Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Unemployed? Florida lawmakers want you to work for free

Picture this scenario:

Your longtime job of 10 years laid you off. You were making an honest $40,000. Suddenly, you’re thrown into the same lot as thousands of other Floridians — unemployed with no job prospects. Hesitant, you apply for unemployment benefits. A few weeks later, you receive a check for $275. You look for work, online and off, unsuccessfully. After two months, belts tighten more. Your meager savings is almost depleted. The bills are piling up. You stop driving around filling out random applications, trying to save the gas for actual interviews or referrals.

Then, one morning while drinking day-old coffee, you read in the local newspaper that the Florida Legislature has mandated that you find an organization and work for them. For free. No money for gas or child care.

Call it volunteering.

That’s the latest unemployment-related bill — that does nothing to fix unemployment, by the way — from state Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican.  She’s the sponsor of HB 509, which is currently in the Economic Development & Tourism Subcommittee.

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Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation is back for 2011!

It’s been two years since the last Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation, but I’m happy to announce the Guide is back to track the most absurd bills in the 2011 legislative cycle.

It’s the perfect year, too.

Both locally and nationally, U.S. citizens are seeing some of the most reactionary law-making in years. The political atmosphere is decidedly partisan … and sometimes just plain mean. There are hundreds of new politicians looking to make a name for themselves with opportunistic legislation. And with record numbers of laid-off reporters and bankrupt media companies, it’s an impossible task to track the hundreds (thousands?) of bills coming up for a vote.

That’s where the Guide comes in.

But this year, I’m doing something different: I will focus mostly on federal legislation as oppose to only focusing on Florida’s fair share of foolish ideas.

If you remember from the past two installments of the Guide, I’ve used some kind of graphic to rate the idiocy of featured bills from 1 to 5. In 2008, I used “Bumper Nutz,” those wildly-colored genitals that rednecks like to put on the back of their trucks. In 2009, in honor of Florida Rep. Darryl Rouson’s “bong tax,” I rated ridiculous legislation with 1-5 bong hits, with “5 bong hits” being the most stoned bills coming out of the Florida Legislature.

This year, with the Tea Party movement changing the face of politics in Florida and nationally, I thought the rating system should reflect this new (bizarre) phenomenon of U.S. politics.

So I’m using teabags. I will rate bills by 1 to 5 teabags, with five teabags representing the worst concoction of a law – reactionary, wasteful, and of course, ridiculous.

For a complete list of all previous posts, click here.

(Photos of teabags courtesy of Andrew Coulter Enright / Flickr under Creative Commons licensing)

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejects high speed rail funding

In a move that has astounded politicians of both parties throughout Florida, Gov. Rick Scott has passed on $2 billion in federal funding for a high speed rail system linking Orlando and Tampa.

Although this is not technically a piece of legislation, and there questions about the Republican governor’s constitutional authority to unilaterally reject the funding, I can’t think of a single Florida politician who has proposed an idea that is more ridiculous than this.

Florida’s unemployment rate has risen to 12 percent; it’s been higher than 10 percent for at least two years now. Florida has some of the highest mortgage and credit card delinquency rates in the country. There are few states with a higher foreclosure rate. The state’s economy, which has relied on construction, agriculture and tourism, is in shambles.

According to a recent Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll, 43 percent of Floridians feel their economic situation has worsened over the last two years.

And yet Gov. Rick Scott, who campaigned on bringing jobs to the state, has refused a project estimated to bring up to 23,000 jobs, with thousands more created indirectly. He’s ignoring that the installation of the first high speed rail line in the United States could also bring Florida to the attention of large businesses wishing to move to a mass transit-friendly area. He’s neglecting the possible adverse effects that heavy traffic along the I-4 corridor have to the economy.

The economic growth caused by connecting two of the Florida’s biggest cities is hard to calculate but easy to imagine.

Plus, Scott seems to be deaf, even to his own party.

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The story behind the Christmas Card

Every year, I send out a Christmas card. But I try and send something a little less like the traditional, boring here’s-my-baby/dog/family-for-your-enjoyment. Last year, I sent out a picture greeting card featuring an ex-marine waterboarding me. A few years before that, I sent out a photo and story about my night inside an inflatable newspaper costume. The year before that, well, let’s just say I have a lifetime ban from that coffeeshop. So, in keeping with my Gonzo tradition, here is the story behind the Christmas card:

So there I was – standing in front of a dozen Pennsylvania police officers in full riot gear, clubs and tear gas ready, with only a press pass to protect me. And even if that press pass was real, reporter credentials didn’t mean anything on the fortified streets of Pittsburgh.

Just minutes earlier, another phalanx of riot cops charged a group of protesters and bystanders a few blocks over. And that was just minutes after police rolled out L-RAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) — a crowd-control device strapped to a military truck that emits a piercing, debilitating tone. This was the first time such a device had been used in the United States.

Yep, the G20 Conference was underway and for the last six weeks, Pittsburgh city officials and the media had scared residents into allowing a small version of a police state right on the banks of the Allegheny River.

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Florida’s extended (extended) unemployment benefits: The good, the bad, the ugly

First, the good news for my unemployed brothers and sisters:

Due to stagnant (and in some cases, rising) unemployment throughout the country, the Obama Administration approved another round of extended benefits for laid-off Americans earlier this month. Although there is confusion surrounding who will actually get these benefits, under the best case scenerio, unemployed Floridians will receive 20 more weeks of benefits to help you get through another four months of job searching.

Well, some of us will receive those benefits (about 250,000 according to the St. Petersburg Times). Which brings me to the bad news.

If you already exhausted your benefits before the bill was passed on Nov. 6, you probably aren’t eligible (although the state says you can apply).  Also, only those Floridians who will run out of all benefits between Nov. 6 and Dec. 27 qualify for the extra weeks.

There is a lot of confusion on who qualifies for the new extension and since the state unemployment office doesn’t make much sense explaining it, they’ve set up a webpage for you to check if you qualify (click on the button that says “Check your eligibility).

That fine print has some advocacy groups upset. The National Employment Law Center just released a study that found over a million American workers will be ineligible for benefits in January 2010. Federal workers have it worse; they estimate over three million of those workers will remain unemployed.

But things get uglier.

The state has already run out of the money to pay for benefits, partly due to the Florida Legislature’s inane idea to not accept federal stimulus money for unemployment insurance. So, as unemployment rises to record levels, there is another cloud on the horizon. Due to a clause in state law, businesses will be taxed extra for unemployment benefits next year. And by “extra,” I’m mean a tax hike approaching 120 percent, which I’m sure can’t be good for companies barely keeping afloat.

Talk about a vicious circle.

Florida unemployment news: The good, the bad and the ugly

First, the good news: Florida’s unemployment rate has not risen for the second month in a row. Now the bad: The state’s unemployment rate hangs at nearly 11 percent, the worst it has been since 1975. The ugly news? Florida’s unemployment trust fund ran out of money this week.

Don’t worry — yet. The federal government is advancing money to the state government to help pay for benefits, but considering the mounting debt up in Washington — and state Republicans too proud to take any federal money — who knows how long that will last.

Founding Fathers-God billboards are a sham

billboard

You’ve undoubtedly seen them by now: several black billboards throughout the Tampa Bay area with supposed Christian-friendly quotes from our country’s founding fathers.

“Supposed” is the key word here. As Michael Hussey of Pushing Rope reports, these propagandists can’t prove the nation’s architects even said them. Read the story here.

Environmental group wants to ban swimming with manatees. My solution: Create the Sea Cow Narc Force

829665-R1-028-12A

Two years ago, during a cool week in March, an out-of-town friend and I made an early morning trek to Crystal River, Florida. Our goal: Get our manatee on.

Crystal River lies in Citrus County, which is the only place in the world where humans are legally allowed to swim with the endangered manatee, that sweet tub of sea cow that is as synonymous with Florida as alligators and large mice. In fact, there is hardly any other reason to visit places like Crystal River, a town of 3,600 with a nuclear power plant and several trailer parks. The manatee tours have put this little hamlet on the map and led to one-of-a-kind human/animal interactions that have touched thousands of people’s hearts.

So, naturally, a few slack-jawed yokels had to ruin it for the rest of us.

In 2007, animal rights activists filmed some Crystal River visitors harassing the manatees — chasing them, riding them, separating moms from babies — and then released the videos to media outlets. Reporters followed the story and, for a while, it seemed the tours that made Crystal River famous might halt.

829665-R1-030-13ALuckily, cooler heads prevailed and federal wildlife officials did not immediately ban the practice. My friend and I went on to have awesome time viewing these gentle creatures in their natural habitat. I rank that day as one of the best ever in Florida, or anywhere else for that matter.

But earlier this month, an environmental group — Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility — filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking the federal agency to ban the practice of swimming with the manatees. PEER is the first group to formally petition the agency and they’re leaving open the possibility of litigation.

Honestly, I can’t blame the activists. Harassing manatees is akin to pushing down old ladies — maybe worse. Old ladies at least have purses to smack you with; the gentle manatee has no way to defend itself. The animal cannot even swim very fast and the shallow depth of the springs makes an escape from some belligerent fratboy impossible.

But, at the same time, banning such a Florida tradition over a few ignorant tourists seems a bit, well, overboard. The PEER group even decrys touching the manatees at all. If they’ve ever been in these waters they’d know: some manatees like people and enjoy being petted on the tummy or scratched under the flipper. The law says to allow the manatee to come to you first. I think that’s a good rule for any animal.

So what’s the solution?

Like many problems, we already have the solution. The rules just have to be enforced — vigorously. So I have a proposal: The Manatee Narc Force. [Enter patriotic horns]

bmanatee006The idea is simple: volunteers and/or state wildlife officials hang out undercover in Crystal River waters or secretly attend the many tour guides that take visitors out on springs for some manatee action. The Manatee Narc Force watches for violators of the official Manatee Code.

If someone is found harassing a manatee, the Manatee Narc Force immediately fines them $500 — about five-times the cost of the average manatee tour. Depending on the severity of offense, jail time of up to 60 days is possible.

This is already the law. But we need to go a step further.

Under this proposal, the Manatee Narc Force will hold tour operators to a higher standard. If the Manatee Narc Force fines three visitors from the tour boat’s party in a 12-month span, they will fine the tour operator $3,000. Hell, make it $10,000. That way, after a violation, some tour guides might even order everyone back on the boat for the rest of the trip, with no refunds. If that happened, you can be sure Mr. Manatee Molester will get his ass beat in the parking lot by some dad with two upset kids. Hell, I’d do it.

Also, if a tour company has more than 10 violations in a five year period, the Manatee Narc Force revokes the company’s right to be in the water. Problem solved.

“But how will we pay for such enforcement?” my conservative friends ask.

Simple: the fines.

If that’s not enough (and hopefully if they are doing the job it won’t be enough), the federal government and Crystal River will pony up the additional funds. After all, Crystal River is benefiting from the tourism and they stand to lose a lot more money if the ban goes into effect. Plus, considering the manatee is federally protected and the Manatee Narc Force would create jobs desperately needed in that area, the proposal should qualify for stimulus funds.

This isn’t some grand scheme. There are already laws, fines and punishments in place to deal with manatee harassment. The problem is enforcement. As one local TV station reported, state officials only cited one person last year — after nearly 1,600 hours of patrol in an area that hosts nearly 100,000 visitors a year. Folks, if we want to keep this unique Florida treasure, we must be more strict.

Let’s create the Manatee Narc Force before it’s too late.

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Neo-Nazis and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist share a love of movie

Incredible find today by the Ybor City Stogie:

Jud_SüßSeveral weeks ago, John Ubele — the operations manager of the white supremacist Nationalist Coalition — sent some Florida public officials a copy of the DVD Jud Süß,” a 1940 German film about a sneaky Jew who tricks an 18th century Duke into giving him control of his kingdom. According to Wikipedia, the movie was made by the notoriously anti-Semetic German director Veit Harlan under the direction of the Nazi Party’s chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

According to the nazi blog White Reference, several copies of this movie were sent to various public officials throughout Florida. Nice gesture, especially considering most hate groups prefer to send threats.

But the interesting part of this story is Ubele — who has run for Florida public office himself — received a thank-you letter from none other than our governor:

charlieletter

In the letter, Crist (or presumably an aide) thanks Ubele for sending the film “on behalf of myself and the people of Florida.” He repeats an appreciation of “thoughtfulness” and offers to share the film with “the people of Florida.”

Well, the cold hearts at the White Reference blog were thoroughly warmed, if cautiously:

At this point, there is no need to over-interpret Governor Crist’s reaction. It could be that he is simply a buff of old movies and that he finds this movie enjoyable. Eventually, he could find this movie educational as well. It’s worth the time to watch it.

cristjewsI will agree: There is no need to over-interpret the governor’s reaction. I’m sure he is no anti-Semite. I’m also 99.9% positive he didn’t even write the letter himself. But for Crist’s sake, why didn’t an aide do a Wiki search on this movie and figure out the nature of the film?

I’m going to get a Texan female friend of mine to send in Debbie Does Dallas. Maybe I can get a response from Crist thanking “the good women of Texas” for their, uh, “generosity.” If so, that shit is totally going on eBay.

Did you really have to lay me off?

Do Florida employers really have to lay off so many workers during this recession?

Perhaps not, says Sheri McWhorter, president of the local company Workplace Legal Solutions and a certified member of the Florida Bar. In an article for the Bay Area Business Magazine, McWhorter cites a little known provision in Florida unemployment law that allows companies to reduce employee work hours while the state gives those employees pro-rated unemployment compensation to make up for the lost money.

It’s called Short Term Compensation and it might actually save some companies money in the long run.

Here’s a snippet:

Florida is one of 18 states in the country offering a Short Time Compensation (STC) program to assist employers in reducing payroll costs, while keeping their workforce intact.  Under the STC program, employers reduce employees’ work hours by between 10 and 40%, and employees receive prorated unemployment benefits to help replace earnings lost due to the reduced work schedule.  The goal of this voluntary employer program is to help businesses reduce payroll costs during the down economy by using unemployment benefits to offset the cost of full time wages, while allowing them to maintain their workforce rather than laying off full-time employees.  This way, when the economy improves, employers can increase the work hours of their existing employees rather than having to recruit and hire new employees, which may also help reduce future recruitment and training costs.

STC plans provide an alternative to layoffs by enabling businesses to apportion payroll reductions across a larger group of employees than they would have in the absence of an STC plan.  For example, rather than lay off 20% of its workforce, an employer might reduce the work hours of its entire workforce by 20% (i.e. move from a 5 day to a 4 day workweek).

Read the rest of the article here.


Florida throws a bone: Extended benefits to the unemployed

If you’re unemployed like me, you’ve probably heard about the extended benefits program for Florida’s jobless, mostly likely while waiting on the Agency for Workforce Innovation phone line. So, you are probably — like me — completely freakin’ confused about the whole thing. How do I apply? How many weeks do I get? Any extra requirements?

Here’s the short answers:

You apply either by mail (the state will send you application) or at the online site you normally claim your benefits from after you’ve exhausted the normal benefit limit. You get up to 20 weeks, provided you don’t find a job before then. There are no extra qualifications, but you may be asked to provide proof that you’ve been looking for work at least twice a week. If you have all those e-mails, letters and application copies saved on your computer, now is a good time to compile them.

I don’t have time to put all the details in Alex-speak, but I hope the following couple links help you out:

  • FAQ by the state. This has a little bit more info about your work requirements.

Hillsborough County residents to Catholic Charities’ tent city proposal: NIMBY!

STOP_tc_hcSpeaking of the homeless, some Hillsborough County residents crying NIMBY packed a county land use hearing earlier this week, trying to convince officials to deny a permit for a tent city much like Pinellas Hope.

Catholic Charities, the same group that set up Pinellas’ tent city, wants to put up a similar camp on 6410 E. Hillsborough Avenue near Harney Road, on a piece of property they own. When neighbors found out about the proposal, they organized fiercely against it with images like the one to the right (OMG! Syringes!). One East Lake Park woman even created a little group: Stop Tent City. They even have T-shirts. Yes, T-shirts!

The residents do have some good points — Pinellas Hope isn’t located near a neighborhood and Catholic Charities is counting on tax dollars instead of their own wealth to bankroll the project — but the rest of the site is filled with a lot of misinformation on how much the homeless want to be homeless and how a large percentage are snowbirds. They also complain that the homeless would be so far from social services. But where were these people when the city of Tampa began harrassing the homeless downtown? Hillsborough County’s street people have been pushed from one side of the county to the other when some neighborhood complains about them. Now, in this recession, the number is growing rapidly and there just is not enough shelter space for them.

Of course, residents are just falling over themselves about the poor conditions inside the Pinellas tent cities and suggesting alternative plans for more dignified housing (as if a tent is worse than sleeping behind a dumpster). But what happens when the permit is denied? Does anyone honestly think any of these residents will be helping Catholic Charities implement another plan?

Maybe these Stop Tent City folks could get together with Bill Maxwell. He might like one of those shirts.

Florida, St. Petersburg unveil stimulus websites

criststimulusBarack Obama’s most ardent Republican supporter, Florida’s Charlie Crist, finally released a website detailing where federal stimulus funds will go. Florida is not the first state,  nor the last. There’s isn’t much on the site now except for some photos, FAQ and various letters from the Guv. But once the federal funds pour in, this site could get real interesting. Check it out here.

Following his hometown governing friend, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker announced a similar website for the city. Though there isn’t much information on there now about how much St. Pete will get, it does detail the grants available. Check it out here.

So how does this help you? Once you see where the funds are going, you can track where the jobs will be created.

The South loses again (but this time Confederates sue)

FloridaConfederateFlagThis was a small story early in the year, but garnered few headlines. After all, with the huge Confederate flag at I-4 and I-75, Tampans are probably tired of hearing about the Civil War.

But, alas, the Sons of Confederate Veterans are angry again. This time over license plates.

Last year, the SCV petitioned the Florida Legislature to approve a license plate bearing the Confederate flag. They found a sponsor — Panhandle Rep. Donald Brown, who, by the way, looks like a 19th century throwback himself — and the race was on to join other Deep South states with similar license plates. The money would have funded “educational and historical programs” from the SCV.

The bill never made it out of committee. So, in January, the SCV sued the state of Florida.

Talk about sore losers!

But, what can you expect from a group still angry over the Civil War, right?

In a press release, the SCV says it “did everything that was required by Florida Statute to have the Confederate Heritage plate approved by the Legislature and we were not given the time of day by the Florida
Legislature.”

They are being represented by the Rutherford Institute, whose biggest claim to fame was representing Paula Jones in her suit against former President Bill Clinton. Big players, these guys.

But lest you think this was some crazy conspiracy on the part of intolerant legislators who HATE Confederate veterans, puppies, the Gandy beach, and all things sacred … the SCV wasn’t the only organization snubbed by lawmakers. Last year, a number of organizations petitioned for their own license plates: Tennis players, Christians, horse lovers. Choctaw Indians wanted free license plates, but they didn’t get their wish either. Considering the U.S. government committed genocide against them, I’d think they’d deserve a few free license plates. But no, and surprise, they aren’t suing over it.

Get the full text of the federal lawsuit here.