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21 posts from April 25, 2013

April 25, 2013

UPDATED Mysterious flier praises Miami lawmaker's opposition to Dolphins stadium renovation

@PatriciaMazzei Photo (6)

The Miami Dolphins are not the only ones sending political advertisements to voters asking them to support a May 14 referendum for a subsidized Sun Life Stadium renovation.

Some voters have also received fliers praising one of the renovation's vocal opponents, state Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat.

"José Javier Rodriguez believes there are more pressing needs in his district than providing financial aid to a billionaire," read the flier, apparently referring to Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.

But it's unclear who the pieces are coming from. Rodríguez said he doesn't know who's behind them.

A disclaimer on the mailers says they were sent by Citizen Alliance for a Strong Economy. An electioneering communications organization is registered under that name with the Florida Division of Elections. It had not reported receiving or spending any money as of March 31.

Public records show the ECO's treasurer, Michael Milner (or Millner, the spelling is inconsistent), owns the Harrisburg, Penn., home listed on the fliers as the group's mailing address. The group's registered chairwoman, Carmela Falcone of Melbourne, could not be reached for comment.

UPDATE: Turns out Falcone and Milner have several ECO's registered under their names -- including one, Conservatives United, that was involved last year in the Republican primary for Rodríguez's swing seat. Former state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla defeated former Rep. Gus Barreiro in that race, but only after the shadowy Conservatives United sent mailers bashing Diaz de la Portilla with excerpts from his divorce file. Rodríguez later defeated Diaz de la Portilla.

--with reporting by Douglas Hanks

Latvala spars with Weatherford on pension issue

Having already clashed on the ethics bill, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, are at odds again on another piece of legislation.

Weatherford has been championing HB 7011 as one of his top priorities. It would prohibit state workers, teachers and  county employees from enrolling in the Florida $132 billion pension system. Weatherford wants them instead to enroll in 401(k)-style investment plans that he says will help stave off a financial crisis with an unfunded pension years from now.

While Weatherford’s bill easily passed the House, along party lines, the Senate has yet to take it up. In fact, the chamber has drafted rival legislation, from Weatherford’s friend and business associate, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, that is a more moderate than Weatherford’s bill. It would only encourage workers to enroll in 401(k)s, not require them. Yet its progress has stalled as well. A Senate floor vote on it was delayed again Thursday.

Weatherford said he prefers the HB 7011, sponsored by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, but says he’s only requesting the Senate vote on it. He said he thinks it will pass, and isn’t asking for a vote to keep score of who supports it and who doesn’t.

But Latvala says otherwise. On Thursday, he told the Times/Herald that Weatherford is insisting on a vote despite knowing it won't pass.

“He brings it up every time I talk with him,” Latvala said. “I’ve told him he doesn’t have the votes. At this point, if he wants a floor vote, let him have it. It won’t pass.”

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Bill to accelerate death penalty gets fast-tracked attention

Despite warnings that Florida will shrink the appeals of the innocent, the Florida House passed a bill Thurday designed to accelerate the execution of many of the 404 inmates on Florida's death row.

By an 84-34 vote, the House passed HB 7083, the "Timely Justice Act of 2013" and sent it to the Senate, where a companion measure is expected to be taken up later today.

Sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, the bill creates a new process that establishes a system to determine which inmates on death row have exhausted their post-conviction appeals and requires the governor to sign a death warrant wtihin 30 days, after a Supreme Court review. The execution would then have to take place within 180 days.

“There are some who will [be put to death sooner] but only those whose guilt or innocence is not in question,’’ Gaetz said.

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Gov. Scott calls on lawmakers to defend pet projects

Gov. Rick Scott will soon receive a $74 billion budget larded with the most local projects in lawmakers' districts in years, and he said Thursday he's concerned about the level of pork-barrel spending for parks, aquariums, museums and other projects, even in a year with a big budget surplus.

"In this budget, I've started to see a lot of special member projects," Scott told reporters after a bill-signing ceremony Thursday. "This is the first time since 2006 we have a surplus.  I want to make sure that we spend the money well, so I'll expect, like I  have the past two years, legislators to come explain to me what their rationale for this is. I'm responsible for all 19.2 million Floridians and I want to make sure we get a return on investment ... Legislators, I'm sure, want to come and explain why they make sense for the whole state."

Scott is coming to grips with the potential reality that he won't get his No. 1 priority -- a $2,500 across-the-board pay hike for teachers -- while lawmakers fund their priorities, from industrial
parks to community festivals. Lawmakers budgeted $480 million for the teacher raises but they are tied to performance pay plans not yet in effect.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the architect of the Senate budget, said Scott is right, and every lawmaker with a hometown project should be ready to defend it to the governor's
staff. "It's the responsibility of every legislator to advocate their funding decisions. The legislator has the burden of proof to make that case," Negron said.

Negron emphasized that the legislative branch is responsible for making appropriations.

Earlier, in a meeting with the Tallahassee Democrat editorial board, Scott spoke about the state's increasingly robust economy. "Now the goal is, don't spend it on things that are not going to be helpful to the state," Scott said. "I worry about special member projects ... It's your money."

As he prods lawmakers to approve a sales tax break for manufacturers and a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise for teachers, he said he has a better sense of what lies ahead in the state Capitol, too. "You can't feel bad until after the session ends," Scott said. "One thing I found out that's interesting in the last two years is how much happens in the last week. I guess the process works this way, where so much happens in the last week in the Legislature."

On other topics, Scott said he won't sign a bill taxing online sales of books, clothing and other items
unless it does not add new taxes to Floridians. "I won't sign anything unless it's not increasing what comes out of your pocket," Scott said.

Bullish on himself, Scott said he has done exactly what he said he would do as a candidate: create jobs and improve the economy. "I'm an incrementalist," Scott said. "You sort of work your tail off every day, and at some point you become an overnight success."

-- Steve Bousquet

Jackson hospital board member investigated over alleged ethics violations

By Daniel Chang

As Jackson Health System has struggled to pull out of a daunting financial hole for the last two years, a member of the board that oversees the system has been accused of abusive behavior toward employees in the collections office as he tried to negotiate settlements for unpaid bills owed by his law firm’s clients, according to ethics complaints filed by two Jackson administrators.

The allegations against Stephen Nuell, a Miami personal injury attorney and member of the Financial Recovery Board appointed to help turn around the troubled system, are detailed in complaints filed by the director and the associate administrator of the hospital’s business office.

They allege that Nuell repeatedly called the business office between May 2011 — when he was appointed to the board — and October 2012 to resolve matters for private clients despite being told specifically not to do so.

The two employees also accused Nuell of screaming at them over the phone, calling them “incompetents” and contacting hospital executives directly to intervene when he was unhappy with their efforts.

Nuell declined to comment on the allegations that he exploited his position on the hospital’s board for personal gain.

“There’s a confidential investigation going on,’’ he said.

More here.

Fla. House passes 'wage theft' bill on partyline vote

A bill that would outlaw new “wage theft” ordinances—similar to the one in Miami-Dade County—passed the Florida House on a partyline vote Thursday.

The bill, HB 1125, would force victims of wage theft to take their case to civil court, after giving their employer a “demand letter,” allowing them 15 days to pay the disputed amount. Local programs set up to deal with the wage disputes in a non-court setting would be banned, if the bill goes into effect. Though it passed the House on a 71-45 vote, it has stalled in the Senate.

Opponents have blasted HB 1125 as a “Tallahassee power grab” that protects big corporations and business owners who withhold wages from their workers.

"I have had a number of family members and members of my community who have worked on the job and not been paid,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat who represents Little Havana. ““I don’t see any justification for both cutting down people’s rights and also making it more difficult for local governments to help their own people.”

Proponents called it a way to create a statewide solution to the problem of wage theft.

The bill, HB 1125, is the latest in a multiyear attempt by the business lobby to outlaw local laws that govern the act of “wage theft,” or employers refusing to pay employees. The push has failed in previous years, and a judge upheld Miami-Dade’s program last year.

Continue reading "Fla. House passes 'wage theft' bill on partyline vote" »

Gelber to Scott: Veto budget if it's absent Medicaid expansion and teacher raises

Former state senator and attorney general candidate, Dan Gelber, has penned a letter to Gov. Rick Scott suggesting that it is his duty to veto the state budget if it fails to include, as expected, any expansion of Medicaid and fails to "adequately fund the salaries of Florida's teachers."

The letter from Gelber, a Miami attorney and advisor to former Gov. Charlie Crist, reads like the potential talking points of a Crist candidacy. Crist, a former Republican turned Democrat, continues to indicate he is exploring a potential challenge to Scott in 2014. 

"I urge you to inform the Florida Legislature that you intend to veto the 2013-2014 General Appropriations Act if the budget fails to expand Medicaid, and does not adequately fund the salaries of Florida's teachers,'' Gelber wrote in the letter sent today. 

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House votes to keep voters' email addresses secret

The email addresses of voters will be secret under a bill the House passed and sent to the Senate Thursday.

Amid overwhelming bipartisan support, the House vote was 114-1, and came over the opposition of the First Amendment Foundation, an open-government watchdog group backed by many of Florida's newspapers.

But lawmakers said they are more concerned about protecting voters, who already are flooded with mail and phone calls during campaigns, from also being inundated by candidates and political committees using their email addresses.

The House bill (HB 249) is sponsored by Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka. A related bill allows county election supervisors to give voters an option: They could get sample ballots on their personal computers rather than through the mail, and their email addresses will remain confidential.

"The whole intent is to get more people to sign up for sample ballots over the Internet," Nelson said. "If you sign up for a sample ballot, that ought to be kept confidential."

Democrats agreed. "I think we should limit public records exemptions, but at the same time I think people shouldn't be inundated with spam emails," said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

-- Steve Bousquet

Florida dollars for Dolphins stadium renovation may come Miami's foreign banks

via @doug_hanks

To create a tax break for the Miami Dolphins, Florida might eliminate a tax break for Miami’s foreign banks.

On Thursday, the state Senate is scheduled to vote on a bill allowing Florida to pay out $15 million a year in sales-tax rebates for stadium renovations, including a possible $3 million yearly subsidy for the Dolphins’ Sun Life Stadium. To pay for the new stadium dollars, the legislation would end a tax deduction reserved for international banking operations, which in Florida are clustered in the Miami area.

The deduction dates back to the 1980s and costs Florida about $14 million a year in lost tax revenue, according to a Senate analysis. The targeted deduction involves arcane rules of global finance and banking regulation, making the issue an easy one to miss amid the heated argument over whether to invest public dollars in professional sports facilities.

“Which one is sexier: Super Bowls in Miami or international banking?” said David Schwartz, president of the Miami-based Florida International Bankers Association.

In a debate about the stadium plan Wednesday between auto magnate Norman Braman and the Dolphins’ campaign leader, lawyer and community activist H.T. Smith, the banking provision didn’t come up. Instead, the two argued over whether a $350 million upgrade to Sun Life would boost the economy enough to warrant tax dollars. Voters are slated to decide the issue in a May 14 referendum.

More here.

Federal gov't blasts Florida's unemployment compensation system for denying civil rights

The U.S. Department of Labor has rapped the state of Florida for making it difficult for some unemployed people to get jobless benefits, particularly for the disabled and those who speak Spanish or Creole.

Florida's decision in 2011 to make people who apply for benefits do so online and take an "assessment" before getting a check are a violation of civil rights, DOL found.

The Department of Economic Opportunity has agreed to enter negotiations with DOL to make appropriate changes, according to a press release from the National Employment Law Center, Florida Legal Services, the Miami Workers Center and other groups.

DEO defended its program, and said the Department of Labor knew about the changes before they took place.

"DEO questions many of the initial findings by DOL," DEO spokesperson Monica Russell said in a statement. "DOL was aware of the legislative changes to the reemployment system before its passage in 2011 and provided no objection."

At 16 percent, Florida recently ranked lowest in the nation for the “recipiency rate” of jobless benefits (i.e., the number of eligible people receiving aid.)

Many blamed changes made by Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature for the low rate of jobless benefits recipiency. A 2011 law forced all applicants for benefits to do so online, putting an end to applications by phone or paper. The law also required applicants to take a 45-question “assessment” to gauge their skills. Several groups filed a legal challenge saying the changes were discriminatory against those with disabilities and low English proficiency.

“The online requirements created severe obstacles for thousands of Florida jobseekers, especially those with limited English proficiency or disabilities that prevent them from using a computer,” the pro-worker groups said in a statement.

Continue reading "Federal gov't blasts Florida's unemployment compensation system for denying civil rights" »