March 03, 2015

Activists unveil liberal agenda to counter Rick Scott's

Pointing to inequality and “self-delusion” by Gov. Rick Scott after his State of the State address Tuesday, a group of liberal activists called Awake the State outlined their proposals for the legislative session.

“We’re here to unveil a bold, progressive agenda that works for all Floridians, not just the wealthy and well connected,” said Barbara DeVane of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans.

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Town of Cutler Bay, headlined the announcement, which brought together activists on five central agenda items.

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Gov. Rick Scott delivers 2015 State of State address

The 2015 session of the Legislature opened Tuesday in Tallahassee with an upbeat State of the State speech from Gov. Rick Scott, who described a Florida where "everything is possible."

Addressing all 160 lawmakers in the House chamber, Scott reiterated his goals of cutting taxes, spending more money for public schools and job training and freezing graduate school tuition in Florida universities.

"We agree on more than we disagree on," Scott said in prepared remarks. "We want to give families back more of the money they earn and reduce the burden of government."

He asked lawmakers to help him keep a campaign promise to raise K-12 funding to its highest level in state history. That's likely to happen, but Scott's call for a freeze on graduate school tuition is already drawing resistance from lawmakers.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, told the Times/Herald: "There will be a pretty strong argument made by universities that graduate school costs are different than for undergraduates. That's one I would keep an eye on."

Scott's optimistic speech made no mention of current controversies over high-stakes testing of Florida students, the festering crisis in the state prison system or whether the state should expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Scott, a Republican, was re-elected in November with 48 percent of the vote, making him the only governor in Florida's 170-year history to win consecutive terms without receiving a majority of the vote either time. He has strong Republican majorities in both the Senate and House, but legislative leaders have already demonstrated a new willingness to test Scott and to emphasize their own priorities.

March 02, 2015

Excerpts from Rick Scott's State of the State

Tomorrow, Gov. Rick Scott will address both chambers of the Legislature with his priorities for the coming session. Here are a few excerpts from the speech:

· Certainly, we all have our own ideas, and we debate with vigor. But I do believe it is important to acknowledge that we all have common goals for the families that live in our great state. We want every person in Florida to have the opportunity to live the dream of America.

· I believe we are the best place in the country and the world to make dreams come true. I call this Florida Exceptionalism.

· Florida has long been a place where dreams come true. But, this is not just our past – it is our future.

· We have to ask ourselves who has the next big dream for Florida?: Who are the inventors? The builders? The trailblazers?

· We want more people to chase their dreams in Florida.

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February 27, 2015

CONNECT's unemployment system blasted by Auditor General


Gov. Rick Scott has repeatedly refused to answer questions about problems with Florida's unemployment claims system, CONNECT, since it launched in October 2013.

But according to an audit released Friday by the state's Auditor General, there are a number of critical issues with CONNECT, which is now estimated to cost taxpayers $77.9 million.

Chief among them is that the system broke Florida law by requiring its users to log in by using their Social Security Numbers, exposing them to an unnecessary risk. Florida law prohibits agencies from requiring SSNs if it's not imperative.

"The use of SSNs as user IDs is contrary to state law and increases the risk of improper disclosure of SSNs," the audit states.

Another finding by audits concluded there were no controls in place to ensure "the confidentiality, availability and integrity of its data."

In short, the system relies on millions of data records that are neither accurate or secure.

Read DEOconnectREPORT.  

"Oh my goodness," said Ali Bustamante, an economic policy analyst at Loyola University in New Orleans who reviewed the audit for the Times/Herald.  "This just shows (Scott's administration officials) had no idea how bad it was. They kept saying it was under control, but this audit clearly shows it wasn't under control."

The bad news at FDLE traveled fast -- to CFO's office

Florida Cabinet members have said they were blindsided by Gov. Rick Scott's decision to oust former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey on Dec. 16.

"(It) caught a lot of us by surprise," Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater recently told Capitol reporters.

It appears that it wasn't a complete surprise to Atwater, whose office began lobbying for one of his top aides to get the FDLE job before the ink was dry on Bailey's letter of "departure" (he refused to use the word resignation).

Emails show that Atwater's chief Cabinet affairs aide, Robert Tornillo, began promoting deputy CFO Jay Etheridge as the new head of FDLE even before Bailey's ouster was became publicly known. Bailey has said he got a surprise visit from Scott's former general counsel, Pete Antonacci, at about 11:45 a.m. on Dec. 16,and minutes later, Tornillo hand-delivered Etheridge's resume to Attorney General Pam Bondi's office on the first floor of the state Capitol building in Tallahassee.

Asked to explain the timing, Atwater spokeswoman Ashley Carr said: "At that time, it was known that the Governor's Office wished to make leadership changes at several agencies, including at FDLE. We offered the credentials of an individual who would make a candidate for consideration when the selection process was to begin."

It was nearly four hours later before Scott's office announced that he had appointed Rick Swearingen as interim FDLE commissioner. Atwater later called for a re-opening of the FDLE appointment, but neither his two Cabinet colleagues nor Scott agreed with him.

Here's Tornillo's email:

From: Tornillo, Robert
To: "Kent Perez"; Rob Johnson
Subject: FDLE
Date: Tuesday, December 16, 2014 11:52:39 AM

I dropped off two folders to Emery containing cover letter/resume for Jay Etheridge. Please call me if you have any questions.

Thanks, rt

Robert Tornillo
Director, Cabinet Affairs
Office of Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater

High-level staff changes at McCarty's insurance shop

With Gov. Rick Scott having acknowledged that he wants to show state insurance regulator Kevin McCarty the door, high-level staff changes are afoot at McCarty's Office of Insurance Regulation. But a knowledgeable source says the personnel moves have been in the works for a long time, and are not related to the current turmoil surrounding Cabinet agencies.

McCarty's chief of staff, Rebecca Matthews, will leave at the end of next week to be the executive director of the Florida Healthy Kids Corporation, and Richard Koon, deputy commissioner of property and casualty insurance, is also leaving for a private sector post.

Matthews' replacement will be Belinda Miller, OIR's general counsel, and Koon's replacement will be David Altmeier, who currently runs the P&C financial oversight unit in the insurance office, and the agency's new general counsel will be Anoush Brangaccio. The Matthews and Koon departures were first reported by SNL, an online news service that covers the insurance industry.

February 26, 2015

Fact-checks about the Florida Legislature including claims by Badass Teachers, Jeff Clemens and Eckerd prof

When the Florida Legislature convenes March 3, it will kick off a 60-day session during which legislators and Republican Gov. Rick Scott will fashion a budget and set policies on topics including K-12 tests, guns on college campus and whether to allow online voter registration.

At PolitiFact Florida we have fact-checked claims related to the state Legislature since 2011. In years past, we have fact-checked claims about the state’s Stand Your Ground lawMedicaid expansionCommon Core environmental spending and Sharia law.

We have our ears open for claims this year, and not everything has to be wonky. In 2012, one of our most-clicked on items was a claim by then Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, that Tampa was "the strip club capital of the world." We rated that claim False.

During the session, we will be tracking Scott’s progress on many of the 20 promises he made  for his second term that we’ll rate on our Scott-O-Meter. We have already rated some of his promises -- including those to increase school security spendingand funding for springs -- as In the Works.

In the weeks leading up to the session, we’ve fact-checked a few claims related to bills proposed this year. Here’s a look at our fact-checks so far.

Putnam's draft op-ed cites secrecy in Bailey's ouster

Photo(6)At the height of the outcry over the forced ouster of an FDLE commissioner by Gov. Rick Scott's office, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam was poised to go public with a strongly-worded denunciation of the Gerald Bailey fiasco, including a reference to "key actions" made in secret that deny Floridians the constitutional right of access.

The words, under Putnam's byline, are in the form of a draft opinion piece for newspaper editorial pages that was never submitted.

Putnam's deputy chief of staff, Amanda Bevis, drafted the op-ed on Jan. 21. She said it was not sent because Putnam was giving interviews to Capitol reporters and making similar points that third week in January. "Because of the volume of media coverage around the issue, we decided not to do an op-ed," Bevis said.

The tone of the unpublished piece makes points similar to the court pleadings by Florida media outlets that accuse Scott and Cabinet members of violating the Sunshine Law by quietly sacking Bailey with no public discussion or vote.

"The members of the Cabinet are required to meet on a regular basis to consider items that are required by statute to come before the Cabinet," Putnam's piece reads. "The recent, sudden transition in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, however, represents a breakdown in the Cabinet process. When key decisions are made without the concurrence of all Cabinet members and outside of Cabinet meetings, we are robbing our constituents of their right to witness these deliberations. Moreover, such activities are not reflective of the governing body that was established in Florida's Constitution and do not represent the open process and shared responsibilities that were intended to be carried out by this governing body."

Putnam's piece goes on to list his proposals for Cabinet reform, which he had announced earlier that day, including mandatory confirmation votes of Cabinet agency heads, quarterly performance reports, an application process and formal interviews by a selection committee "following appropriate public meeting notices and sunshine requirements."

Putnam used the term "breakdown" at a Feb. 5 Cabinet meeting in Tampa, when he renewed his call for changes to bring more openness to the hiring and firing of Cabinet agency heads.

February 25, 2015

A Rick Scott tax hike? Yes, some Republicans say

Gov. Rick Scott doesn't talk about how his "record" budget for schools requires the state to collect more taxes from Floridians. But some of his fellow Republicans say it's true.

Scott's $77 billion budget proposal now before the Legislature includes $842 million more for schools, bringing per pupil spending to its highest level. But nearly half of Scott's increase would come from higher property taxes paid by homeowners and businesses due to growth in property values.

Is that a tax increase? Absolutely, a key Republican legislator says.

"It is a tax increase if you're a property taxpayer who gets a tax bill that will go up next year compared to this year. Property taxpayers will look at that and say 'That's a tax increase,'" said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a key architect of the education budget as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. "The state is contributing less and less ... and local school districts are contributing more and more."

Gaetz, a former school superintendent and school board member in Okaloosa County, added: "If the check he (the taxpayer) has to write goes up, then he thinks his taxes go up."

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February 24, 2015

JIm York replaces George Sheldon in lawsuit challenging Gov. Scott's failure to disclose

Jim YorkWith former Attorney General George Sheldon now named as the top welfare chief for the state of Illinois, he is being replaced as the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against Gov. Rick Scott alleging he failed to accurately and publicly disclose his finances.

Former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Jim York has been named as the plaintiff in the case in an amendment filed in Leon County Circuit court today. Scott is asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit and the case is awaiting a June 22 hearing. Download the complaint here.

Sheldon, who was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for attorney general in November,  filed the lawsuit in early October requiring Scott to fully and completely disclose his financial interests. He said the lawsuit was prompted by a story in the Miami Herald that reported Scott's disclosure failed to include as much as $200 million in assets controlled by the governor through various accounts shared with his wife and family. 

Sheldon said he filed the lawsuit in honor of his mentor, the late Gov. Reubin Askew who  spearheaded the adoption of The Sunshine Amendment to the Florida Constitution which requires politicians disclose "financial interests" of more than $1,000.

York, an outspoken critic of Scott on Facebook, also worked for former Gov. Bob Graham, is being represented by Tallahassee lawyer Don Hinkle.

“This case was filed on behalf of all Floridians and is about upholding the Florida Constitution,'' Hinkle said. "We will continue to pursue the case on behalf of the people of Florida.”

Photo courtesy of the Florida Memory Project.