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Tampa Bay region marked for $33M in Florida TaxWatch ‘turkeys’

Florida TaxWatch, the nonpartisan government watchdog organization, served up its annual list of “Budget Turkeys,” naming almost $178 million in line-item projects part of the $82.4 billion budget passed May 8 by the Florida House and Senate.

For the Tampa Bay region, Florida TaxWatch targeted more than $33 million in local projects as individual line items added to the spending plans—usually last minute or in committee — without a thoughtful and thorough budget process.

The largest project in the region was Pasco County’s Interstate 75 and Overpass Road Interchange, priced at $15 million.

Hillsborough County had the lowest number of turkeys with three projects totaling $1,825,000; Pasco is the highest at $16,960,000 spread out over five projects.

For the 2017-18 fiscal year, which begins July 1, TaxWatch listed 111 budgetary turkeys, suggesting around $177.8 million in savings. In total, the final budget contains more than 700 member projects, worth more than $600 million.

A “Turkey” label does not pass judgment on the project’s overall worthiness, does comment on the process. The purpose of the label is to make sure all projects using public funds are properly vetted.

“The result was that only a handful of projects made into the budget during conference. While falling short of the goal of no conference additions, this is still a very positive improvement, as projects being added in conference have become an epidemic,” the report says.

Even so, “with a few exceptions, committee hearings on member projects were pro forma, with very little discussion or debate,” the report continues.

Among the TaxWatch 111 ‘turkeys’ worth $117.8 million: An engineering building for Florida International University worth $10 million. A $500,000 rodeo facility in Arcadia. Local transportation projects valued at $81.5 million.

Individual Tampa Bay-area projects on the list include:

Pasco ($16,960,000)

– Pasco County Fair Association: $860,000

– Interstate 75 & Overpass Road Interchange: $15,000,000

– Parkland Roadway Stabilization: $250,000

– PD&E Study of Clinton Avenue Intersection Realignment at U.S. 98 and U.S. 301: $500,000

– U.S. 301/ReImagine Gall Boulevard, Zephyrhills: $350,000

Pinellas ($4,300,000)

– Great Explorations Children’s Museum: $400,000

– Education and Access to Performing Arts Program: $500,000

– Pinellas Suncoast Transit Auth – Memorial Causeway Busway Project: $1,000,000

– State Road 687 (3rd & 4th Streets) and 8th/MLK Streets downtown St. Petersburg-Preliminary Engineering Study to Convert One Way to Two-Way Street: $200,000

– Forward Pinellas Waterborne Transportation: $1,000,000

– Treasure Island Causeway Multimodal Improvements: $1,200,000

Hillsborough ($1,825,000)

– Big Brothers Big Sisters – Bigs Inspiring Student Success: $500,000

– Self Reliance Inc. – West FL Health & Safety for Seniors Pilot Project: $575,000

– Plant City Collins Street Improvements: $750,000

Polk ($10,000,000)

– Polk SC – Renovate Campus Chiller Plant System Phase I: $2,500,000

– Bartow Northern Connector, Phase II: $7,500,000

The group is calling for Scott to veto the items when he signs the budget, expected within the next week.

Among its recommendations, the report suggests making the new project vetting process permanent. It also suggests extra scrutiny for categories given to abuse, including economic development, housing and community development, workforce, and water projects.

 

Rick Scott gets $178M serving of Florida TaxWatch ‘budget turkeys’

Thanksgiving is six months away, but Friday is “turkey” day for Gov. Rick Scott.

Florida TaxWatch, the nonpartisan government watchdog group, released its annual “Budget Turkey List,” of almost $178 million in line-item projects that are part of the $82.4 billion budget passed May 8 by the Florida House and Senate.

Budget Turkeys are individual line items added to the spending plans—usually last minute or in committee — without a thoughtful and thorough budget process. A “Turkey” label does not pass judgment on the project’s overall worthiness, does comment on the process. The purpose of the label is to make sure all projects using public funds are properly vetted.

“The result was that only a handful of projects made into the budget during conference. While falling short of the goal of no conference additions, this is still a very positive improvement, as projects being added in conference have become an epidemic,” the report says.

Even so, “with a few exceptions, committee hearings on member projects were pro forma, with very little discussion or debate,” the report continues.

The group is calling for Scott to veto the items when he signs the budget, expected within the next week.

“Member projects have a place, but there are a number of things in the budget that we think have priority over parochial-type projects,” TaxWatch vice president for research Kurt Wenner said during a news conference. He suggested school construction and economic development programs.

For the 2017-18 fiscal year, which begins July 1, TaxWatch identified 111 budgetary Turkeys, suggesting around $177.8 million in savings.

“Budget Turkeys are items, usually local member projects, placed in individual line-items or accompanying proviso language that are added to the final appropriations bill without being fully scrutinized and subjected to the budget committee process or that circumvented established processes,” the organization said.

In the past 28 years, Florida governors vetoed more than $2 billion in projects that have appeared on the TaxWatch report. For example, in the first two years of Scott’s administration, the governor vetoed 70 percent of TaxWatch Turkeys for $244 million in savings.

Throughout the current state spending plan, Florida TaxWatch recognized surplus projects in a variety of state agencies, including the Department of Transportation, which had a majority with 79 projects (worth $139.4 million) that were not in the DoT Work Program.

The report says: “Because new appropriations rules resulted in many member projects being heard in committee and very few projects being added during the budget conference committee process, the budget contains approximately 600 additional member projects worth more than $425 million that do not qualify as Budget Turkeys.”

Among the TaxWatch 111 ‘turkeys’ worth $117.8 million: An engineering building for Florida International University worth $10 million. A $500,000 rodeo facility in Arcadia. Local transportation projects valued at $81.5 million.

Also included was $750,000 to implement the medical marijuana constitutional amendment, because the implementing legislation never passed.

“We only do that because, technically, they’re not allowed to fund that,” Wenner said. “Because it’s contingent on legislation that doesn’t pass, it would be illegal to fund that projects. … It has nothing to do with the value of the projects.”

The organization found six projects included in the House-Senate compromise budget but which hadn’t been included in either chamber’s budget bills. They were worth nearly $2.8 million.

The report credits budget rules pushed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran for keeping additional turkeys out of the budget. The rules required House members to file special requests and individual bills for every member project.

The Senate ultimately agreed upon joint rules barring projects not heard in committee for inclusion in the final budget.

“This rather cursory public review was expected, there is simply not enough time during Session to thoroughly debate each project when there are so many requested. This highlights the need for the establishment of more competitive review and selection processes that take place before the Legislature decides what to fund.”

The report identifies six park projects, worth $3.7 million, that weren’t listed as priorities by the Department of Environmental Protection. Five cultural and museum projects got money instead of projects listed as higher priorities.

“It’s not fair to organizations that go through the established processes,” Wenner said.

“To add a bunch of things that didn’t make it through the legislative process into one big budget conforming bill is not a good idea,” he said.

Among its recommendations, the report suggests making the new project vetting process permanent. It also suggests extra scrutiny for categories given to abuse, including economic development, housing and community development, workforce, and water projects.

Capital correspondent Michael Moline contributed to this post.

Rene Plasencia appointed to Southern Regional Education Board

State Rep. Rene Plasencia, a former public school teacher, was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott as one of the state’s board members on the Southern Regional Education Board, a 16-state compact.

“I am a firm believer we need to start reducing some of the high-stakes testing that we offer,” Plasencia told POLITICO Florida. “I want to make sure they are hearing from a conservative voice who believes we’ve probably gone a little too far” in implementing accountability.

Through the board, each state receives core services funded by annual appropriations. States also benefit from targeted programs funded by grants from foundations and agencies. In addition, states, districts or schools may opt to contract for additional services or participate in networks with annual fees.

Plasencia, a Republican representing the Orlando-based House District 50, also is a district relations manager with Florida Virtual School. He sits on the House Education Committee.

He replaces former state Sen. Nancy Detert of Venice on the SREB. His term starts immediately and runs through June 30, 2018.

Democrats have opportunity-in-crisis with Rick Scott education bill veto possibility

Winston Churchill once said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Democrats are starting to formulate a strategy for Bill Nelson’s upcoming Senate re-election effort — more likely than not facing Gov. Rick Scott.

Not one to waste a good opportunity, Nelson’s nascent campaign could receive a significant boost by way of a veto of the sweeping education bill assembled by lawmakers in the 2017 Legislative Session’s final hours.

The proposal (HB 7069) – a leading priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran – has been panned by educators, parents and labor unions, all calling for Scott to wield his veto pen.

Opponents decry both the bill and state budget, primarily for adding ‘just’ $24 in average per-student spending while moving $140 million to charter schools, described optimistically as “Schools of Hope.”

However, tucked away in the PreK-12 Conforming Bill is a political “poison pill” in the case of a veto; rewards for teacher performance, as much as $233 million in bonuses.

Teachers considered “Best and Brightest” could receive $6,000, those “highly effective” will get $1,200, and those considered “effective” could see a bonus of up to $800, based on available funds.

Scott, still stinging from the rebuke by lawmakers who severely cut his favored VISIT Florida and Enterprise Florida, could use his veto power to retaliate against projects near and dear to Speaker Corcoran.

Corcoran rallied throughout Session against the state’s business and tourism incentive programs, calling them “corporate welfare.”

Vetoing the reduced spending for VISIT and Enterprise Florida would be of little help since both programs would remain underfunded. Corcoran would not be unhappy if either one disappeared.

But a veto of HB 7069 would certainly do the trick, though not without a hefty political price.

Scott’s veto of teacher bonuses could hand Democrats an effective talking point for 2018. Just imagine the headlines: “Rick Scott denies bonuses for public school teachers.”

Such a move would certainly play well for Nelson and Democrats in attack mailers, TV ads and the like – each designed to inflict maximum political damage for Scott’s statewide campaign, should he choose to run.

Of course, this presents Scott with a classic Catch-22 scenario: damned if he vetoes, damned if he doesn’t.

So, as the deadline approaches, what remains is political calculus – finding the best way to mitigate any damage ahead of an all-but-certain Senate run.

And at least one option has a solid upside; it gives money to teachers, which is far from a bad thing.

Rick Scott signs counterterrorism bill into law

On Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 457 into law, a measure that boosts penalties for terrorism charges.

Among those charges: paramilitary training from foreign terrorist organizations; lending material support to those organizations; joining those organizations; and agri-terrorism.

The bill creates a more expansive definition of “terrorism” and “terrorist activities” in the wake of the Pulse massacre in June.

Terroristic crimes, intended to “influence … affect … or retaliate against” a government via attacking citizens, would be defined as felonies of the first degree in the legislation, drawing a maximum prison term of 30 years.

Sen. Aaron Bean carried the Senate version (SB 476), and noted that the bill was a priority of Gov. Scott, who had this to say in a Thursday afternoon news release.

“Last year, Florida came under attack when an ISIS-inspired terrorist stormed into Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 innocent people. Today, while we continue to mourn this tragic loss of life, we are doing everything in our power to make sure that no family or community experiences that pain again,” Scott noted.

“This important legislation will help ensure that those responsible for acts of terror like this are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and continue our efforts to prevent future attacks. I’d like to thank the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for their hard work on this bill. I’m proud to sign it into law today,” Scott added.

Rick Scott signs $180M tax cut package into law

Florida will reduce the tax pay on business pay on rent, have two, three-day sales tax holidays, and eliminate the so-called tampon tax under a $180 million tax cut package signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott signed the measure (HB 7109) during an event at 3C Interactive in Boca Raton on Thursday. While the tax cut package is significantly smaller than the $618 million tax cut plan Scott proposed in January, the Naples Republican said he was proud to sign legislation that continues to cut “taxes for Florida families and businesses.”

“Since I’ve been in office, I’ve fought to cut taxes and reduce burdensome regulations to help boost Florida’s economy and ensure our children and grandchildren have the opportunity to succeed in our great state,” said Scott in a prepared statement. “Every time we cut taxes, we are encouraging businesses of all sizes to create opportunities for families across the state and more money is put back in taxpayers’ pockets.”

Approved on the final day of the 2017 Legislative Session, the tax cut package reduces the tax on commercial leases by 0.2 percent in 2018. Florida is the only state that has a tax on commercial leases, and the reduction is expected to save Florida businesses $61 million a year.

“Cutting this business tax will help the small, local businesses in our communities that lease property,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, who carried a bill (SB 378) in the Senate to lower the business rent tax. “This legislation is a great step towards reducing and hopefully one day eliminating this burdensome tax on business.”

The Florida Retail Federation, a proponent of reducing the tax on business leases, said it was pleased the governor decided to sign the tax cut package, saying it would allow business owners to keep more of their money.

“We are grateful to Governor Scott for signing these important tax measures that will allow retailers, consumers, and other businesses to see their money stretch farther and help grow this economy,” said R. Scott Shalley, the president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation in a statement. “The .2 percent reduction in the business rent tax will allow small businesses to keep more of their own revenue, allowing them to reinvest those funds and create jobs.”

The tax cut package also includes a three-day, disaster preparedness sales tax holiday and a three-day, back-to-school sales tax holiday, which runs from Aug. 4 through Aug. 6.

The 2017 Disaster Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday runs from June 2 through June 4. During the three-day window, items like flashlights, batteries, coolers, and portable generators are tax-exempt. The sales tax holiday is estimated to save Floridians $4.5 million.

“The 2017 Disaster Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday is an opportunity for Floridians to purchase supplies in preparation for a variety of storm-related activity,” said Leon Biegalski, executive director of the Florida Department of Revenue, in a statement. “From powerful thunderstorms and tornados, to tropical storms and hurricanes, Florida experiences a range of potentially dangerous weather throughout summer and fall. We encourage Floridians to participate in this sales tax holiday as being proactive is in the best interest of their safety.”

Scott’s decision to sign the bill also means Florida will join 13 other states and the District of Columbia in exempting taxes on the sale of feminine hygiene products or have enacted laws to exempt these products in the future.

Advocates for the change have said these items are a necessity for women, and should be considered a “common household remedy.” In Florida, the push to make feminine hygiene products tax exempt was pushed by Rep. Katie Edwards and Sen. Kathleen Passidomo.

“This common sense legislation will result in a tax savings for women all over the state who purchase these necessary products,” said Passidomo in a statement.

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

Rick Scott names John Tupps communications director

John Tupps is heading back to the Governor’s Office.

Gov. Rick Scott announced Thursday that Tupps would be returning to the Governor’s Office as his communications director beginning June 5. He will replace Jackie Schutz Zeckman, who has been tapped to serve as Scott’s chief of staff.

“John has demonstrated an incredible commitment to supporting our mission of making Florida the top destination for businesses, families and visitors,” said Scott in a statement. “I know John will use this experience and dedication each day to lead my communications efforts as we continue to fight for Florida jobs.”

Tupps, who worked in the governor’s press office from 2011 until 2016, currently serves as the vice president of government relations for Visit Florida. Before joining Visit Florida, he served as the deputy chief of staff at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. While in the Governor’s Office, Tupps served as a deputy press secretary, press secretary, and deputy communications director.

A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Tupps worked as producer for South Central Radio Group in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Scott announced earlier this month that Zeckman, the current communications director and longtime aide, will replace Kim McDougal as chief of staff beginning July 1. McDougal, a veteran state government employee, is leaving her post to pursue opportunities in the private sector, according to the Governor’s Office.

Gil Langley: Post-Session reflection on tourism marketing

Last week, Gov. Rick Scott announced record-breaking tourism numbers in the Sunshine State. It may be the last time for a while. Ignoring extensive research, case studies and pleas from travel industry constituents across the state, the Florida Legislature slashed funding for VISIT Florida by a crippling 67 percent — recklessly jeopardizing the tourism industry’s leading role as a generator of jobs and government revenues.

A $25 million budget to market Florida, one of the world’s top travel destinations, is not conducive to success on any front – job creation, revenue increases or lower taxes for Florida residents. By cutting off funds for advertising, marketing, and promotion, Florida will essentially surrender the gains made over the past several years while global competitors steal market share.

Contrary to assertions made by some elected officials, vacation destinations do not sell themselves. Every great product needs to make potential customers aware of the benefits their product offers – and why it is a better choice than the alternative. That is why California spends more than $100 million every year to market their state, even with well-known major attractions such as Disneyland, Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge and great beaches.

Tourism is an incredibly competitive industry. Not only are we competing against 49 other states (some with eight-figure marketing budgets), we are battling destinations across the globe to get the attention of potential visitors. Mexico, the Bahamas and Cuba are thrilled Florida’s travel marketing budget has been reduced, allowing them to gain market share while VISIT Florida goes silent in the marketplace.

These cuts were approved despite warnings from experts in government and the private sector. Detailed case studies about states like Colorado and Washington (who cut tourism marketing, only to lose jobs, revenues and market share) provided a cautionary tale ignored. Prestigious organizations such as Florida TaxWatch conducted economic studies demonstrating VISIT Florida’s return on investment, proving investing in tourism is good public policy.

Our elected officials have demonstrated they know the importance of consistent messaging. Legislators raised $73 million for election campaigns in 2016 – even though 57 seats were uncontested. They spent money to keep the voters informed of the job they do, and explained why they should continue to serve. Reminding vacationers of why Florida is a great choice for their family follows the same principle.

The decision to slash tourism marketing funding and create barriers to VISIT Florida’s success negatively impacts every single Floridian. Less marketing means fewer visitors and fewer visitors means less tax revenue to fund necessary public projects such as schools, beaches, parks, roads and other infrastructure. Even if the entire $61 million cut were dedicated to other programs, the impact would be minimal. For example, according to FDOT, $61 million would construct only 4 miles of urban interstate – in a state with nearly 1,500 miles of interstate. On a larger scale, the $61 million cut from VISIT Florida’s budget would fund state government operations for just five hours out of the year. Invested in marketing the state, however, those same funds would generate over $160 million in new state and local tax revenue that could support transportation, education and senior services. It is also important to note VISIT Florida represents a minuscule portion of the state’s budget, yet any decrease in funding will result in significant ramifications. Even if VISIT Florida were funded at Governor Scott’s recommendation of $100 million, 98.7 percent of the state’s budget would be left for other priorities.

I live and work in the small coastal community of Amelia Island, a community that is twice as dependent on tourism as the average Florida county. We are especially concerned about the budget cuts’ impact to rural communities. To a degree, large urban destinations, mega resorts and world-famous theme parks can rely on global brand recognition, but many of Florida’s hidden gems will be left without the resources to market themselves. For Nassau County, the potential impacts are frightening.

Tourist spending generates 37 percent of the sales taxes generated here. Over 25 percent of the workforce have jobs in the hospitality business. Tourist spending provides a net gain of $40 million to County government, saving every household in the County $2,748 in state and local taxes. If tourism declines, it means fewer jobs, fewer services and potentially increased taxes on residents.

Just as in Nassau County, other hardworking Floridian families will suffer, too. A TaxWatch study analyzed the economic impact of the new tourism promotion budget, and found that reducing funding to $25 million means a loss of at least 5 million tourists. With a 5 percent tourism downturn, every household in Florida would have to be taxed an additional $1,535 a year to replace the lost state and local taxes generated from visitor activity. Perhaps even more disheartening are the 70,000 jobs that will be lost due to fewer visitors.

Our hope is that before tourism losses mount in 2018, legislators will reverse course and fully fund a marketing effort that maintains our status as the Earth’s most popular family destination. If not, jobs will be lost, small businesses will be harmed and tax revenue will be diminished. Objectively evaluating the return on investment clearly proves tourism works for Florida – and supporting it financially is a wise move for all our citizens.

 ___

Gil Langley is chair of the Florida Association of Destination Marketing Organizations, the statewide association representing county tourism promotion agencies.

 

Jeff Clemens endorses Andrew Gillum for Governor

Add Sen. Jeff Clemens to the list of Democratic leaders backing Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

The Gillum campaign announced Wednesday that Clemens, the Senate Democratic Leader-designate, has endorsed Gillum’s 2018 gubernatorial bid. In a statement, Clemens called Gillum a “bold leader whose vision will transform Florida.”

“Andrew will prioritize the people we serve, not the privileged few who have had their way in Tallahassee for decades,” said Clemens. “Strong values like top-flight education for every child, an economy that works for workers as well as small business owners, and healthcare that protects the vulnerable by covering Floridians with pre-existing conditions.”

Clemens went on to say that Gillum is the best person to “challenge the status quo.”

“Andrew knows we can do better, and I have confidence he will make the Legislature do its job,” he said.

Gillum is one of three Democrats currently vying to replace Gov. Rick Scott in 2018. Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and Orlando businessman Chris King have also filed to run.

“It’s an honor to receive Leader Designate Jeff Clemens’ endorsement. He is a true champion for Florida’s working people, and as a former Mayor, he knows the critical importance of building strong communities everywhere in Florida,” said Gillum in a statement. “I look forward to working with him to build an economy that serves all Floridians – not the special interests.”

 

Raquel Regalado announces bid to replace Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Add Raquel Regalado to the list of politicos vying to replace Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Congress.

Regalado, a former Miami-Dade school board member, announced Tuesday she was running to replace Ros-Lehtinen in Florida’s 27th Congressional District. The Miami Herald reported she is the second big-name Republican to enter the race, after Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro.

Republican Maria Peiro has also filed to run, and the Herald reported Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera has considered running for the spot.

Regalado is a 42-year-old mother of two, who has a history of crossing party lines. POLITICO Florida reported Regalado, the daughter of Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, backed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink in 2010 over Republican Rick Scott. She endorsed Scott in his 2014 re-election grid. And in 2016, she challenged Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a fellow Republican. Gimenez won, 56 percent to Regalado’s 44 percent.

Ros-Lehtinen announced earlier this year she plans to retire when her term ends in 2018. Democrats look at the seat as a possible pick-up, since Hillary Clinton won the district by 20 percentage points. The district includes parts of coastal Miami-Dade, including Miami Beach.

State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez has said he plans to run for the seat, and is the most favored to take the Democratic nomination. He’ll face Democrats Scott Fuhrman, who ran against Ros-Lehtinen in 2016, and Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez.

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