December 28, 2012

Taxpayers cough up another $190,000 in legal fees for Scott’s drug testing push

Gov. Rick Scott’s drug-testing push has racked up even more legal bills, with a federal judge ordering the state to pay $190,000 in attorney’s fees for a case involving state workers.

The ruling, posted Friday, orders Scott—and by extension, taxpayers—to cover the legal fees of the lawyers that took on the governor’s controversial plan to require random drug testing for state workers.

The $190,000 legal tab is in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and costs spent in attempts to defend controversial laws passed by Scott. They include drug testing for welfare recipients, a 3-percent employee contributions for state workers’ pensions, voting law changes and a 2011 law banning doctors from asking patients about guns. In most cases, judges have ruled the laws to be unconstitutional, sparking appeals from Scott and higher legal fees.

Scott ordered the state-worker drug testing plan shortly after taking office in 2011, potentially subjecting the state’s 85,000 employees to random drug tests. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sued and U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro ruled in April that the testing plan constituted an unconstitutional search and seizure. Scott immediately vowed to appeal.

"I respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling and will pursue the case on appeal,” Scott said in a statement that mirrors several others he has made this year.

But while the appeal plays out, taxpayers remain liable for paying the attorney’s fees of the plaintiffs. Those fees ran as high as $312,000—with lawyers billing up to $600 per hours—before a judge ruled that $190,000 was more appropriate.

If those fees are added to the $888,000 legal bills cited in this July article in the Orlando Sentinel, then controversial laws passed by the Legislature and Scott have easily cost taxpayers more than $1 million in the last two years.

Several cases are currently being litigated or appealed, so the legal meter continues to run each day.


November 29, 2012

CFO Jeff Atwater tells insurers to stop whining, reduce PIP premiums

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said Thursday that it’s time for insurance companies to stop complaining and to lower premiums to reflect changes to the no-fault car insurance laws.

“I am comfortable that if assaults on the courts are unsuccessful and the bill can stand there will be more than 25 percent savings,” Atwater said. “We don’t have to gnash about it, argue about it, whine about it or cry about it.”

Under the old system, the average personal injury protection insurance claim is $12,900, Atwater said during a presentation at the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Insurance Summit. That included $4,400 in acupuncture, $3,700 for massage therapy, $3,200 to chiropractors and $1,600 for emergency room costs.

The new law, HB 119, restricts acupuncturists and massage therapists from participating in PIP and requires people injured in a car accident to be diagnosed with an emergency medical condition before they are eligible for the full $10,000 benefit.

“We just eliminated 68 percent of that cost,” Atwater told the group.

Read more here.

November 28, 2012

Average PIP savings under new car insurance law: 2.5 percent

On the last day of the legislative session this year, Florida lawmakers said they wanted guarantees from insurance companies that PIP premiums would go down by 10 percent in 2013. Right now, it's looking like the savings under the new no-fault car insurance law will be about one-fourth of that.

HB 119 required insurers to submit new rate filings by Oct. 1 that either reduced PIP premiums by 10 percent or explained why they could not. Most insurers chose option No. 2.

The state is still in the process of reviewing most of the 141 rate filings from 151 companies selling auto insurance in Florida, said Sandra Starnes, director of property and casualty product review at the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation. She was speaking during a session on PIP Reform at the Florida Chamber's Annual Insurance Summit.

The rate filings are all across the spectrum. Some companies said they would reduce PIP by as much as 25 percent while the biggest requested increase is 41 percent. The average, as of Nov. 16, is a 2.5 percent reduction in PIP, Starnes said.

As of this week, 64 rating filings have been approved.

Drivers who renew their auto policies after Jan. 1 will see their new HB 119-affected PIP rates reflected on their bills. That is also when many provisions of the new law take effect.

November 20, 2012

Exclusive: Citizens Insurance plagued by laundry list of office scandals

At Citizens Property Insurance Corp., a corporate culture plagued by inter-office scandals, sexual impropriety, lavish spending, alleged cover-ups and big severance checks for disgraced employees has simmered under the radar for years, according to hundreds of internal documents obtained by the Herald/Times.

The corporate cauldron of misconduct boiled over this year when internal investigators tracked the trail of scandal up to the highest levels of the company, drafting a scathing 73-page report that highlights a laundry list of improprieties.

Last month, the investigators were terminated, their report was gutted, and Citizens’ Office of Corporate Integrity was abruptly shut down.

Read more here


November 19, 2012

Weatherford and Thurston tell parties to stand their ground in upcoming session

TALLAHASSEE -- The day before he takes over the reins of the Florida House, incoming Speaker Will Weatherford told fellow Republican colleagues Monday to hold strong to what they believe is true.

 “Fear is sometimes masked as partisanship, sometimes it’s masked as politics, but political fear, fear of what someone will do if you vote a particular way, what someone will say, what a lobbyist will say, fear is what’s broken Washington D.C.,” Weatherford told the 76-member Republican caucus, just moments after it unanimously nominated him for the speaker’s job. “Fear is what has put America where it is today. We will not lead with fear.”

His words of encouragement came after Republicans lost five seats in the house, the super-majority status that it enjoyed, and Weatherford’s successor as speaker in 2014, Rep. Chris Dorworth, who lost a shocking battle for reelection. 

Weatherford congratulated the caucus for agreeing on Dorworth’s replacement, Rep. Steve Crisafulli, with little melodrama.

 “We could have fought, we could have scratched, we could have argued over who’s going to have power and who’s not, who’s going to be the speaker, who’s not,” Weatherford said. “We didn’t do that, we defied all the odds, we supported a man who I think will be a great speaker of the house.” 

For a man often credited with being bipartisan, he challenged the Republicans to stick to their core principles and to be loyal to each other – all of which could make compromise with the 44 Democrats difficult.

 “I expect you to make your decisions whether I agree or disagree with them, based on principle,” Weatherford said. “If you are standing on principle, you’ll always be standing on solid ground. You’ll always have the underpinnings that will protect you if you are basing it on principle, not politics. I expect you to be loyal, not to me, but to each other. This is a family. We are in this together. And I expect you to treat each other like a family and to be loyal to each other.” 

He called the Republicans a “New Spirit of 76”.

“It will be a spirit of resolve, a spirit of freedom, and a spirit of courage,” he said. “You are part of a family. Tomorrow, the whole family will get together. But you are the nucleus.”

Minutes later, Weatherford’s counterpart, Perry Thurston, the incoming minority leader, told the 44 members of the Democratic caucus that they were “Soul of the Legislature.”

“We will continue to stand up for our unions, we will continue to stand up for every day men and women across Florida working hard every day to make a living,” Thurston said before accepting his nomination as speaker. “We’re going to be here. And we are going to ready to fight. We’re going to be here for Floridians, to move this state in the right direction.”

Thurston braced the caucus for the setbacks ahead.

“We are going to be the loyal opposition,” Thurston said. “Yes, our numbers have increased. Yes, we’re going to be more effective in the House of Representatives.

“We won a lot of debates, a lot of debates, where we wound up losing the vote,” Thurston said, citing their opposition to HB 1355 that limited early voting hours, among other changes. “That will continue to happen, not as much, but that will continue to happen.”

Thurston is expected to cede the speaker’s job to Weatherford in Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony, but with a resurgent Democratic Party, the Republicans will have to contend with a more organized opposition.

As Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said Monday in introducing Weatherford, his “Mr. Nice Guy label” may be fleeting.

 “That too shall pass,” Hooper said.

Former Board of Governors chairwoman tapped to lead Florida Polytechnic

Ava Parker has resigned her seat on the board overseeing state universities in order to accept the position of interim chief operating officer at Florida Polytechnic University.

Parker has served on the Board of Governors for about a decade and was chairwoman last year when the board initially voted to allow Polytechnic to spin off from the University of South Florida, as well as during the Legislature's controversial maneuvers to make the split immediate. Her first day at Polytechnic is Dec. 1 and she has agreed to serve for two years, according to a news release from the university.

As interim chief operating officer, Parker will be tasked with helping to shape this new university, the state's 12th. Her duties will include hiring staff, developing the new campus and helping to get the school accredited while also recruiting students.

"As we started to think about the interim leader of the Polytechnic, it became clear that we needed someone not only with a background in higher education, but with real-world savvy to help us communicate our vision to the many, varied stakeholders interested in seeing this university succeed,” said Rob Gidel, chair of the Florida Polytechnic Board of Trustees. “Ava Parker is the right person for the job. We are excited she agreed to take on this challenge."

An attorney by trade, Parker also resigned today from the Board of Governors. Her term was up in January.

“Ava Parker would be a great asset to any organization that is lucky enough to have her. We wish her the best," said Board of Governors Chairman Dean Colson.

Continue reading "Former Board of Governors chairwoman tapped to lead Florida Polytechnic" »

November 15, 2012

Predictable voting debacle? Lawmakers foresaw trouble in 2011, but their proposals were shot down

Many of the problems that surfaced during the 2012 election were predicted by Democratic legislators who tried to soften the impact of a controversial voting law with a slew of pro-voter amendments.

All the amendments to HB 1355 failed in the Republican-dominated House and Senate, though some of the same lawmakers who voted against the reforms now appear to be supporting election reform.

“It’s a little early to say what led to what led to those long lines,” said incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, adding that a committee needs to look at why Florida’s election was plagued by 6-hour lines and a last-in-the-nation presidential result.

Language from the Democrats’ amendments would have expanded the number of early voting sites, limited the length of constitutional amendments and given local election supervisors the option to extend early voting hours on their own if they felt it necessary.

Sec. of State Ken Detzner, Florida’s chief elections official, has said that the length of the ballot and the lack of sufficient early voting sites is what caused the chaos on Election Day.

Amendments and legislation that would have dealt specifically with those issues were rejected by Republican lawmakers, including some in South Florida districts that had lines of up to 9 hours.

One failed amendment would have mandated that local elections supervisors do everything in their power to ensure that no voter waited more than 25 minutes in line.

One after the other, the amendments failed. Now, lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott, who signed HB 1355, are trying to figure out what went so terribly wrong during Florida’s nationally-televised voting debacle.

Here are a few Democrat-backed amendments to HB 1355 that now seem prescient, 18 months after they were offered, and killed, on the floor of the House and Senate.

Continue reading "Predictable voting debacle? Lawmakers foresaw trouble in 2011, but their proposals were shot down" »

November 14, 2012

Legislature leadership taking shape: Richter, Precourt, Young move up

The leadership roster of 2013 Florida Legislature is starting to take shape.

After incoming Republican House Majority leader Chris Dorworth was ousted from office in an upset, Speaker Will Weatherford announced that Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, will take his place. Precourt was elected in 2006 and served as the Finance and Tax Committee chair last year. Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa was named Majority Whip.

Precourt and Young join incoming Rules chairman Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, speaker pro-tempore Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, and budget chair Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland,  in Weatherford's leadership team.

In the Senate, President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is beginning to announce his team of lieutenants.

He has appointed Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, as president pro tempore.

Richter, who was elected in 2008, served as the Chair of the Banking and Insurance Committee last year. Gaetz has not yet announced the appointment of his Budget Chair and other leadership posts.



Scott repeats: Sec.of State is looking into voting debacle

Gov. Rick Scott reiterated Wednesday that he has asked Florida’s chief elections official to meet with local elections supervisors to discuss what went wrong during Florida’s voting fiasco.

Sec. of State Ken Detzner is scheduled to meet with some of the state’s elections supervisors Tuesday to discuss the various problems during the election, which was plagued by long lines and a long wait for counting.

Scott stopped short of blaming HB 1355—the controversial law he signed last year that cut back early voting days—for the voting problems. He did say that changes to election laws might be necessary in the year ahead.

“This election was conducted in accordance with Florida law, which was passed by the legislature last year. The law was then found by the US Department of Justice and federal courts to be in compliance with the Voting Rights Act,” he said, skipping over the fact that part of the law was ruled unconstitutional. “But, we should now evaluate whether additional statutory changes need to be made after this election is complete. The House and Senate’s bipartisan committees on elections should begin to publicly discuss this topic at their first opportunity.”

Scott’s Wednesday statement, which largely repeats earlier statements, reflects an effort by the governor to take command of an issue that has sparked widespread backlash and media ridicule.

Initially, Scott would only say that he was happy with the record turnout and that “the right thing happened.” He also said he'd be reviewing how the election went. Many critics blamed Scott for not extending early voting when there were 8-hour lines during the shortened early voting period. Others blamed him and the Florida Legislature for passing a 2011 bill that cut early voting and loading up the ballot with lengthy amendments, while ignoring pleas from local supervisors asking for more flexibility.

As criticism has mounted—with former Gov. Charlie Crist leading a loud chorus of anti-Scott voices calling for reform—Scott has begun to pivoted from “the right thing happened” to “we need to make improvements in our elections process.”  

Scott’s statement is below.

Continue reading "Scott repeats: Sec.of State is looking into voting debacle" »

Stand Your Ground task force: It's a good law

Created in the wake of national uproar over Trayvon Martin’s shooting death, a 19-member task force spent six months traveling the state and taking public testimony about Florida’s most controversial self-defense law.

The result? Little, if anything, will change.

The task force commissioned by Gov. Rick Scott to review the Stand Your Ground law prepared its final report Tuesday, indicating that the law is mostly fine as it is.

In a report to the Legislature, the group offered up only minor tweaks to the Stand Your Ground law — including changes that could actually make it easier to claim self-defense after killing someone.

Read more here