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Teachers may not have to wait until 2014 for raises

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Teachers may not have to wait to get performance-based raises included in the state budget, according to Senate President Don Gaetz.

Gov. Rick Scott had wanted $2,500 across-the-board pay raises for teachers. House and Senate budget leaders this weekend agreed to $480 million for raises but with some limitations. Teachers graded “effective” will be eligible for a $2,500 pay raise, beginning in June 2014. Those rated “highly effective” would be eligible for $3,500.

Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Senate budget conforming bills due out later this week will make it clear that pay raises can be based on a “formative” teacher assessment instead of one based on student performance that won’t go into effect until 2014 and that would have held up the raises.

“In my experience as a school superintendent, we were able to evaluate students and evaluate effective teaching based not just on summative assessments at the end of a school year but based on formative assessments as we go along,” Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County superintendent, told reporters late Tuesday afternoon.

“As far as I’m concerned, teachers who earn their increases in pay ought to be able to get them as soon as school districts develop a plan to do so, collectively bargain that plan with their unions, submit the plan to the commissioner of education and have it confirmed,” he said.

Gaetz blamed Scott for the delay.

“We simply followed the governor’s proposal as to the timing of the pay increase…But I’m sure that the governor didn’t mean to unnecessarily delay the pay increase,” he said. “My hope is we ought to go forward and give Florida teachers the pay increase that they deserve especially because we have a pay increase…which is based on performance.”

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.

Strippers, booze and slots soon to be off-limits for welfare recipients

Friday, April 26th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida welfare recipients won’t be allowed to use state-issued debit cards at strip joints, liquor stores or casinos under a bill on its way to Gov. Rick Scott, who is certain to approve the measure.

The Florida Senate unanimously approved the measure with no debate this morning.

House sponsor Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, says the bill (HB 701) is needed to comply with a federal law banning the use of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or “TANF,” at liquor stores, gambling locales or places that specialize in adult entertainment, including porn shops. Smith said needs to act before Feb. 14 or risk losing out on 5 percent of the funds for the program.

The bill (HB 701) which bans the state’s poorest-of-the-poor from using the debit cards at liquor stores, adult entertainment establishments – including porn shops – and other gaming establishments.

“This is a victory for Florida taxpayers who can now know that their hard-earned tax dollars are truly being used to help needy families get back on their feet so they can become independent and self-sufficient,” Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins said in a statement.

The federal “Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012” requires states to maintain policies to prevent cash assistance “from being used in any electronic benefit transfer transaction in any liquor store; any casino, gambling casino, or gaming establishment; or any retail establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment.”

TANF recipients receive debit cards, or “EBTs,” which they can use to get cash from ATMs or to make purchases. Unlike food stamps, there are no restrictions on what items can be bought with the cards.

A year before the federal law was passed, a Florida representative proposed similar restrictions in response to a television expose, later substantiated by state officials, that found that of 1.3 million 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.

Wine kegs rolling to Gov. Scott

Thursday, April 25th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Photo: Christy Waldner/Micro Matic USA

Oenophiles may be able to get their favorite libation on tap if Gov. Rick Scott signs off on a measure unanimously approved by the Florida Senate today.

Florida and Utah are now the only two states to ban wine on tap. The Sunshine State ban is rooted in a Prohibition-era regulation capping the size of wine containers at 3 liters.

Proponents of the measure say it’s good for consumers, good for a Florida manufacturer that makes the keg taps and good for the environment because the reusable kegs hold the equivalent of 26 bottles of wine, glassware that would otherwise wind up in the dump.

The National Restaurant Association last year tapped the wine kegs as the hottest thing happening in the wine world.

The “kegerators” keep wine fresher than recorked bottles, according to the manufacturer of the kegs.

Scott will have seven days to act on the measure (HB 623) if he receives it before the session ends on May 3. The bill would go into effect on July 1 if Scott does not veto it.

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.

Deal on campaign finance, ethics doubles contributions

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida House and Senate leaders have reached a deal on campaign finance and ethics reforms, Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala announced on the floor this morning.

The agreement doubles the current $500-per-election cycle campaign contribution limit for local and legislative candidates and hikes the limit to $3,000 for statewide candidates and Supreme Court justices up for merit retention.

The bill (HB 569) also does away with committees of continuous existence, or “CCEs,” and replaces them political committees that can accept unlimited contributions.

The ethics and campaign finance reforms are the top priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who wanted the campaign changes, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

The Senate had balked at raising the contribution limits after Gov. Rick Scott, who spent more than $70 million of his own money financing his 2010 campaign for governor, indicated he did not support lifting the caps.

But Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said Wednesday his chamber agreed to the changes to get the House to pass the ethics proposal.

The new campaign limits put back caps in place before lawmakers imposed the lower amounts at the urging of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1992.

Latvala called the deal far better than the original House plan, which would have hiked the contribution limits to $10,000.

“You’re not going to be able to take money out of politics,” he said.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing corporate money to flood campaigns with cash means that “we are heading in the direction of unlimited money in politics,” Latvala, a veteran campaign consultant, said. “So the best we’re going to be able to do in the long run is provide the transparency to go with that, to have good reporting.”

The measure would also require more reporting of campaign finances, including daily reporting in the final week leading up to an election “where a lot of the monkey shines go on,” Latvala said.

The proposal would also allow candidates to “rollover” $20,000 after a campaign ends and hold onto that amount for up to two years.

Palm Beach County Democratic Sens. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Joseph Abruzzo of Wellington cast the only “no” votes in the 37-2 tally.

“I couldn’t see myself going back to Palm Beach County and telling people that I voted to double the campaign contribution limits. I think that puts more money in the system and that’s the opposite direction that people want us to move in,” Clemens said.

And, he said, the allowing candidates to carry over $20,000 “puts challengers at a tremendous disadvantage.”

Lawmakers are expected to take final votes on both measures today and send them to Scott, meaning he would have just seven days to act on the bills. Scott has 15 days to act on bills received after the legislative session ends.

Alimony bill sponsors urge Scott to sign bill into law

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013 by Dara Kam

Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, publicly urged Gov. Rick Scott to sign into law a bill (SB 718) revamping the state’s alimony laws.

“You have to be able to move on. Divorce sucks anyway. And Florida law shouldn’t make it suck worse,” Workman told reporters at a press conference this morning.

Workman said Scott is expected to receive the bill today. Scott will have seven days to act on the bill, which would become law without his signature if he does not veto it before then.

Groups on both sides of the issue – the Family Law section of the Florida Bar and Florida Alimony Reform – have launched dueling petitions asking Scott to veto or sign the bill. The Family Law section opposes the measure, saying it puts women – who are more likely to receive alimony – at a disadvantage. The alimony reform proponents have been trying for years to get the law changed because they say current law is unfair and forces some spouses to pay alimony for life to their exes even if they have been married a short time. More than 2,200 people have signed online petitions asking for the veto compared to about 6,000 in favor.

Workman said he is not concerned that Scott will veto the bill but “want to make sure this bill has a fair shot of being signed” and that the governor reads nearly 6,000 stories sent to him from families supporting the changes.

“I hope he can see that laws need to be updated. They need to be gender-neutral. They need to be blind to the sex of the individual and they need to be fair and just,” he said.

Stargel, who said she has been married for 29 years, said she sponsored the bill because she saw “a system that was abusive” to both spouses.

“What we’ve done is put in a framework that makes it fair for everybody,” she said.

The measure effectively does away with permanent alimony and eliminates alimony for people married less than 11 years. Florida Department of Health statistics for the past five years show that the average length of marriage in Florida that end in divorce last less than 10.5 years.

The measure would also:
_ Generally prevent alimony payments from lasting longer than one-half the length of the marriage.
_ Set a formula for alimony payments based on the income of the payer and the length of the marriage.
_ Allow ex-spouses who retire to end or reduce alimony.
_ Give judges now responsible for determining the amount of alimony discretion only in special circumstances.

Former secretary of state calls Senate elections proposal ‘bad public policy’

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Former Secretary of State Kurt Browning called a provision included in the Senate’s election package yesterday allowing the secretary of state to dock election supervisors pay and essentially put them on probation “bad public policy.”

Browning served more than two decades as the Pasco County supervisor of elections before going to work for Gov. Charlie Crist as secretary of state in 2006. Browning stepped down from the post for the second time last year and was elected Pasco County schools superintendent in November.

Browning was in the Capitol on Wednesday for school superintendents’ meeting with his one-time boss, Gov. Rick Scott.

The provision included in the Senate plan on the floor Wednesday would allow Browning’s successor, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, to put supervisors on a minimum one-year “non-compliant status” if they don’t meet certain standards. And he could make them ineligible for yearly $2,000 bonuses available to all constitutional officers who meet certain annual training requirements.

“Show me another constitutional officer that has that kind of penalty. Granted, supervisors need to do their jobs just like superintendents, sheriffs, clerks, tax collectors, property appraisers. But (the state department) need to deal with individuals. They don’t need to be putting sanctions on an entire group. That’s my opinion,” Browning said.

Supervisors had supported the bill (HB 7013) but were livid over the amendment sponsored by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami. He said he came up with the plan in response to problems in five counties, including Palm Beach and St. Lucie, deemed “low-performing” by Detzner after the November elections.

Progressive groups decried another provision in the bill limiting voter assistance. Under the measure, someone could only give assistance to voters they know personally before Election Day and caps the number of people they can assist at 10. Advancement Project and other voting rights groups believe the provision is a violation of the Voting Rights Act. The restriction would keep ministers and civil rights volunteers from helping out at the polls, Advancement Project spokeswoman Jennifer Farmer said. The left-leaning Florida New Majority scrambled to find Creole interpreters to fill a shortage in Miami-Dade County in November.

“There is no rationale, moral or legitimate argument for this amendment. This amendment hurts some our most vulnerable citizens – the elderly, people with disabilities, people who don’t speak English, and voters who are unable to read or fully understand ballot language,” Farmer said in an e-mail.

Ethics commissioner urges lawmakers to act on reform

Friday, April 12th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida Commission on Ethics member Matt Carlucci is asking the Legislature to move forward on legislation that would strengthen the panel’s ability to collect fines and probe possible wrongdoing by elected officials.

The ethics proposal is a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. But it’s caught up in horsetrading over a campaign finance measure that’s the priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. And Gov. Rick Scott’s opposition to the campaign finance changes may doom both measures.

Carlucci penned an editorial today urging lawmakers to act on the ethics proposal.

“As a member of the Florida Commission on Ethics, I am grateful and encouraged that we are on the cusp of dramatic and necessary ethics reform. The Senate, under the leadership of Senate President Gaetz and Senator Latvala, created a strong base on which the House, with the leadership of Speaker Weatherford and subcommittee Chair Boyd, built further improvements. The result, House Bill 7131, is a good work product that with a few changes, could be a great work product.
News reports suggest that the House, Senate, and Governor have disagreements over changes to the elections laws, and that those disagreements are putting HB 7131 in jeopardy. On behalf of the Commission, I urge all the parties not to let differences in philosophy in one arena stand in the way of progress on things we all can agree on. I would also ask that the Legislature make the following changes that would make HB 7131 a true and lasting achievement:
• Restore the language that would allow the Commission to record its final order as a lien in cases where there are unpaid fines for failing to file financial disclosure;
• Delete the language that allows officials the opportunity to re-do their financial disclosure after a complaint has been filed, or at least make allowing such a second chance discretionary with the Commission;
• Give the Commission the ability to investigate complaints on its own initiative, subject to a vote of seven of its nine members.
These three changes will move HB 7131 from good to outstanding. A great deal of hard work by the House and Senate has been poured into ethics reform this year. I encourage the parties to make these three changes, and then make it the law.
Sincerely,
Matt Carlucci

Slot machine-like games outlawed after Scott signs Internet cafe ban

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Slot-like machines in storefront gaming centers became illegal today after Gov. Rick Scott quietly signed into law aimed at shutting down Internet cafes.

Scott signed the bill less than a month after state and federal authorities arrested 57 people in connection with Allied Veterans of the World, a St. Augustine-based non-profit accused of posing as a charity while running a $300 million illegal gambling ring.

The investigation also prompted Jennifer Carroll, Scott’s hand-picked running mate, to resign as lieutenant governor. Carroll had consulted for Allied Veterans while she was a member of the House.

Scott signed the bill (HB 155) without any fanfare and spoke with reporters shortly afterward, quickly shifting the conversation to a plug for his two legislative priorities.

“The House and the Senate did the right thing to crack down illegal gaming especially in light of the Allied Veterans multi-state criminal conspiracy. They did the right thing and now they can get back to working on my two priorities for the session, the $2,500 pay raise across the board for classroom teachers and eliminating the sales tax on manufacturing equipment so we have more jobs,” Scott said.

Lawmakers have not yet signed off on either of Scott’s legislative goals.

The new law could disrupt gambling at the senior arcades popular with the elderly in Palm Beach County because many of the machines at the centers would be outlawed.

Internet café and arcade operators say the ban could put up to 16,000 people out of work.

Scott, who campaigned on creating 700,000 jobs in seven years, called the ban “the right thing” and turned a question about the new law’s impact on workers into another plug for his priorities.

“I have a jobs agenda. Right now what the House and Senate need to be focused on is getting rid of the sales tax on manufacturing equipment. It will create more manufacturing jobs. We have less than half the number of manufacturing jobs per capita than the rest of the country,” Scott said. The tax break would eliminate sales tax on manufacturing equipment and is expected to eliminate nearly $60 million from the state treasury the first year it goes into effect and $115 million the following year. There is no estimate on how many jobs, if any, the tax break would create.

Gov. Scott expresses support for ‘Infants Born Alive’ bill

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott praised lawmakers for moving a measure that would require physicians and health care providers to give emergency care to infants born alive after botched abortions.

“The Infants Born Alive bill, SB 1636 – and its House companion, HB 1129 – ensure common sense measures to help care for the babies who survive abortion procedures. It is essential that we protect the weakest among us, and I am grateful for the Senators and Representatives in both parties who are supporting care for these babies,” Scott, a Republican who is running for re-election, said in a statement.

The Senate proposal received unanimous approval at its first committee stop in the Health Policy Committee Tuesday afternoon and has two more committee stops before it reaches the floor. The House version is ready for a floor vote.

The measure requires infants born alive to be transported to hospitals and receive emergency care. Planned Parenthood representatives withdrew their opposition after a component that would have automatically taken custody of the child away from the parent was removed.

Health care providers say that the chances of an infant being born alive after an abortion are extremely rare because third-trimester abortions are prohibited in Florida unless the life of the mother is in danger. Infants born before then could not survive, some abortion advocates said during previous testimony on the measure.

The bill is one of three pushed by right-to-life advocates moving through the legislature. Another would make it a separate crime if a fetus is injured when a woman is beaten or killed. A third would make it a crime to perform an abortion based on the race or gender of the fetus.

Will Rick Scott’s opposition to campaign reform doom ethics overhaul?

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott’s opposition to proposed campaign finance changes will also doom an ethics reform, the two top priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, according to the lead GOP senator on both issues.

The campaign finance proposal, a priority of Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, approved by his chamber last month would boost individual contribution limits from $500 to $3,000 for local and legislative candidates and to $5,000 for statewide candidates.

Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers on Monday told The Associated Press that the governor “can’t imagine signing a bill” that would raise contributions by any amount.

The Senate proposal, approved by the Rules Committee Tuesday, would keep the contribution levels but impose more frequent reporting requirements for political committees.

“My feeling is that the governor has probably sapped the energy out of campaign any campaign fiannce bill this session,” Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg. told reporters Tuesday.

The House hasn’t moved on the ethics package, a priority of Gaetz, R-Niceville, since receiving it from the Senate, which passed it on the first day of the legislative session 31 days ago.

“Unfortunately, the House is tying their campaign finance bill to our ethics bill, which we passed as our first order of business on the first day of session and has now been over there for 31 days, just sitting,” he said. “They wanted these changes in campaign finance in return for doing some fairly sensible, easy to understand things on ethics. That’s a shame. What I’ve been told is they had to have campaign finance to pass our ethics package.”

Gov. Scott talks unemployment, FAU ‘Jesus’ exercise at Post editorial board

Monday, April 8th, 2013 by Andrew Abramson

Gov. Rick Scott spent an hour this morning meeting with The Palm Beach Post editorial board.

Highlights included…

- Scott touted the state’s shrinking unemployment numbers and credited it to his administration. Scott said unemployment rose from 3.5 percent to 11.1 percent in the four years before he took office and is now at 7.7 percent, which he said is around the national average.

- Scott defended his decision to intervene in the issue regarding FAU professor Deandre Poole’s class exercise that had students voluntarily step on a piece of paper with Jesus’ name on it as a lesson in the power of symbols. A student said he was asked not to return to class after refusing to do the exercise and Scott then said he would look into the suspension. Poole, also the Democratic county vice chairman, later said the student was disciplined only because he physically threatened the professor.

“I heard about what happened to the student and I was concerned about the student,” Scott said. “When something like that happens we ought to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I was primarily concerned about how the student was suspended. … From my understanding it didn’t make any sense that he’d be suspended based on what I read. I asked for an inquiry. I asked Chancellor Brogan to look into it. I don’t want this to keep happening at our universities.”

(more…)

Speaker Weatherford tells black caucus House will release alternative to Medicaid expansion

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013 by Dara Kam

House Speaker Will Weatherford told the Florida Legislative Black Caucus last night that the House will offer its own alternative to expanding Medicaid, a move the Senate is considering to cover 1 million Floridians who lack health insurance.

Weatherford, who has rejected the Medicaid expansion, did not give any details about the plan but said that it would be “targeted” to vulnerable citizens such as the severely disabled on wait lists for services.

But he said the House plan will not be as broad as a Senate proposal crafted by budget chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, that would broaden Medicaid coverage to about 1 million low-income Floridians through a privatized plan using money available under the federal health care law.

“We will have a plan in the House. We’re not just sitting on our hands and saying we’re not going to do that. But whatever we do do is something that’s sustained if the government can’t continue to pay its share, something that we can afford without having to do a massive tax increase on our citizens,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told about a dozen black lawmakers Monday night.

“Florida should blaze its own path and do it its way,” he said.

Black caucus chairwoman Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, brought up the issue during her introduction of Weatherford. She pointed out that the Senate has an alternative to the expansion and that Gov. Rick Scott, once a fierce opponent of “Obamacare,” reversed his opposition to the expansion and now supports it.

“We want to hear from you on this…All of the folks that we represent who are disproportionately affected by the lack of quality care. It’s on you, Mr. Speaker,” Joyner said.

Weatherford said he wants to make sure that the neediest Floridians who currently lack health insurance get it. He said thousands of children and adult who can’t take care of themselves are waiting for services. The Medicaid expansion under the federal health care law would cover individuals at up to 138 percent of the poverty level, about “600,000 of them that are able-bodied adults that don’t have children” in Florida, he said.

“We’re going to give all 600,000 of them free health care through the federal government while somebody else waits in line with a real disability. I’ve got a problem with that,” Weatherford said.

When pressed by reporters for details after the meeting, Weatherford said he was not sure which committee would offer the House proposal, or when. The legislature is at the mid-point in the 60-day session that ends on May 3.

“We still have time. We want to make sure it’s a fully-baked plan, not half-baked. The all-or-nothing approach that’s been suggested by Washington, D.C., the inflexible nature of it is not good for Florida,” he said. “Whatever our approach is, I think it will be one that is more targeted and less shotgun.”

Gov. Rick Scott reversed his position on the issue and now supports the Medicaid expansion, but committees in both chambers rejected that idea. And Weatherford has refused to budget on the issue.

State Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, has come up with another plan in which the state would subsidize health insurance costs for low-income Floridians. That proposal has not yet had a hearing. The Senate is moving forward with a plan by Senate budget chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, that would allow the state to draw down federal funds to cover about 1 million uninsured Floridians through privatized health care plans.

Weatherford said House leaders are “looking at all the alternatives that are out there.”

But, he said, “before we put something out there for public consumption we want to make sure it’s well thought out and it addresses the safety net needs of the state,” he said. “We don’t have a drop-dead date but we’re working on it and it’s forthcoming.”

UPDATE: Scott ‘welcomes’ Obama to Miami by blasting feds for skipping out on ports funding

Thursday, March 28th, 2013 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: President Obama reacted to Gov. Rick Scott’s demands that the federal government reimburse Florida more than $100 million for two port projects.

“The President believes that the Port of Miami can enhance the competitiveness of workers and businesses throughout the region and in the nation as a whole. That’s why the Administration has taken a number of steps to fund and facilitate improvements at the Port, including a $340 million TIFIA loan to help finance the Port of Miami tunnel project and a $23 million TIGER grant to restore freight rail service between the Port and the Florida East Coast Railway, as well as completing the permitting for the Port’s dredging project on an expedited timeline last August as part of the Administration’s push to cut red tape around infrastructure construction,” White House spokeswoman Joanna Rosholm said in an e-mail.

Gov. Rick Scott used President Obama’s visit Friday to the Port of Miami to tout his own jobs record and demand that president “step up to the plate” and pledge to reimburse the feds’ share of ports funding.

“We’re certainly glad President Obama’s coming to the Port of Miami tomorrow but he’s late to the party on Florida port investments,” Scott said in a conference call with reporters this morning.

Florida’s spent $425 million on ports since Scott took office, including fronting the federal share of $75 million for the Port of Miami and $36 million for the Port of Jacksonville, according to Scott.

“We could not wait for the federal government to come to the table with their share of the project,” Scott, who is running for reelection, said.

Obama is visiting the Miami port and will speak about the economy, according to a White House press release.

Sounding like someone on the campaign trail, Scott repeated his recent mantra of comparing Florida’s current economic and jobs state of affairs compared to “the four years before I became governor” without naming his predecessor Charlie Crist. Crist, who switched parties and is now a Democrat, is mulling another run for governor next year.

And he took a swipe at Obama and Congress while saying he “welcomed” the president.

“The federal government, they keep raising regulations. Permitting time takes longer, raising taxes, spending all these things. We’ve done way better than they have,” Scott said. Obama expedited federal infrastructure reviews last year for both the Miami and Jacksonville ports. Right now, they ought to reimburse us the money we’re spending on our ports…so we can create more jobs.”

‘Dream Defenders’ kick off 2013 session with protest

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013 by Dara Kam

A coalition of students carrying signs and chanting “The state is ours” protested Tuesday morning laying out their agenda and creating a disruption in the historically celebratory advent of the 60-day legislative session highlighted by Gov. Rick Scott’s State of the State speech.

The “Dream Defenders,” made up of students from several Florida universities and backed by the SEIU, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, are demanding that lawmakers repeal or reform of the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law and the elimination of “zero tolerance” policies in public schools.

The group chanted and sang on the fourth floor rotunda as the opening day ceremonies began in advance of Scott’s joint address.

The group organized in response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, last year. Zimmerman said he shot Martin in self-defense, but a judge has not yet decided if the law allowing people to use deadly force when they feel threatened applies in Zimmerman’s case. The law allows provides immunity from prosecution or arrest.

“Even today the life of a black boy or brown boy in this state is worth less than the bullet lodged in his chest,” Dream Defenders executive director Phillip Agnew, a Florida A&M University graduate who lives in Miami, said at a press conference surrounded by dozens of supporters wearing black T-shirts imprinted with “Can We Dream Together?” in white.

Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Will Weatherford, Senate President Don Gaetz, all Republicans, have said they support the Stand Your Ground law, but Democratic lawmakers have filed a slew of bills that would amend or repeal it.

But Agnew said he thinks the national attitude towards guns has changed in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings.

“We want a repeal. We’ll settle for a reform. The confines of that law are loose. If you create any bit of fear in me, I’m sorry ma’am, I can take you out,” Agnew said. “I don’t believe anybody any person in here believes that was the law was supposed to be and certainly not lack and brown people.”

The group will maintain a presence in the Capitol throughout the session, Agnew said.

“This is just a starting point for us. We’ll be here throughout the session…to ensure that some of these things pass.”

Coy Speaker Weatherford doesn’t rule out run for guv

Thursday, February 28th, 2013 by Dara Kam

House Speaker Will Weatherford did not rule out a possible run against Gov. Rick Scott in a primary next year but laughed when asked about the rumors of a primary against the incumbent.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, fueled the rumors when he criticized Scott’s announcement last week that he supports the expansion of Medicaid, part of the federal health care law pushed by President Obama. Conservative Republicans have lined up against the expansion, saying they fear it will ultimately cost the state much more than the 10 percent the federal government promises to pay after picking up 100 percent of the tab for three years.

“I think people who are saying those things must not know me very well. I’m busy enough trying to be the speaker of the House. And I think the governor’s doing a good job. The state of Florida is moving in a positive direction. We’re working closely with him to solve the problems of the state of Florida. I’m not thinking about any of that stuff right now. I’m thinking about the agenda we have for the next 60 days and trying to pass some significant policy out of the Florida House,” Weatherford told reporters in the Capitol today after announcing a new House smartphone app.

But Weatherford did not commit to not running against Scott when pressed about ruling it out.

“I just said I don’t have any plans to do anything like that. I think it’s funny that I’m being asked it. The governor’s a friend. I think he’s doing a good job. We’re working very closely with him. Like I said, we agree on a whole lot more than we disagree on. The Medicaid expansion is a very small example of something we haven’t been on the same page on. But I think we’re moving forward. I think there’s some exciting times for the Florida House,” he said.

Scott takes drug testing of welfare recipients to Supreme Court

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott will appeal a federal court ruling upholding a ban on drug testing of Florida welfare recipients.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta found that Scott’s lawyers did not make the case for lifting the injunction on the urine tests for people applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. A federal judge in Florida issued the temporary injunction in October 2011, finding the law – pushed by Scott in his first year in office – violated the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

The three-judge panel agreed.

“The simple fact of seeking public assistance does not deprive a TANF applicant of the same constitutional protection from unreasonable searches that all other citizens enjoy,” wrote Judge Rosemary Barkett in the 38-page opinion.

But Scott issued a statement said he would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The court’s ruling today is disturbing. Welfare is 100 percent about helping children. Welfare is taxpayer money to help people looking for jobs who have children. Drug use by anyone with children looking for a job is totally destructive. This is fundamentally about protecting the wellbeing of Florida families. We will protect children and families in our state, and this decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court,” Scott, who is running for re-election next year, said.

U.S. District Mary Scriven has not yet ruled on whether to permanently strike down the law in the case filed by the ACLU of Florida on behalf of Luis W. Lebron. She could issue a ruling on that matter at any time, said Maria Kayanan, the lead ACLU lawyer in the case.

Both today’s ruling and Scriven’s opinion found that the plaintiffs are likely to win their arguments that the law is unconstitutional. Kayanan said Tuesday’s opinion showed that Scott’s administration has a “heavy burden” to prove that the law is not.

“After reading the court of appeals opinion, to ask the Supreme Court to review this decision is political theater based on ideology,” Kayanan said.

The court rejected all of Scott’s arguments that the law is necessary, including that there is a “special” reason for the government to require the drug tests.

And the court rejected Scott’s argument that the tests are needed to make sure that children whose parents receive the temporary cash aid are safe and that “none of the State’s asserted concerns will be ameliorated by drug testing.”

And the court rejected the argument that the urine tests are not an unconstitutional search because TANF recipients must “consent” to the drug tests in order to get benefits.

The mandated ‘consent’ the State relies on here, which is not freely and voluntarily given, runs afoul of the Supreme Court’s long-standing admonition that the government ‘may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected interests,’” Barkett wrote.

Filings in the case showed that the drug testing done by the Department of Children and Families was problematic. DCF stopped the tests after the Scriven blocked the law in October 2011.

Scott no-show as governors talk Medicaid, sequestration in DC

Monday, February 25th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida Gov. Rick Scott was again a no-show at the National Governors Association annual meeting this year as the states’ chief execs met with President Obama and White House staff to discuss looming budget cuts that will impact virtually every sector of their economies.

Scott dropped Florida’s membership in the non-partisan group last year, saying the $200,000 annual fee could be better spent. Scott is a member of the Republican Governors Association, the political group that helps elect GOP governors.

The governors met with President Obama, who also hosted a gala dinner for the group last night, today at the White House.

In addition to meetings with White House staff and the president on the sequestration budget cuts slated to go into effect on Friday, the governors are also discussing Medicaid costs that consume huge chunks of their state budgets.

Scott, who launched his political career fighting what later became the Affordable Care Act, last week made national news when he announced Florida would expand its Medicaid program, a linchpin of the federal law. The expansion requires the support of the state Legislature, however, and GOP House and Senate leaders have not said whether they would endorse Scott’s plan.

When asked why Scott skipped this year’s meeting, spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in an e-mail the governor had other things on his agenda today and over the weekend.

When pressed, Schutz said :Florida is not a member of the NGA – Florida’s membership would be nearly $200,000.”

Scott had no events on Saturday and attended the Daytona 500 on Sunday. He spent this morning in Apalachicola and the rest of the day in Tallahassee.

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