Joe Negron Archives - Page 4 of 46 - Florida Politics

Never satisfied, environmentalists should just take the win for Lake O reservoir

Closing the book on 2017, among the most notable political battles centered on Lake Okeechobee water issues.

While lawmakers reached a compromise earlier in the year, this food fight may be far from over.

Last Session, environmental activists, working with Senate President Joe Negron, hammered out a bill that (at one point) called for buying up to 60,000 acres of working farmland south of Lake O.

But an equally vocal group of Everglades farmers, joined by local leaders and community advocates, strongly opposed the plan, pointing out the negative economic impact that Negron’s land buy would have on the Glades farming community.

What the Legislature ultimately approved – in the form of a somewhat more palatable Senate Bill 10 – was praised by environmental activists, farming interests (including the sugar industry), local and state leaders.

Heralded as a “grand compromise,” SB 10 began the process of building a new southern reservoir, settling the issue once and for all.

Or so many thought.

With a lower price tag than originally proposed, SB 10 called for using only state-owned land, closing the door on eminent domain to take privately-held acreage.

Arguably, it was the most significant victory of Negron’s Senate presidency, paving the way for construction of up to 360,000 acre-feet (an acre of water, 1 foot deep) of water storage, which could help tackle future algae blooms, like those that plagued his district a year earlier.

In June, following a high-profile bill signing on the banks of Lake O, bringing together Gov. Rick Scott, Negron, Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg, Glades leaders and others, it seemed as if happy days were here again. With choruses of Kumbaya and hallelujahs ready to break out, construction of the reservoir was about to begin.

Rick Scott visits Lake Okeechobee ahead of the ceremonial bill signing of SB 10, which authorizes a reservoir to collect runoff south of Lake O.

All seemed good, right? Wrong.

Since then, a handful of environmental organizations – the Everglades Foundation, the Sierra Club, Bullsugar among others – began raising concerns over the South Florida Water Management District’s modeling used to develop the reservoir.

They just don’t use enough land, the environmentalists say.

As outlined in SB 10, SFWMD developed four models for a southern reservoir for presentation to the Legislature by Jan. 9. Ranging in cost from $1.4 billion to $1.9 billion, each model includes an above-ground storage reservoir on adjacent state-owned land south of Lake O … exactly how the Legislature – led by Negron – first envisioned.

So why now the red flags?

Is it possible that, after a rare legislative success, these environmental groups are seeking further relevance? Or are they so hell-bent on buying land, they will risk a Hail Mary pass to get what they wanted – and lost – in the Legislature?

Perhaps these concerns are less about the survival of the Everglades than they are about the survival of the Everglades Foundation (and its satellite organizations)?

Attempting to quell the rising anger from environmentalist groups, Negron wrote a letter to the SFWMD in early December, asking if it had enough land to construct the reservoir. In response, SFWMD Executive Director Ernie Marks said that the district indeed has more than enough property to do the job.

To follow SB 10, all SFWMD needs to do is construct slightly higher reservoir embankments. In addition, using state-owned lands set out in the bill will also keep costs down, officials said.

Nevertheless, these environmental groups refused to be satisfied, moving the goal posts by demanding more land.

A recent Facebook post from Bullsugar highlighted concerns of the Friends of the Everglades, which allege, among other things, that the SFWMD’s reservoir models violate federal water quality standards.

 

This tactic is nothing new. Environmentalists have intervened before to block construction of a southern reservoir.

In 2008, the National Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and others went to court to stop a similar project. The Everglades Trust, led by the late Thom Rumberger, decried that reservoir as “unnecessary and expensive.”

The suit, along with an ill-fated 2008 U.S. Sugar deal struck with then-Gov. Charlie Crist, succeeded in halting work on the reservoir, which is still virtually unused and available. This idle land became a key talking point in the debate over SB 10.

In January 2017, SFWMD officials publicly challenged the science used by the Everglades for a “study” on a southern reservoir. SFWMD Hydrology and Hydraulics Bureau Chief Akintunde O. Owosina wrote a scathing letter to Everglades Foundation scientist Thomas Van Lent, declaring: “The assumptions you made in the model input were obviously selected to reduce northern storage and create an outcome in favor of southern storage.”

In the end, neither the Legislature nor the SFWMD used the Foundation models – widely denounced as flawed – for SB 10. Instead, they patterned designs after four other district projects, including Scott’s much-heralded Restoration Strategies Water Quality Plan and the C-43 storage reservoir – long supported by environmental groups.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, environmental activists raise these concerns – objecting to the project size and water quality – just as a long-awaited reservoir appears to be finally within reach.

These latest complaints, advanced only six months after signing SB 10, will ring hollow in the halls of the Florida Capitol. And Senate leaders, such as newly-minted Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley (an SB 10 sponsor) will have little interest in revisiting the issue, especially in an election year.

Putting it bluntly, it’s dumb to cast doubt on Negron’s signature policy achievement, but it is also unsurprising for a group not exactly known for its political savvy.

Instead of congratulating Negron and Speaker Richard Corcoran for their efforts, environmental groups criticize that it simply wasn’t good enough. Besides showing a great deal of ingratitude, not just to Negron and Corcoran, it’s also a slap in the face to incoming leaders like Sen. Bill Galvano and Rep. Jose Oliva.

As 2017 winds down, Eikenberg (and others) should consider being a bit more gracious and take the win.

Also, they should be wary of any attempt by rank and file members to pull the football away (like Lucy with Charlie Brown) before reaching the end zone.

Health care spending, regulations confront lawmakers

Battles over health-care spending and regulation of Florida’s vast health-care industry are likely to command a great deal of time and attention when the Florida Legislature convenes in January for its annual Session.

Lawmakers are again expected to engage in a tug-of-war about what type of regulations should be in place for health care facilities, but a main focus will be on Florida’s strained safety-net health program at a time of tight state finances.

Florida’s Medicaid program already costs $26 billion and covers an estimated 4 million people.

A July snapshot by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that Medicaid along with a major children’s health-insurance program provide coverage to two out of every five low-income people in the state, half the state’s children and more than three-fifths of all nursing home residents.

The bulk of money for Medicaid comes from the federal government, but this year more than $6 billion comes from general revenue, the state’s main budget account funded primarily by sales taxes.

House Health Care Appropriations Chairman Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican, said hurricanes Irma and Maria put “a bit of a strain” on the budget he oversees, and as a result that could hamper any requests for new social-services spending.

“From the explicit costs of providing more health and human services to a larger than anticipated population, to the implicit costs of things like the overtime paid to our (state employees) who are in charge of registering and providing (benefits) to all those new enrollees, all of those costs must be paid for before we can start looking at new programs,” he said.

Nevertheless, Brodeur said members have filed more than 200 requests to fund local projects “which is the exact opposite of `small government.’ ”

During the 2017 Session, legislators agreed to change how the state pays nursing homes to provide care for the poor and seniors who rely on Medicaid. Lawmakers decided to scrap a longstanding system where nursing homes have been paid based on audited cost reports and agreed to implement a prospective payment system where payments are determined in advance, regardless of the intensity of the services provided.

While lawmakers agreed to change the payment methodology, they delayed implementation of the new system until 2018. Brodeur said the conversion “is our next step in efficiency.”

Senate President Joe Negron, though, wants the Legislature to do more than pull the trigger on the prospective-payment system. He wants to increase the amount of money the state directs to paying nursing homes.

“That’s a very strong priority of mine,” said Negron who, quoting Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, notes that the average Medicaid-funded nursing home resident in Florida is an 85-year-old woman.

“These are the women who shaped our communities. We have a responsibility to give them the highest level of care,” Negron said.

The Stuart Republican also said he would like to help the industry offset the costs of generators that Gov. Rick Scott has mandated for nursing homes after deaths at a Broward County nursing home following Hurricane Irma. Negron predicted that the generators “will ultimately be a shared endeavor between the state and the industry.”

But Negron’s push to increase reimbursement for nursing homes and offset the costs of generators also comes at a time when two state agencies are requesting funding to help plug deficits.

The Agency for Persons with Disabilities is asking for $34 million in general revenue to help cover a $89 million deficit in a Medicaid waiver program that enables developmentally disabled people to live in communities instead of institutions. Also, the Department of Health is requesting $25 million to plug a shortfall in the Children’s Medical Services program, which pays the health care costs for medically complex children covered by Medicaid.

Negron downplayed the deficits in the programs and the effects they could have on new funding requests during the 60-daysession, which starts Jan. 9.

“You have to make difficult decisions,” Negron said of crafting the state budget. “That’s why I think the budget process is fascinating.”

While the annual budget is the only bill the Legislature is required to pass when it meets, it isn’t the only piece of health-care legislation that members will focus on.

Indeed, there are hundreds of bills filed for consideration, from requiring birth centers to report adverse events to state health care regulators (SB 510 and HB 673) to authorizing new needle-exchange programs to try to prevent the spread of infectious diseases (SB 800 and 579).

The Legislature will once again consider passing a bill that would allow ambulatory surgical centers to keep patients overnight. Florida law currently requires the surgical centers to release patients the same day they are admitted and cannot keep patients overnight.

“It’s silly that people have to be discharged the `same work day’ and not 24 hours. The marketplace could open up for consumers if they could adjust their schedules for the 24-hour standard,” Brodeur said.

The legislation (HB 23) is already ready for the House floor. While the House bill also would authorize and license so-called “recovery care centers,” to provide post-surgical and post-diagnostic care to patients for up to three days, the Senate version (SB 250) would only authorize overnight stays at ambulatory surgical centers.

Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican sponsoring the Senate version, said he does not plan to take the House bill as it has been drafted. “It’s my intention just to get the 24-hour piece done,” he said.

The House also is poised to vote on a measure (HB 27) that would eliminate a controversial regulatory program for hospitals that’s known as certificate of need. Bill sponsor Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, a Fort Myers Republican, said ending the regulations would remove “barriers to entry” and increase competition in the hospital industry.

“I think competition is healthy in almost all settings,” she said.

But critics have raised questions about how lifting the regulations, which require state approval of new facilities and programs, would affect older public hospitals that provide a wide array of services.

And while the legislation is touted as eliminating artificial barriers that impede competition, the bill would only eliminate so-called CONs for hospitals. New nursing home beds and facilities would still be regulated by the CON program.

The Florida Health Care Association, a statewide nursing-home group, has lobbied against legislative efforts to eliminate CONs for long-term care providers.

House Health Quality Subcommittee Chairman Rep. James Grant said he supports eliminating CONs for hospitals and nursing homes but said he won’t vote against Fitzenhagen’s bill for not including nursing homes.

“Some repeal is better than no repeal,” Grant, a Tampa Republican, said.

The Senate does not have a companion bill, though, and the potential CON elimination is opposed by much of the powerful hospital industry.

Florida Hospital Association President Bruce Rueben said certificate-of-need requirements have ensured that low-income communities and rural communities have access to inpatient, acute-care health services.

“CON deregulation would allow a proliferation of these services in affluent communities and undermine hospitals serving communities with high numbers of uninsured and underinsured Floridians,” Rueben said.

Irma brings ideas – and costs – for state

As the state House plows through a long and potentially expensive menu of options to recover from Hurricane Irma and brace for Florida’s next hurricane, Senate President Joe Negron is confident the storm that walloped the state in September won’t blow a hole in the upcoming budget.

But potential public and private costs from Irma are staggering:

– Agriculture officials have estimated Irma caused a $2.5 billion hit on crops and facilities.

– The insurance industry is facing $6.55 billion in property damage claims.

– Utility customers could be asked to pay more than $1 billion to cover the costs of getting power restored.

– The Florida Division of Emergency Management said that as of Dec. 14, federal agencies had provided more than $2.49 billion to help cover Irma-related losses.

State officials have yet to put an overall price tag on Florida’s costs from Irma, which left destruction from the Keys to Jacksonville. Added to that are potential costs from Hurricane Maria, which is impacting Florida as evacuees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have moved to the state.

Negron said during an interview this month that as lawmakers await a February update on tax revenues, the short-term effect of Irma on the state has been “modestly negative.”

While Irma cut revenue in September, Negron said forecasters anticipate an uptick in post-storm revenue to offset the losses.

He retained optimism about drawing up a 2018-2019 budget, which economists had expected to be tight even before Irma hit.

“I don’t think that it dramatically alters how we build our budget,” Negron said. “I still think there will be room for environmental priorities, educational priorities, and so I don’t think the hurricane spending will necessarily mean that there are other things that simply can’t be done. They’re not going to displace priorities that the House and Senate have. We’re going to have to address it, but we’ll still be able to do other things as well.”

But as the annual 60-day legislative session prepares to start Jan. 9, ideas for addressing hurricane issues – some of them potentially expensive – have continued to emerge.

Members of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness have continued to revise and offer recommendations that they will discuss Jan. 8 on the eve of the session. Any recommendations would need approval from the full House and Senate, but the ideas touch a wide range of issues.

For example, some lawmakers are looking for ways to speed evacuations when big storms threaten the state. Among proposals tossed out are using passenger trains, using a cruise ship to get people out of the Lower Keys or extending the Suncoast Parkway toll road north of the Tampa Bay area.

Other potentially high-profile recommendations include such things as strategically locating petroleum distribution centers and requiring utility lines to be placed underground.

Cape Coral Republican Rep. Dane Eagle, who offered the proposal to use passenger trains to get people out of evacuation zones, also suggested the state look into the Florida Department of Transportation purchasing emergency generators for vital highway-railroad crossings.

“It is in the public interest to ensure that railroads in Strategic Intermodal System corridors are able to quickly resume operations following a hurricane event in order to deliver critical fuel supplies, bulk liquids such as chlorine for water treatment plants, building materials and other relief supplies to affected areas of the state,” Eagle’s recommendation said.

Republican Rep. Elizabeth Porter from Lake City earlier suggested the state consider using rail transport before, during and after hurricanes to speed fuel to impacted areas.

Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and barreled up the state, was Florida’s first major hurricane since the devastating 2004 and 2005 seasons. Along with evacuation issues, Irma also caused widespread damage in the agriculture industry, left millions of Floridians temporarily without electricity and led to problems in cleaning up debris.

Lawmakers are discussing a variety of those types of issues as they prepare for the session.

For instance, Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who is a citrus grower, outlined several proposed tax exemptions for the citrus industry. That included exemptions for material used to repair or replace damaged fences and structures and for fuel used to transport crops during an emergency.

Meanwhile, deaths at a Broward County nursing home that lost its air conditioning system after Irma have resulted in a number of proposals, including Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration pushing forward with requirements for nursing homes and assisted- living facilities to add generators that can keep buildings cool.

Rep. Robert Asencio, a Miami Democrat, suggested an “at risk registry” to identify vulnerable people at care facilities, as well as creation of an industry panel to review and approve emergency plans for nursing homes and other facilities.

House Select Committee Chairwoman Jeanette Nunez, a Republican from Miami, suggested the state explore on-site options to maintain care for dialysis patients in nursing homes during disasters.

Nunez also has offered one of the few proposals that came with a price tag already attached, $1.46 million to serve as a match for federal funds to install generators at Florida’s 42 shelters for victims of domestic violence.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Rommel, a Naples Republican, would like the state to require each county to determine how much fuel it needs to operate generators for critical infrastructure and first responders during the first 72 hours following a storm. The proposal also would let counties build or maintain fuel depots or create agreements with current fuel depots.

Some of the proposals deal with the difficulties of cleaning up communities and rebuilding after major storms.

Key Largo Republican Rep. Holly Raschein suggested a pilot housing program that would use $2.85 million from the state as a match for federal Community Development Block Grant money that could be used to build temporary and permanent affordable housing in storm-battered Monroe County.

Trying to help post-storm cleanup efforts, Rep. Michael Grant, a Port Charlotte Republican, has recommended prohibiting tree trimming and discontinuing non-containerized yard waste collection services 72 hours before hurricanes. He also suggested traditional garbage collection be suspended 48 hours before storms.

“Time is needed in order to get our employees off the street, so they can prepare for the storm and make sure materials in trucks have time to dispose of items and landfills have time to process,” the recommendation from Grant said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

National harassment focus may add to Jack Latvala legal woes

Maintaining his innocence after a special master concluded he had engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment for years, Sen. Jack Latvala announced Wednesday he will quit his legislative post.

But the Clearwater Republican’s legal troubles may not be over, as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement explores whether Latvala broke public corruption laws by promising legislative favors in exchange for sex, as alleged in two reports released this week.

The inquiry is based on findings by Special Master Ronald Swanson, who was hired by the Senate to investigate a sexual-harassment complaint filed against Latvala by Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers. Swanson found that the testimony of an unidentified woman who worked as a lobbyist and text-message exchanges between the senator and the woman indicated that Latvala may have violated ethics rules as well as “laws prohibiting public corruption” by agreeing to support the lobbyist’s legislative priorities if she would have sex with him or “allowed him to touch her body in a sexual manner.”

If the Florida Department of Law Enforcement determines that a crime may have been committed, the agency will open an investigation.

“Once we determine what happened, then we provide that to the state attorney, and they’ll make a determination as to whether or not charges should be filed,” FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Florida law makes it illegal for elected officials to “use or attempt to use his or her official position or any property or resource which may be within his or her trust, or perform his or her official duties, to secure a special privilege, benefit or exemption for himself, herself or others.” Sexual harassment and “attempts to obtain to sexual favors from subordinates fall within the ambit of misuse of public position,” Swanson, a former appellate judge, wrote in his report.

“Arguably, public corruption on the part of a public official is a crime specifically related to your public office. And you know that half of those guys (public officials) go to Tallahassee or Washington to make money… or, in the case of Tallahassee, to go to find women,” said Harry Shorstein, who served for two decades as the 4th Judicial Circuit state attorney in the Jacksonville area. “None of that is all right. But if I come to you and we meet and we have sex in return for my favorable treatment of you as a state senator, to me that’s a very serious crime.”

The unidentified woman, who said that she quit lobbying because of Latvala, also testified that she and the senator “for a number of years” had “a close personal relationship… that was, at times, intimate.”

The longevity of the relationship could undermine the public corruption allegations, according to Shorstein.

“If it was a long-term affair, and it doesn’t have to be very long, but if we’re sleeping together over a fairly long period, it sure makes the allegation that it’s sex in return for a public official favoring the person questionable,” he said. “That pretty much hurts your credibility.”

The quid pro quo allegations were corroborated in a report by lawyer Gail Holzman, hired by the Office of Legislative Services to conduct an inquiry into a Politico Florida story in which six unnamed women accused Latvala of groping them and making unwelcome comments about their bodies.

The alleged exchange of legislative favors for sex could also violate federal laws, including one that makes it a crime for public officials to defraud citizens of “the intangible right of honest services,” usually used to prosecute bribery charges. The federal “Hobbs Act” extortion law also makes it a crime for state public officials to accept bribes.

Tallahassee criminal defense lawyer Tim Jansen, a former federal prosecutor whose clients have included former Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston, would not speak directly about Latvala.

But he said charges like those the veteran lawmaker may face could be difficult, especially amid a heightened intolerance of sexual harassment that has affected politicians, Hollywood celebrities and powerful businessmen throughout the country.

“These cases are very difficult to defend because the only witnesses normally are the two people involved,” Jansen told The News Service of Florida.

The national climate may spur prosecutors to pursue cases that they have ignored years ago, Jansen and Shorstein agreed.

“It depends on the law and the facts. But the issue of either investigating or prosecuting or impeaching or removing from office is so different today. You can’t pick up the paper without two people resigning. It’s one after another. By the time we get through in Washington, we may not have any congressmen or senators,” Shorstein said.

Latvala and his attorneys maintain that the allegations under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement aren’t true.

“Not to be critical of Judge Swanson, but had he done what he was supposed to do and investigate the complaint and provide us with notice of any other acts that he was considering outside the scope of the complaint, we could have easily rebutted the findings in the report,” lawyer Steve Andrews told The News Service of Florida Thursday. “Since the report was released, we have done some preliminary investigation and believe even more strongly that these charges are unfounded.”

The spotlight on sexual harassment and misconduct – and changing attitudes toward the issues – could affect how cases are prosecuted.

“Now the things we knew took place are being labeled as the most horrific offenses in the community. Everybody wants to make sure they’re on the right side of this,” Jansen said. “And now I think prosecutors would be more willing to bring charges of this type where they wouldn’t have done it because they also want to be on the right side of public scrutiny.”

Often, prosecutors use cases, particularly high-profile cases, to set an example by sending a message that “we’re not going to tolerate this,” Jansen said.

And even if the accused is determined to be innocent, defending high-profile cases can be difficult, according to Jansen.

“The problem is, once you make the accusation, the person’s image and reputation is tarnished forever,” Jansen said.

The Holzman interviews depicted Latvala as a flirtatious and vindictive bully whose powerful position as the Senate budget chief – a post he was stripped of by Senate President Joe Negron last month – made some witnesses fear that their careers would be ruined if they challenged the senator.

Holzman interviewed more than 50 people for her report, which did not include recommendations but bolstered the findings of Swanson.

The special master found probable cause to support allegations in the complaint by Perrin Rogers, the chief legislative aide for Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, that Latvala had repeatedly groped her and made unwelcome comments about her body over a period of four years. Swanson recommended that the Senate consider the full range of sanctions against Latvala, which include expulsion.

A defiant Latvala, who resigned Wednesday, effective Jan. 5, after 16 years in the Senate, denied the accusations.

“But I have had enough. If this is the process our party and Senate leadership desires, then I have no interest in continuing to serve with you,” he wrote to Negron Wednesday.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Senate leaders to raise money for Denise Grimsley on Jan. 9

Sebring Republican Sen. Denise Grimsley will get a fundraising boost for her campaign to succeed Adam Punam as Commissioner of Agriculture at an event set for the morning of Jan. 9.

The breakfast fundraiser is set for 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. The early morning start allows Grimsley to collect funds for the Cabinet race before the official start of Session, during which lawmakers can’t raise money for their campaigns.

The host committee for Grimsley’s event includes the top brass of the Florida Senate: Senate President Joe Negron, Senate President-Designate Bill Galvano and Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, who is set to take over as Senate President after the 2020 elections.

For additional information or to RSVP for the event, contact Kristin Lamb at 850.339.5354 or Kristin@FLFStrategies.com.

Grimsley is one of three Republicans vying to replace Putnam, who is termed-out as Ag Commissioner and is running for the GOP nomination for governor. She faces Lehigh Acres Rep. Matt Caldwell and former state Rep. Baxter Troutman.

Troutman leads the pack with nearly $2.5 million on hand in his campaign account, nearly all of it his own money, with another $51,000 in a political committee. Still, Grimsley and Caldwell have both had fundraising success without dipping into their own bank accounts.

Through November, Grimsley had raised just over $2 million between her campaign and committee, Saving Florida’s Heartland, and had $932,077 cash on hand between the two accounts.

Caldwell has raised less on the whole – about $1.5 million – though he has a little over $1 million on hand between his campaign account and committee, Friends of Matt Caldwell.

Also running is Democrat David Walker, though he his fundraising efforts have so far netted him about $3,000 cash on hand even after chipping in $9,500 of his own money.

The invitation to Grimsley’s fundraiser is below.

Joe Negron named ‘Champion of the Everglades’

Environmental group Audubon Florida presented Senate President Joe Negron with an award Tuesday recognizing his “steadfast leadership” in Everglades restoration.

Negron earned the “Champion of the Everglades” award for a bill he ushered through the legislature earlier this past session that mandated the construction of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and prevent a repeat of the historic and harmful algal blooms that wreaked havoc on Florida waters in 2016.

Audubon Florida’s deputy director, Julie Hill-Gabriel, described the legislation as “an incredible victory” for the Everglades.

“President Negron helped secure a much-needed restoration project for America’s Everglades. His tireless efforts responded to an ecological crisis by garnering support for one of the most important wins for Florida’s environment in a decade,” she said. “We applaud President Negron for his commitment to protecting Florida’s environment for generations to come. It is with great excitement we name President Negron as a Champion of the Everglades.”

Audubon Florida said the award is reserved for “individuals who have gone above and beyond their call of duty to protect Florida’s water and wildlife in the River of Grass.” Past winners of the award include Nathaniel Reed and former Gov. Jeb Bush.

“Audubon Florida has been a strong partner in the ongoing effort to reduce and one day eliminate harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee that destroy our environment and harm our economy,” Negron said. “I am honored to receive this award and look forward to working with Audubon in the future as we continue to closely monitor the implementation of Senate Bill 10 and other legislative efforts to restore and protect Florida’s environment and natural resources.”

Senate spends $25K on outside attorneys for Jack Latvala probe

The Senate has spent nearly $25,000 in taxpayer money on outside attorneys in connection to the sexual harassment allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala, according to Senate records.

In mid-November, Senate President Joe Negron hired a trio of attorneys from the GrayRobinson law firm to help him navigate the investigation into sexual harassment and groping allegations against Latvala, one of the chamber’s most powerful senators.

Negron sought the help from the Orlando-based firm after the Senate general counsel, Dawn Roberts, recused herself from any involvement in the case, citing a potential conflict of interest because of her close association with Latvala over the years.

Since the contract was signed on Nov. 9, George Meros, who has represented embattled high-profile Republicans in the past, attorney Brian Bieber and attorney Allison Mawhinney have worked a total of 46.8 hours.

The attorneys charge an hourly fee, and according to the contract, their rates are $600 for Bieber, $550 for Meros and $345 for Mawhinney.

The contract with GrayRobinson states the attorneys will provide “legal and consulting services to the Senate” until Negron or his designee decides the services are no longer needed.

In recent weeks, one of the six women who accused Latvala of sexual harassment accused him publicly, intensifying the strategy behind his legal defense, which has led Sen. Lauren Book to file a formal complaint with the Senate Rules Committee, where she accuses him of interfering with the investigation.

Legal battles are also starting to appear even as some senators speculate the Senate investigation may be coming to an end.

Rachel Perrin Rogers, who publicly accused Latvala of sexual assault and harassment, has not ruled out the possibility of suing Latvala, according to her attorney Tiffany Cruz.

Cruz said the lawsuit would not be dependent on whether a special master finds probable cause in the Senate investigation, and the Tallahassee-based attorney may also be eyeing a potential lawsuit against the Senate.

“My client had hoped for a fair and impartial process in the Senate, but due to recent actions, we have serious concerns,” Cruz said.

Last week, Cruz asked the Senate to preserve all records related to the case, including emails, text messages, spreadsheets and documents.

Two days after that request was made, Lily Tysinger, a former Senate Majority Office colleague of Perrin Rogers who has helped Latvala mount his defense with sworn statements that take aim at Perrin Rogers’ credibility, filed a defamation suit against Perrin Rogers.

Cruz said she is “absolutely” filing a counterclaim against Tysinger.

Tysinger’s attorney, Marie Mattox, who has been behind several sexual harassment cases settled with the state, said the case is related to the “unsafe working environment” Rogers created for her at the Senate Majority Office.

Joe Negron supports Rick Scott on ‘job growth’ fund

Senate President Joe Negron backs a still-untapped $85 million “job growth” fund created this year, as Democrats continue to question the need to replenish what critics have called a “slush fund” for the governor.

Negron, a Stuart Republican, offered support for Gov. Rick Scott‘s 2018 budget request to set aside another $85 million for the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund. Negron was less specific about whether lawmakers should meet Scott’s request to spend $100 million on the tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida.

“I’ve always been supportive of the Job Growth Fund and supportive of the governor’s economic development initiatives,” Negron said Friday during an interview with The News Service of Florida. “With regard to Visit Florida, the exact amount I’ll leave up to the individual committees and members to make that decision. But I don’t think you can argue with the results.”

Scott’s tourism-marketing request would represent a $24 million increase from the current year, an increase that has drawn skepticism from some lawmakers.

Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson said Wednesday before the House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee that the agency has seen annual visitor counts grow from 87.3 million in 2011 to more than 112 million last year, in part because of lawmakers boosting the public-private agency’s funding from $35 million in 2011 to $76 million in the current fiscal year.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, has argued in the past that people are motivated to travel more by their personal finances than by state marketing. But the increased visitor numbers seemed to hold some sway for Negron.

“From the meetings I’m having with tourism officials throughout the state, they report a very strong industry,” Negron said. “I’ll let other folks determine the amount. But apparently what we’re doing is working. I certainly don’t want to unilaterally disarm in the tourism space. That’s a very important part of our economy, and we’re competing with the rest of the world.”

Meanwhile, several Democratic members of the Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee said Thursday they’d like to see how the money in the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund is used before agreeing it should be replenished next year.

“You expect us to grant this request before we have any information on the outcome from what you’re proposing,” Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said.

Among the concerns is how the grants may be spread across the state.

“I know that in my community there has been some proposals, but if it turns out that you put all of those projects in Sen. (Bill) Galvano’s (Manatee and Hillsborough counties) district and none in mine, then how are we going to address that if we’ve already voted to give you an additional $85 million,” Thurston said, referring to another member of the subcommittee.

The program, created in June during a special Session, had attracted 217 proposals worth a combined $791 million as of last Tuesday.

The fund, established as a compromise to Scott’s initial request for Enterprise Florida to get $85 million to help attract businesses to Florida, requires the money go to regional projects rather than single businesses.

Among the largest requests:

— Hillsborough County, Apollo Beach Boulevard extension. A $33.6 million project along the “I-75 Job Corridor” linking U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 over the interstate. Request: $23 million.

— State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota STEM campus. The proposal seeks money to help secure land and make other improvements needed to support a campus. Request: $22.44 million.

— Marion County, Crossroads Commerce Park. The $272 million project, encompassing more than 900 acres, is envisioned as having distribution, warehouse and manufacturing facilities. Request: $22.24 million.

Cissy Proctor, executive director of the state Department of Economic Opportunity, defended the pace of the application review process.

Proctor said Thursday the department, reviewing the proposals with Enterprise Florida, will make recommendations for the governor to consider “as appropriate.”

We are “working as fast as we can, but understanding that we need to have accountability,” Proctor said. “We have to have strong contracts around these proposals. We need to have strong return on investment.”

Proctor said money allocated for a specific budget year would be available for five years but only toward the projects approved in that fiscal year.

Joe Negron: Senate likely to consider tax amendment

Senate President Joe Negron said Friday he is open to the concept of a constitutional amendment that would make it harder for the Legislature to raise taxes.

In an interview with The News Service of Florida, The Stuart Republican said the Senate is working on a measure “that will be similar in goal” to Gov. Rick Scott‘s proposal to amend the state Constitution to require two-thirds votes by the Legislature before raising taxes or fees or creating new ones.

Negron said the measure is being developed by Senate Finance and Tax Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican.

In August, Scott called for a constitutional amendment that would require a “supermajority” vote before raising taxes and fees, which now can be created or raised by majority votes in the state House and Senate.

Scott said increasing the voting requirement “would make it harder for politicians in the future” to raise taxes or fees.

In November, the House unveiled a proposal (HJR 7001), sponsored by Rep. Tom Leek, an Ormond Beach Republican, that would require two-thirds votes by the Legislature to raise taxes or fees. That would translate to support from 80 members of the 120-member House and 27 members of the 40-member Senate.

The House proposal also would require each tax or fee increase to be passed as a single-subject bill.

The House proposal is pending in the Appropriations Committee, where if it gets a favorable vote, it would be ready for a debate on the House floor.

As the former chairman of budget committees in the House and Senate, Negron was asked about the impact of raising the threshold for passing taxes or fees.

“It’s highly unlikely that the Legislature would raise taxes,” Negron said. “I think the real issue is going to be, what should the percentage of the vote be? Should it also include fees?”

Kurt Wenner, vice president for research at Florida TaxWatch, testified at a House Ways & Means Committee in November in favor of an approval threshold of three-fifths votes by the House and Senate.

“It doesn’t get to where, basically, a third of the members could defeat something,” Wenner told the committee.

The Florida Constitution already contains a provision requiring a three-fifths vote by the Legislature to raise the state corporate income tax.

Negron expressed some doubt about including fees in the amendment. He recalled his time as the House budget chairman looking at agriculture-related fees that had not been raised in decades.

“If you’re making a fee actually reflect the current cost of something and it’s a fee, I think that’s a different issue than raising taxes,” Negron said.

But Negron said he expects the Senate to consider some version of an amendment increasing the voting threshold.

“I do think the Senate will take up a proposed constitutional amendment, which Sen. Stargel is working on, that addresses that issue and I am open to that,” Negron said.

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years and has the power to place constitutional amendments on the November 2018 ballot, will take up a measure (Proposal 72) next week that is similar to the House proposal, requiring two-thirds votes to raise taxes or fees.

The proposal, sponsored by Commissioner Fred Karlinsky, is scheduled to be heard by the commission’s Finance and Taxation Committee on Tuesday.

All of the proposals, if they are passed by the Legislature or the Constitution Revision Commission, would require approval by at least 60 percent of voters during the November 2018 election.

At least 14 other states require extraordinary votes by their legislatures when raising taxes, according to House analysts.

The vote thresholds range from a three-fifths vote to three-fourths votes in Arkansas, Michigan and Oklahoma. The Michigan threshold is limited to property taxes. Seven states have a two-thirds threshold, similar to the House proposal.

The Florida Legislature last voted for a major tax increase in 2009, raising taxes on packs of cigarettes by $1.

Joe Negron backs aid for agriculture industry

Florida lawmakers should provide financial help to the agriculture industry to aid its recovery from Hurricane Irma, the Senate president said Friday.

Without putting a price tag on the state’s contribution, Senate President Joe Negron appeared to favor tax cuts and mitigation measures rather than loans. He pointed to major damage sustained by citrus growers but also said assistance should go to other parts of the agriculture industry.

“I do think the effect of the hurricane was so catastrophic to the citrus industry that it merits the government, the state government, partnering with the industry to make sure that they can continue to thrive,” Negron said during an interview with The News Service of Florida.

Negron said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is slated to become the next Senate president, and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican, are expected to work on the issue.

Some lawmakers have already started to advance their own hurricane-recovery proposals for the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts in January.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in early October released an estimate that the agriculture industry had sustained $2.5 billion in damage from Hurricane Irma, with $761 million in citrus-industry losses.

But many lawmakers think the losses will be much higher than the October projection.

Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who is a citrus grower, has outlined several proposed tax exemptions for the industry as part of recommendations submitted to the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.

Albritton’s proposals include tax exemptions for material used to repair or replace damaged fences and structures and for fuel used to transport crops during an emergency. He also called for a reduction in the tangible personal property tax for farm equipment affected by the storm.

Meanwhile, Port Charlotte Republican Rep. Michael Grant has suggested a tax exemption for the purchase of generators used on farms.

Negron said he doesn’t anticipate that hurricane-relief spending will displace other legislative priorities in the upcoming 60-day Session.

“I still think there will be room for environmental priorities, educational priorities,” Negron said. “I don’t think the hurricane spending will necessarily mean that there are other things that simply can’t be done.”

Gov. Rick Scott has asked for $21 million to help citrus growers as part of his budget requests for the 2018 Legislative Session.

Scott wants the money to include $10 million for citrus research, $4 million for marketing and $7 million for post-storm relief.

Irma made landfall Sept. 10 in the Keys and in Collier County before plowing up the state, including causing extensive damage in agricultural areas.

Along with the projected $761 million in citrus-industry losses, the October report from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated nursery-industry losses from Irma at almost $624 million. The cattle industry damage assessment was $237.5 million, while the dairy industry was estimated to have $11.8 million in losses.

The sugar industry appeared to have $383 million in damage, with an estimated 534,324 acres affected. Vegetable and fruit growers — excluding citrus — were projected to have $180 million in damage, with an estimated 163,679 acres impacted by the storm.

The storm damages compounded misery for the citrus industry, which has struggled for a decade with citrus greening, an incurable bacterial disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has projected that Florida’s citrus industry is on pace to grow 27 percent fewer oranges and 40 percent fewer grapefruit than in the past growing season.

State leaders, such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, have been disappointed that Florida’s farmers and ranchers haven’t been addressed in a series of congressional disaster-relief package put together in response to Irma, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and California wildfires.

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