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Tallahassee Roundup: Week 2


BRADENTON -- The second week of session was dominated by the shocking resignation of Lt. Governor Jennifer Carroll, after she was linked to a shady charity running loophole casinos in Florida, which is under federal investigation and has already resulted in 50 arrests. Carroll's resignation put the legislature's ethics reform efforts under a microscope and has caused gambling regulation to get pushed to the front of the line. Meanwhile, the House moved forward with gutting the FRS pension system, though it met some resistance in the Senate.

Carroll's unspecified involvement with Allied Veterans of the World, for whom she worked as a "consultant," while serving in the state legislature, was enough to prompt a quick and quiet resignation after 57 arrest warrants were issued to people involved with the company on charges that included illegal gambling activity, fraud and conspiracy. More arrests are expected to come, though it's not yet known whether Carroll will be charged.

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The group, which pulled in over $300 million from its network of Florida "Internet Cafes," purported to use the money to help homeless veterans. But while a small portion of its revenues apparently went to assist some such efforts, but it's been reported that as much as 98 percent did not. Allied appears to have been among the most generous of several internet cafe groups, which have dumped more than a million dollars into political parties and individual campaigns of both Republicans and Democrats in the state

For their efforts, consideration of regulating the industry was initially expected to be put off until the 2014 session. But in light of the scandal, both the House and Senate have indicated that they would take up legislation right away, with the House expected to bring a bill to the floor as early as next week. 

State Rep. Jamie Grant (R-Tampa) is in hot water over a report that his company received millions in grant money from Hardee County for a company that involved other lawmakers and their family members, but didn't do any of the things promised, before selling the company -- along with the grant funding -- to another entity. 

The continued to perception that lawmakers aren't playing by the rules, while enriching themselves on the taxpayer dime is putting increased scrutiny on ethics reform, which Florida lawmakers promised citizens they'd make a priority this session. But while the Senate produced its ethics bill on the first day of the session, an ethics commissioner said this week, the proposed legislation could actually loosen ethics laws in the state.

On Monday, a Florida Senate committee joined the House and voted against Medicaid expansion. With both chambers having rejected Governor Rick Scott's proposal for a three-year trial, paid for entirely by federal funding, the legislature will have to devise a plan on offering (and funding) some level of care for the state's 1 million uninsured. 

The attack on defined benefits pensions continued this week, as lawmakers tried to make the case for ending a self-sustained pension plan (the Florida Retirement Service), despite not being able to offer credible evidence that it faced any short or long-term problems. In fact, testimony indicated that pulling new member contributions out of the system could actually destabilize the current fund, which some skeptics think could be the plan. 

The bill got out of committee in the House with an amendment that would allow new hires to be eligible for disability and death benefits, but the proposed law would still keep new employees limited to a 401-k style "defined contribution" plan, rather than the "defined benefit" model currently used, where contributions go toward a set, formulaic monthly benefit in retirement. 

A Senate bill would preserve the defined benefit option for everyone but senior managers, while giving those who join an incentive to choose defined contribution by lowering their contribution amount from 3 percent to 2 percent. Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) is supporting that bill, while House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) has ardently supported the much more restrictive House measure, calling it on of his top priorities for the session. 


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