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10 posts from October 15, 2013

October 15, 2013

Dems pick up seat in Florida House with Murphy upset in Pasco

Democrat Amanda Murphy won a special election to the Florida House on Tuesday, claiming the west Pasco seat vacated by popular Republican Mike Fasano, who broke with his party's leaders to endorse her.

With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Murphy held a 297-vote lead over Republican Bill Gunter. Many observers expected the race to be close.

"It was a nail-biter," she told Bay News 9 from her victory party at Boulevard Beef and Ale in downtown New Port Richey. "I'm just very proud to represent west Pasco County today."

Murphy is a financial adviser for Raymond James making her first run for office.

Gunter is a Presbyterian minister who had the county's most powerful leaders and a Tallahassee-funded war chest behind him.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, future Speaker Richard Corcoran, Sheriff Chris Nocco and schools Superintendent Kurt Browning were among the prominent Republicans helping his candidacy.

But it was Fasano's backing that mattered most. After vowing to stay neutral in the race, Fasano revealed he had voted absentee for Murphy and urged others to do the same. Then, in a television appearance Friday, he formally endorsed her.

The election was set up when Fasano resigned in August to become Pasco's tax collector.

A one-time stalwart Republican soldier, particularly during the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida, Fasano burnished his bipartisan appeal in recent years, often to the ire of GOP leaders. He supported Charlie Crist's independent run for Senate over Republican nominee Marco Rubio in 2010, and earlier this year called for Medicaid expansion in Florida under the Affordable Care Act.

"Mike Fasano stepping in and endorsing and believing in me is what pushed this over," Murphy said.


Marco "money honey" Rubio: $2m raised


Hit tip to The Run 2016 for dubbing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio the "money honey" for the cash he pulled in during the third quarter of fundraising. Total take: more than $2 million (joint fundraising committee, $1.8m $100k from his campaign, plus far more from his PAC, which won't report until year's end). Still the $1.8m from his joint-fundraising account is more than the other possible 2016 federal GOP rivals eying a 2016 bid.

"Suffice it to say we raised over $2million this quarter total and filed the Senate Campaign account with over $2.2 million on hand. The PAC has over $1 million on hand," an adviser said.

The joint fundraising committee doesn't have a lot of cash in it because it's an account designed to channel money into the other two.

The Run's list:

  1. Rubio: $1.8 million raised
  2. Paul Ryan: $1.17 million raised, $2.6 million left on hand
  3. Rand Paul: $1 million raised, $1.25 million left on hand
  4. Ted Cruz: $800,000 raised, $378,697 left on hand
  5. Pete King: $234,424 raised, $2.67 million left on hand

Note: Headline changed and blog updated with numbers from Rubio advisers

How bad was the launch of the jobless benefits website? DEO not saying

From the way Florida Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Jessica Sims was telling it, Tuesday’s launch of the state’s new online claims system was glitch-free.

“The system is up and running, and as of 2:45 p.m. today, 14,585 individuals were able to claim their weeks and almost 1,400 have filed new claims,” Sims replied in an e-mail asking if there were any glitches. “To serve as many claimants as possible during this transition period, DEO has doubled the Call Center staff.”

But Sims didn’t answer the question of whether there were any glitches. And she didn’t return a phone call when asked about a recording on the department’s 1-800 number announcing the computer system was down.

According to several people who spoke with the Times/Herald, and according to the DEO's own Facebook page, the launch was far from perfect and possibly deeply flawed.

Lewis Horn tried to log on the system Tuesday morning. Horn, 48, lost his job as a manager with American Express in late February. The DEO has alerted him that it was switching to a new online claims system, CONNECT, and he was bracing for problems.

Shortly after CONNECT was supposed to launch at 7:59 a.m., Horn, who lives in Margate, said he tried to get online but couldn’t. Although Sims said the system was up by 8:15 a.m., Horn said he kept getting the site’s maintenance page asking him to “check in later” until about 8:45 a.m. Even after the site was up, however, he wasn’t able to log on until about 11 a.m.

Then he repeatedly got this inscrutable error message: “An exception was caught during the execution of a retrieval query: ORA-01012: Not logged on process ID: 19584 session ID: 581 serial number: 51. Check InnerException, QueryExecuted Parameters of this exception to examine the cause of this exception.”

Asked what it meant, and Horn could only sigh.

“I have no clue,” Horn said.

What he does know is that by the end of Tuesday, Horn still hadn’t been able to sign up for benefits. He still didn’t know why. He couldn’t get anyone to explain what was going on or understand from the muddled messaging on the new website what had gone awry.

“I haven’t been able to get ahold of anyone,” he said. “The recording says everyone is busy and to call back later.”

Although the $275 he gets a week in benefits doesn’t come close to matching the $74,000 he made at AmEx, he still needs it to pay bills. With a three-year-old daughter and wife to support, he worries when he’ll be able to sign on.

“My obligations don’t go away because I can’t get my benefits, unfortunately,” Horn said.

Similar frustration was felt by Randy Scott of Lehigh Acres, who was helping his friend Dawn Kamedulski, retrieve her benefits. But, like Horn, they were denied when they attempted to log-in.

Because the website requires a social security number and a PIN, it’s difficult for reporters to see if in fact the website was “up and running,” as Sims described. Scott said the website was not working. At 4:50 p.m. he played for a reporter the recording people hear when they call the state’s 1-800 number.

“I’m sorry, we’re having trouble with our computer system,” a recorded message informs the caller, before directing them to a nearby benefits office.

“It’s been very frustrating,” Scott said.

With Sims not fully explaining the situation, understanding the extent of the problems was difficult.

From the looks of its Facebook page, the launch was problematic.

"The new connect site is just like our government, IT DOESN'T WORK AT ALL!!!!," read one post by Daniel Bystrak.

"Lucky if you can even get in the system. I can't even get that far," read another post by Donna Johnston. "I have called all day and keep getting 'call again later.' This is so frustrating. According to what I looked up, you now have 14 days after the date you are supposed to claim your weeks to claim them. We need our money NOW. Fix the system or at least have a recording when we call to tell us what is happening. This is crazy."

Dozens of messages like those cover the Facebook wall, many written in ALL CAPS.


The DEO acknowledging certain problems -- at least on Facebook --  by posing them as “frequently asked questions.” But they were often refuted by comments posted by frustrated recipients.

Here’s one example:

Frequently Asked Question: My day to claim my weeks has changed. If you are filing for the first two weeks in your benefit year, your filing day will be either Monday or Tuesday based on the last digit of your social security number. If the number is even, your day is Monday. If odd, it is Tuesday.

“LIARS, the letter stated for me to file today. So you only had 2000 people with 0000-1999 to file today?”

So what’s really going on? Perhaps Sims or someone else at DEO will tell us.

Report warns that prolonged federal shutdown has weakened state revenues

Florida TaxWatchYou won't hear this from Gov. Rick Scott, but the federal budget shutdown is having a negative effect on Florida's tax revenues and capital investment. 

That is the conclusion of the business-backed research group, Florida TaxWatch, in a report released on Tuesday. The report, titled What the Government Shutdown & Debt Ceiling Crisis Mean to Florida, offers a general overview of the impacts the extended shutdown is having on Florida's economy with one bottom line: state revenues will drop.

The increasing uncertainly in the financial markets has reduced consumer confidence levels, "resulting in less spending and decreased investment, which are vital for economic growth and sustainability,'' the report notes.

 "Tourism, retail and Florida industries that rely heavily on capital investment will be the first to feel the effects of a government shutdown," said Dominic M. Calabro, President and CEO of Florida TaxWatch. "Since Florida collects 70 percent of its revenue through sales and use taxes, decreased purchasing activity will negatively impact the state budget."

The estimated $845.7 million in new revenue projected by budget analysts could dry up -- leaving less for the governor and legislative leaders to use to increase education spending, provide $500 million in tax breaks and expand business investment -- all promises the governor has already made for the election-year budget cycle.

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St. Pete firefighter's case attracts Legislature's attention

A closely-watched legal case involving workers' compensation benefits, a disabled firefighter and the city of St. Petersburg is now before the Florida Supreme Court, which on Tuesday added it to its list of high-profile cases because of extensive public and media attention.

The case has drawn the interest of numerous business organizations, trial lawyers, unions, the Legislature and Attorney General Pam Bondi as well.

At the center of the case is Bradley Westphal, a former St. Pete firefighter who suffered a catastrophic spinal injury while moving furniture at a fire in 2009. As the Tampa Bay Times' Mark Puente has reported, Westphal sued the city after it stopped paying him temporary disability benefits at a time when he did not qualify for permanent total disability status. The First District Court of Appeal ruled in Westphal's favor and struck down as unconstitutional a provision in the state workers' compensation law that limits temporary disability benefits to two years.

Both houses of the Legislature have sided with the city of St. Petersburg in the case. Other friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed on the city's side by Publix Supermarkets, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries and the National Federation of Independent Business. The Florida Justice Association, Florida Worker Advocates and the Florida Police Benevolent Association have taken up Westphal's cause in court.

-- Steve Bousquet

I'll see your Bill Clinton and raise you one Richard Branson


An eclectic billionaire and a popular former president have respectively lent their support to an entertainer and a previously little-known millionaire in the race to become Miami Beach's next mayor.

The latest: Virgin Group CEO and private space explorer Sir Richard Branson announced he would be “very interested in sponsoring” candidate Steve Berke’s idea to string gondolas across Biscayne Bay, according to the Berke campaign.

The announcement comes a day after former President Bill Clinton endorsed millionaire mayoral candidate Philip Levine, according to the Levine campaign.

Continue reading "I'll see your Bill Clinton and raise you one Richard Branson" »

Bi-partisan federal debt opponents target Florida with new television ads


As debt ceiling and government shutdown talks continue to lumber slowly forward in Washington, the bi-partisan organization aimed at calling attention to the nation's debt crisis has launched a national ad campaign and is targeting Florida.

"For crying out loud, who isn't fed up with what's going on in Washington,'' says former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican in the ad, to former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, a Democrat.

"These politicians are playing games, jerking our country around from crisis to crisis,'' Bowles replies.

The pair are authors of the Simpson-Bowles plan, also known as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and co-chairs of President Obama’s Deficit Commission. The wide-ranging plan offered Washington a blueprint for reducing the federal deficit by cutting more than $2.5 trillion over 10 years by cutting spending, imposing user fees, raising the retirement age and reforming taxes. 

The commission was conceived as a way to force a bi-partisan compromise even before Washington imploded into bipartisan dysfunction. It was also was roundly ignored -- by Obama, and by Republicans. 

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Gov. Rick Scott urges school districts to finalize teacher raises


UPDATE: At least one school system says it was incorrectly called out by the governor's office as having not yet finalized negotiations for teacher pay raises. A spokeswoman for the Pinellas County School Board brought it to our attention that members approved the pay raises on Sept. 24. The agreement had already been ratified by the teacher union, the spokeswoman said. The raises are retroactive to July 1, the start of the budget year.

Pinellas County has asked Scott's office to correct the error. So the new count is 17 have finalized the pay raises and 50 have not.

ORIGINAL POST: In a letter to the 67 school superintendents, Gov. Rick Scott offers state help as they iron out pay raises for teachers.

The majority of school districts have not finalized collective bargaining agreements with teacher unions to implement raises. Only 16 of 67 counties have ratified new contracts.

Miami-Dade school system and the United Teachers of Dade reached a tentative agreement Monday that will give most teachers the $2,500 raise Scott promised. In addition to the money from the state, the district had to tap into federal Race to the Top money to pay for the increases.

Scott wants to speed up the process to fulfill one of his priorities from the 2013 legislative session. In today's letter, he said he directed Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart to assist any districts that need help reaching a final agreement.

"Florida teachers deserve a salary increase, and they should have the benefit of knowing their new salary level as soon as possible so they can best plan for the future," Scott wrote.

Scott insisted the budget include $480 million for teacher raises and has courted the support of teachers as he gears up for re-election.

Click here to download Scott's letter to school districts.

Staff writer Kat McGrory contributed to this report.

With feds and civil right groups watching, new jobless claims site is up

It’s been a week since unemployed Floridians could use the state’s online system to process claims, making it even harder to receive jobless benefits in a system ranked lowest in granting aid.  

Last week, state officials took down the state’s online system so it could launch a new $63 million unemployment claims site, which is called “Connect”.

Although the call center was set to debut Tuesday at 7:30 a.m., a spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Opportunity, Jessica Sims, said the Connect site didn’t come up until shortly before 9 a.m. (UPDATE: Sims replied in a subsequent e-mail that the site was actually up by 8:15 a.m. She said only the call center, and not the site, was supposed to start at 7:30 a.m. She didn't say when the online site had been scheduled to start.)

"More than 200 initial claims were filed successfully and about 2,600 continued claims were filed successfully," Sims said.

Any delay is noteworthy because, as the AP reported last week, though state officials say the new site is an improvement, they still warn of longer wait times and busier phone lines as Floridians adjust to the new system. It's also noteworthy because the feds have been critical of the way Florida provides jobs benefits.

Only about 17 percent of Floridians eligible for unemployment benefits actually received them, a level that many blame on a 2011 bill approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Rick Scott that forced all applicants for unemployment benefits to go online. Before the bill was signed into law, people could turn in applications on paper or over the telephone. The law also required applicants to take a 45-question assessment to measure their skills.

The U.S. Department of Labor initially approved the changes, which eventually led to a sharp increase in the number of rejected applications. Civil rights groups filed challenges with the federal government over the changes. In April, the DOL's Civil Rights Center sided with the pro-worker groups.

Federal officials found that Florida violated the civil rights of unemployed individuals, beginning in 2011, when it required them to apply online for benefits and take an "assessment" before receiving any unemployment check. It found that DEO's unemployment program discriminated against people who speak Spanish and Creole, as well as those who were blind or otherwise disabled. With millions in federal aid at stake, the DEO agreed to enter negotiations and make appropriate changes.

The DEO pushed back, however, charging that the DOL findings were “flawed” and based on politics rather than facts. DEO general counsel Robert Sechen accused the DOL of collaborating with the Miami Workers Center.

It's also worth noting that the vendor of Connect, Deloitte Consulting, has had issues in other states.

The Deloitte jobless claims system put online in Massachusetts was two years late, $6 million over budget, and plagued with problems that left hundreds of jobless workers struggling to get benefits.


Top 'Let's Get to Work' donor lays off nearly 500 employees


One of the biggest supporters of Gov. Rick Scott's "Let's Get to Work" political committee has put nearly 500 people out of work.

Treasure Island businessman Bill Edwards donated $500,000 to Scott's campaign in March. He abruptly laid off 476 employees from a mortgage business on Monday, according to a Tampa Bay Times report, the same day the Times & Herald highlighted his donation to Scott.

A bare-bones staff of 40 people will remain at the St. Petersburg-based Mortgage Investors Corp. to help wind down operations at the company, which had a presence in 26 states.

The mortgage company, which refinances home loans for veterans, is among the Treasure Island entrepreneur's many business interests. He said new federal regulations under the Frank-Dodd Act caused the company to shrink because it does not have the technology to comply.

Edwards' donated to Scott's campaign via a lump sum check written by his trust fund. Of the 476 who were laid off nationwide, 256 worked in the company's Florida headquarters. 

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