Weekly Roundup: A Star-Struck Capitol Keeps the Cameras On
Around the State
Tallahassee was coated in yellow as the session neared its midpoint this week.
Some legislators may have wished that the film of pollen blanketing the city was pixie dust as the reality begins to set in that "bills will die."
Capitol denizens were handed at least a temporary distraction from the sneezing and sniffling, overshadowed by giddiness spawned by soccer superstar -- and all-purpose hunk -- David Beckham. Numerous lawmakers, along with Gov. Rick Scott, flooded Twitter with "selfies" shot with the entrepreneur, who made the rounds in search of funding for a pro-soccer stadium project Beckham is planning in Miami.
Red-light runners got watery-eyed for a different reason. Sponsors in both chambers put the brakes on a red-light camera repeal this year, admitting they don't have the votes to turn off the mechanical watchdogs.
As the azaleas burst into bloom, budget writers in the House and Senate put the finishing touches on their respective versions of the state's roughly $75 billion spending plan for the upcoming year. The proposals are separated by different approaches to four-year college degrees and spending on water projects.
And with nothing related to spring but perhaps a lot to do with the fall election season, Gov. Rick Scott's elections chief announced he is dropping a controversial process to scrub the voter rolls of non-U.S. citizens. Secretary of State Ken Detzner blamed the federal government for his reversal, but critics say Scott's administration backed off because the process risked alienating Hispanic voters considered crucial for a re-election win in November.
DUELING BUDGETS HEADED FOR FLOOR VOTES:
The House and Senate budget committees finalized their preliminary spending plans with few -- but noticeable -- differences.
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved a $74.9 billion budget, one day after its House counterpart signed off on a $75.3 billion spending plan.
The Senate blueprint includes more funding for higher education and water projects in South Florida, while the House earmarks more for public education and state springs preservation. The House plan (PCB APC 14-09) would plow hundreds of millions of dollars more into education-construction projects. Lawmakers have plenty of time to iron out differences between the two spending plans during conference meetings over the next few weeks.
The Senate budget writers spent the bulk of their meeting Thursday debating a portion of the proposal that could potentially pit state colleges against state universities. The Senate plan (SB 2500) would cut $3.5 million from state colleges' four-year degree programs and steer those funds toward state universities.
Scaling back four-year degree programs at state colleges, which were at one time community colleges that offered two-year degrees, has been an ongoing dispute between colleges and universities. Critics accuse the State Board of Education, which oversees the colleges, of too readily granting four-year degree programs.
At Thursday's meeting, several senators complained that the colleges are creating too much competition for the universities, overseen separately by the Board of Governors. The four-year degrees at state colleges are supposed to cater to local workforce needs, the critics said.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said there were now 175 four-year programs offered at state colleges, which have veered away from their core mission of two-year degrees and prepping students for university study. Negron said he wants Florida universities to be in the same "elite level" as the University of Virginia, the University of North-Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan.
"And we can't do that if we're running two systems that are overlapping," he said.
Negron also pointed out that the proposed cut is just a fraction of the nearly $1.2 billion in funding for state colleges, which would still see an overall increase when other spending is factored in.
But Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is in a battle against Negron for a future Senate presidency, slammed the proposal. He said it would lead to lawmakers protecting their pet colleges and could run counter to the Legislature and Scott's drive to lower tuition costs.
"When our governor made a bold request to try to find institutions that would give a $10,000 college degree, I didn't see any universities step forward and say that (they would do it)," Latvala said. "It was our state colleges that stepped forward to do that."
RED-LIGHT CAMERA BLUES:
Red-light cameras won't be turned off in Florida this year. House and Senate sponsors of measures that would repeal the traffic monitors this week put the brakes on what has become a perennial fight in the Legislature.
Senate Transportation Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, backed away from a repeal effort (SB 144) after it became clear he did not have the votes to pass it in his own committee. Instead, he proposed changes to increase regulations on red-light cameras, but the bill remained stuck in his committee.
On Wednesday, the panel shot down attempts by Brandes to amend the bill. The committee rejected an amendment that would have allowed motorists to employ a "rolling stop" at speeds up to 15 mph when taking right-on-red turns if no pedestrians were in the crosswalk. The Florida Police Chiefs Association and Florida Sheriffs Association opposed that plan. And the committee also red-lighted an amendment that would have required warnings instead of tickets to be issued to owners of vehicles caught on camera going through traffic signals 0.5 seconds after the colors changed from yellow to red.
"Clearly if I don't have the votes to adopt simple amendments that are common sense, such as standardizing turns throughout the state of Florida, clearly you would see that the broader issue was not long for this world," said Brandes, a harsh critic of the cameras first authorized by the Legislature four years ago and now in use by 77 county and city governments across the state.
Brandes and Rep. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican who is sponsoring a House companion, contend that the cameras are cash cows for local governments and are an invasion of privacy.
To keep his proposal on track earlier in the week, Artiles backed down from his original plan to ban new cameras from being installed.
The revised measure (HB 7005) would allow new cameras at intersections but only if their use is justified through traffic engineering studies.
Artiles' original proposal would also have reduced fines from $158 to $83, eliminating the money local governments could collect from the red-light runners.
In early February, Artiles and Brandes held a press conference in the Capitol to highlight a report from the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, the Legislature's nonpartisan policy office. The report found there were fewer fatalities but more crashes at electronically monitored intersections and that fines issued due to the technology cost motorists nearly $119 million last year.
But groups such as the Florida League of Cities have opposed legislative attempts to dramatically change red-light camera programs. Those groups contend the cameras are a public safety tool.
"It's about revenue, it's not about safety," Artiles told the House Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee on Monday. "What good is it for cities and counties and the state to collect this revenue and not implement it for safety purposes?"
VOTER SCRUB SCRUBBED, REDUX:
Detzner went on the road in October to pitch a controversial cleansing of the voter rolls. The state had won its battle with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and gained access to a database Detzner and his lawyers insisted is crucial to guaranteeing that people registered to vote in Florida are U.S. citizens. Use of the database would give the state the opportunity to revamp a previously flawed process that misidentified thousands of eligible voters in 2012, Detzner said at the time.
Less than six months later, Detzner took many by surprise with Thursday's announcement that he is scrapping the scrub. Despite its seemingly benign "Project Integrity" label, critics of the process insisted it was designed to target minority voters, especially Hispanics.
Detzner blamed the feds for his turnaround, saying that the database was undergoing changes that won't be complete until 2015. As a result, Detzner told elections supervisors he decided "to postpone implementing Project Integrity" until the modifications are complete, which would be long after the November election -- with Scott on the ballot -- is over.
Supervisors abandoned the 2012 effort, which was the brainchild of Scott, after discovering that the lists of voters flagged by Detzner's office as potential noncitizens were riddled with errors.
Of the 2,600 targeted voters, 85 were found to be ineligible to vote and dropped from the rolls. After the U.S. Department of Justice sued Scott over the purge, Scott took the Obama administration to court to get access to the database. A deal between the state and the Department of Homeland Security was struck last year.
Critics of the purge accused Scott of trying to prevent minorities in Florida -- a critical swing state -- from voting in the 2012 presidential election because many of the voters on the list had Hispanic-sounding last names. Hispanics are considered a crucial voting bloc in the upcoming governor's race.
The voter purge turnaround comes as Scott, whose 2010 platform included support of an Arizona-style immigration law, is embroiled in controversy related to former campaign finance chairman Mike Fernandez's resignation from the team. Fernandez complained, in part, about campaign officials ignoring his advice about how to deal with Hispanics.
In a series of internal emails leaked to The Miami Herald and Politico, Fernandez, a billionaire who raised more than $30 million for the governor's re-election effort, criticized the campaign for being insensitive to Hispanics. The Herald reported that Fernandez complained about two campaign aides making jokes in an Hispanic accent while en route to a Mexican restaurant.
Scott's campaign manager Melissa Sellers said that Fernandez was not in the van when the reported comments were made.
"If something was said in an accent, no one remembers what it was. We are a diverse organization and we do not tolerate inappropriate comments," Sellers said in an email.
While civil- and voting-rights organizations applauded Detzner's announcement, Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant accused Scott's team of an attempt at "damage control" by abandoning the purge.
Now, embroiled in a scandal involving racist jokes targeting Hispanics, the governor suddenly has made (an) about-face and suspends the latest attempt to kick voters off of the voting rolls -- attempts that have overwhelmingly targeted Hispanics in the past. "It is now clear to all that the original reasons given for the voter purge (were) mere pretexts to intimidate voters Rick Scott would frankly rather not vote," Tant said in a statement.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Florida drops controversial election-year voter purge.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "In November, I will vote for every Florida politician that doesn't have a selfie with David Beckham. Both of them." -- Documentary film director Billy Corben.