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13 posts from December 5, 2012

December 05, 2012

Senate: transparency contract is under review but public access is not an option

Senate President Don Gaetz asked his legal counsel, George Levesque, to review the Senate's contract with the company that developed the software program that is the foundation for the Senate's budget transparency program, Transparency 2.0.

As the Herald/Times reported last month, the Senate tested the program and it was available for senators to use during the 2012 budget cycle but was kept on hold. A new report by the watchdog groups Integrity Florida and the First Amendment Foundation has concluded that the web site, developed by Spider Data systems and paid $4.5 million by the Senate, "would save millions of dollars" if legislators, and the public, were given access to it.

The contract with the company expires this month, however, and the Senate has no plan to take the program public nor to make it available for Senate staff to use.

Gaetz spokeswoman Katie Betta said in a statement late Wednesday that the Senate president is "planning to meet with the vendor to review the product and their proposal for a contract extension" and will determine whether the Senate will make the program available to senators and staff then. 

Here's Betta's full statement:

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Watchdog groups say stalled transparency program would save millions

 On the same day Senate leaders announced they would conduct an intensive review of the state budget, two government watchdog groups said a budget transparency program — put on hold by the Senate — could "save Florida millions of dollars” and revolutionize budget accountability.

The web site, Transparency 2.0, was developed and licensed by the Senate for $4.5 million. But it is scheduled to be shelved at the end of the month as the Senate and the governor’s office feud over which has responsibility for maintaining it and paying the $1 million annual license fee.

“Transparency 2.0 has the ability to help all Floridians and policy makers oversee their state government – and hold it accountable – with a businesslike, searchable and measurable web site,’’ wrote Integrity Florida, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, and the First Amendment Foundation, in a report released Wednesday.

The joint report was requested by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and the office of Gov. Rick Scott after the Herald/Times reported that the program provides a searchable way to track spending on government contracts, salaries and budgets. It was funded by the Senate, but has been kept on hold for the past year. Story here.

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Solyndra auctioneer to sell off Digital Domain assets

Digital Domain, the failed animation company that left the state on the hook for $20 million, now has one more trait in common with Solyndra.

The auctioneer.

California-based auction company Heritage Global Partners will host live and online auctions Dec. 12-14 to sell off the remainder of Digital Domain Media Group's almost-new computers, film equipment and movie-theater style seats.

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Tax collector speaks out on license plate outsourcing

Tax collectors have been hopping mad at the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles over a plan to pay private businesses to make and distribute some license tags. Here's a note from Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden.

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Leon County judge accused of misconduct by using her office to promote for-profit religious business

Leon County Judge Judith W. Hawkins was charged Wednesday with misconduct, accused of using her office to promote a business that sells Bible study books, souvenirs and other products to attorneys and others who regularly appear in her courtroom.

The charges focus on Gaza Road Ministries, a business that sells books, stages seminars and conferences and sponsors mission trips to other countries, including Guyana, Romania, Mongolia, Mexico and Brazil.

Her sermons have included "Your Day in Court,'' emphasizing that "God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether it is good or whether it is evil.'' In October she appeared at a seminar discussing, "When Life Gives You Lemons," turning obstacles into opportunities.

Florida's Judicial Qualifications Commission alleges that these activities and the use of a judicial assistant who has helped promote the ministry take time away from judicial duties for a profit-making business.

Story by Tampa Bay Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan here.

Health officials strike at media

Health officials slammed the media Wednesday for "sensational" reporting on government failures to report tuberculosis outbreaks, provide adequate care for disabled children in nursing homes, and protect elderly and disabled residents in assisted living facilities.

Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Liz Dudek told lawmakers in the Health Policy committee she was "enraged" by media coverage about the state placing children in nursing homes.

"We do not place our medically complex or medically fragile children in nursing homes," Dudek said, adding that the parent decides where to place their child. "The last place we want children is away from their parents."

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Two-way fight emerges for House Democratic post

Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat angling to be the next leader of the 44-member House Democratic caucus, formally drew a challenge Wednesday: Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, filed a notice with the House clerk indicating she, too, wants the job in 2014.

Rouson filed his intention to run for minority leader in October and was visible on the campaign trail in the closing weeks, helping fellow Democrats in their campaigns such as Kevin Rader in Palm Beach County and Larry Lee in St. Lucie County. Rouson also drew media attention by holding a press conference in October with former Gov. Charlie Crist on the need to change Florida voting laws, such as returning to 14 days of early voting.

Jones could be a formidable opponent for Rouson because she is already a part of the Democratic leadership circle. She is House Democratic leader Perry Thurston's pro tem, and under the House Democratic caucus rules, only Thurston can call an election to pick a new leader. (Thurston said he is officially neutral in the race).

In brief comments Wednesday, Rouson said Thurston should call an election "sooner rather than later."

-- Steve Bousquet

'Obamacare' opponent sees veiled threat in email from Senate President Don Gaetz

 Senate President Don Gaetz says he was just trying to smooth things over with a constituent after a particularly testy committee meeting. But Kris Anne Hall, a "constitutional consultant" who led a contingent that opposes the federal health care law, took offense at the email she received from him.

Hall wrote on her website that she met Gaetz after Monday's meeting of the Senate Select Committee on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. She later sent him an email to explain her position that Florida lawmakers should nullify the law and refuse to implement it. He replied back, saying that he agreed with her belief that "Obamacare" is unconstitutional but took issue with her approach.

Gaetz then recounted a story of the "Nullification Crisis" facing President Andrew Jackson in 1832. According to Gaetz, an aide told Jackson that the nullifiers were in front of the executive mansion with torches and guns threatening to "burn us down." We'll let Gaetz tell the rest of the story: 

Without lifting his head from his reading, Andrew Jackson said, "Shoot the first nullifier who touches the Flag. And hang the rest."

Chaplain, I have sworn an oath on my father's Bible before Almighty God to preserve, protect and defend the constitution and government of the United States. And that's exactly what I intend to do. Count me with Andrew Jackson.

 Hall felt that reference of violence was pointed at her and the others who spoke at the committee meeting.

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Ethics commission finds probable cause that Fresen failed to report income

The Florida Ethics Commission announced Wednesday it has found probable cause to believe that state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, failed to properly disclose his net worth, assets, and liabilities every year from 2008 to 2011.

Fresen's murky finances have been the subject of several reports, including in the Miami Herald, and became an issue in his primary campaign against opponent Amory Bodin.

Fresen said Wednesday the charges were filed against him by an aide to Bodin and he considers them "nothing but a textbook political attack" and he expects to fight the charges. He said the probable cause findings "deal with technicalities and not substantive issues."

"I'm confident that it will be dismissed and we will be responding to it as the process dictates,'' Fresen said. "It's baseless and pointless."

Fresen, a land-use consultant, has been dogged by questions about his personal finances since 2008, when a lender filed a foreclosure suit against Fresen, his wife and his mother. He reported a $357,000 new worth in 2011, according to documents posted on the Integrity Florida web site.

The Ethics Commission will next conduct a further investigation to determine whether he violated state ethics laws by failing to properly report his income and liabilities on his annual state forms.

From the Miami Herald report: The mortgage company filed suit after Fresen failed to make payments in May 2008, court records show.

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Lawmakers debate on Medicaid reform delays

Lawmakers kicked off the House healthcare committee with a heated debate Wednesday over whether the state is adequately prepared to implement state Medicaid reform and the federal Affordable Care Act.

Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Liz Dudek said Florida is on track to cement the statewide Medicaid reform by 2014---moving the poor and disabled recipients into private managed care plans health plans.

She said Obama's federal health care overhaul, which--if the state complies--could bring thousands of new recipients into the Medicaid program, will be dealt with separately from the statewide reform. 

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