Legislature: Former House Speaker Ray Sansom Resigns From Legislature
Former House Speaker Ray Sansom (R-Destin) resigned from the Florida Legislature on February 21, 2010, less than 24 hours before the House Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct was scheduled to begin its adjudicatory hearing on ethics complaints against him. The resignation was effective immediately.
In his resignation letter to his successor, House Speaker Larry Cretul (R-Ocala), the former speaker said he was stepping down out of his love for the House of Representatives. He did not confess to any violations of law or House rules, stating that “ … this decision should not be received as an admission of any wrongdoing. On the contrary, I have steadfastly maintained that I am innocent of any wrongdoing and I will never relent from that position.”
In response, Rep. Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton), who chairs the select committee, described the situation as “heart-wrenching,” but said, “This is a resolution that’s in the best interests of everyone involved. He is no longer a member of the Florida House.”
The ethics complaint against Mr. Sansom involved his acceptance of a job at Northwest Florida State College and state funding that he apparently steered to the college when he was House budget chairman.
Criminal charges against Mr. Sansom and two others relating to the same events remain pending. Mr. Sansom, former Northwest Florida State College President Bob Richburg, and developer Jay Odom have been charged with grand theft and conspiracy to commit grand theft.
State Budget: House Speaker Cretul Airs Objections to Governor Crist’s Budget Proposal
In an interview with reporters on February 18, 2010, House Speaker Cretul raised objections to Governor Charlie Crist’s proposed $69.2-billion state budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2010.
One of the key differences between House Republicans and the Republican governor is the amount of money the state will hold in reserve in the working capital fund. The governor’s proposed reserves of $250 million are inadequate, according to the Rep. Cretul. He suggested that the state needs to keep about $1 billion in reserve to address possible revenue shortfalls. The speaker noted that $800 million of the $1 billion held in reserve for the current (2009 – 2010) fiscal year has been used to make up for lower than anticipated revenues without the need for a special legislative session or additional fee or tax increases. He also said, “Another thing that would have happened is that our bond rating would have been downgraded, and that just kicks up a lot of concerns.”
Speaker Cretul also objected to the governor’s proposal to issue $50 million worth of bonds to fund the Florida Forever land purchase program, which was unfunded in the 2009 – 2010 budget. He called Florida Forever a “great program,” but said that it was difficult for legislators to talk to their constituents about increased spending on land acquisitions when unemployment is at current levels.
Politics: State Senator John Thrasher Elected Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida
On February 20, 2010, the executive committee of the Republican Party of Florida elected Sen. John Thrasher (R-Jacksonville) party chairman, replacing Jim Greer of Orange County, who was forced to resign over questions about his stewardship of party funds. Sen. Thrasher received 135 votes, Republican National Committeewoman Sharon Day of Broward County received 85 votes, and Mark Cross of Osceola County received two votes.
Sen. Thrasher’s election marks the first time in at least several decades that a sitting Florida legislator has been chosen to serve also as state chair of a political party. Senate President Jeff Atwater (R-North Palm Beach) expressed confidence that Sen. Thrasher would be able to be fully engaged as both a state senator and party chair, saying, “you’re going to be impressed by his abilities.”
Sen. Thrasher, who currently chairs the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, announced that he would step down as committee chair.
The new party chair urged the party to move on from the controversies of the Jim Greer era. “Our focus is on beating our enemies, not ourselves,” he said. “Our enemy is the liberal media and the Democrats. And that’s where we will begin to focus our assaults.”
Senate Minority Leader Alfred “Al” Lawson, Jr., (D-Tallahassee) reacted harshly to Sen. Thrasher’s comments, saying, “In his comments, Sen. Thrasher referred to voters that register with the Democratic Party as his ‘enemy.’ John Thrasher’s language is beyond the pale and offensive to the nearly 4.7 million voters who identify themselves as Florida Democrats.” Sen. Lawson said that he would immediately request that Senate President Atwater remove Sen. Thrasher from membership on both the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee and the Senate Reapportionment Committee.
Gaming: Negotiations on a Seminole Indian Gaming Compact Resume
A month after the House Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review rejected the proposed gaming compact negotiated between Gov. Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, legislative leaders confirmed that they have resumed informal discussions with the tribe about a revised gaming compact.
Rep. Galvano, chairman of the select committee, told reporters on February 17, 2010 that he had talked about a revised compact with Jim Allen, the CEO of the tribe’s gaming operations, and Seminole General Counsel Jim Shore, and that House staff had been in contact with the tribe’s outside counsel, Barry Richard.
“Things are lining up to get everybody serious about getting it done in the spring,” Rep. Galvano told reporters. Factors favoring a settlement include the state budget situation, increased signs of interest from the National Indian Gaming Commission, and the general political situation, he said. Rep. Galvano noted that future legislative leaders Sen. Mike Haridopolos (R-Melbourne) and Rep. Dean Cannon (R-Orlando), presumptive Democratic candidate for governor Alex Sink, and likely Republican candidate for governor Bill McCollum had no history of supporting gaming in Florida, meaning that the climate for a compact will become less favorable after the 2010 general election.
Speaker Cretul said that the House would not include Seminole gaming as a source of revenue in the 2010 – 2011 state budget, but that a compact was possible. “We’re probably as close as anybody’s ever come,” he said.
Economy: Foreclosures Continue to Rise in Florida While Declining Nationally
Florida leads the nation in the number of homes in foreclosure, according to a Mortgage Bankers Association of America survey released on February 17, 2010. As of the end of 2009, 13.44 percent of Florida home mortgages were in foreclosure. Nevada was in second place with 9.76 percent of mortgages in foreclosure. Nationally, 4.58 percent of mortgages were in foreclosure, and the percentage of borrowers who had missed a payment declined to 3.6 percent from the 2008 level of 3.8 percent.
In 2009, the number of Florida mortgages in foreclosure rose by 44 percent from the 2008 level. The last quarter of 2009 saw a 4.5-percent rise in the number of mortgages in foreclosure as compared with the third quarter of 2009.
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