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Amid a flurry of hometown spending, budget deal done

Monday, April 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The final touches to a roughly $75 billion state budget were settled Monday by House and Senate negotiators, clearing the way for an on-time finish this week to the 2014 Legislature.

A $1.2 billion surplus from the state’s improving economy eased spending decisions by budget-writers as they raced toward Friday’s session-end deadline.

But the extra cash also allowed lawmakers to steer millions of state dollars toward hometown projects – for arts programs, social services, water projects and college buildings. Many likely face the threat of Gov. Rick Scott’s veto pen.

“The budget isn’t about numbers, it’s about values and priorities,” said Senate Budget Chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, telegraphing a theme lawmakers will likely use in urging Scott to go light on vetoes this election year.

Negron and his House counterpart, Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, worked through the weekend settling a host of education, health care, transportation and environmental issues that had divided the two sides.

Among the last issues settled Monday were spending for college and university construction and almost $74 million scattered across some 200 water projects across the state.

In the mix, $6 million for Palm Beach State College’s long-sought Loxahatchee Groves campus – vetoed three times in recent years by Scott and his predecessor, Gov. Charlie Crist – and several wastewater projects in Belle Glade, Riviera Beach and Royal Palm Beach.

Negron advice on budget talks: ‘Don’t leave the Capitol’

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Millions of dollars in hometown water projects along with money for cleanup of the Everglades and troubled Indian River Lagoon were among the big ticket issues separating House and Senate budget negotiators as they worked toward a midnight deadline Wednesday.

The bottom-line for public schools and terms of the state’s plan to distribute $200 million in performance incentives to Florida’s 12 public universities still separates the two sides, working since Monday on reaching a consensus $75 billion budget for 2014-15.

The dozens of issues that are certain to remain unsettled will be handed over to House budget chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, and his Senate counterpart, Joe Negron, R-Stuart, on Thursday. They’ll begin more deal-making that will stretch through the weekend.

“One thing you learn when you get to Tallahassee is you don’t leave the Capitol building the weekend before session ends, because one of your projects may have been traded for someone who is still in the Capitol,” Negron said. “We’ll be working over the weekend and, of course, the presiding officers will have the last word on the budget.”

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, have until Tuesday to button-up the spending plan. That would start the clock on the state’s constitutionally required 72-hour waiting period preceding a May 2 vote, the session’s final scheduled day.

The House spends $13 million more than the Senate on three-dozen local water projects, including money sought for work in Palm Beach County. The House also spends $12 million more than the Senate on freshwater springs protection — but the overall level on both sides still falls short of what Gov. Rick Scott wants.

Work on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee — close to Negron’s home district — draws at least $82 million in the Senate, but would get nothing in the House spending plan. Scores of differences also remain on hometown projects close to top lawmakers, including cash for theaters, schools, and social service programs.

“Some of the projects will fall out during conference, some will be added,” Negron said.

Budget talks open, with Gaetz calling for “businesslike schedule”

Monday, April 21st, 2014 by John Kennedy

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz kicked off budget negotiations between the two sides Monday, predicting mostly smooth and swift-running talks toward completing a roughly $75 billion election-year spending plan.

The House and Senate have about a week to complete a process that usually takes at least twice that time. Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the Legislature’s absence last week for the Passover-Easter holidays will force a “very businesslike schedule” for the session’s homestretch.

“This is not a partisan exercise,” Gaetz said. “We’re in this together.”

The session is scheduled to end May 2. But because the constitution requires that the final budget proposal sit for 72 hours before a vote takes place, Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said an agreement is likely needed to be reached by next Tuesday.

A tax-and-fee cut package of $500 million, also sought by Gov. Rick Scott, has been agreed-on, although details of about $100 million worth of givebacks still must be settled. Public school dollars are close, with a per-pupil increase of about 3 percent likely.

But spending on dozens of hometown projects and big-ticket environmental proposals like Everglades restoration, waterway and springs cleanup loom as some of the biggest differences between the two sides.

The House and Senate approved dueling budgets earlier this month that now must be reconciled.  Both sides topped the $74.2 billion blueprint Gov. Rick Scott rolled out in January.

The Senate would spend $74.8 billion, while the House weighs in at $75.3 billion. Each would prove the largest spending plans in state history.

In a year of budget plenty, waiting lists for elderly, disabled trimmed only a little

Sunday, April 13th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Despite a year of plenty for state lawmakers, with overall spending almost certain to hit record levels, relatively meager increases proposed for elderly and disabled programs do little to scale back the massive backlog of Floridians seeking aid.

The state’s waiting lists for elderly long-term health services, community care, Alzheimer’s Disease assistance and help for people with disabilities would shrink by only modest percentages, despite a $1.2 billion surplus of state revenue fueling rival $75 billion House and Senate budget proposals.

Lawmakers are touting this year’s plan to spend roughly $37 million to reduce the number of elderly Floridians awaiting services. But legislators acknowledge the line won’t really be shortened by much.

With the nation’s largest number of people over age 65, Florida has a 9,000-person waiting list for community care services that help keep the elderly in their homes. Advocates say the number of people seeking services could actually be more than three times that.

But in its budget, House is looking to take 751 people off the waiting list; the Senate would add 601 Floridians for care.

Either way, less than 10 percent of those seeking coverage will gain services.

“This is penny-wise and pound-foolish not to spend more,” said David Bruns, spokesman for AARP-Florida. “The cost of people going into nursing homes is so much more. But (legislators) are taking such a small step.”

Full story here:  bit.ly/1kUJURa

 

House and Senate budgets roll out — topping Scott’s blueprint

Friday, March 21st, 2014 by John Kennedy

The House unveiled it’s 2014-15 state budget proposal Friday, following the Senate’s release a day earlier and setting the legislative session on course for the homestretch haggling.

Both proposals top the $74.2 billion blueprint Gov. Rick Scott rolled out in January. The Senate would spend $74.8 billion, while the House weighs in at $75.3 billion. Each would prove the largest spending plans in state history.

In an election year, lawmakers usually look favorably on school spending and this year’s no different. Still, neither hit the $1 billion increases that marked the last two years of state spending following a $1.3 billion cut for schools during Scott’s first year as governor.

While Scott earlier recommended a $542 million boost for K-12, the Senate is calling for a $651 million boost and the House $740.8 million more. The Legislature has been helped by new revenue projections, which fattened the state’s budget surplus to $1.2 billion.

The per-pupil increase of 3 percent in the House surpasses the 2.5 percent Scott called for, and the 2.6 percent emerging from the Senate.

Still, the per-pupil amount next year still looks certain to be a couple hundred dollars below the record $7,126 achieved in 2007-08, before the state’s economy tanked with the recession.

Legislature’s budget work begins, flush with cash and kumbaya

Thursday, March 13th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The Florida House took the first step toward crafting the 2014-15 state budget Thursday by allocating lump-sum dollars to various subcommittees who soon will start making line-by-line spending recommendations.

There are few surprises.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, hinted that his chamber was closely aligned with Rick Scott’s push for at least $500 million in tax-and-fee reductions and virtually the same $542 million increase in school spending sought by the governor. The $1.2 billion in budget reserves set aside also is about the same as the current year.

“Due to improved economic conditions and the continued fiscal constraint of the Legislature, our state is well on the road to financial recovery,” Weatherford said in a statement accompanying the budget allocations.

“It remains vitally important to maintain the disciplined fiscal principles that led us to where we are today but also recognize that the state can now afford to return revenues to the taxpayer in addition to funding state priorities,” he added.

Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, have acknowledged they are seeking to avoid political drama this session, just months before a pivotal election in which the Republican Party’s 16-year command of the governor’s office could be in jeopardy.

Spending decisions also were made easier Wednesday when state economists increased by $150 million the amount of projected revenue that is available to dole out next year.

Finally, the kumbaya was complete when both sides Thursday came to virtual agreement on a $400 million reduction in motorist fees first recommended by Scott. The Senate had been promoting a smaller cut — about $230 million — but, like the House and governor, came around to the higher figure.

“I’m pleased that as the bill moved through the committee process, we gained support within the Senate to increase the amount and scope of this needed reduction in fees,” said Senate Budget Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart. ” I’m grateful to Gov. Scott and our colleagues in the House for their leadership on this important issue.”

 

House budget panel advances idea of tech czar

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The House budget committee Wednesday approved creating a new chief information officer for the state of Florida, consolidating a range of hardware and software  duties under a tech czar reporting to the governor.

The state currently spends $733 million annually on information technology without significant coordination, said Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland. Most agencies operate their own data centers and critics say the current set-up is costlier to taxpayers and has led to some major department misfires.

The state’s Department of Economic Opportunity has been battling with technology giant Deloitte Consulting LLP over the state’s $63 million unemployment web site, problem-plagued since its debut last October. While a high-profile tech snafu, DEO’s woes aren’t alone.

A state technology contract for recouping Medicaid overpayments also has been troubled in recent years. Even the Legislature has spent heavily on public information websites it later scrapped.

Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, said the state not having a centralized technology department is laughable — something, he said that private companies in the 1980s saw a need for. Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, also said the $70 billion-plus state government demands more efficiency.

“I can’t imagine a business the size of this business that doesn’t have an IT governance structure,” Baxley said.

The House proposal, labeled a priority by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, would create a 27-person Agency for State Technology, whose executive director would report directly to the governor. First-year costs would be $3.2 million.

The Senate is looking at a similar proposal.

While it would seem to place a huge volume of technology contracts more directly under the governor, lawmakers from both parties praised the approach.

Indeed, McKeel sounded the only sour notes Wednesday — saying that he was so frustrated by the actions of the state’s Department of Management Services, that he wanted them removed from the sole authority of Gov. Rick Scott and placed under the control of the governor and Cabinet.

DMS, the state’s main purchasing agent, has run afoul of McKeel on several issues, including the technology proposal. While McKeel withdrew his amendment redirecting authority of the agency Wednesday, he warned that he may make another attempt if DMS doesn’t shape up.

Slosberg wants Scott to declare emergency in parts of Palm Beach County

Friday, January 17th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A Palm Beach County lawmaker is asking Gov. Rick Scott to call a state of emergency for parts of Delray Beach and Boynton Beach flooded during last weeks’ torrential rainstorm.

“The disastrous consequences has caused roads and schools to close, and has devastated my district and the lives of my constituents,” Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, wrote in a letter to Scott.”

Hundreds of homes were so flooded that many of my constituents have been left homeless. My district is home to a large senior citizen community and unfortunately many of these people do not have automobile or flood insurance.,” he added.

Slosberg concluded, “My constituents are the people that built this great nation, and it is shameful to see them left out in the dark in this time of need.”

It may not be that easy.

Evan Rosenberg, bureau chief of recovery for the state’s Division of Emergency Management, told the Post that Palm Beach County did not seek any state aid stemming from the floods Martin County did submit a request for the federal Small Business Administration to help residents in the Woodbridge Mobile Home Park in Hobe Sound.

But Rosenberg said the 20 units damaged there by winds did not reach the federal qualifying threshhold of 25 residences damaged which is needed to allow for aid.

Similarly, roughly $26 million in damage to roads, schools and other public facilities is considered the minimum level needed in Florida to qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency support. Rosenberg said that only St. Lucie County reported significant public damage – and that amounted to one road.

 

With cash on hand, Scott recommends boosting transportation spending

Monday, January 13th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Keeping with a theme, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday said he plans to propose an increase in state transportation spending when he unveils his state budget plan in coming weeks.

Scott last week announced he was looking to boost spending on tourism to $100 million, up from $63 million currently. In transportation, in an event at the Port of Jacksonville, Scott said Monday that he’ll recommend $8.8 billion in state spending — a $200 million boost from the 2013-14 budget.

Within the set-aside, Scott said $138.9 million should go to seaport improvements.

“From construction jobs to increased trade opportunities, transportation projects provide tremendous job and economic benefit,” Scott said. “This investment will enable our state to remain competitive for many years to come.”

After years of budget cutting, Florida is on track for a $1.1 billion surplus in the coming election year. Scott looks poised to spread the cash around, having already recommend $500 million in tax and fee cuts.

State withholds $3 million payment over flawed Connect site

Friday, December 20th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration said Friday it’s withholding a $3 million payment to consulting giant Deloitte for the state’s problem-plagued Connect website, which has frustrated thousands of Floridians seeking jobless benefits.

Scott’s chief of the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity also said he is instituting a $15,000-a-day penalty against Deloitte Consulting for failing to deliver a fully functioning system.

“While Deloitte has made progress over the last few weeks and many claimants are able to process claims without incident, the bottom line is that the overall system is still not working properly,” said Jesse Panuccio, DEO’s executive director.

The $63 million website debuted Oct. 15.  Since then, more than 950,000 claims have been filed and more than $272 million has been paid to claimants, DEO said.

But frustrated users also have filled Facebook, Twitter and Scott’s email inbox with complaints about online malfunctions and help lines that leave them on hold for hours.

“Ten weeks of money that belongs to my husband being held up in lala land because no one knows what they’re doing,” Jessica Minafo Ryan said last week, in a posting on DEO’s Facebook account.

With tax receipts rising, Florida’s treasury a little fatter for election year

Friday, December 6th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Tax collections are flowing into the state treasury at a faster clip than expected, giving Florida lawmakers an extra $321.4 million to spend next year, economists said Friday.

After six years of budget-cutting, this year’s $74.1 billion blueprint was the first where Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature didn’t face a shortfall.

But sales tax receipts have spiked over the past few months, powering the extra cash heading into a 2014 election year where the state of Florida’s economy looms as a central campaign theme.

Still, economists were cautious with their praise.

“It’s very modest, but it’s definitely positive,” said Amy Baker, coordinator for the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research and part of the panel that made Fridays’ forecast.

Full story here:   http://bit.ly/19nkiFV

 

Larry Fuchs, longtime revenue director and critic, dead at 71

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013 by John Kennedy

Larry Fuchs, who served as Florida Revenue Director under four governors, died Friday in Tallahassee. He was 71.

Fuchs led the Revenue Department as an interim director in 1990, returning full-time in 1992 through 1999. He retired from state government the next year.

Fuchs was a plain spoken critic of the state’s tax system, complaining that it had grown increasingly inadequate in meeting the needs of a fast-growing and evolving economy. While most agency heads shun the spotlight — especially in matters that could put their bosses in controversial spots — Fuchs seemed to enjoy shaking things up.

Fuchs famously posed on the cover of Florida Trend magazine in 1999 with his pants pockets pulled out under a headline that read, “We’re Broke.”

At the time, Fuchs was warning that commerce was migrating to the Internet even as the state continued to rely on a sales tax system that takes in less than it exempts.

Fast-forward, and Fuchs’ screed still sounds fresh. In the last budget year, Florida collected $20.3 billion in sales tax revenue, while exempting $29.3 billion in goods and services from tax.  In addition, an estimated $450 million in Internet sales also went untaxed.

Fuchs, though, was mindful of the political realities in a state led by fiscal conservatives. Term limits also shorten the horizon, keeping most lawmakers from considering  big change.

In a story last year in the Palm Beach Post he acknowledged, “”I’m a notorious cynic, but I don’t see anything right now that can possibly force change.”

In retirement, Fuchs became a well-known fine art photographer. He also was president of the board of a Tallahassee arts center, where he put his revenue skills to work in guiding it through a financial crisis.

Scott unveils three-point budget agenda for election year

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott put out a three-point plan Tuesday that he says will guide his state budget proposals heading into next spring, an election year.

Scott’s top item was unveiled earlier this summer — a $500 million reduction in state taxes and fees. But the Republican governor is following that up with a pledge to continue reducing the state’s debt and the size of government.

Scott dubbed the outline the “It’s Your Money Tax Cut” agenda. The narrative that stretches the three bullet points across six pages includes plenty of pronouncements that fit neatly into next year’s campaign.

“Since taking office, Gov. Scott has insisted on a new way of doing business: the government of the state of Florida must make decisions with Floridians’ tax dollars the way Florida families would if they were sitting around their own kitchen tables,” the agenda reads. “Just as families would do, Gov. Scott has made decisions that respect the difficulty of earning a living.”

The aspirational goals Scott settles on are largely built on steps he has taken his first three years in office.

Scott has reduced state borrowing by slowing environmental land purchases and school maintenance projects, reducing debt by $3.5 billion from a record high $28.2 billion in 2010. Tax and fee cutting also has been a central part of every one of Scott’s budget proposals, although lawmakers have scaled back each year’s recommendation.

One element of Scott’s outline that may be fresh: He wants state agencies to reduce their spending by $100 million in the coming year. Since last October, the governor’s office says state agencies already have identified $146.3 million in cost savings, mostly through renegotiating contracts.

“In business, Gov. Scott knew that companies had to become more efficient and reduce costs for better services by 2 to 3 percent each year to remain competitive,” the agenda states. “Taxpayers deserve no different from the government that they fund.”

Lawmakers poised to pour more money into fight to save rivers

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013 by John Kennedy

A legislative panel is poised to approve spending almost $2.8 million more in coming months to improve pump stations vital to stemming the flow of polluted water to the troubled St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

The state’s Legislative Budget Commission is expected Thursday to give state environmental regulators and the South Florida Water Management District authority to spend the money for what the agencies call “short-term policies.”

Nutrient-rich water from Lake Okeechobee has been flowing into the rivers, killing oysters and sea grass and causing a toxic algae outbreak that has forced Martin County health officials to warn residents against coming into contact with the water.

Environmental officials say that improving the pumping stations and storing water on public lands across the region should ease the flow of dirty water into the rivers. The project also could more safely divert Lake Okeechobee water south into the Everglades National Park and out into Florida Bay, officials said.

A heavy rainy season has forced state and federal officials to struggle to keep Lake Okeechobee water levels low to avoid adding pressure to an aged, 143-mile dike that separates the big lake from surrounding farms and residences.

Petersen named to web task force

Monday, August 26th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Barbara Petersen, longtime president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, the news organization-backed open government advocacy group, was named Monday to a legislative panel examining public access to state  records and contracts.

Petersen was Senate President Don Gaetz’s pick for the four-person User Experience Task Force, which is expected to make recommendations for next spring’s Legislature. The task force is working on methods to consolidate existing state-managed websites into a single portal that will give the public access to state financial documents.

“Barbara Peterson is Florida’s respected guardian of open records, open meetings and open government,” Gaetz said. “Her leadership of the First Amendment Foundation gives credibility and reliability to this important work.”

The task force has grown out of questions stemming from the Florida Senate’s $5 million contract with Spider Data Services, which developed a site dubbed Transparency 2.0 to give legislators and staff a window into the budget, state contracts and personnel services. The system was ready to launch in November 2011 but was never unveiled.

The Senate has been in a legal battle with Spider Data over payment on the contract.

The Senate has said there are problems with the service and has concerns about how the contract was reached under the previous administration of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne. But some open government advocates say Spider Data’s site may have proved a too open window into how items get inserted into the state budget by lawmakers.

 

Wilkins out at DCF, ending tenure which began and ended in storm

Thursday, July 18th, 2013 by John Kennedy

David Wilkins, who drew praise for guiding Florida’s Department of Children & Families through an investigation into the death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona in West Palm Beach and lately has been fending off criticism following a wave of child deaths, resigned Thursday.

Gov. Rick Scott appointed Esther Jacobo, a managing director in DCF’s South Florida region, as interim chief.

“David did a great job in leading the state’s top child protection agency and his service is deeply appreciated,” Scott said. “I have no doubt that Esther will increase accountability in the department and enhance child protective services in order to protect the most vulnerable among us.”

Scott said Wilkins planned to focus on private sector opportunities and a foundation that he leads. Wilkins was an executive with Accenture, Inc., a worldwide technology vendor that contracts heavily with the state before becoming finance director of Florida Baptist Children’s Home.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, criticized the agency for its actions in four children’s deaths since mid-May and scheduled a September hearing into the matter in Tallahassee.

“No child should die because of abuse and neglect,” Sobel said earlier this month.”Especially if the state goes in and investigates. That’s unacceptable.”

Wilkins, however, was credited with steadying the agency in the months after his 2011 appointment when he organized a task force to probe DCF’s role in the Barahona case. The girl’s body had been found in February on Interstate-95 in West Palm Beach, wrapped in plastic and in the bed of her adopted father’s pickup truck.

An investigation revealed she had suffered a lifetime of abuse at the hands of her adoptive parents, Jorge and Carmen Barahona, who were were indicted on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse and neglect.

The panel probing the case labeled DCF’s performance as “inept.” Wilkins defended overworked and underpaid staffers at the agency, but also vowed to change its culture. He said too many child-care workers were ill-trained and that the agency suffered from high-turnover, a decades-long problem at DCF.

Wilkins’ latest initiative called for new training of 5,000 staffers and a push to put more technology in their hands to monitor cases.

Earlier this month, Wilkins wrote a piece for the Tallahassee Democrat saying his new program was aimed at creating a holistic, multi-discipline approach to preventing child abuse.

“Our focus will shift to assessing the full family functioning to understand the dynamics and set the stage for identifying needs that will keep the children safe,” he wrote.

“Our investigators and case managers are being trained to engage the whole family in the process to teach them to make better decisions and, when necessary to keep the child safe, remove hildren from dangerous situations.”

Bonus program approved, despite concern it costs Florida’s environment

Friday, June 28th, 2013 by John Kennedy

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection was authorized Friday to distribute almost $600,000 in bonuses to 269 employees as a reward for improving efficiency and saving$8.8 million in taxpayer money over the past year.

But Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, derided the bonus system as flawed, warning it effectively rewarded state regulators for approving environmental permits more quickly — comprosing the underlying mission of the agency.

“These types of bonuses may impact decision-making when we are putting in incentives to speed up the approval process,” Pafford told the Legislative Budget Commission.

Pafford said the bonus program is troubling given Gov. Rick Scott’s environmental record, which he said favors job-creating industries over protecting water bodies and greenways.

Since taking office in 2011, Scott has signed legislation which cut water management district budgets, resulting in the wholesale layoff of regulators. Scott also eliminated the state’s Department of Community Affairs and sharply scaled back growth management standards, undoing many that had been in place since 1985.

Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, defended the department’s approach. Negron said DEP was seeking approval to use an existing state agency incentive and savings program that had nothing to do with hurrying-up permits.

Negron said DEP had successfully taken steps to assure regulatory actions were taken “in a timely manner.” He pointed out that he, too, would share Pafford’s concerns if improving efficiency meant reducing department standards.

“The way this is drafted, it will not create incentives for specific outcomes,” Negron said.

The measure was approved by the budget commission, an arm of the Legislature, with Pafford the lone vote against the proposal.

DEP deputy secretary Jeff Littlejohn said that 269 employees out of 1,600 in the agency are eligible for the bonuses, which will range from just under $1,000 to about $5,000. The checks are likely to be distributed in August, Littlejohn said.

 

State officials seek congressional probe of Labor Dept. over feds’ findings

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration pushed back Wednesday against the U.S. Department of Labor over the federal agency’s finding that 2011 changes to the state’s unemployment compensation system discriminate against minorities and the disabled.

The state’s Department of Economic Opportunity wrote to U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, calling for an investigation into what it claimed is the “potential politicization” of the Labor Department.

The letter from Robert Sechen, DEO’s general counsel, concluded that Labor investigators “collaborated with the political group that filed the complaint” over the state’s requirement that those seeking benefits file online and complete a skills test.

In April, the Labor Department reached an “initial determination” that the state effectively violated the civil rights of laid-off workers by installing a system difficult to navigate.

“In this case, this flawed process has resulted in a federal agency recklessly maligning the reputations of hundreds of hard-working state employees, who come to work each day to fulfill a mission of helping unemployed Floridians get back to work,” Sechen wrote Wednesday.

The DEO move seems partially inspired by the increasing focus on other agencies under President Obama, including the Internal Revenue Service, accused of political activity for targeting conservative organizations for closer scrutiny. The U.S. Justice Department also is under the microscope for seizing phone records from the Associated Press.

In the Florida case, the The National Employment Law Project, Florida Legal Services and Miami Workers Center challenged Florida’s law in 2011, charging that sweeping changes to how Florida workers must file claims denied unemployment checks to thousands of eligible Floridians.

Critics also said that workers’ frustration with the system could be aiding Scott’s goal of reducing unemployment. Some workers may abandon their job search or just leave the state, falling out of Florida’s labor market.

The state in recent weeks entered into negotiations with the federal government to reach voluntary compliance with the ruling. It also put in place remedies to make unemployment insurance available to job-seekers unable to complete online claim requirements.

But Sechen on Wednesday said Labor officials have since been trying to “coerce” the state into acknowledging “each and every finding in USDOL’s flawed investigation.” Sechen said it was time for Congress to investigate the agency he accused of using tactics ”improper, retaliatory, intimidating and…far below acceptable standards of conduct.”

Val Greenfield, an attorney with Florida Legal Services, said Wednesday that her organization has had limited contact with Labor Department investigators. Since the April finding, negotiations have been conducted solely between the state and federal officials, she said.

“We were very surprised by this letter,” Greenfield said. “We are completely unaware of any bias in this investigation. But this action is very disappointing for Florida workers.”

Scott readies for budget signing, with Palm Beach State cash on fence

Monday, May 20th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott is scheduled to sign the state budget into law shortly after noon today, likely trimming back the $74.5 billion spending plan approved by lawmakers with a few million dollars worth of vetoes.

A 3 percent tuition hike for college and university students already looks doomed. Scott’s staff has leaked to a wire service details about the governor’s intention to veto the increase — which he has signaled for months.

In Palm Beach County, much of the focus is on the fate of $6.5 million approved for Palm Beach State College to begin work on a new Loxahatchee Groves campus. Scott vetoed money for the western campus two years ago — as did former Gov. Charlie Crist before him. But college officials hope the third time proves the charm for the campus cash.

PBSC last fall spent $4.5 million finalizing the purchase of land for the new site. Supporters think that could make a difference when it comes to dodging the governor’s veto pen.

“Hopefully, this is the year,” PBSC spokeswoman Grace Truman told the Palm Beach Post last week.

Scott vetoed $142.7 million in spending last year, a year after he set a record by vetoing $615 million just months after taking office. The state budget year begins July 1.

DCF looks to limit fraud by asking a few questions

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Losing millions of dollars in benefits to fraud, the Florida Department of Children & Families said Tuesday it is installing a new system requiring those getting services to answer a series of questions to verify their identity.

DCF Secretary David Wilkins said the $5 million program could save as much as $90 million a year in lost benefits.

“This is how big corporations manage their data,” Wilkins said.

DCF has been using an electonic benefits transfer (EBT) debit cards for about a decade. About 90 percent of applicants for food stamps, medicine- and cash-assistance programs apply online, a percentage that has steadily increased over the years.

But so, too, has fraud, Wilkins said.

“Florida has the highest per capita rate of identify theft in the country,” he said, with DCF benefits a top item in the target-rich environment.

Florida has been slow to enact verification efforts commonly used by banks, online retailers and other providers because federal officials have been reluctant to green-light anything that could interfere with a client receiving benefits, officials said. But the new system, whose vendors are LexisNexis Group and Acuity, has proved successful in a pilot test conducted by DCF the past few months in the Orlando area.

But the pilot also resulted in some shocking revelations, officials acknowledged.

“We found three times more fraud than we anticipated in our business plan,” Wilkens said.

The Legislature last month approved a measure also aimed at cracking down on electronic benefits, imposing new restrictions on where those receiving temporary assistance to needy families (TANF) can use their cards.

The measure prohibits EBT cards from being used at liquor stores, gambling locales or places that specialize in adult entertainment, including porn shops.

Florida officials earlier confirmed a 2011 TV news investigation that found that of 1.3 million EBT transactions totaling nearly $202 million over a two-year period in Florida, about $93,000 was drawn at places with liquor licenses, strip clubs or gambling sites.

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