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14 posts from March 17, 2014

March 17, 2014

Sobel wants child welfare bill revised to strengthen child protection

Twenty-four hours after the Miami Herald published the first part of a series detailing the deaths of almost 500 children, the Florida Senate’s top child-welfare legislator said she would overhaul a bill designed to reform the Department of Children & Families.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel said the bill her committee drafted  — which passed unanimously through its first committee last week — would have to be rewritten in light of the “Innocents Lost” series, which chronicles the deaths of 477 children whose families had a history with DCF.

“When I started reading it, I had to put it down. It’s death in your face," said the Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs. “We will not sleep or rest until every vulnerable child is rescued from dysfunctional families and guardians. The stories are tear-jerkers. It’s unacceptable this has happened to Florida’s children.”

The number the children who died of abuse or neglect during the past six years increased dramatically as Florida child welfare administrators implemented an intensive family-preservation program that reduced the number of children in state care while slashing services and oversight for children who remained with troubled families.

DCF officials have maintained that family preservation does not trump safety, but conceded that communities may not have enough resources — yet — to assist families struggling with issues such as drug addiction, mental illness and domestic violence. In a statement released late Monday, a spokeswoman said initiatives are underway to improve the agency’s work. More here. 


Faced with election, will Rick Scott embrace pet projects?

Gov. Rick Scott is about to meet the dark side of a budget surplus.

With about $1.2 billion in surplus revenue, senators are showing no hesitation in stuffing hometown projects into next year’s budget, testing Scott’s penchant for vetoing pet spending (though not all).

The senate’s appropriations subcommittee on transportation, tourism and economic development released its proposed $11.7 billion budget Monday and it's larded up like it was 2006 all over again.

Will Scott have the temerity in an election year to veto the projects? And which ones will make the cut?

Not so fast. First they have to be approved by the entire Senate and then the House, which has yet to release details on its budget.

But TED’s preliminary budget is a start. Here are the highlights:  

-- Overall, the Senate is proposing to spend $9.7 billion on transportation, or about $135 million more than Scott.

-- Senate's TED and Scott agree on one thing: Ports. TED’s $129 million on seaports nearly matches what Scott is recommending, proving maritime expenses continue to be popular with lawmakers.

-- A host of local economic development projects, including $2.5 million for a Tarpon Springs dredging and wharf project; $1.5 million for a Wakulla County dredging channel project; and $770,000 for a Punta Gorda airport terminal (all of which were not recommended by Scott).

-- A raft of cultural projects, including $1 million the Circus Arts Conservatory in Sarasota; $250,000 for the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg; $250,000 for the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach; $200,000 for the Military Museum and Memorial of South Florida; $85,000 for Pensacola Little Theatre; and $300,000 for the History Miami-Operation Pedro Pan Exhibition.

-- More cultural projects, including $500,000 for the South Florida Science Museum; $500,000 for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center; $216,000 for the Friends of the Bass Museum; $500,000 for the Naples Botanical Garden; $100,000 for the Lowry Park Zoological Society of Tampa; $75,000 for the Titusville Playhouse; $500,000 for Opera Naples; $500,000 for the Museum of Discovery and Science, Inc.

-- Community development projects like Miracle League of Miami Dade for Miracle Field, which is for special needs youth, for $2.5 million; Building Homes for Heroes for $1 million; Clearwater Marine Aquarium for $1 million; $750,000 for Miami Dade Downtown Authority for improvements to Museum Park.

-- Historic Preservation projects, like $1 million for renovation and repair of New Port Richey’s Hacienda Hotel; $500,000 for McCullom Hall in Fort Myers; $150,000 for the acquisition of St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum; $350,000 for the Pensacola Lighthouse & Museum Tower restoration project.

The list goes on.

The Legislature has quite a few chips to play in this game.

Workforce state training for STEM and other high-skill or high-wage jobs is one of Scott's pet causes. He proposed spending $30 million.

The Senate? $0.

Let the bartering begin.

Panuccio clears another committee, but Latvala awaits

At this pace, the man who oversaw the troubled launch of Florida’s troubled unemployment website will soon be the state’s go-to guy on all things technology.

On Monday, Jesse Panuccio, the executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, won his second round of confirmation to his $141,000 job with an 11-0 vote by the Senate’s Commerce and Tourism Committee.

Four Democrats and seven Republicans approved  Panuccio’s confirmation -- which some hoped would provide him a chance to instruct others on complicated technical issues.

“Put down a few ideas, based on your experience with this project,” said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who said Panuccio had performed exemplary. “‘How can we avoid some of these pitfalls?’ -- is my big question you can answer later on.”

Panuccio has been busy rounding up support, and, according to Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, it’s been effective.

“This is our man, he’s met with everybody, and he continues to meet with everybody to update them,” Bean said.

Panuccio has two more committees, Community Affairs and Ethics and Elections, before he’s up for a floor vote by senators.

Even though Panuccio has won unanimous support so far, his confirmation is no sure thing.

Last year, he passed the committee confirmation process, only never to come up on the floor for a vote. The senator who comes up with that list, as chair of the ethics and elections committee, is Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Latvala stepped out last week when the Senate’s appropriations subcommittee on transportation, tourism and economic development approved Panuccio’s first confirmation, and didn’t vote. His committee is the last one Panuccio must clear.

He wouldn’t say on Monday which way he would vote on the confirmation.

“We’ll just have to see,” Latvala said.


State: Voucher proponents needed to register as lobbyists

For months, the top executives of Step up for Students, the nonprofit that runs Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, have been leaning on state lawmakers to expand the program.

But neither President Doug Tuthill nor Vice President for Advocacy and Outreach Glen Gilzean has registered as a lobbyist — despite a November opinion saying both would need to sign up with the state.

Tuthill told the Herald/Times he had received a separate verbal opinion saying registration was not necessary. He said he planned to file the paperwork this week anyway.

“I do not need to register, but I am going to, so we can talk about kids and policy again and not be distracted by the process,” he said.

The situation is particularly tricky for Gilzean, who filed his registration Friday, but withdrew it Monday.

Because Gilzean has been named to the board of Florida A&M University Board of Trustees, state law prohibits him from holding “any employment or contractual relationship as a legislative lobbyist requiring annual registration and reporting.”

He is scheduled to have a confirmation hearing before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday.

Gilzean did not return calls seeking comment. Read more here.

Miami-Dade College profs want to fight corruption with 'Candidates Academy'

Miami-Dade College’s professors have had enough of bad candidates and politicians.

So they’re doing something about it: Identifying future political leaders and training them in a six-month intensive fellowship for free.

Called “Candidates Academy,” the effort comes after a bleak year for public integrity in Florida’s largest county: Three sitting mayors indicted in state and federal corruption schemes, the indictment of a former congressional candidate and the jailing of a top political strategist.

“We deserve better candidates than we have,” said Mark Richard, president of the United Faculty of Miami-Dade College union. “And yes, polling shows and anecdotal evidence shows that Americans aren’t quite sure we have the best politicians.”

More here

Senate Democrats say Medicaid expansion would free up $470M state dollars


What could Florida do with $470 million extra dollars to spend?

That is the question Senate Democrats are asking now that they've calculated the state would have that money to spend if it accepted $51 billion federal Medicaid expansion dollars. They have answers, too, outlining this morning how they would spend the money.

A plan to use Medicaid expansion dollars to buy private insurance for poor Floridians was rejected by House Republicans last year. Two bills intended to reignite the issue during the 2014 session aren't going anywhere.

Lately, proponents of Medicaid expansion have tried to make a business case. They say reducing the number of uninsured Floridians creates jobs and helps small businesses save money they would otherwise have to spend insuring low-wage workers. But House Republicans still haven't budged, and Gov. Rick Scott is now avoiding the topic.

Senate Democrats said the $470 million is a "conservative estimate" based on various studies of the impact of Medicaid expansion by the state Agency for Health Care Administration, Georgetown University's Health Policy Institute, Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy and state budget analysts.

Continue reading "Senate Democrats say Medicaid expansion would free up $470M state dollars" »

Miami-Dade mayor's 'business roundtable' includes campaign contributors


Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez unveiled Monday a "business roundtable" that will meet periodically to advise Gimenez on economic-development strategies.

The group will give input on improving government processes, promoting innovation and developing public-private partnerships, a statement from Gimenez's office said.

Left unsaid was that 10 of the roundtable's 19 members or their companies have contributed to Gimenez's mayoral campaigns, according to a quick search of local campaign-finance records. An eleventh contributed to one of his county commission campaigns.

That's not to say the members are not qualified. And it's not like they're voting on any body with county authority. Gimenez, as his daily calendar can attest, meets with all sorts of business people.

But it's noteworthy when politicians, as they often do, reward or appear to reward supporters by appointing them to boards or committees.

To be fair, one of the roundtable members who did not contribute to Gimenez, Albert Maury, gave to the mayor's 2011 opponent, Julio Robaina. Another who did contribute to Gimenez, Rodney Barreto, also gave to Robaina, apparently covering both his bases. R. Donahue Peebles' company gave to Gimenez's 2008 commission campaign.

Roundtable members who contributed to Gimenez's mayoral campaigns, either directly or through their companies: Leonard Abess, Barreto, Jeff Berkowitz, Stephen Bittel, Tere Blanca, Evelyn Greer, John Hall, Adolfo Henriquez, Jose Smith and Jackie Soffer.

Other members: Sheldon Anderson, Armando Codina, Peter Dolara, Ghislaine Gouraige Jr., Maury, Eduardo Padron, Peebles, Frances Sevilla-Sacasa and Carlos Blanco-Sposito.

All their job titles are available here.

Dems accuse Scott campaign of violating fundraising law

From the Associated Press:

The head of the Florida Democratic Party is contending that Republican Gov. Rick Scott's campaign broke the state's campaign finance laws by shifting money between accounts.

Election law complaints can be routine during an election year, but this one could be significant: If confirmed, it could result in a fine of as much as $82 million.

Allison Tant, who is the chairwoman of the state party, filed the complaint with the Florida Elections Commission late last week, naming both Scott and his political committee Let's Get to Work.

The complaint maintains that the campaign broke the law when the Scott campaign transferred nearly $27.4 million from one type of campaign account to another earlier this month.

"They have violated the law and the governor is supposed to uphold the law," Tant told The Associated Press.

John French, the chairman of Let's Get to Work, said last week the movement of the money was legal.

Scott first set up Let's Get to Work back in 2010 as a way to help out his campaign for governor when he was challenging a Republican who had the backing of many GOP leaders.

It was set up as an "electioneering communication organization," which is allowed to take unlimited contributions but is subject to limits on how it can spend the money. These types of political organizations can run television ads as long as they don't use the words "vote for" or "vote against."

Scott kept Let's Get to Work intact after his victorious election in 2010, and since the summer of 2011 he has raised millions for the organization. The governor has accepted checks from a long list of prominent business and political heavyweights, including The Seminole Tribe of Florida, Florida Power & Light, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, and the Republican Governors Association. Story here.



Education department selects new state tests

After months of uncertainty, the state education department has selected an exam to replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests.

The American Institutes for Research is the winner of the coveted $220-million contract to develop and administer the new statewide exams, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart announced Monday.

The Washington-based non-profit beat out testing giants Pearson and CTB-McGraw Hill.

“I am confident that this is the best choice for Florida’s students,” Stewart said. “This assessment will measure their progress and achievement on Florida Standards, which, along with high quality instruction, will give every student the opportunity to be college and career ready.”

The exams will be aligned to the Florida Standards, new education benchmarks based on the controversial Common Core State Standards.

Stewart has said the assessments will be ready for the 2014-15 school year.

Still, Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning said he had concerns that the test would not be fully vetted, and that a trial run of selected questions will take place in Utah.

“I will assure you our [population of English-language learners] is much higher than Utah’s,” Browning said.

AIR may not as well known as the large testing companies that lost out in the competitive bidding process, but the non-profit has experience in Florida. In 2011, the group won a contract to develop the complex new formula used to evaluate teachers.

Read more here.

Despite loss of 2,600 jobs, Florida's unemployment rate continues to fall

From the Tampa Bay Times' Jeff Harrington:

Florida lost 2,600 jobs in January, led by workforce drops in retail, hotels, restaurants and healthcare.

The reversal came even as the state's unemployment rate continued to fall, dropping from an upwardly adjusted 6.3 percent in December to 6.1 percent in January.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is in Orlando this morning, announced the news via a Twitter link to a brief YouTube video. In the clip, he touted that unemployment has fallen to its lowest level since June 2008. But Scott made no mention of the retraction in jobs.

The unemployment rate and jobs numbers don't always mesh, in part because they're drawn from two different surveys. The jobless rate is taken from a household survey measuring people who say they either have a job or are actively looking for one. The jobs number comes from employers.

Read more here.