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175 posts from June 2013

June 30, 2013

Shifting state regulation has allowed gambling to gradually expand in Florida

Days after a judge ruled last month that the barrel races held at a fledgling North Florida racino were not a legitimate parimutuel sport, state regulators crafted a license, the first of its kind, to allow "flag-drop" races to replace them.

In the past two years, the same regulators have allowed slot machine operators to run electronic roulette and craps games in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, allowed a dormant jai alai permit to be used to expand the number of slot machines at Magic City Casino, and allowed Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream racetrack in Hallandale Beach to run a one-time race in June so they could offer thoroughbred races via simulcast year-round.

These are just a handful of decisions by state regulators that have effectively expanded the gambling footprint in Florida under Gov. Rick Scott.

"There are a couple of clever lawyers out there and we're seeing a lot of strange decisions,'' Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, told the Times/Herald. "If the law doesn't specifically say no, the answer from the department seems to be, always, yes."

The rulings have not gone without notice by top legislative leaders, who ordered up a comprehensive study of gambling in Florida. They say they want the debate to include the loophole-driven expansion of gambling, as well as a discussion about whether to authorize destination resort casinos being pushed by the world's gambling giants. More here

Legal victory for state will mean job uncertainty for prison health care workers

The nation’s largest outsourcing of prison medical care is finally underway in Florida with the state turning to a private company with a history of problems in other states.

Corizon Inc. of Brentwood, Tenn., plans to start work Aug. 1 after Florida won a two-year legal fight with a public employee union that accused the Legislature of illegally seeking to privatize health care in most prisons by steering the decision to a 14-member Legislative Budget Commission.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and a second union representing physicians and dentists won the first round in circuit court. The state prevailed in the First District Court of Appeal, where a three-judge panel upheld the right of the commission to approve a budget transfer for the project and ruled that the prison system has “broad authority” under law to contract for services.

The decision rescued Corizon’s $230 million contract and gives Gov. Rick Scott another opportunity to show how the state workforce continues to shrink on his watch.

Corrections Secretary Mike Crews has sent letters to 1,756 employees, notifying them that Corizon will take over all health care in prisons in north and central Florida. Story here.

June 29, 2013

Former Miami-Dade commission chairman shows off namesake cologne at GOP fundraiser

@PatriciaMazzei Photo (8)

A gift sat on each table at the Miami-Dade Republican party's annual fundraising dinner Friday night: a bottle of men's cologne, encased in a white box wrapped in shiny cellophane.

The eau de parfum: "The Commissioner." As in, former Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Joe Martinez.

"Did you see?" he asked a Miami Herald reporter, proudly showing off a bottle. (Price: $31.99.)

It started off largely in jest.

Before he left his commission post last year, after an unsuccessful run for county mayor, Martinez toured Concept II Cosmetics, a Doral fragrance manufacturing business. The company created a scent in his honor, which Martinez intended to share with a small group of family and friends, he said.

But then he figured, why not spring for a bigger batch?

Photo (9)Martinez unveiled the cologne in a Facebook post in February -- the same one in which he announced his plans to challenge Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia next year.

"Those of you who have met me, know that it is a clean, lasting and memorable scent," he wrote.

The back of the 100ml cologne box even quotes Martinez: "There's no future in quitting."

This post has been updated with the price of the a cologne bottle.

June 28, 2013

Florida House speaker: 'Wrong' for Dolphins to go after Miami lawmaker opponents


Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, whom the Miami Dolphins blamed for their legislative failure in Tallahassee this year, fired back Friday, expressing solidarity with three lawmakers targeted in political ads due to their opposition to the football team's plans.

Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, didn't mention the Dolphins by name in his keynote speech at the Miami-Dade Republican Party's Lincoln Day fundraiser. But he didn't have to.

"No matter where you were on that bill, for it or against, it, it doesn't matter to me," he said. "But the fact that there are people who are attacking members of your community, your representatives, because they stood on principle, is wrong. And I've got their back, and you should have their back, too."

The three lawmakers in question -- Miami Republican state Reps. Michael Bileca, Jose Felix Diaz and Carlos Trujillo -- were present at the GOP dinner. And Weatherford got plenty of applause for defending his colleagues.

Continue reading "Florida House speaker: 'Wrong' for Dolphins to go after Miami lawmaker opponents" »

Gov. Scott signs bill to ban gun sales to mentally ill

Gov. Rick Scott signed a  gun control bill Friday to close a loophole in firearm sales to some mentally ill people, a controversial measure that has divided gun rights activists.

In his bill signing statement, Scott assures conservative supporters he is a "strong supporter of the Second Amendment" and has "signed legislation protecting the privacy of firearm owners and stopping local governments from overreaching in the regulation of firearms."

As for his support of this bill, Scott states that "Reasonable parameters on firearm purchases must be set forth in state law to ensure public safety...

"Mental health and second amendment advocates worked together to produce this bill that does not affect persons voluntarily seeking mental  health exams or treatments but rather closes a loophole in current law that could potentially put firearms in the hands of dangerous, mentally ill individuals who are a threat to themselves or others as determined by a court."

Scott notes that "other states, such as Virginia and Mississippi, have passed similar laws to ensure the protections of their citizens and visitors."

Continue reading "Gov. Scott signs bill to ban gun sales to mentally ill " »

Sure digital foreclosure forms are more accessible, but transparent? Not exactly.

Like much of the rest of the ethics “reform” passed this year by state lawmakers, the new requirement to post financial disclosures online sounds like a major blow for transparency.

Residents for the first time are a mouse click away (http://public.ethics.state.fl.us/search.cfm) from getting financial disclosure forms for 16,307 public officials who must file with the Florida Commission on Ethics. Another 21,972 local officials must file online with their county supervisors of elections.

It’s a treasure trove of easily accessible financial information filed by folks like Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, and the 160 members of the House and Senate that can only help provide more insight into the backgrounds of state leaders.

But don’t confuse the deadline for the disclosure forms -- Monday -- with the date they go online. Officials only need to “forward” their form by July 1. Upon receipt, it may take another five business days for the staff at the Commission on Ethics to scan in the forms, which are all notarized, and remove any information that is exempt from Florida’s public records laws, like Social Security numbers and bank routing numbers.

This week, staff was struggling to sift through all the mail that flooded the agency.

“It’s an all hands on deck situation,” said Kerrie Stillman, a spokeswoman for the Commission on Ethics.

As of 5 p.m. Friday, 24 out of 160 disclosure forms for lawmakers had made their way online. Another 35 had filed disclosure forms but the Commission had yet to get up on line. In all, nearly half of the Senate and a third of the House had filed. The forms for Scott and Putnam hadn’t been received yet. Bondi’s was recorded as arriving, but it still wasn’t online. Atwater’s form, disclosing a $1.7 million net worth, was available.

Once online, disclosures won’t completely enlighten the public. That’s partly because of the same bill, SB 2, that required forms be posted electronically. Another provision of the new law allows public officials to create blind trusts to hold their assets. So if there is anything that could prove embarrassing if ever disclosed publicly, it could be tucked into a trust that would obscure it. By handing off the responsibility of investing assets to a trustee, the thinking goes, the elected official would be “blind” to what they owned and would therefore avoid any possible conflicts of interest. Critics say, however, that the blind trust provision only puts the public in the dark as to any potential conflicts of interest.

That same bill also gave public officials a longer grace period, 30 days, to amend their disclosure forms, and 60 days if they are out of office.

The chief reason why financial disclosures won’t be anymore transparent is that SB 2 dramatically change current reporting procedures.

For instance, despite all the hustle and bustle by employees at the Commission on Ethics to get the forms online and exempt confidential information, one thing they’re not doing is checking to make sure the forms are correctly filled out.

“We don’t check for accuracy,” Stillman said.

Even if forms are wildly off-base, it won’t be corrected unless a resident files a complaint with the Commission on Ethics, which then must determine if the complaint has merit.

Rarely does the Commission on Ethics fine a lawmaker for filing an incomplete or inaccurate form. Earlier this month, the Commission determined that five current and former state lawmakers filed incomplete disclosures last year, but because candidates filed amended forms, no action was taken against them.

Current rules give lawmakers wide latitude in reporting their net worth. While lawmakers must report their total net worths, they must only list assets and liabilities that are more than $1,000. “Simply subtracting the liabilities reported...from the assets reported...will not result in an accurate net worth figure in most cases,” the Commission on Ethics informs officials.

Meanwhile, there doesn't appear to be any hard and fast rules for reporting a part of assets called "household goods and personal effects." This is a broad category that is meant to disclose the value of unspecified things that are not meant to be investments, like jewelry, stamp collections, art, household equipment, clothing, furnishings, guns, vehicles. This line item can be as much as $650,000 for Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, to $22,000 for Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach. Why the disparity? Who knows, as lawmakers aren't required to further specify this category.

So feel to peruse the financial disclosures once they’re up. Just don’t expect it to add up or make complete sense.

Greasing growth machine, DEP to award staff for quickly issuing permits

In December, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection laid off 58 employees to cut costs. Several who were fired went public with allegations that the DEP is easing regulations on industrial plants and developers that could have far-ranging environmental consequences for years to come. And environmental groups are threatening to sue over lax water protections.

Yet on Friday, the seemingly embattled agency was held up as an example of good government by a legislative budget committee that awarded it permission to dole out more than $500,000 in bonuses.

Recipients will be “high-performing” employees who, among other things, were deemed to have improved customer service and reduced the time it takes to issue permits, a criteria that conservatives found refreshing and environmental advocates found vexing.

“Everywhere I go I hear my constituents tell me how efficient the agency is, whether they are for or against a permit,” said. Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. “The agency is doing its job and this vote will award that efficiency.”

“The thing that bothers me is when they start emphasizing speed, they threaten to turn the DEP into a Jiffy Lube,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Florida Audubon, who was in Tampa and couldn’t attend the meeting. “If they’re stressing that employees to get a job done quickly, rather than do the best job they can, we lose the guarantee that the DEP is properly focused on the environment.”

Continue reading "Greasing growth machine, DEP to award staff for quickly issuing permits" »

Update: Sachs draws ethics complaint for living outside her district, denies claims

A Broward Republican voter has filed an ethics complaint against Sen. Maria Sachs, a Democrat, accusing her of leasing a Fort Lauderdale apartment to comply with the residency requirements of her district which stretches from Delray Beach to Fort Lauderdale.  Download Sachs.Ethics.Complaint 

Matthew G. Feiler, 32, filed the complaint with the Florida Ethics Commission accusing Sachs of violating state ethics laws, committing perjury for signing an oath of office paperwork claiming she lived in Broward County, and violating Article III, section 15 (c) of the Florida Constitution which requires legislators to live in the district they are representing.

Feiler, a registered Republican living in Tamarac, according to Broward County voter registration records,  cited a television news report by Bob Norman of Channel 10 news who obtained video footage from a private investigator showing Sachs arriving at night at the Boca Raton home she owns with her husband in Boca Raton and leaving the next morning. 

The report did not indicate who paid for the private investigator to stalk Sachs. Sachs was re-elected to the Senate in November after a bitter election battle against former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. 

Update: Sachs denied the allegations and attributed them to "partisan Republican attacks."

"Of course I live in my district,'' she said in a statement. "I love to call the 34th District home. Republicans have spent millions attacking me and those attacks unfortunately did not stop with the election.  But sadly, the Republicans' well-funded attacks against me are getting more and more personal, but the people in my district aren't buying it. And everyone I represent can be certain of this, too: I'm not going to take my eye off what's important for a single moment. I'm focused on my constituents and their needs."

Continue reading "Update: Sachs draws ethics complaint for living outside her district, denies claims" »

Study: Hispanics waited longest in Florida voting lines in November


Hispanic voters waited longer at the polls last November than any other ethnic group, a statewide study has concluded, with black voters also experiencing longer delays than white voters.

The study, by political scientists at Dartmouth and the University of Florida, found that precincts with a greater proportion of Hispanic voters closed later on Nov. 6 than precincts with predominantly white voters. In some cases, blacks also had longer waits than whites but shorter than Hispanics.

The study, by Michael Herron of Dartmouth and Daniel Smith of UF, will be submitted Friday in Miami to a bipartisan election reform commission created by President Barack Obama.

The 10-member commission, created by the president in May, will meet at a day-long session at the University of Miami to hear from Florida elections supervisors and the public about how the government can help avoid delays at the polls in the future. It will be the board’s first meeting outside Washington D.C., where it gathered for the first time last Friday. 

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration has been tasked with identifying successful elections procedures and making recommendations for improvement to the president. It will not submit proposals to Congress, though some lawmakers, including Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, have said they would welcome them.

More here.

Infographic details how citizens impact the legislative process

If a Florida citizen believes strongly about an issue, he or she should talk to elected officials in person in order to make the biggest impact, according to a recent survey of legislative aides by a Tallahassee-based firm.

Robo-calls have the least impact, according to the report by Kevin Cate Communications released today.

The "key takeaway," according to Kevin Cate himself: "Don’t walk into legislative session without real people, a compelling narrative, and data to show broad public support, especially if you are up against big money. And don’t discount the importance of newspapers and local TV – the vast majority of lawmakers consume news there everyday."

Some other interesting stats from the non-scientific poll, detailed in the infographic posted after the jump:

Continue reading "Infographic details how citizens impact the legislative process" »