Weekly Roundup: Game On for Gambling, Water War, Purge
Around the State
There was no shutdown in state government this week, even as federal agencies closed their doors because of a budget squabble between congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama.
In fact, most state agencies were expected to weather the ripple effects of the shutdown with relatively little trouble, as long as it doesn't drag on too much longer. "We are working closely with our agencies to monitor any potential state impact," a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott wrote in an email.
But it was quiet enough in Tallahassee and other corners of state government that it could almost be mistaken for a shutdown. New laws took effect with relatively little fuss, and preparations were made for a second week of committee meetings ahead of the 2014 legislative session.
A gambling study was being edited to ends that are unclear. And there were so many battles over fresh water that it was easy to mistake the political scene for a post-apocalyptic Kevin Costner movie. Karen churned off the coast, a reminder that hurricane season is still in full swing.
For the time being, though, the troubles affecting Washington, D.C., remained far removed from Florida.
ROUND AND ROUND IT GOES:
The opening bid on expanded gambling in Florida didn't initially seem as if it would go well for those who want to open resort casinos in Florida or those who just want more opportunity to play blackjack. A draft of an analysis by The Spectrum Gaming Group, obtained by the News Service of Florida, suggested that making a play at Las Vegas' status as the nation's premier gambling destination wouldn't boost the economy much.
"Overall, Spectrum believes that the expansion of casino gambling, whether on a small scale or very large scale, would have, at best, a moderately positive impact on the state economy," according to the draft report.
Lawmakers plan to rely heavily on the economic analysis by Spectrum to craft the state's gambling landscape during the 2014 legislative session.
But at least some lawmakers seemed to be seeking a different deal. They insisted they weren't trying to rig the game, just trying to get a firmer set of numbers. But on Tuesday, Spectrum executives asked for another 30 days to complete the study conducted with its partner Regional Economic Models Inc., or REMI. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the Legislature asked for the revision because of questions raised by the Legislature's economist, Amy Baker.
"We must respectfully request an extension of the deadline in order to fully review the results of the REMI model, which require more detailed examination to ensure their accuracy, and that those results are presented in a manner that is clear and understandable to all readers," Spectrum Managing Director Michael Pollock wrote Tuesday in a letter to Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
A month ago, legislative staff asked Spectrum to revise a previous draft of the report because of concerns about assumptions built into the REMI analysis.
The analysis was based in part on an assumption that a compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe, set to expire in 2015 unless reauthorized by the governor and the Legislature, would be renewed. The part of the deal at issue gives the Seminoles the exclusive rights to operate card games like blackjack and baccarat at tribal casinos in exchange for about $233 million in annual payments to the state.
After this week's move to rework the numbers again, Gaetz insisted that the report was not rejected because of its content.
"The Legislature has not and will not request that any outcomes be changed," he wrote.
But on Friday, Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, issued a memo to the committee members accompanied by a highly marked-up version of the report identifying areas "needing clarification and explanation." Spectrum analysts will appear at a committee meeting Monday.
Numerous tables -- along with conclusions -- based on the REMI model are highlighted, including one which said the state would lose $22 million a year under "the most robust" gambling scenario of 33 casinos and six destination resorts throughout the state.
"Please disregard economic and fiscal impact calculations and findings in this section," reads a note by committee staff director John Guthrie attached to many of the melon-colored problematic portions in the report.
FLORIDA ROLLS DICE IN WATER WAR:
Meanwhile, the water wars continued with a new salvo against Georgia, as Florida filed a lawsuit Tuesday in the U.S. Supreme Court as part of a long-running battle with the Peach State over river withdrawals that Florida says have damaged Apalachicola Bay.
The only question seems to be whether it's too late to help the Franklin County seafood workers who were already struggling to survive.
Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi followed through on an August announcement that Florida would seek injunctive relief so more water would flow to the bay, which collapsed last year in the face of a historic drought and dwindling releases of fresh water from Georgia.
The lawsuit is the latest skirmish in a 23-year dispute among Florida, Georgia and Alabama about the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.
According to the lawsuit filed Tuesday, Georgia is using more than 360 million gallons of water daily and expects that figure to nearly double to 705 million gallons daily by 2040.
"Peak withdrawals, associated with watering lawns, car washing, golf courses, and parks, come when inflow needs are most critical to Florida -- the dry summer months," the lawsuit said. "Conservation efforts in Georgia have been minimal, even though it is the most cost-effective and readily available way to meet Georgia’s growing demands."
But a spokesman for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said the state would defend its water rights.
"The only 'unmitigated consumption' going on around here is Florida’s waste of our tax dollars on a frivolous lawsuit," said Deal’s communications director, Brian Robinson.
The bay's historical productivity has come from its mix of salt water and fresh water, but without enough fresh water coming from Georgia, the mixture is too salty for oysters and other seafood to thrive. Historically, the bay produced 90 percent of Florida's oysters and 10 percent of the nation's supply, but no more.
"The oyster houses aren't able to fill their orders," said Dan Tonsmeire, executive director of Apalachicola Riverkeeper. "The people ordering the oysters go somewhere else, so they lose their market."
There have been a variety of skirmishes about the water over the decades, but Scott's office said this lawsuit differs from others because "those cases addressed the management of the interstate waters by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, not depletions by the states. This case goes directly to the source of the harms suffered by Florida and Apalachicola Bay -- upstream consumption and storage of water by Georgia."
But while there was a lack of fresh water in Northwest Florida, there was a surplus of it in some parts of South Florida. So state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, asked Congress on Thursday to give control of Lake Okeechobee to Florida in an effort to cut back on harmful water releases into estuaries on both sides of the lake.
"The Army Corps of Engineers has been running this project for decades; they have failed, and they need to be replaced with those of us in Florida that we can vote for or against and people that have our best interest at heart," Negron said.
Negron asked Congress to wrest control of the lake from the Army Corps of Engineers as members of Congress repeatedly expressed bipartisan support for longstanding efforts to clean waterways east and west of the lake and to secure funding so more water can be directed to the south.
The Army Corps, which didn't have representatives at the meeting due to the federal government shutdown, tries to maintain the water level of the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet to lessen stress on the dike, which is basically a 30-foot-high earthen structure that surrounds the lake.
HIGH-STAKES PURGE STARTS AGAIN:
Secretary of State Ken Detzner traveled Thursday to Panama City to pitch a renewed noncitizen voter purge process to skeptical elections supervisors.
A similar effort last year led to months of political controversy and legal fights. It all began when the state sent the names of nearly 200,000 potentially ineligible voters to elections supervisors, telling them that the people on the list may not be U.S. citizens and, if they weren’t, to scrub them from the voting rolls.
Detzner and Gov. Rick Scott said they were trying to make sure ineligible people didn't vote, but Democrats accused them of trying to suppress the minority vote -- and using a slipshod system to do it. Criticisms from the left escalated after analysis of the names showed that more than half of the flagged voters were minorities, who helped boost President Obama to victory in 2008 and in 2012.
Detzner admitted the state mishandled last year’s purge but made clear to more than a dozen Northwest Florida elections supervisors on Thursday that state elections officials have a new process of identifying potentially ineligible voters that shows they learned from last year’s mistakes. To underscore that message, the Department of State has dubbed the effort "Project Integrity."
"It's going to start very slowly. It's going to be deliberative," Detzner said. "We want to make sure that you're confident that the information we are giving you is the kind of information you demand from the Division of Elections."
The state will start checking eligibility only of new voter applicants, and will again match voting applications with driver’s license records that include information about legal status and an “alien registration number” for non-U.S. citizens, who are allowed to drive.
If the voter shows up as a potential noncitizen, the state will then use the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE, database, to check out his or her legal status. The records will then be manually checked by someone in the state Division of Elections before being sent to local supervisors, who are the only ones authorized to remove a voter from the rolls.
"This is not data dumping back and forth where we send lists to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and we send thousands of lists up to SAVE," Detzner assured the supervisors.
But Democrats accused Scott, who is seeking re-election, of another election-year ploy aimed at reducing the number of minority voters.
“It's an attempt to suppress voting because you can't win an election fair and square without doing it,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant told reporters on a conference call Thursday.
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz accused Scott of trying to scare voters into believing that the voting rolls are riddled with noncitizens. Fewer than 200 of the nearly 200,000 voters flagged as potentially ineligible turned out to be non-U.S. citizens last year.
"If your path to victory requires voter purges and suppression then you are not fit to govern and you certainly don't deserve a second chance," Wasserman Schultz said.
Detzner has insisted all along that he’s just doing his job, which requires him to make sure the central voter database is clean of ineligible voters, including felons, deceased persons, people who’ve been deemed mentally incompetent by judges, and noncitizens.
STORY OF THE WEEK: A draft of a $400,000 study indicates that expanded gambling in Florida would have a relatively minimal impact on the economy. But the final version will be reworked, with Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, saying the report was too confusing and needed to be reviewed for accuracy.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I don't take my direction from political parties or leaders of particular groups. I listen to people who have positive contributions to make and look for ways to accommodate their needs, but most important is the credibility and reliability of the work that we do. I intend to follow the direction of the Florida Legislature" -- Secretary of State Ken Detzner, after meeting with elections supervisors to pitch a renewed purge of noncitizens from voting rolls.