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12 posts from April 1, 2013

April 01, 2013

Prison company withdraws offer to name FAU stadium

A private company that operates prisons in Florida won't be putting it's name on Florida Atlantic University's football stadium after all, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

The GEO Group has withdrawn its offer to pay the school $6 million for 12 years of stadium naming rights, citing the ongoing protests and criticism of the deal. Students and other activists had criticized the deal and accused the private company of human rights violations at facilities in Florida.

The Sun-Sentinel reports that the GEO Group will instead donate $500,000 to FAU.

Read more here.

Comparing the Bean and Negron alternatives to Medicaid expansion

Sen. Aaron Bean has come up with a bare-bones approach to helping Florida's uninsured that he hopes his colleagues in both the Senate and the House will rally around.

The proposal, SB 7144, is one of two alternatives to Medicaid expansion up for debate in the Senate. The other, SB 1816 by Sen. Joe Negron, has already received the support of senators, Gov. Rick Scott and the medical community. But it could be a tough sell in the House because it requires Florida to accept roughly $55 billion in federal aid.

Bean's plan will be formally introduced during Tuesday's Health Policy Committee meeting. As a primer, here is a comparison of the two proposals.

In a nutshell

Negron plan: Creates a new state-based health insurance program for the uninsured. Appears to comply with the federal health care law, making Florida eligible to receive associated funding.

Bean plan: Creates a state program to help the uninsured pay for various health care options by subsidizing the costs. Does not appear to comply with the federal health care law, meaning Florida would not be eligible for associated funding.

What it's called

Negron plan: Healthy Florida program

Bean plan: Health Choice Plus program

Continue reading "Comparing the Bean and Negron alternatives to Medicaid expansion" »

Parent trigger moves forward in Senate

The contentious parent trigger bill got its first hearing in the Senate Education Committee on Monday. Not surprisingly, it passed along party lines.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, would allow parents to petition for sweeping changes at failing traditional schools. One possible change: having the school converted into a charter school.

SB 862 is different from its companion in the House. The House version prevents students at struggling schools from having ineffective or out-of-field teachers for two years in a row; the Senate bill has no such prohibitions, though it does require schools to notify parents when their children are assigned to poor-performing instructors. 

Most parents in the audience on Monday spoke out against the proposal. A handful expressed their support, including Nicolas Gutierrez, a Miami-Dade County attorney and father of three. "Is this [bill] perfect? Of course not," Gutierrez. "But it's a step in the right direction."

(Gutierrez was appointed to the South Florida Water Management Board by former Jeb Bush, who has championed the parent-trigger proposal. Gutierrez later told The Miami Herald his relationship with Bush had nothing to do with his testimony.)

Stargel said it was too soon to say if there would be enough votes for the measure to pass on the Senate floor. It failed on the last day of session last year.

"I think we have much more support [than last year]," Stargel said. "What happened last year was more political than about policy."

The House version heads to the floor of the lower chamber later this week.

Social justice groups: Don't arm schoolteachers

Four social justice organizations are speaking out against proposed legislation that would allow some classroom teachers to carry weapons on campus.

The NAACP, the Advancement Project, the Dream Defenders and the Miami-based Power U Center for Social Change also oppose any bills calling for zero-tolerance policies in public schools. They believe the overly punitive policies would cause more students to drop out.

"These measures ultimately will not keep children safe," said Dr. Shirley Johnson, of the Florida State Conference on the NAACP. "Instead, they will lead to unintended consequences."

Alana Greer, of the Advancement Project, urged lawmakers and schools to take "a long-term holistic approach" to school security. That could include hiring more psychologists and counselors, promoting non-violent activities, and considering research-based alternatives to traditional methods of student discipline.

Allowing teachers to carry weapons, Greer said, would erode the trust between students and schools employees, and stifle the "flow of information that can prevent violence on campus."

Last week, a House committee passed a proposal by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, that would let principals designate certain teachers and school employees to carry concealed weapons on campus. Principals choosing not to arm an employee would have to hire a separate safety officer. Read the story here.

Senate advances Flores bill for earlier lawmaking sessions

State senators voiced support Monday for changing the starting date of legislative sessions in even-numbered years from March to January. The bill (SB 1356) is sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who said it's a good idea to advance the starting date so that Easter and Passover don't fall in the middle of a session, and that building a state budget sooner in the year is better for cities and counties.

Tallahassee is often a lot colder in January than it is in March, a fact not lost on some lawmakers.

"It's  a choice of coming up here and freezing or coming up here and watching the azaleas bloom," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee.

If Flores' bill becomes law, next year's session would begin on Jan. 14, 2014.

Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, cast the lone objection, saying the start of a session so soon after the holidays leaves little time for committee meetings to seriously consider legislation. Nine-week sessions in odd-numbered years would still begin in early March. Flores' bill has no House companion at the moment.

- Steve Bousquet

Senate panel tweaks controversial lobbyist gift ban

Seven years after the Florida Legislature passed a zero-tolerance ban on accepting meals, drinks and gifts from lobbyists, a Senate committee Monday took the first step toward loosening some of the law's restrictions. On a bipartisan 10-0 vote the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee carved out a couple of exemptions to the law, which has been widely criticized as too sweeping and burdensome.

The changes, sponsored by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, would allow legislators to accept free non-alcoholic drinks at functions sponsored by lobbyists, and would allow lawmakers to accept a free meal when giving a speech in the course of their legislative work to a trade group. Lee was Senate
president when the original gift ban was enacted in a special session in December 2005.

A similar House bill does not exist, but Lee said he has been in talks with House staffers about how to get the compromise through the two houses.

-- Steve Bousquet



Citizens president gets grilling, unanimous vote in Senate confirmation hearing

The president of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. faced a grilling from lawmakers Monday, but ultimately received a unanimous vote of support after explaining his response to a series of recent scandals at the company.

Barry Gilway assured lawmakers that he had acted decisively to address issues that ranged from lavish executive travel spending to an unpopular home reinspection program to a laundry list of corporate improprieties.

The confirmation hearing itself was a sign of Gilway’s rocky tenure. The Legislature unearthed long-ignored language in state law to haul Gilway before the “Ethics and Elections” committee for an up-or-down vote.

“I may be 67, but man I learn every single day,” said Gilway, acknowledging that he was “naïve” when he became CEO in June and had made some mistakes.

Lawmakers, mostly those from coastal regions where Citizens has the greatest market share, reflected much of the displeasure of their constituents as they questioned Gilway.

Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, said his constituents were “unhappy” about rate increases, coverage cutbacks and Citizens’ calculation of home values, which can be higher than other estimates.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, grilled Gilway over the home reinspection program that has cost Floridians more than $200 million in higher insurance rates in recent years.

“People went out and invested money in hardening their homes,” she said, “under the premise that their insurance rates would go down.”

Gilway pointed out that many of the problems were in place before he joined Citizens, and that he had been working to soften the blow of some of the company’s austerity measures. He pointed out that homeowners who lost discounts during the reinspections could get another reinspection, free of charge.

Continue reading "Citizens president gets grilling, unanimous vote in Senate confirmation hearing" »

Brevard Clerk files lawsuit against company brought to Fla. with economic incentives

A company that was hailed by Enterprise Florida and Gov. Rick Scott when it decided to move to Florida last year has wasted no time getting into legal trouble. 

The company, BlueWare Inc., is being sued by the Brevard County Clerk of Court after a $8.6 million contract has gone sour. 

The company is supposed to digitize millions of pages of records for the clerk’s office under a five-year, $8.6 million contract. But recently elected Clerk of Court Scott Ellis slammed the contract as corrupt and filed a lawsuit last week to recoup millions of dollars. 

“The entire bidding, selection and negotiation process regarding the (Invitation to Negotiate) was fundamentally flawed and against public policy because BlueGEM was intricately involved in the preparation of the ITN itself and essentially drafted the same,” the lawsuit reads. 

Ellis put it more plainly in a recent interview: “It was a sham bid.” 

Ellis blames his predecessor, who lost a 2012 primary race for reelection, for entering into the poorly written contract and paying BlueWare millions of dollars upfront before the work could be done. 

Ellis said BlueWare’s vice president was a former business partner with the clerk. 

Indeed, a flag-raising 2012 internal memo from the clerk’s legal counsel stated: “There may be a civilian insider who will gain a benefit from the awarding of this contract.” 

According to the lawsuit, two other companies submitted bids for the digitization contract and would have charged less. BlueWare executives were allowed to participate in the selection process and the company was ultimately selected, the lawsuit states. 

Executives at BlueWare could not be immediately reached for comment. 

The company received incentives awards from the state worth $1.3 million, including a $560,000 cash grant for start-up costs.

Continue reading "Brevard Clerk files lawsuit against company brought to Fla. with economic incentives" »

Weatherford teases Times/Herald with 'April Fools' daily schedule

April Fools.    

House Speaker Will Weatherford decided to have a little fun with his daily schedule for April 1, teasing the press corps and specifically the Times/Herald bureau with fake appointments.

His daily schedule, which the Times/Herald bureau uses in its dogged coverage of Weatherford and the Legislature, speaks of “secret budget negotiations,” a “third annual” retirement party for longtime Times reporter Lucy Morgan and a 5:30p.m. “review of March Madness Bracket with Team Leadership.”

Here’s an excerpt from the schedule:

7am: Secret Budget Negotiations with President Gaetz, Speaker Weatherford and Mary Ellen Klas (Press Center)

10 a.m.: Deep background interview with Michael Van Sickler for ANOTHER profile piece. Don’t forget to bring your rap sheet (Speaker’s Office)

12 p.m.: Preview of all of Rep. Williams’ introductions and announcements for the rest of the Session

4pm: Third Annual Lucy Morgan Retirement Party (TBD)

5:30pm: Review of March Madness Bracket with Team Leadership (Speaker’s Office) 

For background:

The Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas has a knack for outing lawmakers for their secret negotiations with lobbyists and other lawmakers. She’s documented several instances where legislators appear dangerously close to breaking the state’s Sunshine Law and ethics rules. 

The Times’ Michael Van Sicker wrote a sweeping profile of Weatherford last month, highlighting the Speaker’s little-known arrest after a fight in Ybor City several years ago.

The Times’ Lucy Morgan recently retired after 48 years on the job. It was her second time hanging up her hat in recent years, though she says this time it's for good.

Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, is known to have a lot of "introductions" on the House floor, since his constituents can easily drive over to the Capitol to be honored.


Merit pay debate far from over

Sen. Anitere Flores has a simple fix for a complex problem.

The problem: Teachers have serious issues with the complicated new formula that will be used to evaluate them and determine pay raises. Some are being judged by the performance of students they’ve never met.

The fix, as Flores describes it: “We are going to link teacher evaluations to the students they actually teach.”

So far this session, Flores’ proposal is the lone attempt by Florida lawmakers to fine tune the controversial merit-pay program set to kick in next year. Democrats, Republicans and non-partisan education groups have praised her idea for its simplicity, and agree it’s a good starting point.

But behind the scenes, the situation is much more complicated. Teachers have doubts about the model that will determine their effectiveness. And the Department of Education must simultaneously roll out a new curriculum, tests and technology. So many questions linger that groups like the state teachers’ union and the Florida School Boards Association are urging lawmakers to hit the brakes.

“We need to slow this down now to avoid a big hullabaloo at the end of the year,” said Wayne Blanton, the association’s executive director. “We only have once chance to get this right.”

Read the story here: http://hrld.us/178aUYa