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15 posts from April 2, 2014

April 02, 2014

Senate advances sweeping child welfare reforms; will money follow?

Innocents LostA key Senate committee approved a sweeping overhaul of Florida’s child welfare law Wednesday, the first step toward passage of a series of reforms designed to stanch the deaths of children at the hands of their parents or other caregivers.

The proposal, an amendment to SB 1666 approved by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, is the most significant revamp of the state’s child welfare system in at least a decade. It aims to increase the quality and quantity of child protection investigators and strengthen the ability of the state to remove a vulnerable child from an unsafe home after the parents have demonstrated a pattern of neglect or abuse.

The 142-page bill merges several different Senate bills and adopts language from a companion measure passed out of a House committee last week. It contains several recommendations from Innocents Lost, a Miami Herald series that detailed the deaths of 477 Florida children whose families had prior contact with the Florida Department of Children & Families.

“We have had some of the best and brightest minds working on this and we are troubled by the 477 innocent lives lost, as written by the Miami Herald,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who chairs the Senate Families and Elder Affairs Committee. “This is a tremendous movement from the past.” Story here. 



Weatherford: Time is running out for a gambling bill

Gov. Rick Scott is in quiet, some say subdued, negotiations with the Seminole Tribe of Florida over a new gambling compact. The House won't take up a bill to address gambling expansion until a compact is complete. And the Senate has repeatedly postponed a hearing to vote out its proposal to build two new destination casinos in Miami Dade and Broward.

Conclusion: "It's getting late,'' said House Speaker Will Weatherford on Wednesday.

As the Legislature reached its half-way point of the 60-day session on Wednesday, pre-session predictions seem to be coming true as the odds of a gambling bill emerging, then passing, become dimmer each day.

Weatherford told reporters that while the House has moved one bill through committee, it's not prepared to take any more action until the governor acts. 

"We said for the last six months, there were two components: One was a negotiated compact. We have not seen that and we’re almost at the sixth week of session,'' he said. "It’s probably getting a little late for a compact at this point. And second, we said we needed a constitutional amendment to move from both chambers. That doesn’t look like it’s moving in the Senate either. It’s getting late.”

Meanwhile, legislators have had no updates on the progress of the negotiations. "It's very quiet,'' Weatherford said. 



Plan to divide shared FSU-FAMU engineering program sparks debate


A behind-the-scenes effort to divide an engineering program shared by Florida State University and Florida A&M University is igniting a lingering debate about racial inequality and how state resources are allocated in higher education.

State Sen. Joe Negron says the plan will allow the universities' "good" joint College of Engineering to morph into "great" individual programs. FAMU would keep the existing building on a remote part of FSU's campus and current state funding; FSU would get $13 million to begin the multi-year process of creating a new program in a new building.

"The important thing for FAMU is there is no reduction whatsoever for the College of Engineering at FAMU, they will continue to be funded at the current level," Negron, R-Stuart, said.

According to the Board of Governors, FAMU had 369 engineering students in undergraduate and graduate programs in 2013 and FSU had 2,142.

FAMU opposes the measure and so does Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who believes the historically black university and its supporters are being forced to fight the same battles they lost nearly 50 years ago.

Read more here.

While Florida halts SAVE non-citizen voter purge, other states proceed ahead

Think the use of SAVE to search for non-citizen voters is dead? Perhaps in Florida, but not elsewhere.

While Florida recently scrapped using SAVE to search for non-citizen voters this year, Colorado and Maricopa County, Arizona continue to use that federal data to check voter registration eligibility -- and more states appear poised to join that list.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced last week that he would delay his second round of searching for non-citizen voters due to changes underway to the federal SAVE website that won’t be done before the 2014 election.

Detzner’s purge shortly before the presidential election in 2012 was criticized by election supervisors who said it was sloppy, rife with errors and poorly timed. The state started with a list of 180,000 potential noncitizens and later pared it to about 2,600 and then to 198. In the end, about 85 were removed.

In 2013, Detzner went on a statewide tour to visit county election officials and promise a much more effective process using the SAVE data. He dubbed the second round “Project Integrity.”

But in March, Detzner said as a result of DHS making changes to the SAVE website he had decided to delay the project. DHS finished the first phase of the website changes in February and is planning for the next phase -- but the website continues to remain operational. Unrelated to SAVE, this week a federal appeals court ruled that the 2012 purge was illegal because it was done too close to election day.

The Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler continues to use SAVE despite the website changes.  

Colorado signed an agreement to access SAVE in August 2012 and started using it for voter registration purposes shortly thereafter. A spokesman for the Secretary of State, Andrew Cole, told us in an email that their office hasn’t had any issues with the SAVE website “and do not plan on halting our checks as a result of the changes to the website.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many non-citizens have been removed from Colorado’s voter rolls as a result of SAVE. Since 2008, Colorado has removed 622 noncitizens from the voter rolls -- but that includes a few years before the state started using SAVE for that purpose, Gessler spokesman Richard Coolidge said. At least 55 voters identified through SAVE searches sent letters back to the state asking that they be removed from the voter rolls. (Gessler has faced heat for the purge.)

In 2005, Maricopa County in Arizona became the first such agency to access SAVE for voter registration purposes, DHS previously told PolitiFact.

“We have not halted the use of the SAVE program and the DHS website continually goes through updates but it has never affected our ability to check citizenship status for prospective voters in Maricopa County,” Jasper Altaha, who works for the Maricopa County Elections Department said in an email. “We only use the SAVE program on the front end when a voter first registers to vote; we don’t use the SAVE program to remove voters from the voter rolls.”

Virginia and North Carolina only recently gained access to SAVE and haven’t started using it yet for voter registration while Iowa is awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.


From the Miami Herald archives, a tale about Carlton Moore

An interesting anecdote about Carlton Moore -- the former Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner who died today -- from a Feb. 3, 1985 Miami Herald article shortly after he became the local NAACP president:

During a meeting with Fort Lauderdale Mayor Robert Dressler, Moore sat patiently while other blacks complained mildly about trash, abandoned houses and drug dealers in their neighborhoods.

Then it was Moore's turn. He blasted Dressler for the city's neglect of its black neighborhoods.

He had his say, then walked out.

"I felt (Dressler's meeting with black residents) was a political stunt, and I didn't want to accept it," said Moore, relaxing in a recliner in his modest Fort Lauderdale duplex.

"The mayor doesn't have a white leaders' meeting. Why do we need a black leaders' meeting? What we want is to be part of the mainstream."

As for walking out, Moore said he wasn't angry. He had to rush to another appointment.

Gaetz pushes open records bill, but for whom?


Senate President Don Gaetz is no ally of trial lawyers.

Since joining the Legislature in 2006, Gaetz has consistently tried to limit damage awards, which also limits lawyers' fees.

Just last year, the Panhandle Republican, who made his fortune in the hospice industry, supported a bill shielding hospitals from liability and limiting expert witness testimony in medical malpractice cases.

But this year, Gaetz's priorities include SB 1648, which could improve business for attorneys specializing in public records law suits, a group that includes a person close to Gaetz.

His son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

Read story here.

Charlie Crist gets an endorsement from a prominent Tampa philanthropist -- who's a Republican

David Straz, a retired banker and one of Tampa Bay's most prominent philanthropists, endorsed Charlie Crist for governor on Wednesday.

"I intend to support him a a big way," said Straz, a Republican and former Rick Scott supporter said inside the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.

"It is the responsibility of each of us to give back to our communities," said Straz, who contributed an estimated $25-million to the Performing ArtsCenter. "Unfortunaly some outsiders come to Florida and just take. Rick Scott took from Floridians as a CEO and he is still taking from our state. He took away high speed transportation and jobs from the city of Tampa. He wanted to take away $4.8-billion from education and he took away access to affordable health care for 1.1-million Floridians."

Crist gave his own blistering assessment of Gov. Scott, contrasting Scott's business experience to Straz's.

"David's a businessman. We've got a guy in the governor's mansion who calls himself a businessman - but not a good one in my humble opinion," Crist said. " You all know the story. His company had to pay the largest fine for Medicare fraud in the history of the United States of America at the time - $1.7-billion. What kind of company was it? It was a health care company, HCA Columbia. And what did they do? They took money from poor people. They upcoded. You know what upcoding is? It's a fancy word that means they charged too much. when you charge too much you're stealing. And you're stealing from sick people, and that's wrong. I can't believe he's governor. But in seven months we can fix it and get Florida back on track."

About the auto registration fees that went up with Crist in charge and now are dropping under Scott's leadership, Crist made no apologies.

"We had to get through a tough time, and sometimes you have to make difficult decisions. The fees went up on automobiles and we got through a time time. And we saved thousands of teachers jobs, law enforcement officers' jobs, firefighters' jobs. We maintained a decent economy that was struggling worse than it ever had since the Great Depression itself, and as a result before I left office we were starting to turn around Florida's economy. I'm very proud of that."

- Adam C. Smith, Tampa Bay Times

Mud slinging slows Miami-Dade sewer contract


The muck continues to fly in a months-long fight between two firms competing to oversee $1.6 billion in federally mandated repairs to Miami-Dade County’s dilapidated sewers.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration has already negotiated a still-undisclosed agreement with AECOM Technical Services. But Gimenez has yet to make a formal recommendation to county commissioners, who must ultimately award the contract, pending the completion of reviews by the mayor’s staff and by the Miami-Dade inspector general.

The additional scrutiny follows a slew of complaints by CH2M Hill, the second-ranked bidder, which has alleged AECOM misrepresented its qualifications to a selection committee. AECOM says the accusations are rubbish.

A federal judge must still sign the mandate, known as a consent decree, requiring Miami-Dade to upgrade its deteriorated pipes. U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno suggested tweaks to the mandate last month.

More here.

What's in a name, Governor? It was 'Diane Roberts'

Was it just a slip of the tongue by Gov. Rick Scott? Or were his thoughts elsewhere Wednesday morning?

As he prepared to sign the auto tag fee reduction law into effect, Scott -- working from prepared remarks -- singled out the legislators who helped make it happen, such as Reps. Mike Hill and Marti Coley. He then got into hot water when he mentioned the tax collectors who were present.

"Diane Roberts," Scott said at the bill signing, televised on the Florida Channel.

Diane Roberts?

The tax collector who was standing behind Scott was Diane Nelson, the long-time Pinellas County tax collector and president of a statewide tax collectors' group (she has worked at the agency 47 years). Diane Roberts is the academic and commentator whose scheduled talk on the environment at a state-owned museum was abruptly cancelled late last week by Scott's administration, creating a major stir on social media.

But back to Scott's introductions. The next tax collector Scott mentioned was "Carole Jean Johnson." That would be Carole Jean Jordan of Indian River County, who has been a fixture in Republican politics and is a former state GOP chairwoman.


State worker quits to protest 'censorship' at museum

UPDATE, 5 p.m. Wednesday: Secretary of State Ken Detzner said in a statement he contacted Diane Roberts and "she has agreed to speak on the topic of her choosing in the future." Detzner's statement added he learned of a staffer's resignation and said: "I plan to reach out to everyone involved to determine if everything was handled appropriately and ensure appropriate protocols were followed." Roberts said she would be "delighted" to give a talk. "He apologized, he was as nice as he could be. He told me about 400 times how much he values water," she said.

A graduate student at Florida State University who worked at the state-run Mission San Luis quit her job Tuesday in protest of the Department of State's decision to abruptly cancel a talk featuring FSU professor Diane Roberts.

Roberts, a scholar, writer and public radio commentator, has been an outspoken critic of Gov. Rick Scott's administration. The state abruptly cancelled her scheduled April 3 lecture on the subject of problems with Florida's lakes, springs and rivers.

Jessica Kindrick, 24, had an $11-an-hour job at the state-run museum. She said she decided to quit after a tense verbal exchange Tuesday with the mission's director, Robert Blount. "He said something along the lines of, 'If you have a serious problem with this then you probably should go ahead and resign. You've made a target of yourself,'^" Kindrick said. She also said Blount asked her if she had "a death wish."

Kindrick had anonymously posted highly critical comments of the controversy on a blog on the social media forum reddit.com under the headline "Rick Scott's cronies politically censor Tallahassee, FL museum lecture." Kindrick wrote: "As a museum professional, I am appalled and disgusted by this blatant political maneuvering at the expense of my, and my institution's, integrity and desire nothing more than to see this come to light."

Kindrick is completing her master's degree work at FSU in museum and cultural heritage studies. She has worked for the state since last June, and said she planned to leave at the end of the summer to take a teaching job in her home state of Texas.

Department of State spokeswoman Brittany Lesser has not yet responded to Times/Herald questions about Kindrick's resignation.