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42 posts from March 2019

March 19, 2019

The oldest freshman in Congress gets back to basics in Miami

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@NewsBySmiley and @Kyra Gurney

Donna Shalala is an analog politician in a digital age.

Not one to talk in 280-character soundbites, the 78-year-old congresswoman is reconnecting with her constituents after two months in Washington in an old-fashioned way: face-to-face conversations.

On Monday, for the second time since she became the second-oldest freshman in U.S. history, Shalala stood in front of a room of constituents from Florida’s 27th Congressional District during a town hall and fielded questions about guns, anti-Semitism and Donald Trump. The Miami Democrat will host five more gatherings before the end of May, including another Wednesday at the Palmetto Bay Municipal Center.

Shalala, who billed the event as a town hall on guns, touted legislation she’s supported to strengthen gun laws, including a bill passed by the House last month that mandates federal criminal background checks on all firearm sales.

Read more here.

March 18, 2019

Senate committee puts certificate of need repeal on hold

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House Speaker José Oliva’s top-priority push to eliminate the state’s certificate of need program for hospitals and other healthcare facilities hit a roadblock in the Senate Monday, as the lawmaker sponsoring its pared-back companion said she was putting off the vote because of insufficient support.
Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, temporarily postponed a vote on SB 1712 at the end of the Senate Health Policy committee’s meeting, saying she believed she might not have the votes among her fellow Republicans to advance the bill past its first committee stop. She said she planned to have “some further conversations as to further safeguards we might put in” and that she would wait to reintroduce the bill while she worked to sway some of her colleagues.
"I did not want to see the bill go down at this point,” said Harrell, who also chairs the 10-member committee. She acknowledged that some of her five Republican colleagues did not support repealing the state’s long-standing system that governs whether more healthcare facilities can be built or beds added. "This keeps it alive to allow perhaps for further thought.”
The move to postpone the vote keeps the bill alive, but also illustrates the substantial obstacles that repeal of the program was expected to face in the Senate. The chamber has historically opposed repealing the certificate of need system, despite the House’s push to do so in recent years — Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, has also said he does not approve of fully eliminating the program.
Hospitals, nursing homes and hospices are currently required to obtain certificates of need from the state Agency for Health Care Administration before they can build new facilities or add beds or certain services. The House version of the bill, HB 21, sponsored by Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, would eliminate the state’s approval system for all three categories and cleared its last committee stop in that chamber last week.
Harrell’s Senate companion bill sketched out a more moderate version of repeal, limiting the elimination of certificates of need to hospitals only. The bill also included several provisions — like requiring certain levels of charity care — that Harrell said were intended to prevent cherrypicking patients, some lawmakers’ primary concern.
Harrell declined to specify how many Republican senators were opposing the bill on the committee but said she had also heard some hesitation from lawmakers about how the bill might impact safety net hospitals. "They just don't want CON repealed at all,” she said of those colleagues.
Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said he was one of the senators opposed to removing the certificate of need process, which he cast as a way for the state to allocate “very precious state resources."
"When a hospital is built, the vast majority of the bills are paid by the taxpayers,” he told reporters after the meeting. “This is a way we ensure taxpayers get the most bang for their buck."
He added he was not alone on the committee, and that another Republican also had some concerns with the bill.
Harrell said she was unsure when she might bring the bill back to be heard again by the committee. The Senate committee did advance another bill introduced by Harrell, SPB 7078, which rolls together proposals in several House bills that standardize access to patient records and expands direct primary care agreements to other types of providers, among other changes. The bill also enters the state into the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, which would expedite qualifying doctors’ applications for licenses to practice medicine in other states. 
Image: Florida Senate

The Florida House is hearing the first Amendment 4 bill tomorrow. Here's what's in it.

A bill that would require ex-felons to pay back all court fees and fines before being allowed to vote was quickly denounced by advocates for Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote last year to more than a million ex-felons.
“This is exactly what we were worried about from the beginning,” said Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “The people spoke, and now the legislators are taking it away from them.”
The House committee bill, which gets its first hearing Tuesday morning, would restrict the number of people who would be eligible to vote, according to Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which advocated for Amendment 4.
“We’re opposed to restricting voting rights," Volz said. “And this bill does that.”
It’s the first bill filed in the Legislature dealing with the rollout of Amendment 4, and it sets up what promises to be a contentious debate in the Legislature this year.
Advocates believe the bill to be self-implementing, requiring no legislation from Tallahassee to carry it out. Indeed, former felons have been registering to vote since January, and voter registrations with elections supervisors have spiked.
But lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis believe they need to define who’s eligible and when they become eligible, and the House and Senate don’t appear to be in agreement so far. The Senate has yet to introduce a bill.
The House bill would:
  • Require ex-felons pay all court fees and fines before being eligible, even if those fees are not imposed by a judge.
  • Require the Department of Corrections to notify each inmate of his or her obligations before being released.
  • Define “felony sexual offenses” to include a wide array of crimes, including prostitution and placing an adult entertainment store within 2,500 feet of a school.
  • Require the Secretary of State to set up a process for determining which ex-felons are eligible to vote.
Judges will often require felons pay restitution to victims as part of their sentence. Amendment Four advocates don’t dispute that restitution is part of someone’s sentence.
But court fees and costs are a different story. Those fees can include for electronic monitoring bracelets and drug tests during probation, and are usually not handed down by a judge as part of someone’s sentence.
It’s also a higher standard than under the old system, which required only that a felon pay back all court-ordered restitution. Paying for court costs were not a requirement before applying to have someone’s civil rights restored, according to a state Commission on Offender Review spokeswoman.
Gross said the bill’s standard would create the equivalent of a poll tax.
“It will inevitably prevent individuals from voting based on the size of the person’s bank account,” Gross said. “Those who have the financial means will vote, and those who can’t, won’t.”
She also disputed how the bill defines “felony sexual offenses.” Amendment 4 allowed all felons to automatically get their rights restored except for cases of “murder” and “sexual offenses.”
The bill’s definition is too broad, Gross argued.
“Everybody who voted for this, all of the people, when they heard that, the understanding clearly was … rape, child molestation, serious sexual felony offenses,” she said.
House Criminal Justice Chairman James Grant, R-Tampa, told The News Service of Florida he instructed staff to include all felony sex offenses in the legislation.
“When the Constitution says ‘felony sex offenses’ and that means nothing legally, the best I can do is propose a list of felonies that are sexual,” Grant, a lawyer, said. “The reality is I’m going to do my best effort to maintain what I believe the rule of law now requires in a super-ambiguous constitutional amendment.”
Grant acknowledged the proposal is likely “to get pushback everywhere,” but blames the amendment’s own language for its problems.
“This notion of making policy in the Constitution is problematic for a lot of reasons, and this (Amendment 4) is a great of example of why,” he said.
The House bill doesn’t include an idea that’s been pushed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, however. He wants to include felons convicted of “attempted murder” be excluded from automatic restoration.
You can read the bill here and read the bill analysis here. It’s scheduled to be heard in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee at 8 a.m. on Tuesday.
News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

March 15, 2019

State economists not opposed to energy choice ballot initiative

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AL DIAZ ADIAZ@MIAMIHERALD.COM

A petition-driven ballot initiative that would reform how consumers purchase electricity in Florida now has some policy experts for the state saying that they are not totally opposed to the idea. 

The state's Financial Impact Estimating Conference declined to weigh in on the Citizens for Energy Choices political committee Friday, rejecting the argument from opponents — mainly investor-owned utilities — by saying the final implementation of a potential new system is "unknowable at this time."

“Because it [energy choice] is subject to legislative implementation, the final design of the restructured system is unknowable at this time," they concluded.

The conference is made up of state economists and meets under the Office of Economic and Demographic Research. The office serves as the research arm of the Legislature and, according to their website, is mainly concerned with forecasting economic and social trends that affect policy making, revenues and appropriations.

The proposal, put forward by the political committee, calls for the customers’ “right to choose” and would loosen the grip of private utility monopolies like Florida Power & Light, Gulf Power, Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Co. It would allow customers to pick their electricity providers from a competitive market or give them more options to produce solar energy themselves.

The language aims to protect customers against deceptive or unfair practices and establish an independent market to make energy sales competitive, the Alachua-based committee says.

"When you take away the utilities' narrative and you put it in the hands of the policy experts, the utilities' narrative is a false report," said Alex Patton, the chairman for Citizens for Energy Choices. "The utilities have every institutional advantage. Every single one." 

Despite the estimating conference's stance, the state attorney general's office opposes the initiative. 

In a filing to the state Supreme Court last week, Attorney General Ashley Moody described the amendment as a veiled attempt to “eliminate” the state’s investor-owned utilities, such as Florida Power & Light.

Although it sells itself as a pro-consumer choice measure, Moody wrote that the amendment’s “undisclosed chief purpose” is actually the opposite.

The amendment’s language, she argued, requires creating a law “prohibiting investor-owned utilities from owning, operating, or even leasing any facilities which generate electricity.” The attorney general is required to review citizen petitions and determine whether they comply with the state’s ballot requirements. The state Supreme Court, which will review Moody’s opinion, would then approve the ballot wording.

While Moody’s opinion is important in the process, it’s not definitive when it comes to the proposal’s future. In 2015, the Solar Choice amendment proposal was approved by the Supreme Court even though former Attorney General Pam Bondi opposed it.

The energy choice proposal unsuccessfully attempted to reach the ballot in 2018 through both the Legislature and the Constitution Revision Commission, which convenes once every 20 years to examine the Florida Constitution and propose changes.

March 14, 2019

Florida's general revenue fund $7.4 million less than expected

Florida lawmakers will have $7.4 million less to work with than they thought this legislative session, state economists estimated on Thursday.
But that’s a minuscule loss to the state’s general revenue fund, the pot of money that pays for schools, agencies and lawmaker projects.
Overall, the fund for the 2019-20 fiscal year is estimated at $33.5 billion, about $600 million more than the revised estimate for 2018-19.
Legislators base their budget each year on state economist estimates, and lawmakers are required to balance the budget each year. That’s their sole legal responsibility during the annual two-month legislative session, which started March 5 this year.
The Legislature’s chief economist, Amy Baker, said Wednesday that the national economy is slowing down thanks to tariffs and the end of a decade of economic expansion, and that affects Florida.
For next fiscal year, general revenue is expected to be $208 million less than they thought in December. But the current year is expected to be stronger than expected by $201 million, thanks to strong corporate income tax returns.

Repeal of certificate of need process heads to the House floor

The Florida House is expected to take up repealing the state’s certificate of need process for healthcare facilities next week, after a second and final committee approved advancing the bill Thursday.
HB 21, sponsored by Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, passed the House’s Health and Human Services committee 14-3 despite continued concerns from hospice and nursing home groups about their inclusion in the bill. The measure, at the top of House Speaker José Oliva’s healthcare deregulation checklist, allows the state to determine whether hospitals and other healthcare facilities can build or add beds.
Oliva and other supporters of the measure have said the process, which is overseen by the state Agency for Health Care Administration, throttles competition to existing facilities and allows them to keep prices high. But opponents have contended that the move could lower the quality of low volume but complex treatment by siphoning away cases needed to keep providers well-trained, and that it could draw away paying patients from facilities.
Nursing home and hospice facilities, which have not always been included in past repeal efforts, have argued that the existing certificate of need process ensures that there are facilities that serve all regions of the state, and that controlling how many facilities are built ensures that existing facilities can keep their beds occupied. Nursing homes in particular have argued that controlling how many nursing homes are built allows the state to encourage home and community-based options for seniors.
But Fitzenhagen in committee Thursday said that she felt the type of care that people seek out was determined more by personal decisions or by the type of care being sought, rather than state regulations.
The push to repeal certificates of need has cleared the House multiple times in recent years, but it remains to be seen if counterparts in the Senate will also approve the bill. Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, has expressed some reservations about Oliva’s broad deregulatory plans and said he does not approve of fully eliminating the program.
The Senate companion to Fitzenhagen’s bill, SB 1712, filed by Health Policy chair Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, is scheduled to be heard in its first committee stop Monday.

House voucher expansion bill passes its first committee after emotional debate

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Miami Herald file photo
A House bill that would create a new publicly funded private school voucher passed its first committee on Thursday, with only two of the committee’s Democrats against it.
 
“This bill right here is the reason why I ran for the Legislature,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, who’s a prominent school choice advocate. “It’s about favoring the parents who have one goal in mind: the best education of their children ... It’s a crime we have not done this sooner.”
 
The House bill, like its Senate companion, proposes to create a new voucher called the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which is designed to eliminate the waiting list of about 14,000 low-income students for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Both chambers propose to fund the voucher through general revenue dollars typically set aside for school districts.
 
However, the House version represents a much more aggressive approach. Rather than offer 14,000 vouchers — like the Senate does — to match the number of students on the wait list, the House proposes to fund double, at 28,000 vouchers for the next school year.
 
The House also would allow families from a much broader income bracket to be eligible. The House bill would allow families making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $77,250 for a family of four, to apply for the voucher, according to the bill analysis. That income threshold would steadily rise over time, allowing families that make up to $96,572 to participate in the 2022-2023 school year.
 
The Senate proposed a cutoff around $67,000 for next school year and does not raise its threshold over time.
 
One teacher, Aimee Smith of Hardy County, cried during her testimony before the committee, saying this program would further cause underfunded public schools to lose out on even more money during a mounting teacher shortage.
 
“Sometimes it feels, as public school teachers, the state has tied an anchor to our ankles and parents get mad when we cant swim as fast as the private schools,” she said. “I implore you to focus on funding our public education system and not vouchers.”
 
Despite the passionate opposition, several parents as well as a representative of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity advocated for going even further, and eventually offering vouchers to all of Florida’s students regardless of their income. Some lawmakers agreed.
 
“If I have any criticism of this bill at all it’s that we’re not doing this for everybody," said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, after praising the measure.
 
Despite several Democrats on the committee voicing concerns with the high income levels allowed to participate in the new voucher, only two Democrats of the four who were present voted against the bill.
 
“The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program was initially sold as an attempt to help the children of low-income parents get out of failing schools,” said Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando. “Now we’re raising the income limit ... At what point in time do we stop?”
 
Because of a previous Florida Supreme Court precedent that struck down school vouchers funded through general revenue dollars, there’s much debate over whether this bill would be considered constitutional. The new, more conservative supreme court could reverse the old precedent.
 
Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, who chairs the committee, said she believes the bill is constitutional.
 
“The first step is to pass it," she said. “Then it’s up to the courts."

Another senator wants answers on FDOT's $3.6 million payment to SunPass bidder

A Senate committee on Wednesday wasted little time recommending the Florida Legislature confirm Kevin Thibault as the state’s next transportation secretary.
But Sen. Annette Taddeo said she still expects answers to a Friday Times/Herald story about the Florida Department of Transportation’s $3.6 million payoff to get a SunPass bidder to drop its bid.
The unusual payoff cleared the way for Conduent State & Local Solutions to secure an estimated $600 million contract with FDOT to process the state’s tolls. Conduent made a mess of it when it tried to take over last year, leading to overbilling and a massive backlog of unpaid tolls.
“I hope you get us some answers as to this payout of $3.6 million for the other bidding company — or losing company — to go away,” Taddeo, a Democrat from Miami, said. “I can tell you my constituents are not happy getting all these bills at once, then they hear that we paid $3.6 million out for a company to go away?”
Taddeo said she wanted to see where in the budget the money came from, and how the state can prevent it from happening in the future. She added, however, that she’d heard nothing but good things about Thibault.
“Our commitment is to find that out and get back to the questions that are being asked,” Thibault responded.
Although FDOT said the payoff wasn’t unusual, two former executives of the losing bidder, Cubic Transportation Systems, said they’d never before been paid to drop out of a bid protest.
Sen. Tom Lee, who has raised questions about the payout, thanked Thibault for being so open with lawmakers, which he called a “cultural change."
“I appreciate you being forthcoming with me and I look forward to continuing the dialogue,” the Thonotosassa Republican said.
“It’s all about partnerships,” Thibault responded. “In order to be successful, it’s all about working with partners, and you all are a very big part of that.”

March 13, 2019

Bill named after Parkland victim Jaime Guttenberg puts background checks on bullets

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@alextdaugherty

Last month, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed a plan to expand background checks on gun purchases.

Now, Parkland parent Fred Guttenberg and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz are offering a new plan to require universal background checks on ammunition purchases. The bill is named after Guttenberg’s daughter Jaime, one of 17 students and staff killed on Valentine’s Day last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“We have a gun violence death rate in this country right now of approximately 40,000 per year. It is not normal,” Guttenberg said. “In the time that we do this press conference, somebody will learn they are a victim of gun violence, somebody will be buried who is a victim of gun violence and somebody will be planning the funeral for a victim of gun violence. I am not okay with that.”

The background checks for ammunition would work the same way as background checks for firearms. Every time someone of legal age attempts to purchase ammunition, the buyer would be subject to a background check, which Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy said would take 30 seconds to one minute to complete.

“Even though ammunition is every bit as necessary for the operation of a firearm as the firearm itself, federal law does not require a background check to prevent prohibited purchasers from purchasing ammunition,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Jaime’s Law will close this ammo loophole.”

Guttenberg acknowledged that the bill’s chances of passing the Republican-controlled Senate are low, though he thinks voters in 2020 will punish Senate Republicans who refuse to vote in favor of tighter gun restrictions. As evidence, Guttenberg stood next to freshman California Rep. Mike Levin, who replaced an 18-year Republican incumbent last year.

More here.

House committee backs allowing longer surgical center stays and more services

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A recurring bill that would extend how long non-hospital providers can keep patients after surgical procedures cleared its first House committee stop Wednesday, along with an amendment that rolls in a second proposal allowing some of those centers to deliver babies via C-sections and with anesthesia.
The House’s Health Market Reform subcommittee voted 9-3 to advance HB 25, filed by Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, R-St. Johns, which would create recovery care centers that could care for patients up to 72 hours after surgery. The bill also extends how long ambulatory surgical centers — medical facilities that can perform same-day surgical procedures — can care for patients up to 48 hours.
The committee also voted to add two amendments, brought by Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, which would allow those ambulatory centers to deliver babies under certain circumstances and provide more services.
The amendments mirror language in Burton’s HB 383, which would create “advanced birth centers” in the state.
The two measures are another attempt by the House in recent years to expand how long patients can spend at such medical facilities, as well as the services they can provide. They join a number of proposals — championed by House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes — that have been filed this session and aim to increase competition among healthcare facilities in a bid to reduce prices.
Under current law, ambulatory surgical centers can currently only keep patients until midnight, though lawmakers have tried repeatedly to extend that limit. Women in Florida can also currently deliver babies at home, in a hospital or at a licensed birth center, though the latter can only keep patients up to 24 hours and cannot provide Caesarean sections or epidurals.
Stevenson told lawmakers that allowing for recovery care centers would increase access to affordable care options, and that establishing additional non-hospital centers for less intensive care would allow a “meaningful reduction” in healthcare costs. We “need to do something affordable to give people support,” she said. Burton, who presented the amendments, also cast allowing more complicated deliveries as a way to improve access to care.
Some lawmakers, including Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota, raised questions about the increased time limits, which some opponents say would siphon away cases from hospitals and might increase their Medicaid loads. Good, who eventually voted against the bill, questioned what would happen after births should a patient need to exceed the 72-hour mark, citing concerns that cases that complicated might require hospital attention from the start.
Burton said agencies would determine rules regulating those centers if the bill passes and pointed to provision that require centers to arrange for ambulance transport to hospitals if patients need to be transferred during their stay.
Both Burton’s and Stevenson’s proposals have separate companions in the Senate, though a Senate bill mirroring Stevenson’s original recovery care center proposal, SB 1540, has yet to be heard in committee.
SB 434, another bill that would allow ambulatory surgical centers to hold patients overnight, cleared its first committee stop in the Senate before the official legislative session began, though its sponsor Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, has said she expects to preserve language that would only extend stays to 24 hours. Harrell is also sponsoring a bill like Burton’s original legislation that would create advanced birth centers, which passed its first committee stop unanimously last month.
Image: Rep. Stevenson and then-Rep. Gayle Harrell, via Florida House of Representatives