September 16, 2013

Clemens asks Senate to review the 'serious conflict of interest' with staff outside employment

In a letter to the chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, is calling for legislative hearings on the revolving door that allows employees to take leaves of absence from the legislature to work for political campaigns.

In the letter to Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, Clemens called it a "serious conflict of interest when legislative employees are allowed to leave work and earn money from campaigns and/or the companies that have business before the Legislature."

"The public deserves to feel confident that special interests are not buying influence with the Legislature by contributing to the bottom line wealth of employees who supposedly earn that money after-hours,'' he wrote. "It also places the employee in an awkward position, knowing he or she may have to make a decision that adversely impacts a special interest that has contributed to the well being of their family, either directly or through a campaign account."

The letter was sent on Sept. 5, after the Herald/Times reported on a three-year arrangement Senate chief of staff Chris Clark had with Senate President Don Gaetz. Clark was given permission to work part-time for the state during the legislative session and then take a leave of absence to work on the side for campaigns. According to public records, he earned more than $400,000 in consulting fees and payroll in the same years he drew a state salary.

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September 09, 2013

As Citizens sheds policies, customers face new headaches

In the next month, almost 400,000 people whose homes are covered by the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. will get a letter in the mail from another insurance company taking over their homeowners’ insurance coverage by Nov. 5.

Policyholders will have two options:

Say no, and remain with Citizens, taking a chance that their options will become even more limited beginning in January, when a $44.9 million clearinghouse comes online to allow insurance agents in the private market to handpick Citizens policies.

Or say yes, accepting the coverage from the so-called “takeout” company, one of 10 smaller carriers. Unlike Citizens, those companies have the right to raise insurance premiums by unlimited amounts when the policies come up for renewal.

It’s all part of the aggressive and controversial push by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature to shed Citizens Property Insurance of its 1.2 million state-subsidized policies. Under current law, if Citizens falls short of the cash it needs to pay its claims after a massive storm, policyholders of other lines of insurance and state taxpayers will be assessed fees to foot the bill.

But as Citizens shifts policies to the private market, the bottom line for homeowners is that costs will rise. Private companies don’t face the same rate caps as those imposed on Citizens, and they don’t benefit from the taxpayer-backed system. Story here.

A breakout of the targeted number of policies by local county here:

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September 02, 2013

Gaetz's top aide puts new twist on the revolving door with $400k consulting job

Senate President Don Gaetz’s right-hand man has been running his own political consulting firm, allowing him indirectly to rake in more than $400,000 from the some of the same special interests that have a stake in influencing legislation. Full story here.

For three years ending in 2012, Chris Clark, 41, took a leave of absence from his state job after the legislative session ended in May and went to work as Gaetz’s campaign manager. Clark formed the company in 2009.

The lucrative arrangement Clark has carved out for himself underscores the web of financial ties special interests have with the Florida Legislature as staff often cycle in and out of government and the private sector, developing relationships with the very lobbyists who have a financial stake in influencing them.

“It’s a practice that Democrats and Republicans have used without any serious problem that I’m aware of,’’ said Gaetz, R-Niceville, in defending Clark, who saw no conflict with the arrangement.

Clark’s dual role as campaign consultant and legislative staff member is allowed by law as long as he doesn’t work on the campaign while on the state job.

Still, Clark’s consulting deals stand out for two reasons: the sheer size of the raw dollar amounts and the fact that Gaetz made a show of standing against special interest money by leading a charge to abolish some of the very political committees that helped fund his chief of staff.

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August 19, 2013

Push for leniency in drug sentencing is a tough sell in Florida

When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he was ordering prosecutors to stop charging lower-level drug offenders with “draconian minimum mandatory sentences,” he echoed the refrain from a bi-partisan coalition of activists who have tried and failed to get legislators to change the laws in Florida.

The cost of incarcerating a drug offender for a mandatory three-year prison sentence in Florida is estimated at $58,400, while the cost of treatment in a work release program is $19,130, according to an analysis by the Florida Office of Program and Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

Meanwhile, Florida’s crime rate is at a 41-year low but the prison population continues to grow with non-violent, first-time offenders, most of whom are snared by undercover agents targeting them for trafficking in small quantities of prescription drugs, the analysis found.

The Florida Department of Corrections reports that taxpayers are spending an estimated $300 million a year to house people incarcerated for drug offenses.

Holder announced last Monday a major shift in federal sentencing policies, targeting long mandatory terms that he said have flooded the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be far better spent.

If Holder's policies are implemented aggressively, they could mark one of the most significant changes in the way the federal criminal justice system handles drug cases since the government declared a war on drugs in the 1980s. More here.

Read more here:

August 14, 2013

Special session on SYG won't happen

As projected, an effort to get lawmakers to hold a special session on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law has failed.

Although polling will continue until Monday, votes tallied by Wednesday afternoon showed it’s impossible now for supporters of a special session to get the necessary 96 votes out of 160.

The newly released total from the Florida Secretary of State’s office showed 83 lawmakers voted against the special session.  Two Democrats, Rep. Mike Clelland, of Lake Mary, and Rep. Carl Zimmermann, of Palm Harbor, voted with 81 Republicans.

Only 37 lawmakers, all Democrats, voted for the special session. Thirty-nine lawmakers still have yet to cast a ballot. A non-vote is considered a 'no' vote. 

Here are the totals:


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August 12, 2013

Did Florida legislators overlook a loophole when rejecting Medicaid expansion?

Florida Health Watch the Kaiser Health News reports on little known loophole in the federal Medicaid law that could provide the answer to thousands of low-income, uninsured Floridians denied health insurance because Florida lawmakers refused to expand Medicaid: miscalculate your income in 2014.

Here's the report on how the loophole works by Kaiser Health News. For more coverage of Florida's health care debate, see Florida Health Watch, a partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Miami Herald here. 

August 09, 2013

Legislature's plan to help sex trafficking victims goes awry, girl is raped

In a cozy one-story home in Miami, six twin beds dressed in bright prints stand empty. Yoga mats and art supplies are packed away in the living room, and a tire swing in the backyard hangs still.

Until early June, this was a refuge for six teenage girls who were victims of sex trafficking. Run by the nonprofit Kristi House, it was the state’s first short-term “safe house” for sexually exploited children, founded in the wake of new, highly touted legislation that allowed victims to be treated in specialized shelters rather than confined as if prostitutes. When it opened April 1, many hoped it would be a model for safe houses around the state.

Yet the shelter suspended operations just two months later, after girls housed there repeatedly ran away. One reported being raped while on the loose. The incidents, publicized in a June grand jury report, have prompted child welfare administrators and legislators to consider whether child sex trafficking victims should be locked up for their own good, at least temporarily. Advocates say this would be a step backward in helping children who fall prey to the sex trade.

The victim, a girl in her early teens under the care of the Department of Children & Families, reported being sexually assaulted after running away from the shelter 10 days after it opened, according to the child welfare agency. She was trying to return to the safe house, and an older man refused to drive her there unless she had sex with him, said Kristi House Executive Director Trudy Novicki. Shelter therapist Tabitha Gallerani reported the rape, which she said took place “very far” from the safe house. More from Katia Savchuk here.

Read more here:

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August 08, 2013

Did Florida lawmakers know what it meant to hand off health plan rate review to feds?

When Florida lawmakers decided during the 2013 session to hand off review of rates for new health plans for two years to the feds, it's not clear they knew what that meant.

PolitiFact recently rated True a claim from U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, that Florida stripped the state insurance commissioner’s authority to negotiate or refuse rates for plans on new Obamacare marketplaces.

PolitiFact’s reporting exposed limited understanding of the federal government's role even among legislators who knew the legislation best.

While the state can negotiate or reject rates it decides are out of line, the federal government can merely label the rate "unreasonable," and in extreme cases, disallow a plan's sale on the state's new marketplace.

It can't negotiate for lower rates on behalf of the state. It can't reject rates, even those it says are unreasonable.

Some congressional Democrats and consumer groups argue this leaves Floridians vulnerable to premiums an empowered state insurance commissioner would quash.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who sponsored the legislation that deferred rate review to the federal government, told PolitiFact he's confident the feds have the authority to "protect consumers."

But what about the ability to negotiate for lower rates? To reject rates? To engage in the kind of rate-making that Florida traditionally does?

"I don't know the answer to that question," he said. "I don't think they have the ability, myself. I think they have the ability to fully go ahead … to step in to protect consumers from unjustifiable premiums."

He suggested federal officials might have "multiple other methodologies" for doing that.

“I would hope that they do," he said.

He's partly right. In addition to rejecting plans from marketplaces, a new rule under the Affordable Care Act specifies a percentage of premiums that insurers must spend on care. A truly outrageous rate would eventually result in rebates to consumers. But that's later. At the start, higher premiums could simply scare consumers away from health plans, or force them to overpay.

Meanwhile, Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who spoke up on behalf of consumers at committee hearings and made a last-minute vote switch to oppose the law, said details about the limits of federal rate-review authority were "never made clear."

(PolitiFact got its details from a final rule issued in May 2011, available with a few clicks on the U.S. Health and Human Services website.)

During committee hearings, she expressed confidence that the feds would use a wealth of knowledge to "set" rates. No one corrected her.

"I don't recall us going into detail about that," she said.

She said she was too busy pushing for an expansion to Medicaid that legislators ultimately refused.

"I hope that the insurance companies will propose reasonable rates," she said.

-- Becky Bowers, Tampa Bay Times staff writer

August 05, 2013

Nuclear's future in Florida continues to dim, but will regulators let utilities keep collecting for it?

As the future of the nuclear energy industry in Florida appears to be dimming, the Florida Public Service Commission today takes up requests from Duke Energy Florida and Florida Power & Light to allow them to continue to ask customers to pay for projects they have no certainty of building.

Duke Energy Corp. on Thursday announced it had indefinitely postponed plans to build two new reactors in sparsely populated Levy County on the Gulf Coast, citing federal licensing delays and economic concerns. Those are topped by spiraling construction costs and uncertainty over whether Florida regulators and lawmakers will continue supporting controversial “cost-recovery’’ policies allowing utilities to bill customers in advance for plants with multibillion-dollar price tags.

The decision by the nation’s largest utility is the latest sign of cooling enthusiasm for nuclear power nationwide. It promises to increase scrutiny of Florida Power & Light’s plan to add two more reactors to its Turkey Point nuclear power plant on south Biscayne Bay.

Erik Hofmeyer, an FPL spokesman, said the utility constantly reviews changes in energy markets but remains committed to obtaining a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for two next-generation reactors he said would save customers $78 billion in fuel costs over decades of operation. More here from Curtis Morgan.

Read more here:

August 02, 2013

Trooper, fired over stopping lawmakers, wins his job back

Former Florida Highway Patrol trooper Charles Swindle, who was fired in March over his handling of traffic stops involving two state legislators, officially won reinstatement to his job Friday. He's entitled to back pay, too, with interest, as a state board concluded that Swindle was following a tradition of cutting breaks for politicians who exceed the speed limit.

The Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) issued a final order upholding a hearing officer's conclusion that Swindle's firing was too harsh a penalty for his actions. Instead, Swindle got a three-week suspension and he can petition the FHP for back pay, which so far totals more than $12,000 before taxes.

"The agency is ordered to reinstate to his former position or a position having the same degree of responsibility as his former position," PERC's order said.

Swindle was fired over his conduct on I-10 in Madison one day last November, when, in rapid succession, he pulled over two House members who he said were speeding. But Reps. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary, and Charles McBurney, got away with slaps on the wrist in the form of no proof of insurance and no proof of registration. The problem was, both lawmakers had the proof -- Swindle never requested to see it. McBurney wrote a letter to FHP Col. David Brierton complaining about Swindle's conduct, which launched an investigation that led to his dismissal.

"We recognize, as did the hearing officer, that the agency's longstanding unwritten policy of leniency toward legislators contributed to Swindle's actions showing leniency to McBurney and Clelland," PERC concluded. One of the three PERC commissioners who sided with Swindle, Mike Hogan of Jacksonville, is himself a former legislator.

The patrol now must re-hire a trooper it does not want, but the result is not a total disaster for the state: PERC denied Swindle's request that the state be forced to pay his attorney's fees.

-- Steve Bousquet