March 05, 2013

Scott invites, applauds biz owners in State of State speech

Gov. Rick Scott gave shoutouts to several business owners and economic development professionals during his State of the State speech Tuesday, heralding the business community for creating jobs in Florida. 

Scott, a former CEO-turned-governor, has made courting corporations and businesses a staple of his legislative strategy. According to Scott, who gave an upbeat address to kick off the legislative session, “It’s working.” 

The governor personally invited business owners and acknowledged them during his speech. 

Invited were: Wes Bush (CEO of Northrop Grumman), Dave Brown (president of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care in Jacksonville), Michelle Robinson (Regional Vice President of Verizon) and Frank Unanue (president of Goya Foods in Miami). 

Scott has highlighted all of the businesses in the past for creating jobs, often with taxpayer incentives from the state. 

Scott hailed Verizon VP Robinson in his speech for the company's decision to locate a new facility in Central Florida, a move he said would bring “hundreds” of jobs to the state. 

Robinson said Scott’s recruitment efforts helped Verizon choose Florida over other states for its expansion project. 

“What it came down for us was quality of life, availability of a qualified labor pool and the cost of living factor,” she said in an interview. “I think Florida is very competitive with Gov. Scott and the work that [Commerce Secretary] Gray Swoope is doing… working hard to compete for new jobs in Florida.” 

Florida taxpayers also chipped in millions of dollars in economic incentives awards to seal the Verizon deal. Scott is asking for nearly $300 million in funding for incentives deals this year, but lawmakers have expressed skepticism. 

Scott also acknowledged Bill Johnson, director of the Port of Miami and Chairman of the Florida Ports Council, during the speech. 

“When the Miami port dredge project is completed, along with the Panama Canal expansion, thousands of new jobs will be created,” Scott said. 

Unanue, who welcomed Scott to a recent “work day” at Goya Foods in Miami, said the state’s business climate was improving.

“I think the state has turned around,” he said. “We’ve been growing. And I see it around in the community as well… You see people going out and moving, going out to clubs and restaurants. You see the economy moving again.” 

Scott stuck to that theme during his speech, which repeatedly used the phrase “It’s working” and pointed to the brightening spots of Florida’s economy.

While the economy is slowly improving, job creation in Florida still lags the national pace. Florida is adding jobs at a growth rate at 0.7 percent, half the rate of the U.S. Much of the drop in the unemployment rate—which is down 3 percentage points since Scott was elected—is due to a decline in labor force participation.

@ToluseO

February 28, 2013

Florida House release new app, Weatherford brushes off 2014 rumors

The Florida House of Representatives released a new mobile app that House Speaker Will Weatherford said will “set a national standard.”

The app, reported by the Herald/Times yesterday, will allow users to track the legislative process on their mobile devices, with features like live streaming from the Capitol in Tallahassee and tracking of bills.

“This is the way that people are communicating with their government,” said Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican.

The app is expected to be released next week, as the 60-day legislative session begins.

Read more about it here and see the House press release here.

After the press conference, Weatherford took questions from reporters on a range of issues, including Medicaid, Citizens Insurance, the budget sequester and Internet cafes.

He brushed off questions about a potential run for governor against Rick Scott, while continuing to differ from Scott on the key issues of Medicaid expansion and across-the-board $2,500 pay raises for teachers. 

“I think people who are saying those things must not know me well,” he said about those who are whispering about a 2014 primary challenge. “I’m busy enough trying to be the Speaker of the House… I’m not thinking of any of that stuff right now.”

Weatherford did not specifically rule out the possibility, but said that he doesn’t “have any plans to do anything like that.”

Continue reading "Florida House release new app, Weatherford brushes off 2014 rumors" »

February 27, 2013

Citizens releases laundry list of internal complaints

Citizens Property Insurance, which came under intense scrutiny last year when it fired four corporate investigators, released a report to show that it has not broken the rules when it comes to corporate integrity.

According to a review of 474 cases investigated since 2008, “all complaints were addressed and corrective action taken in accordance with Citizens’ policies in place at the time.” 

Citizens released information about the 474 cases of internal misconduct allegations ranging from sexual harassment to misuse of funds to falsified documents. Citizens Office of Corporate Integrity had investigated many of the allegations, but that office was abruptly shut down last year. The abrupt firings sparked backlash from top lawmakers, after the Herald/Times reported that the investigators had discovered evidence of misconduct by Citizens’ highest executives shortly before they were fired.

Gov. Rick Scott’s chief inspector general is looking into the firings after the governor said he was concerned about the “appearance of impropriety.”

The document released by Citizens is long, but it’s filled with case file information from workplace scandals at Citizens. The document reads like a laundry list of sexual affairs, corporate corruption, workplace pornography, discrimination, theft and other allegations. One case summary references an employee who regularly used his corporate credit card at what appears to be a strip club.

“The preliminary review of outstanding charges disclosed that employee had purchased alcohol on at least six separate occasions and entertainment at an adult entertainment establishment,” the report reads. The employee resigned in 2011.

Citizens is looking to reform itself after a series of scandals last year reported in the Herald/Times, including lavish executive spending, drunken exploits on company retreats, $2.5 million in overpayments to an insurance company and the abrupt disbanding of the Office of Corporate Integrity.

Announced reforms include new restrictions on travel spending, tougher standards for private contracting and new rules for company execs. 

Here’s a copy of the 474 complaints.

Here is the full release from Citizens:

Continue reading "Citizens releases laundry list of internal complaints" »

February 26, 2013

Black eye for Florida's biz incentive program as Miami company fails

A Miami-Dade company that received a large tax incentive deal from the state of Florida folded last week, casting another black eye on the state’s job recruitment incentives program.

Banah International Group, a sugar company, was approved for a “qualified target industry” tax credit worth $437,000.

Adding insult to injury: News that Banah’s chairman had been convicted of cocaine trafficking five years before the company was approved for inventives.

Enterprise Florida, which does much of the vetting in Florida’s multimillion-dollar business incentives program, has been under heightened scrutiny in recent weeks as lawmakers have questioned the practice of doling out tax breaks and cash to companies promising to create jobs. EFI said that Banah did not disclose the criminal past of its chairman.

The organization pointed out, in all capital letters, that Banah did not receive any tax money from the state because it failed to create the jobs it promised.

“IF A COMPANY CANNOT MEET ITS CONTRACTUAL OBLIGATION, IT RECEIVES NO REFUND, AND WILL BE REMOVED FROM THE PROGRAM,” an Enterprise Florida spokeperson wrote.

Gov. Rick Scott is asking the Legislature to approve nearly $300 million in incentives funding this year, a massive increase from about $111 million last year.

Lawmakers are skeptical about the funding request, especially after at least three companies have gone bust in the last year after accepting incentives deals.

Groups like Integrity Florida and the Koch-brothers sponsored Americans for Prosperity have slammed Enterprise Florida’s incentive program, saying it picks “winners and losers” in the marketplace. When a company goes bust after accepting government funds—as was the case with Solyndra and Florida’s own Digital Domain—critics blame the government for picking a loser.

EFI has countered that narrative by stating it is using the taxpayer funds to recruit companies that create high-paying jobs in Florida.

Most of the deals that it approves go on to fulfill—and often surpass—their requirements, EFI has said.

In the case of Banah, EFI was surprised by the bankruptcy.

“There were no concerns regarding the financial viability of Banah,” EFI said.

@ToluseO

Biz group releases Citizens Insurance map, hoping to get lawmakers to act

Hoping to convince lawmakers to make significant reforms on the politically thorny issue of property insurance, a business group has released an interactive map showing legislators how many of their constituents are covered by Citizens Property Insurance.

The idea is to get lawmakers to realize that, in most cases, the majority of their constituents get coverage in the private market, not from government-run Citizens. That realization would theoretically make it easier for lawmakers to back legislation raising rates at Citizens.

“This is the first time we’ve looked at the data this way and it’s very telling. More than two-thirds of residents in a majority of Senate and House districts don’t have Citizens as their property insurer,” said Associated Industries of Florida president Tom Feeney in a statement.

AIF is pushing for major reforms, many of which will lead to higher insurance rates for property owners covered by Citizens, and potentially for those covered by private insurers as well. AIF says the threat of those "hurricane taxes" is bad for business. Citizens, the largest insurer in the state with 1.3 million policies, covers about 23 percent of the market.

If the company—which is running a record surplus—ever runs out of money after a massive monster hurricane, it might have to levy “assessments” on Florida consumers to make up the shortfall. Federal and state taxpayers may also pick up some of the tab, as has happened in the past after devastating storms.

Property insurance has been a tough political football because of the pocketbook impact it has on homeowners. In places like South Florida, where Citizens dominates the market, the typical family spends about 5 percent of its income on property insurance, much higher than state and national averages.

Those homeowners are very vocal come election time, so Republicans in South Florida and other high-cost coastal regions have been wary of voting for business-backed insurance bills in the past. Democrats have joined those wary Republicans to kill bills that the insurance industry wants and this year the minority party has made keeping insurance costs down part of its platform.

Continue reading "Biz group releases Citizens Insurance map, hoping to get lawmakers to act" »

Federal court rejects Florida's welfare drug-testing appeal

A federal appeals court upheld the temporary ban on Florida’s drug-testing for welfare recipients Tuesday, saying that a lawsuit against the state had a good chance of succeeding.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta sided with a lower court decision, stating that Florida failed to show that the drug testing plan was so critical that the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches by the government, should be suspended.

The decision—which did not weigh in on the ultimate constitutionality question—is the latest development in Gov. Rick Scott's controversial drug testing push. In 2011,Scott and the Florida Legislature instituted a program for drug-testing all recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Luis Lebron, a single-father and TANF applicant who refused to take the test on constitutional grounds, filed a lawsuit with help from the American Civil Liberties Union.

In authoring the court’s opinion, Circuit Judge Rosemary Barkett said that Florida had not proven that its drug-testing program serves a “special” or “immediate” need, or that it even protected children in families with substance abuse.

“There is nothing so special or immediate about the government’s interest in ensuring that TANF recipients are drug free so as to warrant suspension of the Fourth Amendment,” Barkett wrote. “The only known and shared characteristic of the individuals who would be subjected to Florida’s mandatory drug testing program is that they are financially needy families with children.” 

Scott vowed to appeal the decision and take his fight to the Supreme Court.

“The court’s ruling today is disturbing," he said in a statement. "Welfare is 100 percent about helping children. Welfare is taxpayer money to help people looking for jobs who have children. Drug use by anyone with children looking for a job is totally destructive. This is fundamentally about protecting the wellbeing of Florida families. We will protect children and families in our state, and this decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court.”

The court relied on a similar case in Georgia, which struck down the state’s program for requiring all political candidates to take drug tests. That case found that Georgia did not show that there was a drug problem among elected officials, and the law was mostly “symbolic.”

In the rejecting Florida’s appeal to the lower court's preliminary injunction, Barkett took a similar position. 

“The State has presented no evidence that simply because an applicant for TANF benefits is having financial problems, he is also drug addicted or prone to fraudulent and neglectful behavior,” she wrote.

The ACLU's associate legal director Maria Kayanan said the ruling was a vindication for struggling families who apply for government assistance.

"The state of Florida can’t treat an entire segment of our community like suspected criminals simply because they are poor and are trying to get temporary assistance from the government to support their families,” said Kayanan, who was lead counsel on the case.

Florida also passed a law last year requiring drug testing for all state workers, but that issue is also tangled in constitutional challenges and litigation. 

@ToluseO

February 22, 2013

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

A 19-member task force commissioned by Gov. Rick Scott to review Florida’s Stand Your Ground law has put out its final report, largely voicing its support for the law.

The task force made a handful of recommendations for the Legislature, but began the report by stating that, at its core, the self-defense law is fine as it is.

“All persons who are conducting themselves in a lawful manner have a fundamental right to stand their ground and defend themselves from attack with proportionate force in every place they have a lawful right to be,” the report reads.

The controversial law grants immunity to people who use force, including deadly force, in response to a perceived threat of bodily harm. It was thrust into the spotlight last year after Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Sanford by a man who later claimed self-defense under Stand Your Ground. The shooter, neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, was initially not charged, but now awaits trial on second-degree murder charges.

Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll chaired the task force, which held statewide hearings and consisted of two lawmakers who drafted the Stand Your Ground law and others who voted for it. Police, lawyers and neighborhood watch volunteers were also appointed. Critics blasted the group's makeup from the outset, predicting that it would not push for any significant changes to the law.

The recommendations the group did come up with include reconsidering the state’s 10-20-Life law, tightening standards for neighborhood watch groups and commissioning a study to look into issues of racial disparities and unintended consequences of Stand Your Ground.

The task force also urged the Legislature to consider whether Stand Your Ground should apply when an innocent bystander is caught in the crossfire and to clarify whether or not the law’s immunity provision prohibits police from detaining and questioning a shooter.

Two task force members -- Miami-Dade State attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Tallahassee-based pastor Rev. R.B. Holmes -- each submitted letters indicating they wished the group had pushed for more significant changes.

“I have also seen not only from the experiences in my Office, but from the testimony of our citizens and experts who came before our Task Force, that the law has had some consequences which I believe were unintended,” Fernandez-Rundle wrote in a letter attached to the report. She said the law’s “immunity” provision should be scrapped.

Continue reading "Stand Your Ground task force: It's a good law" »

February 20, 2013

Scott: Citizens execs should return 'outrageous' raises

Gov. Rick Scott blasted top executives at Citizens Property Insurance for “foolish” behavior Wednesday, calling on them to give back large pay raises they received last year.

“First off, they have these outrageous pay raises,” Scott said in an interview “They ought to give that back. Those ought to go back.”

The raises, first reported by the Herald/Times, came as the state-run company was increasing homeowners’ insurance rates and scaling back coverage. Scott said no one told him about the pay hikes—which were as large as $31,000—and made it clear that he did not approve.

Citizens has been through a number of controversies in the last year as news of the company’s spending habits has come to light. Expenditures unearthed by the Herald/Times, independent auditors and Scott’s chief inspector general include gourmet dinners, alcohol, international travel and stays in $600-a-night hotels.

A Citizens spokesperson said the company will "revisit" its board-approved compensation plan and "make a revised recommendation at the March meeting."

In a Wednesday opinion piece in the Bradenton Herald, Citizens’ board chairman Carlos Lacasa said that the company has “sound internal governance” and the raises were merited due to increased responsibilities and comparisons with the private insurance industry.

"The raises also followed three straight years of no merit raises and were accompanied by a decrease to benefits in the form of increased health insurance premiums and higher co-pays,” Lacasa wrote.

Scott said that his staff had heard Citizens’ rationale for raising the salaries, but he remained critical of the pay increases, which went out to some of the highest-paid execs at the state-run insurer. Employees at state agencies have not received a raise in six years.

On several occasions, Scott made mention of executives’ use of the corporate credit card to buy alcohol, including purchases brought to light by Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel.

Citizens responded to Scott’s inspector general by saying that Lacasa had reimbursed the company for $300 in alcohol purchased at a company dinner last June. Receipts obtained by the Times/Herald show that seven or eight officials at Citizens ordered about $369 of red wine and Grey Goose Vodka during a $918 dinner at Orlando’s Ocean Prime restaurant.

“We shouldn’t be reimbursing them for alcohol,” Scott said. “This is a state organized entity. It shouldn’t be any different.”

Continue reading "Scott: Citizens execs should return 'outrageous' raises" »

February 19, 2013

New 'Smart Justice' bill would offer treatment for drug offenders

A new proposal announced Tuesday—dubbed “Smart Justice”—would change the way Florida deals with non-violent drug offenders.

The bill seeks to reduce recidivism by redirecting some non-violent offenders from high-security prison into re-entry and drug treatment programs.

“It’s time that we change the way we’re doing business,” said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, who is co-sponsoring the measure. “We’re in the modern days, the 21st century. But in many ways our criminal justice system is still in the Middle Ages.”

Inmates in the last three years of their sentences would be potentially eligible for the program. New “Correctional Re-entry Treatment Facilities” would be created—and run by private providers—to take in the non-violent offenders.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who chairs the House’s Judiciary Committee, is also sponsoring the measure. He said it would help reduce recidivism in Florida’s prison system.

“The ideas contained in this legislation will make a meaningful difference,” Baxley said in a statement. “Not just in the lives of offenders, but more importantly in the lives of Floridians who might otherwise become their future crime victims.”

Continue reading "New 'Smart Justice' bill would offer treatment for drug offenders" »

February 18, 2013

Fasano uses obscure committee post to blast Citizens Insurance

The gloves came off Monday and it was Rep. Mike Fasano vs. Citizens Property Insurance, Round 1 for the 2013 legislative session.

Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who was conspicuously snubbed from a post on the Banking and Insurance Committee, used his chairmanship of an obscure joint committee to berate what he believes is an anti-consumer culture at Citizens.

As chair of the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, Fasano held court over a number of state agencies who had failed to comply with state laws passed by the Legislature.

Last on the list was Citizens, which was supposed to begin offering a less comprehensive—and less expensive—policy option on Jan. 1, but has not yet done so.

“You said Citizens is concerned about the consumer. I laughed at that,” said Fasano, during a spirited back-and-forth with Citizens’ legislative director. “They’re more concerned about depopulating and raising premiums.”

Citizens countered that the company was working as hard as it could to implement the new policy, called an HO-8. The new policy is scheduled to begin rollout next week.

But Fasano is not happy with the way Citizens is implementing a law passed by the Legislature in 2012. The law calls for Citizens to offer the HO-8 policy, but the company is only planning to offer it to homeowners with homes that are at least 51 years old, and worth less than $200,000.

“We believe we are following the law,” said Citizens spokesperson, Christine Ashburn. She said the HO-8 policy offered by Citizens has certain "underwriting guidelines," just like all other policies. Those guidelines--the age and value requirements--were approved by the Office of Insurance Regulation, whom Fasano also blasted.

Continue reading "Fasano uses obscure committee post to blast Citizens Insurance" »