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5 posts from April 22, 2013

April 22, 2013

Gaetz creates non-profit to protect oil spill settlement money

Deep within the massive 100-page amendment to SB 1024, the Senate's giant economic developmment bill, is a lengthy new initiative offered up by Senate President Don Gaetz designed to shield any potential proceeds from the lawsuit against BP and Halliburton over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up the measure, as part of its marathon meeting on Tuesday. Gaetz told the Herald/Times the idea is part of his ongoing efforts to secure money for the eight most seriously affected counties, most of which he represents -- Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton and Wakulla.

Under the amendment, the state would create Triumph Gulf Coast Inc., a nonprofit corporation whose budget, management and control "is not subject" to the Department of Economic Opportunity.

The company would receive 75 percent of all proceeds obtained by Attorney General Pam Bondi in her lawsuit against BP, and any other money that could be forthcoming from other sources. The company would hold the money in a trust fund that could not be touched by legislators, and it would be invested in any financial institution chosen by the company's board of directors.

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Transparency turf battle -- or is Atwater hitting a nerve?

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater may be hitting a nerve with lawmakers and top state leaders.

In his quest to post every contract in state government on a public web site, Atwater is getting push back from House leadership, which wants to exempt all contracts handled by every Cabinet agency, including Atwater’s.

In the midst of budget negotiations last week, House leaders proposed a budget conforming bill that would halt Atwater’s efforts to require that every agency post its contracts on a secure public web site, hosted by his office.

Instead, the House wants to require that only the governor’s agencies be required to disclose the information and exempt all contracts handled by the Department of Financial Services, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Attorney General and the judicial branch, including state attorneys.

House Speaker Will Weatherford believes it’s a separation of powers issue. He said he does not believe the CFO should control a web site that posts data on other Cabinet agencies.

“It’s not about whether or not the documents should be public. Everybody agrees on that,’’ House Speaker Will Weatherford told reporters on Monday. “It’s who should control the information and when it’s released.” Story here. 

 

Legislators have one more plan for federal Medicaid money: do nothing

As the clock winds down on the legislative session, Florida lawmakers are sending signals that they are likely to end the session without resolving the issue of whether the state should accept federal Medicaid money to insure the poorest in Florida.

 “It’s not something you put together in a week,’’ said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and a close advisor to Senate President Don Gaetz. “It’s a very big, complicated issue and these issues take some time.”

He said he does not expect there would be any political repercussions if the Republican-led Legislature waits another year, even though it would mean forgoing for one year at least the estimated $5 billion in federal funds that could be drawn down under the plan to implement Medicaid expansion.

“There is no fallout,’’ Thrasher told the Herald/Times on Monday. “Anytime you walk away from something, there is going to be someone who is not happy. On something like this, however, it needs to be done right.”

Business groups, the Florida Hospital Association and the union that represents health care workers have launched television and lobbying efforts to urge lawmakers to implement a plan that draws down the federal money. If legislators adjourn their 60-day session on May 3 as scheduled without resolving the issue, those groups said Monday they will work to keep pressure on lawmakers to resolve the issue before next year.

Continue reading "Legislators have one more plan for federal Medicaid money: do nothing" »

Voting groups blast Senate bill's 'assistance' provision

Local and national voting rights groups voiced opposition Monday to an elections bill that's awaiting a final vote in the Senate on Wednesday. The groups zeroed in on a provision in the bill (HB 7013) that changes the law for voters who need assistance at the polls. Under the change, sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, a person seeking to assist a voter at the polls must already know the person, and no one may assist more than 10 voters in an election.

"These restrictions on assistors will make it harder to vote, particularly for many of Florida's Latino and Hispanic residents," the groups said in advance of a conference call with Florida reporters.  

The organizations included Florida New Majority, the Advancement Project, Service Employees International Union Local 1199, Florida Immigrant Coalition and Florida Conference of the NAACP. They said the Senate bill
would disenfranchise voters who can't read English. Advocates cited Section 208 of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provides that a person who needs assistance as a result of blindness, disability, or the inability to read or write can receive assistance "from the person of his or her choice," provided it's not an agent or officer of
the voter’s employer or union.

The House has not yet voted on the controversial provision limiting voter assistance at the polls. House
Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said Monday that House leaders have concerns about various provisions of the Senate bill, but he did not cite specifics.

Latvala, in Senate floor debate last week, said the ability of people to help voters cast ballots is being abused in Florida. "It's become kind of a political tool in many areas to have folks who stay at precincts all day offering their services to go in and help people vote, and in many cases in an intimidating fashion," Latvala said.

Gihan Perera of Florida New Majority called Latvala's description "false." People who are actively trying to influence people's vote choices must stay a safe distance from the polling precinct, Perera said.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, who unsuccessfully sought to remove the provision from the Senate bill, said one reason for historically long lines at the polls in Miami-Dade last fall was that too few volunteers were available to assist Haitian voters who only speak Creole.

-- Steve Bousquet

Scott signs sweeping education bill

On Monday, Gov. Rick Scott signed a sweeping education that will revamp high school graduation requirements and create two new diploma designations.

The proposal, SB 1076, will also state universities to be designated as "preeminent research universities," and receive additional funding to develop online learning institutes and high-tech degree programs.

"SB 1076 will make sure our children are prepared for college and careers," Gov. Rick Scott said, adding that the move would help fill the more than 260,000 job openings in Florida.

Senate President Don Gaetz, House Speaker Will Weatherford and two dozen lawmakers and education officials were on hand Monday to add their praise. Gaetz, a former schools superintendent, called the new law "the most important piece of legislation I've worked on during my seven years in the Senate."

Despite the unified front, there was some tension beneath the surface.

Scott made several references to the across-the-board pay teacher raises he has made his top budget priority this year. On Sunday night, leaders in the Senate and House agreed to award salary increases to educators, but said they must be tied to performance. 

Orange County Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, who also spoke at Monday's press conference, pointed out that performance pay isn't supposed to start until 2014.

"It is a good time to add to our base salary," she said, expressing the opinion held by the state teachers' union and most superintendents.

Read our earlier story on SB 1076 here.