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15 posts from March 12, 2013

March 12, 2013

Vote on domestic partnership bill delayed again

Janice Langbehn had taken the red-eye flight from Washington State to tell Florida senators her story, how she tried but failed to see her longtime partner before she died of a brain aneurysm at Jackson Memorial Hospital in 2007.

Langbehn didn’t get the chance.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, sponsor of the domestic partnership bill (SB 196), told the standing-room-only crowd at the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee meeting Tuesday that she was temporarily postponing a vote on the bill, the second time a vote has been delayed because passage was unlikely.

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Ground drones in Florida, Negron tells lawmakers

"It's fine to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan with drones. But I don't think we should use them to monitor the activities of law-abiding Floridians."

-- Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, explaining his proposal to limit the use of unmanned drones by Florida law enforcement agencies.

Read Michael Van Sickler's full story here.

Rick Scott's "Finish in Four" tuition bill passes Senate committee

A higher education proposal pushed by Gov. Rick Scott -- freezing tuition for incoming state university students -- sailed through the Senate's Education Committee today along with several other closely watched measures.

If SB 920 becomes law, in-state students who enroll in a state university would be guaranteed that their tuition and fees would not change for four years. Scott is pushing his "Finish in Four" plan as a way to control costs for families and encourage students to finish degrees in a timely fashion.

The change could cost universities as much as $75 million in lost revenue, according to a staff analysis of the bill. Georgia to abandon a similar "Fixed for Four" program several years ago because of the financial hardship it caused state universities during the economic downturn when coupled with state budget cuts.

Other higher education proposals approved by the Senate Education Committee today:

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Hospitals willing to consider Medicaid expansion alternative

While still joining the push for Florida to expand Medicaid, hospital advocates said they would welcome an alternative as long as the state doesn't lose out on the federal funding that would come with expansion. But Rep. Mike Fasano is saying the state already has it's alternative: the Medicaid managed care waiver.

Florida Hospital Association President Bruce Rueben said the guiding principles for a new program for the uninsured outlined by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, on Monday sound "promising."

"What we want is for peple to be covered," Rueben said. "So however the state finds its way to getting perhaps a million Floridians access to health insurance is what we want to see happen.”

Tony Carvalho, president of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, has a similar outlook. He said the goal is ensuring health coverage for uninsured Floridians because hospital funding cuts are coming even if that doesn't happen.

"If they don’t expand Medicaid and if we don't get these peple covered in some other way, we’re going to lose hundreds of millions of dollars that we’re getting from the federal government today to help subsidize that care," Carvalho said.

Both men joined a crowd of hospital executives and workers, as well as some patients, at a press conference under the Florida Remedy banner this morning. That campaign, headed by the hospital association, is advocating for Medicaid expansion but still leaving open the possibility that an alternative could meet its objectives.

Fasano, the only Republican lawmaker to publicly support Medicaid expansion, spoke during the event. He said the state should expand Medicaid, even if it's just a short-term fix while a grand solution is finalized. But he also criticized his colleagues, saying the current discussion is merely a "cop out" to avoid implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

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Previewing CPAC speech, Weatherford tells a tale of two states

House Speaker Will Weatherford tried to draw a clear line between Florida and liberal states like California and Illinois on Tuesday, saying Florida’s conservative governance strategy will win out in the “political science experiment” currently taking place between red and blue states.

Speaking before the Florida chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, hinted at some of what he’ll say during a high-profile weekend speech before the conservative gathering CPAC.

Weatherford talked about his positions on Medicaid and pensions, framing his arguments within a broader theme more suitable for a national audience: Tax-and-spend liberal states are struggling while freedom-promoting, conservative states that are prospering.

“There are two distinct directions that states are going,” Weatherford said. “There’s the collectivism, groupthink-type state—California, Illinois, New York and others where [instead of] solving their problems they just raise more taxes.”

He went on to say, “There are other states, like Florida, like Texas, like Alabama, that are actually doing the right things. That are limiting the regulatory burden, limiting the tax burden on citizens.”

Weatherford painted liberal states like California and Illinois as economically-troubled places where residents are fleeing in droves, coming to Florida and other low-tax havens.

Weatherford’s portrayal of liberal-versus-conservative track records isn’t completely accurate. For example, the job growth rate in California and New York are double the below-average growth that Florida has achieved in the last year, and Illinois is creating jobs at the same rate as Florida.

Weatherford said his decision to not expand Medicaid is part of a push to help make Florida “a pocket of freedom” in the U.S. and also said Medicaid expansion was “a threat” to freedom.

Weatherford said other states that capitulate to federal Medicaid expansion will end up facing budget troubles and “will be at a disadvantage to a state like Florida 10 years from now.

NFIB members applauded Weatherford when he said he was “not buying” the federal government’s Medicaid expansion plan. NFIB is one of the few business groups to take a solid and consistent position against Medicaid expansion. Groups like the Florida Chamber and Associated Industries of Florida have signaled that they could support Medicaid expansion, which Gov. Rick Scott favors.

The House Speaker didn’t completely shut off the door to accepting billions of federal dollars to help cover 1 million uninsured Floridians. He said he prefers a “private sector solution.”

Weatherford also talked about pensions, which he said need to be addressed before the long-term costs weigh down taxpayers.

Again, he pointed to states like Illinois, which is dealing with a massive budget problem due to pension obligations.


Update: Internet gambling probe of Allied Vets grows, arrests now in Florida

Update: Jacksonville television is reportiong that the sweep has reached Florida and the head of a local gambling non-profit was arrested there this morning. 

Jerry Bass is the National Commander of Allied Veterans of the World Inc. and Affiliates, Action News Jacksonville reported. He was arrested and booked into the Duval County Jail this morning. His arrest is the result of a six-year long investigation that spans throughout Florida and other parts of the country. Here's their report.

Meanwhile, the Oklahoman reported yesterday that one of Florida's largest operators of internet cafes, Chase Burns of Florida Gaming Promotions and the International Internet Technolgies, is under federal investigation for operating illegal gambling operations in Florida.

Here's the story by reporter Nolan Clay:

Federal investigators allege the owner of an Anadarko company is involved in an illegal gambling operation in Florida that made more than $290 million.

The owner, Chase Burns, 37, denies wrongdoing. “That’s not true,” he said Monday. “What we do is legal.”

His company, International Internet Technologies LLC, supplied gambling software to Internet casinos in Florida that posed as fundraising centers for veterans’ charities, authorities allege.

The company, also known as IIT, has been paid more than $63 million for its computer work for the illegal gambling operation, authorities reported.

An Oklahoma City federal magistrate judge Monday authorized a search of the IIT building in Anadarko for evidence of “conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, operating an illegal gambling business and money laundering.”

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Grant lashes out at Channel 10's Deeson

One thing you won’t see anytime soon is Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, having a beer with Channel 10 News investigative reporter Mike Deeson.

Grant was steamed Tuesday after watching Deeson’t 5 ½ minute segment last night. It implied that his company, LifeSync Technologies, got $2.6 million in grant money through backroom deals greased by favoritism, and then didn’t spend the money appropriately.

Grant said he’s reviewing his options about what to do next. Does that mean legal action against the Gannett Company? It’s too premature, Grant said. Is he demanding a correction? Not yet, Grant said.

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Fla. Democrats file bills to crack down on foreclosures

Calling Florida’s No. 1 ranking on foreclosures “shameful,” some lawmakers are pushing for reforms to the foreclosure law, hoping to help homeowners keep their properties.

At a Tuesday press conference, some Democrats in the Florida Legislature pushed for new changes to laws governing Florida’s hundreds of thousands distressed properties. They say the changes are necessary to protect homeowners from banks who have engaged in fraud.

“We are number one in the nation (for foreclosures) and that is absolutely shameful,” said Sen. Darren Soto, who is backing a number of bills aimed at changing the foreclosure process.

The bills, sponsored by Soto and other Democrats, face tough odds in the Republican-dominated Legislature. Bills sponsored by Republicans go in the other direction, hoping to speed up the state’s lengthy  foreclosure process and clear out a backlog of distressed properties. 

Those bills are moving through the Legislature, despite objections from some Democrats who say they favor banks at the expense of consumers.

“'We know that part of what created the problem were the shortcuts taken in the financial services industry,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, standing in front of a group of homeowners and families.

Soto’s bills would address short sale issues, crack down on banks that use fraudulent documents and reduce the ability of lenders to go after homeowners for additional debt after a foreclosure.

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State petitions to exhume bodies at Dozier

University of South Florida researchers searching for the forgotten graves of former inmates at the Dozier School for Boys could receive additional help from the state.

Attorney General Pam Bondi announced today that she filed a petition on behalf of Medical Examiner Michael Hunter that would give him a year to dig up the remains recovered at the former reform school in Marianna. Although the USF archaelogists are still involved, because some remains may not yet be 75 years old the Medical Examiner's Office is required by state law to intervene but needs a court order.

In addition to seeking authorization to exhume bodies, Bondi is supporting efforts to slow down the planned sale of the state-owned land by extending the current injunction another 150 days.

Bondi's petition was filed in the 14th Circuit Court, which includes Marianna.

Here is Bondi's full press release:

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Senate advances bill to give public voice before boards and commissions

Floridians who take the time to sit through public meetings of local boards, commissions and state agencies will no longer be barred from speaking up, under a bill that is on its way to passage in the Florida Senate. 

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm Harbor, has proposed SB 50, which would require local and state agencies to let the public speak before their boards take any action. The Legislature is not included in the requirement. The Senate gave it preliminary approval Tuesday.

“Among our most cherished rights are a right to a trial by jury, our right to vote and our right to speak,’’ said Negron, a lawyer and 9-year veteran of the legislature. “It may be surprising to learn that under our statutes in Florida, while the public has a right to attend a public meeting, it doesn’t have a right to speak.”

The goal, he said, is not to tell state and local boards how to give public access to speak out, just require that they do it.

 “You work for the citizens and if you are making decisions that affect the public, the public has a right to speak,’’ he said.

There are no penalties attached to the proposal, although members of the public can sue a board if they believe the law has been violated, and can recover attorneys fees in the process. “I don’t want to criminalize more things,’’ he said.

Meetings of boards that are “quasi-judicial” in nature and are exempt from the public meetings laws will also be exempt from the statute.