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."



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 22, 2013

Content with state senate, Sachs won't run for Florida AG

Scratch state Sen. Maria Sachs of Delray Beach from the list of possible Democratic challengers to Republican Attorney Pam Bondi.

A former prosecutor who once worked for then-Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno, Sachs proved herself a tough campaigner last year when she beat Ellyn Bogdanoff for newly drawn Senate District 34.

As the Democrats head into the party’s state conference in Orlando this weekend, however, she ruled herself out out of consideration.

Sachs said she was approached four weeks ago and asked if she  would consider a run. Sachs wouldn’t say who asked her, referring to them only as “various folks” involved in state politics.

“I’ve been in the state legislature for seven years and I still have unfinished business to do,” Sachs said. “I’m focused on the 400,000 people who live in my district, and I don’t think you can focus on your district if you’re thinking about another office.”

Asked straight up if she was NOT going to run for AG, Sachs said: “Correct. I think we have good candidates on the Democratic side. I will certainly support whoever comes out as our nominee.”

On Monday, former secretary of the Department of Children and Families, George Sheldon, announced he was running. Florida House Minority Leader Perry Thurston said he was considering a run as well.

“I think they’re both good,” Sachs said. “They prove that the Democratic bench is getting longer.”

October 08, 2013

State considers creating alternative to federal flood insurance

Flood insuranceWith thousands of homeowners locked in their homes because of spiraling flood insurance rates, Florida regulators are working on a program to lure private companies to write flood insurance in the state as an alternative to the federal program.

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation is talking to insurance companies who are interested in coming to Florida and writing expedited flood insurance policies, said Rebecca Matthews, the department’s deputy chief of staff at a meeting of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee on Tuesday.

“This is an issue that may need to be taken care of a little sooner than session,’’ she said, explaining that regulators do not plan to wait until legislators return to Tallahassee for the spring lawmaking session in March. “A handful of companies have shown interest.”

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, chairman of the committee, said lawmakers must respond to the unintended consequences of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 which could harm the state’s economy.

“If there’s money to be made in this and the flexibility is given to private enterprise, then we can get that started,’’ he said. “The question, of course, is are we going to be able to do it fast enough.”

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Senate committee vows to shut down unlicensed ALFs, improve regulated facilities

A Senate committee on Tuesday vowed to put an end to unlicensed assisted living facilities after a Miami Herald story revealed that homes have been using loopholes to escape state scrutiny.

The Herald story uncovered facilities that billed themselves as shelters, rooming houses or “sober homes”, but in actuality operated as ALFs. Many had deplorable conditions and at least one owner had a criminal history.

“I want to be equipped to go into those bad actors and shut them down now,” said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, at a meeting of the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla , R-Coral Gables, said that a lack of resources or funds shouldn't be an excuse to regulate the industry, which cares for roughly 80,000 residents.

"This has to be a priority to shut down unlicensed facilities as a public health hazard as a clear and present danger to the living conditions of a human being," Diaz de la Portilla said. "If there isn't money in the budget, then we need to find it." 

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Senate Dems say Legislature's gaming study 'a waste of money'

The results of a $400,000 gaming study commissioned by the Florida Legislature, as a precursor to a debate next session about expanding gambling, produced predictable results and was a "waste of money,'' several members of the Senate Democratic caucus said on Tuesday.  Download Spectrum Gaming Group 3rd draft

"It just confirms whatever your already held opinion was,'' said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. "It's not going to change anybody's mind." 

Clemens and Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami, said the decision by Senate Republican leaders to hire Spectrum Gaming Group was a poor use of state resources and they raised doubts about the expenditure of money for a four-city statewide tour to conducted by the House and Senate Gaming Committees later this month, to get local community input on expanded gambling. 

Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Sunny Isles, noted that the committee will be traveling to Coconut Creek in Broward County, Lakeland, Pensacola and Jacksonville but won't come to Miami-Dade, where Genting, one of the largest casino operators, has already purchased property with the hopes of bringing a resort casino to downtown Miami. 

"People are really bent out of shape that it's coming to their community,'' Margolis said. Miami-Dade residents should not have to "drive one to two hours to some place in West Broward that I wouldn't even know how to find,'' she said. 

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale and chairman of the caucus, last week asked Senate leaders to consider holding a hearing in Miami-Dade and they have not as yet agreed to change the dates.  

October 01, 2013

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 23, 2013

Expanding gambling along the state line? Senate hearings will get an earful

Imagine Florida with slot machines at several dog tracks, intended to lure Georgians to Jacksonville, Alabamans to Pensacola, high rollers to Palm Beach and race fans to Daytona.

That is one of the ideas gaining steam in Tallahassee as gaming promoters plan ways to expand Florida’s gambling empire in exchange for closing loopholes that have exploded over the past few years.

The Florida Senate Gaming Committee has scheduled a series of hearings next month to travel to Jacksonville, Pensacola, Lakeland and Coconut Creek to hear from the public, as lawmakers embark on an ambitious rewrite of the state’s gambling laws.

“The goal is to reform Florida’s gambling laws in a way that will benefit Florida’s economy and social welfare for years to come,’’ said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, chairman of the committee.

Legislative leaders have signed a $400,000 contract with Spectrum Gaming Group of New Jersey to assess the economic impact of existing and expanded gambling on communities in Florida. The report, due Oct. 1. will also offer some regulatory options before lawmakers draft the plan. Among the 10 options reviewed by Spectrum, only one would not expand gambling. The others range from allowing two so-called “destination resorts” in South Florida to limited expansion of gambling in certain regions of the state.

The timing of the legislative debate is significant. In 2015, the provisions of the state’s agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida expire, requiring the state to renew the compact or establish new rules to allow the tribe to operate blackjack and other table games exclusively, in exchange for providing revenue to the state.

The re-opening of the tribal compact, as well as the perception that acceptance of casino games has increased among most Floridians, has made many legislative observers predict that Florida may pass wholesale gambling reforms in the upcoming session.

“It’s much different this year than it’s ever been before,’’ said Al Lawson, a former veteran Democratic legislator from Tallahassee who supports expanding slot machines to North Florida. “Legislators are more open to give consideration to this than before.” More here.

Latvala says state law needs to tighten definition of residency

The 2014 Legislature will take up needed changes in state law to tighten the legal definition of residency, a key senator said Monday. That will possibly include a new provision to bar legislators from claiming the homestead exemption on homes outside their districts.

Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, said the law is needed in the wake of media reports that "from 12 to 14" lawmakers may have been living outside their districts, in apparent violation of state law. 

Latvala's committee had a brief and muted discussion of the issue Monday. "We've got a long way to  go on this, but I believe they are taking it seriously," he said in reference to Senate leaders. "I will tell you I believe there is going to be a bill on residency."

Latvala said Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, wants to file a bill dealing with the homestead-exemption issue, and Latvala said he has agreed to sponsor the Senate version.

Much of the media coverage involving lawmakers' residencies has focused on Democratic House members in South Florida.

Latvala, speaking generally, told reporters: "If you're abiding by the Constitution and taking a homestead exemption somewhere else, or if you're supposed to represent a district and get the homestead exemption somewhere else, that ought to be illegal."

He said the issue would be handled largely by Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who also faced residency questions in 2011 when he won a special election. But none of that was discussed
publicly Monday. Democratic senators were silent after a staffer outlined at least 10 different ways to define legal residency, from a driver's license address to a voting address to where someone gets mail.

-- Steve Bousquet