by GARY FINEOUT | AP
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — In a move that could help in a tough re-election fight, Florida Gov. Rick Scott wants to roll back the fees that motorists pay to register their cars.
During a Thursday appearance in Tampa, Scott will wheel out a proposal to cut auto registration fees by $401 million next year. The governor's office estimates the cut — which would kick in on Sept. 1, 2014 — would result in a decrease of more than $25 for most motorists.
The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature increased auto fees in 2009 as part of an overall package of tax and fee hikes to help balance the state budget. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist — who was a Republican at the time— signed the fee hike into law. Crist is now running against Scott as a Democrat.
Scott had already said he wants to cut $500 million in taxes and fees next year. But this is the first time he has spelled out which taxes and fees he would target to cut.
In a white paper describing the proposal, the Scott administration contends that a projected budget surplus for next year should be used to undo the auto registration fee hike.
Florida economists last week concluded that the state's main tax collections would grow by 3.8 percent over the current fiscal year and another 4.9 percent by the middle of 2015, bringing the total to $27.5 billion. This means that Scott and state legislators next spring could have a budget surplus in excess of $1 billion even after paying for enrollment growth for schools and programs such as Medicaid.
When Scott first announced his plan to cut taxes and fees he held a series of public meetings with business owners and residents to discuss potential areas for cuts. That created a push by groups and business interest to propose cuts in everything from business taxes on electricity to sales taxes on commercial leases.
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by Aaron Deslatte | Orlando Sentinel
TALLAHASSEE -- Orlando super-donor and trial lawyer John Morgan has now pumped nearly $1 million into his crusade to ask Florida voters to legalize medical marijuana next year.
Campaign-finance reports for November show his Morgan & Morgan law firm and family poured over $500,000 into the signature-gathering People United for Medical Marijuana campaign last month -- boosting his total give over the last year to $972,125, or three-fourths of the total $1.3 million the organization has raised.
The only other major donor has been Coral Gables philanthropist and Democratic fundraiser Barbara A. Stiefel, who kicked in $100,000.
Morgan, a longtime Democratic fundraiser who is backing former Gov. Charlie Crist for governor, has been making speeches around the state in support of the ballot measure that would de-criminalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Morgan has said he is pushing the issue in part due to his own family's experiences: both his father and brother had suffered from cancer and injuries and turned to marijuana to find relief from their pain.
Critics -- from Attorney General Pam Bondi to legislative leaders -- argued last week before the Florida Supreme Court that the ballot question was deceptive and would lead to a greater expansion of marijuana than just for serious medical conditions. The court has to rule on whether the constitutional question is misleading or not.
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by rochelle koff | Miami Herald
The interim chief of Florida's troubled child welfare agency will be leaving the department to take a job with the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office – but not until the end of the legislative session, during which lawmakers will decide how they can repair a system in turmoil.
“The session is so important to put things in place for the future,” said Esther Jacobo, a five-year veteran of the Department of Children & Families. “I’m grateful I can stay on.”
Jacobo said Gov. Rick Scott asked her to stay through the session, and asked the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office if she could again put off her new job.
Jacobo said she had already been speaking with Katherine Fernández Rundle about a position as her chief of staff before Scott asked her to take over as interim director in mid-July. She was scheduled to go to the State Attorney’s Office in January but will now start after the session ends in the spring.
“The governor called me personally and then Esther and I spoke about it,” Fernández Rundle said. “We both felt that when the governor of the state asks for your service and it’s in the best interest of the children, you have to help out.”
Fernández Rundle said she is planning to involve Jacobo in projects like fighting human trafficking and coordinating court services for the mentally ill, veterans and drug users, areas that “cross over.”
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by Leslie Postal | Orlando Sentinel
Florida's high-school-graduation rate bumped up again in 2013, with Central Florida schools mirroring the trend and a handful getting more than 90 percent of their students to commencement.
The state's graduation rate was 75.6 percent this year, capping a decade-long trend of improvement. In 2003, it was 56.5 percent, according to Florida's annual high-school-graduation report released Wednesday.
Seven Central Florida schools — six in Orange County and one in Seminole County — posted graduation rates above 90 percent. Timber Creek in east Orange (93.9 percent) and Hagerty High near Oviedo (94.2 percent) had the best rates among traditional high schools.
Timber Creek Principal Gabriel Berrio credited the best-in-show status to a school culture where teachers want "every student to be successful" and "every child has an advocate."
The graduation rate is the percentage of students who earn standard diplomas four years after starting high school. "Special diplomas" given to youngsters with disabilities and GEDs do not count.
Across the state, graduation success varied widely by school district and school, as well as by race and gender.
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by Bob Koslow | Daytona Beach News-Journal
The number of new foreclosure cases filed in the Volusia and Flagler county courts dropped in November compared to a year ago, as banks comply with new requirements and continue to look for options such as short sales and restructured loans.
In Flagler County, court records show 36 new foreclosure cases were filed in November. That's down more than 60 percent from the 91 filed a year ago.
In Volusia County, 239 new foreclosure lawsuits were filed in November. That's down 43 percent from the 419 filed during the same month a year ago.
Officials at both courthouses say that a state law instituted in July that tightened up the foreclosure process is still slowing down new foreclosure filings.
“The numbers tanked after the law went into effect. We are still substantially down from last year, but we are seeing the numbers rise each month as banks have managed to comply with the new laws that require banks to show more proof that they own the note and mortgage,” said Laura Roth, chief deputy clerk of the circuit court for Volusia County.
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by Sascha Cordner | WFSU
Florida officials are considering dredging the floor of the Indian River Lagoon to remove the muck of the estuary that’s already been plagued by massive animal die-offs and the loss of thousands of acres of sea grass.
Dr. John Trefry is a Marine and Environmental Systems Professor at Florida Institute of Technology, who’s been studying muck in the Indian River Lagoon—which he describes as “black mayonnaise.”
“And, much like the algae bloom, it blocks sunlight and inhibits sea growth,” said Trefry.
Trefry says muck has been accumulating in the lagoon for decades, leading to a decrease in oxygen in the water. So, he says a multi-year effort is needed to help restore the system.
“We’re in a period of critical decline--and people are always saying it’s critical. This one is really bothering me, and I’m sort of someone who can tolerate a lot, but this is serious—and, muck has been accumulating for five or six decades. And, not it’s been spread over greater distances in the lagoon. So, let’s dredge. But, let’s make sure we get the upland areas from filling in again,” he added.
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by Michael Van Sickler | HERALD/TIMES TALLAHASEE BUREAU
About 2,100 customers who have or are planning to sue Citizens Property Insurance over sinkhole claims will soon be getting offers to settle.
The state run company announced Wednesday it is mailing proposals to current and potentially future litigants this week that offer to pay for repairs. But there are strings attached, including a a requirement that customers will no longer be paid to make the necessary repairs. Instead, Citizens will pay the contractor directly.
Read settlement proposal (PDF)
Dubbed “Grout in the Ground”, the proposal is part of an effort to settle sinkhole claims, as well as avoid future risk. The letter invokes recent sinkhole mishaps in Seffner, Clermont and Dunedin to encourage customers to agree to settle.
“While we recognize that these events are extremely rare occurrences, Citizens’ primary goal is making you and your family safe immediately,” the letter stated.
The settlement offer comes after the Times/Herald reported frustration among customers with the claims process.
If homeowners accept the offer, they must drop their lawsuits against Citizens, agreeing to pay their own legal bills and fees.
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by BRANDON LARRABEE | News Service of Florida
The chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee said Tuesday that he will sponsor legislation in the 2014 session spelling out residency requirements for state and local elected officials.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he will file the bill "pretty soon." He said it would include a list of eight to 10 factors that a judge would consider if questions arise about whether an official lives in the district that he or she was elected to represent.
"I think, once and for all, we need to put in the statutes, here's the criteria for being considered a resident," Latvala told reporters.
Latvala, who is engaged in a battle for the Senate presidency in the legislative term following the 2016 elections, has been hammering the residency issue for months. He has publicly accused Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, of living outside her district; Sachs defeated one of Latvala's GOP supporters in the only incumbent-against-incumbent Senate race of the 2012 election cycle.
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by William March | Tampa Tribune
TAMPA — Florida Gov. Rick Scott appears to be abandoning his attempt to expand the Florida Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act.
Asked by reporters in Tampa on Wednesday whether he still thinks the state should accept the federal funding available under to expand the program, Scott didn't answer and criticized the law instead.
Scott said 300,000 Floridians will have their health insurance policies canceled at the end of this year -- even though the insurer involved, Florida Blue, has announced there will be no cancellations.
“Here's our concern about the president's health care law,” he said. “We have 300,000 people in our state that have been told they are going to lose their insurance at the end of the year. We don't know what's going to happen. We don't know if they're going to get it. We don't know what the costs are going to be.
Scott gave essentially the same answer in Tallahassee on Tuesday, saying policies will be canceled and, “That's the biggest issue we're dealing with right now.”
Asked Wednesday whether Scott still favors Medicaid expansion, spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said, “Last year the governor laid out what he supported.”
Asked whether he'll try to convince the Legislature in its session next spring to expand the program, Schutz said, “He laid out his vision last year. He said yes and the Legislature said no.”
Asked what actions Scott is planning or considering concerning the policies he said will be canceled, Schutz sent a copy of a one-paragraph public statement issued by Scott criticizing the law, saying the statement poses questions “to the White House.”
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by James Call | Florida Current
Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, has an idea to help alleviate a physician shortage in Florida. He’s sponsoring SB 502 which would double the number of physician’s assistants a doctor may supervise and expand a PA’s scope of practice...
Hays’ idea is to create medical teams of nurses. Doctors would be allowed to supervise up to eight PAs. SB 502 would allow PAs to execute practice-related activities as delegated by a supervising physician. The proposal would also increase regulation of a PA’s prescriptive powers; the doctor would be required to notify the state when delegating prescription authority to a PA and the PA would be required to register independently with the Department of Health.
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by Mike Salinero | Tampa Tribune
TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s already congested traffic system will only grow worse unless significant improvements are made before 2040, when the county’s population is projected to have grown by more than 500,000 people.
That was the message driven home Wednesday to Hillsborough’s Transportation Policy Leadership Group, a panel of elected officials who need no reminding that the county’s road network is overcrowded and its mass transit system is lacking.
The group _ county commissioners, the county’s three mayors and the chairman of the HART bus system _ is charged with approving major transportation improvements in hopes of connecting job centers and energizing the local economy. Those projects will begin coming to the panel from county staff in the first months of 2014. A decision on how to pay for them will come later in the year.
Right now, commuting times in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area are “not significantly out of line” with similarly sized metro areas, said Steve Polzin, director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. The average local commute is 26-27 minutes, slightly over the peer cities in several studies and higher than the national average by only a few minutes.
More worrisome is that the Tampa area ranked 22nd worst out of 105 metro areas in traffic congestion in one study, and 27th worst of 101 in another. The area’s arterial roads _ major roads that aren’t freeways _ are the most heavily used in the country, and use of its freeway is second highest.
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by john kennedy | Palm Beach Post
A measure aimed at allowing a privately funded statue of railroad baron Henry Flagler to go up at the Florida Capitol cleared its first committee hearing Friday in the Florida Senate.
The legislation (SB 250) by Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, was approved by the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee on an 8-0 vote. But the bill still has a long way to go in both the Senate and House, where its sponsor is Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton...
If approved, the Flagler statue would stand out on the state Capitol grounds, which has been mostly kept free of monuments.
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