Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics - Page 3 of 17

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

Steven Geller leaves Greenspoon Marder, cites ethics requirement

Former state Sen. Steven Geller marked his election to the Broward County Commission in November by resigning from the Greenspoon Marder law firm and launching a solo legal and lobbying practice.

Geller had been warned that under the Florida Commission on Ethics’ interpretation of state law, his continued presence at Greenspoon could prevent any of the firm’s attorneys from appearing before the commission.

So he launched the Geller Law Firm and began reregistering for his lobbying clients to reflect his changed status. All but one of his clients have followed him to his new firm, he said.

“Most local governments interpret it differently,” Geller said in a telephone interview. “Most local governments believe that if you recuse yourself, you’ve resolved the conflict. The Ethics Commission feels differently.”

Florida Statutes 112.313(7)(a) says public officials can’t work for or maintain contractual relationships with any business or agency they regulate.

It also provides:

“Nor shall an officer or employee of an agency have or hold any employment or contractual relationship that will create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict between his or her private interests and the performance of his or her public duties or that would impede the full and faithful discharge of his or her public duties.”

The interpretation by the state’s ethics watchdog agency is to bar appearances by anyone affiliated with a professional firm before any public body, extending to anyone else affiliated with that firm.

“It’s concerned with what might happen — a temptation to dishonor,” agency spokeswoman Kerrie Stillman said. She pointed to some commission advisory opinions, including this one.

Recusal wouldn’t cure the conflict, she said — note that the statute seeks “the full and faithful discharge” of the official’s “public duties.”

In practice, Geller said, the provision is rarely enforced.

“I made the mistake of asking,” Geller said. “Never ask.”

Personnel note: Court clerks assuming duties early in three counties

Three recently elected county court clerks will get early jumps on their new jobs because of retirements by their predecessors.

Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday that he had appointed the new clerks to temporary terms lasting no more than a few days. Their elective terms begin Jan. 3

In Alachua County, J.K. “Jess” Irby will begin serving on Dec. 31, replacing J.K. “Buddy” Irby.

In Madison County, William “Billy” Washington takes over on Jan. 1 from Tim Sanders.

And in Volusia County, Laura Roth will replace Diane Matousek on Dec. 29.

Use of boat gets Orlando man arrested for workers’ comp fraud

An ill-advised boating excursion helped land an Orlando man behind bars for alleged workers’ compensation insurance fraud.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater on Friday announced the arrest of Ricardo Aponte in “an elaborate scam” involving a purported neck injury that prevented him from bending his body or working.

Aponte’s employer paid more than $500,000 in benefits since 2007, including a motorized wheelchair, before the insurance company got suspicious. The state Division of Investigative and Forensic Services, which Atwater oversees, began surveilling the man.

They observed as he moved about without the assistance of any medical device. On one occasion, they saw him cleaning his boat. On another, they saw him physically push the boat off its trailer and into the water.

He was charged with workers’ compensation fraud, making false statements in support of a claim, filing false and fraudulent insurance claims, and grand theft, Atwater said.

The charges are punishable by a full restitution order, a $10,000 fine and up to 30 years in prison.

Nativity scene or display

Florida children’s agency helped kids go home for the holidays

More than 3,000 at-risk children will spend the holidays with their birth or adoptive families after a push by the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Agency staff worked with dependency judges and local groups to expedite the reunification of foster kids with their families or relatives, or to facilitate their adoption.

“The heart of our mission is to help families heal and reunify, or, when that is not possible, to find forever homes for children in the welfare system,” Department Secretary Mike Carroll said in a written statement.

“Being with family is an integral part of the holidays, so we are dedicated to making that happen for as many of the children we serve as possible.”

During November — National Adoption Month — the effort placed nearly 1,800 children with their birth or adoptive families, or at least arranged visits with siblings or extended family members.

The figure during December exceeded 1,400 children.

Reunification is an option “when it’s determined that it’s safe for the child to be back home,” agency spokeswoman Jessica Sims said.

Making sure of that is the job of community-based care agencies, attorneys, judges, guardians, foster families, and case managers who expedite background screenings, conduct court proceedings and make travel arrangements.

If families can’t afford any travel involved, the community organizations pick up the tab, the agency said.

Sims said this year’s efforts were among the most successful since former Secretary Bob Butterworth launched the program in 2007.

You can learn more about the adoption process here.

TaxWatch Christmas gift: 15 ways to save Florida taxpayers money

Florida TaxWatch chief Dominic Calabro conceded Thursday that legislators might balk at spending money next year to improve government efficiency, but pointed to 15 innovations that wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime.

They include prison reforms and requiring the governor and Legislature to pass specific legislation every year directing agency chiefs to find ways to operate more efficiently.

“Revenue projections going into the 2017 legislative session suggest there will be just enough money to fund a continuation budget. A lot of it depends on the vagaries of the national economy and the like — particularly how tourism goes,” Calabro said during a news conference.

“If ever there was a time to have an efficiency gift to the taxpayers of Florida, this is it.”

Standing in front of a Christmas tree in the government watchdog organization’s Tallahassee headquarters, Calabro undid colorful wrapping paper containing a report the Government Efficiency Tax Force released in June, which included the recommendations he emphasized Thursday.

Together with ideas that would require some up-front investment, they would save a projected $2 billion annually.

State economist project taxes will just about pay for existing programs during the fiscal year that begins July 1, although Florida faces additional demands including fighting citrus canker and replenishing beaches scoured clean of sand by Hurricane Matthew.

And that’s before lawmakers consider state leaders’ spending priorities.

What’s more, the state faces deficits of at $1.3 billion one year from now and $1.9 billion the year after that.

The efficiency task force, on which Calabro served, proposes ways to streamline government every four years. Calabro said the group’s proposed Florida Government Efficiency Act would promote efficiency every year.

The law would require governors and lawmakers to identify cost savings when proposing and approving annual state budgets. State agency leaders would provide quarterly progress reports.

The law would have to pass each year before the state budget could.

“Let’s make use of this crisis” to create “something that’s structurally beneficial year after year after year,” Calabro said.

“What we need is a mechanism that prompts them to act and has consequences if they don’t. If they don’t implement it, that means we’re not able to do the kind of cleanup of Lake Okeechobee that we would like; we’re not able to make improvements to higher education we would like; we’re not able to make some of the reforms that the House likes or the governor likes.”

The freebie list includes a number of items involving criminal justice — including changing eligibility standards to allow the release of non-violent elderly inmates to save as much as $80 million annually.

Deploying risks and needs assessments during sentencing, to identify offenders who require less supervision, would save $2.8 million every year. And it might ease overcrowding that has contributed to scandals within the Department of Corrections, Calabro said.

“We’re trying to say, ‘Let’s make sure the sentence fits the crime, and that it will actually be beneficial to us. A lot of prisons are nothing more than crime colleges,” he said. “We can reduce crime, save money, and really improve people’s lives by helping to avoid it.”

You can download the task force report, containing a complete list of the recommendations, here. Appendix A features draft language for the proposed efficiency legislation.

Joe Negron addresses Okeechobee overflow in broad-ranging briefing

Senate President Joe Negron on Tuesday defended his plan to store runoff from Lake Okeechobee instead of sending it into coastal estuaries where the nutrient-rich water can feed noxious algae blooms.

One of the Stuart Republican’s top priorities for 2017 is to spend $2.4 billion to buy 60,000 acres of land south of the lake to store excess water and ease the effects of discharging polluted runoff.

During a briefing with reporters in his Capitol office, Negron acknowledged that his plan faces opposition from homeowners, developers and agriculture interests. But he added that the solution has been obvious since Jeb Bush was governor.

“There was a general scientific consensus that additional southern storage was necessary as an indispensible component of this project,” Negron said. “It is not a radical idea. It is not a new idea. It simply says, the time has come to stop talking about it and do it.”

The voters in 2014 approved Amendment 1 to the Florida Constitution to mandate use of 33 percent of the state’s take in real estate taxes to buy land when necessary to protect the environment.

“We should stay well within fiscally prudent amounts in terms of our bonding, and I think we will. Secondly, Amendment 1 not only authorizes bonding, it anticipates bonding for purchases of environmentally sensitive land,” Negron told reporters.

“Any argument that we shouldn’t finance land purchases is negated by the voters’ expressed intent in the amendment. When there’s a conflict between someone’s personal preference and what the Constitution says, we should go with the Constitution.”

He acknowledged the problem would also requite conversion of septic tanks into sewage systems but added:

“I don’t hear anyone defending the status quo — which is that when we have a lot of rain and the water level rises to 15.5 feet, the Army Corps of Engineers opens up the floodgates and literally destroys estuaries and lagoons and waterways east and west of the lake.

Negron called for conversion of Medicaid into a block grant program that would allow Florida flexibility to address local conditions.

And he addressed the death penalty, the status of which has been uncertain since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a death sentence imposed by a judge absent a jury recommendation.

The Legislature, in response, refused to require a unanimous jury vote to put someone to death, although Negron favored that outcome.

“My personal view is that we should adopt a policy requiring a unanimous verdicts, and that was the Senate’s position last year. That actually strengthens the efficacy of a jury verdict on appeal,” he said. “It makes a verdict less susceptible to challenge.”

Meanwhile, he suggested, state leaders should monitor the way courts treat these cases.

“It’s important that there’s an orderly system of justice in place for families of victims and for individuals that are charged with these kinds of serious crimes.”

On fracking, Negron expects the Senate to consider the topic again next year.

Last year, he opposed legislation that would have regulated fracking and authorized research into what it would mean in a state that relies on the shallow Floridan Aquifer for drinking water. The bill died in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“I wasn’t comfortable that the bill being offered had the necessary protections for the environment, the water supply,” Negron said.

Additionally, it “appeared to be taking away the right of local governments to also be involved in this issue.”

Regarding cities and counties that have imposed local bans, he said it’s “not a wise thing to have 67 sets of rules on a particular issue. But, as a general proposition, I think we should be cautious in pre-empting the abilities of local governments.”

Negron signaled sympathy for local governments seeking to regulate the spread of pot dispensaries through zoning. The voters this year approved a new constitutional right to access medical marijuana.

As with fracking, “I think, generally speaking, when it comes to zoning, when it comes to land use and growth management and these kinds of things, we should stay in our lane and let local governments make decisions that they think are best for their communities,” he said.

“I do think the state has a responsibility to make sure that people’s rights under the Constitution — the right to participate in lawful commercial activities — aren’t completely taken away. But in areas of discretion, I would generally err on the side of local government.”

Joe Negron envisions block grant system for Medicaid in Florida

Senate President Joe Negron wants to start preparing for a day when Congress turns the Medicaid system into a block-grant program administered by the states.

“What I’d like to see the Legislature do … is to start building the framework of what a block grant program would look like now that there is a reasonable chance that that could happen,” the Stuart Republican told reporters Tuesday during a briefing in his Capitol office.

“I don’t want to wait until the federal government acts and Congress acts and we go into the next session and try to build it. I would like to fill out the model of what a Florida-run Medicaid would look like, and then — if and when Washington acts — Florida would be ready to go.”

Republican President-Elect Donald Trump has proposed switching Medicaid, which mostly covers low-income people, from an entitlement program largely paid for by the federal government into block grants that would allow states to exercise more control. They could save money by providing care to fewer people.

Negron cast his proposal in more generous terms.

“Rather than treating Medicaid as a program where even the vocabulary that we use is disparaging, in my opinion — we say someone is on Medicaid, as if it’s an addiction; no one says, ‘I’m on health insurance’ — use an ownership adjective,” he said.

“I would like to see a system that empowered our friends and neighbors, millions of them, who get their health care from Medicaid.”

In other words, Medicaid no longer would represent “second-tier medical care,” Negron said.

“That’s what I aspire to. Part of that would come if the state is given the opportunity to build a program that looks like Florida and addresses our issues.”

Such a system also might address the “Medicaid gap” — a problem for people in states, like Florida, that passed on Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Many people make too much to qualify for Medicaid but don’t quality for insurance subsidies through that law’s federal insurance exchange.

“I would hope that we would address that,” said Negron, who opposed expanding Medicaid under the ACA, which he would like to see repealed.

“If there’s a block grant program to the state, that opens an opportunity to a new discussion,” he said.

As for the loss of insurance subsidies if Republicans in Congress repeal the ACA, “that’s an issue we would have to address if and when that happens.”

Protesters’ ardor fails to persuade Trump electors in Tallahassee

The chants, the hymns, and the placards persuaded exactly zero Donald Trump Electoral College delegates to vote for anyone else in Tallahassee Monday.

Even so, organizers of a protest in the rotunda of Florida’s Capitol considered their efforts a success.

“Two-hundred and fifty people came out,” said Maxwell Frost, of Democracy Spring in Orlando. “We did what we came here to do. We made a point and we connnected people. We have a network across the state. We will continue to fight for progressive values and equality.”

The organization staged a mass sit-in at the Democratic National Convention last summer that resulted in hundreds of arrests, but none were reported Monday, according to a Capitol Police spokeswoman.

Activists began streaming into the Capitol hours before the electors — party loyalists all — gathered at 2 p.m. By the appointed hour, hundreds filled the rotunda, many hoisting hand-drawn signs.

“Alexander Hamilton wanted to protect me from demagogues,” read one held by a pony-tailed girl. “Not my president,” read another. “Trump is too Rusky,” a third said.

Organizers deployed techniques honed at the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, including “mic checks” — in which the crowd repeats a speaker’s statements so people can hear in the back of a crowd — and the use of finger snaps to signify applause.

“A foreign government interfered with our election,” David Caicebo, of the Florida Student Power Network, told the crowd at one point. “That’s a horrible thing.”

“We need a leader who knows what he or she is doing,” Frost said.

They sang “We Shall Overcome” and “Amazing Grace.”

Three uniformed Capitol police officers stood between the protesters and the doors to the Senate chamber as the electors gathered inside. “Vote your conscience!” protesters, observing the proceedings on TV monitors, chanted as aides passed out ballots — one each for president and vice president.

“God save us all from Pence!” someone shouted. “Flip the vote!” the protesters chanted.

“Get off your phone!” others exclaimed as the monitors showed an elector taking pictures inside with his smartphone.

When Secretary of State Ken Detzner read out the results, there arose cries of “Shame! Shame!” and “Not my president!”

Gwen Graham, in final news conference, claims $2.5 million in benefits to constituents

Congresswoman Gwen Graham said Monday that her constituent service efforts had helped people in her North Florida district secure $2.5 million in government benefits — and her thriftiness in running her office helped her return $375,000 in unspent money to Congress — during the past two years.

“Our office is an example that you can get a lot done and still be fiscally conservative,” the Democrat said during a news conference at Tallahassee City Hall, where she maintains a district office.

Aides said it would be her final meeting with reporters before leaving office early next year.

“We made constituent service or No. 1 priority,” Graham said. So much so that she has discussed its importance with Neal Dunn, the Republican from Panama City elected in November to replace Graham in a radically redistricted Congressional District 2.

“I will work with him on that,” Graham said. “I hope he continues that focus on constituent services. Because, of all the things you do in Congress, there is nothing more important that helping people back home. I have had that conversation with him I know that, in his heart, he wants to do the same.”

Graham said her office helped constituents secure $489,000 in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits; $293,000 in Veterans Administration benefits; $118,000 from the IRS; and $100,000 in Deepwater Horizon claims.

Of her office’s operating budget, Graham in prepared remarks that, “with smart management, government can provide essential services to help people while also being fiscally responsible.”

Graham has made no secret of her plans to run for governor in 2018, but also that her husband’s diagnosis with Stage IV prostate cancer might prove a complication. Steve Hurm, her husband, is due at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa this week for tests.

Asked about it Monday, Graham said: “My husband said to me today, ‘Do not make this about my cancer.'”

She added: “Life does throw you curve balls sometimes, but there is no one who is a bigger supporter of mine than my husband. I am looking forward to what the future holds with him by my side.”

When can we expect an announcement?

“Don’t worry — it’ll happen sooner rather than later.”

Graham previewed the outline of the case she might make to voters.

“For 20 years, there has been a Republican dominance in state government. I think that has really hurt the state of Florida,” she said.

She hopes to “put aside partisanship. Put aside politics and just work together with good people,” she said.

“We have a lot of serious issues in this state. If I make the decision to run — and, again, I’m clearly falling in that camp of knowing we need to have a Democratic governor in 2018 — what I bring will be very beneficial to our state’s future.”

 

Health insurance board bracing for Donald Trump, Congress, to act on Obamacare

Members of a state insurance advisory panel called Friday for legislation fixing a regulatory “family glitch” that can make health insurance unaffordable to dependents of employees of small businesses.

The Florida Health Insurance Advisory Board declined additional proposed recommendations, however — in part because of uncertainty about what Donald Trump and the Republican Congress would do about the Affordable Care Act.

Board member Bill Herrle, Florida director of the National Federation of Independent Business, asked Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier, who chairs the panel, to begin bracing for whatever changes might be in store.

Herrle noted suggestions that Congress might set the ACA, sometimes referred to as “Obamacare,” to expire following the 2018 elections, and come up with a replacement plan in the interim.

“While that sounds like a long time, that could leave Florida with potentially only one legislative session in which to account for these changes,” Herrle said.

“Many of which may be ministerial, but some of which will not be as simple as going back to pre-ACA Florida statutes and plugging them back in. The market has changed very much.”

Altmaier agreed, saying his Office of Insurance Regulation has already started studying the situation.

“I think it would be prudent on the board’s part to initiate some of these dialogs,” Altmaier said.

The panel advises state leaders about health insurance matters and includes representatives of the industry, business interests, and state agencies. It needs a consensus to send recommendations to the Legislature.

Members agreed only once Friday: On the family glitch.

Louisa McQueeney, who manages an ACA navigator project for Florida CHAIN in Boynton Beach, argued that small group plans sometimes don’t cover employees’ family members. Depending on how much the family earns, the dependents might not qualify for ACA premium subsidies.

Other proposals failed, including to make health savings accounts available through high-deductible plans requiring policyholders to pay high out-of-pocket expenses; and to repeal a state law offering coverage through small-group plans to employees’ dependents until age 30. The ACA covers them until age 26.

Another idea that didn’t get off the drawing board involved improving coverage for sufferers of “maple syrup urine” disease, a genetic malady. State law mandates coverage through age 24 — a level established years ago when patients frequently died young.

Now they can live much longer, but have trouble paying for the expensive drugs that help keep them alive.

Often, board members cited uncertainty about what Republicans in Washington would do to the health insurance market.

“There are undoubtedly going to be some changes, maybe some substantial changes to the marketplace and how it functions, said John Matthews, southeastern general counsel for UnitedHealthcare.

“I question the wisdom of us making firm statutory mandate recommendations in light of what could be rather substantial changes to the ACA in general,” Matthews said.

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