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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Scott's bond director weighs in on Visit Florida cuts

There were polite smiles for Gov. Rick Scott flanked by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, left, and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, on the first day of the 2016 session

Steve Cannon, AP

There were polite smiles for Gov. Rick Scott flanked by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, left, and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, on the first day of the 2016 session

Out of sight and out of the country, Gov. Rick Scott appeared to be on the losing end of budget negotiations Tuesday as House and Senate negotiators scaled down Enterprise Florida to a shell and reduced Visit Florida funding from $75 million to $25 million.

So the governor dispatched his chief bond officer, Ben Watkins, to send somewhat of a warning letter about the impact of the potential cuts. 

"The State of Florida realizes a return on the Visit Florida investment not only through creating jobs and growing the economy, but by collecting various taxes on the money spent by visitors to our State,'' wrote Watkins, director of the Division of Bond Finance. 

Watkins didn't say that the Visit Florida cuts would reduce the bond rating but he tried to make the link, suggesting any potential loss in tourism revenues could lead to a drop in state and local revenues and that, perhaps, could reduce bond ratings.

"Even a 2% reduction in visitors would result in a loss of $2.2 billion in travel spending and $225 million in tax revenue,"  he wrote. Download Ben Watkins letter to Legis

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Senate advances bill to let FPL charge customers for fracking

Opponents of FPL's plan to charge customers for natural gas fracking hold a press conference at the Florida Capitol.

Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

Opponents of FPL's plan to charge customers for natural gas fracking hold a press conference at the Florida Capitol.

Florida Power & Light’s quest to have customers pay for natural gas fracking projects in other states overcame a key hurdle Tuesday as the Senate Rules Committee passed the controversial measure and overlooked opposition from residential and commercial customers.

The proposal, SB 1238 by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, now goes to the Senate floor. A similar measure in the House, HB 1043, has made it through one of three committees in that chamber.

The goal of the legislation is to overturn a Florida Supreme Court ruling last year that found the Public Service Commission exceeded its authority when it gave FPL permission to charge customers up to $500 million for investing in an Oklahoma-based fracking company in 2015. Although the company predicted the project would save customers millions in fuel costs, it resulted in a loss of $5.6 million in the first year.

The Rules Committee adopted a series of amendments proposed by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who opposes the measure, and approved the modified bill on a bipartisan vote of 7-3. …

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Rick Scott to Trump: Trade more with Argentina

Rick Scott in Argentina

[Twitter]

Rick Scott in Argentina

As the Legislature was considering eliminating Enterprise Florida, the agency's biggest champion was visiting Argentina. And yes, he was there on an Enterprise Florida trip.

Meanwhile, his office released a letter from Scott to President Donald Trump, touting Argentina.

Here's the letter.

Dear Mr. President:

This week, I am proud to lead an economic development mission to Argentina with more than 60 Florida business leaders – the first by any governor from the United States under Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s Administration. It was a true honor to meet with President Macri firsthand to discuss growing business opportunities and trade investments between our two homes. President Macri is already working hard to create robust economic opportunities for his country and has demonstrated a commitment to pursuing closer trade relations with Florida and the United States. …

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Jeb Bush, Derek Jeter land the Marlins deal, according to reports

The following is from the Washington Post:

In consolidating their efforts earlier this month to purchase the Miami Marlins, Jeb Bush and Derek Jeter made for the ultimate political pairing - one titan of actual politics and one of baseball politics, the former governor of Florida and the most recognizable face in the game. The fact Bush was now a failed Republican presidential candidate and Jeter a retired player hardly mattered. If they could come up with the money, they were the frontrunners to land the Marlins.

On Tuesday came reports that the Bush/Jeter group, indeed, had been tabbed to buy the Marlins from Jeffrey Loria. Bloomberg News first reported the sale, and the Miami Herald later reported the purchase price to be $1.3 billion. Most of the details, including, crucially, the identity of Bush and Jeter's investors, remain unknown.

The sale would not be finalized until it is approved by Major League Baseball, a process that could take weeks. But assuming the financing is there, approval would not appear to be a major hurdle for Bush and Jeter, given their connections. …

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Gun bill affecting Florida courthouses passes final committee, goes to Senate floor

Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube

AP

Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube

A proposed law that would let 1.7 million conceal-carry permit-holders temporarily store their guns with security while visiting Florida's courthouses is on its way to the Senate floor.

SB 616 from Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube passed its final committee Tuesday afternoon. Members of the Rules Committee endorsed the relatively non-controversial measure -- with at least a couple Democrats opposed -- after offering no discussion or debate.

The full Senate is scheduled to take up Steube’s bill on Thursday, with a floor vote expected Friday.

It is likely to pass, but regardless of the outcome, the bill has little chance at becoming law this year. A companion measure was never filed in the House for members in that chamber to consider.

The courthouse measure is the only one of 10 gun-related bills Steube filed this year that got any traction. Steube is a staunch supporter of Second Amendment rights and campaigned heavily on the topic.

MORE: "Miami lawmaker’s leadership and ‘gun-bill fatigue’ disarm Legislature" …

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Bob Buckhorn itching for a fight, but stands by decision not to run for governor in 2018

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn

Jeremy Wallace/Times

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has already made clear he is not running for governor.

But on Tuesday during a brief appearance in Tallahassee, he sounded like he is still struggling with having passed up a chance to run.

“I’m built for a good fight,” Buckhorn said.

He made clear there were a lot of good reasons to pass on the race, but he said he thinks he would have been a strong candidate. The trouble he said was always going to be how to manage a primary because of his willingness in the mayor’s office to work with Republicans like Gov. Rick Scott on issues.

“That’s what governing should be,” Buckhorn said, acknowledging in a primary it would have been used against him. “I would have had more trouble with the primary than a general.”

Buckhorn said if he had run, he’s not sure if his best selling point - having run a major Florida city - would have carried the same weight as it once did in Florida politics.

“My whole case would have been, ‘look, I can do this job because of [being mayor],’” Buckhorn said. …

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Negron and Corcoran take budget talks into their own hands

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron

Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron

Midway through the day on Tuesday, a framework of a budget deal appeared to be emerging as House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron leapfrogged past their budget chairs and spent much of the morning negotiating a break in the deadlock.

"I'm very encouraged,'' said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, at midday. "The process has continued and so there's continuing offers between the chambers and we'll take it from there."

It became clear that the negotiations were going beyond the detail of the budget allocations and instead reached into trades on major policy bills that have divided the chambers on education, environmental protection, health care and state employees.

The Senate used its Appropriations Committee Tuesday to quickly advance education reforms sought by the House as part of the budget negotiations. With eight minutes left, the Senate passed two large amendments to education bills and took no testimony.

"These issues have been discussed around here and we're just putting them in the conference posture,'' said Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, after the meeting. …

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With medical marijuana bills headed to floor votes, final deal won't have public comment

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island

Lawmakers say they're getting close to agreement on sweeping legislation on how to put voter-mandated medical marijuana into effect. But the details of a deal -- and how it might impact patient access -- are still unclear.

Instead of unveiling the deal to be vetted by House and Senate committees this week, legislators plan to put it forward for full vote by the two chambers, likely next week.

That would likely come in the form of a complete rewrite of the legislation subject to an up-or-down vote on the floor of the House and Senate.

What it means for advocates and activists is this: There won't be an opportunity for public comment on the details of the final plan, which is being arranged by bill sponsors behind closed doors.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who sponsored the Senate's medical marijuana bill (SB 406), said he's "comfortable" with the amount of public input there has been. …

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Group wants investigation into government promotion of Mar-a-Lago

WASHINGTON - The interest group Common Cause wants an investigation into the promotion of Mar-a-Lago on State Department websites.

"The ethics complaint concerns an article the State Department’s ShareAmerica website published profiling the history of the Trump property and describing the Palm Beach club—which doubled its initiation fee to $200,000 after his election—in glowing terms," the group said. "The article was subsequently circulated by multiple U.S. embassies, including on the website of the U.S. Embassy in the United Kingdom and on the Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy in Albania. Federal ethics rules prohibit government employees from endorsing 'any product, service or enterprise.'

The complaint seeks the State Department and Office of Government Ethics to conduct an investigation and hold employees accountable. …

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In Florida, Trump set 100-day bar he now calls 'ridiculous'

WASHINGTON - The White House this morning sent reporters an email titled “President Trump’s 100 Days of Historic Accomplishments,” the latest in an effort to proclaim victory in a benchmark Trump a few days earlier called “ridiculous.”

Trump has also implied he didn’t establish a 100 day plan. “Somebody put out the concept of a hundred-day plan,” he told The Associated Press on Friday.

But there was candidate Trump in St. Augustine last October selling that very contract with voters. “It’s a set of promises for what I’ll do in my first 100 days,” he explained. “It includes getting rid of, immediately, Obamacare, which is a disaster.”

The crowd roared with approval.

Trump remains strong among those most loyal supporters, polls show. Overall, however, he faces the lowest approval rating of any president in decades and is finding working with Congress a challenge.

He can take comfort in this: It's only 100 days (as of this Saturday).

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House Republicans push 'take it or leave it' budget as Democrats accuse GOP of 'playing games'

The House Appropriations Committee in session Tuesday.

Steve Bousquet - Times

The House Appropriations Committee in session Tuesday.

The Florida House on Tuesday forged ahead with House Speaker Richard Corcoran's strategy of sending the Senate a stand-pat, take-it-or-leave-it budget, even as reports swirled that the two sides had begun productive discussions on a number of budget-related policy priorities.

UPDATE, 10 a.m.: Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the next Senate president, told the Herald/Times' Jeremy Wallace that budget talks were back on track and agreement on spending allocations in budget areas could be reached Tuesday.

On a party-line vote, the Republican majority on the 30-member House Appropriations Committee adopted the state's existing $82.1 billion budget for a second fiscal year beginning July 1 -- an action believed to be unprecedented in the Legislature's history. The vote puts the "standard operating budget" in position for a House floor vote. Budget negotiations between Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, broke down over the weekend, but Negron's chief budget-writer, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, was in a noticeably more jovial mood than he was Monday. …

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'Cold case' murder victims get dragged into budget controversy

A rendering of the first-of-its-kind forensics center in Pasco.

University of South Florida

A rendering of the first-of-its-kind forensics center in Pasco.

Nothing is immune from the bruising budget battle between the House and Senate in Tallahassee -- not even victims of unsolved murders.

When House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, excoriated "liberal" senators for loading the budget with hundreds of millions of dollars in hometown projects, the Senate responded in kind. Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, noted that Corcoran wants to take home $4.3 million for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, where the speaker does legal work.

It's a first-of-its-kind Florida forensics laboratory in Land O'Lakes, near the Pasco County jail, that would teach law enforcement professionals and students while focusing on 16,000 estimated "cold case" unsolved murders and missing person cases in Florida.

"I haven't criticized the project," Latvala said. "I'm just saying that it's ironic: He's against projects, but the largest single project in the budget is for him ... It's do as I say, not as I do."

"It had nothing to do with me," Corcoran said. "It's a project, but it's not parochial. It's for the entire state." …

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State Department removes promotion of Trump's Mar-a-Lago

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. State Department has removed its promotional posting about President Donald Trump's Florida resort, after a storm of ethics criticism Monday.

In an April 4 blog post that was republished by several U.S. embassies abroad, Mar-a-Lago was described as "Trump's Florida estate," where he has hosted foreign leaders. "By visiting this 'winter White House,' Trump is belatedly fulfilling the dream of Mar-a-Lago's original owner and designer," the post said.

Left unsaid: Mar-a-Lago is part of Trump's business empire. After his election, the resort doubled its membership fee to $200,000. As president, Trump has visited the property seven times, and its restaurant fills up when he's in town.

The State Department said late Monday that its intention was "to inform the public about where the president has been hosting world leaders" and that it regrets "any misperception." That statement now appears in place of the original blog post.

The White House did not respond to questions about whether it had any involvement in the original posting or the decision to take it down.

More here.

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'The House is prepared to walk away,' K-12 education budget chairman says

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, addresses a luncheon audience at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla. on Jan. 26, 2017 with Miami Republican Rep. Michael Bileca, left.

Kristen M. Clark / Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, addresses a luncheon audience at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla. on Jan. 26, 2017 with Miami Republican Rep. Michael Bileca, left.

If House Republicans follow through this week on plans to vote on a budget for 2017-18 that simply mirrors this year's, they will have to scrap a slew of top education priorities they had sought this year and worked for months to craft -- including their $200 million "schools of hope" plan to provide incentives for specialized, high-performing charter schools to set up in predominantly low-income areas.

"Our responsibility, constitutionally, is to pass a budget, so if it means that's what we have to do and walk away, then that's what we have to do," House pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, told the Herald/Times mid-afternoon on Monday. "We come back next session -- which, September starts committee [weeks] -- and we go back at it again."

The House's backroom offer over the weekend of what its calling a "continuation budget" was rebuffed by Senate leaders, leaving the two chambers deadlocked. The House isn't backing down, though.

MORE: "Stalemate in the Florida Capitol as budget talks collapse" …

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After years of impasse, legislators seem to be conceding courts are now driving gambling train

Slot machines

Miami Herald files

Slot machines

House and Senate leaders conceded Monday that years of Legislative stalemate over the future of slot machine expansion in Florida -- including whether Miami-Dade will be home to additional casinos -- may come to an end not because of their actions but because the courts have forced their hand.

Lawmakers convened a conference committee Monday to work out the differences between their vastly different gambling bills aimed at renewing the gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe. But, in the process they concluded that no matter what they do, a series of court rulings may be driving the train.

“There’s too many lawsuits out there. We have to act,’’ said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, the House's chief gambling negotiator. He noted  that numerous court rulings over the last few years have been nipping away at the compact with the Seminole Tribe by allowing gambling to expand in violation of the compact without legislative approval. …

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