Weekly roundup: Grappling with the unexpected
网上体育投注官网Expanding school vouchers. Merging universities. Cracking down on hiring undocumented immigrants.
As the 2020 legislative session enters its home stretch, bills on those and dozens of other issues moved forward this week in committee rooms across the Capitol.
网上体育投注官网But lawmakers, Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state leaders also were grappling with two big issues that have seemingly caught everybody off guard since the session started in mid-January: the coronavirus and a financial scandal at the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The focus on those issues was evident Thursday as DeSantis held a news conference to give assurances that the state is doing everything it can to keep the coronavirus at bay and signed a quickly passed bill that ended a contract the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence had with the Department of Children and Families.
Lawmakers have been stunned as they have delved into the finances of the nonprofit coalition — and particularly into compensation paid to former coalition Chief Executive Officer Tiffany Carr.
DeSantis issued a statement Thursday as he signed the bill (HB 1087) and pretty much summed up the feelings of many lawmakers about the coalition.
网上体育投注官网“Today’s bill signing is not a celebratory occasion, as it is the result of a deliberate abuse of state dollars, an inexcusable lack of transparency and a calculated breach of public trust,” DeSantis said.
Assurances but not answers
Flanked by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez and state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, DeSantis went before reporters and cameras Thursday to give assurances about the state’s efforts to address the coronavirus.
After starting in China, the virus, or COVID-19, has spread across the globe, causing more than 2,800 deaths and sending stock markets spiraling downward.
网上体育投注官网The good news for Florida: At least as of Thursday, the state did not have any confirmed cases of the virus, DeSantis stressed during the news conference. Also, Rivkees gave some insight into how the state would respond if cases occur.
网上体育投注官网“If there are individual cases or linked cases, our strategy will be to make sure these individuals first have the medical care they need. And that they are isolated so they cannot transmit this virus to others,” Rivkees, who also is secretary of the Florida Department of Health, said. “However, if there are multiple other unlinked cases where there appears to be widespread COVID-19, community-based strategies will be implemented, and this will involve avoiding group activities and group meetings.”
But the DeSantis administration also faced questions from reporters and criticism from Democrats about not providing information on how many Floridians have been tested for the highly contagious virus.
网上体育投注官网“Treating this as other jurisdictions have, where they don’t share information, they try to manage it internally and try to put on a face that everything is fine, that doesn’t shore up confidence,” Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D- Miami, said.
DeSantis said that he was open to disclosing the testing information to the public but that Rivkees had advised him not to do so.
“I actually wanted to give all the numbers, but they pointed me to the regulation of the statute,” DeSantis said, referring to a patient confidentiality statute.
网上体育投注官网Until Thursday, the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence managed tens of millions of dollars a year in state and federal funds for 42 domestic violence centers, which provide children and victims with services that include emergency shelter, education and counseling.
网上体育投注官网But that came crashing down after the House began probing how Carr received more than $7 million over a three-year period. After DeSantis signed the bill to end the state’s sole-source contract with the coalition, the Department of Children and Families will manage the money for the domestic-violence centers.
Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican who presented the bill in the Senate, said Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell told him the agency is prepared to offer “uninterrupted aid” to all victims.
网上体育投注官网“DCF is fully prepared and assuming the role of the provider,” Bean said.
Much of the attention this week focused on two days of hearings held by the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee, which took testimony from coalition executives and board members. Part of the focus was on millions of dollars in paid time off that Carr received in addition to her salary and benefits, according to financial records obtained by the House.
Committee Chairman Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, told reporters after a four-hearing Thursday that it was “certainly coincidental” that Carr increased the compensation of the nonprofit's executives as her own compensation package was boosted.
“It appears to me that the employees, along with Ms. Carr, worked collectively to cheat the system to make it so they could bonus themselves up with Ms. Carr,” Leek said.
Coalition Chief Financial Officer Patricia Duarte and Chief Operating Officer Sandy Barnett testified during Thursday’s hearing about the financial arrangements. Both women admitted Carr’s multi-million-dollar cash-out of paid time off was “excessive.”
网上体育投注官网“I wouldn’t say unethical, but wrong? I would say it could be viewed as excessive,” Duarte told the committee, when pressed about the issue.
Earlier in the week, House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, described the situation differently after coalition board members testified.
“I was aghast,” Oliva said, referring to the board members’ testimony. “It was disturbing. Scandalous. I don’t know what other word I can use to fully express what I thought of that.”
网上体育投注官网STORY OF THE WEEK: Lawmakers probed the finances of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, while stripping the coalition’s contract to manage state and federal funds for domestic-violence centers across the state.
网上体育投注官网QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “These universities became universities because of decisions this Legislature made. They didn’t happen on their own. A stork didn’t fly over the state and drop a basket. We’re the only ones who can merge them. That is our job.” — House sponsor Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, on a controversial bill that would merge Florida Polytechnic University and New College of Florida into the University of Florida.
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