March 20, 2013

Movers and Shakers

Three inducted into Florida Women's Hall of Fame

A nurse who committed her life to providing medical care to Tampa’s black citizens, a Florida pioneer, and a women’s rights leader will be inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame by Attorney General Pam Bondi at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Capital Courtyard. 

Nurse  Clara C. Frye, who died in 1936, transformed her Tampa home into a temporary hospital in1908 and then established the Clara Frye Negro Hospital there in 1923. A pavilion at Tampa General Hospital is named after her. Aleene Pridgen Kidd MacKenzie, a 92-year-old Ocala resident, established the FSU Foundation and in 1964, Gov. Farris Bryant  appointed her to chair the first Commission on the Status of Women; she was also the first president of a national women’s safety group. Pioneer Lillie Pierce Voss, the first non-Native American child born between Jupiter and Miami, grew up with the Seminole Indians in the wilds of what would become Palm Beach County. She and a brother later wrote a manuscript called "Pioneer Life in Southeast Florida."


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March 14, 2013

Scott, Weatherford, Rubio celebrate "non-partisan" James Madison Institute

If Ayn Rand were alive and living in Florida, she would have paid $125 for a ticket and attended The James Madison Institute’s 25th anniversary gala Wednesday night.

Most of the state’s conservative heavyweights were there: Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, House Speaker Will Weatherford. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio delivered a televised greeting to the institute. Attorney General Pam Bondi was scheduled to show but had to cancel for a funeral. 

They were there to celebrate property rights, free markets, states rights and deregulation and other causes that JMI, founded in 1987, has championed. As JMI’s influence as a “non-partisan” think tank has grown, so too has the Republican grip on power in Tallahassee.

In telling closing remarks, former House Speaker Allan Bense, who is chairman of JMI and Weatherford’s father-in-law, explained why the think tank matters so much for conservatives.

“There are so many times when there are tough bills you have to vote for,” said Bense. “A tort bill, whatever it may be, where the press is just pounding you on the other side, the Tampa Bay Times, the Miami Herald, the Palm Beach Post, whatever, they’re just killing you, and what James Madison was able to do was present to members the other side. Here are the facts. So you could debate those facts on the floor, and JMI didn’t go lobby members, it was, ‘here’s the other side of the coin.’ And I can’t tell you how important that is if you’re a member of the Florida House or the Florida Senate or Cabinet member, to hear an objective, bipartisan, we’re a little conservative, agreed, but here’s our side.”

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March 06, 2013

Atwater: Medicaid expansion probably won’t pass now, but may be ‘inevitable’ later

Speaking to the Florida Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater expressed many of the same concerns of other Cabinet members about Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to accept federal funding and expand Medicaid: It would grow a government entitlement and be a new billion-dollar expense for the state.

But Atwater seemed to agree with other experts and commentators who believe that Florida and other states will eventually agree to some form of Medicaid expansion, and the billions of federal dollars it will bring. 

Atwater said that the state was in a “really tough spot” because expanding Medicaid will bring additional costs, but not accepting the federal money could have tough consequences as well. Florida’s safety net hospitals will see much of their federal funding evaporate under the Affordable Care Act, and the expansion of Medicaid was supposed to pick up the slack.  The state’s Low Income Pool (LIP) could also face new financial “stresses,” making it difficult for Florida's health care system, said Atwater.

“They may delay this—a ‘No’ is not a ‘No’ forever,” he said. “They can join anytime… I believe they’re going to pass [on the expansion]—that’s my take," he said. "And then I think, as the stresses begin to fall like, again, LIP being diminished, this is going to cause great stress to that choice. And, I don’t know, the inevitable, it may be, no matter what people think, happens.”

Atwater said that he believes the best option is for Florida and the federal government to come up with a more acceptable alternative. A spokesperson for the CFO's office said that Atwater remains opposed to Medicaid expansion.

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March 01, 2013

Atwater: wait to expand Medicaid, forgo the money

Jeff Atwater may not be calling everyone's attention to his opposition to Gov. Rick Scott's plan to expand Medicaid in Florida as Adam Putnam has, but the Republican chief financial officer is on the same page.

"This is going to obligate us to either in future years to a legislature that will significantly change the tax code or this takes (away from) education dollars, transportation dollars and everything else," Atwater told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board today. "I look at the general revenue stream. It will not carry this. It's just that simple."

Florida would be better off watching to see how it plays out for at least a couple years — even if it means forgoing 100 percent federal funding of the expansion — before plunging ahead without more questions answered and alternative options developed.

"I understand all the compassion. I'll put my record up against anybody when I was in the Legislature," he told the editorial board, which agrees with Gov. Scott that expanding Medicaid makes the most sense for Florida.

January 17, 2013

Legal dispute over 'Taj Mahal' artwork is finally over

A two-year legal dispute ended Thursday when the Legislative Budget Commission approved $514,884 in payment for framed artwork for the “Taj Mahal” courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeals.

The original tab was $357,000, but it ballooned after two lawsuits and seven appeals when Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and his predecessor Alex Sink balked at the cost for the nearly 400 framed photos by Signature Art Gallery.

Atwater and Gov. Rick Scott agreed to pay the gallery last month on the premise the artwork would go to the Department of State’s Division of Cultural Affairs. The commission, made up of seven state representatives and seven senators approved the settlement with no discussion. The gallery will be paid next week.

-- Michael Van Sickler, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

December 19, 2012

Atwater wants Scott to appoint inspector general at Citizens immediately

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said Gov. Rick Scott shouldn't wait until legislation is passed next year to create an independent watchdog position at Citizens Property Insurance. Arguing the public's confidence needs to be reestablished, Atwater is suggesting a workaround that could create an inspector general job at Citizens right away.

"I am deeply troubled by the ongoing reports of reprehensible behavior and mismanagement at Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, and applaud your demands that Citizens appoints a strong, independent Inspector General," Atwater wrote.

In a letter sent to Scott today, Atwater points out that that the Cabinet, which also operates as the state's Financial Services Commission, has oversight of Citizens. He suggests that the commission vote to hire an inspector general that is assigned to Citizens but reports to the panel for the next 12 months.

"Citizens' stakeholders have a right to know that the resources of the Corporation are being deployed appropriately, and that the management team conducts itself in a responsible manner," Atwater wrote. "This can best be achieved by our direct oversight of an independent Inspector General."

Atwater's plan would give the Legislature time to pass a law needed to permanently assign an inspector general to Citizens. Asked to respond to the proposal, Scott office didn't say whether he would agree to the plan but continued to call for additional oversight at Citizens.

“Gov. Scott supports the concept of an independent Inspector General for Citizens," wrote Melissa Sellers, Scott's communications director, in an email.

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December 04, 2012

CFO Jeff Atwater, Gov. Rick Scott settle 'Taj Mahal' art case, agree to pay Signature Art Gallery

After two years, two lawsuits and seven appeals, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Gov.Rick Scott on Tuesday agreed to pay Signature Art Gallery for framed photos ordered by judges at the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Instead of the $357,000 tab due when the photographs were completed, the state will pay almost $515,000, a price that includes storage and legal fees paid by the gallery owner.

The payment must be approved by members of the Legislative Budget Commission at a meeting in January. Once paid for, the art will go to the Department of State’s Division of Cultural Affairs. If the Commission rejects the payment, the lawsuit will continue.

Scott  and Atwater said the settlement, helped along by court-ordered mediation, is in the state’s best interest. It will end expensive litigation and safeguard taxpayer money while also signaling that the state’s contracting system “must be cost effective, accountable and transparent,’’ the two officials said in a joint release.

The settlement was announced Tuesday, the day Atwater had been scheduled to answer questions under oath from lawyers who represent the gallery and Peter R. Brown Construction of Clearwater.

More here.

Lucy Morgan, Times senior correspondent

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

Six appeals filed in 'Taj Mahal' case

The Florida Supreme Court has assigned the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach to hear appeals in a squabble over an unpaid $357,000 bill for framed photos ordered for the new 1st District Court of Appeal building in Tallahassee.

Six interlocutory appeals have been filed in a heavily lawyered civil suit filed by Signature Gallery, a small Tallahassee business that contracted with Peter R. Brown Construction to frame and hang 369 historic photographs in the halls of the new courthouse.

Chief Judge Robert Benton asked the high court to send the cases to a panel of judges who do not have offices in the new courthouse.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and his predecessor Alex Sink refused to pay the bill saying no money was appropriated by the Legislature that could legally be spent on photos. They have also questioned whether the photos should be considered art. Under state law expenditures for art cannot legally exceed $100,000 and the court has already spent about $150,000 on oil paintings and other framed photos for the grandiose courthouse building.

Story here.

November 27, 2012

CFO Jeff Atwater must testify in 'Taj Mahal' case

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater will have to answer questions under oath in a lawsuit filed by the owner of a Tallahassee art gallery that was never paid for  framed photographs valued at more than $357,000 for the new 1st District Court of Appeal.

Attorneys for Atwater asked Leon Circuit Judge Charles A. Francis to prohibit lawyers for Signature Art Gallery and Peter R Brown Construction Co. of Clearwater from questioning Atwater saying he is a constitutional officer who cannot be forced to testify. But Francis ruled he must testify.

Michael H. Davidson, lawyer for Atwater, indicated he will appeal the judge’s decision and seek a delay in any attempt to question Atwater.

A three-day nonjury trial is scheduled to begin Dec. 17.

Story here.