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401 posts from April 2013

April 29, 2013

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross come to Tallahassee to save Dolphins stadium effort

The Miami Dolphins brought their big guns to Tallahassee on Monday, hoping to persuade the fickle Florida Legislature to approve a taxpayer-supported stadium upgrade in the final days of this year’s session.

In meetings Monday with top state lawmakers, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell, team owner Stephen Ross and team CEO Mike Dee made their last-minute pitch, pressing them to support an upgrade of Sun Life Stadium.

By day’s end, the NFL firepower succeeded — at least with Legislature’s Upper Chamber. The Senate approved a sports team bill in the equivalent of a legislative rout, 35-4 vote. The only no votes: Sens. Rene Garcia (R-Miami), Anitere Flores (R-Miami), John Legg (R-Lutz) and Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville).

Despite the big victory, the Dolphins still face major hurdles in Tallahassee, where the House must approve a sports package before the full Legislature officially adjourns on Friday. Gov. Rick Scott also must sign off on the legislation.

House Speaker Will Weatherford has expressed concerns about the Senate bill, which offers up to $13 million annually in new tax breaks for sports teams.

Dolphins
Photo by Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

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Garcia wins twice on juvenile bill and GOP shelves it

Two of the closest floor votes of the 2013 legislative session took place in the Senate Monday on the issue of sentencing juvenile killers. Both times, Republican Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah prevailed by a single vote, frustrating the Senate GOP leadership.

After Garcia prevailed, the bill's sponsor, who opposed the Miami-Dade lawmaker's amendment, postponed a final vote on the measure.

At issue was a bill (SB 1350) that seeks to conform state law to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions by preventing judges from automatically sentencing juveniles who commit murder to life prison sentences.

What tied the Senate up in knots was Garcia's proposal that such sentences must be reviewed after 25 years, and it added factors such as whether the offender showed "sincere and sustained remorse." If a judge determines the offender has been rehabilitated, the offender can be released subject to at least five years of probation.

After Garcia's amendment got onto the bill on a 19-18 vote, senators reconsidered the vote. Garcia prevailed a second time, 20-19, and at that point, sponsoring Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, postponed further action on the bill, endangering its prospects of passage.

Six Republicans supported Garcia on the pivotal second vote: Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg; Nancy Detert, R-Venice; Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami; Greg Evers, R-Baker; Anitere Flores, R-Miami; and Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Two Democratic senators switched their vote: Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, from yes to no, and Darren Soto, D-Orlando from no to yes.     

-- Steve Bousquet

Senate sticks with 'NegronCare' Medicaid expansion alternative, rejects House plan

The Senate is ready to approve its alternative to Medicaid expansion, a program that qualifies for $51 billion in federal funding to insure 1 million people. Members will do so without considering a rival plan from House Republicans.

The Senate’s decision to stick with its plan and not consider the House’s makes it even less likely the two sides will reach a compromise by Friday, the final day of session.

The House sent its plan, HB 7169, to the Senate after approving it last week after roughly seven hours of debate over two days. There was no discussion and no objections as the Senate agreed to remove the language in the House bill today and replace it with the Senate’s proposal.

The Senate is expected to approve the now amended House bill on Tuesday.

Sen. Joe Negron, the architect of the Senate plan, used very different language explaining his proposal than House Republicans did last week when they rejected it. They described his plan as just an extension of the failed Medicaid system that didn’t provide quality insurance coverages to low-income Floridians.

"Nothing in this bill expands Medicaid," the Stuart Republican said today. "We don’t want to expand Medicaid, and we want to have a Florida solution and not Washington solution."

The Senate also gutted a third proposal created by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, that was similar to the House Republican plan. He agreed to an amendment that erased the language initially contained in SB 1844. 

Now that bill simply allocates $900,000 to fund Florida Health Choices, the state-based insurance exchange that pre-dates the health care law. The Senate approved the amended bill unanimously.

Bill speeding up executions headed to governor's desk

A bill intended to prevent convicted killers from languishing on Death Row  is headed to Gov. Rick Scott.

If the bill becomes law, people sentenced to the death penalty would be executed as soon as seven months after exhausting all their appeals and having a Supreme Court case review. During debate on the measure, proponents said they wanted to provide swifter justice for victims and their families, but opponents argued the new rules could allow innocent people to be executed.

Senate sponsor Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said the bill would not impede the appeals process or preclude people from being compensated if they are wrongly convicted. Meanwhile, too many people are spending time on Death Row despite no evidence that they don't deserve the penalty, he said.

"That isn't justice, that is a mockery to the court system," he said.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, voted "no," citing concerns that innocent Floridians could be executed before they had a chance to prove their case.

"The question that I have is, is swift justice fair justice?" Joyner said.

The Senate approved the bill, HB 7083, on a 28-10 vote that included a handful of Democrats joining the Republican majority. The House signed off on the measure last week in similar fashion.

Later, the Senate unanimously approved SB 662. The bill attempts to end a bitter four-year battle between the business community and doctors that sell repackaged drugs to patients on workers compensation. The House companion, HB 605, is also ready for a floor vote.

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Activists urge Senate to hold firm on 'NegronCare' plan

Just as today's Senate session was getting underway, loud shouting and chanting was heard just outside the chamber doors.

OT_369325_KEEL_4_FLGOV043013Those were the sounds of health care workers and activists pleading the Senate to hold strong in supporting their proposed alternative to Medicaid expansion. The bill, crafted by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, would qualify for $51 billion in federal funding to insure 1 million people.

The Senate is expected to discuss the plan, SB 1816, this afternoon. A vote could happen today but most likely tomorrow.

The activists also visited Gov. Rick Scott's office to thank him for supporting the Senate plan.

The House has passed a much different proposal, HB 7169, that offers health coverages to about 130,000 of the state's poorest parents and disabled residents but leaves out 400,000 childless adults. That House bill could be considered by the Senate, but that is not expected.

House honors tearful doorkeeper Ernie Sumner, retiring after 42 years

The House pulled out all the stops Monday to honor teary-eyed Sergeant at Arms Earnest "Ernie" Sumner, who will retire this summer after a long career in the Legislature.

Speaker Dan Webster appointed Sumner, 61, to the post in 1998. He started working for the House in 1971.

The recognition on the House floor was marked by no fewer than four standing ovations, with members approving a resolution and playing a video highlighting his accomplishments. Finally, Speaker Will Weatherford announced that a House meeting room, Room 404, will be named Sumner Hall. Sumner dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief as he stood inside the doors he has guarded for decades.

The resolution honors Sumner for serving through 138 legislative sessions, during which he oversaw renovations, office reorganizations and travel logistics, among other tasks that kept the House moving smoothly.

Not long after the recognition, Sumner and his staff had to quiet a group of protesters who had arrived from Miami to rally in support of Medicaid expansion.

A crop of former and current legislators gathered on the House floor to pay tribute to Sumner, including former Speaker Dean Cannon, Rep. Dale Patchett, Rep. Kurt Kelly, Rep. Ron Saunders and Senate President Don Gaetz. Sumner's family watched from the gallery, including wife Janice, who sung with him in his old band Purple Passion. Daughter Hannah Causseaux works in Gov. Rick Scott's office as director of appointments. Sumner's last day is June 28. 

Casino opponents go on the offensive against legislative gambling contract

 No Casinos, the Orlando-based anti-gambling group, is launching a television and radio campaign urging House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz to abandon the $400,000 contract they signed two weeks ago with Spectrum Gaming Group for a study of the state's gambling climate.

They say the company cannot be independent since it works with the gambling industry.

John Sowinski, president of the group that is backed by Disney, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other industry-backed companies, commended the legislative leaders for quick passage of legislation to outlaw the Internet cafes but noted, "unfortunately, your leadership on this issue and the good work of the committees you formed to study it are now in peril,'' he wrote. "The reason: the experts chosen by your staff to conduct a study on gambling and the impact of additional gambling in Florida have irreconcilable conflicts of interest."

He urged them to cancel the contract and "stop what will otherwise become $400,000 taxpayer dollars spent on a study that no objective person who knows of its author will believe. Rescue the good idea of studying the impacts of gambling by having experts who have never worked for the industry conduct the study."  Download NoCasinos-Letter-to-President-Gaetz-and-Speaker-Weatherford

The television ad is produced in the style of a too-good-to-be-true television pitch with fast-talking announcer claiming that the gambling industry believes slots are good for your heart. "The Florida Legislature has hired the same reseracher to find out if more gambling will be good for Florida,'' the announcer says. "Folks, this deal is so big, so crazy, there's only one place where you can it it and that's right here from the Florida Legislature."

A television and radio ad campaign limited to Tallahassee has been begun, Sowinski said.




FEA not exactly thrilled with deal on teacher pay raises

In a press release late Sunday, Gov. Rick Scott said he and Florida Education Association President Andy Ford "applauded the House and the Senate’s agreement to implement $480 million in teacher pay raises."

Ford clarified the union's position early Monday.

In his own press release, Ford thanked the governor for his efforts "to provide an immediate across-the-board pay increase to Florida's classroom teachers."

But Ford said the union was "disappointed that the House and Senate leadership have thwarted those efforts by delaying any salary increases, if they are to be provided at all, until June of next year and by requiring that any raises be based on procedures for performance measurement that don't currently exist."

The union president added: "We are also disappointed that the Legislature, without making additional funds available, has required that the money allocated must be distributed to school administrators in addition to the instructional personnel who actually deliver education to our students." 

Scott, as you may recall, had been pushing for $2,500 across-the-board pay raises for teachers.

Late Sunday, the House and Senate agreed to performance-based pay raises that will be at least $2,500 for teachers deemed "effective" and up to $3,500 for teachers deemed "highly effective."

The vast majority of Florida teachers are considered "effective" or "highly effective," and will thus see a boost to their base salary. But the teachers' union still has problems with the methodology used to evaluate their performance.

Faster foreclosures bill clears House in 87-26 vote

A bill to speed up Florida’s groggy foreclosure system was approved by the Florida House on Monday after a 87-26 vote.

The third attempt at foreclosure reform in three years, HB 87 creates new options for expedited foreclosures and tightens up filing standards for banks. A companion bill in the Senate stalled in the committee process.

Opponents claimed HB 87 would harm homeowners and favor banks, who have been accused of engaging in questionable foreclosure practices.

“We’ve got to be extremely careful with regulating foreclosures,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. “Many of these proposals go too far.”

Bill sponsor Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said the bill would help streamline the slow foreclosure system. The mortgage foreclosure system needs to operate justly and "expeditiously" she said.

The bill would give condo associations an opportunity to speed up foreclosures by participating in a “show cause” hearing in which a judge can close out a case more quickly.

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Miami political consultant funds robocall against Dolphins stadium renovation

@PatriciaMazzei

In the first sign of an opposition campaign against a subsidized renovation to the Miami Dolphins' stadium, a Miami political consultant has paid for an automated call urging listeners to vote "no" in the May 14 referendum.

The robocall, paid for by David Custin's DRC Consulting firm, began targeting likely voters Saturday, Custin said. Absentee ballots were mailed to domestic voters last week, and early voting began Monday.

Custin said he plans to call more than 160,000 voters over the next few days with calls in English and Spanish opposing the proposed renovation to Sun Life Stadium. Pending approval by the Florida Legislature, the Dolphins would receive up to $289 million from increasing the Miami-Dade mainland hotel-tax rate to 7 percent from 6 percent and $90 million from a state sales-tax subsidy, both over 30 years. The football club would refund the county up to $120 million and the state $47 million at the end of the three decades. (Read a breakdown of the deal here.)

Custin said he financed the robocalls because the Dolphins were campaigning "unfettered" for an off-year election that will likely result in low voter turnout. Opponents of the renovations -- particularly Miami auto magnate Norman Braman -- have decided to lobby lawmakers against the deal rather then fund a political campaign. Meantime, the Dolphins have reported raising $1 million for their outreach efforts, from team owner Stephen Ross' stadium coffers.

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