January 23, 2013

Scott's teacher pay plan: $2,500 across-the-board raises

Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday proposed a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise for all full-time Florida teachers next year, a proposal that he says would cost nearly half a billion dollars. That would consume at least part of a tentative projected budget surplus of $437 million.

"I can think of no better investment for our state," Scott said in prepared remarks released by his office. 

Scott said his plan, which includes "related benefits," would cost $480 million statewide. He outlined the details for the first time at Ocoee Middle School near Orlando and emphasized that he also will propose an overall increase in education funding when he releases his detailed budget recommendations next week.

"I've traveled the state and I've talked to teachers," Scott told reporters before he flew to Orlando. "They're working tirelessly to make sure our students have achievement. I'm very appreciative of what our teachers do."

Scott said he remains supportive of a merit pay plan tied to student progress on standardized test scores. Merit pay became law two years ago but the state has provided no money for it and teachers are challenging it in court.

The governor's call for an across-the-board pay increase for teachers will be a recommendation to the state Legislature, which writes the annual state budget.

-- Steve Bousquet

 

December 28, 2012

Taxpayers cough up another $190,000 in legal fees for Scott’s drug testing push

Gov. Rick Scott’s drug-testing push has racked up even more legal bills, with a federal judge ordering the state to pay $190,000 in attorney’s fees for a case involving state workers.

The ruling, posted Friday, orders Scott—and by extension, taxpayers—to cover the legal fees of the lawyers that took on the governor’s controversial plan to require random drug testing for state workers.

The $190,000 legal tab is in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and costs spent in attempts to defend controversial laws passed by Scott. They include drug testing for welfare recipients, a 3-percent employee contributions for state workers’ pensions, voting law changes and a 2011 law banning doctors from asking patients about guns. In most cases, judges have ruled the laws to be unconstitutional, sparking appeals from Scott and higher legal fees.

Scott ordered the state-worker drug testing plan shortly after taking office in 2011, potentially subjecting the state’s 85,000 employees to random drug tests. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sued and U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro ruled in April that the testing plan constituted an unconstitutional search and seizure. Scott immediately vowed to appeal.

"I respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling and will pursue the case on appeal,” Scott said in a statement that mirrors several others he has made this year.

But while the appeal plays out, taxpayers remain liable for paying the attorney’s fees of the plaintiffs. Those fees ran as high as $312,000—with lawyers billing up to $600 per hours—before a judge ruled that $190,000 was more appropriate.

If those fees are added to the $888,000 legal bills cited in this July article in the Orlando Sentinel, then controversial laws passed by the Legislature and Scott have easily cost taxpayers more than $1 million in the last two years.

Several cases are currently being litigated or appealed, so the legal meter continues to run each day.

@ToluseO

December 20, 2012

Legislature wants budget transparency but exempts itself from the rules

Florida's lawmakers say they want to make the state's $70 billion budget process more transparent but when it comes to handling contracts and disclosing state salaries, neither Senate President Don Gaetz nor House Speaker Will Weatherford is quite ready to require the legislature be held to the same standards that it imposes on state agencies.

State law imposes strict rules for no-bid and sole source contracts in state government, requiring any contract over $250,000 be put out to bid and any sole source vendor to meet strict requirements. But the legislature has exempted itself from those rules.

There are nearly 33,400 contracts listed on the Chief Financial Officer's website with data on who gets paid for them and how much each vendor collects from taxpayers. The legislature does not list any of its contracts on the public site.

Anyone working for state government in an agency or state university has his salary posted for all to see on Gov. Rick Scott's FloridaHasARighttoKnow.com website. But there is no salary information for the legislature and its 1,530 employees.

Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who each became presiding officers in November, make it available only upon request. This doesn't please Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, himself a former Republican Senate president from North Palm Beach.

"I don't think the legislature should be exempting itself from the laws it is placing on other agencies,'' Atwater said last week. Story here.

December 15, 2012

Governor to keep $5 million Transparency 2.0 on the shelf and seek bids

A budget tracking web site paid for by Florida taxpayers but never made public will remain on the shelf as Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday that he will seek bids to create a public budget watchdog site and the vendors of the existing system can get in line with everyone else.

“We have decided to begin a competitive procurement process to contract with a company that best demonstrates their ability to publish web-based, user-friendly budget data at the lowest cost to taxpayers,’’ said Melissa Sellers, communications director for the governor.

The Florida Senate paid $5 million to Spider Data Services to develop Transparency 2.0 for use by the Senate and its staff to monitor the budget, state contracts and personnel services. Although the system was ready to launch in November 2011, it was never unveiled.

A Herald/Times review of Transparency 2.0 shows that, unlike other transparency web sites maintained by the legislature, the governor’s office or the chief financial officer, Transparency 2.0 allows for comprehensive and easy data searching for every line item in the budget. The system supplies planning and budget documents, and audit reports as well as contract information and links to personnel expenses.

It also shows which contracts were inserted into the budget by legislative leadership, offers a comprehensive look at billions of dollars in outside contracts and allows for the public to track budget data that today is controlled by agency and legislative staff.

The governor’s office has not ruled out the possibility that Transparency 2.0 may be the platform for the governor’s web site because Spider Data Services will be allowed to compete with other bidders, Sellers said. The bid process will be open to the public “while also ensuring we save as much taxpayer money as possible” and will begin in the new year, she said. There is no date for its scheduled completion. Story here.


Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/12/14/3142680/gov-scott-calls-for-bids-to-build.html#storylink=cpy

December 13, 2012

Mel Martinez on higher taxes: “Republicans are going to have to swallow the pill."

Florida’s former senator and a one-time head of the national Republican Party, Mel Martinez, said Thursday that members of his own party need to get ready to go along with higher taxes.

“Republicans are going to have to swallow the pill they don’t want to swallow,” Martinez said on a conference call with reporters about the effects of the so-called “fiscal cliff” debt talks in Washington.

But, Martinez said, Democrats also need to “confront the most-ardent of their supporters” as well. They need to help tackle the “elephant in the room:” entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

If there’s no debt deal between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, Martinez warned, tax increases will rise on everyone, federal programs will be cut, recession could ensue and, according to a defense-industry study, Florida could lose 80,000 jobs.

Continue reading "Mel Martinez on higher taxes: “Republicans are going to have to swallow the pill."" »

December 05, 2012

Negron wants 'intensive' budget review in Senate

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, on Wednesday promised an "intensive" review of state spending, including state contracts and recurring local projects that are renewed each year with little or no public scrutiny. He also backs the idea of a separate review of all local spending that Gov. Rick Scott will propose in his budget.

"We really want to enhance our review of the base budget," said Negron, who currently ranks as the Legislature's most seasoned budget-watcher (he has chaired all human services spending in the Senate and previously ran the full House Appropriations Committee.

Negron urged fellow senators to take a much closer look at state contracts with private providers, and to hold state agencies accountable for cases in which there are "huge variations" in the costs the state is paying for similar services in different areas of the state."Sometimes there are divergences that can't be explained," Negron said.

He credited Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater for encouraging the review of contracts, and said he had an open mind and no preconceived notions about contracting practices.

Negron gave the overview in the form of a request to the senators who chair individual budget subcommittees, who listened closely but offered no public reaction at a brief meeting. The intensive review will all be in public, Negron promised: "It will all be done in the sunshine."

-- Steve Bousquet

November 19, 2012

Unions' lawsuit targets prison medical privatization

State employee labor unions were back in a Tallahassee courtroom Monday, trying to block Gov. Rick Scott's administration from outsourcing all health care for  inmates in the nation's third-largest prison system. Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper posed questions to both sides for nearly two hours and promised a quick ruling.

"There's a lot on the line here," Cooper said.

The Department of Corrections has a signed contract with Corizon Healthcare to take over health care operations in central and north Florida prisons by mid-January. The state is still negotiating with Wexford Health Sources, which won the right to operate prisons in South Florida. Both vendors have said the overwhelming majority of their employees will be state workers displaced by the privatization.

But a negative court decision would be bad news for the state. Prison health care unions are challenging the state's authority to outsource inmate health care without a specific appropriation from the Legislature in the current budget. The unions say it's improper for the prison system to move forward with the project based only on approval from the Legislative Budget Commission (LBC) in September.

The judge also questioned whether that's lawful. "These are the questions I'm raising," Cooper said.

The unions argue in court papers that the only specific appropriation to privatize prison health care operations in the current budget is for $41.4 million in the South Florida region only, and that it's contrary to state law and the Florida Constitution for the LBC to go beyond that. 

In court, Jonathan Sanford, an assistant general counsel at the prison system, said the LBC simply allowed an accounting transfer, as requested by the governor's office, to let the privatization proceed. "I think that's standard procedure," Sanford said. 

But neither side's lawyers, nor Corizon attorney William Williams, sounded very authoritative in explaining how the legislative budget process worked in this case. "It's a fairly arcane process," Williams told the judge, who asked all sides to file legal memoranda by Nov. 28.

The unions left the courtroom hopeful they have a chance to thwart the project from moving forward after seeing the judge hone in on the LBC's power. "I feel good about the issue, and the judge did recognize that it was an issue," said Tom Brooks, attorney for the employee unions.  

-- Steve Bousquet

October 01, 2012

Opposition to Amendment 3's spending caps rallies at state Capitol

Florida religious leaders, labor unions and senior citizens marched to the state Capitol on Monday to protest a proposed constitutional amendment they say will lead to massive cuts to education and crucial social services.

Calling the revenue-capping Amendment 3 a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the group of about 50 said the proposal would slash education funding and pit seniors against the poor in a scramble for limited state dollars.

“This will not be good for the great citizens of the state of Florida,” said Rev. Richard Dunn, a Miami pastor and former city commissioner. “It will not be good for our children, it will not be good for our seniors and it will not be good for the middle class people.”

Amendment 3 proposes to change the way state revenue caps are set—using a formula based on population size and inflation, rather than personal income growth. Once state revenue from taxes and other sources exceeds the new caps, excess money would be used to shore up a budget stabilization “rainy day” fund.

Proponents of Amendment 3—which include business groups—say it will force state lawmakers to spend more wisely and avoid overspending during times of economic growth.

"The less government takes, the more Floridians will keep," said Edie Ousley, a spokesperson for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "Voting yes on Amendment 3 will send a message to our state leaders that the size of Florida’s government shouldn’t grow faster than the taxpayers capacity to pay for it.”

Outgoing Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, was a major backer of the “smart cap” amendment, saying it would lead to “less, government, less taxes and more freedom.”

After the proposal was approved by the Senate last year, Haridopolos released a video calling it “a common sense idea that finally makes sure that government spending never grows faster than family income, meaning when the economy recovers we will not overspend.”

But opponents—who have begun to mobilize in religious groups, labor unions and senior communities—predict a much grimmer scenario.

Continue reading "Opposition to Amendment 3's spending caps rallies at state Capitol" »

September 29, 2012

Can Florida's Medicaid experiment be the model for the nation?

Quietly, over the past six years, an experiment in providing healthcare for the poor has been playing out in Broward and four other counties around the state. Its basic goal is to relieve the financial pressures of Medicaid on Florida’s taxpayers by turning over poor and disabled patients to private companies, a move lawmakers believe will cut costs.

Conservatives love the Medicaid reform program, pointing to an in-depth University of Florida study indicating that the experiment has lowered costs while not raising consumer complaints. The Legislature has already approved a slightly modified model of the reform to go statewide. At least one national think tank believes it should be a model for the entire country.

Liberals decry the effort as a way to build corporate profits at the expense of the poor. Howard Mallinger, a Sunrise retiree, thinks they’re right. He has two adult sons with mental health problems who are in a Medicaid health maintenance organization. The HMO frequently won’t provide their medications, or is slow to approve them, causing their health issues to spiral out of control, Mallinger says.

One son has been involuntarily committed under Florida’s Baker Act 44 times in the past five years, he says. That often means expensive three-day hospital confinements. “The joke is on the taxpayer,” Mallinger says.

More from John Dorschner here.


Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/09/29/3026293/can-floridas-medicaid-reform-plan.html#moreb#storylink=cpy

September 20, 2012

Census report: Number of Floridians in poverty rose as income gap widens

Florida residents are among the poorest in the nation as median income in the state dropped 2.9 percent in 2011 and the state had some of the broadest gaps in income equality, according to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data from the American Community Survey released on Thursday.

One in six Floridians lived in poverty last year, and the median income dipped from $45,609 in 2010 to $44,299 in 2011, according to the survey. The national median income is $50,502 and one in five Americans live in poverty.  

The survey also found that the income gap in Florida widened by 3.6 percent in 2011, a reflection of the state’s stagnant unemployment and slow jobs market. The income disparities in the state also remain among the highest in the nation, although they are on par with other states in the Southeast.

Seventeen percent of Florida’s population – 3.1 million people -- lived in poverty in 2011, up from 16.5 percent in 2010 and above the 15.9 percent national average. According to the survey, 48.5 million people had income below the poverty rate in the U.S., 2.2 million more than the year before.

Continue reading "Census report: Number of Floridians in poverty rose as income gap widens " »