December 01, 2014

AG revolving door: Bill McCollum lobbies, Pam Bondi's office helps his client


When the cruise line Royal Caribbean sought to amend a 1997 consumer protection agreement with the Florida Attorney General’s office, it hired a lawyer familiar with the agency’s inner workings.

Former Attorney General Bill McCollum called on the staff of his successor, Pam Bondi. Six months after the June 2013 meeting, Bondi’s office granted McCollum’s request.

Royal Caribbean’s advertised rates would no longer have to include fees for services, like baggage handling and loading cargo. The fees, which can inflate a trip’s cost by more than $100, could be listed separately from the company’s advertised rates.

On at least two other occasions, McCollum met with Bondi’s staff to discuss two more clients — NJOY, an e-cigarette company, and HealthFair, which sells health screenings from mobile clinics.

McCollum isn’t just Bondi’s predecessor; he also leads the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has championed Bondi’s advancement.

McCollum served as vice or acting chairman of the Washington-based group from June 2012 to January 2014, records show. During that period, it contributed $650,000 to Bondi’s re-election campaign, more than 10 percent of what she raised, and chipped in another $16,000 in gifts so she could attend conferences with other Republican attorneys general.

When asked what role he had in those expenditures, McCollum said the staff, not the board, decides how campaign contributions are made. He didn’t address the gifts. Story by Michael Van Sickler here. 


Obamacare tax-credits uncertain in Supreme Court case. What will FL do?


Nearly 900,000 Floridians could lose Obamacare tax subsidies under a new U.S. Supreme Court case, but state political leaders say they’re making no plans to deal with the potential fallout.

The court case — affecting as many as 4.7 million people in 37 states — revolves around a dispute over how the federal government provides tax credits to those who buy insurance plans in Obamacare marketplaces, which are called “exchanges.”

Under the Affordable Care Act, people get the tax credits if they bought insurance on exchanges “established by the State.” Florida and 36 other states didn’t set up an exchange. So they left it to the federal government, which then issued a rule saying residents in those states would get the subsidy-like tax credits anyway.

Conservatives sued, saying the decision by the Internal Revenue Service violated the strict letter of the law. If the tax credits are struck down in 37 states, Republicans hope it could lead to the “implosion” of Obamacare. Liberals and defenders of the Obama administration say the lawsuit is politically motivated and that it fails to consider the design and context of the ACA: to make everyone insured.

The states in question could make the controversy go away by establishing their own exchanges. But Florida and other conservative-led states want Obamacare to fail — and they’re content right now to leave this in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, which leans Republican.

“I’d wait and see what happens. That’s down the road,” said Gov. Rick Scott, a phrase repeated by his fellow Republicans who lead the House and Senate in Tallahassee.

After Scott was first elected in 2010, Florida fought against the ACA by returning a $1million federal grant to establish a state-run exchange. Scott said the state should spend no money to implement Obamacare, which he calls an unconstitutional job-killer.

Florida has also refused to expand Medicaid, which could ultimately provide government-run healthcare to nearly 1million in a state with one of the highest uninsured rates, nearly 25 percent at one point.

The federal government has no statistics on the effects of Obamacare on Florida’s uninsured, but a Gallup survey indicated that the law is reducing the uninsured rate across the nation. States that set up their own exchanges and that expanded Medicaid saw the biggest drop in the uninsured rate, Gallup reported.

Florida lawmakers have time to decide what to do next.

More here

Rick Scott campaign: post-election survey shows why exit polls on Cubans, Hispanics were wrong


Though exit polls indicated Gov. Rick Scott lost Hispanics by a 20 percentage-point margin, the Republican’s campaign conducted its own post-election survey that showed he might have almost tied Democrat Charlie Crist with these voters.

Scott’s survey, conducted by OnMessage Inc., shows Scott earned 47 percent of the Hispanic vote compared to Crist’s 49 percent, unlike the exit polls that had the Democrat leading the Republican 58-38 percent. The 2010 exit polls had Scott winning 50 percent of the Hispanic vote to Democrat Alex Sink’s 48 percent.

“While an array of news articles point to a Rick Scott victory ‘despite losing ground with Hispanics,’ that’s simply not true,” wrote OnMessage’s Wes Anderson and Kayla Dunlap in a polling memo.

One potential problem with the surveys from OnMessage and Edison Research (which conducts the exit polls for media groups): Their Hispanic samples were relatively low. OnMessage’s sample was 304 and Edison’s was 367. So the error-margins of the results will vary widely. (UPDATE/aside: A few readers have pointed out it's important to note that some voters in post-election surveys have a tendency to say they backed the winner).

A third survey, conducted on the eve of the election by the premier Hispanic polling firm of Latino Decisions, had 400 Florida respondents and found Crist leading Scott 52-45 percent -- results that fall somewhere in between the OnMessage and Edison surveys.

OnMessage’s polling also took issue with Edison’s results for Cuban-American voters. It’s always a contested topic because Cubans (especially those in Miami-Dade) tend to vote Republican and are the most-reliable of Hispanic voters. Also, because Cuban-Americans are a subset of Hispanic voters, the margin of error in surveying this demographic group is even greater.

OnMessage said Scott won Cubans over Crist 65-30 percent. Edison showed Crist ahead of Scott, 50-46 percent. Unfortunately, Latino Decisions didn’t report Cuban-voter results.

So who’s right? Who knows? When the Florida voter file is finally updated next month, we can examine voting patterns of heavily Cuban-American precincts to get a better idea of how the vote broke.

My guess is OnMessage is more right on Cuban voters. It’s tough to believe that Crist, who made little outreach with Spanish-speaking voters and who called for an end to the Cuban embargo, would have attracted majority support from Cubans. Yes, it’s true that younger Cuban Americans tend to vote more Democrat or independently and aren’t as hardline about Cuba policy, but most election data indicated this was an older electorate.

Scott, meanwhile, had a Cuban-American running mate in Carlos Lopez-Cantera and the support of Miami-Dade’s Cuban-American legislative delegation. Scott got just 39 percent of Miami-Dade’s vote in 2014 and, considering 72 percent of the county’s registered Republicans are Cuban-Americans, it’s reasonable to guess that an outsized portion of the Scott vote was among Cuban Americans.

“When the Hispanic vote is broken down by county of origin, we find that Governor Scott won a sizable majority of Cuban voters as well as more Puerto Rican voters than many expected,” Anderson and Dunlap wrote. “In the end, most Hispanic voters were focused on the economy, and they decided that under Governor Scott’s leadership, the state’s real estate and job markets are headed in the right direction.”

Download Scott poll

November 27, 2014

PolitiFact's Truth-O-Meter tackles a claim about fat turkeys

On one of our regular cruises of political websites, we came across this from Mother Jones:

"Turkeys today weigh 29.8 pounds," the liberal magazine stated on itsFacebook page. "In the ‘30s, they weighed 13.2 pounds."

The claim was posted Nov. 24, 2014, three days before Thanksgiving.

It made our mouths water and, well, whet our appetite for some holiday fact-checking.

The Facebook post linked to an article posted the same day on Mother Jones’ website. The article, in turn, linked to a November 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economics & Statistics Administration.

That report contained the figures Mother Jones cited, saying turkeys have more than doubled in weight -- from an average of 13.2 pounds in 1929 to 29.8 pounds in 2012.

We found that, if anything, Mother Jones might be light on its claim.

Turn to Tom Kertscher's fact-check from PolitiFact Wisconsin.

November 26, 2014

Unusual election could lead to longer term

It has been an unusually long and complicated election cycle for state Rep. Jamie Grant. A primary election scheduled for August didn’t happen until November, and even then, the results were thrown out.

But the strange circumstances could benefit the Tampa Republican.

Some elections experts say Grant, whose election is now set for Feb. 10, could be eligible to serve 14 years in the Florida House, despite a state law limiting lawmakers to eight years per chamber. And an elongated tenure could position Grant to become House speaker in 2022.

Grant told the Herald/Times he was not sure how many years he would be able to serve — or if he would want to stay in the Florida House any longer than eight years.

"My focus is on getting re-elected," he said Wednesday. "Anything else is a distraction."

Continue reading "Unusual election could lead to longer term" »

Obama's Half True claim about apprehensions of illegal immigrants at the border

During his speech to the nation about his executive action on immigration, President Barack Obama talked up his efforts to secure the border. Obama argued that those efforts paid off as the numbers of illegal border crossings are the lowest they have been in decades.

"When I took office, I committed to fixing this broken immigration system. And I began by doing what I could to secure our borders. Today, we have more agents and technology deployed to secure our southern border than at any time in our history," Obama said Nov. 20.

Then Obama reeled off a few statistics, including this one: "Overall, the number of people trying to cross our border illegally is at its lowest level since the 1970s. Those are the facts."

We decided to check if those are indeed the facts regarding the number of illegal crossings.

Turn to PolitiFact for the full story.

Vinyard leaves DEP; Scott names interim successor

After a four-year tenure punctuated by considerable controversy, Herschel Vinyard announced his retirement Wednesday as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Gov. Rick Scott issued a statement praising Vinyard's record and announced that his interim replacement will be Cliff Wilson, deputy secretary for regulatory programs at DEP.

"Secretary Vinyard was instrumental in helping us protect Florida's environment for future generations," Scott said. "Cliff Wilson has helped lead DEP's efforts to protect Florida's natural treasures. With his knowledge and experience, Wilson will ensure that the department continues to support Florida's environment."

Wilson received a civil engineering degree from Florida State University and serves as a mentor to engineering students there. He also has been DEP's deputy secretary of land and recreation and an assistant director in DEP's northwest district office. 

Wilson becomes the third interim secretary of a large state agency, joining Mike Carroll at the Department of Children and Families and Tim Cannon at the Department of Corrections.

Carroll has headed DCF since last spring and Cannon was named interim corrections secretary on Monday, hours after DOC Secretary Mike Crews announced his retirement.

"It's certainly not uncommon when a governor begins a new term that you see new leadership at the agencies," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. Referring to Crews' departure, he said: "It certainly wasn't a surprise."

Rumors continue to swirl in Tallahassee that at least two other state agency heads may be moving on as well: Ananth Prasad at the Department of Transportation and Kenneth Lawson at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Vinyard earned $141,000 a year. The DEP secretary is one of several agency heads who reports to both the governor and the three elected Cabinet members. Wilson currently earns $125,000 a year.


Public administration society asks Miami-Dade mayor to reconsider staff penalties over ad error


When Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez found out this month that the county would have to reapprove its 2015 budget and property-tax rate due to an advertising error, he punished three high-ranking budget employees. They were suspended without pay, and the budget director was required to pay up to $12,000 out of pocket for a new ad.

Those penalties were excessive, the South Florida chapter of the American Society for Public Administration said in a statement Wednesday. The group took issue in particular with garnishing Budget Director Jennifer Moon's wages to cover the costs of printing a corrected notice in the Miami Herald. The incorrect ad that ran in September cost about $12,000; the new ad has been quoted at about $8,600, according to the county.

"A human error was made, and the personnel involved have accepted responsibility," said Glenn Joseph, the ASPA chapter's president. "To garnish the wages of an employee, without due process or a court order, greatly exceeds the bounds of fairness and equity in the workplace.

"We are respectfully requesting the Mayor of Miami-Dade County to rescind this unprecedented punitive action."

The group passed a resolution formally asking Gimenez to change his mind -- and asking county commissioners to "adopt legislation to protect" county employees from similar disciplinary actions in the future.

The president-elect of the South Florida chapter is Terry Murphy, a former commission aide who now works as a political consultant and represents several Miami-Dade labor unions, including ones that are at odds with Gimenez's administration over new contracts. All three employees punished by Gimenez are managers who are not union members.

In a memo informing commissioners about the advertising error last week, Gimenez said the mistake was not ill-intentioned but called it "unacceptable." Moon was also suspended without pay for a day, one of her deputies for three days and another one for five days.

Miami Beach, which made a similar error running afoul of Florida law, suspended its budget director for three days.

November 25, 2014

FSU shooting revives debate over guns on college campuses

Last Thursday’s shooting at Florida State University has spurred a renewed call for allowing guns on college campuses.

Among those leading the charge: Nathan Scott, one of three people shot and wounded last week when Myron May opened fire at the FSU library. Scott is part of a group called Students for Concealed Carry at Florida State, which on Tuesday asked state lawmakers to allow concealed-weapon permit holders to carry firearms on college grounds.

Their request may resonate in Tallahassee, especially with the powerful National Rifle Association echoing the call.

The NRA's Tallahassee lobbyist Marion Hammer said Tuesday that she hopes to have a "thoughtful, deliberative" conversation on the subject when the Legislature reconvenes.

"We're not going to rush into it emotionally, like a lot of people do after a tragedy," Hammer said. “But the reality is, there is a ban of guns on campus, and that did not stop an attacker. The law never stops the bad guy. It only stops the good guys from being able to protect themselves and others."

Read more here.

Miami commission candidate may have to resign to run


The only candidate so far to launch a bid for Miami’s District 2 commission seat in 2015 has been told she must resign her post on an important city board due to her candidacy.

According to a legal opinion issued Friday, Grace Solares’ decision to run for office means she must step down from the city’s newly formed charter review committee, which is tasked with recommending changes to the city’s constitutional document. The opinion from Assistant City Attorney Kerri McNulty doesn’t specifically mention Solares, but states that members of city boards must resign their positions once they’ve filed to run and appointed a campaign treasurer or begun to raise campaign funds.

Solares said she finds it hard to believe the opinion, issued four days after she filed to run, is a coincidence.

“I file on Monday and by Friday I had a legal opinion attempting to remove me?” said Solares, who noted that candidates sitting on previous city boards were allowed to run for office without resigning.

But that’s exactly why the opinion was sought, said City Clerk Todd Hannon, to whom the legal opinion was addressed. Hannon said the issue has been a confusing one ever since the commission voted in 2007 to insert language in a candidates’ affidavit creating new stipulations on when they must resign from city boards. He said he felt it was time for clarification.

“No one requested me to do this. It was of my own volition,” said Hannon. “It’s just good to get this all clarified now.”

Solares’ attorney and employer, Linda Carroll, rebutted the opinion Tuesday, stating that an attorney general’s opinion from 1982 refutes the city's legal opinion. If Solares doesn’t step down, it would be up to Miami commissioners to remove her, should they desire to do so, according to McNulty.

Commissioner Francis Suarez, who sits as chairman of the charter review committee, said he wants to wait and see if the attorneys can agree on what should happen before bringing the issue to the commission.

Solares was appointed to the committe by Mayor Tomas Regalado. The charter changes she is seeking include stricter term limits and provisions for a more powerful mayoral veto.