This week in Florida Politics: Cleaning Up and Helping Out the Bahamas

By ANA CEBALLOS NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

Lazaretto Creek boat ramp near Tybee Island, Ga.

Lazaretto Creek boat ramp near Tybee Island, Ga.

Days after deadly Hurricane Dorian decimated parts of the Bahamas, the slow-moving storm’s destructive winds and torrential rains continued to wreak havoc in the Carolinas.

But Florida was spared a direct hit by Dorian, prompting state officials at week’s end to shift their focus from storm preparation to recovery efforts for the Sunshine State’s damaged coastline, while offering assistance to neighboring regions that were less fortunate.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state is prepared to provide aid to South Carolina and North Carolina, which were lashed by Dorian on Friday. DeSantis also said he expects the federal government may call on the Florida National Guard to assist in the Bahamas, a request that would be honored.

As for Florida’s own recovery efforts, the governor said he has spoken to President Donald Trump and asked him to approve federal reimbursements for the state and 24 counties to help cover costs of Hurricane Dorian preparation, shelters and evacuation measures.

The reimbursements could approach $200 million, DeSantis said. 

“I think if the idea that because the storm moved one way, that somehow (local governments) are going to be left holding that entire bag, that sends the wrong message to folks, well, maybe skim on that next time,” the governor said.

The state will also have to deal with early projections of Florida suffering “tens of millions of dollars” in beachfront damages, he said.

“A lot of beach damage. We obviously are still going to be getting some information on that,” the governor said. 

DeSantis, whose schedule Friday included an aerial tour of the Bahamas with the U.S. Coast Guard, advised people who have travel plans to the tourist-dependent Bahamas to check with their destinations because Dorian didn’t fully devastate all of the 700-plus islands and cays.

“They have many islands in the Bahamas. Some were decimated, others were not,” DeSantis said. “Canceling those plans doesn’t help them with their recovery.”

COST OF BANNING WEAPONS

If Floridians approve a constitutional amendment next year to block possession of assault weapons in the state, the state budget could take a $26.9 million hit in lost revenue, a panel of state economists estimated this week.

The amount would likely be smaller because revenue lost in taxes from gun sales would be balanced out with other purchases that can be taxed, according to Amy Baker, head of the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research. 

The overall effect is predicted to have a “minimal” impact on the state’s roughly $90 billion budget, Baker said, as the economists tried to figure out the financial impact of the proposed amendment.

Another cost associated with carrying out the ballot proposal, backed by the political committee Ban Assault Weapons NOW, would be the creation of an assault weapon registry.

“When you are talking about a gun registry, you are talking about potentially millions of guns,” said Ron Draa, Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s director of external affairs.

Under the ballot measure, people would be allowed to possess assault weapons if they own guns at the time the measure takes effect. To keep the weapons, they would need to register their guns with the state.

Draa estimated it would cost $4 million to build a registry and about $3 million every year to maintain the system. He also told economists the Legislature would need to take into consideration other costs such as doing background checks on those who register with the state.

“If the gun is going to be registered with us, it is probably a liability for us to have a registry with people who should not be possessing a firearm,” Draa said.

SCHOLARSHIP WOES

Florida’s largest K-12 scholarship funding organization put at risk assistance to more than 500 students with special needs ahead of the 2018-2019 school year because staff members made a “processing error” involving enrollment documentation, a Florida auditor general report found.

The audit said special-needs students who were eligible for awards under the Gardiner Scholarship Program saw a delay in funding due to the error by the organization Step Up for Students. The error affected 583 students before it was fixed.

Other issues flagged by auditors involved the non-profit organization’s failure to properly check applicants’ household-income eligibility for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides voucher-like scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools.

“During the eligibility determination process, there is an increased risk that scholarships will be awarded to ineligible recipients or for incorrect amounts,” state auditors warned, adding that the Florida Department of Education’s input “should be solicited” to fix the matter.

Step Up for Students is an organization with deep political connections in Tallahassee. It administers a series of voucher-like programs for the state, including the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, which lawmakers created this year.

The scholarship programs have long been controversial, as GOP leaders have sought to expand school choice. Teacher unions and many Democratic lawmakers have argued that the programs strip money from public schools.

“We’re not surprised the auditor general found that Step Up has misused funds,” said Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union. Ingram alleged the non-profit has “a history of these types of findings and of getting away with it.”

FEDS WANT THEIR MONEY BACK

Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital got hundreds of millions in Medicaid dollars that it shouldn’t have received between 2010 and 2014, auditors say, and now the federal government wants the money back.

The majority of the erroneous payments — $347.5 million — stem from claiming ineligible medical expenses for such things as providing non-emergency care to patients who did not legally reside in the United States and delivering outpatient care to prisoners.

The audit also found that the hospital did not offset Medicare and commercial insurance payments against costs for certain patients.

 Mary Mayhew, secretary of the state Agency for Health Care Administration, issued a statement Wednesday that said the agency “adamantly” disagrees with the audit conclusions. The agency oversees most of the Medicaid program in Florida.

“The state’s primary and overarching concern is that the OIG has failed to properly review and interpret available data and relied on a fundamentally flawed methodology in calculating overpayments,” Mayhew said in a statement.

She added “there is no room for error and omissions when the claw back of federal funding would result in devastating consequences to one of the largest safety net hospitals in our state.”

Jackson Memorial is the largest teaching hospital in Florida and the only public hospital in Miami-Dade County. The 1,493-bed facility gets the largest share of the money because the health system helps fund the Low Income Pool.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Florida emergency management officials this week shifted their attention from storm preparation to recovery, after Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas and whiplashed Florida’s East Coast.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “This is a human rights issue. I’m happy to see that we are working for once together … I’m thankful that (Washington) D.C. is engaged in this.” — State Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, after Republican U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat, asked President Donald Trump to ease visa requirements for Bahamians.

SHARE
News Talk Florida Staff