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PIP: Scott ‘arm bending’ works. DLP ‘phoney-baloney’ rant. Negron ‘not a home-and-away’ game.

Friday, March 9th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott scored a huge victory late Friday night when the Florida Senate signed off on a last-ditch effort to crack down on personal injury protection fraud.

By a narrow 21-19 vote, the once-again divided Senate agreed to the compromise language passed earlier this evening by the House, and then passed the measure (HB 119) 22-17.

But the vote elicited rebukes from some senators who wanted the upper chamber to stand its ground and refuse to concur with the proposal – crafted largely by insurance industry lobbyists – in a debate highlighted by a stemwinder by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami.

Diaz de la Portilla, a lawyer, repeatedly called the deal a “phoney baloney” attempt to combat fraud and pilloried the House for bowing to powerful insurance lobbyists and the governor, who made PIP reform his top priority this legislative session. Diaz de la Portilla had convinced the Senate in its version of the PIP reform to keep intact “multipliers” allowing lawyers to be paid escalated fees. The compromise did away with that but, in a concession to the Senate, did not cap attorneys’ fees or set an hourly rate.

Growing more incensed as his rant went on, Diaz de la Portilla said that PIP scams aren’t the real fraud.

“I think the House measure that’s been sent over to us and that we’re being asked to concede to, that’s the fraud. It’s a fraud on the consumers of the state of Florida. It’s a fraud on the people who have to buy these policies by law. It’s a fraud on those who are injured in accidents. It’s a fraud because it basically is the Insurance Company Relief Act of 2012. That’s what it is. That’s exactly what we’re talking about,” Diaz de la Portilla said, referring to the package as “phoney-baloney” at least three times to the delight of a bipartisan group of senators surrounding him.

The compromise does not require a set rate reduction, as the Senate plan did, but requires an actuarial analysis by an independent party to back up a detailed explanation of insurers’ rates if they do not roll back by 10 percent by October and 25 percent by 2014.
Sen. Dennis Jones, a Seminole chiropractor who said he is probably the only senator who actually treated a PIP patient, called the bill a “very, very punitive” measure for chiropractors. Patients will now be limited to $2,500 worth of chiropractic treatment, a change from the 24 visits over three months now allowed.

Gov. Rick Scott scored a huge victory late Friday night when the Florida Senate signed off on a last-ditch effort to crack down on personal injury protection fraud.

By a narrow 21-19 vote, the once-again divided Senate agreed to the compromise language passed earlier this evening by the House, and then passed the measure (HB 119) 22-17.

But the vote elicited rebukes from some senators who wanted the upper chamber to stand its ground and refuse to concur with the proposal – crafted largely by insurance industry lobbyists – in a debate highlighted by a stemwinder by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami.

Diaz de la Portilla, a lawyer, repeatedly called the deal a “phoney baloney” attempt to combat fraud and pilloried the House for bowing to powerful insurance lobbyists and the governor, who made PIP reform his top priority this legislative session. Diaz de la Portilla convinced the Senate in its version of the PIP reform to keep intact “multipliers” allowing lawyers to be paid escalated fees. The compromise did away with that but, in a concession to the Senate, did not cap attorneys’ fees or set an hourly rate.

Growing more incensed as his rant went on, Diaz de la Portilla said that PIP scams aren’t the real fraud.

“I think the House measure that’s been sent over to us and that we’re being asked to concede to, that’s the fraud. It’s a fraud on the consumers of the state of Florida. It’s a fraud on the people who have to buy these policies by law. It’s a fraud on those who are injured in accidents. It’s a fraud because it basically is the Insurance Company Relief Act of 2012. That’s what it is. That’s exactly what we’re talking about,” Diaz de la Portilla said, referring to the package as “phoney-baloney” at least three times to the delight of a bipartisan group of senators surrounding him.

Sen. Dennis Jones, a chiropractor who said he is probably the only senator who actually treated a PIP patient, called the bill a “very, very punitive” measure for chiropractors. Patients will now be limited to $2,500 worth of chiropractic treatment, a change from who will now be limited to $2,500 worth of treatment. The House originally wanted to cut chiros out from PIP treatment altogether.

“I know it’s late and I know you all just want to flush something out and go home,” Jones, R-Seminole, said, adding “You’re making a major, major mistake.”

Scott worked lawmakers especially hard on PIP, stepping up pressure as the clock wound down toward the session end Friday. The governor gave hand-written thank you notes to House and Senate members who voted “yes” on the bill.

But Jones wasn’t on that list, especially after calling out Scott before the vote.

“Most people have had their arms bent or twisted or been down to the governors office two or three times,” Jones said.

Sen. Joe Negron, the Stuart Republican who brokered the deal for the Senate and sponsored the chamber’s trial lawyer-friendlier proposal, rejected his colleague’s criticism that the Senate would be giving up too much by taking the House offer.

It isn’t true “that somehow we’ve been run out of the gym by the House and we shouldn’t concur on their message because we passed our bill and by God our bill is better than their bill,” Negron said. “Anytime you have a bill of this magnitude, you’ve got to make principled compromises and find a middle ground.”

Negron then defended his efforts to keep chiropractors in the mix at all.

“The House wanted to take chiropractors, tie two 50-pound cement blocks to their ankles and drop them over the boat into the bottom of the ocean. And they were never going to be heard from in PIP again. I found that very offensive,” Negron, a lawyer, said.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, a former Senate president who pushed alongside Scott for the overhaul, called Senate critics “dead wrong” about the deal.

“The Senate got all its fraud language. The Senate got all its licensure language. The Senate got room for chiropractic care. The Senate did not cap attorneys fees. The Senate did a fine job. The House was very firm on driving the cost drivers of utilization down. They came together with a really solid compromise,” Atwater said.

Atwater said he’s certain premiums will decrease although the bill does not require it.

“I think they’re going to see when that independent study comes down that they’re going to indicate rates need to be coming down. They need to come down now,” he said.

Anti-abortion measure passes Senate committee, moving in House tomorrow

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Republican legislators are pushing an omnibus anti-abortion measure that revives some of the most controversial portions of proposals left out of a package of anti-abortion bills passed last year and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

The Senate Health Regulation Committee approved the proposal (SB 290) by a 5-2 vote, with a single Republican, Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, joining the lone Democrat on the committee, Sen. Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood, in opposition.

The proposal would impose a 24-hour wait period before women can receive abortions, require that clinics be wholly owned and operated by doctors whose residency was in abortion procedures, bar clinics from advertising that they perform abortions, and make it even more difficult for women to get already-banned and extremely rare third-trimester abortions.

Abortion providers say the changes are aimed at making it harder for women to get abortions.

“That is the real reason for this legislation – to make it even more difficult or impossible for women in Florida to access a full range of reproductive service,” Staci Fox, president of Planned Parenthood of North Florida, which operates five clinics, told the committee.

Jones asked the bill’s sponsor Sen. Anitere Flores whether her proposal would impose burdensome regulations on Florida businesses, something GOP leaders say they want to reduce.

“You’re right. This bill is increasing regulation of abortions,” Flores, R-Miami, said, “because what we’re talking about is a major medical procedure…I do think the state has a very strong purpose in increasing this regulation.”

The bill would also require abortion doctors to take three hours of ethics courses each year, drawing the objection of ACLU of Florida lobbyist Pamela Burch Fort.

The bill is about “shaming women who obtain abortions and shaming physicians who perform those procedures,” Fort said.

An identical bill (HB 277) is up in a House committee Thursday morning. Proponents expect both chambers to sign off on the measures, and Gov. Rick Scott will likely sign them into law if they do.

Sobel offered a series of amendments which she withdrew before they could be rejected, including one which would require a 24-hour wait period before a man could get a vasectomy or a prescription for Viagra.

Prison privatization critics say they will kill the bill on tie vote in Senate Tuesday

Monday, February 13th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A key senator who helped kill an amendment that would have stripped a controversial prison privatization measure and replaced it with a study said he will vote against the measure on Tuesday in what opponents predict will be a tie vote.

“I liked the concept of the study. But I like the idea of just killing the bill better,” said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, one of a gang of nine Republicans who have joined with all but one Democrat whose coalition would kill the measure on a 20-20 vote.

Sen. Paula Dockery, one of the leading GOP senators opposed to the privatization plan (SB 2038), insisted after the 21-19 vote on the amendment late Monday that her coalition will put the issue to rest on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

“We do not lose anybody who’s going to be here to vote. My only concern is does somebody get sick, does somebody whatever. But our 20 are solid, 100 percent, anti-, don’t want this to happen. Twenty very solid votes,” Dockery, R-Lakeland said.

The Senate was originally scheduled to be in session in the morning, but late Monday Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher announced on the floor the session had been postponed until later in the afternoon. Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat, was originally slated to be out of town tomorrow afternoon.

Later Monday evening, Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich said Ring’s travel plans were changed so he could be in the Capitol for the vote.

“He’ll be here,” Rich, D-Weston, said.

Senate to workshop casinos bill next week

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee will hold the first of two three-hour workshop on the destination resorts proposal on Wednesday, committee chairman Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, said.

Jones extended the committee’s usual two-hour meeting time to accomodate the dozens of lobbyists on both sides of the issue expected to speak out on the proposal (SB 710). Business and faith groups have lined up against the proposal while gambling operators from Las Vegas to Malaysia have lined up in support.

“There’s a lot of people that want to speak on this bill,” he said.

Jones said he’ll take 20 minutes of testimony each from those who wish to speak on the issue and allow out-of-towners to go first. He said he expects his committee to vote on the bill sometime before the second week of the 2012 legislative session that begins in early January. Expect to see plenty of amendments before the measure makes it to the floor, Jones predicted.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, is the sponsor of the proposal she says would allow up to three non-tribal casinos to open in Broward and Miami-Dade counties and create a statewide gambling commission. Jones said he thinks her bill is unconstitutional because it would create a monopoly in South Florida with impacts that would be felt in all 67 counties.

The state’s existing racinos – pari-mutuels in South Florida that also offer slot machine gambling – are objecting to the bill’s 10 percent tax rate for the “destination resorts.” The racinos currently pay 35 percent of their revenue in taxes.

Jones said he wants to explore “parity” in taxing and games during the workshops and isn’t convinced the proposed casinos would be getting a better deal under Bogdanoff’s bill.

Casinos would have to agree to invest at least $2 billion in the resorts and are likely to employ 5,000 workers and would be paying $75 million in local property and school taxes, Jones said. Meanwhile, the seven racinos in Broward and Miami-Dade only pay about $2 million in property taxes combined, he said.

“I think it’s a wash,” Jones said. “But that will be one of the things we’ll have to work out in the workshops to see how people feel.”

When is a casino not a casino?

Friday, March 4th, 2011 by Dara Kam

When is a casino not a casino? When it’s billed as a “Destination Resort,” as Sens. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, and Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, have done in a press release announcing legislation that would expand gambling statewide in Florida.

Jones, chairman of the Regulated Industries Committee, and committee vice chairwoman Sachs, are sponsoring a bill that would allow five casinos -one in each part of the state – if local voters approve.

But their 692-word joint press release announcing the “Destination Resorts/Trade Shows” bill (SB 1708) mentions the word “casino” just twice, tucked way down in the details of the measure.

“The possibility of bringing Destination Resorts to Florida includes a host of economic benefits,” Sachs says in the release. “These benefits will manifest themselves in new jobs for our construction industry, tourism, beaches, hospitality, and trades. This new energy and excitement will bring us back to the days when Florida was a mecca for top-notch entertainment and a destination in itself.”

(more…)

Florida Senate signs off on gambling deal

Thursday, April 15th, 2010 by Dara Kam

The Florida Senate approved a $1 billion gambling deal that could transform the state into the Las Vegas of the Southeast, leaving just one more step until the state’s compact with the Seminole tribe is finalized.

The Senate debated briefly before a 29-9 vote on a compact that the tribe has sought for more than two decades and which lawmakers twice rejected in the past two years.

The agreement struck by GOP lawmakers, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminoles would allow the tribe to have Las Vegas-style slot machines at each of its seven locations and run blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer at five of their operations.

The lynchpin of the deal is the five-year agreement with the Seminoles giving them the exclusive rights to run banked card games, including blackjack, at five of their seven facilities, including their lucrative Tampa Hard Rock casino that brings in at least half of all the tribe’s Florida gambling revenue, according to Galvano.

Most important for the tribe is the prohibition against any of the state’s pari-mutuels outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties to run the card games.

Sen. Ronda Storms spoke passionately against the measure and criticized the lack of money going to gambling addiction programs.

“This is a sad day in the state of Florida where we…won’t even fund treatment. You can call the hotline and they’ll say, ‘Well, we’re sorry about that. Bummer for you,’” Storms, R-Valrico, said. “I say the Florida Legislature is making a mistake and the governor of the state of Florida is making a mistake by going down this road and expanding gambling.”

The bill’s sponsor Dennis Jones defended the measure (SB 622), saying it “doesn’t even expand gaming” because the Seminoles are already running the banked card games at their Tampa and Hollywood Hard Rock casinos.

“What this does..it stops an illegal activity that’s already taking place,” said Jones, R-Seminole. “Let us basically put this issue to rest and move forward.”

Federal agents question Senate President Jeff Atwater

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Federal agents investigating the corruption case against Broward County political kingmaker Alan Mendelsohn questioned Senate President Jeff Atwater this morning, Atwater’s spokeswoman confirmed.

Federal Bureau of Investigations agent Brian Szczepanski and four others met with Atwater this morning for about 45 minutes, Atwater’s spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said.

They asked questions about the “committee process and structure,” Emhof said.

“We cannot comment as to the specifics of the questions, as this is an ongoing investigation,” Emhof said.

The agents from the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service have been poking around the Senate all week and have visited with at least five GOP senators, including Atwater.

Atwater’s spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof did not say what the agents asked the North Palm Beach banker about but others interviewed said that they were asked questions about former Sen. Mandy Dawson, Mendelsohn and other senators whom Mendelsohn had held fundraisers for at his Broward County home.

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, spoke with four federal agents briefly on Monday. Sen. Paula Dockery said she spoke with two agents yesterday for at least an hour. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he was questioned on Monday as well.

The agents asked questions about how committee chairmanships are assigned, Dockery and Jones said.

Former Senate President Ken Pruitt picked Dawson to chair a health care committee, an unusual move because she is a Democrat. She also became ill during the 2008 session and was frequently absent but Pruitt allowed her to remain on as chairman of the committee in the GOP-dominated Senate.

The investigators include a lawyer who works in the public integrity section of the Department of Justice in Washington.

They asked questions about how committee chairmanships are assigned and about Dawson’s relationship with Mendelsohn, who was indicted in October.

Mendelsohn was the chief fundraiser for the powerful Florida Medical Association and played a major role in channeling hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to political parties and candidates.

The federal indictment includes the claim that Mendelsohn used three political action committees to funnel $87,000 to a former public official.

The indictment doesn’t name the official. It says the money was passed through an intermediary — also unnamed in the charging document — and disguised as payments for consulting services. The indictment details 10 of the purported payments, totaling $72,000 between May 2004 and December 2005.

The largest alleged payment was $25,000 on June 21, 2004 from “PAC #1.”

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