Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics - Page 7 of 22

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.

Bills would eliminate tobacco companies’ discounted appeals

The Florida Legislature could consider legislation that would make it more expensive for tobacco companies to appeal verdicts in liability cases filed by smokers made sick or injured by their products.

SB 100, filed by Sen. Greg Steube, contains just two lines:

“Section 569.23, Florida Statutes, is repealed.” And “This act shall take effect July 1, 2017.” An identical House companion was filed by state Rep. Danny Burgess (HB 6011).

That section, enacted in 2009, caps the amount tobacco companies must post when appealing trial court verdicts against them. Supporters argued at the time that the provision would protect the companies’ ability to make payments to the states under the massive 1999 liability verdict against them.

Steube is chairman and one of four members of the nine-member Judiciary Committee who won backing this year from the Florida Justice Association, which represents trial lawyers in the state.

He said he didn’t know what the financial implications of his proposal might be — but hopes to find out during committee hearings.

“I just don’t think there should be a specific exception basically giving cigarette companies the ability to delay litigation for as long as possible,” Steube said.

“There’s not another industry out there that has something like that. That’s something the Legislature has the right and the ability to look at.”

Donald Polmann makes his debut at Public Service Commission

Donald Polmann attended his first meeting as a member of the Public Service Commission Thursday, promising to seek a balance between sustaining Florida’s public utilities and the needs of their customers.

“I am truly grateful for the warm welcome that I’ve received from everyone here at the Public Service Commission,” Polmann said.

“I know that we have very important work to do, and I intend to make significant contributions with the benefit of my background, experience and expertise. My focus will be on service to Florida.”

Polmann said he hopes to help ensure “consistent, reliable service at a fair and reasonable cost” to customers, at rates that will allow utilities “to maintain as well as plan and grow for the future, in an effective and efficient manner.”

Gov. Rick Scott selected Polmann to replace former Commissioner Lisa Edgar, who decided not to apply for a fourth term. She has been named as the new chief of the Florida Parks Service.

Polmann is a registered professional engineer with three degrees, including a doctorate in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a senior manager at Atkins, a design and engineering firm that specializes in water projects.

His appointment, which must be confirmed by the Florida Senate, runs through Jan. 1, 2021.

Chairwoman Julie Imanuel Brown welcomed Polmann to the commission, telling him, “You have some big shoes to fill — not literally,” referring to Edgar.

During the next two years, Brown said, the commission plans an active agenda, including preparation for cybersecurity and natural disasters including hurricanes.

The agenda for Thursday, she said, contained “lighter issues, to help ease the transition to a new year.”

Items included minor rate hikes to finance well repairs and capital improvements at two small Pasco County water utilities; transfer of ownership of another small water utility in Lake County; and a territorial agreement switching 29 commercial and 102 residential customers in Hamilton County from Duke Energy Florida LLC to the Suwanee Valley Electric Cooperative.

The commission approved all of the items in under an hour.

Panel seeks changes to workers’ comp billing and new drug formulary

A state workers’ compensation advisory panel voted Wednesday to ask the Legislature to consider letting regulators establish a drug formulary in hopes of keeping medical costs under control.

The panel also recommended changes to the way Florida’s workers’ compensation system reimburses facilities that treat injured workers, and to tighten the guidelines for authorizing medical care.

Although formally named the Three-Member Panel, the group contains only two members at present — Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier and Tamela Perdue, a senior vice president for Sunshine Health, who represents employers. Gov. Rick Scott has not filled a vacant seat representing workers.

The panel sets reimbursement policies and payment levels for health care providers, pharmacists, and medical suppliers working with workers’ compensation claimants.

The panel will pass its recommendations along to the leaders of the House and Senate for adoption through legislation or — if lawmakers demur — possibly through regulations.

But the recommendations contemplate talks between all the parties to the workers’ compensation system in ironing out the details of any changes.

During the meeting in Tallahassee, Andrew Sabolic, assistant director of the state Division of Workers’ Compensation, said a review of workers’ complaints about the system revealed that nearly all had problems securing authorization for medical treatments.

“There are probably some behavior issues on both sides that need to be addressed,” he told the panel members.

“But, frankly, the division and maybe the Three-Member Panel have to recognize that this is the elephant in the room, possibly, that needs to be examined.”

Although Florida law sets guidelines for carriers to respond to requests for treatment, it doesn’t define “respond,” Sabolic said.

The panel adopted a recommendation to clarify the term, to improve consistency and streamline the process. Additionally, workers would have to wait 30 days to file formal petitions for benefits, to give carriers time to fully consider claims.

“We can do better. Providers can do better. Carriers can do better. They both can be held more accountable for their actions,” Sabolic said.

A number of states use drug formularies, according to a report prepared by the division. The idea is to control costs while also providing medical treatment.

The document noted increased use of compound drugs, mixed by pharmacists and not approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Florida sets maximum reimbursement allowances for hospital outpatient services and those performed in ambulatory surgical centers, and the process has helped to contain costs, the document says.

But those allowances don’t cover every procedure, and there’s no process in state law to figure out whether these outlier procedures are being billed appropriately. The panel voted to recommend the Legislature either tie these reimbursements to what Medicare pays, or else establish a procedure to allow providers to supply evidence establishing that their bills are reasonable.

Sol Epstein, representing the Florida Society of Ambulatory Surgical Centers, warned that might not be possible, since it’s illegal for centers like the ones he operates in South Florida to know what their competitors charge for procedures.

In any event, he said, outlier procedures tend to be covered under maximum reimbursement allowances as they become more common.

“Although it might sound easy and make some sense,” the proposals would represent a “massive change,” he said.

Employers Insurance Group retains Tallahassee lobbyist Donovan Brown

Donovan Brown has added Employers Insurance Group to his roster of lobbying clients.

Brown registered to represent Employers as of December. 6.

He canceled his registration to represent a dozen or so insurance and other clients when he left Colodny Fass during the summer to strike out on his own. He now operates GDB Group in Tallahassee.

His other clients include AmTrust Financial Services Inc., which sells property and casualty insurance to small businesses.

Employers specializes in workers’ compensation insurance, also to small businesses.

Brown is former state government relations counsel for Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

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.”

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