Saturday, February 19, 2011

Fla. Lottery's education funding hits $22 billion

The Florida Lottery's contributions to the state's education system have reached $22 billion.

Lottery officials Friday reported the 23-year total including $1.25 billion in the 2009-10 budget year.

It was the eighth straight year that the Lottery's contribution to the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund has topped $1 billion.

Few states follow mental-health gun law

More than half the states are not complying with a post-Virginia Tech law that requires them to share the names of mentally ill people with the national background-check system to prevent them from buying guns, an Associated Press review has found.

The deadline for complying with the three-year-old law was last month. But nine states haven't supplied any names to the database. Seventeen others have sent in fewer than 25, meaning gun dealers around the U.S. could be running names of would-be buyers against a woefully incomplete list.

Congress has doled out only a fraction of the $1.3 billion it promised between 2009 and 2013 to help states and courts cover the costs of the 2008 law.

In fiscal year 2009, the U.S. government dispensed about $10 million to the states to comply, not the $187.5 million pledged, according to the Justice Department. A year later, $20 million was provided.

JEA falls in business service study

JEA has fallen this year to second-to-last place from fourth in terms of commercial customer satisfaction among mid-size utilities in the South, according to a recent study released by J.D. Power and Associates.

JEA scored 620 points on a 1,000-point scale, and the average score of similar utilities was 660, according the 2011 Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study. There are 10 utilities in the mid-size category in the South.

Jacksonville Receives Federal Money for New JTA Buses

The city has 4 million more ways to go green, thanks to a federal grant.

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority announced the receipt of a $4 million grant that will be used to purchase up to eight new hybrid buses for its fleet.

JTA is undergoing a fleet replacement program already, and this money will contribute to that, making JTA the only agency in the state to receive the grant money.

The grant is funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Clean Fuels Grant Program.

New credit card rules not hurting borrowers: study

A private lending watchdog group said on Wednesday that sweeping rule changes imposed on credit card issuers last year by the U.S. Congress had increased transparency for borrowers without restricting the availability of credit.

When the law, known as the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, went into full effect last February, financial companies warned it would make it harder for consumers to get credit cards and more expensive for those who did.

But a study by the Center for Responsible Lending of card company activity following the law's implementation found that credit providers had not raised the real interest rates they charge consumers in the wake of the new rules or cut back on their willingness to extend credit.

Direct-mail credit card offers to consumers -- a key industry marketing technique -- continue to be extended at a volume and pace consistent with economic conditions, suggesting, said that the contraction in credit availability the industry warned would follow has not materialized, the study said..

Looking at five different sets of numbers, including the Federal Reserve Board and official lender filings with regulators, the Center found that only one thing had changed over the past year: The interest rates that card companies tout in their solicitations have gone up.

But the actual rates consumers pay have not gone up. The Center said the narrowing between so-called "stated rates" and real rates meant card companies were being more transparent about the cost of the credit they are providing consumers.

It also estimated that as much as $12.1 billion in previously hidden annual charges were now being clearly disclosed in credit card offers.

Supreme Court seeks 80 more Fla. trial judges

he Florida Supreme Court asked the Legislature on Thursday for 80 more trial judges, saying their workloads have increased in part because their support staffs have been reduced to save money.

The justices conceded the state's dire financial situation likely will mean a fifth year with no additional positions although caseloads have grown including an avalanche of foreclosure filings. They asked for 90 new positions last year and got none.

The staff reductions plus more filings mean judges have less time to spend on each case. Some judges say that means the quality of justice has suffered.

"We find that observation troubling," the justices wrote in the unanimous but unsigned opinion.

The Florida Constitution requires the Supreme Court to annually certify the need, if any, for additional judges. The high court bases its recommendations on a formula that takes into account caseload and the time judges need to resolve various kinds of cases.

No new trial judgeships and only one appellate position were created in the past four budget years. That leaves Florida with 61 appellate, 599 circuit and 322 trial judges.

The opinion notes the court system has lost 249 staff positions due to budget cuts over the past several years.

Fla. scraps high-speed rail plan pushed by Obama

Florida Gov. Rick Scott canceled plans for a high-speed train line between Orlando and Tampa promoted by President Barack Obama, saying Wednesday it would cost the state too much even with $2.4 billion in federal help.

Cost overruns could put Florida on the hook for another $3 billion and once completed, there's a good chance ridership won't pay for the operating cost, meaning the state would have to pump more money into the line each year, Scott said.

Less than half the U.S.-Mexico border secured: report

Less than half of the United States' porous southwest border with Mexico is under the operational control of the U.S. Border Patrol, a government watchdog reported on Tuesday.

The study by the Government Accountability Office said that the Border Patrol had achieved "varying levels of operational control" over just 873 miles, or 44 percent, of the nearly 2,000-mile border by the end of last year.

The report found that the number of miles under operational control increased an average of 126 miles per year from 2005 through 2010.

The GAO, which is the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, noted that only 129 of those miles, or 15 percent, were classified as "controlled" -- the highest level for detecting and arresting intruders.

Of the 1,120 miles of the border where operational control had not been achieved, around two-thirds were classified as "monitored," meaning that the Border Patrol had a high probability of detecting intrusions, although their ability to respond depended on the available resources.

The Obama Budget

The budget figures show an estimated deficit next year of $1.09 trillion; that drops to $846 billion in 2013 and $770 billion in 2014, but the deficit never drops below that latter level in projections out to 2021.

First, let's go through some of the highlights for each Cabinet department and a few well known agencies.

* Agriculture - gets $23.9 billion, a cut of $3.2 billion
* Commerce - $8.8 billion, with cuts linked to no Census funding
* Defense - basic budget is $553 billion, but real funding is over $650 billion
* Education - $77.4 billion budget is up 11%
* Energy - $29.5 billion is a 12% increase over 2010
* HHS - Health & Human Services gets $79.9 billion, a slight increase
* Homeland Security - $43.2 billion, up $309 million
* HUD - Housing & Urban Development gets $48 billion, up $900 million
* Interior - $12 billion budget is about the same level
* Justice - $28.2 billion is a 2% increase
* Labor - $12.8 billion is a 5% cut
* State - State Department/foreign gets $47 billion, up 1%
* Transportation - $13.4 billion is down $1.3 billion
* Treasury - $14 billion is up 4%
* Veterans Affairs - $61.85 billion up 10.6%
* NASA - $18.7 billion, the same as 2010
* EPA - $9 billion, down $1.3 billion
* NSF - National Science Foundation gets $7.8 billion, up 13%

As for tax provisions, there are a lot of them in this budget. Let's see if we can hit some of the highlights. All figures mentioned here are over a 10 year period.

First, we start with "Tax Cuts for Families and Individuals":

* Extend earned income tax credit for larger families - $12.3 billion
* Expand child & dependent care tax credit - $9.6 billion
* Automatic enrollment in IRA's, plus - $14.3 billion
* Extend American opportunity tax credit - $93.5 billion
* Increase tax on cap gains/dividens for top earners - $123 billion

Next, "Tax Cuts for Businesses."

Enhance/make permanent research tax credit - $106 billion
Extra tax credits for advanced energy investment - $3.6 billion

The plan would also pay for three years of relief dealing with the Alternative Minimum Tax by reducing the value of certain tax expenditures, with a price tag of $321.2 billion over ten years.

"Other Revenue Changes and Loophole Closers:"

* Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee on banks - $30 billion
* Reinstate Superfund taxes - $20.8 billion
* Make Unemployment Insurance surtax permanent - $15 billion
* Repeal LIFO method of accounting - $52.8 billion
* Reform US international tax system - $129.2 billion
* Reform treatment of insurance companies/products - $7.6 billion
* Eliminate tax breaks for coal industry - $2.6 billion
* Eliminate oil and gas industry breaks - $43 billion
* Tax carried profits as ordinary income - $14.8 billion
* Improve business tax compliance - $8.7 billion

The total of what the White House calls "revenue changes and loophole closers" is $356.4 billion over ten years.

Jacksonville to upgrade computer system with caution

Jacksonville is planning to spend about $7 million over the next two years to upgrade its back-office computer system - a type of project that has resulted in costly and catastrophic failure in other municipalities.

But the way the city is going about the switch ameliorates the dangers, several experts in these types of transitions said. Many such projects fail because the organization changes direction in midstream or employees fail to adapt to new systems, but the mayor's office is looking to spend $2 million this year to get a path laid out first.

If all goes well, the changes should allow the city to operate more efficiently and to provide more data both to employees and the public.

The multi-year project involves switching things like payroll, accounting and procurement to an "enterprise resource planning system," replacing the 25-year-old technology the city now uses. As well as upgrading hardware and software, the new system will require some employees to do their jobs in a different way, forcing a change in workplace culture as information is shared differently and job descriptions are modified.

Oak Park, Ill., began to switch to an ERP system in 2003. Five years and $1.6 million later, nothing was installed. More recently, Marion County, Ind., spent $30 million - and sued its consultant, who countersued - for a project that started in 2005 and was abandoned last year.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Key Vote: Health Care Repeal

Health Care Repeal
- Vote Rejected (47-51, 2 Not Voting)

During the debate over the Federal Aviation Administration bill, the Senate rejected this amendment that would have repealed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The text was similar to the bill the House passed on January 19, 2011.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted NO
Sen. Marco Rubio voted YES

Key Vote: Presidential Campaign Fund Termination

Presidential Campaign Fund Termination
- Vote Passed (239-160, 35 Not Voting)

The House voted to end a program put in place in 1976 that provides taxpayer funds to presidential candidates and the major parties for their nominating conventions. The bill's future in the Senate is unclear.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted YES

Key Vote: Non-Security Discretionary Spending Limit

Non-Security Discretionary Spending Limit
- Vote Passed (256-165, 13 Not Voting)

The House approved this resolution directing the chair of the Budget Committee to reduce non-security spending to 2008 levels for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year. The Budget Committee sets spending levels but does not appropriate funds. The continuing resolution currently funding government operations expires on March 4, 2011.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted YES

Key Vote: Secret Holds Elimination

Secret Holds Elimination
- Vote Agreed to (92-4, 4 Not Voting)

The Senate spent much of the week debating procedural rules. One of the rule changes the chamber passed was this one that ends the practice of “secret holds,” where a senator anonymously blocks legislation or a nomination. The rule change requires a senator to notify his or her party leader within 2 days of placing a hold.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES
Sen. Marco Rubio voted YES

Study finds promised pensions in Fla. too costly

Florida's cities and counties have promised pensions they can't afford, according to researchers at Florida State University.

Pension obligations made up about 8 percent of total spending by local governments in 2009, according to a report released Wednesday by the nonprofit, nonpartisan LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State.

The researchers examined the retirement costs of large cities and found that all were underfunded. Orlando's and Fort Lauderdale's pension shortfalls each totaled 30 percent, according to the report.

Health care benefits promised to retirees also were underfunded, researchers said.

Minority Students and A.P. Program, a Mixed Report Card

More minority high school students are achieving success on Advanced Placement exams that can get them college credit, but they are still underrepresented in the nation’s A.P. classrooms, according to a report just released by the College Board, which administers the program.

More than 853,000 public high school seniors in last May’s graduating class, or 28 percent of the class, took at least one A.P. exam. Some 59 percent of those who took the tests earned a grade of 3, 4 or 5, which are required for college credit.

African-Americans, for example, represented just over 14.6 percent of the total high school graduating class last year, but made up less than 4 percent of the A.P. student population who earned a score of 3 or better on at least one exam.

Number of Fla. students taking AP exams rises

More Florida students are taking at least one Advanced Placement exam by the time they graduate, though many don't score high enough to earn college credit.

College Board results released Wednesday show that 65,741 seniors in 2010 had taken an Advanced Placement exam at some point during high school, and 33,712 scored a three or higher.

Most colleges require a three or four in order to earn course credit.

Overall, 43.5 percent of all Florida seniors had taken an AP exam, and 22.3 percent had scored at least a three on those tests. Nationwide, 16.9 percent of high school seniors had scored at least a three.

Obama Plans to Rescue States With Debt Burdens

President Obama is proposing to ride to the rescue of states that have borrowed billions of dollars from the federal government to continue paying unemployment benefits during the economic downturn. His plan would give the states a two-year breather before automatic tax increases would hit employers, and before states would have to start paying interest on the loans.

Even more worrisome, to some states, is that current law would effectively raise taxes on employers by about $21 per worker in nearly half the states so they could start paying down their debt, which states worry would put pressure on businesses that have already been reluctant to hire in the downturn.

In his budget, officials said, Mr. Obama will call for deferring interest payments on the debt and postponing the automatic tax increases. Then, in 2014, to bring that money back into federal coffers, the administration proposes to raise the minimum level on which employers pay taxes.

Current law requires states to collect unemployment taxes on at least the first $7,000 of income; that minimum has not been raised in decades.

The president’s proposal would raise that minimum taxable wage base to $15,000. The rate of the federal portion of the unemployment taxes would then be lowered, so the proposal would not raise federal taxes on states that do not owe the federal government money. But it would speed the rate at which states that do owe money repay the federal government, and allow states to collect more unemployment taxes to rebuild their trust funds if they do not lower their tax rates.

Growing ranks of older drivers among safest on Florida roads

State crash statistics shows that older adults have fewer crashes than young people, who have the highest crash rates, but also fewer than drivers in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

In 2009, the crash rate for 65-year-old Florida drivers was 106.75 per 10,000 licensed drivers. At 75, it was 98.27 and at 85, it was 88.85.

Compare that to 20-year-old drivers at 348.58 crashes per 10,000 licensed drivers. At 40, it was 205.7. At 50, it was 172.86.

That trend bears out nationally as well.

Obama lays out plan for wireless Internet expansion

His administration has endorsed making 500 megahertz of wireless airwaves, or spectrum, available over the next decade to meet the growing demand for broadband services, including the widely popular Apple iPad and proliferation of smartphones.

The Federal Communications Commission hopes to "repurpose" 120 megahertz of spectrum through incentive auctions where television broadcasters would voluntarily give up spectrum in exchange for a portion of the auction proceeds.

"By selling private companies the rights to these airwaves, we won't just encourage private investment and expand wireless access; we'll actually going to bring in revenues that lower our deficits," Obama said.

The White House said it expects those auctions and more efficient use of government spectrum to raise $27.8 billion over the next decade. That figure is an estimate, however, and could end up lower or higher depending on the success of the auctioning process.

Congress must pass legislation to give the FCC the authority to conduct the incentive auctions. There could be resistance from lawmakers if they fear the auctions could apply undue pressure to broadcasters in their districts to give up spectrum.

In addition to the fund to help rural areas, Obama proposes putting $3 billion from those proceeds toward "research and development of emerging wireless technologies and applications," the White House said in a statement ahead of the president's trip.

Another $9.6 billion from the proceeds would be applied to curbing the deficit, a key goal of Obama's next two years in office and a top demand from Republicans, who control the House of Representatives and will likely make deficit reduction a high profile topic in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Report: Fees may motivate Fla. adult ed students

A legislative report says charging nominal fees may motivate Florida's adult education students to make better learning gains and help cut costs for the cash-strapped state.

Friday's report by the Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability, though, acknowledged some students may be unable to afford fees even as low as $50 to $100 a year.

With no room to put snow, Eastern waterways beckon

It's allowed in emergency situations, and some officials staring at massive snow mountains in densely populated areas of the winter-walloped Northeast say that time is now, even as others warn dumping snow in water comes with big problems.

"There's a lot of stuff in this snow that if I isolated it and threw it in the river, you'd have me arrested," said John Lipscomb of the New York-based environmental group Riverkeeper.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency doesn't directly regulate dumping snow but recommends against dumping it in water. It also urges state and local governments to include snow disposal restrictions in storm water management plans. Some states and municipalities restrict dumping snow into waterways out of fear of harming water life and polluting drinking water. Massachusetts is one of them.

Warning signs missed in Fort Hood killings

Federal authorities ignored warnings that could have prevented a 2009 massacre at an Army base, two U.S. senators said in a report on Thursday that outlined intelligence failures similar to those in the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Most states used "rainy day funds" in recession

Almost all U.S. states relied on their "rainy day funds" when the economic recession began to ravage their budgets, showing that the reserves will be critical during the next downturn and states should consider putting even more money away, a think tank said on Thursday.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which closely tracks states' fiscal situations, found that over 70 percent have used their reserves to address budget gaps.

At the beginning of the recession, 41 states had rainy day funds and reserves that totaled at least 5 percent of their budgets. By 2010, only 22 states had reserves, CBPP said.

Weiss: Florida among worst for banking

When it comes to strength and solvency, Florida is among the worst states for banking, according to a new report released by Weiss Ratings.

Nearly 80 percent of the 532 banks and thrifts in Florida are considered weak and have received a D-plus or lower Weiss Financial Strength rating.

The findings are based on capital, earnings, asset quality and liquidity.

The Weiss study found that, on average, 5.1 percent of the banks and thrifts in Florida have failed each year since 2008.

Census estimates show big gains for US minorities

Racial and ethnic minorities accounted for roughly 85 percent of the nation's population growth over the last decade - one of the largest shares ever - with Hispanics accounting for much of the gain in many of the states picking up new House seats.

Preliminary census estimates also suggest the number of multiracial Americans jumped roughly 20 percent since 2000, to over 5 million.

Egypt street violence: Few options for Obama administration

The Obama administration has already taken sides, expressing support for the “legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton puts it. It’s promised – read “threatened” – a review of the $1.5 billion the US provides Egypt every year in foreign aid, most of that for military and other security programs. And President Obama has called for an “orderly transition” to a post-Mubarak government that “must begin now."

But the Egyptian president – whose one-man rule has lasted nearly 30 years – is digging in his heels, refusing to relinquish power until next September’s elections there.

Does everyone need a college degree? Maybe not, says Harvard study.

A new report released by Harvard Wednesday states in some of the strongest terms yet that such a “college for all” emphasis may actually harm many American students – keeping them from having a smooth transition from adolescence to adulthood and a viable career.

“The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly badly broken,” concludes the report, “Pathways to Prosperity” (pdf).

Despite a clear message that college is important – and a pervasive desire among young students to attend college – only about 30 percent of Americans complete a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s, with another 10 percent completing an associate’s degree by then. A massive effort in recent decades to increase those numbers has improved them only slightly.

62 cities added jobs in 2010, but not Jax

Sixty-two of the top 100 markets posted higher private-sector employment figures at the end of last year than in the final month of 2009, according to data released Wednesday morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Jacksonville ranked 69 on the list, losing 800 jobs for the year.

U.S. illegal immigrant population steady

The study by the Pew Hispanic Center noted 11.2 million illegal immigrants living and working in the shadows in the United States in March 2010, virtually unchanged from a year earlier.

The report, which drew on U.S. Census Bureau data, noted the number of illegal immigrants in the workforce remained steady at around 8 million.

Scott wants Fla. employees to pay toward pensions

Gov. Rick Scott wants to cut pension benefits for state workers, teachers and many local government employees while also requiring that they contribute 5 percent of their salaries to the Florida Retirement System.

The new Republican governor also said Tuesday he didn't think he's politicizing the rollout of his budget recommendations by doing it at a tea party event next week in Eustis.

Scott jetted to Naples, his hometown, to announce that his recommended pension changes would save $2.8 billion over two years.

Florida is the only state that doesn't require at least some employees to contribute to their pension plan. Scott said that's not fair to other taxpayers.

Pensions are hardly lavish, averaging $16,000 to $23,000 a year, Templin said.

Study puts spotlight on red-light cameras

The national debate over red-light cameras is heating up again as a new analysis from a traffic safety group argues that the controversial devices saved 159 lives in 14 cities during a five-year period.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says red-light cameras reduced the rate of fatal red-light running by 24% from 2004 to 2008. Had the cameras been installed in all U.S. cities with populations above 200,000, 815 deaths would have been prevented, says the Insurance Institute, a group funded by auto insurers that aims to reduce deaths, injuries and property damage caused by crashes on the nation's roads.

‘Virtual fence’ got late review of costs, benefits

A Homeland Security report made public in January that accompanied a statement canceling the virtual-fence project, dubbed SBInet, conceded that only last year did department officials conduct a comprehensive cost-effectiveness analysis of the project on the U.S.-Mexico border — four years after the plan had been approved and at a time the project was behind schedule, over budget and facing costly overruns.

The department said it did not until last year formally assess the operational value of the system against the projected costs, even though the contract was awarded in 2006 and such tests are normally a prerequisite for a project of that size.

The report determined that the virtual-fence project was “not the most efficient, effective and economical way to meet our nation’s border security needs,” although by then, the department had spent $1 billion for 53 miles of protection along the 1,969-mile U.S.-Mexico border as part of the much-heralded SBInet program.

Homeland Security’s assessment coincided with a stinging report in October by the GAO, the latest in a series of negative reports by the watchdog agency on SBInet that began in 2007. The GAO said Homeland Security had failed to effectively manage the project or give sufficient oversight to its prime contractor, the Boeing Co.

Yuck! Report says Jacksonville Drinking Water is Not Clean

ut according to a new report, there may be big problems lurking in that water. The Environmental Working Group, or EWG, studied Jacksonville water for five years.

Its tests found 23 different toxic chemicals, from cleaning by-products, including chloroform to lead, arsenic and carcinogens with levels higher than allowed by the federal government.

Those tests ranked the River City 10th for the worst water in the country.

But Gerri Boyce, spokesperson for the JEA, said it runs more than 25,000 tests every year on its drinking water. "Jacksonville water is very safe," she said.

The report is wrong and misleading, she said. "It's an unregulated group and the data is not scientific, and it's not comprehensive. You have to compare apples to apples and that's not what is happening in this case," said Boyce.