Monday, May 18, 2009

Compare: Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post on legislature ... by gimleteye

I'll say straight out: it's not exactly fair to compare a news report with a newspaper editorial column. But I have been trying to make a point about the parochial and spotty coverage by The Miami Herald of the worst tendencies of the Florida legislature: dominated as it is by Miami Dade County interests.
This comparison gets to the point of the Herald needing a "new narrative" for Florida: and not just the idea the paper has embraced as inevitable... that economic development can only happen through increase in population numbers. (That point is made in today's Business Monday.)

The Herald article is about Miami-Dade legislators bringing home the bacon, for the most part. It is a positive story about the power of the Miami-Dade delegation, with the only negative note about the failure to secure agreement-- possibly because of infighting-- for a half cent sales tax to support Miami Dade College.

If you only read the Herald story, you would have no idea that this legislative session was one of the stinkiest in modern history. OK, so that wasn't what the Herald was writing about. But we still haven't had the full accounting of the worst piece of legislation brought forward during the session: Alex Diaz de la Portilla's effort to ram through changes to election law in Florida. Only a state-wide and then national outcry caused retreat, but it was no thanks to the Herald and we still don't have a clue who in Miami-Dade was its driving force. Though we can guess.

The Palm Beach Post gets a lot closer to a state-wide look, including some sense of the players. I have to say this: I get more from the Palm Beach Post than from our hometown newspaper on state-wide stories.

Posted on Sun, May. 17, 2009
Lawmakers tout wins for Dade

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

With a record budget deficit, this was a year legislators went home with little to brag about. Unless they were from Miami-Dade.

During the legislative session that ended on May 8, Dade lawmakers found money for a medical school at Florida International University at a time when higher education was being cut.

They inserted last-minute language into the budget that gave local school boards the opportunity to temporarily raise property taxes to cover funding shortfalls.

They tucked a provision into an 11th-hour gambling deal to the shuttered Hialeah Park racetrack, and they put plans for a $1 billion Port of Miami tunnel back on track after state transportation officials had declared the project dead.

''I'd be hard pressed to name a county that did better than we did,'' said Rep. Juan Zapata, a Miami Republican and Dade delegation chairman. ``In a very difficult year, I think we had some significant successes.''

Lawmakers traveled to Tallahassee with a $6 billion budget hole. Even with money from the federal stimulus package shrinking the deficit to $3 billion, legislators had to look to new fees and service cuts to close the gap.

Despite a budget year that was so brutal it kept lawmakers in Tallahassee an extra week, Dade legislators protected funding for Jackson Memorial Hospital, found $11 million for FIU's fledgling medical school and secured funding for smaller local agencies like La Liga Contra el Cancer.

To give school districts more funding flexibility, lawmakers included a provision in the budget to allow school boards to increase property taxes by a rate of about $25 per $1,000 in taxable value.

To keep the tax hike, voters will have to sign off on it in the 2010 general election.

Dade lawmakers also were successful in pushing a top county priority: an extension of the Dade's documentary stamp surtax to secure affordable housing money.

The surtax is collected on a portion of property sales in Dade, and the county uses the money to provide housing to people with very low to moderate incomes.

Under the bill by Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican and House majority whip, the surtax will be extended to 2031.

''In a tight budget year, to get a dedicated funding source for Dade County affordable housing is tremendous,'' Lopez-Cantera said.


Delegation members also used their political clout to put plans for the Port of Miami tunnel back on track.

Pressure from local leaders helped revive the project, after state transportation officials pulled the plug on the tunnel in December.

When the Florida Department of Transportation announced plans to reopen the project to construction companies worldwide, Dade legislators feared that would delay its completion, so they persuaded FDOT to stick with the original construction deal after weeks of mid-session negotiations.

''Considering it was declared dead, reviving the port tunnel was nothing short of miraculous,'' said Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican who helped broker the deal.

Another big victory was including provisions in a larger gambling bill that could resuscitate Hialeah Park, which closed in 2001.

The complex bill, approved in the final hours of session, offers a new gambling deal to the Seminole Tribe and a lower tax rate for parimutuels. It also gives the dormant track quarter-horse racing, card rooms and -- after two years of live racing -- slot machines.

Estimates indicate the reopened park could generate thousands of jobs, and after word leaked that it might finally reopen, 4,700 showed up looking for work.

''Hialeah's back,'' said Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Miami.


Unlike last year, Dade didn't have the benefit of a House speaker from Miami, but it still had several senior members and well-placed legislative leaders.

Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, of Miami, is the Senate Republican leader, and Sen. Alex Villalobos, also of Miami, was the Senate rules chairman.

Rivera and Rep. Marcelo Llorente, R-Miami, were the top House budget chiefs, while Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, oversaw the House pre-K-12 budget.


Some worried the delegation's reputation for infighting, fueled by the fact that the three House budget chiefs are running for the same open Senate seat, would be a disastrous combination.

But lawmakers said they wanted to leave the politics down in Dade.

''You don't get that many big-ticket items done without the delegation working together,'' Flores said.

Some delegation members said the budget crunch forced them to pull together.

''Nobody had time to think about those things,'' said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami. ``We pretty much were marching to the same cadence.''

But others point to the delegation's major defeat as proof that personalities still interfere with policy.

Lawmakers spent the session pushing a bill that would allow Dade County to ask voters whether to impose a half-cent sales tax to benefit Miami Dade College. A similar statewide referendum failed in November but won 61 percent of the vote in Dade.

The proposal by Zapata and Villalobos won unanimous approval in the Senate, but could not get a vote on the House floor.

Some say political infighting might have been the reason the bill stalled in its last committee stop.

''Frankly, for it not to even get heard on the House floor is incredibly disappointing,'' Villalobos said. ``I think that really let down a lot of families in South Florida.''

Breanne Gilpatrick can be reached at

© 2009 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

COLUMN: Delusion in Tallahassee

By Randy Schultz

Palm Beach Post Editor of the Editorial Page

Sunday, May 17, 2009

When the Florida Senate finished nine days ago, there was more delusional self-love than at a John Edwards/Sarah Palin lunch.

Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, acted as if the Legislature had pulled its money from Bernie Madoff just before the feds swooped in. Two days ago, he said, things had looked bleak. But thanks to his colleagues, the 2009-10 budget isn't nearly as bad as it might have been.

Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, practically canonized lead budget negotiator J.D. Alexander. It reminded me of the Woody Allen line in Annie Hall that "life is divided into the horrible and the miserable." The horrible are "blind people, crippled. I don't know how they get through life." The miserable "is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you're miserable ... " Florida for next year will be only miserable. Sleep on that.

No Republican in the Senate or House, of course, mentioned the $5 billion gorilla in the chamber. Without the federal stimulus money that got all of three Republican votes in Congress - and no votes in the House - Sen. Atwater, and House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, would have had to cut $5 billion more or find that much in new taxes or "fees" or "surcharges." Horrible would have looked pretty good when they finished.

Someone needs to crash this party. Let the crashing begin.

A legislature that deserved to congratulate itself would have used this financial crisis to transform how Florida taxes and spends. Instead, this Legislature in the past year has taken short cuts. Legislators swiped $2.2 billion from trust funds and $1.1 billion from the Budget Stabilization Fund, a key reserve account. These figures come from Kurt Wenner, Florida TaxWatch's director of research.

There's no obligation to repay the trust funds. Still, Gov. Crist did promise the family of former Gov. Lawton Chiles that the state would make good on the $700 million stripped from the fund named for him and financed by the tobacco settlement that Gov. Crist tried to block as a state senator.

But the Legislature does have to replenish the Budget Stabilization Fund, which Mr. Wenner calls "the cornerstone of state reserves." The Florida Constitution requires that the fund be at a minimum level compared to what the state collects in taxes. According to Mr. Wenner, the fund is about $1 billion short. That bill comes due next year.

The Legislature also has to replace the federal stimulus money that will stop after next year's budget. Most of the gift from Washington went for what the bean counters call "recurring expenses" - education and health care. Basically, this Legislature is borrowing from future Legislatures, meaning the taxpayers.

What does it mean to you? Florida's once-impressive financial rating is starting to look like an orange that has citrus canker. In April, the Moody's rating service placed Florida on notice for a possible downgrade. Obviously, the lousy economy was a big reason. But Moody's didn't let Florida off the hook.

Among the state's other problems: "Failure to prepare a reasonable plan to restore budgetary structural balance" and "General Revenue Fund surpluses were essentially drawn down during the course of the last three fiscal years with increasing reliance on the use of non-recurring revenues in fiscal year 2009." (That's the trust fund and reserve fund raiding we discussed.)

A downgrade would force up Florida's debt cost. Moody's offers some tips to head off a downgrade. Florida would have to shore up those reserves and craft a more realistic budget. The warnings include "increased reliance on one-time solutions to balance budget" and "lack of a reasonable plan to restore reserves." Uh-oh. That's why Gov. Crist wants to be Sen. Crist in 2011.

Republicans control Tallahassee these days, but the problem is bipartisan. In 1992, coming out of the last bad recession, the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission offered a menu of good ideas. The Democrats didn't bite. Now, though, Florida is on the brink.

Those running the 2009 Legislature didn't want to feel miserable after 65 days. It was horrible to watch them try to fool themselves.

Randy Schultz is the editor of the editorial page of The Palm Beach Post. His e-mail address is

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