Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Our digest of, and commentary on today's Florida political news and punditry follow.

Union Haters Stumble Over Their Knuckles

"Despite outward signs of support, Gov. Rick Scott's administration quietly endangered a top priority of fellow Republicans in the Legislature by delaying a financial analysis needed to help justify a public-worker pension-reform plan."

The issue boiled over late last week when state House Speaker Will Weatherford had to personally call Scott and his newly minted lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, and complained that the governor's staff stopped a state agency from conducting the analysis.

“There is no question the Governor’s staff directed DMS to stop working with the House,” the state House budget chairman, Seth McKeel, said in a written statement furnished to the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times.

“The law requires the department to conduct actuary studies on all pension bills, and the hold-up would have resulted in killing pension reform without a single vote of elected officials,” McKeel, R-Lakeland, said. “Thankfully Lt. Governor Lopez-Cantera and Gov. Scott stepped in to correct the problem.”

Such direct finger-pointing from legislative leaders to the staff of a governor of the same party is unusual. The surprising tension threatens to complicate Scott's ability to steer a limited election-year agenda through the Republican Legislature heading into the lawmaking session that begins next week.

Complicating matters: Scott on Monday denied McKeel’s claims about his agency’s foot-dragging over the study, which would analyze the costs of changing pensions for most state workers who are hired in the future.

The delay has fueled speculation from Republicans that Scott’s administration wanted to kill the controversial pension-reform plan to spare the governor an election-year headache —one that would fire up left-leaning unions. However, since pension reform is a top issue for conservatives, the administration’s delay could outrage some of Scott’s Republican base.

McKeel said he was surprised the governor’s administration would hinder an issue supported by Scott and legislative leaders, who made pension reform a top priority this session.

After the battery of high-level calls last week from Weatherford and others, DMS changed course. It issued a letter late Friday saying the pension-reform analysis was back on track. . . .

The governor's longest-serving chief of staff, Hollingsworth acts as an unofficial campaign consultant, a role that deepens suspicions among Republicans that Scott’s chief of staff was playing politics with pension reform — and not the kind that the GOP wants. It happened once before, last year, when Hollingsworth played a role in the governor’s decision to call for Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. The left-leaning move angered conservatives, and Weatherford’s House crushed the proposal. . . .

Scott’s denials aside, the pension-study delay clearly happened.

"In the past few weeks, the Department of Management Services stopped returning phone calls from lawmakers and their staff. And DMS officials skipped some committee hearings, where lawmakers were counting on their attendance."
McKeel and other lawmakers publicly fumed at committee meetings. Yet nothing changed. The agency remained mysteriously silent.

Late last week, House Speaker Weatherford had enough. He starting phoning Scott, Lopez-Cantera and state Sen. John Thrasher, a Jacksonville Republican who is friends with Hollingsworth. . . .

Scott repeatedly has endorsed public-worker pension reform.

Trailing in the polls and preparing for a tough reelection fight, however, Scott wants to push a relatively easy-to-accomplish election-year agenda once the 60-day legislative session starts March 4.

And pension reform is not an easy lift.

"Pension tension: House lawmakers call out Gov. Rick Scott’s administration for study delay"

Scott sidesteps debates on hot-button issues

"Gov. Rick Scott, weighed down by lackluster poll numbers and a Republican Legislature intent on pursuing its own contentious reforms, appears content to keep it simple as he heads into the 2014 session."

Months before he will ask voters to re-elect him for another term, Scott is choosing to push ahead with a limited agenda that sidesteps ongoing debates on hot-button issues such as expanding Medicaid or opening the door to Las Vegas casinos.

Scott's pitch to legislators this year centers primarily on tax cuts and increasing spending in key areas such as hiring more child protection workers, or boosting the amount of money spent on Everglades restoration.

"For Scott it's about tax cuts and budget in 2014".

Filmmaker tax breaks

"Filmmakers could get big tax breaks".

"Spirit of cooperation"?

"A spirit of cooperation between the House and Senate worked to produce an overachieving Legislature in 2013, so why not stick with a winner in 2014, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz told the staff of Sunshine State News Tuesday." "Don Gaetz Prediction: Cooperative Senate and House Will Distinguish 2014 Session".

Remembering the "Medicare-fraud fine of $1.7 billion"

"Florida Democrats blasted the [anti-Obamacare ad] pointing out that Gov. Rick Scott once led the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, which was socked with a record Medicare-fraud fine of $1.7 billion." "In new online ad campaign, Rick Scott hits an old foe: Obamacare's Medicare cuts".

Everglades oil drilling

"DEP says permits for drilling have not been allowed in The Everglades, as defined as 2.5 million acres of government-owned land. Meanwhile, some environmentalists say they hear that hydraulic fracturing bills appear dead for the 2014 session. 'I think it's awful early to call a bill dead when session hasn't even begun yet,' said Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero." "Senator Soto, DEP trade letters over Everglades oil drilling concerns".

Shill "whipping up business for nursing home litigators"?

Nancy Smith: "For eight years he headed Florida's long-term-care ombudsman program. Now his critics insist he's whipping up business for one of the state's busiest nursing home litigators."

They say Brian Lee finds disgruntled patients, then Tampa personal injury attorney Jim Wilkes sues the living bedsheets out of their nursing homes.

"That's ridiculous," says Lee. "I don't set up cases for anybody."

But the executive director of Families for Better Care (FBC), a nonprofit citizen advocacy group, doesn't deny FBC gets a lot of its money from the Wilkes & McHugh law firm. "We get donations from unions, families and, yes, the one Tampa law firm. I have to admit, we wouldn't be able to exist without Wilkes & McHugh.

"But I've never even spoken to these guys," Lee said emphatically.

Not possible, says one South Florida AARP activist.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, she asked incredulously, "Lee got thousands of dollars from a benefactor and never picked up the phone even once to say thank you?"

"Brian Lee: Good-Guy Nursing Home Watchdog or Shill for a Trial Lawyer?".

Gambling proposal emerges

"The Senate’s long-awaited gambling proposal emerges with new regulatory structure and broad expansion of gambling, but uncertainly looms with the House and governor." "Senate bill pushes two casino resorts for Miami, Broward".

The Cuba Proxy

"Sen. Marco Rubio’s stirring speech was about the protests in Venezuela, the Maduro government and its ties to the Castro brothers, who repress their own people and helped inspire the suppression in Caracas." "Analysis: Venezuela’s violence, Cuba’s ‘farce,’ and Marco Rubio’s milestone speech". See also "Amid political unrest, Miami Congressman Joe Garcia asks President Obama to let more Venezuelans stay in U.S.".

"Then he stumbled"

"Fresh off a European vacation, Carlos Gimenez settled into his first full term as Miami-Dade County mayor in a relaxed mood last summer, his two years of frenzied political campaigning behind him."

Then he stumbled.

With little input from advisers, Gimenez broke an unwritten rule of recent County Hall politics: He called for a property-tax rate hike in his proposed budget. His phone began to ring. And ring. There was outrage. . . .

Ever since then, the mayor has had to fight a series of skirmishes at County Hall.

Gimenez will have an opportunity to reflect on the tumultuous year — and look forward to future challenges — on Wednesday in Hialeah, when he delivers his annual state of the county speech.

Since July, the county commission has twice overturned Gimenez’s vetoes and rejected his advice to avoid a raid on financial reserves to pay for public libraries. Labor unions are miffed over his attempt to keep taking money from workers’ paychecks. And Democrats see an increasingly inviting target in Gimenez, a Republican in a nonpartisan post.

"Budget battles scar Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez’s past year in office".

"Private schools throughout Florida are terrified"

Scott Maxwell: "Private schools throughout Florida are terrified. The reason:"

Some lawmakers want to force many of them — the ones that get taxpayer subsidies anyway — to test their students the same way public schools test theirs.

The prospect, they say, is horrifying.

Just last weekend, leaders of a national private-school advocacy group penned an guest column for the [Orlando] Sentinel with the headline: "FCAT would threaten private-school appeal."

The piece said private schools worry that, if they were forced to take part in FCAT mania, it would undercut teachers, short-change students and "threaten the very freedoms" that make their schools successful.

In other words, private-school leaders are aghast at the possibility of having to treat their kids the way the state of Florida already treats yours.


That is the sound of Florida's rationale for non-stop testing being blown to smithereens.

"Private schools' FCAT fears mirror frustrations of Florida parents".

"The focus will be on money"

"Some legislative leaders and pundits say there will be a focus on water in the 2014 legislative session but it looks increasingly like the focus will be on money -- for environmental protection and restoration." "Session Outlook 2014: Environment".

That'll cost 'ya 3k

"Elections panel fines Sen. Bullard $3,000".

Raiding affordable housing trust fund

"Groups are hoping to keep funds originally dedicated for affordable housing programs in those programs this year. But lawmakers have swept those funds into general revenue more often than not over the last decade, and despite a large surplus this year the trust fund will be competing with other plans for tax cuts and spending increases in other areas." "Realtors, homebuilders call on lawmakers not to raid affordable housing trust fund".

Protecting coastal wildlife

"Steering committee wants legislation to expand DEP permitting authority to protect coastal wildlife".

Good luck with that

"Local lawmakers seek raises for state workers".

Another Fine Jebacy - Privatization Madness

Paul Krugman on Jeb Bush's "bold experiment" as an "aggressive privatizer":

The Miami Herald put it after a careful study of state records, "his bold experiment has been a success — at least for him and the Republican Party, records show. The policy has spawned a network of contractors who have given him, other Republican politicians and the Florida G.O.P. millions of dollars in campaign donations."

What's interesting about this network of contractors isn't just the way that big contributions are linked to big contracts; it's the end of the traditional practice in which businesses hedge their bets by giving to both parties. The big winners in Mr. Bush's Florida are companies that give little or nothing to Democrats. Strange, isn't it? It's as if firms seeking business with the state of Florida are subject to a loyalty test.

So am I saying that we are going back to the days of Boss Tweed and Mark Hanna? Gosh, no — those guys were pikers. One-party control of today's government offers opportunities to reward friends and punish enemies that the old machine politicians never dreamed of.

"Victors and Spoils".

It seems Jeb's "big winners" continue to win under the Rick Scott administration.

In that regard, Fred Grimm writes that, "when it comes to bulldogging for-profit juvenile prisons, Howard Finkelstein’s your man."

The Broward Public Defender and chief assistant Gordon Weeks have been monitoring juvie lock-ups for years on behalf of their underaged clients, raising hell over rapes, abuse by staffers, unsanitary conditions, substandard food, the use of powerful drugs to subdue unruly kids.

You’d think that state officials, before doling out new contracts to a particularly controversial corporate prison operation, might check with Howard or Gordon.

“I’m baffled,” Finkelstein said Monday. He said the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice “hasn’t called us. Not once.”

"On Sunday, the Palm Beach Post added to the bafflement over juvenile prison contracts with this opening paragraph:"
“Under fire and dogged by critics, the for-profit company running a local juvenile jail has reeled in a new multimillion-dollar contract to house teenage offenders —despite pending criminal charges of battery by two workers at a now-shuttered Broward County facility.”

The Post referred to Youth Services International, the latest incarnation of a controversial juvenile detention conglomerate with a troublesome history that ought to have given state officials pause. The Department of Juvenile Justice closed down Thompson Academy, YSI’s Pembroke Pines 154-bed operation, on Jan. 4, 2013, after the Broward Public Defenders office brought startling allegations of abuse, including charges that Thompson staffers staged fights among the teenage inmates, using food as reward for the winners. Charges of battery and allegations of sexual abuse by Thompson staffers are still pending.

In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging Thompson employees “choked and slammed children head-first into concrete walls for infractions as minor as failing to stand up on command.” Detained children, the suit added, slept on dirty floors in hot rooms lacking air conditioning. In 2006, the feds reported that the staff turnover at Thompson was 96 percent.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that the rate of sexual abuse by staffers or other inmates reported by children incarcerated at the YSI-run Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility in 2012 was triple the statewide average, the highest in the state. (A YSI-run facility in Georgia had the highest rate of any juvenile facility in the nation.)

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Ronald Alvarez told the Post that giving out new contracts to YSI would be “a travesty.”

In October, the Huffington Post published a national investigation of YSI, reporting, “Those held at YSI facilities across the country have frequently faced beatings, neglect, sexual abuse and unsanitary food over the past two decades . . . .”

Yet, the Department of Juvenile Justice has happily renewed four existing contracts with YSI over the last two years, including a new $29 million deal to keep up the good work at Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility.

"In some other states, the Department of Juvenile Justice’s determination to maintain a business relationship with YSI might seem mysterious. But in Florida, as Howard Finkelstein explained, it’s all about the political juice. The Huffington Post reported that YSI has contributed $418,000 to state political candidates or political action committees. The company has hired lobbyists closely associated with Gov. Rick Scott. That money and those hires trump complaints about excessive force or lousy food."
Finkelstein said that mistreatment and abuse are inevitable in private juvenile prisons. (Florida has now signed over all its 3,300 juvenile prison beds to private operators).

“Nobody should be surprised at what’s happening. The state, trying to get a financial bargain, turns over children to a corporation with a priority to make money.” he said. And without enough money or manpower to do it right.

Finkelstein said that at least back when the state ran juvie facilities, despite the occasional scandals, “Their heart was in the right place. They weren’t in it for the money. We had transparency. We had records in the sunshine.”

Now he says, if his office goes after some scurrilous state contractor, the company just changes its name. He says it’s as if the state Department of Juvenile hardly notices that these are the same people, causing the same problems.

"Poor reports on operator of juvenile ...".

Sorry Mr. Alito, but your interpretation of Citizen's United is simply "not true"

Alex "Sink said the flurry of attack ads from outside groups is the result of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, a Supreme Court decision lifting restrictions on corporations, labor unions and other organizations to spend money attempting to sway elections." "House candidates decry attack ads".

Here's an example: "Heat Intensifies as GOP Pelts Alex Sink for Disparaging Immigrant Workers".

Florida teachers paid based on test scores of kids they did not teach

Teachers being paid based on the test "scores from students they did not teach themselves, or subjects other than the ones they teach"? Sounds like the teachers' union may have a serious point. "After a successful public-records lawsuit by a newspaper, the Florida Department of Education today is releasing teacher-evaluation data for individual teachers."

Teachers' full evaluations are covered by an exemption from state public-records laws, but the Florida Times-Union sued the state, seeking the release of value-added scores calculated by the education department. The 1st District Court of Appeal recently sided with the newspaper.

Both the state and the Florida Education Association fought the release of the data. In an email to teachers this morning, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart wrote that the state is releasing the data under court order "after mounting our best legal efforts to protect the confidentiality of teachers’ information."

The value-added scores are calculated using students' FCAT results, as well as a complex statistical formula intended to show students' growth from one school year to the next.

The model has come under fire from the state's teachers union, in part because the results for many teachers in subjects not tested by the FCAT rely on scores from students they did not teach themselves, or subjects other than the ones they teach.

"Update: State releases performance data for individual teachers; district officials urge caution".

More: "Florida's teacher evaluations: How they got this way, "Supreintendent Browning says beware of teacher eval data" and "Reactions to the release of Florida's Value-Added Model (VAM) scores for teachers".

And Scott now want's Obama's help?

"Republican Gov. Rick Scott is asking President Barack Obama to 'use his pen' to block federal flood insurance rates that threaten to price tens of thousands of Floridians out of their homes and businesses." "Scott urges Obama to delay flood insurance increases".

Meanwhile, "Rick Scott Goes After Obama Raiding Medicare to Fund Obamacare; Dems Push Back".