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21 posts from April 29, 2013

April 29, 2013

Scott prematurely declares tax break deal with Legislature

Gov. Rick Scott said Monday he had reached a late-session deal with
the Legislature to secure his priority of a sales tax exemption for
manufacturing equipment. But the House and Senate said no such agreement had yet been reached, putting Scott in the position of prematurely declaring victory and forcing lawmakers to set the record straight.

"We came to an agreement with the House and Senate. They're going to
eliminate that tax for a three-year period," Scott said Monday afternoon
at a bill-signing event. "It's the right thing to do. We have a significant surplus this year."

Less than two hours later, Senate  President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, directly contradicted Scott and said no such agreement had yet been struck.

"I think we're in discussions, but I think the governor may be announcing an agreement to which all parties have not yet agreed," Gaetz said. "I don't believe any  final agreement has been concluded among the House of Representatives, the Senate and the governor."

House Speaker Will Weatherford's office released a bland statement that said: "Our staff has been in contact with Gov. Scott's staff about his legislative priorities all session. We are mindful of his priorities and hope he has a successful session."

If the session ends Friday without the tax break becoming law, it wil be a stinging defeat for Scott, who entered the 2013 session with only two specific goals: the tax break and a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise for Florida teachers.

-- Steve Bousquet

Senate weakens parent trigger bill; floor vote likely Tuesday

The parent trigger bill hit the Senate floor Monday, and as expected, sparked some lively discussion.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, set the tone by immediately withdrawing the eight amendments she had filed.

"My intention is, at this point, to not even attempt to fix this bill, I consider it so hopelessly bad," Detert said.

Senators quashed three other amendments deemed "unfriendly" by Sen. Kelli Stargel, the bill's sponsor. But they approved an addition from Sen. David Simmons that would give local school boards the authority to deny parent requests to make dramatic changes at low-performing schools. 

The language had already been approved by the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee. The upper chamber needed to add it again because senators took up the House version of the bill on Monday.

Last week, Stargel said she planned to remove the wording because it took too much power away from the parents. But doing so would have likely lost her several key votes, including Sens. Andy Gardiner and Jack Latvala.

"Sometimes with a controversial bill, you take the path of least resistance," Stargel said after Monday's floor session.

The weaker version of the bill will come up for a vote on Tuesday. "I feel confident that we'll be able to pass this bill," Stargel said. 

If approved, it would have to go back to the House.

House bill restricts talking and texting for interstate truckers

While the texting while driving bill awaits action in the House, that chamber has passed legislation that would restrict drivers of commercial motor vehicles traveling interstate highways from talking or texting on hand-held phones while driving.

The measure gives the state teeth to enforce federal regulations that were approved in Jan. 2012. The law applies to vehicles ranging from 18-wheelers to school buses run by private contractors. Technically a commercial vehicle has a “gross vehicle weight rating” or a weight of at least 10,000 pounds, transports more than eight passengers (including the driver) for compensation or more than 15 passengers (including the driver) who don’t pay anything.

The measure was an amendment to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles bill (HB 7125), which passed the House last week. It’s been sent to the Senate, which also has a highway safety bill with numerous amendment proposals, that's expected to be heard on the floor Tuesday.

“Not only are we penalizing the drivers if they’re texting and driving, we’re penalizing the companies. And the companies are behind us," says Rep. Irv Slosberg, a co-sponsor of the House bill.

Continue reading "House bill restricts talking and texting for interstate truckers" »

NFL commissioner 'can't guarantee' Miami a Super Bowl in return for tax-stadium deal


Here’s a brief Q-and-A with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who was whisked away by a handler when the questions got pointed about a tax-subsidy deal for the Miami Dolphins.

Goodell: “The deal that’s been constructed here is very intelligent, and I wanted to just demonstrate my support.”

Q Will this help get a Super Bowl

A: “Yes. When you have a better facility, that’s an important element of any application. And having the best facility is going to improve the chances.”

Q: What do you think of the argument that this is corporate welfare?

A: “I don’t agree with that. This deal is structured in such a way as to create investment in communities and create additional revenue going forward. I think that’s a very positive thing. I think this a very intelligently structured deal.”

Q: So if this deal goes through, Miami gets another Super Bowl?

A: “That’s a vote by the 32 owners. The owners are the ones that vote on that…. When you’re making an application, a stadium’s a big component of that. That’s a very important element of that. And this is going to clearly improve that application, which improves the chances dramatically.”

Q So no guarantees?

A: “I don’t make the votes, so I can’t guarantee on something I…..”

Handler: “Thank you very much.”

Gun rights concerns create new hurdle for medmal bill

A Senate priority bill to limit the liability of Florida doctors ran into trouble in the House on Monday when opponents suggested that it could be used by insurance companies who represent the doctors to create a private registry of gun owners. 

The bill, HB 827, would deal with what are known as “ex parte communications” in malpractice cases and would allow lawyers for doctors hit with a malpractice claim to interview any other doctor about a patient’s health record in private.

Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, believes that the provision could open the door to lawyers asking doctors about the gun-toting habits of their patients and, over time, use that information to build a database of gun owners who could be charged higher insurance rates.

Grant filed an amendment Monday to prohibit doctors from revealing any information about a patient’s gun ownership, as well as any history of child abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse, mental health and reproductive history unless the patient’s lawyer is present.

It was enough to threaten the provisions of the bill so House leaders postponed the high profile debate.

“Given some of the concerns with physicians keeping records of firearms, I don’t think they should be in the hands of an insurance company without a lawyer or claimant being present,’’ Grant said.

He suggested that absent his amendment, insurance companies will attempt to plumb the doctors’ interviews with patients to capture information and raise premium rates for people and businesses who carry guns. 

“If insurance truly is the calculation of risk against profit-- meaning all of these risk factor make it more or less likely that a claim is going to happen -- is it more likely that bodily injury could happen in a house that has guns? Absolutely,’’ he said.

But supporters of the bill said the last-minute claims had nothing to do with medical malpractice and were a last-ditch effort to scuttle the bill. The Senate has already passed the provision as part of a broader bill, SB 1792, that would also place additional restrictions on expert witnesses in lawsuits.

“The intent of the sponsors of those amendments was to bounce the bill then turmoil generally ensues,’’ said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the House sponsor.

The Senate plan is a top priority of his father, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, but it is vigorously opposed by the Florida Justice Association, whose lobbying team includes Grant’s father, former state senator John Grant.

“Matt Gaetz and I are going toe-to-toe,’’ said Grant, the son. “His dad’s number two priority is this bill and my dad lobbies for the FJA so I’m sure people will talk about it.”

Both Grant and Gaetz deny they are working on behalf of their fathers.

Grant said that he and his dad “don’t discuss bills that he lobbies….We keep a very bright line in between it.” 

Gaetz  said he has filed bills to limit doctor’s liability on medical malpractice for years. “My dad and I have both fought for medical malpractice litigation reform during our tenure in the legislature,’’ he said.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who is pursuing the bill said he considers the last-minute attempt to use gun-owners to sabotage the bill a dirty trick.

“I much prefer to get stabbed in the chest than in the back,’’ he said. “Nobody wants to have their finger prints on things.”

He said he will propose an amendment to appease the concerns of the National Rifle Association that gun owners are being charged higher rates by insurance companies.

“We would like to make sure that gun ownership is not part of the underwriting criteria and these insurance companies don’t use gun ownership to underwrite policies,’’ he said. 

Sketches of the legislative session

Roaming the Capitol with his sketch pad and shading pencil, Times news artist Don Morris set out to illustrate the closing days of session from the perspective of the super-lobbyist to the shoe shiner.

Click here to browse a slideshow of his sketches, which were featured in Sunday's Tampa Bay Times.

Captured moments include Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, winking at lobbyist Ron Book before budget conference; House debate on restricting EBT cards at strip clubs and casinos; and a group of male pages dodging an elevator of young girls.

Negron: Compromise on Medicaid expansion 'unlikely'

Chances are not good that the House and the Senate will reach agreement on Medicaid expansion or any alternative, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said today.

"I’d like to pass a bill that provides health insurance premium assistance to a million Floridians who get up and go to work everyday but need some help with paying for their health insurance premiums, that’s what I would prefer," he said. "But that appears unlikely at this point."

The Senate plan drafted by Negron would accomplish that goal. The Senate is expected to approve that proposal, HB 7169/SB 1816 on Tuesday. But the House has already rejected that plan and pushed one of its own that the Senate turned down today.

The two sides disagree on who should be covered and how it will be paid for. House Republicans refused to cover 400,000 childless adults in their plan and are unwilling to accept federal dollars for the poorest Floridians.

The plan used up to $300 million in state funding to subsidize basic coverages for about 130,000 people. Negron said he feared that those participants wouldn’t be able to afford the premiums and copayments even after receiving $2,000 subsidies. His plan uses $51 billion in federal funding to provide insurance for all eligible participants.

"We have a different way to do it, and in the end it's difficult to resolve strongly held viewpoints about how to pay for things," he said.

Continue reading "Negron: Compromise on Medicaid expansion 'unlikely'" »

Miami Children's bill divides Dade delegation

The Florida House on Monday approved a bill that would enable Miami Children's Hospital to go around state regulations and build a small maternity ward for women with high-risk pregnancies.

The proposal passed by a 73-40 vote, and won the support of the physicians in the lower chamber.

Rep. Ronald Renaurt, an osteopathic physician from Ponte Vedra Beach, said it would make sense for Miami Children's Hospital to deliver babies on site because it is risky to transport newborn babies from one hospital to another.

"The safest way that we can transport a child is inside their mother’s womb," Renaurt said.

No lawmakers spoke out against the bill Monday. But opponents say expanding Miami Children's is unnecessary since there are at least 13 hospitals in the county that offer maternity services, seven neo-natal intensive care units, and the birth rate in the county has been on the decline.

"This is all about money,'' said Bob Levy, lobbyist for Baptist Hospital. "If they get this, this will hurt Jackson [Memorial Hospital] which is 12 miles from Miami Children's."

The proposal evenly divided the 18 state reps from Miami-Dade.

Voting in favor: Reps. Frank Artiles, Jose Felix Diaz, Manny Diaz Jr., Eric Fresen, Eddy Gonzalez, Jeanette Nuñez, Jose Oliva, Holly Raschein and Carlos Trujillo.

Voting against: Reps. Michael Bileca, Daphne Campbell, Joe Gibbons, Kionne McGhee, Sharon Pritchett, David Richardson, Jose Javier Rodriguez, Cynthia Stafford, and Barbara Watson.

The split was first evident on Friday, when the bill was read on the House floor.

Watson listed the South Florida hospitals that already have both maternity wards and neonatal intensive care units. "Do you feel Dade County would need another hospital when we are sufficiently covering the area in which Miami Children’s Hospital currently provides service to?" she asked Gonzalez, the prime sponsor of the language.

"I’m from Hialeah," Gonzalez replied. "If my kid is born with some of these issues, I want them at Miami Children's, not Hialeah Hospital."

Gonzalez also faced sharp questions about how much money Miami Children's would make, and how much hospitals like Jackson would lose.

"To me, this issue isn’t about money," Gonzalez said. "For Jackson, it may be about money, but for me, it’s not about money. It's about saving lives."

The bill, HB 1159, must still be approved by the Senate. It would also enable the Villages, the 95,000-person retirement mecca, to add more than 800 nursing-home beds.

-- Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed reporting.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross come to Tallahassee to save Dolphins stadium effort

The Miami Dolphins brought their big guns to Tallahassee on Monday, hoping to persuade the fickle Florida Legislature to approve a taxpayer-supported stadium upgrade in the final days of this year’s session.

In meetings Monday with top state lawmakers, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell, team owner Stephen Ross and team CEO Mike Dee made their last-minute pitch, pressing them to support an upgrade of Sun Life Stadium.

By day’s end, the NFL firepower succeeded — at least with Legislature’s Upper Chamber. The Senate approved a sports team bill in the equivalent of a legislative rout, 35-4 vote. The only no votes: Sens. Rene Garcia (R-Miami), Anitere Flores (R-Miami), John Legg (R-Lutz) and Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville).

Despite the big victory, the Dolphins still face major hurdles in Tallahassee, where the House must approve a sports package before the full Legislature officially adjourns on Friday. Gov. Rick Scott also must sign off on the legislation.

House Speaker Will Weatherford has expressed concerns about the Senate bill, which offers up to $13 million annually in new tax breaks for sports teams.

Photo by Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

Continue reading "NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross come to Tallahassee to save Dolphins stadium effort" »

Garcia wins twice on juvenile bill and GOP shelves it

Two of the closest floor votes of the 2013 legislative session took place in the Senate Monday on the issue of sentencing juvenile killers. Both times, Republican Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah prevailed by a single vote, frustrating the Senate GOP leadership.

After Garcia prevailed, the bill's sponsor, who opposed the Miami-Dade lawmaker's amendment, postponed a final vote on the measure.

At issue was a bill (SB 1350) that seeks to conform state law to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions by preventing judges from automatically sentencing juveniles who commit murder to life prison sentences.

What tied the Senate up in knots was Garcia's proposal that such sentences must be reviewed after 25 years, and it added factors such as whether the offender showed "sincere and sustained remorse." If a judge determines the offender has been rehabilitated, the offender can be released subject to at least five years of probation.

After Garcia's amendment got onto the bill on a 19-18 vote, senators reconsidered the vote. Garcia prevailed a second time, 20-19, and at that point, sponsoring Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, postponed further action on the bill, endangering its prospects of passage.

Six Republicans supported Garcia on the pivotal second vote: Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg; Nancy Detert, R-Venice; Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami; Greg Evers, R-Baker; Anitere Flores, R-Miami; and Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Two Democratic senators switched their vote: Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, from yes to no, and Darren Soto, D-Orlando from no to yes.     

-- Steve Bousquet