Florida Legislature

Gruters, horses brag on session; Eskamani gets angry

Subtlety apparently wasn’t the goal in videos featuring lawmakers from opposite sides of the aisle, pushed out after the 2019 legislative session wrapped.

Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who’s also the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, got a majestic, campaign-style video featuring a lot of horses and a basso voiceover.

Meanwhile, Orlando Democrat Rep. Anna Eskamani, Florida’s answer to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, went her own route.

Eskamani recruited her twin sister, Ida, to act as her “Anger Interpreter” in a video inspired by comedy duo Key and Peele’s ‘Luther the anger translator.’

In a follow-up tweet, Eskamani, who’s known throughout the Capitol for what seems to be a perpetual smile, made it clear that the video was all in good fun.

“Want to make sure y’all know that we made this video with nothing but love & gratitude for our colleagues and to the legislative process. I do my best to always present as my authentic self, and w/out laughter we have nothing.  ❤️”

For those not in the know, Luther made a political splash in 2015, when he gave some assistance to then-President Barack Obama during the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

So, you don’t have to look it up, here’s the Obama version.

 

By Jim Turner and The Dara.

Congressional subcommittee chair: GOP take on Amendment 4 “an act of defiance”

A day after a congressional panel held a hearing in Fort Lauderdale, Democratic U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch and Alcee Hastings filed legislation to make it easier for voters to fix signature mismatches.

Even if Congress doesn’t pass the South Florida Democrats’ federal legislation, the elections changes they’re proposing will almost certainly go into effect here in the Sunshine State.

Giving voters another chance and more time to fix their mismatched VBM signatures  is one of the provisions included in a an elections package (SB 7066) on its way to Gov. Ron DeSantis. The proposal also includes the Republican-controlled Legislature’s controversial plan to carry out a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felons who’ve completed their sentences. Murderers and people convicted of felony sexual offenses are excluded from the “automatic” vote-restoration.

Under the provision included in the elections package, felons would have to pay all financial obligations — including restitution, fines and fees — before having their voting rights restored. Judges can waive the fees and fines, or order community service in lieu of payment.

“As this subcommittee continues to travel the country, I can think of no better place than here in Florida, a state that is no stranger to having its elections become the focus of national attention,” said U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat who chairs the Committee on House Administrations Elections Subcommittee.

Fudge called Florida’s passage of Amendment 4, which more than 5 million voters supported, a “watershed moment for civil rights.”

Echoing other critics’ objections to the plan, the congresswoman blasted Florida lawmakers’ handling of Amendment 4, saying it amounts to a modern-day poll tax.

“They blatantly ignored the will of the Florida voters that approved the measure in a retroactive act of voter suppression. It is an act of defiance by this legislature,” she said.

Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum was among the witnesses at yesterday’s hearing, which addressed issues related to the 2018 elections, such as faulty ballot design, rejection of VBM ballots and recount litigation.

A joint press release issued by Deutch and Hastings cites a report by University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith, who found that 15 percent of vote-by-mail ballots submitted by Parkland voters aged 18 to 21 were nearly three times more likely to be rejected than those of voters in the same age group statewide.

Smith’s analysis found that 15 percent of the VBM ballots sent by the young Parkland voters were tossed. Students in Parkland launched a national voter registration effort following last year’s horrific mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 students and staff dead and another 17 people injured.

Here’s more from the South Florida Dems’ press release:

The “Protecting American Votes Act” will require elections officials to make two attempts to notify voters when their ballots are rejected based on a signature mismatch—by mail in addition to either text, phone, or e-mail. It will also require states to provide at least ten days from the date of notice to cure the mismatch to verify their identity and ensure their vote is counted. Officials who review signatures will also be required to participate in formal training and provide a report to Congress detailing the number of ballots that are rejected and description of the notification and cure process the state uses to protect voters. These reforms reflect several of the changes the Florida legislature included in SB 7066 to reform its election laws.

 

 

 

Tucked in proviso: Medicaid managed-care rollout

There were no efforts this legislative session to change how the state’s Medicaid managed-care program would be rolled out under five-year contracts totaling billions of dollars.

Until, that is, it came to health-care budget negotiations.

In a late-night weekend meeting, the Florida House floated proviso language that would require the state to develop a new equitable formula for assigning Medicaid recipients to managed-care plans when they don’t voluntarily make a choice.

The proviso requires the Agency for Health Care Administration to submit to the Legislature no later than August 31 details on how it will change the current assignment process. The proviso also requires the new process to be implemented no later than November 1. The late-night proviso also would eliminate $3 million from the state agency for Health Care Administration’s administrative budget until it delivers the new formula.

The Senate did not agree to the move and the issue remains in flux as lawmakers continue to negotiate the details of the $90 billion budget.

The proposed change in the formula is a move to help two new “provider sponsored networks,” or PSNs, that were awarded five-year contracts. Lighthouse Health Plan is a PSN in Northwest Florida in Medicaid Regions 1 and 2. The latest enrollment figures at AHCA show that 27,060 people enrolled in the plan in March.

The other PSN is Miami Children’s Health Plan which has 12,880 members. That PSN serves children in Medicaid Region 9, which includes Indian River County south to Palm Beach County, and Medicaid Region  11, which includes Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

Though the Legislature meets annually and considers hundreds of bills, it only is required by law to pass one: the budget. The state spending plan also is the only bill that must be distributed and available to read for 72 hours before final passage.   The regular legislative session is slated to end May 3, meaning the budget agreement must come Tuesday for lawmakers to wrap on time.

Florida has a mandatory Medicaid managed-care program. The state recently completed a new procurement and signed five-year contracts worth at least $90 billion with different HMOs and PSNs across the state. For contracting purposes, the state is divided into 11 different Medicaid regions.

The proviso language requires AHCA to submit a report to the Senate president and House speaker no later than August 31 detailing how the agency will change the assignment process. The  new process must be implemented no later than November 1.

To help ensure compliance with the mandate,  $3 million in administrative funds is being held in reserve. The agency can ask the Legislature to release the funds when it completes the new plan.

By Christine Sexton.

Bigger, better, stronger? Panama City officials plead for aid

Months after Hurricane Michael ravaged the Florida Panhandle, Panama City officials are calling out both state lawmakers and Congress to adequately fund disaster relief.

The appeal comes in a two-and-a-half-minute video that highlights successful recovery efforts while expressing the agonizing wait for assistance that has stretched to 200 days.

The storm that crippled Bay County left behind 31million cubic yards of debris, or 12 million truckloads, created a housing crisis and displaced thousands of students, Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki explains as he takes viewers on a tour of his community.

“We know that we need help from Tallahassee and Washington,” Brudnicki says as he wraps up the video. “With your help we can rebuild Panama City bigger, better and stronger. Thank you.”

Brudnicki and City Manager Mark McQueen are off Monday to D.C. for several days of meetings with members of Congress and various federal agencies.

By Jim Turner.

This year’s (Aaron) Bean bar: “Game of Bills”

img_7337-1.jpegSen. Aaron Bean’s doubled as Tom Selleck, Luke Skywalker and a member of the Duck Dynasty clan.

This year, the Fernandina Beach Republican is adding Tormund Giantsbane to the collection of characters he’s appeared as on the candy bars he gives out during the legislative session.

Bean points out that the 2019 Bean bar features the “Game of Thrones” font,  includes a play on the show’s “Winter is Coming” come-on, and has a tag line of Best Wishes on Your ‘Game of Bills.’

In the Star Wars-themed candy bar wrapper, Bean made a pun out of his Senate District 4: “May the Fourth Be With You.”

“It’s good to have a sense of humor, I think,” the high-spirited senator told Truth or Dara Thursday afternoon.

IMG_1693The ebullient Bean even distributes the chocolate bars to some of the Capitol press corps, whose shrinking numbers hasn’t gone unnoticed by the senator.

“Nobody gives the press anything but grief. That’s what they give ya. You get grief!” he said.

The fifth estate “is a central part of the process,” Bean said.

“It makes everybody better, knowing that the 21 million Floridians are watching, reading or listening to what we do here every day. And that’s the bottom line. How ‘bout that? We need you here,” he said.

Bean said he recently read a story detailing how “more and more bureaus are closing, consolidating,” adding that “the model is changing.”

The role of the press is “vital, vital,” he said, even making a pitch for next week’s  Press Skits.

“That’s going to be fun. Do you know? I was in ‘em two years ago. So that’s good. You raise money for charity,” Bean said.

Galvano on “awkward moment” in DeSantis SOS speech

DeSantis SOSGov. Ron DeSantis delivered his first State of the State speech to kick off the 2019 legislative session today, covering a wide range of topics and boasting about a variety of accomplishments since the Republican took office in January.

DeSantis bragged about ousting former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, who was harshly criticized for how his office handled the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland last year. DeSantis replaced Israel with Gregory Tony.

Israel has appealed his suspension to the Florida Senate, which has the power to reinstate or remove elected officials.

During his remarks Tuesday, DeSantis noted that Israel’s suspension “will come before the Senate soon,” adding “the failures of the former sheriff are well-documented.”

“Why any senator would want to thumb his nose at the Parkland families and to eject Sheriff Tony, who is doing a great job and has made history as the first African-American sheriff in Broward history, is beyond me,” the governor said.

When asked about his remarks later, DeSantis spoke about the families of the 17 students and school staff who were slain.

“Those families were really frustrated that action had not been taken against him. I did it within a couple days because to me, I thought it should have been done. It was just a point that not only did that give satisfaction to families but we have a guy in there now who’s really making positive changes,” DeSantis told reporters.

The governor said he’s “not worried at all” about the Senate process.

“But I do think it was an important action we took early in the administration. I just wanted to highlight it,” he said.

Senate President Bill Galvano, who appointed former House Rep. Dudley Goodlette as special master to oversee Israel’s appeal and make recommendations, wasn’t keen on DeSantis’ veiled threat.

“Of everything that was in that speech, that was a bit of an awkward moment for the governor,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, told reporters.

Galvano said he asked himself if a senator made a comment about the Broward sheriffs but didn’t believe that was the case.

“Look, he has every right to suspend him and has his reasons for doing so. But the Senate also has a role, and we’re going to do it right. We’re going to have due process and we’re going to vet through the suspension and we’ll make a decision. I’ve asked our senators to give it the respect that it’s due and not to prejudge. That’s the role of the Senate. I’ve said this before. We’re not just going to be a rubber stamp for the governor,” he said.

Carlos Guillermo Smith knows hate crimes are real

 

Chicago’s police chief is accusing”Empire” star Jussie Smollett of using the “advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career” by paying two men to stage an attack on him last month.

The allegations concerning Smollett, who is black and gay, sparked an international avalanche of commentary, but one state representative who’s weighing in has more than a passing interest in the matter.

“I decided to finally tell this very deeply personal story because the reality is that hate crimes are real. Homophobia is real. Bigotry is real. And hate violence is on the rise against many groups. Anti-semitism is on the rise. Hate violence against transgender women of color is on the rise, especially in Florida,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith said in a telephone interview Thursday evening.

Smith, an Orlando Democrat who is openly gay, spoke with us after he tweeted about his experience as a survivor of “senseless hate violence” when he was a University of Central Florida senior in 2003.

In a telephone interview Thursday evening, Smith recounted the evening 16 years ago when a keg party turned into a gay-bashing attack on him and his roommate, Heath Frank.

The attacker, identified as “Eduardo Alessandro Mongio” in court documents provided by Smith, was “lingering around” and “acting kind of weird” at the crowded party, Smith said.

Other witnesses later said they heard Mongio making homophobic remarks, but “I never heard any of that,” Smith said.

But at some point a bloodied Frank came back inside the apartment, Smith recalled.

“He was red in the face. He was crying. I’m like, Heath, what’s wrong? He said, it’s nothing. Let’s go. Let’s go,” Smith said.

But when they went outside, Mongio confronted Smith and started punching him in the head and face.

“I didn’t know what was going on. But I got banged up pretty bad. When the dust settled, everyone was telling me about how the guy was making all these homophobic slurs about our group, because hey listen, we travel in cliques. We queer people, we stick together,” Smith said. “I don’t remember if the guy was drunk or what his deal was but he started lashing out at . It was like a full-fledged gay-bashing.”

Smith, who was still trying to piece together the events of more than a decade-and-a-half ago, said the police were called and Mongio was arrested. Once in the cop car, according to the police report, Mongio threatened to “get that fucker” and repeatedly referred to Smith and Frank as “faggots.”

“But I remember, the next day, I was so down on myself. I was humiliated. I was embarrassed. It’s hard to describe the feeling that you have when you’ve survived hate violence and you’re not sure what to do with it, especially when you’re young. I was like, what just happened,” he said.

Former state Rep. Joe Saunders, who was one of Florida’s first openly gay legislators and who was one of Smith’s close friends at college, told Smith the campus was “stunned” by the attack.

Saunders quickly penned “his first press release” and organized a rally where students — including Smith, who later worked with Saunders at Equality Florida — demanded that the university update its non-discrimination policy to include LGBT students.

Mongio was charged with two counts of “battery, evidencing prejudice,” and disorderly conduct. Prosecutors later dropped the hate-crimes enhancer — which could have added another five to 10 years to Mongio’s sentence — and the disorderly conduct charge after he agreed to plea no contest to the battery charges. He was sentenced to 312 days in the Orange County Jail followed by a year of probation.

And Mongio’s sentence also required sensitivity training, an anger management course, and a letter of apology to Smith, according to the court record.

Smith said he “felt compelled to speak out” as the controversy around Smollett exploded.

“I don’t know what the outcome is going to become of the Jussie Smollett case. But I can already see there’s a narrative out there that hate crimes aren’t real. No. They are. And they’re on the rise. Especially with the election of Donald Trump, who wears hate for other groups on his sleeve,” he said.

Smith said he feels “like justice was served” in his case. But he knows that’s not every other survivor’s experience.

“Even though it hasn’t defined me as a person, it absolutely is part of my experience as an out gay man, as an activist, as a lawmaker who cares deeply about issues of fairness and equality,” he said. “I think that people who now know this about me, they understand why I’m such a passionate advocate for my community. It doesn’t define who I am but it’s part of my experience.”