January 01, 2015

Judge blasts Florida for depriving children of needed healthcare

By Carol Marbin Miller

A federal judge Wednesday declared Florida’s healthcare system for needy and disabled children to be in violation of several federal laws, handing a stunning victory to doctors and children’s advocates who have fought for almost a decade to force the state to pay pediatricians enough money to ensure impoverished children can receive adequate care.

In his 153-page ruling, U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan said lawmakers had for years set the state’s Medicaid budget at an artificially low level, causing pediatricians and other specialists for children to opt out of the insurance program for the needy. In some areas of the state, parents had to travel long distances to see specialists.

The low spending plans, which forced Medicaid providers for needy children to be paid far below what private insurers would spend — and well below what doctors were paid in the Medicare program for a more powerful group, elders — amounted to rationing of care, the order said.

“This is a great day for the children in this state,” said Dr. Louis B. St. Petery, a Tallahassee pediatrician who is executive vice president of the Florida Pediatric Society and helped spearhead the suit. “This action was taken because we found that children weren’t being treated properly if they were on Medicaid. Our position as pediatricians,” he added, “is that children do not choose their parents. They don’t have a choice to be born into a rich family or a poor family.”

“We feel all children are of equal value,” St. Petery added.

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October 15, 2014

Report: Lower budget surplus will make campaign promises hard to reach

As Florida's governor's candidates face-off tonight for their second highly-anticipated debate in Broward County tonight, Florida TaxWatch is out with a sobering reminder.

The business-backed government watchdog group warns that the $336 million budget surplus Gov. Rick Scott, Charlie Crist and most of the Florida legislators are counting on to pay for their campaign promises is going to be pretty slim. (Scott, for example has promised $1 billion in cuts in taxes and fees over the next two years on top of new money for education and environment. ) In other words: be careful what you wish for.

"The $336 million surplus needs to be put into context," said Kurt Wenner, Vice President of Tax Research for Florida TaxWatch. "It is only 1.1 percent of projected General Revenue spending. It is also based on leaving only $1 billion in reserves, much smaller than what recent legislatures have left. The budget process will again be very competitive and it is our hope that each project will be thoroughly vetted by the full Legislature."

The report notes that this is the fourth straight year in which there has been a projected surplus heading into the legislative session, "but this surplus is much smaller than the $845.7 million surplus projected last year. Still, the continuation of the current string of surplus is a welcome change from the previous four years, which saw shortfalls averaging $2.7 billion." 

The TaxWatch report is also based on a set of assumptions that include the base budget will cover $1.2 billion in what the group deems "critical needs." That may be a bit of a subjective list. For example, as the Florida Department of Corrections faces a avalanche of excessive force and suspicious inmate death reports, TaxWatch still concludes there are no "critical needs" for funding in the state's criminal justice budget. Here's the report.

Here are the some of their budget assumptions: 

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October 10, 2014

Report: The untold jobs story -- as state workforce shrank, so did services

Workforce reportFrom the Center for Investigative Reporting:

Over the last decade, Florida has shed thousands of state jobs, the consequence of a poor economy and a political philosophy at work. The result has affected how well agencies that protect everything from children to the environment can do their jobs.

According to a workforce report compiled by the state, while the nationwide average number of state workers per 10,000 in population was 211 in 2012, Florida had just 111 that year. That’s almost half the national average.

The state’s population has grown by 4 million since 1998. Its budget has increased by $25 billion since 2000. Yet Florida has almost 10,000 fewer established positions in the State’s Personnel System, State University System, State Legislature, Courts System and Justice Administration combined, than it did 15 years ago.

This means Florida’s government has been operating at its lowest staffing levels in almost two decades.

Even as the economy rebounds, state government isn’t growing with it.

This has largely been the result of a predominately Republican Legislature, and three Republican governors since the late 1990s – all of whom campaigned on promises to shrink government.

As a result, public agencies tasked with protecting vulnerable children, monitoring waterways and providing benefits to Floridians who have fallen on hard times, are struggling to fulfill their mandates. More here. 

June 02, 2014

SkyRise Tower among the local projects vetoed by the governor

Gov. Rick Scott’s modest list of budget vetoes included $2 million for the controversial SkyRise Miami observation tower that had been a top priority of the Miami-Dade delegation, but most of the locally-sought projects survived.

“When you see a veto it kind of hurts a little but overall, I think we did very well,” said Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah, chairman of the Miami Dade County legislative delegation.

Miami-Dade lawmakers originally sought $10 million to contribute to the $430 million observation tower to be located behind Bayside Marketplace and rising 1,000 feet into the air. But amid resistance from other legislators, they eventually whittled it down to $2 million with the condition that it would only be used on public infrastructure, such as sidewalks and driveways. The money was also contingent on the project securing $400 million in private-sector funding.

“The governor felt it wasn’t deserving of the merits, that’s fine,’’ said Gonzalez, who is serving his final term but he said he expects legislators to return next year for state money, when construction on the project is expected to be underway. “Maybe we can sell it then,’’ he said.

The governor also disappointed several other local groups by vetoing the following: 

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April 06, 2014

Session at midpoint: Election year squelches controversy, aids harmony and rewards contributors

The Florida Legislature has passed the halfway point of its 60-day session and the fruits of its labor can be summed up in two words: election year.

With Gov. Rick Scott struggling in the polls as he seeks a second term in November, the Republican-led legislature has worked to send him bills to bolster his image while avoiding issues that could complicate the governor’s political prospects.

In one month, lawmakers swiftly passed a repeal of the 2009 auto tag fee that will save most drivers $25 a year and touted it as the largest general revenue tax reduction in a decade. They enacted tuition credits for returning military in an effort to make the state friendly for veterans. They strengthened penalties for perpetrators of sex crimes in response to newspaper reports on repeat sex offenders.

And, in one of many bills pushed by the National Rifle Association, they sent the governor a measure Thursday to allow people to fire warning shots in self-defense.

Before the session began, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said his goal was to help Scott “put points on the board” by passing popular legislation.

This week, Weatherford declared that the goal is “not to worry about elections this session. We’re here to do what we think is right.” Story here.


Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/04/05/4041743/at-session-midpoint-legislature.html#storylink=cpy

March 19, 2014

Jacobo vows to make wide-ranging changes in wake of 'Innocents Lost'


Esther JacoboThe head of the state’s child welfare agency told a House committee Tuesday that the child deaths documented by the Miami Herald exposed a gap in the state’s safety net and, for the first time, she acknowledged it will take more services, and money, to fix it.

However, Esther Jacobo, interim secretary of the Department of Children & Families, maintained that the agency does not need to change its policies related to removing high-risk children from unsafe homes in the wake of the Miami Herald’s “Innocents Lost” series.

“We need to identify what those additional services are and what additional resources we may need,’’ she said, noting that the resource levels may vary from region to region.

The Herald chronicled the deaths of 477 children over six years whose families had a history with DCF. The stories found that the number of children who died of abuse or neglect spiked after child welfare administrators implemented an intensive family-preservation program that reduced the number of children in state care while slashing services and oversight for those who remained with troubled families.

Jacobo held up a copy of the Miami Herald and told the House Healthy Families Subcommittee that she had read the series, noting that it gave a face to child welfare issues that are not unique to Florida.

“I think that the takeaway is that we as Floridians are...really working together to find solutions,’’ she said after the meeting. “The conversations are all leading in the direction that something absolutely will be done.” Read more here. 

 

October 30, 2013

Gaetz, Weatherford challenging proposed medical marijuana amendment

The battle to get the medical marijuana issue to voters in 2014 has encountered one more challenge.

On Wednesday afternoon, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz submitted a notice of intent to file a brief to the Supreme Court as “interested persons” opposing the ballot initiative. 

The legislative leaders said they weren't addressing the issue of medical marijuana but the language in the ballot proposal, yet Weatherford said the amendment would put "marijuana shops on very street corner" if it passes.

The legislative leaders have joined Attorney General Pam Bondi, who on Oct. 24, sent the proposed medical marijuana constitutional amendment to the Florida Supreme Court and asked for an opinion on the petition’s validity. Bondi noted the conflict with federal law but said there are other reasons to throw it off the ballot.

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October 15, 2013

Report warns that prolonged federal shutdown has weakened state revenues

Florida TaxWatchYou won't hear this from Gov. Rick Scott, but the federal budget shutdown is having a negative effect on Florida's tax revenues and capital investment. 

That is the conclusion of the business-backed research group, Florida TaxWatch, in a report released on Tuesday. The report, titled What the Government Shutdown & Debt Ceiling Crisis Mean to Florida, offers a general overview of the impacts the extended shutdown is having on Florida's economy with one bottom line: state revenues will drop.

The increasing uncertainly in the financial markets has reduced consumer confidence levels, "resulting in less spending and decreased investment, which are vital for economic growth and sustainability,'' the report notes.

 "Tourism, retail and Florida industries that rely heavily on capital investment will be the first to feel the effects of a government shutdown," said Dominic M. Calabro, President and CEO of Florida TaxWatch. "Since Florida collects 70 percent of its revenue through sales and use taxes, decreased purchasing activity will negatively impact the state budget."

The estimated $845.7 million in new revenue projected by budget analysts could dry up -- leaving less for the governor and legislative leaders to use to increase education spending, provide $500 million in tax breaks and expand business investment -- all promises the governor has already made for the election-year budget cycle.

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April 18, 2013

Dolphins bill heads to Senate floor, but trouble could be brewing in House

The Miami Dolphins have given a full embrace of a Senate plan that would help the team renovate its stadium, even as a much different House plan has stalled in the committee process.

The bill, SB 306, cleared its final committee Thursday and heads to the floor next. It would require the Dolphins to compete with other sports teams for a state tax break of up to $3 million per year. Teams would compete for a pot of $13 million in tax breaks, and would be ranked based on potential economic impact.

The House version of the bill does not include those provisions, and has stalled for the last two weeks. The chair of the House Budget committee has no plans to hear it anytime soon. If the House decides to spike the bill, the Dolphins' efforts at a taxpayer-supported stadium upgrade could die in Tallahassee.

Though the Senate version has additional stipulations that are not in the House bill (which offers a carve out specifically for the Dolphins), the team has embraced the bill that’s currently moving.

“We’re appreciative of the efforts that continue to move this forward,” said Dolphins CEO Mike Dee, who has traveled to Tallahassee for each of the bill’s seven committee stops in the Legislature.

While requiring competition for state tax breaks, the Senate bill still offers a carve out for Miami-Dade to raise its mainland tourist tax, potentially bringing in tens of millions of dollars for the team to rebuild its stadium. The tourist tax dollars could help the team generate up to $289 million while the state tax break could bring in $3 million annually for several years, according to an agreement with the county. The team’s stadium renovation could cost more than $350 million, and the Dolphins have agreed to pay back some of the tax dollars used for the project. 

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April 03, 2013

Dolphins clear another committee stop in quest for taxpayer-supported stadium upgrade

The Miami Dolphins have completed another first down in their drive to get taxpayers to pitch in millions of dollars for the team’s stadium renovation. 

Though the clock is running down, the Dolphins’ chances of getting millions of dollars in tax breaks improved Wednesday, when lawmakers on the House Economic Affairs Committee approved the proposal in a 10-7 vote. The bill picked up an amendment reflecting the Dolphins’ pledge to pay back sales tax rebates awarded by the state, after 30 years. 

The team’s drive had stalled in the House, with no hearings since its first committee stop on March 8. Economic Affairs chair Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, made it clear last month that opponents of the tax breaks had been lobbying him to bury the bill. Americans for Prosperity, which gave Patronis an A+ rating in 2011, is circulating a petition telling lawmakers to “End Corporate Welfare for Pro-Sports Teams.”

Patronis eventually voted against the bill, though he said it deserved a hearing and decided not kill it by keeping it off the agenda. 

"It is not appropriate to stand in the way of legislation that another member has put before you," he said.

Patronis said he had not been lobbied by House Speaker Will Weatherford to hear the bill. 

The Dolphins are hoping Miami-Dade County voters will raise the mainland hotel tax from 6 percent to 7 percent to help provide funding for a stadium renovation that could cost about $390 million. The team is also requesting up to $90 million in sales tax rebates from the state of Florida.

 Supporters of the bill, including Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, came to Tallahassee to show their support for the bill and attend the annual “Miami-Dade Days” at the Capitol. Opponents, including Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall, also showed up to slam the bill.

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