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May 27, 2017

Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen dies

Sergio2 bendixen lnew cmg@PatriciaMazzei

Sergio Bendixen, the first Hispanic to run a U.S. presidential campaign who later pioneered public-opinion polling among Latinos and other immigrant populations, died late Friday in Miami. He was 68.

No cause of death was immediately available. Bendixen had been suffering from a bad cold in recent days, according to his friend and business partner, Fernand Amandi. The two ran the Coconut Grove-based Bendixen & Amandi International polling firm, though Bendixen was semi-retired.

“Sergio led the way in capturing the opinions of and understanding how Hispanics in America thought and felt about the most important issues in our time,” Amandi said. “He was largely responsible for giving Hispanic America a voice.” 

Bendixen not only focused on polling Hispanics: He also chose to survey them in Spanish, if they were more comfortable in that language, an industry innovation now considered standard in multilingual polling. He later expanded his work to other ethnic groups and worked for political candidates internationally, especially in Latin America.

His polling work came after a fast rise in the world of political consulting. In 1984, Bendixen was the national campaign manager for Democratic presidential hopeful Alan Cranston of California. He helped run Bruce Babbitt’s 1988 presidential campaign.

More here.

Photo credit: C.M. Guerrero, el Nuevo Herald file

May 26, 2017

Parents rally for HB 7069 in front of Miami-Dade School Board building

HB7069 rally


Parents rallied outside the Miami-Dade School Board building in downtown Miami on Friday afternoon in support of the controversial education bill HB 7069. Inside, the school district hosted a town hall meeting urging parents and teachers to oppose the bill.

Many of the roughly 20 parents and children holding signs and chanting outside the town hall meeting said they were most concerned about preserving the provision in HB 7069 that would expand a scholarship program for children with disabilities. If Gov. Rick Scott signs HB 7069 into law, the bill will allocate $30 million to expand the Gardiner Scholarship, a voucher program that helps students with disabilities pay for alternative education options. 

"It's going to help my daughter do well in society," said Hans Haffner, whose 17-year-old daughter is autistic. Haffner relies on funding from Step Up for Students, the main organization that distributes the scholarships, to pay for his daughter's tuition at a private school that serves autistic children. "Step Up has really worked for her. We don't want that to go away," he said. 

Eneidi Flores was also rallying in support of increased funding for the program. She uses the scholarship funds to pay for speech and behavior therapy for her three-year-old son, who is autistic. "If I take my child to a public school, they aren't going to be able to do all of that work," she said in Spanish. "A lot of mothers don't have a way to pay for therapies."

Meanwhile, the Miami-Dade school district was hosting the last of six meetings held this week to urge parents and teachers to contact Gov. Scott and ask him to veto HB 7069. The school district is concerned about several provisions in the bill, including one that would compel districts to share millions of dollars in local tax revenue earmarked for capital projects with charter schools. 

As FHP struggles to recruit, speeding tickets plummet


The number of speeding tickets written by Florida state troopers has plunged three straight years as the agency grapples with a personnel shortage and high turnover.

While that might be good news for highway travelers who want to speed this holiday weekend, it's a concerning trend for the head of the Florida Highway Patrol.

Since 2010, the agency has lost 993 troopers to retirement or resignation, or about half of its current workforce of 1,946 troopers, said FHP Director Colonel Gene Spaulding.

"That's a big turnover," said Spaulding, a 24-year highway patrol veteran himself. "That's really tough."

Spaulding had 240 vacancies in the department this spring. Reinforcements aren't filling the void. The state's trooper academy typically has 80 recruits per class three times a year. Spaulding said the current class doesn't even have half of that.

"This is crisis," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who for the last two years has been advocating for across the board pay raises for all state government workers.

While Spaulding said the agency is doing what it can to provide public safety, he acknowledged response times are getting longer.

Meanwhile, the workload is increasing. In 2011, the state reported 229,000 crashes. In 2016, that was up to 395,000. Local governments are stuck picking up the slack, said Sarasota Sheriff Tom Knight, who spent 20 years working for the FHP.

In 2008, his sheriff's department worked 38 percent of crashes in Sarasota County. Now? It's up to 71 percent.

"It's not the fault of the highway patrol," Knight said. "It's the Legislature not stepping up to take care of FHP."

Full Story Here

Starting the veto clock? Rick Scott likely to get budget Tuesday

As a long Memorial Day weekend gets underway, the biggest and most controversial piece of legislation to emerge from the 2017 session -- the budget -- was still in the Senate's hands on Friday, a safe distance from Gov. Rick Scott's veto pen.

A knowledgeable Capitol source says the Senate plans to deliver the $82.4 billion budget to Scott next Tuesday, May 30 (Senate President Joe Negron's office did not confirm that timetable). If that happens, a 15-day clock begins ticking and Scott would have until June 14 to act, but what are expected to be extensive line-item vetoes, along with a possible veto of the K-12 public education funding formula, won't take the governor nearly that long. Last year, Scott issued $256 million in promised vetoes even before he received the budget.

Staffers in the governor's budget office have been poring over the nearly 500-page budget line-by-line since it was approved May 8, and lawmakers and their staffs report being asked about specific projects.

Lawmakers interpret that as a clear sign that Scott has no plans to veto the entire spending plan and will instead carry out "surgical but massive" vetoes in a year in which the Legislature resolutely ignored all three of Scott's priorities. It will be interesting to see whether Scott axes line-item spending for transportation, economic development and other hometown projects supported by one of his closest allies in the Capitol, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

If Scott does veto the K-12 budget silo, known as the Florida Education Funding Program, or FEFP, a political struggle could ensue between the governor and Legislature over where to find the extra money to increase the per-student spending formula, and the Legislature would have to reconvene in June to adopt a new education budget more to Scott's liking. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

Apart from all the pending budget drama, legislators are considering holding a special session the week of June 12 or June 19 to tackle the unfinished business of implementing the voters' will on Amendment 2, which legalizes medical marijuana in Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott names John Tupps as communications director

Gov. Rick Scott has named John Tupps as his new communications director, replacing Jackie Schutz Zeckman, who was promoted to chief of staff. The appointment takes effect June 5.

TuppsTupps, 33, is currently vice president of government relations at VISIT Florida and is a former deputy chief of staff at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. His new job is a homecoming of sorts as he previously worked in Scott's press office from 2011 to 2016 in various roles, including deputy communications director.

Tupps is a former radio producer for the South Central Radio Group in Knoxville, Tenn., and is a graduate of the University of Tennessee.

"John has demonstrated an incredible commitment to supporting our mission of making Florida the top destination for businesses, families and visitors," Scott said in a statement.

Scott's past two communications chiefs, Schutz Zeckman and Melissa Stone, both became chiefs of staff to the governor, so the job is a proven launching pad to bigger things.



Constitution commission plans June 6 meeting for big vote on rules

CRC Miami listeningAfter a divisive, day-long meeting over how to write the rules for the powerful Constitution Revision Commission, the panel's chair, Carlos Beruff, on Friday called a meeting for the entire 37-member commission for June 6 in Orlando to vote on rules.

"Although consensus was achieved in some areas, there were many other areas where consensus was not reached,'' Beruff wrote in letter to commissioners. "In light of the extensive time required by the working group to continue its work and the likelihood that much of their discussion will need to be reiterated with the full Commission, I think you will agree that consensus on Rules must be achieved on an expedited timeline to ensure we can continue our very important commitment to Floridians."  Download 05-26-2017 Schedule Rules

He also set a new schedule for the commission, promising to have its work done by May 10, 2018:

  • June 6, 2017 – Full Commission Meeting for purpose of considering Rules (Orlando).
  • June 22, 2017 – Public hearing in Central Florida, details to follow.
  • July and August 2017 – Voluntary training on various procedural and substantive issues.
  • August 23 or 24, 2017 – Final public hearing of the first phase of public hearings in Broward County.
  • Late August to December 2017 – Committee meetings (being considerate of the Legislature’s committee schedule and fall holidays).
  • Late February and March 2018 – Public hearing phase two; we will take public input on the work of the Commission up to that point, prior to any votes on final passage.
  • March and April – Full Commission meetings for the purpose of hearing proposals.
  • May 10, 2018 – Final report due to the Florida Department of State.


In South Florida, Nancy Pelosi says Democrats will take on Carlos Curbelo in 2018

Pelosi 04 EKM


One of Democrats’ biggest goals for the 2018 election is to defeat Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Friday during a South Florida visit.

What she didn’t explain was why her party has yet to find someone to run against him.

“We will be having a strong focus on Florida in the next election and certainly the Curbelo race will be one of them,” Pelosi pledged Friday in Wilton Manors.

Several Democrats intend to run for the Democratic-leaning 27th congressional district being vacated by Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring. But none have challenged Curbelo, a sophomore lawmaker whose 26th district also leans blue.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officials have met with potential Curbelo challengers including while in South Florida this week for fundraisers that Pelosi attended. (Pelosi told the Herald that she herself hadn’t met with any potential candidates.)

“We are actively meeting with and hearing from candidates who are interested in stepping up because of unprecedented attacks on health care, immigration and our core values in Washington,” DCCC spokesman Cole Leiter said.

Pelosi said that President Donald Trump’s low favorability ratings have given Democrats confidence in their mission to win back the House and put more Democrats in office in other seats nationwide. She also said that U.S. Bill Nelson’s re-election is “very important.”

Keep reading here.

Miami Herald photo by Emily Michot

New DEP secretary’s cell phone is primary contact for business he says he doesn’t run

Noah ValensteinFlorida’s new Department of Environmental Protection secretary, Noah Valenstein, flatly denied this week he had any role in the political consulting and polling businesses he turned over to his wife when he came to work for the governor in 2012.

But the company web site on Thursday still listed his personal phone number as the contact. It was the same phone number Valenstein used on his application for the DEP job.

“Thank you for raising this issue to my attention,” Valenstein said in an email to the Herald/Times. “I have asked my wife to immediately remove my cell phone number from her company’s website. Upon entering public service in 2012, I removed myself from the business and my wife has owned and operated it since.I was not aware my cellphone number remained on her website and neither was she.”

The companies, Voter Opinions, LLC, and Campaign Facts, LLC, (with website are income-producing businesses for Jennifer Valenstein. Started by Noah Valenstein in 2010 out of their Tallahassee home, the companies have been paid nearly $1 million by candidates and political committees.

When Noah Valenstein was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to serve as his policy coordinator for energy, agriculture and the environment in December 2012, Valenstein revised the paperwork to make Jennifer the registered agent. Both are lawyers.

Since then, the company has continued to operate, serving legislative campaigns and the political committees of groups that do business with the governor, his agencies or want to advance his fortunes.

Committees that have hired Valenstein’s companies include those run by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Senate President Joe Negron, the business lobbyist groups Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the House Republican Campaign Committee, Sens. Wilton Simpson and Kathleen Passidomo, former Sens. John Thrasher and Frank Artiles, former House Speakers Steve Crisafulli and Will Weatherford, the Florida Medical Association, several current House members, and former state Rep. Matt Gaetz, now a congressman. Story here. 

55 senators sign on to bill eliminating U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba

The Week That Was in Latin America Photo Gallery(8)
via @ngameztorres

As the Cuba policy review reaches its final stage, politicians, companies and organizations that support the policy of engagement are making an extra effort to send a message to Donald Trump: Mr. President, do not eliminate opportunities to travel to the island.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) re-introduced a bill Thursday to eliminate all prohibitions to travel to Cuba. The bill, which had only eight co-sponsors when first filed in 2015, now has the support of 55 senators from both parties.

“As the administration is finalizing its Cuba policy review, it is important to show that a bipartisan majority in the Senate supports not only not rolling back the measures that President Obama took to expand travel, but to go even further and remove all restrictions,” James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, told el Nuevo Herald. Engage Cuba is a coalition of companies and organizations that lobby to eliminate sanctions to Cuba.

The bill would remove all restrictions on U.S. citizens and residents to travel to Cuba, and will authorize the associated banking transactions made by travelers. A similar project was presented in the House but with fewer sponsors.

Even if the bill is not discussed on the Senate floor, said Williams, it sends a strong message to the White House that there is support for the current policy of engagement.

More here.

Photo credit: Ramon Espinosa, Associated Press

Florida TaxWatch calls out $180 million of questionable spending in state budget



Florida TaxWatch, a Tallahassee thinktank, has released its annual "budget turkey" list that calls on Gov. Rick Scott to veto nearly $180 million in special projects tucked into the budget, mostly in transportation.

The upshot of TaxWatch's analysis -- which calls out line items that are slipped into the budget behind closed doors or circumvent beaurocratic structures meant to prioritize what projects are funded first -- is that while some parts of the budget process were more transparent than usual this year, the bulk of it was not.

"Although member projects were more transparent and accountable, I think it's certainly hard to say the budget process as a whole was more transparent and accountable than it has been," said Kurt Wenner, TaxWatch's vice president for research. "We had huge portions of the budget including the entire health and human services budget that the differences were negotiated by the speaker and the president behind closed doors."

He also said TaxWatch didn't like that the unusually long bills on subjects like education and Visit Florida pushed through the budget process and negotiated behind closed doors by legislative leaders.

Among the turkeys TaxWatch found were six projects that they say landed in the budget in the final negotiations between the two chambers of the Legislature -- a definite no-no under new rules agreed to by Speaker Richard Corcoran and President Joe Negron that required every project to be identified in the first versions of either the House or Senate budget.

Those six projects, totalling $2.7 million, were as follows: $500,000 for a Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Hillsborough County; $400,000 for Steinhatchee School in Taylor County; $300,000 for the Association for the Development of the Exceptional in Miami-Dade; $150,000 for the Alzheimer's Project in Leon County; $575,000 for a pilot project at Self Reliance Inc. in Hillsborough; and $750,000 for the Marco Island Fire Station in Collier County.

But the bulk of the turkeys came from $141 million in transportation projects that lawmakers tucked into the budget though they were not in the Department of Transportation's five-year work plan, which is developed with the input of metropolitan planning organizations, local governments and the federal government.

TaxWatch's recommendations for vetoes come as Scott awaits the budget. Lawmakers have not yet sent it to him, but when they do, they will brace for vetoes that could be particularly large this year.

Photo: Kurt Wenner, Florida TaxWatch's vice president for research, presents the organization's 2017 turkey list. (MICHAEL AUSLEN | Times/Herald)

Miami GOP snags Kellyanne Conway to keynote Lincoln Day dinner

Trump FBI

Kellyanne Conway will headline the Miami-Dade Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day fundraising dinner, the party announced to its members Friday.

Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump and his former campaign manager, will be the keynote speaker at the dinner, which will be held June 27 at the DoubleTree by Hilton Miami Airport and Convention Center, according to the "save the date" email Republican Executive Committee members received.

"We're extremely excited to host the architect of Donald Trump's victorious presidential campaign," Nelson Diaz, the local GOP chairman, subsequently told the Miami Herald. "Her courage and tenacity are second to none."

The star of last year's dinner -- held in October to rally Republicans ahead of the election -- was Mike Pence, then the vice-presidential nominee.

Photo credit: Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

Congressional candidate faces fight over court costs from last opponent


Congressional hopeful Raquel Regalado was hit with a deposition request this week over a $1,172 litigation expense that her last opponent, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, says he’s owed from her failed bid to kick him off the ballot last fall.

A judge earlier this year ordered Regalado to pay Gimenez $1,172 for his share of the cost of an October deposition in the lawsuit she filed against him about a week before Election Day. “We want her to pay for her own stunt,” Gimenez lawyer J.C. Planas said Thursday.

Regalado lawyer Peter González says he sent the check weeks ago and accused Planas of trying to embarrass his client as she pursues the Republican nomination in the 2018 contest to replace retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “He’s completely wrong,” González said. “I guess he’s doing this because he just wants to create waves and get his name in the paper.”

The original suit asked a judge to disqualify Gimenez as a candidate for reelection over a flubbed date on a filing check that the mayor filed in June.

Gimenez’s campaign filed a corrected check before the June 21 filing deadline after the Elections Department flagged the error. Regalado’s suit claimed Gimenez was given a pass by a county department he supervises as mayor. But the judge overseeing the case quickly dismissed Regalado’s suit as a misguided attempt to have the election decided by “fiat” instead of by the voters.


Read more here.

May 25, 2017

Jeb money trickles into Putnam's bid for governor


Money from a Jeb Bush super PAC has made its way into Florida’s 2018 governors race.
A year ago, Bush’s Right to Rise PAC put $1,171 in money left over from his failed presidential run into a fund called SSLP Political Committee, which Adam Putnam used for his 2014 re-election campaign for Florida Agriculture Commissioner. After the Right to Rise donation, SSLP was up to just over $221,000 and has not spent any money since, according to records with the Florida Division of Elections.
But on Tuesday, Putnam moved all of SSLP’s unused money over into Florida Grown, a new committee he runs that has already raised $11 million since the start of 2015.
Since Putnam kicked off his campaign with a rally in Bartow on May 10, the Polk County Republican has now brought in at least $370,000 - including the SSLP transfer - into Florida Grown, according to a website maintained by the political committee.
It’s no surprise Jeb Bush money would end up in Putnam’s campaign. For years, Bush has been encouraging Putnam to run for governor. Even in 2014 while Putnam was still seeking re-election as agriculture commissioner, Bush used an event in Charlotte County to hint that Putnam should run for governor in the future.

While Right to Rise is one of the more notable donations in SSLP, its hardly the biggest donation. That title goes to the Florida Phosphate Political Committee, which put $100,000 into SSLP over two months, including $50,000 on Dec. 31, 2014 - nine weeks after Putnam had already won his re-election in a landslide. The money from Florida Phosphate is in addition to $150,000 they gave directly to Florida Grown.

Health officials outline their plan for writing medical marijuana rules



Florida health officials are taking the very earliest steps toward rolling out rules to let patients use medical marijuana after state lawmakers failed to resolve the issue during the final hours of their session earlier this month.

The Department of Health on Thursday published a notice outlining special procedures for them to implement Amendment 2, which passed with 71 percent of the vote last November and allows patients with a list of conditions including HIV/AIDS, cancer and PTSD to access medical cannabis.

DOH faces a quickly approaching deadline of July 3 to write the rules governing what could within a few years be a $1 billion medical marijuana industry.

It's not clear when DOH plans to publish draft rules. But under the procedure published Thursday, officials have to give 15-day notice before adopting them. It also allows for a three-day public comment period.

Interestingly, the department declares that because Amendment 2 is now part of the Florida Constitution -- as opposed to state law -- the normal rules for passing regulations do not apply. And they have outlined new procedures that do not include any path for appeal or a rules challenge.

Still, DOH could end up with instructions from the Legislature. There is a growing movement to bring lawmakers back in a special session, motivated in part by concerns that DOH may not be best suited to implement the will of voters.

Among the department's critics: Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, who were responsible for negotiations over medicall marijuana during session.

"I obviously support a special session," Rodrigues told the Times/Herald earlier this month. "This is something that's best done by the Legislature rather than leaving it to the Department of Health."

Photo: Monica Herndon (Tampa Bay Times)

Florida ends 'tampon tax'

From the Associated Press:

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida will eliminate taxes charged on tampons under a measure signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott on Thursday approved a bill that would make feminine hygiene products such as tampons and menstrual pads tax-exempt starting next January.

Florida is joining 13 other states and the District of Columbia that exempt taxes on the sale of feminine hygiene products or have enacted laws to exempt these products in the future.

Advocates for the change say these items are a necessity for women and should be considered a "common household remedy."

The tax exemption was included in a $180 million tax cut package passed by the Florida Legislature. Floridians are expected to save an estimated $11 million a year with the elimination of the tax on feminine hygiene products.

Roaches, rats and taxpayer money: Plan to save crumbling Overtown condos in trouble


@NewsbySmiley @NickNehamas and @DavidOvalle305

The tax-funded renovation of Town Park Plaza North, a crumbling Overtown community of more than 100 families, was touted as a new beginning for one of Miami’s most impoverished and neglected neighborhoods.

But two years after breaking ground, the ambitious $15 million project has been mired in delays, conflicts and cost-overruns. Renovations have finished at just three of Town Park’s 20 condo buildings, less than half of what planners expected to complete by now.

Families told they’d have gleaming new homes have been exiled to temporary housing for more than a year. Those who live in units still awaiting renovation have to battle rotting pipes, swarms of roaches and broken air conditioners.

Few want to invest in pricey repairs because their units will be gutted — some day.

“They made it sound so beautiful,” said resident Chris Little, whose first-floor unit floods with sewage from pipe breaks. “It’s not right what they’re doing.”

Executives of the Miami redevelopment agency funding the project say they’re pushing the general contractor to complete five more buildings by mid-June and get back on track. But problems run deep.

A Miami Herald review of the project found poor planning, questionable spending and the selection of an inexperienced contractor have slowed Town Park’s revitalization, leaving residents angry and confused.

To read the rest click here.


Mel and Betty Sembler's Drug Free America Foundation calls for special marijuana session


19131378An unlikely voice has joined the drug policy activists calling on Florida lawmakers to come back in special session focused on medical marijuana: The Drug Free America Foundation, which opposes medical marijuana and whose founders spent nearly $10 million trying to kill the 2014 and 2016 constitutional amendments to legalize medical cannabis.
In a letter sent late last week, Drug Free America’s executive director Calvina Fay urged Senate President Joe Negron to join the call for a special session.
“The legislature has an obligation to find a balance that protects the public health and safety of all Floridians while allowing for legal access of marijuana that was approved by voters,” Fay wrote. “It is imperative that our legislators take action and not allow the marijuana industry to operate as it does in some states with no regards to public health and safety.”
Drug Free America was founded in St. Petersburg in 1995 by wealthy conservative financiers Mel and Betty Sembler after a controversial drug treatment program they founded called Straight Inc. was shut down following accusations of abusing teen participants. The foundation does not engage in treatment but instead focuses on advocacy and shaping drug policy.
Among their advocacy: Drug Free America and its lobbying arm, Save Our Society from Drugs, gave state lawmakers a list of suggestions for policy this session as the Florida Legislature worked to implement Amendment 2, which was passed by 71 percent of voters. Many of them made it into early versions of a House bill and several looked likely to survive in final legislation that the Legislature failed to reach a compromise on in session’s eleventh hour.
The Semblers and others on the Drug Free America board of directors were among the strongest voices opposed to Amendment 2, which requires the state to write rules allowing patients with a list of conditions including HIV/AIDS, cancer, PTSD and multiple sclerosis to use medical marijuana by July 3.
Mel and Betty Sembler gave $1 million in 2016 and $100,000 in 2014 to the political committee opposing Amendment 2, called Drug Free Florida. They also brought in support from other anti-drug campaign donors including Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who gave $7 million over the course of both campaigns.
Drug Free America’s letter calling for a special session brings the group in a rare point of agreement with the two men who were behind the Amendment 2 campaign: Ben Pollara and John Morgan, who separately called for a special session weeks ago.

Unlike Pollara and Morgan, who want to see a more open market (though their definitions of what makes the market open and what limits government ought to set have led to a high-profile feud between them), Fay wrote in the letter to Negron that Drug Free America wants to see restrictions in whatever legislation might pass the House and Senate.

The existing, small medical marijuana industry, Fay wrote, is "operating outside of what the proposed rules and regulations would allow."
Demands for lawmakers to come back to Tallahassee are growing among elected officials as well. While Negron has not yet committed to a special session — and would be unlikely to unless differences between the House and Senate legislation can be settled first — House Speaker Richard Corcoran has openly endorsed bringing lawmakers back to complete the will of 71 percent of voters.
As well, more than two dozen lawmakers from both parties have publicly said they want a special session. Two gubernatorial candidates have joined the calls as well: Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, a Republican, and former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, a Democrat.

— Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Photo: Mel and Betty Sembler, pictured in 2011. (JAMES BORCHUCK | Times)

Florida Republican operative asked alleged Russian hacker for documents to hurt Democrats

From the Wall Street Journal:

The hacking spree that upended the presidential election wasn’t limited to Democratic National Committee memos and Clinton-aide emails posted on websites. The hacker also privately sent Democratic voter-turnout analyses to a Republican political operative in Florida named Aaron Nevins.

Learning that hacker “Guccifer 2.0” had tapped into a Democratic committee that helps House candidates, Mr. Nevins wrote to the hacker to say: “Feel free to send any Florida based information.”

Ten days later, Mr. Nevins received 2.5 gigabytes of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee documents, some of which he posted on a blog called that he ran using a pseudonym.

Soon after, the hacker sent a link to the blog article to Roger Stone, a longtime informal adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump, along with Mr. Nevins’ analysis of the hacked data.

Mr. Nevins confirmed his exchanges after The Wall Street Journal identified him first as the operator of the HelloFLA blog and then as the recipient of the stolen DCCC data. The Journal also reviewed copies of exchanges between the hacker and Mr. Nevins. That the obscure blog had received hacked Democratic documents was previously known, but not the extent of the trove or the blogger’s identity.

More here.

Gov. Rick Scott signs tax cut bill into law


It's hardly the $618 million tax cut Gov. Rick Scott asked for four months ago.

Still, the Republican governor was more than ready on Thursday to celebrate signing a new package of tax cuts from the Florida Legislature into law.

"Every time we cut taxes, we are encouraging businesses of all sizes to create opportunities for families across the state and more money put back in taxpayers' pockets," Scott said.

The centerpiece of the tax cut plan is a $61 million reduction aimed at businesses. Florida charges businesses a 6 percent tax when they rent space. Under the tax cut plan Scott signed Thursday, that will drop to 5.8 percent. Scott asked the Legislature for a bill that would cut the tax by 25 percent.

The tax cut plan also incudes a 3-day back to school shopping holiday were school supplies and clothing will have no sales tax. That $33.4 million tax cut will cover Aug. 4 to Aug. 6. There is also a 3-day disaster preparedness sales tax holiday that runs from June 2 to June 4. That tax cut amounts to $4.5 million.

Gov. Rick Scott vetoes repeal of Florida's 'liquor wall'

Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday vetoed the hotly-debated "liquor wall" bill that would have repealed a Prohibition-era law that prevents grocery stores from selling hard liquor. The governor offered a hint of his thinking a day earlier when, in response to a reporter's question, he said one factor would be the past struggles with alcoholism among members of his family. But he said the decision came down to his signature issue -- jobs.

"I have heard concerns as to how this bill could affect many small businesses across Florida," Scott wrote in a veto message. "I was a small business owner and many locally owned businesses have told me how this bill will affect their families and their ability to create jobs."

The bill's supporters included big-box retailers such as Walmart, Target, Costco, Sam's Club and Walgreens, all of which stood to profit handsomely by the destruction of the wall. The opponents included locally-owned liquor stores, the statewide ABC Fine Wine & Spirits chain, and Lakeland-based Publix, which has invested millions in stand-alone liquor stores walled off from, but close to, its supermarkets. At least 28 other states allow grocery stores to sell spirits along with beer and wine.

The bill (SB 106) was one of the most heavily-lobbied bills of the session and passed both chambers by very narrow margins, a reflection of the powerful moneyed interests lined up on both sides.

The Senate vote was 21-17 and the House vote was 58-57. After the House vote, one lawmaker switched his vote from yes to no. In addition, at least three House members did not vote on the bill and were accused of "taking a walk" to avoid casting a diffcult vote.