Headlines Archives - Florida Politics

Voters could decide tobacco, `certificate of need’ issues

Floridians could wind up voting on two contentious health care proposals that on Thursday drew closer to the 2018 ballot.

A panel of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission approved separate proposed constitutional amendments that would alter how much money is set aside for anti-smoking programs and eliminate long-standing state regulations about the construction of hospitals and nursing homes.

Florida receives money each year as part of a landmark 1997 multibillion-dollar settlement with tobacco companies. Part of that money is dedicated to anti-smoking programs, including an advertising and marketing campaign that currently receives $23 million a year. This requirement was put in the state Constitution at the urging of anti-smoking and health groups in 2006 after legislators cut funding to the program.

State Rep. Jeanette Nunez, who is a member of the Constitution Revision Commission, wants voters in 2018 to approve a proposal that would guarantee that a part of the anti-smoking money is shifted to research and treatment of cancer. If ultimately passed by voters, it would result in about $14 million being set aside in 2019.

“Research is absolutely an important component of prevention,” Nunez, a Miami Republican, said. “It is one of our most important tools of prevention.”

But Nunez’s proposed constitutional amendment drew fire from anti-smoking groups and other health care organizations such as the American Cancer Society. They said Florida’s current programs, including the advertising campaigns, have been successful in reducing smoking rates among adults and teenagers.

Matt Jordan with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network called it “counterproductive and counterintuitive to divert money from cancer prevention to cancer treatment and research.”

It’s not clear yet if the proposal will be placed on the ballot. The commission is a 37-member body that meets every 20 years to consider and recommend changes to the Florida Constitution. The full commission must approve any amendments that will go before voters. Amendments then would need to get 60 percent support from voters to pass.

Along with approving Nunez’s proposal Thursday, the commission’s General Provisions Committee also backed a proposed constitutional amendment that would eliminate “certificate of need” regulations for health care facilities. The proposal would prohibit the state from limiting the number of hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, or intermediate care facilities for individuals with disabilities.

Frank Kruppenbacher, an attorney and commission member, said the state should eliminate barriers that he contends limit consumer choice and innovation in health care. He cited battles in Central Florida over a children’s hospital and a new hospital for the University of Central Florida that he said were sparked by a tug-of-war over money and competition.

Under the certificate of need process, the state must sign off on the construction of facilities such as new nursing homes and hospitals and the addition of services such as organ transplants or pediatric open-heart surgery.

The proposal to eliminate the so-called CON requirements was strongly opposed by the nursing home industry and groups representing hospitals. Opponents predict the amendment would diminish quality and access to care in many geographical areas, especially those in low-income neighborhoods.

Nunez, who noted that the Florida House has pushed for repeal of certificate-of-need laws, voted against the proposal after saying that the issues should be dealt with by the Legislature and not placed in the Constitution.

“Putting this in the Constitution would be asking voters to weigh in on a highly technical nuanced issue,” Nunez said.

But Kruppenbacher said it was time to take the CON battle to voters.

“I don’t have faith in the Legislature,” he said. “I think the public should have the right to vote on (whether) they want an open and free market that is otherwise stifled.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Florida newspaper spotlights exploitation of undocumented workforce

The Naples Daily News brought the heat on this one.

Journalist Maria Perez debuted a yearlong harrowing investigation this week that uncovered the commonplace practice of Florida staff leasing companies for high-risk jobs hiring undocumented immigrant workers and axing them without compensation when they became injured.

The piece tells the story of Abednego de la Cruz, who sliced his finger to the bone cutting concrete blocks in Tallahassee. He was fired and was refused medical care by his employer, Holiday-based SouthEast Personnel Leasing.

“Instead, his employer called the police and had him arrested,” Perez reported. He was undocumented and now faces deportation, fearing he will not be able to raise his daughter whom was born in the U.S.

Cruz’ story is one shared by many.

What’s even more troubling: The companies weren’t breaking the law – technically.

“Instead of verifying their documents when hiring, staff leasing companies like SouthEast and their insurers used the law to report undocumented workers after they were injured, court and state records show,” Perez reported.

Brian Carter, a workers’ compensation lawyer, claimed that the companies were aware that they were hiring undocumented workers with false documents and knew that high-risk jobs attracted unauthorized immigrants, but chose to not verify identification documents – a crime in which only one employer has been charged since 2003.

— It gets bad: Perez reported that SouthEast advertised “big savings in workers’ compensation costs to companies with a history of above-average injury claims in high-risk industries.”

— It gets worse: The owners of SouthEast also own companies that provide workers’ comp and claims handling. “SouthEast and its related businesses employ the workers, pocket the premiums paid by their client businesses, and decide which claims should be denied and which workers reported,” Perez reported.

— A secret kept in the dark: “The director of Florida’s Division of Investigative and Forensic Services, which investigates workers found using false identity information, said he wasn’t aware that employee leasing companies and their insurers reported most of the injured immigrants in recent years,” Perez reported.

— From the source: “At least 163 immigrant workers in Florida were charged since 2004 with a felony of providing false identification after they were injured. In at least 159 cases, their employer or their insurance company reported them,” per the Daily News report.

The piece sheds light on a gross mistreatment of immigrant workers. It deserves to be read for that reason alone.

But it also serves as a lasting example of great investigative reporting. At the end of report, the Daily News explains how it reported on the story, peeling back the many layers involved in the onion that is the process of reporting something exceptionally impactful. Each claim is documented appropriately, and the story is accompanied by an interactive map for illustration.

In a time when accurate reporting is a constant concern — coupled with the merit of the story inside — this piece is a must-read.

Marco Rubio: Tax reform a ‘Christmas present to the American people’

Sometimes, people get gifts they don’t want for Christmas. Generally, the move is to dump them.

No chance of that with the GOP tax reform bill. There are no returns or exchanges. And no regifting.

Sen. Marco Rubio, in a Facebook note Friday afternoon, said he looked forward to seeing “President Trump sign the bill into law as an early Christmas present to the American people.”

“This week, as we have worked our way through the last steps of the tax reform process, I have been a consistent advocate for ensuring meaningful tax relief for working families is included in the final bill. I am happy to report after negotiations with my colleagues, the child tax credit has been significantly expanded to enable more lower-income workers to keep more of the money they earn,” Rubio wrote.

“Increasing the refundability of the Child Tax Credit from 55% to 70% is a solid step toward broader reforms which are both pro-growth and pro-worker. But there is still much more to do in the months and years to come,” Rubio added, without specifying what is to be done going forward.

Rubio is an “enthusiastic yes vote for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act … a historic win for American working families.”

Happy Holidays.

FIU suspends Greek life

Florida International University will suspend activities at fraternities and sororities beginning in January, President Mark Rosenberg announced Friday.

“After serious consideration, and keeping the safety of our students top of mind, I have decided to pause all Greek activities on our campuses for at least one month starting Jan. 1,” Rosenberg said in a message to students, faculty and other members of the FIU community.

Noting other schools have taken similar action, Rosenberg said he made the decision as “a consequence of growing concerns about the state of fraternity and sorority life at FIU as well as around the nation.”

In early November, Florida State University President John Thrasher indefinitely suspended Greek activities at his school after the death of a fraternity member at an off-campus party.

The University of Central Florida also suspended the Theta Sigma chapter of the Alpha Xi Delta sorority last month after allegations of underage drinking and hazing.

FIU suspended the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity this fall after school officials linked to it a series of internet screenshots that included images of nude women, anti-Semitic and rape jokes and references to pedophilia.

“The purpose of this pause in Greek activities is to allow time for the Greek community and university administrators to review and strengthen policies and procedures with the goal of enhancing safety and promoting behavior that is consistent with FIU’s values and our Student Code of Conduct,” Rosenberg said in announcing his decision Friday.

The FIU president said all Greek activity would be suspended except chapter and council meetings and educational workshops held to discuss improvements in the fraternities and sororities.

He thanked Greek-system leaders who are working with the administration on changes.

“I hope all members of the Greek community at FIU will join me in ensuring that we take this opportunity to establish and observe norms that are consistent with safe and respectful behavior that uplifts the community and provides a supportive culture of growth and tolerance,” Rosenberg said.

Gwen Graham mocks Matt Gaetz’ FBI probe, taunts Adam Putnam, Richard Corcoran

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham, a former member of Congress herself, on Friday attacked U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz for his campaign to get the FBI investigated and to halt the bureau’s investigation of President Donald Trump, then challenged her Republican rivals to state their positions.

Graham, of Tallahassee, took to Twitter first, calling out, “Matt Gaetz, what are you so afraid of?”

Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican, has been one of the leaders in a Republican congressional effort to both get an investigation of how the FBI looked into Hillary Clinton allegations of misconduct last year, and to get Special Counsel Robert Mueller fired for what Gaetz and the other Republicans in the effort contend has been a partisan, biased “witch hunt” investigation of alleged connections between Trump, his election campaign team, his White House staff, and Russia.

“Calls to fire him undermine the fundamental rule of law,” Graham tweeted. “The special counsel and DOJ must be allowed to investigate – even the president – without partisan interference.”

Gaetz office did not immediately respond to an inquiry about Graham’s tweets.

She then went after Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and House Speaker Richard Corcoran. The former is the leading Republican candidate in the governor’s race, the latter a likely major candidate. That included a mash-up picture of Corcoran and Putnam standing with Gaetz, who stands behind a podium with a Trump campaign sign.

“Congressman @MattGaetz asked Republicans to join his attacks against Robert Mueller. Do @AdamPutnam and @RichardCorcoran stand with Gaetz or do they stand with the rule of law? Floridians deserve to know,” Graham tweeted.

In a press release her campaign then put out, Graham also went after another potential major Republican gubernatorial candidate, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach. Both Gaetz and DeSantis flew with Trump to Pensacola last week and joined him at a campaign rally there which, in part, was aimed at supporting Roy Moore in the neighboring Alabama U.S. Senate race.

“Today Congressman Matt Gaetz called on his Republican colleagues to join him in a partisan campaign to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Floridians deserve to know, do their leaders stand with Gaetz or with the rule of law?” Graham stated in the news release. “Adam Putnam and Richard Corcoran won’t be able to hide from the president and his connections to Russia forever — they must answer whether or not they stand with Matt Gaetz against Robert Mueller.”

Adam Putnam, Richard Corcoran pulling in committee cash in December

It’s only been a few days since November campaign finance reports were filed, but gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam and his likely Republican Primary rival House Speaker Richard Corcoran have kept the money rolling in to their political committees.

Putnam’s committee, Florida Grown, has brought in another $135,000 since the start of December according to the committee’s website.

The biggest donor so far is Coral Gables investment banker Bruce Berkowitz, who chipped in $50,000 on Dec. 6. Florida Crystals and real estate developer Wayne Rosen, also of Coral Gables, each chipped in $25,000, while the committee received $10,000 a piece from SWBG Operations Group, G-T Consulting Service Inc. and Committee of Florida Agents. Peter V. Cowie of Palm Beach Gardens chipped in the other $5,000.

Putnam finished November with more than $15 million on hand between his committee and campaign accounts, with $12.83 million of his cash on hand in Florida Grown.

Corcoran hasn’t yet declared as a gubernatorial candidate, though in December he has added another $113,000 to his committee, Watchdog PAC, after bringing in more than $750,000 last month, and starting December with about $4.7 million on hand.

His top donor in the early days of December was MHM Services, which chipped in $40,000, followed by Florida Prosperity Fund at $20,000 and Anheuser-Busch at $15,000.

Currently the only other major Republican running for governor is Clearwater Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, who has been fighting back against sexual harassment allegations for more than a month.

His contributions slowed to a crawl last month and his PAC, Florida Leadership Committee, hasn’t reported any new December contributions since last updating its totals on Dec. 6.

The committee had just shy of $4 million on hand Nov. 30, and Latvala had another $808,062 in the bank for his campaign account.

Feds approve All Aboard Florida route linking Orlando, South Florida

All Aboard Florida received its final federal approval Friday to build and operate a private, high-speed passenger train system connecting Orlando and South Florida, U.S. Reps. Darren Soto and Mario Diaz-Balart announced.

The announcement was quickly followed announcements from All Aboard Florida and the Federal Railroad Administration.

The administration’s Record of Decision, released Friday after years in the waiting, essentially clears the rails for All Aboard Florida to begin construction of the critical Phase II of its plan to run private passenger trains between South Florida and Orlando.

The company intends to begin service of its Brightline trains on its Phase I route, connecting Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach in a matter of weeks. That construction is virtually finished. The West Palm Beach to Orlando phase has been tied up in financing and litigation issues, and awaiting final federal approval for environmental impact, before the first dollar could be spent on construction, or the first shovel turned. All Aboard Florida has won all the lawsuits and has the financing lined up.

“This is the most critical and final step in the extension of Brightline’s service to Orlando, and we are excited to move forward with Phase 2,” Brightline CEO Dave Howard stated in a news release issued by the company. “This was a great year for us as we completed construction on two of our major stations and rail infrastructure, successfully presold tickets and corporate packages to individuals and businesses throughout the region and priced $600 million in Private Activity Bonds to fund Phase 1. We look forward to launching service to Miami and starting construction north to Orlando in the first quarter of 2018.”

There still remains strong and committed opposition to the train project, centered in the communities along Florida’s Treasure Coast that contend they face considerable safety and environmental risks, but none of the benefits, because there are no plans for the train to stop anywhere between West Palm Beach and Orlando International Airport.

In addition to opposing the federal permit and the $1.1 billion in private activity bond financing, which still awaits approval from the Florida Development Finance Corporation, the opposition coalition also is pushing for legislation in the Florida Legislature to require more stringent safety and environmental regulations for the train, which would cross hundreds of at-grade crossings and numerous waterways.

Those opponents are led by the Coalition Against Rail Expansion in Florida and including St. Lucie, Martin, and Indian River counties.

“The health, safety and environmental issues regarding the railroad will be subject to judicial review. USDOT’s [U.S. Department of Transportation] actions providing funding and rushing to authorize these bonds will be evaluated by the court,”  CARE Fl attorney Steve Ryan said in a written statement late Friday.

The stations in West Palm Beach and the Orlando International Airport are essentially finished, awaiting trains and passengers. The train will use the old Florida East Coast Railway tracks, and they have to be double-tracked and upgraded, including over numerous bridges. That gets the train from West Palm Beach to Cocoa. From there, new tracks and bridges will have to be built to connect to Orlando, mainly along the corridor of State Road 528, the Beachline Expressway.

“I am ecstatic to see this project advance,” Soto, the Orlando Democrat, declared in a press release that noted he had sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao just last week expressing support for the project and arguing that it will be important to Florida..

“We are one step closer to a historic high-speed rail service that would not only ease travel from Central to South Florida, but will also connect businesses and boost our tourism industry,” Soto stated. “As one of the fastest growing regions in the country, I am proud that Brightline has chosen to make Central Florida a model for cutting edge high-speed transportation technology.”

Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, chairs the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee.

“I am extremely supportive of the advancement of new transit options, and am anxious to see the positive impact Brightline will have on our state’s economy,” he stated in a news release. “Brightline’s first phase, which is set to begin full service in the coming days, will showcase an alternative and efficient mode of travel for Floridians and visitors alike. Connecting South and Central Florida passengers via rail offers expanded business and leisure opportunities, and I am glad that DOT acknowledges the potential in the future of our state’s transit.”

The  company declared its project “is moving full speed ahead.” Over the next few months, Brightline will finalize the design for the rail infrastructure and the 70-acre Vehicle Maintenance Facility that will be located on Orlando International Airport property.

Brightline will announce the launch date for the start of introductory service between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach soon. The company expects to become fully operational and extend service into downtown Miami in early 2018.

Florida Chamber issues alert on assignment of benefits abuse, rising premiums

As Floridians continue to rebuild after Hurricane Irma, a new consumer alert warns against bad actors trying to rip off homeowners seeking repairs from the storm.

A joint effort of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, the one-minute consumer alert hitting airwaves Friday is alerting homeowners about falling victim to assignment of benefits (AOB) lawsuits.

Assignment of benefits is a document allowing third-party contractors – water extraction companies, roofers, plumbers and the like — to “stand in the shoes” of the insured to receive payment directly from the insurance company for work performed.

Although AOB is a widespread practice in health insurance and similar industries, Florida’s litigious environment emboldens unscrupulous parties to inflate bills and file frivolous lawsuits over small, simple (or even accepted) claims.

This abuse results in higher insurance rates for everyone.

“Florida trial lawyers and unscrupulous contractors are scamming millions, while homeowners are left with skyrocketing insurance premiums and shoddy or even incomplete repair work,” the alert warns. “One study shows Miami premiums could jump more than 50 percent in five years if the state Legislature doesn’t end the AOB lawsuit scam.”

Nearly nonexistent 15 years ago, AOB lawsuit fraud has now spread across Florida – with many homeowners holding the bill on these ‘get rich quick’ schemes from what the Chamber refers to as a “cottage industry of trial lawyers and shady repair vendors.”

As Florida Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson points out: “This is a clear example of lawsuit abuse at its worst. It’s driving up the cost of homeowner’ insurance rates, and is one of the reasons Florida has the fifth worst legal climate ranking in the country.”

“Florida’s legislature should stop dubious vendors and plaintiffs’ lawyers from raiding the ‘assignment of benefits’ cookie jar. Florida homeowners face skyrocketing insurance costs because of such abuse, and the legislature can provide meaningful relief by adopting sensible reforms,” adds Harold Kim, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform.

Both the Chamber and its Consumer Protection Coalition are calling on the Florida Legislature to “pass meaningful reforms” in 2018 to stop AOB abuse.

The need for an alert came after last week when the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation approved a statewide average increase of 6.6 percent for homeowners’ policyholders in Citizens Property Insurance Corp. In the tri-county area of South Florida, average rate increases are even higher in an area where AOB abuse is the worst.

In South Florida, those average rates have inched up to the maximum 10 percent increase allowable by state law for Citizens’ policies.

The alert will air for the next several weeks ahead of the 2018 Legislative Session, which begins Jan. 9.


Chris King decries Republican tax bill’s excise tax hitting Puerto Rico

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King on Friday decried an item in the GOP tax bill that would hit Puerto Rico with a new excise tax on goods shipped from the island to the states.

The proposed 20 percent tax on shipped goods is meant to discourage and punish American companies that export their jobs overseas to foreign-incorporated subsidiaries, then import the goods from those factories back to the United States. But it applies to companies that set up manufacturing subsidiaries in Puerto Rico as well.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and other officials there have warned that the tax would hit Puerto Rico’s economy hard at a time that it’s already trying to recover from the double disasters of Hurricane Maria in September and the collapse that followed the 2016 declaration that the commonwealth’s government could no longer pay its debts.

“While there are many reasons to be deeply suspicious of this legislation that seems poised to benefit our country’s wealthiest people and corporations, there is a provision in this new law that could be catastrophic for Puerto Rico,” King said.

King, who faces former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee in seeking the 2018 Democratic primary nomination to run for governor, called attention to the provision Friday in the state that has received tens of thousands of Puerto Rican migrants just this fall.

King contended the tax would counter previous federal tax provisions that had turned Puerto Rico into a medical manufacturing hub. Drug and medical device makers have invested billions into the island, creating thousands of jobs and accounting for about half of the island’s economic output, he wrote in a blog post, and they would now be hampered with the excise tax if it stays in the bill.

“As a candidate hoping to serve as Florida’s next governor, I strongly urge our leaders in Washington to vote against the tax bill, and especially the harsh Puerto Rican excise tax,” King wrote. “There is no reason to place this burden on the people of Puerto Rico in their hour of need.”

Everglades farmers celebrate another record year of clean water flowing south

Extending a two-decade record for Everglades restoration south of Lake Okeechobee, a group of farmers — armed with an effective water quality treatment strategy — have posted historic water-quality performance levels in 2017, sending more clean water than ever flowing south.

Seizing on numbers announced this week by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) farmers are celebrating their role in more than 20 years of restoration, by delivering increasingly clean water to the Everglades.

Beginning in 1994 with the Everglades Forever Act, this science-based conservation process has been effective in preserving Florida’s fragile environment.

To carry out this, EAA farmers south of Lake Okeechobee use several farming techniques — commonly known as Best Management Practices (BMPs) — developed in collaboration with University of Florida researchers and scientists.

The program, overseen by the SFWMD and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, ensures water in Everglades National Park is in full compliance with precise water-quality standards.

According to farmers, more than 90 percent of the remaining part of the southern Everglades also meets those stringent standards.

Before water reaches the Everglades, it receives added treatment using “green technology” in the Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs), a network of treatment wetlands. The success of this strategy has resulted in a marked improvement in water quality throughout the Everglades.

During 2017, STAs treated water for phosphorous to an average of 15 parts per billion (ppb), the best performance on record. Monitoring station data confirms this treated water from the northern part of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge now meets or exceeds state water quality standards.

Through April 2017, the STA network — along with improved farming techniques known as Best Management Practices (BMPs) — have removed or prevented about 5,500 metric tons of phosphorus from entering the 470,000-acre EAA, a crucial first step to clean water flowing south into the Everglades.

Over the history of the BMP program, phosphorus levels dropped by an average of 55 percent annually, more than twice the improvement mandated under the Everglades Forever Act. The program also prevented more than 3,000 metric tons of phosphorus from entering the Everglades ecosystem.

Tests show at least 90 percent of the Everglades now meets clean water quality standards for levels of phosphorus — at 10 ppb or less required by state law. The average total phosphorus concentration of water in Everglades National Park is reported at about 4 ppb.

Since 1994, the network of five STAs south of Lake Okeechobee has treated about 18 million acre-feet of water. From that water, the STAs retained about 2,329 metric tons of phosphorus that would have otherwise entered the Everglades.

To date, STAs have kept more than 80 percent of the phosphorus from water flowing through the treatment cells.

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