"From school prayer to the 'shell game' of the federal stimulus money to wining and dining lawmakers, Thursday at the state Capitol is sure to set off fireworks."
The action kicks off at 8:30 a.m. in the Senate Education Pre-K Committee at which Tampa Republican Sen. Ronda Storms' ''inspirational message'' bill will be heard. It has already drawn fire from the Anti-Defamation League for being ``divisive and unconstitutional.''"Florida senators to take up school prayer, lobbyists, budget".
At the same time, the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee takes up Democratic leader Al Lawson's effort to weaken the so-called ''gift ban'' prohibiting lobbyists from entertaining legislators.
Overshadowing it all: The budget.
More: "Capitol Twitter".
Senate moves on taxes
"Florida Senate budget writers sent a message to the House and governor Wednesday: It's time to start talking about new taxes. They are prepared to increase cigarette taxes, eliminate sales tax exemptions and even ask voters to raise the state sales tax a penny to pay for public education." "Florida Senate pushes tax increases to fund education budget".
The Daytona Beach News Journal editorial board: "Within months of becoming governor, Charlie Crist made good on his campaign promise to ease the restoration of civil rights -- including the ability to vote -- for ex-felons who had paid their debt to society. But a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida finds that the process isn't going as smoothly as it should for 1 million-plus people barred from voting or holding jobs in a number of regulated industries." "Life after prison".
The Gambling solution?
"Teens could gamble, Tampa Bay Downs could install electronic bingo and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino could offer roulette and craps under a pair of Senate bills that breezed through committee Wednesday." "Gambling Bill Clears Senate Panel". See also "Senate panel OKs gambling accord" and "Senators bet 18 isn't too young to gamble".
The Miami Herald editorial board: "Florida lawmakers are behaving as if the pot of gold they envision coming from a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe is real instead of a mirage. They should get a grip. Take a deep breath. Pinch themselves back to reality. We're in the midst of a record-setting recession, and every one of the rosy projections by lawmakers of hundreds of millions in new revenue for Florida schools will be affected by the harsh reality of the global economic collapse."
You wouldn't know this from looking at the revenue projections in the House and Senate bills describing how the state can make Gov. Crist's illegal gambling compact with the Seminoles all legal and good. The Senate plan estimates that a new pact could produce $400 million in annual payments to the state from the tribe. The less-ambitious House plan projects $100 million in annual revenues to the state.Much more here: "No buried treasure at end of this rainbow".
These dream-like numbers are emblematic of lawmakers' muddled thinking and utter desperation to find an easy way to honor their constitutional mandate to provide a ''high quality'' education for Florida children. Reliance on gambling proceeds to fund education is risky at best, a leadership failure at worst.
Instead of making a straight-forward assessment of state resources and revenue streams -- review Florida's outdated tax code, for example -- lawmakers are looking for the quick fix.
From the "values" crowd
"Florida is on the verge of forfeiting more than $1 billion in federal stimulus funds that could help 250,000 Floridians whose unemployment benefits are running out." Get this: "the House leadership sent an e-mail to members telling them how to respond if constituents are upset that the state would turn down more than $1 billion in aid. The e-mail said taking the money now would mean a hardship later for Florida companies that pay into the state's unemployment insurance fund."
And behind it all are the usual suspects: "Republicans say there are too many strings attached". And,
Tammy Perdue, general counsel of business lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida, is concerned the state would be on the hook to pay out at least an additional $74 million annually in unemployment benefits if it amends its laws to get the federal money. ''We don't believe the pot of money is really worth that long-term exposure,'' Perdue said."State might reject stimulus cash for jobless". See also "Lawmakers might reject stimulus money for jobless benefits".
No more arrests for "throwing an eraser" ?!?
"Children no longer would be arrested for such minor violations of zero tolerance polices as bringing plastic butter knives to school, drawing pictures of guns or throwing an eraser under measures moving through the Florida Legislature." "Bills Would Loosen Zero Tolerance Policies In Florida".
"Crist said after the meeting that he believes the Immokalee workers are not being treated with dignity by their employers and that he will not tolerate injustice or arrogance." "Crist, farmworkers talk about labor conditions". See also "Farm workers push Crist on labor laws".
"Former Gov. Jeb Bush repeatedly declined invitations to meet with the group ...". "Crist first Florida governor to meet with farmworkers group since 1990s".
Skulking in the shadows
"As a grand jury today in Tallahassee continues examining Rep. Ray Sansom's ties to Northwest Florida State College, some wonder why college president Bob Richburg hasn't endured equal scrutiny. " "Sansom's counterpart avoids scrutiny". Background: "The rise and fall of Ray Sansom".
"Florida senators on Wednesday offered a stitched-together plan to avoid teacher layoffs and school closings by drawing on stimulus cash from Congress and increased taxes from smokers and gamblers." "Florida Senate plan aims to rescue schools".
"A right to know who has access to the governor"
The Miami Herald editorial board: "What is troubling is that Gov. Crist refuses to make public his political-travel itinerary and the names of the owners of the private jets he uses. The governor who refreshingly promised a more-transparent government should rethink this position -- and make full disclosure. Floridians -- all of them -- have a right to know who has access to the governor." "Open government means full disclosure".
The South Florida Sun Sentinel editorial board: "Crist's response to flights is dismissive, weak".
"The Florida Chamber of Commerce says ..."
The St. Petersburg Times editorial board: "When Florida workers are injured on the job but denied compensation, they have the right to pursue a challenge. But a bill scheduled to be heard by the Florida House today would make it more difficult for injured workers to hire a lawyer."
The Florida Chamber of Commerce says it is vital that lawmakers pass legislation, HB 903 and SB 2072, to set aside a 2008 Florida Supreme Court ruling that released attorney fees from statutory caps. Otherwise, the chamber claims workers' compensation insurance rates could rise sharply, repeating the era when Florida had some of the highest rates in the nation. But that alarm is premature. Employers will actually see lower rates this year than last. And the proposed legislation would undermine workers' rights."Hurting hurt workers".
Wage cuts for thee ...
Even though Florida's state employees are already at the bottom of the barrel, The Tampa Trib editors think "lawmakers are right to consider salary cuts this year." "Fair To Look At Wage Cuts".
Hasner blames Dems
The Palm Beach Post editorial board: "In Tallahassee, March 2009 sounds a lot like December 1991. Uh-oh."
That year, the Legislature was trying to deal with the last recession to hit Florida and the state budget hard. After the Florida Supreme Court ruled that then-Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Florida Cabinet couldn't cut nearly $600 million from the budget on their own, Mr. Chiles called the Legislature into a special session that closed the gap but ended with Democrats and Republicans accusing each other of deception and betrayal."This time, GOP must serve".
Then, Democrats controlled Tallahassee. Now, Republicans are in charge. Once again, at least in the House, each party is accusing the other of putting politics over responsibility as legislators look at a $6.5 billion problem in next year's budget. "The (Democratic) leadership is telling their members to stand on the sidelines and let the Republicans get us out of what they got us into," said House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach. Said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West: "The Republicans want to get just enough votes from their members to pass tax increases, get all the Democrats to vote for them, and then accuse us of raising taxes. But they are the majority. The onus is on them."
In terms of perspective, Rep. Saunders has the edge on Rep. Hasner, who has been in the Legislature just since 2002.
The Daytona Beach News Journal editorial board writes today that "Voters in this state are losing another valued ally with Common Cause's decision to shut down its Florida operations and lay off longtime state executive director Ben Wilcox. The cuts, part of the nonprofit government watchdog group's larger national response to falling contributions in the dour economy, come at a bad time for Floridians." "Florida losing an uncommon voice".
If you have the cash
"Floridians may soon be able to pay to get a civil-court hearing and jump the line of the state's clogged and underfunded courts." "Proposed bill offers option for swamped courts".
"Version No. 3 of the governor's Big Sugar buy is expected to net less than half the land for Everglades restoration but cut taxpayer costs by about $800 million." "Gov. Charlie Crist to downsize Everglades-U.S. Sugar deal".
Class size compromise?
"Florida Senate leaders are crafting a plan to combine a proposed class-size amendment with a penny sales-tax increase for education and put the issue before voters as early as this fall. The deal is designed to bridge the divide between Republicans and Democrats on the two major education issues of this year's legislative session. Republicans would get the class-size modification they want, and Democrats would get the penny sales tax they have been hoping for as money dedicated to public education." "Class-size amendment linked to penny sales-tax hike".
A Florida visual
"The image is surreal, oddly compelling and a spot-on barometer of how badly Florida's construction industry is struggling: more than 2,000 green, molded plastic portable toilets lined up like boxy soldiers". "No relief in sight for portable-toilet companies".
Who Elected ...
... the Zell Corporation anyway? The Orlando Sentinel editorial board: "Obama needs to stand up to his party and govern more from the center".
Note: "center" = Chamber of Commerce
Why not in-state (or better yet, in-Country) products?
"The state is issuing the 'Florida Backyard' card program to encourage consumers to shop in state as a way to jump-start the local economy." "Florida launches program to encourage in-state shopping".
A bit over the top
"A Collier County man says state social workers trapped his family during a routine visit with his grandchildren that ended with his daughter and wife being detained by immigration officials." "Immigrants held during DCF visit in Florida".
"Businessman crusades to keep prepaid tuition cheap".
"With just one jocular partisan shot, Gov. Charlie Crist paid a warm tribute Wednesday night to six "great Floridians" whose pioneering service shaped the state's cultural, educational and environmental quality of life." "Crist lauds 'great Floridians'".
No fake tans
"Teens who 'fake bake' may be out of luck under a new bill that would prohibit those under 16 from using tanning beds." "Florida bill may burn underage tanners".
"Clerks of court throughout the state have been collecting filing fees they shouldn't in divorce cases since last July, a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Tampa claims." "Fla. clerks of court sued".