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165 posts from July 2007

July 31, 2007

Arza vs. Allen. AKA: the "N" word vs. a sex solicit

Former Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, used the N-word in a cellphone rant to a colleague last year and was almost immediately asked to leave the Legislature by his friend, incoming House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Current Rep. Bob Allen, R-Merritt Island, allegedly offered to perform a sex act on a Titusville cop for $20 at a public restroom in early July, yet Rubio hasn't made a move to investigate him or remove him as chair of the energy committee.

What gives? Rubio recently said he could only comment so much because the case could still be referred to him and he needs to remain impartial. He said the two circumstances "seem very different" but wouldn't elaborate. Also, he said, Allen's case needed to go through the courts.

"We still have a country where you're innocent until proven guilty," Rubio said. "Representative Allen has pleaded not guilty and says he's not guilty. We have to wait for all the facts to come in."

That last comment could be a clue. Rubio was played the recording of Arza and his cousin making threatening calls to former state Rep. Gus Barreiro, a Miami Beach Republican who had filed a complaint against Arza. Once Rubio heard that recording, there was no ambiguity.

Without a recording of Allen's alleged proposition, it remains an alleged proposition. Still, Rubio said, he would "re-evaluate" who leads and sits on what committees, which is "every speaker's prerogative."

Politics and policy of PIP and the Senate

As they inch toward some accord on no-fault car insurance, the House and Senate point-politicians conceptually agree that they want a billing schedule to clear up payment disputes, lawyer-fee caps, more power for the attorney general to pursue tight-fisted insurance companies, protections for hospitals and clearer definitions of what's necessary and billable non-emergency care.

They concretely agree on one this: Any solution faces a tough slog in the Senate heading into the September special session.

"I’ve got my votes in the House," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. "Go talk to the Senate. There is an interest group that says they can kill it in the Senate. They’re going to give it their best shot."

The interest group: the trial lawyers, a lobby that Bogdanoff's one-time political client, current Senate President Ken Pruitt, is rather friendly with. It's also a lobby that she suspects of running Republican candidate Darin Lentner against her.

Another reason any fix or overhaul for Personal Injury Protection won't pass easily in the Senate: It doesn't have the lemming-like tendency to charge over any cliff its presiding points out. And allowing PIP to go away with no good alternative could make for a rough landing, especially as the state budget, wind-insurance and property-tax woes bedevil legislators.

Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, acknowledged individual Senators have far more power in the process, especially under Pruitt's watch, and that "if there's a problem, it will be in the Senate." But the big problem is all the lobbying, he said.

"We have every interest group out there from the hospitals, to the insurers to the trial lawyers, doctors and chiropractors," Posey said. "If everybody hates it, it will probably be a good bill."

Said Bogdanoff: "We have State Farm and the trial lawyers on the same side. When the stars align like that, it's a scary proposition."

PIP politics: Group upset with state agency head

Floridians for Lower Insurance Costs, a coalition of groups pushing to end Florida's no-fault insurance law, aren't too happy with Electra Bustle, the head of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Prodded by Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, Bustle explained at today's Cabinet meeting why the end of no-fault, and the requirement that motorists have Personal Injury Protection (PIP) would be a problem.

Bustle said that highway patrol troopers would have to spend more time sorting out who's at fault in auto accidents and she agreed with statements by Sink that more Floridians would probably opt to drive without any form of insurance. Bustle's agency has already opined that there will be nothing to prevent motorists from going bare _ a position disputed by insurers such as State Farm.

The coalition called the statements "surprising and puzzling" and suggested that Bustle's concerns were "unfounded." (See full statement in comments)

It appears, however, that Crist and other Cabinet members agreed something needs to be done to preserve some type of no-fault. Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson even disputed that savings would be passed on to motorists. "There's no free lunch,'' he said. Crist said that he talked to Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff on Monday and that a compromise may soon be unveiled.

Elections officials no longer in denial about "ballot-stuffing" attack risks

Reversing an unofficial policy of denial, the Florida Secretary of State's office has conducted an elections study that confirmed Tuesday what a maverick voting chief Ion Sancho discovered nearly two years ago: Insider computer hackers can change votes without a trace on Diebold optical-scan machines.

   The study by Florida State University found that, despite recent software fixes, an "adversary'' could use a pre-programmed computer card to swap one candidate's votes for another or create a "ballot-stuffing attack'' that multiplies votes for a candidate or issue.

     A Diebold spokesman, Mark Radke, said the company is confident it will upgrade the "minor'' software glitch by an Aug. 17 deadline the state has set. If it doesn't, Secretary of State Kurt Browning said his office will ban the use of Diebold machines in Florida, where 25 counties, including Monroe, use its fill-in-the-blank systems.

Ros-Lehtinen misses vote, pleads good cause

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was one of just 13 House members to miss a vote Tuesday on ethics legislation that requires lawmakers to disclose more details of requests for special projects and fundraising help from lobbyists.

But the Miami Republican said she had a good excuse: She was in her Capitol Hill office with friends of Juan Gomez, a Kendall teen facing deportation to Colombia. As the bell signaling she had about 2 minutes to reach the House floor rang, Ros-Lehtinen was still in talks with the students, who are lobbying members of Congress.

"When you hear I didn't vote on the ethics bill, will you write a letter to the editor saying I was doing good work, constituent work?" she quipped to the students.

Congressmen often get dinged for missing votes - particularly by editorial boards.

The House didn't need her vote to pass the bill - it cleared by an overwhelming 411 to 8. One of the nays was cast by Florida's Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello.

Charlie: Stop saying silly things, sell mansion

Florida Times-Union columnist Ron Littlepage takes a swipe at Gov. Charlie Crist today, saying he sometimes says "silly things" like suggesting that the Duval County School Board sell its office building, even though its already paid off.

Littlepage goes even further and says that if Crist wants to save money he should sell the governor's mansion. More here.

Thompson raised $148,900 in FL in June

Not-quite-official presidential candidate Fred Thompson raised $148,900 in Florida, a tiny fraction of the $3.4 million he collected in June, according to a report filed today with the IRS.

The former Republican senator and actor made his Florida debut in July, but the report only covers donations through June 30.

One of his biggest Florida supporters is former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, who gave Thompson the maximum $2,300 donation. So did his wife and two of his kids.

Crist lashes out at insurance industry

Gov. Charlie Crist today suggested that insurance companies may be working in concert together to thwart insurance reforms passed last January and he said he's ordered lawyers in the governor's office to investigate whether or not that could be happening.

Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty also expressed frustration at the fact that companies are not filing rate decreases as was originally forecast by analysts. McCarty said his office intended to vigorously examine all rate filings - pointing out for example that the Office of Insurance Regulation on Monday had directed State Farm to file new filings that show an additional four to five percent decrease on top of the 7 percent decrease the company showed. McCarty also said that OIR has sent out subpoenas to State Farm executives asking them to show up at a hearing to explain why they decided to drop 50,000 coastal policyholders.

But Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink told Crist and her fellow Cabinet members that if insurance companies do not pass on savings to consumers as predicted then the Legislature should go back and remove the extra risk in the Hurricane Catastrophe Fund that the state assumed as a way to lower rates. Sink also said she wants to question the experts hired by OIR and the Legislature who had predicted the average 24-26 percent rate decrease in the first place.

Venezuelans use clout to influence 08

Taking a cue from the influential Cuban-American community, Venezuelan-Americans in South Florida are pressuring presidential candidates to take a hard line against the repressive leader of their homeland.

They landed a meeting Saturday with Republican Mitt Romney and recently condemned Democrat John Edwards for campaigning with actor Danny Glover, who has embraced Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Read more about the local anti-Chavez efforts here.

Slots shortfall adds to budget woes

Florida lawmakers may have to cut millions in school funding because Broward County slot machines aren't generating as much money as the state expected. Lawmakers already plan to slash $1 billion in September from the state's $71 billion budget because general revenue collections _ which is primarily the state's 6 percent sales tax _ have not kept pace with estimates.

But the lower than expected slot machine revenue from three Broward facilities has left a $45 million deficit in the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund, which is used to pay for such programs as the popular Bright Futures scholarship program, school recognition awards, and part of the cost for class size reduction. More here.