March 27, 2013

Senate refuses to pay for transparency contract, threatened with lawsuit

The lawyer for the company that entered into a $5 million contract with the Florida Senate to build a transparency web site has threatened to sue for breach of contract because Senate President Don Gaetz refuses to pay the remaining $500,000.

Kenneth Oertel, lawyer for the owners of Spider Data Services which signed the contract under the previous Senate president Mike Haridopolos, wrote in an email Tuesday that he has been authorized by his client to file suit and included a draft of the lawsuit.  Download Complaint - DRAFT

"Frankly, I do not see any point to the Senate’s refusal to pay,'' he wrote in an email to George Levesque, the Senate's general counsel. "If I have to file the suit, there is no realistic defense available to the Senate.  All that will happen is that the suit will be a media item and a lot of time will be spent pointing fingers.  This will not appear to be a flattering event for the Senate, and, at best, will create an embarrassing distraction.  I will be available if you wish to discuss this further to find a resolution.  If not, please understand this will be filed very soon."

His email came after Senate general counsel George Levesque told him that the Senate has no intention of paying what remains owed on the contract, which was signed by former Senate chief of staff Steve MacNamara under Haridopolos. MacNamara left Haridopolos' office to work for Gov. Rick Scott and arranged to have management of the transparency program transferred to the governor's office, which was given $2.5 million to pay for it.

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March 18, 2013

Rarity in Tallahassee, surplus spending will bring gains to education

An improved economy and six years of relentless budget cuts have produced something that had been as rare as unicorns: a surplus.

The House and Senate on Monday released their allocations for general revenue spending next year, providing the first glimpse of how they’ll carve up a third of the state’s $74 billion budget in the coming weeks. (General revenue is derived from the sales tax, the corporate income tax, documentary stamps and various other taxes and fees; federal grants make up another third of the budget, while state trust funds make up the remainder).

The House’s proposed $26.9 billion in allocations was more detailed, including a target of spending $1 billion more in k-12 education, $300 million to restore the cuts from higher education last year, and the first across the board pay raise in over six years for “hard working” state employees. (Does the modifier mean it will be merit-based?)

That increase in allocations on education will provide one of the big dramas for the 2013 legislative session: whether lawmakers will agree to pay for Gov. Rick Scott’s across-the-board teacher raises of $2,500.

The raises are expected to cost about $480 million, which was part of the $14.3 billion education budget Scott proposed in January. In the House allocations, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and leaders set aside $14 billion in general revenue dollars for education. Of that, $10.6 billion is for lower education and $3.4 billion is for higher education. That’s a $300 million difference between Scott’s budget and the House allocation. Senate President Don Gaetz and his appropriation chair Joe Negron came down between the two, though closer to the House total, by setting aside $14.2 billion for education, or 1.2 percent more than the House.

While it might seem the House is low-balling education, its allocation is actually $1.6 billion more than its allocation at this same point last year, representing a 13 percent increase from what it proposed spending last year.

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March 08, 2013

Gaetz: Sequester creating budget uncertainty in Florida

Senate President Don Gaetz said the federal sequester is causing problems for Florida lawmakers as they try to build a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. People may argue the financial impact of sequestration and what should be done to avoid it, but it is already having real consequences, he said.

"What's not debatable is that sequestration has created a sense of uncertaintly and instability in sectors of the Florida economy," Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, said during a speech at the Capitol Tiger Bay Club meeting today.

Gaetz noted there are five military bases in the Panhandle region he represents. Directly and indirectly, the defense and aerospace industries employs thousands of people who are already being furloughed and could face layoffs, he said.

Calling the sequester "the cloud that hangs over both the governor and the Legislature and all the budget assumptions," Geatz said he hopes Congress and President Barack Obama can find a way to agree on a long-term solution.

"My greatest fear is that they will kick the can down the road another three or six months," he said.

Gaetz's comments about the political gridlock in Washington led one Tiger Bay member to ask the Senate president if he was eyeing higher office. Gaetz said he's focused solely on his current role. "I have no aspirations to run for governor or any other office."

March 05, 2013

Gaetz: With House opposition, Medicaid expansion could be non-starter

With House Speaker Will Weatherford doubling down on opposing Medicaid expansion today, it's sending a clear message to the Senate that the House may not budge on the issue, President Don Gaetz said today.

He pointed out that both the House and the Senate must approve legislation in order for it to go to the governor for approval. Gaetz said the House's hard line doesn't bode well even if the Senate is poised to support accepting federal dollars to expand Medicaid.

With Gov. Rick Scott re-iterating his support of Medicaid expansion during today's State of the State address, that is two out of three "yes"es needed to get something done. But two out of three means no deal, Gaetz said.

"It sounds to me, from what I heard today stated in the Florida House, that the House of Representatives and the speaker are inclining toward 'no,' and if that's the case then nobody else gets to bat, the lights get turned off and we all go home on that issue," he said.

Instead, Senators have also begun looking at how other states are chosing to provide health care to poor, uninsured citizens outside of Medicaid. Lawmakers in both chambers seem especially intrigued by Arkansas, which received federal permission to use Medicaid expansion dollars to pay for people to purchase private insurance via health exchanges.

February 20, 2013

Florida receives go-ahead to privatize Medicaid. Is expansion next?

Gov. Rick Scott has said that Florida cannot expand Medicaid unless the federal government approves the state’s plan to privatize Medicaid. Well, the Medicaid managed care agreement is all but done.

Now, the ball is in the state’s court on Medicaid expansion, without 1 million uninsured Floridians waiting in the balance.

Senate President Don Gaetz said the discussions shouldn't be mixed. Whether the state expands Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has nothing to do with the federal government’s decision to grant the state the waiver it needed to privatize Medicaid, he said.

“The two are completely separate issues,” Gaetz said, noting that the Senate committee studying the health care law will eventually come up with a recommendation on whether the state should expand Medicaid.

But it is Scott who has linked the two. Although he has stopped short of saying he would embrace the Medicaid expansion, the governor has said in recent weeks that he is willing to work with the federal government as long as the waiver was part of the conversation.

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February 14, 2013

Bush gets real with Gaetz on education reform, coy on future

Before a meeting with Senate President Don Gaetz on Thursday, former Gov. Jeb Bush said he believed the parent trigger bill introduced this week would pass.

"As I understand what the law is, it’s a pretty simple law,” Bush said. “If you’re in a failing school, parents oughta have the ability, if they want to, to have a say, simply a say, in providing advice on what structure a failing school should take. That doesn’t say they can do like in California where they can convert a charter school or do something else, it simply says parents’ voice matters. If that’s a radical idea in America today, then we’re in a heap of trouble.”

A bill filed this week by Kelli Stargell, R-Lakeland, would allow parents at failing schools to choose a strategy to turnaround a school via a petition. One option could allow the school to be converted to a charter school. A similar bill was defeated last year, but Bush said he thinks this year it will pass. 

Earlier on Thursday, Bush met with House Republicans and Speaker Will Weatherford. Reporters didn’t speak to him at that event, and were only able to ask a couple of questions before his meeting with Gaetz.

Bush hasn’t visited the Capitol since 2010, so he was asked why he was meeting with lawmakers. Bush said as the head of the non-profit Foundation for Excellence in Education, he was there to “say hello to friends and advance the cause of rising student achievement.”

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January 25, 2013

PolitiFact Florida: Fact-checking Don Gaetz, Rick Scott and 'Pink Slip Rick' on early voting

The Truth-O-Meter went to work this week examining claims about Florida's early voting program.

Senate President Don Gaetz recently said the 2011 elections law, which cut early voting days from 14 to eight, would have been worse without him fighting to add more hours.

"I sponsored the amendment that expanded the hours of early voting so that people who have irregular work schedules could vote," Gaetz said in a Jan. 11 editorial board interview with the Orlando Sentinel. "And I said if that amendment didn't pass, I would join the Democrats in resisting the proposal to limit the number of days of early voting."

Gaetz is right about sponsoring the amendment, but he's leaving out the fact that his amendment docked the minimum number of hours that a supervisor had to offer for early voting by half. His claim is Half True.

Gov. Rick Scott, who signed the 2011 elections law that cut early voting, reversed course when he called on the Legislature to allow supervisors to offer up to 14 days of early voting again. In an interview, he said the proposal would allow for "a potential of 168 hours (of early voting), which I think is the most we've ever had."

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January 24, 2013

Florida House Speaker Weatherford: changing the Electoral College is for sore losers

Republicans in five states, notably Virginia, have discussed changing the way they award Electoral College votes in presidential races by apportioning them on each congressional district, rather than the state's popular vote.

The reason: Republican Mitt Romney would have won the presidency despite losing the popular vote in states where the GOP controls the legislatures: Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida.

But Florida, the largest swing state, won't go along with changing the Electoral College if Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford has any say (and he has a major say).

"To me, that's like saying in a football game, 'We should have only three quarters, because we were winning after three quarters and the beat us in the fourth," Weatherford, a Republican, told the Herald/Times. "I don't think we need to change the rules of the game, I think we need to get better."

In Virginia, state Republicans are going with the why-get-better? approach. They're getting a bill ready for a vote that, had it been in effect in November, would have given Obama about 30 percent of the Electoral College votes, even though he won 51 percent of the popular vote in that state. Obama only won four of the nine Virginia congressional seats because they've been drawn to favor Republicans.

But Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus seems to like the idea, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "I think it's something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at."

Not only is Weatherford opposed to the idea, fellow Republican and Florida Senate President Don Gaetz is decidedly cool to it. When asked about changing the way Electoral College votes are apportioned, Gaetz thought the entire system should be scrapped.

 "I think we should abolish the Electoral College but nobody in Washington has called to ask for my opinion," Gaetz said. "If James Madison had asked me, and I had been there, I would have said a popular vote is a better way to do it." Gaetz said the electoral college shrinks the presidential campaign to a handful of states as it did in 2012.

"The farmer standing in his field in North Dakota should be just as important as the factory worker in Ohio," Gaetz said.

-- with Steve Bousquet

Will botched transparency contract spawn reforms of how legislators govern themselves?

A botched $5.5 million state contract for a transparency web site, signed in secret by the chief of staff of a former Senate president, may have an unintended consequence: forcing legislators to follow the rules they require of everyone else.

Members of the Senate Government Operations and Accountability Committee declared the Transparency 2.0 web site an unlikely survivor as the committee moves to merge nine transparency web sites. The Senate let the contract lapse Dec. 31 and the committee is working to find a replacement. But the committee said the secretly-signed contract could force the Legislature to change its ways.

“We need to go a step further and make sure this doesn’t happen again,’’ said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, referring to the no-bid contract signed in 2011 between Spider Data Systems and Steve MacNamara, the former general counsel and chief of staff for former Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

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Bondi, lawmakers take on state's surging foreclosure problem

Lawmakers in Tallahassee are renewing their focus on Florida’s foreclosure problem, after the state ended 2012 as America’s foreclosure capital.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford held a press conference Thursday to discuss a newly approved $60 million program for housing aid.

The program—which includes money for homebuyer assistance, legal aid and foreclosure prevention—is part of last year’s multibillion dollar national settlement that included cash payments to states.

Bondi reached a deal with Weatherford and Gaetz after an initial disagreement over who had authority over the $334 million in funds allocated to Florida. In the end, the groups compromised to allow the Legislature to direct the money during the 2013 legislative session, with $60 million carved out for release prior to the session.

Bondi’s office organized a press conference Thursday to discuss the details of the $60 million program. The deal includes:

  • --$35 million for Down Payment Assistance (Florida Housing Finance Corporation)
  • --$10 million for Foreclosure Counseling (Florida Housing Finance Corporation)
  • --$5 million for Reducing the Foreclosure Backlog  (State Courts System)
  • --$5 million for Legal Aid (Various providers)
  • --$5 million for Attorney General’s Legal Fees (Attorney General’s Office)

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