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News Service Of Florida

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

State seeks to scuttle marijuana smoking case

Attorney General Pam Bondi‘s office is asking a judge to toss out a challenge to a new law that bars patients from smoking medical marijuana.

A 39-page motion filed last week in Leon County circuit court argues that a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana did not require smoking to be allowed – and that lawmakers had good reasons to approve a smoking ban.

Orlando attorney John Morgan, who largely bankrolled the medical-marijuana legalization drive, filed a lawsuit in July contending that lawmakers violated the constitutional amendment by barring smoking.

The disputed law was passed during a June special session, as the Legislature took steps to carry out the constitutional amendment.

The law allows medical marijuana to be used in other ways, including by allowing patients to vaporize, or “vape,” marijuana products. The motion to dismiss the lawsuit said lawmakers pointed to health reasons for approving the smoking ban.

“The Legislature considered several significant health-related factors and reasonably determined that the harms caused by smoking were ample reason to exclude smoking from the definition of `medical use,’” the motion said.

It also contended that the constitutional amendment did not specify that smoking would be allowed.

“Had the framers or the voters intended to legalize smoking by adopting the amendment, they could have done so,” attorneys in Bondi’s office wrote. “There was ample opportunity for smoking to be specifically provided for or required in the amendment. But however hard plaintiffs may look for it, a smoking requirement is not in the amendment.”

Circuit Judge Karen Gievers has not scheduled a hearing in the case, according to an online docket.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Annette Taddeo sworn into Senate after ‘long journey’

Two weeks after pulling off a major victory in a special election, Annette Taddeo was sworn in Tuesday as the first Hispanic Democratic woman to serve in the Florida Senate.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince administered the oath of office to Taddeo, who was joined by her 11-year-old daughter, Sofia, husband, Eric Goldstein, and mother, Elizabeth Taddeo. Annette Taddeo defeated former Republican House member Jose Felix Diaz during a Sept. 26 special election in Miami-Dade County’s Senate District 40.

“I’m looking forward to serving with each and every one of you,” Taddeo told senators gathered in the Senate chamber for the ceremony. “It’s been a long journey to get here, to say the least. But I am very familiar with long journeys.”

The ceremony was held just minutes after the state Elections Canvassing Commission certified the results of the special election, along with Republican Daniel Perez’s victory Sept. 26 in a special election in Miami-Dade’s House District 116.

The Colombia-born Taddeo replaces former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican who resigned in April after a crude, racially tinged tirade at a private club near the Capitol. Diaz resigned from the House District 116 seat to run for Senate, setting off a ripple that led to Perez’s election.

While the Senate has had Hispanic Republican women — and Hispanic Republican and Democratic men — lawmakers said Taddeo is the first Hispanic Democratic woman to serve in the chamber.

“Today is a wonderful and historic day,” Sen. Lauren Book said before offering an opening prayer at Tuesday’s ceremony.

Taddeo’s victory also was a major boost politically for Democrats, who have been in the Senate minority for more than two decades. The GOP still holds a 24-16 advantage in the chamber, but Taddeo defeated the well-known, better-funded Diaz in a swing district.

Taddeo, a former chairwoman of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party, was U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist‘s running mate in Crist’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2014. She also unsuccessfully ran for a South Florida congressional seat in 2016.

But she handily defeated Diaz by a margin of 51 percent to 47.2 percent, with a no-party candidate receiving the rest of the vote.

Taddeo told reporters Tuesday said she wants to focus on public-education and environmental issues. She has been assigned to four committees and a subcommittee, including the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee.

During the swearing-in, she also smiled as she gave senators a glimpse of her varied background.

“I do want to warn you that sometimes this Latina will start speaking with a little bit of a Southern accent. And I don’t want you to think I am being disrespectful to anybody with a Southern accent. I learned English in Alabama,” said Taddeo, who received a bachelor’s degree at the University of North Alabama. “So I just want you to know why sometimes you’ll hear the, `I’m fixing to tell you a story,’ or the Southern twang, with a little bit of Hispanic accent.”

AHCA eyes hospitals for budget cuts

Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration continues to target hospitals for potential Medicaid spending reductions in the coming year.

The Agency for Health Care Administration’s top four proposed budget cuts for the Legislature to consider during the 2018 session would reduce Medicaid payments to hospitals by nearly $1 billion. Those reductions would be on top of nearly $500 million in recurring cuts made to hospitals during the 2017 session.

“It would be devastating, for goodness sakes,” said Jan Gorrie, a hospital lobbyist and managing partner of the Tampa office of Ballard Partners. “I’m surprised to see the magnitude of the cut. It’s mind-blowing. It’s like, whoa.”

In addition to a list of proposed reductions for the Legislature to consider, AHCA also submitted its proposed budget requests for the upcoming year. It includes a request for an additional $66 million to cover a deficit in the Children’s Medical Services managed-care plan for the current year. The deficit is a result of lower enrollment in the Medicaid specialty plan than anticipated.

The agency also is requesting $925,000 for analytics of data submitted to what is known as the all-payer claims database. And $700,000 so the agency can implement a new Medicaid prepaid dental health program for children and adults.

Meanwhile, the agency’s top recommendation to save money is to alter a current policy that provides retroactive Medicaid eligibility for the 90 days prior to a beneficiary’s application being submitted. AHCA is recommending that the state trim retroactive eligibility to 30 days.

During the retroactive period, the state picks up the health care bills that accrued in the three months including paying for “uncoordinated and potentially inappropriate utilization of medical services,” budget documents note.

Trimming retroactive eligibility from 90 days to 30 days would reduce Medicaid spending by $98.4 million according to the agency’s budget documents. Hospitals would lose $58.3 million if the Legislature were to agree to the change.

Agencies annually compile proposed reduction lists as part of the budget process. The question is whether or not the Legislature will, in fact, target the areas that have been identified by the agencies in what is expected to be a tight budget year.

A financial outlook prepared by state economists in September said Florida’s surplus may be as small as $52 million, but those projections did not include the state’s costs responding to Hurricane Irma.

AHCA compiled a list of six proposed spending reductions and assigned each proposal a priority number. The agency’s second-highest priority is reducing the amount Medicaid spends on reimbursing hospitals by $318 million in total funds by eliminating automatic rate enhancements.

Its third recommendation is restricting participation in the Medicaid “Medically Needy” program to about 1,600 pregnant women and children. The move would eliminate coverage for about 27,000 people currently covered under the program. The program provides Medicaid access to people who don’t qualify for Medicaid because of their income levels.

The fourth recommendation is eliminating an optional Medicaid program that provides coverage to 51,057 aged, blind and disabled people with incomes above what’s allowable for Social Security income but below 88 percent of the federal poverty level. Eliminating the “Meds AD” program would reduce total spending by $558 million.

The Medically Needy program and the Meds AD program have been offered up in the past by the agency as potential ways to save money, but the Legislature has not chosen to reduce them.

AHCA’s fifth recommendation is to reduce $135,150,336 in the Home and Community Based Services Waiver funding. It is “double budgeted” according to budget documents.

Lastly, the Legislature could reduce spending in Medicaid HMOs by 5.16 percent, or nearly $475 million. To achieve that level of reduction, though, the state would have to eliminate some of the services that currently are covered under the Medicaid managed care program, which would require federal approval.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

`Bump stock’ ban proposed in Florida

Little more than a week after a massacre in Las Vegas, a Florida state senator Monday proposed banning devices – known as “bump stocks” – that can be used to increase the rate of firing bullets from semi-automatic weapons.

Orlando Democratic state Sen. Linda Stewart filed the bill (SB 456) for consideration during the 2018 legislative session, which starts in January.

Bump stocks have drawn widespread attention since Stephen Paddock fired guns Oct. 1 from a window at the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds of others who had gathered for a country-music concert.

Paddock, who also killed himself, had modified weapons to make them fire more rapidly. Stewart’s bill would ban the possession and sale of bump stocks in Florida.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Gov. Scott schedules execution in Hillsborough murders

Less than 24 hours after the state executed Death Row inmate Cary Michael Lambrix, Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed a death warrant for a man convicted in two 1991 murders in Hillsborough County.

Scott scheduled the execution of Patrick C. Hannon, 52, for Nov. 8 at Florida State Prison.

Hannon was sentenced to death in the murders of Brandon Snider and Robert Carter. Hannon and two other men went to the apartment where Snider and Carter lived on Jan. 10, 1991. After one of the other men attacked and stabbed Snider, Hannon was accused of cutting Snider’s throat, according to a court document and a summary of the case provided by Scott’s office. Hannon was then accused of fatally shooting Carter, who had tried to hide under a bed.

Hannon would be the third man executed since the end of a 19-month hiatus for the state’s death penalty. That hiatus stemmed from a January 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system unconstitutional, forcing lawmakers to revamp the system.

Death Row inmate Mark James Asay was executed Aug. 24 for killing two men in the 1980s in Jacksonville. Lambrix, 57, was put to death by lethal injection at 10:10 p.m. Thursday for the 1983 murders of two people near LaBelle.

CRC member: Changing write-in law ‘right thing to do’

Although she is a Republican, Florida Constitution Revision Commission member Sherry Plymale explained in an opinion piece this week why she is supporting a write-in candidate proposal that was originally offered by a Democrat.

“Sometimes there are issues that shouldn’t be a matter of politics and should be addressed because it is the right and ethical thing to do,” Plymale wrote Thursday on the TCPalm website.

On Monday, Plymale agreed to sponsor a proposed constitutional amendment from Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a Democrat, that would let all voters participate in primaries if the only general-election opposition comes from write-in candidates. Currently, the presence of write-in candidates in general elections closes primaries, shutting out many voters from deciding races. In closed primaries, only Republican voters can cast ballots in races involving Republican candidates, and only Democratic voters can cast ballots in races involving Democratic candidates.

“It’s important to note that a write-in candidate has never won any major election in Florida and they don’t pay filing fees or collect petitions when qualifying for office,” Plymale wrote. “This makes it all too easy for individuals to close primary elections by propping up write-in candidates to create an unfair political advantage.”

While noting she and Aronberg have different political backgrounds, she said they both agreed the “write-in loophole has been allowed to exist for too long” and closing it “is the right thing to do for Florida voters.” Plymale’s amendment (P11) will be considered by the Constitution Revision Commission’s committees.

It must gain at least 22 votes from the full commission before it can advance to next year’s general-election ballot, where it must win at least 60 percent support to be enacted.

Enterprise Florida gives raises, ditches bonuses

Raises will be provided to 16 upper-level and mid-level employees of Enterprise Florida, as the state’s business-recruitment agency does away with a controversial bonus program.

The Enterprise Florida Executive Committee voted unanimously during a conference call Friday to approve a recommendation — supported by Gov. Rick Scott — to replace the bonus program.

The pay increases are seen by committee members as a way to maintain Enterprise Florida without causing an exodus of employees. The public-private agency has faced heavy scrutiny during the past year, with House leaders even seeking to eliminate it.

“No one is excited about taking away the bonuses, but it does make sense given the fact that the Legislature has expressed an interest in this,” committee member Holly Borgmann said.

The raises — retroactive to July 1 — range from $3,000 to $25,000 and will increase payroll by $118,000 for the year, under the plan outlined for the committee.

In August, several members of the executive committee expressed concern that withholding performance pay, when employees have done an “admirable job” in difficult times, could result in an exodus of experience.

“Certainly, none of us foresaw this path coming in the previous weeks and months,” committee Chairman Stan Connally, who is also president and CEO of Pensacola-based Gulf Power, said during the conference call Friday. “We want to be sure we’re fairly compensating this team.”

In a memo Thursday to the committee, Enterprise Florida President and CEO Pete Antonacci explained that while the bonus program has worked, it has also been a source of criticism.

“The bonus practice, typically across the board, has had the effect of smoothing over rough spots (under payment) while at once creating unwarranted expectation (over payment),” Antonacci said in the memo. “Under circumstances and for reasons known well to all, staff bonuses are an object of public derision and will not ever be well accepted.”

“Practically speaking,” Antonacci continued, “most Floridians having opinion about EFI at all, believe our employees are public servants in the broadest sense.”

Last October, Enterprise Florida handed out $448,662 in bonuses to 57 employees.

In 2015, with up to $765,000 in bonuses being offered, then-President Bill Johnson received $50,000, half of what he could have received, despite being on the job for just six months.

A year earlier, the Enterprise Florida board approved a $120,000 bonus to then-President Gray Swoope, surpassing a $100,000 cap, while also approving $765,000 in bonuses.

The bonus program, which officials promoted as coming from money pooled by private contributions rather than tax dollars, was tied to a series of recruitment and hiring objectives for each year.

The possibility of scuttling bonuses came after the House this year sought to eliminate Enterprise Florida and the tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida. The House’s efforts were ultimately blocked by the Senate and Scott.

The Legislature settled on cutting state money for Enterprise Florida’s daily operations from $23.5 million in 2016-2017 to $16 million for the budget year that began July 1.

Along with the revised funding, lawmakers also imposed new rules such as increasing financial-disclosure requirements and prohibiting the use of tax dollars for performance bonuses or severance pay unless authorized by law.

Also, any employee pay exceeding the governor’s authorized salary of $130,000 a year must be funded out of private contributions.

Antonacci said Friday the agency has sufficient resources to cover the raises.

Under the plan outlined for the committee Friday, the largest raise, $25,000, will go to Senior Vice President of Business Development Tim Vanderhoof.

Vanderhoof, who would see his annual salary grow to $155,000, will also take over marketing for the agency.

The second-largest raise, $13,000, will go to Heather Shubrig, who serves under Vanderhoof as vice president of business development. She currently is paid $80,000 a year.

Manny Mencia, the senior vice president of international trade and development, will get a $4,000 raise. Mencia, who oversees the agency’s trade missions, currently is paid $160,000 a year.

Comptroller Robert Schlotman will see a $10,000 increase in pay, to $130,000 a year, with a promotion to senior vice president.

Antonacci and Executive Vice President Mike Grissom — who served as interim president before Antonacci joined the agency in August — were not among those up for raises.

In August, Scott sent a letter to members of the boards of directors at Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida outlining his opposition to employee bonuses.

“Employees are the key to success in any organization,” Scott, who serves as chairman of Enterprise Florida board, said in the letter. “But, after a long legislative session where the spending at these organizations was greatly debated, I do not believe that employee compensation should include bonuses at this time.”

Instead, Scott advised the agencies to review employee pay “to ensure that everyone is being compensated fairly relying on salaries rather than bonuses.”

Visit Florida, which gave out $440,915 in bonuses to 119 employees in May, has announced it has ended the performance reward program.

Nate poised to send wind, waves to Panhandle

Florida’s western Panhandle, the one area of the state spared the impact of Hurricane Irma nearly a month ago, is expected to get winds, surging water and rain this weekend from fast-moving Tropical Storm Nate.

A hurricane watch was in effect Friday afternoon in Florida from the Alabama border to the county line of Okaloosa and Walton counties. A tropical storm watch was in place from the Walton County line to Indian Pass, which is south of Port St. Joe in Gulf County.

A storm surge watch covered the coast from the Alabama state line to Indian Pass, including Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach and Panama City.

A watch means the conditions could arise within the next 48 hours.

“We’re going to get rain. We’re going to get storm surge. We’re going to get wind. We don’t know how bad it’s going to be,” Gov. Rick Scott said Friday during a mid-day briefing in Escambia County. “This storm, like all these storms, is going to change. So you have got to stay vigilant.”

Scott also warned of rip currents and tornadoes.

Local officials haven’t ordered coastal evacuations, but bridges will be closed if maximum sustained winds reach 40 mph.

A 2 p.m. forecast from the National Hurricane Center put Nate on course to become a hurricane Saturday afternoon, come ashore that night in Louisiana or Mississippi and then veer east as a tropical storm.

A hurricane warning is in place from Grand Isle, La., to the Alabama-Florida border.

Florida emergency-management officials have been coordinating with fuel suppliers, grocers and utilities to prepare for the storm.

Scott cautioned people to keep an eye on the storm, noting that Hurricane Harvey, while in the Gulf of Mexico in August, went from a tropical system to a Category 4 hurricane in under 48 hours before making landfall in Texas.

But Scott also said Florida is in a better position with Nate than Irma because there aren’t concerns about fuel shortages, as was the case before powerful and deadly Irma swept through the state Sept. 10 and Sept. 11.

“With regard to Irma it was right after (Hurricane) Harvey, the refineries were shut down, so going into Irma we were low on fuel,” Scott said. “We are not low on fuel. We’ve been having daily calls with the oil companies, all the suppliers, so we’re not short today like we were walking into Irma. We were worried that we wouldn’t have enough fuel to make sure everybody could evacuate. That’s not true today.”

Nate has already been blamed for at least 22 deaths in Central America.

In preparing for the storm, Scott on Thursday declared a state of emergency for 29 counties along the Gulf Coast and in North Florida: Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington, Bay, Jackson, Calhoun, Gulf, Gadsden, Liberty, Franklin, Leon, Wakulla, Jefferson, Madison, Taylor, Hamilton, Suwannee, Lafayette, Dixie, Columbia, Gilchrist, Levy, Baker, Union, Bradford, and Alachua.

Bill seeks priority for nursing home power restoration

A House Republican on Friday proposed a measure that seeks to ensure power restoration for nursing homes and hospitals is a priority after hurricanes and other emergencies.

The bill (HB 245), filed by Tampa Republican state Rep. Shawn Harrison, comes after the deaths of residents of a Broward County nursing home that lost its air-conditioning system Sept. 10 because of Hurricane Irma. Eight residents of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died Sept. 13, and four more died later after the sweltering facility was evacuated.

Harrison’s bill, which is filed for the 2018 legislative session, would require a state comprehensive emergency-management plan to include guidelines for restoring electrical service with “prioritization of critical end-use facilities,” including hospitals and nursing homes.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Annette Taddeo named to insurance, environment panels

With a swearing-in ceremony scheduled Tuesday, newly elected Sen. Annette Taddeo will serve on five Senate panels, including committees that play key roles in insurance and environmental issues.

Taddeo won a closely watched special election Sept. 26 to replace former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican who resigned in April from the Senate District 40 seat.

Senate President Joe Negron has appointed Taddeo to serve on the Banking and Insurance Committee; the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee; the Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee; the Transportation Committee; and the General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, according to the Senate website.

Also this week, Taddeo opened a campaign account as a first step in running for a full term in 2018, according to the state Division of Elections website.

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