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19 posts from March 4, 2014

March 04, 2014

U.S. House approves flood-insurance relief bill


The U.S. House voted overwhelmingly in support Tuesday of flood-insurance relief bill that would delay sharp rate hikes for homeowners in Florida and other coastal states.

As our Tampa Bay Times colleagues Alex Leary and Jeff Harrington reported:

WASHINGTON — The House on Tuesday night voted to undo major provisions of a 2012 law that has caused sharp flood insurance rate increases, signaling possible relief after months of rising tension among homeowners in Florida and other states.

The bill would eliminate a provision of the law that said government subsidized rates disappear when a person sells a primary home; provides a refund for those who already got hit under that provision; and restores subsidies for "grandfathered" homes that would have been phased out over five years as new flood maps are drawn.

The Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act still allows FEMA to impose rate increases to meet actual flood risk, but the phase-in will be more manageable, bill supporters said.

Florida members of Congress -- and Republican Gov. Rick Scott -- were quick to praise the vote as a way to help worried constituents back home. We've compiled some of their statements below.

Continue reading "U.S. House approves flood-insurance relief bill" »

Ros-Lehtinen's legislation calling for end to Venezuela violence passes House


A near-unanimous U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday approved Miami Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's resolution supporting peaceful protests in Venezuela.

The House voted 393-1 in favor of the legislation, House Resolution 488, which decries repressive tactics by the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Despite the show of unity, "our work is not yet done," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. "The solidarity is warranted, and now it must be backed up by action to help save the lives of the suffering people of Venezuela."

The Republican said she is circulating a letter among members of Congress asking President Obama to impose sanctions against Maduro and his administration, including denying U.S. visas, freezing their U.S. assets and blocking any financial transactions.

Among the original co-sponsors of Ros-Lehtinen's resolution were Republican Mario Diaz-Balart and Democrat Joe Garcia, both of Miami, as well as other members of the Florida delegation from both sides of the political aisle.

Read their statements below.

Continue reading "Ros-Lehtinen's legislation calling for end to Venezuela violence passes House" »

Governor begins negotiations with Seminole Tribe over fate of gambling

In a sign that Gov. Rick Scott is ready to control the debate over the future of gambling in Florida, the governor said Tuesday that he has begun negotiating a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe.

"What I’m doing now is negotiating the Seminole compact,’’ Scott said in an exclusive interview with the Herald/Times.

The compact, a legal agreement between the state and the tribe, was first signed by Gov. Charlie Crist and ratified by the Legislature in 2010, but parts of it expire next year. It guarantees that the tribe give the state about $234 million a year in revenue in exchange for the exclusive right to operate slot machines at four casinos outside of Miami-Dade and Broward. It also allows the tribe to operate banked card games — blackjack, chemin de fer and baccarat — at the Hard Rock Casinos near Hollywood and Tampa and three other casinos.

The portion of the agreement that relates to table games expires on August 1, 2015, and Scott could wait until next year – when it’s uncertain whether he will be reelected – or negotiate it now.

What the governor decides to do could determine the fate of gambling in Florida. Story here. 

PolitiFact checks Scott's claims about education, taxes

Gov. Rick Scott’s fourth State of the State address before the Florida Legislature on Tuesday focused on tax cuts and job growth during his term, spinning some of the facts to put his term in the best light.

Contrasting his tenure with former Gov. Charlie Crist (his presumptive rival in this fall’s gubernatorial election), Scott claimed he had fulfilled his key 2010 campaign promises to curb spending and help employment rebound. He also touted the state’s education system.

PolitiFact Florida decided to take a look at some of the issues he highlighted to see how they rated on the Truth-O-Meter. 

We fact-checked Scott's claim about $10,000 degrees and high school rankings and recapped our past fact-checks related to jobs and the economy. Read PolitiFact's full analysis of the speech here.

Game changer: New rule requires lawmakers to live in their districts

Amid back-slapping and self-congratulatory remarks, state lawmakers passed a new rule Tuesday that they say will require them to actually live in the districts they represent.

"We now for the first time have standards in our rules," said Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford after the rule change was passed unanimously in both chambers. "It's a great day for us."

If such a rule sounds like a no-brainer, guess again.

Last year, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, found out the hard way that such a rule actually wasn't on the books.

So this is what he did.

Read story here.

Will vouchers play a major role in the 2014 session? It sure seems so.

If the first day of session was any indication, school vouchers will be a hot topic over the next 60 days.

In their opening remarks to their respective chambers, both House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz pushed for a dramatic expansion of the the state's tax credit scholarship program.

"There are 60,000 kids who are receiving scholarships today, primarily minority and overwhelmingly low-income," Weatherford said. "And there are tens of thousands more whose parents are longing to send them to the school of their choice. Let us agree not to fight each other and instead fight for them. Let us expand the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship."

Gaetz made a similar case to the Senate, while also asking his colleagues to consider a new testing requirement.

"The performance of Tax Credit Scholarship students should be assessed just like the performance of any other child," Gaetz said. "Why? Because testing is not just about score-carding. It is about measuring academic progress so schools and teachers can customize instruction to meet individual students' needs, so parents will know how their children are really doing, so taxpayers can be sure how their money is used."

Later, the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee discussed of another kind of voucher program: "personalized accounts for learning."

The program would create state-funded accounts for children with special needs.The money (roughly the amount of a McKay scholarship) could be used for tuition at private schools, tutoring, learning materials, or services such as applied behavior analysis, speech-language pathology and physical therapy.

Parents would choose how to spend the money, and be reimbursed by the state.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has already introduced the idea in the Senate (SB 1512).

The House is moving more slowly. The Choice and Innovation Subcommittee held a workshop on the concept Tuesday.

The strategy isn’t a surprise. Chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, has held workshops and taken public testimony on other high-profile bills before introducing formal proposals.

Bileca said the idea was worth considering because it will give parents of special-needs children more flexibility. "One of the things you see is how much these families struggle," Bileca said. "They know what their child needs."

But some of the Democrats on the panel had concerns with the idea, particularly if it would apply to gifted children. (Florida puts both gifted programs and programs for children with disabilities under the umbrella of Exception Student Education.)

Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, said he worried the framework could be too broad.

"The devil will be in the details in determining which students really need it," Saunders said. 

The State of the State selfie


As Gov. Rick Scott he made his way through the House chamber to deliver the State of the State speech on Tuesday, he was stopped by Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, for a selfie. Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami; Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville; and Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, jumped into the frame.

So far, the session selfie has more than 100 retweets. That's not quite as many as the now-famous Oscar shot, but it's a start.

Weatherford delivers good news on fourth child, recovering father-in-law

Will Weatherford’s life got even better.

During his opening speech of the 2014 legislative session, the House Speaker announced he and his wife Courtney are expecting their fourth child.

“Courtney and I were married in June 2006, and came into office with no children in November 2006,” Weatherford said. “We will leave not just with three daughters, but I am here to tell you that we’re expecting our fourth.”

The crowd of lawmakers burst into applause.

The new addition joins Ella Kate, Molly Marie and Madelyn Starr. Madelyn Starr, the youngest, wasn’t there on Tuesday because, according to her dad, she was upstairs somewhere hiding.

Of course she was because that’s so cute.

“What can I tell you?” Weatherford said. “God is good.”

Weatherford sprinkled another dose of good news by introducing his father-in-law, former House Speaker Allan Bense. Sitting in the front row, Bense stood up and gave Weatherford a thumbs-up.

It was a heartwarming comeback for Bense, who was diagnosed last year with Guillain Barré syndrome, a disorder in which your body's immune system attacks your nerves.

According to his family’s webpage, Bense is 90 percent recovered from GBS.

“Since we have been home we have progressed from the wheelchair, to the walker, then the cane,” said Bense’s wife, Tonie. “His workload as Chairman of the Board of Trustees has increased with the official search for a new President of FSU.  Last weekend we traveled to Wesley Chapel to celebrate Ella Kate's sixth birthday.  So life as we know it has resumed.”

And Weatherford’s life keeps getting better.

Now if we only knew what he’s going to do when he leaves office later this year….

Doral mayor asks Rep. Joe Garcia to return contributions from supporter with Venezuela ties


Doral Mayor Luigi Boria and a group of Venezuelans in Miami have asked U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia to return political campaign contributions from a former congressman with ties to President Nicolás Maduro's government.

Boria and seven others mailed Garcia a letter last week imploring him to give back $2,500 from Bill Delahunt, a fellow Democrat and longtime friend of Garcia's. Delahunt, of Massachusetts, is now a lobbyist.

"We see that you have received campaign funds drenched with the blood of our Venezuelan brothers..." an emailed version of the letter says in Spanish. 

Delahunt once brokered a deal with the late President Hugo Chávez to bring discounted Venezuelan heating oil to Massachusetts. He attended Chávez's funeral last year and has met with Maduro.

Garcia has dismissed requests that he return the money from Delahunt, a friend and longtime supporter. 

"The South Florida Delegation has found rare, bi-partisan support for the struggle of freedom in Venezuela," Garcia said in a statement Tuesday. "To use the suffering of these innocent people to score cheap political points is reprehensible."

Despite signing the letter, Boria praised Garcia's efforts to grant more political asylum applications and halt deportations of Venezuelans, as well as seek sanctions against the Venezuelan government.

"I think what he's doing for Venezuelans is excellent," Boria said. "It's what all members of Congress should be doing." 

Continue reading "Doral mayor asks Rep. Joe Garcia to return contributions from supporter with Venezuela ties" »

Florida Health Choices state-based marketplace now live


After years of delay -- and some last-minute website concerns that slowed things down a few more weeks --- Florida's state-based health exchange has finally launched at www.myfloridachoices.org.

Florida Health Choices was the vision of then-House Speaker now U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. But it has changed in scope over the years, partially because the federal insurance marketplace tied to the Affordable Care Act stole lots of thunder from Rubio's pet project when it launched last year.

The state-based exchange has taken a new direction. It offers discount cards and prepaid plans for services like dental and vision. There are even virtual doctor visits and access to a 24-hour nurse hotline that can be purchased. Unlike the federal site, Florida Health Choices does not offer insurance or provide financial assistance to help customers afford its options.

The Florida Health Choices board decided to target the uninsured who don't qualify for subsidies to afford policies on the Obamacare site, as well as people who may be looking for plans to supplement the insurance they already have.

The site's was delayed because news coverage of its pending launch caused web traffic to skyrocket, creating concerns about whether it could handle the demand. The site's administrators are planning for a soft launch and won't actively market Florida Health Choices initially to make sure everything runs smoothly.