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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.

AHCA seeks to block deposition in nursing home case

The state Agency for Health Care Administration asked a judge Friday to shield a high-ranking agency official from being deposed in a legal battle about revoking the license of a Broward County nursing home.

AHCA attorneys filed a motion asking Administrative Law Judge Mary Li Creasy to block the deposition of Molly McKinstry, a deputy secretary at the agency.

The motion came in a legal challenge filed by The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills to a decision last month by AHCA to revoke the facility’s license. The revocation decision came after eight residents of the nursing home died Sept. 13, three days after Hurricane Irma knocked out the facility’s air conditioning.

As part of challenging the license revocation, the nursing home’s attorneys subpoenaed documents from AHCA and are seeking to depose McKinstry, who oversees the agency’s Division of Health Quality Assurance.

In the motion filed Friday, AHCA’s attorneys objected to turning over subpoenaed documents, calling many of the nursing home’s requests “overbroad.” They also wrote that McKinstry should not be subject to a deposition because the nursing home could get the same information by deposing lower-ranking officials.

“Within AHCA, the deputy secretary is a high-ranking administrator, second only to the secretary of the agency,” the motion said. “It is improper for a party to compel the testimony of a high-ranking agency official, unless the party establishes that the testimony to be elicited is necessary, relevant and unavailable from a lesser ranking officer.”

Transportation chief points to ‘effective’ job on debris removal

Florida’s transportation secretary is giving his agency a passing mark for debris removal after Hurricane Irma.

But with debris still along some roads, particularly in pockets of the Florida Keys, Department of Transportation Secretary Michael Dew said officials will look at how they can improve before the next storm.

“I think we did an effective job, but I think we can always do better,” Dew said Thursday during a meeting of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.

The pace and cost of debris collection has been a point of contention in the government’s response to Hurricane Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and then barreled up the state.

The Department of Transportation has spent $15 million on debris removal from state highways, with Dew expecting reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Some of that money related to getting called in to help after local governments complained that debris haulers failed to honor pre-storm contracts as subcontractors went in pursuit of better deals in areas harder hit by the storm.

Dew, whose department will conduct a storm-response review next month, said he wants to see if language about penalties and liabilities can be strengthened in contracts with disaster relief companies.

“We had a couple of incidents in areas around the state where we were promised 25 cut-and-toss crews but maybe only 15 showed up,” Dew said. “I’d like to see some more teeth in the contracts so that we can rely on the numbers that are in there, because a lot of our critical planning relies on having those crews available to us.”

Committee Chairwoman Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican whose panel is expected next month to make a series of recommendations that could lead to legislation, said debris removal might be one of those topics.

“I don’t necessarily believe that that is a state’s role to manage county-by-county contracts, but I think the state needs to take a long hard look at it and see what we can do at the state level to develop perhaps reciprocal agreements with other states,” Nunez said. “I believe there is a role to play. How much, that’s yet to be determined.”

Other topics the committee has looked at include health-care facilities, evacuations, petroleum supplies, electric utilities, housing, agriculture, shelter management, education and beaches.

“Obviously, there will be short-term things that need to be taken care of in the immediate, upcoming session,” Nunez said. “And then, as we saw back in (Hurricane) Andrew, or during the ’04-’05 season, legislatures will deal with this issue for years to come.”

A Florida Atlantic University poll released last week found that 70 percent of Floridians rated the handling of the storm as good or better. Meanwhile, delays in debris cleanup resulted in 44 percent of the same people rating debris removal as fair or poor.

Last month, questions were raised about emergency debris-removal contracts issued by the Department of Transportation to two firms and whether the state was paying high rates — three to 10 times in some cases — for the work. Meanwhile, Attorney General Pam Bondi‘s office has looked into claims that three other debris-removal companies hadn’t fulfilled post-Hurricane Irma contracts.

After Democrats from Florida’s congressional delegation last month asked questions about the emergency-debris contracting, Gov. Rick Scott‘s office said local communities had reported that haulers were not providing agreed-to services.

“After the storm, the governor heard from many local communities, including Monroe County, that many of these companies were not providing the agreed-upon service and were demanding higher prices. This is unacceptable,” Scott’s office said at the time. “Monroe County asked for additional help to pick up debris following the storm. FDOT went above and beyond the requirements of Florida law

Jeff Brandes returns from China with new adopted daughter

While sexual harassment allegations and rumors continued to swirl around Tallahassee, one legislator watched the show while completing a personal international deal.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, his wife Natalie and their eldest daughter Charlotte, whom they call “Lottie,” spent the past week in the sprawling port city of Guangzhou – outside Hong Kong – wrapping up the year-long adoption of a new daughter.

The trip was their first time in China since they began the adoption process.

“You meet them on a Monday, you go back to the consulate on a Tuesday, they ask if you still want this child,” Brandes said, back in the Capitol Wednesday. “You promise not to abandon her and everything else. Then it’s about a week-long process.”

Elizabeth, “Lizzie,” is the fourth child for the couple married just over a decade. Elizabeth, 8, is the first they’ve adopted.

The couple has two sons, Colin and Conor, ages 6 and 4.

Brandes, known for pushing legislation about new technologies, said he was able to follow the latest Capitol intrigue via tweets and admitted: “it was a good week to be away.”

“I walked in the lunchroom today, I said, `Sorry guys I’ve been gone a week. Anything happen while I was gone?’,” Brandes joked Wednesday before an Appropriations Committee.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Irma agriculture losses continue to mount

Florida’s $2.5 billion request for federal disaster relief for its agriculture industry after Hurricane Irma might not be enough.

Members of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness said Thursday month-old damage estimates made by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services are too low.

“I actually think your numbers are conservative,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat who called for a bipartisan letter to Congress supporting the emergency disaster relief that has been requested by Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. “I think you’re probably looking at over $1 billion in damages to the citrus industry.”

In an estimate of damages on Oct. 4, the state department projected citrus losses at $761 million from the September storm, followed by the nursery industry at almost $624 million.

The cattle industry damage assessment was $237.5 million, while the dairy industry was estimated to have $11.8 million in losses.

The sugar industry appeared to have $383 million in damage, with an estimated 534,324 acres affected. Vegetable and fruit growers — excluding citrus — were projected to have $180 million in damage, with an estimated 163,679 acres impacted by the storm.

Grace Lovett, the department’s legislative affairs director, told the committee Thursday the $2.5 billion estimate included infrastructure, equipment and other items beyond crop damages. However, she noted that the department has noticed a number of trends, such as a slowdown in the movement of produce trucks.

“What they are seeing so far is staggering,” Lovett said. “September produce shipments from Florida were 76 percent lower than their average over the previous four years.”

Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who is a citrus grower, said the numbers will grow because storm-damaged fruit continues drop from the trees.

“It’s like a disease in a way,” Albritton said, adding, Irma “beat it up so bad that the connection between the fruit and the stem is weakened.”

He added that growers who saw damages of more than 70 percent may find harvesting costs outweigh the return on sales.

Albritton said growers who have lost 80 to 90 percent of their crops essentially have a total loss.

“You can’t afford to harvest 10 or 15 percent,” he said.

Albritton suggested the committee, which is expected to roll out post-storm legislative proposals in December, consider state and local tax reductions for the industry.

Jim Handley, executive vice president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, suggested the state consider opening some of its publicly owned land for commercial cattle ranching to help the industry.

“I know of properties that could be grazed,” Handley said. “The land would be better off, and it would expand our footprint.”

A week ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reduced its Florida citrus-harvest forecast for the current growing season, projecting there will be 27 percent fewer oranges and 40 percent fewer grapefruit than during the past season.

Mike Sparks, executive vice president of Florida Citrus Mutual, said the industry, which has been struggling the past decade with citrus greening disease, had been hoping for a slight rebound in terms of production.

Before the storm, the industry was hoping for about 10 percent growth from the past season, which would still be nearly 40 percent off where the industry needs to be to ensure sustainability, Sparks said.

But the “optimism certainly came to an immediate end” with Irma, Sparks said. Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and raced up the state, caused heavy damage in major citrus-growing areas.

A series of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 caused the industry to lose 44 percent of the crop.

“This damage is even worse,” Sparks said. “We had fruit not only blown off the trees, but trees in standing water for days.”

Scott has asked state lawmakers to include $21 million in the next budget to help citrus growers. Scott wants the money to include $10 million for citrus research, $4 million for marketing and $7 million for post-storm relief.

Ross Spano enters race for Attorney General

Hillsborough County Republican Ross Spano announced plans Thursday to run for Attorney General, becoming the third member of the House and the fourth Republican seeking to replace term-limited Attorney General Pam Bondi next year.

Spano, the chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee is joining a Republican field with Rep. Jay Fant of Jacksonville, Rep. Frank White of Pensacola and Ashley Moody, a former Hillsborough County circuit judge.

“If I felt like the right person was in the race to be the attorney general of the state of Florida, you can trust me, I wouldn’t be running,” Spano said. “I’m the only person among the three that are in the race right now that has these following things: the legislative experience; the conservative values; and the actual courtroom experience. I’ve been practicing law for 19 years. I’ve been in the courtroom for that time.”

Spano, who was first elected to the House in 2012 and has been ruminating with his wife on the statewide contest for about eight months, also described a long-held belief in defending victims of inequality or injustice.

Spano, who practices in the areas of estate planning, trusts, business law and corporate formation, appeared undeterred that he is entering a contest in which Fant, White and Moody have a head start in amassing cash and in lining up endorsements.

All three have raised more than $1 million through their campaign accounts and affiliated political committees. White’s money includes $1.5 million that he contributed to his campaign. Fant has put $750,000 of his own money into his campaign.

Moody, from Spano’s backyard, has the backing of Bondi.

Spano, who lives in Dover and is a father of four, said he will start to roll out endorsements in the next few weeks.

As for catching up financially, he has a way to go.

His House re-election account raised $13,000 in October, and he began November with nearly $44,000 on hand.

“I’ve been through this process before, not on a statewide basis, but even in our House race we’ve had to spend a half-million dollars,” Spano said.

He went through $242,000 when first elected, $234,000 in 2014 and $372,000 for his 2016 re-election.

A new political committee, known as Liberty and Justice for All, also could help boost his candidacy financially.

Ryan Torrens, an attorney from Hillsborough County, is the only Democrat to have opened a campaign account for the race. News reports in recent weeks also have raised the possibility that Rep. Sean Shaw, a Tampa Democrat, could run for the Cabinet post.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Court tosses out verdict against tobacco companies

An appeals court Wednesday ordered a new trial in a case in which tobacco companies were ordered to pay $12 million in the death of a smoker who was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 42.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal sided with Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which argued in part that a Pinellas County circuit judge had improperly responded to a request from jurors to read back potentially critical testimony.

The lawsuit was filed against the cigarette makers by the estate of Douglas Duignan, who began smoking at age 14 and was diagnosed in 1992 with a cancerous tumor in his lung. Duignan died after cancer was found elsewhere in his body, Wednesday’s 31-page ruling said. The case is one of thousands — known as “Engle progeny” cases — that stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about issues including the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.

The jury ruled in favor of Duignan’s estate, awarding $6 million in compensatory damages and $6 million in punitive damages.

But a key issue in the case was a contention by the tobacco companies that Duignan “smoked because he liked smoking rather than because he was addicted to nicotine or because he was misinformed about the risks,” the appeals court ruling said.

During deliberations, the jury sought to review a deposition of Duignan’s brother, Dennis, that the tobacco companies hoped bolstered their arguments. But the judge told the jury that reading back testimony is “generally not done” because it could give “undue emphasis” over other testimony, Wednesday’s ruling said. The appeals court said the judge improperly tried to discourage reading back the testimony to jurors.

“The estate and PM (Philip Morris) and Reynolds addressed Dennis Duignan’s testimony in opening statements and again in closing arguments,” said Wednesday’s ruling written by Judge Samuel Salario and joined by judges Patricia Kelly and Anthony Black.

“The fact that the jury asked for a transcript of his testimony suggests that it may have found it significant as well. Under these circumstances, there is at least a reasonable possibility that had the jury been permitted to ask for a readback of Dennis Duignan’s testimony, it might have resolved one or more of the determinative issues in the case differently than it ultimately did.”

Fundraising in Ag Commissioner race rebounds post-Irma

After a fundraising slowdown in September as the state – and the agriculture industry – struggled with Hurricane Irma, fundraising revived in October for Republicans seeking to succeed the term-limited Adam Putnam, a 2018 gubernatorial candidate.

Rep. Matt Caldwell, a Republican from North Fort Myers, brought in $66,000 last month for his political committee Friends of Matt Caldwell, with another $45,235 raised for his campaign account.

Caldwell had raised a combined total of $1.37 million as of Oct. 31.

Republican state Sen. Denise Grimsley of Sebring raised $39,855 in September for her campaign account, with another $46,500 raised for her political committee known as Saving Florida’s Heartland.

Grimsley’s two accounts had nearly $885,000 on hand when October came to a close.

The overall money leader in the contest remains self-funded former Rep. Baxter Troutman, a Republican from Winter Haven.

While Troutman pulled in $23,500 for his campaign account last month, and for the second month posted no money to his political committee known as iGrow, his accounts had about $2.56 million on hand as of Oct. 31. Troutman put $2.5 million of his own money into the contest in June.

Meanwhile, Orlando businessman Paul Paulson dropped out of the agriculture-commissioner race while giving an endorsement to Caldwell.

On the Democratic side of the ledger, David Walker of Fort Lauderdale posted $595 in October, after posting $750 in September.

His campaign had raised $5,135 as of Oct. 31, in addition to $9,500 of his own money. He had spent $11,100.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Gun bills could get jammed again in Senate

Gun-related issues for the 2018 Session could be firing blanks in the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature.

The 60-day regular Session still won’t start for a little under two months. But Senate Judiciary Chairman Greg Steube said Tuesday that “at this time” he doesn’t plan to file two gun bills that have been among the more-controversial issues in recent sessions.

One of those proposals would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on university and college campuses. The other proposal would allow license-holders to openly carry handguns.

Steube, a prominent gun-rights supporter, made the comments Tuesday after his committee postponed two other firearm-related measures.

One of the postponed measures (SB 274) would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns at private schools that are on the same property as religious institutions. Other than law-enforcement officers, people are now barred from carrying guns at schools.

The second postponed bill (SB 148) would reduce penalties for people who inadvertently allow legally carried guns to be openly displayed.

Last week, the Judiciary Committee postponed a measure (SB 134) that would have allowed people with concealed-weapons licenses to store firearms with security officers at courthouses. Current law prevents people from carrying guns into courthouses.

Steube, a Sarasota Republican who is pushing for the “courthouse carry” measure and the bill to reduce penalties people who inadvertently display guns, refused to say that any of the proposals are dead before the legislative session begins Jan. 9.

“I have full intention to put them back up, and hopefully we’ll get to a point where we’ll do an up or down vote,” he said.

Asked if gun-related measures are in trouble for the 2018 session, National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer said she never makes predictions.

“There’s an old saying, `It ain’t over ’til it’s over.’ ” Hammer said in an email. “And we haven’t even started.”

Steube’s words echoed his refrains from much of the 2017 Session when a pair of South Florida Republican members of his committee joined with Democrats on gun-related issues, effectively blocking contentious bills.

“Obviously we had challenges getting it through committee last (Session), so we’ll just have to wait and see,” Steube said Tuesday.

The committee is expected to next meet on Dec. 5 during a final week of committee meetings before the session.

In the 2017 Session, the Senate approved the courthouse-carry proposal in a 19-15 vote. But the House did not take it up, noting that other bills backed by Second Amendment advocates failed to get approved by the Senate.

Florida had issued more than 1.8 million concealed-weapons licenses as of Oct. 31, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees the program.

Official Florida House photo

Frank White makes financial splash in Cabinet race

Bolstered by $1.5 million of his own money, state Rep. Frank White in less than a month has made it a three-way race – in terms of money – among the Republicans seeking to replace Attorney General Pam Bondi next year.

Meanwhile, in the race to replace Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, two lawmakers outpaced their rivals in October fundraising.

And state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who is running for a full term after being appointed to the Cabinet post in June, picked up $431,100 in October for his political committee.

With the 2018 general election a year away, state candidates and political committees faced a Monday deadline for filing reports showing finance activity through October.

White, a Pensacola Republican first elected to the House in 2016, posted $1.65 million in contributions in October, with $1.5 million of that coming from the candidate himself.

White had $1.73 million on hand in his campaign account to begin November in a GOP primary contest that also includes Rep. Jay Fant of Jacksonville and Ashley Moody, a former Hillsborough County circuit judge.

Besides his personal contributions, White picked up $51,000 from the Sansing family and their auto dealerships via 17 separate $3,000 contributions. White is chief financial officer and general counsel for the Sansing Dealer Group, a group of dealerships in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.

The influx of cash put White’s fundraising total ahead of the $1.2 million collected the past five months by Moody for her campaign account and the political committee Friends of Ashley Moody.

Moody, who received $10,112 in October from the Republican Party of Florida through in-kind donations of campaign staffing, posted $105,490 in contributions last month for her campaign account and $43,000 for the political committee.

Fant, meanwhile, had the weakest fundraising month but has totaled just under $1.2 million for his personal account and an associated political committee known as Pledge This Day.

Fant’s war chest includes $750,000 of his own money that he put up in September.

Fant’s political committee didn’t bring in any money in October, while he picked up $12,358 for his personal campaign account.

Democratic candidate Ryan Torrens, an attorney from Hillsborough County, raised $9,934 in October. Since entering the contest on May 22, Torrens had raised a total of $49,106 while spending $42,401, as of Oct. 31.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

House starts moving again on ‘direct primary care’

A House health care panel on Tuesday approved a bill backing “direct primary care” contracts that would allow physicians to bill patients and collect payments in advance of providing care without having to obtain an insurance license.

The proposal (HB 37), sponsored by Rep. Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican, is being fast-tracked by House leaders. The House Health & Human Services Committee was the sole stop for the measure, which is now available to go to the House floor after the 2018 session starts in January.

The bill would amend the insurance code to define direct primary-care contracts and allow physicians to enter the contracts with patients, patients’ guardians and businesses. The contracts typically would cover routine care and would cut out the role of insurers. The bill defines direct primary care and would make clear that the contracts could be canceled by the parties with 30 days’ notice.

Burgess told the committee that direct primary-care contracts would provide “another choice in health care for patients and providers.”

Committee member Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican who is a physician, noted that specialists, such as obstetricians and dermatologists, would be authorized to enter into direct primary-care contracts under the bill and said he strongly supports the idea.

This is the fourth year the bill has been filed in the Legislature.

A Senate version, SB 80, sponsored by Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican, is similar but not identical. The Senate bill has already cleared two committees. Rep. Lori Berman, a Lantana Democrat who serves on the House Health & Human Services Committee, said she supports the concept of direct primary care but said she had concerns that the House bill would not be heard by other committees.

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