March 16, 2015

Legislator blames testing woes only on cyber attack

On day 1 of the new computerized standardized tests in Florida, students and administrators across the state couldn’t log on to the tests, forcing some districts to postpone the assessments.

The problems that started March 2 spanned the state and hit Florida's largest counties including Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough. Initial reports were that it was a technical glitch in the hands of the testing vendor, American Institutes for Research.

But by the end of the week, state law enforcement were also investigating a cyber security attack. Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho would later call it a "catastrophic meltdown," and the testing problems added more fuel to the fire about Florida’s focus on tests.

During a House Education Appropriations Committee meeting March 12, chairwoman and state Rep. H. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake, put the blame solely on the cyber attack.

"On the testing problems, many of you may have read in the media, that the problem was not that of a vendor, the problem was not that of the test materials itself, it was the product of a cyber attack," she said. O’Toole’s claim suggested that the sole problem was the cyber attack, but that conflicted with news reports and information provided by the state Department of Education.

Turn to PolitiFact Florida to see how we rated this claim. 

March 12, 2015

How much of the state budget goes to Medicaid?

After rejecting Medicaid expansion in 2013, the Florida Legislature is taking a serious look at it this session. The program pays for health insurance for the very poor.

On March 10, a state Senate panel approved a proposal that would allow Florida to accept $50 billion in federal dollars to expand coverage to about 800,000 low-income residents. The plan would establish a state-run private insurance exchange for residents who earn less than $16,000 a year or $33,000 for a family of four.

Though the bill won unanimous support of the GOP-dominated Senate Health Policy Committee, it faces an uphill battle in the more conservative House. Also, it would require the federal government to grant Florida a waiver. The feds might object to parts of the Senate proposal that require beneficiaries to pay a monthly premium based on their salary, ranging from $3 to $25.

During the Senate hearing, the Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson said he had met with legislators to discuss the chamber’s ideas for a Medicaid proposal.

"We recommended a 32 percent cap on state expenditures, we are coming close to 30 percent right now," he said. "It's the biggest expenditure at the state and we’d like to protect taxpayers with a 32 percent cap."

Does Medicaid come close to eating up nearly one-third of the state budget and is it the state’s biggest expenditure?

Turn to PolitiFact Florida for the answer.

March 01, 2015

Ken Plante, former state senator and lobbyist, dies at age 75

Former state Sen. Ken Plante died Sunday night after a three-year battle with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

 Plante, 75, was hospitalized last week as his condition worsened.

A Republican born in Orlando, Plante was elected to the Senate from Winter Park in 1967. He left the Legislature in 1978, but remained in Tallahassee as a lobbyist for a number of commercial clients and Gov. Jeb Bush.

Bush, now exploring a run for president,  visited Plante at his home last month during a fundraising trip to Tallahassee. Plante left his private lobbying clients to become director of legislative affairs for Bush after he became governor in 1999.

Bush said Sunday night that Plante met “the terrible diagnosis in the way he seemed to face all challenges – with great courage, incredible resolve, and unwavering faith.”  Bush noted that “Ken was a steady hand, and provided our team with the much needed reassurance that ‘everything would be okay in the end’ during our first legislative session. We were chaotic, but Ken was always calm, and his experience helped us navigate the process.”

Plante was an uncommon lobbyist, esteemed by legislators, governors and his fellow lobbyists. 

Plante often talked about his growing dislike of the influence of money in the political process where he worked for more than 30 years.  In the final years of his life, Plante worked with former Gov. Reubin Askew and others to try and draft a constitutional amendment to limit the money political candidates can raise and spend. They wanted to find a way to impose limits despite various U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have overturned many attempts to limit contributions.

With the death of Askew a year ago and Plante’s illness, the effort foundered and died.

“The money has become obscene,’’ Plante told the Times in 2012. “Somehow we have got to turn this thing around.’’

More here.

-- LUCY MORGAN, Tampa Bay Times

December 11, 2014

Ice cream-truck pedophile could go free thanks to bad FL law, Supreme Court case

@MarcACaputo

McdadeHey, pedophiles and extortionists, you have an unwitting friend in the Florida Legislature.

For about 40 years, Florida has generally prohibited people from secretly recording others – including criminals -- without their knowledge. There are some exceptions.

But being a little girl who's raped by your mom’s boyfriend?

Nah. You can't make a secret audio recording of his illegal sexual activities. It’s not admissible in court.

No one’s happier about that than Fort Myers’ own pedophile ice cream-truck operator Richard Russell McDade, 68.

The convict won the right to a new trial after the Florida Supreme Court Thursday reversed a Second District Court of Appeal ruling that said the recording could be used. The victim, who testified that McDade had sex with her from the ages of 10 to 16, said he threatened to have her and her mother deported to Mexico because they were illegal immigrants.

There's a pretty good chance McDade could escape a future conviction (and perhaps sell more ice cream to more kids on the streets) because, as the Second DCA said in its now-reversed opinion:

Continue reading "Ice cream-truck pedophile could go free thanks to bad FL law, Supreme Court case" »

December 01, 2014

Richardson the first openly gay representative to hold House leadership post

State Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, has been selected as the Democratic Floor Leader by House Democratic leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, and Democratic Leader pro tempore, Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville. Richardson will be the first openly gay representative in Florida history to serve in a leadership position in the Florida legislature, according to House Democrats. 

Here's the Democrats' press statement:

Richardson, D-Miami Beach, was the first openly gay member ever elected to the Florida Legislature when he was elected on August 14, 2012. Richardson has been a licensed CPA in Florida for 30 years and began his career as a Pentagon auditor identifying fraud, waste and abuse in government contracts. He was re-elected earlier this year to represent House District 113 for his second two-year term and is the only openly gay member of the Florida Legislature. Richardson joins the leadership team that will guide policy and action for House Democrats. As Floor Leader, he will serve as the chief liaison between the Democratic Leader and the Office of the Speaker. Richardson will also serve as ranking member on the House Rules, Calendar & Ethics Committee. In that role, Richardson will work on daily schedules of action for the House. Richardson will also manage, in conjunction with Republican leaders, floor debate on bills and amendments.

Continue reading "Richardson the first openly gay representative to hold House leadership post" »

November 10, 2014

Simmons named new Senate Rules Committee chair

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamone Springs, has been named by Senate President-Designate Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, as the new chair of the Senate Committee on Rules. 

"David is a loyal advisor, a trusted confidante and good friend," Gardiner said in a press release. "With over three decades of experience practicing law and ten years of service in the state legislature, he is well-qualified to assume this critical leadership position. Throughout his years of public service, David has exhibited sound judgment and a fair-minded, reasonable and thoughtful approach to decision making that, I am confident, will be a great benefit to the Senate over the next two years."

Simmons represents State Senate District 10, which includes all of Seminole County and portions of Volusia County. He served in the Florida House of Representatives from 2000-2008 and was elected to the Senate in 2010 and re-elected subsequently. Simmons, who earned his law degree at Vanderbilt University, practiced law in Florida for more than 30 years.

 

November 04, 2014

Ken Detzner: So far, no hitches at the polls on Election Day

Detzner

Voting is going "very smoothly" this morning, with all polls opening on time in the state's 6,222 precincts, Secretary of State Ken Detzner said at an elections briefing in Tallahassee.

While millions are expected to vote today, the number of early votes cast could be a record, he said. As of last night, 1.7 million Floridians voted by absentee ballot and 1.3 million voted in-person at the polls. By party, 655,020 Democrats and 791,324 Republicans voted by absentee ballot and 555,473 Democrats and 518,476 Republicans voted early in-person at the polls.

"Voters are very pleased to get out early and vote absentee," he said. "I think we might actually see some records in regards to the number of absentee ballots that were mailed and that we're seeing returned.

"By the time the polls close this evening, we should have a sizeable number of votes already counted because of legislative changes made in 2013," Detzner said, referring to fixes restoring more early voting after Florida's flawed 2012 election process.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division is monitoring polling locations in four Florida counties -- Duval, Hillsborough, Lee and Orange -- to ensure federal voting laws are followed. Detzner said these "observers" are present in 17 states, but stressed his confidence that the voting process has improved.

Given a governor's race too tight to predict, the state is ready for a recount, Detzner said. But the contest between Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Cristisn't the only challenge supervisors face this evening.

Several other tight races could require a recount, including the 2nd Congressional District race between Republican Steve Southerland and Democrat Gwen Grahamand the District 26 race where Miami Democrat Joe Garcia is battling Republican challenger Carlos Curbelo.

Continue reading "Ken Detzner: So far, no hitches at the polls on Election Day" »

October 12, 2014

What's one thing neither side is talking about in the marijuana/Amend 2 debate?

MarijuanaHere’s the little secret that neither side of the Amendment 2 debate over medical marijuana is talking about: The Florida Legislature controls its fate.

You don’t hear it from opposition groups, who warn that legalizing medical marijuana will endanger children, spawn pot shops on every street corner and become the state’s next pill mill fiasco. That will happen only if the conservative Florida Legislature decides not to impose strict rules on who obtains the marijuana, who distributes it and under what conditions.

You don’t hear it from proponents, as the United for Care campaign rolls into college campuses, riding on the hopes of medically needy Floridians, and wishful recreational pot smokers.

Access to medical cannabis for those groups wouldn’t be easy, either, if the Legislature put in place a tightly controlled cultivation and dispensing system similar to one it adopted earlier this year when it legalized low-THC, high CBD strains of cannabis.

And what’s to stop lawmakers from doing any of this and more?

“Nothing,” said Jon Mills, former Democratic House speaker and a constitutional lawyer who wrote the amendment on the ballot before voters on Nov.4. “The Legislature can do anything that is not inconsistent with the Constitution.”

The proposed constitutional amendment, he said, prevents the Legislature from creating a barrier to access for patients diagnosed with nine particular debilitating ailments, or others who meet the requirements of the law. But he noted that it does allow lawmakers to establish a protocol for determining what diseases are eligible for treatment and to put in place rules that keep the public safe.

Story here. 

 

October 11, 2014

For unlucky, legislative fix for sinkhole insurance means no damages fixed, no payout and lost property value

By Jeff Harrington and Dan DeWitt of the Tampa Bay Times

In the heyday of the Great Florida Sinkhole Lottery, Iris and Harry Irizarry would have had all the ingredients for a big cash payout: A sinkhole policy from state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp.; visible cracking in the walls and floors of the Spring Hill home they bought new in 2003; and a sinkhole confirmed by both an engineer and the Hernando County Property Appraiser's Office.

But the era of easy sinkhole claims is over, slammed shut by a 2011 overhaul of the state insurance law. Based on the new law, the same engineering firm that found the Irizarrys' sinkhole — and recommended that it be filled with grout — deemed that it wouldn't qualify for an insurance claim.

"We pay our insurance but (Citizens) doesn't want to pay to fix the house, and I can't sell my house because (it) has no value," said Iris Irizarry, 64, a retired Head Start director from Brooklyn. "What kind of a law is that?"

In short, it's a law that has done what it was supposed to do: stem a flood of claims that by 2011 were driving up insurance rates and driving down property values in the "sinkhole alley" of Hernando and Pasco counties.

But concerns are surfacing that the sinkhole fix has gone too far: It has limited the availability of sinkhole insurance and allowed insurers to charge prices rivaling the cost of a standard homeowners policy. It has made it far more difficult for homeowners to qualify for a claim. And by leaving homeowners stuck with sinkhole homes they cannot repair, it has created a potential new drag on property values. Story here. 

October 10, 2014

Report: The untold jobs story -- as state workforce shrank, so did services

Workforce reportFrom the Center for Investigative Reporting:

Over the last decade, Florida has shed thousands of state jobs, the consequence of a poor economy and a political philosophy at work. The result has affected how well agencies that protect everything from children to the environment can do their jobs.

According to a workforce report compiled by the state, while the nationwide average number of state workers per 10,000 in population was 211 in 2012, Florida had just 111 that year. That’s almost half the national average.

The state’s population has grown by 4 million since 1998. Its budget has increased by $25 billion since 2000. Yet Florida has almost 10,000 fewer established positions in the State’s Personnel System, State University System, State Legislature, Courts System and Justice Administration combined, than it did 15 years ago.

This means Florida’s government has been operating at its lowest staffing levels in almost two decades.

Even as the economy rebounds, state government isn’t growing with it.

This has largely been the result of a predominately Republican Legislature, and three Republican governors since the late 1990s – all of whom campaigned on promises to shrink government.

As a result, public agencies tasked with protecting vulnerable children, monitoring waterways and providing benefits to Floridians who have fallen on hard times, are struggling to fulfill their mandates. More here.