Florida Gov’t Weekly Roundup: The Times, They Are A-Changing

September 25, 2016

As fall settles over Tallahassee — at least in terms of the season, not the weather — state government is also going through some changes.

There’s the actual, physical changes underway at the state Capitol, a construction project meant to repair parking garages and spruce up a main way that people enter the halls of government.

http://www.northescambia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/floridaweeklly.jpgThere are the personnel changes, as a longtime member of Gov. Rick Scott’s administration retires and another agency head gives way to someone Scott has wanted to bring into state government.

And there’s the other seasonal change that takes place every year, as state agencies ready their spending requests for Scott and the Legislature to consider. It marks the unofficial beginning of the process of haggling, bargaining and horse-trading that ends up with lawmakers approving a budget in the 11th hour of the spring legislative session — never before.

But just like the green leaves are still on the trees in Tallahassee, there are a few old storylines to dispose of before moving on. And one of them dealt with Attorney General Pam Bondi.


There’s been plenty of speculation in 2016 about whether and how support for presidential nominee Donald Trump might hurt Republicans. But most of that has been speculative. Bondi is one of the few GOP officials to actually see her reputation undermined in real time by her association with Trump.

And on Tuesday, just before the start of a Cabinet meeting, Bondi tried another round of damage control over assertions that a $25,000 political contribution from Trump influenced her office in 2013 to dismiss allegations that Floridians had been bilked by the modestly named Trump University.

In Bondi’s telling, only a single complaint had been filed by a Floridian against the Trump educational company between the time she took office in 2011 and the time of the donation. She also said she had no knowledge of the complaint at the time it was made and that a lower-level staff member found no justification to investigate.

“There was one complaint by one citizen against Donald Trump in 2011,” Bondi said. “I had absolutely no idea, nor would I have had an idea that there was one complaint.”

Bondi said she had no regret about the contribution, which was made from Trump’s charity foundation to a political committee known as “And Justice for All,” which helped in her successful 2014 re-election bid. She said her mistake had been in failing to personally address media questions about the contribution earlier.

“I hate that this is taking away from all the things we can be doing to help people,” Bondi said.

Despite Trump’s statements on the campaign trail that he has given contributions to other politicians to get favors, Bondi said there were no strings attached with the 2013 contribution to her re-election effort.

“I would never, ever trade any campaign donation for some type of favor to anyone,” Bondi said.


If he still has some spare money lying around, maybe Trump could help the state pay for emergency repairs to two underground parking decks at the Capitol and planned upgrades to a main entry plaza. The potential bill for those changes is a bit more than $25,000 — in fact, it’s 3,000 times as much, or $75 million.

Department of Management Services Secretary Chad Poppell, whose agency oversees the complex, said officials should have a better grasp on some of the costs in about a month when updated figures are available on the already-closed Senate garage.

“These projects are very complex, about half of the cost is just getting the building ready to work on,” Poppell said.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam had aesthetic and fiscal concerns with the project, describing the minimalistic renderings that Poppell’s office is using to showcase the project as “not particularly attractive” and asking about less-expensive options.

“Seventy-five million (dollars), and to only have to show for it two parking garages that are not collapsing on each other and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessibility, is extraordinary to me,” Putnam said.


It might be a bit much to say that Scott’s administration underwent a shake-up this week, but there were changes atop two of the agencies that provide services to vulnerable Floridians.

Liz Dudek, a longtime state health official who helped lead an overhaul of the Medicaid program, is retiring as secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, Scott announced Wednesday.

Dudek is one of the longest-serving officials remaining under a governor known for agency-head turnover. She has served as secretary since March 2011, shortly after Scott took office.

“Liz Dudek has been a part of my team since my first year in office and has spent over four decades serving Florida families,” Scott said in a prepared statement. “She cares deeply about making our state the best place for families. Under her leadership, we have worked to make hospitals more transparent and accomplished historic Medicaid reform.”

Dudek will be replaced on an interim basis by Deputy Secretary Justin Senior.

The announcement did not explain Dudek’s reasons for leaving the agency, which is primarily responsible for running the Medicaid program but also is involved in regulating hospitals, nursing homes and other health providers.

Meanwhile, after having sent his resume to seemingly every human-resources office in state government, Jeffrey Bragg got a government post: The insurance expert will head up the Department of Elder Affairs, which as the name implies oversees services for older Floridians.

Just hours after Dudek’s retirement was announced, Scott sent out another press release saying Bragg will serve as secretary of the Department of Elder Affairs. Bragg follows Sam Verghese, who began leading the department in December 2014 and will now “pursue opportunities in the private sector,” Scott’s office said.

In a statement announcing the appointment, Scott said Bragg’s experience would prepare him for the job at the department.

“He has over 40 years of experience in the public and private sectors, and is a proven leader who is uniquely qualified for this position,” Scott said. “His experience as well as his management skills will bring new ideas to the department. I am confident he will be a great advocate for the elderly in our state.”

The 67-year-old Palm Harbor resident, a former executive director of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Terrorism Risk Insurance Program and senior vice president at Zurich Risk Management in New Jersey, had already tried unsuccessfully for the job of state insurance commissioner and a spot on the Public Service Commission. Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater nixed Scott’s push for Bragg to be insurance commissioner, and a PSC nominating council did not forward Bragg’s name to Scott.


Even in tight budget years, like the one the state will face come July 1, it’s politically expedient for lawmakers to try to hold public education harmless or even spend a bit more on schools. The debate over what that means for 2017 began in earnest Friday, when the Florida Board of Education approved a request to plow another $721.6 million into the main formula for public education.

Nearly 70 percent of the new funding would come from local property taxpayers, who will see their bills climb along with their property values. But the money would allow the Legislature to spend $7,359.85 a student, an increase of almost 2.5 percent from the current budget year.

The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, highlighted a common caveat used whenever a new “record” is set on per-student spending: The previous high-water mark was set in 2007-08.

“Florida’s public schools and their students continue to make gains despite tepid financial support from the state,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the FEA. “When adjusted for inflation, this proposed budget still doesn’t equal what we were investing on our public schools a decade ago.”

The Department of Education is just one of several state agencies trying to complete legislative budget requests — wish lists that Scott and the Legislature use to construct the budget.

For example, state universities are asking for an additional $14.5 million to hire more mental-health professionals as they deal with a 48 percent increase in the number of students seeking counseling.

At least eight out of the 12 universities don’t meet staffing standards recommended by experts, because they have more than 1,500 students for each mental-health professional on campus. The inadequate staffing has led to waiting lists, fewer counseling sessions and the need to rely on off-campus services, which are not covered by student health fees.

“What we can’t do is see every student who walks in our door for psychotherapy,” said Carlos Gomez, a licensed psychologist and director of Florida State University’s counseling center. “We are referring in record numbers out into the community.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott’s office announced that Liz Dudek, who led the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration for more than five years, is retiring from her post.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I attended funerals with the governor. I went to the morgue. We can never let that happen again here in Florida.”—Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen, remembering the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting and explaining a proposal to set up seven anti-terrorism squads.

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida


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