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News from Tallahassee for 7/2/15
Taxpayers foot the bill as Scott settles open-government lawsuits posted on 6/23/15
by Mary Ellen Klas | Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE— For the second time in a month, Gov. Rick Scott is negotiating a settlement that would use taxpayer dollars to end a lawsuit that claims he violated state Sunshine laws.
According to documents filed in the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee this month, the governor is negotiating with Tallahassee attorney Steve Andrews over a lawsuit accusing Scott of skirting state public records laws by using private email accounts to conduct public business. The negotiations began after a California judge ordered Google to turn over information that could reveal whether Scott’s top staff set up the private email accounts to allow the governor to circumvent the state public records law.
How much taxpayers will be on the hook under the settlement has not been disclosed, but it comes on the heels of another settlement in a Sunshine law violation case expected to be approved by the governor and Cabinet on Tuesday. Records show that fees in that case will cost taxpayers in excess of $228,000.
That lawsuit was brought by St. Petersburg lawyer Matthew Weidner and several media organizations, including the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, who accused Scott and the Cabinet of violating the state’s open meeting laws when they allowed staff to use back channels to oust former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey with no public discussion or vote.
In that settlement announced last week, Scott and the three members of the state Cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — would agree to pay $55,000 to the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Andrea Mogensen. They would also agree to revise their policies to operate with more transparency, including turning over their private emails promptly when they conduct public business.
To end the lawsuit, the governor and Cabinet did not acknowledge they violated the law but instead agreed to improve the transparency of their operations, including turning over their private emails promptly when they conduct public business.
Documents obtained by the Herald/Times show lawyers for the three members of the Cabinet were paid at least $173,098 — more than three times as much as Mogensen — to defend against the allegations. Scott’s office has not responded to a request made a week ago to provide the cost of his legal defense in the case.
Tax package heading to Scott's desk posted on 6/16/15
by sean rossman | tallahassee democrat
In a near unanimous vote, the Florida House passed a more than $400 million tax-cut package this morning, sending the bill to Gov. Rick Scott's desk.
The House passed the plan by a vote of 91 to 2, about two hours after the Senate passed an amended version.
The House approved its own version of the bill in the first week of the special session, but Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, made several changes including upping the number of tax-free back-to-school shopping days from three to 10 and erasing tax cuts on college textbooks for a full year, compared to the three separate sales tax holidays offered in the House version.
The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 34 to 2, the only no votes coming from Democratic senators Jeff Clemens and Geraldine Thompson. The House immediately took it up at its 11 a.m. meeting.
Senate boosts tax cuts to $400 million; negotiators near budget deal posted on 6/12/15
by john kennedy | Palm Beach Post
TALLAHASSEE — A package of tax reductions totaling close to $400 million looked like a virtual certainty Thursday, with the Florida Legislature on course to complete its work on a new state budget next week.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a wide-ranging series of cuts totaling $372.4 million next year – almost $100 million more than a similar proposal which emerged last week in the House.
The move came as House and Senate negotiators struggled to put the final touches on a state spending plan to replace the $77 billion budget that expires June 30.
“It’s a great work product that both chambers had a part in,” House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said of the tax-cutting proposal. “We’re happy to have it come over and bring it up and vote on it. It’ll be a great package for the state of Florida.”
Senate Finance and Tax Chair Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, said the package would “provide broad-based tax relief to all Floridians.”
With lawmakers looking to end their three-week special session a week from today, items within the tax package could still undergo some changes. Dozens of big-ticket budget differences remain between the House and Senate – including money for environmental programs, university construction and scores of hometown projects.
But the roughly $400 million price tag on tax breaks looks set.
“That’s the tax package we feel comfortable with,” Crisafulli said. “It’s basically a $400 million number…and based on our allocations, that’s kind of the ballpark we’re going to be in.”
Florida budget woes leave Scott's agenda in tatters posted on 6/9/15
by GARY FINEOUT | AP
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott, narrowly re-elected just seven months ago, is discovering that the ongoing budget fight among members of his own party is leaving his own agenda in tatters.
The Republican-controlled Legislature is in the middle of a contentious special session to pass a new state budget. A deep divide between the House and Senate over health care prevented the two sides from enacting a spending plan during the regular session that ended in late April.
During his re-election campaign - and again earlier this year - Scott called on legislators to use a projected budget surplus to enact large tax cuts, boost school spending to historic levels and change state laws to make textbooks and graduate school tuition cheaper.
But the surplus has largely vanished amid a tug-of-war over health care. Senate leaders pushed to steer money away from tax cuts to help replace federal aid for hospitals that is being lost this summer.
Scott, who is suing the federal government over the loss of the aid, had maintained that there was a way to change the state's hospital funding formulas that would have preserved state money for other items. But his plan has been rejected because it would have resulted in millions in cuts to some of the state's largest public hospitals in metro areas such as Miami.
Scott, who promised voters to cut taxes by more than $1 billion over two years, asked for nearly $700 million in cuts during the first year of his new term. House Republicans have scaled it back to just under $300 million, although they have proposed additional cuts that would increase the size of cut by another $100 million in the second year. They have reduced the size of a cellphone tax cut pushed by Scott from roughly $43 a year to $10 a year. The House also jettisoned a proposal to exempt college textbooks from sales taxes; in its place, legislators proposed to waive the taxes during three days over the next year.
House and Senate budget negotiators have also proposed a 3 percent boost in per-pupil funding. That increase, however, would fall short of the record level promised by Scott. The governor is also having trouble winning support for a proposal to set aside $85 million for incentives to attract new companies to the state.
Scott angered Senate Republicans when he switched his position from two years ago and came out against their proposal to expand health care coverage. But Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican and Senate budget chief, maintained "this isn't personal."
Florida House slashes tax cuts to free cash for hospitals posted on 6/3/15
by john kennedy | Palm Beach Post
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House’s $690 million package of tax cuts was sharply downsized Tuesday as lawmakers sought a budget deal pivoted on getting the Senate to drop its bid for a sweeping health care expansion.
The House’s revamped plan would trim taxes by $299.3 million next year, about $400 million less than it considered slashing during the regular session, freeing that remainder to be steered toward helping hospitals, a Senate priority.
The biggest piece of House tax reductions, which also would cut taxes by $436.5 million in 2016-17, would affect the taxes Floridians pay for phone and television services. The plan would cut a $100-a-month cellphone bill by about $10 next year and $20 a year later, compared to the $43 reduction Gov. Rick Scott wanted.
The $670 million package of cuts originally proposed by Scott now looks likely to become a casualty of the months-long clash among Florida’s Republican leaders.
“The Florida House would have preferred a larger tax cut … but it takes two chambers to pass a law,” said House Finance and Taxation Committee Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. “I think we’ve taken up some proposals and enhanced some proposals in this tax package that should encourage the Florida Senate to cut taxes.”
Other provisions included in the bill approved by Gaetz’s committee were an Aug. 7-9 sales-tax holiday on back-to-school supplies and a tax-free Saturday for small businesses after Thanksgiving. The package also would revise Scott’s call to permanently eliminate the sales tax on college textbooks, and instead lift the tax for single days at the start of the upcoming fall, spring and summer semesters.
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