecture” as an interest. Must be all those columns.

Sun-Sentinel reporter Dan Sweeney chimed in: “You guys have cracked open a never-ending font of amazement. Reviewing the recreational interests of state reps is kind of a hobby of mine,” he tweeted.

“Along with the aforementioned, I’d also point you to the ballroom dancing of @ColleenLBurton and the ice sculpting of @JoeGruters.”

Burton soon defended her honor: “So you know, I competed in 2011. #notnicetohobbyshame

Lara Medley, Burton’s legislative assistant, also tweeted: “I would like a demonstration of Representative @JoeGruters hobby please.” Gruters liked that tweet but did not respond.

Sweeney added: “Not to mention the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu of @AmyMercado and the fact that @JamesGrantFL lists ‘the woods’ as a recreational interest without saying what it is he does there, which leaves a lot to the imagination.”

Undoubtedly after some #FlaPol Twitterati head scratching, Grant took to Twitter to explain: “Lest there be any confusion, bow & bird hunting.

“Fly rods on the water, my bow or Berettas in the woods, & a hockey stick on the ice are the 3 scenarios where I can truly get lost enough to make the world around me stop,” he added. “And no, I don’t get any of the 3 enough. #CarryOn …”

Even POLITICO Florida scribe Marc Caputo weighed in with a memory: The late “Sen. Larcenia Bullard had the best hobby in the clerk’s manual once: ‘collecting butterfly-shaped objects.’ I’m not making this up.”

Indeed, he was not. An old clerk’s manual confirmed that hobby, along with “skating,” “pinochle” and others. Bullard died in 2013 after serving 18 years in the Legislature. 

Outgoing House Speaker Richard Corcoran lists no hobbies. With six kids, he’s busy.

Joe Henderson: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn gives Tallahassee an earful

Whoever succeeds Bob Buckhorn next year as Tampa’s mayor will have a tough time matching his ability to deliver a speech.

His pace and timing are excellent, his voice rising and rising when he wants to engage the listener fully and hammer home a point.

Then again, Buckhorn’s message Friday in his “State of the City” address would have come through loud and clear even if Tom Fumbletongue had been speaking.

Buckhorn went beyond the usual cheerleading and optimism that has characterized most of his speeches. He blasted — and I mean BLASTED — the Republican-led Legislature for passing laws that have hamstrung the ability of big-city mayor, most of whom are Democrats, to raise money and provide services for a rapidly growing population.

Buckhorn called it “an outright attack on local governments by leadership in the Florida Legislature.”

He was just getting started.

“I’ve been around city government for 30 years, and I’ve never seen such a blatant attack to undermine local government and to strip away the powers of self-governance. It’s wrong, and it needs to stop. It’s not all of them, but it’s a lot of the leadership. And you can vote against those who vote against you.

“During campaign season they run around talking about their conservative principles, how less government is better, how smaller government is more efficient, how government closest to the people is the best government. Well, guess who the hell that is? That’s us, that’s us,” he thundered.

His voice kept rising, reaching a crescendo when he said, “ … or, God forbid, (when) we want to pass common-sense gun legislation, they say, ‘Oh no! We know better! We know what’s good for you! We’re going to decide for you.’ Tallahassee knows better? Are you kidding me? Not now, not ever. Let us do our jobs.”

He wasn’t finished.

“This is the same Legislature that pays a lot of attention to the NRA and very little attention to the PTAs.”

That sounded an awful lot like a campaign speech and not so much about the state of the city.

Maybe it was.

While Buckhorn decided against running for governor, he hasn’t ruled out taking the No. 2 spot on a Democratic ticket if he is asked. That idea has been floated.

I talked to him about that recently. The most telling thing Buckhorn said was that he would only agree to seek the lieutenant governor’s job if he felt he had a chance to really contribute to policy.

I’ve known him a long time. He doesn’t have the kind of personality that would handle four years of ribbon-cuttings and Kiwanis Club speeches.

In two terms as mayor, he was often on the business end of edicts from Tallahassee on issues that included attempts at gun control, so-called sanctuary cities, limits on the ability of cities to raise taxes, and even an attempt in the last Session for the state to pre-empt all local tree-trimming laws.

As a No. 2, Buckhorn might flourish as an enforcer and be the advocate for local cities that mayors across the state say is needed.

Would he do that?

My guess is he would, if the right person asked, said the right things, and then let Buckhorn be Buckhorn.

If that happens, one thing is certain. Tallahassee would get an earful.

Again.

Corrections agency cuts programs to fill budget hole

Blaming the Legislature for not fully funding the state prison system, Florida corrections officials are slashing substance-abuse services, transitional housing and re-entry programs – services and programs launched to keep inmates from returning to life behind bars – in an attempt to fill a $28 million budget hole.

The Department of Corrections announced the cost-cutting measures late Tuesday. The cuts are focused largely on doing away with or dramatically reducing substance-abuse, mental-health and re-entry programs to plug a $28 million health care services deficit.

With an annual budget in excess of $2.4 billion and about 100,000 inmates, the corrections agency makes up one of the state’s largest spending areas. But the agency is running an overall deficit of about $79 million, after budget reductions imposed by lawmakers over the past two years and escalating health care and pharmaceutical costs.

The corrections agency has been struggling to keep up with the cost of health care for the majority of the state’s inmates, after one private vendor quit years before its contract was up and the state fired another.

Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, in a statement announcing the cuts, said she hoped the reductions are temporary.

“In order to secure a health services contractor, fund the increased pharmaceutical budget, and adjust for reductions, we’ve unfortunately had to make some very difficult decisions. At the start of the next fiscal year, we will be reducing some of our current contracts with community providers. Additionally, we are reducing operating costs to include maintenance, repair, utilities, and working to find every possible internal solution to reduce costs in order to maximize services for inmates and offenders,” Jones said in the statement issued Tuesday.

The budget cuts came a month after corrections officials asked vendors for a “voluntary rate reduction and/or cost-saving measure” in their current contracts.

Lawmakers this spring included money in the state budget to address a number of legal challenges centered on health care in the prison system, including the treatment of inmates with hepatitis and inmates with disabilities and mental-health issues.

But according to documents distributed by the department Tuesday evening, the $437 million earmarked for inmate health care – which includes pharmaceuticals – still came up about $55 million short.

Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican, told The News Service of Florida Tuesday evening that he has repeatedly warned his colleagues they were shortchanging the prison system.

Brandes said the funding crisis has “been festering for years” and called the cuts announced Tuesday unacceptable.

“In the short term, we’re going to have to fund the shortfalls in unconventional ways. But they must be funded. Period. These are not options. You must fund them,” he said.

Especially disturbing are the cuts to substance-abuse treatment, which are coming at the peak of the state’s opioid epidemic, and re-entry programs. Both have been shown to reduce recidivism and to aid prisoners as they transition to the community, said Brandes, who has been at the forefront of a criminal-justice reform movement in Florida.

“These are the very programs that have been proven to work. You can’t have an opioid crisis and cut opioid funding. You can’t just let people out of prison without some type of transition back into society. These are the types of programs that the research shows provide the best outcomes,” he said.

Jones announced the cuts as she prepares to sign a new contract with a private vendor to provide health services to about 87,000 inmates in state-run prisons.

The privatization of prison health care has been plagued with problems for the past several years.

Jones severed ties with Pittsburgh-based Wexford Health Sources a year ago, after Corizon Health in late 2015 notified the state that it was walking away from a five-year, $1.2 billion deal three years early. The Tennessee-based company said it was losing money on its contract with the state.

Jones came under fire for signing a no-bid, $268 million contract with Centurion of Florida LLC in January 2016 to take over for Corizon. Wexford’s contract with the state was unaffected by the deal with Centurion, which eventually took over health care for the entire state-run prison system.

Jones decided to redo the health care services contracts in 2015 and issued an invitation to negotiate for select companies to submit proposals.

But, after re-issuing the invitation to negotiate, Centurion – whose contract expires in June – was the only respondent for what is expected to be a $2 billion, five-year contract with the state. According to corrections officials, the agency is finalizing negotiations with Centurion.

“First and foremost, it’s our responsibility to ensure the security of individuals in our custody and to make certain their human and constitutional rights are upheld while incarcerated. Health care is one of these constitutional responsibilities, and in my tenure, I’ve held vendors accountable for ensuring these services are provided at an adequate and appropriate level, that is in line with required standards. Like every state agency, we must make fiscally sound decisions to operate within our legislatively appropriated budget,” Jones said in the statement.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Lantana Democrat Lori Berman

Lori Berman’s special election victory certified

Lantana Democrat Lori Berman’s special election victory for a Palm Beach County Senate district, which moved her up from the Florida House, was quickly certified Tuesday.

The Elections Canvassing Commission — comprised of Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — certified the April 10 election results in which Berman defeated Lake Worth Republican Tami Donnally. Secretary of State Ken Detzner oversaw the brief telephonic meeting in which all three members of the commission participated.

Berman captured 75 percent of the vote for the Democratic-leaning Senate District 31 seat that was vacated in October by Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat who stepped down after admitting to an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.

Berman’s Senate term will expire after the 2020 Legislative Session.

Less than 10 percent of the 312,967 registered voters in the district participated in the special general election, according to the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections website.

Berman’s District 90 Palm Beach County House seat will be filled in the November general election.

Berman’s election to the 40-member Senate leaves the upper chamber with one empty chair. The lone vacancy, District 16 in Pinellas and Pasco counties, will be filled in November. Former Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater, resigned from the seat in December, following a sexual-harassment investigation.

NRA gunning for GOP school bill backers

The National Rifle Association and its Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, are taking aim at Republican lawmakers who supported a school-safety bill that included gun-control measures.

In a letter to members of the NRA and the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, posted online Wednesday by Ammoland, Hammer focused her wrath on GOP lawmakers — particularly Sen. Doug Broxson of the Panhandle town of Gulf Breeze — who supported the sweeping measure (SB 7026), which was rushed into law shortly after the Feb. 14 deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

“We supported the school safety measures in the bill: 1.) Hardening the schools, 2.) Armed security in our schools, and 3.) Keeping guns out of the hands of the dangerous mentally ill,” Hammer wrote. “We did NOT support the gratuitous gun control provisions added to the bill by REPUBLICANS. Those gun control measures are: 1.) A ban on the purchase of rifles and shotguns by adults under age 21, 2.) A 3-day waiting period on rifles and shotguns, 3.) A ban on the sale, transfer & possession of bump stocks & accessories that increase the rate of fire of a semiautomatic firearm.”

The letter contends Republicans who voted for the bill — signed into law by GOP Gov. Rick Scott — “lacked the courage to uphold their oath of office” and that Broxson, the “linchpin” as the bill was approved in a 20-18 vote, “caved to threats and promises from Senate leadership and switched his vote and sold you out.”

Hammer noted that “A” or “A+” grades of most of the Republicans in the Senate and House who voted for the bill are being re-evaluated.

“When they ask for your support, when they ask you to volunteer in their campaigns, when they ask for your donations, when they ask for your votes, think long and hard about what they had done. …,” Hammer wrote.

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