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14 posts from March 3, 2014

March 03, 2014

PolitiFact examines dueling Medicare claims in gov's race


How do you get Florida seniors to tune in to the governor’s race in an off-year election? Make hair-raising attacks about Medicare.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott faces re-election in November and will likely face Democrat and former Gov. Charlie Crist. In an online ad titled, "Wrong for Florida Seniors," Scott makes some scary claims about Medicare cuts. The Florida Democratic Party fired back with an attack on Scott’s former tenure as CEO of Columbia/HCA -- a hot topic in his first race in 2010.

Here’s part of the script of Scott’s ad:

"We already know that 300,000 people in our state were told they are going to lose their insurance, but now under Medicare we are seeing these dramatic rate cuts. It’s going to have a devastating impact on their ability to one, get the doctor, look they rely on their doctor, get to go to the hospital that they trust, make sure they get prevention services that they deserve. These Medicare cuts that the president has caused are the wrong thing for Florida seniors."

PolitiFact fact-checked Scott’s claim about whether dramatic rate cuts to Medicare will result in a "devastating impact" on seniors ability to keep their doctor, hospital and get prevention services. We rated that claim Mostly False.

Scott omits that the recently announced rate cuts were for Medicare Advantage plans, a subset of Medicare. Those plans represent about one-third of Medicare plans in Florida and nationwide.

The proposed rate cut won’t be finalized until April, and if it is, health care experts say we won’t know the full impact for a few months. That means it’s too soon to predict if the rate cut will have a "devastating impact" on seniors ability to keep their same doctor and hospital. It is possible that some seniors on Medicare Advantage will lose have to change doctors, but the impact could vary from county to county. Seniors on traditional Medicare are not affected by the cuts.

In response to Scott’s ad, the Florida Democratic Party issued a press release that accused Scott of overseeing "the largest Medicare fraud in the nation's history." We rated that claim Mostly True. In 1997, Scott resigned as CEO of Columbia/HCA amid a Medicare fraud investigation that ultimately led to a record $1.7 billion fine. In terms of health care fraud, that amount has been surpassed in recent years in cases involving marketing of drugs.

Read PolitiFact's full file on Medicare fact-checks here.


Gov. Rick Scott's election prospects overshadow everything as session begins

Rick Scott 2014As Florida lawmakers open their annual legislative session on Tuesday and the governor gives his fourth state-of-the-state address, overshadowing everything for the Republican-controlled Legislature is one overriding goal: the re-election of Gov. Rick Scott.

Woefully behind in the polls but ahead in campaign cash, the governor faces the greatest uphill climb of any incumbent governor since Republican Bob Martinez ran for a second term in 1990 and lost when Democrat Lawton Chiles emerged from retirement.

To help Scott’s chances, lawmakers are expected to grant the governor his modest list of priorities, including a $500 million tax cut, another freeze on university tuition, and a reduction on taxes on business leases. With that, they hope to end the session in harmony, and draw a contrast to how government will operate if Scott is replaced by the presumptive Democratic contender, Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor who has returned to run as a Democrat.

"The governor needs to succeed on all of his stated priorities — all of which he will because they are popular and limited,” said John M. “Mac” Stipanovich, who served as chief of staff and campaign manager to former Gov. Martinez.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, slated to become Senate president next year, said the Legislature is unified: “We want this governor to be successful. It’s important for Florida and important for the state.”

But legislators are also hedging their bets. Faced with the prospect that a Democrat could be sitting in the governor’s office next year, they are moving ahead on a host of issues designed to appeal to their political base and special-interest groups, including several issues that any other year would normally get weak support. Among them: Story here.

Photo: J Pat Carter, AP

House unveils its gaming bill: overhaul regulation, no new casinos

The Florida House weighed into the gambling debate on Monday and proposed a bill that won't authorize new casinos but will overhaul the state’s gambling laws, putting all regulation of race tracks, slot machines and poker rooms under a Gaming Control Commission, similar to those in Nevada, New Jersey and other large gaming states.

Unlike a similar Senate plan, which overhauls regulation and authorizes new casino resorts in Miami Dade and Broward counties, the House plan leaves the decision to introduce mega-casinos to Florida to Gov. Rick Scott.

The governor can approve or reject the casinos when he negotiates a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The governor has until July 2015 to re-negotiate a portion of the 20-year gaming compact that applies to the tribe’s exclusive right to operate table games such as black jack, chemin de fer and baccarat at its South Florida casinos.

The House also drafted a constitutional amendment that would require voters to approve any expansion of gambling that does not get approved by legislators this year. The measure could close the door to any future expansion of gambling in the state because 60 percent of voters statewide would have to approve of any new venture. That condition offers a measure of economic security to those in business now, and attempts to win the support of gambling opponents who see it as a permanent limit on expanded gambling.

The Senate has also proposed a constitutional amendment that give voters the authority to restrict future games, but the House proposal is more restrictive.

Continue reading "House unveils its gaming bill: overhaul regulation, no new casinos" »

Brandes aide charged with DUI, leaving scene of accident

CombsThe 29-year-old district secretary for Sen. Jeff Brandes was arrested early Friday morning and charged with DUI and leaving the scene of an accident involving property damage.

A witness told St. Petersburg Police that at about 1:19 a.m. he saw Robert Thomas Combs drive his white 2003 Chevrolet S10 pickup off the road at the intersection of downtown St. Petersburg's Beach Drive NE and 5 Avenue NE. The truck drove over and uprooted a cement bollard and cracked the cement paving, which is owned by the city of St. Peterburg. according to an arrest affidavit.

The witness, Christopher Cook, said Combs left the scene without making any attempt to provide his driving information. Cook identified Combs to police in a “field showup”. Unlike a lineup, where a witness choose from several suspects, a showup presents just the one suspect to the witness, who is basically asked, “Is this the person you saw?”

Although he was identified by Cook, Combs refused to admit he crashed his vehicle.

Combs “had an odor of an alcoholic beverage on his exhaled breath, slurred speech, blank expression, bloodshot and watery eyes, and was unsteady on his feet,” according to the arrest affidavit.

He refused to cooperate with the field sobriety tests and refused a breath test. He was booked at the Pinellas County Jail at 3:12 a.m. on a $500 bond for the DUI, a misdemeanor punishable on a first offense of a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail, and $250 for leaving the scene of a crash involving property damage, which is a misdemeanor. He was released at 2:46 p.m. on Friday after posting bond.

Combs, who lists a Key West address, couldn’t be reached. According to a criminal history report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Combs pleaded guilty in 2006 to a marijuana charge.

Continue reading "Brandes aide charged with DUI, leaving scene of accident" »

Gov. Rick Scott kicks journalists out of House chamber; practices for State of the State in private



UPDATE: Here are more details on the State of the State rehearsal dustup.

The governor had reserved the House Chambers for a block of time Monday afternoon to practice his State of the State speech. The governor refused to start practicing his address while members of the media were watching and said he would rather leave instead.

Members of his staff communicated this to the House sergeant-at-arms. In an attempt to accommodate the governor, House staffers they told the members of the media in the gallery they had to leave.

So although the governor himself did not ask the journalists to leave, the person who did thought he was carrying out the governor's wishes. Since then, Speaker Will Weatherford's staff has apologized.

"We regret that the press was asked to leave," said Kathy Mears, the House Speaker's chief of staff. "We believe this is a public building and we apologize for any inconvenience or confusion about that." 

ORIGINAL POST: Gov. Rick Scott didn't want a photographer and reporter from the Times/Herald watching him rehearse for Tuesday's State of the State Address this afternoon.

Continue reading "Gov. Rick Scott kicks journalists out of House chamber; practices for State of the State in private" »

Weatherford's base shows up to give him boost before pension battle

Pushing pension reform has been no easy task for Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford in the last two years.

The Florida Senate narrowly defeated it last year. Now even Gov. Rick Scott seems to be losing interest.

Yet Weatherford persists, listing it at the top of his legislative agenda for this year’s session, which begins Tuesday.

A chief reason why Weatherford won’t let it drop, and potentially puts him on a collision course with Scott, was the throng of activists who were bussed in Monday afternoon by Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by billionaire libertarian brothers David and Charles Koch.

A cause celebre with the group is the very overhaul Weatherford is pushing for Florida’s $135 billion pension system. Close it for new employees and steer them into private investment plans. Rather than having the taxpayer cover the shortfalls, make the employees responsible for any drops. It’s popular with small government groups and anti-tax organizations. It’s opposed by unions.

Clutching signs that read “Support Pension Reform Now”, the activists stood on the steps of the Capitol chanting “Will, Will, Will, Will” after Weatherford spelled out three main goals for the upcoming session: Tax cuts, school choice, and pension reform.

“We cannot continue to spend $500 million a year, year after year.” said Weatherford, 34, R-Wesley Chapel. “If we wait too long, the state of Florida will at some point find itself like California or Illinois where they raise taxes to bail out a broken pension fund.”

If Weatherford needed a shot of confidence, he got it from the cheering crowd.

Continue reading "Weatherford's base shows up to give him boost before pension battle" »

Scott will skip event for first Cuban-American chief justice

Gov. Rick Scott on Monday turned down an invitation to attend a historically significant ceremony on June 30 that will recognize Jorge Labarga as the first Cuban-American chief justice in the state's history.

"Thank you for inviting Governor Scott to attend the Passing of the Gavel event. Unfortunately, the Governor will be unable to do so, but we hope that you will keep us informed of future invitations.  Until then, if our office can be of any assistance, please feel free to contact us," read the letter from Demetrius Burse in Scott's scheduling office.

Labarga and his family fled Cuba in 1963 when he was 10 years old, and they settled in farm country in Pahokee. He was appointed to the high court in 2009 by former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is likely to be Scott's November re-election opponent. Labarga will become chief justice on July 1.

But the story doesn't end there. To the surprise of the Supreme Court, Scott did not offer to send his Cuban-American lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, in his place. Court spokesman Craig Waters said Labarga's ascension is so significant to the Cuban-American community that it plans to hold a separate event in Miami on another date.

In a statement to the Times/Herald, Waters said: "We were surprised that the governor did not offer to send the lieutenant governor to represent him at the ceremony, which will be held in the Supreme Court building across Duval Street from the Capitol. Gov. (Jeb) Bush himself attended the passing of the gavel ceremony for Justice Barbara Pariente, along with his wife Columba Bush."

Republicans in Florida and nationally have struggled with widely-publicized problems with Hispanic voters on immigration and other issues. Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who like Labarga has roots in Palm Beach County, told the court Monday he will attend the ceremony.

House moves forward with proposed revamp of stadium incentive program

As House Speaker Will Weatherford knows, any bill involving tax dollars and a professional sports stadium is sure to spark controversy.

Weatherford wants to avoid the drama this year. 

So instead of considering bills drafted for individual stadium projects, he wants the House to create a process that would allow sports franchises to apply for sales-tax rebates.

On Monday, the House Economic Affairs Committee threw its support behind a proposed committee bill that would do just that.

"We all remember what we dealt with last year with the stadium bills," said House Economic Affairs Committee Chairman Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City. "They all sounded good. We were fed a bunch of facts. What we’ve done now is we are forcing those facts to become transparent based on a bunch of standards."

Most members of the committee agreed.

“All we are trying to do is put a process in place so we can look at opportunities that come before us,” said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach.

Voting against the proposal: Reps. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, and Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami.

None spoke out against the merits of the bill.

In order to qualify for the tax subsidies, sports franchises would need to propose construction or renovation projects valued at $100 million or more. At least half the funding would have to come from private investors.

Each project would need the blessing of its local municipality. And its leaders would have to commit to hiring Florida firms and residents.

The Department of Economic Opportunity would rank the proposals, but state lawmakers would ultimately have the authority to dole out a maximum of $12 million in annual subsidies. Each project would be limited to $2 million.

Certified applicants could receive annual payments for as many as 30 years.

The bill would specifically allow Major League Soccer franchises to apply for the subsidies. That’s welcome news for soccer advocates in Orlando and Miami. MLS has already awarded a new franchise to Orlando, and retired footballer David Beckham is looking to bring a team to Miami.

Miami Dolphins lobbyist Ron Book said he, too, liked the bill.

Book said he was “still licking some wounds from a year ago,” when the Florida Legislature rejected a proposal to provide taxpayer support for a $350 million upgrade of Sun Life Stadium.

Book said the proposed committee bill was not the Dolphins’ idea. “But we are here in support of it because we do believe that last year, we started a dialogue on a bill, on a process, and a lot of that is contained in the bill,” he said.

Book suggested some technical tweaks to the proposal. He voiced concern about language that would require franchises to reimburse the state if they fell short of their incremental sales tax targets. Still, he called the measure “a good start for a product to move us forward to create sports economic development opportunities for the people of Florida.”

Other speakers disagreed.

"The opinion of the taxpayers of this state remains unchanged," said Abby MacIver, of the conservative political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. "They are opposed to subsidizing professional sports teams."

MacIver said she feared the new program would lead to more franchises applying for taxpayer support.

Eight Florida franchises are already receiving state incentives.

Steny Hoyer new Broward Dems keynote speaker


U.S. House minority whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland will be the new keynote speaker for the Broward Democrats’ annual Unity dinner March 15.

Broward Democratic chairman Mitch Ceasar had to scramble to find a new speaker after MSNBC’s Ed Schultz backed out late last month. MSNBC claimed Schultz didn’t know that the event involved fundraising -- despite the fact that the media regularly describe it as the group’s main fundraising event of the year.

PolitiFact’s file on Hoyer show seven True or Mostly True claims including a claim about African-Americans and IDs and a claim about Gitmo and one False claim related to a House rules package.

Former state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, running an underdog campaign for governor, will also speak. Ceasar invited Rich’s Democratic rival, former Gov. Charlie Crist, but hasn’t confirmed whether he will speak. 

Scott will push tax cuts, tuition freeze in Tuesday talk

Gov. Rick Scott was squiring a friend around Tallahassee Monday: A bespectacled Texas Gov. Rick Perry was in town to keynote a Republican Party of Florida luncheon for donors at the Governor's Club on the day before the start of the 2014 session. Joking outside the Governor's Club with Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, Perry said Scott is "making a bow wave" with his emphasis on creating jobs.

Scott will deliver his fourth State of the State address to the Legislature Tuesday. The governor's office released excerpts that strike familiar themes of creating jobs, cutting taxes and fees and holding the line on college tuition.

Here are portions of the speech as released:

"We have added almost a half a million jobs.  Together, we have cut taxes 24 times already... And my hope is that we are about to cut them again... by another $500 million this year.  As I tell the hard-working people of Florida as I travel our state: We want you to keep more of the money you earn...Because it’s your money! 

"Working together, we have made Florida not just a destination for tourists – but a destination for opportunity. And when I say that “we” have done it, I don’t mean just those of us here in this chamber today. No, the real credit goes to the hard working and industrious people of the great state of Florida. 
"Today, we are moving the bar even higher. If we continue to pay down debt – like we do in this budget by another $170 million …
"If we continue to cut taxes – by rolling back the 2009 tax hike on annual motor vehicle fees so Floridians keep more of the money they earn…And, if we continue to cut taxes on small businesses - by cutting the tax on business leases and rolling back the business tax to now exempt 4 out of 5 Florida businesses from paying it.  If we do all this, we can make Florida not just the Land of 700,000 New Jobs. We will make Florida the Land of Opportunity.
"Every parent wants their child to get a great education… and for many that doesn’t end at high school.  That’s why we are recommending $80 million in our budget this year for those colleges and universities who graduate students best positioned to get a job.
"We are changing how we fund higher education... but if we want to make higher education more accessible to low and middle-income families ...  We have to make it more affordable. Last year, I vetoed a tuition increase that would have taken a total of more than $42 million from Florida families.
"And, this year, with your help, we want to get rid of the 15 percent annual increase and inflationary increase on tuition. Undoing these 2007 and 2009 laws is another way we can keep higher education affordable and accessible.  My commitment to every family dreaming to send their children to college is simple: We will hold the line on tuition."