« March 17, 2014 | Main | March 19, 2014 »

17 posts from March 18, 2014

March 18, 2014

Legislators target 'renegade' law firm with nursing home bill

Jim WilkesJim Wilkes has a target on his back.

The Tampa-based trial lawyer whose success at suing nursing homes for neglect and abuse of residents has drawn millions in damages from the industry.

It has also brought their wrath — and they’ve turned to the Florida Legislature to stop him. 

Wilkes’ model, which has been successfully employed in Florida and eight states where he has offices, is to not only target the owners and management companies — which can often be shell companies that shield the assets of owners and investors — but to target the investors, vendors and contractors, when he can show they have a role in the company’s decision-making. He also seeks large punitive damages.

In Polk County, where a nursing home shut down its management company after Wilkes sued, he won a $1 billion judgment in 2012 when the company didn’t put up a defense. In Pinellas County, a jury awarded $200 million to the family of a nursing home patient who died of neglect.

“They keep putting companies in bankruptcy and transferring assets, and we follow the assets and now the courts are able to go up the ladder,’’ said Wilkes, 63.

The result, the industry says, is having a chilling effect on investment income into nursing homes in Florida — at a time when older nursing homes want to update and retrofit in preparation for a surge in growth with the aging of baby boomers. Story here. 

Library taxes a looming challenge for Carlos Gimenez



Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez will take on his county's under-funded library system on Wednesday. It's a spending squeeze his 2011 tax-cut package helped create.

Our story looks at the impact of the library cuts on children's books. This photo shows the gnarled spine of a Dr. Suess classic  at the West Kendall branch, a particularly popular library with families. 

While rationing of kids' books may not be popular, the question Gimenez faces is will voters endorse a tax increase to fix the spending crisis? He tried to raise the library tax last year, then quickly backed off amid a flood of criticism. 

Now he's floating the idea of holding a straw poll this summer to send commissioners a message that voters would accept a tax increase. That didn't work out well for pet advocates in 2012, but this time around commissioners and Gimenez may be forced to impose drastic spending cuts without the extra revenue. 

It's enough to make Mr. Gimenez say: Oooph. Can you?

Read the full story here

House releases proposed education budget

House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Erik Fresen on Tuesday released his $20.7 billion budget proposal.

Fresen is recommending that $6,988 be spent on each student in the K-12 system. That figure represents a $207.98 increase over the current level, or an increase of about 3 percent. (It is roughly $40 per-kid more than Gov. Rick Scott wants to spend.)

The House proposal includes $404.9 million for Voluntary Prekindergarten programs -- the same as this year, even though enrollment is expected to decline. 

It boosts spending on state colleges by $69.8 million, and spending on the State University System by $120 million. 

"I'm very encouraged by our budget proposal," Fresen said. "We have significant increases in early learning, K-12 [education] and higher education. The budget clearly prioritizes our students -- not systems -- and significantly increases the funding for the disabled and the most vulnerable among us."

Fresen's committee also released a proposed "conforming bill" that would lessen the penalties for failing to comply with the Constitutional amendment that limits class size. School systems are currently penalized for each classroom that goes over the limit. If the language becomes law, districts would only be held accountable for the schoolwide average. 

A similar legislative proposal seems to have stalled.

FMA, TaxWatch spar over nurse practitioner report


A recent report from Florida TaxWatch backs proposals before the Legislature to allow highly trained nurses to practice independently from doctors and prescribe controlled substances.  House Bill 7071 and SB 1352, are waiting committee hearings but have the backing of the conservative House leadership, who have focused on health care workforce issues as a counterpoint to opposing Medicaid expansion.

TaxWatch's "Diagnosing the Debate" report -- found here -- says the state could save $44 million in Medicaid spending and up to $339 million in total by allowing nurse practitioners and physician assistants to practice with fewer restrictions. Highly trained nurses could meet as much as 80 percent of the state's primary care needs, the report said.

The Florida Medical Association, a powerful lobby group representing doctors, opposes proposals to grant nurse practitioners more independence. It released a strongly worded statement today pointing out what it says are "five serious flaws" in the report and calling on TaxWatch to correct the record. The association accused TaxWatch of using outdated data and faulty assumptions in arriving at its conclusions. 

"This report, which is based largely on a government memorandum that is now four years old, is so fundamentally flawed and misleading, it requires immediate correction," said Jeff Scott, FMA's general counsel in a news release. "The report is based on numerous assumptions that are demonstrably and irrefutably false."

This afternoon, TaxWatch said it stands by the report and dismissed the FMA as "special interest group" intent on protecting its turf by lobbying for the continued restrictions on highly trained nurses.

Continue reading "FMA, TaxWatch spar over nurse practitioner report" »

House slashes affordable housing in bid to spend more on public safety, transportation

The House released details on its $11.5 billion budget on transportation, tourism and economic development on Tuesday, and it’s heavy on spending for road projects, public safety and cultural projects, but skimpy on spending for affordable housing.

“Great efforts were made to further the safety and security of our citizens,” said the chairman of the House appropriations committee on transportation and economic development, Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater.

While generous with transportation spending as well, the House proposes to spend $89.3 million from an affordable housing trust fund, established in 1992, on actual affordable housing. The House proposes to raid the rest of the trust fund, which has about $225 million, and spend it on other things.

By comparison, the Senate is proposing all of the $225 million in the trust fund, or $135 million more, on affordable housing.

Here are some highlights:

-- $9.8 billion in transportation, which is $136.5 million more than the Senate is proposing and $272 million more than Scott. The House fully funded the Department of Transportation’s $8.9 billion first year of its five-year work plan.

-- $10 million for Skyrise Miami, a thousand-foot observation tower and amusement center that developers hope will be South Florida’s “Eiffel Tower.” Neither the Senate nor Scott are proposing any money for the project.

-- $4 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The Senate proposes $1 million.

-- $750,000 for the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. The Senate proposes $250,000.

-- $1 million for the Military Museum of South Florida in Miami-Dade, which is $800,000 more than what the Senate is offering.

-- $1 million to increase National Guard tuition increase, which is $700,000 less than the Senate.

-- Big construction expenses at Camp Blanding, the Florida National Guard’s training headquarters in Starke. The House, Senate and Department of Military Affairs all propose spending $7 million in federal money on the 72,000 acre facility, along with $16 million to build a reconnaissance range and $8.1 million for a machine gun range.

-- Like the Senate, $2 million for overtime for the Florida Highway Patrol. Unlike the Senate, $3.5 million for 28 FHP officers. To the chagrin of Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the chair of the Senate committee, Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, hadn’t approved the funding for the troopers by this week. That omission led to Latvala asking for a quick infusion of troopers. “I’d like to see some permanent highway patrol positions added,” Latvala said Monday. “If you tell me which way I need to go to pound on which door, I’ll do that or draft up the amendment.”

Voucher advocates clear another hurdle

The proposed expansion of the state school voucher program cleared another hurdle Tuesday, winning the support of the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee.

The bill (HB 7099) received a favorable vote in the House Finance and Tax Subcommittee earlier this month. Since the proposal was only referred to one committee, it is now eligible for a vote on the House floor.

The voucher bill has sparked one of the most emotional debates of the 2014 session. On Monday, pastors, parents, teachers and schoolchildren packed into a meeting room to share their perspective on the expansion.

There were so many speakers that Chairman Michael Bileca had to cut some of the testimony short.

Lawmakers approved the measure in a party-line vote.

Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, tried adding language that would have required the state to "assist private schools in the administration of the statewide standardized assessments." But it was shot down by Republicans on the panel, who have said that a testing requirement is unnecessary.

(Senate President Don Gaetz has said he will not consider the proposal in the Senate without a state testing requirement. Students who are currently in the program must take some form of standardized assessment, but it doesn't have to be the state exam.)

Meanwhile, the non-profit that runs the voucher program came under fire Tuesday for a 2011 video that was posted to YouTube.

In the video, Step Up for Students President Doug Tuthill outlined the organization's political strategy. He talked about the role of an affiliated political committee.

"One of the primary reasons we’ve been so successful we spend about $1 million every other cycle in local political races, which in Florida is a lot of money," Tuthill told a group at the University of California, Berkeley. "In House races and Senate races, we’re probably the biggest spender in local races."

Tuthill said he and other proponents "make low-income families the face of the program."

"We put those people in the face of Democrats and say 'How can you deny this parent the right to educate their child in the ways that they need?'" he said.

Tuthill also acknowledged that the program had built up support among black ministers. "The black ministers have really flipped the politicians. That has really brought most of the black and Hispanic politicians over to the program."

Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall said the video showed "the true intentions" of the program's supporters.

"For years they’ve told the public that their advocacy for voucher schools is really all about the students," McCall said in a statement. "This video reveals that it’s all about the money."

But Tuthill said he didn’t consider the video newsworthy.

"I was explaining how the program was able to get political support to grow in Florida," he told the Herald/Times. "It's Politics 101. It's what I did when I was a union president. It's what I did when I was a civil rights organizer. It's what everyone does."


John Morgan to RPOF: Nice try, but Charlie Crist billboards aren't a contribution


John Morgan, the personal injury lawyer and boss of Charlie Crist, says the Republican Party of Florida's election complaint over his firm's billboards featuring the Democratic candidate for governor is a misfire.

"The boards were ordered down by us many months ago.Many times boards remain up because the space is not sold. That obviously occurred here. They were not paid for," Morgan said in an email. "I own a billboard company and know this is routine."
Morgan said it was an "honest mistake by CBS Outdoor," the firm that owns the billboard space.

"We are flattered that the RPOF thinks that Floridians believe our firm is a positive in a statewide election. Maybe because my wife is such a loyal Republican!!" he said. "If I am asked to testify I will not take the fifth. Because we did nothing wrong."


Miami-Dade commission signs off on bonus for Jackson hospital workers


Jackson Health System employees should see a 2 percent bonus in their paychecks in about two weeks after Miami-Dade commissioners on Tuesday approved a series of contracts with labor unions representing workers at the county’s public hospital network.

In total, the pay bonus, called a “gain-sharing” payment because Jackson CEO Carlos Migoya promised employees a “share” of any profit or budget surplus in 2013, will amount to about $10.8 million, or 1.67 percent of payroll for the year that ended Sept. 30.

Miami-Dade commissioners approved the contracts without discussion by a 12-1 margin, with Commissioner Juan C. Zapata. casting the sole dissenting vote.

Barring a veto by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in the next 10 days, most of Jackson’s nearly 10,000 employees should see the payment in their April 4 checks, Migoya said.

He added that the one-time payment is in lieu of employee raises in 2014, which will mark the fourth consecutive year that Jackson employees have not received a pay increase.

All regular full- and part-time employees hired before April 1, 2013, will be eligible for the bonus, which is based on last year’s financial performance, during which Jackson posted a $62 million surplus on an operating budget of about $1.5 billion.

The 2 percent payment will be in addition to the 5 percent of base pay that Jackson workers were paying toward group healthcare costs but will no longer have to contribute.


This post has been updated to correct the fact that it was Zapata who cast the dissenting vote.

GOP, Democrats swap election-law charges

Both political parties accused their opponents Tuesday of violating the election laws. It's clearly a hint of what's to come in the 2014 campaign for governor of Florida.

The Republican Party of Florida lodged a formal complaint with the Florida Elections Commission alleging that the Morgan & Morgan law firm's use of Democratic candidate Charlie Crist's face on a series of billboards is an unreported in-kind campaign contribution, the value of which far exceeds the $3,000 limit on such donations. RPOF's executive director, Juston Johnson, called the billboards "a reportable contribution. Failure to report the billboards is a clear breach of the law and a promise to work 'for the people.'"

Democrats, meanwhile, are claiming that the disclaimer on a new TV spot featuring Gov. Rick Scott violates the election laws. The Florida Democratic Party said it has sent letters to TV stations throughout the state, demanding that the spot be taken off the air until the disclaimer is corrected. Scott's ad, part of a $2.2 million statewide ad buy, ends with the words "sponsored by Let's Get to Work," as a woman announcer repeats the words.

Democrats allege that the Scott ad was purchased by Let's Get to Work when it was an electioneering communications organization or ECO, which would mean the law would require a special disclaimer that includes the words "paid electioneering communication" and the name and address of the purchaser. "They didn't read the Division of Elections manual," said Democratic Party spokesman Joshua Karp.

Scott's campaign claimed that Democrats had their facts wrong and that the TV ad buy was made after Let's Get to Work was converted from an ECO to a political committee on March 6. A committee expenditure of $2 million is listed as being paid on March 11 to Multi Media Services of Alexandria, Va.


In second outlier poll, UNF survey shows Crist and Scott virtually tied


A University of North Florida poll has found what no other recent survey has found: Gov. Rick Scott essentially tied with Democrat Charlie Crist.

While a raft of other polls taken last month showed Scott trailing Crist by anywhere from 6 to 10 percentage points statewide, UNF's survey indicated Crist was ahead of Scott by just 1 point, 34-33 percent.

The only other survey to find such a close margin: a Republican Party of Florida-paid poll that only surveyed likely voters in GOP-held Senate districts. A survey of GOP-held House districts found Crist ahead by 6 points.

It's the second outlier from UNF. In October, when other surveys found Crist leading by relatively large margins, the college's poll indicated Crist was ahead by just 4 points. It also has found that more voters approve of Scott's job performance than disapprove, 45-39 percent.

Even the Republican-heavy Senate poll showed Scott's job-approval ratings were upsidedown 41-44 percent.

Here's the link to the UNF poll