Florida lawmakers to angry voters: We hear you

What a difference an election can make.

As legislators return to Tallahassee for their two-month-long annual session, beginning Tuesday, they will tackle some of the state’s most intractable problems, and they vow to do it with a new tone.

From property insurance and foreclosure reform to implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and shoring up the state’s embattled education system, the issues are complicated and challenging.

Much of the debate in recent years has been driven by ideology, but this year the Republican-led Legislature faces no election. After Florida voted to reelect Democrat Barack Obama, the political rhetoric of GOP leaders has inched closer to the middle. The Legislature is undergoing an image makeover.

“In recent years, we may have done things that were more politically driven than policy driven,’’ said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the Senate Rules chairman, who is both a former speaker of the House and chairman of the Republican Party. “The longer you’re in, the more you realize you don’t know everything, and you may need to step back and adjust a little bit to move forward in a positive direction.”

Legislative leaders who campaigned against the president’s signature issue, healthcare reform, are now drafting legislation to implement it.

“The law is the law,’’ said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “A lot of my friends don’t want to believe that. They believe that they can nullify Obamacare or we can pretend that it didn’t pass … but we are a nation of laws, and not a nation that develops our public policy on the passion of the moment.”

In other areas, decades-long fights over whether to tax internet sales in Florida could be resolved with a bill getting unprecedented attention this year. For the first time in six years, legislators are prepared to take on the utility giants and rewrite a law that has given power companies free rein to charge customers for nuclear power plants before they are built. A bill to ban texting while driving is also getting new traction.

And to improve the Legislature’s low rankings in the polls, lawmakers are on track to pass two bills early in the session with broad bi-partisan support: a rewrite of the state’s ethics laws and another to restore early voting days back to 14 from eight after the Election Day embarrassment.

“Yes, the Legislature made a mistake in the bill that we passed in the last two years,’’ said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who is shepherding the elections reform and ethics bills through the Senate. But he also blamed local elections supervisors for impeding early voting by failing to open more polling sites for it. “There’s enough blame to go around.”

Thrasher, who represents four northwest Florida counties, said voters sent him a message when, for the first time in his career, he lost one of his counties.

“All of us can learn from the past,’’ he said.

The election gave Democrats two new seats in the 40-member Senate, the first net gain in 30 years, and they picked up five seats in the 120-member House. Republicans still dominate with a 76-44 advantage in the House and a 26-14 majority in the Senate, but the margins ended the GOP’s veto-proof two-thirds majority.

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Modern Family Stars Get Stuck in Crowded Elevator

No good deed goes unpunished.

PICS: Candid Celeb Sightings

While on their way to a fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kansas City on Friday night, three stars of ABC's hit sitcom Modern Family were trapped in a crowded elevator for almost an hour, ABC News reports.

Julie Bowen, Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson took pictures together during the ordeal, which Ferguson posted to his Twitter account.

"This is us right now. 45 minutes stuck in this elevator," Ferguson wrote, captioning the snapshot from the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel's third floor.

The actors were an hour late to the event after the Kansas City Fire Department rescued them, but they maintained a good sense of humor about their plight, reportedly joking about the ordeal on stage.

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Tom Hudson: China’s new leaders plan quiet transition

If everything goes smoothly, you won’t hear much out of China in the new week. And that’s the way its new leaders want it. Even though the world’s second largest economy officially seats a new president and premier, the beginning of China’s parliamentary session on Tuesday comes without the usual pomp and circumstance. Instead, China’s new leaders hope to show their own version of austerity. For instance, there will be no booze at official meals.

The party leaders want a sober beginning to their terms as the hope for a more sober Chinese economy. They want to avoid any significant pronouncements that could threat China’s gentle economic recovery. The country’s biggest trading partner, Europe, continues to struggle, tensions with Japan have been rising and Chinese workers have been demanding (and in some cases getting) pay raises. Chinese home prices have heated up again as the Beijing government moved late last year to stimulate its economy.

It came after China’s economy grew at its slowest pace in 13 years. The new government knows that its political stability depends upon a steady economy. With choking air pollution, a horrendous record on food safety and sanctioned corruption, the new slate of leaders taking their seats this week would like to reduce China’s reliance on exports to fuel its economic expansion, reassure its trading partners it wants to play fair and stoke a steady and sustainable rise of living standards.

Since early December as the stimulus efforts began, the Shanghai Stock Exchange index has shot up 21 percent. Electricity production is rising and manufacturing has rebounded too. But the political volume has been muted.

Tom Hudson is a financial journalist based in Miami. He is the former co-anchor and managing editor of Nightly Business Report on public television.

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Attorney for dad of missing Hallandale Beach baby says evidence was damaged

The tiny bones recovered from a backyard grave have a story to tell: Are these the remains of Dontrell Melvin, a baby whose family didn’t report him missing for 18 months? And how was the baby killed?

According to notes in the Hallandale Beach police lead investigator’s file, there was blunt force trauma to the child’s cranium after his death, likely caused during the search and recovery of the skeleton.

And that, says attorney Ed Hoeg, who is representing the baby’s father, could have an impact on the case against his client.

“If evidence is compromised, it could change how the case goes,” Hoeg said. “You would hope the evidence would be in pristine condition.”

Meanwhile, the missing child’s parents remain in Broward County jails. Brittney Sierra, 21, faces two counts of felony child neglect; Calvin Melvin, 27, was charged with three felony counts of providing false information to police.

But those charges could be increased if a Texas lab confirms that DNA from a tiny skeleton unearthed in January behind the couple’s former Hallandale Beach rental home matches that of their baby, Dontrell Melvin.

Dontrell, who would have turned 2 last month, had not been seen for nearly 18 months before police learned of his disappearance on Jan 9.

At first, Melvin told Hallandale Beach police that the child was with his family in Pompano Beach. But when police went there, they were told by the grandparents that they didn’t have the child and hadn’t seen him.

During questioning by police, Melvin changed his story several times, investigators said.

At one point, he told them he’d taken the baby to a fire station under Florida’s Safe Haven Law.

But police didn’t believe him and began questioning Sierra, as well. The couple, who have another child together, pointed fingers at one another, police said.

Their answers led police to the backyard of their former rental home at 106 NW First Ave.

It was there that tiny bones were found.

Nearly 90 percent of the baby’s remains were recovered and reconstructed. An initial review of the bones did not reveal any trauma to the bones, said Hallandale Beach Police Chief Dwayne Flournoy.

However, on Jan. 25, forensic anthropologist Heather Walsh-Haney briefed investigators, including Flournoy, Maj. Thomas Honan and Capt. P. Abut, on the case. In his notes, a Hallandale Beach investigator, who was not identified, wrote: “Dr. Walsh-Haney stated that there were no signs of perimortem blunt trauma. However, there was evidence of a postmortem blunt trauma to the cranium. She stated that said postmortem trauma had probably occurred during the search and recovery of the skeleton.”

The notes were provided to The Miami Herald by Hoeg.

The damage to the cranium, Hoeg said, could prove problematic for the case against his client.

“If there is only trauma afterward, did the damage destroy evidence?” he said.

But on Friday, Police Chief Flournoy insisted there was not any damage caused post-mortem to the skeleton. “The bones were not compromised in any way,” said Flournoy.

Regardless, the Texas lab working to identify the baby’s remains has enough evidence to work with.

All a scientist needs is a small bone fragment to create a DNA profile, said John Fudenberg, the president-elect for International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners.

“Unless there is significant trauma noted, it’s very difficult for a medical examiner to determine the cause of death,” Fudenberg added.

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Ellen DeGeneres Pens Open Letter to Supreme Court to Pass Prop 8 for Gay Marriage

With a touch of her trademark humor, Ellen DeGeneres tackles a very serious topic close to the talk show host's heart: gay marriage.

In an open letter posted to her website, Ellen reaches out to members of the Supreme Court, who will soon decide the fate of same-sex couples who wish to wed.

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"Portia and I have been married for 4 years and they have been the happiest of my life," she blogs of her longtime partner Portia De Rossi. "And in those 4 years, I don't think we hurt anyone else's marriage. I asked all of my neighbors and they say they're fine."

Ellen, who tied the knot in 2008 during a brief period when gay marriage was legal in California, now urges the powers that be to open their heart and extend the privilege to every gay couple.

"I hope the Supreme Court will do the right thing, and let everyone enjoy the same rights," Ellen writes. "It's going to help keep families together. It's going to make kids feel better about who they are. And it is time."

Related: Neil Patrick Harris: I Knew I was Gay at 6

In closing the comedian writes, "In the words of Benjamin Franklin, 'We're here, we're queer, get over it.'"

Read Ellen's entire plea to the supreme court here.

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Shel biz as usual

ALBANY — Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver yesterday defended his decision to be featured as the “honored guest” at a fund-raiser for the chairman of a legislative ethics panel reviewing Silver’s hush settlement of Vito Lopez’s alleged sexual harassment of young staffers.

“The speaker, as leader of the Democratic conference, routinely allows members to use his name for fund-raising purposes,” his spokesman, Michael Whyland, told The Post.

The fund-raiser next week is for Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D-LI), who notes on the invite that he chairs the Assembly Ethics Committee, one of two legislative committees weighing possible sanctions against Lopez and Silver.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver

NY Post: Chad Rachman

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver

The same committee must also decide whether to release a report by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the state’s ethics watchdog, on the case.

Staten Island DA Dan Donovan, the appointed special prosecutor for the case, has asked the committees not to release JCOPE’s report until his team concludes its criminal investigations.

Silver approved a $103,800 “confidential” Assembly payment to settle harassment claims that two female staffers had brought against Lopez.

Silver later stripped Lopez of his leadership duties and called for him to resign after a separate ethics probe concluded that Lopez groped and abused two other female staffers.

Government-watchdog groups say the timing of the fund-raiser is suspect and gives the appearance that Lavine, rather than being an independent monitor, is beholden to Silver.

“The fact that it’s just business as usual is not the standard we want applied,” said Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York. “There is a pervasive culture in Albany that upsets most New Yorkers, that their elected representatives don’t see this as a problem.”

Lerner said her group is closely watching the Lopez case to see if the creation of JCOPE was an adequate measure for enforcing government ethics.

“We have concern that it’s not sufficiently removed from [Silver’s] appointed control,” she said.

Silver’s spokesman insisted the fund-raising has nothing to do with the investigation.

“We’re confident that the commission has found no legal or ethical violation by Speaker Silver or his staff,” Whyland said.

Silver said he hadn’t seen the report. By law, it would have been released to him had he been the target of the investigation, sources told The Post.


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Banah Sugar company says it will pay debts

Banah Sugar’s executive director, Yurek Vásquez, said the company will make payments to the more than 200 people and companies it owes money to, after the beginning of a reorganization process supervised by a federal court was revealed.

“This is a reorganization that gives us time to pay our providers,” Vásquez said. “Our intention is to continue working with them, fulfill our duty to them.”

Vásquez spoke to El Nuevo Herald for the first time after the sugar company filed for bankruptcy last week under Chapter 11, which allows continued operations while restructuring.

On Monday, several representatives of creditors expressed outrage at Banah’s non-compliance, accusing it of making payments with checks without funds.

Vásquez, who took over the leadership at Banah in November, said that the previous administration of the company faced “management problems.”

“One of these problems was a flawed communication between the previous administration and providers,” Vásquez said. “The fact that payments were pending did not mean that they were not going to get paid, but no one heeded the providers, nobody explained a payment plan to them so they would know when they were getting paid.”

Banah’s former executive director, Diego Leiva, told El Nuevo Herald he retired from the sugar company in October after learning the background of owner Alex Pérez, who served four years in prison for cocaine trafficking.

But Vásquez said Leiva did know about Pérez’s past and the real reason he left had to do with a mutual agreement after management problems were detected.

“I came to make an evaluation of the company and, after seeing the poor performance and deficiencies, I decided to make staff changes,” Vásquez said. “Leiva agreed with the changes, which included his resignation.”

The company operates with 15 employees. He said the size of the staff would depend on growth of production and new markets.

He said Banah is “now more efficient,” with a plant that can produce 24 million bottles of liquid sugar a year. Before, it imported liquid sugar at substantial cost.

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’Les Mis’ touring company works out to stay in shape at Wilton Manors gym

Even if you’re a Broadway dancer in top shape, it’s not easy looking good and staying fit when you’re on the road with a show like Les Misérables.

"Touring is a difficult life because you’re constantly moving," said Trinity Wheeler, production stage manager for the Les Mis touring company, playing through Sunday at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.

"It’s not like you can go to a grocery store and have a kitchen and cook the foods that you want and have a consistent workout schedule. We created something that is consistent for the cast," said Wheeler, who is also a certified trainer. "Eating out every meal and stuff can be challenging to stay healthy. Being healthy and on tour is a goal we all try to accomplish."

Thursday morning, Wheeler held a “Guns of the Barricade” boot camp at Steel Gym in Wilton Manors. The workout session allows cast members and others to stay in shape while they’re on the road, Wheeler said.

The Les Mis touring company has 89 people who travel with the show: cast members, crew and musicians, according to Wheeler.

"It’s a large group of people that have this nomadic lifestyle," he said. "Having fitness incorporated into it, you feel better, you wake up, have more energy. It’s been really great for us as individuals, but also for the show."

Among the touring cast members: Wheeler’s partner, Alan Shaw, who plays Joly. The couple own a house in Fort Lauderdale’s Poinsettia Heights neighborhood.

" Les Mis is three hours long and we do eight shows a week. I realized early on because I’ve been with the show over two years now that if I don’t take care of my body and if I don’t eat right and if I don’t really stay on top of it, I can’t do eight shows a week," Shaw said. "We’re onstage in front of 2,000 people on average every night. You have to look your best. It’s part of our job."

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The CW Says Goodbye to 90210

The CW's remake of the '90s hit show 90210 will reportedly end its five-year run in May.

PICS: The High School Hotties of 90210

According to Us Weekly, the show (starring AnnaLynne McCord, Shenae Grimes, Matt Lanter, Jessica Stroup and Jessica Lowndes) has been canceled due to meager ratings.

The show has reportedly averaged 1.23 million viewers this season, being overshadowed by new hits The Vampire Diaries and Arrow.

"The CW has had five great seasons with America's favorite zip code, 90210," CW network president Mark Pedowitz announced in a statement. "I'd like to thank the talented cast, producers, and crew for all their hard work and dedication to the series. We are very proud of the West Beverly High alumni."

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Mt. Sinai & Continuum announce merger plans

Mount Sinai Medical Center and Continuum Health Partners announced a tentative merger agreement in a bid to control costs and provide more extensive medical care to patients.

The proposed marriage of two Manhattan medical behemoths comes amid continuing pressure on hospitals to comply with ObamaCare and adapt to other market forces sweeping the industry.

City residents have endured several hospital closures in recent years — most notably St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village.

In Brooklyn, Long Island College Hospital is on the chopping block.

Mount Sinai is a specialty/research hospital on the Upper East Side with its own medical school and is considered financially sound.

Continuum is largely a community-hospital network that includes Beth Israel, St. Luke’s and Roosevelt hospitals and the New York Eye & Ear Infirmary. One industry insider described Continuum’s financial condition as “fragile.”

Continuum had conducted merger talks with NYU Langone Medical Center, but NYU broke off the talks last year when it got wind that Continuum was also in discussions with Mount Sinai.

In announcing a “memorandum of understanding,” hospital officials described the merger as a good fit of two entities providing a complement of services.

“The combination will create more economies of scale, increase efficiencies and expand access to advanced primary and specialty care throughout this citywide network,” said Sinai CEO Dr. Kenneth Davis.

Continuum CEO Stanley Brezenoff added, “This collaboration makes available an extraordinary range of resources for the provision of compassionate, state-of-the-art care for patients. In joining with Mount Sinai, we will further enhance our ability to provide the full spectrum of outstanding care to the population we serve.”

Continuum doctors would become part of Mount Sinai’s Medical School faculty, and the merger presents opportunities to bolster research, officials said. Beth Israel, for example specializes in treatment of substance abuse and psychiatric disorders.

“If you are bigger, you have more bargaining power when you negotiate rates with insurance companies and contracts with labor unions. And you can negotiate better prices for food services and laundry,” said David Sandman, senior vice president of the New York State Health Foundation.

He said the merger provides an opportunity to eliminate duplicative services and more easily route patients to proper care.

Under ObamaCare, he said, hospitals will have to do a better job of providing clinical treatment rather than more expensive, in-patient surgical care.

“The emphasis is on primary care and keeping people out of the hospital,” Sandman said.


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