Week in Review: All About The Breakfast Club
There were fewer fireworks than expected in passing the sweeping special session rail package, but the honeymoon for supporters was scrambled a bit this week by allegations that high-ranking state transportation officials used a breakfast-theme code for E-mails about the bill.
Responding to newspaper reports that Department of Transportation officials titled E-mails about the legislation that lawmakers approved during the special session with words like “pancake” and “French toast,” Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos and her deputies should be the ones pancaked for violating the spirit of the state's Sunshine laws.
The E-mail breakfast club, a story rail opponents quickly christened “WaffleGate,” can be traced back prior to the start of the special session when Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, filed a public records request for E-mails about the rail bill. Asking for messages sent between March and mid-November, she was given 121 responses. Dockery, herself a Republican gubernatorial candidate, questioned the low number of results, which transportation officials attributed to a data entry error.
After the rail bill passed over Dockery's objection during the special session, her office was given more than 8,000 E-mails, some of which contained just attachments and had subjects such as "pancakes" and "French toast," which seemed to reveal a coding system that had opponents not liking their green eggs and ham.
Chief among the critics whose anger boiled over this week was Dockery, who said Gov. Charlie Crist should delay signing the rail bill or veto it altogether. But the governor, who vocally supported the rail plan, didn’t waffle.
Instead, he signed the bill in Tallahassee - and signed it again in Tampa, Orlando and a final time in Fort Lauderdale, making more stops on his tour than will be made by the trains the plan will allow.
Crist said he was signing the rail bill quickly because he did not think the breakfast E-mail controversy had much sizzle – at least not enough to fry the bill. But he did respond quickly to Sink’s request for an investigation, ordering a probe by Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel.
Absent from Crist’s bill signing ceremony was Kopelousos, who had been a staple when the governor earlier had talked about the sunny upside of investing in trains in Florida.
He was asked if Kopelousos missed the early morning Tallahassee signing ceremony because she had a late breakfast, but the governor wasn’t laughing, pivoting instead to what he says will be a positive economic impact from the rail bill and the possibility of drawing down federal money for high speed rail as a result of signing it.
For her part, Kopelousos said that the WaffleGaters hadn’t fully cracked the story: the E-mails were not attempts to get around state Sunshine laws, she said. They were simply an effort to get her attention when she skimmed her crowded inbox.
Kopelousos said the attachments were all appropriately labeled, which she said allowed for full-compliance with state open records laws. She also said the discrepancy between the small response to Dockery's initial public records request, which fueled the allegations of a cover-up, was an "honest mistake."
Government watchdogs did not appear to be buying the syrup Kopelousos was selling, however. One, First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Petersen, said Kopelousos' explanation "doesn't pass the sniff test."
"The fact is that she is the secretary of a very important state agency," Petersen told the News Service. "It shouldn't be that hard for her assistant secretary or general counsel to get her attention, to the point of using nonsensical subjects.”
LIKE A GOOD NEIGHBOR
When official Tallahassee wasn’t talking waffles this week, it was talking about State Farm Florida Insurance Co.
announcing it will remain in the Florida market. Almost a year after the company, the state's largest private property insurer, announced plans to drop its nearly 1 million policies and exit the state, the company reached an agreement this week with state regulators to drop 125,000 policies and hike rates 14.8 percent, but stay in the state.
Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty announced the agreement, which ends legal proceedings that began after Florida insurance officials in January denied the company's 47 percent rate hike request. It ensures the company will remain a player in the state for at least another year.
State Farm officials said the deal will allow them to continue offering policies in the Florida market by recognizing the company's need to drop riskier policies and raise rates to more adequately offset non-hurricane losses. The agreement will allow State Farm to begin non-renewing policies beginning in August 2010.
Under terms of the agreement, the company will immediately be allowed to raise its premiums by 14.8 percent when policies are renewed. State Farm will also begin to allow its Florida agents to sell policies with other companies, releasing them from exclusive contracts that had been a troublesome requirement for state officials.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers are now angry that the approved rate increase by Citizens Property Insurance was far below the upper limit of 10 percent, which they had decided earlier this year was how far rates for coverage needed to go up to make sure the company had enough to pay claims.
Regulators later approved a rate increase of about 5.2 percent for homeowners in the state-backed company's high risk areas, causing lawmakers to say they'll likely push harder in the coming year to get the insurer's rates higher to avoid it being unable to pay claims in the event in the big storm. Several House members believed the 10 percent cap on rate increases was simply an assurance that they wouldn't go higher than that, not a license for the Office of Insurance Regulation to approve a smaller increase.
READY, SET, STOP?
The state is racing toward a January deadline to apply for a chunk of federal grant money, but the state's teachers union said this week that the proposal is not on its mark, which could ultimately jeopardize the department's chance to win up to $700 million from the Obama administration.
The Florida Education Association said that a memorandum that union presidents are asked to sign supporting the state's application is "fatally flawed" and have asked individual school district unions not to support it. The $4.35 billion Race to the Top competitive grant program is meant to improve teacher quality and help struggling schools throughout the country. But many school districts are not racing to sign it, fearing potential problems.
FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said no union will sign the document because it will cede too much power from the local school districts to the state. And, he said, it will create a lot of expensive changes at individual schools that won't necessarily be backed up by state dollars when the federal pot runs dry.
THE COURT HAS ITS SAY
The Florida Supreme Court weighed in on a pair of cases this week, ruling that simply running away from police in a high crime area is enough to land you in jail in an opinion that even members of the majority found troubling and potentially discriminatory. The court also banned the indiscriminate use of shackling of child offenders during court appearances.
In the former, when the Court had been asked to resolve a discrepancy between two appellate opinions, the state's highest court, by a 5-1 vote, ruled that it was bound by state law and a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court precedent, even if adhering to both could result in the arrest of a person who had done nothing wrong.
In the latter, the Florida Bar recommended that the high court change the laws regarding juvenile courtroom appearances after reviewing various circuit court practices because the procedures regarding shackling juvenile offenders vary by judicial circuit.
Finally, continued sluggishness in the building industry pushed Florida's unemployment up to 11.5 percent in November, its highest level since May 1975.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Charlie Crist signed the special session rail package this week, but his victory lap around the state was nearly scattered, smothered and covered by allegations that Department of Transportation officials used breakfast-themed E-mail subjects when discussing the bill to scramble public records requests. Also, state insurance officials bet the farm that allowing State Farm Insurance Co. to raise rates and drop some consumers would be enough to keep them in Florida, and won.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “If a citizen was writing to the secretary and put pancakes in the subject and she didn't know who it was, she wouldn't open it," First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Petersen explaining why she thought Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos’ “WaffleGate” explanation was a little light and fluffy.