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169 posts from December 2010

December 22, 2010

Plans to eliminate Office of Drug Control raise concerns

All four full-time employees working in the governor's Office of Drug Control were told Friday by Gov.-elect Rick Scott that their services will no longer be needed after he takes office. That's raised concerns by people fighting Florida's prescription pill epidemic. "The question is, what's the plan for keeping a laser focus on that issue?" said Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association. A spokesman for Scott, who has pledged to cut waste in state government, said most likely the duties of the Office of Drug Control, which now reports directly to the governor, will be turned over to the departments of Health and Law Enforcement. "We're taking a look at that," said Scott spokesman Brian Burgess. "I don't think we're going to have cocaine bales stacking up on the docks of Miami if we close this office."

Gov. Jeb Bush created the Office of Drug Control in 1999, and it's authorized by state statutes. Among other things, the office surveys Florida school children on their drug and alcohol habits,  provides guidance on drug policy, coordinates work among state agencies to address substance abuse issues, and advises the governor on seaport security as it relates to drug smuggling. The office has also secured grant funding and donations to pay for the state's still-to-be-implemented prescription drug monitoring program, intended to curb pill mill activity.

Office director Bruce Grant said eliminating the four positions will save the state less than $500,000.

"We've got a heck of a problem in this state with drugs. And it’s not going to be over any time soon," Grant said. "What you're saying by getting rid of this office is that's not a priority. And that’s a mistake. Because it is a priority. We all have been connected to somebody with a substance abuse problem, and we all know how devastating it can be for a family and for our economy."

Fontaine said a recent study showed that substance abuse has a $43 billion negative impact on the state economy due to loss of job productivity, and costs associated with hospital and emergency room visits and incarceration. Fontaine said about 65 percent of Florida inmates have substance abuse problems. Meanwhile, a 2009 Florida Department of Law Enforcement study concluded seven people in Florida die every day due to prescription drug abuse.

Lora Brown, a pain management physician who is part of a task force working to get the state's prescription drug monitoring program running, credited the Office of Drug Control with helping get the legislation approving the program passed. Like Fontaine, she worries the fight against prescription drug and other substance abuse will stall if the office is eliminated.

“This issue is not a law issue. It’s not a health issue. It’s an issue that incorporates all those areas. It's a complex issue and needs an integrated, coordinated solution," she said. “I’m very disappointed in the fact that this office has been dissolved. My concern is this issue is not going to get the attention it needs.”

National Dems weigh in on Rivera gambling ties

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which poured money into the race for Florida's 25th District before the November election, put in its two cents Wednesday on U.S. Rep.-elect David Rivera's ties to gambling interests we reported in a story last week.

"Voters expect Representative-elect Rivera to raise his right hand to take an oath and be sworn into Congress, but before he gets there he might have to raise that same hand on the stand to defend his potentially criminal behavior," said Jesse Ferguson, a DCCC spokesman. "The last thing Washington needs is an ethically-challenged, scandal plagued politician like David Rivera who is under investigation before even being sworn into his office - that won’t be the kind of change voters hoped for."

December 21, 2010

Fasano to hold court over courthouse, invites judges to come

Two judges and other officials who participated in the planning of the new 1st District Court of Appeal building have been invited to explain the lavish courthouse at a state Senate committee meeting in January.

Opened this week, the building has been labeled the "Taj Mahal'' by critics who say its African mahogany, granite surfaces, bathrooms and kitchens for every judge are over the top for a government project built during a recession.

Sen. Mike Fasano, chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, sent invitations late Tuesday to Judges Paul M. Hawkes and Brad Thomas; Department of Management Services Secretary Linda South; and State Court Administrator Lisa Goodner. The New Port Richey Republican said he also plans to invite the construction manager from Peter G. Brown Inc., which managed the contract.

Hawkes and Thomas, both former legislative staffers who also worked on Gov. Jeb Bush's budget staff, led a lobbying campaign over several years to raise money for the $48.8 million project. The bulk of the money came from a $33.5 million bond issue authorized in a transportation bill on the final day of the 2007 legislative session.

Fasano toured the building earlier this month and was "disgusted'' with the abuse of taxpayer funds. He said he wants to hear testimony that might help legislators prevent a repeat. Fasano has also suggested giving the structure to the Florida Supreme Court or forcing the district court to share office space with the court system's administrative staff, now housed in rental quarters at a cost of about $300,000 a year.

Hawkes, in an e-mail, had no comment except to say "thank you'' after a St. Petersburg Times reporter shared Fasano's letter. Thomas did not respond to a request for comment.

South, who had not seen the letter, said she does not plan to be in Tallahassee in January and will not attend the meeting. She was appointed to head the agency that serves as the state's landlord by Gov. Charlie Crist and will leave office next month.

-- Lucy Morgan, Times staff writer

Scott's advisors want universal vouchers and teacher pay tied to performance

Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott gave every indication in recent weeks that Florida schools are in for a wild ride. And on Tuesday, his education transition team lived up to the hype. In a 20-page report, the 20-member team offered one radical recommendation after another. Among them:

* Vouchers for all. Scott hinted at the idea two weeks ago, but the report offers more detail. Parents would be eligible for an “education savings account” equal to 85 percent of the amount the student would have generated in the public school system (or about $5,800 this year), and could use the money for private school, dual enrollment or college savings. The recommendation does not say how the proposal would clear the constitutional hurdles that tripped up an earlier voucher program championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

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Scott's transition team trashes prison agency and police union

Gov.-elect Rick Scott's law and order transition team slams the police unions and the state's PRIDE program in a report on the Department of Corrections released today. The introduction to the report calls the DOC "broken" and "lacking leadership, vision and courage." The committee suggests a top to bottom review of the corrections and criminal justice system, as recommended by Florida TaxWatch, and proposes decentralizing the agency to move authority down to the regional level. The review team says "individuals in certain areas far exceeded the parameters of their jobs" and many have been promoted from within "to jobs for which they are not nearly qualified." Ultimately, the team concluded: "Most failure is blamed on two to three people in leadership."

As for the Police Benevolent Association, the committee said the contracts with the PBA "encourage stagnation" and allow officers to be promoted based on tenure rather than performance, education and training. That means officers are promoted even if they haven't "accepted the modified mission statement of corrections which now includes successful reentry of the offenders into their community." The contract with the PBA expires in June, and "needs immediate attention," concluded the committee.

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Transition advisors say join DJJ with DCF

A report released today by Gov.-elect Rick Scott's law and order transition team recommends combining the Department of Juvenile Justice with the Department of Children and Families. That wouldn't happen, though, for at least two years. First, the committee recomends, juvenile justice needs to be re-organized to mimic the organizational structure of DCF, with a "more community-based juvenile justice approach" that has the "capacity to address the serious offender population." Otherwise, the committee concluded, "DJJ would overwhelm and potentially affect the progress of DCF in a negative way."

The committee also recommends saving money by expanding the civil citation program for first- and some second-time misdemeanor offenders. And those who guilty of misdemeanor crimes should not be put in residential programs, the committee suggests. Instead, they should remain at home with electronic monitoring.

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Scott wants to abolish restrictive growth rules and merge more agencies

Incoming Gov. Rick Scott should fold the three agencies now overseeing environmental protection, growth management and transportation into a single agency called the Department of Growth Leadership, according to a report Monday from a transition team he appointed.

Scott should also abolish some longstanding growth-management rules and block local governments such as Hillsborough County from enforcing their own, more restrictive regulations protecting wetlands from development, according to the report from the committee, which is chaired by a former developer.

Scott's regulatory reform transition team contended that getting the Legislature to approve merging the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Community Affairs next year would reshape how the state deals with development.

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More on Lincoln Diaz-Balart's vote to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Before being feted by the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC Monday, outgoing U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart spoke to reporters about his last days in Congress -- including his vote last week to repeal the ban on gays serving in the military.

"It was the right thing to do," said Diaz-Balart, who voted for the repeal along with fellow Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. "It was inevitable and it was long in coming."

"One thing that was really important for me...[was] when I learned that that's the situation in Israel," he added. "The armed forces in Israel -- that's a tough armed forces."

Without going into specifics, Diaz-Balart said he would be employing his time now to "the practice of law, and helping the internal opposition in Cuba and our team in Washington."

Medicaid battle begins: Sink report puts $69 million pricetag on giving docs immunity

As the Legislature and now Gov.-elect Rick Scott consider giving doctors immunity from lawsuits in return for treating Medicaid patients, a new report warns that such an arrangement would cost taxpayers at least $69 million a year.

   Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who lost to Scott in November, commissioned the actuarial report last month after lawmakers indicated they are considering extending sovereign immunity to Medicaid providers.

   The report concludes that if legislators extend the state cap on legal liability, known as sovereign immunity, to Medicaid providers who commit negligent acts, îîthe state basically takes the place of a doctor who commits a negligent act.'' When a patient sues, taxpayers pick up the tab of any medical malpractice claim up to $300,000. The cost of defending and investigating an estimated 551 claims a year would cost Florida $69 million a year, the report claims.

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Scott makes first appointments to inner circle, most of them newcomers

Governor-elect Rick Scott today announced the first appointments to his new administration, tapping mostly newcomers to state government except for a former deputy general counsel to Gov. Jeb Bush who will be his special counsel and legislative advisor.

To head his administrative team, Scott named Mike Prendergast a retired army colonel. His long-time policy advisor, Mary Anne Carter, will fill the newly-created role of chief adviser to the governor.

Scott appointed Hayden Dempsey, the former Bush aide, as special counsel to the governor who will also oversee Scott's legislative agenda. Dempsey is a lawyer and lobbyist at Greenberg Traurig and represented 13 clients before the legislature last year, including many health care concerns.

Jon Costello, a lobbyist from the law firm of Rutledge, Ecenia & Purnell, P.A., will be Scott's legislative affairs director. Costello represented 18 clients last year before the legislature, including HCA, several health care companies and the City of Miami Beach. Gary Rutledge, head of the firm, is a long-time friend of Scott and was one of HCA's lobbyists when Scott headed the hospital chain. Brian Burgess, who worked on Scott's health care initiative and served on Scott's political campaign, will be his communications director.  

Scott said in a statement that the appointments mark “the end of business as usual in Florida’s Capitol.”

From the release:

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