November 12, 2014

Bondi denies trips and lobbyists have influence over her

Ahhh, the first Cabinet meeting after winning re-election.

It should be a time to glory in getting confirmed for another four years, take a deep breath, and relax.

And it was all of that after Wednesday's uneventful Cabinet meeting for Gov. Rick Scott, who looked more relaxed than he has in months, and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam.

But it wasn't such an easy welcome back for Attorney General Pam Bondi, who faced questions stemming from a spate of stories from the New York Times, the Times/Herald and AP about a series of trips she’s taken where out-of-state lobbyists have access to her and her staff (we’re talking dinners, drinks and socializing).

But since the New York Times broke the story about how Dickstein Shapiro, a Washington D.C. lobbying firm, has lobbied Bondi at the same time a series of cases against their clients in Florida have fizzled, she’s pretty much maintained that the firm's access hasn't influenced her at all.

On Wednesday, surrounded by a clutch of reporters asking questions about her trips, Bondi stuck to that talking point.

Here’s the q and a.  

Question: The optics of $51,000 of free travel in gifts, some of which potentially funneled through the Republican Attorneys General Association by a Washington law firm, whether it’s legal or not, what about the optics?

Bondi: “No lobbyists, no person, no corporation, no individual, will ever compromise what we do in our office regarding unfair and deceptive trade practices, nor how we protect the consumers of the state of florida. We will continue to protect the consumers of the state of Florida and that’s not going to change. All questions other than that have been answered.”

Question: To the average person, $51,000 (the cost of her trips to conferences) is more than they make in a year.

Bondi: You can refer to the Republican Attorneys General Association for those answers and the amount of dollars. I’m proud of what we’ve done to protect consumers. No access to me nor my staff will ever affect what we do to protect consumers of the state of Florida.

Question: The attention that this has gotten, has it surprised you? Have you learned anything about this experience?

Bondi: I wish our responses were printed in your newspaper. That’s what I wish because no access to me or my staff will ever affect what we do -- and we’ve shown that -- to protect consumers of this great state. And we will continue to fight with everything we’ve got against fraud, unfair and deceptive trade practices and we will continue to do that for the next four years. We’re proud of our record and just wait and see what we have coming to protect our consumers.

Question: Were any lobbying laws broken by having these lawyers lobby (you and your staff) without being registered in Florida?

Bondi: You’re going to have to refer that to their attorneys.

Fact-checking José Díaz-Balart's claim about deportations

As part of his post-election analysis, Telemundo news anchor and MSNBC host José Díaz-Balart argued that the Hispanic vote remains up for grabs going forward because politicians of both parties seem uninterested in addressing Hispanics’ concerns.

"Every single day in this country, 1,000 people are deported and the vast majority of those people that are deported aren't criminals," Díaz-Balart said on NBC’s Meet the Press Nov. 9, 2014. "The people that are being deported many times are family, fathers and mothers and those people don't see anyone in Washington standing up and saying, let's deal with this problem."

We’ll stay out of the politics of the issue, but we were curious about Díaz-Balart’s claim that 1,000 people are deported every day and that the vast majority aren’t criminals. (His brother is U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.)

Turn to Jon Greenberg's fact-check from PunditFact for the answer.

Rep. Jim Boyd to serve as House majority whip


State Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, has been named deputy majority leader and whip, Florida House leaders announced Wednesday.

Incoming Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said Boyd had "earned the respect of Republican and Democrat members alike."

"He has proven himself as a great leader and someone who can effectively communicate the conservative principles and beliefs we both share," Crisafulli said. "He is someone I trust and someone that I rely on for counsel. I firmly believe there is no one better suited to serve as Whip and I look forward to working with him over the next two years."

Crisafulli has already selected Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, to lead the powerful budget committee.

Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, will be majority leader. Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, will be rules chair. And Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, will be speaker pro tempore.


Sellers leading choice to be Scott's new chief of staff

After successfully guiding Gov. Rick Scott's re-election victory, campaign manager Melissa Sellers is a leading candidate to be Scott's new chief of staff in a second term, running state government on a day-to-day basis.

Multiple Capitol sources say Sellers is at the top of a very short list of candidates to succeed Adam Hollingsworth, who will soon return to private life after two-and-a-half years in the high-pressure position.

"It's Melissa's if she wants it," one source said.

One question about Sellers concerns timing, and whether she might take a high-level post in the presidential campaign of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or her former boss, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Contacted Wednesday, Sellers declined to comment.

Sellers, 32, is a driven and disciplined Scott loyalist who joined his staff as communications director in 2012 and was appointed campaign manager last January. 

"It's going to shake out pretty quickly," another source said Wednesday, predicting Scott would reorganize his senior staff within weeks.  

On Election Night in Bonita Springs, Scott told cheering supporters how his late mother Esther shaped his life, before he turned his attention to his campaign team. "I have a tremendous staff," Scott told the crowd, and the next two words out of his mouth were: "Melissa Sellers."

Election altered balance of Florida’s school choice debate

The state representatives who lost their seats last week had more in common than their political party.

Three of the six Democrats were classroom teachers who supported the teachers union — and who opposed plans to expand the school voucher program.

Voucher advocates say they invested "substantial" resources to topple the three incumbents — former state Reps. Karen Castor Dentel of Maitland, Mark Danish of Tampa and Carl Zimmermann of Palm Harbor — as well as former state Rep. Joe Saunders of Orlando.

Their political committee, the Florida Federation for Children, spent $1.31 million on political races in Florida in 2013 and 2014, records show.

It is hard to tell whether the investment tipped the balance in the four House races, but one thing is certain: The incumbents' absence will be noticeable when the Legislature convenes.

"The Dems lost their entire education team," said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity.

What's more, observers say voucher expansion is likely to be on the fast track when lawmakers return to Tallahassee.

"They have the House, the Senate and the governor clearly supporting it," said veteran lobbyist Tom Cerra, who represents the Greater Florida Consortium of School Boards and the Miami-Dade school district.

Read more here.

Half of Florida 'barely getting by' poverty report shows


Almost half the residents of Florida, including much of the state’s glitzy southern half, are barely getting by, living below the federal poverty level or struggling to pay for food, housing, childcare and other basic needs, according to a United Way study released Tuesday.

Dubbed the ALICE report, the study looks closely at the working poor — those people squeezed between the nation’s poorest and its middle class, often overlooked and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Statewide, about 2.1 million households fall into the category, the report found. In Miami-Dade County, the rate is even higher: 21 percent of households live below the federal poverty level and an additional 29 percent can’t afford a “survival budget.”

In Broward and Monroe counties, the numbers are almost as bleak, with 47 and 48 percent living below the poverty level or scrambling to cover basic needs, according to the report. Story here.  

Key excerpts:

They attribute the swelling ranks of the poor to a variety of reasons.

More than half of the jobs in Florida pay less than $15 an hour, with the greatest growth in the job market projected for low-paying retail and service industry jobs. Almost half of households — 48 percent — don’t have enough savings or liquid assets to survive three months without a paycheck. And the state’s aging population means even more residents are likely to slip into poverty.

The state’s demographics don’t offer much hope: Only 27 percent of residents older than 25 hold a bachelor’s or advanced degree.

November 11, 2014

Tribune lays off veteran political reporter William March, without warning


Bad news for Florida politics: The Tampa Tribune yesterday afternoon suddenly and apparently without warning laid off its well-respected political writer William March, who had been with Tampa Bay's smaller newspaper since 1984. He began covering state politics in 1994 when a young GOP activist in Miami named Jeb Bush had the gumption to think he could win the GOP nomination for governor against much more experienced candidates.

I can personally attest to March being an annoyingly tough and well-sourced competitor with vast knowledge and curiosity about Florida's complex politics and a reputation for fairness. He's also a good guy.

We did the Florida This Week TV show together on WEDU Friday, and March had to sprint back to the office after the taping  to finish his weekender. It was nice of the powers that be at the Trib to let March, 65, finish up covering the election a week ago and then his wrap-up weekender before handing him his departure papers Monday. He said he had no warning.

"There were disagreements over our coverage of the governor's race. I don't know whether that had anything to do with it," he said. "I was told it was a straight lay-off."

Report: Florida hospitals could lose billions without Medicaid expansion


Florida legislators’ refusal to expand the eligibility criteria for Medicaid as called for under the Affordable Care Act might cost billions of dollars in lost funding for hospitals that treat many uninsured patients, according to a report released Monday by Florida Legal Services, a nonprofit legal advocate for the poor.

The financial impact would be felt most acutely by so-called “safety net” hospitals statewide, and in Miami-Dade, particularly by the taxpayer-owned Jackson Health System, according to Florida Legal, which estimated that Jackson could lose more than $570 million a year.

Other Miami-Dade hospitals, including University of Miami Hospital and Mount Sinai Medical Center, could lose as much as a combined $60 million a year, according to the report, while hospitals in Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties stand to lose more than $500 million in annual federal funding.

But if state legislators were to accept the government’s offer to spend about $5 billion a year to expand Medicaid to an estimated 760,000 more Floridians, the new revenue would more than offset the anticipated loss of federal funding for hospitals that treat many uninsured patients, Florida Legal reports.

More here.

November 10, 2014

Movers & Shakers

Dominguez takes over as regional director of external affairs in Miami

Alex Dominguez has been named the new regional director of external affairs for the city of Miami and South Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Domingues previously served as the director of the Miami-Dade County Legislative Delegation. 

He has also had roles as the director of fundraising and membership development for the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, the South Florida political coordinator for the Florida Association of Realtors and he was a Florida House Legislative Fellow.

In his position, Dominguez will handle legislative and community affairs initiatives. He will also assist with new technology deployment and infrastructure investment.

On the bench

Judge Rodolfo Ruiz II and Jason Bloch have been appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to Miami-Dade County's Eleventh Judicial Circuit.

Continue reading "Movers & Shakers" »

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.