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Hollywood Hills tragedy overhangs Senate committee talk on nursing home rules

Florida’s 683 licensed nursing homes and 3,109 assisted living facilities have just a few weeks to meet Gov. Rick Scott’s rule to install generators, but there are very few generators available and most won’t make it, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services heard on Wednesday.

The first hearing of that committee to deal with nursing homes’ emergency plan safety in the wake of the Hollywood Hills tragedy, in which 14 elderly residents appeared to have baked to death because the Hurricane Irma power outage pushed up indoor temperatures, dealt more with state programs and procedures than with that tragedy, but it overhung almost everything discussed.

And the need for Scott’s ordered rule, signed Sept. 16, five days after Hurricane Irma shut down power for most of the state and three days after deaths were revealed at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, included the order for backup power for cooling. Industry representatives said they support the concept, but argued that most nursing homes and assisted living facilities will struggle with the costs, and with the availability of generators to meet the 60-day deadline for installation.

There was some talk of the state assisting with money, but the committee mostly listened to testimony, and did not state any directions. Chairwoman Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, said she would schedule a legislative workshop later.

Molly McKinstry, deputy secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration said her agency and other state agencies were in constant contact before, during and after Hurricane Irma with all the state’s nursing homes. The state is being sued over the Hollywood Hills horror, and so she said she could not talk in any specifics about it, though she called it an isolated incident among the hundreds of such facilities statewide.

Still, McKinstry acknowledged that many nursing homes and assisted living facilities lost power and quite a few visited by state officials had interior temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s, despite meeting all the current state requirements. She said loss of power and heating issues were a “prevalent” problem.

Scott’s order calls for nursing homes to have backup power and related facilities to be able to maintain an interior temperature of 80 degrees or cooler for 96 hours.

McKinstry nonetheless was grilled by state Sen. Kevin Rader, a Boca Raton Democrat, when she was unable to convince him that she had data indicating how prevelant the power and heating issues appeared to be in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Data she provided showed about a quarter to a third lost power, including those that were evacuated. But under questioning she conceded the data was a snapshot of the moments the facilities reported their situations, and did not reflect whether they had lost power for any period up until then. She pledged she would get better data.

State Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Lady Lake Republican, called the Hollywood Hills situation “outrageous” yet appeared to want to downplay it. He blamed the media for dramatizing it, and openly questioning whether all 14 deaths there attributed to Hurricane Irma were really storm-related, or whether some were seniors who just died naturally during that period of time and got included in reports that made things look much worse.

McKinstry said two of the deaths occurred at the nursing home, while the other 12 were residents who died in the hospital after they were transported the morning the first two deaths were discovered, Sept. 13.

“We keep getting new deaths attributed to the storm, because they came from the nursing home, when in fact, look at the population you’re dealing with: they’re 90-somethings,” Baxley said. “Some of these deaths would have naturally occurred, storm or no storm. So to automatically pushing these over to the medical examiner as part of this case that they’re are studying, I think could be a bit unfair on the other side of the equation

“There need to be some evaluation of are these natural deaths or storm deaths, because, that makes a difference in policy, what kind of policy we set. I think we can face the reality that some of these are naturally occurring deaths,” Baxley said. “The more the time clicks off, the more of them there will be, until eventually everyone who was in that nursing home will die. OK? We don’t need to attribute all those to the storm, or we’re in bad policy.”

He called for McKinstry to come back with an investigative report, offering more detail, as soon as litigation and a pending criminal case might allow.

“Part of the problem is the outrageousness of this has come out in drips and there’s a lot of misinformation and confusion about pieces of information that leak out, and a lot of drama of course with media coverage and dramatization of what did happen. I think when things calm down we ought to have a report,” Baxley said. “That’s the only way we’re going to modify this policy.”

Fireworks bill clears first Senate panel

The latest attempt to end a decades-old prohibition on fireworks sales in Florida received its first hearing in the state Senate Wednesday, and it was a bit bumpy.

The bill cleared the Senate Regulated Industries Committee on a 8-2 vote, but bill sponsor Greg Steube admits it still needs some work.

For more than half a century, Florida law on fireworks has been banned, but there is a loophole that allows fireworks to be used “solely and exclusively in frightening birds from agricultural works and fish hatcheries.”

What that means is that Floridians who purchase fireworks from roadside stands are usually asked to sign a form acknowledging that they fall under one of the exemptions, which gives legal cover for fireworks vendors that buyers will actually use them for the purposes that they describe in the form.

Like scaring birds.

Lawmakers in recent sessions, including former state Rep. and now U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, have tried to change the law to no avail. This time around, it’s Steube, a Sarasota Republican. He filed a bill (SB 198) to legalize consumer fireworks.

St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes asked Steube how many people he thought committed fraud when they filed the forms. Steube replied that he thought it was around 99.9 percent.

“We’ve created this unique situation where we all allow people to commit fraud every day and the government turns a blind eye to it,” said Brandes, who said perhaps the simpler rule would be to change the form instead of jettisoning it.

Lobbyist Ron Book, representing American Promotional Events, said his client strongly objected to eliminating the forms, saying it indemnifies the seller. “The industry is happy the way things are here,” he said.

He did add that the form could be enhanced to include “general use” in addition to the provision on agriculture, as is now the case.

In addition to removing the ban, Steube’s bill also will prohibit those under the age of 18 from purchasing fireworks.

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon II said if the bill encourages people in his district to shoot off fireworks—and not guns—on the 4th of July and on New Year’s Eve, he’s good with it.

With two more stops before the bill would go to the Senate floor, Steube said he’d be happy to work with any senator in improving the measure.

Republicans see Irma as an opportunity to review energy regulations

House leaders see the recovery from Hurricane Irma as an opportunity to investigate whether state regulations are getting in the way.

The issue came up Wednesday during hearings before the Energy & Utilities Subcommittee.

“Are there any regulations, whether laws that we’ve passed or administrative procedures the PSC might have put in place, that might be slowing down the recovery time or restoration time?” Republican Jason Fischer asked Florida Power & Light’s Bryan Olnick.

“And if there are, could you identify what some of those might be? I’d be willing to work with you to pull some of those back.”

Olnick thought not.

“Right now, I really don’t think that there are necessarily any rules or regulations I would say are a major hindrance when it comes to restoration strategy, restoration philosophy, prioritizing how we restore. I wouldn’t really say there are any major roadblocks,” Olnick said.

Speaker Richard Corcoran’s new Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness definitely will look into the state’s regulatory climate, said Panama City Republican Jay Trumbull, chairman of the energy panel and a member of the select committee.

“We are absolutely going to be looking at those things in that select committee, as well,” Trumbill said.

That Florida has recovered as well as it has is largely due to regulations the Legislature ordered the Public Service Commission to write after Hurricane Andrew and the storms of 2004 and 2005. That’s judging by testimony from PSC officials and executives of three investor-owned utilities before Trumbull’s committee, and before a Senate panel on Tuesday.

The House committee also heard from a representative of the Florida Electric Cooperatives Association.

“This committee is going to focus on how we can get power to folks in Florida at the lowest price possible, and looking at the way policy is driven in the state,” Trumbull said of his subcommittee. “The select committee is going to focus on specific issues relating to hurricanes. And a lot of those things are going to flow from that committee to us. Because the majority of those things probably had to do with power.”

Trumbull, in his inaugural hearing as chairman of the energy panel, said he wants to see how well the existing regulations helped.

“Did all those things work? Did they stand up to Irma’s power? And how can we fix those things in the future?” he said.

It’s too early to know what regulatory reforms might be called for, Trumbull said, but a review would be in line with the Republican Party’s philosophical attachment to smaller government.

“We’re going to allow the select committee to really drill down on some things, and them absorb them as they come out,” he said.

The select committee was scheduled to meet for the first time Thursday at 1:30 p.m.

Florida-issued veteran ID clears first subcommittee

In Florida, there’s currently no uniform way for veterans to prove their former military service. But after today, state lawmakers are one step closer to changing that.

HB 107 cleared the Local, Federal and Veterans Affairs House Subcommittee unanimously Tuesday. The bill, if implemented into law, would require the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, with cooperation from the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, to create an ID for veterans to prove veteran status in order to obtain discounts or waivers available.

Before the vote, state Rep. Neil Combee, a Polk County Republican and a sponsor of the bill, explained to the subcommittee that not everyone who served in the military is eligible for a VA card.

“We want to be a veteran-friendly state,” Combee told other lawmakers, citing that Virginia already has implemented a veteran ID. Delaware also offers a state-issued veteran ID.

To receive the card, veterans must pay a $10 fee. It would contain a photograph, full name, the branch of service, date of discharge and the words “Proof of veteran status only.”

A similar bill was filed last year as HB 179, but, after passing unanimously on the House floor, died in Senate Transportation.

Regulators shoot down medical marijuana payment proposal

State regulators have rejected a California bank’s proposal to operate in Florida as a financial middleman for medical marijuana-related transactions.

The Office of Financial Regulation turned down a request from PayQwick for a declaratory statement so it could operate here.

Christian Bax, director of the Department of Health’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use, gave a presentation Wednesday to the House Health Quality Subcommittee on the state’s regulation of medicinal cannabis.

Though he did not mention the PayQwick case, decided in late August, Bax did say there has been “reticence” on the part of the banking industry to get involved with marijuana sales.

Florida has more or less legalized medical marijuana, through statute and constitutional amendment, but selling marijuana still is a federal crime. And banking, by its nature as “interstate commerce,” falls under federal law.

Under President Barack Obama, however, federal prosecutors did not criminally pursue those, such as “the seriously ill and their caregivers,” who distribute and use the drug “in compliance with an existing state law.”

Still, “life would be a lot easier for us and for patients if there were online payments,” Bax told the panel.

PayQwick’s “description of its contemplated business model is expansive,” OFR’s order says.

“For example, (it) describes its (potential) clients as not only registered medical marijuana patients, but also members of the public purchasing marijuana from a licensed retailer/dispensary.”

Florida’s current system is “vertically-integrated,” meaning businesses grow, process and sell their own marijuana, with each licensed as a medical marijuana treatment center, or MMTC.

But PayQwick based its request “on the erroneous assumption that the … distribution of marijuana is legal,” the order says. Because of that, “a declaratory statement is not available.”

PayQwick’s system, an “electronic payment hub,” was also aimed at making it easier for “ancillary” concerns, such as security alarm companies, to do “legal business” with the MMTCs.

Users would download an app to transfer money from a “settlement account” to a “sub-account,” then to a “bank or credit union.”

PayQwick would have made money “by charging a percentage-based service fee for each re-allocation of funds from one client to another,” the OFR order says.

Hurricane impacted fundraising efforts of top-tier legislative candidates

Election Day is 13 months away but a handful of rock star candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, have already started to break away from the pack in crowded races for open House seats.

Most of them saw a dip in September – blame it on the rain – but each remains the leader in their quest to join the Florida House’s 2018 freshman class.

Ardian Zika made headlines with big endorsements and by posting more than $100,000 in his first report after filing to run in HD 37 as a Republican at the beginning of August.

The Land O’Lakes businessman and banker raised $3,600 in September, including $1,000 a piece from the Law Offices of Lucas Magazine, Templar Contracting and Webco Dental and Medical Supplies. Lobbyist and former FDOT Secretary Jim Boxold pitched in $500, with three small-dollar donors making up the other $100.

Zika refunded a $1,000 August contribution from Victor Young, however, which combined with $800 in spending saw his campaign account grow by just $1,800 to $102,684.

Still, that leaves him with nearly 10 times more than the second place Republican, Elle Rudisill. The other two candidates, Bill Gunter and George Agovino, posted more goose eggs, so keep Zika down as the favorite to replace House Speaker Richard Corcoran in the Pasco County district.

Over in Orlando-based HD 47, Democrat Anna Eskamani has been on fire since stepping into the race after current Republican Rep. Mike Miller said he would runn for Congress rather than seek re-election.

Month three saw the Planned Parenthood exec post a respectable $14,000. Her to-date total is just shy of $110,000 and she has about $90,000 of that on hand.

In addition to hitting the six-figure milestone, the Orlando Democrat racked up endorsements over the past month. Among the most recent crop backing the Planned Parenthood executive are longtime Orlando civic fixture Dick Batchelor, former Colorado U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder and  Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

Republican opponent Stockton Reeves may be able to boast a cash on hand advantage, though his hair-width lead comes solely from a $90,000 loan and a complete lack of campaign spending. His fundraising remained flat, too, with just $1,400 raised last month and $4,420 total from those not named Stockton.

The race to take over for termed-out Republican Rep. George Moraitis Broward-based HD 93 heated up a bit after Democrat Emma Collum entered in June.

Her first month saw her bring in $24,000, but she’s yet to match that number even when combining her July, August and September reports, the most recent of which saw $5,050 trickle into her campaign account and $6,700 head out the door.

With $25,700 on hand, the JL Audio in-house counsel leads Democratic Primary rivals Johnathon May, who has $335 in bank, and Stephanie Myers, who has $6,841 on hand after blowing through most of the $15,000 in loans she made to her campaign.

Collum also picked up an endorsement from South Florida Democrat and House Minority Leader designate Kionne McGhee last week, cementing her status as the frontrunner in the tossup seat that voted plus-1 for President Donald Trump last year.

That could change pretty soon, however, as one of the few local Republicans that knows how to win an election set his sights on the seat. Chip LaMarca, Broward’s lone GOP county commissioner, filed for the seat on Oct. 3 and won’t put out his inaugural report until this month’s numbers are due Nov. 13.

Finally, September saw Vance Aloupis, arguably the biggest luminary among the current crop of would-be lawmakers, tack on just $3,000, though he still holds a firm lead in the four-way Republican Primary for Miami-Dade’s HD 115 with $182,500 in total fundraising and $165,500 on hand.

The tireless advocate for early childhood education and mentee of legendary former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence Jr. brought in six-figures his first month and he holds a better than 2-to-1 lead over his closest opponent, Rhonda Rebman-Lopez, who is only keeping it somewhat close due to kicking in $35,000 worth of loans.

Carlos Daniel Gobel comes third with about $5,000 on hand, while Carmen Sotomayor rounds out the GOP cadre and her campaign is going about as well as her unsuccessful 2014 run in HD 117. Her newest report shoes her campaign account holding a pair of Jacksons.

Aloupis also picked up an endorsement termed-out HD 115 Rep. Michael Bileca since his last report, putting him another couple rungs above the competition.

A pair of Democrats have also entered the race, but through September neither have gained traction. James Linwood and Jeffrey Solomon have about $5,000 and $3,500 on hand, respectively.

Rebekah Bydlak adds $14K for HD 1 bid, as Mike Hill struggles out of the gate

Don’t call it a comeback, because it isn’t yet.

Former Rep. Mike Hill opened a campaign account to return to the House last month, but his first three weeks on the trail haven’t put much of a dent into Rebekah Bydlak’s lead in Escambia County-based HD 1, where current Rep. Clay Ingram faces term limits in 2018.

Hill’s effort brought in just $5,900, including $1,000 from a committee tied to Clearwater Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, $1,000 a piece from Pensacola flight instructor Mark Freymiller and his wife, Mia, and another $1,000 from Gulf Breeze chiropractor John Newlin.

Bydlak, for her part, piled on another $14,272 for her campaign account in September, a respectable follow up to her banner opening month, which saw her pull in $50,000 for her campaign and another $10,000 for her political committee.

Heading into October, she had about $57,000 on hand in her campaign account.

After 24 days in the race, Hill’s total puts him just a few bucks ahead of the Democratic candidate in the race, Vikki Garrett, who was able to scrounge up $5,700 for her campaign last month despite running in one of the most hopelessly unfavorable districts for Democrats statewide.

Hill made a valiant effort in the SD 1 primary last year, but his decision to jump ship in HD 2 and race for pink slips against Doug Broxson is probably starting to sting again.

A year after that 13-point loss in the primary, HD 2 has moved on with freshman Rep. Frank White and HD 1 is flirting with an up-and-comer in the next generation Republicans in Bydlak. There’s plenty of time before primary season rolls around, but Hill’s in for a competition if he wants his old job back.

Senators sound skeptical of new state jobs fund

Lawmakers asked lots of questions but didn’t get the answers they wanted Wednesday as a Senate panel tried to get a handle on the state’s new $85 million jobs fund.

The Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee heard from Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) head Cissy Proctor on the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund.

In a Special Legislative Session earlier this year for economic development, tourism and education funding, Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders agreed to create the fund.

It’s aimed at creating employment by enticing businesses to relocate to the state. The fund promotes job training and public infrastructure projects.

Proctor said her department already has received 179 proposals, which include 96 infrastructure projects from local governments and 83 workforce projects, worth a combined $642 million in requested funding.

Senators soon started peppering Proctor with questions: “It’s a lot of money … we want to understand what the parameters are,” explained subcommittee chair Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, wanted to know if any preference would be given to “depressed or deprived” areas.

All proposals “stand on their own,” Proctor said: “Almost all represent incredible needs of the communities. We want the proposals to shine, to show us how deep the need is.”

When will Gov. Scott make a decision on what gets money? Bradley asked.

“I can’t tell you a timeline,” Proctor said. “We are reviewing them as they come in.”

Bradley pressed on, asking if there were any “objective standards” that the governor and staff will judge by?

“We are looking at each proposal on its own,” Proctor said. 

What about the process of how the governor will be presented with, say, staff picks of top proposals?

“We are working right now on what that will look like,” Proctor said.

Gibson later said she didn’t like what she heard: “I’m really concerned what could be done won’t reach the people who really need it.”

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, added that because demand exceeds supply, “it sets the stage for so many projects to get left behind.”

And she worried that there was no way to make sure money gets spread equally across the state.

In a statement, DEO called the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund “a critical tool for economic development in Florida,” adding it was “committed to accountability and transparency in this process.”

The department “has posted every proposal on a dedicated website, along with frequently asked questions and direct contact information for entities to call or email with any questions. Strong contracts with entities that receive these funds will ensure that each project has a strong, verifiable return on investment and taxpayer dollars are protected.”

DEO, “along with our partners at Enterprise Florida, the Florida Department of Transportation and CareerSource Florida, are working diligently to review more than 170 proposals from communities across the state,” the statement said.

“As outlined in legislation overwhelmingly passed during a special session earlier this year, projects will be approved that meet statutory criteria and promote economic opportunity in these local communities.”

By the meeting’s end, Bradley told colleagues that DEO was “asking for $85 million (next year for the fund) and they haven’t spent the first $85 million. This is the new world we’re working in.”

Bill to establish slavery memorial at Capitol advances in House committee

Legislation to establish a slavery memorial at the state Capitol in Tallahassee passed its first committee Wednesday.

The bill (HB 67) would authorize the Department of Management and Services, upon a recommendation from the Florida Historical Commission, to create and establish a Florida Slavery Memorial on the Capitol Complex.

It would “honor the nameless and forgotten men, women and children who have gone unrecognized for their undeniable contributions to our great state and great country,” explained Miami Democrat Kionne McGhee to the House Oversight, Transparency & Administration Subcommittee.

McGhee’s proposal is supported by House Speaker Richard Corcoran. A similar measure  passed the House during the 2017 Legislative Session, but failed to advance in the Senate, after initially being blocked by Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley.

Baxley told a reporter that he had a “discomfort about memorializing slavery” and that it would be too negative.

“I would rather celebrate overcoming the heartbreak of slavery. I wouldn’t want to build a memorial to child abuse; I wouldn’t want to build a memorial to sexual abuse,” Baxley told the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times. “I have a discomfort about memorializing slavery. … I would like to take it in a more positive direction than a memorial to slavery.”

The comments rankled McGhee, who called them “borderline racist.” The two later met for dinner and cleared up their differences.

Well-known legislative gadfly Brian Pitts praised the bill during public comment, but said that legislators should consider a similar memorial for Native Americans.

The Capitol complex currently includes monuments honoring veterans, law enforcement officers and women and one recognizing the Holocaust.

 

Sentencing bill a ‘win-win’, says Rob Bradley

Florida’s prison industry has endured scrutiny in recent years, and a new bill from Sen. Rob Bradley may offer some relief for the sector.

SB 484 would authorize a court to sentence prisoners to county jail for up to 24 months, if said county has a DOC contract.

The bill would also require prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. Those prisoners will have sentences that don’t run longer than 24 months, and most felony convictions are exempt from this proposal.

On Wednesday morning, Bradley told Florida Politics that this is not a new idea.

“This is an idea that I’ve discussed with Senate and House colleagues for a couple of years now,” Bradley asserted.

“We’ve come close to including language in budget conforming bills in the past but we haven’t been able to cross the finish line,” Bradley added, saying that he’s “starting the conversation early this year.”

Part of the problem is that the state has more prisoners than its facilities can handle, Bradley said.

“Right now,” Bradley said, “the state incarcerates 100,000 inmates. After dealing with this issue for years, I’ve come to the conclusion that our infrastructure and personnel is simply not equipped to handle that number. We need to reduce the state population. This is a strategy to accomplish this goal.”

The bill, Bradley added, will benefit “certain local jails with excess capacity. The bill will help relieve budget pressures for those jurisdictions.”

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