« August 21, 2013 | Main | August 23, 2013 »

17 posts from August 22, 2013

August 22, 2013

Garcia to health care forum: leaving $50 billion on the table is 'irresponsible'

Hialeah town hallThe room was packed Thursday night for a town hall meeting on the Affordable Care Act at Camacol, the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Hialeah, as Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, helped to field questions about navigating the unknowns on the Affordable Care Act.

Garcia, a hospital administrator, told the crowd he isn’t happy that Florida legislators left more than $50 billion in federal money on the table rather than using it to expand Medicaid coverage to many of the state’s uninsured.

“It doesn’t matter what side of the issue that you fall on, I thought it was imperative that we accept those dollars,’’ he said to applause.

“To say that, sometimes I go against my own party,'' he said, a reference to the Republican-led legislature's failure to find consensus amid fierce resistance from conservatives in the House. "The fact that there is millions of dollars waiting to come to the state of Florida and we’re choosing not to take it is irresponsible.” Here's the video from Florida Health Watch. 

Rodriguez attributed the large crowd to the desire by people to learn more about the pending decisions they'll have to make in the coming months -- many of them for the first time -- about signing up for health insurance. 

"We're one of the states that's worse off because our leadership told agencies not to start getting ready for implementation,'' he said. "So the real challenge is to get the information out there."

Officials were on hand from consumer health care advocacy organizations -- Families USA, Florida CHAIN, Enroll America and the Florida Association of Community Health Centers -- to speak and provide information. 



2 aides for Miami mayoral candidate charged in absentee-ballot investigation

@PatriciaMazzei @msanchezMIA

Miami-Dade prosecutors on Thursday charged two political operatives for Miami mayoral candidate Francis Suarez — including his campaign manager — with unlawfully submitting absentee-ballot requests online on behalf of voters.

Campaign manager Esteban “Steve” Suarez, 34, who is also the candidate’s cousin, and campaign aide Juan Pablo Baggini, 37, were charged with attempting to request absentee ballots for 20 voters in May.

Francis Suarez, a sitting city commissioner and lawyer, was cleared of any wrongdoing during the investigation, according to the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. His only involvement was advising his campaign to seek legal advice to make sure any online requests did not run afoul of the law.

The campaign did so — but failed to heed a recommendation that the requests be submitted differently to avoid potential problems, sources close to the investigation said.

Neither Steve Suarez nor Baggini were arrested. Instead, as part of a deal negotiated with prosecutors, each was charged with a misdemeanor, will plead no contest and will receive probation. Their attorneys will appear in court Friday.

In a statement Thursday to the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald, Francis Suarez emphasized that he and his campaign cooperated with the investigation and never had any “intent to violate Florida election law.

“To the extent that technical mistakes were made in the transmission of absentee ballot requests, the campaign has learned from this experience,’’ he wrote. “Now we must focus on the important issues that affect the daily lives of the City of Miami’s citizens and to bring a brighter future to our great city.”

He declined to elaborate beyond the statement, or address whether the charges would affect his campaign.

More here.

Scott to Obama: Welcome to conversation on higher ed costs

Gov. Rick Scott is using President Barack Obama's comments today on college costs to both criticize the president and tout the governor's own higher ed initiatives.

The title of the press release says it all: "President Obama is late to the party on making higher education more affordable, but we're glad he's here."

Obama spent the day talking up a new proposal to rate colleges based on affordability metrics like student debt, graduation rates and the kinds of salaries they earn after receiving a degree. The Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's public universities, is in the process of finalizing a performance funding initiative that will rely on some of these same indicators.

Obama also wants to increase a program that caps loan debt for students from poor families, and he proposes tying student financial aid to their academic progress.  As he completed a bus tour of three college campuses, Scott issued his press release that mentioned some of the other things underway here in Florida.

Here is Scott's full press release:

Continue reading "Scott to Obama: Welcome to conversation on higher ed costs" »

Matt Gaetz to rally base ahead of Stand Your Ground hearing

Rep. Matt Gaetz has already said he wouldn't change "one damn comma" of Stand Your Ground, a comment that left critics wondering if they'll get a fair shake when the committee Gaetz is chairman of holds a hearing on the self-defense law.

Now this: Gaetz will host a conference call that is being promoted as a strategy session ahead of the hearing. "All Republican, tea party, 9/12 groups" are invited to join the call, giving critics of the law another reason to question whether Gaetz really intends to oversee an honest review.

"If he's the chairman, he's supposed to be fair and balanced and open," said Rep. Alan Williams, a Tallahassee Democrat who filed legislation to repeal Stand Your Ground. "You would think one would try to get as much information from both sides."

Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said he is listening to both sides when it comes to the controversial law that gained national attention after George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. After Zimmerman successfully argued he feared for his life and was acquitted of all charges, the Dream Defenders held a 31-day sit-in at the Capitol to protest the verdict and call for changes to Stand Your Ground, among other issues.

"Particularly on the Stand Your Ground issue, I encounter people everyday who have a viewpoint, and most folks aren't shy about sharing it with me," Gaetz said. He added that he also won't shrink from sharing his own views, but that doesn't mean he isn't making an attempt to have a fair and open hearing.

Not everyone is calling foul on Gaetz's conference call. Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith said Gaetz is simply doing what shrewd elected officials do.

Continue reading "Matt Gaetz to rally base ahead of Stand Your Ground hearing" »

Judge won't issue 2nd contempt order against GOP operatives

Even the judge is running out of patience.

"I'm not going to put the blame on anyone but I want this thing overwith," Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said Thursday.

"This thing" is a long-running lawsuit in which the League of Women Voters and other groups are trying to prove that Republican legislators drew the 2012 redistricting maps for congressional and state Senate seats in violation of the state Constitution, which bars gerrymandering that protects incumbents or political parties.

To build their case, plaintiffs have been trying for a year to get access to thousands of pages of emails and documents from a GOP consulting firm, Data Targeting, and three principals in the firm: Pat Bainter, Matt Mitchell and Michael Sheehan, who are not parties to the case. When Lewis ordered the documents released last spring and then issued a contempt order, the group took legal steps to keep them private, but Lewis denied the plaintiffs' motion that he again cite the firm for contempt of court.

Their lawyer asserted in court that the documents are "private business," constitutionally protected either by freedom of association under the First Amendment or are trade secrets under state law.

"It's an invasion of privacy, period," lawyer D. Kent Safriet told the judge. "This case is being tried in the newspapers as well as in court, and we didn't want our private business out there."

"Political shenanigans are not state secrets," countered Adam Schachter, the attorney for the League of Women Voters and the Fair Districts Coalition. Lewis also refused Schachter's request that he impose "severe sanctions" on Data Targeting for not complying with the previous court order.

The problem is that Lewis doesn't know enough about the contents of all of the 1,800 disputed pages of documents to decide which ones should be secret and which should be released. Retired Supreme Court Justice Major Harding will review the materials and make a report to Lewis.

Additional reporting can be found here. The trial, in state court in Tallahassee, will most likely occur in early 2014.

-- Steve Bousquet 

Citizens agrees to $21 million contract to create prop insurance clearinghouse

Citizens Property Insurance board on Thursday agreed to sign a $21.7 million five-year contract with a company that will create a clearinghouse for homeowners to compare property insurance policies offered in the private market. 

The Florida Legislature ordered the state-run insurance company to set up the clearinghouse, including an online component, by Jan. 1, 2014, to help homeowners kicked out of Citizens to do a better job of comparison shopping. 

The legislation required that Citizens policyholders are not eligible to renew their policies if a comparable private-market policy is within 15 percent of the Citizens renewal premium.

Six companies submitted bids to create the clearinghouse and, at the recommendation of Citizens staff, the board agreed during a conference call that the bid should go to a software company called Bolt. (We’re still trying to get more information on them.) They expect the site to be responsible for an estimated 8,000 transactions a day, said Citizens Chief Insurance Officer Yong Gilroy.

The software will not only give consumer the opportunity to compare policies and prices, but will also help them verify whether the private policies are within the 15 percent threshold.

Barry Gilway, Citizens CEO, predicted that the clearinghouse, along with the company’s aggressive push to “depopulate” by providing incentives to companies to take over Citizens policies, will result in a “record-breaking depopulation process. That means, he said, an estimated reduction of 550,000 policies into the private sector over the next two years.

Man unhappy over water bill threatens North Miami City Hall staffers, who are now on high alert


A man claiming to be a North Miami resident is not happy with his costly city utility bill.

His reaction, apparently, was to call city hall and threaten the staffers there.

Now North Miami police are investigating, and the city’s administration has stepped up security measures at the complex located at 776 NE 125th St.

“You are going to have a war on your hands, and they are going to storm the building,” the caller told North Miami information technology director Ricardo Castillo, according to a police report.

In response to the threats, North Miami stationed a police officer in the city hall lobby and locked the north entrance of the building. The south entrance remains open as the only entrance and exit.

The disgruntled resident apparently has made other calls to individuals at city hall, including the city manager’s office, North Miami spokeswoman Pam Solomon said.

More here.

Stay away, Miami police union warns recruits


The president of Miami’s Fraternal Order of Police union doesn’t think anyone should apply to be a cop in Miami because the pay is too low and benefits have been slashed in recent years as the city struggled to balance its budgets.

Now, as Miami hunkers down to negotiate a new FOP contract, union President Javier Ortiz is pressuring city leaders with a splashy video that as of Thursday had received about 1,600 hits on YouTube.

“Do you have what it takes to apply with another department?” is asked just above the video in big bold letters. Underneath is a list of concessions cops have given up the past few years — some negotiated, others forced.

Also listed on the page are starting and maximum salaries for officers at seven South Florida police departments. Miami is shown as the lowest paid.

“Are you looking to advance your career?” the voice-over says. “Do not apply to be a police officer in the city of Miami. There are no educational incentives, no promotional exams, no raises.”

The video is a slap in the face to city leaders who have been criticized the past year — especially by Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff — for not hiring enough officers.

Mayor Tomás Regalado called the video unnecessary but understandable.

“This is a great department, and it’s fixing itself every day,” he said. “But I understand, it’s because of the contract negotiations.”



Former speaker Bense to oversee oil spill trust fund

Senate President Don Gaetz insisted on setting up a trust fund to ensure that any proceeds Florida receives from lawsuits or settlements related to the BP oil spill goes to affected counties. Today, he announced that former House Speaker Allan Bense will chair the board of this endowment fund, known as Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc.

From the press  release:

Former House Speaker Allan Bense was appointed today to the Board of Trustees of Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc., an endowment established by the Florida Legislature to manage fine and settlement dollars coming to the state as a result of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

Bense (R-Panama City) was selected by Senate President Don Gaetz who, along with the Governor and House Speaker, chose the five person board. Bense represented portions of Franklin, Gulf and Bay counties in the House of Representatives from 1998 to 2006. During his final two years, he was Speaker of the House. 

“Allan Bense is a lifelong champion and passionate steward of the natural and human resources of the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast,” Gaetz said, in making the appointment. “He built successful companies from the ground up, meets payrolls every week, and intimately understands the economy and people of our area. As a business and political leader he has always cared more about the next generation than the next election.”

Triumph Gulf Coast was created to ensure that funds coming to the state as a result of lawsuits or settlements with British Petroleum, Halliburton or others found culpable in the 2010 oil spill would not be wasted or spent quickly. The five member board, assisted by professional financial managers, will be accountable to invest and use the proceeds and principal over the course of thirty years to promote job creation through lasting economic development in the eight coastal counties of Northwest Florida, stretching from Escambia through Wakulla counties.

Continue reading "Former speaker Bense to oversee oil spill trust fund" »

State education leaders to huddle in Clearwater

Education leaders from across the state will meet in Clearwater next week to sort out some pressing issues.

Expect discussions on school grades, teacher pay, the new Common Core curriculum standards and the assessments that will test the benchmarks.

The meeting, scheduled to run Monday through Wednesday, will cap off a turbulent summer for state education officials.

In June, superintendents convinced the state Board of Education to approve a "safety net" to prevent school grades from plunging. The debate sparked questions about the validity of the school accountability system -- and prompted some parent groups to call for a moratorium on school grades. 

Weeks later, state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned after reports surfaced that he had changed the school grading formula in Indiana to benefit a charter school run by an influential Republican Party donor. Pam Stewart was named Florida's interim education commissioner.

Meanwhile, Tea Party groups and libertarians stepped up their campaign against the new Common Core curriculum standards.

State education officials are holding firm on the national benchmarks. But Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford want Florida to withdraw from the consortium crafting the new national assessments that will accompany the Common Core standards. Instead, Gaetz and Weatherford are advocating for a state-specific testing plan.

What state education officials will do next remains up in the air. They'll seek some guidance from superintendents, principals, union leaders, parent groups and the business community next week.