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Business Observer Thursday, Apr. 19, 2012 6 years ago

Capitol Chatter: April 20

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Tax Watch Turkeys, vetoed budget items, PIP returns, and the vote for gambling.
by: Rod Thomson Staff Writer

TaxWatch turkeys
gobble up money

It seems politicians will be politicians, no matter how big the budget hole or for how many years.

To wit, after four years of multi-billion-dollar budget cutting, Florida TaxWatch was still able to identify $171 million worth of budget “turkeys” passed by the Florida Legislature this past session.

These are projects that the tax watchdog group points out did not go through the proper procedures and were tacked onto another bill in the waning hours of the session, without all the proper vetting.

Here's how TaxWatch explains it: “The 'budget turkey' label does not necessarily judge a project's worthiness, but instead is focused on the budget process, mainly instances where the Legislature has not followed its own policies and procedures to ensure the highest standards of accountability and government efficiency.”

Nearly half of the items on the turkey list were added during or after the budget conference process, after the full House and Senate had voted out their spending plans and a conference is held to iron out the differences. That group in the final days totaled $82.6 million and bypassed the committees and public review of the rest of the bills.

For example, 19 local water projects worth $19 million were put in the budget without review or input from the Department of Environmental Protection, despite the fact that state law requires such a review.

Florida TaxWatch says the 159 items on the list is the most since 2007 — which coincidentally is when economic and real estate declines got under way.

Gov. Rick Scott vetoed more than 90% of the items on TaxWatch's list last year. See below for his vetoes this year.

Here are some of the biggest Gulf Coast items on Florida TaxWatch's “turkey” list:

• Hillsborough: USF-Heart Health Institute — $6,893,118

• Sarasota:¬†Rowing Center — $5,000,000

• Lee: Southwest Florida Destination Graduation Program — $3,250,000

• Pinellas: St. Petersburg College-Bay Pines Marine Science Labs/Classrooms — $2,500,000

Scott signs budget,
axes most “turkeys”

Gov. Rick Scott signed the state budget Tuesday that includes more than $1 billion in increased education funding while he nixed $143 million worth of “turkeys” out of $171 million identified by Florida TaxWatch.

Scott referred to it as the “education budget” and symbolically signed it at an elementary school in Jacksonville.

As he did last year, Scott also took a personal pay cut to 1 penny per month for the coming fiscal year.

While Scott's veto pin was sharp, some big items made the cut in Sarasota that did not last year.

Scott signed $5 million for the rowing center along Interstate 75 that he had vetoed last year. The $40 million facility is one of the region's primary economic development projects and already has $20 million from Sarasota County, plus backing from Manatee County and private donations.

However, the state funding comes with a caveat. If the rowing center does not meet some specific economic goals, the money must be paid back.

Scott also approved $1 million for the Loveland Center in Venice that helps developmentally disabled adults, another item Scott vetoed last year.

Here are some of the Gulf Coast items that Scott vetoed:

• Children's Hospital-Planning and Design, Lee County — $1,500,000

• Manatee Glens County Crisis Stabilization Unit — $750,000

• Florida Aquarium, Tampa — $500,000

• Pinellas Receiving Facility — $250,000

• Hillsborough Avenue & 30th Street Stormwater Improvements — $200,000

• Girls Inc. of Sarasota County — $100,000

Probing for loopholes
in new PIP law

There's entrepreneurism and then there's opportunism of questionable ethics.

No sooner had the Legislature approved a reform of Florida's no-fault insurance law known as PIP, for personal injury protection, than companies and doctors began probing for loopholes.

The new legislation continues to require Florida drivers to carry $10,000 of no-fault insurance for quick disbursement after an accident, but lowers attorney fees and cracks down on PIP clinics. It also banned PIP payments to massage companies and limited payments for non-emergency treatment — an area dominated by chiropractors — to $2,500.

The Associate Press reported that the Tampa health care staffing firm Medical on Demand Staffing sent out a solicitation flier saying, “Chiropractors. Don't miss out on your $7,500. We Have The Medical Doctors You Need.”

The company offers to send medical doctors or osteopaths to chiropractors' offices to examine patients who were in car accidents to determine if they qualify for emergency care and thus are eligible for the $10,000 PIP benefit.

The Sun-Sentinel reported that a Hollywood orthopedic surgeon sent letters to lawyers offering immediate examinations of car accident patients to determine if they need “emergency” treatment.

And the Florida Chiropractic Association posted on its website that members were receiving solicitations from companies offering to send medical physicians to determine if a patient needed “emergency” care.

If at first you fail,
try, try the ballot box

One thing you can say for gambling interests: They don't give up easily.

For decades, the casino gambling industry has been trying to make Vegas-style gambling legal in Florida. But they have been rebuffed since as least 1978.

This last session, when the proposal failed to get enough support in a House committee and was pulled by its sponsor, was the most recent setback. But everyone expects it to come back next session.

However, it also appears that the casino operators might take another track. A Tallahassee lobbyist has created a PAC called New Jobs and Revenue for Florida with the goal of putting a constitutional referendum on gambling before voters. The lobbyist, John French, was not revealing his pro-casino backers.

The proposal for some $2 billion mega-casinos in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area was a major issue this session. Backers promised jobs, revenues, taxes to local and state government and a boost to the economy.

But opponents included Walt Disney World, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, other existing gambling interests and anti-gambling advocates.

That same array will oppose any referendum. Past referendums on casino gambling failed in 1978, 1986 and 1994. Although public support increased each time, the highest topped out at 39% — a long haul from the needed 60%.

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