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15 posts from January 23, 2013

January 23, 2013

Transparency developers say Senate leaders had access to site for more than a year

It remains one of the most perplexing questions surrounding the tug of war over the Senate's now-defunct Transparency 2.0 web site: Why would Senate leaders pay $5 million for a budget transparency web site for members but let it sit idle for more than a year until the contract expired?

Now, a letter from the developers of the web site to Senate President Don Gaetz reveals that user names and logins were provided to 58 Senate members and staff in 2011, including Gaetz himself. It doesn't answer the question but sheds some light on the he-said/she-said nature of this kerfuffle.  Download Mattson Response to Senator Gaetz

Gaetz told the Herald/Times in December that he had no recollection of ever getting a log-in for the web site that was set up under previous Senate President Mike Haridopolos to offer unprecedented access to state budget documents and accounting. He said he was underwhelmed by the performance of the web site, when he saw it demonstrated, and disappointed in its cost.

"I was a senator a year ago,'' Gaetz said. "I don’t remember anybody ever saying: ‘here’s your access code.’ I’ve asked for a list of all those who used the data and how often they used it so I could get a sense of the utility.”

The company, Spider Data Systems, provided Gaetz with the list of users earlier this month. It not only includes Gaetz but five other Senate leaders, including Sens. John Thrasher, Andy Gardiner, JD Alexander, Lizbeth Benacquisto and former Senate President Mike Haridopolos. So, why didn't the Senate use this high-priced tool?

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Miami-Dade commission asks Legislature to OK Dolphins' partly tax-funded stadium plan

The Miami Dolphins’ sprint to get public dollars to upgrade Sun Life Stadium got a boost Wednesday, when Miami-Dade commissioners urged state lawmakers to pass a bill designed to create new state and local subsidies for the renovation.

The Dolphins are asking to increase a Miami-Dade mainland hotel tax to 7 percent from 6 percent and for a $3 million a year subsidy from the state. Their goal is to get the government to fund about half, or $199 million, of a $400 million renovation that would revamp jumbo monitors, move seats closer to the field and build an open-air canopy that would keep fans drier and cooler.

For the county to increase the hotel tax, it needs a thumbs-up from the state. Then to bump the tax up it must come back to the county for a vote. The Dolphins say they need the renovations to lure more college national football title games and Super Bowls to South Florida, particularly the National Football League’s 50th anniversary championship in 2016. To get the premier NFL showcase game, the Dolphins must compete with San Francisco’s new stadium, and the team’s bid would have to be in place by the end of May.

Wednesday’s vote was a nonbinding request. But state lawmakers pushing the Dolphins’ proposal said they wanted local support to lobby a divided delegation.

And commissioners still suffering the public backlash over the one-sided Miami Marlins’ Little Havana ballpark deal had a hard time ignoring the 300-pound gorilla in the room. There was plenty of discussion about the football club opening its books, diversity in hiring and fair negotiations. But almost every speech on the dais began with a reminder of the Marlins fiasco.

“The stench of the Marlins deal is in the pores of everything this is about,” said Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who also said he was concerned the commission might be rushing to judgment because most residents aren’t even aware of the Dolphins’ plan.

The discussion began with Dolphins Chief Executive Officer Mike Dee explaining the financing plan and saying a vote in favor of the resolution “would send an important message to our lawmakers statewide.”

Miami-Dade County Commission helps Miami Dolphins more than voters

If deceptive inconsistency were currency, the Miami-Dade County Commission could make a mint.

And the Miami Dolphins would be happy for it. That way, the county commission could simply give the money away to help cover the football club’s $400 million stadium renovation plan.

Unable to do that, the commission Wednesday urged the state Legislature to give the county the authority to raise hotel taxes and give the Dolphins an additional $3 million annual state subsidy.

The plan has the slimmest of chances in the Florida Legislature. It’s controlled by Republicans, many of whom can’t afford to run in a GOP primary where they can be accused of voting to raise taxes or of doling out corporate welfare or both.

But the county commission asked anyway. Despite the long odds.

Is this the same county commission that decided not to ask the Florida Legislature to reinstate 14 early voting days because of the long odds in Tallahassee?

Why yes, yes it is.

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Big bill—and maybe higher rates—coming soon on Citizens Property Insurance

A massive, multipronged bill to reform Florida’s property insurance market could be introduced soon in the Florida Legislature, as influential committee chairs are determined to shrink Citizens Insurance and stave off potential “hurricane taxes.”

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said the Florida Senate and House will work on a major bill to fix the state’s property insurance market, encompassing several controversial ideas while trying not to cause “rate-shock.”

“We’re not going to pull the needle out of the arm of South Florida in one year,” he said. “We’re talking about being able to in fact provide a viable alternative to doing nothing. And that’s critical to us.” 

The statement came after the Senate Insurance and Banking Committee heard testimony from a number of pro-business groups, state officials and other stakeholders. Most groups had a similar message: rates at Citizens are too low and are keeping the private market from expanding. 

The bill to be introduced by the committee would likely encompass a number of different measures, including raising rates faster, shrinking the state’s Hurricane Catastrophe Fund and creating stricter requirements for homeowners seeking coverage from Citizens.

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Pre-Benghazi hearing poll: Hillary Clinton could beat Rubio, Jeb in FL

Missed this last week from Democratically aligned Public Policy Polling, but since Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton had a brief exchange at today's Senate hearing over Benghazi (igniting reporter speculation about 2016), here it is:

Hillary Clinton could beat Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush on their home turf in a presidential contest, according to PPP’s latest poll.

In a hypothetical 2016 match-up, Clinton leads Rubio by 4 points, 50% to 46%, and she beats Bush by 5 points, 49% to 44%. Both of these modest leads are within the poll’s margin of error. The main reason Clinton leads both candidates is her strong appeal among moderates, who favor her 63% to 29% over Bush and 63% to 32% over Rubio.

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President Obama will honor Miami Heat at White House ceremony

As part of the tradition with winning sports teams in America, the White House announced Wednesday that President Barack Obama will honor the Miami Heat, the 2012 NBA champions, next Monday afternoon in Washington.

The Obama administration also noted that the Heat will meet with wounded warriors.

More information will be released later in the week.

Here's the brief press release from the White House:

President Obama to Honor NBA Champion Miami Heat at the White House

WASHINGTON, DC – On Monday, January 28, President Obama will welcome the NBA Champion Miami Heat to the White House to honor the team and their 2012 NBA Championship victory.  The President will also recognize the Heat’s ongoing support to the men and women who serve in our military and their families, continuing the tradition begun by President Obama of honoring sports teams for their efforts on and off the court.  While in Washington, the Heat will also meet with wounded warriors.  


Hospitals urge delay on new Medicaid payment system

Florida hospitals are pushing for a delay in the scheduled July 1 launch of a new Medicaid payment system. Some members of the House's Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee indicated that they agreed, saying there were troubled that hospitals that use Medicaid the most seemed to lose the most money under the new system.

Committee members asked representatives from the state's  Agency for Health Care Administration about losers and winners under the new payment system, called DRG, or diagnosis-related groups. Generally speaking, for-profit hospitals benefit the most and safety net hospitals -- the state's children's, teaching and public hospitals -- lose the most money under DRG.

Lawmakers also questioned AHCA's recommendation that there not be a transition to DRG with implementation happening all at once in less than six months. Some wondered aloud whether that could tie the state's hands in addressing any issues that could arise, such as if disparities linger or worsen.

 “I’m just wondering what is the best for Florida, and I need to hear more justification for no transition period," said Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven.

In releasing its final recommendation earlier this month, AHCA said the goal was to make the system simple, fair and to encourage more efficiency in how hospitals treat Medicaid patients. Any changes, such as altering the formula to benefit safety net hospitals, will have to be done by the Legislature.

Justin Senior, AHCA's deputy secretary for Medicaid, didn't take sides but warned lawmakers that doing so would be "robbing Peter to pay Paul" because all changes to Medicaid must be revenue-neutral. "If you’re going to reward certain hospitals, then money is coming out of the pockets of other hospitals that didn’t get the reward," he said.

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Scott's across-the-board teacher pay faces hurdle in Weatherford and House

Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal for $480 million in pay increases for teachers will have a tough test in the Florida House.

The problem is how Scott wants to distribute the pay increase: across the board, everyone gets it.

House leaders, led by Speaker Will Weatherford, prefer the raises to be distributed in a method that recognizes performance.

“We applaud the governor’s efforts to increase money in education funding,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told Naked Politics on Wednesday. “That being said, the method of the increase is just as important. We are supportive of merit pay.”

Specifically, the merit pay method outlined in SB 736, which lawmakers passed in 2011 in the first two weeks of a tea party infused session and was the first bill that Scott ever signed. It eliminated teacher tenure while creating a system that evaluated teachers based on student test scores. It tied pay to performance for new teachers. The Florida Education Association has sued, claiming the bill eliminates the right for teachers to collectively bargain.

Although Scott seems to have backed away from that law with his insistence that all teachers get an across the board increase, Weatherford is holding firm, saying the compensation system in SB 736 is a good one and should be followed.

“Where the debate in the how will be how do we do it, how do we increase teacher pay,” Weatherford said. “Part of it should be performance.”

Year of the Pay Raise? Gaetz backs raises for teachers, state workers

A brightening budget picture could mean salary hikes for tens of thousands of teachers and state employees if Senate President Don Gaetz gets his way.

“I think that teachers are some govenment workers who deserve to have better compensation,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said. “But I know corrections officers, I know highway patrolmen…. who deserve a raise. And six years is a long time to wait.”

Gov. Rick Scott has announced support for across-the-board pay hikes for Florida teachers, but the hard part will be making the numbers work in an uncertain budgeting environment.

Gaetz said he was not familiar with the details of Scott’s teacher pay raise, but pointed out a still-tight budget may force Scott to “reduce funding for some of his other priorities in order to fund this most recent priority.”

That could mean Scott’s push for lower business taxes and more cash for economic incentives could be tempered by the plan to provide teachers raises.

Early estimates of the pay raise come in at about $480 million, Scott said.

Gaetz said he’s in favor performance-based approaches to the pay raises, which would be determined by local school boards.

“My preference always has been to provide local school boards with more funding than they can use based on plans they develop locally to recognize and reward effective teaching,” he said.

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Scott's teacher pay plan: $2,500 across-the-board raises

Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday proposed a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise for all full-time Florida teachers next year, a proposal that he says would cost nearly half a billion dollars. That would consume at least part of a tentative projected budget surplus of $437 million.

"I can think of no better investment for our state," Scott said in prepared remarks released by his office. 

Scott said his plan, which includes "related benefits," would cost $480 million statewide. He outlined the details for the first time at Ocoee Middle School near Orlando and emphasized that he also will propose an overall increase in education funding when he releases his detailed budget recommendations next week.

"I've traveled the state and I've talked to teachers," Scott told reporters before he flew to Orlando. "They're working tirelessly to make sure our students have achievement. I'm very appreciative of what our teachers do."

Scott said he remains supportive of a merit pay plan tied to student progress on standardized test scores. Merit pay became law two years ago but the state has provided no money for it and teachers are challenging it in court.

The governor's call for an across-the-board pay increase for teachers will be a recommendation to the state Legislature, which writes the annual state budget.

-- Steve Bousquet