July 16, 2013

Rouson wants Weatherford to order hearings into FDLE probe of GOP voter fraud

Is Gov. Rick Scott covering up GOP voter registration fraud?

The future leader of the House Democrats thinks perhaps he is and is asking Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford to hold legislative hearings on what he says could be an attempt by Scott to “stifle” a criminal investigation.

“I have been following the many news media reports about rampant fraud regarding voter registration drives associated with the company Strategic Allied Consulting and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation that was tasked by Gov. Rick Scott some months ago,” states a letter that Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, sent out Tuesday afternoon.

“The governor, at a recent press conference in June, said that he had not seen or read any reports from his own agency. It is widely believed that a full-faith investigation has not taken place.

“The Legislature is constitutionally tasked with the checks and balances of government. Given that the governor has had adequate time to respond to the FDLE reports and has ordered an inadequate investigation, the House needs to task a committee with holding hearings. Floridians deserve to know if the governor’s office has stifled a law enforcement investigation. The State Affairs Committee seems ideal because the committee oversees the Ethics and Elections subcommittee.”

Continue reading "Rouson wants Weatherford to order hearings into FDLE probe of GOP voter fraud" »

July 12, 2013

Weatherford's income hard to figure

TALLAHASSEE — For the past six years, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford has reported that his largest source of personal income is from an outfit called "Breckenridge Enterprises."

When asked about Breckenridge, which hasn't been registered in Florida since 2007, Weatherford says he doesn't actually work for the company.

Breckenridge, he says, handles payroll services for the company he does work for, a construction firm out of Mount Pleasant, Texas. That company is Diamond K Corp., but in Florida it's called T. King Construction Inc.

Florida has what's called a "Citizen Legislature," where state senators and representatives serve what are considered part-time jobs. They are required by law to disclose what they earn from other jobs so the public has a better understanding of their qualifications and connections.

But it's no easy task understanding how Weatherford, one of the most powerful politicians in the state, earns the majority of his money or who pays him. His speaker job pays $29,714, so the vast majority of his income — more than 75 percent — comes from other sources.

In recent years, it's become the norm for a Florida House speaker's income to raise questions. Ray Sansom resigned as speaker in 2009 after he was charged with channeling more than $25 million to Northwest Florida State College — where he had taken a $110,000-a-year job as the chief fundraiser. Marco Rubio saw his income to jump once he was on track to be speaker, climbing from $90,000 in 2001 to $414,000 in 2008.

Weatherford's income has remained steady since he joined the Legislature. But he has continued to report his income in a confusing fashion.

Read story here.


June 25, 2013

Pension bottom line looks better, posing challenge for critics

Gov. Rick Scott and the rest of the Florida Cabinet were given news Tuesday that poses a challenge for critics of public pensions.

As of Monday night, the pension had reached $137 billion, an 11 percent increase from last year, said Ash Williams, executive director of the State Board of Administration.

If you are a House Republican, this is one trend that undermines a pillar in the campaign to close the pension off to new employees. During this year’s session, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford tried unsuccessfully to pass HB 7011, which would have prevented new employees from enrolling in Florida’s pension system. The bill would have required new employees to enroll in private, 401(k)-style investment plans that don’t provide a guaranteed benefit.

Weatherford gave several rationales for this move, which was supported by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the free-market-loving James Madison Institute. Among them: pensions were, in essence, Ponzi schemes that will end up going bankrupt, perhaps bringing the rest of the state’s finances with it. Close them now, or pay later. Weatherford and the Chamber vowed they'd return next year with another bill.

But the quarterly report that Williams and his staff provided Tuesday shows a pension currently enjoying robust health.

Through March 31, the pension has actually grown by $5 billion since January. The fund had surpassed quarterly, annual and three, 10, 20, 25 and 30-year performance benchmarks. When compared to the 10 largest public and corporate pension funds, Florida’s fund beat the average.

“Economically, on the investment side, the only part we’re responsible for, we’re doing fine,” Williams told the Times/Herald afterward.

Continue reading "Pension bottom line looks better, posing challenge for critics" »

June 14, 2013

One month after session, still little hope of Medicaid deal

Two House Republicans unwittingly revived hopes this month that lawmakers could compromise on a proposal to expand Medicaid.

"Lawmakers say Medicaid expansion not dead," read the headline in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, highlighting comments from Manatee County Reps. Greg Steube and Jim Boyd.

But the reality is no different today than it was when the legislative session ended:

Medicaid expansion, or some alternative, remains a long shot.

"All I was simply trying to say was, we all agree it's an important issue," Boyd told the Times/Herald  about his remarks at a June 6 luncheon. "We thought we had a pretty good plan."

Read more here.

June 11, 2013

GOP wins big in Northwest Florida House district in first vote since rejecting Medicaid expansion

Florida Democrats hoping the fight over Medicaid expansion and the sequester would win them support with those who depend on federal funding won’t find much encouragement in Tuesday’s special election for House District 2.

In the first referendum since House Republicans bypassed more than $50 billion in federal aid for health care, Mike Hill, a 55-year-old tea party Republican insurance agent, won 57.9 percent of the vote in a Northwest Florida district that has an economy dominated by hospitals as well as the military -- which is weathering a sequester deal rife with budget cuts forced by congressional Republicans.

Hill’s Democratic opponent, Jeremy Lau, mustered 42.1 percent of the vote in a special election held after Rep. Clay Ford died in March. Lau, a 40-year-old aircraft mechanic for L-3 Com Vertex Aerospace, a military contractor at Pensacola Naval Station, had made Medicaid expansion his No. 1 issue.

“The failure of the Legislature to expand Medicaid has cost our district jobs,” Lau said. “It’s a huge issue here.”

A University of Florida study concluded that expansion of Medicaid would create an average of 1,619 full-time and part-time jobs in Escambia County annually over the next 10 years and help provide coverage for county’s residents, 20 percent of whom don’t have health insurance.

But Lau couldn’t overcome the district’s conservative demographics (Mitt Romney won 59 percent of the vote here in 2012) and Hill’s overwhelming financial advantage. The district, which covers parts of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, leans so hard right that no Democrat ran in either 2010 or 2012 against Ford. Hill raised $200,000 compared to Lau’s $29,500, getting plenty of help from the GOP, which chipped in $51,000. Democrats could manage only $1,090 for Lau.

Hill also made the Medicaid expansion a key issue, but as a way to spruce up his conservative credentials.

“I’m so proud of Speaker (Will Weatherford) and the House for turning that down,” Hill said. “We can’t afford that in Florida.”

Hill, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, becomes the first black Republican in the Florida House since Jennifer Carroll served there between 2003 and 2010. He’s also the first black legislator from Northwest Florida since Reconstruction.

“I know the historical significance,” Hill said. “But it doesn’t matter to me if I’m the first black this or that. I don’t want to be chosen based on my skin color. I want to be chosen based on my character and my value system.”


Continue reading "GOP wins big in Northwest Florida House district in first vote since rejecting Medicaid expansion" »

June 07, 2013

Simpson avoids conflict of interest by relying on shaky ethics law

UPDATED WITH A CORRECTIONSenate general counsel George Levesque in an email Saturday said he didn't say that he relied on a 1985 Florida Commission on Ethics opinion before giving advice to Simpson. He said he spoke generically and was referencing other opinions. He did say that he relies on Florida Commission on Ethics advisory opinions to provide the interpretation of the law

When is a conflict not a conflict for a Florida lawmaker?

For Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, it’s after he gets cleared by Senate legal counsel that no such conflict exists, even if it still, in all practical terms, remains.

Simpson, who reported his $15.6 million net worth last week, makes his money from an array of sources: an egg farm, Florida Traditions Bank and an environmental abatement company, which also employs House Speaker Will Weatherford as a $36,000-a-year consultant.

That company, Simpson Environmental Services, owns a 60 percent stake in SFB Turnpike Joint Venture, a trust that Simpson formed with two other contractors so they could compete for Florida Department of Transportation contracts.

In April 2011, SFB Turnpike Joint Venture won a contract with the DOT’s Turnpike Enterprises to provide asbestos removal, demolition, the capping of wells and underground utility work. Basically, it’s the joint venture’s job to knock down buildings and put up fences as the Turnpike and various other state toll roads expand. It’s for three years with a two-year renewal option. It’s lucrative, too, paying out about $1 million so far, Simpson said.

When the contract was signed, Simpson wasn’t an elected official. But three months before the contract was finalized, Simpson filed to run for the state senate. In 2012, he was “elected” to the District 18 seat after no one opposed him.

This posed a problem for him and the DOT contract.

Continue reading "Simpson avoids conflict of interest by relying on shaky ethics law" »

Gov and GOP leaders use hurricane season start to blast DC over sequester cuts

As the first tropical storm of the season bore down on Florida Thursday, Republican state officials seized the moment to blast Washington and warn that the required budget cuts to federal programs could impede the state’s ability to respond to hurricanes or floods.

Gov. Rick Scott had just mentioned Tropical Storm Andrea at his briefing with reporters Thursday morning when he launched into a critique of the federal budget storm that is causing the Florida National Guard to order 993 of its full-time staff to go to a four-day work week beginning July 1.

Known as sequestration, the across-the-board cuts were agreed to between President Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress in 2011 to resolve the debt ceiling standoff. Now, Scott, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have written to Congress and the Department of Defense asking them to exempt National Guard staff from the mandatory cuts because of Florida’s hurricane season.

“It doesn’t make any sense why they’re doing it this way,’’ Scott said, adding that the defense department could have excluded the National Guard from the budget cuts. “I’m very concerned about our preparedness. … It will take more days to be up to speed.” More here. 


June 06, 2013

Sen. President Gaetz joins long list of Republicans questioning $52M deal for Scott contributor

Senate President Don Gaetz is calling for special hearings on the $52 million special deal between Citizens Property Insurance and a politically connected upstart insurance company, the latest sign of legislative angst with the state-run insurer.

Last month, Citizens agreed to transfer $52 million to Heritage Property and Casualty, a nine-month old insurance company that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying and political donations to top Republicans, including Gov. Rick Scott.

“The Florida Senate believes the facts and circumstances surrounding the Heritage transaction need thorough investigation so the people of Florida are assured that it and transactions like it are in the best interest of Floridians,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in a statement. “As such, as soon as Committee meetings begin this fall, the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee will conduct hearings to investigate and propose ]solutions to the concerns raised by this transaction and any others that might result from Citizens’ attempts to reduce its liabilities.”

Gaetz joins a long list of top Republican lawmakers questioning the $52 million cash transfer from Citizens to a private insurer. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he was “highly concerned” about the deal and would call on a House committee to provide more oversight for Citizens. Gov. Rick Scott’s chief of staff called the board at Citizens “tone-deaf” when it comes to earning public confidence (Heritage donated $100,000 to Scott’s reelection in March, as the $52 million deal was being crafted, but Scott’s office denies pay-to-play). Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater also criticized the hastily approved 3-2 vote by the Citizens board to support the unique deal. Scott refused to answer questions this week about whether he supported the deal for his political contributor or not. 

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has called the deal “corporate welfare” and Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, called it a “get rich” funding scheme. Critics say the deal allows Heritage to retroactively cherry pick policies that have made no claims, thus privatizing profits and socializing losses. They also pointed to a long list of insurance violations at companies run by Heritage's president, Richard Widdicombe

Continue reading "Sen. President Gaetz joins long list of Republicans questioning $52M deal for Scott contributor" »

June 03, 2013

In reelection bid, Simpson not taking chances

It’s more than 17 months away, but if anyone wants to suit up for a political suicide mission, they would do fine to run against Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

The rookie lawmaker, who was first elected in November, appears to be accumulating quite a war chest.

Through March, he’s raised $74,650 -- despite no sign of opposition. On June 26, he plans to throw a fundraiser between 6 and 7:30 p.m. at the Oxford Exchange at 420 W. Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa with a list of supporters that is essentially a catalog of the Republican power structure in Tallahassee.

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford. Senate President Don Gaetz. Attorney General Pam Bondi. Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam. Senate President Designate Andy Gardiner. Majority Leader Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto. Senator Bill Galvano. Senator Jack Latvala. Senator Tom Lee. Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron. Senator John Thrasher. (What, no Sen. John Legg???)

“We’re hoping to get a good crowd,” said Simpson, 46, who also ran unopposed in 2012. He had a busy first session, sponsoring high-profile bills like an Everglades cleanup bill, which passed (and might be why Robert Coker of U.S. Sugar is on the host committee), and a pension reform bill, which didn’t.

Continue reading "In reelection bid, Simpson not taking chances" »

May 24, 2013

Weatherford: I'm 'highly concerned' about $52 million Heritage insurance deal

The list of lawmakers criticizing Citizens Property Insurance Corp. for a $52 million takeout deal continues to grow, as House Speaker Will Weatherford said Friday that he had "serious concerns" about the plan.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said Citizens did not provide sufficient notice to the Legislature before quickly approving the $52 million deal that was unveiled and voted on this week.

"I have serious concerns about the latest takeout agreement between Citizens and the Heritage Property and Casualty Insurance Company, particularly the lengthy backdated payments for coverage that Heritage did not provide," Weatherford said in a statment. "Once again, Citizens did not provide a sufficient advanced briefing to the Legislature, and the proposal was hastily pushed through a sharply divided board."

Continue reading "Weatherford: I'm 'highly concerned' about $52 million Heritage insurance deal" »