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May 05, 2017

Injured workers with wrongly denied claims catch a break because of Legislative inaction


Injured workers caught a break today when the Florida Legislature failed to pass a bill that could have made it harder for them to find attorneys to take their case even when they've been wrongly denied their injury claim.

The Florida House and Senate never could work out a compromise to cap attorney fees for workers who sue companies for wrongly denying their claims.

The House wanted to cap attorney fees at $150 an hour, far less than what trial attorneys get in other types of cases. The Senate initially pitched a $250 an hour rate. Sen. Rob Bradley, a Republican from Clay County, offered a plan to split the difference to $200 an hour.

But the Senate this morning surprisingly rejected Bradley’s compromise offer and instead voted out a proposal to keep the rate at $250 an hour - a rate the House has opposed. The House refused to accept that change, as expected, an proposed going to $180 an hour, the highest it was willing to go. The result was that nothing passed as the Legislature's regular session ended Friday. Legislators have agreed to meet again on Monday to finish voting on a state budget, but will not take up any other legislation.

The defeat of the legislation is a blow to the business community that has already been hit with a 14 percent increase in workers compensation rates and is bracing for what many fear will be another 20 percent next year. The rates are climbing because of a Florida Supreme Court case last year that ruled a previous attorney fee cap the Florida Legislature had imposed was unconstitutional. Under the old system, some attorney in smaller cases were getting paid was amounted to less than $2 an hour for their work.

State Rep. Sean Shaw, a Democrat from Tampa and an attorney, said the old system worked as a disincentive for attorneys to take workers compensation cases, even for workers who looked like they would win. With no caps, judges now will determine a “reasonable”  rate for winning attorneys to be compensated.

Shaw said for 20 years, the state has only made it harder for injured workers to fight wrongly denied claims. Statistics show that even though Florida has added nearly 2 million more workers since 2004, the number of workers compensation legal claims have been on the decline. And the insurance rates charged to businesses have dropped 60 percent.


Senate OK’s school voucher expansion; House still to sign off


With reluctance by several Democrats, senators on Friday morning endorsed significant expansions to two of Florida’s premiere voucher-like programs for education that help children with disabilities pay for alternative learning options and help poor children to afford private school.

Senators approved HB 15 by a 27-11 vote, with four Democrats joining Republicans in support. The House has to vote again this afternoon to approve the same language as the Senate, so that the bill can go to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

The bill’s passage would mark another session victory for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes.

Corcoran opened the 2017 session by prioritizing, in particular, growing the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is facilitated almost entirely by a single organization that is led by an influential and wealthy school choice advocate. The controversial scholarship aids low-income, mostly minority families by giving dollar-for-dollar tax breaks to businesses that donate money, which then pays for private school scholarships.

HB 15 calls for raising the award amounts so that families can stay in the program when their children advance to high school, where private education is more expensive.

Several Democratic senators said they didn’t want to “divert” more dollars to the tax credits — dollars they argue could otherwise go to improving K-12 public schools — and they struggled with voting “no” because they do support the Gardiner Scholarship to help children with disabilities.

By putting the two programs in a single bill, House Republicans linked the expansion of the Gardiner Scholarship to that of the tax-credit awards — meaning lawmakers could not expand one voucher program without the other.

“The Gardiner Scholarship program is a fantastic program, so I want desperately to be able to support this bill because of those provisions ... but I am philosophically opposed to corporate tax vouchers and diverting money away from our general funds, which could be used to improve our public school system,” Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said.

Proponents of the bill defended against the criticism of the tax credit scholarships.

“If we want to keep from failing our children, we have got to support this program and we have got to support these children who have no hope without it,” Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young said.

Democrats Daphne Campbell of Miami Shores, Bill Montford of Tallahassee, Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg and Linda Stewart of Orlando broke with the rest of their caucus and voted “yes.”

Marco Rubio group gets $7M donation from mystery donor

via @learyreports

A single donor gave a “social welfare” group supporting Marco Rubio for president $7 million, according to new records, and the identity and motivations of that person may never be known.

The Center for Responsive Politics found the donation in the tax filing for the group, Conservative Solutions Project. A year before, CSP reported a $13.5 million donation from a single person, also anonymous.

Rubio has said the identity of this person or persons is “irrelevant.”

“Because as far as I’m concerned, if someone decides to be helpful, they are buying into my agenda,” he told the Tampa Bay Times last year when the first donation was revealed. “My agenda’s in writing. … And as a result of that agenda, I had people that were for me and I had people that were against me.”

The pro-Rubio “dark money” group paved new ground in the presidential race, just as Jeb Bush did by raising tens of millions for a super PAC (which must disclose donors) before he became an official candidate. Watchdog groups filed complaints but nothing has come of them.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Who are the main GOP contenders to run for Florida attorney general?

via @adamsmithtimes

It doesn't look like Pam Bondi will be leaving Tallahassee for a job in the Trump administration. Richard Corcoran was pretty Shermanesque in declaring he would not be a candidate for attorney general or U.S. Senate Senate in 2018. Meanwhile, other leading Republican contenders for the open attorney general seat in 2018 are now looking at other jobs. State Sen. David Simmons is likely to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy while state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz has his eyes on the state Senate seat vacated by Frank Artiles.

So where's that leave us? At this point, the likeliest candidates seem to be state Rep. Jay Fant, 49, of Jacksonville, and former recently resigned Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ashley Moody, 41. The most prominent political figure in the mix is Florida Senate President Joe Negron, who is still a big question mark.

--ADAM C. SMITH, Tampa Bay Times

Republican Miami-Dade commissioner says he's running for Ros-Lehtinen's seat in Congress

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@PatriciaMazzei @NewsbySmiley

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro is running for Congress.

Barreiro told the Miami Herald on Friday he plans to seek Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's seat next year, now that she is retiring. He is the first big-name Republican to announce a candidacy.

"I am definitely running," Barreiro said, adding that he's preparing filing paperwork and putting together a campaign team.

Barreiro isn't term-limited until 2020, and because he's not on the local ballot in 2018, he won't have to resign from the commission run for the U.S. House of Representatives.

"All of my districts -- in the state House, on the county commission -- have always been 100 percent within this congressional district," said Barreiro, a former state representative. "I've always eyed running for Congress. I didn't think it would be this soon."

Barreiro said his interests at the federal level lie in housing and transportation. On the commission, he's sometimes bucked Republican orthodoxy and sided with labor unions. A group of activists tried to recall him in 2010, after he backed the creation of a new Miami Marlins ballpark, but they fell short in gathering petition signatures against him.

"I think I've worked across the aisle at the state level, and on the commission, and God willing I could do it in Congress," Barreiro said.

Keeping Ros-Lehtinen's seat in Republican hands will be difficult for the GOP. The 27th district, which comprises Southeastern Miami-Dade County, leans Democratic. In last year's presidential election, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in the district by 20 percentage points, making it the most Clinton-leaning district in the country held by a Republican.

In a WPLG-ABC 10 "This Week in South Florida" interview taped Friday, Ros-Lehtinen was asked about good potential Republican candidates. She mentioned Barreiro -- and former Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado. A Republican named Maria Peiro has already filed.

Regalado said Friday she was "honored" to be mentioned by Ros-Lehtinen, although she said she hasn't yet made up her mind on a campaign. She said she's waiting to see the direction of "the national party," but said it looks like the GOP is willing to support a moderate candidate.

 "This is a multi-million-dollar race. I've already discussed this with my family and considered the logistics of it. I've called people locally to see where they're at," she said. "The party may or may not participate in the primary but you need to figure out if you can raise the money. I think I can. I think I'm the right candidate."

Regalado -- whose older brother, Tommy, is currently running against Barreiro's wife, Zoraida, for Miami City Commission -- seemed ready to start the campaign.

"Bruno and I are being mentioned because we've both been elected in the district for a while. We both have a track record that fits the district somewhat. I think I'm a better candidate," she said. "I don't think he can prove he's a fiscal conservative. He supported the Marlins Stadium. He raised taxes. There are things that set us apart."

This post has been updated.

Photo credit: Carl Juste, Miami Herald staff

Lawmakers are cutting $160 million from Medicaid in South Florida. Which hospitals are hardest hit?

Jackson Memorial vista


State lawmakers agreed late Thursday to cut $521 million from hospitals — with nearly a third of it coming from South Florida.

The cuts, which hit the Medicaid program, mostly impact the facilities that take on the largest number of Medicaid patients, including the state’s safety net hospitals.

In Dade and Broward, that means hospitals will lose $160 million under the plan, which is expected to pass the House and Senate on Monday as part of the state budget. The prospect for deeper cuts is on the horizon as the Legislature has teed up an additional $130 million in statewide cuts the following year, unless they counteract it.

"Adequate funding for Florida’s Medicaid program ensures our most vulnerable children, pregnant women, disabled and elderly people have access to critical health care services," said Bruce Rueben, president of the Florida Hosptial Association. "The Legislature’s decision to reduce more than $521 million from this important program will be felt in communities across our state."

Lawmakers put forward the idea of cutting Medicaid months ago, citing fears that the state needs to tighten its belt in the long run or risk revenue shortfalls brought on by years of tax cuts.

However, they hope to counteract the cuts with a pot of money the federal government agreed to allow that would reimburse hospitals for unpaid charity care. That fund could reach $1.5 billion, but there is not yet a plan in place for how each hospital could benefit — or even that Florida hospitals could reap the full $1.5 billion allowed.

What is guaranteed for hospitals are the cuts. Here are where the biggest losses will be felt in South Florida:

1. Jackson Memorial Hospital, $32.5 million
2. Baptist Hospital of Miami, $15.3 million
3. Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, $14.7 million
4. Memorial Regional Hospital, $14.2 million
5. Broward Health Medical Center, $13.6 million
6. North Shore Medical Center, $7.6 million
7. Broward Health North, $6.6 million
8. Memorial Hospital West, $6.6 million
9. Palmetto General Hospital, $6 million 
10. University of Miami Hospital, $5.6 million

This post has been updated to correct data errors.

Photo: Jackson Memorial Hospital (Hector Gabino, el Nuevo Herald)

What might have been: The House's surprising offer to Rick Scott

The Florida legislative session will end Monday with a very disappointing outcome for Gov. Rick Scott, with Enterprise Florida virtually broke and spending for tourism promotion at its lowest point in years -- a stunning rejection of Scott's priorities in his next-to-last year in office.

In addition, the Legislature ignored Scott's third priority, a $200 million fix for the Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee, which he requested late in the session with an added flourish of saying President Donald J. Trump was on board.

That's three strikes. But things could have turned out very differently.

Multiple sources report that about two weeks ago, House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, walked down to the governor's office, met with Scott's chief of staff, Kim McDougal, and offered a compromise. The House would agree to give VISIT Florida $75 million, with $100 million for the dike project this year and $100 million next year, but Enterprise Florida would get no money. In addition, the House encouraged Scott to veto every single hometown project in the budget (which could still happen).

"Go forth and veto boldly," remains House Speaker Richard Corcoran's advice to Scott, as he told the Times/Herald.

A Capitol lobbyist with knowledge of the transaction urged Scott to take the deal and claim victories in two of his three priorities, but he didn't. The sources said McDougal responded a day or so later with a counterproposal that was essentially what Scott wanted all along: $100 million for VISIT Florida, $200 million for the dike and $100 million for Enterprise Florida, all of which the House rejected.

The House's offer is surprising considering the high level of animosity between Corcoran and Scott.

Scott's office disputed this account and used the opportunity to once again criticize the Legislature.

"We did not reject a negotiated deal," said Scott's spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, in a carefully worded statement. "Instead of worrying about trades and deals, the Legislature should focus on getting their one constitutional duty done: a budget that actually invests in priorities to help Florida families."

The new $83 billion budget was completed late Thursday in time for a scheduled Monday adjournment, one day late.

Scott on Friday wraps up a three-day, 10-city road show he calls "Fighting for Florida's Future" in Panama City, where he predicts the Legislature's decisions will hurt the state's economy and cause hundreds of thousands of people to lose their jobs.

Testing reforms in House's hands on lawmakers' final day to pass policy

Flores stargel (1)


After several days of private collaboration among lawmakers, one major late-night rewrite and some last-minute tweaks, senators unanimously passed a sweeping education bill on Thursday — the main feature of which is to address excessive testing in Florida’s public schools.

HB 549 eliminates only a single test — the Algebra 2 end-of-course exam — and it requires the state Department of Education to study by Jan. 1 whether national exams, like the SAT or ACT, can be used as alternatives to the Florida Standards Assessments and other statewide tests.

The results of that study could spur further action by lawmakers in the 2018 session to curb duplicative testing, which several senators had hoped to accomplish this year.

“Is this bill what I wanted? No. I wanted more, but ... I know that, at least, this is a good beginning,” said Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, a former Leon County schools superintendent whose opinion on education policy is well-respected by the chamber.

HB 549 was the subject of prolonged haggling this week between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, and between the Senate and the House. It now goes to the House for final approval Friday, the last day lawmakers can vote on standalone policy legislation this session.

More here.

Photo credit: Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, left, with Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times.

May 04, 2017

One way or another, Miami lawmaker expects he won't be in Florida House next year


TALLAHASSEE -- State Rep. Jose Felix Diaz plans to give his Florida House farewell speech on Monday, the last scheduled day of the legislative session.

That normally wouldn't be news, if Diaz were term-limited. But he's not.

Instead, the Miami Republican has asked to say good-bye because he expects to be gone from the House one way or another before the 2018 session.

Diaz, a lawyer, is a finalist for the Miami U.S. attorney job under President Donald Trump. But even if he doesn't get appointed to the high-profile gig, he intends to run for the state Senate seat vacated by former Republican Sen. Frank Artiles.

If Diaz runs, then his Republican colleague and friend state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, the House speaker pro tempore, won't seek the Senate seat, Nuñez told the Miami Herald on Thursday.

Nuñez could, however, wind up with a committee chairmanship with the imminent departure of Diaz, the regulatory affairs committee chair, or of Rep. Carlos Trujillo, the appropriations committee chair who is being considered for an ambassadorship.

Photo credit: Steve Cannon, Associated Press

Miami-Dade mayor's son leaves Trump-linked lobbying firm that represented Venezuelan-owned company


C.J. Gimenez, a son of Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, said Thursday he is leaving the lobbying firm Avenue Strategies, in part because the company took on as a client Citgo, the Venezuelan-government owned oil company.

Avenue Strategies' founder, former Donald Trump presidential campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, also announced his exit from the firm Thursday, Bloomberg reported, after a spate of negative publicity.

The younger Gimenez, who had joined Avenue just last month, characterized the Citgo representation as the "straw that broke the camel's back" and said he and Lewandowski will now focus solely on domestic lobbying clients.

"I will personally never represent the interests of the Maduro regime, which reflects the worst there is of all humanity," Gimenez, who was traveling, told the Miami Herald in a text message.

"We wish him well," Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign aide who co-founded Avenue with Lewandowski, told the Herald in an email.

Politico reported Wednesday that Citgo finalized a $25,000-a-month contract with Avenue last month. The U.S. has been stepping up sanctions against the administration of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro -- a widely detested figure among Miami-Dade County's vast Venezuelan community.

Gimenez, a Coral Gables attorney, had characterized his role at Avenue as one of business development in Florida and Latin America. He and business partners met privately with Trump in January.