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13 posts from August 19, 2013

August 19, 2013

GOP lawmakers defend bill that stripped state of insurance rate approval

Republican lawmakers are doubling down on their support of a bill passed this spring that removes the state's ability to regulate health insurance rates for two years. Here is an excerpt from the story in Tuesday's paper:

Republican lawmakers are fighting back against criticism that their hands-off approach to the federal health care law is leaving consumers vulnerable.

And they reject accusations that the law preventing the state from regulating health insurance rates for two years was based on faulty or misleading information.

"We had thorough hearings on it, the rationale for the bill was explained thoroughly during the committee process," said Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, who sponsored the bill in the House.

Democrats and consumer groups raised red flags but were unable to dramatically alter Senate Bill 1842, which passed with most Democrats and just one Republican voting "no." Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law in May, but a recent PolitiFact ruling cast a spotlight on the bill.

PolitiFact pointed out that Florida had forfeited its ability to regulate rates for plans listed on the health exchange even though the federal government doesn't have the power to deny rate increases.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said last week that she was "baffled" by the state's actions. She said she didn't know of any others that relaxed their oversight because most states were beefing up insurance regulations.

Read more here.

Garcia, Rodriguez to host health care forum

Have questions about the new federal health care law?

State Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, have answers.

The two lawmakers will hold a public forum on Thursday to help South Floridians understand their options for health care coverage. Attendees will also "learn how to enroll in new health plans," according to an email distributed Monday. 

"Changes in law that affect health care and health insurance will be going into effect soon," the lawmakers wrote. "Many of us have questions about how these changes will affect us, our families and our community."

Surprised to see a Republican hosting the event while so many others are bashing ObamaCare?

"I’m not a fan of the policy," said Garcia, who sits on the Senate Health Policy Committee. "But it’s the law, so we need to abide by it. I want to make sure that the public has as much information as possible." 

Garcia raised a number of concerns with the federal policy, including its cost and how it might hurt small businesses, he said.

"Those are serious questions," he added. "If you ask different people, you get different answers."

Garcia did, however, push for Florida to accept federal money to expand Medicaid -- a plan that was ultimately blocked by the Florida House. Garcia said he doesn't hide from that vote. "I truly think we are doing a disservice to the residents of Florida when we don’t accept those dollars," he said.

The forum will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday at CAMACOL (the Latin Chamber of Commerce), 1417 West Flagler St. in Miami.

The event is free and open to the public, and will be conducted in English and Spanish.

Florida spent $2.6 million to protect Scotts, other dignitaries

Florida taxpayers spent more than $2.6 million in the past year to provide protection to Gov. Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott, and to provide dignitary protection to dozens of visiting leaders, including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and dozens of governors.

The total cost is the highest in the past eight years -- in part because of a spike in security costs associated with the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. The costs are contained in an annual report to the Legislature by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).

The most frequent out-of-state visitor was South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who paid six visits to the state in the past year. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell visited four times each.

The cost of security for First Lady Ann Scott showed the biggest jump in fiscal year 2013, at $225,000 from $155,000 the previous year.

-- Steve Bousquet

Greer's 2008 contract with Mardi Gras: $7,500 a month for consulting

Mardi gras gamingIt was May 2008 and the Florida Legislature had gone to the Supreme Court asking it to invalidate a gambling compact signed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The decision would come down two months later, sending the governor back to the drawing board and requiring him to get legislative approval to do complete the deal.

Like any good gambler, Mardi Gras Gaming knew how to hedge its bets. It's top priority was to lower its 50 percent tax rate, imposed when the legislature implemented the 2005 slots amendment, and it wanted to use a revised gaming compact to get there. Knowing Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer was the governor's hand-picked director, it made sense to put him on the payroll.

The contract for two years: a $7,500 a month for Greer to provide "business development, business opportunities and the promotion of and efficient and effective delivery of its entertainment and hospitality services." Then, in an acknowledgement to Greer's food safety training background, noted that the contract "shall not include in Florida the provision of food safety training or responsible vendor training and related services." The contract also covered travel expenses.  Download Greer Contract

Mardi Gras Gaming, along with its parent company, Hartman & Tyner, had already emerged as major players in Republican races in Florida. In the 2008 election cycle, they led the pack of parimutuel interests, giving almost $700,000 to candidates. 

By 2010, the final gaming compact was signed but it excluded the lower tax rate. It took until July 2011 to get the lower tax rate, now at 35 percent.  

The details emerged in a hearing officer's court order released last week in a lawsuit against the state by a Fort Myers real estate company, whose owners also represent Gulfstream Racetrack. Fort Myers Real Estate Holdings LLC wanted to obtain a quarter horse permit so it could operate a card room, and ultimately slot machines, in Florida City. The ruling effectively squelch's that application. Here's the order:  Download Gambling order

Photo: Mardi Gras Gaming, Miami Herald Jim Varsallone

Rick Scott to bash Obamacare "Navigators" over ID-theft, tax issues


Rick Scott made just enough of a name for himself with just the right team in 2009 by fighting Obamacare as a private citizen through his group Conservatives for Patients Rights. After parlaying that campaign into a successful bid for governor, Scott is now using Florida's biggest bully pulpit to continue criticizing Affordable Care Act.

Tomorrow at the Florida Cabinet meeting in Miami he plans to ask Florida's insurance commissioner a series of questions about the so-called "Navigators" who are supposed to help people wade through the health care laws. Scott's concern: these people will have sensitive data and there aren't enough safeguards in place to protect that information.

Continue reading "Rick Scott to bash Obamacare "Navigators" over ID-theft, tax issues" »

Working for Mardi Gras, Greer urged Crist to fire gambling regulator

From Dara Kam of the News Service of Florida:

Former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer, on the payroll of a South Florida dog track, tried to get a gambling regulator fired two days before the veteran state worker was forced to resign, according to court records obtained by The News Service of Florida.

Greer is now serving an 18-month sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty to money laundering and theft in connection with a scheme in which he created a company and then steered party business to it.

But while Greer --- hand-picked by former Gov. Charlie Crist to head the state GOP ---was party chairman in 2009, he was also working for the owners of the Mardi Gras Casino in Broward County, getting paid $7,500 a month as a consultant for entertainment and hospitality regulatory issues.

Four years later, gambling operators are still jockeying over lucrative pari-mutuel permits even as the Legislature explores how much --- and what types of --- gambling the state should allow.

Continue reading "Working for Mardi Gras, Greer urged Crist to fire gambling regulator" »

Group files class action lawsuit against the state for 'warehousing' mentally disabled

Citing a shortage of community treatment options for the mentally disabled in Florida, a state advocacy organization on Monday sued the state for violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and asked a court to intervene. 

Disability Rights Florida filed the class action lawsuit in federal court alleging that an estimated 300 people have been deemed eligible for community treatment but wait for months and years on a waiting list because the state options are inadequate.  

"By failing to provide adequate community placements, the defendants have created a situation in which individuals with psychiatric disabilities are warehoused in large state facilities,'' the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, alleges.  Download TW v DCF Complaint

The group seeks to force the state to provide community residential treatment options to the lead plaintiff in the case, a 32-year-old male named T.W., and an estimated 1,600 other adults. T.W. was committed to Florida State Hospital in December 2009 and is now deemed to be eligible for a less restrictive setting and would like to move closer to his mother. He's been on the waiting list since December 2012.  

Continue reading "Group files class action lawsuit against the state for 'warehousing' mentally disabled" »

Lobbyist arrested in FBI sting wasn't shy about being Sweetwater mayor's 'right-hand man'


Except for a stint as manager of tiny North Bay Village, lobbyist and consultant Jorge Forte stayed pretty much under the public radar.

But that didn’t stop him from handily riding the coattails of rising politico and Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño, Forte’s longtime friend and business partner. Forte leveraged the relationship to push through city legislation, get government contracts — and haul in tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from undercover FBI agents, prosecutors alleged last week.

Maroño was arrested Aug. 6. A day later, Forte, his confidant and alleged bagman, was charged. Both are accused of conspiring to commit extortion for allegedly accepting $60,000 in kickbacks for championing “bogus” grant applications in Sweetwater, and trying to lure other Florida cities into the scheme.

The complaint filed by the FBI portrays Forte, 41, as the Maroño’s “front man” — the buffer who protected the mayor, spoke for the mayor and collected the mayor’s money starting in the fall of 2011.

In March 2012, during a secretly recorded meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, the lobbyist warned undercover FBI agents posing as crooked Chicago businessmen that they had to go through him to get to Maroño.

“In Miami-Dade County, you want something from him, you don’t call him, you call me .. . It’s just the way it works,” Forte said. Maroño later referred to his sidekick as his “right-hand man.”

More here.

Common Core debate highlights rifts among Florida Republicans, tea party groups

The new Common Core State Standards are more than just a roadmap for teachers and students.

They’re a political football causing a rift among Republicans.

In Florida, conservative moms and tea party groups have mounted fierce opposition to the national standards, saying decisions about teaching and learning should be made by state governments and local school boards — not the federal government. Their efforts attracted significant attention this summer, thanks to well-attended rallies, social media blitzes and the support of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

“Our parents are reaching out to every [state] legislator they know and urging them to hit the pause button on Common Core,” said Laura Zorc, a Vero Beach mother and cofounder of Florida Parents Against Common Core.

Few observers believe the pressure will make the Florida Legislature or the Board of Education reverse course on the standards, which kick in across all grade levels when school starts on Monday. The benchmarks still have broad support among Republican lawmakers, and a tireless champion in former Gov. Jeb Bush.

But the backlash could be enough to prompt Florida’s exit from a national consortium creating the tests to accompany the new standards. Some observers, such as Frederick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, say the standards would be virtually meaningless without a common measuring stick.

“If there is a disconnect between the standards and the assessments, we end up worse than where we began,” Hess said, noting that there would be no way to compare student performance in Florida to performance in other states.

Read more here.

Dudley votes "no" on holding SYG session

A third Democrat, and the second one from Pinellas County, joined Republicans this weekend in voting against holding a special session on “Stand Your Ground.”

Late Friday, Rep. Dwight Dudley, issued a statement explaining why.

“Any review of ‘Stand Your Ground’ would be incomplete without input from the citizens of Florida and from our law-enforcement community," Dudley said in a statement. "If we were to convene for a special session, participation in that discussion would be limited to members of the legislature. Furthermore, no bills have been introduced for either chamber to consider. I believe that committee meetings, which begin in September, would provide a far more suitable forum to thoroughly review the law and to allow for public testimony. This approach would also prevent taxpayers from being burdened with additional costs.”

Dudley represents Florida House District 68 in the state legislature, covering portions of St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Feather Sound and Lealman. He beat Republican Frank Farkas last year. Like the other two Democrats who have voted against holding a special session, Rep. Mike Clelland of Lake Mary and Rep. Carl Zimmermann of Palm Harbor, Dudley was elected for the first time in 2012 and represents a competitive district.

Dudley’s vote was sent in too late to be recorded in Friday’s total by the Florida Secretary of State’s office. And the requisite number of no votes had already nixed the session earlier in the week by the time he cast a vote (96 lawmakers were needed to say "yes" to session). With Dudley’s vote, 97 lawmakers are against holding special session and 45 are for it. All three Democrats against it are from the House. Seventeen lawmakers still have yet to cast a vote, 10 Democrats and seven Republicans. They have until 11:59 p.m. tonight to vote. A non-vote is recorded as a no vote.