Influence Archives - Florida Politics

House budget would add ‘emergency’ $200 million for charter schools

The House public education budget would be extra kind to charter schools next year, pumping $200 million into charters specifically targeting children stuck in persistently low-performing classrooms.

The money would provide grants to “charter school networks with a proven track record of serving specifically low-income students and successfully closing the achievement gap,” said Manny Diaz Jr., chairman of the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.

Separate legislation to provide the details — including how to target the students most in need — is still being worked out, he added.

“We have a school that has failed for 10 years. Every aspect of the turnaround process has been tried there,” Diaz said.

“This is intensive care,” he said. “This is one of those intensive tools to go after that.”

The existing public schools would operate alongside the charters.

“We consider this an emergency, and so there has to be a streamlined process to get those providers into those situations,” Diaz said.

An analysis of school performance as of the 2015-16 school year showed that 495 — 15 percent of the total — scored D or F on their evaluations, Diaz told committee members.

Sixty were “persistently low-performing” — meaning they’d lagged for five years or more.

Students attending those schools number 33,400 students, he said.

The house budget subcommittees announced their budget outlines throughout Tuesday. More details here and here.

Democrats expressed skepticism, worried about spending public dollars outside public classrooms.

Diaz wants to give more money to teachers, too, including $200 million to make Best and Brightest Scholarship bonuses available to more teachers.

The Senate has expressed interest in boosting the program, but has yet to commit money.

“The speaker’s committed to rewarding these teachers. If you expand the criteria, you have to make a financial commitment to go along with it,” Diaz said.

He added that the subcommittee would not vote on the package.

“The next stop for our budget is full Appropriations Committee next week, on Wednesday, April 5, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” he said.

The overall pre-K-through-12 budget would total $15.1 billion, a 5.75 percent increase. State general revenues comprise $12 billion of that.

State contributions to school districts would increase by $251.6 million, for a total of $20.4 billion.

But — unlike Gov. Rick Scott and the Senate — the House doesn’t wants to capture higher real estate values collected via local property taxes. It would lower those rates to collect the same about as last year — savings to taxpayers of nearly $510 million.

Does Diaz see room for compromise?

“I think the speaker was quoted as saying ‘Hell no on raising taxes,’ so I’m just going to defer to his quote.”

As with the other budget subcommittees in the House, Diaz targeted jobs that have been unfilled for more than 180 days for elimination — here, 1,060 positions.

The House budget subcommittees were instructed to come up with “A” scenario and “B” scenario plans — the first involving cuts of about $1 billion; the latter, about $2 billon. Budget chairman Carlos Trujillo has also discussed a target of $1.4 billion in cuts.

The targets reflect flattening tax proceeds.

Capitol Reax: Visit Florida funding, Uber, high-speed rail

The Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee voted 5-1 to approve a proposal (SB 596) that would allow telecommunications companies to put small wireless communications infrastructure in public rights-of-way.

Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida: “AIF supports legislation to bring technology of the future to Florida, allowing our communities to be a part of the smart cities revolution.  Florida’s economic environment will greatly benefit from this good legislation, allowing new technologically advanced companies to locate here in the Sunshine State.

AIF applauds Senator (Travis) Hutson for championing this legislation and the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee for passing this bill out of its committee today.  SB 596 will allow technology of the future, like smart cities, autonomous vehicles and instantaneous speeds, to become a reality through uniform deployment of small cell technology.”

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee temporarily postponed a proposal (HB 269), which would have established the Florida High Speed Passenger Rail Safety Act.

Brent Hanlon, chairman of Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida (CARE FL): “I want to once again thank Representatives MaryLynn Magar and Erin Grall for filing legislation this session to protect citizens from subsidizing high speed rail projects that pose risks to public safety.  We are disappointed that the subcommittee did not debate the bill today, but we respect the legislative process, and look forward to more dialogue about this important legislation in due course.

All Aboard Florida (AAF) is taking a victory lap today in its public statements, but its latest actions are nothing more than a special interest group flexing its political muscle in a desperate attempt to protect its profits which are reliant on taxpayer subsidies.

AAF continues to put the communities of South Florida on the hook for millions in upgrades to enhance safety measures and make a grab for taxpayer subsidies.

We will continue to advocate for legislation that puts public safety first and we know that our elected leaders want the same. This is nothing more than an ill-conceived rail project by a private company that wants to shift costs to the taxpayers.”

The Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee has proposed matching Gov. Rick Scott’s budget proposal of $76 million for Visit Florida, while setting aside $80 million for Enterprise Florida.

Chris Hudson, state director for American for Prosperity-Florida: “The Florida Senate is sending a bad message to their constituents. They are telling the hardworking small business owners that don’t even qualify for the handouts their proposing to sustain by maintaining funding to Enterprise Florida are more important than properly funding real priorities for their communities. The Senate should pick up where the Florida House left off and come together to eliminate corporate welfare by eliminating Enterprise Florida.

The Florida Senate is also wrong to fund Visit Florida with another $76 million dollars. Visit Florida’s lack of transparency and lack of accountability have engulfed the Sunshine State in national embarrassment that should not be rewarded. This failed program needs more than just reform; it should be completely eliminated.

Our grassroots teams will be deployed throughout the state in the districts of Senators who support funding corporate welfare. We will use every tool at our disposal to ensure that Floridians know which members of the legislature support corporate welfare and the programs that give away their tax dollars to private businesses instead of better supporting real priorities like education and infrastructure.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a bill (SB 340) to create a regulatory framework for transportation network companies, like Uber and Lyft.

Stephanie Smith, senior manager, public policy for Uber Technologies: “Today’s unanimous vote on Senate Bill 340 by the Senate Committee on Judiciary is a positive indication that Florida lawmakers support the safety, economic, and mobility benefits that come from ridesharing services like Uber.

We are grateful to all of the Senators who voted ‘yes’ on the bill, with special thanks to Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) who continues to be a champion for modern transportation options.”

Logan McFaddin, regional manager of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America: “PCI applauds the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senator Brandes for supporting legislation that addresses the insurance gaps when a driver is engaged in rideshare activity.  PCI and our members believe it is imperative rideshare drivers and their passengers are protected as they travel from point A to point B.

The insurance coverage concerns are significant, especially if ride share drivers use their personal vehicles for this commercial activity but only have personal auto insurance coverage. The standard personal auto insurance policy may not provide coverage if the vehicle is being used for commercial purposes and an accident were to occur.

With model legislation already passing in 45 other states, PCI encourages Florida lawmakers to do the same for Florida and protect the public.”

 

College system bill passes House panel, offering contrasts to Senate version

A bill revising Florida’s community college system breezed through a Florida House committee Tuesday, setting up potential negotiations with a similar Florida Senate bill that recently cleared a key committee with some critical differences.

House Bill 929 does little to change anything currently going on in the Florida College System but sets out to establish parameters to prevent the system from evolving from the current formula, which has been winning nation recognition as a model for both workforce-ready education and transfers to state universities.

The bill would emphasize that the primary missions of Florida’s colleges is its 2+2 system for providing college students with their first two years of college toward a four-year bachelor’s degree they can finish at a state university, and its workforce demand-driven associates of science programs and technical certificate programs preparing students for immediate job needs in a community.

The bill consequently sets a cap on how much Florida’s 28 state colleges can offer in four-year bachelor of science degrees, at 20 percent of the statewide system’s student body. It also forbids colleges from offering four-year bachelor of arts degrees. And it calls for a task force to be created and report next fall on whether the colleges should continue to be run by the Florida State Board of Education, or under a new system set up just for colleges.

Those limits would not appear to cause any current concerns, since Florida’s colleges’ bachelor of science programs only account for about 4 percent of the system’s student body, and no Florida state college currently offers any bachelor of arts degrees.

Yet some of the bills provisions, including the 20 percent cap, are divergences from the original bill, changes sponsor Republican state Rep. Jake Rayburn of Valrico said have been made as a result of concerns raised by college officials and others in earlier hearings. And that puts them at odds with the companion Senate Bill 374, which was approved two weeks ago by the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, setting the cap at 15 percent of all degrees, and creating a new governing board, the Florida State Board of Community Colleges.

“We are very proud of what our Florida college system does, and the opportunities it provides to Floridians to get a good education, and many times that leads to a good-paying job,” Rayburn said. “The bills originated in the Senate and we are working with our partners in the Senate to come up with a product that is good for the Florida College System.”

Some college officials had bristled with strong opposition at the earlier proposal for a 15 percent cap and some of the other provisions included in an earlier bill, but offered less resistance to the 20 percent cap and some of the other changes discussed Tuesday in the House committee.

“Compared to what we’ve seen, it’s a much better product,” said Marshall Ogletree, interim executive director of the United Faculty of Florida.

Another change included in HB 929, and in the Senate bill, would bring St. Petersburg College under the same degree approval program that is used for the other 27 state colleges. St. Petersburg College was the first in Florida to offer bachelor of science degrees, 16 years ago, and it did so under a separate provision carved out of Florida law. The change, to make the college use the same law the other colleges now rely on, was welcomed by SPC President William Law, who said his college has been asking for an end to the special treatment for years.

“Feel free to take it out,” Law said of the special provision governing his college’s degree approvals. “We don’t need it to do our part.”

House advances Okaloosa County pilot program to treat mental health versus jail

A House committee voted unanimously Tuesday in favor of a bill to begin the Forensic Hospital Diversion Pilot Program in the Panhandle’s Okaloosa County.

Rep. Mel Ponder, who sponsored HB 1051, introduced the measure to the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee. The bill intends to alleviate overcrowding in the state’s prison corrections system with a significant percentage of individuals with mental health needs.

Often, those individuals go ignored while incarcerated.

“We believe those inmates would be better served with treatment rather than jail time,” Ponder said. “This is an extremely important bill and while it calls for no funding comes with it, it does start the process.”

Ponder cited fully one-quarter of Okaloosa’s inmates had some sort of mental health need, with the county ranking first in the region for such an issue.

“When I heard we were the No. 1 county in northwest Florida, it just lit my fire even more,” he said.

One constituent approached the podium, telling committee members: “Nationally, much has been done about this problem, but in Florida, we rank 49th in the nation. Our jails have been the depository for our residents with mental health problems.”

Treating mental health problems lowers recidivism and jail overcrowding, Ponder said, with many needing such services coming from veteran and juvenile population segments.

According to the constituent, it costs Okaloosa County $50 a day to house an inmate and $120 a day, meanwhile, mental health treatment is $17 a day, on average.

Committee member Rep. Barry Russell commended Ponder for the bill.

“It’s very timely and cost effective,” Russell said. “I commend you for the work out into this and think it is deserving of our attention.”

Tuesday was the final meeting of the subcommittee in the Legislative Session.

Senate Judiciary Committee gives big win for ridesharing regulation

Momentum remains strong in Tallahassee for the first bill in Florida to regulate ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the proposal (SB 340) unanimously without debate.

The bill, sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, would require ride-sharing companies to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged onto their app but hasn’t secured a passenger. While with a rider, drivers would be required to have $1 million worth of coverage.

It also requires transportation network companies to have third parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers.

While all indications are the bill will get through the Legislature this spring, opposition from certain groups continues.

Former state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, now a lobbyist for the Florida Taxi Association, said the bill would tie the hands of local governments from regulating their own communities. Bogdanoff referenced problems with “exorbitant” numbers of cars circling around Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Port Everglades. She said issues that had been resolved between local governments and Uber and Lyft would be removed from the books, and also acknowledged the cold hard reality of the political calculus this session.

“I realize the train has left the station, or the car has left the Port, or whatever you want to call it,” she said.

Megan Samples, with the Florida League of Cities, again called the bill a pre-emption on local governments, particularly decrying what she said would be looser background checks for ride-sharing drivers.

Rich Templin, representing the Florida AFL-CIO, testified on behalf of the Amalgamated Transit Union. He said he was hoping to draft an amendment before the next stop for the bill that would address additional safety guidelines in the bill, considering that more public transit agencies are working with Uber and Lyft on options like first-mile last mile and paratransit options. He said he was worried the Brandes bill would undue guidelines already in place.

Immediately after the bill’s passage in committee, spokespersons for Uber and Lyft immediately issued statements praising the vote.

“Lyft applauds Chairman Greg Steube and sponsor Sen. Jeff Brandes for guiding SB 340 to approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee,” said Chelsea Harrison, communications manager for Lyft.

“This is important legislation that brings Florida one step closer to a consistent statewide framework for innovative services like Lyft,” Harrison added. “Floridians want access to ridesharing, and we look forward to providing the state’s residents and visitors with a safe, reliable transportation option for many years to come.”

“Today’s unanimous vote on Senate Bill 340 by the Senate Committee on Judiciary is a positive indication that Florida lawmakers support the safety, economic, and mobility benefits that come from ridesharing services like Uber,” said Stephanie Smith, Uber’s senior manager for public policy. “We are grateful to all of the Senators who voted ‘yes’ on the bill, with special thanks to Sen. Jeff Brandes … who continues to be a champion for modern transportation options.”

During the past two sessions, the House had pushed similar bills, but the issue tangled up in the Senate, where former President Andy Gardiner wanted to address more narrow issues such as insurance requirements for ridesharing drivers. After Gardiner left office last fall, the way eased a bit in the Legislature’s upper body.

Safety Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls and Tampa Republican Jamie Grant are sponsoring the companion bill moving in the House (CS/HB 221).

House advances bill allowing FPL to charge customers for out-of-state speculative investments

State lawmakers advanced a proposal Tuesday to allow Florida Power & Light to charge customers for speculative oil and gas investments.

After two and a half hours of debate, the Florida House Subcommittee on Energy and Utilities approved HB 1043, sponsored by Sanford Republican Jason Brodeur. The measure would authorize the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) to approve utilities with at least 65 percent natural gas-fueled generation to charge customers for “prudent” investments in gas reserves and associated expenses.

Brodeur’s proposal arrives nearly a year after the Florida Supreme Court reversed a PSC decision allowing the utility to charge ratepayers for a fracking venture in Oklahoma.

Sam Forest, vice president of energy marketing and trading at FPL, said it was an extraction process, not an exploratory process. He added that it was definitely not “cost-recovery,” the controversial 2006 law that allowed utilities to charge in advance to pay for nuclear power plants, even though some of those never came online.

“All of the expenses that we would put out for a natural gas reserves investment would be recovered as the gas begins to flow or as it’s used,” said Forest.

Eric Eisnaugle, the vice-chair of the committee who was running the meeting, challenged Forest on that point. “Are you saying that FPL wouldn’t be able to charge ratepayers until the gas is actually flowing into their homes?” he asked.

“We do earn a little bit upfront in terms of the investment that we have made,” Forest admitted. “But the vast majority of the costs don’t occur until the gas is actually flowing.”

Eisnaugle later voted against the bill.

It would also be the first time in the nation that a utility company would be allowed to shift the risk of an exploratory drilling to customers, instead of shareholders, without determining whether the investment is prudent.

Susan Glickman with the Southeast Alliance for Clean Energy asked if consumers should have to fund the drilling operation and also pay for the fuel, or just buy the fuel?

Environmental groups weren’t the only people opposing the bill.

“There’s no guarantee that this gas will always come back to Florida, and we’re the ones paying for it,” said Melissa Rhamba with the Florida Retail Federation.

Forest criticized opponents for using terms like “speculative” regarding the legislation, saying it reflects “a serious lack of understanding of the bill itself and the science behind it.”

However, that’s the phrase used by Florida Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston in the court’s 6-1 ruling against FLP last June. “Treating these activities as a hedge requires FPL’s end-user consumers to guarantee the capital investment and operations of a speculative oil and gas venture without the Florida Legislature’s authority,” Polston wrote.

The Office of Public Counsel went to court to challenge the project. J.R. Kelly, from the Office of Public Counsel, said that there is always risk involved in such endeavors that FPL is requesting. “That was an issue that we raised quite vehemently three years ago to the Supreme Court.”

But at the end of the hearing, FPL won the day.

Sarasota Republican Joe Gruters was conflicted on whether to support the bill, but he said he was won over by the fact that FPL has lowered rates over the past decade.

Jacksonville Republican Jason Fisher, who used to work at FPL, said that with many of his constituents on fixed incomes, he thought the proposal was a good one since he believed it would bring rates down.

I don’t want to do anything that is speculative, especially with those on fixed incomes,” countered Boynton Beach Democrat Lori Berman in opposing the bill.

Fernandina Republican Aaron Bean is sponsoring the companion in the bill (SB 1238) in the Senate.

 

medical marijuana

House Health Quality Subcommittee approves medical marijuana implementing bill

A House panel approved legislation Tuesday that would implement the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment, despite concerns from some advocates the proposal doesn’t honor the spirit of the amendment.

The House Health Quality Subcommittee voted overwhelmingly to approve a bill (HB 1397) that would implement the 2016 constitutional amendment. Sponsored by House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, the bill would, among other things, maintain the current vertically integrated regulatory structure, only allow terminally ill patients to use vaporizers or consume cannabis products, and would make medical marijuana exempt from sales tax.

While the committee strongly supported the proposal, several members expressed reservations about some of the provisions outlined in the bill, including one that essentially calls for a three-month waiting period before a physician can recommend medical marijuana.

Rodrigues defended the inclusion of the language, saying it was part of low-THC medical marijuana bill passed passed in 2014. The state put in the requirement in response to the pill mill crisis in hopes it would shut down any “cash for prescription” operations.

He said he decided to keep the same 90-day waiting period in the implementing bill because the belief is that by making it easier for doctors to register and get certified to order medical marijuana for a qualified patient, more physicians across the state are likely to do so.

In that scenario, Rodrigues said it is likely that patients would be seeing a doctor they already have an established relationship with. But there is also a chance that physicians specializing in medical marijuana will emerge, and in that case Rodrigues said having the waiting period could help ward off bad actors.

Approved with support from 71 percent of Floridians in November, the constitutional amendment allows Floridians with debilitating medical conditions, determined by a licensed physician, to use medical marijuana. The amendment went into effect Jan. 3, but state lawmakers and the Florida Department of Health have been tasked with implementing the law.

The health department began the process of creating rules in January, and has until July to put them in place. The Senate Health Policy Committee held a workshop on implementing the constitutional amendment last week, and Sen. Dana Young, the committee chairwoman, said it could be a few weeks before the panel votes on a measure. Five implementing bills have been filed in the Senate.

Opponents to the constitutional amendment lined up in support of Rodrigues’ bill on Tuesday, calling it a way to implement voters will, while balancing the public health and safety concerns.

“We believe this bill includes language that address our concerns and the concerns of our community,” said Amy Ronshausen, the deputy director of Save Our Society from Drugs. “We believe this bill clearly puts the public health and safety before the interests of big marijuana.”

But Ben Pollara, the executive director of Florida for Care, said the fact that so many one-time opponents have come out in support of Rodrigues’ bill should show it isn’t “representative of the will of the people.”

Pollara, who helped craft the constitutional amendment, commended Rodrigues for his thoughtful approach to the legislation, but said “unfortunately the result was he got the policy wrong.” He pointed to several provisions, including the 90-day waiting period, that he said created onerous barriers to patient access.

Committee members acknowledged the bill was not perfect, but said they appreciated Rodrigues’ willingness to work with those involved to hammer out the details going forward.

“We have a responsibility as lawmakers to make sure we do this right,” said Rep. Wengay Newton, a St. Petersburg Democrat. “I’m excited about the possibilities.”

House and Senate cement their differences on Visit Florida funding

House budget writers stuck to the plan Tuesday in rolling out details of their proposed $12.3 billion for transportation and tourism. It would eliminate economic incentives programs including Enterprise Florida, and sharply reduce spending on Visit Florida.

“We’re basically following the tenets of (HB) 7005, the policy bill that was passed a couple of weeks ago,” said Clay Ingram, chairman of the Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee.

The committee would give $25 million to Visit Florida, rather less than the $76 million recommended by its Senate counterpart earlier in the day. It would provide $10 million for Space Florida.

But a raft of additional business incentives programs would fall by the wayside under the House budget.

Ingram conceded the differences are wide.

“If we were to go to conference right this second, I have no idea how it would turn out,” he said.

“I just know that the conversations that go on at the 4th Floor level” — between House and Senate leaders, that is — “will probably get us in a position to negotiate.”

Surviving incentives would benefit African-American- and Hispanic-owned businesses, the Florida Sports Foundation, and the Defense Support Task Force, which tries to recruit and retain military operations.

Five budget subcommittees were releasing outlines of their spending plans all day. The formal Appropriations Act is due by week’s end. More here and here.

The budget would cut staff positions at the Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the incentives, among other duties. But they represent positions that have gone vacant for more than 180 days, Ingram said.

There would be $155 million for affordable housing, including $4 million for the homeless.

There would be $10.8 billion for the Department of Transportation, including $9.9 billion for its work program.

The House budget subcommittees were instructed to come up with “A” scenario and “B” scenario plans — the first involving cuts of about $1 billion; the latter, about $2 billon. Budget chairman Carlos Trujillo has also discussed a target of $1.4 billion in cuts.

The targets reflect flattening tax proceeds.

One agency that emerged unscathed in Ingram’s proposal was the Department of Military Affairs. It will hold steady at $72.2 million during the next budget year.

New three-part series unpacks ‘dark side’ of money, influence in Florida’s Eyeball Wars

Florida’s Eyeball Wars rage on in Tallahassee, as optometrists continue pushing a bill allowing them to perform laser surgeries despite a potentially dangerous lack of medical training.

Richard Miniter, the chief executive officer of American Media Institute, broke down the issue in-depth with a three-part series co-authored with Joseph Hammond, in which he describes how optometrists have lobbied lawmakers to perform eye surgery in Florida, as well as the pushback from ophthalmologists, who argue that only trained and licensed medical professionals should perform such intricate procedures.

All three parts, which examine the dark side of money and influence behind the Eyeball Wars, also appear in the Sunshine State News.

On his Politically Incorrect Podcast, James Williams of News Talk Florida spoke with Miniter about the attempt by optometrists to pass HB 1037, a measure sponsored by state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. currently making way through the Legislature. The bill, as well a Senate companion from Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, seeks to give optometrists permission to perform certain types of laser surgery in Florida.

Miniter warns that the proposed state law could affect nearly all of Florida’s 20 million residents.

Kissimmee ophthalmologist Jaime Membreno tells Miniter: “If you live long enough, you will get cataracts and eventually need corrective surgery. Allowing optometrists to do this kind of surgical procedure is like allowing the mechanic to fly a fighter jet.”

Supporters of the bill disagree. As South Florida optometrist Salvatore DeCanio describes it: “The fact is we are the primary care for the optics of the eye. We know far more about optics and prisms in the eye than ophthalmologists. They have a different specialty.”

Nevertheless, optometrists insist passing the bill will result in a heightened risk to patients.

Dr. William Mallon of Vero Beach, a staunch opponent of the legislation, points out that even small mistakes during eye surgery can have devastating consequences, a risk that is minimized through proper training, education and experience.

“It takes a minimum 12 years of schooling and training to perform eye surgery,” Mallon says. “Medical school. Supervised residency … I know that if I lose focus for even a single second of surgery, my patient’s life could be permanently changed. I think about the stakes every time I walk into the operating room.”

Miniter also touches on possible motives behind this latest salvo in the Eyeball Wars: “Optometrists, who are now legally allowed to call themselves ‘optometric physicians’ in Florida, have long sought to put themselves on an equal footing with traditionally trained doctors. Ambition plays a role, too. Many optometrists have opened small chains — dozens of storefronts selling eyeglasses and eye care — that would further prosper with the added business. Ophthalmologists tend to have small practices and directly supervise all patient procedures; their boutique enterprises would suffer from big-chain competition.”

Also, optometrists have been the beneficiary of what Miniter calls “a complex web of dark money,” through “shadowy political organizations” behind their efforts, amassing nearly $2.1 million as well as the lobbying services of the brother of Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, among others.

“Optometrists greatly outnumber ophthalmologists in Florida, as they do in most states,” Miniter writes, “and usually outraise their doctor rivals by a large margin.”

“A lot of ophthalmologists in the state won’t join the Florida Society of Ophthalmology because they worry about losing their referrals from optometrists,” Mallon says. “We are having to go hat-in-hand to our national organization to get some money, but we can’t possibly catch up.”

Florida’s current Eyeball Wars are far from a new trend; the battle between optometrists and ophthalmologists has waged for decades.

“Optometrists have increasingly sought the prerogative to perform surgical tasks,” Miniter notes, “for which 47 states (including Florida) require a medical degree.”

The last truce in the Wars was in 2013, when a compromise was reached after years of lobbying by the Florida Optometric Association (FOA) and Nova Southeastern University’s College of Optometry, one of the largest optometry schools in the nation.

House Bill 239, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, expanded the scope of practice by allowing optometrists to prescribe a limited number of oral medications and expressly prohibits optometrists from performing surgery “of any kind.,” as well as setting up a precise definition of surgery modeled after the guidelines established by the American College of Surgeons.

But since then, politically active nonprofits in Florida has doubled from 67 to 155, partly as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.

“The Florida Optometry Eye Health Fund had the highest revenues during the previous tax year among 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations based in Florida,” ‎Laura Curlin tells Miniter. Curlin serves as data director at MapLight, a not-for-profit organization promoting political transparency.

In the final part of the series, Miniter also sheds light on the “dark side” of comanagement of care between ophthalmologists and optometrists, a high-stakes operation which some practitioners call “dangerously inadequate.”

“Rather than just the practice of an optometrist referring a patient to an ophthalmologist for care, comanagement is a fee-sharing arrangement where ophthalmologists perform surgeries and optometrists provide post-surgical care,” Miniter writes.

According to Kissimmee ophthalmologist Jaime Membreno: “If you say out of 100,000 cataract surgeries (costing between $600-$2000), that 20 percent are comanaged, that’s generating something like $50 million per year.”

Cary Pigman cleared in state ethics case

State Rep. Cary Pigman did not misuse his official position to retaliate against a school principal in his district, an administrative law judge ruled this week.

In a 22-page order, Judge June C. McKinney recommended that the Florida Commission on Ethics dismiss its case against the Avon Park Republican, first elected in 2012. He still faces a DUI charge from an unrelated incident last week.

Pigman, also a doctor of emergency medicine and Army Reserve physician, had been accused of “linking his efforts to obtain legislative funding for the Okeechobee School District … to retaliate or attempt to retaliate against an employee of the School District.”

That employee was elementary school principal Tracy Maxwell Downing, the ex- sister-in-law of Pigman’s former secretary, Libby Maxwell, with whom he had been having an affair and to whom he is now married.

In October 2015, Downing and Pigman attended a legislative delegation meeting in the county. He said she “used her middle finger in a manner that could be seen as ‘flicking a bird’ at him,” an investigative report said. Downing later said she was only “scratching her head.”

McKinney wasn’t buying it, noting that Downing had admitted “flipping (Pigman) off” to schools superintendent Ken Kenworthy, and “even apologized,” telling him “she did not realize one obscene gesture in the spur of the moment would lead to something like this.”

That December, Pigman and Libby Maxwell met with Kenworthy to “address their concerns” about Downing and the academic performance of her daughter, who attended Downing’s school.

Pigman played jailhouse recordings between Downing and her brother when he was locked up on an unrelated charge. In them, she could be heard telling the brother she was giving Pigman “hell,” because the state representative was spending nights with the secretary at her marital home while her husband, Downing’s brother, was in jail.

Pigman then asked Kenworthy, “Is this the best that the Okeechobee School District has to offer,” adding that “…this would be in the back of (my) mind when thinking about the School District,” according to the investigative report.

“The Okeechobee School District was seeking $63 million from the Florida Department of Education to construct a new high school,” the report noted.

Pigman’s remark, however, was just a “poor choice of words, (and) at most, the statement can only be perceived as nebulous because (it) lacks any specificity,” McKinney wrote.

In fact, the judge added, “the record is void of any evidence to show either Pigman or (his now wife) tried to leverage their status by threatening, asking for, or discussing discipline, suspension, termination or any other punishment for Mrs. Downing … The record only shows that Mrs. Downing’s unprofessional harassing behavior was reported.”

Being in the Legislature “does not strip a legislator’s right to report wrongdoings of a public employee,” the order says.

McKinney also found “no reliable evidence” that Pigman suggested blocking the district’s funding. “Furthermore, the funding issue never went before the Legislature since the request was denied at the agency level stage for not meeting the critical need test,” she wrote.

The order goes to the Ethics Commission for final action. Before that, the parties can submit written objections for consideration.

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