Danny McAuliffe – Florida Politics

Danny McAuliffe

Report: Overall taxation low, but local burdens high

The state continues to be a relatively low-tax environment, but Floridians still face higher local tax burdens than others, according to a new report from fiscal watchdog nonprofit Florida TaxWatch.

One of just seven states without a personal income tax, Florida’s state and local tax revenue figures out to $5,679 per person — the ninth-lowest amount in the U.S.

But governments in Florida take 53.3 percent of their revenue from local taxes. That’s the second-highest percentage in the U.S., falling just behind New York. Florida also has the fifteenth-highest amount of local taxes collected per person, according to the most recent data available.

“While Florida’s state tax and revenue burdens are very low compared to the other states, local tax burdens are much higher,” reads a TaxWatch news release accompanying the report.

TaxWatch attributed the high local tax burdens to the state’s “high reliance on local governments to provide public services results in higher local taxes.”

Overall, TaxWatch sees the report as a fact-based tool to let “policymakers and taxpayers alike know if we are winning or losing the race to attract more wealth and opportunities for economic growth,” said Florida TaxWatch President & CEO Dominic M. Calabro. “It also shows us where we need to be more competitive.”

The annual report this year is being circulated ahead of the November election when Floridians will vote on three major tax-related changes to the state Constitution. Among them: Amendment 1, which would increase the homestead exemption for property taxes; Amendment 2, which would permanently extend a cap on yearly increases of non-homestead property taxes; and Amendment 5, which would require a two-thirds supermajority vote of the Legislature to approve any future increases in taxes or fees.

TaxWatch is supporting Amendment 2, and one of the researchers involved in the report made reference to non-homestead property.

“While overall property taxes in Florida are ‘middle-of-the-road,’ the current system puts an inequitable property tax burden on non-homestead property,” said TaxWatch Vice President of Research Kurt Wenner.

The fate of Florida’s wetlands could be decided behind closed doors, groups say

Environmental and activist groups are criticizing the state for drafting in secrecy the details of a new permitting process to build in Florida’s wetlands.

In a letter Monday addressed to Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, environmental groups Audubon Florida and 1000 Friends of Florida alongside the League of Women Voters called for a more transparent process in DEP’s workshopping of an application that would give the state almost exclusive discretion in doling out permits to build in wetlands.

Currently, there are two systems in place to authorize building in Florida’s wetlands. Developers can request a permit through the state, or they can go through the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Over the years, the state’s permitting process has been streamlined, whereas the EPA’s system has remained slow. Some have described it as redundant.

HB 7043, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in March, gives DEP permission to draft an application to the EPA to allow the state to authorize federal permits, so long as they don’t breach Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act, which approves on a case-by-case basis development — known as “dredge and fill” activities — in wetlands.

DEP is rapidly drafting the application and taking public comment as is standard during accompanying rule-making workshops. It’s held three workshops around the state already, along with an online webinar. An estimated 300 Floridians have weighed in on rule-making, according to DEP, and the agency recently extended its public comment period by two weeks.

But the signatories of the Monday letter fear that a great bulk of the details of the application are being drafted outside of the sunshine.

“There are a lot of details that will determine what the programs look like that are being determined between [DEP] and other agencies,” Audubon Florida Executive Director Julie Wraithmell told Florida Politics.

According to Wraithmell, agreements between DEP, EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are being proposed without public input. As well, agreements over which waters will remain under the Corps’ watch and DEP staffing details of the permitting program are being planned between the agencies. Even a process for challenging the permits could be determined solely by agency staff.

There would be time for public comment on the finalized application, but by then it might not be effective. 

DEP Communication’s Director Lauren Engel said the drafted rules and application would be submitted as a complete package to the EPA and then subjected to public review. The state agency has requested that the EPA hold multiple public hearings in Florida, though that’s not a given.

Federal guidelines require the EPA only to respond to and consider public comments, and Wraithmell worries that the allotted time for input comes too late in the application process.

She also pointed to a fall deadline DEP imposed on itself as evidence that the agency is hastily working under pressure.

“The casualty of that expedited deadline is public engagement,” Wraithmell said. “Our wetlands are too important to let that happen.”

When asked for a hypothetical negative externality of delegating approval powers to the state in a quick manner, Wraithmell suggested that Florida could lose “rigor” in its permitting process, which could mean fewer wetlands. Wetlands mitigate flooding, among other things, according to Wraithmell.

“In our haste to produce less redundancy we could actually throw out the standards against which these permits are issued at the federal level,” Wraithmell said.  

To give the state authority over the permits, the EPA will have to determine that the delegation would not result in a loss of wetlands. The EPA is overseen by Donald Trump-appointed Scott Pruitt.

“Before DEP could begin administering the federal program, we will be required to demonstrate to EPA that our state-administered 404 program would be just as stringent, if not more stringent than, the federal government’s,” Engel told Florida Politics.

Wraithmell believes the DEP is bent on protecting wetlands, but a “mistake” could happen in the application.  

“DEP is representing the public interest of Floridians in this application, so there should be an opportunity for Floridians to contribute to its development,” explained Wraithmell.

When HB 7043 was making its way through Session, Audubon Florida wanted language that would’ve required legislative ratification of the application.

That would’ve given the public ample opportunities to weigh in, Wraithmell said. But lawmakers didn’t deem it necessary.

Accounting watchdog claims Florida doesn’t have enough money to pay its bills

A Chicago-based watchdog group says Florida owes more than it owns to the tune of $11.6 billion, earning it a C ranking in the group’s annual report of state financial standings.

Truth in Accounting released its letter-grade rankings of each state Tuesday morning. The nonprofit was founded to highlight inaccurate government financial disclosures.

Per the two-pager accompanying the report, “Florida’s elected officials have made repeated financial decisions that have left the state with a debt burden of $11.6 billion, according to the analysis. That burden equates to $1,800 for every state taxpayer.”

Truth in Accounting coined the phrase “taxpayer burden” to describe each taxpayer’s share of state bills after its available assets have been tapped.

The latest rankings are based on data made available through each state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, or CAFR, and apply only to the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Analysts for Truth in Accounting figured Florida had $58.6 billion available in assets to pay $70.1 billion in spending. Most of the debt comes from pension funding, or a lack thereof. Per the report, “Of the $60.8 billion in retirement benefits promised, the state has not funded $10.9 billion of pension benefits and $9.3 billion of retiree health care benefits.”

While it’s disclosed some of the pension shortfalls, the “state continues to hide $5.9 billion of its retiree health care debt,” reads the report.

Sheila Weinberg, who founded the nonprofit, said that debt should be disclosed in next year’s CAFR, as government financial disclosure guidelines have changed. A CPA by trade, she started the organization because governments weren’t disclosing the full truth of their finances.

“I realized we were making large decisions based upon the wrong information,” Weinberg told Florida Politics. Truth in Accounting has ranked states since 2009.

“If the state had passed its balanced-budget requirement, it would not being bringing debt into the future,” explained Weinberg. If a state’s budget is in the red, then it can’t receive an A or B ranking. States are given C’s if the taxpayer burden does not exceed $5,000.

States rich in natural resources performed better than others, Weinberg said. Among the top states: Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska and Utah.

Typically, Weinberg said, Republican-controlled states seem to do better on the annual list than those operated by Democrats.

Neighboring states Alabama and Georgia have higher tax burdens than the Sunshine State. The bottom five states on the list include: New Jersey, with a taxpayer burden of $67,200; Illinois, with a burden worth $50,400; Connecticut, with a burden worth $49,500; Kentucky, with a burden worth $39,000; and Massachusetts, with a burden worth $32,900.

Rick Scott accepts trio of fall debates

Gov. Rick Scott is accepting invitations to participate in three fall debates leading up to the November election, in which he will try to oust incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

Among the network hosts: CNN, Telemundo 51 in Miami, and Jacksonville’s WJXT Channel 4 (co-hosted by the Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute).

Dates and times of the debates are not yet available, though the Scott campaign said they’d take place in the fall — presumably well after the Aug. 28 primary. Neither candidate faces formidable opposition from within their parties. 

The news follows Scott’s campaign announcement that a fourth-consecutive ad attacking Nelson will air across Florida televisions this week. And a healthy bit of criticism of the sitting Senator accompanied news of the debates.

A Scott campaign spokeswoman said the campaign is “curious” to see how Nelson will defend his tenure.

“Bill Nelson continues to be all talk, no action on the issues, but Floridians won’t settle for smoke and mirrors in a debate setting,” said campaign press secretary Lauren Schenone.

A spokeswoman for Nelson’s campaign said they “look forward to debating Rick Scott many times if he will agree to show up and talk about the issues important to Floridians.” Nelson’s camp expects the incumbent to outshine Scott, who they claim “has spent eight years putting himself and his political career ahead of what’s best for Florida.”

Both camps are reviewing other invitations and expect to make similar announcements in the coming months.

#FlaPol in Review: A weekend roundup

Father’s Day greetings and discussions of the Donald Trump administration’s practice of separating migrant children from their parents crowded Florida’s political Twitter feed this week, and some politicians linked the holiday to the happenings at the border.

A reminder: While most pols messaged on the holiday, this edition will only include a few dad’s day sentiments.

Gov. Rick Scott, who’s competing on the top of the ticket against Sen. Bill Nelson, is looking forward to and anticipating working with Colombia:

Nelson, meanwhile, appeared in Tampa Saturday with his Republican colleague Sen. Marco Rubio:

In the race for Governor, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham shared a throwback photo of her and her father Bob Graham, a former U.S. Senator and Florida Governor:

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who’s competing alongside Democratic candidates in the Governor’s race, tied the border happenings to Sunday’s holiday:

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine made sure his team had a presence at a North Florida Pride celebration:

Orlando businessman Chris King wasn’t too happy with Agriculture Commissioner and Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam’s response to the news at the border:

Putnam, meanwhile, is actively rolling out endorsements from leaders in law enforcement:

In the statewide races for Cabinet, Denise Grimsley hit Southwest Florida for her campaign for Agriculture Commissioner:

Attorney General hopeful Sean Shaw traveled diagonally up the state:

Matt Caldwell, who’s running for Agriculture Commissioner, found himself in Clay County:

Attorney General candidate Ashley Moody stumped through Pinellas:

Congressman Ted Deutch isn’t happy about the current state of immigration policy:

Nor is state Rep. Margaret Good:

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith weighed in on Scott’s World Cup ad:

State Rep. Jamie Grant wants pragmatic policy at the border:

 

Nikki Fried campaign video features marijuana grow-op, call for gun control

According to newly filed Agriculture Commissioner candidate Nikki Fried, the state is lax on gun control and too overbearing on medical marijuana.

In a campaign video released Monday morning, the Democrat makes her introduction to voters by setting up a dichotomy between pot and assault rifles.

“One helps sick and dying Floridians and is over-regulated,” Fried says of marijuana in the video. “And the other one is used to terrorize our schools and our communities, and is barely regulated at all.”

Fried, whose work as a lobbyist has focused on expanding access to marijuana, filed last week to run for the Cabinet post. Her advocacy for pot bridged into her campaign, where it will likely be a defining element.

In the video, which features pan shots of a Southwest Florida marijuana grow operation, she asks, “Honestly, what type of Agriculture Commissioner could be against a plant and the farmers who grow it?”

When Fried brings up assault rifles, an image of current Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam appears alongside the headline to a recent Tampa Bay Times report detailing a concealed-carry weapons permit background check lapse during Putnam’s tenure.

The video will air on Fried’s social media. Campaign manager Matt Gotha told Florida Politics that “no decisions have been made regarding putting money into the ad as of yet.”

Per a news release accompanying the video, Fried “intends to use the office to expand access to medical marijuana for sick and suffering Floridians, support the agriculture industry while protecting Florida’s land, water and beaches, advocate for consumers, and be an independent, compassionate voice on the Florida Cabinet.”

Fried, 40, will face off against Homestead Mayor Jeff Porter and David Walker in the Democratic primary. Both have grim fundraising numbers. Porter has $22,900 on hand and Walker has $148,550.

If Fried makes it to November, she’ll likely have to fight against one of a few deep-pocketed Republican candidates. State Rep. Matt Caldwell currently boasts $1.26 million banked for his run and state Sen. Denise Grimsley has $1.04 million at the ready. Former Rep. Baxter Troutman has largely self-funded his campaign, which had $1.5 million on hand at the beginning of June.

Marco Rubio: Fatherhood is essential

For Florida’s Republican U.S. Senator, Father’s Day isn’t about gifts.

Instead, it’s a reminder of an important aspect of parenting, and the obligations that come with raising children in America.

Sen. Marco Rubio recently authored an op-ed for The Federalist, a conservative online magazine, in which he opines on fatherhood ahead of the holiday celebrating it.

Commercialization, Rubio wrote, fogs the “true meaning” of Father’s Day. He borrows words in a resolution by former President Calvin Coolidge to describe of the mission of the holiday: “to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations.”

“Fathers play the indispensable role in protecting their families from harm, encouraging children to overcome challenges, disciplining children with authority, and teaching boys how to become responsible men by modeling responsibility themselves,” wrote Rubio.

The tenets of being a dad are bipartisan, Rubio claimed. He cited words from former Democratic President Barack Obama: “[Fathers] are teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models. They are examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it.”

The Senator said “social chaos,” created by those who commit atrocities, is a direct result of “broken families” and the “absence of fathers.” He pointed to research conducted by psychologist Dr. Peter Langman, who studies mass shooters.

“More than 75 percent of the most-cited school shooters since Columbine came from broken homes,” Rubio wrote. It’s an almost-definite nod to Nikolas Cruz, the confessed Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooter, who was adopted at birth and lost his father at a young age. Since the Parkland shooting, Rubio has made a point of advocating for solutions that are less myopic than restricting access to guns.

When fathers don’t exercise enough positive influence on their sons, “it makes for an alarming number of working-age young men who do not work, seem to have no drive, and take drugs to escape their frustration. It makes for an equally alarming number of young men who abuse women, abandon financial responsibility for their children, become thugs, or become ridiculous hyper-masculine idiots,” Rubio wrote.

He concluded: “For this Father’s Day, let’s focus less on the latest gadgets and cultural outrages, and more on the distinct value — and obligations — of fatherhood and the fatherly virtues of honor, drive to provide, bravery, courage, conviction, gentle toughness, and strength of will.”

Jeff Greene: Father’s Day is a reminder of ‘inhumane’ immigration policies

Jeff Greene, a billionaire developer from Palm Beach and the newest Democratic option for Governor, is using the upcoming Father’s Day holiday to call for an end to the Donald Trump administration’s practice of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.

In a statement Saturday, Greene said the policies are “inhumane.” He framed that conclusion as one arrived at while reflecting on paternity.

Greene, who is married with three children, called his family “the greatest gifts I have ever received.” That acknowledgment, he said, brings him to realize a “stark contrast between my family’s own joy and the indescribable heartache being felt by those families on our country’s southern border.”

Recently published national stories focused largely on how frequently children are separated from adults near the border under the zero-tolerance, hardline immigration policy of detaining immigrants ahead of scheduled court dates. Some news outlets reported that close to 2,000 children were separated from adults over a six-week period, those figures are based on data from the Department of Homeland Security.

“No matter where you are from, the language you speak, religion you practice, or the color of your skin, families are families and people are people — yet they are not being treated as such,” Greene said. “Under the guise of being tough, the Trump administration has proven to be despicable, heartless, and inhumane.”  

Greene said “respect” is the “backbone of our United States,” and the immigration practices at the border are “spineless.”

In being critical of Trump-backed decisions, the newly minted candidate is distancing himself from the President, whose Mar-a-Lago getaway is just doors away from Greene’s Palm Beach residence.

Greene also is staking claim to a viewpoint on immigration that is primed to be polarizing for candidates who make it to November. On the Republican side of the gubernatorial race, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam released an ad this week in which a popular Republican sheriff extols his faith in Putnam’s ability to crackdown on immigration. But Putnam’s primary opponent, Congressman Ron DeSantis, has nicknamed the Commissioner “Amnesty Adam.”  

Meanwhile, other Democrats in the Governor’s race undoubtedly would align with Greene’s comments. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum even tweeted an almost identical sentiment on Saturday.

But to Greene, the issue should transcend party lines: “Democrats or Republicans, we are all Americans — and we cannot stand for this. I will not be silent, and neither should you. As Governor, I will do everything in my power to end reprehensible policies such as these,” he said.

And in Florida, as Greene suggests, the stories of immigrant children have resonated with politicians across the aisle. Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who’s competing against incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson for the U.S. Senate seat on the ballot, told Florida Politics’ A.G. Gancarski on Friday that “Your heart goes out to these families that are struggling with these issues. It shows you how messed up our immigration policy is, that these things are happening.”

Democrats link roller coaster failure to Adam Putnam

Florida Democrats are framing a recent roller coaster crash in Daytona Beach as the “latest example of incompetence at Adam Putnam’s Agriculture Department.”

In a news release emailed statewide Saturday, the Florida Democratic Party highlighted how the Thursday night derailment came hours after state inspectors approved the Sand Blaster roller coaster for operation. The incident injured nine when “a car derailed and sent two riders plunging three stories to the ground,” the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the agency that employs the inspectors, is overseen by Putnam. In a Friday statement, an agency spokeswoman confirmed the inspectors OK’d the roller coaster.

“Just [Thursday], department inspectors conducted a thorough inspection of the ride, and it was found in compliance with state law,” reads an agency news release. The department has launched a follow-up investigation. 

But that’s too little, too late, according to FDP.

“Putnam has spent almost a year running for governor instead of doing his job — and Floridians are paying the price,” said FDP spokesperson Kevin Donohoe.

The Democrats point to a Tampa Bay Times report last week that detailed how an employee at the Agriculture Department failed for more than a yearlong period to conduct a sometimes-required background check on Floridians who applied for a concealed-carry weapons permit.

“Every week, there’s a new report about Adam Putnam’s department failing to do its job,” Donohoe charged. “Putnam has created a culture of mismanagement, lack of accountability and incompetence at the Department of Agriculture.”

When it comes to who should receive the Republican nod in August, the Democratic Party appears to prefer Putnam’s opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis. This suggests that the Democrats think they have a better chance of beating the Donald Trump-endorsed Ponte Vedra Beach Congressman in November than they do with Putnam. Included the email are a few DeSantis’ recent attacks on the Agriculture Commissioner.

Avenue Eat & Drink joins growing list of shuttered Tallahassee restaurants

Elected officials aren’t the only ones subject to brief stints in the capital city.

Avenue Eat & Drink, a popular downtown eatery on East Park Avenue just blocks from the Capitol, has indefinitely shut down, according to owner and operator Chris Clark. Clark said the location “hopefully” could be up and running again soon — perhaps under the same name — but financial woes forced Clark to file bankruptcy on what’s evolved into one of a few staple eateries for anyone looking to grab a bite downtown.

Avenue and Clark in late May were sued for defaulting on a cash advance, according to court records. That resulted in Clark, a veteran of the service industry and longtime Tallahassee restaurateur, bankrupting the business, although he told Florida Politics he has faith in its redemption.

But Avenue’s closing isn’t isolated, which seems to point toward future troubles for anyone looking to cater to the intimate corridors in the heart of Tallahassee. Nearby restaurants Fat Noodle and The Southern Public House, owned by Roger Unger, announced earlier this week they’d too be shutting their doors. Brew’d Awakening, a now-closed coffee shop, recently couldn’t make the cut downtown as well.

Clark said fluctuations of work in the capital city makes for inconsistent business. Legislators and interested parties come for the legislative sessions and the committee weeks leading up to them, and all but desert the city after their work’s finished. It’s cyclical; when they’re in town, business is good, but when they leave, he estimates business drops by 65 percent.

“It’s not a very business-friendly environment,” Clark said.

Further complicating the problem is the inconsistency of session dates. When legislators convene earlier, as they did this year and plan to do again in 2020, “it makes it very difficult for businesses to get through summer,” Clark said.

“[Session] drives the economy downtown,” Clark added. “I wish [lawmakers] were here full-time.”

Clark also pointed to projects downtown that could have deterred business altogether. Among them: the recent construction of the new Florida State University School of Entrepreneurship and additions to the DoubleTree hotel on Adams Street, which resulted in the closure of a popular block on Adams Street stretching between Park and College avenues.

“The downtown revitalization is a slow process,” Clark said.

Avenue’s doors have been shut for a little more than two weeks. A sign outside the restaurant reads, “Closed For Renovations.” The restaurant’s website claims it will be open by July 13. But that’s not a given, according to Clark.

Still, he has high hopes for the location and doesn’t want recent financial shortcomings to be a defining legacy for Avenue.

“A whole new look, new menus, and some fantastic improvements to the front of house as well as the back of house. Keep on the lookout for our new website which is now under construction,” a post on Avenue’s Facebook page reads.

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