December 16, 2013

Movers & Shakers

Longtime legislative analyst retiring from Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee

Carol Preston will be retiring after a long career with the legislature at the end of the year. Preston, the chief legislative analyst for the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, served for five years in the Senate and 14 years in the House.

Praising Preston at a Dec. 10th meeting of the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, Sen. Nancy Detert, said the analyst “personally wrote most of the laws that we’re dealing with and fixed the ones that needed fixing.

“I know I couldn’t do my work on this committee without Carol Preston,” said Detert, R-Venice. "Just want her to know how grateful I am for her and always will be for her wonderful work. I think what people want to know at the end of their work career is ‘Did your life matter?’ And Carol Preston’s life certainly mattered to all of us.”

The committee also announced the addition of two new staffers. Peggy Sanford, who was an attorney with the Department of Children & Families, will be replacing Preston as the new chief legislative analyst. Barbara Crosier, an attorney who was the director of the Division of State Group Health Insurance at the Department of Management Services, is replacing Ashley Daniell as chief attorney. Daniell left the Senate for the private sector.

New communications director for Sen. Bean

Meghan Tarsitano is the new communications director for Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach. Tarsitano previously worked for U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw's re-election campaign.

Governor appointees

Elena Spottswood, a Key West community activist, has been appointed by Attorney General Pam Bondi to the Florida Commission on the Status of Women.

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December 12, 2013

With broad support for cut in auto fees, now it's a matter of "How much"?

It's no surprise that Gov. Rick Scott has plenty of support among legislative leaders for his plan to announce in Tampa this afternoon his proposal to cut auto registration fees in next year's budget.

After all, the Senate's plan to do the same, SB 156 , has picked up strong support and looks like an easy sell in next year's legislative session, which begins in March. 

But there is a big difference between the two. Scott wants to cut auto registration fees by $401 million. The senate bill, which is sponsored by budget chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, only slashes them by $233 million. Though lawmakers are expected to be facing a surplus of $1 billion, that $168 million difference between the two plans is no small thing.

Yet so far, at least, Republican leaders are shrugging that this difference won't be too difficult to bridge.

Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he was happy that Scott was supporting the car fee reduction while downplaying the differences.

"We welcome the governor getting on Joe Negron's bandwagon," Gaetz said. "He's pushing it a little bit faster, but that's good."

Gaetz said it's too early to dwell on details of where the money will come from. In Negron's bill, the money to pay for the cuts would come from general revenue. He said estimated revenue, while overall promising, has been shifting too much to propose specifics details just yet. But Gaetz did suggest that Negron's bill could be changed, perhaps to include a bigger break for motorists.

For instance, Gaetz said the $225 "origination fee" that motorists pay to put new cars on the road could be reduced. To do so, however, might cost another $100 million. 

"We can make Negron's bill even stronger," he said. "There's a chance for Negron 2.0."

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said he, too, was supportive of Scott's proposal to reduce fees.

"The governor's plan, Negron's bill, it's all good stuff," Weatherfood said. "It's just a question of 'How much?' We'll work with the governor and Pres. Gaetz to get a number that everyone will agree with."



November 27, 2013

After questions, O'Toole discloses job with group awarded millions by her committee


In the conservative Florida Legislature, Rep. Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake, has an undisputed reputation for fiscal austerity.

None other than Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by billionaire libertarian brothers David and Charles Koch, gave O’Toole an A+ rating in June, establishing her as the gold standard for a group that says it prizes “free markets over cronysim.”

Yet even this group questions O’Toole’s dual roles as chief operating officer of a nonprofit and vice chair of the House education appropriations committee that approved $6 million for the same Miami nonprofit in this year’s budget.

Take Stock in Children was awarded an additional $9.1 million from the state’s $200 million mortgage settlement. O’Toole, a former IBM executive with a thick Boston accent, voted on both matters.

In neither case did she disclose she’s paid $50,000 a year by the group.

“It seems the proper thing to do in this case would have been to identify that you have this role with this group,” said Slade O’Brien, the Florida director for Americans for Prosperity. “Or recuse yourself from the vote.”

Getting an explanation from O’Toole, 68, isn’t easy.

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November 07, 2013

Former state Rep. Carl Ogden dies

Carl OgdenFormer state Rep. Carl Ogden, who represented Jacksonville in the House for 20 years, died Tuesday in Tallahassee. He was 84.

Ogden was dean of the House when he left the Legislature in 1988 and worked for former Gov. Lawton Chiles as director of the State Employees Insurance Division for three years. Ogden and his wife, Gage, moved to a 226-acre farm near Monticello, just east of Tallahassee, where they raised horses. Ogden also spent his years in semi-retirement lobbying for the PGA Tour, Ladies Professional Golf Association and Bert Rodgers Schools of Real Estate.

Ogden attempted a return to the legislature in 2000, when he unsuccessfully ran for the sprawling rural North Florida district then held by Rep. Janegale Boyd, who was running for the Senate. He lost in the primary.

A memorial service is set for Tuesday, Nov. 12, from 5-7 p.m. at Culley’s Memorial Funeral Home in Tallahassee. 

Photo: Florida Memory Project

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 29, 2013

U.S. Senate panel takes on Stand Your Ground controversy

Statements made during a U.S. Senate hearing that Stand Your Ground laws actually benefit African Americans are “ludicrous,” Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee said after attending Tuesday’s panel in Washington, D.C.

Williams, chairman of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, is aiming to repeal the law in Florida and will be pushing the effort during a House hearing Nov. 7th.

“The argument that a number of crimes are committed in minority communities and African Americans should appreciate that Stand Your Ground has allowed them to get off or not be prosecuted for committing murder is embarrassing,” said Williams, referring to comments made by the law's supporters during the packed U.S. Senate hearing.

Legislators, criminal justice experts, advocates and the mothers of two sons slain in the name of self-defense gave widely different interpretations of the laws, their racial ramifications and the need for changes during the panel.

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October 01, 2013

State Rep. Darryl Rouson hit with $155,000 tax lien

State Rep. Darryl Rouson and his wife failed to pay more than $155,000 in federal income taxes from 2008 through 2010, according to a lien filed by the Internal Revenue Service.

In one of those years, Rouson, a St. Petersburg attorney, made $565,000 working for the powerhouse law firm of Morgan & Morgan.

The IRS lien is the latest setback for Rouson, who recently came under fire from fellow House Democrats for creating a party-related fundraising committee only he could control. His colleagues ousted him as incoming Democratic leader on Sept. 23, the day before the IRS filed its lien in Pinellas County circuit court.

“I don’t take this lightly,’’ Rouson said Tuesday. “I am working with my CPA and my tax attorney, and I’m very optimistic this will all get resolved.

“It’s been a tough summer,’’ he added. 

Continue reading "State Rep. Darryl Rouson hit with $155,000 tax lien" »

Legislators hear plea to fix troubled child welfare agency

Speaker after speaker told Miami-Dade’s legislative delegation Monday that fixing Florida’s broken child welfare system requires more resources and better training for those on the frontlines. They asked lawmakers to do something.

In a two-hour meeting headed by Rep. Jose F. Diaz, vice chairman of the delegation, legislators were told more money is needed to create a stronger safety net for children facing risks — even if it means tapping the state’s budget surplus.

“I would like to put this back on you — this is about funding,’’ said Walter Lambert, the chief doctor of Miami’s Child Protection Team, who made a similar plea at a meeting in Broward last month.

The Department of Children & Families has had at least 20 children die while on its radar since the spring — a number that has placed the agency under intense public scrutiny. More here.


September 25, 2013

House committee: overhaul of child welfare system will be focus

Florida’s child welfare system needs an overhaul, and repairing the cracks that allowed more than 20 children to die this summer will be the focus of legislation next spring, the head of the oversight committee of the Florida House of Representatives said Tuesday.

”I’m looking for concrete ideas, solutions,’’ Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, told the House Healthy Families Subcommittee at the conclusion of what will be the first of several hearings on the issue. “Let’s take this on as a major challenge this year.”

Since mid-April, at least 20 children known to the Department of Children & Families have died, mostly from abuse or neglect, some of them in particularly brutal ways, a review of state files by the Miami Herald found.

After four children died over a stretch of six weeks, DCF Secretary David Wilkins resigned and was replaced by interim secretary Esther Jacobo.

Harrell said the goal is to find ways to “change the culture” of the child welfare system as well as examine the need for additional funding and eliminate the counterproductive laws that “create bottlenecks.”

Harrell’s counterpart in the Senate, state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, who conducted a legislative hearing on the child deaths in Broward County in August, is also expected to pursue legislation during the regular session that begins in March.

Jacobo, who had previously been DCF’s regional director in Miami-Dade County, told the House committee Tuesday that she has embarked on a sweeping change in the way the agency handles abuse cases. The goal is to shift from an incident-driven review of reported threats to children to one that provides a comprehensive assessment of a family’s needs and gets them immediate assistance.

In the department’s review of the recent child deaths, she said they have found a recurring theme: “There are chronic issues that we’re not addressing that may leave a bad result later on.” Story here. 

September 23, 2013

"Clarity?" Incoming FL House Dem leader Darryl Rouson bends truth about secret committee


Darryl Rouson, the incoming House Democratic leader who's under fire for founding a political committee behind the back of the state party, inaccurately portrayed his motivations for the secretive move before his colleagues tonight decide whether to keep him on the job.

Rouson said he founded the so-called "Affiliated Party Committee" for two reasons: “The Democrats had a poor fundraising quarter, they had just rolled out a CFO candidate that they didn’t vet.”

Point number one is tough to dispute. But his second issue about the unvetted CFO candidate, Allie Braswell, doesn't pass the straight-face test.

Here's why: time.

The embarrassing news about Braswell dropped on Aug. 16.

But Rouson founded his committee at least three days before, on Aug. 13 at 2 p.m. according to the date stamp from the Division of Elections. Now, it is true that the letter about the committee is dated afterward, but the official record is the date stamp. The document is here: Download Rouson

And beyond the tight time frame of the date-stamp evidence there's this simple fact: establishing something so big as an APC (there can only be four) is not something you do lightly. You don't just decide to do it on a whim. It takes time and legal advice to draft the paperwork and decide to go forward. It's not like this committee was turned in a day or two.

Throughout it all, Rouson was silent.

And now he's saying that, essentially, he predicted the CFO disaster. So he did this proactively.

Rouson has been a controversial figure for some time in the caucus. Smart as a whip, he also has a reputation of being too smart by half. Some say he's not trustworthy. It's one reason he won the post only after a tie vote. It's a reason some fellow Democrats called him a "divider." It's a reason some wondered if he had a trick up his sleave, a secret deal, when he voted against the Democratic-funding trial lawyers and even pushed a fellow member's vote button to do it (Rouson later lost his job at the Morgan & Morgan firm).

In a touch of irony, Rouson this evening said “I should have provided more clarity.” But he then proceded to give this story that conflicts with the time line. A big lie? Not really. A mistake? Maybe. But when significant numbers of your own caucus question your veracity, you can't mess up like this.

Indeed, Rouson noted that his Democratic critics have “attacked my integrity and honor.”

Hmm. Perhaps they need more "clarity."