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Port St. Lucie senior arcade owner to challenge Sen. Joe Negron

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013 by Dara Kam

From The News Service of Florida:

Brandon Cannon, who closed his senior arcade in Port St. Lucie last month after the state outlawed select electronic games, has opened a campaign account to challenge a potential future Senate president. Cannon, 26, said Tuesday he is undeterred that Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, could be in line to become Senate president for the 2017 and 2018 sessions or that Negron has already amassed more than $104,000 for the 2014 election.

“We cried out to our local legislators in St. Lucie County, Okeechobee County, and further south, and we had a little support but nothing from our local representatives and Sen. Negron,” said Cannon, a Greenville, S.C., native who has lived in Port St. Lucie for most of the past decade. Cannon, a Republican who said he voted in 2012 for Negron’s re-election, was part of a group from Port St. Lucie that traveled to Tallahassee to make pleas before the Senate Rules Committee against the proposed gaming crackdown (HB 155). He said the seniors who accompanied him on the trip to Tallahassee were unable to hold one-on-one meetings with Negron.

The new law requires machines to be coin-operated and prohibits gift cards to be handed out as prizes. The law was shepherded quickly through the Legislature after a multi-state and federal investigation led to raids in March at Internet cafes across Florida and the arrests of 57 people. The investigation resulted in an abrupt resignation on March 12 of former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who in the past did consulting work for Allied Veterans of the World, a charity at the center of the investigation. Two Broward County arcades — Boardwalk Brothers Inc. and Play It Again Florida — have filed a lawsuit challenging the law, calling the gaming ban discriminatory. Cannon said he is not involved in the lawsuit.

Watered-down ban on texting and driving on its way to Gov. Scott

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013 by Dara Kam

It could soon be against the law to text and drive under a diluted ban on its way to Gov. Rick Scott.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, asked her colleagues to support the House version of the bill (SB 52) despite a provision that prohibits a motorist’s cell phone records being used by prosecutors except in cases involving a crash resulting in death or personal injury. The Senate passed the measure with a 39-1 vote, with Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, casting the only “no” vote.

For three years, the Florida House has refused to sign off on the texting and driving ban.
“For the first time ever they have a speaker over there that allowed them to speak on this bill. That was the good news. The bad news was I didn’t like what they said,” Detert said this afternoon.

Critics of the modified bill say it will make it harder for law enforcement to prove drivers were texting. The measure makes texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning drivers would have to be pulled over for something else in order to get a ticket for texting.

Drivers who do get ticketed for texting can voluntarily bring their own records to court to prove they weren’t breaking the law, Detert said.

“And frankly they probably won’t do that over a $30 ticket,” she said.

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, asked if the amendment regarding the phone records “doesn’t take all the meat and potatoes” out of the bill, approved unanimously in its original version by the Senate earlier in the session.

But Detert said it was better to pass the ban instead of changing it and sending it back to the House where it could risk languishing before the session ends tomorrow.

“Basically this bill is still a good bill. It still will allow parents today to say to their kids don’t text while driving it’s against the law,” Detert said. “It really will save lives and it boils down to it’s either against the law or not.”

Expedited death penalty process on its way to Gov. Scott

Monday, April 29th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Death Row inmates would get executed faster under a measure on its way to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

The Senate approved the bill (HB 7083) with a 28-10 vote this afternoon despite the objections of some Democrats who said the fast-tracked process is risky.

The “Timely Justice Act,” approved by the House last week, creates shorter time frames for death penalty appeals and take away the governor’s discretion about when to order an execution.

If Scott signs the bill or allows it to become law without his approval, 13 Death Row inmates would fit its criteria, meaning the governor who has signed nine death warrants in the 29 months since he took office would have to order 13 executions within six months.

Sen. Joe Negron, the bill’s sponsor, said the changes are necessary to bring justice to victims. The average length of time between arrest and execution in Florida is 20 years, and 10 Death Row inmates have been awaiting execution for more than three decades, Negron said before the vote.

The delay makes “a mockery of the court system,” Negron, R-Stuart, said. Court and jury decisions “at some point…needs to be carried out.”

But Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, argued that speeding up the process could result in the execution of innocent people.

Twenty-four Florida Death Row inmates have been exonerated, the most of any state in the nation.

“Once the execution is completed, it’s over. There’s no going back,” Sachs, a former prosecutor, argued. “I don’t see the reason for the swiftness especially with DNA evidence that can exonerate.”

Florida is the only state in the nation that allows a simple majority of the jury on capital cases. Critics of the bill had tried to change it to require a 10-2 majority of the jury as Alabama requires. All other states with the death penalty require unanimous jury decisions.

Budget chiefs sign off on state worker pay raises

Saturday, April 27th, 2013 by Dara Kam

After six years without a raise, state workers will have a little more money in their pockets under salary increases signed off on by House and Senate leaders Saturday evening.

Under the plan, state employees who earn less than $40,000 will get a $1,400-a-year pay hike. Those earning more than $40,000 will see $1,000 increases. The average state worker salary in 2010 was about $48,000, but that includes highly paid employees such as university presidents and agency heads.

Senate budget chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said the $1,400 raises, about 3 percent, will go to the bulk of the state’s nearly 100,000 workers, who he said earn less than $40,000 a year.

The deal also includes one-time bonuses based on merit and performance of between $500 and $600 for about 35 percent of state workers, Negron said.

“Both sides wanted to recognize the fact that our coworkers in state government not only here in the Capitol but all throughout Florida work hard every day. We appreciate their contribution to state government to our fellow citizens,” Negron said at a Saturday evening meeting with his House counterpart Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.

State workers last got a pay bump in 2007 with $1,000 bonuses. Their last salary increase was a 3 percent hike the previous year.

The latest deal inched lawmakers closer towards closing out negotiations over the $74 billion budget before the session ends on Friday. Gov. Rick Scott’s spending plan had included merit-based raises only. And lawmakers still haven’t conceded to his demand for $2,500 across-the-board hikes for teachers.

Negron also did a turn-around on what was considered to be a settled item regarding license tags. Last night, the House and Senate agreed to put out to bid a contract for the tags which have been manufactured by PRIDE, a private company that uses inmates, for the past three decades. The House had wanted Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises Inc. to keep the contract.

But Saturday morning, Negron said the Senate changed its mind thanks to intense lobbying by some of his colleagues.

“One of the benefits of the conference process is it enables all of us to take a final look at each of these issues and get input from members of the conference both from those who are able to be here in person and also those who are able to talk to us by phone,” Negron said.

He said “a number of senators” called to say that PRIDE has “a long and distinguished track record of working with inmates helping them to gain employment skills, life skills and other things they will need when they complete their sentence to become productive members of society who can get and keep jobs.”

Negron didn’t elaborate about the availability of post-incarceration license tag-producing jobs.

Negron and McKeel were expected to meet late Saturday evening to discuss water and beach renourishment projects.

Florida bans drones to keep cops from spying on citizens

Thursday, April 25th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Rep. Ritch Workman, Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. Joe Negron

Police, sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies won’t be able to use drones to spy on Floridians except in special emergencies under a new law that goes into effect on July 1.

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the “Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act” today as the bill’s sponsors – Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne – looked on. The new law goes into effect on July 1.

Negron, the powerful Senate budget chief and a professed libertarian, said the prohibition is necessary to protect Floridians’ privacy.

“A lot of times legislators react to events rather than set ground rules before the events occur,” Negron told reporters. “There’s an industry that wants to sell hundreds of thousands of these drones all over the country. Before they’re up in the sky hovering around monitoring people in their cars and their backyards, I think it was a good idea to say here’s the rules we’re going to have in Florida on that. I think that we’re right on time to make sure that we protect people’s privacy.”

When asked if the law is necessary, Scott said: “The real need for this is the fact that we want our own privacy. We believe in the Fourth Amendment.”

The bill includes exceptions allowing the use if:
_ The secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security decides a high risk of a terrorist attack exists;
_ Sheriffs, police or other law enforcement agencies first obtain a search warrant;
_ A law enforcement agency has reasonable suspicion that swift action is necessary to prevent imminent danger to life, such as to search for a missing child or stop the escape of a suspect.

The state’s sheriffs wanted to allow the drones to be used to monitor large-scale public events such as the Super Bowl. But Negron refused to budge on the issue.

“There’s exceptions. The House and Senate worked with law enforcement to make sure we can do the right thing in times of emergency, if there’s safety, things like that. But look, I believe in privacy,” Scott said.

Senate rolls back vehicle fees, nixes insurance industry tax break

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida vehicle registration renewal fees would be rolled back – a savings of about $12 for drivers – under a measure unanimously approved by the state Senate this morning.

The state would make up the lost money – between $220 million and $230 million – by doing away with a decades-old tax break to insurance companies. Insurers who pay a state tax on insurance premiums get a rebate worth 15 percent of the salary paid to their workers.

Senate budget chief Joe Negron, who hatched the plan, told the chamber that insurance companies have prospered in Florida since the 1987 tax break went into effect. Lawmakers hiked the vehicle fees in 2009 as part of a budget-cutting exercise prompted by a prolonged dip in the state’s revenue collections. But the state’s financial situation is more robust this year, and lawmakers for the first time in several years have more money to spend.

The proposal makes a number of reductions in fees or taxes on vehicles, including:
_ Cuts $5 tax on new vehicle registrations in half to $2.50;
_ Decreases from $1.50 to $.50 fee charged for reflective material on tags and stickers;
_ Cuts in half the $4 “surcharge” on licenses.

Negron’s proposal, which doesn’t have a House companion yet, reduces the fee increases by 55 percent and would result in about $250 million going from insurance companies “into the pockets of hardworking Floridians,” he said.

The tax break has saved insurance companies more than $3.4 billion since it went into effect, Negron argued.

“I want them to be prosperous so they can collect premiums and pay claims,” Negron, R-Stuart, said. “But in looking at this tax break, from 1989 through today that has been worth $3.34 billion that we have subsidized the labor costs of the insurance industry…But as we sit here in 2013, I personally believe…we should take this do something for the men and women we represent.”

Insurance and business lobbyists opposed the measure, suggesting that doing away with the tax break could chase companies away or keep others from relocating in the state.

But Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat, who described lobbyists’ rhetoric as “there’d be Armageddon if this passed,” said “it’s nice to finally call a bluff.”

But Sam Miller, executive director of the Florida Insurance Council, said the tax credit has helped produce jobs.

“It is not clear that repeal of the credit won’t endanger job creation. The state should move cautiously and be sure,” Miller said.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tallahassee’s Fat Monday, Deutch’s rare Obama dissent, GOP’s Mar-a-Lago bash

Monday, April 15th, 2013 by George Bennett

This week’s Politics column explains why state Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and other lawmakers circled March 4 on their calendars.

Nearly $1.1 million in campaign cash flowed to House and Senate incumbents on that date, with Sens. Maria Sachs, D-Boca Raton, and Joe Negron, R-Stuart, leading local recipients.

Also this week: U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, supports President Barack Obama 93 percent of the time, but he’s taking the lead in opposing one Obama proposal.

And find out what it cost the Palm Beach County GOP to raise $180,000 at a February Lincoln Day dinner at Donald Trump‘s Mar-a-Lago.

Read all about it by clicking here.

Wounded Fort Pierce vet gets free home from Realtors

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida Realtors, in the Capitol today for their annual lobbying day, announced the gift of a Port St. Lucie, three-bedroom home to retired Sgt. Michael Burke, a wounded Fort Pierce veteran. The gift was a partnership of the Military Warriors Support Foundation and Chase Bank.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, introduced Burke, his wife Nichole and their children Layla and Bryce, as they looked on from the public gallery during the afternoon floor session.

Burke, wounded in Iraq and retired from the Army for medical reasons, said he and his family found out about the free home late last year and are moving in “as soon as we can.”

Negron right to speak measure ready for floor vote

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida’s broad open government laws require that citizens be informed about when public meetings are held but don’t guarantee that they’ll be able to give their two cents if they show up.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has filed a measure again this year that would change that. He teed up the the bill (SB 50) on the Senate floor today, meaning it could get a vote as early as next week. A similar proposal is moving through the House.

Under Negron’s proposal, county commissions, state agencies or other commissions or boards would be able to set time limits on how long people can speak.

“It’s important that we have in our statutes that you can’t invite the public to something and then say thank you for being here but we don’t want to hear from you,” Negron said on the floor today.

The bill doesn’t have any penalties for commissions or boards that violate the law but give people the ability to get an injunction through the courts. While Negron’s bill would force local commissions, boards and state agencies to allow citizens to speak, it leaves the Legislature off the hook.

Gaetz completes Senate committee assignments

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has finalized the make-up of his chamber for the next two years, tapping five Democrats to head committees and appointing Sen. Joe Negron as the head of a select committee on the federal health care law. Negron, R-Stuart, is also chairman of the Senate’s budget committee.

Some of the key positions include two new committees set up by Gaetz:

Gaming Committee: Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples; Vice Chairwoman Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach.
Select Committee on Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart; Vice Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

Other high-profile committee assignments:
Judiciary Committee: Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon; Vice Chairman Darren Soto, D-Orlando.
Budget subcommittees:
Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations: Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island; Vice Chairwoman Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
Education Appropriations: Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton ; Vice Chairman Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.
Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development: Chairman Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando; Vice Chairwoman Gwen Margolis, D-Miami.
Health and Human Services Appropriations: Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring; Vice Chairwoman Anitere Flores, R-Miami.

Several freshmen senators, who also served in the state House, will also serve as chairmen.

Gaetz also boosted Democrats’ clout in the chamber, appointing five Dems to head committees compared to just two last year. And nearly every committee is co-chaired by a Democrat. Democrats picked up two Senate seats this year, breaking the GOP’s supermajority hold and winding up with a 26-14 split.

Gaetz’s bipartisan approach earned kudos from Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.

“I am grateful to Senate President Gaetz for listening to the interests and desires of my Caucus members to serve on various Senate Committees. By appointing them as Chairs of five of them, President Gaetz underscored his commitment to bipartisan cooperation for the good of the people of Florida. And I applaud him for his actions,” Smith wrote in a press release.

Read Gaetz’s memo after the jump.

Gaetz taps Senate leadership team

Monday, November 26th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Don Gaetz announced his top lieutenants for the next two legislative session, tapping Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Ft. Myers, as Majority Leader and picking Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, as budget chief, a position he also held in the Florida House.

And in a possible nod to President Lincoln, who staffed his Cabinet with one-time adversaries, Gaetz named Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, as chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. Gaetz has made ethics reforms one of his top priorities and lawmakers are being pressured to address a contentious elections overhaul passed last year (HB 1355) that some blame for long lines and other problems during this year ‘s presidential election. Latvala was in a leadership battle against Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, earlier this year. Gardiner is expected to take over the Senate in two years but whether his successor will be Latvala or Negron (or someone else) remains undecided.

As expected, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, will keep his post as head of the powerful Rules Committee. Thrasher is a former House speaker and also served as chairman of the state GOP.

Returning Sen. Tom Lee, R- Brandon, will be Deputy Majority Leader and Whip, also not a surprise since Lee is a former Senate president.

Negron served as chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee for the past two years and has represented Gaetz in talks with the Obama administration recently over how to handle the federally-mandated health care exchanges.

Gaetz is also setting up a special committee to deal with the health care law but hasn’t yet named its chairman.

Confusion as Scott cedes control of health exchanges to feds

Friday, July 6th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott’s insistence that he will not implement the state health insurance exchanges mandated under the federal health care law doesn’t mean Florida won’t have one.

Instead, it most likely means the federal government will have control over Florida’s exchanges, including how they will operate, what benefits insurers will have to offer and who gets to sell the policies.

While Scott has spent much of the last week on national television and radio attacking the federal health-care program recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, Florida Senate leaders have been working on a plan to not only implement the exchanges but to expand Medicaid, which Scott also said the state will refuse to do.

It all adds up to confusion over what Florida will do and, at least for now, points to likely federal control.

Scott, who says the government can’t run anything better or cheaper than private businesses do, cut his political teeth fighting President Obama’s health care law before it was even passed by Congress in 2010.

And he stepped up his campaign against the law on national television in the days since the high court issued its ruling last week.

“What has the government ever provided cheaper?” Scott asked Fox News host Greta Van Susteren last week. “They don’t. They always overpromise and underdeliver.”

Scott’s distrust of the federal government makes his decision to cede the state’s power to the White House – regardless of who’s occupying it – all the more curious.

Read the full story here.

It’s a king thing: Thrasher drops out of Senate prez race, backs Negron

Friday, June 15th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart

Uniting to shape the Florida Senate, John Thrasher has dropped out of a race for president in 2016 and is now backing Stuart Republican Joe Negron.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine

Former House Speaker Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, spilled the beans about the leadership race to his hometown paper, The Jacksonville Times-Union, this morning.

Thrasher, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, and Negron led a botched coup this spring in an attempt to displace Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, slated to succeed incoming president Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, in two years.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, a veteran lawmaker and wily campaign strategist, put down the mutiny with the aid of a bloc of Republican senators, many of whom are leaving office this year due to term limits.

The Senate leadership battle is playing out in the Senate campaigns this summer between the more moderate Latvala, who helped kill a number of priority leadership issues including a prison privatization effort, and conservatives Thrasher and Negron.

“This election cycle will go a long way toward determining the future of the Senate, including the Senate presidency in 2016,” Negron said, echoing Latvala’s sentiments about the summer campaigns.

One of those key races is Jacksonville’s District 4 seat, where Thrasher, Gardiner and Negron are backing Aaron Bean, a former House representative with whom Negron served before his election to the Senate in 2009.

Latvala is supporting Mike Weinstein, also a former House member and a prosecutor with the Jacksonville state attorney’s office.

“Sen. Gardiner has made it one of his top priorities for Aaron Bean to win. So we’re working together…We’re all in for Aaron Bean,” Negron said from Washington, D.C., where he is part of a multi-state group of lawmakers huddling about Medicaid costs.

The leadership race “transcends any individual competitor,” Negron said.

“For me it’s about two things. Making sure every senator has an opportunity to have a platform for his or her views to be heard and considered. Two, is my goal is to continue the Senate in the direction of pursuing a pro-business, pro-growth agenda,” he said.

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.

Drug testing state workers soon to become law

Friday, March 9th, 2012 by Dara Kam

State workers would have to submit to random drug tests after the Senate signed off on a bill pushed by Gov. Rick Scott, certain to sign it into law once it reaches his desk.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure (HB 1205) by a nonpartisan 26-14 vote, rejecting concerns that suspicionless, random drug testing of government workers is unconstitutional, intrusive and demeaning to the state’s 100,000-plus workforce, most of whom have gone without a pay raise for six years.

“There’s been no predicate laid whatsoever on why we need to have this bill,” said Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican and self-described libertarian, adding that he has been in the legislature for more than a decade.

“I haven’t been running across drug-addled employees who are unable to do their jobs,” he said.

And the measure is overly intrusive, Negron said, because “your urine and your blood are extremely personal body fluids.”

But the bill sponsor Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, argued that public and private sector workers should be subjected to the same requirements and that the screening could help prevent addiction.

And, he said, not requiring the tests could be dangerous.

“What you’re going to create then is a haven for abusers,” Hays said. “Then drug abusers will know they’re safe if they come to work for the state of Florida.”

Scott’s legal team has helped the bill’s House and Senate sponsors persuade lawmakers that the drug screening will be upheld even as they defend the policy in court. The governor is being sued over a drug-testing policy he imposed on state workers last year. After the ACLU and the state workers’ union sued the state, Scott in June quietly reversed his order for all but corrections officers pending the outcome of the case.

Miami U.S. District judge Ursula Ungaro, who heard the case against Scott last week, expressed serious doubts about the governor’s order and “had trouble understanding the circumstances under which the order would be valid.”

The measure would allow Scott’s agency heads to decide whether they want to institute the policy and require that they use money already in their budgets to cover the costs of the tests, which range from $5 to $40.

Heated debate over Penn State-inspired measure as clock winds down

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012 by Dara Kam

After a heated debate on a Penn State-inspired measure dealing with child abuse reporting, the Senate included a change critics complained is overreaching and rejected repeated efforts to weaken the proposed financial penalties on colleges and universities.

The proposal (HB 1355) would require anyone to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the Department of Children and Families hotline. Now, the hotline is only required to accept reports if caregivers are suspected of sexually abusing the children. DCF officials say they take all calls and refer calls about abuse other than by caregivers to local authorities. The change would require hotline operators to process all abuse complaints.

Sen. Joe Negron said the measure goes too far and ignores personal and cultural differences regarding what constitutes abuse.

“Some people think it’s abusive to raise your voice to a child,” Negron, R-Stuart, argued. “It seems like it’s almost turning every Floridian into an informant for the government.

And Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich cautioned that the abuse hotline is already overloaded.

“We need to be very careful,” Rich, D-Weston, said. “We can revisit it next year so we don’t have everybody calling the hotline and the hotline not being able to handle it because they can’t even handle what they’re required to do now.”

Sen. Ronda Storms acknowledged that the proposal could be problematic but said she tried to narrow it with an amendment.

“I’m going to get hate mail on this but I spank. I spank my children” which could make her vulnerable to being reported as a child abuser, Storms, R-Valrico, said.

The bill is being pushed by influential lobbyist Ron Book and his daughter Lauren, a childhood sexual abuse survivor and founder of advocacy organization “Lauren’s Kids,” who watched from the first row of the public gallery overlooking the chamber.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn tried but failed to lower the penalties against college and university officials from $1 million to $25,000 and also failed to include reporting of hazing by officials and students in the bill.

But the Senate rejected her attempts.

“We can’t stick up for institutions over people,” Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said. “If the Penn State thing happened here, a million bucks wouldn’t be enough. People would want his head. I’m sorry this became a university funding issue rather than a child abuse issue.”

With two days left until the session ends, the Senate will vote on the measure tomorrow and send it to the House for approval.

Special session on PIP?

Monday, March 5th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott, insurers, chiropractors, masseuses, acupuncturists and consumer advocates are just some of the “special interests” trying to have a say in a personal injury protection overhaul.

And with the House and Senate still far apart in their proposed solutions and just four days left until the legislative session wraps up, Senate President Mike Haridopolos would not rule out the possibility of a special session on the issue.

The Florida House passed a bill to loosen the grip of massage therapists, chiropractors and acupuncturists last week, keeping alive one of Scott’s top legislative priorities. The Senate version, among other differences, puts fewer time restrictions on treatment but also largely shuts the door on massage therapy and acupuncture.

Stuart Republican Sen. Joe Negron, leading the charge on PIP reform in his chamber, called the differences reconcilable.

But Haridopolos said he’s not sure he’s got the votes to get the proposal out of his chamber at all.

“All I can do right now is try to figure out how it can pass in the Senate. I know the House has been on a little bit different glide path,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said, calling Negron’s bill “outstanding.”

“Overall, the fraud component has been handled in a thoughtful manner,” Haridopolos said. “I do support where he stands on massage and acupuncture but I’ve got to get it off this floor.”

Haridopolos said he’d be willing to come back in a special session on the matter, especially because he’s expecting lawmakers will have to come back to Tallahassee anyway to redraw legislative maps. The Senate President is expecting the Supreme Court to reject at least in part the new legislative districts. House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he does not want to hold a special session on PIP.

“I’m willing to come back. I think it’s an important issue. It’s not just the justice issue of eradicating fraud. It’s also a financial issue to a lot of families because they’re paying too much for auto insurance. So if we needed to have a special session, you won’t see me object at all,” Haridopolos said.

House unanimously passes watered-down ‘Caylee’s Law’

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Lying to the police when a child goes missing would be a felony under a measure unanimously passed by the Florida House this afternoon and almost certain to be approved by the Senate.

“Caylee’s Law” (HB 37) comes in response to Casey Anthony’s acquittal last year of murdering her two-year-old daughter Caylee. The House approved the measure, identical to a Senate companion (SB 858), with a 113-0 vote.

“This bill assures that we do not have a repeat of the Caylee Anthony fiasco,” Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, said.

The proposal, crafted by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, would make it a third-degree felony for parents or guardians to lie to law enforcement officials during an investigation when a child under the age of 16 is missing and is seriously injured or dies. Each count would be punishable by up to 5 years in prison and up to $5,000.

Under the proposal, Casey Anthony could have been sentenced to 20 years behind bars for misleading police in the investigation into her missing daughter, who was later found dead.

Hager was among other lawmakers who wanted an even stronger law that would have made it a crime for parents or guardians to report a child missing within a certain period of time. But Negron, a lawyer who headed a special Senate committee to look into the issue, rejected such far-reaching proposals because law enforcement officials advised that such a law might confuse parents.

Senate panel keeps cheap health insurance for state lawmakers

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Sen. Joe Negron wants Florida legislators to pay as much for their health insurance as their employees do. But a majority of his colleagues on the Senate Budget Committee voted to keep the perk after arguing that it helps allow regular folks to serve in office.

Negron filed an amendment that would have hiked lawmakers monthly premiums from $8.34 to $50 a month for individuals and from $30 to $180 a month for families. The change would have brought lawmakers’ health insurance costs in line with what state workers, who’ve gone for six years without a pay raise, pay, which Negron called a bargain.

“To me there’s just no rationale for it,” Negron argued. “We should all be treated equally. Legislators shouldn’t have richer benefits than the people that we work with.”

But Negron’s Republican colleagues expressed concern that the costs of being in office have increased and the cheap health care is a perk for an otherwise demanding job that pays less than $30,000 although it takes up so much time that some lawmakers have no other employment.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, called Negron’s proposal a “political statement” that could make discourage Floridians who aren’t rich from running for office.

“It’s very difficult to vote against it. But I don’t think it’s good policy,” Bogdanoff said.

Negron, a candidate for Senate president in 2016 and chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services budget committee, bristled at the criticism.

“It isn’t a political statement,” Negron said, adding that he left the Capitol after midnight this morning and ran into two janitors, one of whom was working a second job.

The $180-a-month family coverage is a great deal, Negron said, because equivalent coverage in the private sector costs up to $500.

“I can see no rationale why we as legislators should be treated five to six times better than 27,000 of our co-workers,” he said. “We’re saying legislators should lead by example…We’re not entitled to preferential treatment.”

Senate budget chief JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, held a voice vote on the amendment and ruled that it failed to pass. Negron said he agreed with Alexander’s call.

Gardiner: I’m it in ’14. Thrasher: It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012 by Dara Kam

A GOP leadership pact that emerged after three days of closed-door wheeling, dealing and cajoling proves that politics makes strange bedfellows.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner – a die-hard conservative and anti-abortion stalwart – and veteran lawmaker Jack Latvala – a veteran lawmaker and campaign consultant far to Gardiner’s left on social issues – joined forces in a presidency pact preserving Gardiner’s 2014-16 presidency.

Latvala allegedly abandoned his challenge against Gardiner and instead agreed to take the gavel after Gardiner’s term ends.

Latvala and a coalition of moderates and conservatives helped Gardiner beat back a presidency challenge by former House Speaker John Thrasher and Stuart’s Joe Negron, who tried to usurp the throne from their opponents on Wednesday.

Negotiations dragged on over three days, and on Thursday the leadership battle played out in the Senate chambers as the members debated the state’s proposed $70.7 billion budget.

At the end of the day, a weary Gardiner told reporters he had secured the pledges to assume the helm after Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. Gaetz is in line to take over after current Senate President Mike Haridopolos’ tenure ends after the November elections, in which a dozen new senators will enter the chamber. Eight term-limited Republicans are leaving, and another is running for Congress.

“There’s been a lot of speculation. I am confirming that I have enough signatures of the sitting members and the returning members for the Senate presidency in ‘14. It’s extremely, extremely humbling,” Gardiner said.

Gardiner denied that he and Latvala had struck a deal – “I can assure you there were no deals” – but said his former foe is a candidate for the 2016 presidency.

But Thrasher, rushing to leave the Senate after the session ended near 7:30 to attend a Florida State University basketball game, insisted the political game was still afoot.

He said the discussions about the future presidencies will continue throughout the summer as he tries to get more conservatives elected.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Thrasher, who had hoped to become the second lawmaker to serve as leader of both chambers.

And the elder statesman needled Gardiner without naming him.

“It’s something I’m not going to discuss in the press. I think anybody else who does…that’s their choice,” Thrasher went on.

But he did say the race is not yet over.

“I don’t think anybody has pledges until the day they get designated. In a year like this, when we have a big summer with a lot of elections, a lot of things can change,” Thrasher said.

But in what could be a blow to the Treasure Coast, Negron’s probable future as powerful budget chief under Gaetz is now in question.

Negron is clearly in Thrasher’s corner, at least for now.
“All of us who want the opportunity to serve in any leadership capacity, will support candidates that share our political perspective,” he said.

One-time foes Latvala – a portly, hot-headed, political powerhouse – and Gardiner – a soft-spoken, laid-back, triathlete – put an end to speculation about their challenge, at least temporarily.

But the unlikely union raises questions about which direction the Senate will take, after Haridopolos crowed that he had successfully moved the chamber farther to the right.

Roping in moderates seems an unlikely maneuver for Gardiner, an Orlando hospital executive.

And holding hands with conservative’s conservative seems an odd strategy for Latvala, a Clearwater political consultant who made his fortune in the direct-mail business.

But politics makes strange bedfellows.

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