November 15, 2017

Florida may have a housing crisis but governor wants $92 million in housing funds used for his other priorities

Workforce housing in the Keys  Al DiazAs every Florida county struggles with an affordable housing problem, Gov. Rick Scott signaled Tuesday he is poised to engage again in the annual real estate bait and switch on taxpayers.

In the last budget proposal of his term, the governor wants to sweep money from the affordable housing trust funds and use $92 million of it for other priorities. If the Legislature agrees, it will be the 17th time since Jeb Bush took office that millions of dollars intended to lower the cost of housing in Florida will be swept into the general revenue account to fund pet projects, other spending priorities and tax breaks.

The governor’s budget includes $230.3 million for housing programs — the most he has proposed since he was elected in 2010. That includes $20 million steered to workforce housing in the Florida Keys, $96.3 million to pay for projects funded by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation and $34 million for the State Housing Initiatives Partnership program, which works with local governments.

Scott’s increased focus on housing comes after Hurricane Irma wiped out workforce housing in the Keys. Thousands of Puerto Ricans are living on temporary hotel vouchers with no place to go in Central Florida. The Florida Housing Coalition reports that nearly 1 million Florida households use more than half their income on housing. And studies show that inMiami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Naples, families need to earn more than $22 an hour to afford the rent on the average two-bedroom apartment. Read more here. 

Photo: The stock of affordable housing in the Keys took a big hit in Hurricane Irma. This is the Seabreeze trailer park along the Overseas Highway, Tuesday, September 12, 2017. AL DIAZ

November 13, 2017

Latvala's lawyer now wants Lizbeth Benacquisto removed from Senate probe

Lizbeth BenacquistoSen. Jack Latvala on Monday tried a second legal maneuver to potentially influence a Senate investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him.

Citing a conversation with a television reporter last week, Latvala's lawyer, Steven R. Andrews, asked Senate Rules Committee chair, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, to recuse herself from any deliberations relating to the allegations because, he said, she has violated Senate rules. Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, is allegedly being accused of sexual harassment by six unnamed women.

Senate President Joe Negron last week hired Tampa-based lawyer Gail Golman Holtzmana principal in the Tampa office of Jackson Lewis P.C., to conduct the investigation into the allegations starting on Tuesday. The unnamed accusers have refrained from coming forward after telling Politico Florida they were victims of unwanted physical touching and inappropriate language by Latvala. The Senate is hoping the women come forward with the understanding their identities are shielded from disclosure from a newly-enacted state law. 

In a letter to Negron Monday, Andrews said that Benacquisto violated Senate rules when she responded to a reporter's questions on Thursday and confirmed that the Senate had received a sworn complaint against a state senator, alleging sexual harassment.

Andrews said he asked the staff director of the Senate Rules Committee, John Phelps, for a copy of the complaint but was refused. Andrews concluded that Benacquisto acknowledged receiving a complaint against Latvala, although she does not directly say his name in the interview with reporter Mike Vasilinda.

Andrews alleges that Benacquisto violated Rule 1.48, which says that a "senator will only receive notice of a complaint once a Special Master is appointed."

"Latvala learned of the alleged complaint through media reports that were based solely on Senator Benacquisto' s public
comment,'' Andrews wrote. "Senator Benacquisto' s public comment regarding the alleged complaint is a material breach of the Senate Rules and mandates her disqualification from any further involvement in the investigation and/or disposition of any complaint against Senator Latvala."

His letter included a transcript of the interview between Vasilinda and Benacquisto: 

MR. VASILINDA: Where are you with finding someone to handle the Latvala investigation?
MS. BENACQUISTO: The president is working on that and the Office of Legislative Services is helping in that process as they are acting in that capacity at the moment.
MR. VASILINDA: And have you received a sworn complaint from someone?
MS. BENACQUISTO: I have. I have.
MR. VASILINDA: Is there someone calling into question Rule 1.43, that there is a sworn complaint?

Andrews concluded that Benacquisto must be disqualified from the Senate Rules' review of any action emerging from the investigation to "ensure that any other potential conflict of interest will be avoided which might flow from her relationship with any alleged complainant or with any other person who has information that is relevant to the investigation/disposition of the complaint."

Latvala has long has a difficult relationship with Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican. Last week, he told the Herald/Times that he did not believe he could get a fair hearing from her. 

Last week Latvala tried to influence the investigation by having Latvala take a polygraph test asking if he denied the allegations alleged in the Politico report. More than that here. 

Did the Herald paint an unfair picture of the juvenile justice system? A look at the facts


By @MarbinMiller
After the Miami Herald published Fight Club, its investigative series on Florida’s juvenile justice system, the state Department of Juvenile Justice issued a lengthy statement titled “Setting the Record Straight: Miami Herald Omits Facts, Ignores Reforms in Series Targeting DJJ.”

The department did not challenge any facts or data presented in the six-part series. “I will not deny, or discredit or downplay some of the horrible incidents that have happened,” DJJ Secretary Christina K. Daly told a state Senate committee on Oct. 11.

But in the secretary’s “setting the record straight” release, she stated that the Herald’s stories “do not accurately define the juvenile justice system in Florida or the many partners who are committed to serving youth and their families.” And she said the juvenile justice system was not receiving proper credit for years of reforms.

She has continued to defend the agency vigorously in appearances before lawmakers, characterizing the abuses the Herald described as the work of a small number of “bad apples.”

Here is a look at some of what Daly said the Herald failed to fully acknowledge. All statements are verbatim from the “setting the record straight” news release or from statements to lawmakers in a public forum. Read here. 


November 08, 2017

Democratic congressional candidate calls for impeaching Trump

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Miami congressional candidate Mary Barzee Flores called for President Donald Trump’s impeachment Wednesday, joining a small but vocal group of national Democrats openly advocating for Trump’s removal from office.

In an op-ed published in the Miami Herald, Barzee Flores cited at least six reasons for Congress to impeach the president, including firing former FBI Director James Comey and hiring Michael Flynn — who has since been fired — as national security adviser despite having ties to Russia.

“As a former judge, I don’t make that statement lightly,” Barzee Flores wrote about urging impeachment, “but I have come to believe such steps, sadly, are necessary to restore trust, respect, and dignity to the American presidency.”

Whether to support Trump’s impeachment has become a dividing line among Democrats, with some arguing that it’s too early to contemplate such a drastic move — and that doing so would only galvanize Republicans ahead of the 2018 midterms. Democrats notched key victories in off-year election contests around the country Tuesday without relying on an impeachment message.

More here.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Barzee Flores campaign

Flores: We're working to make the Capitol safe for harassment accusers to come forward

FloresSen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican and one of Senate president's two top female advisors, said Wednesday that Senate leaders are "working very hard to make the Capitol a retribution-free zone" to allow the six unnamed women who have anonymously accused Sen. Jack Latvala of sexual harassment. 

"We're in a uncharted territory,'' Flores said. "So everyone is trying to balance these issues. It needs to be something that's fair for the victims and for Sen. Latvala and I think everyone understands it's a fine line to walk."

Senate President Joe Negron has announced he is seeking an independent third party to conduct an investigation, and the hiring of that person will be handled by Karen Chandler, the head of the Office of Legislative Services and a veteran Senate staff member. 

Flores said she hopes the process should be handled "in the most fair and expedited manner" but did not have an opinion s to whether a woman should be involved.

She underscored the comments of Attorney General Pam Bondi on Tuesday. "If people don't come out and say who it is behind this, it makes it close to impossible for there to be justice in the minds of the victims,'' Flores said. 

She said that individual senators, Bondi and statewide leaders, "have said they want the Capitol to be such a safe space that we would hope these women would feel comfortable coming forward."

"It's probably the hardest to be the first one, but it may help others in the future,'' Flores said. 

Flores, who has acknowledged that she has often been on the receiving side of sexually inappropriate remarks in the Capitol, said she expects this discussion to continue for a while.

"The issue of sexual harassment is something we will be dealing with throughout the session, until they culture is no longer,'' she said, "The silver lining is we are having a conversation about an issue people have talked about, but not really talked about."

October 31, 2017

Someone is spying on Florida legislators. But who is it and what have they found?

Covert camera
For at least three days in the final week of the 2017 legislative session, a covert surveillance camera recorded the comings and goings of legislators and lobbyists living on the sixth floor of the Tennyson condominium near the Capitol.

Weeks later, in a dark parking lot of an Italian restaurant in Tallahassee, Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, a Republican candidate for governor, was also being spied upon. Grainy photos show him standing and planting a kiss on the cheek, then the mouth, of a female lobbyist on the last night of the Legislature’s special session.

These weren’t routine smartphone photos captured for fun. They were the work of private investigators whose research has fueled an escalating barrage of rumors in the last week about sexual harassment in Tallahassee and infidelity among the state’s elected legislators. Read more here. 

October 25, 2017

Scott disaster chief sees 'room for improvement' in storm payouts

Gov. Rick Scott’s interim disaster chief told lawmakers Wednesday he sees “significant room for improvement” in how long it takes to repay cities and counties for recovery costs for past hurricanes.

As Scott visited Chicago on his latest job-poaching mission, his administration’s handling of the post-Irma recovery came under scrutiny in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Wes Maul, 29, took over the Division of Emergency Management on Oct. 1, three weeks after Hurricane Irma made its first of two Category 4 landfalls.

Maul was prepared and escaped unscathed. His debut in the Senate was an exercise in damage control, as senators have fielded many complaints from local officials about the extraordinarily long delays in reimbursement.

“We are updating what I believe to be an inadequate system,” Maul told senators.

For example, Putnam County is waiting for the state to repay it for Hurricane Matthew more than a year ago. County Commission Chairman Larry Harvey said Putnam got its first repayment check Oct. 11, and the county has received a total of $11,000.

Also briefly on the hot seat was Scott transportation chief Mike Dew, who was grilled on DOT’s no-bid emergency contract for debris removal in the Florida Keys that has drawn critical attention.

DOT limited bid proposals to six firms already under contract. Senators glossed lightly over the report by CBS4 in Miami that DOT’s action dramatically raised debris removal costs in Monroe County.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who represents 11 North Florida counties, asked Maul why a spreadsheet showing the status of hundreds of payment requests lists many as “unrequested,” a year later.

Maul said that means the state has not yet received invoices and receipts for actual work completed. He said “discrepancies in supporting documents” is one reason why payment delays occur.

State officials estimate the current recovery costs from Irma at about $650 million, and that all but about $50 million will be reimbursed by the federal government.

Scott’s budget director, Cynthia Kelly, said the state is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on a higher-than-usual federal reimbursement rate that she said will reduce the impact on the state budget over a period of years.

Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, urged senators to increase state aid to county school districts, hospitals and clinics to absorb the influx of Puerto Rican evacuees from Hurricane Maria. Bursting into tears, Torres urged the state to act with urgency “as if it was your family members who were suffering.”

October 24, 2017

The state asks: Is it fair to waive KidCare premiums for families financially stressed from the hurricane?

Beth KidderRep. Bobby Dubose, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, was one of five legislators who wrote to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Agency of Health Care Administration on Friday asking them to waive the monthly KidCare premium for families who are financially stressed from Hurricane Irma.

They argued that because there is an estimated 185,000 low-income kids who get the state-subsidized insurance in 48 counties under the federal disaster declaration, and because more than 9,000 of them dropped out of the program in October because of non-payment -- more than twice the monthly average -- the impact of the hurricane is exacerbating the decline in coverage. 

Democrats want the state to seek a federal waiver to allow Florida taxpayers to cover the $20 in premiums for the months of October and November for the families on state-subsidized insurance in the hurricane-affected counties. The cost to the state is estimated at $240,000. Federal funds would cover the rest, an estimated $6.1 million. 

But their request was met with silence from both the governor and state agency.

So on Tuesday, Dubose put the agency's deputy secretary Beth Kidder on the spot before the full House Committee on Health and Human Services.

"I've been trying to get an answer -- right up until before this committee meeting,'' Dubose asked Kidder, who serves on the Florida Healthy Kids board,which oversees KidCare.

"Will you be voting on this or calling for the vote and basically tell me your position regarding my request?"

Kidder for the first time confirmed that the issue would come before the board at its Thursday meeting -- at the request of AHCA Secretary Justin Senior -- but she would not offer her opinion on whether or not she supports the request.

"I'm a board member. I'll listen to the debate and make my vote accordingly,'' she told Dubose.

If the agency has any interest in pursuing the waiver, they won't say.

For the past month, children's advocates have urged the state-run KidCare health insurance program to seek a waiver, as Texas did after Hurricane Harvey, to help families that lost homes or faced financial losses in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

But rather than seek the waiver, Florida officials have instead offered to extend the deadline for October and November payments until Oct. 31. In the face of the deadline extension, however, more than 4,000 families failed to make their payments in October.

Meeting with reporters after the meeting, Kidder said they will need "additional authority" to pursue the waiver because of the fiscal impact. She said that because "the vast majority of families" have paid their monthly premium, the question is: "would you refund those payments?" 

"Do you then reward people who dragged their heels, didn't do it?'' she asked. "Thousands of families don't pay every month -- regardless of a storm or not. We can't distinguish which one of those who can't or won't pay that month, or drop it and seek other coverage, have other priorities...and those who have a storm impact."

She said one of the questions the Healthy Kids Board will ask is: "Why would you give a freebee to those who did not act responsibly in the beginning?" 

Dubose said Kidder's response is part of a pattern -- a reluctance by state officials to help the state's neediest -- and an assumption that a helping hand for the most vulnerable is perceived as unfair.

"Here's what bothers me about all of this,'' he said. "We're talking about the most vulnerable population, low income folks."

When a storm hits, the average person may have some inconveniences" but when a family on fixed incomes loses power and groceries and has to spend any extra income on preparing or recovering from the storm, they struggle to recover,'' he said. 

"For folks at or below the poverty line, it takes month for them to get stable,'' Dubose said. "We're talking about being fair and equitable, but things aren't necessarily fair within this situation." 

Healthy Kids CEO Rebecca Matthews confirmed late Tuesday that more than 9,000 families dropped out of KidCare programs in the 48 counties in the month of October but "there is no way to know how many Florida KidCare families may have been directly impacted by Hurricane Irma,'' she said.

"New families enroll and others choose to leave the program each month for a variety of reasons (e.g., historical decline in enrollment during last quarter of the calendar year, parents move to employer coverage, move out of state, opt for private coverage, age out of the program, etc.)"

Photo: Florida Agency for Health Care Administration Deputy Secretary Beth Kidder. 



As he ascends to Senate presidency, Galvano says he's looking for 'innovative new ideas'

Bill Galvano 1019
By Hannah Morse and Richard Dymond

There were signs in 2009 that then-Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom had used his power several years earlier to funnel tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, including $6 million for an airport building that a private developer wanted to use for his corporate jet business.

Although Sansom insisted he had acted properly, the man who was then chairman of the House’s Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct did not agree and was relentless in moving the rule and ethics violation allegations forward.

That chairman was a lawyer from Bradenton named Bill Galvano.

Galvano will replace Joe Negron as Florida Senate president in 2018 and become the person who sets the agenda and priorities for the Senate, appoints committee chairs, references all the bills and negotiates with the federal government. 
His colleagues and community leaders believe he fits the bill. Story here. 

DJJ chief defends agency against Herald investigation, calling abuses 'isolated' in face of reforms

Christy DalyDepartment of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christina K. Daly came out swinging against the Miami Herald Monday, saying the Fight Club investigation that uncovered the use of excessive force and other misconduct by agency staff involved “isolated events” that “will not overshadow” the accomplishments she and others have made.

“I’m not here to deny, defend or diminish any of the tragic incidents that have been highlighted, but I am here to give you the whole story,” Daly told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee before she presented a 25-minute slide show outlining reforms she said the agency has worked on for the past decade when Daly was chief of staff and then deputy secretary, before being named secretary by Gov. Rick Scott.

“I will not let a newspaper series overshadow the accomplishments we’ve made,” she said. “I cannot, and will not, let an article overshadow the thousands of dedicated staff who come to work every single day with a positive attitude, knowing they will change the lives of the children we serve.”

Daly said the reforms have contributed to Florida having the lowest juvenile arrest record in 40 years and the lowest frequency of youth offenders returning to prison in recent history. The agency’s screening, assessment, and diversion programs are considered a model for the nation, she said.


DJJ is “the most transparent it has ever been,” she said, and it’s focused on reforms that put the most resources into the most difficult cases. She showed slides of children’s rooms with colorful bedspreads that replaced drab institutional rooms, and offender uniforms of khakis and polo shirts that replaced orange jumpsuits. Story here.