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13 posts from January 24, 2013

January 24, 2013

Florida House Speaker Weatherford: changing the Electoral College is for sore losers

Republicans in five states, notably Virginia, have discussed changing the way they award Electoral College votes in presidential races by apportioning them on each congressional district, rather than the state's popular vote.

The reason: Republican Mitt Romney would have won the presidency despite losing the popular vote in states where the GOP controls the legislatures: Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida.

But Florida, the largest swing state, won't go along with changing the Electoral College if Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford has any say (and he has a major say).

"To me, that's like saying in a football game, 'We should have only three quarters, because we were winning after three quarters and the beat us in the fourth," Weatherford, a Republican, told the Herald/Times. "I don't think we need to change the rules of the game, I think we need to get better."

In Virginia, state Republicans are going with the why-get-better? approach. They're getting a bill ready for a vote that, had it been in effect in November, would have given Obama about 30 percent of the Electoral College votes, even though he won 51 percent of the popular vote in that state. Obama only won four of the nine Virginia congressional seats because they've been drawn to favor Republicans.

But Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus seems to like the idea, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "I think it's something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at."

Not only is Weatherford opposed to the idea, fellow Republican and Florida Senate President Don Gaetz is decidedly cool to it. When asked about changing the way Electoral College votes are apportioned, Gaetz thought the entire system should be scrapped.

 "I think we should abolish the Electoral College but nobody in Washington has called to ask for my opinion," Gaetz said. "If James Madison had asked me, and I had been there, I would have said a popular vote is a better way to do it." Gaetz said the electoral college shrinks the presidential campaign to a handful of states as it did in 2012.

"The farmer standing in his field in North Dakota should be just as important as the factory worker in Ohio," Gaetz said.

-- with Steve Bousquet

Seeking stadium redo, Miami Dolphins assemble familiar faces to advise, lobby for team

The Miami Dolphins’ lobbying team looks like a reunion of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s campaign brain trust.

To push for a $400-million stadium renovation funded in part with tax dollars, the Dolphins have enlisted three key figures from Gimenez’s recent election races: Marcelo Llorente, Brian Goldmeier and Jesse Manzano-Plaza.

Llorente, who became a frequent presence on the campaign trail after losing his own mayoral bid, has been hired as one of the Dolphins’ Tallahassee lobbyists. Goldmeier, Gimenez’s fundraiser, and Manzano-Plaza, a former Gimenez campaign manager, have been brought on as advisers to help drum up community support for the Dolphins’ plan.

The three men’s participation could indicate a calculated effort on the Dolphins’ part to appeal to the mayor, whom Miami-Dade commissioners tasked on Wednesday with negotiating a potential deal with the football team. Gimenez was a stubborn critic of the lopsided public financing deal for the new Miami Marlins ballpark in Little Havana — a position that helped the former commissioner in his campaign for mayor.

Gimenez dismissed the suggestion that a particular lobbying or campaign team could curry favor with his office.

“If anybody knows me, you can hire whoever you want. At the end of the day, I work for the people of Miami-Dade County — that’s who pays my salary,” he said in an interview Thursday. “I’m pretty black-and-white about things like that.”

Gimenez, who said he was unaware of Llorente’s and Manzano-Plaza’s involvement with the Dolphins, said his former election workers are successful in their own right.

“They’re very good at what they do, and they’re professionals,” he said. “I would hope that’s why the Dolphins hired them. In terms of me, that makes no difference.”

More here.

Will botched transparency contract spawn reforms of how legislators govern themselves?

A botched $5.5 million state contract for a transparency web site, signed in secret by the chief of staff of a former Senate president, may have an unintended consequence: forcing legislators to follow the rules they require of everyone else.

Members of the Senate Government Operations and Accountability Committee declared the Transparency 2.0 web site an unlikely survivor as the committee moves to merge nine transparency web sites. The Senate let the contract lapse Dec. 31 and the committee is working to find a replacement. But the committee said the secretly-signed contract could force the Legislature to change its ways.

“We need to go a step further and make sure this doesn’t happen again,’’ said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, referring to the no-bid contract signed in 2011 between Spider Data Systems and Steve MacNamara, the former general counsel and chief of staff for former Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

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Lawmakers say they’re keeping an open mind about online university options

Rep. Marlene O’Toole, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, had a few words of advice today: Do your homework and keep an open mind about whether the state needs an online-only university.

“Don’t just leave here and say, ‘Well I made up my mind. I like it or I don’t,’ ” the Republican from Lady Lake told her colleagues during today’s meeting.

The Parthenon Group, a company that conducted the study on behalf of the state’s Board of Governors, presented its findings about online education to the committee today. It presents four options to increase the number of online degrees, ranging for allowing each school to continue operating separate distance education programs to establishing a brand new university.

The state Board of Governors has not said which of the four options it recommends. House Speaker Will Weatherford told the board last year that he wanted to "plant that seed" for creating a new university, which would be Florida's 13th.

The other other known public, online-only university is Colorado State University-Global Campus, according to Parthenon.

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Scott faces big fight in Capitol over teacher pay raises

Gov. Rick Scott's plan to give every teacher a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise is in for a rough ride in the Florida Legislature. House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz on Thursday both reiterated their views that it's a great idea to pay teachers more money, but that it must be tied to performance in the claassroom.

Scott's proposal is to give every teacher in the state a $2,500 pay boost, and in separate interviews, Weatherford and Gaetz both seemed less than overwhelmed with enthusiasm.

Gaetz was more critical. He said he was "struck uncharacteristically speechless" when he learned of Scott's plan, and said Scott had an obligation to specify to legislators and the public where he would get the $480 million to pay for the raises in next year's budget (which Scott did not do).

"I think the governor would have more credibility with teachers if he would be able to identify where the money is coming from," said Gaetz, a former School Board member and elected superintendent in Okaloosa County. The senator said he was surprised when a visiting delegation of Panama City teachers reacted coolly to Scott's proposal in a Capitol visit this week.

Gaetz said Scott made his pitch for raises "in good faith," but he faulted Scott for not making distinctions between excellent teachers and mediocre ones. "The best teacher in Florida and the worst teacher in Florida should not be treated the same when it comes to this raise," Gaetz said, noting that until this week, Scott insisted that higher teacher pay be tied to performance. "A $2,500 per teacher across the board raise would seem to be counter-intuitive to what the governor has supported in the past."

Weatherford said that historically, longevity and college degrees have determined teacher salaries in Florida, and that while raises are laudable, a "merit pay component" has to be part of the conversation, he said.

-- Steve Bousquet

Legislator for a day: Flat Stanley

HarrellState Rep. Gayle Harrell, R.-Stuart, had a constant companion with her on Thursday who brightened her day. Just call him Flat Stanley, a cutout character crayoned with abandon.

Harrell says her grandson, Tyler, who is 5 and in kindergarten, asked Harrell to bring Flat Stanley to the Legislature for the day.

Clearly tickled by Flat Stanley, Harrell says "He’ll go wherever I go." 

Tyler will be sharing the adventures of Flat Stanley during his busy day at the Capitol with his classmates at Saint Mary School in Fort Walton Beach.

Rochelle Koff, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

Orlando Sentinel: 200,000+ Floridians discouraged from voting by long lines, hassles

Interesting report from the Orlando Sentinel, which puts a number (a rough estimate to be sure) on the number of Floridians who didn't vote because of long lines and Election Day hassles: 200,000 --and perhaps higher.

Says the Sentinel:

Analyzing data compiled by the Orlando Sentinel, Ohio State University professor Theodore Allen estimated last week that at least 201,000 voters likely gave up in frustration on Nov. 6, based on research Allen has been doing on voter behavior.

His preliminary conclusion was based on the Sentinel's analysis of voter patterns and precinct-closing times in Florida's 25 largest counties, home to 86 percent of the state's 11.9 million registered voters.

"My gut is telling me that the real number [of voters] deterred is likely higher," Allen said. "You make people wait longer, they are less likely to vote."

Around the state, nearly 2 million registered voters live in precincts that stayed open at least 90 minutes past the scheduled 7 p.m. closing time, according to Sentinel analysis of voting data obtained from county elections supervisors. Of those, 561,000 voters live in precincts that stayed open three extra hours or longer.

While an estimate, the number isn't surprising. And, folks should note, these weren't all Obama voters who were turned away. The week after the election, here's my column on the anecdotal evidence of voter suppression:

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Lawmakers urge action to improve state's ill-funded mental health system

In light of the tragic shootings in Conneticut and Colorado, Florida legislators are taking a hard look at the state's mental health system, which ranks 49th among states and the District of Columbia when it comes to funding.

"That's $39 per person per year," said Bob Sharpe, president and CEO of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health, one of 10 panelists addressing the House Healthy Families Subcommittee Thursday as an "ongoing conversation" to address the system's woes. That figure, experts said, was lower than per capita funding for mental health in the 1950s.

The violence at Sandy Hook Elementary is just one reason for action, said the subcommittee's chair, State Rep. Gayle Harrell, R.-Stuart.

"Any time you have a tragedy it certainly focuses public attention on an issue," Harrell said. "We want to make sure that we don't just do this however when there's a tragedy."

Legislators need to look at the continuum of care "from prevention to identification to intervention to treatment," Harrell said, if any improvements can occur in a system where issues range from school safety to finding places for mentally impaired nursing home patients.

The lack of funding for prevention in the community, particularly in schools, has been a key issue both at Thursday’s subcommittee meeting and at a Senate meeting Wednesday chaired by Sen.Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

That's because the bulk of the state's $723 million mental health budget is used for treatment, said Rob Siedlecki, assistant secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

Harrell's committee asked each panelist to come up with policy rather than funding solutions for mental health issues in the state.

"If we can set up a system in place and look at our system and really change it so that it is much more responsive to prevention, to the needs of the community then you can avoid some of those tragedies perhaps," Harrell said. "When a tragedy fades and the memory of it fades, you don’t want to let this issue fade. "

Rochelle Koff, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

Sheriff Israel's payout at Fort Laud p.d. was about $46k

We wrote earlier this week about the six-figure payouts for vacation and sick time signed off by Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti after he lost the election to Scott Israel in November. There were 16 BSO officials who had payouts that totaled at least $100,000 -- one was about $340,000 based on more than 4,000 hours of unused sick and vacation. BSO policy allowed Lamberti to grant those final golden parachutes but Israel described that as "poor discretion."

So we wanted to check how much Israel received from unused sick and vacation time when he retired from the Fort Lauderdale police department as a captain in 2004. Israel, who started at the city in 1979, received $46,279.42 gross in sick, vacation and longevity, according to city payroll records.

That was based on 100 percent of 495 vacation hours (one hour below the cap) and 80 percent of 720 sick hours (the cap).



American Cancer Society: Floridians want state to expand Medicaid

A majority of Floridians want the Florida Legislature to accept federal funding and expand Medicaid, according to the results of a survey commissioned by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

The survey said 63 percent of the 982 registered voters polled supported the state receiving federal dollars to allow more uninsured Floridians to enroll in Medicaid, compared to 25 percent who did not. The survey was conducted by left-leaning Lake Research Partners and GS Strategy Group, often affliated with the GOP, the week of Dec. 13 through 22.

Among Republicans, 47 percent opposed taking the money for Medicaid expansion compared to 37 percent who supported it, the survey said. Democrat support was at 88 percent and 67 percent of Independents said the state should accept the funds.

The Panhandle was the only region in the state where a majority of respondents didn't agree with taking the money, 48 percent said "yes" versus 33 percent who said "no."

The Cancer Action Network,  the advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society, also polled voters in Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Texas on the same issue. The group is hoping the results may influence elected officials in these states to accept the funds.

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