Gov. Rick Scott bid hasta la vista to Colombia and to the head of the Department of Economic Opportunity this week as state lawmakers held a meet and greet of their own in preparation for the 2013 legislative session.
During a series of introductory committee sessions, lawmakers heard from a host of state agencies and a rabble of Tea Partiers who shouted down lawmakers in what was later characterized as a overzealous, and ill-mannered, exhibition of patriotic exuberance.
Meanwhile, state education officials described as “painful” the first statewide teacher assessment, the rollout of which was marred by some math errors. When corrected, the evaluation found 96.5 percent of teachers were rated efficient or higher, harking back to the mythical Minnesota hamlet of Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.
SESSION GEARS UP FOR ANOTHER CYCLE:
Lawmakers officially rolled up their sleeves this week as they returned to Tallahassee to begin work for the 2013 session. Though much of the work was introductory, some committees made it clear what their priorities will be between now and May.
Property insurance issues and tort reform will be among the hotly contested issues in the coming months, with Citizens Property Insurance Corp. officials expected to be under the microscope as lawmakers look for ways to depopulate the state-backed insurer.
Florida’s top insurance official Kevin McCarty was given a January deadline to come up with a series of proposals to reduce the size of Citizens and to further reduce costs in the state’s auto-insurance market.
On the health care front, lawmakers will begin looking at how the state will implement the sweeping federal health care program, commonly known as ObamaCare, following November elections that determined that overturning the controversial initiative isn’t in the cards for at least the next four years.
Officials have been wondering – again – since the early morning hours of Nov. 7 just why Florida can’t ever seem to fully run a problem-free election.
This time, it was particularly long lines at Election Day voting sites in a few South Florida counties – and difficulty determining the final results, an embarrassment that left Florida in the “uncounted” column long after President Obama’s re-election was reassured by the count in the rest of the nation.
Some again brought out the jokes – why did Florida move its primary election so early? So it would have a winner by the general election. But mostly officials this week just wanted to know how to make the state’s voting process work like it seems to most everywhere else.
State elections officials went before a couple legislative committees this week and began explaining how it all works – or doesn’t. State elections officials said they’ll visit several counties next week to talk to local supervisors as the fact-finding truly gets under way.
WHO IS FISCAL CLIFF? WHAT’S HIS PROBLEM?
The first positive indications about Florida’s budget in many years now might be in trouble. After years of cuts, the coming fiscal year had been shaping up to look pretty good – with it appearing that lawmakers would at least start the year in the black.
Wait a minute, though.
Legislators heard this week that the good news could be overtaken by events if the Florida Supreme Court strikes down changes to the state pension, or the nation plunges over the fiscal cliff.
Speaking to the first meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Amy Baker — coordinator of the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research – said the fiscal cliff talks loom large. If Republicans and Democrats in Washington can’t hash out a deal to avoid major automatic budget cuts, the resulting economic damage could wipe out Florida’s good news budget plans.
Also at issue is a looming decision in the challenge to a 2011 law that required employees to contribute 3 percent of their income to their retirement funds, along with other changes. It could cost the state around $2 billion if the Supreme Court strikes down the law.
DEO CHIEF STEPS DOWN, SCOTT IMMEDIATELY APPOINTS SUCCESSOR
Hunting Deutsch, who until Tuesday was the head of Scott’s job creating engine, the Department of Economic Opportunity, is again on the job hunt after resigning the post amid growing scrutiny of his own unemployment history.
Because he resigned, the former bank manager won’t be eligible to collect unemployment benefits, which he received for nearly two years between 2009 and 2011 after he was downsized as part of a bank merger.
Deutsch, who also received an undisclosed severance package from his former employer, collected 91 weeks of unemployment compensation during a period of joblessness that included a stint of European travel.
First reported by the Florida Current, Deutsch said the experience of not having a job made him more empathetic of the hundreds of thousands of Floridians who were also looking for work as the state’s jobless rate languished in double digits.
“Hunt did the right thing by resigning from DEO,” Scott said in a statement issued by his office. “It is important that nothing interfere with our mission to create more jobs and opportunities for Florida families.”
Two days later, Scott appointed his General Counsel, Jesse Panuccio, to take over the agency that has seen three executive directors in 14 months.
COURTS: “TAJ MAHAL” AND PRIVATE PRISONS ADDRESSED
The courts again supplied news for the week, with a handful of cases that have been closely watched in the capital city.
State agencies battling with local businesses agreed to a $500,000 settlement for artwork sold for the First District Court of Appeal building in Tallahassee. The out-of-court settlement included about $190,000 in attorney fees to be paid by the state.
The opulent structure has brought about the downfall of at least one appellate judge, who resigned after a series of disclosures over lavish furnishings, expensive artwork and other accoutrements
Meanwhile, a circuit judge in Tallahassee ruled that the Legislative Budget Commission could not on its own privatize health care services in most of the state’s correctional institutions.
The ruling by Circuit Judge John Cooper allows the Department of Corrections to privatize health-care services in a region covering roughly the bottom third of the state; that contract was specifically included in the fine print of the budget for the spending year that ends June 30.
But Cooper said that the other three regions of the state couldn’t be privatized by the LBC, which voted in September to approve the broader initiative, that only the full Legislature could make such broad policy decisions.
GENTING SAYS NO TO PUBLIC VOTE, WILL WAIT ON GAMBLING
Florida voters will not be asked to weigh in on a statewide gambling initiative after the primary backer of the proposed constitutional amendment decided to see what lawmakers come up with instead.
Genting executives this week disclosed that they will await action by the Legislature before determining their next step in efforts to develop resort gambling megaprojects in the state.
Legislative leaders have said they don’t expect an extensive gambling battle this year. Instead, lawmakers are expected to conduct an extended study of the issue, a review that could include public hearings around the state and other fact-finding activities.
Earlier this year, the Malaysia-based Genting Group created a group that hired petition gatherers and attorneys with expertise in getting constitutional amendments onto the ballot – essentially signaling a possible intent to circumvent the Legislature on the issue.
But Genting officials let legislative leaders know this week that the company will hold its cards for now.
TEACHER EVALUATIONS “PAINFUL”
The Florida Department of Education’s interim commissioner this week told lawmakers it’s been a painful year as the state initiates a new teacher evaluation system that appears to have its share of problems. On Tuesday, the department posted teacher evaluations from across the state only to withdraw them shortly afterward due to errors in the data.
DOE Interim Commissioner Pam Stewart appeared Thursday before lawmakers following the release of the corrected data for the 2011-12 school year, which showed that only3.5 percent of Florida teachers were not satisfactorily doing their jobs.
“I think this is a painful year,” Stewart said at a meeting of the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “I think any time you implement something this large for the first time, there are growing pains. I think that the ’12-’13 year will be much more telling, and how we do as we move forward.”
BILLS BEING FILED
With lawmakers back in town, a number of bills were filed in both chambers as lawmakers gear up for the 2013 session now less than four months away.
Measures to provide instate tuition to the resident children of undocumented immigrants (HB 11) and create a no-drone-zone (SB 92) in Florida – banning unmanned aerial aircraft flown by police – were among the bills filed this week.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Lawmakers return to begin gearing up for 2013 session.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Well, they probably didn’t want someone on there who was going to speak up and bang their fist on the table when they see something wrong that’s not in the best interest of the consumer, the ratepayer.” Rep. Mike Fasano, speculating this week on why he may have been left off the House Insurance Committee
–Michael Peltier, News Service of Florida