May 06, 2013

Movers & Shakers

 It's been a busy session for movers and shakers.

Capitol TV reporter becomes new DCF press secretary

Whitney Ray, a reporter for the Capitol News Service, has been named the new press secretary for the Department of Children and Families. Ray, a graduate of the University of Arkansas, has had 12 years experience in the TV news business. He's replaced by Matt Horn, previously with KSNW-TV in Wichita, Kansas.

And there's lots more shuffling in Capitol communications.

Alexis Lambert, who was the communications director for Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, is the new DCF Communications Director, replacing Joe Follick, a former reporter who left the DCF job in April to take the top communications job at the Florida Department of Education.

Follick, who had been with DCF since October 2009, replaced Cynthia Sucher, who has become communications director for the Florida Office of Early Learning. Laura Woodard, who previously held the job, is now president of a Tampa marketing and communications firm.

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May 02, 2013

Chances fade for bill to block foreign law in Florida courts

A controversial bill that aims to keep foreign law from being used over Florida law in family courts is “effectively dead,” Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, chairman of the Senate’s Rules Committee, said after that body's meeting Thursday.

Democrats blocked an effort by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, to get the House bill through in the Senate by a 25-14 vote. Hays needed a two-thirds vote, or 27 votes, to substitute the House version (HB 351), which passed April 18 by a vote of 79-39.

Hays said the bill aims to make sure that American law trumps foreign law in marital law cases, but opponents have said the measure is rooted in anti-Shariah legislation and could also impact residents from Israel and other countries, and there haven't been any indications of problems with foreign law in Florida courts.

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.


May 01, 2013

After nail-biter of a day in the House, foster care bill passes

For Sen. Nancy Detert and the backers of a bill extending foster care from age 18 to 21, Wednesday’s House session was a nail biter.

Named the Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act, House Bill 1036, which is co-sponsored by the entire Senate, was temporarily postponed Wednesday morning as Democrats, protesting inaction on health insurance reform, demanded that all bills be read in their entirety. The House is using a robotic auto reader to speed-read bills.

“I was really on pins and needles,” said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First. “I didn’t know if it would really come back. I got really scared."

Detert said she was “nervous” because under House rules, “if they didn’t read the bill today and pass it out, it wouldn’t pass. And it’s such a long bill, they weren’t getting to it.”

The Venice Republican said she met with House Speaker Will Weatherford and his chief of staff Kathy Mears to discuss the bill Wednesday morning and was told that Weatherford would “see that it gets done even if they have to stay here till midnight. He said we don’t let politics get in the way of children. And he kept his word.

After the auto-reader went through the 54-page bill (which took at least 40 minutes)  the measure passed 116-1 (Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, voted against it).

“We didn’t want to have to lose it because of process,” said Detert, who stood in the back of the House to watch the bill pass. “That would have been a tragedy.”

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April 25, 2013

House could spike Dolphins bill: ‘We’ve waited three weeks,’ Speaker says

The clock is ticking and the plot is thickening in the Miami Dolphins’ quest for stadium-renovation-tax-dollars, as the Florida Legislature is struggling to come together on a deal in the waning days of Session. 

The Florida Senate postponed debate on the tax-break package Thursday, and House Speaker Weatherford voiced concern over the delays in the other chamber. 

“We’ve been waiting for three weeks,” said Weatherford, who holds the fate of the Dolphins in his hands. “We’ve been hearing that it’s going to come over (from the Senate) for several weeks and we haven’t seen anything yet.”

Senate President Don Gaetz said bill sponsor Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Gardens) was not ready to bring the bill up for debate on Thursday as scheduled.

For the Dolphins’ bill to pass, the Senate would have to approve it and send it to the House. The House would have to approve it, possibly by sending it to a committee first. All of this would have to occur within the next few days, as the legislative session ends next Friday.

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Fla. House passes 'wage theft' bill on partyline vote

A bill that would outlaw new “wage theft” ordinances—similar to the one in Miami-Dade County—passed the Florida House on a partyline vote Thursday.

The bill, HB 1125, would force victims of wage theft to take their case to civil court, after giving their employer a “demand letter,” allowing them 15 days to pay the disputed amount. Local programs set up to deal with the wage disputes in a non-court setting would be banned, if the bill goes into effect. Though it passed the House on a 71-45 vote, it has stalled in the Senate.

Opponents have blasted HB 1125 as a “Tallahassee power grab” that protects big corporations and business owners who withhold wages from their workers.

"I have had a number of family members and members of my community who have worked on the job and not been paid,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat who represents Little Havana. ““I don’t see any justification for both cutting down people’s rights and also making it more difficult for local governments to help their own people.”

Proponents called it a way to create a statewide solution to the problem of wage theft.

The bill, HB 1125, is the latest in a multiyear attempt by the business lobby to outlaw local laws that govern the act of “wage theft,” or employers refusing to pay employees. The push has failed in previous years, and a judge upheld Miami-Dade’s program last year.

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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.

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April 23, 2013

Jay Odom gets 6-month sentence for illegal campaign contributions

PENSACOLA (AP) -- Panhandle developer Jay Odom was sentenced to six months in federal prison after pleading guilty to a charge of making illegal contributions in the 2008 presidential primary.

A federal judge sentenced Odom, who owns Destin Jet, on Tuesday morning. He faced up to five years in prison. Federal investigators alleged that he illegally funneled $23,000 to the campaign of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Odom circumvented federal finance laws by repaying 10 associates who each gave a maximum $2,300 donation to Huckabee.

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.

April 17, 2013

After gun bill falters in Congress, Fla. Legislature sends 'Hands off our guns' memorial to Obama

Though gun control efforts in the U.S. Senate appear to stall Wednesday, the Florida Legislature is sending a message to Washington just in case: Hands off our guns.

In a 81-36 vote, the Legislature passed House Memorial 545, which warns federal officials not to infringe on the rights of gun owners.

"Laws that forbid the carrying of arms...disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes,”  said bill sponsor Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, quoting a 19th century essay by Cesare Beccaria. “Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants.”

When a Democratic lawmaker pointed out that the Manchin-Toomey compromise on expanded background checks failed in the U.S. Senate, some lawmakers burst into applause in the chamber. Combee’s bill was co-sponsored by 57 other House members.

Combee said he still wanted the letter to be sent to Washington just in case the federal government considers gun control in the future.

One Representative shouted out “Let liberty ring!” before making the sound of loading a gun and asking his colleagues to support the bill. It passed in a lopsided vote that broke down mostly along party lines.

Democrats did not speak much on the bill (the agenda for the day was quite long and the House had been debating for six hours by the time the memorial was heard).

One Democrat did get a gun bill passed shortly after the memorial vote.

A bill to require expanded gun restrictions for some mentally ill people passed the House 117-1. It was sponsored by Rep. Barbara Watson (D-Miami Gardens) and supported by the National Rifle Association. It was a small victory for gun control advocates, who have filed several gun bills this year with little success in the Legislature.