Scott Powers, Author at Florida Politics - Page 3 of 183

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

House panel approves $750K to man injured in Orange County wreck

A House of Representatives panel approved a bill that would award $750,000 from Orange County to a man injured when his motorcycle was struck by a county work van in 2006.

The award, if it receives ultimate approval by the Florida Legislature, is far less than the $2.9 million awarded to Robert Allan Smith in a 2012 jury trial in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit Court, and less than the $2.8 million requested in a bill approved by the House last year.

But that previous bill failed in the Florida Senate, and the claim amount has since been reduced through settlements in the past year, according to the sponsor of HB 6517, state Rep. Bob Cortes, an Altamonte Springs Republican.

Democratic state Sens. Victor Torres and Linda Stewart of Orlando are sponsoring the Florida Senate companion bill, SB 54.

Smith was injured on a residential street in the College Park neighborhood of Orlando when his motorcycle was struck by an Orange County government van. Smith wound up losing most of his right leg and fractured his lift fibula, foot and pelvis. He incurred more than a half-million dollars in medical bills, though most of that was paid by health care coverage, and continues to have medical problems and costs from the crash, including annual replacement or maintenance of his prosthetic leg, according to a special master’s report provided to the House Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee.

Smith sued Orange County. A jury found the van driver to be 67 percent responsible, and Smith 33 percent responsible, and recommended a judgment of more than $4.8 million. The court ultimately ruled for a $2.9 million judgment. Orange County paid the first $100,000, with the rest of the claim going to the Florida Legislature.

Orange County contended the accident was 75 percent Smith’s fault, but House Special Master Jordan Jones sided with the court, and called the $750,000 claim, “reasonable.”

The bill also agrees to waive the state’s Medicaid claims against Smith, and limits attorney and lobbyist fees.

If the bill passes, Orange County would pay the settlement largely from its self-insured retention fund, and partly from an excess insurance policy.

Bobby Olszewski files bill to protect pets during emergencies

After hearing what he called “horrible” stories of pets being left chained outside during Hurricane Irma, state Rep. Bobby Olszewski has filed a bill that would make that against the law in Florida, requiring owners to do all they can to get shelter for their animal companions.

House Bill 907 would kick in anytime an emergency evacuation is ordered, requiring pet owners to take their pets with them or find safe and secure places for the pets.

State Sen. Victor Torres, an Orlando Democrat, intends to introduce a companion bill in the Senate.

“Unfortunately during Hurricane Irma there were horrible accounts of people leaving their pets unattended outside with some even tied to a tree to fend for themselves without shelter during the hurricane,” Olszewski, a Winter Garden Republican, said in a news release. “This law will penalize individuals who do not secure shelter for their domestic companion animals in addition to allowing law enforcement to secure and shelter these pets when the Governor has issued an evacuation order during a declared state of emergency.”

Violators would be subject to civil fines.

The bill defines the distinction between pets – “domestic companion animals” – and service animals or livestock. The bill would not apply to livestock.

Stephanie Murphy CHIP reauthorization bill lining up as Democrats’ offering

With the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program and other health programs expiring, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy has introduced a reauthorization bill that is becoming the Democrats’ favored vehicle facing Republican alternative measures.

On Tuesday Murphy introduced House Resolution 4541, which would reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) community health centers funding, and other critical public health initiatives like the Special Diabetes program, the National Health Service Corps, and Family-to-Family Health Information Centers.

All of those programs had Sept. 30 reauthorization deadlines, which Congress missed.

The bill also provides funding to support the under-resourced Medicaid system in Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories, and to support the Medicaid system in states like Florida that enroll displaced individuals from hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The cost of the bill is fully offset by modifying the timing, but not the amount, of federal payments to Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D plans, a move supported by numerous independent experts, according to a press release issued by Murphy’s office.

“A healthy nation is a strong and resilient nation,” Murphy said in the release. “My fiscally-responsible bill provides support for children and families, invests in the prevention and treatment of serious diseases, helps our fellow U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and other territories, and strengthens the health care systems in states like Florida that are welcoming Americans displaced by Hurricane Maria. It’s vital that we work across party lines to help the tens of millions of Americans, including millions of children, who depend on these public health initiatives.”

There are several Republican and Democratic alternatives addressing CHIP and the other health programs. Murphy’s office said her bill has become the favorite among Democrats, drawing 30 co-sponsors already, including U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando.

Murphy’s bill provides a five-year extension for CHIP, a two-year extension for community health centers funding and other expiring health care programs. It also offers equity in the Medicaid programs for Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other American territories, increases the Medicaid caps for those territories, and provides increased Medicaid reimbursement funding to Florida states for providing care to individuals from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who were displaced by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Republican Jennifer Spath enters HD 39 special election race

Former prosecutor Jennifer Spath has filed to run for the special election in House District 39, seeking to replace form state Rep. Neil Combee, who resigned last month to take a federal job.

Spath, a Republican from Bartow, is a fourth generation Floridian who said she’ll be running on conservative principles, including support for gun rights, low taxes, and fiscal transparency, and opposition to abortion and sanctuary cities. She is a fourth-generation Floridian.

“To truly understand the challenges and needs of District 39, it’s important that the future representative has lived, paid taxes, and owned a home within the district,” Spath stated in a press release issued by her new campaign.

Republican Josie Tomkow of Polk City also has entered the race, and already has raised $50,000 in three weeks, which is headed toward a February 20 special primary election, and a May 1 special general election if any non-Republicans get into the field.

House District 39 covers Polk County and part of western Osceola County.

“I spent several years at the State Attorney’s Office successfully prosecuting criminals to ensure that the people of Polk County were safe,” Spath stated. “Sanctuary cities pose a great threat to the safety and security of Floridians. It’s time for the legislature to step up and put a ban into effect.”

Spath is the public affairs manager for Community Based Care of Central Florida, developing policy and advocacy messages relating to foster children.

She previously served as assistant state attorney for the 10th Judicial Circuit in Polk County trying more than 50 jury trials to completion. During her time as a prosecutor, her cases ranged from domestic violence, battery, and drug trafficking, to DUI manslaughter and attempted murder.

“My experience as a prosecutor coupled with my role as public affairs manager has helped mold me into a fierce advocate, a trait which I will take to Tallahassee to fight for the well-being of the constituents of District 39 and the great state of Florida,” Spath stated.

Spath currently serves as the president of the Polk Association of Women Lawyers. She is a member of the Suburban Republican Women’s Club and the Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division. She attended the Political Leadership Institute.

She holds a law degree from Stetson University College of Law and a bachelor’s  degree in political science from the University of Florida. She lives in Bartow with her husband, Chris, and their daughter.

Public union dues-or-recertification bill passes House panel

Note: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported the vote of state Rep. Chris Latvala.

After facing down Democrats’ harsh questioning of the bill’s intentions, a Florida House committee voted nearly along party lines Tuesday to approve a measure to require most public employees’ unions to meet a dues-paying threshold or face recertification.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Scott Plakon, an Altamonte Springs Republican, was passed by the House Government Accountability Committee by a 14-9 vote, and now heads to the floor of the House of Representatives. State Rep. Chris Latvala of Clearwater joined eight Democrats in opposing.

Plakon pushed House Bill 25 as he did a similar bill in the last Legislative Session, and another in 2011, as a means to assure transparency, democracy, and accountability in unions representing teachers, government laborers, and others in public sector workers.

He argued there are unions, though he would not name any, that have seen their rolls of dues-paying wither, to the point where he said he understands some have as little as 3 percent or less of the workers they represent paying dues as fully-engaged members.

But Democrats on the committee, notably state Reps. Joseph Abruzzo of Boynton Beach, Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando, Matt Willhite of Wellington, Barbara Watson of Miami Gardens, Kristin Diane Jacobs of Coconut Creek, and Newt Newton of St. Petersburg, peppered Plakon with questions  about why that would be considered a problem in a right-to-work state in which members are not required to pay dues, and where all members eventually must vote on contracts. In debate, they essentially charged Plakon with sponsoring a bill pushing for union busting.

Abruzzo, a former Florida senator, predicted the prospect that HB 25 might be stopped the same place Plakon’s last attempt was stopped, by a Florida Senate unwilling to go there.

Not including Chairman Matt Caldwell‘s occasional admonishments of Democrats’ questions as being out of order, the two-hour proceeding entirely was a forum carried by Democrats on one side, and Plakon and representatives of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Americans For Prosperity on the other.

HB 25 would require public employees unions [exempting police and firefighters’ unions] to annually report to the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission how many workers are in each bargaining unit, and how many of them actually pay dues.

Any union that reports dues-paying members as less than 50 percent of the bargaining unit must be re-certified as a union in order to continue to exist. That would require new petitions with at least 30 percent of all workers signatures, followed by an election, or else the commission would revoke the union’s standing.

Plakon denied that the bill was anti-union, but rather about making sure the unions stayed accountable enough to its members to assure that a majority of them were satisfied enough to pay dues. He also argued that if such small percentages as 3 percent of workers are engaged in a union, then that union might not be bothering to represent the rest. He also argued that individual workers might be able to negotiate individual deals better than union contracts would provide.

“HB 25 is a simple bill, just a few pages long, which is about transparency, democracy and accountability,” Plakon said.

Yet Smith questioned whether there was any reason to assume that members who do not pay dues are unhappy with the union, or just financially strapped. Willhite, a firefighters’ union member, questioned why a right-to-work state that guarantees that union members do not have to pay dues suddenly is trying to regulate unions based on whether members are actually paying those dues. Abruzzo questioned if, as Plakon contended, the state lacks data on dues-paying, whether he would be willing to simply require reporting, not decertification. Newton, a former St. Petersburg city commissioner, questioned why the accountability isn’t recognized when unions give all its members the right to vote on union contracts.

“It’s the premise of the bill that I find so frustrating… to have the conversation that equates the ability to pay money to whether or not you support something,” Jacobs said.

Plakon held his ground, arguing that the bill would finally reveal which unions had significantly high or low percentages of dues-paying participation among its members, and that it would set a standard for them to meet, with the teeth of decertification, in order to continue to represent those workers. He contended some unions already are trying harder to appeal to workers to get them to pay dues,, and said the bill would allow all workers to have their voices heard.

“If you believe unions should not be subject to greater transparency and democratic principals like this, then, it sounds like I’ll have some no votes,” Plakon said. “But if you believe as I do that public sector unions should have to operate in a transparent fashion, by this report, and under time-honored democratic principals, where majority rules so to speak, where, the union is, yes, getting a nudge to be more responsive to its members, then you should vote yes on this bill.”

Jason Brodeur bill would block life insurance companies from considering DNA

State Rep. Jason Brodeur wants life insurance companies to keep their hands off customers DNA.

Broder, a Sanford Republican, filed House Bill 855 Monday forbidding insurance companies from using genetic testing to assess risks for life insurance, for disability insurance, and long-term care insurance.

There’s already a federal law keeping that information private, but Brodeur said he wants that expanded to state law.

“We want to make sure in the future, as more and more DNA tests become available, that that kind of data is not used in the insurance market for risk assessment,” Brodeur said. “What this is saying is: that information is yours, and there is no right on the part of the insurance community to access that.”

The bill has not yet been referred anyway. Brodeur expects it to have reviews both in judiciary and health committees.

Insurance companies should be assessing clients’ risks based on current health and lifestyle, he said.

“It’s not a giant issue. I would see this more as a precautionary measure,” he said. “As we make advances in health care, we don’t want to turn it into a database … where your whole life is determined when someone takes your blood when you’re born.”

Governor’s office accuses Aramis Ayala of negligence, possible ‘willful disregard’

Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration upped the pressure on Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala with a letter Monday demanding answers on why she apparently missed a deadline for filing notice of a death penalty case and accusing her of possible “willful disregard” of the law.

The letter from Scott’s general counsel Daniel Nordby might be setting the stage for a new round of battles between the governor and the state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit who refused for months to recognize Florida’s capital-punishment law, until she lost a legal battle with Scott in the Florida Supreme Court in August.

Scott had stripped 30 death-penalty cases from her jurisdiction during that time, but resisted harsher calls from her critics who wanted to see him take action, including possible ouster proceedings, against Ayala, who was elected in the fall of 2016, becoming Florida’s first African-American state attorney.

Nordby’s letter seems to be setting the stage for possible additional actions.

Ayala’s office replied late Monday that it had only just received the letter and would reserve any comments until after the office had looked into it.

The current matter hinges on the case of murder suspect Emerita Mapp, charged with killing one man and wounding another during a violent April encounter at a Kissimmee motel. After Ayala agreed to pursue death penalty cases following the Supreme Court decision, using a panel of assistant state attorneys that would not include her, Mapp became the first case that her office elevated to first-degree, capital murder.

But according to Scott, Ayala missed the filing deadline for a required Notice of Intent to Seek Death, when she filed it on Oct. 31, more than three weeks late.

“More troubling, your more recent public comments indicate that you were well aware of the deadline, but knowingly filed the notice long after it had elapsed,” Nordby wrote. “At best, this suggests negligence — and at worst, willful disregard — in the faithful performance of the duties of your constitutional office.”

Two weeks ago, after Scott first criticized her handling of the Mapp case, Ayala’s office disputed that she had missed the deadline, and contended that the capital case against Mapp had not been compromised in any way. She accused Scott of making misleading statements about the case. She also charged that if a deadline had been missed, it would have been Scott’s fault, because the governor’s office was meticulously identifying and transferring cases out of her office while their dispute over powers was underway at the Florida Supreme Court. And that period included the period of the Mapp case, she argued.

Nordby’s letter sought a number of things from Ayala, including explanations about how her dealt penalty review panel works, when it meets, and what it has done so far; explanations of why she had rejected an offer for assistance from Brad King, state attorney for Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit; and all records pertaining to the law firm and public relations firm she hired earlier this year to represent her in the case that went to the Supreme Court.

“In light of your office’s delinquent filing — and your ongoing attempts to blame others for your office’s failures — Floridians deserve to better understand what happened and what you intend to do to remedy the situation, and what steps you intend to take to ensure that a similar failure will never occur again,” Nordby wrote.

Rene Plasencia bill seeks to turn teacher evaluations back to school boards

Republican state Rep. Rene Plasencia is pushing a bill that would return control to local school boards to decide how to evaluate teachers.

Plasencia, of Orlando, is rallying support for his  House Bill 427, introduced in late October and referred to the House PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee, PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, and Education Committee.

The bill would allow local school districts to opt out of the statewide teacher evaluation and merit-pay plan approved in 2011, which essentially made assessments of teachers, and their prospects for raises, contingent on their students’ performances on state assessment tests. Instead, the districts would have the option to create their own teacher performance evaluation systems, and could eliminate the need for many of the year-end student tests.

“It would return the authority back to the local school board, which I think is very important,” said Orange County School Board Member Linda Kobert. “This single bill also would have, as far as I’m concerned, the most impact as far as reduced testing. The reason we have an end-of-course exam in every single required subject is simply to evaluate teachers.”

Kobert contends that if the purpose of the current system was to improve student performance by making teachers accountable for student performance, it’s not working. Research, including a white paper done by Orange County Public Schools, found the new system is not affecting student outcomes, she said.

She applauded the Florida Legislature’s intention to put more accountability in to teacher evaluations, but said school boards are in a better position to figure out how best to do that.

“What I like the most is this is an education policy being written by an educator,” she added, referring to the fact that Plasencia is a former high school teacher.

In fact, Plasencia ran for the Florida House of Representatives with the intention of bringing a teachers’ view to such matters as teacher evaluation.

On Monday he said he’s searching for a Florida Senate member to introduce companion legislation there.

As a Republican, Plasencia said he expects to have more prospect to advance a bill that would essentially roll back one of the cornerstones of the Republicans’ education reform undertaken a few years ago.

Airbnb takes to Tallahassee TV to promote vacation rentals

Airbnb is launching a television commercial this week in Tallahassee to convince Florida Legislators of the back-home support for vacation rentals, which again are facing the prospect of legislation over whether and how local governments can regulate them.

The new commercial running this week in the Tallahassee market, “Airbnb citizen,” features Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward talking about how vacation rental homes give visitors the “authentic experience” of tourism in Florida.

The ad is also being heavily promoted on social media throughout Florida.

As video shows some of the more quaint of Pensacola neighborhoods, screen text notes the average Airbnb host makes $6,700 a year in rentals, and that Airbnb vacation rental homes hosted 2.5 million visitors this year. “Our visitors have stayed in these neighborhoods and it makes the experience far more unique,” Hayward says.

Below the surface the legislative debate playing out in committee meetings may be between the vacation rental industry and its marketing giants including Airbnb and HomeAway, versus traditional hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts. But it’s also a debate between state government and county and local governments, with the county and local governments preparing again to defend counties’ and cities’ abilities to regulate vacation rental homes.

Irv Slosberg withdraws from SD 31 special election, supports Lori Berman

Democratic former state Rep. Irv Slosberg has withdrawn from the special election to fill Senate District 31, saying he has too much respect for and loyalty to fellow Democrat, state Rep. Lori Berman.

“You know, Lori and I were always good friends; she was always on the side of road safety. She was right by my side. I think she’s going to make a great senator,” Slosberg said.

Slosberg, of Boca Raton, entered the race just a month ago, joining Lantana Democrats Berman and Arthur Morrison and Republican Tami Donnally of Lake Worth.

The race will determine who replaces former state Sen. Jeff Clemens, who resigned in October in the midst of a sex scandal.

Slosberg said he was bothered by the idea of running against Berman, and on Sunday he withdrew.

Berman has drawn together a pile of endorsements in the contest.

The primary election has been set for Jan. 30, and the special election for April 10.

Slosberg said he’ll be happy keeping his focus on the work of his Dori Saves Lives foundation, set up in memory of his daughter who died in a car crash, and dedicated to improving road safety, especially for young drivers.

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