Tom Lee Archives - SaintPetersBlog

Vote on stadium-subsidies bill delayed, but panel votes aid to rural counties

A Senate committee approved legislation Monday earmarking 75 percent of Florida’s take from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster for the eight worst-affected counties, and ensuring that small counties will be represented on the oversight board.

But the Commerce and Tourism Committee delayed a vote on another high-profile bill, SB 236, to dismantle tax subsidies for professional sports facilities, when sponsor Tom Lee, a Republican from Thonotasassa, failed to appear.

“We’re facing a crisis in rural Florida — whether it’s education or health care or infrastructure of economic development,” chairman Bill Montford said of those portions of the agenda.

“Rural Florida has not benefitted from the economic recovery, as other parts of the state have. They’re still struggling, and it’s becoming more pronounced every year. I think the recognition on the part of the Senate is that we have an obligation to address these issues, and let’s do something about it.”

The Florida Sports Development Program, created in 2014 but never funded by the Legislature, makes professional franchises eligible for up to a combined $13 million in sale tax money to build or improve facilities.

A telephone call to Lee’s office wasn’t returned Monday evening. Sen. Jack Latvala, who sits on the committee and chairs the Appropriations Committee, said he moved to delay the vote because of Lee’s absence.

Latvia said he wan’t aware of any impediment to the bill.

“Not a problem I’m aware of,” he said. “It’s his bill. You’ll have to ask him.”

The committee unanimously approved SB 364, by Bay County Republican George Gainer, earmarking $300 million of the $400 million due to the state this year under the BP civil settlement for the Panhandle and Big Bend counties worst affected by the spill.

The bill would send the money to Triumph Gulf Coast Inc., with future settlement proceeds funneled directly to that oversight board within 30 days of receipt.

Senate President Joe Negron favors the proposal, although a House bill would eliminate some oversight of the board selected to allocate the settlement money, the Panama City News-Herald has reported.

Reflecting the importance Negron places on the measure, his office issued a press release praising the vote soon after the hearing broke up.

“Our constituents are counting on us to ensure these critical settlement funds are distributed in a transparent manner,” Gainer said.

“This legislation requires all currently-held and future settlement payments to be transferred directly to Triumph Gulf Coast Inc., where we have proper checks and balances in place to ensure accountability,” he said.

The measure would add two members to the Triumph board to represent the two least-populated counties in the area. The speaker of the House and Senate president would appoint board members.

Representatives of the small counties in the western portion of the area have expressed concern that larger counties enjoy too much influence over economic development in the region.

In other action, the committee unanimously approved SB 600, by Lake Placid Republican Denise Grimsley, to revamp Florida’s Rural Regional Development Grant Program, a multi-agency initiative that seeks to encourage large business development in smaller counties.

The bill would include problems in the schools as indicating a need for economic and community development. The state would evaluate projects every three years.

Another bill passed unanimously, SB 936, by Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat, would kill a requirement for matching private dollars for the Florida’s Rural Regional Development Grant Program, and would increase the cap on loans granted to $1 million.

The program was designed to offer assistance to areas hit by extraordinary economic crises or natural disasters, but Montford said officials have had trouble lining up private grants.

It is among the programs administered by the beleaguered Enterprise Florida, which the House voted Friday to kill.

“A lot of these rural counties don’t have the money to hire staff to engage in economic development activities,”  Montford said. “That’s why it’s so important that the state support this.”

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Joe Henderson: After Enterprise Florida fight, Rick Scott has little political capital left

Rick Scott went to Tallahassee in 2011 as an outsider. He often has operated like one as well, and not always in a good way.

In a private company, stubborn employees can get fired for standing up to the boss. In politics, though, defiance can be considered a virtue. Eventually, people who vow to run government like a business learn you can’t just issue orders and expect things to get done.

Real democracy can be a free-for-all.

That brings us to the current state of affairs in the capitol city, a time that has the seen the governor behaving less like a CEO and more like a politician trying to win friends and influence people.

To save his most-favored Enterprise Florida agency, the governor put a public campaign that included visits, robo-calls, videos and a public mocking of House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

It didn’t work, at least not yet.

The House dealt the governor a stinging rebuke last week with by passing HB 7005 – or what Scott calls “job-killing legislation” – by an overwhelming 87-28 vote.

Scott responded with a statement reading in part, “Many politicians who voted for these bills say they are for jobs and tourism. But, I want to be very clear – a vote for these bills was a vote to kill tourism and jobs in Florida.”

Everyone waits now to see what happens in the Senate, where Jeff Brandes has a bill that would keep Enterprise Florida but with much greater state oversight. Scott, meanwhile, is keeping up the pressure.

His office sent out eight news releases Monday within 19 minutes touting job gains in cities around the state. He made sure to credit the embattled jobs agency.

It was easy for Scott to get his way when he arrived in Tallahassee on a populist wave, promising to produce jobs and get Florida out of the Great Recession. He certainly wasn’t the only political leader in the land who favored subsidies to jump-start the economy.

Now that those jobs have been created – Scott claims more than 1.3 million overall so far – the mood in Tallahassee has shifted away from what Corcoran calls “corporate welfare.”

That has forced the governor into a defensive posture that he clearly isn’t used to and hasn’t shown evidence yet of mastering.

Meanwhile, the Commerce and Tourism Committee is set to consider a bill from Republican Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa to repeal a program designed to make it easier for pro sports franchises to get state money for stadium projects.

Scott signed that bill in 2014, although an aide was quick to correct me recently when I called it a “pet project” of the governor’s. But, the governor obviously supported the measure and in a statement at the time said, “This sports development program will allow franchises to expand in Florida, and create more jobs and opportunities for Florida families.”

Times have changed, though, so I doubt the governor will spend any political capital now to save that pot of state money for professional sports franchises.

With all his chips in the middle of the table for Enterprise Florida, he likely won’t have much of an appetite to fight for sports teams. Judging from the way things are going, lawmakers probably wouldn’t listen anyway.

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Could Pat Neal’s anti-Donald Trump hurt his chances of becoming CFO?

Not surprisingly, Donald Trump hasn’t been too keen on hiring those associated with the “Never Trump” movement of conservative policy who surfaced in last year’s presidential campaign.

The most glaring example of this is the case of former State Department official Elliott Abrams. A meeting between the two last month reportedly went well, according to CNN. Ultimately, though, Trump opted not to hire Abrams for the Deputy Secretary of State position once he learned that Abrams criticized him during his White House run.

With the in mind, might strong criticism of the President during the campaign turn off Rick Scott, a close ally of Trump’s, specifically when it comes to naming a new Chief Financial Officer?

While there have been a host of names floated as possible contenders (including state Senators Jack Latvala, Jeff Brandes, Tom Lee and Lizbeth Benacquisto, state Rep. Jim Boyd, former interim head of Citizens Property Insurance Tom Grady, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, former Speaker of the House Will Weatherford, and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera), Pat Neal, the Manatee County real estate developer and former state lawmaker, is being looked at by many as the top choice to succeed Jeff Atwater.

Atwater announced last month that he would step down as CFO to serve as Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Chief Financial Officer at Florida Atlantic University at the end of the Florida Legislature’s regular session in May.

Neal announced last June that he would not be a candidate for the CFO position in 2018, telling the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that he was “dispirited with what I see every morning having to do with the Trump campaign.”

He went on to tell reporter Zac Anderson that he viewed Trump as an incredibly “vulgar” candidate  who “is leading our party off a cliff.”

Neal later told the Times’ Adam Smith: “I, Pat Neal, have never had a bankruptcy, never had a bank default. When you sign a note of bonds, or sell stock with investors the right thing to do is pay them back. Not only did he lose money for people he borrowed from, but for a period there he lost money for his investors, particularly in the casino deals. That isn’t the way you do it, and I would not say he is a credit to the real estate industry.”

When asked to comment, a spokesperson for Scott simply sent the same statement that Scott said when Atwater announced he would be leaving the CFO spot last month.  It was filled with effusive praise for the Palm Beach County Republican, with Scott adding, “The role of the CFO is incredibly important to our state, and I will begin the process to appoint someone to serve Florida families.”

It should be noted that not everyone who has had critical words for Trump has been banned from working with him in his new administration.

Take Rick Perry, Bush’s Secretary of Energy.

On the campaign trail, the former Texas Governor called Trump a “cancer on conservatism,” before ultimately endorsing Trump for president calling the the New York City real estate magnate “one of the most talented people who has ever run for the president I have ever seen.”

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Tom Lee files bill to protect Florida seniors in retirement communities

Tom Lee announced Wednesday he filed the “Protecting Florida Seniors from Financial Fraud Act,” seeking to safeguard Floridians in Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs).

“Unfortunately, the conduct of a few bad actors, specifically the management of one CCRC in my community, has highlighted the need to increase oversight of these organizations,” the eastern Hillsborough County state senator said in a statement from his office. “Current statute does not adequately protect residents and employees against facility insolvency, loss of provider assets, and loss of resident investments. It’s essential to address these issues to ensure CCRCs can fulfill their obligations to one of the most vulnerable segments of our population.”

There are 71 licensed CCRCs in Florida serving more than 31,000 residents. The Office of Insurance Regulation (Office) is responsible for regulating a CCRC’s financial solvency, residency contracts, and the disclosures made to prospective residents.

“The decision to join a CCRC represents a substantial investment of assets, time and trust for a resident and their family. I applaud Senator Lee and Representative Stevenson’s sponsorship of this important legislation to further strengthen protections for these residents by increasing financial safeguards and fixing provisions under current law that act as a deterrent to regulatory oversight for those with bad intentions,” said Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier.

The legislation, sponsored by St. Augustine Republican Cyndi Stevenson in the House, requires CCRCs to retain reserves to protect residents and their families, increases the Office’s authority to prohibit hazardous practices and transactions, streamlines the acquisition process to reduce the burdens on applicants, and creates an “impairment” framework to allow for earlier intervention to prevent harm to Florida consumers and their investments.

“Recent events have brought to light weaknesses in the CCRC industry and its regulation,” said Representative Stevenson. “I am introducing this legislation to strengthen the industry and protect residents. I’ve worked closely with the Office of Insurance Regulation, the CFO, and Senator Lee to craft a bill that balances the interests of residents and the needs of the industry, and that provides new authority to protect the substantial investments made and the long-term promises exchanged. The bill streamlines regulation while enhancing protections where they matter most.”

Florida CFO Jeff Atwater says he supports the bill.

“So many seniors pour their life savings into the promise of one-stop care during their retirement years—care that CCRCs promise to them,” he said “It’s shameful to see a few bad players misuse and abuse that money and promise, stealing their life savings and leaving them without a viable, long-term alternative.”

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Bring on the orange juice: Denise Grimsley schedules breakfast fundraiser for March 7

It’s never too early in the day to start fundraising.

Sen. Denise Grimsley is scheduled to hold a fundraising reception for her 2018 bid for Agriculture Commissioner at 7:30 a.m. on March 7 at Florida Finance Strategies, 111-B East College Avenue in Tallahassee.

The reception, according to a copy of the invitation, is hosted by Sens. Aaron Bean, Dennis Baxley, Rob Bradley, Anitere Flores, George Gainer, Bill Galvano, Rene Garcia, Jack Latvala, Tom Lee, Debbie Mayfield, David Simmons, Wilton Simpson, Kelli Stargel, and Greg Steube.

The breakfast fundraiser comes just hours before the start of the 2017 Legislative Session.

A Sebring Republican, Grimsley was first elected to the House in 2004, before heading to the Senate in 2012.

She is currently a hospital administrator for Florida Hospital Wauchula and Lake Placid, and has served as vice president and chief operating officer of her family business, Grimsley Oil Company, as well as being involved in the citrus and ranching industry. She’s a member of the Peace River Valley and Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, and the Florida Cattlemen’s Association.

Grimsley filed to for the statewide office earlier this month, and has already lined up the backing of former state Sen. JD Alexander. And several Central Florida agriculture industry leaders appear to be lining up behind her, with many listed on an invitation for a fundraiser at Florida’s Natural Grove House in Lake Wales next week.

She isn’t the only member of the Legislature eyeing the agriculture post. Last week, Rep. Matt Caldwell told FloridaPolitics.com he intends to file to run for the seat later this summer.

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House Speaker: ‘Zero’ chance Bucs get state money for stadium

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers shouldn’t hold their breath for any state subsidy to renovate Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran told WTSP’s Noah Pransky in an interview there was “zero” chance his chamber will fund the pro football team’s $10 million subsidy request – and didn’t think the Senate would go along either.

The Bucs “applied under a statutory scheme put in place” that may be eliminated, he said. The team is the only professional team seeking money from the state this year.

Sen. Tom Lee, a Tampa Bay-area Republican, last month filed legislation to do away with a 2014 state program to provide revenue toward constructing or improving professional sports franchise facilities.

“The Sports Development Program was ill-conceived,” he said. “Professional teams are vying for taxpayer funds to pay for largely superficial facility upgrades, many of which are already in progress or completed. History has shown that team owners will make these investments without hardworking families having to foot the bill.”

Corcoran, an enemy of what he calls “corporate welfare,” agrees. This year, he’s looking to eliminate the public-private Enterprise Florida economic development organization and VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing agency.

“We shouldn’t be building stadiums or subsidizing billionaire owners of professional sports franchises,” he said. “It’s a multibillion-dollar industry. That’s just insane.”

The $10 million asked for Raymond James Stadium breaks down to $1 million a year for at least 10 years. And that’s just a fraction of the projected total costs for the renovations, pegged at a minimum of $120 million.

“We have an education system that needs improvement,” said Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican. “We have seniors who need a greater safety net. We have law enforcement and its needs. Those are the things we should be engaged in.

“Or just returning (money) back to taxpayers,” Corcoran added. “…Giving subsidies to billionaires and picking winners and losers is horrible public policy.”

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Senate bill would shake up state worker health insurance plans

Legislation filed in the Senate would let state employees decide between four levels of group health insurance coverage, so they could buy cheaper, stripped-down plans or pay for more comprehensive care.

“Our current plan offers limited choices and lacks the price transparency needed for employees and their families to make cost-effective health care purchases,” bill sponsor Tom Lee said in a written statement.

“This bill incorporates modern, innovative models for delivering high-quality health care at lower costs that will empower state employees to decide what benefits make the most sense for them,” the Thonotosassa Republican said.

SB 900 would allow state workers to choose between bronze, silver, gold, or platinum plans, depending on how many benefits they’d like to pay for.

If a plan costs less than the state’s share of a worker’s monthly premium, the worker could stash the extra money in a flexible savings or health savings account, or buy extra benefits — or take the extra money as a pay increase.

The measure would take effect in 2020.

“If an individual decides they don’t want or need the full coverage offered by the state’s traditional plan, why not give at least some of the cost back to them in another way — maybe in the form of increases in their health-savings accounts, maybe in the form of more take-home pay?” Lee said.

The State Group Health Insurance Plan covers more than 360,000 state employees through either preferred-provider organizations or HMOs. Workers pay $50 per month for individual coverage and $180 for families.

A little more than 1 percent choose in another option — a high-deductible, low-premium plan.

The Department of Management Services would submit recommended premiums to the Legislative Budget Commission for approval.

The bill would create a price transparency program to educate employees about their choices — including quality and price information for services and providers.

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FMA agenda: Florida’s doctors want insurance companies to get out of their way

The Florida Medical Association released its legislative priorities for 2017; removing interference by insurance companies in doctor’s decisions about patient care is prominent on the list.

“The FMA believes in promoting the highest standards of medical care, maintaining choice for patients in a free-market health care system, and preserving the sacred relationship between patients and their physicians,” the document says.

“The best way to achieve these objectives is by advocating for public policy that establishes fair and transparent insurance markets, reduces onerous red tape, and eliminates bureaucratic hassles that impede care and harm patients.”

First, the priority is a direct primary care system, described as “an alternative to the traditional fee-for-service model in which patients are charged a simple, affordable flat monthly fee for comprehensive coverage of all primary care services.”

The idea is to prevent chronic illnesses and reduce administrative expenses. Primary care doctors prefer this system because it lets them spend more time with patients and provides better care for less money, the document says.

It is the only objective for which the FMA mentions formal legislation — HB 161, by Republican Danny Burgess, and the companion SB 240, by Republican Tom Lee.

The bills would authorize such arrangements, specifying that they do not constitute insurance policies subject to oversight by the Office of Insurance Regulation.

Second, the FMA supports allowing doctors to override “fail first” policies by which, it says, insurers decide which drugs doctors should try first.

“This causes delays in care that can lead to unnecessary hospitalizations and sometimes devastating consequences for patients,” the FMA says.

“Florida needs legislation that allows physicians and patients to override step therapy protocols when deemed medically necessary and in patients’ best interests.”

Next is legislation to standardize the system for obtaining insurers’ authorization before doctors can prescribe medication, refer patients to specialists, and order testing or other treatments.

The document says doctors spend two hours on paperwork, such as obtaining these approvals, for every hour spent with patients.

The FMA wants legislation to require insurance companies to broaden their networks of approved doctors and hospitals, to give patients more choice, and to expand the availability of out-of-network care.

The organization decried “bait and switch” tactics, “whereby health plans publish inaccurate information about their provider networks in order to attract premium dollars.”

The FMA seeks to ban insurers from retroactively denying payment for services they previously approved. Doctors, the organization says, are “plagued” by underpayment, lack of payment, and retroactive denials by insurance companies.

Another priority is legislation similar to that passed in other states limiting doctor certification requirements to standard continuing education after initial board certification.

 

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Senate committee passes Florida Building Code reform

By unanimous vote, the Senate Community Affairs Committee passed a bill Tuesday that would change the way the state makes changes to the Florida Building Code.

Every three years the Florida Building Commission votes on whether to automatically accept the entire international building code, or amend it with certain provisions of the international code.

LobbyTools reports that if passed, SB 7000 would require the commission to use the most recent published edition of the Florida Building Code as the foundation, and mandate the committee to review, rather than update, the Code every three years. The measure would also delete the provision specifying how long amendments or modifications to the foundation code would remain valid.

The bill would also carry forward any changes to the state building code through the time the next edition is published.

Committee chair Tom Lee believes that using the Florida Code as a base instead of the international code would avoid any interruption in the building industry, due to frequent code changes.

Amending the building code update process would take care of the “tremendous amount of disruption associated with these building code updates, many of the provisions of which are fairly ‘de minimis’ at this point,” Lee said at the meeting.

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Bill Galvano’s higher-ed reform bills sail through Senate committee

Two bills that would increase Bright Future scholarship benefits and rework how colleges and universities measure progress and deal with top professors sailed through the Florida Senate Education Committee Monday.

Senate Bills 2 and 4, both introduced by Sen. Bill Galvano, drew some concerns about how they might affect nontraditional and working students but little opposition, as Galvano assured committee members, he shared and would be addressing those concerns.

“The thrust of this bill is not to somehow put additional pressure on a student, or mess with the opportunities they have by putting additional requirements on what the students achieve,” Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, said of SB 2, which took up the bulk of the committee’s discussion and drew the most concern. “The thrust of this bill is to make sure the institutions that they attend are achieving the highest levels of excellence. and within the definition of excellence is the ability to attend and achieve regardless of your financial background.”

That bill would do several things, most notably:

— Re-establish the Bright Futures Academic Scholars Awards to a level that would pay 100 percent of tuition and certain fees;

— Expand eligibility to the Benacquisto Scholarship Program for eligible out-of-state students;

— Double the state match to the First Generation (in college) Matching Grant Program to two dollars for every dollar the student pays;

— Strengthen the program that has two-year state colleges sign automatic matriculation programs with four-year universities; and,

— Modify the state accountability metrics and standards to reward universities for getting more students to graduate in four years.

That latter point was the only one drawing much concern. Galvano’s overall intention was to encourage students to not waste time in graduating, which could run up additional student debts and cost additional money. And no one on the committee seemed to have a problem with that.

But several public speakers and committee members, notably Democrats Gary Farmer and Perry Thurston Jr. and Republican Tom Lee, raised concerns about unintended consequences of pressuring the schools — with funding formulas — to push for four-year graduations. That, they argued, could lead the schools to start reducing opportunities to nontraditional students, many of whom are lower-income, and can only attend while working at the same time, or must take semesters or years off to earn money.

“It’s a pipe dream that they could ever finish college in four years,” said Lee, of Brandon.

Thurston, of Fort Lauderdale, cautioned that some schools such as Florida A&M University specialize in such nontraditional students, and those schools could be hurt for doing so.

Galvano assured he would work with them to prevent those concerns from playing out.

Farmer, of Fort Lauderdale, said he appreciated and accepted Galvano’s intentions.

“There are so many great things in this bill I will be ultimately voting for this bill today,” Farmer said. “I share the goal of making our university system a great university system …. We’re tired of hearing people talking about North Carolina or Virginia or Michigan, and Florida should be mentioned right up there with them, and Florida State.”

The companion measure, SB 4, would create a program for universities to identify, hire and retain star faculty members, and establishes programs to improve quality and prominence of graduate programs including those for medicine, law and business. It drew little discussion before being approved.

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