Today's Top Story

FPL gets OK to charge customers for gas-drilling venture posted on 12/19/14

by susan salisbury | palm beach post

FL Public Service CommissionAfter adding a couple of extra accounting safeguards, Florida regulators today gave the OK to Florida Power & Light Co.’s request to charge customers $191 million to drill for natural gas from shale in southeastern Oklahoma.

The Florida Public Service Commission approved the proposal FPL says would save customers $51.9 million over three decades because the gas would be obtained at the cost of production rather than on the open market. That boils down to net...

Breaking News

  • Scott, state workers still at odds over drug testing posted on 12/18/14

    by News Service of Florida

    TALLAHASSEE — After racking up more than $650,000 in legal fees, Florida Gov. Rick Scott is refusing to back down from his drug-testing crusade, most recently objecting to an attempt to close a drawn-out legal battle over requiring state workers to submit to urinalysis.

    Scott, who campaigned on the issue of drug-testing welfare recipients in his first run for governor in 2010, has lost nearly every courtroom attempt to require drug screenings for state workers and applicants for the welfare program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. The governor asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on his employee drug-testing policy, but the court turned him down in April.

    The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Scott could not constitutionally justify drug testing for all types of state employees without a reason, though it said testing could occur for some workers such as those in “safety-sensitive” positions.

    A federal judge in Miami forced Scott and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which represents a state workers’ union, to hash out which jobs should be taken off the table. U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro appointed a special master to oversee negotiations between Scott and the ACLU. The talks dragged on for months, and special master Louis Brown’s tab is more than $100,000 so far, with the state paying $70,000 and the ACLU responsible for the rest.

    Now, the ACLU wants to amend its lawsuit by limiting the legal challenge to the job classes on which the governor has already relented. In its request, the ACLU argued that the workers are entitled to a final decision guaranteeing that they are not subject to suspicion-less drug testing.

    “At this point, the governor cannot escape the conclusions of law in the prior appeal --- namely that ‘[s]urrendering to drug testing in order to remain eligible for a government benefit such as employment … is not the type of consent that automatically renders a search reasonable as a matter of law … and that the governor’s ‘generic’ interests in a ‘safe and efficient workplace’ do not constitute a special need because they would otherwise eviscerate the Fourth Amendment’s individualized suspicion requirement,” ACLU lawyer Shalini Goel Agarwal wrote in the amended complaint filed late last month.

    » Read more

  • Florida’s jails have become ‘the asylums of the new millennium’ posted on 12/18/14

    by Jeff Kunerth | Orlando Sentinel

    The most dangerous time of day on the Fifth Floor is 6 a.m.Long before nurses make their daily rounds dispensing meds to those suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, staffers like Greg Dawkins must check to see if anyone has died during the night.They knock on doors, call the person’s name.If there’s no response, they enter.

    “I’m waking them up early in their rooms and I’m inside their space,” said Dawkins, who worked the Fifth Floor for years. “I have to be alert and watch them very carefully. When you tap a person to wake them up, they wake up fighting.”

    Dawkins works at the largest mental health institution in five Central Florida counties: the Orange County Jail.

    In Florida, jails and prisons have replaced mental hospitals. They are “the asylums of the new millennium,” according to the Florida Supreme Court.

    And every year, they house and treat more and more people like James Coleman.

    “I hear these voices. When I want to kill, I want to kill a lot of people because some people just need it,” said Coleman, 55, a homeless man who says he suffers from schizophrenia.

    “I’m angry all the time.”

    » Read more

  • FPL defends fracking plan before state regulators meet posted on 12/18/14

    by JAMES L. ROSICA | Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau

    TALLAHASSEE — With the state’s utility regulators meeting Thursday to consider Florida Power & Light Co.’s request to charge customers for the costs of exploratory fracking, the utility is pushing back against what it calls misleading claims.

    Sam Forrest, FPL’s vice president for energy marketing and trading, says characterizing their proposal as an attempt to shift costs and risk to customers “is simply false.”

    “No costs are shifting, and our innovative proposal is designed to reduce financial risk for our customers,” Forrest said in a written statement this week. In fact, he added, FPL ratepayers will save money in the long run if the project is successful.

    “By investing at the source, our customers will benefit from low, stable production costs so we can reduce the amount our customers have to pay fuel suppliers at fluctuating market prices,” he said.

    “The $191 million investment we proposed to the Public Service Commission is projected to produce savings for our customers of over $100 million above and beyond the cost of the original investment.”

    The utility is seeking permission to build the cost of exploratory fracking in Oklahoma into the rate that customers pay. The project will be a joint venture with PetroQuest Energy, headquartered in Louisiana.

    The Public Service Commission, which regulates the state’s investor-owned utilities, will discuss the proposal Thursday and is expected to make a decision.

    Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, involves drilling deep underground and shooting fluid at high pressures to break up shale rock, releasing gas or oil that is trapped inside.

    Forrest also took to task the nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which has criticized the FPL proposal.

    He said the group’s claims were “wildly disingenuous” and its objections “politically and financially motivated.”

    » Read more

  • Gardiner says first Senate bill will be greyhound injury reporting posted on 12/18/14

    by Mary Ellen Klas | Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

    Senate President Andy Gardiner said Wednesday he will revive the bill (SB 2) to require the greyhound racing industry to report animal injuries and have the measure sent to the House during the first week of the 2015 session.

    “It’ll be named after Mrs. Gaetz,’’ he said, referring to Vicky Gaetz, the wife of former Senate President Don Gaetz who is an animal lover and worked to help persuade lawmakers to pass the bill last year.

    The bill died in the final week of the 2014 legislative session after it became entangled in pari-mutuel industry politics.

    Unlike other states, Florida’s greyhound industry does not have to report when dogs are injured as a result of racing or training. The bill, SB 2, was filed Tuesday by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood. It imposes fines on track veterinarians who fail to report race-related injuries and follows a similar bill passed in 2013 that requires tracks to report greyhound deaths. In the first 9 months of 2013, 74 greyhound deaths were reported – more than one every three days.

    “I sort of think the bill, whether it was timing or anything else, should have been resolved last year,’’ said Gardiner, R-Orlando, speaking to reporters in his Tallahassee office. The measure got caught in a late-session fight after the House and Senate abandoned attempts to update the state’s gambling laws. The Senate had pushed a plan to end the requirement that dog tracks race greyhounds in order to keep their gaming permits but it died amid fierce opposition from the powerful greyhound track owners.

    » Read more

  • Health care secretary Liz Dudek says she’d like to “ride out” Rick Scott’s second term posted on 12/18/14

    by Christine Jordan Sexton | SaintPetersblog

    Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Elizabeth “Liz” Dudek just finished implementing a statewide mandatory managed care program for the fifth largest Medicaid program in the nation.

    What does she plan to do now?

    Dudek rattles off an ambitious “to do” list s that she said she’d like to accomplish in the next four years as she hopes to “ride out” Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s second term in office as agency secretary.

    “After that,” Dudek says, “There are probably some other people who should be at the helm.”

    In a year-end interview with Saintpetersblog in her Tallahassee office on Monday Dudek said that she’d like to make health care budgeting a little more “cut and dry” by implementing a DRG–or diagnostic related group–reimbursement system for health care services paid for by Medicaid.

    Dudek said DRGs could be implemented for hospital outpatient services, nursing home care as well as reimbursement for intermediate care facilities for the developmentally disabled.

    Currently Medicaid reimburses for these services using a cost-based per diem system, meaning facilities receive payments based on how much it cost them to treat the patient while in the hospital. Under DRGs, providers are paid a fixed amount based on a patient’s diagnosis. If care can be provided for less than the DRG, then it makes money. If treatment exceeds the DRG, the facilitiy loses money.

    DRGs are currently used for hospital inpatient services.

    Other things on Dudek’s to-do list include simplifying online licensing in the Division of Health Quality Assurance which regulates 45,000 health care facilities throughout the state and retooling the agency so staff to reflect the changes in the Medicaid program which has been set up to pay and monitor a fee for service delivery system, not a managed care system.

    » Read more

  • FL Senate Could Reconsider Expansion posted on 12/18/14

    by MARGIE MENZEL | News Service of Florida

    Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner is leaving open the possibility that his chamber will consider an expansion of health care coverage for low-income Floridians.

    “Intriguing" was the word Gardiner used on Wednesday for a plan from business and hospital leaders that would accept billions of dollars under the federal Affordable Care Act and provide coverage through private insurers. The plan, called "A Healthy Florida Works," was introduced last week.

    Gardiner said while the Florida Legislature hasn't been willing to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, the new plan might be more palatable.

    “Without that complete flexibility from the federal government, it really ties your hands and your ability to negotiate something," he said. "But, certainly we are open for whatever the dialogues may be that the members want to do.”

    Some elements of the proposal, which would need both state and federal approval, are similar to a plan pushed by Senate Republican leaders in 2013.

    It would target the 800,000 to 1 million Florida residents who otherwise would be part of a Medicaid expansion.

    » Read more

  • SpaceX launch postponed again; it's too sunny up there posted on 12/18/14

    by Scott Powers | Orlando Sentinel

    Concerns over the International Space Station's angles and exposure to sunlight during late December and early January have led SpaceX to again postpone the launch of their Dragon capsule to resupply the station. Next target date is Jan. 6, 2015.

    The Dragon was supposed to go up Friday afternoon atop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.

    It's the third time the launch date has been reset.

    And this would be the first commercial resupply of the space station since a competing company's resupply capsule was lost in an explosion Oct. 28, when the Orbital Sciences had its Antares rocket explode on launch at NASA’s Wallops Island, Va., launch complex.

    The last successful commercial resupply mission of the space station occurred with SpaceX's previous launch, in September, though some supplies were carried to the station on a Russian Soyuz in November.

    » Read more

  • Bill To Close Presidential Searches Refiled For 2015 Legislative Session posted on 12/17/14

    by jim ash | WFSU

    Most of the recruiting for university presidents would be done behind closed doors if a Central Florida lawmaker has his way.

    The move to bring presidential searches at public colleges and universities behind closed doors comes a few months after the naming of Florida State University President John Thrasher raised a storm of protest.

    Supporters say Florida’s aggressive public records laws scare away applicants who don’t want their bosses to know they’re looking elsewhere. But open government advocates argue that it hasn’t been a problem with previous searches.

    “To say that we’re not getting the best and the brightest seems to me to fly in the face of those who people who have stepped forward and have been elected, or selected,” said the First Amendment Foundation’s Barbara Petersen.

    The bill, sponsored by Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, would keep the names, credentials and salaries of most candidates secret. The public wouldn’t know the final candidates until 10 days before the winner is named. The bill also applies to university provosts and deans.

    » Read more

  • Clerks association warns against issuing gay marriage licenses posted on 12/17/14

    by JAMES L. ROSICA | Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau

    TALLAHASSEE — Lawyers for Florida’s 67 clerks of court are warning that those who issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples will be “subject to criminal penalties,” including arrest and imprisonment.

    The Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers on Tuesday released the revised legal opinion from its attorneys.

    Some clerks had been preparing for same-sex unions after a federal judge in Tallahassee declared the state’s ban on those marriages unconstitutional.

    Hillsborough County Clerk of Court Pat Frank was not available for comment Tuesday afternoon. Frank has said she was willing to marry same-sex couples in a mass ceremony in a park across from the courthouse.

    Pinellas County Clerk of Court Ken Burke said he too was ready to marry same-sex couples but will follow the lawyers’ advice.

    “We’re just looking for direction,” he said, “but I think it’s inevitable something will change.”

    U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ordered a delay of the effect of his ruling until Jan. 5 to allow time for appeals, and requests to extend that delay have so far been denied.

    But a memo from Greenberg Traurig, the association’s general counsel, says Hinkle’s ruling does not apply statewide because it wasn’t confirmed by a “binding appellate ruling.”

    The memo also refers to state law saying clerks cannot issue marriage licenses “unless one party is a male and the other party is a female.”

    A violation is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

    Clerks cannot “interpret the law or act without a full understanding of what the law does and does not allow,” said Kenneth A. Kent, the association’s executive director.

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