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Florida capital briefs: House panel to seek to unplug Internet cafe games

Mar. 15, 2013


The House Select Committee on Gaming will take up a bill Friday that seeks to shut down Internet cafes, with the measure pointing to the "deleterious effects of the proliferation of electronic machines and devices used for maintaining an ongoing place of gambling or gaming," according to a staff analysis posted online Thursday. Lawmakers are rushing to pass the measure (HB 155) after a statewide crackdown this week led to the arrests of 57 people and the closing of at least 49 Internet cafes, amid allegations of crimes such as racketeering and money laundering. The investigation also prompted the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who did consulting work in the past for a group that was targeted in the crackdown. The House bill would bar electronic or mechanical devices that are used in relation to certain types of charitable drawings and game promotions, closing avenues that Internet café operators have used to argue that their computerized games are legal. Also, the bill would update the definition of slot machines, according to the analysis. The Senate Gaming Committee is expected to move toward shuttering Internet cafes during a meeting Monday.

RPOF reviewing Internet cafe contributions

State Republican officials are going through contributions from Allied Veterans of the World, the organization that claimed to be a veterans charity that officials claim was a gambling front, as fallout from a massive investigation into the organization continues. The probe has already cost former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll her job because she once did work for the organization and it could end with the total shut down of Internet cafes, which law enforcement officials say are basically just illegal gambling operations. Law enforcement officials hinted earlier this week that additional connections may be about to be drawn between the industry and other elected officials "In light of recent developments, RPOF is examining financial contributions that may be connected to any entities affiliated with the investigation and we are reviewing the most appropriate options," Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry said in a statement released Thursday.

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Charter bill passes House committee

A House proposal (HB 7009) aimed in part at standardizing the process for opening new charter schools and cracking down on a few problem charters was approved along party lines Thursday by the House Appropriations Committee after a scuffle over a section of the bill that would allow charter schools to take over some public school buildings. Democrats tried to amend the bill to soften a provision requiring any building that had once been a school but is not being used as a school to be turned over to charter school if requested. The amendment, which would have required the building to be turned over if it wasn’t being used for any purpose, was swatted down along party lines. Republicans said it was overly vague and showed that some lawmakers still aren’t open to treating charter schools fairly. “It’s just an absolute bias against an alternative way of managing schools that keeps treating it as not part of our family,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. But Rep. Mia Jones, the Jacksonville Democrat who sponsored the amendment, noted that she is the member of a charter school board. She said districts should handle their own spaces. “I believe that school districts have a responsibility, and we need to allow them to do the job that they’re there to do,” Jones said. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, said he was willing to work on the language further. The legislation now moves to the House Education Committee.

Everglades bill clears last House committee

A House bill aimed at bringing state law into line with the latest plan for Everglades restoration easily passed the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday, clearing the way for the measure to go to the House floor. In addition to the provisions in House proposal (HB 7065) updating the restoration plan, the bill would extend until 2025 a $25-per-acre tax on farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area that was set to expire in 2017. Environmentalists object to the measure because they say it doesn’t ask polluters to pay enough and would say permit holders aren’t contributing to pollution in Everglades as long as they follow their permits -- even if those permits are flawed. Permit holders, particularly sugar farmers, say their willingness to extend the tax shows they’re willing to pay their fair share.

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Foreign driver permit law set for repeal vote in Senate

A bill to repeal a statute that requires international driver's permits cleared another committee in the Legislature on Thursday and is on the calendar in the Senate, where it is expected to pass next week. The requirement was put into law last year, but caught Canadians off guard. Millions of Canadian snowbirds come to Florida each winter and there were reports of regular visitors who when they heard about the new requirement, were afraid to go out in South Florida for fear they'd be arrested for not having the new permit. The repeal measure (SB 1766) was approved unanimously Thursday by the Senate Community Affairs Committee and is now on the Senate calendar for a floor vote. The House passed the bill earlier this week. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said this week he expects the bill will pass quickly. "This bill does more than correct an oversight in the law, it promotes tourism," said sponsor Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. "Visitors from all over the globe choose Florida as their vacation destination and we want ensure they are able to travel across our state with ease."

Ethics commissioner seeks changes in Senate plan

A member of the Florida Commission on Ethics is calling for changes in an ethics bill that has been a top priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, saying the measure could have "unintended consequences." In a letter sent to news organizations Thursday, Commissioner Matt Carlucci said he would like to see the House make changes in the bill (SB 2), which was unanimously approved by the Senate last week. For example, he pointed to a definition of "special private gain" in part of the bill dealing with voting conflicts. He said the definition is too narrow. In another example, he said the bill would allow officials to have a "do over" if complaints are filed against them because of erroneous financial-disclosure forms. He wrote that would remove "any incentive to file the report accurately in the first place." Carlucci, a former Jacksonville City Council president, praised other parts of the bill, such as a provision that would allow liens to be placed against officials who don't pay financial-disclosure fines.

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Dolphins stadium deal backed by Senate budget leaders

Questions remain about giving a $3 million a year tax rebate so the Miami Dolphins can improve their home field, but the South Florida team is now one snap from reaching the Senate floor. A bill (SB 306) to help the Dolphins undertake a $400 million upgrade at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens was backed by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, with a provision still attached to eliminate a decades-old tax incentive worth about $10.8 million a year for international bankers. Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, gave a tentative yes vote, but while warning the incentive has drawn international bankers to open branches in Florida and its elimination could cost jobs. The legislation also continues to require voters in a portion of Miami-Dade to approve a 1 cent increase to the hotel bed tax, something Gov. Rick Scott has listed among his "principles" for supporting the use of public money for renovations of a professional sports arena. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, voted against the tax bill, saying he’d prefer the state establish "metrics" to accurately determine the economic impact of the deal, or any of the other stadium proposals now before the Legislature, beyond fiscal projections offered by the team and economic development organizations. The state tax rebates are based upon revenue generated at the stadium. The Dolphins, whose management hopes to use the upgrades to win a bid to host Super Bowl 50 in 2016, continue to negotiate the terms of the bed tax dollars with the Miami-Dade County. Dolphins President and CEO Mike Dee said the talks have included terms that could include landing future Super Bowls.

Charities could keep Ponzi-scheme cash in bill backed in Senate

A charity wouldn’t have to return money donated from an individual later found to have been operating a Ponzi-scheme, such as the multi-billion dollar Bernie Madoff scam, under legislation advanced by the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee on Thursday. The bill (SB 103) would prohibit a bankruptcy court or judicial authority from requiring any charitable or religious organizations to return the donation as part of a repayment to investors as long the total is less than 15 percent of the gross annual income of the individual later found to have run the Ponzi-scheme. Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, the sponsor of the bill, said charities are bigger victims than investors who are often "over-reaching." The 15 percent mark is intended to keep the crook from trying to shelter money into a fake charity, Detert said. Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, in opposing the bill, said it could cause problems in the courts by superseding the rights of investors who had lost money.

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Silence could be a killer of Cancer Treatment Act

Insurance industry lobbyists didn’t offer their support or objection to legislation that would require health insurance companies to cover oral cancer treatment medications. But Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and other members of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, said they expect the lobbying to focus on defeating the proposal (SB 422 and HB 301) as it advances in the House. "My instinct following these kinds of issues, I wouldn’t mistake silence for acquiescence," Negron said. "I think this is an issue that if they do oppose it, they should stand up in public and say they do oppose it and why. Not just use subterfuge and sabotage the bill." The "Cancer Treatment Fairness Act" also prohibits insurers and health maintenance organizations from increasing or varying the costs for intravenous or injectable medications in order to comply with the changes in this legislation. Florida’s Insurance Consumer Advocate Robin Westcott said bill could cost insurance companies up to 50 cents a month per policy.

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