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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Rep. Joe Garcia’s chief of staff implicated in phantom absentee-ballot requests scheme

Miami Herald's Patricia Mazzei:

Congressman Joe Garcia’s chief of staff abruptly resigned Friday after being implicated in a sophisticated scheme to manipulate last year’s primary elections by submitting hundreds of fraudulent absentee-ballot requests.

Friday afternoon, Garcia said he had asked Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, for his resignation after the chief of staff — also the congressman’s top political strategist — took responsibility for the plot. Hours earlier, law enforcement investigators raided the homes of another of Joe Garcia’s employees and a former campaign aide in connection with an ongoing criminal investigation into the matter.

“I’m shocked and disappointed about this,” Garcia, who said he was unaware of the scheme, told The Miami Herald. “This is something that hit me from left field. Until today, I had no earthly idea this was going on.”

Jeffrey Garcia, 40, declined to comment. He also worked last year on the campaign of Democrat Patrick Murphy of Jupiter, who unseated tea-party Republican congressman Allen West. Murphy has not been implicated in the phantom-requests operation.

Full story here.

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Gov. Rick Scott OK'd tuition hikes in 2011, 2012, calls them a tax in 2013

Gov. Rick Scott has called tuition increases a tax on Florida families and vetoed a 3 percent increase in this year's budget. But he has also approved tuition increases, both in 2011 and 2012. A story in Saturday's paper digs into the governor's philosophy on tuition hikes:

“We owe it to the families in our state who are paying tuition today and those planning to pay tuition for the next generation of Floridians to be direct: Raising tuition is a tax increase,” Scott wrote in the National Review Online. “And, unfortunately, it is a tax increase that directly affects whether Floridians can achieve the American dream of earning a higher-education diploma.”

If true, count Scott among the tax raisers.

While Scott proudly vetoed a 3 percent tuition hike last month, his 2011 budget included an 8 percent hike for students, at a cost of roughly $50 million. Scott also approved a 5 percent tuition increase for state colleges in 2012, saying that “colleges remain best positioned to weigh the needs of their institutions against the burden of increased student costs.” …

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Did Dems go AWOL in pension (non)-debate?

Few bills have cut local government spending so severely as SB 1810 with so little opposition from Democrats.

Passed on the last day of session, the bill requires 1,000 employers to pay more into the state retirement system’s $135 billion pension system.

State agencies, universities and colleges, school districts and counties will pay nearly $900 million more next year in contributions in an effort to boost the pension system’s funding level above its current 86.9 percent level.

But while most of the employers who have to pay more received additional funding to cover the expense, counties were left with no obvious way to pay the higher amounts. Large urban counties like Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Pinellas say they must cut services or consider raising taxes to cover the shortfall, and are making their complaints known.

Too late little too late. The bill was passed a month ago, the bill signed two weeks later. And not one lawmaker voted against it.

What happened to the Democrats? They blamed a combination of miscommunications and a hectic finish to the legislative session that made it difficult to truly understand the ramifications of the bill. …

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Gov. Scott signs pension bill opposed by police and fire unions

Gov. Rick Scott signed four more bills into law on Friday, dealing with health insurance plans, pharmacies, renewable energy and publicly-funded pension plans that cover public safety workers.

Scott approved Senate Bill 534 -- sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg -- over the vehement opposition of the Florida Professional Firefighters and the Fraternal Order of Police. Neither union backed Brandes in his Senate campaign in 2012.

James Preston, president of the state lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the bill "will only lead to pension confusion" by eliminating a provision in law enacted two years ago that required local pension plans to use the same actuarial assumptions as the state uses. The effect, Preston warns, will be to negatively impact city and county bond ratings and cause a spike in pension costs by imposing a mandatory discount of 200 basis points.

"If this legislation is allowed to become law," Preston wrote, "you will now have plans reporting intentionally deflated funding rates, with no set standard for comparison." …

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Anti-immigration reform TV ads target Rubio in Florida

Already seen in Brevard County, anti-immigration reform TV ads have popped up in Tampa and Orlando that target Sen. Marco Rubio and try to stoke fears of millions of new people flooding the state, taking jobs and welfare. Claims that are disputed if not false.

Californians for Population Stabilization said it has spent $100,000 to run a week's worth of ads ending today. One spot (embedded here) suggests millions of new immigrants will get welfare. But the bill Rubio and others are working on would preclude people under a legalization program from getting federal benefits.

The 33 million figure comes from a study promoted by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who is trying to kill the bill.

Air time was purchased in Tampa on WWSB, WTSP, WTVT as well as WFLA radio. In Orlando: Fox News, WRDQ, WESH, WFTV, WKCF, WOFL plus WDBO radio, according to the group.

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Gov. Scott's search for lieutenant governor remains on hold

Gov. Rick Scott has directed chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth to oversee the vetting of the next potential lieutenant governor, but the search has not yet begun in earnest.

"We're going to make the right decision at the right time," said Hollingsworth, who sounded this week as if no one in the governor's office -- least of all him -- is in a hurry to begin a search process likely to be all-encompassing.

After Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned March 12, Scott said he would take his time in the search for a successor and that nothing would begin until after the legislative session ended May 3. Then the budget, and its accompanying line-item vetoes, preoccupied Scott's senior staff, and now they are going through the laborious process of reading hundreds of pieces of legislation. The LG's office has been shut down and its four employees dismissed.

University of Florida political scientist Richard Scher recently gave Scott some unsolicited advice on the subject. "If I was advising Scott, I'd say what's the hurry?" Scher told the Naples Daily News. "Let's see how the political winds are blowing." …

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A pioneer of sorts: Sen. Simpson posts first net worth form online

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, is one of the Senate's newest members and one of its wealthiest, with a net worth of nearly $15.6 million.

So perhaps it's fitting that the successful Pasco County farmer and businessman has earned a most unusual distinction: He's the first elected official whose financial disclosure form is posted online under the ethics law passed by the 2013 Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

You can find Simpson's form here: http://public.ethics.state.fl.us/Forms/2012/211905-Form6.pdf

The ethics bill (SB 2) was a top priority of legislative leaders, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, was insistent that the public should have easy access to elected officials' financial disclosure forms, which have been required since the mid-1970s but never were available online -- until now. On Friday, the IT staff members at the Commission on Ethics had fine-tuned Internet access to the forms; coincidentally, Friday also was the deadline for the state to mail the forms to elected officials. They are due  July 1; Simpson simply filed his weeks ahead of the deadline. …

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'Arduous' ethics saga of Frank Peterman finally nears end

It has been more than three years since Frank Peterman's extensive taxpayer-funded travel first captured the attention of the Commission on Ethics. The case of the former St. Petersburg legislator and former Gov. Charlie Crist's top juvenile justice official appears to finally be drawing to a close -- and i may not be the ending Peterman wanted.

The ethics panel recently sent Gov. Rick Scott a letter urging him to issue a public censure and reprimand of Peterman and fine him $5,000. That followed a decision by the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland, which upheld an administrative law judge's recommendation of the sanctions against Peterman. Scott -- who may yet face Crist in the election for governor next year -- has not  taken action.

"It's been arduous and painful," said Peterman's attorney, Mark Herron of Tallahassee. "We have felt all along that it (the penalty) was inappropriate."

The Peterman investigation began after a private citizen, David Plyer of Clearwater, filed an ethics complaint based on news accounts by the Times/Herald. …

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GOP makes $6M push to recruit Hispanic candidates

A national project aimed at diversifying the Republican Party will spend $6 million to recruit new Hispanic candidates.

Leaders of the Future Majority Project on Friday said they hope to identify 200 new political hopefuls -- and propel at least 75 into state-level office.

“The Future Majority Project is working to ensure the Republican Party better reflects America’s diversity, and I’m proud that we are bringing much needed voices to the table,” said Florida state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican involved with the effort.

The announcement came at the tail end of a Republican leadership convention in Austin.

The Future Majority Project is part of the Republican State Leadership Committee, an organization that seeks to elect Republicans to state-level offices. Last year, the project identified 125 new Hispanic candidates in 26 states.

A separate initiative by the Republican State Leadership Committee identified 191 new female candidates. Eighty-four of the women won office, according to data provided by the organization. …

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A month after lawmakers pass pension bill, counties scramble to cover $264 million shortfall

TALLAHASSEE — A bill passed in the waning moments of the 2013 legislative session with little discussion and signed two weeks later by Gov. Rick Scott will cost state and local governments nearly $900 million in additional expenses next year, hitting county governments especially hard as they struggle to emerge from a prolonged economic slump.

The bill, SB 1810, raised the rates employers must pay into Florida's $135 billion pension fund so that the state could more aggressively manage a deficit in the retirement system. Though the higher level will please conservatives like Scott who want the pension fully funded, it comes at a cost that some say is unnecessary when the stock market is hitting record highs.

The new rates will force 1,000 state, county and local employers to pay more into the system: $177 million from state agencies, $100 million from universities and colleges, $300 million from school districts, $50 million from cities and special districts, and $264 million from Florida's 67 counties.

How did this get bill get passed? Read story here

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Gov. Rick Scott in National Review: Raising tuition is a tax increase

Gov. Rick Scott has an opinion piece in National Review Online pounding his opposition to tuition increases. Scott vetoed a 3 percent tuition increase when he signed Florida's budget earlier this month. An excerpt from Scott's column:

"While many political leaders have been quick to join us in fighting tax and fee increases on almost any other front, our fight to hold the line on tuition has proven less popular. But we owe it to the families in our state who are paying tuition today and those planning to pay tuition for the next generation of Floridians to be direct: Raising tuition is a tax increase. And, unfortunately, it is a tax increase that directly affects whether Floridians can achieve the American dream of earning a higher-education diploma.

"The easy answer in government will always be to spend more money. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right answer. In business, it is the company that can provide the highest-quality service at the lowest cost that succeeds. That is what we want for our higher-education system in Florida. The opportunities and dreams of future graduates are at stake, and we owe it to them to continue our fight against the tax increase of rising tuition."

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Gov. Rick Scott approves controversial environmental legislation

Gov. Rick Scott has signed HB 999, a bill so detested by a host of environmental groups that they brought in former Sen. Bob Graham to try in vain to stop it.

Scott's action Thursday disappointed environmental advocates but did not surprise them, said Estus Whitfield of the Florida Conservation Coalition. He predicted it might hurt Scott at the ballot box when he seeks re-election in 2014.

"I don't think it's any feather in his cap," said Whitfield, who worked as an aide to four governors, both Democratic and Republican. "I think the general public is getting tired of seeing the environment sold down the river."

Asked why he signed a bill that drew more than 350 letters or emails urging him to veto it, Scott gave a vague response. …

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Q poll hypothetical: Hillary Clinton leads Jeb Bush but Bush beats Joe Biden

In an early look at the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton leads Rand Paul 49 – 41 percent and Jeb Bush 48 – 40 percent, but Joe Biden trails Bush 44 – 38 percent and falls behind Paul 43 – 39 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.

Clinton gets a 52 – 40 percent favorability rating, down from an all-time high 61 – 34 percent in a February 8 survey, which the pollsters attributed to Americans saying she deserves some blame for Benghazi.

Bush has a 29 – 29 percent favorability rating, with 42 percent who haven’t formed an opinion.

On immigration, the national poll found 54 percent of American voters support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, while 12 percent say these immigrants can stay but not become citizens and 29 percent say they should be deported. "Those numbers are virtually identical to the results in Quinnipiac University’s May 2 survey, but both represent a drop from April, before the Boston bombing, when 59 percent backed a path to citizenship."

"Voters say 71 – 24 percent, however, that Democrats and Republicans in Congress will not be able to work together to achieve immigration reform."

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At 80, Florida icon Sandy D'Alemberte marks a milestone

More than a hundred of Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte's friends dropped by the rotunda at the Florida State University law school Thursday to help him celebrate his 80th birthday at a party arranged by his wife and law partner, Patsy Palmer. The courtly and ever-smiling D'Alemberte wore one of his signature bow ties and greeted well-wishers for more than an hour as guests sampled cake, ice cream, iced tea and lemonade.

"Sandy is one of the finest human beings I have ever known," said former Gov. Reubin Askew, wearing a garnet and gold necktie, who worked the crowd accompanied by his wife, Donna Lou."He was always motivated for the right reasons."

Askew recalled the hazards D'Alemberte faced in the Senate while trying to pass major legislation, known as Article V, to modernize the court system in Florida in the early 1970s. "On Article V, he came to me one day with tears in his eyes," Askew recalled. D'Alemberte nodded knowingly as he recalled Askew's intervention with Sen. Dempsey Barron of Panama City to get the bill passed. …

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Republicans use Nan Rich to needle Dems

RPOF Chairman Lenny Curry is having fun with Democrats denying Nan Rich a speaking opportunity at their upcoming dinner.

To Democrat Voters in Florida:

We may disagree on some issues. We have experienced hard-fought campaigns between candidates of my party and candidates of your party. I imagine the 2014 election cycle will be another set of hard-fought campaigns.

But I write this letter to you in order to let you know that I support the efforts of many in your party to allow former State Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich to speak at your Jefferson-Jackson dinner on June 15. While Senator Rich and I might not see eye to eye politically, she has a long history of leadership in public service and deserves five minutes of speaking time as the only announced gubernatorial candidate in your party.

Because Senator Rich is an experienced spokesperson for Democratic ideology in Florida, it must be disappointing to see your Chairwoman, Allison Tant, put the interests of big-dollar donors ahead of a mere five minutes for Florida's leading champion of liberal causes. …

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