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22 posts from March 5, 2013

March 05, 2013

Miami-Dade commission agrees to limit number of county questions on presidential ballots


Miami-Dade commissioners signed off on a pair of elections reforms Tuesday, including one intended to keep future presidential ballots short.

The board voted 6-5 to approve Commissioner Barbara Jordan’s proposal to limit the number of county questions on presidential-election ballots to three, with a two-thirds vote of the commission required to add more questions.

There is currently no limit on how many charter amendments or nonbinding straw-ballot questions can be included on a Miami-Dade ballot. Commissioners placed 10 questions on November’s ballot, which, along with 11 state constitutional amendments, contributed to long voting lines at the polls.

“I want the citizens to really have the opportunity to understand the items that are there,” Jordan said.

Several of her colleagues said they had misgivings about any attempt to keep issues from making it onto the ballot.

“Really, it doesn’t help the democratic process,” said Commissioner Javier Souto, who made passing mentions of Hitler and Stalin. A group of 60 German police officers was visiting the commission chambers, learning about local government. 

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Democrats respond to Scott, push Medicaid expansion

Immediately after Gov. Rick Scott concluded his "State of the State" speech, Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith and House Minority Leader Perry Thurston took to the airwaves to respond.

During brief remarks on the Florida Channel, both men outlined their session priorities in similar fashion: education, healthcare and election reform. Smith pointed out areas where he agrees and disagrees with Scott, and on Medicaid expansion it appears to be a bit of both.

Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, agrees with the governor that the state should accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid. But Smith doesn't think Scott is taking the right approach by not making this issue one of his top priorities this legislative session.

 "He needs to walk the halls, remind members he is the governor, the head of the party and the top of their ticket," Smith said.

Thurston said Medicaid was not only a health care issue, but an economic one.

"Expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act is not just an achievable approach to ending Florida’s problem of a vast uninsured populace; It’s also a means of accelerating Florida’s economic recovery to restore our shared prosperity," Thurston said.

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Bob Graham returns to Legislature: opines on campaign money, universities, service

Photo (2)Former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham returned to the Florida Capitol Tuesday and, seated in front of Gov. Rick Scott, attended his first governor’s State of the State speech in years. 

Having watched many partisan speeches in the U.S. Senate, he noted that he was not surprised at the fact Democrats stood and applauded as Scott announced his support for the expansion of Medicaid while Republicans remained silent. 

“If you’ve attending many State of the Unions, you’re used to this half the audience applauding and the other half sitting on their hands,'' he said. "Actually, the fact that it only occurred a couple of times today was a positive sign." 

(Herald Photo: Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, after asking House photographer to take his picture with Graham.)

Graham, who was first elected to the state House in 1966, said he is currently working on a book about his father and his father's eight years in the state Senate.

“I love my days in the Florida Legislature. In fact there’s a book I want to write, entitled ‘Everything I learned about politics I learned as a freshmen in the Florida Legislature.’”

He said the direction of the state is “in flux, as we saw in the presidential election. One of the reasons it is in flux is who are Floridians is changing with particularly more minorities and those minorities have become politically energized and made the difference in November, in the presidential election, and will be an increasing force in the years ahead.”

On the House proposal to raise campaign finance limits from $500 to $10,000, Graham is not a fan. 

“I think we ought to be looking for ways to reduce the influence of money in politics,’’ he said. “Increasing from our current level to $10,000 seems to be going in the wrong direction.”

House Speaker Will Weatherford’s suggestion to identify "pre-eminent" universities is not a decision for the Legislature, he said. “Those decisions ought to be made by the Board of Governors. The people of Florida in 2002 gave to a constitutional board of citizens the responsibility to manage the state university system and that is where the leadership should come from.”

Graham’s daughter, Gwen Graham, is preparing to announce her candidacy against U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland for Congress in the second district. She currently works for the Leon County School Board and would run as a Democrat based in Tallahassee.

“I believe in good people in politics and I know she’d be an outstanding member of Congress and she is getting prepared to make a decision on that,’’ he said. 

Scott invites, applauds biz owners in State of State speech

Gov. Rick Scott gave shoutouts to several business owners and economic development professionals during his State of the State speech Tuesday, heralding the business community for creating jobs in Florida. 

Scott, a former CEO-turned-governor, has made courting corporations and businesses a staple of his legislative strategy. According to Scott, who gave an upbeat address to kick off the legislative session, “It’s working.” 

The governor personally invited business owners and acknowledged them during his speech. 

Invited were: Wes Bush (CEO of Northrop Grumman), Dave Brown (president of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care in Jacksonville), Michelle Robinson (Regional Vice President of Verizon) and Frank Unanue (president of Goya Foods in Miami). 

Scott has highlighted all of the businesses in the past for creating jobs, often with taxpayer incentives from the state. 

Scott hailed Verizon VP Robinson in his speech for the company's decision to locate a new facility in Central Florida, a move he said would bring “hundreds” of jobs to the state. 

Robinson said Scott’s recruitment efforts helped Verizon choose Florida over other states for its expansion project. 

“What it came down for us was quality of life, availability of a qualified labor pool and the cost of living factor,” she said in an interview. “I think Florida is very competitive with Gov. Scott and the work that [Commerce Secretary] Gray Swoope is doing… working hard to compete for new jobs in Florida.” 

Florida taxpayers also chipped in millions of dollars in economic incentives awards to seal the Verizon deal. Scott is asking for nearly $300 million in funding for incentives deals this year, but lawmakers have expressed skepticism. 

Scott also acknowledged Bill Johnson, director of the Port of Miami and Chairman of the Florida Ports Council, during the speech. 

“When the Miami port dredge project is completed, along with the Panama Canal expansion, thousands of new jobs will be created,” Scott said. 

Unanue, who welcomed Scott to a recent “work day” at Goya Foods in Miami, said the state’s business climate was improving.

“I think the state has turned around,” he said. “We’ve been growing. And I see it around in the community as well… You see people going out and moving, going out to clubs and restaurants. You see the economy moving again.” 

Scott stuck to that theme during his speech, which repeatedly used the phrase “It’s working” and pointed to the brightening spots of Florida’s economy.

While the economy is slowly improving, job creation in Florida still lags the national pace. Florida is adding jobs at a growth rate at 0.7 percent, half the rate of the U.S. Much of the drop in the unemployment rate—which is down 3 percentage points since Scott was elected—is due to a decline in labor force participation.


'It's working,' Rick Scott says in State of the State address

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott delivered an upbeat State of the State address to the Legislature Tuesday, declaring that his policies are working and Florida’s economy is strong enough to give a generous pay raise to teachers.

In a speech that opened the 2013 legislative session, Scott sounded eager to run for re-election on his record, despite polls showing he’s among the most unpopular governors in the country.

He cited reductions in unemployment, the first budget surplus in six years and repeatedly used the phrase “it’s working,” which sounded like a refrain of the “Let’s get to work” slogan that got him elected in 2010.

“Two years ago, we met together facing crippling debt, record-high unemployment and a downward spiral of job losses,” Scott said. “Our unemployment rate is nearly down to the national average and we’re not stopping here. It’s working.”

Scott placed the greatest importance on paying teachers more money. It’s a goal intended to rebrand him as an ally of public education, not the tea party favorite of two years ago who demanded a 10 percent cut in school spending.

“Teachers change lives,” Scott said.

Florida’s teachers are among the lowest paid in the country. Legislative leaders have not endorsed Scott’s proposal for a $2,500 across-the-board teacher pay hike, and prefer that pay hikes are awarded on merit. That means Scott will have to engage in some behind-the-scenes arm-twisting on the issue.

“We don’t want a war on teachers. We want a war on failure,” Scott said. “An investment in Florida teachers is an investment in Florida’s future."

Full story at politics.tampabay.com

Steve Bousquet, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau


Feud between Miami-Dade commissioner, Christian Family Coalition plays out from dais


The conservative Christian Family Coalition turned up the heat Tuesday on a long-simmering feud against Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss.

Anthony Verdugo, the Coalition's executive director, took the microphone in a "citizen's presentation" at a county commission meeting to demand a retraction and an apology from Moss. In December, Moss spoke against the group's successful efforts to reinstate prayer at the beginning of commission meetings.

Moss recalled how the Christian Coalition attacked him during the bitter 1998s campaign for Miami-Dade's human rights bill, which gave gays equal rights. He linked the Christian Family Coalition to the Christian Coalition, which fought the human-rights ordinance and, according to Moss, openly discriminated against blacks and immigrants.

"Conduct of this kind is simply unbecoming of an elected official," Verdugo said Tuesday. "Commissioner Moss, we have earned your respect."

As soon as he uttered "Commissioner Moss," Verdugo was cut off by Commission Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa -- as Moss retorted, "Don't address me."

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Weatherford digs in to oppose Scott, Obamacare

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford laid out a menu of top priorities during his inaugural speech for the 2013 session on Tuesday -- changes in the state’s ethics and campaign finance laws, pension reform.

But he saved the climax of his speech for the one issue he said would be the most challenging issue facing lawmakers this session -- the expansion of Medicaid.

“I know this is a very difficult issue,” Weatherford said. “Passions will run high and principles will clash within this chamber.”

Weatherford told the chamber about his brother Peter, who died in 1995 of cancer when he was 18 months and Weatherford was 15.

“First of all, let me say, I believe in the safety net. My family has benefitted from the safety net. As many of you know, I grew up in a family of nine children. My father was self-employed and did the best he could to provide for us but we never had health insurance.

We could never afford health insurance. My baby brother Peter was diagnosed with cancer when he was 13 months old. He was in and out of the hospital for seven months. My Mom and Dad basically lived at the Ronald McDonald House - because they couldn't afford to stay in a hotel.

After two major surgeries, Peter lost his battle with cancer and my father found himself with a mountain of medical bills that he could never afford to pay.

It was the safety net that picked my father up. It was the safety net that picked my family up. I will continue to believe in - and fight for - a strong safety net for Florida.”

It wasn’t clear from the speech what safety net helped Weatherford’s father pay those medical bills. Weatherford didn’t say.

Instead, he concluded, that too much government was necessarily a bad thing.

“But Members, I also firmly believe that a government that grows too big, becomes too intrusive, and fosters too much dependency will threaten our liberty, our freedom and our prosperity.

Members -- I am opposed to Medicaid expansion because I believe it crosses the line of the proper role of government I believe it forces Florida to expand a broken system that we have been battling Washington to fix, and I believe it will ultimately drive up the cost of health care.

This inflexible plan, thrust upon us by the federal government, is not aimed at strengthening the safety net. It pushes a social ideology at the expense of our future. The trouble with this social experiment is that it is destined for failure.

The notion that we're going to receive free money from the federal government is laughable. This is the same federal government that has not passed a budget in nearly four years. This is the same federal government that spends 1.2 trillion dollars more than it takes in in every year.

Florida is being tempted with empty promises to comply with policies we would never pay for if we knew the true cost. They're trying to buy off states one by one. I am not buying it. Florida should not buy it. Because their failure to deliver has such high stakes for Floridians.

If they get this wrong, we are on the hook. It would be far easier for me, and for us, to simply say yes to the so called "free money," enjoy the accolades for a few years, and leave office knowing that the true cost will come due long after we're gone.

It's not right, and it's not what I signed up for. Members, as you can tell, I have my opinion on this matter, and you will have yours... I look forward to the debate on this floor.”

Like Scott, Weatherford used a personal story about the a family member to illustrate his thoughts on Obamacare. In Scott’s case, it was a younger brother’s degenerative hip and the medical costs associated with treating it.

But Scott said that nudged him closer to accepting the expansion of Medicaid, sharing that he knew what it was like not to be able to afford health care. Weatherford’s comments went the other way. His shunning of government surprised Democrats, who have been optimistic that unlike his predecessor, Dean Cannon, Weatherford would work more with the opposing party.

“I’m glad he understood the need for a safety net,” said Rep. James Waldman, D-Coconut Creek. “I’m very disappointed though in the position he’s taken on Medicaid expansion. I think it’s very clear that the federal government is going to cover the cost 100 percent for the first three years. There should be no mistake about that. And any money we don’t spend here in the state of Florida is going to go to some other state.”

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, has been a supporter of Weatherfords. Even he said he was disappointed by the tone of Weatherford’s comments about Obamacare.

“I had hoped for a softer stand,” Rouson said. “He did say he looked forward to a debate, but when the Speaker speaks strongly of his opinion, it’s pretty persuasive to the membership. That’s the only thing that cast a pall over his remarks. Having said that, I expect Will to really shine with bipartisanship.”

Protesters ring in opening day of Session with boisterous chants

Florida’s lawmakers, elected officials and other dignitaries were welcomed to this year’s legislative session with boisterous protests by more than 100 young people Tuesday, as activists voiced their displeasure with the government.

The activists, led by a group called the Dream Defenders, lined up in the halls of the Capitol and sung protest songs and chanted "the state is ours!"

“We who believe in dreams, cannot rest until it’s won,” the group of protesters sung repeatedly, replacing the word ‘dreams’ with various issues like immigration, students, the future, education, equality and freedom.

The Dream Defenders, a group created in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting last year, has released its list of legislative priorities, including issues like gun control, immigration reform and voting rights.

"We are here on this first day of session to address real concerns with real solutions," said Phillip Agnew, a 27-year-old FAMU graduate. Agnew and others, many holding dramatic black signs with white
typeface, implored Scott to repeal the controversial Stand Your Ground law and put an end to racial profiling. 

The group supports a repeal of the Stand Your Ground law, which grants immunity for people who use deadly force in self-defense.

 It also supports in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants and a “voter access guarantee” voting rights bill sponsored by Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee. Protesters_DreamDefenders3.5.13

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Senate gives tribute to former Sen. Ken Plante

Former senator and long-time lobbyist Ken Plante, who is hospitalized and suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, was given a lengthy tribute in the Florida Senate on its opening day. The Senate officially named the Senate President's conference room after Plante. 

Plante was elected to the Senate as a Republican from Winter Park and served from 1967 to 1978. He served in an era when there were few Republicans and many were considered moderates and later became a lobbyist, working to establish a lobbyist association and increasing the code of conduct among that profession. 

"Ken Plante was one of the outstanding senators of his time and of this whole generation,'' said Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Surfside. "I wish him well. I’m delighted we’ve made the decision to name the conference room. I miss you Ken.'' 

"It's very difficult for a good senator to make a transition to be a good lobbyist,'' said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, but noted that Plante had made the best transition "with a high degree of integrity and a commitment to the good of the process."

Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith said that it was Plante who provided former Gov. Jeb Bush the insight he needed to deal with an unfamiliar legislature.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner recalled how Plante told her as a freshman that being a legislator is a hard job "but always keep your word." 

Former Senate President Jim Scott, R-Fort Lauderdale, said "he said you're elected as a Republican or a Democrat but you're a senator for everybody." 

Here's Lucy Morgan's column on Plante.



Miami U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia: Aid Venezuelans who fled Hugo Chávez

Cuban-American U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami, announced Monday that when the immigration reform debate begins in the House he will present an amendment that would grant permanent residence to tens of thousands of undocumented Venezuelans living in the United States.

“Many of these people have spent a big part of their lives here,” Garcia said at a press conference at his office in west Miami-Dade County. “Many are people who attend schools with our children, who are business partners with us and who live in a very difficult status and we want to give them a forward solution.”

Garcia’s Venezuelan Liberty Act is a response to requests from leaders of the growing Venezuelan community nationwide to provide immigration relief to undocumented Venezuelans, many of whom not only lack immigration papers but also fear they will be persecuted and tortured if they are sent back to their country.

Garcia’s proposal is the first concrete action in the form of a bill that would benefit Venezuelan immigrants who are in the country illegally and do not have a police record. If the proposal were to become law, it would grant green cards to Venezuelans who have arrived in the U.S. from Feb. 2, 1999, when Hugo Chávez took office as president of Venezuela, until now, according to an explanatory sheet from Garcia’s office.