Crawford and Stacy love the old myths and divisive tactics

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As the layoff notices for 160 first year teachers and another 101 Marion County School Board employees hit the fan last Friday, May 31st, familiar old myths re-emerged to capture the attention of the uninitiated and inattentive. Their ugly implications did not bother School Board members Ron Crawford and Nancy Stacy.

It began with Crawford’s assertion to the Star Banner that if teachers gave up what was designated by the legislature for teacher raises, then perhaps the School Board could avoid layoffs. It probably occurred to Mr. Crawford later that when the GOP dominated legislature gave money for teachers’ raises, they really meant that it was for teachers’ raises, not to keep teachers and other staff in the schools.

He also added that eliminating two school level administrative positions would save about $150,000. Wow.

Newbie School Board member Nancy Stacy at that time added her Jeb Bush-informed perspective against public education, saying:

“I think we should shut down all the schools and start all over,” [Stacey] said. 

You might mistakenly think it’s an advocacy for “public education anarchy/rebuild,” but no. In “Stacy-Bush speak,” it means destroying teacher unions, their pensions and benefits. Use taxpayer dollars instead to privatize, voucherize, and profitize public education – total annihilation, Stacy-Bush style.

The Florida GOP legislative agenda sets profits over education because if you aren’t doing it for profit, you can’t possibly be doing it right. Therefore, teachers unions and the benefits which teachers receive are what’s wrong with education. Quite simply, no corporation is making any profit from those taxpayer dollars.

At a June 5 Board work session, with breathtaking audacity, Stacy explicitly declared her alliance with … Chris Altobello, president of Marion Education Association, the teachers’ union. Surely Altobello would welcome the support, but he is certainly wise to the agenda behind such support.

How does Stacy propose to find the money to prevent layoffs? Here:

Stacy said the top priority should be teachers; guidance counselors, assistant principals and others should get pink slips before front-line teachers.

Crawford alluded to the same thing as noted above, and this refrain was commonly heard on the campaign trail last summer as Stacy and Woody Clymer, and Carol Ely and Bobby D sought election to the School Board. Stacy, Ely, and Bobby D all read from the same script; ‘there is no money problem, there are simply too many administrators.’ Only Woody Clymer and Superintendent candidate Diana Greene ever said that money was a problem, affirming that school funding referenda on the August ballot needed to be passed. The truth-tellers lost, and the referenda lost.

What is ugly and unconscionable is what these remarks are intended to achieve.

First, it invites all School Board staff to join in a crab climb from the cooking pot. By promoting an argument that urges one set of people on staff to attack and criticize and pull down the other, they all get their butts cooked. “It’s school administrators who are the problem,” this week. Next week, maybe it will be bus drivers, or cafeteria staff, or music teachers, or secretaries, or teacher assistants who will be considered as having sweet deals and luxury terms and lavish benefits that are “simply unsustainable.”

It’s an old myth. Yes, there still may be a couple of positions that schools could survive without, but there certainly aren’t millions of dollars waiting to be recouped to close a huge budget gap. Millions are what’s needed, not $150,000.

It’s this simple, people: There. Isn’t. Enough. Funding. And there hasn’t been for years. And it is no secret, no surprise.

Let’s not forget that while layoffs were avoided under Jim Yancey’s watch, staffing has endured a heavy toll by attrition for years – years! Now we’re at the point where certified substitutes are not a temporary fix, but a key element in the “(under-)staffing plan.” Part of that has included the complete abandonment of class size requirements. Cutting more positions is cutting education. Period.

Second, while School Board employees savage each other with belittling recriminations, the authors of this agenda steer the discussion away from their culpability.

Remember? They actively campaigned AGAINST added funding, or sat on their hands in TOTAL SILENCE while dedicated community activists pushed against Stacey and company’s tsunami of self-serving pander-craft and utter disregard for truth, reality, or intelligence. Please don’t remember, they plead.

If any had the integrity to do what they KNEW was right, maybe there would $14-16 million more in recurring local revenue. Will the elected sheep bleat mournfully that they had no idea? Hah!

They’ll also fault the Republican legislature for failing to provide adequate funding. It’s true. Is it some surprising new development? Hell, no! The annual demolition of public education in Florida has been exploding every stinking year for a decade. It would only be a surprise if a year’s Florida Legislative Session didn’t hammer public education for once.

And you are also expected to forget their Republican affiliations: Tomyn, Boynton, Crawford, Ely, James, and Stacy – all GOP. You won’t hear any of these folks openly and publicly criticize our GOP state reps, Dennis Baxley and Charlie Stone, for enabling the demolition of public education.

Our kids, our teachers, and our community are being fed to the wolves while the unsuspecting and naïve are fed a diet of myths and distractions.

We deserve a sincere admission and apology from every one of them for starters.

Medigreed Expansion: Taxpayer-fueled corporate profits are the goal

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This page has been saying for a while that the billions in Medicaid expansion dollars will enable the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to prevail as cash conquers kooky ideology. That money-money-money theme still holds true, only the audacity of taxpayer theft has been expanded to monstrous proportions.

It has never been about health care for needy citizens, in case you were under some delusion that the GOP majority in Tallahassee gives a rat’s heinie about the “health care” part of “health care dollars.”

Since the US Supreme Court decided ultimately to uphold the ACA (Florida led the legal fight), and then the election victory of Barack Obama (even in Florida), Florida’s GOP has been hinting that it was giving serious consideration to playing ball on federal health care reform [ahem] given the billions of dollars that could flow into the coffers of their corporate sponsors. The billions of federal dollars would be part of an expansion of Medicaid to reach uninsured citizens with low incomes, directly and fully paid by the US government for the first 3 years and then 90% of the cost until 2020.

When Gov. Rick Scott recently allowed that he would sign a Medicaid expansion bill in an apparent quid pro quo exchange for the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) permission to privatize Medicaid statewide, the gauntlet was then thrown down to the Florida House and Senate. (By the way, Medicaid privatization is a profoundly bad idea that has been costly and performed terribly in trials in a 5 county test program in Florida. Despite the evidence, HHS catered to Scott, a profoundly stupid move by HHS.)

Without the privatization permission, it’s still a really sweet deal. How sweet? States get the uninsured covered, but as was stated earlier, only a few seem to care about health care for citizens. More importantly to GOP legislators, health care providers get a huge pot of new money to help with their profitability, and in the case of hospitals, some payment for the millions of dollars in monthly losses from providing care to the uninsured. Such losses have been a huge burden for community hospitals like Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, and have been a primary driver in the negative fiscal forecasts. These billions of federal dollars would help not only hospitals but also medical practices which have taken losses, and generally provide a generous boost for the entire state economy. This infusion of cash may end up having greater economic benefit than the billions in high speed rail money that Rick Scott cavalierly tossed back to DC.

Add in the Medicaid privatization permission that HHS gave Scott in an apparent quid pro quo for his acquiescence on Medicaid expansion, and you can see a whole new string of companies, private insurers and their HMOs, cashing in on the deal. What seems to be the theme is that every corporate interest is getting bought off to provide health care at taxpayer expense, meaning the corporations get big profits and citizens get nickled-and-dimed on their health care plus, as taxpayers, fund their leveraged profits. Giving citizens less health care becomes the corporate goal, subsidized by taxpayer’s health care dollars. What? Is something wrong with this picture?

But now it gets worse.

HHS recently gave permission to Arkansas to take federal Medicaid expansion dollars and hand them directly to private insurance companies to pay for private policies for the uninsured. Why is this idea even worse than privatized Medicaid?

According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, it will cost about $9,000 to buy a person private insurance on the health insurance exchanges created by the law, compared with about $6,000 to add the person to Medicaid.

That would be a 50% increase in cost for the Arkansas plan! It certainly doesn’t bother Arkansas legislators since they won’t be paying much of anything for it.

(Despite the obscenely hysterical rhetoric about state costs to administer expanded Medicaid, everyone knows it amounts to chump change and it’s a great deal for the states. Funny how that noise has evaporated these days, isn’t it?)

With this 50% increased cost, will there be more health care, more people covered, more generous or comprehensive benefits? No. NO! It’s the exact same health care, but with a 50% profit premium for corporations. This is why corporations spend what amounts to a pittance to buy some legislators; their return on investment is mammoth … and shameful.

If legislators and their corporate sponsors ought to be ashamed, it is hard to think of the appropriate punishment for HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius and her administration for handing out such an absurd and useless gift to GOP dominated state legislatures since water-boarding really is torture. It certainly wasn’t necessary since privatization permission – again, a terrible mistake – had already been granted. Now a key lever for cost containment has been eliminated. There will be no incentive to responsible management, just the vast sucking sound as taxpayer dollars are transferred to corporate profits and shareholder equity. Remember W’s Medicare prescription drug bill? Deja vu all over again!

Clearly insurers like Florida Blue (Blue Cross/Blue Shield – the biggest campaign donor in Florida; sorry, hospital association) and others are upset at the thought of having to provide coverage without guarding against pre-existing conditions, i.e. cherry picking the “healthy ones.” They don’t believe they will benefit sufficiently, and, let’s not kid ourselves, their corporate benefit and bottom line are the primary concerns, not health care.

Expect our state legislators to come up with disgustingly transparent spin as they pivot toward an Arkansas plan. Try these code phrases, like Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville):

… they seek a Florida solution, not a Washington solution….

or summa cum weenie Mark Wilson of the Florida Chamber:

If it’s a take Washington’s mandate or nothing question, the Florida Chamber stands in opposition to Washington’s version of a one-size-fits-all Medicaid expansion. While we are against what Washington passed in its current form, we are for a flexible Florida solution. 

or House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) trying to stay on message with the Chamber – okay, Wilson told him what to say and he memorized it:

Like the House, the committee gathered the facts and decided that Washington’s inflexible approach to force Florida to take a ‘one-size fits all’ policy choice is not in our state’s best interest.

Obviously it isn’t a one-size-fits-all policy, and they know it. The GOP/Chamber spin doctors should be convicted of malpractice and incompetence for that pathetic line.

There is some other nonsense about personal responsibility and other window dressing you may hear like the Chamber’s 11 prerequisites for expansion (LOL!), but you, wise reader, understand that the real ambition of GOP legislators is unfettered profits for their corporate sponsors, not minding at all that it comes at taxpayer expense … again.

 

Silver Springs Attraction still attractive to profiteers, county

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Compared to previous public meetings at Vanguard High, a reduced crowd of about a hundred people attended the public meeting sponsored by the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection’s Division of Recreation and Parks (DRP) at Fort King Presbyterian Church on Thursday night. A noticeably strong contingent of the profit motivated seemed to counterbalance and even outweigh the testimony of environmentalists, also in contrast to the previous meetings.

Lewis Scruggs of DRP was again leading the meeting. He reviewed the previously outlined time frames and aims of the project, a comprehensive scope that included addressing cultural and archaeological legacies as well as the range of items included in the earlier Interim Transition Plan.

Public comments were the primary agenda item for this meeting. After longtime environmentalist Guy Marwick led off speaking in support of promoting education and public awareness, a steady stream of individuals promoting small business, concerned about concessionaire choices that had apparently been the subject of a separate DRP meeting on Tuesday, and much talk of eco-tourism and education began to yield to an insistence on public-private partnership that had Marion County as the public side of management, not DRP.

Rock Gibboney who has been representing a group of investors at every meeting complained about not receiving proper notice of this meeting. Yet he was at the Tuesday meeting, and he complained about concessionaires who were being considered, that not enough consideration was being given to local enterprises. Him? His deep-pocket people? He complained that DRP lost $14 million on its parks operations and needed money makers to support the conservation efforts. He complained that state funding was precarious and that local funding support was preferable.

Gibboney complained a lot and feigned victimization, that somehow he wasn’t getting a fair shake. Really? Some arguments made little sense, like his state funding gripe. Later, DRP’s Scruggs would note that DRP was 60% self-supporting, an exceptional level among state park services in the nation. State funding is bound to go up and down, but everyone acknowledged the unique and outstanding quality that Silver Springs would take as a park in the system, well worth the investment. Silver River State Park seems to have fared quite well with funding, thank you. Retaining state funding is far less of a gamble than private funding which can be withdrawn or shut down when profitability isn’t maintained or forthcoming.

As the meeting progressed, it was clear that a variety of voices had been recruited to advance profit-making interests alongside conservation. Environmental activist Doug Shearer noted that the public comments had taken the “eco” in eco-tourism as “economic” instead of “ecological.” He advocated making sure that the ecological work is given priority over any economic speculations. He denounced the county commission for its consistent unwillingness to lift a finger on environmental issues surrounding Silver Springs. Shearer noted that once the waterways and habitats were reset on a strong footing, there would be plenty of opportunity for the profit-takers.

Then David Tillman took the microphone. Tillman, a civil engineer, is well known as a tireless and shameless shill for the wealthiest developers and has been a reputed strong arm for campaign donations for commissioners. In a word, he’s a hack. In his smarmy, time share salesman kind of way, he tried to suggest that he was on the same page with everyone in the room.

With that remark, Guy Marwick finally cracked. He shouted back, as Tillman’s arm swept to embrace the room, “Don’t include me!” which brought quite a bit of laughter and a warning from Scruggs about audience conduct.

Tillman concluded his sales pitch with an appeal to let the County Commission run what will become Silver Springs State Park together with local private business interests. That was the true agenda that had been recruited and represented, whether the variety of speakers realized why they were recruited to speak or not.

Environmental activist John Dunn also spoke strongly against any path taking priority over ecological restoration and rejuvenation, and denied that the County Commission ought to have any role.

Scruggs announced that there will not be another public hearing until the summer, with the transfer of lessee of Silver Springs Attraction from Palace Entertainment to DEP coming on October 1, 2013.

County Administrator Lee Niblock and County Commissioner David Moore sat in the back and observed, apparently pleased with the turnout of pro-county, pro-business supporters.

Environmental activists need to take notice and get re-organized. Emailing Mr. Scruggs will at least ensure their comments are in the public record. You can believe the profit takers haven’t taken anything for granted and are working every angle to get what they want.

There is no doubt that if the County Commission has a hand in management, it will allow anything that the monied interests desire. Gibboney and Tillman made that clear. In their view, profits must take priority over ecology, and profits will determine the success of Silver Springs - theirs and their sponsors’ profits.

Send your email to: Lewis.scruggs@dep.state.fl.us and encourage him to put ecology over profits, and keep the Marion County Commission as far away from this as possible.

Reminder: the second Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) meeting on developing a strategy for dealing with nitrates in the Silver River Basin will be next Thursday, March 14 starting at 10am at the Marion County Public Library, Main Branch. Ending time is published as 3pm.

Medicaid expansion in Florida: A sweet deal for whom?

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In a reversal of his longstanding contempt for and condemnation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) known as Obamacare, Gov. Rick Scott endorsed Medicaid expansion. His hasty press conference came immediately on the heels of an announcement by the US Dept. of Health and Human Services that Florida could largely proceed with its scheme for privatizing Medicaid statewide.

Ah-ha! The fix was in, you think – a quid pro quo. The feds and the guv say, ‘No way.’ But you, smarty pants progressive, Daily Marion reader, “You’re right!” You have read our posts on this subject.

Following the Supreme Court decision on the ACA, it seemed to us like ideology would remain Scott’s guiding light, but then in considering the amount of money involved, it was recognized that billions of dollars can motivate remarkable turnarounds in attitude. While Scott is alienating his Tea Party base and other (former) allies by betraying them on Obamacare, he exposes himself to a challenger from –hold your breath – a worse conservative who will continue to demonize Obamacare. Still, the possibility of a quid pro quo seemed in the works to us:

Did Gov. Scott manage to pull a quid pro quo from HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius that will have Florida as more cooperative participant in the ACA Medicaid expansion in exchange for this scandalous profit-from-the-poor scheme?

A huge concern is oversight of this privatization scheme. Those are the details that should be of paramount concern. The feds need the ability to apply close scrutiny, intervene, and have the authority to cut off poor performers swiftly since dismal performance has plagued the pilot program in a variety of ways. In general, Florida has a terrible history of compliance with federal rules.

Florida CHAIN, a health care advocacy group, stated:

Consumer health advocates have fought hard to ensure that access to care and consumer protections remain a top priority. We are encouraged by the inclusion of those protections and the movement toward a more transparent, inclusive process and more robust independent monitoring. We are hopeful that the final language and implementation will reflect what is most important – full access to quality health care for Medicaid beneficiaries with proper oversight.

There has been an expected push back from the legislature since they don’t like it when governors act independently. House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) released a statement:

“Governor Scott has made his decision and I certainly respect his thoughts. However, the Florida Legislature will make the ultimate decision,” state GOP House Speaker Will Weatherford said in a statement Wednesday. “I am personally skeptical that this inflexible law will improve the quality of healthcare in our state and ensure our long-term financial stability.”

Don’t think that the legislature is likely to torpedo this deal. This is just turf defense. They have all been waffling since the SCOTUS decision, and got really shaky-bakey when Romney lost. Prime legislative health care leader, Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart) said this week:

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, chairman of the Senate panel reviewing the law, told the Palm Beach Post there is “clearly a nexus between the two … Without the waiver, we are not likely to move ahead with expansion.”

How likely is the Senate (and the House for that matter) to move ahead with Medicaid expansion? With Gov. Scott taking the lead, and the heat, it opens doors for the GOP legislative leaders to kick a little dirt, look down, and admit the federals dollars will make their best-est friends, the medical and insurance lobbyists, really damn happy. Um, what ideology?

Scott lamely tried to conjure a fig leaf to cover himself; a three year test drive of Medicaid expansion. Right. Once you let it in, it will be as entrenched as Medicare.

Now it would be a pleasant surprise to see the GOP leaders doing a bona fide, come-to-Jesus, on their knees expression of compassion for the poor souls who have no health insurance, who have suffered, who have been in pain, and who even stood to lose their lives. So, maybe a bit more emotive than the Governor:

Scott … said that he still had questions about the health care law but called the three-year Medicaid expansion a “compassionate, common sense step forward.”

Gee, that’s “gushing” for Gov. Scott who was also quoted as saying:

“I cannot in good conscience deny Floridians [healthcare].”

Okay, that last one made Snow White awaken and Pinocchio blush. Scott’s medical history indicates he has never been plagued with “conscience,” certainly not a good one, and is highly unlikely to be afflicted by one now.

Seriously, you know what’s going to make this a no-brainer: b-b-billions! How much are we talking about? Well,

Families USA released a report that said making more lower-income Floridians eligible for health coverage under Medicaid will yield 71,300 new jobs and pump $8.9 billion more in economic activity into the state.

Lawmakers have been getting an earful, like from the hospitals. You can imagine all the lobbyists who have been pressing legislators to figure a way to say “yes” to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion billions. The Florida Chamber is among those cheering Scott’s decision – here the Miami Herald has a nice compilation of the wide variety of reactions.

With HHS okaying a privatization scheme for Medicaid, it’s definitely a done deal, not “compassion” at all. Health insurers and HMOs will be scrapping for a piece of the multi-billion dollar pie and market share, instructing the legislators that they’ve purchased to simply set the table for their taking.

It’s a sweet deal, alright. First and foremost, about a million Floridians will finally be getting health care. For them, it’s the sweetest deal – a genuine life-saver.

No matter how predatory the health insurers are likely to be (and rest assured, some will be true to form), it will still be better than no health care for the uninsured, and there will be recourse. Expect some shaky years for starters, but honestly, a competitive private marketplace for Medicaid could force insurers to do the job right or lose the contract to a competitor. But it’s definitely a sweet deal for the Florida health care industry, too.

Will everyone be happy? Not the Tea Party. The rest? Well, they certainly won’t admit to happiness … on their way to the bank.

 

McClain berates ICE agent, dismisses worker verification help

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A presentation by an agent from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of US Homeland Security, at Monday’s Marion County Commission meeting resulted in the agent being mocked, berated, and dismissed by Commissioner Stan McClain. But did McClain have any idea what the agent was talking about?

Frankly, McClain was playing to the narrow-minded, asshat Tea Party handful, and judging from his biting and clueless remarks, apparently failed to grasp any of what the agent was saying. In fact, most of the commissioners looked like deer in the headlights, totally dumb about what to do, as if they needed someone to take them by the hand. The awkward silence was embarrassing.

This bonus offering of Commission crazy on Monday began when David Younanof, ICE Special Agent, Homeland Security Investigations, made a compressed but clear presentation on the agency’s IMAGE program. IMAGE stands for “ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers.” It is a program to assist employers with navigating the complex and difficult processes for compliance, ensuring that workers and new hires are in fact legal workers in the USA.

Younanof noted that ICE had been very successful in cracking down on employers who failed to be complaint, subjecting their employees to seizure and deportation, and exposing their organizations to federal fines and even arrests. The special agent claimed that over $80 million in fines had been assessed against employing organizations since President Obama took office.

Partner organizations enrolling in the free IMAGE program were also covered on any possible instances of non-compliance. Younanof stated that partner employing organizations had saved $11 million in possible fines for non-compliance, fines never assessed because of their enrollment in the free program.

Then  commissioners start looking at one another for direction. They don’t understand immigration issues, fear the federal government, and recoil at the notion of partnering with the feds on immigration enforcement. They fear because they’re cowed and clueless.

Commissioner Carl Zalak asks in roundabout, ham-fisted fashion whether county contractors would be subject to compliance. Hey, Commissioner: it’s federal law – of course, they’re subject to compliance … regardless of what you might do!

With a little interpretive help from Commission Chair Kathy Bryant in translating Zalak’s verbal contortions, a further question is produced.  Would the County Commission have to report on contractors if they were non-compliant? No, ditzo – don’t you get it?

Zalak seems indifferent to actual enforcement of immigration law, doesn’t want county contractor violators to face the music for hiring undocumented workers, and still doesn’t understand that IMAGE protects partnering employers. Good grief, Carl! Listen!

Then Commissioner Stan McClain senses that he knows what’s really going on, perhaps taking non-verbal cues from the perennially misinformed, arrogantly ignorant, and proudly xenophobic Butch Verrando of the Tea Party. McClain begins berating ICE Special Agent David Younanof, telling him, “It’s your job! You go find them! Why don’t you do your job? Go do your job before you come around here.”

Younanof tries to explain it again, but truly there is no arguing with stupid.

Verrando and his handful of paranoids burst into raucous applause. Why? They don’t really know, except McClain just chewed out a federal agent. Um, awesome.

Of course, the only problem was that Younanof was doing his job and McClain sadly once again was not doing his job. McClain is so challenged, God bless him.

Younanof was offering the county free assistance with a difficult area for employers, with partnering organizations protected from getting fined or being subjected to arrest for a lack of compliance, and ensuring that only legal workers get the jobs.

For this, McClain berates the special agent, makes the Commission look like a bunch of jerks (okay, deserved and difficult to avoid) while his county leadership colleagues stare blankly or smirk stupidly. And the Tea dummies cheer, always a sign that someone has firmly stepped in a big, steaming pile of jackass.

Don’t you want worker verification laws enforced? Don’t you think partnering with ICE through the free IMAGE program would be of benefit not only to the county as an employer but also to other employers in Marion County? Don’t you think major employers in the county already partner with ICE through IMAGE? Think national hotel and restaurant chains? Wouldn’t you, as county leaders, want to see county employers in compliance with Federal worker and immigration law, not getting fined, not getting arrested, and addressing a national problem? Or do you think you have compensated for inadequacies, projecting “macho” manhood behind a loud mouth chewing out a federal agent? Damn poor form.

And Tea Party dolts: if you want to see immigration law enforced, how about encouraging the twits on the commission to partner with ICE instead of fight with them? That really doesn’t seem like a demanding “ask” from you, even though it requires a teeny bit of thought. Too much of a heavy lift for you? Sorry.

McClain needs to apologize to Special Agent Younanof, whether he ever comes back to Marion County or not. If he never returned, no one could blame him. Further, if ICE formed a special investigative task force dedicated to finding non-compliance in Marion County and county employers, using fines and arrests as a “teaching tool,” you can thank Commissioner McClain, his useless colleagues and administrators, and the Tea butts. For sure, they’re now talking about the Jerks of Marion County at Homeland Security, and for a perfectly valid reason.

GOP Commissioners deny tax break to poor seniors

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In an appalling show of bombastic and bumbling ineptitude, three of five Marion County Commissioners – all 5 Republicans – voted Tuesday morning to deny the Amendment 11 tax exemption to poor, longtime resident seniors. Despite public pressure from news articles and a Star Banner editorial that chastised the Commissioners for their reluctance, and about a dozen public commenters who appealed for its adoption during the meeting, commissioners made it clear that poor seniors are not as important as half-baked, hypocritical ideological positions.

After approving $350,000 in tax breaks for R+L Carriers, a huge trucking company owned by local mega-millionaire “Larry” Roberts, which is locating a logistics center at the old Taylor, Bean and Whitaker office building near North Magnolia Ave., Ocala, pictured right, there was a presentation by an official from ICE of US Homeland Security whose ill treatment by Commissioner McClain is the subject of another post.

A parade of public comment ensued, most seeking adoption of the Amendment 11 tax exemption which was passed by Florida voters last November by 61%, and also by 61% of Marion County voters. Adoption would require a super-majority of commissioners – 4 of 5.

Amendment 11 narrowly defined who would qualify for a complete property tax exemption;

  • resident in the home for 25 years,
  • income under $27,000 per year, and
  • over age 65.

An exact number of possible qualifying properties has not been provided, but the County Tax Appraiser estimated the annual cost at $162,000 per year. The Marion County Commission’s annual budget exceeds $500,000,000; yes, over $500 million.

Among those struggling to pay their property taxes, James Bowden of Belleview explained how he had lived in Marion County his entire life, never made great money in a community known even today for its abysmally low wages, and how his taxes had increased to accommodate others as the community grew by leaps and bounds.

David Sullivan from northwest Marion told how he was now “broke” and too old to work any longer, and called the impact on the county budget “miniscule.”

Anita Frauenshuh of SW Hwy 200 said that her household would not benefit from Amendment 11 but she stood as an advocate. She noted that the affected seniors had paid taxes and contributed to the community’s economy and well-being for over 25 years, and were still doing so. Further, the 61% voter approval was not simply votes from likely beneficiaries, but a popular endorsement by all citizens.

Irvin Curtin of Belleview, who had been mentioned in the first article raising the issue to the County Commission, asserted that 60 of 67 Florida counties plus 118 municipalities had adopted Amendment 11. He wryly commented that with a $162,000 cost and a $500,000,000 budget, “there isn’t much slack to be picked up.” He noted that there are dozens of tax exemptions in the county’s property tax code, and it was “reprehensible” for commissioners to oppose this one.

Nancy Noonan of Summerfield contrasted the commissioners’ willingness to commit $30 million of taxpayer funds for rich local developer John Rudnianyn to have an unneeded exit ramp on I-75 to benefit his neighboring property, yet couldn’t allow a mere $162,000 for longtime resident, poor seniors. Sge calculated that the funds set out just for Rudnianyn’s wish would pay for the Amendment 11 exemption for 185 years. She said it seemed that the wealthy and privileged could get taxpayer funds, but deserving seniors were dismissed.

Tea Party leader Butch Verrando bellowed against adoption in threatening terms for  commissioners’ re-election. Verrando claimed that today the amount was $162,000, but in 5 years it would be $1 million, and in 5 more years it would be $5 million. He was just pulling the numbers out of thin air, of course. He’s Tea Party; that’s what he does. He further showed his complete ignorance of the subject by declaring that if adopted, the exemption would make Marion County into a “repository for every old person who has no income.” He called it a “socialist agenda.” He probably thinks lunch menus are a socialist agenda, too.

Commission Chair Bryant had John Schaefer, the county’s Fiscal Manager, verify the $162,000, and he noted that adoption was up to each county or municipal government. It did not apply to school taxes. As far as Verrando’s assertion of gigantic increases, Schaefer said “one could speculate” that increases could possibly occur over time without guessing any amounts.

County attorney Guy Minter noted that the law allows for “periodic adjustment for income limitations.”

At the end of the public comments, new commissioner Earl Arnett (pic left) moved adoption of Amendment 11 and gained a reluctant second from fellow new commissioner David Moore (pic right). Let the crazy begin.

Arnett noted that 17% of seniors struggle with their day-to-day costs, and allowed that this would provide needed relief. Moore didn’t like a narrow tax break for a special group, and preferred across the board tax cuts, yet remained reluctantly in favor.

Commissioner Carl Zalak tried to claim that charity was not the government’s business, that it was a matter of personal free will. Indeed, it would be hard to categorize the county’s giveaways to wealthy families and rich corporations as “charity,” but they were giveaways nonetheless. It seems he did not consider the difference between the undeserving and the deserving. Typically, the rich and powerful don’t need government charity, but they get it all the time from the County Commission. The deserving simply don’t get (or deserve) anything in the upside-down world of Carl Zalak. To top off his inane comments, he said it was “picking winners and losers.” Huh? Who? Well, that’s so dumb, irrelevant, and out of context, it doesn’t deserve further comment.

Commissioner Stan McClain reiterated his favorite line that property taxes are just plain wrong. Therefore, you might think he would be in favor of this tax exemption for poor seniors. You would be wrong. His view reflects another bowl full of wacky. He correctly chastised state legislators for not simply taking action themselves and making local officials do their work. He went on to rail about the accumulated cost of $162,000 year after year, and what the county would not be able to do as a result.

As Ms. Noonan said, this pittance would be paid up for 185 years with the money committed to Mr. Rudnianyn’s useless exit ramp. McClain had no problem at all with the Rudnianyn giveaway, to cite just one glaring example of wealthy welfare. Advocating the so-called Fair Tax which is a regressive and harmful tax scheme, McClain said there were too many property tax exemptions, it was an unfair system, that only a small segment of the community was actually paying taxes, and soon everyone would want a tax exemption. If you were looking for a consistent and logical explanation from McClain, that was as close as it came. None of it made much sense or held much water. His final flourish was to call the Amendment 11 exemption “progressive, liberal tax policy.” Loopy, I know, but that’s what he said; a tax break is “progressive, liberal tax policy.” Yup, and he’s been elected three times.

Any hope for an intelligent remark from an experienced county commissioner was lost when Commission Chair Kathy Bryant started. She babbled about working two jobs and raising four kids and helping an elderly neighbor, none of which connected to the issue at hand. (What, she is a “real” person, too?) Finally she said adoption of Amendment 11 would “open Pandora’s box” and have everyone wanting a tax break. They must all have been reading from the same playbook. Ya’ think? Niblock’s “Poppycock” or did they think it up by themselves? She, too, parroted the meaningless criticism that the property tax system is broken. She claimed that “only property owners support county government” and it was unfair. This would be shocking news to the many folks who pay a variety of taxes that form revenue streams for county government. If taxpayers don’t own property, they don’t seem to exist in Commissioner Bryant’s world, much less count for anything. Of course, even if you do own property and qualify for Amendment 11 tax relief, you still don’t count for anything with Commissioner Bryant. Get rich if you want attention.

As broken as they claim the property tax system apparently is, none of the commissioners seem capable of lifting a finger to fix it. Isn’t that why they were elected? But enough logic; there are exemptions that rich people need to stay wealthy. Consider the impressive agricultural tax break likely received by mega-millionaire Larry Roberts, private owner of R+L Carriers – yeah, the one getting that tax break mentioned in the beginning of the meeting. His ag tax break for his mammoth horse farm on oodles of northwest Marion acres is worth a bundle. The aerial view at left shows the Roberts estate. Pretty nice.

It’s the same agricultural exemption used by developers for choice properties worth millions; ‘plant pine and you’re fine.’

Sorry, poor seniors who have lived here for over 25 years: you can go and suck an egg.

It was a sad and shameful day for Marion County as the majority of commissioners failed to serve its people fairly, turning a blind eye to their own hypocrisy while offering a stupidly inconsistent ideology in condemning poor, longtime resident seniors for daring to seek a puny tax break.

Star Banner cheer-leads instead of reporting news

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Under new management, locals ought to be watching the choices being made at the Ocala Star Banner. Consider today’s papery edition as the news gets shunted to the rear while the slam dunk predictable – “it’s a sunny day in Florida!” – gets promoted to the front page.

Front page “news”: Big corporation of local super-rich guy gets tax break everyone knew was going to be handed out with delight, requiring 20 minutes of blathering and backslapping at the County Commission meeting.

Second section news: Poor, longtime resident seniors denied tax break, requiring 90 minutes of testy testimony and exchanges at the same County Commission meeting. So-called anti-tax Republicans prefer to see struggling seniors pay taxes than give them a break that has been allowed by 60 of 67 Florida counties and was approved by 61% of local voters in the last election.

This is called “cheer leading”, not “news reporting.” The good news about R+L Carriers locating a logistics center in the old Taylor, Bean and Whitaker building off North Magnolia Avenue was already reported, and, yes, deserved a further notation as the process works toward completion. No sane individual questioned the granting of this $350,000 tax handout; not even Tea bully Butch Verrando uttered a peep objecting to this corporate welfare.

The news occurred when poor, longtime resident seniors dared to seek a measly $162,000 tax break and were slammed by County Commissioners following the lead of an irrational and inconsistent ideology.

Did the Star Banner dare to highlight the disgusting contrast between the treatment of the rich and the poor within minutes at the County Commission meeting? That kind of editorial decision would have required some chops, and cheerleaders don’t have chops. Cheerleaders also sell out their community when they soft pedal gross injustice.

Greer guilty plea: No cash involved to avert a trial

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You may be disappointed that all the gory details of Florida GOP shenanigans in the era of former Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) Chair Jim Greer won’t be dribbling out for weeks, but surely you also realize that no cash bought this outcome. It is unimaginable that a woeful tale of corruption that involved large sums of money and the biggest names in the Florida GOP would be determined by some kind of cash payoff of which the public will likely never learn. Heaven forbid!

Yes, Jim Greer suddenly decided to plead guilty first thing on Monday morning when jury selection was scheduled to begin. Greer was accepting the inevitability of a likely prison term of anywhere between 3 1/2 and 35 years. As recently as last week, Greer and his attorney promised a trial of salacious disclosures involving GOP heavyweights and stalwarts that would reach out and likely besmirch folks like ascendant darling US Sen. Marco Rubio, former Gov. Charlie Crist, former Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum, former US Sen. George LeMieux, and a host of statewide GOP leaders including big donors.

Greer had been willing to go to the mat in demonstrating his innocence while “promising a Shakespearean tragedy in which ‘everyone dies in the end.’”

Well, there were also cheap weenies like powerful State Senator John Thrasher (R-Jax pictured below),  who assumed leadership at RPOF after Greer. Thrasher decided to stiff Greer on the severance package – $11,000 per month for a year – which RPOF committed to furnish in a written agreement. Yes, W-R-I-T-T-E-N. Reneging on a deal is bad form as former House Speaker turned big time lobbyist Dean Cannon stated, and was seconded by former Senate President Mike “Dirty Hari” Haridopolos who admitted lying at first about the very existence of the written severance agreement. But who could imagine the upright citizens at RPOF actually buying off the silence of their shamed leader of scams and schemes. Right?

It may seem like an obvious case of divine intervention that has touched the tarnished soul of Jim Greer and brought him to repent of his evil ways and confess his trespasses. Say it with me, brothers and sisters: Hallelujah! Amen!

But his revealing and candid January, 2013 interview with Miami New Times disclosed this previous self-reckoning:

Today, finally, the Greers blame themselves. When Jim talks about his time as [RPOF] chairman, he adopts the persona of a sinner at confession. “I spent too much,” Greer says, looking away. “I think I should have recognized that I didn’t need to stay in a five-star hotel. I should have set a better example, and I didn’t.”

Oh, wait. There was that talk about another attempt to buy Jim Greer’s silence with hush money. A documented offer from over a year ago clearly has no bearing on today’s sudden declaration and would never indicate any ongoing attempt by RPOF to shut him up. Similarly, that all of this had come out prior to the Republican National Convention in Tampa was entirely – no doubt about it! – coincidental.

Indeed, there were some fascinating stories about which we had hoped to learn more.

Remember the golf cart filled with prostitutes at the Bahamas getaway for party officials and donors? Surely it was all a misunderstanding; a few boys getting a bit wild and out of line. You know how it can be when you’re away from home and living large on corporate contributions. Besides, those gals didn’t, like, have business cards that said “Prostitute” on them. Did they?

Then there was this titillating tidbit:

[Judge Marc] Lubet also will decide whether the public and the media should have access to a salacious-sounding four-page interview taken from a witness. Richard Hornsby, an Orlando defense lawyer representing two unnamed witnesses, tried Thursday to prevent it from being shared with the defense. Lubet took a break to read over the document and decided the state must release it to Greer. He said he will examine case law as to whether it should be shielded from public view because of, in Hornsby’s words, its defamatory nature.

Again, you know how people like to make up stuff or get too excited. Although the judge seemed to feel it was admissible, judges can get carried away, too.

There may have been some intriguing revelations from his Number 2 at RPOF, the huggable Delmar Johnson, who seemed quite familiar with the lovely lady guests in the golf cart at the Bahamas shindig, among other things. You know just by looking at Delmar that, with his straight-shooting sincerity, he has a big future in time share resales.

Some folks may have wanted to hear more about the explicit RPOF strategy of denying the vote to blacks and Hispanics which Greer could have elucidated under oath. It is difficult to imagine since the avowed purpose of the voter suppression law sponsored by Ocala Republican Rep. Dennis Baxley was to prevent voter fraud, no matter how non-existent and nonsensical the whole charade might be.

As Jim Greer awaits sentencing, we are left with this memorable statement by the disgraced former RPOF Chairman:

“This trial will continue to show that nothing has come from Republicans and there’s no reason for them to keep power,” Greer says. “The people need to know what the Republican Party is. It’s dysfunctional.”

Really, Jim, we don’t need your trial to know the truth of that statement.

Vaya con dios! Greer, we hope you took the RPOF people to the cleaners … again.

 

Will charter school bill give away schools?

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The filing of PCB 13-01 (PCB=Proposed Committee Bill), a bill related to charter schools, would require a school district to hand over an educational building that had been used for K-12 purposes to a charter school … for free. How’s that for a sweet deal? But there is more.

[A summary of other provisions in this 36 page bill can be found by clicking here.]

The bill’s language creates an open question as to whether a re-purposed former K-12 facility would need to be made available to a charter school, and when in fact a local school district could determine the destiny of its properties and facilities.

The language is pretty simple. Specifically, the proposal would change the existing statute to read:

If a district school board-owned facility that has previously been used for K-12 educational purposes is unused, it shall be made available for a charter school’s use at no cost.

It’s quite a substantial change. To contrast, here is the existing language:

If a district school board facility or property is available because it is surplus, marked for disposal, or otherwise unused, it shall be provided for a charter school’s use on the same basis as it is made available to other public schools in the district.

Specifically applied to Marion County, consideration should be made of two former K12 facilities in Reddick as an example. The old Reddick High School on County 25A in Reddick is a pretty derelict building that the School Board still owns. A local outlet for Interfaith Emergency Services had operated a food pantry and thrift store there a few years ago, but were forced to relocate due to code violations. The building (or at least the gym) may now be leased to the city of Reddick. The building is certainly “unused,” as the proposal reads. What about maintenance?

The school district shall maintain the charter school facility at the same standard and level it would maintain any other district-operated school similar in age and condition … The charter school shall agree to reasonable maintenance provisions in order to maintain the facility in a manner similar to district school board standards.

The maintenance terms would first require the school district to maintain the facility, presumably passing along the cost of maintenance to the charter school, while the second sentence would require the charter school to accept “reasonable maintenance provisions.” Let’s assume the school board’s essential abandonment of the old Reddick High building precludes the ghastly cost of its revival at taxpayer expense as a charter school.

Consider another Reddick building owned by the School Board, the old Collier Elementary School on NW 155th Street which has been repurposed as a bus depot. The Collier School is not the relic that the old high school is. Does its re-cycling as an administrative or support facility mean that it is “used,” or “unused” – as in “unused” for K-12 purposes and therefore available for use by a charter school? Would a school district be required to make this former K-12 facility available, even if it was being used for administrative or support purposes?

Finally, let’s consider one more facility that is known to face K-12 deactivation, Lake Weir Middle School on Sunset Harbor Road in Summerfield. Built about 50 years ago as the original Lake Weir High, the sprawling school has become a dinosaur positioned in an out-of-the-way south county location. It may be quite a few years before a replacement is sited and built, but what happens to the old building? Does it automatically become possible inventory for a charter school? Would the School Board be required to demolish it to prevent having to hand it over, or would demolition even be permitted?

As Tallahassee seeks to dictate local school board policy, it gives a blank check to charters at local taxpayer expense – that would be you and me. This bill is another muddy and confusing instance of taxpayers getting to foot the bill so that corporate managers of charter schools can enjoy welfare benefits at taxpayer expense.

First, it is another instance of the legislature seeking to remove authority from local officials and dictate outcomes that favor the corporate privatization agenda. (Yes, charter schools are technically public schools, but they are often managed by for-profit companies like Charters, USA, and a heavyweight company like Charters, USA can use Florida law to ensure no district can actually refuse their charter request as has been proven repeatedly. Watch what happens with controversial virtual school powerhouse K12, Inc., and its rejection by Marion County School Board )

Second, with this legislation, private corporate charter managers won’t have to worry about the capital cost of starting their charter since they can demand a local district provide space FREE. Maintenance may cost them, but no rent, no mortgage. Thank you, taxpayers, because you bought the land and paid for the property and building. How is that for a nice entitlement? No, the charter can’t sell or lease the local district property or building on its own once it takes possession, but it’s still a tremendous gift.

Third, this dictated outcome deprives the local district of recouping some of the asset value of a building and property. Shifting populations and aging buildings require replacements to be secured, often on another property with a modern structure. The costs are huge. A Star Banner article this week reported the cost of the new Legacy Elementary School in Silver Springs Shores at $20 million for an average sized school.

Finally, the existing language is fairly explicit but would be replaced by broad, inexplicit terms. Such vagueness invites lawyers to drool over costly cases which taxpayers would have to pay to defend.

There is nothing commendable about this blatantly agenda-driven form of corporate welfare. The existing statute should be more than sufficient, but apparently the corporate sponsors want the legislators that they bought to provide a better return on their investment.

The bill easily cleared its first committee.

 

 

Price to buy a politician set to soar

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It’s going to cost a whole lot more money to get your legislator’s attention, or get your corporate welfare or tax loophole or whatever. The bill to change the campaign donation limit from $500 to $10,000 in exchange for full donor disclosures and effectively ending CCEs (Committees of Continuing Existence), HB-569 – the darling bill of House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) – is moving ahead.

This page recently criticized a so-called watchdog group for its endorsement of this ridiculous bill and the false equivalency argument presented. Somehow Floridians are so stupid that they believe increasing campaign donation limits by 20 times the current level is a fair trade for closing down CCEs and their primary function of funneling money. Further, Floridians are unable to imagine how money will make its way to politicians without CCEs. Duh.

Not everyone is either stupid or silent. State Sen. Jack Latvala (R-St. Petersburg) has a capacity to buck the trend and engage in plain speak at different times. He has chosen this bill on which to unload some refreshing common sense:

“If you say you’re going to reform the process, then reform the process,” said Latvala

“Every candidate can get up to $10,000 per contributor and give an unlimited amount from the party and that leads to a whole new area for money,” he said. “The last thing we need in this process is more money.”

“I raised $600,000 this year without breaking a sweat and I gave $150,000 to charity,” Latvala said. “What would I do with four times that much.”

He didn’t even have a serious opponent; she raised $950.

Technically, Latvala raised $591,000 in 2012, so raising sufficient funds was not much of an issue. Since candidates – incumbents in particular – have to be adept at fundraising, let’s consider what might happen to 3 candidates if the top donation was $10,000 instead of $500.

Not every $500 donation is automatically going to turn into a $10,000 donation if this bill passes the Senate where it has drawn the most skepticism. But certain donors have the ability to write a bigger check than $500 and would do so willingly. Remember, Sen. Latvala didn’t even have serious opposition and over a half million dollars rolled in. He didn’t have to beg; many candidates don’t.

Taking campaign finance information from the Florida Division of Elections web site which candidates are required to report, we can gauge what some impact from this change might be. Let’s look locally.

State Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) has served in the Florida House for over eight years, having been elected to his fifth term. With time comes seniority and Baxley is definitely a leader in the House who has gotten key committee assignments. His new district is redder Republican than his old one, so he is unlikely to face a serious challenger until he has to step aside in 2018 due to term limits. There was no challenger in 2012 and he still raised $96,000.

Taking his richest reporting period, October 1-December 31, 2011 when he raised over $60,000, a look at the donors reveals $500 donors among associations like Florida Pharmacy PAC CCE, Florida Sheriffs CCE, Florida Dental PAC, Florida Bankers Association, Florida Outdoor Advertising, etc. Then there are some dandy corporate donors like Genentech, TECO Energy, CSX, Chevron, Walgreens, Progress Energy and Duke Energy, Publix, Walt Disney, Abbott Labs, Liberty Mutual, Caremark, etc. These are organizations – not considering individuals – that would likely drop $2,500 into the hat if that was the expectation. Counting 78 such organizations making $500 donations in this one filing, making it $2,500 would convert $39,000 into $195,000, or almost twice the entire donation amount for all 2012. Obviously, that’s really low-balling the possible impact, but it allows that not all would put up $10,000 and without real competition, they may hedge on $5,000. But $2,500? Sure.

If half of those – 39 donors – gave $2,500 and the other half gave $10,000, the total jumps to $487,000! Just 39 donors at $10,000 would yield $390,000. Again, that is only one reporting period.

Now let’s try rookie State Rep. Clovis Watson (D-Gainesville) who is also in a district where he is supposed to win and is unlikely to face a major challenger unless he severely alienates his constituents. His only real challenge was in the primary, facing middle school teacher Marihelen Wheeler.

Watson was doing just fine with fundraising in this easy district, but he sought and received the endorsement of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Up to that point, he had raised about $40,000 to Wheeler’s $30,000. The Chamber’s seal of approval changed his campaign finances really fast. By November, his campaign had raked in almost $90,000. A look at Watson’s report from the period before the primary – July 21-August 9 – was his richest 2 ½ weeks at $23,615.

Thanks, no doubt, to the Chamber, a lot of the same donors appear as in Baxley’s report. Florida Architects Political Action, Florida Cattle PAC, Florida Hospital Association were a few associations listed. Noteworthy corporate donors include NextEra Energy (Florida Power), Walt Disney, Publix, Plum Creek, HCA, WellCare, WalMart, Progress Energy and Duke Energy, and Health Management. Using the same criteria, those $500 donor organizations on this one report reveals 35 such donors who, if tossing aside $2,500 instead, would convert that $17,000 into $87,500, or nearly the whole amount his campaign raised in 2012, this amount from just a few of the deep pocketed organizations who gave to his campaign.

Again, half of those donors giving $2,500 – just 17 – produces $42,500, while half giving $10,000 – only 18 – brings the grand total of this group for just this single reporting period to $222,500! Cha-ching!

Let’s do one more: newbie State Senator Dorothy Hukill (R-Port Orange) whose grab for this open Senate seat was heavily contested by Volusia Democrat Frank Bruno. Hukill raised $540,000 to Bruno’s $377,000. In her last report – October 15-November 1 – Hukill recorded about $63,500 in donations in those 2 weeks, better than 10% of her total. Using the same criteria, if those $500 donor organizations on this home stretch report – 103 such donors over just 2 weeks – could juice the gift to $2,500, it would convert $51,500 into $257,500.

Watch what happens when we tweak the numbers; half of these donors – 52 – giving $2,500 bring $130,000 and the other half – 51 – at $10,000 boosts the total to $640,000 just for this 2 week period! It’s more than the campaign raised in all of 2012, captured in just 2 weeks.

You can see how State Senate races would command multi-million dollar campaigns routinely if this bill passes. Even State Representatives in safe seats would have to figure out how to dispose of $250,000 and up every two years. The math is staggering.

Hopefully, Sen. Latvala and the other senators will squash this abomination posing as “campaign reform” legislation. There is plenty of money flowing into campaigns without lifting the campaign donation limit, and there is no way lifting the caps in exchange for fast, full disclosure reporting is at all reasonable. There should be fast, full disclosure reporting regardless.

Kill Will’s bill!