June 05, 2013

Fla. jobs agency claims it was 'target' of 'politicized' federal investigation

Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity is accusing the federal government of targeting it with a politically driven investigation, after the U.S. Department of Labor slammed the jobs agency for denying access to jobless benefits.

Perhaps building upon the IRS's targeting scandal, DEO is asking for Congressional hearings and an Inspector General investigation into “improper politicization at the United States Department of Labor.”

“DEO has concluded that the USDOL investigation appears to have relied on insufficient evidence, fell far below professional standards, and may have been politically motivated,” the state jobs agency said in a statement.

DEO is objecting to the findings of an “initial determination” by the Labor Department, which found that Florida had made it difficult for the disabled and those who struggle with English to access jobless benefits they were eligible for.

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature slashed jobless benefits and created new requirements for applicants, including an online-only application and a 45-question skills review. DOL initially approved of the changes, which eventually led to a sharp increase in the number of rejected applications.

Civil rights groups filed challenges with the federal government over the changes, and the first ruling came in April. DOL’s Civil Rights Center sided with the pro-worker groups, finding that DEO’s unemployment aid program discriminated against people who speak Spanish and Creole, as well as those who were blind or otherwise disabled.

DEO is now saying that the DOL findings were “flawed” and based on politics rather than facts. In letters to Congress and the U.S. Inspector General’s Office, DEO general counsel Robert Sechen accuses DOL of collaborating with the group that filed the challenge (the Miami Workers Center). Sechen also accuses a key DOL official of admitting to having a political agenda, citing a biography that states the official had worked to “keep the evil overseers of the Bush administration from dismantling U.S. federal civil rights laws.”

Continue reading "Fla. jobs agency claims it was 'target' of 'politicized' federal investigation" »

June 04, 2013

Movers & Shakers

Israel named to council on violent crime and drug control

New Broward County Sheriff Scott J. Israel has been appointed to the 14-member Florida Violent Crime and Drug Control Council. Israel defeated incumbent Al Lamberti in November.

Volusia County Sheriff Ben F. Johnson, 62, of Deland, has been reappointed to the council.

The council provides advice and makes recommendations on issues including gang criminal investigations, money laundering and drug control.

Teachers recognized at Cabinet meeting

Five of the 2013-2014 District Teachers of the Year were recognized at Tuesday's Cabinet meeting:

Carrie Cooper, Columbia County, Columbia High School

Deborah Hodge, Dixie County, Dixie County High School

Kathy Griffin, Hamilton County, Central Hamilton Elementary School

Nicole Roddenberry, Jefferson County, Jefferson County Elementary School

Kelli Williams, Suwannee County, Suwannee Primary School

Scott, Brogan at TaxWatch awards for cost-cutting employees

Scott will be speaking at the Florida TaxWatch's awards ceremony for state employees who have contributed innovative and cost-saving ideas. The 25th Annual Prudential - Davis Productivity Awards gala will take place from 5 to 8:30 p.m. June 5 at the Florida State University, University Center Club. 

The ceremony will grant 191 awards to state employees from the Tallahassee/Northwest Florida area. Frank Brogan, chancellor of the state university system, will serve as master of ceremonies. 

FMA tweaks government affairs team

The Florida Medical Association is making some changes in its government affairs team, with some staffers getting new titles and more responsibility.

Katie Ballard, director of legislative affairs, will play a key part on the FMA's lobbying team along with fundraising efforts.

Eric Carr, legislative and political grassroots coordinator, will be responsible for rebuilding the FMA legislative key contact program.   

Michelle Jacquis, director of policy management and legislative operations, will track bills introduced in the legislature and coordinate public policy positions.

Holly Miller, governmental affairs counsel, will assume a more active role on the FMA lobbying team.

Monte Stevens, director of governmental affairs and public policy, will manage the FMA’s in-house lobbying team.

FMA General Counsel Jeff Scott providea legal and policy guidance and will draft bills and amendments.

Executive Vice President Timothy J. Stapleton will be responsible for developing and implementing the FMA's overall legislative and political strategy.

Continue reading "Movers & Shakers" »

May 29, 2013

Scott signs Citizens Insurance reform bill, blasts company in sharp-tongued letter

Gov. Rick Scott wasted no time signing a bill to reform Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which has seen a whirlwind of criticism since it approved a special $52 million deal for an upstart company with ties to top politicians last week. 

Scott signed SB 1770 on Wednesday, one day after the reform proposal reached his desk. The bill creates a “clearinghouse” to direct policies out of Citizens and into the private market, and includes several reforms that address controversies and scandals that have taken place at Citizens. 

In a sharply worded missive, Scott focused mainly on those scandals, using words like “outrageous,” “egregious,” and “fraud, waste and abuse.” 

The bill creates an Inspector General at Citizens, something Scott has called for ever since media reports documented the company’s missteps, which include: lavish travel expenses for executives, huge salary hikes, large severance packages for disgraced employees, overpriced contracts, mishandled investigations and the abrupt dismissal  of corporate investigators who uncovered some of the misconduct. 

“This new Inspector General will be accountable to the Cabinet and will not be an entity Citizens can fire, as they did with their old compliance officers,” Scott said in a statement. “A strong Inspector General is needed to provide independent oversight at Citizens and to end the fraud, waste, and abuse which has plagued Citizens for too long.” 

Scott also called on Citizens to change its policies after a controversial deal worth up to $52 million deal for Heritage Property and Casualty Company, which is looking to take over 60,000 policies from the state-run insurer. Critics have blasted the quickly-approved deal for the nine-month-old St. Petersburg company, which contributed $110,000 to Scott’s reelection campaign in March. Scott said the board should require at least seven days notice before any future board meetings, in accordance with state agency guidelines. The Heritage deal was unveiled on a Friday, and voted out on the following Wednesday in a 3-2 vote. Several board members complained that there was not enough time to vet the proposal, a concern echoed by House Speaker Will Weatherford and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater

Citizens has stood by the Heritage deal, saying that it was thoroughly vetted for several weeks and would significantly reduce the company’s liability, which is backed by the state’s consumers. 

"The financials associated with this deal are significantly in our favor," Citizens President Barry Gilway said Wednesday.

Continue reading "Scott signs Citizens Insurance reform bill, blasts company in sharp-tongued letter" »

May 16, 2013

After Scott priority fails to get 80 votes, legislative staff flip-flop on supermajority clause

After Gov. Rick Scott’s highly prioritized manufacturing tax cut passed the Florida Legislature without receiving a two-thirds vote majority, legislative staff analysts have had a change of heart and now believe such a supermajority was not necessary. 

Last month, staff analysts in the Florida Senate said emphatically that a two-thirds vote was required, because the proposed sales tax exemption for manufacturing equipment would put a significant dent into local government revenue. 

“Therefore, this bill requires passage by 2/3 of the membership of each chamber,” the  legislative analysis dated April 2, 2013 states. The House analysts also raised the two-thirds vote as a possibility, and a top official in Scott's office told the Herald/Times in February he believed a supermajority vote was required.

On May 2, an amended version of the bill cleared the House in a hurriedly cast 68-48 vote, with all Democrats and a few Republicans voting against it. Despite falling short of the 80-vote supermajority previously cited, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, quickly declared the bill passed, and brushed aside concerns about its constitutionality. Democrats immediately promised to sue.

“We think it is extremely constitutional,” Weatherford said after the contentious 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”?

Now, the non-partisan legislative analysts in the Florida House have backtracked from their initial claim that the bill might need a two-thirds majority and have fallen in line with the House Speaker’s position on its constitutionality.

An updated staff analysis from the Florida House, dated May 15, strips all references to Article VII, section 18 of the Florida Constitution (the portion protecting local governments from unfunded mandates). All previous staff reports had at least cited the constitutional clause, highlighting the requirement for a two-thirds majority vote when local government revenue is at stake. The Senate had been more definitive about the 2/3 vote requirement than the House, and a new analysis was not done by the Senate.

A spokesperson for Weatherford said final bill analyses traditionally do not include information about constitutionality.

Whereas initial staff analyses mentioned Department of Economic Opportunity estimates of up to $115 million in lost revenue for the state, the updated review does not cite any cost figure. DEO has estimated that the tax cut could cost cities and counties up to $26 million per year.

The final bill analyses does not cite those numbers, or any others, only stating that “it is not anticipated the provisions would significantly affect the authority of the counties and municipalities to raise revenue in the aggregate.”

The words “significantly” and “aggregate” are key, because the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote for any bill that has a significant impact on local governments revenue-collecting abilities. A sales tax cut for manufacturers will likely reduce the amount of revenue coming in to local government coffers.

Under the bill, the revenue loss for local governments—estimated at $13 to $26 million per year—far exceeds the $1.9 million threshold needed to qualify as a “significant” impact. But the Legislature's legal team has seized on the term “in the aggregate” to justify the bill’s constitutionality.

"Based on our staff's estimate, it does not have a significant impact," said Ryan Duffy, a spokesperson for Weatherford.

Case law on the issue is not definitive, so a lawsuit could set a legal precedent for the future.

Of note, the bill has changed since the first staff analyses, but the final version would still have a annual impact on local government revenue. Under the original bill, the sales tax cut would have kicked in this year and lasted forever. The updated bill creates a three-year tax cut period starting in 2014. It could save manufacturers more than $140 million per year, when state and local tax savings are combined.

The proposal was one of Scott’s top priorities for the 2013 session, as the governor said eliminating taxes on machinery will help “build up” manufacturing jobs in Florida.

Scott, who is expected to sign the bill soon, recently wrapped up a “victory tour” across the state to celebrate the bill’s passage.

“Manufacturers in Florida have been disadvantaged for too long because we were one of few states that taxed the purchase of manufacturing equipment,” Scott said in a statement. “With this legislation, Florida is now on a level playing field.”

He added “I look forward to signing this bill into law.”

@ToluseO

May 02, 2013

Marino: Weatherford thinks Dolphins bill has 'good chance' of clearing House

National Football League hall of famer and former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino made a special appearance Thursday at the Florida House, where lawmakers have stalled on an effort to give the Dolphins taxpayer support for a stadium upgrade. 

Marino is the fourth high-profile figure from the NFL to show up in Tallahassee this week. On Monday, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and team CEO Mike Dee spent hours in the Capitol talking to lawmakers about the Dolphins stadium effort.

Marino met with House Speaker Will Weatherford, other House members and Gov. Rick Scott to talk about his foundation, and the sports stadium bill.

"I'm definitely supporting the whole thing with the stadium," he told the Times/Herald before meeting with Scott. "I'm a Dolphin for life and a South Floridian for life. 

Weatherford told Marino he thought the sports stadium bill had a "good chance" of passing before Friday.

The Dolphins need Tallahassee approval in order to get taxpayer support for its proposed stadium upgrade and the legislative session is nearing an end without a deal.

The bill passed the Senate on Monday, but was in danger of failing in the House, which has faced procedural gridlock this week as Democrats protested a stalemate over healthcare reform. Session ends Friday.

Marino walked into Gov. Rick Scott's office around 3 p.m on Thursday after meeting with other lawmakers. In addition to being a former Dolphins quarterback, Marino has a foundation to support autism research and treatment. He has traveled to Tallahassee in the past to gin up support for his foundation and cause.

An honorary co-chair of of South Florida's Super Bowl bid committee, Marino also used the opportunity to speak to lawmakers about the sports stadium bill. 

"I think it would be great for the community," said Marino. "People have got to understand the economic impact it would have on our community. Not only the jobs, but revenue for businesses, and there's great examples of that throughout the year's Super Bowls have been here, and national championships. From that respect, I'm all for it. Hopefully it'll work out."

If the bill passes and a referendum vote is approved, the Dolphins could receive up to $289 million in taxpayer support from an increase in the Miami-Dade hotel tax, from 6 to 7 percent. It would also offer the team up to $90 million in state sales tax rebates.

If the bill doesn't pass, the referendum vote--scheduled for May 14 and already underway via early voting--would be called off.

The team is looking to spend more than $350 million for its stadium upgrade and has agreed to pay much of the tax money back after 30 years.

@ToluseO

April 28, 2013

More on that Bill Nelson v. Rick Scott rumor here

Bill Nelson looked like the heavy favorite for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to unseat vulnerable Republican Gov. Bob Martinez in April 1990. But as Martinez continued to beef up his reelection campaign account and then-U.S. Rep. Nelson remained little known to much of Florida, Democrats fretted over Nelson’s prospects.

Soon former Sen. Lawton Chiles confirmed the bombshell rumor: Yes, he would run for governor. Nelson gamely continued campaigning, but it was hopeless against the popular elder statesman. “Walkin’ Lawton” went on to crush Nelson by more than 30 percentage points and then Martinez by 13 points.

More than two decades later, U.S. Sen. Nelson is the elder statesman of Florida’s Democratic Party, and the buzz is growing about him stepping into the governor’s race to take on unpopular incumbent Gov. Rick Scott. With many Democratic leaders worried about the baggage of former Gov. Charlie Crist, Nelson has emerged as the potential savior of Florida Democrats.

The latest noise came Thursday when Roll Call, a Washington, D.C.-based newspaper, reported on its web site that Nelson was mulling over a possible run.

“I’d say that’s true, that he’s considering it,” Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin told the newspaper. “An awful lot of people have contacted him and asked him to do so. But — and as he’s said a number of times — he presently doesn’t have any intention of running. He’s got a job to do as a senator.” More here from Tampa Bay Times' Adam Smith.


Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/04/27/3355862/will-it-be-senator-bill-nelson.html#storylink=cpy

April 25, 2013

Federal gov't blasts Florida's unemployment compensation system for denying civil rights

The U.S. Department of Labor has rapped the state of Florida for making it difficult for some unemployed people to get jobless benefits, particularly for the disabled and those who speak Spanish or Creole.

Florida's decision in 2011 to make people who apply for benefits do so online and take an "assessment" before getting a check are a violation of civil rights, DOL found.

The Department of Economic Opportunity has agreed to enter negotiations with DOL to make appropriate changes, according to a press release from the National Employment Law Center, Florida Legal Services, the Miami Workers Center and other groups.

DEO defended its program, and said the Department of Labor knew about the changes before they took place.

"DEO questions many of the initial findings by DOL," DEO spokesperson Monica Russell said in a statement. "DOL was aware of the legislative changes to the reemployment system before its passage in 2011 and provided no objection."

At 16 percent, Florida recently ranked lowest in the nation for the “recipiency rate” of jobless benefits (i.e., the number of eligible people receiving aid.)

Many blamed changes made by Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature for the low rate of jobless benefits recipiency. A 2011 law forced all applicants for benefits to do so online, putting an end to applications by phone or paper. The law also required applicants to take a 45-question “assessment” to gauge their skills. Several groups filed a legal challenge saying the changes were discriminatory against those with disabilities and low English proficiency.

“The online requirements created severe obstacles for thousands of Florida jobseekers, especially those with limited English proficiency or disabilities that prevent them from using a computer,” the pro-worker groups said in a statement.

Continue reading "Federal gov't blasts Florida's unemployment compensation system for denying civil rights" »

April 24, 2013

Citizens Insurance overhaul delayed again, major amendment expected before vote

Voting on a major insurance overhaul was postponed again Wednesday, indicating that fear of skyrocketing rates is weighing down the bill in the Florida Senate. 

Bill sponsor David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said last week that he has enough support for the bill, but wanted more time to make amendments and build more consensus. 

He pulled the bill from the agenda right before the first scheduled vote last week. The same thing happened Wednesday, when the bill was again “temporarily postponed.” After cruising through the committee process, the bill has been delayed on the floor of the Senate three times in the last two weeks. It has been amended nearly 40 times.

Simmons said he would amend the bill in order to address concerns of lawmakers who are worried about the pocketbook impact on their constituents. 

The 100-page bill seeks to shrink the level of risk carried by Citizens Property Insurance Corp. by raising its rates and forcing its policyholders into the private market. The rate hikes are mostly focused on new policyholders at the state-run Citizens and those who have high-risk “wind-only” coverage. 

Citizens’ president Barry Gilway said earlier this month that the bill could lead to rate hikes of 60 percent or more in 11 counties across the state. Many of those large increases would be for the wind-only homeowners.

Continue reading "Citizens Insurance overhaul delayed again, major amendment expected before vote" »

April 23, 2013

Scott touts ‘incredible economic turnaround’ to poach Illinois businesses

Gov. Rick Scott sent letters to Illinois business owners this week, telling them to book a “one-way” ticket to Florida and set up shop in the Sunshine State. 

In the letter, Scott touts Florida’s economic recovery, low taxes and shrinking state debt. He continues his “It’s working” theme by painting Florida as a state that has undergone an “incredible economic turnaround” under his watch. In contrast, Scott writes, Illinois is raising taxes and has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. 

“While Florida’s economic formula is working, we know Illinois’ formula of more taxing and more spending ISN’T WORKING,” Scott writes. 

Scott, who references the state of Texas in his letter, is taking a page from Gov. Rick Perry’s playbook. Earlier this year, Perry aired a radio ad in California bashing the state for raising taxes and welcoming California businesses to Texas. Perry followed the ad up with a recruiting trip to the state. 

It’s not the first time Scott has tried to poach businesses from a high-tax state. Last year, Scott sent letters to New York businesses telling them to come to Florida. It’s not clear if Scott was successful in recruiting any New York businesses to Florida. New York is also playing offense in the job recruitment wars. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been airing ads in Florida and elsewhere for more than a year touting the state’s reduction in business and property taxes

Continue reading "Scott touts ‘incredible economic turnaround’ to poach Illinois businesses" »

April 19, 2013

Judge upholds ban on 2012 PIP law, rejecting Scott's appeal

A Leon County judge has again blocked part of the landmark auto insurance overhaul enacted last year by the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.

Judge Terry Lewis upheld a temporary ban on the law, after a lawsuit by chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncturists. Lewis approved the ban last month, indicating that the overhaul of Florida’s Personal Injury Protection laws was unconstitutional.

Gov. Rick Scott appealed the decision, in effect putting the ban on hold and leaving the law intact. But the plaintiffs asked a judge to uphold the ban, saying that allowing the law to remain in place would put many out of business.

Lewis said he agreed to “vacate the stay,” not because of the harm that would be done to the plaintiffs, but because of potential harm to those injured in car accidents.

“The reason for issuing the injunction was to protect this constitutional right and prevent the potential harm to citizens injured in automobile accidents who, under the PIP statute, may not receive necessary care,” he wrote.

Scott's office said it would again challenge the decision, and attempt to keep the law in place.

The 2012 PIP overhaul targeted chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncturists, restricting their ability to provide covered treatment for people injured in auto accidents. The bill also limited covered medical care to $2,500 if the injured person does not have “an emergency medical condition.” The typical policy limits under Florida’s no-fault law are $10,000. The law was aimed at cracking down on fraud within the PIP system.

Lewis found those changes likely violate the part of the Constitution that provides for access to courts. The case remains pending.

The PIP overhaul was a top priority of Gov. Rick Scott in 2012, and is another example of a law the governor pushed, only to see a judge rule it unconstitutional months later. The Legislature floated the idea of doing away with PIP this year after Lewis’ ruling, but ultimately decided to allow the court battle to play out.

The chiropractors had a better outcome in state court than they did in federal court, where a judge denied the plea for an injunction in December.

Scott's office said the state has filed a lawsuit to challenge Lewis' decision. 

"The solicitor general filed a challenge to the circuit court's decision to lift the stay," said a spokesperson for the governor.

Scott indicated in a statement last month that he would fight to keep the PIP changes in place.

“Our reforms are working to lower insurance costs for Florida families and we will continue to fight special interest groups to keep them in place,” he said.