Influence Archives - Page 6 of 263 - Florida Politics

Dan Marino could be on Florida’s next specialty tag

Miami Dolphins fans could face a tough choice picking their next license plate if a new bill by Boynton Beach Democrat Joe Abruzzo is successful.

HB 839, filed Wednesday, would create a new specialty tag featuring Dolphins’ legend Dan Marino’s image. The tag would benefit the Dan Marino Foundation, a charity set up by the former quarterback that helps people with autism and other developmental disabilities bridge the gap between high school graduation and employment.

Abruzzo’s bill is one of several new specialty plates lawmakers will consider during the 2017 Legislative Session, including a plate to benefit conservation group American Eagle Foundation, and another that would feature the image of former President Ronald Reagan.

Specialty plates cost $25 a year and the state currently offers 125 different tags.

GOP lawmakers defend Florida Housing Finance Corp.’s expenses

Republican lawmakers came to the defense of the state’s beleaguered affordable housing organization during a presentation of audit findings critical of the agency.

The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee formally heard the report Thursday; the audit of the Florida Housing Finance Corp. (FHFC), steward of both state and federal affordable housing money, was released in December.

Lawmakers focused on lavish events thrown for lenders and board members, including a $52,000 dinner with broiled lobster and filet mignon, and another that featured a $420 Spanish charcuterie station.

State audit manager Christi Alexander told the panel such expenses “did not appear to be clearly necessary” to the function of the agency. 

But state Rep. Dan Raulerson, the panel’s vice chair and a CPA, said the first event was partly funded by corporate sponsorships, bringing its actual cost down to $36,000.

“I want us to make sure … we’re using common sense and good judgment,” said Raulerson, a Plant City Republican, but added that the dinners were to show appreciation for those helping the agency and furthering its affordable housing mission. 

“Somebody lost their job over this, and that’s not right,” he said, referring to FHFC executive director Steve Auger‘s resignation just before Christmas. “I don’t think (the agency) did anything wrong … What they did was entirely within reason.

“We need to make sure folks have wiggle room … as to whether steak and lobster is OK or not,” he added.

State Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican, backed Raulerson and called the audit’s findings on the events “nitpicking.”

“I feel like we overreact to things sometimes,” he said. “I believe in hospitality; I believe in recognition ceremonies for my employees … An audit to me is, I want to know if they’re stealing money or wasting money. But if they’re doing a function they’re allowed to do, part of their authority is to decide how big a dinner to have.

“This is an opinion that they had too nice a dinner,” Baxley added. 

On the other hand, Sen. Audrey Gibson said lawmakers shouldn’t “take (it) lightly.”

“Maybe $36,000 doesn’t matter to some of the people up here … but it means something to the folks in some of our communities,” the Jacksonville Democrat said.

Ken Reecy, FHFC’s interim executive director, said the deficiencies pointed out in the audit – including problems with financial controls – were being corrected. He also said private dollars, not any state funding, were used to pay for events. 

But future dinners aren’t planned: “We will find other ways to maintain the critical relationships we have with the banks that assist us in our mission of affordable homeownership,” Reecy added.

New law gives thousands of foster care teens big boost in acquiring driver’s privileges

State legislators voted Thursday unanimously in favor of making a three-year pilot project called “Keys to Independence” — begun in 2014 and intended to aid eligible teens in the state foster care system attain driver’s licenses and overcome associated hurdles — permanent, bringing them on par with their peer group.

Autonomy is what most teenagers crave — driving is a key to that freedom and competitive edge.

In previous decades, adolescents under the custody of the state of Florida faced obstacles to attaining liberties often taken for granted and afforded to their same-aged friends in school, church, work and sports programs. Driver’s education, typically offered in high school, doesn’t mean much to a young person if they don’t have the ability to sustain the framework inherently associated with car ownership — insurance, for one, is a major obstacle.

The path to acquiring a driver’s license itself can often be more complicated for teens in the foster care system.

“Prior to getting my license I never had the chance to get the experience to learn how to drive because I switched high schools in my senior year and the driver’s ed program was full in the school I enrolled in,” Thomas Fair, co-founder and former president of Florida Youth Shine, told state legislators on the Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee in Tallahassee Thursday. “In foster care, my dream was to be able to drive.”

After the hearing, Florida Politics spoke with Fair, 26, who said that often foster parents can’t afford to add their foster children to their car insurance policies because of the increase in the rates. Additionally, Fair said, youth in foster care can sometimes run afoul of the law while driving without a license, ensnaring them in ongoing legal problems preventing from acquiring driver’s privileges for years.

“I’ve talked with other young men, who have aged out of foster care, that still don’t have a license because the opportunity to get the proper education to begin with,” he said by telephone from Tallahassee.

The law would now ensure those in foster care would be able to get into driver’s ed classes, even if they’re full. Additionally, young people aged 15-21 in licensed out-of-home care may be reimbursed for fees associated with obtaining their license, such as learner license fees, driver’s license fees, testing fees, substance abuse courses and with monthly insurance premiums and deductibles, according to an analysis of the bill issued Tuesday.

The bill — known as HB 217 — was co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Ben Albritton of Wauchula and Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora.

The meeting Thursday of the subcommittee was chaired by Stuart Republican Rep. Gayle Harrell.

“We want our youth to finish the program and move forward to become successful, independent individuals,” Harrell noted before the bill’s vote.

The Keys to Independence program has gone nationwide, with Florida the first state to support the project.

Tri-Rail defends its $500M contract before Senate committee

The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority took its best shot Thursday at defending its decisions to throw out five proposals and accept the remaining one for a $511 million contract, a move that has drawn stern criticism from several state leaders including Gov. Rick Scott.

Among the biggest critics has been state Sen. Jeff Brandes, and on Thursday the authority Executive Director Jack Stephens came before Brandes’ Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development to argue that his agency did exactly what it was legally and ethically supposed to do.

Stephens spent 45 minutes walking the committee through his agency’s procurement process for the operations and maintenance contract of the commuter rail system that serves Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

His bottom line: the process left SFRTA with just one qualified proposal to consider; and the proposal was deemed acceptable; and the contract was awarded; even though the five rejected proposals all appeared to be for less money, as much as $115 million less over ten years. The key is the rejected proposals’ bottom lines did not appear solid.

“These five proposals were not rejected for technicalities, but for substantive changes to contract provisions in violation of the RFP’s instructions,” Stephens told the subcommittee.

“We were extremely careful, extremely careful, to lay out a level playing field, set rules. And the proposers have to live by those rules, just like a football game,” Stephens added.

Whether or not Stephens’ defense allays critics remains unclear. After the situation came to light, and even before the SFRTA board voted 6-2 on Jan. 27 to award the contract to Herzog Transit Services, Brandes had raised serious suspicions and had vaguely threatened to cut Tri-Rail’s $42 million state subsidy. The Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold did likewise. Scott zeroed out $156 million in state money for Tri-Rail infrastructure projects in his proposed budget.

Neither Brandes nor anyone else on the committee suggested Thursday that anything had changed as a result of Stephens’ testimony. Stephens took questions from Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, and from state Sen. Frank Artiles a Miami-Dade Republican who had defended the authority’s actions in a column Wednesday on

Artiles also defended the authority’s decision Thursday, saying it was based on clear process.

“Once you start peeling back the onion on what has transpired here, the process is the process,” Artiles said.

No one raised any overt or even inferred suspicions Thursday that the contract may have been somehow steered to Herzog, and Stephens did not have to respond to any such accusations.

However, Stephens did note there was an “optics” problems with the half-billion contract going to what essentially was the highest bidder. Instead of responding to the image question, he offered his own optics perspective.

He noted that Donald Trump was elected president in part because of his “America First” slogan and promises. And then Stephens pointed out that the five failed proposers included four with international ownership: two Canadian, one French and one British. Herzog, by contrast, is a private American company, he said.

Brandes questioned whether that “America First” notion impacted the decision process, but Stephens said no.

Price was only 20 percent of the consideration, with the rest of the decision based on scoring of the companies’ technical and reliability characteristics. However, only Herzog was thus scored on those matters.

While Stephens said there were several issues with the rejected proposals, the fundamental one had to do with their discussions of liability insurance. Four of the companies wanted the authority to extend it’s base policy to the companies’ potential subcontractors, and the fifth, Amtrak, had other liability insurance concerns.

“We said, ‘No. That risk has to lie with the proposer and it has to be included in your price,’ Stephens said. “And they failed to do it. It makes no sense to me. Why they did that, I don’t know.”

Brandes questioned how five experienced companies could get through an entire procurement process without reaching that understanding, if the process was as clear as Stephens said.

“Clearly there was some concern or some confusion about this issue of insurance, since every single group – these are multinational firms as you described – all of them had some issues specifically related to the insurance, that ultimately disqualified at least four of them,” Brandes said. “Why was that not then clarified? Why was there not belts and suspenders to clarify this issue?”

“That was absolutely clarified,” Stephens responded.

Four of the rejected companies are appealing, but the authority is moving forward in contracting with Herzog, Stephens said. He raised strong concerns about being able to mobilize a transition from four companies now providing operations and maintenance services to Herzog in time for a seamless transition on July 1. He said any delays in the transition now could be detrimental to riders, and could also disrupt the authority’s plans for additional services, including establishment of a ground transportation system to downtown Orlando.

House advances bill pulling Florida out of refugee assistance program

A bill that would remove Florida from the federal refugee resettlement advanced in the Florida House after a party-line vote Thursday.

The legislation sponsored by Deltona Republican David Santiago would direct the state’s refugee coordinator to provide notice to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement by June 30 that it intends to withdraw from the federal program by year’s end. The House Children, Families and Seniors subcommittee voted to take the first steps in separating the state from the federal program. However, the bill is highly symbolic in nature, since the resettling of refugees into Florida will continue, but with the federal funds that currently flow into the state for the program instead going directly to the social service and nonprofit groups that work with the refugees.

The vote comes after House Speaker Richard Corcoran praised President Donald Trump for his “bold action” in temporarily banning refugees from entering the United States (that decision was reversed by the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals last week).

The issue of resettling Syrian refugees in Florida has been a hot topic for Governor Rick Scott and other Republicans in the Legislator for going back to late in 2015, when he joined more than 30 other governors around the nation in telling the Obama administration that it was time for a pause in bringing any more Syrian refugees to the U.S.

“The bill doesn’t actually do anything to improve the security situation for refugees that are settled here,” said Scott Duncan with the Southern Poverty Law Center on Thursday.”It doesn’t stop refugees from being resettled here. It doesn’t stop refugees from other states from coming here. What it does say is that Florida is going to wash its hands and close its eyes.”

But Venice Republican Julio Gonzalez says the federal government’s failure to provide more information to the state regarding the refugees makes it a bad deal for the state.

“This is not a partnership,” said Gonzalez. “This is not is a negotiation between two equal standing parties for mutual benefit. There is no mutual consideration.”

Dover Republican Ross Spano agreed. “Don’t tell us to like it or lump it,” he said of the federal government’s stance on the issue.

According to The Cato Institute, between 1975 and 2015 only 20 refugees were involved in terrorism or planning attacks – and none of those attacks played out in Florida or were planned in the state.

Appeals court rules for Perry Thurston in matching funds case

Perry Thurston Jr., now a state senator, has won the latest round in a court battle over state matching funds for his failed 2014 bid for Attorney General.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach Wednesday reversed a decision by the state’s Division of Elections, under Gov. Rick Scott, to deny Thurston matching funds for that race.

Thurston, Perry, SD 33

Thurston, a former House Democratic Leader who was term limited in 2014, lost that year’s primary to George Sheldon, who lost to incumbent Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi in the general election.

Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, was elected to the Florida Senate last year.

For the attorney general’s race, Thurston had applied for state matching funds from the Election Campaign Financing Trust Fund, according to the opinion by Chief Judge Cory J. Ciklin and Judges Spencer D. Levine and Alan O. Forst.

“The Division rejected some of the documents—photocopies of checks—because necessary information contained on the face of the documents could not be read,” it said.

After his primary loss, he “submitted new, legible photocopies of the required documents, which the Division declined to review.”

Because state law “and administrative rules do not impose a deadline on curing defective paperwork submitted prior to a primary election in support of a request for matching funds, we reverse and remand,” the opinion said.

The state now must “determine whether Thurston met the threshold for distribution of matching funds. If so, the Division shall distribute the funds.”

Otherwise, it “would subvert the purpose of the (matching funds program) to permit the Division to refuse to determine whether the candidate met the threshold,” according to the opinion.

“We are reviewing it,” said Meredith M. Beatrice, spokeswoman for the division.

Drive for assignment of benefits reform picks up steam

The prospect that a national rating firm might downgrade Florida insurance companies because of rising costs linked to assignment of benefits agreements has lit a fire under advocates of reforming those contracts.

“This issue is having a real effect on the pocketbooks of working Floridians and it’s time we take steps to clean up the process,” state Rep. Ben Diamond said in a written statement Wednesday.

“Homeowners deserve a real, consumer-driven solution that ensures that legitimate claims are paid while putting a stop to the bad actors who are driving up the cost of property insurance for all Floridians,” the St. Peterburg Democrat said.

He pointed to a report in the Miami Herald that Demotech Inc. was about to downgrade as many of 15 of the 57 Florida insurers it rates from “A” to “B” on financial stability.

The move could put mortgages at risk for thousand of homeowner because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require “A” ratings on insurance carried by its borrowers, the Herald reported.

Diamond sits on the Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee, which is debating restricting the ability to use AOBs to file lawsuits against insurers to policyholders, as opposed to contractors to whom they might assign insurance benefits.

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier has endorsed this approach.

Earlier this week, the Florida Justice Reform Institute issued a report finding that the number of AOB-related lawsuits grew by nearly 300 percent between 2010 and 2016, and comprised 54 percent of all lawsuits filed last year.

The Consumer Protection Coalition, representing the Florida Chamber of Commerce, insurance companies, and other business interests, pointed to the institute’s report to underline the need for reform.

“For most Floridians, their home is their biggest investment. But AOB fraud and abuse – and the high insurance rate increases it is causing – is quickly making home ownership more expensive for many working families,” coalition spokeswoman Carolyn Johnson said.

“For some low-income families, AOB abuse may even put home ownership out of reach. This report clearly documents that state legislators must reign in the AOB lawsuits, and fix the problem with the one-way attorney fee statute.”

That law allows policyholders to sue their insurers without winding up liable for defense attorney fees, but contractors with AOBs have also used it.

“It is imperative that we work to address the cost-drivers plaguing the system head on this session so hardworking Floridians can have some relief. Now is the time to protect our Florida homeowners from AOB abuse,” said Logan McFaddin, of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

“Florida’s consumers are paying more while AOB abuse goes unchecked,” said Michael Carlson, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida.

“We’re seeing that the same kind of AOB abuse that drives up costs and threatens home ownership is also a growing issue in replacing auto glass that is alleged to be cracked or damaged. We need reforms that keep policyholders in control of the policies they bought and paid for. The time for legislative action to protect consumers is now.”

Senate may balk at Rick Scott’s plan to hit hospitals over charity care

Gov. Rick Scott‘s proposal to cut Medicaid reimbursement payments to profitable hospitals that stint on charity care may run into trouble in the Senate.

During hearings Wednesday before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, members including Chairwoman Anitere Flores raised objections.

“The governor’s office has made some assumptions, based on the fact that some hospitals are very profitable, that they can afford a cut,” Flores said following the meeting.

“I’m hearing very different things from our local hospitals,” she said. “I think you heard from other members that they have some concerns, as well.”

Scott’s $83.4 billion spending plan would save $298 million “by eliminating arbitrary and inconsistent supplemental payments for hospitals that provide less charity,” according to a summary available here (scroll down to page 27.)

Aides to the governor briefed committee members on his asks for the agencies for Health Care Administration and Persons with Disabilities; and the departments of Children and Families. Elder Affairs, Health, and Veterans’ Affairs.

Also Wednesday, the panel began hearing from advocates seeking state support for local projects. House Speaker Richard Corcoran started insisting on full hearings for member projects in the budget this year, but Flores said the Senate began such hearings last year.

Projects presented include programs for older Floridians, veterans, people suffering drug addiction and mental problems, and children.

For example, The Arc Nature Coast sought $425,000 to replaced a 58-year-old farm house with a new center to house and serve 75 former Sunland residents from Hernando and Pasco counties; and Tallahassee’s Apalachee Center sought $1 million to provide forensic mental health services people in eight counties, rather than send them to the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee.

Flores said the exercise was a way for programs to “make their case to the Legislature.”

House panel weighs in on nursing home reimbursement proposal

The House Health Care Appropriation Subcommittee got the ball rolling on discussions about whether the state should change the way it pays nursing homes that accept Medicaid, with some members of the committee expressing concerns about parts of the plan.

During the two-hour committee meeting Wednesday, the panel heard from Navigant officials about their proposed Medicaid nursing facility prospective payment system. Under the Navigant plan, nursing homes would be reimbursed using a per diem rate calculated based on four components, of which patient care would account for the largest portion, 80 percent, of total reimbursement.

The proposal creates a quality incentive component, which would equal about 6 percent of the total reimbursement. Each facility would be assigned a score based on a variety of criteria, such as process measures and outcome measures, and facilities would have to have a quality score in the 30th percentile or better to qualify for an incentive payment. According to the Navigant presentation, quality add-on payments could range from $13.85 to $44.85 per resident, per day.

“The question is, with this methodology, may we be dooming certain high quality performers to failure? You could have a facility that’s performing well on personnel staffing issued, but could be exposed to a $1.2 million reduction in revenue,” said Rep. Cary Pigman. “I reckon a $1.2 million reduction could translate into 30 FTEs. Staffing is so clearly correlated with a couple of these outcome measures, so if these facilities are required to cut staff are we not going to make a 20 become a 15 become a 14 than have a category that is harmed by intervention.

Malcom Ferguson, a Navigant official, said the firm’s research has showed there are facilities across the state meeting the measures, and are able to do it at lower costs. That, Ferguson said, showed “it can be done.”

“We are hoping that … if there is a decrease in reimbursement that’s not necessarily going to result in a significant decrease in quality,” said Ferguson.

Opponents of the Navigant plan have said it will shift money from high-quality nursing homes to lower-quality nursing home, threatening the quality of the care offered in facilities across the state.

“Under the Navigant proposed plan there are 143 4- and 5-star nursing homes in Florida that would lose money,” said Steve Bahmer, the president and CEO of LeadingAge Florida. “There are 86 1- and 2-star nursing homes that would gain money. And some of that is significant; a million dollars or more in both directions. I’ll hope you’ll consider that as you think about the complexities of the system and the complexities of the study.”

While LeadingAge officials have said they are not in support of the Navigant plan, the Florida Health Care Association has called the proposal a good start.

Officials with the statewide organization said they support moving to a prospective payment system, but would like any proposal to include a three-year transition period and additional funding for hands-on care, among other things.

“The current cost-based system is antiquated. It involves multiple audits, with some of those audits looking at books dating back several years and resulting in underpayments with no ability to financially recoup those monies paid out to cover resident care costs,” said Andy Weisman, president of NuVision Management which operates six nursing centers in Florida, in a statement Wednesday. “We support a prospective payment system, where we will know the amount of our payment to cover the cost of care – and the state will have budget predictability, as well.”

While there appears to be some support for a move to a prospective payment plan, where it goes from here remains up in the air.

“There is no requirement we implement this,” said Rep. Jason Brodeur, the committee’s chairman. “We are evaluating it.”

whiskey Wheaties

‘Whiskey and Wheaties’ bill squeaks out of House panel

House members served up a sour version of the “whiskey and Wheaties” bill Wednesday as it barely cleared its first committee.

The Careers and Competition Subcommittee cleared the legislation (HB 81) by a vote of 8-7, with the panel’s chair, Monticello Republican Halsey Beshears, voting against it.

This is the fourth year a version of the bill has been filed. It aims to repeal the Prohibition-era state law requiring businesses, such as grocery chains and big-box retailers, to have separate stores to sell liquor. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

Republican state Rep. Randy Fine, who also voted against the measure, explained how he once was involved in supermarket sales consulting.

“The perspective I have is the ‘dirty little secret’ behind the motivation to run this bill,” he said. “The reason for this is to sell a lot more hard liquor … People (now) can’t make an impulse purchase of hard liquor; you have to choose to go to the liquor store. But if you bring it into Wal-mart, it’s going be on the endcap,” referring to displays at the ends of aisles.

“I didn’t come here to have two or three times as much hard liquor be sold in the state,” Fine told his colleagues. “And by the way, I’m Jewish. I made a lot of my money in the casino business. I’m OK with sin.”

That was after lawmakers heard from several small liquor store operators, who feared the effect of the legislation would be to cut into or even “decimate” their business.

Alcoholic beverage retailers, such as ABC Fine Wines & Spirits and independent owners, have complained the bill is being pushed by the big retailers looking to expand their market reach. Publix Super Markets also opposes the bill, saying it’s invested in the separate liquor store model.

Wal-mart, Target and others say tearing down the wall of separation between liquor and other goods is simply a “pro-consumer” move toward added convenience. Some store owners questioned whether the move really was pro-consumer.

Monty Lalwani, owner of Ocean Wine & Spirits and Ocean Liquor & Fine Wine in Broward County, told of having to learn a business in which customers don’t ask for specific items but for something “peaty” or “sweet but not too sweet.”

“Big companies push volume but they don’t care … about the customer as much as we do,” he said. “When somebody comes in with a request or a question, we make sure they walk out a satisfied customer.”

Some members of the panel asked whether retailers would still be required to segregate hard liquor within the main store, a “store within the store” approach, so that booze wouldn’t potentially be sold next to Barbie dolls.  

Bill sponsor Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, said he would be open to changing the measure to address such concerns.

It next has to clear the Government Operations & Technology Appropriations Subcommittee and Commerce Committee before it can be considered by the full House.

Its Senate companion  (SB 106) won approval from two committees there and is ready to be considered by the full Senate after lawmakers convene for the annual Legislative Session on March 7.

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