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Claims bill reform off the table this year

Thursday, March 28th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida cities, counties, public hospitals and other “sovereign” entities have put the brakes on an overhaul of the state’s claims bill process that allows people who have been harmed or injured by local governments to get paid more than $200,000 without the Legislature’s approval.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said a House plan to revamp the system is too contentious to tackle this year.

“It’s very, very controversial. It’s a total change of direction,” Lee said. “That’s going to take a lot of time and energy.”

As a result, the Senate won’t hear any claims bills this year at the direction of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who has said he won’t allow any of the bills to come up without a reform.

The House Select Committee on Claims Bills last week approved a plan that would raise the current $200,000 caps on individual payments to $1 million and $300,000 per-incident cap to $1.5 million to encourage local governments to purchase insurance or self-insure. The proposal would also impose a “hard cap” on payments for those with insurance by barring individuals who get those payments from being able to seek additional money.

No action on claims bills this year means that the family of Carl Abbott, a North Palm Beach man who was badly injured when a Palm Beach County school bus ran him over 2008, will have to wait at least another year for a $1.9 million settlement reached with the school board in 2009.

Abbott’s son, David, wants to use the money to move his father, now living in a nursing home and unable to eat on his own, into a facility where he can get rehabilitative care.

Lee said the claims bill process is troubled and inconsistent.

“My perspective has always been if we’re going to have sovereign immunity, then let’s have sovereign immunity. Why are we up here waiving it all the time just because there’s a difficult political situation?
I’ve never really understood the subjectiveness of the claims bill process and why somebody with the right lobbyist and the right lawyer and the right legislator behind it all of a sudden gets a huge payout for somebody when somebody else doesn’t,” he said. “It’s an imperfect process. We’re going to try to make it better. But it’s a heavy lift to try to reform that system. And until we do, we’re not going to be hearing any claims bills.”

Gift ban tweak stays out of Senate ethics reform

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Seven years ago, then-Senate President Tom Lee pushed a gift ban that essentially barred lobbyists from giving gifts of any kind – except flowers and plaques on the opening day of the legislative session – to lawmakers.

Lee, a Brandon Republican, wanted to put an end to what he called lawmakers out-of-control wining and dining at the expense of lobbyists perhaps looking for a payback for lavish meals.

After returning to the Florida Senate as a freshman this year, Lee is willing to modify the ban after hearing “a parade of horribles” from lawmakers who say the gift ban bars them from participating in receptions held by groups as innocuous as the Boys and Girls Clubs because they fear violating the ban.

Lee had hoped to include the tweak in an ethics reform package, a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, headed to the floor after the Senate Rules Committee unanimously signed off on the measure this afternoon.

But Lee said including changes to the gift ban in the ethics bill was “a non-starter from the president’s perspective” and will instead file a stand-alone bill to deal with the issue instead.

Gaetz didn’t want his fast-tracked priority ethics reform, expected to get a Senate floor vote possible on the first day of the legislative session in two weeks, to get bogged down in a debate over whether the Legislature was watering down the gift ban.

“I would have been happy with it being in this bill. But it’s just taken a while to get it together. And this bill is moving pretty rapidly. So we’re going to make sure he’s got a bill spot for that,” Sen. Jack Latvala, the St. Petersburg Republican who sponsored the ethics package (SB 2), said.

Lee said he’s trying to “find a way to ensure that the public and organizations get access to legislators but that that access isn’t clandestine and it isn’t in violation of the law, which was predominantly what was going on at the time” his signature legislation was passed.

But any rewrite of the gift ban is a “briar patch,” Lee cautioned.

“It is very, very difficult to create exemptions to the gift ban that you can’t drive a truck through. And therein lies the problem,” he said. “And while a lot of people are talking about the bottle of water or the cup of coffee, I guarantee you an amendment to the gift ban that allows them to take a bottle of water and a cup of coffee will not satisfy them.”

Lee said lawmakers may be skirting the gift ban already.

“I really wanted to get through one session before I had this discussion. But I’m trying to be accommodating. Some of this has resulted in behavior being driven underground into lobbyists’ homes and into the Governor’s Club. There’s a point at which you can’t legislate morality,” he said.

Lee said he’s sympathetic to lawmakers who say they run into trouble particularly in Tallahassee when groups from home who have lobbyists hold receptions. He’s open to allowing lawmakers to attend those “highly public” events provided there is a record of attendance and “as long as the gift that’s being received by the legislator is de minimus.”

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.

Weatherford adds Mears, Duffy to House speaker’s office

Thursday, June 7th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has begun staffing up in anticipation of taking over the state House reins following the November elections.

Weatherford on Thursday announced he has hired veteran Capitol aide Kathy Mears as his chief-of-staff. Mears began her Tallahassee career as spokeswoman for then-House Speaker Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, who in 1996 became the first Republican to lead the Florida House in 122 years.

Mears has since been a deputy chief-of-staff and legislative director under Gov. Charlie Crist, a deputy chief and communications director for Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and spokeswoman for Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

Weatherford also named Ryan Duffy as his communications director. Duffy recently worked as spokesman for the Republican leadership team in the House, and formerly was a speechwriter for Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Mel Martinez. He was also a deputy communications director for former Attorney General Bill McCollum’s gubernatorial campaign in 2010.

It’s a king thing: Senate presidents-in-waiting like predecessor Tom Lee in District 24 race

Friday, June 1st, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican in the running to be his successor, are backing former Senate President Tom Lee in a GOP primary to replace Sen. Ronda Storms.

Lee, R-Brandon, served as Senate president in 2005-2006 and prompted the much-hated gift ban that bars lawmakers from accepting gifts, including food and drinks, from lobbyists.

Gaetz issued a “statement of support” for Lee, who’s facing off against state Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, in the primary. Storms announced last week she was walking away from her last two years in the Senate would instead run against the GOP incumbent Hillsborough County property appraiser.

The endorsements of Gaetz and Gardiner could boost Lee’s conservative creds in a race against Burgin, another conservative who sponsored some extreme anti-abortion legislation over the past two years. And the backing of the incoming Senate president could give Lee a campaign cash boost as well.

Gardiner’s statement emphasized Lee’s right-leaning history in the chamber.

“During his Senate Presidency, Tom brought to the floor and sent to Governor Bush legislation to permanently repeal the intangibles tax, a tax that punished seniors and savers who sought a better quality of life in Florida. In over ten years in the Senate, Tom personally sponsored Florida’s original parental consent amendment when no one else would, Florida’s ‘Choose Life’ License Plate law, and passed Florida’s landmark parental notification bill as Senate President,” Gardiner said.

And Gaetz lauded Lee as the “strong leader” needed to replace Storms, who got on the wrong side of Senate leaders including Gaetz on a variety of issues, including prison privatization, this year.

“As a former senator and former Senate president, Tom brings solid experience and a track record of real accomplishments to Tallahassee. He will hit the ground running at full speed with the knowledge and skill to help build Florida’s future. Tom Lee will be a leader in the Florida Senate the moment he walks on the floor,” Gaetz said. “Personally, I look forward to working closely with Senator Lee and relying on him for guidance and advice during my years as Senate President.”

Senate surprise: Ronda Storms won’t come back

Friday, May 25th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Republican firebrand Ronda Storms is dropping her state Senate reelection bid and instead will run against embattled Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner.

Storms, a lawyer and former Hillsborough County commissioner, had two years left before she was term-limited out of the Senate. But she said the porn scandal surrounding Turner prompted her to abandon the legislature and instead try to oust her fellow Republican.

“As a Republican I have a responsibility to make sure that he has an opportunity to be held accountable to the Republican voters,” Storms, R-Valrico, said.

Storms’ exit makes her District 10 seat another battleground for a Senate leadership battle between Republicans John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Although Storms is a conservative Christian who consistently supported anti-abortion efforts, she bucked Thrasher and other Senate leaders and joined forces with Latvala and moderates on several key issues, and was instrumental in helping to kill a prison privatization effort.

Storms, chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Services Committee, has been an ardent advocate for children and a harsh critic of the Department of Children and Families. Among other battles, she has waged a war against the administration over its use of psychotropic medications on youth in state custody. She intensified her scrutiny of the agency in the aftermath of the tragic death of Nubia Barahona, whose adoptive parents are accused with her murder and the abuse of her twin sibling Victor.

Storms said the caustic atmosphere created by the leadership maelstrom over who will succeed incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, contributed to her decision to leave the chamber early.

“I was going to have to find an exit ramp at some point. So this was the point. It would be dishonest for me to say that it hasn’t been difficult to have this swirling tension all the time,” the passionate Storms, adding that “believe it or not, I don’t like conflict,” said.

“It is wonderful to think that I can go in and make changes and be an administrator and manager and say, ‘Here’s the way we’re going to behave’ and carry it out and cause it to happen all from the top without 10 people above your or ahead of you saying ‘no’ or creating dissension,” she said.

Storms said her possible replacements include former Senate President Tom Lee, state Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview and Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa.

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