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The Buzz

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Undercover slots expert details tricks of the Internet cafe trade

Working undercover as just another aging patron, D. Robert Sertell watched as customers streamed into Internet cafes in strip malls across Florida to buy access to Internet time or long-distance phone service.

As a national expert on slot machines, Sertell saw that the customers visiting the cafes operated by the Florida-based charity Allied Veterans of the World were not there to surf the web or make phone calls. They came to play what he contends are illegal slot machines, complete with spinning wheels, cash payouts, and names such as Captain Cash, Lucky Shamrocks and Money Bunny.

Using a mouse as their lever, and “sweepstakes” credits as their coins, customers played games that were nothing more than sophisticated, computerized slot machines, Sertell concluded after visiting 41 cafes, from Monroe County to Duval County, in early January.

“The little old ladies, whose eyes were fixated on the screen, would sit and play. Their hand never leaving the mouse,” he told the Herald/Times. “They refer to it as a casino. Every one of those machines is rigged. It’s a game of chance.”

Sertell, 71, known as “Father Slots” in the casino industry, is a slot machine expert from New Jersey who has built machines, written training and repair manuals and has become the expert of choice for law enforcement officials who want to know the difference between a computer that is rigged to operate like a slot machine and one that isn’t.

He is expected to be a key witness for state and federal prosecutors in arguing that the electronic sweepstakes machines run by Allied Veterans at their 49 Internet cafes in Florida were illegal gambling operations, operating under the guise of a charity. More here.

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Rubio: Talk of immigration deal 'premature'

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio often seems to be moving on double time, but as talks on immigration reached a critical point over the weekend, he was doing the opposite: Calling for a slower pace and warning that talk of a deal is "premature."

“I’m encouraged by reports of an agreement between business groups and unions on the issue of guest workers. However, reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature," the Florida Republican said in a statement Sunday.

“We have made substantial progress, and I believe we will be able to agree on a legislative proposal that modernizes our legal immigration system, improves border security and enforcement and allows those here illegally to earn the chance to one day apply for permanent residency contingent upon certain triggers being met. However, that legislation will only be a starting point."

Rubio's tone underscores the delicate position he is with immigration, at once trying to lead on an issue that has damaged the GOP with Hispanics and stay in good standing with the conservative base.

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Winner and loser of the week in Florida politics

Winner of the week

University of Florida. Not only did UF end Florida Gulf Coast University's Cinderella run in the NCAA basketball tournament, it is poised to receive millions in extra funding from the Legislature. After years of cuts, university funding could rise by more than $100 million this year in addition to a restoration of $300 million in cuts last year. Plus, UF and Florida State could get even more through proposed legislation.

Loser of the week

Bill Nelson. The senator is part of a dying breed: Democrats who do not support gay marriage. He objects on religious grounds and says he supports civil unions. Still, the 70-year-old Nelson looks increasingly out of step with his party, and growing public sentiment, and his stance is a reminder of how cautious he can be.

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Vice chairman of gaming committee rents condo from lobbyist

Sen. Maria Sachs, a Democrat whose district was reconfigured because of redistricting to stretch into Broward County, maintains a residence in Fort Lauderdale by renting a condo from a prominent political consultant and gaming lobbyist.

Sachs, vice chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, was re-elected to the Senate in November after a bitter election battle against former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. She told the Times/Herald she signed a lease to rent the condo on NE Ninth Street in Fort Lauderdale from her longtime friend Judy Stern, but did not know she represented gambling clients.

Stern is not registered to lobby in Tallahassee but represents Mardi Gras Casinos and Delaware North, a food service and gaming machine company, in Broward County.

"Judy Stern and I go back many many years — before I started in the legislature. We're girlfriends," Sachs said. "I didn't know that those were her clients I think because she never lobbied me." …

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Citizens Insurance completes $250 million risk transfer

As part of an ongoing effort to hedge against a massive hurricane disaster, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has completed a $250 million risk transfer in the capital markets.

The so-called catastrophe bond, which cost Citizens millions of dollars, could come in handy if the state gets slammed with a major storm between now and 2016. It follows a $750 million deal last year with the same company, Everglades Re.

Citizens said it was able to save more money on this year’s deal.

“This action continues Citizens’ goal of transferring risk to the private sector by working closely with nontraditional capital markets, and further protecting our policyholders and all taxpayers in Florida,” said Citizens board chairman Carlos Lacasa. “Citizens has emerged as an international leader in risk transference and our achievements are being recognized by financial markets around the world.”

If Florida does not get hit with a big hurricane in the next three years, the bond investors will pocket the money, leaving Citizens with a smaller surplus.

The company is planning to announce additional risk-transfer measures in the coming days, including a multi-million purchase of private reinsurance. …

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Senate, House budgets would reward all state employees

The Florida Senate and House rolled out their respective budget proposals on Friday. Both budgets are slightly bigger than Gov. Rick Scott's spending plan, and both differ from Scott's in one respect: Lawmakers want to give across the board pay raises to all state workers, while Scott favors bonuses to workers.

The House offers every state worker a $1,400 pay raise, which amounts to about 3.3 percent. The Senate budget includes a 3 percent across the board pay boost for all state workers, who have gone for six straight years with no increase in salary.

On teacher salaries -- Scott's top priority -- the House released a $74.4 billion budget on Friday that includes $676 million for pay raises for teachers, with half of the increase amount tied to merit-based teacher performance. The Senate matched Scott's proposal for $480 million in teacher pay raises but also stipulated that it be tied to performance. Florida ranks 45th among the 50 states in teacher pay. …

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Veteran AP sports/political reporter Brent Kallestad retiring

TALLAHASSEE (AP) - Veteran newsman Brent Kallestad is retiring from The Associated Press after a 40-year career with the international news agency.

Friday will be Kallestad's last day. He'll leave the Tallahassee bureau more than 26 years after being named correspondent.

Kallestad covered sports and politics, including Florida State University's unparalleled run of 14 straight 10-plus win seasons under coach Bobby Bowden. He also covered former Gov. Jeb Bush's Florida political career from start to finish.

A native of Miller, S.D., Kallestad started his AP career in 1972 in Sioux Falls, S.D. His first job in journalism was as a middle school student writing high school basketball stories for The Miller Press in the late 1950s, earning 20 cents a story.

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Latvala predicts 'furor' if residents' email addresses are public

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, was all by himself and he couldn't believe it.

In a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting Thursday, Latvala was the lone voice objecting to a bill to allow property appraisers to send homeowners tax notices and other official documents by email instead of through the postal service.

The bill (SB 7130) was presented by Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, and Latvala was shocked that it did not also include a public records exemption to keep homeowners' email addresses confidential. Latvala said if the email addresses are public, private for-profit vendors can obtain them under the state public records law, invade their privacy and solicit them for goods and services of all kinds.

"We're going to have a lot of our constituents that are going to get very angry and will want to know how people got their email addresses," Latvala warned his colleagues. "I've had the experience. I'm in the business. I know the furor that comes from that," said Latvala, a printer and campaign consultant who deals with supervisors of elections regarding voters' requests for absentee ballots. …

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With no fanfare, feds handed endangered species authority to state of Florida; Environmental groups intend to sue

Times staff writer Craig Pittman with a must-read story this morning. An excerpt:

 

With no public hearings or fanfare, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year handed over to a state agency its authority for clearing the way for development permits that might hurt Florida panthers and other endangered species.

The move to hand that authority to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had strong support from developers and others who seek such permits, according to a former Fish and Wildlife Service official. The lack of fanfare was at the request of state officials who wanted to "lay low" and avoid controversy, according to internal emails.

Florida is now the only state with that authority. "This is the only one that's ever been done," said Dave Hankla, who recently retired as the head of the Jacksonville office of the federal wildlife agency.

But on Thursday a pair of environmental groups notified the federal government that they intend to sue, arguing that handing off that authority violates the Endangered Species Act.

 

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Capitol Buzz: Light Friday ahead of Easter weekend

The fourth week of session ends quietly on Friday as lawmakers return to their districts for the Easter weekend.

  • Before the leave, House Speaker Will Weatherford and House budget chair Seth McKeel will host a morning budget roundtable for members of the media.
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Charlie Crist and the curious case of his flight on Air Ramba

Is someone stalking Charlie Crist?

The former governor last month hopped on a private plane owned by Tallahassee lobbyist Dave Ramba, who runs an air charter service. Crist was invited to fly on a plane chartered by Fowler White, a Tallahassee law firm.

Nobody but Crist and the law firm even knew about the flight.

Ramba said he was surprised when he was later asked by a client who came to his office demanding to know, "Why are you flying Crist around?"

Ramba then checked the flight calendar and realized the plane had been, in fact, leased by the Tallahassee law firm of Fowler White. But he didn’t know who was on the flight.Full Story

Poll: Floridians support texting while driving ban; bills await next legislative step

Ninety-five percent of respondents questioned in a poll released Thursday by the University of Florida would support a ban on texting while driving, but supporters are waiting to see if legislative attempts to get a law on the books pass the finish line this year.

“Ninety-five percent -- that’s pretty substantial. You don’t hear that often,” said Rep. Doug Holder, R-Venice, who has been trying to get a texting while driving ban passed for five years. 

If passed this session, House Bill 13, would make texting while driving a secondary offense, which means police would have to pull a driver over for another offense, like swerving, then the driver would be cited for both offenses. Florida is one of only five states without any type of restriction on texting while driving.

The House and Senate bills seemed to have momentum, quickly passing two subcommittees, but they’ve yet to be scheduled for their last committee stop. …

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Florida universities anticipate big boost in state funding

The mood among Florida's state universities is far different than a year ago, when they felt blind-sided by state budget cuts and were powerless to prevent them.

House and Senate leaders say they plan to boost funding for the 12 public universities by over $100 million this year, in addition to restoring a $300 million cut from university budgets last year. Some of the money will be tied to university performance.

The University of Florida and Florida State University would receive even more money, as much as $30 million, as part of a proposal to grant them special status as the state's top-ranked institutions.

House leaders are even considering a 6 percent tuition increase that would add $37 million to the schools' coffers.

"We're having a very good legislative session," university system chancellor Frank Brogan said this week.

Read more here.

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Joe Redner, strip club king turn D.C. beer lobbyist

Joey Redner, left, and Joe Redner at a craft brewing trade show in Washington, D.C., on Thursday

Alex Leary

Joey Redner, left, and Joe Redner at a craft brewing trade show in Washington, D.C., on Thursday

WASHINGTON — Joe Redner says he last had a drink (and snort of cocaine) a quarter century ago. But he plied the halls of Congress this week for beer equality.

“I feel funny asking to cut taxes,” the politically liberal Tampa strip club owner said Thursday afternoon. “But I don’t think these taxes are very fair.”

Redner, 72, is in town with his son for a craft brewing trade show and spent time lobbying members of Florida’s delegation for a bill that would cut excise taxes on beer.

“The Republicans were more receptive than the Democrats,” Redner said, grinning as he sat on a couch inside the Washington Convention Center, site of the trade show that attracted thousands of people from the burgeoning industry.

Story here.

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Session has been good for Rick Scott's fundraising

As Florida legislators sit on their hands with a fundraising ban for session, Gov. Rick Scott has been holding fundraisers and collecting cash -- $1 million of it -- for his political committee, Let's Get to Work.

Admittedly half of it came in the form of a whopping check of $500,000 check from the St. Petersburg-based William L. Edwards Trust, with other large donations coming from health care, sugar, insurance, utilities, his appointees to boards and even other political committees.

Two of the biggest checks -- from the St. Petersburg entertainment and finance mogul Bill Edwards and Gary Chartrand, the governor's appointee to the Florida Board of Education -- came on March 26. That was the same day the governor launched his new web ad at his new campaign-like web site, ItsWorkingFlorida.com. The checks also came one day after the governor told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board that he couldn't support the $5,000 cap on campaign donations to statewide candidates (and $3,000 for everyone else) in the House campaign finance bill because it was too high.

(Coincidentally, an amendment by Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, to the House campaign finance bill would have prohibited the governor from soliciting or accepting campaign money during the legislative session, as legislators are required to do, was voted down by Republicans 71-43 last week on the floor.)

Nevertheless, Scott's campaign committee continues to accept checks of unlimited amounts. Since session began, Scott has held at least one fundraiser -- on March 12 outside of Tallahassee in Havana. According to his political committee web site, he collected $116,000 in checks that day and about $90,000 in the two days after it.

The largest contributions this month include: Full Story