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16 posts from January 14, 2014

January 14, 2014

Feds head to Florida to help with glitchy CONNECT site


U.S. Senator Bill Nelson announced Tuesday night that federal labor officials told him they will be in Tallahassee by week’s end to “help fix” the state’s troubled unemployment benefits website, CONNECT.

Nelson spoke by phone late Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez to discuss CONNECT, the state’s $63 million website that has been plagued with technical difficulties since its mid-October debut.

“The secretary of labor has assured me his key staff that handle unemployment insurance will be in Tallahassee by the end of the week,” Nelson said in a statement. “And they’ll stay there until the problems are fixed.”

Nelson asked Perez last week  to investigate the Florida Department of Economic Development’s launch of the website, a renewal of a request he first made in late October. Nelson made the request after continued media reports of thousands getting their claims denied because of glitches. The non-profit National Employment Law Project estimated unemployed Floridians may have been denied more than $22 million in benefits in October and November after CONNECT launched.

The announcement of possible federal intervention comes the day before Jesse Panuccio, the executive director of the DEO, answers questions by a Florida senate appropriations committee that oversees spending on CONNECT.

Frustrated by continued problems with the site, state lawmakers are considering options as well, including overturning a 2011 law that requires recipients to file for benefits online. That requirement was flagged as violating the civil rights of those without access to a computer by the Department of Labor last year.

It’s unclear what federal officials will do upon arrival, but Nelson said that Perez told him they’ll be focused on getting benefits paid immediately while fixing the system later. Nelson said Perez may produce a progress report by next week.

Here’s the release:

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Federal labor officials intend to head to Florida by the end of this week to help fix continuing problems plaguing Florida’s new unemployment benefits system.

 “The secretary of labor has assured me his key staff that handle unemployment insurance will be in Tallahassee by the end of the week; and, they'll stay there until the problems are fixed,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said in a statement tonight in response to a number of media inquiries.

 Nelson sought more direct intervention by federal authorities in the wake of media reports that thousands of Floridians have been unable to collect unemployment benefits they are due since the launch of the state’s new multi-million dollar website in mid-October.

 According to one recent study done by the National Employment Law Project, unemployed Floridians may have been denied more than $22 million in benefits in October and November of last year while the problems continue.

 U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez spoke with Nelson this evening, as a follow-up to the lawmaker's recent written request for federal action.  Perez conveyed that the initial purpose of his team’s trip will be to try to institute a way to pay those with continuing claims now and fix problems with the Florida system later, Nelson said.

People who have continuing claims have already been deemed eligible to receive initial unemployment benefits, but for some their benefits have reportedly been delayed or interrupted when issues with the state's new website made it impossible for them to meet their continuing requirements by showing they are available for work, actively seeking work, and have not turned down any suitable work offers.

Nelson said he believes Perez will have a progress report perhaps as early as next week.

'Complete rewrite of Florida's charity laws' proposed by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam


Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam on Wednesday will propose "a complete rewrite of Florida's charity laws," aiming to increase state oversight and transparency in direct response to investigative reports published last year in the Tampa Bay Times.

Putnam, whose duties include protecting Florida's consumers, said the changes will help Floridians make more informed choices about the charities they patronize. The legislation will also grant the state additional powers to regulate nonprofits and the professional solicitors who raise money for charities.

"We are introducing a complete rewrite of Florida's charity laws so that Floridians will be protected from having their hard-earned money go to deceptive charities and Florida will not be a safe haven for bad actors from other states," Putnam said Tuesday in an exclusive interview with the Times/Herald.

State Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, will sponsor the bills and have been working with Putnam for months. The "America's Worst Charities" investigation by the Times and The Center for Investigative Reporting studied thousands of charities that paid for-profit companies to increase donations and highlighted the 50 worst that spent the most on outside fundraising.

Brandes said he was upset by what he read in the newspaper, especially since many of these organizations were based in Florida. He reached out to Putnam, who agreed to make charities reform one of his priorities for the 2014 session.

Read more here.

Sen. Gaetz says he's 'studying' medical marijuana exception

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he is "looking at" supporting legislation to decriminalize non-euphoric strains of medical marijuana but there is no Senate proposal yet to address it.

He noted, however, that his wife "had tears running down her cheeks" as she recalled the testimony at a hearing of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee last week conducted by his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar. Parents told legislators how the strain is their last, best hope of treating their children who suffer from debilitating seizures and, if Florida doesn't legalize it, many will move to Colorado to get treatment.

Gaetz said he has not yet made up his mind on the issue but, when he knocked on doors in a heavily-Republican district in the Panhandle town of Shalimar on Saturday and half of the people wanted to talk about the issue and all of them who talked about it supported it, he concluded: "it's certainly compelling,'' he said.

Gaetz noted that he has been on the opposite side of issues opposed by doctors, hospitals and the insurance industry before, citing his experience 30 years ago building the state's first for-profit hospice company and working to get legislation passed that allowed for palliative care.

"There were many in the traditional health care community who said, 'that's outrageous; you can't do that' and now palliative care is an accepted form of treatment,'' he said. "So, even in my lifetime, I've seen changes that are rather substantial. So, let's put it this way, I'm studying the issue...and being pummeled by my son." 


Sexual predator reforms gain momentum as legislators pass a flurry of bills

Senate and House committees on Tuesday speedily passed additional measures to tackle the issue of sexually violent predators, considered a major priority for the upcoming session.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, chairman of the Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, said the proposed bills would “plug in the holes in the program and protect our vulnerable children and protect others from sexually violent predators.”

She held up a photo of 8-year-old Cherish Perrrywinkle of Jacksonville, who was murdered by a newly released sex offender, before the panel began reviewing two bills.

Senate Bill 522, sponsored by Sen. Denise Grimsley, would add a prosecutor, victim’s advocate and law enforcement officer to the multidisciplinary team that evaluates offenders considered for civil confinement. It would also expand the scope of inmates who can be evaluated under the predator law.

“The bill addresses the weaknesses in the current Sexually Violent Predator Program” that allows some violent predators to avoid evaluation and civil commitment, said Grimsley, R-Sebring.

The bills include recommendations made by Esther Jacobo, interim secretary of the Department of Children & Families after a September review of the Sexually Violent Predator Program.

Continue reading "Sexual predator reforms gain momentum as legislators pass a flurry of bills" »

Gun bill gets fast track attention -- even absent little evidence of a problem

One annual measure of who holds the real clout in Tallahassee is to watch which bills move through committees prior to the Legislative session. The gun lobby flexed its considerable muscle again Tuesday when the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee passed a bill to prohibit insurance companies from discriminating against gun owners by charging them more, or canceling their policies, because they own a gun. 

The bill, SB 424 by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, would allow state regulators to fine or impose penalties on auto or property insurance companies that "refuse to issue, renew, or cancel a policy" because the policyholder owns a gun. It also prohibits the insurance company from disclosing to third party if the policyholder has a gun. 

So how big is the problem of insurance companies discriminating against homeowners and auto owners for owning a gun? According to the staff analysis of the bill:

Continue reading "Gun bill gets fast track attention -- even absent little evidence of a problem" »

South Miami to pay $90,000 settlement for cops who crashed girl's quinceañera party


South Miami has agreed to pay $90,000 to a father who says his daughter’s 15th birthday party was brought to an abrupt end when a police officer handcuffed the dad and put him in the back of a patrol car.

The officer had come to the house in response to complaints about noise, but the charge against Julio Sanchez was later dismissed and he responded to the incident by suing the city for battery, false arrest and civil-rights violations.

The city recently agreed to settle the case after a federal judge decided that a section of the city’s noise law, which provided the original reason for the arrest, was unconstitutionally vague.

The law made any noise illegal if it would “annoy” anyone on a nearby street, sidewalk or adjacent building.

U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga struck down that part of the law in a Nov. 25 opinion.

More here.

Women, older Americans lead Obamacare signups


In Florida, as in the nation, women and older adults are signing up for health insurance in greater numbers than any other group using the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges.

The state’s pace reflects a national trend among the more than two million Americans who have signed up through December.

The Obama administration on Monday unveiled for the first time age, gender and financial aid data for the insurance exchanges, revealing that in Florida and the nation, more than half of all those who signed up are women, and about one in three enrollees are between the ages of 55 and 64.

Women and older Americans have been expected to sign up in large numbers because traditionally they have paid higher prices for health insurance than men and younger people.

Young adults are key to creating stable insurance markets because they are expected to subsidize older and sicker adults. But fewer young adults than the Obama administration expected have signed up so far, according to enrollment numbers released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Nationally, about one in four enrollees, or roughly 489,000 individuals, were in the 18 to 34 age group. That held true in Florida, too, where roughly 21 percent, or about 33,000 individuals, were 18 to 34.

More here.

First little mystery of Lopez-Cantera era: What's his religion?


One of the very first things some voters will want to know about Florida's new lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, is his religion and whether and where he and his family attend church.

Is he Catholic? Is he Jewish?

Is he both?

Lopez-Cantera's wife Renee and his mother are Jewish and his father is Catholic.

At the family home in Coral Gables, they display a mezuzah, a sacred parchment scroll that contains Hebrew scripture. Renee Lopez-Cantera has a web page that details her charitable giving work with the Hebrew Free Loan Association of South Florida.

In his official state House biography in 2010, Lopez-Cantera listed Catholic as his religion. In a more recent Clerk's Manual in 2012, he listed no religious affiliation.

At his announcement with Gov. Rick Scott in downtown Miami Tuesday, the Miami Herald's Marc Caputo asked Lopez-Cantera his religion. His reply: "I'd rather not be defined that way ... We're very spiritual."


With Lopez-Cantera's departure, former Miami-Dade property appraiser plans to vie for job again

@PatriciaMazzei Pedro Garcia

The happiest person to see Carlos Lopez-Cantera named Florida lieutenant governor might be the man he last defeated.

Pedro Garcia didn't hesitate Tuesday when a reporter called to ask if he'd be interested in running for Miami-Dade County property appraiser again, now that Lopez-Cantera plans to resign to become Gov. Rick Scott's number two in Tallahassee.

"Definitely. Yes," Garcia said.

After becoming the county's first elected property appraiser in 2008, Garcia lost a tight race to Lopez-Cantera in 2012. Upset that Lopez-Cantera had won more absentee votes than on Election Day, Garcia even sued to try to overturn the results, to no avail.

There was no love lost during the campaign between the two men, both Republicans seeking a nonpartisan post. Lopez-Cantera portrayed Garcia as a bureaucrat who did little to shape the office. Garcia painted Lopez-Cantera as a politician more interested in partisan ambitions than in the business of property appraisals.

Continue reading "With Lopez-Cantera's departure, former Miami-Dade property appraiser plans to vie for job again" »

Will Florida continue to be a Common Core state?

Only a handful of people asked questions during Tuesday morning's workshop on the proposed revisions to the Common Core State Standards.

One question was technical, but had political significance.

Susan Pareigis, of The Florida Council of 100, asked if the proposed additions represented more than 15 percent of the total standards. That's important because states can add up to 15 percent of their own benchmarks to the Common Core, and still be considered part of the initiative.

Deputy Chancellor Mary Jane Tappen said the state education department had not done the calculation.

Later, someone asked if Florida would be able to clarify and delete some of the Common Core benchmarks, as the state education department has suggested, or if education officials would be bound by the Common Core copyright.

"The proposed standards are truly our own," Tappen said. "They are Florida Standards, and we are not bound by the copyright."

There is a larger question here: Will Florida continue to be part of the Common Core initiative?

The answer isn't clear.

The words "Common Core" have become a political lightning rod, both in Florida and elsewhere. In some conservative circles, the term is as toxic as "Obamacare." (U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan blamed "political silliness" in a September speech.)

The state Department of Education is clearly taking steps to distance itself from Common Core. For one, the revised benchmarks are being called the "Florida Standards." The phrase "Common Core" seems to have disappeared. It was so conspicuously absent from the October state Board of Education meeting that Chairman Gary Chartrand said, "Common Core Standards is not a dirty word."

But some Tea Party groups, Republican committeemen and parent activists say that isn't enough.

"We must pull out of it completely, get out of the system," said Randy Osborne, a political consultant and co-founder of Florida Stop Common Core Coalition.

Said Martin County Republican Committeeman Eric D. Miller Tuesday: "As an elected Republican Leader, I will do all in my power to aid in this effort so we can finally eradicate Common Core and its like from our State."

State education officials say they won't be focusing on whether the standards are "Common Core" or not.

"The focus is on putting the best standards in place to prepare children for success in college, in career and in life," department spokesman Joe Follick said. "These standards were adopted by the [state Board of Education], subjected to unprecedented public review and will now be voted on again by the [state Board of Education] in February."