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11 posts from February 14, 2014

February 14, 2014

Weatherford: Expand voucher program

If Florida’s controversial school voucher program needed a powerful ally in Tallahassee this year, it found one: House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is building support for a proposed expansion of the tax credit scholarship program, which provides private-school scholarships to about 60,000 low-income children in Florida.

The proposal would enable corporate donors to earn dollar-for-dollar sales tax credits in exchange for contributions to the scholarship program. (Donors can currently earn credits toward their corporate income taxes, as well as their insurance premium and alcoholic beverage excise taxes.) It would also create new partial scholarships for participating students whose families suddenly earn too much money to qualify.

But Weatherford may have to agree to some radical changes to the program — including a proposed requirement that scholarship students take standardized tests.

“For a bill to pass the Senate, an assessment will be a prerequisite,” Senate President Don Gaetz said Friday.

Read more here.

Movers and Shakers

New state ombudsman for the elderly takes the helm

Leigh Davis has been named the state’s new top advocate for the elderly in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other long-term care facilities.

Davis, who has 30 years experience in the health-care and long-term care industry, filled the role of long-term care ombudsman for the Department of Elder Affairs on Feb. 3. In her position, she’ll oversee the statewide council of trained volunteers who visit facilities and investigate complaints and act as advocates for the elderly.

Davis was most recently the Agency for Health Care Administration’s program administrator for risk management and public safety. She has also worked in the long-term care industry in Missouri.

Her appointment follows the troubled tenure of Jim Crochet, who retired from the job last summer while under investigation by the agency. Crochet had replaced an outspoken advocate Brian Lee, who has a lawsuit against the state, which fired him from the department.

Changes in Tallahassee Press Corps

Matt Dixon, a state government reporter for the Jacksonville-based Florida Times-Union, will become Tallahassee Bureau Chief of the newly created E.W. Scripps Co. bureau in the capital.

Dixon has been working at the Florida Times-Union since 2010. He was previously a government reporter for the Panama City News Herald.

The Associated Press has hired investigative reporter Steve Miller to help cover the state’s 2014 legislative session.

Miller, 56, has 20 years of journalism experience, including stints at the Texas Watchdog, the Washington Times and the Dallas Morning News, according to an announcement from the Associated Press. He has written three true crime books and two on rock and punk music and recently freelanced for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Continue reading "Movers and Shakers" »

Unexpected demand causes another Florida Health Choices delay


The folks behind Florida's upcoming state-based health exchange say consumer interest is so overwhelming, they are yet again delaying opening it up for business.

It's not yet possible to buy health plans on the Florida Health Choices site. But web traffic from people just checking it out has increased tenfold since its chief executive officer announced Feb. 3 that the full launch was "just days away.'' Phone calls have increased, too.

"I frankly was very surprised at the volume of hits that we've had in the last week," CEO Rose Naff said Friday. "It definitely sent a signal to me that we should expect a lot more volume than we originally anticipated."

Read more here.

Four-letter words fly in tiff over city of Miami board appointment

Normally, adding a person to a city board is a mundane affair that is rarely challenged.

That was not the case Thursday when, during a commission meeting, freshman Miami City Commissioner Keon Hardemon proposed putting businessman Steve Kneapler on the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority.

Commissioner Marc Sarnoff said he had unpleasant experiences with Kneapler, who has two pending lawsuits against the city. Kneapler declined to comment to the Miami Herald.

Sarnoff claims that, in a run-in with Kneapler, the businessman said “he is going to crush me and f--- me up.”

Sarnoff, a member of the authority. continued: “I would never put a man on this board who confronted you; I would never put a man on this board who called you a p---y.”

After weighing Sarnoff’s protests, Hardemon withdrew Kneapler’s name.

“I cannot condone any type of misbehavior by any grown man,” Hardemon said.


Moody's: Miami-Dade decision to restore workers' pay was 'credit negative'


Moody’s credit-rating agency on Friday qualified as “credit negative” Miami-Dade County’s decision last week to eliminate a healthcare contribution and restore workers’ pay.

The notice was the latest warning from Moody’s that it could soon downgrade Miami-Dade’s credit rating, which would make it more expensive for the county to borrow money.

“We’re under pressure,” said Ed Marquez, deputy mayor for finance. “They could downgrade us at any time.”

Eliminating the pay concession, which required most workers to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs, will require the county to cut $42 million this year from its $4.4 billion budget. That’s on top of a $24 million deficit created by a shortfall in property-tax collections, with little political will to raise the tax-rate for next year, Moody’s report notes.

Miami-Dade still has a credit rating considered a low risk for lenders. But in November, Moody’s gave the county a negative credit outlook, citing a squeeze on Miami-Dade’s emergency reserves.

Marquez said at the time that downgrading the county’s credit rating by one notch could cost $111 million over the next 20 to 30 years in higher interest rates on bonds.

Emails show disCONNECT between top state officials and unemployed


By now, the failures of Florida's $63 million website, CONNECT, are well know. Thousands of workers had to wait weeks and months to get claims paid because of glitches. The agency in charge, the Department of Economic Opportunity has fined the contractor nearly $500,000 because of the defects. The feds had to intervene.

But in the days following the launch, top DEO officials insisted that CONNECT was a success, despite getting reports from around the state that unemployed workers couldn't log on the new site.

Emails obtained by the Times/Herald depict Gov. Rick Scott's economic development agency in denial.

Read story here.

UPDATED Should David Beckham have registered as Miami-Dade lobbyist? Ethics commission is investigating


In June, during his early days exploring Miami as a location for his expansion Major League Soccer franchise, David Beckham toured Florida International University’s stadium with his business partner, an eager investor, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz.

With their plans firming up, Beckham, business partner Simon Fuller and Miami-based billionaire investor Marcelo Claure met again with Gimenez in November, this time over dinner at Claure’s house.

That presents a potential problem: At no point did Beckham, Fuller or Claure register as lobbyists.

The Miami-Dade’s ethics commission is examining whether Beckham, his investors or their representatives broke any rules requiring lobbyists to register before making a pitch to public officials. A violation of the registration requirement can result in a fine or a temporary ban from County Hall, though that penalty is unusual.

One of the men who is registered to lobby on Beckham’s behalf, attorney Neisen Kasdin, said Friday neither the retired English soccer star nor his investors had to register because they have only participated in “meet and greets” where no specific proposal before county government was discussed.

The lower-level Beckham group members trying to negotiate a soccer stadium deal have filed lobbyist registrations, Kasdin said.

A county ordinance requires lobbyists — including a company’s “principals” — to register within five days of engaging in lobbying or being retained as a lobbyist.

More here.

This post has been updated with the latest version of the story, which was rewritten to include Kasdin's comments.

Miami-Dade Xway official says he'll pay ethics fines

The Miami-Dade official whose refusal to file financial disclosure forms has drawn the ire of legislative leaders says he'll comply with financial disclosure requirements. But more than three weeks after the official and the state agreed to a repayment plan, the Commission on Ethics is still waiting for a response.

Miami attorney Robert W. Holland, a member of the county expressway authority, issued a statement Friday after the Times/Herald reported that his case is prompting Senate President Don Gaetz to advance legislation that would allow for the removal from office of public officials who don't comply with the law.

As reported, Holland has racked up fines totaling $9,000 for not filing his disclosure statements over a five-year period. He has been fined $1,500 for each year between 2007 and 2012, but has not paid any of the penalties and remains in office.

"I do take responsibility for not being able to file my disclosures during the requisite periods," Holland told the Times/Herald in a statement sent through the authority. "Unfortunately, my long-time accountant moved to the Turks and Caicos Islands a few years ago and has all of my financial records. I have employed a new accountant to forensically produce information for my disclosures and other needed matters ... I will provide the requisite information."

Holland did not respond to previous phone and email requests for comment.

In his statement Friday, Holland said he has reached a settlement agreement with the Commission on Ethics to repay the overdue fines on a monthly basis. The Times/Herald made a public records request for it, but a spokeswoman for the ethics commission, Kerrie Stillman, said in an email Friday: "We do not have a signed repayment agreement on file as of yet."

Under terms of the proposed settlement, Holland must send the state $200 on the 10th day of every month until the fine is paid in full to avoid further action, including garnishment of his wages.

The commission's letter to Holland is dated Jan. 21, 2014. The letter also directed Holland to file his financial disclosure statement for 2012. He has not done so, Stillman said Friday.

Florida voters in 1976 followed the lead of Gov. Reubin Askew and amended the state Constitution to include the so-called Sunshine Amendment that requires elected officials to file annual disclosure statements. As an attorney and member of the Florida Bar, Holland took an oath, part of which states: "I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the state of Florida."

Social conservatives: lawsuit fighting gay-marriage ban is like Bull Connor fighting civil rights


GayWith Florida’s gay-marriage ban threatened in Miami court, social conservatives launched a counteroffensive Friday by accusing same-sex union proponents of opposing civil rights.

The new argument from the Christian Family Coalition and other groups adopts the very talking points of gay-marriage backers, who sued last month to strike down Florida’s ban as a violation of constitutional rights guaranteeing equal treatment.

But the supporters of the Florida Marriage Protection Amendment say the rights of Floridians would be violated if a judge struck down the law because it was approved by voters, 62 percent of them, in 2008.

The press conference came a day after a federal judge made Virginia the latest state where a gay-marriage ban was struck down.

Florida’s gay-marriage opponents said Florida's law should be fought not in court but at the ballot box, and they repeatedly singled out the Miami-Dade judge hearing the case. 

“Will Judge Sarah Zabel do to our voting rights what Bull Connor did to our civil rights?” the Rev Nathaniel J. Wilcox, an African-American leader of a group called People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, said in comparing the judge overhearing the case to the infamous Alabama sheriff who supported segregation.

Story here

Long-time Capital lobbyist Barry Horenbein has died

Barry Horenbein, a lobbyist who worked the Capitol for decades and was a colorful throwback to a simpler time, died peacefully Thursday at his home in Tallahassee. He was 80 and had battled esophegeal cancer for the past two years.

Raised on Miami Beach, Horenbein first hung out his lobbying shingle in Tallahassee in 1962. The company was called Florida Consultants Inc., and Farris Bryant was governor.

Horenbein was known for his advocacy on behalf of the parimutuel industry, the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the 3M Corp., as well as his close friendship with the late Senate President Jim King of Jacksonville. He was an All-Conference baseball player at the University of Florida and had a brief professional baseball career with the Baltimore Orioles.

His career spanned 52 years, enough time to include nine governors, 22 House speakers and 23 Senate presidents. Lobbying in those days was a mixture of advocacy, salesmanship and public relations.

"My first client was Hillsborough Printing Company out of Tampa," Horenbein said in a 1990 oral history with UF, his alma mater. "I was just getting them business out of the state of Florida, more or less kind of like a salesman. I guess my first fairly big client was, the city of Miami Beach hired me. I'm sorry, it was not the city of Miami Beach, it was the Deauville Hotel. The city of Miami Beach was awarded the national governors' conference and all of the hotels were competing against each other for the main function. The Deauville Hotel hired me."

The Horenbein family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Barry Horenbein Memorial Fund at the Leon County Animal Shelter. Funeral arrangements are pending at Culley's MeadowWood Funeral Home in Tallahassee.