Hurricane Irma Archives - Florida Politics

Former FEMA admin: Life-threatening storms are the ‘new normal’

Get ready, Florida. Devastating storms like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria are the new normal.

At least that’s what Craig Fugate, who led FEMA under President Barack Obama, and other partners in a campaign are saying to raise awareness and involvement in a new age of hurricane safety.

“Irma made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane and was part of the record-breaking 2017 season,” Fugate told reporters Thursday. “It should serve as a wake-up call for all of our residents.”

Fugate said the storms are the state’s “new normal.”

The campaign, Get Ready, Florida, was launched by the National Hurricane Survival Initiative to, according to its website, “encourage residents to take steps to be storm-safe and hurricane-ready.”

The group said it launched the campaign in response to a survey it commissioned that found 51 percent of Floridians surveyed were “caught unprepared in at least one way leading up to Hurricane Irma.”

There were 500 respondents in the survey. Roughly one in five cited a lack of window protections, batteries or backup power, and gasoline. Fifteen-percent said they didn’t have an evacuation plan or a spare water supply.

The survey also found that just 42 percent believed they know the amount of their hurricane deductible.

The survey, fielded Dec. 5-10, has a margin of error of +/- 4.2%.

The campaign’s website contains resources for Florida residents and it plans to broadcast a 30-minute television special early next year.

Before his national post, Fugate served as the director of the Florida Emergency Management Division, serving under then-Gov. Jeb Bush during the 2004 and 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, which is remembered as particularly devastating years for the state.

Bush told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year that Fugate “is the best emergency manager in the country.”

When asked about why he thinks the increased severity of storms is the new normal, Fugate pointed to the Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria from this year, emphasizing the rainfall in Harvey.

“If you look at three record-breaking storms in one year – that is troubling,” Fugate said. “If you look at Harvey’s rainfall, there are a lot of people now coming back and starting to look at how climate is affecting rainfall.”

It was widely reported Wednesday that the Lawrence Berkeley National laboratory and World Weather Attribution both found Harvey’s rainfall was linked to a warming globe.

Joining Fugate Thursday were a group of professionals whose work often intersects with hurricanes. Among them: David Kelly with Ygrene, Andres Vargas and Tat Granata of Florida Home Improvement Associates, Rod Miller with Custom Window Systems, John Novaria with StormPeace, Melissa Burt DeVriese and Locke Burt with Security First Insurance, Guy McClurkan with the FAIR Foundation and Erik Salna with Florida International University’s hurricane research program.

Fugate resigned from his administrator post in January, and was briefly succeeded by Bob Fenton, an interim administrator who was ultimately replaced by Brock Long.

Takeaways from Tallahassee — A ‘travesty’ in Tallahassee?

A coalition of progressive and open government organizations is again taking the state’s Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) to task, this time for “glaring examples of rule violations” and calling the panel’s conduct “a travesty.”

Leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Florida First Amendment Foundation, the League of Women Voters Florida and others wrote a letter to CRC Chairman Carlos Beruff, an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott, this week.

“Commissioners seem to be working to advance proposals that impact their own interests or those of paying clients,” it said. “Also, open meeting rules are simply being ignored. And basic meeting procedures established by the CRC have been violated.”

Commissioner Brecht Heuchan faces criticism over the CRC process.

For example, the letter says “one commissioner who is a paid lobbyist for a law firm has filed a proposal that — while highly beneficial for the people of Florida — could create an economic benefit for that law firm.”

Commissioner Brecht Heuchan has lobbied for Wilkes & McHugh, “a law firm that makes its living suing nursing homes,” as the Florida Health Care Association, a nursing-home advocacy group, put it. Heuchan filed a proposed amendment creating a “bill of rights” for nursing home and assisted living facility residents.

The groups also took issue with apparent wheeling and dealing to save a proposal in the commission’s Education Committee, saying “discussions behind the scenes … outside of public view” violated the commission’s openness rules.

“The message the CRC is sending to the citizens of Florida is coming through loud and clear,” the letter says. “If rules of procedures and codes of conduct get in the way of proposals that are part of a preordained outcome of this commission — they will be ignored.

“Floridians deserve better,” it added. The full letter is here.

“Commissioners are hard at work holding open and transparent public meetings to consider proposals, the majority of which represent ideas submitted by the public,” said CRC spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice in an email. “Commissioners hold themselves to a high standard and are following the same rules as the previous commission in 1997-1998.”

The commission will meet again in committees next week in the Capitol.

Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Ana Ceballos, Jim Rosica, Danny McAuliffe, Andrew Wilson and Peter Schorsch.

But first, the “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:

Democrats in the red — Ahead of what is expected to be a busy 2018 election year, the account Florida Democrats use to fund federal campaigns is out of money, according to Federal Elections Commission records. At the beginning of the year, the Florida Democratic Party’s federal account had $383,439 in the bank. By late October, it was more than $18,490 in the red. The federal account started hemorrhaging money during the brief tenure of now ousted Stephen Bittel, a millionaire Democratic donor selected under the promise of boosting the Party’s fundraising efforts and finances.

Down goes Ritch Workman — After Republican state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto publicly accused Ritch Workman, a Gov. Rick Scott appointee to the Public Service Commission, of making vulgar and inappropriate comments to her at a charity event last year, he said he is no longer pursuing the post. “I found his conduct to be abhorrent. As such, I will not agenda his appointment to the Public Service Commission for a hearing in the Senate Committee on Rules,” Benacquisto said. Workman told POLITICO he does not remember the incident, but offered his resignation and an apology to Scott. The governor said he supports his decision to resign, adding that “any misconduct cannot be tolerated.”

Book files Latvala complaint Lauren Book, a Democratic state senator and child sexual abuse survivor who founded “Lauren’s Kids,”  filed a formal complaint against Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican facing a sexual harassment probe in the Senate. She alleged that Latvala violated Senate rules by aggressively going after one of his accuser who went public, Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers. She has accused Latvala of groping her and using degrading language to describe her body over a four-year period.

Florida top ‘judicial hellhole’ — Florida takes the top spot among the states in more than a few lists, but it earned a “distinction” from the American Tort Reform Association which said the Sunshine State was the No. 1 “Judicial Hellhole” in the country. Florida was one of eight states or judicial districts getting a write up in 2017-2018 Judicial Hellholes, earning the top spot in the ring of dishonor alongside courts in California, St. Louis, New York City, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Illinois and Louisiana.

Holiday display season starts — An “educational display of the astronomy causing the winter solstice” is the first holiday display to gain approval this year for the Florida Capitol rotunda. A poster sponsored by the First Coast Freethought Society of Jacksonville, is approved for display Dec. 15-22. Nina Ashley, spokeswoman for the Department of Management Services, the state’s real estate manager, said it was the only request for a display received thus far for the 2017 holiday season. Every year, groups have sought to place various exhibits in the plaza-level rotunda of the Capitol during the holiday season.

House Democrats keeping track

The House Democratic Caucus gave a rundown of bills making committee agendas during the committee weeks ahead of the 2018 Legislative Session and found, unsurprisingly, Republican-sponsored bills have been booked more often than bipartisan or Democrat-sponsored bills.

The data, complete with an infogram-made doughnut chart, shows that of the 85 bills placed on House committee agendas by Dec. 4, 58 were sponsored by Republicans, 14 have bipartisan co-sponsors and 13 were sponsored by Democrats.

The committee week starting Nov. 6 was the least successful for Dems, with just 2 bills making committee agendas. The second and fourth committee weeks were the minority party’s most successful, with 4 measures making schedules each week.

House Democrats kept count last year and said they will continue updating the data as more bills are heard — or not heard — during the 60-day session, which starts Jan. 9.

Joe Abruzzo, Kevin Rader want drug czar

Boca Raton Sen. Rader and Boynton Beach Rep. Abruzzo filed bills this week — SB 1068 and HB 865 — to re-establish the Jeb Bush-era Office of Drug Control under the governor as a way to curb substance abuse and combat the opioid crisis.

“We’ve made strides in the fight, but with nearly 6,000 Floridians losing their lives last year due to opioid overdoses, it is clear that more must be done,” Abruzzo said. “If this epidemic is going to end, we must continue to take strong and decisive action to battle the harmful effects these drugs are having on neighborhoods throughout our state.”

Boca Raton Sen. Kevin Rader and Boynton Beach Rep. Joe Abruzzo.

Rader added that “opioid abuse is crippling Florida’s communities. Reinstating a Drug czar to lead the charge in creating better drug oversight is a step toward what our state needs to battle this ongoing epidemic.”

Before it got the ax due to budget cuts in 2011, ODC cost the state about $500,000 a year. The office was responsible for setting drug control policies, compiling and reporting statistics and providing the public with information on substance abuse and services.

Instagram of the Week 

It’s the holiday season in the #FloridaHouse and the #FloridaSenate.

A post shared by kevin sweeny (@djmia00) on

Nick Duran on ‘road to ruin’

Florida Department of Transportation construction projects can wreak havoc on small businesses, and Miami Democratic Rep. Duran filed a bill that would help them get on the road to recovery.

“While upgrading our state’s infrastructure and roadways would have a positive economical long-term impact, these construction projects can take months and years, and can dramatically hurt businesses who see access blocked, reduced parking, increased car traffic, reduced foot traffic and generally negative aesthetic impacts,” Duran said.

Nick Duran takes on the ‘road to ruin’ for Florida small businesses.

“Ensuring our small businesses are not negatively impacted by the work of their state government is common-sense and a sound way to continue to grow Florida’s economy in the future.”

Duran’s bill, HB 561, would set up the “Small Business Roadway Construction Mitigation Grant Program” under FDOT which would, on a case-by-case basis, give businesses a cash infusion to help with construction-related losses. The bill also would require the FDOT to study best practices to reduce damages to businesses’ bottom lines.

Kathleen Peters, water groups demand fracking ban

Treasure Island Republican Rep. Peters is crossing into Tampa Saturday to join a gathering of clean water groups pushing for House Speaker Richard Corcoran to prioritize bans on fracking and offshore drilling.

The meeting at Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park will mark the “largest group of clean water organizations to date” meeting up to support a ban on the controversial drilling practices. Among the expected crowd of 100 will be representatives of Floridians Against Fracking, National Nurses United, the Sierra Club and others.

Kathleen Peters again is seeking a Florida fracking ban.

“Fracking is a dangerous practice that threatens public health on a massive scale and would be an environmental catastrophe for Florida,” Food and Water Watch said in an email. “The practice is a particularly severe threat to Florida, where karst geology, paired with risky drilling practices, would put water at an even greater risk of contamination, leaving over 10 million people without access to water.”

The group poked at Corcoran by equating fracking to corporate welfare.

“Big Oil and Gas has benefited from subsidies paid for by tax paying citizens for decades. It’s time for Speaker Corcoran to truly end corporate welfare by joining Peters in supporting a fracking ban,” the email said.

Bob Rommel praised for bill to squash free speech zones

Republican Rep. Bob Rommel got some praise this week from right-leaning group Generation Opportunity over a bill that would put an end to “free speech zones” on Florida’s public college and university campuses.

The group pointed to a report that found a sixth of American universities relegate demonstrations and protests to specific zones of campus and another report contending one out of five said using violence against a speaker known for making offensive statements was acceptable.

Bob Rommel is getting praise for a plan to squelch ‘free speech zones.’

“So-called free speech zones actually harm free speech and free expression on college campuses by restricting where students can exercise their First Amendment rights. Instead of limiting free speech, colleges and universities should be encouraging students to speak freely, exchange different ideas and learn from each other,” said Generation Opportunity Director Carrie Sheffield. “We applaud Rep. Rommel for introducing this important legislation and urge his colleagues to follow in support.”

The group is pointing college students to a website where they can fill out an email form to thank Rommell for filing the bill and derides public campuses that “restrict the free speech rights of students in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘diversity’” — a practice it equates to censorship.

Carlos Guillermo Smith nabs Victory Institute award

Orlando Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith won an award this week named after Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin to recognize “an up-and-coming LGBTQ elected official who is driving equality forward.”

Smith beat out five other nominees in online voting to win the inaugural Tammy Baldwin Breakthrough Award, which he accepted in Washington D.C. before getting a one-on-one meeting with Baldwin, the first openly LGBTQ member of the United States Senate.

Carlos Guillermo Smith is being honored as “an up-and-coming LGBTQ elected official who is driving equality forward.”

“I am incredibly grateful to the Victory Institute for recognizing my work to advance equality for all Floridians. Senator Baldwin is an incredible inspiration to LGBTQ leaders and activists around the world, and I am humbled to have been able to receive this award named after her,” Smith said.

Smith dedicated his award to the Pulse nightclub shooting survivors and first responders, explicitly naming Eatonville Police Corporal Omar Delgado, who is set to be dismissed effective Dec. 31 due to Pulse-related PTSD.

Smith and other state lawmakers, many from the Orlando area, are pushing bills in the 2018 Legislative Session that would expand workers’ compensation benefits to cover first responder PTSD cases.

The week in appointments

Sutton promoted at FWCEric Sutton, assistant executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), moved up to executive director of the agency, effective Friday.

Nick Wiley, the current executive director, retires later this month. Sutton has been an assistant executive director since May 2013.

He received both his bachelor’s and master’s degree in zoology from the University of South Florida. The emphasis of his work was on endangered species population biology.

His appointment will now go to the Florida Senate for confirmation.

FWC chooses new leadership — The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Thursday selected Bo Rivard, of Panama City, to serve as its chairman, effective immediately. He replaces Chairman Brian Yablonski of Tallahassee. The term is one year.

Rivard, who has served on the Commission since March 2013, is a partner with Harrison, Rivard, Duncan & Buzzett in Panama City.

Robert Spottswood of Key West was elected vice chair. Spottswood, who has served on the Commission since 2015, is chief executive officer of Spottswood Companies. He takes over for Aliese P. “Liesa” Priddy of Immokalee.

Contractors on skilled worker shortage

Florida construction firms have a grim outlook on filling open jobs, and Associated Builders and Contractors said it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

According to the third quarter Construction Confidence Index, produced by ABC, nearly 69 percent of contractors expect to make new hires over the next six months to be either “slightly more difficult” or “significantly more difficult,” and about 75 percent of companies added that they are pumping more money into workforce development now than they did a year ago.

Skilled construction labor shortages in Florida are likely to become even more dramatic in late 2017 and into early 2018.

“Given the onset of rebuilding after summer storms, skilled labor shortages are likely to become even more dramatic in late 2017 and into early 2018,” ABC said in the report.

Still, nearly three-quarters of companies polled say they’ll have more employees six months from now than they do today, while 24 percent expect no change and 2 percent expect a slight staffing cut.

The index wasn’t all bad news, however, as nearly four-fifths of firms believe sales will jump over the next six months, including about a quarter of companies which said they expected a better than 5 percent boost in gross revenue. Only one in 10 firms polled expected sales to drop in the near term.

UnitedHealthcare ‘stepping up’ for students

Health insurer UnitedHealthcare kicked off the giving season with a record-setting $15 million contribution to Step Up For Students, one of two nonprofit that administer the needs-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

“Step Up provides hope for Florida’s children to access a quality education that best fits their needs, and we are glad to support such a worthy initiative,” said Nicholas Zaffiris, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of South Florida.

Step Up celebrated its partnership with UnitedHealthcare by helping disadvantaged students receive the education they deserve. Since 2009, the Minnetonka, MN-based company has chipped in more than $88 million for Step Up, providing the nonprofit with the resources to support scholarships for nearly 17,000 Sunshine State students so they can attend a private school or secure transportation to attend an out-of-district public school.

“None of this would be possible without the support of the community and contributions of organizations like UnitedHealthcare,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill.

The typical pupil served by Step Up comes from a single-parent household where the average income is $25,353. A recent study shows that Step Up scholarship recipients are 40 percent more likely to attend college than their public-school counterparts, and 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree.

Seat filled on Tallahassee ethics panel

Tallahassee city commissioners appointed Bill Hollimon to fill an opening on the city’s Independent Ethics Board.

He’s the husband of state Rep. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat elected to the House last year and who previously served 2000-08.

Bill Hollimon with state Rep. Loranne Ausley and their son Will.

Hollimon’s 3-year term in Seat 1, the only position filled by the City Commission, begins Jan. 1.

The mission of the Independent Ethics Board “is to promote the actual and perceived integrity of City government and to prevent unethical conduct before it occurs,” a city news release says.

“Hollimon has been a practicing lawyer for more than 20 years, focusing on patent, trademark, and copyright prosecution and litigation; mediation of complex litigation; strategic planning and guidance for technology-related businesses,” it adds.

He joins Ethics Board members Cecil Davis, the State Attorney appointee; Richard Herring, the Florida State University appointee; Bryan Smith, the Florida A&M University appointee; Bruce D. Grant, the board’s own appointee; and Renee McNeill, another board appointee.

The next meeting is 4 p.m. Dec. 19 in the City Commission Chambers, City Hall, 300 S. Adams St., Tallahassee.

Latest statistics show crime is down

Tallahassee Police Chief Michael DeLeo this week told city commissioners that crime continues to go down, according to the latest statistics.

In October, Tallahassee experienced an 8.6 percent decrease in violent crime and a 6.7 percent decrease in property crime. Year to date, overall crime in Tallahassee/Leon County is down by 13 percent over last year.

Crime is down in Tallahassee, says Police Chief Michael DeLeo.

To further support the efforts of TPD, the Commission voted to approve more than $315,000 for equipment upgrades and enhanced technology, including purchasing safety cameras. A list of camera locations can be found at Talgov.com/TPD.

Currently, TPD is reviewing citizen complaint data and crime statistics to determine where 10 additional cameras may prove beneficial and will continue discussions related to potential locations with neighborhood residents.

To stay informed about public safety initiatives and to get information on incidents, visit Talgov.com/TPD.

Bike share comes to Tallahassee

A new “dockless” bike share service called Pace has come to the capital.

“Tallahassee is the first in a wave of cities to embrace smarter, dockless bike sharing,” a city news release said. “Albuquerque, New Mexico, Rochester, New York, Knoxville, Tennessee and Huntsville, Alabama are also committed to join Pace, with each launch scheduled before April 1, 2018.”

Pace bike share is coming to Tallahassee.

With its inaugural launch, Pace will make 300 shared bikes available in Tallahassee. Riders can rent and return bikes from any of Pace’s 50 dedicated bike parking racks, or from any of the hundreds of public bike racks available throughout the city.

“We are very proud that the City of Tallahassee has become a true multi-modal community, including being named one of the most bike-friendly cities in the nation,” Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum said. “The new bike share service is another step toward ensuring that all of our residents have easy access to bicycles for commuting, exercising and touring our great city.”

Riders download a free Pace Bike Share app, available in the Apple App Store or Google Play. Available bikes and parking locations are in the app, and users can unlock bikes at the touch of a button to get rolling in seconds. There is no membership fee to join Pace, and rides start at just $1 per half-hour.

Fire safety tips for the holiday season

It’s just a couple of weeks before Christmas, and many Florida families already went through the process of dragging their holiday décor from the attic and trekking down to the local tree lot in search of the perfect Fraser Fir.

Still, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and the men and women of the Florida Forest Service want to make sure Floridians get a refresher on the dos and don’ts of when it comes to holiday fire safety.

First and foremost, keep that tree away from the fireplace and the space heater. Christmas trees, especially water-starved ones, would love nothing more than to be a 6-foot fire starter.

Also be sure to take a look at those holiday lights to make sure they were tested at facilities, such as UL or ETL. If they were, they’d bear the mark given lab-tested electronics. While you look under a microscope for the safety mark, make sure to double-check for frayed wires, cracked sockets or crushed bulbs. It’s easier to do it before you staple them to your house or drape them over the shrubbery anyway.

If you’re getting out in the yard or on the roof to get those lights up, it’s a perfect time to check for debris. According to the Florida Forest Service, even a small amount dried up yard waste on a roof could be the catalyst for a wildfire turning into a home fire.

Putnam and Co.’s final tip is one that’s good year-round: Blow out the candles and turn off the string lights before you go to bed. A good balsam and cedar candle can put anyone in the holiday spirit, but there are few things worse than waking up to a burning home.

Now for this week’s edition of Capitol Directions:

Joe Negron backs aid for agriculture industry

Florida lawmakers should provide financial help to the agriculture industry to aid its recovery from Hurricane Irma, the Senate president said Friday.

Without putting a price tag on the state’s contribution, Senate President Joe Negron appeared to favor tax cuts and mitigation measures rather than loans. He pointed to major damage sustained by citrus growers but also said assistance should go to other parts of the agriculture industry.

“I do think the effect of the hurricane was so catastrophic to the citrus industry that it merits the government, the state government, partnering with the industry to make sure that they can continue to thrive,” Negron said during an interview with The News Service of Florida.

Negron said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is slated to become the next Senate president, and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican, are expected to work on the issue.

Some lawmakers have already started to advance their own hurricane-recovery proposals for the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts in January.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in early October released an estimate that the agriculture industry had sustained $2.5 billion in damage from Hurricane Irma, with $761 million in citrus-industry losses.

But many lawmakers think the losses will be much higher than the October projection.

Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who is a citrus grower, has outlined several proposed tax exemptions for the industry as part of recommendations submitted to the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.

Albritton’s proposals include tax exemptions for material used to repair or replace damaged fences and structures and for fuel used to transport crops during an emergency. He also called for a reduction in the tangible personal property tax for farm equipment affected by the storm.

Meanwhile, Port Charlotte Republican Rep. Michael Grant has suggested a tax exemption for the purchase of generators used on farms.

Negron said he doesn’t anticipate that hurricane-relief spending will displace other legislative priorities in the upcoming 60-day Session.

“I still think there will be room for environmental priorities, educational priorities,” Negron said. “I don’t think the hurricane spending will necessarily mean that there are other things that simply can’t be done.”

Gov. Rick Scott has asked for $21 million to help citrus growers as part of his budget requests for the 2018 Legislative Session.

Scott wants the money to include $10 million for citrus research, $4 million for marketing and $7 million for post-storm relief.

Irma made landfall Sept. 10 in the Keys and in Collier County before plowing up the state, including causing extensive damage in agricultural areas.

Along with the projected $761 million in citrus-industry losses, the October report from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated nursery-industry losses from Irma at almost $624 million. The cattle industry damage assessment was $237.5 million, while the dairy industry was estimated to have $11.8 million in losses.

The sugar industry appeared to have $383 million in damage, with an estimated 534,324 acres affected. Vegetable and fruit growers — excluding citrus — were projected to have $180 million in damage, with an estimated 163,679 acres impacted by the storm.

The storm damages compounded misery for the citrus industry, which has struggled for a decade with citrus greening, an incurable bacterial disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has projected that Florida’s citrus industry is on pace to grow 27 percent fewer oranges and 40 percent fewer grapefruit than in the past growing season.

State leaders, such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, have been disappointed that Florida’s farmers and ranchers haven’t been addressed in a series of congressional disaster-relief package put together in response to Irma, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and California wildfires.

Details of generator rules draw criticism

Emergency management officials, engineers and long-term care providers flagged problems Tuesday with a pair of proposed rules that require nursing homes and assisted living facilities to install generators and have 96 hours of fuel and also took aim at state agencies that drafted the rules for not being more collaborative.

Walton County Emergency Management Director Jeff Goldberg, who traveled to Tallahassee to testify at a hearing about the proposed rules, said he was “disappointed” that the state had largely ignored comments he made about the proposals at a public meeting last month.

“We want to work with you. We want to meet with you, we want to make a good rule, have a good product and something that makes sense. But without a two-way conversation, with us just talking and weeks later getting a draft rule pushed down to us, doesn’t facilitate good cooperation in my opinion,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg said the proposed rules require local emergency-management officials to review plans that detail how facilities are going to meet backup power requirements and to ensure that the facilities are in compliance with the rules. However, local emergency management officials don’t have authority to review the power plans, he said.

Additionally, the rules require emergency management officials to post approved plans on their websites. But Goldberg said he and other local officials are being advised by county attorneys that they can’t post the plans because the plans belong to the providers and not the government.

Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration in September issued emergency rules requiring nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have generators and 96 hours of fuel to keep the buildings cool. The emergency rules were issued after the deaths of eight residents of The Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills following Hurricane Irma, which knocked out the Broward County facility’s air conditioning system.

The emergency rules were invalidated in October by an administrative law judge who found no emergency situation existed.

The proposed rules under consideration Tuesday are meant to replace the emergency rules. Testimony was provided at two separate public meetings on the proposals, one hosted by Agency for Health Care Administration, which licenses nursing homes, the other by the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, which has regulatory authority over assisted living facilities.

Neither agency indicated Tuesday whether the proposed rules would be changed to address concerns raised at the meetings.

To come into compliance with the requirements will cost the nursing-home industry more than $186 million, state estimates show. Nursing homes are asking the state to help offset those costs with Medicaid funding. Estimates show that it will cost assisted living facilities more than $280 million to comply with the requirements. The steep price tags mean that the Legislature will have to ratify the rules before they can take effect.

Tallahassee health care consultant Skip Gregory criticized the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Elder Affairs for not being inclusive or reaching out to experts who, he said, could help them draft rules.

Gregory is an engineer who headed the Office of Plans and Construction at AHCA for 22 years but now is a consultant who has worked for the Florida Health Care Association, a nursing-home group. He rolled through a number of concerns he has with the proposed rules, including the fact that they set a maximum temperature of 81 degrees Fahrenheit but don’t mandate a minimum temperature.

“When a nursing home loses power, doesn’t the agency care how cold it gets inside the nursing home?” he asked, noting that temperatures drop below freezing in the Panhandle.

Gregory also said the rules are too vague. For instance, the nursing home rule makes clear that the required temperature must be met in an area the facility determines is sufficient to maintain all residents “comfortably at all times and is appropriate for the care needs and life safety requirements.” But the rule doesn’t make clear whether that area needs to be equipped with toilets for the patients or whether the area needs to offer privacy to patients.

And while the rule says that, for planning purposes, nursing homes must have no less than 50 net square feet per resident cooled, it doesn’t define what “net” means.

“It’s not a statute, it’s a rule and it needs to have specificity to it,” he said. “The way we write rules, how we always wrote rules, is to get a group together and sit down and try to hash this out.”

The rules also require the state fire marshal to inspect facilities to ensure compliance with the rules. Gregory noted, though, that the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Elder Affairs don’t have the authority to direct the fire marshal.

The generator and fuel requirements only apply to assisted living facilities and nursing homes, and Gregory said other providers, such as hospitals, family care homes, hospices and intermediate care facilities for the developmentally disabled, aren’t required to have generators and 96 hours of backup fuel.

“There are 80,642 souls who are not going to be impacted by this rule,” he said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Hurricane proposal could clash with Rick Scott’s budget

A proposal seeking to fund affordable housing programs in the wakes of Hurricanes Irma and Maria could be underfunded by Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed budget.

The policy recommendation, submitted by Altamonte Springs Republican state Rep. Bob Cortes, was mentioned in passing Monday at the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness meeting. Cortes’ proposal was joined by 140 other recommendations heard at the meeting as part of the select group’s recommendation phase.

Cortes recommended to recreate the Hurricane Housing Recovery Program and the Rental Recovery Loan Program using dollars from the Sadowski Trust Fund. Both programs were spawned by the Legislature following the hurricanes of 2004 and were also included in Scott’s proposed budget, “Securing Florida’s Future.”

But in 2005 then Gov. Jeb Bush and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings requested $98 million for the Hurricane Housing Recovery Program and $177 million for the Rental Recovery Loan Program. Scott’s proposed budget requested a $100 million Hurricane Irma aid package that includes $65 million in funding for the Hurricane Housing Recovery Program and $25 million for the Rental Recovery Loan Program — $185 million short of the 2005 request.

Scott also proposed a $91.8 million proposed sweep of the Sadowski Trust, which is $132 million less than the proposed sweep for FY 2017-2018. Set forth by the Sadowski Affordable Housing Act of 1992, the fund uses documentary stamp tax revenues as a funding source for Florida’s affordable housing programs, including the State Apartment Incentive Loan Program (SAIL) and the State Housing Initiatives Partnership Program (SHIP).

There’s a bipartisan push to prevent future sweeps from the Sadowski fund. SB 874, sponsored by Naples Republican Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, and  HB 191, sponsored by Tampa Democrat Sean Shaw, seek to prevent the dollars from being swept, or repurposed, into unrelated projects or items.

Cortes said that the two programs, the Hurricane Housing Recovery Program and the Rental Recovery Loan Program, have worked well in the past with the Legislature appropriating the one-time funding of $354.4 million.

Cortes said that would be a “big ask, obviously.” 

But Cortes, who has been a major voice for Puerto Rico in the Legislature, also said funding will ultimately depend on a number of variables that will be determined as the process continues. He added that the dollars in the proposed sweep might be needed to fund the programs, but that is still unknown.

The lack of affordable housing provisions for those affected by Hurricane Maria in “Securing Florida’s Future” likely isn’t oversight. Scott’s office has maintained it’s continually assessing the unfolding crisis of those displaced by Hurricane Maria and that numbers are continuing to change, making it hard to preemptively request dollars. 

Still, if the budget is used as a point of reference, funding could come up short for displaced Puerto Ricans seeking affordable housing.

The committee will vote on final recommendations Jan. 8, just a day before Session begins. Those recommendations will be provided to both Scott and the Legislature.

The committee was scheduled to meet Dec. 7, but that meeting was postponed to Jan. 8.

Takeaways from Tallahassee — Stuck in TLH with you?

If you fly in and out of Tallahassee International Airport (TLH) this holiday season, you may have cause to panic.

A staffing snafu has left thousands of American Airlines flights without pilots and in danger of cancellation. But the airline is reassuring passengers that their holiday season travel plans are still good to go.

While the airline said only hundreds of flights are without a full cockpit crew, the Allied Pilots Association said thousands of flights are listed as unassigned. (The association is the labor union that stands for American Airlines pilots.)

American Airlines’ staffing snafu is giving Tallahassee flyers a cause to panic.

American acknowledged this week that a computer glitch in its pilot scheduling system was to blame for the error. The mix-up is during the second half of December, a period chock-full of travel.

It’s still not clear how AA flights at TLH will be affected. Airport officials said the airline has not yet reached out to say how their flight schedules could change.

“Out of the 200,000 flights American will operate in December, only a few hundred are currently unassigned to pilots,” airline spokesman Matt Miller said in a statement.

“That number of open flights continues to decrease thanks to our pilots who are stepping up to the plate and picking up trips to ensure customers are taken care of.”

But whether you have a ticket to go home or on vacation, or have family flying in, the union is warning that there is still serious concern about “significant schedule disruption.”

According to The Washington Post, the bulk of flights affected are at one of the airline’s biggest hubs in Dallas-Fort Worth.

But also affected are Miami International, New York’s LaGuardia, Philadelphia International, and Charlotte Douglas International airports. Some of those airports are common flight connections for outbound and inbound Tallahassee flights with the airline. Stay tuned …

Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Ana Ceballos, Jim Rosica, Danny McAuliffe, Andrew Wilson and Peter Schorsch.

But first, the “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:

Latvala accuser outs herself Rachel Perrin Rogers, a 35-year-old legislative aide to Republican Sen. Wilton Simpson, revealed she had accused GOP state Sen. Jack Latvala of sexual harassment. Later, Latvala’s legal team released text messages between the two, showing a cordial working relationship. But she claims the unwanted sexual advances occurred over several Legislative Sessions, starting in 2013. The text messages, though, include jokes, memes featuring the Clearwater Republican, and encouraging words like, “smile, somebody loves you!” followed by a heart emoji. They also include her asking Latvala for a favor to get her stepdad out of jury duty (which he did) and asking him to meet privately to discuss policy.

Harassment cost state millions — In a story first broken by the AP’s Gary Fineout, taxpayers were found to have paid more than $11 million in the past 30 years to settle more than 300 cases that alleged state workers were sexually harassed, or forced to work in a hostile work environment. Amounts ranged in size from a $5,500 payment to a Florida State University student who alleged harassment from a supervisor to a $1.3 million payment to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by nurses who worked at state prisons. Since 1987 the state has paid more than $74 million to settle nearly 2,100 employment-related claims including the more than 300 sexual harassment claims.

Democrats’ day in court? — Florida Democrats had requested a court order to move up the dates for a pair of South Florida special elections. Now, they’ll be heard on that ask in court Dec. 7. The motion, filed in Leon County circuit court, aims to get new dates for special elections in House District 114 and Senate District 31 so new lawmakers can be in place for at least a portion of the 2018 Legislative Session, which runs for 60 days beginning Jan. 9. Senate District 31 was vacated by Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens Oct. 27 after he acknowledged an extramarital affair with a lobbyist, while House District 114 was quit by Coral Gables Democrat Daisy Baez at the beginning of November after she agreed to plead guilty to perjury in a case related to her residency.

Pariente stays on case — In a one-sentence order, the Florida Supreme Court denied Gov. Scotts request to disqualify Justice Barbara Pariente from a pending case over his judicial appointment power. “The respondent’s motion to disqualify Justice Pariente is hereby denied,” it said, without elaboration. Scott’s request stemmed from a conversation between Pariente and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga that was caught on a ‘hot mic’ immediately after a Nov. 1 oral argument in the case. The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida are challenging Scott’s authority to appoint three new Supreme Court justices on the last day of his term in 2019. They say he can’t name successors to the court’s liberal-leaning triumvirate of Justices Pariente, Peggy A. Quince and R. Fred Lewis — only the governor elected after Scott can.

Public school enrollment rises — Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said the tally of new pupils includes 7,212 Puerto Rican children and 710 from the Virgin Islands and elsewhere. Puerto Ricans and Virgin Islanders are U.S. citizens, and Stewart did not say how many pupils hailed from outside the U.S. territories. The bulk of the new students settled into the I-4 corridor, among the most popular destinations for Puerto Ricans migrating to the mainland. Orange County saw the largest bump when it comes to raw numbers with 1,793 new students, which accounts for a 0.8 percent bump in total enrollment, while neighboring Osceola County saw the biggest spike proportionally with 1,218 students causing a 2.2 percent jump in total enrollment.

‘Champions of the Community’ award winners

The Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce announced this week that it had selected two Hispanic-led groups for its “Campeon de la Comunidad” award.

“The Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is pleased to confer our Champion of Community awards to Our Children PSN of Florida and Live Like Bella Childhood Cancer Foundation for their dedication to the caring for our most vulnerable children in Florida,” said FHSCC President Julio Fuentes.

Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Julio Fuentes.

“Innovation and initiative go together, and the Hispanic Chamber wants to reward organizations that exhibit the entrepreneurial spirit in helping our community. These award winners are impacting the lives of thousands of children and the Hispanic business community is grateful for their respective missions,” he continued.

Our Children PSN of Florida, founded by Miami attorney and businessman Jesus JayTome, is a provider service network geared toward child Medicaid recipients who are diagnosed as medically fragile and medically complex.

Live Like Bella Childhood Cancer Foundation, founded in by Raymond Rodriguez-Torres, provides compassionate care services for childhood cancer patients and is active in funding pediatric cancer research. Rodriguez-Torres daughter, Bella, died from an aggressive form of cancer when she was 10 years old.

Is naming a building ‘free speech’?

A proposed constitutional amendment to ban naming new buildings and programs after sitting public officials cleared its committee this week — with one notable “no” vote.

The Constitution Revision Commission’s General Provisions Committee OK’d the plan (P37), filed by Commissioner John Stemberger.

More precisely, it would “prohibit state or local governments from naming government buildings, facilities, land or a government-administered program after an elected state or local official, until after that official has vacated office,” a summary says.

CRC Commissioner John Stemberger is seeking a constitutional amendment to ban naming new buildings and programs after sitting public officials.

For instance, the state Senate named a scholarship program for disabled students after then-President Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican whose son has Down syndrome.

But Stemberger wants to avoid the example of California lawmakers in 1971. They named a freeway after President Richard Nixon, who resigned after Watergate in 1974. That Legislature then took Nixon’s name off the highway in 1976.

All on the committee voted for Stemberger’s proposal, save for Committee Chair Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, a former mayor and commissioner of the Town of Sewall’s Point in Martin County.

“For me, it’s a free-speech issue,” Thurlow-Lippisch said later. “I think it’s our most protected right.”

For an elected body to honor one of its own “is kind of a form of expression,” she added.

As for later embarrassments, Thurlow-Lippisch said “people are allowed to mess up. You can’t keep people from making mistakes. But I just think we should have the right to name a building.”

Commissioner Don Gaetz, a former senator and Senate President (2012-14), later got a laugh line out of the debate.

“I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the fate of the proposed ‘Don Gaetz Wastewater Treatment Plant,’ ” he said. “There were a number of people who said if I left the Senate, they would promise to name something fitting after me.”

Jimmy Patronis: Torch fees to freeze credit reports

In the wake of several high-profile data breaches, including one from major credit reporting agency Equifax earlier this year, state CFO Jimmy Patronis said he wants Floridians to be able to freeze their credit reports free of charge.

“Recent widespread data breaches at major companies have huge implications for our 20 million residents. Every Floridian should have the power to easily protect themselves and their families,” Patronis said. “No one should have to jump through hoops to prove their identity was compromised just to get a fee waived.”

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis believes Floridians should be able to freeze credit reports for free.

Patronis, who is running for election in 2018, said he will work with Ag Commissioner and GOP gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam to zero out the fees for Floridians in the 2018 Legislative Session.

“There shouldn’t be a fee, in any case, for credit report freezes. These fees serve one purpose: to generate more money for reporting agencies,” Patronis said.

Current law allows credit reporting agencies to charge up to $10 to lock down an individual’s credit, and the fee can only be bypassed if an applicant can prove identity theft or that other personal information has been compromised to get a fee waiver.

If successful, Florida would be the fifth state after Indiana, South Carolina, Maine and North Carolina to nix the freeze fees.

A DACA prayer circle comes to the Capitol

As pressure builds at Capitol Hill to figure out what to do with the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program before it goes away in March, proponents of it are coming to Tallahassee to hold a prayer circle.

The Florida Coalition for FWD.us, a Mark Zuckerberg-backed immigration advocacy group, is forming a Dreamer prayer circle Dec. 8 to pray for local and congressional legislators to protect DACA recipients.

Supporters of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program plan to go to Tallahassee for a prayer circle.

If Congress does not pass a replacement for the program by March, approximately 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children and are protected from immediate deportation under the program, could lose those protections and their legal working permits. Thousands of DACA recipients live in Florida.

The event will take place at 2 p.m. at the Capitol Courtyard, between the Capitol building and the Historic Capitol.

Instagram of the Week

We had a packed house in Jacksonville tonight! Thank you to everyone who joined us.

A post shared by Adam Putnam (@adam.putnam) on

Bob Cortes’ toy drive for Puerto Rico

State Rep. Bob Cortes, an Altamonte Springs Republican, writes us: “Hurricane Maria tore a path of devastation through the U.S. Virgin Islands and (left) Puerto Rico in its wake.

“While we have been working tirelessly together to bring relief to these islands, many of my fellow legislators have reached out to me asking how they can be of assistance in this tough time.

Bob Cortes is hosting a toy drive for Puerto Rico.

“There will be thousands of children impacted by this storm this holiday season. To bring some relief to their families, Representatives (Rene) Plasencia, (David) Santiago, (Mike) La Rosa, and myself are partnering with XL 106.7 and Rumba 100.3 and their Baby DJ program to provide gifts to brighten their holidays.

“We will be hosting a toy drive during the next committee week (Dec. 4-7) to donate to the Baby DJ program. Please consider bringing small (unwrapped) toys for both boys and girls next Monday through Friday to my office, 319C.

“It will no doubt bring joy to hurricane-affected children in this season of giving. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to my staff or visit my office. Thank you.”

Sarasota academy lands $250K grant from The Able Trust

The Able Trust this week awarded a Sarasota vocational training center with a $250,000 grant that will allow it to start up a program to help disabled Floridians land jobs.

The three-year grant will allow the Vincent Academy to establish and develop relationships with the Sarasota business community and give individual members a chance to join or rejoin their chosen careers.

The grant was presented to the Vincent Academy at an event attended by Republican Sen. Greg Steube and Republican Rep. Joe Gruters, both of whom represent the area in the legislature. Also attending were many business and community leaders from the area.

“The Vincent Academy does an excellent job of ensuring adults with mental health challenges are prepared for the workplace, and we are pleased to support them with this strategic grant,” said Able Trust chief Dr. Susanne Homant.

Vincent Academy director William McKeever said the training center was “truly grateful” for the generous community and partners such as The Able Trust.

“At the Vincent Academy, we equip adults with mental illnesses with the tools they need to have a productive, engaging workday,” he said. “We take great pride in our members and want to give them the best experience we possibly can, and the support we receive from The Able Trust helps us accomplish this goal.

The week in appointments

McNeill becomes Jefferson County sheriff — Gov. Rick Scott appointed Alfred “Mac” McNeill as the interim Sheriff of Jefferson County after the death of David Hobbs.

McNeill, “a military veteran with 20 years of law enforcement experience, … will serve and protect the families of Jefferson County exceptionally and with the utmost integrity,” Scott said in a statement. He’ll serve until Nov. 13, 2018.

The 46-year-old served with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as supervisor of the protection detail for Govs. Scott, Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush.

He also served in the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office 1997-2004 in various roles, including on the office’s SWAT team.

He got his undergraduate degree in criminal justice from Saint Leo University and is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.

Williams moves to circuit court — Scott appointed Michael Scott Williams to the 13th Judicial Circuit Court for Hillsborough County.

Williams, 45, of Valrico, has been a Hillsborough County Judge. He previously served as Special Counsel to the Office of Statewide Prosecution.

He got his undergraduate degree from Moravian College and a law degree from Villanova University School of Law.

Williams fills the vacancy created by the resignation of Judge Daniel L. Perry.

Henderson promoted to circuit judge — Scott appointed Steven Henderson to the 7th Judicial Circuit Court.

Henderson, 45, of Port Orange, has been a Volusia County Judge. He previously was an Assistant State Attorney for the 7th Judicial Circuit, which includes Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia counties.

He got his undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University and a law degree from Florida State University College of Law.

Henderson fills the vacancy created by the death of Judge Kellie J. Miles.

Inman to Manatee County Court — The governor appointed Renee L. Inman to the Manatee County Court.

Inman, 44, of Parrish, is currently a General Magistrate for the 12th Judicial Circuit (DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties), and previously acted as Court Counsel.

Before that, she practiced with Gross, Minsky, & Mogul, P.A.

She got her undergraduate degree from Indiana University and a law degree from Western New England College School of Law.

Inman fills the vacancy created by the appointment of Judge Charles Sniffen to the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.

Oster to Hillsborough County Court — Scott appointed Cynthia Sullivan Oster to the Hillsborough County Court.

Oster, 47, of Tampa, is currently a Senior Assistant County Attorney for Hillsborough County.

She previously was an Assistant State Attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit (Hillsborough County) and an Assistant Public Defender for the 10th Judicial Circuit (Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties).

She got her undergraduate degree from the University of Florida and a law degree from Stetson University College of Law.

Oster fills the vacancy created by the appointment of Judge Jennifer X. Gabbard to the 13th Judicial Circuit Court.

Nominations sought for Lucy Morgan Award

The First Amendment Foundation (FAF) is accepting nominations for its “Lucy Morgan Award for Open Government Reporting,” named after the legendary Pulitzer Prize winner and retired St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) Tallahassee bureau reporter.

The award is intended to honor a Florida journalist who “smartly uses public records to report stories exposing corruption, revealing government conflicts of interest or otherwise serving the public interest.”

Lucy Morgan, the grande dame of Florida investigative journalism.

The contest is open to all Florida journalists and there is no fee for entries. Journalists can nominate their own work. Nominations can also be made by supervisors or editors.

Entries must be submitted to the First Amendment Foundation at info@floridafaf.org by Dec. 15. The award will be presented at FAF’s annual Sunshine Luncheon Jan. 23, 2018, at the Governors Club in Tallahassee. For more info, contact rachel@floridafaf.org.

December brings an end to snook season in the Gulf

Florida fishermen have to move on to a new target when they voyage into the Gulf as the annual harvest for snook ended Dec. 1, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said.

Those looking to snag some snook still have a couple of weeks left so long as they make their way over to the Atlantic coast, or drop a line in Lake Okeechobee or the Kissimmee River. Just be sure the catch is over 28 inches long.

December brings an end to snook season.

It’d be hard to blame them as snook, also known as sergeant fish or robalo, is considered an excellent food fish so long as the skin is removed, otherwise anglers can become intimately familiar with its other nickname: “soap fish.”

FWC said the closure is designed to protect the snook population during vulnerable times, such as cold weather. The season reopens in the Gulf March 1, and in other waters Feb. 1.

Old Xmas lights? Recycle ‘em in Leon County

Making the switch to energy-efficient LED holiday lights? Don’t know what to do with those old or no-longer-working strings of holiday lights? Either way, recycle unwanted light strings with Leon County, which accepts holiday lights for recycling year-round.

Lights are accepted at the next Household Hazardous Waste & Electronics Collection today from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Public Works Operations Center, 2280 Miccosukee Road. (Businesses and other agencies must call (850) 606-1816 to make an appointment to drop off their items.)

Leon County is calling residents to recycle old Christmas lights.

Residents also may bring up to 50 pounds of hazardous waste, in addition to electronics. Only one large-screen television per vehicle will be accepted. Propane tanks must weigh less than 40 pounds and there is a limit of one tire per participant. There is also a limit of 25 fluorescent tubes per vehicle at the collection event.

Medical sharps, medicines and radioactive waste cannot be accepted. The division also cannot accept bulky wastes such as appliances — refrigerators, stoves/ovens, washing machines, dryers, etc. — furniture, yard waste, construction and demolition debris, household garbage or Styrofoam.

For more information, call the Leon County Hazardous Waste Center at (850) 606-1803 or visit LeonCountyFL.gov/HHW for the complete collection schedule and safe packing guide.

Winter Festival sets up shop in capital

This is out of our usual order because it’s BIG news in Tally: Yes, the Winter Festival is here.

Give the city’s copywriters credit, they tried: “This weekend, flurries of fun will be floating through downtown as the 31st annual ‘Winter Festival — A Celebration of Lights, Music and the Arts’ takes place.”

From 3-10 p.m. today, downtown Tallahassee will be transformed into a winter wonderland complete with holiday wreaths, merry music and sparkling lights.

Tally’s Winter Festival has arrived!

The festival includes the lighting ceremony (6 p.m.), Capital Health Plan Jingle Bell Run (6:15 p.m.), Nighttime Holiday Parade (7:15 p.m.) and lots more.

It also features five stages of local live entertainment, a “Candy Cane Lane” exhibit with special live candy-making demonstrations by Lofty Pursuits, a children’s activity area on Kleman Plaza, food vendors, arts and crafts merchants and holiday illumination displays.

The holiday fun continues past Winter Festival. This year, the Candy Cane Lane exhibit in McCarty Park will be open the week following Winter Festival Saturday, Dec. 2.

From Sunday, Dec. 3, to Sunday, Dec. 10, Candy Cane Lane will be open nightly from 6-9 p.m. Bring the whole family to see the fun, festive displays.

For more information, visit Talgov.com or call at 891-FUNN (3866).

Now for this week’s edition of Capitol Directions:

 

Citizens paid premiums to entice adjusters after Hurricane Irma

Pay rates for insurance adjusters jumped by up to 30 percent as Citizens Property Insurance Corp. scrambled to respond to claims following Hurricane Irma, the carrier’s Consumer Service Committee learned Thursday.

The hikes were prompted by competition for trained adjusters with Texas, still recovering from Hurricane Harvey when Irma hit Florida on Sept. 10. Texas had boosted payments to adjusters, including bonuses, chief claims officer Jay Adams said.

“We were trying to equal the market rate they were paying in Texas, so that we could get adjusters … to come to Florida to work for Citizens,” he said.

Rates have since returned to their pre-Irma baseline.

Citizens engaged an outside contractor, Worley Claims Services LLC, to oversee a crash training program that armed newbie damage estimators with smart devices containing software designed to assist in assessing damage.

The committee met on the final day of the 2017 hurricane season, which saw nearly $6 billion in damage in Florida. Citizens, Florida’s property insurer of last resort, estimated that it has closed nearly two-thirds of the 62,000 claims filed against its policies.

Before Irma hit, Citizens had estimated it would need 2,500 adjusters. It had 800 contractors on hand following the storm. Scrambling allowed the carrier to assemble a strike force of 1,500.

“We leveraged every piece of technology we could to help respond to this event,” Adams said. That included the use of drones to survey damage in the Keys and Miami, which returned assessments within 72 hours.

The company also paid adjusters to work extended hours and weekends.

“We wanted people that were here, already on the ground,” Adams said.

The company looked for emergency licensed adjusters approved by the state.

“We also targeted folks that were displaced by the storm because of the storm from their jobs, such as realtors, home inspectors, and we even had some agents who engaged in this program to help support us,” Adams said.

Citizens expects to receive an additional 10,000 Irma claims by the time the dust clears, with all claims totaling $1.2 billion. Industry-wide, Irma has produced 830,788 claims and more than $5.8 billion in property damage.

“With $6.4 billion in surplus and substantial reinsurance coverage, Citizens remains fiscally sound after responding quickly and effectively to Hurricane Irma,” Chris Gardner, chairman of Citizens’ Board of Governors, said in a written statement.

Brecht Heuchan says ethics complaint is part of ‘smear campaign

A member of the Constitution Revision Commission says he’s become the victim of a “smear campaign” after proposing a constitutional amendment creating a “bill of rights” for nursing home and assisted living facility residents.

On Wednesday, Conwell Hooper, head of an Atlanta-based group called the American Senior Alliance, issued a press release that he had filed a state ethics complaint against Commissioner Brecht Heuchan for filing a “special interest proposal designed to boost the bottom line of one law firm.”

Complaints filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics are confidential and exempt from public record disclosure until there’s been some initial determination as to their merit.

But Hooper explained that Heuchan “is a paid, registered lobbyist for Wilkes & McHugh, a law firm that specializes in personal injury cases against nursing homes.”

Heuchan, an appointee and ally of Gov. Rick Scott, is a lobbyist and political consultant, and founder of Contribution Link, a political data analytics firm. 

His proposal came after a South Florida nursing home lost air conditioning during Hurricane Irma. Up to 14 residents later died, with 12 of those having been ruled homicides by the Broward County Medical Examiner.

Heuchan’s amendment “would make it far easier for law firms to sue nursing homes, revoking provisions of a law enacted in 2014 over Mr. Heuchan’s objections on behalf of his client Wilkes & McHugh,” Hooper said. 

Moreover, “several provisions of Mr. Heuchan’s proposal mirrors policy positions advocated by Wilkes & McHugh … This is as clear-cut a conflict of interest as one is likely to find,” he added.

On Wednesday evening, Heuchan shot back: “This out-of-state organization appears to be a shill for whatever industry is paying him. It takes some nerve to call into question my intentions and integrity when (Hooper) holds himself out to be something he is not.”

Heuchan suggested American Senior Alliance is what’s known as an Astroturf group working with the Florida Health Care Association, a nursing-home advocacy group that has slammed his proposal.

Its head, Emmett Reed, has similarly criticized Heuchan: “A professional lobbyist representing trial attorneys has ignored his broader obligations in order to serve the narrow interest of his clients. The proposed amendment is an egregious governmental overstep, one that overreaches to a monumental extent.”

American Senior Alliance is listed as an “associate member” of the Florida Health Care Association, according to its website.

The Alliance “is known for its consistent advocacy for seniors, including the quality of nursing center care in Florida, so it’s no surprise to us that they have taken an interest in this issue,” said FHCA spokeswoman Kristen Knapp.

“We have had discussions with Mr. Hooper about our mutual concerns regarding this proposal, which we don’t believe belongs in the state Constitution,” she said in an email. “It adds nothing to residents’ quality of life. We believe the organization is raising valid concerns and (we) will be following this closely.”

Still, Heuchan called the ethics complaint a “typical Tallahassee tactic: When you can’t win on the merits, attack the proposer. Oldest trick in the book.”

Assisted living facilities face $280 million tab for generators

Gov. Rick Scott‘s mandate that all assisted living facilities have generators and 96 hours of backup fuel will cost the industry about $280 million, according to estimates published Wednesday by the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.

Because the majority of residents in assisted living facilities are “self pay” and don’t rely on Medicaid, the providers won’t be able to recoup Medicaid funding to help offset the generator costs, said Susan Anderson, vice president of public policy for Florida Argentum, a statewide association that represents assisted living facilities.

The Department of Elder Affairs published a summary of the estimated regulatory costs on Wednesday after it received a three-page letter from the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee flagging potential problems with the proposed rule, initially published on Nov. 14. The estimated costs were published in the Florida Administrative Register.

Florida law requires the department to publish a summary of estimated costs to comply with the regulations and announce whether the rule would require legislative approval. Any rule that increases the costs of doing business by more than $200,000 in the aggregate requires legislative approval.

The rule proposed Nov. 14 is meant to replace an emergency rule that the Scott administration issued in September after the deaths of eight residents at The Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills nursing home following Hurricane Irma. The Broward County facility lost its air-conditioning system Sept. 10 in the storm, and the residents died three days later.

According to the department’s estimates, there are 3,111 assisted living facilities licensed across the state, and more than half of them have fewer than seven beds. To abide by the mandate that they have a generator and enough fuel to keep the temperature at 81 degrees for four days, those small facilities will have to spend an average of $28,000. In the aggregate, the total cost for those providers is estimated at slightly more than $44.7 million.

The state has another 775 assisted living facilities with between seven and 49 beds, and compliance costs for those providers total an estimated $53.2 million. There are another 428 assisted living facilities with 50 to 100 beds, and they will pay a total of about $45.6 million to comply with the requirements.

About 10 percent of the assisted living facilities across the state have more than 100 beds. Those large facilities will be hit with upwards of $136.5 million in overall costs.

Florida Argentum’s Anderson said facilities will have to try to hold down their operating costs to help offset the increased regulatory expenses. The largest component of a facility’s operating costs, she said, is spent on employees.

Hurricane season ends — but issues will linger

Thursday is the last day of the highly active, deadly and destructive 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, but Floridians will feel its impact for years.

Politicians are still scrambling to determine how much of the next state budget will be dedicated to covering losses that may or may not be paid by the federal government.

The massive hit from Hurricane Irma caused direct physical and emotional impacts in Florida, and ripples continue to come ashore as thousands of people flee Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Lawmakers are also looking at regulatory changes for nursing homes and debris-removal companies, as well as changes dealing with issues such as evacuation lanes, shelters and a potential state fuel reserve.

Gov. Rick Scott, who was a constantly visible face before and after Irma struck, said Monday while in Tampa that he’d like to boost the availability of propane for generators before the 2018 storm season.

“You always learn something,” Scott said. “Everybody had generators. This last time we started running low on propane. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. But everyone did a good job. Highway safety, we kept the fuel going.”

Visit Florida spent $5 million to tell potential tourists that the state quickly reopened after Hurricane Irma, even as scars from the September storm remain etched across agricultural fields and the Florida Keys.

Meanwhile, 72 deaths in Florida are currently attributed to the Irma, according to reports supplied by county medical examiners to the state Division of Emergency Management.

The fatalities include 14 cases involving carbon monoxide, eight drownings, four electrocutions and 14 incidents involving blunt-force injuries. Deaths occurred statewide, with six in the Florida Keys, five in Duval County and even two in Leon County, which sustained relatively little damage from Irma compared to other parts of the state.

The numbers don’t include 14 deaths of residents of a Broward County nursing home — 12 were recently ruled homicides — that have caused Scott to push for new rules requiring nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to have emergency generators.

Members of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness will meet Monday and discuss potential storm-related recommendations for the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts in January. Among the possibilities are legislation about housing, agriculture tax relief, hardening for emergency-operations centers and management of shelters.

“Obviously, there will be short-term things that need to be taken care of in the immediate, upcoming Session,” committee Chairwoman Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican, said. “And then, as we saw back in (Hurricane) Andrew, or during the ’04-’05 season, Legislatures will deal with this issue for years to come.”

Hurricane Hermine in 2016 was Florida’s first direct hit from a hurricane in more than a decade. But Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and traveled up the state, was far more destructive.

Mark Wool, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Tallahassee office, called 2017 the busiest for the Atlantic since 2005.

“We didn’t have any things working against tropical cyclone development like in recent years,” Wool said. “There was no El Nino in effect, which tends to suppress things. Didn’t see a lot of dust coming off Africa. We had a very warm ocean and the depth of the warm water was quite large. And all of those things tend to fuel development of a lot of storms.”

Emergency-management officials each year stress preparing for hurricanes. But Wool said the flatness of Florida requires additional vigilance by coastal communities against flooding, as the state is also experiencing a period of rising sea levels.

“Parts of South Beach are flooding now without any storms. Blue skies, tidal flooding, the king tides,” Wool said. “We’ve seen times in the historic record where we’ve had large fluctuations in sea level, and we’re certainly on the upswing.”

As of Nov. 13, more than 830,000 property owners across the state had filed claims for $5.88 billion in insured losses from Irma, which was one of four storms — Tropical Storm Emily, Irma, Hurricane Nate and Tropical Storm Philippe — that had a direct impact on the state during the six-month hurricane season that closes Thursday.

Emily in early August made landfall on Anna Maria Island and quickly was downgraded to a tropical depression. Nate brushed the western Panhandle on Oct. 8 as the center of the storm came ashore near Biloxi, Miss. Philippe brought rain and couple of tornadoes to the Southern part of the state as it made landfall Oct. 29 with 45 mph winds in Southwest Florida.

Overall, there were 17 named storms this year. The most devastation came from Harvey’s Aug. 26 landfall in Texas, Irma’s double landfall and run-up of Florida starting Sept. 10, and Maria’s destruction of utilities and other infrastructure across Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.

While spinning in the Atlantic, Irma reached maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, a pace it held for a record 37 consecutive-hours. Nate also set a record in October for the fastest forward motion recorded for a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We certainly did establish some records,” Wool said. “Harvey’s rainfall established a new rainfall record for one system in the United States. I think some areas had 60 inches of rains, which was phenomenal.”

Irma also set new benchmarks for evacuees — an estimated 6.5 million people left their homes in advance of the storm — and power outages and restoration crews. Florida Power & Light, for example, reported 90 percent of its customers — about 10 million people — were without power on average 2.3 days.

The agriculture industry has put a preliminary estimate of $2.5 billion on its losses from the storm.

However, Florida leaders have yet to convince the White House and Congress to include an estimated $761 million in losses to the citrus industry in a series of disaster-relief packages this year.

State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam again implored Florida’s congressional delegation on Tuesday to support U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney‘s proposal to add $1.5 billion for Florida’s agricultural industry to a $44 billion disaster-relief request sent to Congress on Nov. 17 by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

While awaiting federal assistance, Scott authorized a $25 million interest-free loan program for citrus farmers.

Visit Florida, meanwhile, directed $5 million from its tourism budget for a special post-Irma marketing campaign, and Scott has requested lawmakers boost Visit Florida’s marketing dollars from $75 million in the current year to $100 million because of the need to have post-disaster marketing money readily available.

Despite the state saying tourism numbers continue to climb, hotels remain closed in parts of the Keys, where housing issues have grown for workers after Irma devastated a number of areas outside of Key West.

The Islamorada Resort Company, which hired more than 500 construction workers to repair storm damage at four locations on the islands, is reopening the first of the four on Dec. 15 and the second a month later.

“We are thrilled to welcome guests back to our slice of paradise,” said Eddie Sipple, the company’s area general manager.

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