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April 12, 2017

Another shot at Medicaid expansion in Florida, but same result


(AP Photo)


It was already pretty clear politically that the Florida Legislature wasn't much in the mood to expand Medicaid, especially while national Republicans have been try to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. For two years the Florida Senate has considered the idea, only to see the Florida House block them each year.

But there were Democrats in the Florida Senate on Wednesday giving it one more effort to convince Republicans who control the Legislature to once again pass an expansion of Medicaid to cover 800,000 Floridians that currently don’t have health care coverage. As the Senate began debate on a more than $83 billion budget, Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, from Miami Gardens, took to the floor and offered up an amendment to expand Medicaid.

“These people are still suffering and don’t have health insurance,” Braynon told fellow senators as he pushed out the idea.

Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, responded on the floor, calling Medicaid expansion an important issue, but reminding senators that for two years their chamber passed what she called a “responsible” plan that the House still shot down both years. She said there is a “political reality” in that many of the same House members who blocked it before are still there. In addition, she said Braynon was proposing a straight expansion of Medicaid, which is not even the program the Senate passed the last two years to make it acceptable to Republicans in the Legislature.

Still State Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said Florida needed to try again to join 32 other states and the District of Columbia in expanding Medicaid.

“This is one of our priorities," Thurston said of Democrats in the Legislature. “This is what we are here for."

It failed.

On a voice vote (meaning no roll call vote) the Senate voted to kill Braynon’s amendment. That move effectively ends any chance Medicaid expansion will be on the table as the Legislature spends the next three weeks building a budget for next year. 

Do private prisons save money as promised? Legislature doesn't know but keeps approving

Richardson and Poppell at GadsdenWhen he was first elected, Florida Gov. Rick Scott was so determined to meet his campaign promise of saving $1 billion on prisons that he pushed through a series of contracts with private operators that on paper claimed to produce millions in annual savings.

But the promised savings have never materialized, according to audits done by Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who has been a one-man investigation unit into Florida’s troubled prison system. Many of the contracts, which were required to save at least 7 percent a year, actually cost the state more money than taxpayers would have spent if the programs had never been privatized. In some cases, he also found, medical care and access to programming in the private facilities was often worse.

“This is not saving the state money because they are more efficient; they are saving money as a contractor because they are denying goods and services to the inmates,” Richardson said.

His most recent prison audit, a review of Gadsden Correctional Facility in North Florida, found that the prison run by Management Training Corp. of Centerville, Utah, saved money by withholding heat, hot water, educational supplies and medical care for inmates for months. (The warden has resigned, and the company says it is addressing concerns.)

The governor’s goal to privatize dozens of prisons was thwarted by the state Senate in 2012, but he succeeded in advancing contracts with two healthcare companies to turn over prison medical care to private contractors. Legislators made sure that the contracts with the private vendors were not managed at the Department of Corrections, where career bureaucrats might be threatened by the private competitors, and moved them to the Department of Management Services, which has expertise in contracts, but not prisons.

Richardson discovered that in their zeal to hand over prison operations to private vendors, neither the governor’s office, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Management Services, nor the Legislature’s auditors ever went back to check whether the savings were valid.

On Thursday, Florida lawmakers are poised to adopt draft House and Senate budgets that Richardson says embed the same phantom savings into the budget for another year. Story here. 

Photo: Rep. David Richardson was joined by former Department of Management Secretary Chad Poppell at a visit to Gadsden Correctional Facility in North Florida, a private prison whose contract is managed by DMS. Photo courtesy of Rep. David Richardson.

Governor elevates Jason Dimitris from county to circuit court judge

Jason DimitrisGov. Rick Scott on Wednesday promoted Miami-Dade County Judge Jason E. Dimitris to the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court, filling the vacancy created by the resignation of Judge Victoria R. Brennan. 

Dimitris, 46, of Coral Gables, has been a county judge in Miami-Dade County since 2013. Before that, he was general counsel for the Florida Department of Management Services and chief of staff for the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Dimitris has prior experience as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, Assistant Statewide Prosecutor, and Assistant State Attorney. He received a bachelor’s degree from Rollins College and a law degree from Stetson University College of Law.

Brennan resigned after she was temporarily removed from the criminal division last year after being accused of bashing in a man’s windshield in the Florida Keys.

Photo: Jason Dimitris, courtesy of the Miami-Dade County Clerk of Court. 

New DNC chief is coming to Miami next week, with Bernie Sanders


To try to rebuild the Democratic Party, the new party chairman is hitting the road with a politician who is not a Democrat -- but who may nevertheless be the party's most prominent standard-bearer among grassroots activist.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, will be in Miami next Wednesday with Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez as part of a tour titled "Come Together and Fight Back."

"At a time of massive income and wealth inequality and a shrinking middle class, we need a government which represents all Americans, not just Wall Street, multi-national corporations and the top 1 percent," the two men said in a joint statement. "Regardless of where they live or their political affiliations, most people understand that it is absurd for Republicans in Congress to support huge tax breaks for billionaires while pushing for cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. They understand that the recent Republican health care proposal which would have thrown 24 million Americans off of their health insurance, substantially raised premiums for older workers and defunded Planned Parenthood while, at the same time, providing almost $300 billion in tax breaks to the top 2 percent is a disgraceful idea."

The rally will take place at 7 p.m. at the James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami.

Trump administration agrees to $1.5 billion for Florida hospitals' uninsured care


The federal government has agreed to restore $1.5 billion to a state program that repays hospitals that care for the uninsured, Gov. Rick Scott announced Wednesday.

The pot of money, called the Low Income Pool, was set to expire this year but has been part of broader negotiations over Florida's Medicaid program between state and federal officials.

“Working with the Trump Administration to secure a commitment of $1.5 billion in LIP funding for our state will truly improve the quality and access to health care for our most vulnerable populations," Scott said in a statement.

Three years ago, LIP was a $2 billion a year program funded by local tax dollars and matching federal funds. However, President Barack Obama's administration pushed to end the program after Florida refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

As a result, the program shrank over the last two years. Federal officials said Wednesday that they were restoring a portion of the LIP program in an effort to give the state more autonomy in its Medicaid program.

Hospitals reacted favorably to the announcement, calling it an encouraging step.

"We commend the Scott Administration and Trump Administration for working quickly to come to an agreement on funding health care for Florida’s most vulnerable citizens. This timely decision gives the Legislature the critical information it needs to develop its Health and Human Services budget," said Bruce Rueben, president of the Florida Hospital Association.

“The LIP funding helps our safety net hospitals carry out their mission of providing highly specialized, expensive and primary care to all citizens, regardless of their ability to pay," Tony Carvalho, president of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida said. 

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats failed in a renewed attempt too expand Medicaid to Floridians living at 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Doing so would have offered insurance to an estimated 800,000 people in the so-called "coverage gap" -- those who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford their own insurance.

The $1.5 billion pool could offset proposed cuts to Medicaid that hospitals say will increase costs for other patients, and they could help bridge a major gap between the House and Senate.

Hospitals currently face a $621.8 million cut in the House budget and a $258.6 million cut in the Senate's, though the Senate has been planning on a $600 million LIP program.

The House and Senate also announced they will begin negotiating differences over another major budget item as early as Monday: the future of the gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe.

Senate approves plan to store and clean 78 billion gallons of Everglades water

EvergladesAfter more than 20 years of mapping the need for a deep-water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, the Florida Senate voted 36-3 Wednesday for an ambitious proposal that will set in motion the $1.5 billion project.

The proposal, SB 10, is a top priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and will use state and federal money to build a deep-water reservoir to store and clean water before it is released into the Everglades and to avoid toxic discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. The proposal now moves to the House, where it will be woven into negotiations over the budget.

The plan will create at least 240,000 acre feet of storage — that’s about 78 billion gallons — south of the lake by converting 14,000 acres of state land now used as a shallow reservoir to build a deep-water reservoir.  It accelerates the timeline for the reservoir and requires congressional approval. Half of the cost will be shared by the federal government because it is already on the list of projects intended to repair the ailing Everglades. Story here. 

Andrew Gillum: House Republicans 'have a credibility problem'

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Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum — a Democrat running for governor next year — is accusing Republicans in the state House of having “a credibility problem.”

Speaking at a press conference today at the Florida Capitol about House Republicans' "schools of hope" legislation, Gillum said Republicans contradict themselves with their legislative priorities.

RELATED: " 'Schools of hope' are not the answer, Democrats say" (w/ video) 

Gillum said that, for instance, while Republicans say they want to help students in failing schools by bringing in charter-operated "schools of hope," they’ve also proposed this session little to help those same communities, which are often neighborhoods with low-income families who are predominantly black or Hispanic.

Gillum noted that Republicans have proposed limitations on government welfare programs, such as food stamps, and they also have not prioritized early childhood education spending or investing in health care programs that help low-income families afford medical services.

"The Republican House, right now, is trying to take $200 million and put into the hands of their friends who are well-healed and well-connected," Gillum said referencing the "schools of hope" plan. "They want us to trust them on this issue — when by and by, and time and time again, they have turned the other direction when it comes to meeting the needs of the most indigent in this state."

Photo credit: Courtesy of CateComm

Broward Democrat: 'We’re creating a segregated system' with 'schools of hope' (VIDEO)


Florida Democrats aren’t easing up on their criticism of House Republicans’ “schools of hope” plan to spend $200 million on attracting new charter schools to Florida that would serve students who currently attend perpetually failing traditional schools.

Democrats say the Republican proposal short-changes struggling neighborhood schools, which have tried to improve but are hamstrung by limitations — imposed by the Legislature — that charter schools don’t face.

“We’re creating a segregated system that will not fix the issue but will create deeper issues — pitting charter schools against our traditional public school system,” said Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee.

MORE: “Are ‘schools of hope’ the solution to perpetually failing public schools?”

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed public schools.

A few hours before the “schools of hope” legislation would be taken up on the House floor later Wednesday, Jones — joined by Democratic gubernatorial candidate and current Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum — convened a press conference to reiterate Democrats’ concerns with HB 5105.

Full story here.

Democrats file complaint against Putnam, alleging campaign finance violations

Adam Putnam APAgriculture Commission Adam Putnam’s decision not to disclose in detail how he uses the funds received by his political committee has drawn a complaint before the Florida Elections Commission.

The Democratic Governors Association, the partisan political organization determined to defeat Putnam when he announces a campaign for governor later this year, filed the complaint Wednesday accusing him of violating state law.

Citing a March 24 story in the Miami Herald, the complaint alleges that Putnam’s political committee, Florida Grown, gave $1.3 million in lump sum payments to the consulting firm run by his top political consultant, Justin Hollis, without detailing where the money goes in an alleged violation of a law that requires disclosure of individual expenditures when 80 percent of the costs are paid by the political committee.

“By only reporting the purpose of these expenditures as ‘consulting’ or ‘political consulting,’ Florida Grown PC is withholding relevant information that the Florida Election Code intends for political committees to disclose under Section 106.07(4)(a)(13),” wrote Elisabeth Pearson, executive director of Washington-based DGA.  Download FL Complaint_4.11 DGA Letterhead

“We request this commission immediately launch an investigation into these claims and take appropriate remedial action against Florida Grown PC,” she concluded in the three-page complaint. Story here. 


Rick Scott warns state not seeing 'big deals' because of Legislature's actions



As budget negotiations heat up in the Florida Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott continues to make his case for the Florida Senate and House to both fully fund Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida.

On Wednesday Scott started his day with another Jobs Roundtable, this time in Orlando, expressing frustration at the House for considering big cuts to both programs. Scott has now held 20 roundtable events since the start of the year calling on people in the business community to pressure the Legislature to keep both Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida fully funded.

And on Tuesday Scott told reporters after the Florida Cabinet meeting that since the Legislature first started cutting the flow of incentive dollars to Enterprise Florida last year, the state is seeing an impact. While private sector jobs are still growing, the state is “not seeing a lot of big deals” Scott said.

“We’ve got to compete,” Scott said about wanting to replenish the job incentive programs to attract more companies to come to Florida.

His plea comes as both the House and Senate are scheduled today to begin discussing a spending plan for next year. The House has no funding for Enterprise Florida in their budget and have proposed a dramatic cut to Visit Florida funding. The Senate has proposed giving Visit Florida $76 million - nearly equal to what it got this year from the state. For Enterprise Florida incentives, the Senate has proposed setting aside just over $84 million. About $38 million would be set aside for past incentive contracts that have already been agreed to with companies and $45 million would go to new incentive projects.