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House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands on Friday renewed the Democratic charge that the real decisions about the budget are being made in GOP offices behind closed doors. House Speaker Larry Cretul responded that the process is now more open than ever and pointed to a legislative look at sales tax exemptions that is examining the worthiness of several tax breaks that were suggested for review by Democrats. Sands, D-Weston, particularly wants Democrats and the public to have access to the meeting at which "allocations," are determined. That's the decision about how much of the budget pie will be allocated to each budget subcommittee to appropriate. The process for deciding when splitting up the budget among major spending areas which committees will get what has always been a murky one, with House speakers always pronouncing the numbers with little apparent public input. "Would you please announce the time, place and location of when your leadership team will conduct its public meeting for establishing the size of the budget and setting allocations," Sands urged Cretul in one of a series of back-and-forth press releases that bounced around the Capitol on Friday. "Floridians should have an opportunity to listen, or even participate, in such a meeting." Cretul said that each member has been encouraged to suggest how the state's money should be spent and renewed the call on Friday. "We urge Leader Sands and his members to bring forward their constructive ideas for how to balance the budget during these very difficult times," Cretul said.

One of the state's two major police unions, the Florida Fraternal Order of Police, on Friday came out against a measure that would restore caps on lawyers fees in workers compensation cases. The law had a schedule setting limits on attorney fees in such cases but it was thrown out by a Supreme Court decision last year. A bill (HB 903) moving through the Legislature would restore a cap on fees. The FOP said the system is flawed anyway, but would be made worse if the lawyer fee cap were restored. "At present, the Florida workers' compensation system is so flawed that an injured first responder may not contract with an attorney and agree to pay an hourly fee," the Florida FOP said in a statement released Friday. "Conversely, employers and insurance carriers can contract with the attorney of their choice and spend as much money as they desire defending claims which are wrongfully denied. This obvious inequity creates an uneven playing field which is fundamentally unfair." The business community says restoring the caps is crucial for the economy, because without it, workers compensation insurance rates are expected to go up. "If the Legislature doesn't act and reinstate the limits on attorneys' fees, Florida businesses and employers will experience a significant increase in the cost of doing business during these tough economic times," William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, which advocates for lawsuit limits, said in a recent statement backing the bill. Large argues that lawyers - not claimants - would be the main beneficiaries if attorneys' fees aren't capped.

Former Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams was named Friday by Gov. Charlie Crist to fill the vacancy on the Palm Beach County Commission left by the resignation of Mary McCarty. Abrams, 50, is currently an attorney. He gained national attention during the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed a man in Boca Raton. Abrams has also worked in the White House as a law clerk to now-Supreme Court Justice John Roberts when Roberts was Counsel to President Reagan. Crist made the announcement at a Palm Beach County news conference Friday. McCarty stepped down from the commission in
January facing federal corruption charges. Prosecutors allege she didn't disclose financial interests in decisions she made on the board or favors she received from a hotel contractor.

Staff at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have drafted a rule that ban the commercial take or sale of wild freshwater turtles from Florida waters. The rule is broad, barring not only the taking of turtles on the imperiled species list, but also those that look similar to the imperiled species, including common snapping turtles. It also would prohibit the collection of turtle eggs. The rule
would allow for individuals to catch one freshwater wild turtle a day for non-commercial use. Another exception would allow turtle farms under some circumstances to collect turtles for breeding purposes for two more years. The draft rule would still have to be approved by the full commission. It will first go to the commission for preliminary approval at the April 15 meeting in Tallahassee and then if approved there would be up for final approval at the commission's June meeting in Crystal River. The proposal was praised by conservationists. "Scientists who study Florida's turtles believe this rule, ending commercial hunting of wild turtles and closing loopholes in the protection of listed species, will solve the serious problem of overexploitation," said turtle expert Matt Aresco, who directs Nokuse Plantation, a private wildlife refuge in the Florida Panhandle. "The FWC and Gov. Charlie Crist, who asked the commission to ban wild turtle hunting, are showing true stewardship for Florida's natural resources."

--END-- 3/13/2009