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12 posts from February 3, 2014

February 03, 2014

Florida Health Choices state exchange readies for launch


Since 2008, Florida has been promising its residents a state-run health insurance exchange. Republican lawmakers continued to champion the much-delayed program even as they opposed Obamacare and refused to expand Medicaid to help the working poor.

Now, officials say they are at last ready to launch Florida Health Choices and hope to reach people who can't afford insurance on the federal exchange, or just don't like the president's plan.

But don't expect full-coverage insurance policies — think more along the lines of pharmacy discount cards and limited dental plans.

Leaders of the effort won't even say exactly when they're opening for business, other than to say they're "just days away.'' The web address is www.FloridaHealthChoices.net — but it isn't yet functioning.

Blame at least some of the vagueness on jitters over the prospect of yet another botched government website after the Obamacare and Florida unemployment site rollouts.

Read more here.

State accuses greyhound trainer of forging signature of dead doctor to race dogs


One of the largest greyhound kennel operators in the state used the signature of a dead Miami veterinarian to forge vaccination records of dogs racing in South Florida, St. Petersburg and Jacksonville, according to a state complaint.

The allegations against James E. “Barney” O'Donnell raise more questions about the safety of the animals that run at Florida’s greyhound tracks and an apparent lack of oversight from the Division of Parimutuel Wagering - the agency assigned to regulate the industry.

State law requires that every kennel show proof that all active and inactive racing dogs be vaccinated for certain diseases such as kennel cough. From July 2010 until the end of 2011, O’Donnell offered regulators proof that 94 of his dogs who raced at Mardi Gras Racetrack in Hallandale Beach, the Orange Park Kennel Club in Jacksonville and the St. Petersburg Kennel Club had been vaccinated.

The documents included the signature of a long-time Miami veterinarian, Dr. Emilio Vega.

But there was one problem: Vega was dead.

“Dr. Emilio Vega has been deceased since June 30, 2010, and therefore did not administer vaccinations to Respondents greyhounds between July 2010 and 2011,’’ the state wrote in its complaint.

The state now is asking an administrative law judge to fine O’Donnell $96,000 and revoke his license to race greyhounds. Story here. 

Continue reading "State accuses greyhound trainer of forging signature of dead doctor to race dogs" »

Will Miami-Dade follow Jackson hospital compromise on workers' pay?


Could the Jackson Health System have paved the way for Miami-Dade County commissioners to solve a months-long contract dispute between Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration and labor unions?

Two weeks ago, the public hospital announced that it had reached an agreement with its workers to phase out an unpopular concession that for four years has required most county employees to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs. Under the agreement, three percent would go away now, retroactive to Jan. 1, and the remaining 2 percent would disappear on Sept. 30, the end of the budget year.

On Tuesday, commissioners could decide to accept the deal for Jackson’s two unions — and perhaps to impose similar terms for the remaining five unions representing other county workers.

It will be the third time the contract impasses come before commissioners, who have twice voted to end the entire healthcare contribution at once. Both times, Gimenez has vetoed the decision, saying restoring employees’ full pay would create a mid-year, $56-million budget shortfall that could lead to service cuts and layoffs.

More here.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and friends show up for Lopez Cantera's swearing in

Carlos Lopez Cantera has already been the state's lieutenant governor for seven hours but the official ceremony was held in the Florida House chamber late Monday afternoon. 

Lopez Cantera spoke in English and Spanish, telling the audience that Florida Gov. Rick Scott took office in the midst of the worst economy in decades and turned it around. "Ladies and gentlemen, it's working," the former House Republican Leaders said in a speech that stuck to the governor's political talking points. 

In the audience, a Who's Who of Tallahassee insiders packed the chamber. Lawyers and lobbyists, the Florida Cabinet, three members of the Florida Supreme Court and former House speakers and Senate presidents turned lobbyists -- Dean Cannon, Mike Haridopolos, Larry Cretul and James Harold Thompson -- sat in the front row. The entire Miami Dade delegation was in attendance as were several Democratic legislators: Reps. Jim Waldman, Perry Thurston, Jose Javier Rodriguez and Sen. Maria Sachs. 

Also in attendance were a host of big shots from Miami: businessman Norman Braman, Jackson Health CEO Carlos Migoya, former Congressman David Rivera, Miami Dade Republican Party chairman Nelson Diaz and Lopez Cantera's former classmates in the House: Ralph Arza and Adam Hasner.

At a briefing with reporters, Scott did all the talking. Ask what's it like to now be in the executive branch, Lopez Cantera answered: "It's good to be back.''  

Here is the invitation list for the ceremony, courtesy of the governor's office:

Continue reading "Lawmakers, lobbyists and friends show up for Lopez Cantera's swearing in" »

State gets five-year extension of a funding waiver to help at-risk children

Florida’s child welfare system got a boost Monday with the approval of a five-year renewal of a federal waiver that allows the state to have more options in helping children from troubled homes.

The waiver enables the state to use Title IV-E federal foster care funds to pay for services it deems necessary for children in at-risk families, whether it's mental health counseling or substance abuse treatment. In the past, that money could only be used for children placed in the foster care system.

The waiver "allows us to have more flexibility in the services we provide families," said Stephen Pennypacker, assistant secretary for programs for the state Department of Children and Families. 

Florida was the first state to get a federal waiver and in the past had only short-term extensions. Getting a five-year extension means "we can continue to demonstrate the impact it’s been having and hopefully make it permanent," said Shawn Salamida, the CEO of the community-based care program Partnership for Strong Families in Gainesville.

He said the waiver enables workers to identify families at risk of foster care placement and "use funds to provide services to intervene to keep the kids safe and families intact."

The waiver has been a factor in helping to reduce the number of kids in the state's child welfare system, said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children’s First.

Continue reading "State gets five-year extension of a funding waiver to help at-risk children" »

Richter: We should have a destination casino in Miami and/or Broward

Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter on Monday endorsed a Las Vegas-style gambling casino in Miami and indicated that the bill the Senate proposes next week will offer up the expanded games but not the rest of the state. 

"There's not a chance that this legislature will consider a bill that will provide for unlimited casinos statewide,'' said Richter, a Republican Naples banker. But, he added, "I happen to think that a destination resort in Miami would be a good thing for the state of Florida. I think it will attract new revenue dollars.''

Richter told the committee that he is also open to building a casino resort in Broward and that any requirement to ask voters to approve of any new games would apply only "after this legisalture acts."

In other words, Richter believes this Legislature should expand gambling and only changes that occur after this year would voters be asked to approve.

The proposed constitutional amendment would be used to "approve anything after this legislative session, not as a result of this legislative session,'' he said. 

House Speaker Will Weatherford told reporters last week that he will not support any legislation that does not allow for a statewide voter approval of any gambling expansion. When asked by the Herald/Times what he meant by expansion, Weatherford said: "new games."

Richter said the agreement he believes the Senate leadership has with the House is that any requirement for voter approval would apply to when the industry comes back to the Legislature asking for more games in the future. "If you require something more, it's going to require a constitutional amendment,'' he said.

He disagreed that his position means he supports more casinos. "I'm not opening the door to casinos, we already have casino gambling,'' he said.

Richter, who is serving on the committee for the first time, will dictate what gets into the draft bill to be released Feb. 10 and said he will work to get a destination resort casino, as proposed by Las Vegas Sands and Genting in Miami.

"As I’ve gone through the learning curve, I would be in favor or one or more licenses that would be competitively bid -- either by the existing casino operators or the Seminole Tribe," he said.



National Republicans acknowledge 'stunning' shift in attitudes about gay marriage

When the new attorney general in Virginia decided recently to oppose his state’s ban on gay marriage, it might have been dismissed as an isolated move by a Democrat seeking to reverse Republican policy. But it underscored the speed and breadth of a fundamental change in the country.

Public opinion on same-sex marriage is changing at breathtaking speed. Voters across the nation are dropping their opposition, and many state gay-marriage bans just recently adopted are already coming under assault.

“On no issue in American life have opinions changed as fast as they have on gay rights,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and political consultant. “It is truly a stunning development.”

The change is especially vexing for Republicans, who used the issue to get conservative voters to the polls just a decade ago and now are torn between their traditional stance and political base on one hand and the quickly changing political landscape on the other.

Among the most dramatic shifts are in politically key battleground states such as Virginia, which was a bellwether in the last two presidential elections. Story here. 



Senate committee proposes elements of a gambling overhaul in Florida

The Florida Senate is in the midst of drafting a sweeping overhaul of the state's gambling legislation and, judging by the committee's checklist, it will include a grab bag of goodies for many seeking to restructure, and expand, gambling in Florida. Whether any of it will pass this election year, is another story.

"I'm not sure when we cross the finish line,'' said Sen. Garrett Richter, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee on Monday. He said the bill to be released Feb. 10 will be at least 300 pages long and the Senate's effort is "a signficant endeavor." The committee today will discuss what elements it would like to include.

Among the likely components in the bill:

Continue reading "Senate committee proposes elements of a gambling overhaul in Florida" »

After private oath, Lopez-Cantera feted at mansion

History was made at Florida's Capitol Monday, but only a select few people witnessed it.

Gov. Rick Scott held a private swearing-in ceremony for the state's first Hispanic lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who took the oath of office from Joseph Lewis Jr., chief judge of the First District Court of Appeal. Scott's aides said the ceremony took place at about 10:30 a.m. in Scott's office, with no news media reporters or photographers present.

Lopez-Cantera's wife, Renee, and their two young daughters were present and aides said the governor's office would soon release photos of the ceremony. A second ceremony, planned for the House chamber later in the day, is strictly a photo-op -- not the real thing.

Scott and Lopez-Cantera, a former House majority leader and most recently the elected property appraiser for Miami-Dade County, met reporters outside the Capitol just before hosting a luncheon at the mansion for the new L.G.

"I'm very proud to be part of the governor's team," Lopez-Cantera said. "Results matter, and his record is something to be proud of. Unemployment down to 6.2 percent from 11.1, 462,000 new jobs in the state ... "

"This is a great day for the state of Florida," Scott said. "He is going to do an outstanding job."

Scott said Lopez-Cantera's top assignment was to make sure the Legislature passes a $500 million package of fee and tax cuts -- a plan legislative leaders have already publicly endorsed. The job of lieutenant governor is known for its lack of specific duties.

Inside the mansion, guests, including a number of close friends and relatives of the new lieutenant governor, had a lunch that included saffron paella, braised chicken, shrimp and warm cajeta bread pudding for dessert. A baby stroller was parked next to the head table -- a sight not seen lately in the mansion.

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford sat with Scott at the luncheon. Also present were CFO Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi; Scott's chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth; Sens. John Thrasher and Anitere Flores, both of whom surfaced as possible LG picks for Scott; former House Speaker Dean Cannon, now a lobbyist; and lobbyist Bill Rubin, a friend of Scott's who advocated picking Lopez-Cantera for the No. 2 spot on the Scott ticket this fall.

-- Steve Bousquet

Sugar baron's Castro-regime overtures draw Cuban-exile fire

The Washington Post had a fascinating story about how Alfy Fanjul, Florida Crystals sugar baron, is sidling up to Cuba.

Now, Cuban exile groups who once counted on the Fanjuls support are predictably upset. Here's Capitol Hill Cubans:

Now, despite the continued brutality of Cuba's dictatorship, Fanjul wants to invest part of this amassed fortune in the Castro brothers' business monopolies...

Of course, this is music to the ears of the Castros, who see Alfy as someone who can channel their interests to 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton.

Sadly, Fanjul knows well that the Cuban people -- his brethren -- are strictly prohibited from engaging in foreign trade and investment. This "privilege" is strictly reserved for Fidel and Raul Castro's monopolies.

Here's the Washington Post story, and here's Capitol Hill Cubans