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Lawmakers get grim budget news for next year

Florida is likely to basically break even next year in terms of its state budget, lawmakers heard Monday.

The Joint Legislative Budget Commission met in the Capitol to hear the latest financial outlook for 2017-18: Present income and outgo estimates leave Florida with a relatively scant $7.5 million left over out of about $32.2 billion in available revenue.

The current year’s budget is roughly $82 billion, for example, after Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a total of $256 million in spending. Roughly two-thirds of the yearly budget goes toward health care and education.

After the meeting, Republican lawmakers stressed the state didn’t have a revenue shortage, it had a spending problem, painting a picture of government profligacy.

But, since the GOP has controlled the Legislature for nearly two decades, it’s a picture they’re prominently featured in.

House Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran said education and health care spending won’t be immune to cuts next year.

“If you’re asking me, do I think we are misspending or wasting money, or not getting an efficient return from money that’s spent on 70 percent of our budget, the answer is yes,” he said. “Every single government person comes up here and spends money like a teenager in the mall for the first time with a credit card. We’ve got to start cutting up the credit card.”

But first on the chopping block, Corcoran suggested, was Enterprise Florida (EFI), the state’s public-private economic development organization. It got $23.5 million for operations, marketing and other initiatives in the 2016-17 state budget.

“Spending money on economic development is a bad idea,” the Land O’ Lakes Republican said. Lawmakers this year did reject Scott’s request for a $250 million incentives fund to be administered by Enterprise Florida.

When asked whether the organization needed to be dissolved, he said: “I think that’s definitely a discussion that’s going to take place this coming session.

“But you have to understand, over the last umpteen (years), EFI has been in the acquisition of power,” he quickly added. “There’s lots that has been put into EFI that doesn’t belong in EFI that probably still has a function that the state would want to keep.”

“Enterprise Florida is committed to ensuring every Floridian has access to a quality job,” spokesman Mike Grissom said in an email. “We will continue to work until we have accomplished that goal.”

Corcoran, who was House Appropriations chair the last two sessions, said “unequivocally, there are tons of things in the budget that need to be cut, should be cut, and will be cut.” He didn’t offer specific proposals.

State Sen. Tom Lee, the Brandon Republican who chaired the Senate Appropriations committee, cautioned that the numbers were preliminary and could change.

Chief legislative economist Amy Baker, however, earlier told the panel the current forecast “could be the good news” and later outlooks “may not be this good.”

“It’s very clear … spending levels in this Legislature are just not sustainable,” said Lee, who will be succeeded as Senate budget chief by Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican.

“We are, by every economic metric, growing and growing very well … unemployment is down, there’s wage growth, sales tax is up … we’re just struggling to balance our spending with those revenue streams,” Lee said.

Expert witness standard takes center stage at Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Bar squared off Thursday against a coalition of corporate and criminal defense lawyers over a change to the state’s expert witness standard.

The Florida Supreme Court heard more than an hour of argument on whether to adopt a change to evidence law that lawmakers passed in 2013. The Bar is against it; defense counsel supports it.

The switch would align Florida’s courts with the federal system. The federal courts now follow a stricter standard of allowing certain scientific expert testimony, known as the Daubert standard.

It usually requires a sort of “mini-trial” before a judge decides whether an expert can appear in front of jurors. Most other states also use Daubert.

Florida, however, historically has used the less restrictive Frye standard, which gauges whether expert testimony is “generally accepted” in a particular scientific community. Both standards are named after court cases.

It’s generally considered easier for plaintiffs to get damaging expert testimony before a jury under Frye, and much harder to do so under Daubert, which is seen as more defense-friendly. Republican Gov. Rick Scott and conservative lawmakers favor the move to Daubert.

But Thursday’s argument added the wrinkle of criminal cases, where Daubert might help defendants’ lawyers hold police crime labs more accountable, in cases involving drug-sniffing dogs and testing for arson, for example.

Overall, “the idea is to keep expert testimony that is not based in knowledge out of courts,” said attorney Stephen Mahle, arguing for Daubert. “Jurors are wonderful contributions to our system of justice, but you’ve got experts that make millions of dollars a year convincing jurors of things that may or may not be true.”

He used the example of jurors interviewed after the O.J. Simpson murder trial who said Dr. Henry Lee, a renowned forensic scientist, came off as credible because he “looked over and smiled at us every day.”

But John W. Hogan, representing the Bar, told the justices the question was whether they “should not trust jurors to be able to distinguish between the testimony of a variety of experts that over the years (have been) permitted” to testify. The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors voted to recommend against the change. 

Those pushing the Daubert standard want to try “to keep juries from doing what juries are, by Constitution, supposed to do,” that is, evaluate any witness testimony for themselves, and instead are “suggesting that individual trial judges … are better able to make that kind of determination. They don’t have the time and they don’t have the resources.”

The court heard the case in part because of a question over whether changing the expert testimony rule is substantive or procedural.

The Supreme Court may periodically consider “whether to adopt, to the extent they are procedural, the Legislature’s changes to the Evidence Code,” according to the state Constitution, It gives lawmakers sway over substance and the Florida Supreme Court authority over procedure.

State Rep. Larry Metz, who sponsored the law that included the Frye-to-Daubert swap, told the court the change “gets to the fundamental purpose of courts,” having “a greater standard of reliability so we can get to the truth in cases.”

The Yalaha Republican, who chairs the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, said that includes criminal cases in which defendants need to challenge flawed scientific evidence that could otherwise result in wrongful convictions.

Plaintiff’s attorney Howard C. Coker said Daubert hearings are burdening federal judges — “they’re breaking at the seams” — and causing extra attorney’s bills to clients.

Justice Barbara Pariente asked if Daubert was being misused to keep out, for instance, ordinary medical testimony in a personal injury case.

Coker suggested it was, saying it’s being used as “a tactical tool … used to challenge causation in the simplest of cases,” though he didn’t mention specific cases.

But Pariente also said it was up to trial judges to call balls and strikes on lawyers’ invoking the use of the Daubert standard. And when lawyers abuse the process, judges can and should sanction them, she added.

As usual, the court did not set a timeframe on when they would rule.

Greyhound racing reform group endorses in Florida primaries

A group trying to reform — and eventually end — greyhound racing in Florida has announced several endorsements in the upcoming Aug. 30 Florida Legislature primary, including five Republicans and four Democrats.

Grey2K USA Worldwide helped fund and promote efforts to get a greyhound protection measure on the Seminole County ballot and has been trying for years to get similar measures through the Florida Legislature.

“We need lawmakers who care about this issue and understand this issue in Tallahassee,” Grey2K USA Executive Director Carey Theil said.

The group’s endorsements include Republicans state Rep. Marlene O’Toole, who is running for the Senate District 12 seat in The Villages; state Rep. Dana Young, who is running in SD 18 in Tampa; state Rep. Matt Hudson, who is running in SD 28 in Naples; state Rep. Paul Renner, who is running for re-election in House District 24; and Randy Fine, who is running HD 53 in Palm Bay.

Democrats endorsed are state Rep. Darryl Rouson, who is running for re-election in HD 19 in St. Petersburg; Alex Barrio, who is running in HD 48 in Orlando; Carlos Guillermo Smith, who is running in HD 49 in Orlando; and David Silver, who is running in HD 87 in West Palm Beach.

“When I was a legislative analyst I followed this issue closely, including the injury reporting bill and decoupling legislation. Injury reporting passed but decoupling legislation still has not. I am staunchly opposed to expanded gambling and would love to see it pulled back, especially if it meant saving the lives of dogs,” Barrio stated. “Dog racing is a cruel, inhumane practice and I want to to see it end. Grey2K knows that I can be and want to be a champion for their issues.”

Rick Scott updates lawmakers on Zika outbreak

Gov. Rick Scott told state lawmakers Friday he will continue to take steps to protect its residents and visitors from the Zika virus, but said he was unsure whether their federal counterparts would step up to the plate.

The Naples Republican updated lawmakers on the Zika crisis during a conference call Friday. During the 20-minute call, Scott told lawmakers what the state is doing to combat the spread of the virus and what they can do to help.

The call comes one week after Scott announced the first cases of locally acquired Zika virus were discovered in Florida. The virus is believed to have been transmitted in the Wynwood neighborhood, a trendy arts district in Miami.

Scott visited the area Thursday, and said the state was able to clear a 10-block area in the northwest corner of the zone. The state Department of Health, he said, determined there was no local transmission occurring in the area.

In June, the governor used his executive authority to allocate $26.2 million in state funds for Zika preparedness, prevention and response. The money was to be used for mosquito surveillance and abatement, training mosquito control technicians, and purchasing more prevention kits from the CDC.

But that isn’t enough, and Scott said President Barack Obama and Congress must provide more money to Florida. The president has said he would send $5.6 million to Florida to help combat the spread.

The Senate failed to act on a $1.1 billion Zika spending plan before they left for their summer recess. Senate Democrats blocked the House-approved bill, which, among other things, included provisions to defund Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico.

“We don’t know if the federal government will be our partner and provide the resources they should,” said Scott. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep (residents and visitors) safe.”

Dozier School task force schedules meetings

A new task force on the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys will meet in August.

The panel will meet on Aug. 3 and Aug. 19, according to a Wednesday press release from the Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources. (A membership list is here.)

Under legislation (SB 708) passed this year, the panel was set up “to submit recommendations regarding the creation and maintenance of a memorial honoring the children who lived and died” at the school in Marianna, Jackson County.

The school, opened in 1900 about 60 miles west of Tallahassee, was shuttered in 2011. It began as a home for children convicted of serious crimes. But the covered offenses were expanded to include minor offenses including truancy.

Some former students have accused school officials of physical and sexual abuse, especially in the 1950s and ’60s. Many former Dozier inmates call themselves “The White House Boys” after the white building where they say the worst abuse took place.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement looked into the allegations, concluding it couldn’t substantiate or dispute the claims because too much time had passed.

University of South Florida researchers concluded a multi-year investigation of the campus and exhumed dozens of bodies buried there. Their final report says nearly 100 people, including two adult staff members, died at Dozier between 1900 and 1973.

“The task force is also charged with recommending the location of a site for the re-interment of unidentified or unclaimed remains that were part of a forensic investigation conducted by the University of South Florida at the school,” the release said.

The task force has to turn in a written report of its findings by Oct. 1.

Both meetings will start 9 a.m. Central time/10 a.m. Eastern time at Marianna City Hall, 2898 Green St.

The first meeting will be organizational, beginning with a vote by task force members to approve an agenda and then focusing on reviewing the task force’s responsibilities under the law, the release said.

“The meeting on Aug. 19 will include an opportunity for public comment,” it added. “At this meeting, the task force members will also vote on their recommendations to be included in the final report to the Legislature.”

For more information on the task force, send an email to flheritage@dos.myflorida.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this post, reprinted with permission.

Florida’s jobs agency gives checks to departing employees

Amid a major shakeup pushed by Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida agency responsible for luring jobs to the state is paying nearly a half-million dollars to departing employees.

Florida taxpayers are picking up the majority of the cost for severance payments and payouts for unused leave. Records requested by The Associated Press show that 10 departing employees at Enterprise Florida are receiving more than $430,000.

Rank-and-file state workers are not allowed to receive severance payments, but employees at Enterprise Florida aren’t considered state workers even though taxpayers pick up most of the tab for the economic development organization.

Many Enterprise Florida employees — including the president and CEO — have resigned or were forced out as part of an overhaul initiated by Scott, who also serves as the chairman of the Enterprise Florida board.

Scott and the board agreed earlier this month to streamline the operations of the 20-year outfit, including eliminating jobs, shuttering international offices and canceling contracts with outside consultants. The cuts are expected to save about $6 million.

“EFI is current undergoing a restructuring of its core functions to ensure our personnel contacts are the most cost effective,” said Mike Grissom, a senior vice president with Enterprise Florida.

But those employees who are leaving had contracts that guaranteed them severance payments.

Bill Johnson, the head of the organization who appears to have been forced to resign earlier this year, received a severance check of $132,500 and he also was paid more than $14,000 for unused leave. Grissom said that private donations were used to pay Johnson.

Johnson took over the post in 2015 at the start of Scott’s second term. But he wound up clashing several times with the Florida Legislature over the amount of money needed to lure new companies to the state.

Scott wanted legislators this year to set aside $250 million for a new fund that would be used for business incentives. But legislators rejected the entire request and some top Republicans such as incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran contend that the incentives are a form of “corporate welfare.”

Nine other employees at Enterprise Florida — ranging from an office manager to a senior vice president — received severance payments paid from public money that ranged from $5,000 to $60,000. Two senior vice presidents were given nearly $30,000 in lump sum payments for unused leave.

So far, Scott and Enterprise Florida officials have not said what they will do with the roughly $6 million cut from the budget of the organization. Enterprise Florida can’t legally direct it to the programs that the Legislature refused to fund. Grissom said the board will discuss in September what it plans to do with the savings generated from the cuts.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

New report suggests ways government efficiency can save Florida taxpayers billions

The Florida Government Efficiency Task Force released a 29-point report Thursday that it said could produce billions in annual savings for Florida taxpayers.

“These 29 recommendations, if implemented, will lead to over $2 billion in cost-savings for the taxpayers of Florida as well as improving the functions of our state government,” said Task Force Chairman John Alexander. “I strongly urge the Florida Legislature to enact these recommendations and Governor Scott to approve them so that together we can ensure that our state remains the best state in the Union to live, work and play.”

According to the report, the biggest savings — between $269 million and $448 million a year — would come from the state paying a lower percentage of public employee health insurance premiums.

Currently, public employees receiving single health insurance coverage pay $25 biweekly for health insurance while the state pays about $300 biweekly. Employees pay a slightly higher share of spousal and family plans, though the state is on the hook for more money as well, GETF said.

GETF also recommended reinstituting matching funds programs for large donations to state colleges and universities which it said would save $179 million a year, and added that the Legislature opening up telehealth services in the state could save private businesses more than $13 billion while sidestepping future costs for the state.

Nonpartisan watchdog Florida TaxWatch praised the report in a Friday email, with the group’s president and GETF board member Dominic Calabro saying “the implementation of these recommendations would markedly improve the way government works and should save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“The savings realized by implementing these recommendations could be reinvested in our children’s education, reforming our justice system, improving health care outcomes for those in need, economic development and a myriad of other crucial policy issues that need attention,” he said.

The report also includes a half dozen criminal justice recommendations which mostly align with a report put out by Taxwatch in May, including amending sentencing laws, expanding work release programs and diverting low-level nonviolent offenders. GETF estimates the state could save at least $111 million a year by following its criminal justice recommendations.

The full list of recommendations, which GETF said could save the state between $2 billion and $12 billion a year, is available here.

Abortion, budget, tax cuts among new Florida laws

Florida legislators passed 279 bills during this year’s session three months ago, and 162 of them take effect on Friday with the start of the state’s fiscal year, affecting school choice, abortion, tax cuts and many more aspects of life in the Sunshine State.

Here’s a roundup of some of the measures taking effect:

BUDGET: The $82.3 billion budget was passed by a combined vote of 159-1. It includes more than $700 million for school construction and $203.8 million for Everglades restoration.

TAX CUTS: Two will benefit most Floridians. Property taxes should drop along with a reduction in local millage rates, and a three-day sales tax holiday Aug. 5-7 should help back-to-school shoppers. Other highlights include a permanent sales tax exemption for manufacturing equipment and machinery, beverage tax-reductions on pear cider, and a drop in the tax rate on aviation fuel.

ABORTION: A law redefining when abortions can be performed and requiring that clinic doctors have admitting privileges or can transfer patients with nearby hospitals may be blocked after Monday’s Supreme Court ruling that a related Texas law is unconstitutional. A federal judge is considering arguments against the law, which also eliminates funding to clinic affiliates such as Planned Parenthood.

BULLYING: School districts must review their anti-bullying and harassment policies every three years, and integrate rules on dating violence and abuse into discipline policies.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: Persons convicted of aggravated assault or attempted aggravated assault are no longer subject to “10-20-Life” mandatory-minimum sentences.

DIGITAL ASSETS: Guardians or trustees of estates gain legal authority to manage digital assets and electronic communications as they would tangible assets and financial accounts. Digital companies are provided legal authority to interact with these representatives, revealing such things as passwords to accounts.

FESTIVALS: Any food contests or cook-offs lasting no more than three days and hosted by a school, church, religious organization or nonprofit will not be defined as “public food service establishments.” That means they don’t have to pay licensing fees or are subject to an inspection by the Division of Hotels and Restaurants.

JURY DUTY: Individuals permanently incapable of caring for themselves may request a permanent exemption from jury duty by submitting a written statement from a doctor verifying the disability.

MARRIAGE: Clergy with religious objections don’t have to marry same-sex couples.

NEEDLE EXCHANGE: The Miami-Dade Infectious Disease Elimination Act (IDEA) provides for the University of Miami and affiliates to establish a pilot needle exchange program to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV, AIDS, or viral hepatitis in the county, which has the nation’s highest rate of new HIV cases.

OUTDOORS: Fines for illegally killing, taking or selling game or fur-bearing animals while committing burglary or trespass increase from $250 to $500. It becomes a third-degree felony to knowingly possess marine turtles or their eggs or nests.

PUBLIC RECORDS: Recorded matches regulated by the Florida Boxing Commission may be kept private until they are aired in an exemption requested by Ultimate Fighting Championship for its “Ultimate Fighter” reality show when it is taped in South Florida.

RAPE KITS: Law enforcement agencies must submit rape kits within 30 days of the start of their investigations to a state crime lab, which must test them within 120 days.

SAFETY: Elevators installed in private residences must have clearing requirements and be equipped with a sensor device that prevents their operation if certain objects are detected.

SCHOOL CHOICE: Children can transfer to any state school with available space, and student athletes are immediately eligible to play if they haven’t joined practices in the same sport at their previous school. Children of military parents or those who transfer due to economic or legal reasons are immediately eligible in season if they haven’t been suspended or expelled from their prior school.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

No help from DC? Florida to spend millions on Zika fight

Saying he was “profoundly disappointed” with the ongoing federal stalemate over the Zika virus, Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday ordered the state to spend millions in an effort to stop its potential spread.

Scott used his emergency powers to authorize spending up to $26.2 million on everything from killing mosquitoes, training mosquito technicians and purchasing Zika prevention kits.

The Republican governor has been calling on the federal government for weeks to approve money to fight the Zika virus, which can cause grave birth defects and can be transmitted by mosquitoes and sexual contact. The U.S. House this week approved a $1.1 billion measure. But President Barack Obama is threatening to veto the legislation, saying it provides too little money and contains too many partisan provisions.

“We are in the middle of hot, rainy weather which is when mosquitoes are most prevalent,” Scott said in a statement. “It is clear that allocating this funding is necessary if we are going to stay ahead of the spread of this virus. I am profoundly disappointed that Washington does not share in our commitment and has continued to play politics with the health and safety of our families.”

Florida currently has more than 200 cases of Zika virus, including 40 pregnant women. All of the cases involve residents infected outside the country, but Scott has predicted that it would be a “disaster” if mosquitoes in the state started transmitting the disease.

The Scott administration says that so far the federal government has only allocated $153,844 for epidemiology and lab support, $500,000 for seven counties for mosquito control and $40,856 in lab supplies and personnel.

Scott said that more than 40 counties, cities and mosquito control districts have asked for $19 million in assistance. He has declared a state of emergency in 23 counties because of the virus, a move that allows Scott to bypass the Florida Legislature and take money from the state’s main bank account.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

How state officials decided who made the cut for new statue

As interesting as who’s on the list to be the subject of Florida’s next statue in the U.S. Capitol may be who’s not on the list.

Last week, the Department of State released 129 names submitted by the public as recommendations for a new statue in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. State lawmakers will make the final decision.

Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of what is now Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, is the top public choice.

Every state has two statues. Florida is seeking to replace the one of Confederate Army Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. Lawmakers passed and Gov. Rick Scott approved the change this past session.

But that’s exactly who some people nominated as a protest vote, according to emails to FloridaPolitics.com. Another commenter said he voted for NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, killed in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. Neither was on the list of public recommendations.

Which raises the question of just who didn’t make the cut, and why. A special committee of the state’s Great Floridians Program is scheduled to meet Wednesday at the R.A. Gray Building in Tallahassee to select three finalists to pass along to the Legislature.

“This is a dynamic process, but we wanted an opportunity for the public to be involved,” said Meredith Beatrice, the department’s spokeswoman. “We made a good-faith effort to compile a list for the committee’s review, but names must meet the eligibility criteria.”

That includes being a “citizen of the State of Florida, either by birth or residence” and being “deceased for 10 years or more, as of January 1, 2017.” That knocks out Earnhardt, who was from North Carolina.

Beatrice said she would provide another list of the names from the public that were not included on the official list from last week. Meantime, it’s not immediately clear whether all on the public list meet the criteria.

For example, naturalist and artist John James Audubon, who received one vote, did spend time in the state in 1831-32 working on illustrations for a volume of his great work, Birds of America, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History website.

But it’s not apparent he was a “resident.” He “explored the east coast of Florida and the Florida Keys,” the site said, complaining about the mosquitoes. “Reader,” he wrote, “if you have not been in such a place, you cannot easily conceive the torments we endured.”

The eligibility requirements aren’t in the law passed this year but are “guidelines prescribed by the Department of State,” which adds there will be “no recommendations of fictional characters, animals, plants, structures, or other non-human entities or beings.”

Other “suggested criteria,” according to the department, include “significant contributions … to Florida history, economy, culture, arts, education, infrastructure, and/or environment,” “distinguished military or civil service,” and “length of time the (person) was a resident of the State of Florida.”

Beatrice noted committee members “may also recommend individuals for consideration that have not been previously submitted.”

The effort to take down Smith’s statue started after a church shooting last year in Charleston, South Carolina, left nine people dead. The gunman had photographed himself holding a Confederate flag and made clear he was motivated by racism.

Earlier this year, the Florida Senate changed its official seal to remove a representation of a Confederate flag.

Florida’s other statue in the U.S. Capitol, of scientist-inventor Dr. John Gorrie of Apalachicola, a pivotal figure in the invention of air conditioning, will remain.

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