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10 posts from March 5, 2014

March 05, 2014

Ring's reboot of Florida IT gains ground after CONNECT mess


Florida is spending about $733 million on technology this year out of a $74 billion budget.

No one person or agency accounts for this specialized and technical spending. It’s spread across numerous state agencies, departments and divisions. When problems happen, as they did with Florida’s $63 million unemployment website CONNECT, there’s no one at the state, like Gov. Rick Scott, who accepts responsibility.

Instead, it’s the vendor who’s to blame.

For Sen. Jeremy Ring, who launched the east coast operations of Yahoo! from his New York City apartment at the dawn of the Internet Age in 1995, this is no way to conduct business.

“We’re a $75 billion business without a chief information officer,” Ring said. “That doesn’t exist in any business, I assure you. Nor should that exist in any governmental entity.”

For the past four to five years, Ring, D-Margate, has pushed legislation to create a new IT agency in hopes it can improve upon the state’s troubled record in launching large scale IT projects.

How bad is it? According to an analysis last year for the Florida House Appropriations, since 2003 the state spent $134 million on IT projects costing more than $10 million that failed or are no longer in use. Another $306 million was spent on cost overruns for projects that are in use.

Take CONNECT. It’s not the dozens of defects have afflicted the project since mid-October that bother Ring. It’s that the project launched without getting tested with external groups before going live for the estimated 230,000 unemployed who depend on the system for their weekly claim checks.

“It’s extraordinary that it wasn’t done,” Ring said. “You have to assume that you will have flaws. You will have bugs. So therefore, you don’t open it all at once. You open it to a small beta group. You identify the flaws and then you fix them. As you do more testing, you’ll see more flaws.”

Continue reading "Ring's reboot of Florida IT gains ground after CONNECT mess " »

Vote on controversial abortion bill delayed in Senate


 A vote on a controversial proposal that would outlaw abortions in Florida any time a doctor determined a fetus was viable was postponed indefinitely Wednesday.

Sponsor Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said she asked to delay a vote on Senate Bill 918 because she started receiving calls from the pro-life community that indicated the proposal was being misinterpreted. She said she plans to work with these groups to make sure they understand the bill is intended to further limit abortions prior to the third trimester and expects the bill will be put on the agenda for next week's Health Policy Committee meeting.

The proposal requires doctors to perform medical examinations, including ultrasounds, on pregnant women who seek abortions to determine viability. If the doctor rules the fetus is viable -- defined as the stage of development where the life of a fetus could be sustained outside of the womb -- then an abortion can only be carried out if the woman's life is at risk or she faces serious risk of injury.

Similar restrictions are added to the state's existing ban on third-trimester abortions and there is also the requirement of a second doctor's opinion before the exception is granted.

A "temporary postponement" means the bill could be brought back to the committee any time -- there will be at least two more meetings during the 2014 session -- or never again.

Health Policy is the first of three committee stops for SB 918. A similar proposal filed in the House and sponsored by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, has not been heard in committee.

Sen. Garcia says House GOP should get on board with Medicaid expansion


 There is a large, bipartisan coalition that supports using federal Medicaid expansion dollars to provide insurance coverage to poor, working-class Floridians. But their efforts were blocked last year by House Republicans.

That hasn't stopped Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, and Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, from trying again by filing identical bills asking for reconsideration of the failed plan. Both joined the League of Women Voters of Florida for a rally today where they implored the House GOP to "take the money."

Both SB 710 and HB 869 have been referred to committees but have yet to be slotted for a hearing. Garcia feels confident he will get one in the Senate, but Murphy may have a tougher road. She spoke to House leaders before filing the bill but there is no indication the Republican majority is willing to budge.

Business and civic groups that support Medicaid expansion have to work to change that, Garcia said.

"We just need to get the message out, educate the House members and put the pressure on the leaderhsip in the House to accept these dollars and move forward," Garcia said.

Continue reading "Sen. Garcia says House GOP should get on board with Medicaid expansion" »

Miami commissioner settles traffic-stop ethics case


Miami City Commissioer Frank Carollo has settled an ethics complaint filed against him with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

The complaint filed by local blogger Al Crespo alleged that Carollo abused his official position when he dialed the city’s police chief during a 2012 traffic stop in Coconut Grove.

The commission determined there was probable cause to believe Carollo misused his elected post.

During the traffic stop, Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa called the traffic cop's commander, who called the officer on the scene.

The officer let Carollo go with a warning

On Thursday, Carollo pled no contest to the complaint and agreed to pay $1,000 fine and $1,404.15 for the commission’s investigative costs.

Ethics Commission Chairman Nelson Bellido said this will send a message to elected officials not to exploit their positions.

“Our elected officials need to be held to a higher standard,” Bellido said.


OAS agrees to convene special meeting Thursday to talk about Venezuelan crisis

Responding to demands from South Florida lawmakers and Panama, the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) will hold a private meeting on Thursday, beginning at 3 p.m. in Washington, to talk about the crisis in Venezuela

The meeting is closed to the media, but is being convened at the request of Panama. South Florida lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep.s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, had urged the OAS to take action. Sen. Marco Rubio has been pressing President Barack Obama to impose sanctions on mid- and top-level Venezuelan government officials.

Nelson, in a statement issued to the media on Wednesday, said he had written to the OAS, which is made up of nearly three dozen countries in the region, demanded a human rights investigation.

“I am requesting the (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights conduct an investigation into the Venezuelan government’s crackdown on protesters who are opposed to continual crime, corruption and censorship – remnants of the Hugo Chavez era,” Nelson wrote.

The OAS announcement comes a day after the U.S. House of Representatives approved Ros-Lehtinen's resolution supporting peaceful protests in Venezuela.

The House voted 393-1 in favor of the legislation, House Resolution 488, which decries repressive tactics by the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Ros-Lehtinen had been circulating a letter among members of Congress asking President Obama to impose sanctions against Maduro and his administration, including denying U.S. visas, freezing their U.S. assets and blocking any financial transactions.

Among the original co-sponsors of Ros-Lehtinen's resolution were Diaz-Balart and Democrat Joe Garcia, both of Miami, as well as other members of the Florida delegation from both sides of the political aisle.

Medical pot plan gets first vote through House committee

Charlotte’s Web has legs. The Florida House Criminal Justice subcommittee voted 11-1 on Wednesday to legalize a strain of marijuana designed to be low in psychoactive properties and high in medicinal value known in other states as “Charlotte’s Web.”

The Republican-dominated committee, comprised of some of the most conservative members of the House, embraced the proposal by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, and Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, after hearing heart-wrenching testimony from families whose children suffer from chronic epilepsy. They told the committee that the discovery by a Colorado family, whose daughter’s name is Charlotte, of a low-THC and high CBD strain of marijuana is their last best hope.

The bill HB 843 gives anyone caught with this kind of marijuana an affirmative defense to avoid prosecution. It also steers $1 million in research to develop and distribute the specialty marijuana in Florida.

For a committee known for its dense, often tedious scrutiny of legal text, the debate was remarkable.

Rep. Dave Hood, a Republican trial lawyer from Daytona Beach who has been diagnosed with brain cancer, talked about the deceit of the federal government hiding the health benefits of marijuana for his cancer. Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said he had his mind made up in opposition to the bill, then reluctantly met with a family from Fort Lauderdale, only to be persuaded to support it. Then there's Charles Van Zant, super conservative Republican architect and father of 8, who filed the amendment to raise the THC levels allowed. 

Continue reading "Medical pot plan gets first vote through House committee" »

Now heading Miami's FBI office: G-Man who questioned Saddam Hussein


The G-Man who interrogated Saddam Hussein after his capture during the U.S.-Iraq war has taken the reins of the FBI's Miami Field Office.

George Piro, the new special agent in charge, formerly served as the deputy assistant director of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Piro, 46, has replaced Michael Steinbach, a counter-terrorism specialist who managed the bureau’s South Florida office over the past year and returned to Washington on Friday.

Piro is in charge of more than 400 special agents whose territory runs from Key West to Fort Pierce — one of the busiest districts for federal crime in the nation. His domain also includes FBI legal attachés stationed in U.S. embassies throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.

Piro’s fluent Arabic skills in the post-9/11 era have propelled his FBI career. It started in 1999 in the Phoenix field office where he investigated international terrorism cases. Four years later, he was promoted to the Counter-terrorism Division at FBI headquarters and later selected as the bureau’s team leader in charge of Hussein’s interrogation.

More here.

The immigrant tuition bill is ready for the House floor

How can House Speaker Will Weatherford get Gov. Rick Scott on board with a proposal that would extend in-state college tuition rates to undocumented students?

Scott has said he is willing to "consider" the bill. But in order to win re-election in November, Scott will have to rally his base -- conservatives who aren't big fans of pro-immigrant policies.

The governor has clear high-education priorities this year: hold the line on tuition, and abolish 15 percent tuition differential hikes at select state universities.

Would the Legislature consider giving Scott his cap on tuition in exchange for in-state tuition for undocumented students?

Said Weatherford: "I think it's a little early in the session to be talking about exchanges."

An exchange might not even make sense, Weatherford added, because the House also wants to hold the line on tuition for all students.

"I don't think there's anything to trade," Weatherford said.

But the bills could potentially be combined, forcing the governor's hand.

That's all assuming the bill receives favorable votes on the House and Senate floors.

The proposal has thus far sailed through the lower chamber. It won the unanimous support of Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday morning, and is now headed for a floor vote.

There is momentum in the Senate, too. Republican Sen. Jack Latvala recently introduced the proposal in the upper chamber, and said Tuesday that he counts enough votes to pass the bill.

Supporters have yet to win over Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

But they haven't given up.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jeanette Nunez introduced (and the House Education Appropriations Committee approved) an amendment that would extend in-state tuition rates to the children of military families stationed in Florida. The language directly addresses concerns raised by Gaetz, whose northwest Florida district includes a number of military bases.

Obama's Friday South FL schedule: praise Miami schools, maybe vacation at Ocean Reef


President Obama's travel schedule Friday to South Florida is still being guarded with silence, but it looks as if he's planning to visit a Miami-Dade school or schools and make some sort of announcement, likely to shower praise or announce an initiative.

The First Lady might be there. An initial White House advisory said the president would have an event about the middle class. Whether that's another event or one of the ones mentioned above is unclear.

After the event/s, word in the Florida Keys is that the president might stop at the Ocean Reef Club in north Key Largo. A secluded, Republican-leaning bastion, Ocean Reef isn't the kind of place where everyone appreciates the president's visit, especially with all of the heightened security that comes with it.

Then there's the matter of irony: The Ocean Reef Club is about as far away from middle class as you can get in Key Largo.

The Key West Citizen tried to get some answers but was met with silence.

Oh well, it's not like local taxpayers are footing the bill for all the security....oh....wait. They are?

And it's not like presidential motorcades shut down traffic at inopportune times. Although, according to the Sun Times, Keys drivers might be spared the inconvenience because the president is arriving at Ocean Reef via helicopter.

The silence and costs associated with presidential travel are nothing new. Republicans and Democrats alike do it.

Still, expect Republicans to make noise about President Obama's near silence over the violence in Venezuela, which has particular salience in exile-heavy South Florida. Last Friday, Gov. Rick Scott challenged Obama to address the issue of Venezuela and sanctions, perhaps in Doral.

Looks like the president has other interests.

Today in Tallahassee: Five Things To Know

TALLAHASSEE -- On Day 2 of the Legislature's annual session Wednesday, abortions, guns and nursing homes will enter the political debate. Here are five things to watch:
* Abortions would be banned in Florida with rare exceptions if a doctor "reasonably determines" that a fetus can survive outside the womb. The bill (SB 918), by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, will be debated by the Senate Health Policy Committee, where six of nine members are from South Florida and Tampa Bay.
* People would be allowed to carry concealed weapons during a "state of emergency" even if they don't have permits to carry them under a bill (HB 209) sponsored by Rep. Heather Dawes Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, to be heard in the House Economic Development & Tourism Committee. Sheriffs are mobilizing to oppose the bill, calling it overly broad. 
* Nursing home employees would be shielded from exposure to lawsuits under a bill (HB 569) to be debated by the House Health Innovation Subcommittee. The bill's sponsor is Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.
* Lobbyists who influence special taxing districts that oversee water, hospitals and children's services would be required to register and disclose their fees. The bill (SB 846), sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is scheduled for a vote in the Senate Community Affairs Committee.
* Senators on a budget subcommittee that oversees education will receive a status report on Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, largely the brainchild of former Sen. JD Alexander, a Winter Haven Republican who for four years controlled the budget-writing process in the Senate. 
By Steve Bousquet, Herald/Times Staff