September 29, 2016

Scott takes victory lap on $1.1B Zika funding but wants more federal help


It's not yet certain how Florida will benefit from the $1.1 billion Zika spending package Congress passed Wednesday, but on a call with reporters, Gov. Rick Scott made this clear: It's about time the federal government acted.

"What's frustrating is everybody said they were for funding," said Scott, who has traveled to Washington, D.C., twice to meet with congressional leaders and demand emergency money. "I'm frustrated it took so long. I think it shows the incompetence of the federal government, but I'm glad we got something passed."

Now, the governor is asking for the feds to refund the state for money it spent under an emergency declaration signed by Scott in February. To date, Florida has spent $36 million on fighting and preventing the spread of Zika and Scott last week promised another $25 million for a vaccine research grant program. That's on top of millions spent by local governments, particularly in Miami-Dade County, where the virus continues to spread in Miami Beach.

"My goal is the federal government will give the money out quickly," Scott said.

He also renewed demands for additional support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He wants the CDC to send an epidemiologist, match the grant funds for vaccine research and speed up test results for pregnant women.

But the federal government already has provided resources, including sending an epidemiologist. The CDC has to date spent well over $100 million on a vaccine research program.

As well, the CDC has granted $8 million in Zika-specific aid to Florida, as well as $27 million in federal emergency funds that could be used to combat Zika, in addition to other purposes. As of Friday, Florida had used less than $3 million, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Much of that money is allocated for other purposes, and the state has budgeted for -- even if it hasn't spent -- all of the Zika-specific money from the federal government, spokespeople for the state of Florida told the Miami Herald last week.

Pregnant women have reported waiting as long as five weeks to receive the results of Zika tests Scott made available in every county health department. The CDC has bought some lab resources to speed that up.

Under Scott, the state has cut staffing in the Florida Department of Health, reducing the agency from more than 17,000 positions when he took office in in 2011 to fewer than 14,000 full-time employees this year, according to state records.

This has not impacted Zika test results, Scott insists. Cuts are all tied to a change in the Medicaid program that farmed out work to private health insurers, he said.

"Any efficiencies made in years past did not impact the response to Zika," Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said.

Some of the testing has to be done by the CDC, and that's what the state is waiting on, according to Scott's office. 

"We are clearly doing our part," he said, "but the CDC needs to provide an epidemiologist, needs to provide lab support."

Rick Scott on Trump's Cuba troubles: It's a Clinton 'distraction'; Rubio says it's troubling

Gov. Rick Scott said he hasn't read the Newsweek story alleging that Donald Trump broke the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba by hiring a consulting firm in late 1998, but he did have an opinion on it: It's a distraction fueled rival Hillary Clinton.
"I haven't seen the article. I've not talked to Trump about it. I assume this is more of what Hillary Clinton keeps doing,'' Scott told reporters in Orlando Thursday.
"She doesn't want to talk about job creation because she didn't get it done. She doesn't want to talk about ISIS because she failed. She doesn't want to support law enforcement or the military, which she's failed at. This is another Clinton distraction because the election is going to be about jobs. It's going to be about -- Donald knows how to create jobs. He's done it. Clinton never has."

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida's most prominent Cuban-American lawmaker, called the Newsweek report “troubling.”

“The article makes some very serious and troubling allegations,” he said in a campaign statement. “I will reserve judgment until we know all the facts and Donald has been given the opportunity to respond.”

Newsweek reported that Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts paid at least $68,000 to a consulting firm in an attempt to give Trump’s business a head start in Cuba if the U.S. loosened or lifted trade sanctions, according to the front-page Newsweek report, titled “The Castro Connection.” Read more here. 
The consulting firm, Seven Arrows Investment and Development Corp., later instructed the casino company on how to make it look like legal spending for charity.

The following year, Trump flirted with a Reform Party presidential run, giving a November 1999 speech to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami where he cast himself as a pro-embargo hardliner who refused to do potentially lucrative business on the communist island until Fidel Castro was gone.

September 28, 2016

Florida will let Miami-Dade publish Zika mosquito locations

via @joeflech

Miami-Dade County on Wednesday will release the locations of mosquito traps that captured Zika-positive insects in Miami Beach, the result of a public dispute between state and local officials after the Miami Herald filed a lawsuit seeking the information.

The word came Tuesday evening, an hour after Gov. Rick Scott and Surgeon General Celeste Philip agreed that Miami-Dade can release the trap locations.

“Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez will be releasing the locations [Wednesday] morning now that the Florida Department of Health has approved the dissemination of the information,” said Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernandez, adding that property owners at the locations will likely be notified Tuesday night or early Wednesday.

Earlier Tuesday, Gimenez sent a letter to the state health department saying he would release the locations of the traps unless state health officials prohibited the action — in writing — by Wednesday afternoon.

“This decision is one that is solely the county’s to make,” responded spokesman McKinley P. Lewis, a few hours later. “Gov. Scott encourages the county to disclose the locations of these traps immediately so that their residents may remain fully informed.”

More here.

September 22, 2016

Rick Scott directs $25M toward Zika vaccine research


In an unusual move, Gov. Rick Scott announced Thursday he'll use his emergency powers to direct $25 million from the state for Zika research.

The Florida Department of Health will dole out the money through a competitive grant for speeding up the development of a Zika vaccine and "innovative, cost-effective" methods to test for the virus.

Scott has traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge congressional action and routinely called out the federal government on cable news for failing to pass a Zika funding bill. On Thursday, he did the same.

"Every minute that passes that Congress doesn’t approve funding means more time is lost from researching this virus," Scott said in a statement. "For the sake of our state’s future children, this is time we cannot afford to waste."

The first cases of Zika spread by mosquitoes in the continental United States began this July in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood.

To date, there have been 874 Florida cases of the virus, which is linked to birth defects, according to the Florida Department of Health. While most of those cases are connected to travel abroad, 92 have been linked to local infections spreading, most notably in Miami Beach and Wynwood, though additional locally-spread cases were found in Pinellas, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

As governor, Scott can allocate funds in emergencies without the Legislature's approval. In February, he declared a public health emergency to address the burgeoning threat Zika posed.

In July, Scott expanded the emergency declaration to authorize $26.2 million in spending for mosquito control, testing pregnant women and preventing Zika's spread. Last week, he announced another $10 million for that cause.

How Scott sidelined Lopez-Cantera during the GOP Senate race


Something unusual happened to Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera this month: Gov. Rick Scott started giving him things to do again.

None of it was heavy lifting. But the change to Lopez-Cantera’s public schedule was immediate and striking: The calendar hit September, and the Miami-based lieutenant was hitting the road, touring businesses, visiting schools and attending meetings after a summer of political exile.

For three months, Lopez-Cantera had hardly been visible in matters of state — while Scott had one of his busiest seasons in office. The Pulse gay nightclub shooting in Orlando. The Zika virus outbreak in Miami. The Hurricane Hermine aftermath in Tallahassee. Scott moved from crisis to crisis, seizing the chance to appear on camera as a hands-on chief executive.

Lopez-Cantera played little part. He could have served as a Spanish-speaking surrogate to the families of the Orlando victims, many of whom were Hispanic. He could have been a constant state presence in his hometown of Miami as Zika cases piled up.

Instead, his calendar usually listed him as having “no scheduled events.”

“Carlos hasn’t had anything to do, other than show up at a photo op,” said his predecessor, former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. “Which is a discredit to him, because the people elected a governor and a lieutenant governor to work on their behalf.”

A Miami Herald review of the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s public schedules from June 12 (the day of the Pulse shooting) to Aug. 30 (the day of the Florida primary) found 254 events for Scott, compared to only 21 for Lopez-Cantera. On at least four occasions, Scott attended an event in Miami-Dade or Broward counties — within driving distance from Lopez-Cantera’s Coral Gables home — without the LG.

What changed in September? The primary was over. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio had crushed Republican challenger Carlos Beruff.

More here.

Photo credit: Mark Wallheiser, Associated Press

In op-ed, Gov. Scott blasts federal government over Zika

via @learyreports

Gov. Rick Scott uses a USA Today op/ed Thursday to lash out at the "incompetence" of the federal government to address Zika. He goes after Congress and the president, accusing Barack Obama of failing to show leadership. "It would be nice if he stopped taking vacations and focused all his energy on this," Scott says.

At the same time, Scott came home empty handed from a lobbying mission to Capitol Hill last week. He also took a partisan shot at Sen. Bill Nelson that drew rebukes from fellow Republicans.

"In all my meetings with both Republicans and Democrats, I couldn’t find anyone who opposes the federal government spending money to eradicate Zika," Scott writes. "But, what has happened? Nothing. It’s a perfect example of the complete dysfunction in Washington. Everyone is for funding to get rid of Zika — so of course nothing happens.

"This explains the problem with our entire federal government — incompetence.

"When you travel around and talk to voters all across the country today, they will tell you that Washington is broken. That’s not really true, it is much worse than broken. To call our federal government broken is far too complimentary. No, the truth is that Washington is completely incompetent. ...

"Meanwhile, the taxpayers of Florida have now spent over $26 million fighting Zika, and I just allocated another $10 million to ensure our counties and local mosquito boards continue to have all of the resources they need to combat Zika. We are doing our part in Florida, but we need the federal government to be a good partner, which includes both Congress and President Obama. Obama has not provided the leadership that is needed to get this done, and it would be nice if he stopped taking vacations and focused all his energy on this.

"Our broken federal government would never survive in the business world. If they were a company, they would fail. They would go under. They would be fired. Yet, members of Congress scratch their heads and wonder why the public is fed up with Washington."

Full piece here.

September 20, 2016

Will the governor and Cabinet hold FDLE accountable for investigating inmate deaths?

Prison deathsSix years after 27-year-old prison inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo died at Franklin Correctional Institution  after being gassed by corrections officers, an investigation has still not been complete and witnesses to the incident, who allege he was tortured and beaten by corrections officers, have still not been interviewed, according to a 33-page federal civil rights lawsuit filed Monday.

On Tuesday, the head of the agency charged with investigating the state's role in the death, Rick Swearingen, faces his six-month performance review before the governor and Cabinet today. The governor and Cabinet jointly are responsible for oversight of FDLE.

On Monday, the Herald/Times asked if the governor and Cabinet believed FDLE was sufficiently following up  on the abuse-related deaths at the Department of Corrections, as the agency had told legislators it would do. For the past three years, the Miami Herald has chronicled or revealed details about many of the deaths.

The question was not about the pending investigation but how the governor and members of the Cabinet is holding FDLE accountable regarding its performance about an inmate death nearly six years ago and other deaths the agency is charged with reviewing. 

Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater responded. No one chose to answer the question, or explain why they didn't want to answer it. We did not receive a response from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Here is what we asked:

"We are writing today about a federal lawsuit being filed in connection with the death of inmate Randall Jordan Aparo in 2010. We understand the investigation was re-opened by FDLE, however, many of the witnesses in the case and others have not been interviewed, according to the lawsuit. 

"As you prepare the performance review of FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen on Tuesday, could the governor provide us with an answer to this question:

"Have you have been assured that Commissioner Swearingen and his staff are sufficiently following up on the abuse-related deaths at the Department of Corrections? If you are confident these investigations are underway, please explain how you reached that conclusion."

Here's how the governor's office answered the question at 9:47 p.m.

"Commissioner Swearingen has done a great job in his leadership role at FDLE. We look forward to his performance review tomorrow,'' said Lauren Schenone, the governor's press secretary. "Florida is now at a 45-year crime low because of the hard work of Florida’s law enforcement officers, and Commissioner Swearingen has dedicated his career to making sure Florida is the safest state in the nation.”

Here is how the office of CFO Atwater responded: "Our office has not had specific conversations about inmate investigations," said Ashley Carr, spokeswoman for Atwater.

Here is how Bondi's office responded: "It would not be appropriate to comment on a pending investigation,'' said Kylie Mason, Bondi press secretary. "Furthermore, any discussion relating to FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen's performance review must be addressed in the open at the public Cabinet meeting."

September 16, 2016

Scott picks Tampa water utilities veteran as the next PSC commissioner

Donald PolmannA water utilities veteran who has spent a career navigating the water wars of Tampa Bay was named Florida's next public service commissioner late Thursday by Gov. Rick Scott.

Donald Polmann, 59, who has twice been on the short list of nominees to come before the governor, will replace Lisa Edgar for the four-year term on the state utilities board beginning Jan. 2. Edgar, 53, is retiring after 12 years on the board.

Polmann is Scott's fourth appointment to the influential five-member panel that has the power to raise or lower customer utility bills. The four-year term pays $131,000 a year.

For the first time, the governor did not select a legislative insider or incumbent to the post, as he did when he reappointed Edgar in 2012 and subsequently reappointed PSC Commissioners Art Graham and Ron Brise to second terms, and named former state House Rep. Jimmy Patronis to an open seat. All were candidates preferred by the state's politically powerful utility giants which were among the largest contributors to Scott's re-election bid in 2014.

Polmann, was one of the finalists recommended in 2012 when Scott reappointed Edgar and again in 2013 when the governor reappointed Brise and Graham.

Polmann received his bachelor’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, his master’s degree from the University of Florida, and a doctorate in civil engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Polmann served as director of science and engineering at Tampa Bay Water, a regional water supply authority. He has spent most of his 30-year career focused on drinking water regulation and protection and is currently self-employed as a consultant in civil and environmental engineering.

Polmann, who is currently self-employed as a consultant in civil and environmental engineering, has the support of Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. In a letter of recommendation on Polmann's behalf, Latvala said he had known Polmann, a constituent, for 15 years and that Polmann "was a major player in the transformation of Tampa Bay Water from the previous agency, the West Coast Regional Water Authority."

Latvala was an outspoken critic of Edgar's, who was first appointed to the post by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2004, reappointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 and by Scott four years later.

Scott choose Polmann over two other candidates, Gainesville City Commissioner Todd Chase and Florida SouthWestern State College professor Cynthia Wilson Orndoff. He must be confirmed by the Florida Senate for his term to be official.

In his interview before the PSC Nominating Council on Aug. 18, Polmann said his "family heritage in construction and blue collar work" as well as his experience as a water manager will inform his outlook.

"On one hand, I've witnessed the struggles of making ends meet, both at home and in the family business, in a tough economy,'' he said. "How can we possibly raise utility rates with those conditions prevalent in so many places in our communities? On the other hand, we find infrastructure in our cities and towns throughout our state sorely in need of repair, replacement, upgrade, and yes, expansion, as our state's economy grows."

"...We've been seeing more and water breaks, sewer plant overflows, power outages, etc. -- quality of service -- and reliability must be addressed,'' he said.

He added that his expertise in water and environmental resource management; operations research, risk and uncertainty; regulatory and policy compliance; quality assurance and strategic planning and the state's Sunshine law will serve him well to find the balance between competing issues.interests, including utility investors.

The five-member PSC is in the midst of a controversial $1.3 billion rate case with Florida Power & Light.

The PSC is an agency that reports to and is funded by the Legislature, but commissioners are appointed by the governor after receiving a list of recommendations from the PSC Nominating Council, which is dominated by legislators.

September 15, 2016

Rubio defends Nelson after Scott Zika attack

via @learyreports

Gov. Rick Scott’s attack on Sen. Bill Nelson didn’t go over so well in Washington. First Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen rebuked Scott for partisanship then Sen. Marco Rubio defended Nelson, though without naming Scott.

“I would remind everyone that the Senate did act on this issue back in May in a bipartisan way,” Rubio said Wednesday afternoon in a floor speech about Zika. “And I would like to take this moment to point out that my colleague, Senator Bill Nelson from Florida, has been great to work with on this and multiple issues but on this one in particular and I thank him for his partnership and hard work in this regard.

"I enjoy our partnership on many issues involving the state of Florida including a water bill before the Senate. But on this issue of Zika in particular.”

Scott did not back down Wednesday, a day after saying Nelson turned his "back" on Florida by voting against a Zika funding bill that included provisions Democrats say attacks Planned Parenthood. Rubio voted for that bill but also supports a so-called clean funding bill.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

September 14, 2016

Scott leaves Washington positive but without Zika deal

via @learyreports

WASHINGTON -- Gov. Rick Scott concluded a two-day visit to Capitol Hill without gaining assurances that lawmakers will act on funding to fight Zika. Still, he maintained a positive air.

“Everybody’s supportive,” Scott said in an interview outside the Capitol.

At the same time the Republican seemed frustrated that “everybody wants to explain the politics” why funding has not moved. “It hasn’t been accomplished yet,” Scott said, adding he was concerned about babies that could be affected by the virus.

Scott met with a range of officials over two days, including this afternoon with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who holds the keys to a deal to insert $1.1 billion in a stop-gap budget measure. That deal has yet to emerge.

Scott stood by criticism of Sen. Bill Nelson, who voted last week against a $1.1 billion measure because, as Democrats contend, it would block funding to a Planned Parenthood affiliate in Puerto Rico. Earlier Wednesday Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Scott’s comments were not helpful.

“We don’t need to be calling people out,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Sen. Nelson has been trying to help get Zika funding.”


--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times