June 06, 2013

'Outraged' Miami-Dade politicians tell Scott to veto 'unconscionable' sick-time bill

More than a dozen local politicians from Miami-Dade County—including Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado—say they are “outraged” that the Florida Legislature wants to pass down another mandate on local governments.

In a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, Regalado and other local mayors, commissioners and council members, say HB 655—a ban on local “sick time” ordinances—is a “Tallahassee power grab.”

“Preempting local governments from exerting local control is bad public policy,” the letter states, before telling Scott to veto the bill. It also says: “It is unconscionable that legislators would pass a bill that diminishes the quality of life for our residents.”

HB 655 bans local governments from mandating that private employers provide sick-time leave and other benefits to their workers. If Scott signs it, it would stop Orange County from moving ahead with a ballot initiative that would mandate businesses to provide sick time benefits.

Initially, the bill would have also struck down “living wage” ordinances currently on the books in places like Miami-Dade County and Miami Beach. Those ordinances require companies that contract with the local government to pay wages that are higher than the state’s minimum wage. During the legislative process, lawmakers stripped out the language that would have affected the Miami-Dade ordinance. It passed the House 76-41 on a partyline vote, with the support of Miami-Dade’s Republican House members.

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June 05, 2013

Gov. Scott signs first abortion-related bill in two years

Gov. Rick Scott today signed the only abortion-related bill that passed this session, requiring that doctors must offer emergency medical care if a baby is born alive during a failed abortion or face criminal charges.

Scott was joined by his wife Ann and pro-life supporters from around the state as he signed HB 1129 Wednesday afternoon at the Florida Baptist Children’s Home’s Pensacola campus in Cantonment, a nonprofit organization that supports pregnancy resource centers and children who are neglected, abused or abandoned.

Scott applauded the commitment of sponsors Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, and Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami. Pigman, a freshman legislator and emergency room physician, took part in the event via Skype -- he’s a U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who is currently serving in Kuwait.

The new law, which takes effect July 1, calls for care “appropriate for the gestational age of the infant.” It states that an infant born alive “during or immediately after attempted abortion is entitled to the same rights, powers, and privileges as any other child born alive in course of natural birth” and ensures an infant is “transported to a hospital.”

A violation of the law is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail, a $1,000 fine or both. Health care practitioners, as well as employees of hospitals, physicians’ offices and abortion clinics, must report all known violations to the Department of Health.

Florida is the 29th state to enact similar legislation, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute,  a research and advocacy group that supports women’s access to abortions and collects abortion data. More than 450 bills restricting access to abortion and family planning were introduced in 46 states so far this year, said Elizabeth Nash, the institute’s state issues manager.

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Jones defends firing of trooper who tried to give legislators a break

Florida highway safety chief Julie Jones says state troopers are encouraged to use "discretion" when they make traffic stops, but they are not allowed to issue tickets for non-existent violations.

Jones, who reports to Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, spoke for the first time Tuesday in the case of Charles Swindle, a six-year Florida Highway Patrol veteran who was fired after he stopped two state legislators for speeding on I-10 in Madison last fall. In both cases, FHP superiors said Swindle violated agency rules by issuing citations to the lawmakers for violations that didn't exist: Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, was cited for having no proof of insurance, and Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary, was cited for no proof of insurance and not having his registration.

Swindle said he was "cutting a break" to both politicians. McBurney complained to FHP Col. David Brierton, who ordered an investigation and fired Swindle, who appealed the dismissal to the Public Employees Relations Commission. Swindle's lawyer, Sidney Matthew, claims there is a "long-standing unwritten policy" at the FHP for troopers to go easy on speeding politicians.

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June 04, 2013

‘Cluster, but somehow we declare victory.’ Top gov’t officials were not sure about Scott’s tax cut after questionable vote

After a constitutionally questionable vote on Gov. Rick Scott’s top legislative priority, a tax break for manufacturers, House Speaker Will Weatherford quickly declared the bill passed, despite its failing to reach an 80-vote supermajority previously considered necessary. 

“We think it is extremely constitutional,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said after the contentious May 1 vote, stating that he had discussed the issue with legislative legal staff. He followed up with a statement asking “Who would sue to stop a tax cut?” 

But behind the scenes, top government staffers over in the executive branch were not so sure, with one calling the whole scene a “cluster” and another saying that there “some uncertainty as to whether HB 7007 passed” that night. (Definition of slang term "cluster" here, for the over-50 crowd.)

Emails obtained by the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau show top officials from Gov. Rick Scott’s office and the Department of Revenue were not sure whether the House had run afoul of the Constitution or not. 

“I guess it passed in 7005. Did it get 2/3 to bypass the mandate issue?”  Holger Ciupalo, a chief analyst for Scott, wrote to Christian Weiss, chief economist with the Department of Revenue,  hours after the 68-48 House vote on the manufacturing tax cut. 

Weiss replied: “(HB) 7007: yes. 2/3 no. Go to sayfie to read all the discussions. Cluster, but somehow we declare victory…” 

Weiss and Scott’s legislative liaison Renee Fargason also had an email exchange after the vote: 

Fargason: “The following 43 bills passed the Legislature today, May 1… ***At this time there is some uncertainty as to whether HB 7007 passed.” 

Weiss replied: “7007 passed but may later be challenged on constitutional ground lacking a mandates (sic) 2/3rd majority.” 

Fargason replied: "Ok thanks! Wasn't sure if they could change the verdict since they didn't have 2/3."

Weiss then followed up with: "They can still recall it but doubt they will given the toxic atmosphere in the H(ouse)."

In other emails obtained by the Herald/Times, government officials pass along copies of the Florida Constitution, highlighting sections of the that deal with the 2/3rds mandate. 

Scott signed HB 7007 into law last month. So far, there does not appear to be a lawsuit against the tax cut, which goes into effect next year. The tax break could cost local governments millions of dollars during its three year run.  Democrats, who all voted against HB 7007 and had been protesting against House leadership on the day of the vote, immediately threatened lawsuits.

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Judge rejects request to block Internet cafe ban

From Glenn Garvin:

A federal judge refused Tuesday to block enforcement of Florida’s new video gambling law, rejecting arguments by the owners of two Broward senior arcades that the measure is unconstitutionally vague and violates the First Amendment rights of their elderly customers.

U.S. District Judge James I. Cohn refused to issue a preliminary injunction sought by the arcade owners, whose arcades — like hundreds of others across the state — shut down last month following the Legislature’s enactment of the broad new law banning “casino-style games” outside of legally approved casinos.

“The phrase ‘casino-style games’ has a common or ordinary meaning that is known to the general population,” Cohn wrote in his decision, noting that the arcades themselves use the phrase ’’casino-style gaming” in some of their advertising.

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Does Gov. Scott support special $52 million deal for his donor? He won't say.

Last month, Gov. Rick Scott went line-by-line through the state’s $74.5 billion budget, striking down more than $350 million in spending items—everything from $10,000 for a water project in Miami Gardens to $50 million for a state bike trail. 

Scott said he spent a long time reviewing every item in the 400-plus-page budget to protect taxpayer money by making sure that all line items in the budget were a smart use of state funds. 

But when it comes to a unique $52 million transfer of cash from the state-run insurance company to a nine-month-old startup private insurer, Scott is not willing to say whether he supports the unprecedented deal or not. The recipient of the special deal, Heritage Property and Casualty Insurance, gave Scott's reelection campaign $110,000 in March as it was negotiating the deal. Scott’s office said the governor did not influence state-run Citizens Property Insurance to act on behalf of his political contributor, but his spokespeople have also avoided saying whether Scott supports the deal itself. 

Here’s an excerpt from a press conference today, in which Scott avoids answering a reporter’s question about whether he supports the deal. 

Reporter: A couple weeks ago, Citizens did a $52 million deal with a nine-month-old insurance company. We know how you feel about Citizens but you haven’t really said specifically how you feel about this unique and new type of deal. Do you support that type of economic activity at Citizens, are you against that specific deal?

Scott: First off, I want to try to do anything I can to try to reduce taxes in our state. As you know, my first year in office we reduced property taxes by over $200 million, so I think that’s a real positive. What Citizens is doing is, Citizens needs to make sure they downsize. They should be the insurance company of last resort. I’ll do anything I can to make sure they keep doing that. As you know I (appoint) two of eight board members and I don’t appoint the chairman. I want them to make sure they constantly look at how do we get them out of the business of being the insurance company of first resort. I want them to be the insurance company of last resort. That’s what  they’re set up to do and that’s what they need to do. 

Reporter: But, specifically. A couple weeks ago you went line-by-line and looked at budget issues and vetoed things were $100,000. This is a $52 million deal, and you’re the CEO of the state. Should you not look at this deal, specifically, and say, ‘I’m for this deal,’ or ‘I’m against this deal,’ or ‘I have issues with this deal,’ as others have?

Scott: Citizens has a board. I appoint two board members. I don’t appoint the chairman. My expectation is that they go through, and any program like that, they review it. And do the right thing.

There is a difference between the state budget and the state-run insurer:  Scott has unique line-item authority over the budget, while his control of the state-run property insurer is a bit more indirect. He appoints two members to the eight member board and can give Citizens directives as the head of the Florida Cabinet. He’s done so in the past. He also sits on the the Financial Services Commission, which oversees the Office of Insurance Regulation. OIR approved the special deal with Heritage, despite a long list of insurance violations at companies run by Heritage's president.

One of Scott’s appointees to the board made the motion to support the Heritage deal, and voted for it in a narrow 3-2 vote. Scott’s other appointee was not present. If Scott opposed the deal, he could have asked his appointee not to carry it and it would have failed.

Scott’s office has not addressed this issue, only saying, in a statement from the governor’s chief of staff: “Any assertion that our office influenced the Heritage risk transfer decision by the Citizens Board today is outrageous.”

Scott's chief of staff also called the board “tone-deaf in earning public confidence” after it approved the deal.

Prior to the $52 million deal being approved, Scott’s office tried to downplay it, calling it “not special.”

Also, the day before the “tone-deaf” charge, the governor’s office was much less aggressive, stating: “We expect [the board] to approve or disapprove of this risk transfer based solely on its merits.”

Scott has since said that he believes the board should give at least seven days notice before meetings (the Heritage deal was approved in a hastily scheduled vote, shortly after it was unveiled.). His office also said Scott will not return the $110,000 in donations from Heritage. 

Scott’s non-answer on whether he supports the deal itself is not out of character for the first-term governor.

Scott often does not answer questions directly, regularly pivoting to well-rehearsed talking points that are often repeated in several interviews with different news outlets. In many cases, the CEO-turned-governor opts to defer to less powerful officials on major issues. Here’s a blogpost we did last year documenting Scott’s deferential stance on several issues. 

On property insurance, Scott is in a difficult place, politically. The business community and insurance companies—many of whom are major political contributors and Scott’s most steadfast supporters—want higher rates to help boost profits and sustainability.

Meanwhile, homeowners—many of whom vote based on pocketbook issues—have seen hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance premium increases since Scott took office. Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, called a special session and worked to freeze property insurance rates. He earned the ire of the business community and major insurers said Crist forced them to flee the state. But homeowners saved millions of dollars and, since there have been no hurricanes in seven years, the financial calamity of an undercapitalized insurance market has not materialized. 

Given the political realities (and the fact that Crist could challenge Scott in 2014),  Scott has steered clear of taking a strong a position on property insurance. He worked to kill insurance rate hikes in a  Citizens bill moving through the Legislature this year, but also has tasked Citizens with shrinking rapidly. At Citizens, the "depopulation" mandate means raising rates and using cash from the company's $6.4 billion surplus to incentivize private insurers.

Board members at Citizens have said that the message they’re getting from state lawmakers is “schizophrenic.”


May 28, 2013

Judge orders release of redistricting documents--again

 A Leon County judge has again ordered more documents to be turned over to plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit over Florida’s redrawn legislative maps.

A group of plaintiffs challenging the maps under Florida’s “Fair Districts” mandate said six weeks have passed since Judge Terry Lewis ordered that the documents be disclosed, with no records produced.

Lewis mostly agreed, ordering Gainesville-based Data Targeting to turn over many the documents within 24 hours.

Any documents that Data Targeting believe to be privileged or confidential will be presented to Lewis, who will make the final decision about whether they should be released.

Attorneys for Data Targeting said they did not immediately comply with the order to produce the documents by April 22, because they feared the damage that could be done by revealing personal and internal communications, letting the “cat out of the bag.”

“What we’ve said all along—it’s a fishing expedition for political reasons,” said D. Kent Safriet, a Tallahassee attorney. “You can’t unpublish (the documents) in the newspaper.”

There is a pending case on appeal that could nullify part of the order to release the documents.

Last week, the 1st District Court of Appeals found that members of the Legislature did not have to testify in the case, and plaintiffs are seeking to get access to records from "non-parties."

Adam Schachter, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called the delays "utterly indefensible," and asked the judge to impose a daily fine until the records are produced.

Lewis said that if the documents were not produced quickly, he do just that. 

“I’m not real happy about it,” he said. 

May 24, 2013

Gov. Rick Scott to sign texting while driving ban Tuesday in Miami

Gov. Rick Scott is signing the texting while driving bill (SB 52) at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High School in Miami, but the state law doesn't take effect until Oct. 1.

The bill prohibits drivers from manually typing or entering multiple letters, numbers, symbols or other characters into a wireless communications device, which includes text messaging, emailing and instant messaging through smart phones. Texting would be allowed in hands-off, high-tech cars and when a car is stopped at a red light or in a traffic jam.

Florida has been one of the last five states in the country without any type of texting ban.

In announcing the bill signing, Scott said "As a father and a grandfather, texting while driving is something that concerns me when my loved ones are on the road. The 100 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day are known as the deadliest days on the road for teenagers.

"We must do everything we can at the state level to keep our teenagers and everyone on our roads safe.  I cannot think of a better time to officially sign this bill into law.

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Fasano questions 'suspicious timing' of $52 million Heritage deal

Rep. Mike Fasano is the latest official to raise questions about a $52 million take-out deal between an upstart St. Petersburg insurance company and Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

Fasano, R-New Port Richey, penned a letter to the state’s Insurance Commissioner on Friday questioning whether Heritage Property and Casualty Insurance has already violated a May 17 consent order from the Office of Insurance Regulation. Heritage has firmly denied the accusation. 

Fasano alleged that Heritage had been contacting insurance agents and policyholders prior to May 23, when the company officially received approval to take out some 60,000 policies in a $52 million deal. That would be a violation of the OIR’s consent order, Fasano said, citing a part of the agreement that bans Heritage from contacting “any potential policyholder, including sending communication regarding this depopulation” prior to the deal being signed. 

Heritage firmly denies that it has been contacting policyholders, and said the company contacted agents last week as part of a standard procedure to alert them to an upcoming potential takeout. The company’s chairman, Bruce Lucas, said there was nothing untoward about that. 

“We are required to publish a wishlist,” of policies, he said. “We contact agents and say, ‘In the future we attempt to do a depopulation’.” 

McCarty’s office did not immediately respond to a request for clarification about the rules on when a takeout company can contact agents. 

Lucas said the company only began sending letters to homeowners today, after receiving consent from OIR.

As evidence, Fasano presented a letter and email received by Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley with regards to a takeout offer from Heritage. A May 17 letter from Corley’s insurance agent informs him that Heritage has “selected” his policy for an “upcoming takeout.” The proposed takeout was approved by Citizens' board of governors on May 22, in a 3-2 vote. Corley received an email response from a Heritage employee on May 22, prior to the vote, saying that Heritage “offers a better policy” than Citizens. 

Heritage has maintained that this was an “automated” message in response to Corley, and OIR general counsel Belinda Miller said she did not believe this form of communication violated the consent order’s ban on communicating with policyholders prior to approval of the takeout. 

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May 20, 2013

What they’re saying: Reaction to Scott’s budget, vetoes

Lawmakers, lobbyists and lookers-on chimed in Monday after Gov. Rick Scott signed the state’s $74.1 billion spending plan for the coming year. Some applauded the governor for making historic investments in education, ports and business development. Others, smarting after Scott vetoed $368 million in spending projects endorsed by the Legislature, were none too happy. 

Here’s a roundup of some of the comments:

 --Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he and the Senate Democrats were “extremely disappointed” by Scott’s budget vetoes. He referred to Scott as a “newcomer” who “misses a critical understanding” about the Legislature’s role in crafting a spending plan. 

Smith summed up his feelings in a tweet: “Gov. Scott fought hard to give 400 million tax break to manufacturers while cutting critical road and water projects for cities. SMH.”

--Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, kept a cordial tone, despite the fact that some of the major projects in his district were slashed by Scott’s veto pen. 

“Unlike the deficits and dysfunctions in Washington, today our Chief Executive signed a budget that lives within our means, meets the critical needs of the people of Florida, raises the salaries of state workers and effective teachers, pays down obligations instead of piling on more, puts aside money for a rainy day, and doesn't raise taxes by one dollar,” he said. 

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