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Politics / Issues

Weekly Roundup: LIP, the KKK and Tax-Free Guns

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Florida has a reputation for weird news; one need only peruse the @_FloridaMan Twitter account's timeline or do a web search for "FanGate" to see how the state provides seemingly endless entertainment for the residents of the rest of the nation.

But even for the bouquet of bizarre that is Sunshine State politics, this week was exceptionally strange.

Federal and state officials no longer simply disagree on what to do about the potential expiration of $2.2 billion in health care funding; they disagree on whether they're trying to reach agreement. And the strangest story of the week had no humor to it at all, as the Department of Corrections faced reports of a murder plot that included the involvement of members of the Ku Klux Klan.

All the while, cultural scuffles broke out on a range of issues, from abortions to whether --- in an only-in-Florida twist --- guns and ammunitions should be part of a July 4 sales-tax holiday.

As the legislative session passed the halfway point, there were plenty of remaining questions. But one of them is how much stranger Florida politics can get.

PAYING LIP SERVICE TO NEGOTIATIONS?

From the beginning, discussions about the state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 have been clouded by the uncertain prospects of $2.2 billion in funding for the Low Income Pool, or LIP, program. The LIP program, which is currently set to expire June 30, funnels additional money to hospitals and other health providers that serve large numbers of poor and uninsured patients.

As lawmakers worked on their versions of the budget, the state Agency for Health Care Administration negotiated with the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to try to strike a deal to allow some presumably revamped version of the program to continue. The federal government plays a major role in funding the program.

The Senate decided to get an in-person update from federal officials this week. Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairman Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Senate President Pro Tempore Garrett Richter, R-Naples, spent Tuesday in Washington meeting with Obama administration officials.

That same day, according to Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Liz Dudek, the talks took an unexpected hiatus. Federal officials told the state that CMS's top negotiator would not be available for at least two weeks and the discussions were off in the meantime, Dudek said.

Not so, said CMS, which sounded bewildered by the notion that the talks were off.

"CMS remains in contact with state officials and continues to share information," said Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the agency, in a statement sent to reporters Thursday. "Senior officials from CMS will continue conversations with state officials about our shared goal of securing access to high quality health care coverage for low income Floridians."

Dudek issued a statement late Thursday standing by the state's version of events.

"After months of discussions we found out that negotiators would not be available to continue to further discuss the LIP program. At this time, no date has been set for a future meeting," she said.

The back-and-forth overshadowed the House and Senate both approving their respective versions of the budgets this week and increased doubts that lawmakers could get their work done before the scheduled May 1 conclusion of the regular session.

UNWELCOME ECHOES OF THE PAST

The Florida Department of Corrections already had plenty of problems without the ghosts of the state's past haunting efforts to reform the agency. But history is always hard to shake in the South, and a particularly ugly feature of Florida's past re-emerged Thursday, when two Florida prison guards and a former prison worker who are members of the KKK were arrested for allegedly plotting to kill a black ex-inmate in retaliation for a fight.

Thomas Jordan Driver and David Elliott Moran, who worked at the Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler, and Charles Thomas Newcomb, an "Exalted Cyclops " of the group called the "Traditional American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan," each were charged with conspiracy to commit murder for allegedly planning to kill the former inmate by injecting him with insulin and making it appear as though he had drowned while fishing.

The men allegedly targeted the unidentified former inmate because he had been in a fight with Driver last year, before the prisoner was released.

The arrests were the result of a joint probe by Attorney General Pam Bondi's Office of Statewide Prosecution and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Moran, 47, and Driver, 25, worked at the prison about 25 miles north of Gainesville. Newcomb worked briefly at the same facility for three months but was dismissed in January 2013 for failing a certification exam. Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones fired Moran and Driver after their arrests Thursday.

When asked during a conference call with reporters if the arrests indicate that racism "is alive and well in Florida," Bondi replied in the affirmative.

"Oh, it is. It is. And we will never tolerate, or ever remain silent, over the violence of hate embedded in prejudice in our state or in this country," she said.

The arrests are the latest troubles for the beleaguered corrections agency, which has been under scrutiny for months amid reports about inmate deaths at the hands of prison guards, widespread corruption and accusations of retaliation against whistleblowers.

Just a day earlier, the Senate overwhelmingly supported a prison-reform package that would include a commission to oversee the department.

The legislation (SB 7020) would make it easier for inmates to file complaints, create new penalties for rogue guards who abuse prisoners and establish the governor-appointed commission to oversee prisons and investigate wrongdoing. The measure, approved by a 36-1 vote, would also allow inmates' families or lawyers to pay for independent medical evaluations and expand opportunities for old or sick inmates to get out of prison early.

But House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and other GOP House leaders have repeatedly rejected the oversight commission, objecting that the effort would create another "layer of bureaucracy." Critics of the commission also say that a previous iteration of the oversight panel did not work.

CULTURE WARS

As states like Indiana and Arkansas reeled from battles over proposed "religious liberty" laws decried by critics for alleged anti-gay bias, Florida lawmakers found themselves in cultural skirmishes that were less potent but still divisive.

The closest to the fights in other states was a proposal approved by the House Judiciary Committee that would allow private adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples.

The committee passed the measure (HB 7111) by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, providing what it calls "conscience protection" for private agencies whose "religious or moral convictions" do not permit the children in their care to be adopted by gays or lesbians.

"What we are saying in this bill, very narrowly crafted for the handful of private adoption agencies that have a written moral or religious exemption, is that they cannot have that be a basis for damages or for retribution," Brodeur said.

The bill passed 12-3 on a party-line vote. But opponents warned that if it became law, Florida could suffer the same sort of economic boycott now aimed at Indiana.

"This bill is even worse than Indiana's," said Carlos Guillermo Smith of the pro-gay advocacy group Equality Florida. "This threatens Florida's tourism-based economy."

Meanwhile, the House Health & Human Services Committee approved a bill (HB 633) that would require women to wait 24 hours before having abortions in Florida. The sponsor, Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, said the plan would "empower" women by giving them more time to reflect before making such momentous decisions.

But Dian Alarcon of Miami told lawmakers that because she'd had no access to a legal abortion, she'd had an illegal procedure --- with no medical care.

"By supporting this bill, what you're doing is making women like me and women in the community go out and seek illegal and unsafe abortions," Alarcon said. "I think the most important thing we can do for our children is to educate them and to give them the tools to make decisions about their bodies and their lives."

And the House Finance & Tax Committee chose to keep guns and ammunition in a proposed Independence Day sales-tax holiday on hunting gear that is part of a wide-ranging, $690 million tax-cut package (PCB FTC 15-05).

The panel rejected efforts by Democrats to remove firearms and ammo from the sales-tax holiday for July 4. Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said the proposal sends mixed messages, as law enforcement will be telling people at the same time not to fire guns into the air.

"It's not an exaggeration to say that it really is a bad policy when we have law enforcement expending resources to address a public safety issue and in our tax code we have the exact opposite incentive and we're encouraging people to purchase ammunition for the holiday," Rodriguez said.

Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, said the proposal could help increase tourism by promoting hunting and fishing in the state. In addition to rifles, shotguns, spearguns, crossbows and bows, the July 4 sales-tax event would cover camping tents and fishing gear.

"While I understand my Democratic colleagues don't like firearms and ammunition, the reality is that fish hooks also kill fish," Artiles told Rodriguez. "But apparently fish are not important to you."

STORY OF THE WEEK: With the state and federal government arguing about whether negotiations continue for $2.2 billion in health-care funding, the House and Senate approved their versions of the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "We're walking hand-in-hand with 800,000 souls to the altar of fringe politics."---Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, on the House's refusal to accept a Senate alternative to Medicaid expansion.