Florida Senate Archives - Florida Politics

Joe Henderson: Dennis Baxley’s misdirection play

State Sen. Dennis Baxley just couldn’t resist.

At a Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday to investigate the 14 deaths of elderly patients at a Hollywood Hills nursing home, Baxley made the reasonable point that the tragedy was “outrageous.”

But then, as Scott Powers reported for Florida Politics, Baxley ventured into what-is-he-talking-about land.

“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.”

This would be a good time to note that Baxley received a $3,000 donation from the Florida Heath Care Association to his 2016 Senate campaign. That group describes itself as “Florida’s first and largest advocacy organization for long term care providers and the elderly they serve.”

The group’s president, John C. Simmons, wrote a commentary for Florida Politics earlier this week where he slammed media reports about the tragedy. Maybe it’s just a coincidence (or not) that Baxley took the cue and gave his own swipes on that topic, saying there was “a lot of drama of course with media coverage and dramatization of what did happen.”

If reporting that 14 elderly people are dead and all of them lived in a nursing home where the cooling system failed and temperatures rose to an intolerable level qualifies as drama, well, OK.

Baxley’s backhanded snark at the media wouldn’t be such a big deal normally, but there is context that makes his remarks especially disturbing.

Efforts in 2006 to require backup generators capable of dealing with emergencies like the one in Hollywood Hills died in the Legislature following intense lobbying from the long-term health care industry.

If bringing up that unpleasant reminder qualifies as media drama, so be it. Gov. Rick Scott is pushing for a law similar to the proposal from 2006. Simmons says his organization agrees with Scott about the need, but said it can’t be accomplished as quickly as the governor would like.

But back to Baxley’s remarks.

Yes, everybody is going to die sometime and older folks have a greater risk. No doubt he knows that. He was a founder of the Hiers-Baxley funeral home in Ocala.

But it wastes time and is disingenuous to suggest, paraphrasing here, “Well, they might have died from something else.”

In football, we call that a misdirection play.

Senator, please. Elderly people are particularly vulnerable to conditions like inside that nursing home. A lot of them died. One of them had a body temperature of 109 degrees. What part of this escapes you? If someone died during this of other causes, how would that possibly matter to the bigger issue of protecting our most vulnerable citizens?

We have a situation that needs, as the governor has said, rapid attention. Playing the “media” card as a reason to take it slow is shabby at best. At its worst, it’s disrespectful to the victims and their families.

Stop trying to confuse the issue.

Joe Negron’s class act: ‘Here, Dorothy Hukill, take my spot’

Session hasn’t even started, and we already have a winner for “Legislative Nice Guy of 2018″—Senate President Joe Negron.

Negron, who we’ve already reported as having found a new gear as he enters his last year in leadership, gave up his primo parking spot in the Capitol garage so that his colleague, Dorothy Hukill, can use it.

Hukill missed the entire 2017 Legislative Session due to cancer treatments. But she returned this week to a round of applause from her colleagues during roll call in the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee.

The Port Orange Republican spent the 2017 Session watching the session on a pair of screens — a home computer and an iPad — at her home while recovering from cervical cancer. Radiation treatments ended just as the 2017 Session was coming to a close.

“It’s very exciting to be in the (committee) room,” Hukill told Jim Turner of the News Service of Florida. “It’s lovely to watch it on the wonderful Florida Channel, which I was very, very happy to have. But I’d rather be here.”

Undoubtedly, Hukill still is recovering from her treatments. And because every extra step walked can be a chore, a few hundred feet saved by having the Senate President’s parking spot has to be a relief.

Still, Hukill told reporters she expects the welcome-backs and hugs from her colleagues to quickly give way to legislative normalcy.

“It’s exciting to be back,” she said. “People are giving give me a breather for a day or two.”

Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee plans hurricane talk

The Florida Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee will take up hurricane effects and recovery efforts across the business community in Florida at its first meeting of the 2018 session, Chairman Bill Montford announced Wednesday.

That is assuming the committee’s hearing is not postponed because of a hurricane. Very early projections of Tropical Depression 16 forming off the coast of Central America on Wednesday afternoon have it becoming Hurricane Nate and hitting Florida — right near Tallahassee — Sunday.

Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat, set the discussion with Hurricane Irma in mind, taking place roughly a month after that storm hit Florida.

“Hurricane Irma was a catastrophic storm, the likes of which Florida has never seen,” Montford stated in a news release issued by the Senate Democrats’ office. “We continue to face the long and complicated process of recovery statewide, from our businesses and tourist industry, the school systems, to agriculture and infrastructure, there was not an entity left untouched.”

“It is important that we focus on fully understanding the impacts so that the Legislature can stand with local governments, businesses and citizens on the road to recovery,” he continued. “I have invited several representatives from the business community, as well as the governmental entities that focus on commerce and economic development to our first meeting. I also welcome all of my Senate colleagues to attend and participate in the panel discussion if they have questions specific to their districts. Vice Chair [George] Gainer [a Panama City Republican] and I are committed to ensuring that Hurricane Irma will not stunt economic development in Florida.”

The panel Montford assembled for Monday’s hearing will consist of representatives from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida United Businesses Association, CareerSource Florida, Visit Florida, Florida Small Business Development Center Network, and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee will meet at 3:30 p.m. Monday.

 

Dana Young files ‘fantasy contests’ bill

Sen. Dana Young has again filed a bill to exempt fantasy sports play from regulation under the state’s gambling laws.

Young, a Tampa Republican, filed her measure (SB 374) Friday afternoon. She introduced similar legislation this past session.

The bill for the 2018 Legislative Session would prohibit a fantasy contest operator from offering “contests based on the performances of participants in collegiate, high school, or youth athletics.”

That was a concern of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), she said in a phone interview: “I thought it appropriate that it be in there, so we added it.”

Otherwise, Young said her language came from last session’s conference committee on a proposed omnibus gambling bill that failed by that session’s end.

A House bill last session also would have excepted fantasy contests from regulation as gambling. Around 3 million Floridians say they play some sort of fantasy sports.

In sum, “we’re just confirming that fantasy sports are not illegal,” she said. 

Session begins Jan. 8.

Bill Galvano’s designation ceremony set

Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican set to be the next Senate President, is expected to be officially designated on Oct. 24.

Senate Republican Leader Wilton Simpson, who’s in line to be President after Galvano, made the announcement Monday.

Galvano will succeed Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, as head of the chamber for 2018-20.

The designation will make Galvano, an attorney first elected in 2012, head of the 40-member Senate’s majority of 25 Republicans, meaning for now he’s a shoo-in to be president.

He previously was Senate Republican Leader in 2014-16, and also served in the House 2002-10.

Galvano, who helped draft the Seminole Compact, has long been a point man on gambling issues. He also is president of the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States.

Legislative committee week cancelled

Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran have cancelled next week’s legislative committee week because of Hurricane Irma, they said in separate memos to members Wednesday.

Negron also said Senate offices in the Capitol “will remain open during regular business hours tomorrow (Thursday) … District staff should contact each Senator to determine appropriate office hours in your district offices as the storm approaches.

“As a precautionary measure, consistent with the Governor’s decision to close state offices in all 67 counties, I have authorized discretionary leave for all Senate employees, and all Senate offices will be closed on Friday,” he added.

“Please use this time to prepare your family and home. The specific trajectory of this unprecedented storm is still uncertain and impacts could vary drastically across the state. All Floridians need to be ready. Staff should monitor local weather advisories and adhere to local evacuation orders.”

Negron, a Stuart Republican, also authorized “Senate staff interested in volunteering in support of the state’s emergency shelter mobilization efforts up to 15 days of administrative leave.”

“I encourage all Senate employees to tend to the needs of your own family prior to pursuing volunteer opportunities,” he said. “We each have a responsibility to prepare our families and homes so that limited government resources can be used to help the most vulnerable. Please be safe and cautious during this time.”

In his memo, Corcoran said the next committee week would be Oct. 9-13. He also ordered all House offices closed on Friday.

“Earlier today, Gov. Scott stated that there is a need for volunteers at shelters throughout the state,” Corcoran added. “Please be supportive of these efforts if you are near an affected region.”

Hurricane could affect legislative committee week

The approach of Hurricane Irma may affect the upcoming legislative committee week, currently set for Sept. 12-15.

“We are closely monitoring the developments of Hurricane Irma as the storm approaches our state,” House Speaker Richard Corcoran wrote in a Tuesday memo to members.

“As the path of the storm becomes more clearly defined, we will, in consultation with the Senate, make a final decision regarding the status of House committee and subcommittee meetings scheduled for next week,” he said. “In the interim, House committees and subcommittees will be releasing meeting notices.”

Corcoran added: “Please join me in continuing to pray for those who will be affected by Hurricane Irma in the coming days.”

Updated 11 a.m. — Senate President Joe Negron also wrote to members that he is “closely monitoring the impending storm expected to impact Florida in the coming days.”

Later today, the Senate “plan(s) to proceed with publication of the interim calendar, including the notice of committee meetings scheduled for next week,” he said. “As more information becomes available, we will provide updates regarding any potential schedule changes.”

Draft investigation report: Tri-Rail did not follow rules in $511 million, one-bid deal

When the public agency that runs the Tri-Rail commuter trains in South Florida dumped five less-expensive proposals and awarded a ten-year, $511 million, operations and maintenance contract last winter, the agency followed rules spelled out in that particular proposal but they conflicted with the agency’s standing internal procurement rules, a draft state investigation report concludes.

The transportation authority’s action last January boiled into major controversy spilling into the 2017 Florida Legislature Session. Gov. Rick Scott and key lawmakers, notably Sen. Jeff Brandes, expressed outrage that the agency essentially awarded a one-bid, ten-year contract worth a half-billion dollars, while five other train companies were crying foul. Brandes called for the state investigation.

Six months later, Florida Department of Transportation Inspector General Robert Clift concluded, [according to a report that is only in a draft stage but has been shared with other agencies in Florida,] that the transportation authority’s actions may have followed rules set forth for that specific project, but did not follow the agency’s standing procurement rules, which were different from what was outlined in the request for proposals. The agency’s rules would have required all six proposals to be evaluated by a selection committee, and that did not happen, Clift observed.

Clift did not make any recommendations that would affect the Herzog contract, but he did recommend several more state controls, including a call for a new state law requiring all state transportation authorities to adhere more closely to state procedures for bid protests, requiring bidding procedures to be stopped, and for disputes to go to the Florida Department of Administrative Hearings for final orders.

POLITICO Florida first reported on the inspector general’s draft report and Clift’s observations earlier Wednesday.

In his draft report, Clift also observed that the authority’s own rules would have required it to follow a “competitive negotiated procurement process,” but that never happened either.

Clift also cited Gerry O’Reilly, the FDOT District Four secretary who is a member of the SFRTA Board who voted against the contract in January, as saying that the new ten-year contract for Tri-Rail operating and maintenance appeared to be almost $10 million a year more than the transportation authority previously had been paying for the same services. O’Reilly raised concerns with Clift that the authority could not afford to pay that much more without seeking more revenue, though SFRTA officials told Clift they saw efficiency opportunities to make ends meet.

Clift sent a copy of the draft report to the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority on Aug. 8, and FloridaPolitics.com obtained a copy as a public record Wednesday. The final report, which would include the SFRTA’s response and other addenda, is not set to be completed until October.

A spokeswoman for the transportation authority said the agency would not comment on the inspector general’s observations and recommendations until the final report is out.

On Jan. 27 the SFRTA Board voted 6-2 to award a contract based on the only bid presented to the board, from Herzog Transit Services. Five other proposals, from Amtrak, Bombardier, First Transit, Inc., SNC-Lavalin, and Transdev Services, Inc., all had been rejected by staff weeks earlier for what staff had said were “qualified” pricing proposals, which the companies later denied. All the other bids reportedly were lower, as low as $396 million, but those proposals were never reviewed. Three of those companies went to court to try to force the board to consider their proposals, but lost in court, based on the requirements spelled out in the request for proposals.

Scott; Brandes, who chairs of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development; state Sen. George Gainer, who chairs of the Senate Transportation Committee; and the Florida Department of Transportation all raised strong criticisms of the deal and threatening to cut Tri-Rail’s $42.1 million in state money if the agency did not rescind the Herzog deal and rebid the contract. However, they backed down in favor of a new law, House Bill 695, which tightened state control over the agency.

 

 

Take it to court: Florida Senate sued over doomed website

Florida taxpayers have already spent $5 million on a state budget website that never went public. Now litigation over the failed project could cost another $200,000.

The Florida Senate hired a Tallahassee-based contractor six years ago to create the website to help the public understand the state budget. Legislative officials say it didn’t work as intended and never went online.

The company, Spider Data Services, asked for its final payment of $500,000 in 2013. But the Senate refused to pay, and instead questioned the no-bid contract to build the website that had been awarded by former Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

Spider Data Services’ lawyer, Kenneth Oertel, said they hoped Senate President Joe Negron would pay the final amount after taking his post last November. But he said “nothing has been paid, so we had no recourse but to file” suit for the $500,000, plus interest.

Now, Senate documents posted online show it has agreed to pay up to $200,000 on private attorneys to fight the lawsuit.

Negron’s spokeswoman, Katie Betta, declined to comment, pointing instead to court filings by these attorneys.

In a July court filing, the Senate contends the budget website known as “Transparency 2.0” never worked as promised, and that if anything, Spider Data Services should give the money back to the state.

The Senate also says the former legislative employee who runs the company “had intimate working knowledge” of how the budget is crafted and knew the software could not be created as promised.

Oertel disputes that the website did not work as intended, saying Senate employees reviewed it and “nobody complained” while parts of the website were being put in place.

A pair of open government and ethics advocacy groups reviewed the website and asserted that it made budget and contracting information easier to obtain and understand.

The result seems to fit a pattern over the last two decades, with the state spending millions on technology projects that either failed to materialize or were deeply flawed.

Florida spent roughly $100 million on a financial reporting and accounting system before shutting down the project for good in 2007. The state’s new system for unemployment benefits also had numerous problems when it went online in late 2013.

(Reprinted with permission of The Associated Press.)

Maria Sachs accuser seeks to drop harassment case

An ex-aide to former state Sen. Maria Lorts Sachs has asked a federal court to drop his sexual harassment case against the Florida Senate.

Matthew Damsky’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss Tuesday, asking that each side pay for its own attorneys’ fees and costs. The Senate was named as the defendant because it was Damsky’s official employer.

The Senate’s outside counsel, Lisa Fountain of the Sniffen & Spellman firm, told attorney Marie Mattox that the chamber would “consent” to the request. As of Tuesday, the Senate’s cost to defend the case was $9,690.35, according to Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta.

Damsky, then 28, had first sued in Leon County Circuit Civil court last year on gender discrimination and retaliation charges. The 68-year-old Sachs, first elected to the Senate in 2010, declined to run for re-election last year. His case was later moved to federal court in Tallahassee.

He claimed that Sachs “exposed (him) to unwelcome sexual conduct” by frequently undressing in front of him. The Palm Beach County Democrat was known for her frequent wardrobe changes, particularly on long days of the legislative session.

But Mattox also had told the Senate’s lawyers, according to recent court filings, that her client “may dismiss the case due to difficulties with (his) criminal defense lawyer,” referring to “a criminal investigation involving Mr. Damsky.” Sachs had filed a criminal complaint into the unauthorized use of her personal credit card.

“The Court has rightly been asked to dismiss this bogus lawsuit against the Florida Senate that was a flimsy smokescreen created by Damsky to distract attention from his thieving criminal acts against Florida taxpayers and my family,” Sachs said in a statement provided to Florida Politics. “Nothing will eclipse the truth about those illegal acts as he faces justice, accountability, and deserved consequences.”

Damsky was let go in February 2016 when he objected to Sachs’s demands of doing her “grocery shopping, walking her dog, maintaining her relatives’ homes, and traveling cross country to assist” them, his suit says.

He says he also was “ordered” to perform work for her legal practice on Senate time, including “drafting legal pleadings,” according to his original complaint.

A complaint in a lawsuit tells one side of a story. The Senate has denied liability, citing sovereign immunity, the doctrine of “unclean hands,” and other defenses. 

Sachs previously “categorically denied” all of his allegations, telling Florida Politics last July she believed the lawsuit was an attempt to short circuit a criminal investigation. She said Damsky admitted to charging nearly $50,000 in plane tickets on her credit card without her knowledge, among other things. 

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