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17 posts from March 4, 2013

March 04, 2013

Pre-session ritual: One last blast of collecting money

On the eve of the 2013 Florida legislative session, the Capitol was bustling with activity, including the pre-session ritual of lobbyists scurrying from one fund-raiser to the next with campaign checks for the lawmakers. On Tuesday, they will convene and begin to talk about the need for more stringent ethics laws in Tallahassee.

Fund-raising is prohibited during the 60-day session that starts Tuesday and will end in early May. So Tallahassee politicians collect what they can before the ban takes effect.

"I'm going to six (fund-raisers) now, but there are a bunch more at 4:30 and 5," said lobbyist Ron Book, who opened his legislative briefing binder to reveal a stack of checks in envelopes. He said there were a lot more fund-raisers during a stretch of three weeks of committee meetings held in February.

On the third floor of the nearby Governor's Club, Senate Rules Committee Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, greeted a small but steady stream of lobbyists bearing gifts for a lawmaker who plays a central role in setting the legislative agenda. Thrasher readily agreed to allow a Times/Herald reporter and photographer to attend his midday fund-raiser, and most lobbyists quickly scattered at the sight of a news camera.

"I'm going to run again," Thrasher said. "It's just a way of reaching out and telling people you're out there." Among the lobbyists stopping by to shake Thrasher's hand and say hello to his wife, Jean, were Book, Brian Ballard and Reginald Garcia.  

-- Steve Bousquet

House committee says 'no' to Medicaid expansion

With a straight party-line vote, the House Select Committee on Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act voted against expanding Medicaid today.

Republican members took turns making a case against Medicaid expansion, saying it would increase the federal deficit,  diminish health care delivery to the elderly and other Floridians, and would drastically grow an already problem-laden program. Democrats cut in to offer support for Medicaid expansion, saying it made no sense for the state to reject billions of federal dollars and that the positive outcomes of Medicaid outweighed the bad.

Of course, Republicans hold a majority of seats on the committee and the final vote was 10-5 in favor of Rep. Matt Hudson's motion to direct staff not to write any legislation that would implement Medicaid expansion.

Comparing the federal government's offer to pay 100 percent of the expansion costs for the first three years and at least 90 percent after that, Hudson said Florida shouldn't be swayed by a “few pieces of silver” and ignore the long-term implications of adding about 900,000 people to the Medicaid rolls.

“We know that it hasn’t always worked out so well when people look at short-term gain instead of long-term vision," Hudson said.

Continue reading "House committee says 'no' to Medicaid expansion" »

The hottest battle at Miami-Dade County Hall: wrapping baggage at MIA


The hottest special-interest saga these days at County Hall may be the fight for the coveted baggage-wrapping contract at Miami International Airport.

The latest chapter involves two competitors with such over-the-top dislike for each other that one accuses the other of hiding his finances and compares him to the Miami Marlins. The second likens his firm to John Wayne and counters that his rival has business ties to Cuba.

“It just seems like a movie,” MIA Director José Abreu said. “I don’t know anything else that is more controversial than baggage wrap.”

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade commissioners are scheduled to award the lucrative 10-year contract to TrueStar USA.

TrueStar is a corporate venture between the airport’s current vendor, Sinapsis Trading USA, and its giant Italian parent, TrueStar Group SpA. In 2010, Sinapsis ousted rival Secure Wrap of Miami, which had held the exclusive baggage-wrapping rights for nine years. Both companies wrap passengers’ baggage with clingy plastic, to prevent theft of the contents.

Sinapsis won after guaranteeing to pay a minimum $11.1 million a year to the county-owned airport — compared to Secure Wrap’s $4.1 million-a-year bid, which was nearly four times more than what the company had historically paid the county.

A year ago, Sinapsis asked the county to reduce its minimum annual fee to $8.7 million, saying its business had been hurt when Secure Wrap began wrapping baggage at locations outside the airport.

More here.

Business group inches toward supporting Medicaid expansion

Without using the phrase “Medicaid expansion” or “Affordable Care Act,” a lobbyist for Associated Industries of Florida hinted that the business group has warmed to the idea of accepting federal funds to reduce the number of uninsured people in the state.

Slater Bayliss said AIF and its members have been studying the impact of the law, both as employers and as taxpayers. He said uncompensated care -- when uninsured people seek treatment at hospitals and the costs are passed on to people who have insurance -- is a $1.2 billion “hidden tax” on Florida businesses.

“What we see is that we’re already paying, the business community, is already paying for the uninsured, in the most costly setting possible, in the emergency rooms,” Bayliss said. “... We encourage you to best leverage available federal funding to ensure that we provide coverage to Floridians in a manner that protects the state’s financial health.”

Picking up on the hints in Bayliss' comments, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, asked him to make it plain. “What you’re saying is Associated Industries wants us to go ahead and expand Medicaid, isn’t that correct?”

Continue reading "Business group inches toward supporting Medicaid expansion" »

Strike three: Another case of Sen. Bob Menendez aiding FBI-raided SoFla donor



WASHINGTON (AP) - Sen. Robert Menendez sponsored legislation with incentives for natural gas vehicle conversions that would benefit the biggest political donor to his re-election, the same eye doctor whose private jet Menendez used for two personal trips to the Dominican Republic, an Associated Press investigation found.

The disclosure reflects the latest intersection between the New Jersey Democrat who is the subject of an ethics inquiry on Capitol Hill and the Florida doctor involved in a federal criminal investigation.

Dr. Salomon Melgen invested in Gaseous Fuel Systems Corp. of Weston, Fla., and joined its board of directors in early 2010, according to the company's chief executive and a former company consultant. GFS, as the company is known, designs, manufactures and sells products to convert diesel-fuel fleets to natural gas. The amount of Melgen's investment is confidential under rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission, but a 2009 document filed with the SEC showed the company required a minimum individual investment at that time of $51,500....

In recent weeks, Menendez has acknowledged other dealings with Melgen. Menendez was compelled to reimburse $58,000 for two flights aboard Melgen's private jet that he had previously failed to report, prompting scrutiny by the Senate Ethics Committee. Menendez also acknowledged that his office had contacted U.S. health agencies in 2009 and 2012 to question their billing practices and policies amid a dispute between Melgen, an eye specialist, and federal health authorities. FBI agents in January searched Melgen's offices in Florida and seized files as part of a criminal investigation.

Menendez also raised concerns last year with State and Commerce Department officials about the Dominican Republic's reluctance to enforce a port security contract with a company that Melgen partly owns.

Full story here

Gov. Scott answers Medicaid critics at GOP women's dinner

Friends of Gov. Rick Scott honored him Sunday at a dinner hosted by the Florida Federation of Republican Women in Tallahassee. Scott used the event to explain in detail his controversial decision two weeks ago to support a three-year expansion of Medicaid.

Tepid applause could be heard when Scott raised the topic, recalling his past opposition to Hillary Clinton’s 1994 health care proposal and President Barack Obama’s 2008 plan. When the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare and Obama won re-election, he said, he had two choices: refuse federal Medicaid money that is paid in part by Florida taxpayers, or take the money and try to improve the health care system.

“That was my rationale. I know it doesn’t make everybody happy. I think it’s the right decision for the state,” Scott said. “It’s not the most popular thing I can do every day. The most popular thing is to not be involved in the decision somehow.”

Scott said he was guided by th example of his late mother Esther, who needed to get care at a Shriners hospital in Missouri for his brother’s hip injuries. “If it was my mom sitting here, she would have made the same decision,” Scott said.  

In a Hotel Duval ballroom with nearly 200 women, the re-election-minded Scott was hailed as a strong leader and man of conviction with a record of surrounding himself with strong, capable women. “He practices what he preaches. There are no empty promises,” said Karen Bowling, a longtime Scott business associate. “He backs up his words with actions.”

Also speaking on Scott’s behalf was Susie Wiles, a lobbyist and manager of Scott’s successful 2010 race, who said women “flocked to support this man” because of Scott’s ability to empower and trust women.  Republican National Committeewoman Sharon Day recalled how “I didn’t know Rick Scott,” but he  ordered a chai tea when they met at a Starbucks in Fort Lauderdale and had straight answers to “the rumors” about his business record.

-- Steve Bousquet   

Legislators return with crop of new members and a new tone of cooperation

What a difference an election can make.

As legislators return to Tallahassee for their two-month-long annual session, beginning Tuesday, they will tackle some of the state’s most intractable problems, and they vow to do it with a new tone.

From property insurance and foreclosure reform to implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and shoring up the state’s embattled education system, the issues are complicated and challenging.

Much of the debate in recent years has been driven by ideology, but this year the Republican-led Legislature faces no election. After Florida voted to reelect Democrat Barack Obama, the political rhetoric of GOP leaders has inched closer to the middle. The Legislature is undergoing an image makeover.

“In recent years, we may have done things that were more politically driven than policy driven,’’ said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the Senate Rules chairman, who is both a former speaker of the House and chairman of the Republican Party. “The longer you’re in, the more you realize you don’t know everything, and you may need to step back and adjust a little bit to move forward in a positive direction.”

Legislative leaders who campaigned against the president’s signature issue, healthcare reform, are now drafting legislation to implement it. More here.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/03/03/v-fullstory/3264115/florida-lawmakers-to-angry-voters.html#storylink=cpy