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9 posts from April 11, 2014

April 11, 2014

A tale of two websites: While Sebelius is out of work, Panuccio keeps his job

Two agency directors. Two launches of websites that failed miserably.

On Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius resigned after her five years on the job were marred by the troubled launch of HealthCare.gov, the website set up to enroll Americans in Pres. Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Twenty-four hours later, the Florida Senate confirmed Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity’s executive director, Jesse Panuccio, even though he presided over a strikingly similar troubled rollout of another pricey governmental website, CONNECT.

What gives?

Well, for one thing, it’s rare that Florida senators flat out reject an appointment. It hasn’t happened since 2010 when the Senate rejected two of Gov. Charlie Crist’s appointments to the Public Service Commission, David Klement and Ben Stevens. A likelier scenario is senators never take it up, and the confirmation just dies.

On Friday, the chairman of the Senate’s ethics and elections committee, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, submitted a list of 42 appointees he recommended for confirmation. There was no debate. No discussion. Senators voted 37-0 on the confirmations, which included Panuccio and his $141,000 job.

But the biggest difference, by far, was the way the two parties handled the websites.

While the Republicans were merciless in their criticisms of HealthCare.Gov and Sebelius, Florida Democrats, with a much weaker political hand in Tallahassee, barely made CONNECT an issue.

It’s not like they didn’t have any ammunition. When the $63 million CONNECT project first launched in mid-October, thousands of unemployed claimants were locked out of the system because of computer glitches. Records show Panuccio and other top DEO officials were celebrating, despite getting reports of a widespread failure. Panuccio then blamed the problem on the media, then the vendor, and took more than two months to hire those necessary to get process long-delayed claims.

But not only did Democrats not raise a fuss, they were effusive in their praise of Panuccio, even saying he took responsiblity for what happened, which is the one thing he has never done.

Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, praised Panuccio at the March 25 Community Affairs Committee confirmation hearing.

“You have been very good in his position, and I will support you,” Smith said.

Panuccio cleared four committees, giving Democrats plenty of time to draw attention to mistakes he’s made. Only one, Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, bothered to do so.

“He never said that he’s ultimately responsible, that the buck stops with him,” Joyner said last week, explaining why she voted against him.

Asked why she was the only Democrat to vote against him, Joyner said she didn’t know.

“I can only speak for myself,” Joyner said.

Only U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has criticized the DEO’s handling of CONNECT on a routine basis. But he’s done it through a series of news releases that don’t mention Panuccio by name and directed most of the attention to perceived systemic failures on DEO’s part. And he's actually helped get federal officials involved in making sure claims don't go too long without getting paid.

When compared to how national Republicans made Sebelius the poster child for what ailed HealthCare.gov, the silence from other state Democrats on CONNECT, and their inability to link it to Gov. Rick Scott, is jarring.

And it's at least part of the reason why Panuccio’s confirmation was uneventful.

Ana Alliegro denied pre-trial release after prosecutor describes flight to Nicaragua

Ana Alliegro had just surrendered her passport to the FBI and was told by her lawyer that she was facing jail time for her alleged role in a campaign-finance conspiracy tied to former Congressman David Rivera.

Alliegro didn’t stick around.

Along with “another individual,” a federal prosecutor said Friday, Alliegro fled the United States last fall by hopping on a flight to Texas, boarding a Greyhound Bus to Mexico — where a U.S. passport isn’t needed for entry — and then flying to her Central America hideout.

“The next thing we know, she’s back in Nicaragua,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas J. Mulvihill said Friday in federal court. “Instead of coming to the FBI as she promised, she flees the country.”

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Union appeals to voters in the Medicaid "coverage gap"

The state healthcare workers' union has a new strategy in its fight to expand Medicaid coverage: reaching out to voters "who've been screwed out of healthcare coverage by their representative's refusal to act."

SEIU Florida will be knocking on doors this weekend in four state House districts.

The targeted lawmakers include Republican Reps. Manny Diaz, Jr., of Hialeah; Erik Fresen, of Miami; Kathleen Peters, of St. Petersburg; and Bill Hager, of Delray Beach. Each lawmaker represents more than 4,600 residents who are missing out on coverage, according a union analysis.

"It's time to bring this issue right down into each neighborhood, so people understand exactly what they and their friends, family and neighbors are losing because their elected representative has chosen politics over people," said Martha Baker, vice president of SEIU Florida and a nurse at Jackson Health System in Miami.

The GOP lawmakers say their position on Medicaid expansion is not driven by politics. Diaz, for one, said he opposes the policy because he does not believe it will improve most Floridians' access to quality healthcare.

"It's unfortunate that a labor union that is concerned about making money attacks elected officials that stand on principle for their constituents," he said Friday.

Medicaid expansion has been among the most controversial topics in the legislature.

Last year, the state Senate unanimously approved a bill that would have allowed the use of federal Medicaid expansion dollars to buy private insurance policies for poor Floridians. The House, meanwhile, voted to reject $51 billion in federal Medicaid funding.

A Medicaid expansion bill similar to last year's Senate proposal has stalled this year.

Hoping to apply pressure on lawmakers, SEIU Florida used Census and commercial figures to calculate the number of Floridians in the "coverage gap" in each state House district. The coverage gap includes people in Florida who don't qualify for Medicaid, but make too little to qualify for subsidies to purchase insurance on the federal exchange. The federal health care law anticipated that Medicaid expansion would fill this gap. States that declined the funds like Florida, however, still have a hole.

The three lawmakers with the largest number of constituents in the coverage gap are all from South Florida: Democratic Rep. Cynthia Stafford (11,496); Democratic Rep. Daphne Campbell (11,412) and Republican Rep. Manny Diaz (11,334).

Diaz is among the four lawmakers in the SEIU's sights.

The other three are Republicans who SEIU deems vulnerable in the 2014 election. 

Peters said she felt she was being unfairly targeted.

"This is just one group pushing their agenda through a negative campaign," she said, mentioning the work she has done to increase services for the homeless. "Any kind of statement that I'm not a caring person is just not true."

Fresen declined to comment.

Last year, SEIU produced TV ads targeted at half-dozen GOP lawmakers in Democratic-leaning districts.

Charlie Crist to open Broward office Tuesday

Charlie Crist will open his first field office in the state in Broward County Tuesday.

The campaign’s South Florida headquarters will be located at 320 South University Drive, Plantation. Crist is expected to attend the 5 p.m. opening.

Crist has also rented an apartment on Fort Lauderdale beach.

Broward has about 563,000 registered Democrats -- the highest number of any county in Florida. But the county has produced sluggish turnout in recent non-presidential statewide elections -- only 41 percent bothered to show up at the polls in 2010 when Democrat Alex Sink lost the governor’s race to Republican Rick Scott. Democratic activists grumbled that Sink didn’t failed to put in enough time in Broward during her campaign. So far in his race for governor, Crist hasn’t had many large group public appearances in Broward either -- he didn’t attend the Broward Democrats’ annual Unity Dinner last month. Broward is also home to Crist’s underdog primary competitor former state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston.

Crist has been in Broward for fundraisers including at the law firm of former state Sen. Steve Geller and the home of Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Dean Trantalis.

“Floridians deserve a Governor who will work with Republicans, Democrats, and Independents to strengthen small businesses that create jobs, cut wasteful spending, and restore deep cuts to public schools,” said Crist in a press release. “We are committed to having the boots on the ground to make that happen and that starts in Broward County.”

To follow attacks in the race, check out PolitiFact Florida’s full file on Crist and Scott.




Rubio World staff changes: Conda to PAC, Martinez to COS, Reid to deputy


Lots of shifts in Marco Rubio's Senate and campaign offices. Here's the press release:

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) today announced staff changes in his Senate office.

Cesar Conda, who has served as Rubio’s chief of staff since 2011, will join Rubio’s Reclaim America PAC as a senior advisor and remain a part-time advisor in the Senate office. Alberto Martinez, who has served as Rubio’s deputy chief of staff since 2013, will succeed Conda as chief of staff. Todd Reid, Rubio’s state director since 2011, will become deputy chief of staff.

“I’m proud of the work our entire team has done in developing and introducing our American Dream agenda, which provides solutions to the challenges and opportunities our people face, while also outlining a strong vision for America’s role in the world,” said Rubio. “As we look forward to big things the rest of this year and beyond, this will allow us to maximize our team’s strengths as we work to outline a conservative governing vision for the 21st century and elect a Republican Senate majority.”

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Florida no longer part of controversial national voter data project

For those following the issue of voter fraud nationwide, this fact-check by PunditFact of a claim by Fox News commentator Dick Morris is a must-read.

Morris said that “probably over a million people” voted twice in the 2012 general election nationwide. PunditFact rated that False -- and you can read the full report here.

Morris was referring to data from a project dubbed Interstate Crosscheck run by Republican Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

As of 2013, 28 states sent voter information to Kansas where the record of each of their voters is run against the records in all the other participating states. They are matched on first name, last name, date of birth and Social Security number.

Interstate Crosscheck’s own guide for states includes an important caveat that tends to get overlooked: “a significant number of apparent double votes are false positives and not double votes. Many are the result of errors -- voters sign the wrong line in the poll book, election clerks scan the wrong line with a barcode scanner.”

Interstate Crosscheck’s reports in 2013 include Florida data based on the 2012 election. However, Florida is absent from the 2014 report.

We asked a spokeswoman for Republican Secretary of State Ken Detzner why Florida dropped out.

“The Department of State and Supervisors of Elections currently work with elections officials in other states to update registrations regarding residency, and we are always exploring options to improve the elections process,” Brittany Lesser said.

Oregon is another state that changed its mind about sharing its voter data with the Kansas project. Its explanation was more blunt than the one we got from Florida.

“We left because the data we received was unreliable and we felt joining the ERIC project would better meet our needs, said Tony Green, spokesman for Oregon Secretary of State.

ERIC is a project of the Pew Charitable Trust  to improve the accuracy and efficiency of state voter registration systems. States must pay to participate in ERIC while the Kansas project is free.

- Jon Greenberg and Amy Sherman

Truth-O-Meter looks back at Charlie Crist on Dreamers' tuition then and now

In a statewide election year when both parties are courting Florida’s growing Hispanic vote, the Legislature is debating giving in-state college tuition to young illegal immigrants known as "Dreamers."

Similar efforts have failed in the past decade in Tallahassee. But this year the proposal may have the support of Gov. Rick Scott, who has said he will consider the bill if it also contains a provision he wants, one that is unrelated to immigrants: prohibiting universities from raising tuition above the rate set by the Florida Legislature.

Democrats have portrayed Scott as anti-Hispanic after supporting an Arizona-style immigration law in 2010 and vetoing a bill that would have given Dreamers driver's licenses in 2013. Scott’s campaign also faced accusations by his former campaign finance chairman, Mike Fernandez, that some campaign staffers made fun of Mexican accents. In an April 9 press release, the Florida Democratic Party said the in-state tuition this year is election-year pandering.

The Republican Party of Florida fired back in an email with their own attack against Charlie Crist, the Democratic frontrunner for governor:

"Yesterday, Florida Democrats said it was time to ‘do what is right’ for Florida’s Hispanic community, regarding legislation that is moving through the Senate giving in-state college tuition to children brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents," April 10 the state party stated. "So where does the Florida Democratic Party’s own candidate stand on the issue? In 2006, Charlie Crist opposed in-state tuition for illegal immigrants."

We wanted to check Crist’s position on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants in 2006 -- and in the following years. Turn to PolitiFact for the answers. 

Guns banned at Broward hurricane shelters

Today the Florida House is expected to vote on a bill that would allow people with clean criminal backgrounds to conceal firearms without a permit during emergencies including hurricane evacuations.

When the House debated the bill Wednesday, some legislators including state Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, and Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, asked if evacuees could then bring their guns into hurricane shelters. Bill sponsor Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, said that would not be allowed.

We checked in with Miguel Ascarrunz, Broward’s interim emergency management director, about the rules for shelters -- which are all at public schools -- in Broward.

“According to the Broward School Board’s Safety Department, no weapons are allowed on school property, including schools designated as evacuation shelters,” Ascarrunz said in an email.

Depending on the strength of an expected hurricane, up to about 143,000 residents live in a mandatory evacuation  zone in Broward.


Weatherford's pension reform showing life, but time is running out


Despite indications of a difficult path ahead, pension reform continued to advance through the Legislature on Thursday, keeping the hopes alive for the man pushing it, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford.

The Senate’s Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee approved SB 1114 by a 7-2 vote. Hours later, the House’s Appropriations Committee approved HB 7173 by a 16-10 party line vote.

The two bills are similar and resurrect a bill from last year by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. Essentially, it encourages employees to enroll in investment plans instead of the state’s pension plan.

Currently, employees can enroll in either. But if they make no choice, they automatically get put into the state’s pension system.

The average return of those investment plans in the last 10 years is 6 percent. For the pension plan, it’s 6.9 percent. (Those in the pension are guaranteed a return of 7.75 percent). (CORRECTION: Enrollees in the pension plan are not guaranteed a rate of return – they are guaranteed a defined benefit. 7.75 is the return assumed by the actuaries to calculate the fund’s rate of return over the next 30 years.

For now, about 40 percent of employees choose to enroll in the pension, 35 percent default without a preference, and 25 percent choose the investment plan: so that’s 75 percent in pension, 25 percent in investment plan.

The bill would somewhat reverse that breakdown, according to Ron Poppell, a senior defined contribution officer at the State Board of Administration, which administers the plan. He anticipates that with the default steering new employees into the investment plan, 40 percent to 50 percent would choose the pension plan, 25 percent would choose the investment plan, 35 percent to 25 percent would default, resulting in half in the pension, half in the investment plan.

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