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June 22, 2018

Potential high-speed rail line linking Tampa and Orlando announced

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Gov. Rick Scott

State officials will consider private bids to build a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando, reviving a dormant project to link the two cities, Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday.

Brightline, the high-speed rail linking Miami and West Palm Beach with hopes of reaching Orlando, said it has put it in a bid to build track along I-4, leasing land owned by the state and the Central Florida Expressway Authority.

"As one of the nation’s fastest growing regions, Tampa Bay is a natural extension for Brightline," Patrick Goddard, president and COO of Brightline, said in a statement. "We are currently engaged in the RFP process, which is the first step needed to extend the system to the Tampa Bay region."

Taxpayer dollars would not be used, sidestepping the reason why Scott struck down a similar rail proposal seven years ago.

"This is an exciting opportunity for Orlando, Tampa and our entire state," Scott said in a statement. "Instead of placing taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, our goal is for the private sector to invest in this project."

Brightline's pitch prompts the Florida Department of Transportation to open up for other competitive bids. Interested parties would have 120 days to submit proposals.

Where the rail would go, how many stops it would have and the cost of a ride are details that are months or years away, but Tampa Bay officials praised the news as long overdue.

Such a connection opens up a whole host of opportunities, such as those in Orlando attending Rays games or Tampa Bay residents taking the train to an NBA game. Out-of-state tourists no longer have to choose between Tampa Bay’s beaches and Orlando’s amusement parks.

And residents who commute between the two cities for work or play would have an alternative to the unpredictable, often anger-inducing traffic jams that line the interstate between Tampa and Orlando.

“It’s a no brainer from a transportation perspective," Forward Pinellas Executive Director Whit Blanton said.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, a Democrat and the board's loudest voice for transportation, said she remains "greatly disturbed" that Scott canceled the high speed rail money in 2011, putting the region behind when it could have become "one of the leaders in the nation if not internationally with a high speed rail."

Nevertheless, she said she was "excited by the news" and hopes it will help the county's transportation quagmire.

"It has reached that point," she said. "We need to take a giant leap forward and hit the minimums for this that other communities have gone way beyond."

Weeks after he took office in 2011, Scott turned down $2.4 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail connecting to the two cities, stunning lawmakers throughout the state.

"The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits," Scott said in 2011.

Transit advocates, including the Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman have spent the past seven years wondering how things would have been different had Scott not rejected those federal dollars in 2011.

“It would have been done by now and functioning,” Buckhorn said Friday of the private rail opportunity. “But that was (Scott’s) prerogative and there was nothing I could do to change that decision.”

While both mayors were disappointed the region had to wait an additional seven years, they were excited for new transportation options that connect the two regions.

“I think this is exciting news and certainly applaud the private sector for recognizing the important impact mass transit can have not only on quality of life but economic development efforts,” Kriseman said.

But the announcement also prompted questions of election-year antics.

Scott is challenging Sen. Bill Nelson this year, and the Friday announcement prompted Philip Levine, Miami Beach Mayor and Democratic governor hopeful, to wonder on Twitter: "Another-election year ploy?"

"No, it's not," said Ed Turanchik, a Democrat and Hillsborough County commissioner in the 1990s, when another high-speed rail project was conceived. Gov. Jeb Bush later killed it in one of his first acts as governor. "It's very real. The third times a charm, maybe."

In his Friday announcement, Scott justified quashing the project years ago because it carried "an extremely high risk of overspending taxpayer dollars with no guarantee of economic growth."

But the bids back then would have required companies bidding on the project to cover any cost overruns and operating losses from low ridership.

Scott said that he didn't believe the companies, and that Florida taxpayers would have been on the hook for $1 billion. Politifact rated the latter claim "false" in 2011.

"Here's my experience in business," he said then. "If you enter into a project where it's not a good transaction for the other side it always comes back to be a problem for you. My concern with this is, you look at the ridership studies, and I don't think there's anyway anyone's going to get a return."

Kriseman and Blanton said one drawback of privately-financed rail is that ticket prices could be higher than normal.

But the impact of the potential high-speed rail corridor goes beyond just linking two cities, Buckhorn said.

The project has the ability to motivate local transit projects that politicians and advocates have been trying for years to get up and running in Tampa Bay, such as an expanded street car in downtown Tampa, bus rapid transit between downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches and a three-county bus rapid transit line that would connect St. Petersburg, Tampa, University of South Tampa and Wesley Chapel.

“I think (the I-4 rail line) will drive a greater sense of urgency in this discussion about local mobility options,” Buckhorn said. “I think it will be a great shot in the arm for the effort to try to get something on the ballot this fall,” he added, referring to a citizen lead initiative to add a one-cent sales tax for transportation referendum in Hillsborough.

Times/Herald staff writers Caitlin Johnston, Steve Contorno and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

A new wave: Florida voters will face many more choices this fall

TALLAHASSEE — Florida may or may not see a blue wave this fall, but it's already experiencing a new wave.

A torrent of new candidates for seats in the state Legislature, many of them Democratic women, qualified by Friday's deadline to give voters many more choices than in past election cycles. The newcomers include more than 70 women candidates across the state.

Some are disgusted with President Donald Trump and a dysfunctional Congress, and some are motivated by #MeToo or #NeverAgain movements or they want to ride that blue wave — even though Republicans insist there won't be one.

"I got tired of screaming at the television set," said Carol Lawrence, 76, a lawyer and Realtor who turned down MSNBC to speak to a reporter and is running as a Democrat against Republican Rep. David Santiago of Deltona. "If more women were in positions of power in this country, we'd have a lot fewer conflicts. We need to come to a place of peace in this world."

The Florida Democratic Party, widely criticized for lackluster recruitment of challengers in past elections, stepped up its efforts and fielded candidates in all 20 Senate seats on the ballot.

That's a marked difference from two years ago,when nine GOP senators won new terms without opposition along with three Democrats.

The Democratic Party's executive director, Juan Penalosa, said the party worked with like-minded groups, such as Ruth's List and The Women's March, to find more candidates.

"Republicans are talking about Trump and Russia and sanctuary cities," Penalosa said. "We think average voters care more about having to work three jobs, not having affordable health care and the lack of a quality public education system."

Republicans hold a 23-16 advantage in the Florida Senate, and one seat in Pinellas County is vacant. Democrats say they are targeting six seats that have been held by the GOP, three of them in Tampa Bay.

They are pinning their hopes on Rep. Janet Cruz, who's challenging Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa; Carrie Pilon, who's opposing Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg; and former Rep. Amanda Murphy, who's seeking the North Pinellas seat vacated in December by former Sen. Jack Latvala.

Another key Senate battleground is in Northwest Miami-Dade, where the moderate Republican Sen. Rene Garcia is term-limited and where Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters each make up about a third of eligible voters in Senate District 36.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. is the GOP's choice, and Democrats recruited Coral Gables firefighter David Perez, who drew a primary challenge from Julian Santos. Democrats made an unsuccessful courtship of former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, but they say it's a competitive seat they can win.

Democrats also like their chances in and around Gainesville with first-time candidate Kayser Enneking, a UF anesthesiology professor and mother of two children, who will be part of a Democratic effort in favor of Medicaid expansion. Enneking hopes to unseat Republican Sen. Keith Perry.

Even in a year when Trump is sure to be the biggest factor in state politics, it's a tall order for Democrats to pick off Republican-held Senate seats.

With its superior get-out-the-vote efforts, the GOP has outperformed Democrats in midterm elections in Florida, and party leaders predict that trend will continue this fall.

State Republican Party chairman Blaise Ingoglia scoffed at the prospect of a blue wave or a massive Democratic resistance to Trump in his first midterm election.

"Most people will vote on the economy, and we have a great economy now, especially in the state of Florida," said Ingoglia, a GOP lawmaker from Spring Hill. "I highly doubt that people are going to vote against this economy."

Ingoglia said Gov. Rick Scott, who will be at the top of the GOP ticket as a U.S. Senate candidate, will spend as much as it takes to ensure a strong Republican turnout in November. 

Ingoglia said the surge in the number of candidates was overblown, and that Democrats tried to recruit as many challengers as possible to force Republicans to stretch their money and resources in more races.

The burst of civic activism sweeping across Florida means a lot fewer incumbents in Tallahassee will return to office without opposition.

Twenty of 40 state Senate seats are up for grabs this fall. But in a major shift from recent years, only one senator, freshman Democrat Lauren Book of Plantation, did not draw an opponent. Republican Wilton Simpson of Trilby drew a last-minute challenge from Democrat Michael Cottrell of Spring Hill.

"There's been an awakening for a lot of people. I think people are really fed up," said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point.

In the 120-member Florida House, at least 16 members — two Republicans and 14 Democrats — sailed to new two-year terms unopposed compared to 31 two years ago.

Republicans have controlled both houses of the Legislature since 1996. The GOP has a 23-16 advantage in the Senate, with one seat vacant, and holds a 76-41 advantage in the House, with three seats vacant.

In what is believed to be a record in Florida, at least 17 candidates for governor paid filing fees to have their names on the ballot including seven Democrats, seven Republicans, a Reform Party candidate, and two with no party affiliation.

Voters will dramatically winnow the field for that race and many others in a statewide primary on Aug. 28, when both parties nominate candidates for governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner.

Some new candidates are the longest of long shots, such as Noel Howard, a Navy vet from Largo and a no-party candidate for governor who was one of the last to file papers with his service dog, Karma, alongside. 

Howard, who favors the full legalization of marijuana, will appear on the November ballot as "Grassy Noel," a nickname he claims he picked up in the Navy. He travels the state in a colorfully decorated minivan with the slogan: "Abandoned veteran for governor."

"I believe cannabis is going to heal America," Howard said.

 

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.

St. Petersburg mayor blasts attack ads on Gwen Graham, calls them "dirty Republican tricks"

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Four of the Democratic candidates for governor, clockwise from top left: Philip Levine, Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum and Chris King.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman blasted attack ads on Gwen Graham funded by a secret money group that supports one of her opponents.

Taking to Twitter and Facebook, Kriseman called the ads "dirty Republican tricks and tactics."

"It is disappointing to see an out-of-state secret money Super PAC come in to our city and attack a fellow progressive Democrat," Kriseman wrote. "St. Petersburg Democrats will reject smear campaigns. They want something to vote for - not against."

The Collective, a group that works to elect black candidates around the country and supports Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, is airing a new round of ads accusing Graham of not being liberal enough. They're airing this week on network and cable channels in Tampa Bay.

Collective SuperPAC, an arm of The Collective, has chosen not to divulge its donors.

St. Petersburg was the first city in the nation to limit how much money someone can give to PACs involved in local elections.

Kriseman has not endorsed anyone in the governor's race. Both Graham and Gillum stumped for him last year.
 
Geoff Burgan, a Gillum spokesman, has said the campaign welcomes the Collective’s help.
 
“They’re working to level the financial playing field between us and our multi-millionaire and billionaire opponents - one of whom has a net worth 11,000 times that of Andrew’s, and another whose income comes from her family’s stock holdings,” Burgan told the Times/Herald Thursday morning.
 

Trump tweets full endorsement of Ron DeSantis

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In case there was any remaining doubt of where the president stood in the race for Florida's next governor, he cleared things up Friday morning with a tweet:

Calling the Florida Congressman "strong on borders, tough on crime & big on cutting taxes," Trump cleared away any doubt that U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis has his "full endorsement."

DeSantis was one of the three Republicans that Trump endorsed in succession on Friday, as Martha Roby of Alabama and Henry McMaster of South Carolina also received praise from Trump's tweeting fingers.

But long before Friday, DeSantis's campaign was touting the president's "endorsement" on its campaign mailers and website. That's because Trump tweeted in December in support of DeSantis, saying his would "make a GREAT Governor of Florida:"


Some had questioned whether that tweet qualified as an "endorsement." Now, there is no question, and that is likely to encourage more big-time Republican donors to join Team DeSantis.

But DeSantis still has his work cut out for him. A recent telephone poll of about 900 likely Republican voters by Fox News showed  him trailing his primary opponent, Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, by a 32-17 percent margin, with 39 percent still undecided. DeSantis is a regular guest on Fox News.

Putnam's campaign responded to the tweet by citing that Fox News poll: "As the Fox News poll indicates, grassroots momentum behind his Florida First vision continues to grow," said Meredith Beatrice, Putnam campaign spokeswoman, in a statement. "Adam looks forward to working with President Trump as Florida's next governor to keep our economy thriving, taxes low and our borders secure."

The New York Times had reported in May that Vice President Mike Pence, a former House colleague of Putnam, had urged Trump not to meddle in the Florida governor's race.

But DeSantis brushed off those reports, saying it there's "a good chance" Trump will campaign for him. The DeSantis campaign has said that Donald Trump, Jr. will attend a Florida rally for DeSantis and his Freedom Caucus colleague, Rep. Matt Gaetz, in late June or early August, but no dates have yet been set.

At the very least, this latest tweet seems to indicate that Trump won't be content on the sidelines.

Clemency system riddled with discrimination and bias, lawyers argue

Florida's system of restoring voting rights to people who have committed a crime is riddled with discrimination and bias, including bias in favor of a political party, and violates the U.S. Constitution, lawyers argue in a new brief in a federal court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta will soon hear oral arguments in the case of Hand v. Scott, in which nine convicted felons are challenging the system of restoring felons' rights known as clemency, controlled by Gov Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet.

In its brief, the Fair Elections Center, a Washington, D.C. voting rights group, says state officials "invoke a variety of ad hoc, shifting, subjective and vague standards and factors: whether the applicant has 'turned [his or her] life around,' has shown sufficient remorse, or has an 'attitude' the board appreciates. Governor Scott has bluntly stated that the process is not constrained by any law."

After reviewing two decades of hearings, the lawyers cited a series of cases in which three governors — Scott, Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Lawton Chiles — showed partisan political bias in their decisions.

"In 2013, Governor Scott confronted Stephen A. Warner with his illegal voting but then the board granted his restoration application, after he informed them he had voted for Governor Scott," the brief states.

Citing a long line of cases, lawyers argue that voting is a right of political expression protected by the First Amendment, and that giving elected state leaders "unfettered discretion" and "limitless power" to decide if and when convicted felons may vote is a violation of the Constitution.

"For our democracy to stay true to its founding principles," the lawyers argue, "core political expression and association rights must not be arbitrarily licensed or allocated by government officials."

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker struck down the restoration process in February but Scott and the Cabinet won a stay of Walker's order from a three-judge panel in April. Oral arguments are set for July 25.

Scott and Cabinet members meet once every three months to decide whether to restore applicants' rights. The other members are Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Felons cannot apply for restoration of rights for at least five years after completing their sentences. The state has a backlog of more than 10,000 clemency applications.

As Scott said at the most recent meeting on June 14: "Clemency is an act of mercy. You have no right or guarantee of clemency. Our decisions are based on many facts and circumstances. While courts may make judgments in law, our clemency board makes judgments of conscience based on the suitability of each applicant to be granted clemency."

As the case works its way through the federal courts, Florida voters will also have their say on the issue this fall.

Amendment 4 on the November ballot will ask voters to change the state Constitution, to automatically restore the right to vote to most convicted felons after they have completed all terms of their sentences. The change would not apply to people convicted of murder or felony sex offenses.

Internet sales tax ruling could have major impact on Florida

From The News Service of Florida:

A U.S. Supreme Court decision expanding the ability of states to collect sales taxes from online purchases could have a significant impact in Florida.

In a 5-4 decision, the court on Thursday upheld a South Dakota law that allows that state to apply its sales tax to major online retailers, even if they had no physical presence in the state. The decision reversed a 1992 court decision that held that online retailers could only be required to collect and remit sales taxes if they had stores or some other "nexus" in states.

"(The prior decision) puts both local businesses and many interstate businesses with physical presence at a competitive disadvantage relative to remote sellers," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. "Remote sellers can avoid the regulatory burdens of tax collection and can offer de facto lower prices caused by the widespread failure of consumers to pay the tax on their own."

Brick-and-mortar retailers in Florida and other states have long complained that allowing some online retailers to evade sales taxes creates a competitive advantage for remote sellers. Consumers were supposed to voluntarily pay sales taxes on remote purchases, although it rarely took place.

READ MORE: Taxing online products and services challenges lawmakers

The Florida Retail Federation, which has long tried without success to get the Legislature to address the issue, hailed Thursday's decision.

"For years, online-only retailers have exploited this loophole that allows them not to collect sales tax, which has given them an unfair competitive advantage over brick-and-mortar stores," said James Miller, a spokesman for retailers. "This decision finally levels that playing field, , and I think that's all any business wants."

Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a business-oriented advocacy group, cited Florida's heavy reliance on the statewide 6 percent sales tax as a major source of operating revenue for state services.

"You've got to have a modern sales tax, so we don't have to have any other kind of tax that people don't want," Calabro said. "So, by relying on a sales tax, you have to make sure it's modern and up to date."

The federal Government Accountability Office estimated last november that states could have collected between $8.5 billion and $13.4 billion in sales taxes in 2017 if they had expanded taxing authority.

In testimony before the Legislature's House Ways and Means Committee in 2017, analysts gave a rough estimate of $200 million in potential annual new sales tax revenue from applying the sales tax to more remote sales.

June 21, 2018

Internal poll shows Maria Elvira Salazar with commanding lead in GOP primary for Ros-Lehtinen's seat

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@alextdaugherty

Republican Maria Elvira Salazar has a 22 percentage point lead over her nearest competitor in the Republican primary to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, according to a new internal poll conducted on behalf of her campaign and shared with the Miami Herald. 

The Miami broadcast journalist received the support of 38 percent of likely GOP primary voters while former Miami-Dade commissioner Bruno Barreiro received 16 percent. No other candidate in the poll received more than three percent, and 36 percent of voters are undecided. 

The poll is the latest bad news for Barriero's congressional campaign, which is reeling after his wife Zoraida lost a snap election for Bruno's old Miami-Dade commission seat on Tuesday. Barriero loaned his wife $95,000 from his congressional campaign account for her unsuccessful race, and he trailed Salazar in fundraising during the most recent quarter. 

Salazar has a 53 percent favorable rating compared to a 10 percent unfavorable rating, while Barreiro has a 36 percent favorable rating and a 16 percent unfavorable rating. 

"This survey clearly indicates that Maria Elvira Salazar is best positioned to win the primary on August 28th, as she captures a plurality of the vote and has the highest favorable rating," according to a summary of the poll conducted by Virginia-based McLaughlin and Associates, a firm that worked on President Donald Trump's presidential campaign. "With her already strong support and popularity, the undecideds have the potential to fall in for Salazar at similar margins."

The McLaughlin poll surveyed 400 likely GOP primary voters in Florida's 27th congressional district from June 11 to June 14. Interviews were administered via telephone and gave voters the choice to conduct the poll in English or Spanish. The survey was stratified by precinct, race/ethnicity, age and gender to correlate with actual voter turnout from the previous statewide GOP primary elections in non-presidential election years. The poll's margin of error was 4.9 percentage points. 

Whoever wins the Republican primary will face an uphill battle to keep Ros-Lehtinen's seat in GOP hands. Trump lost the district, which includes most of Miami Beach, downtown Miami and coastal South Dade, by more than 19 percentage points, the largest margin of victory for Clinton in the country in a GOP-held congressional district. Most of the national election prognosticators rate Ros-Lehtinen's seat as "lean Democratic." 

Salazar said her experience as an outsider in contrast to Barreiro, who has held elected office since 1992, is what gives her an edge with GOP primary voters. 

U.S. Chamber runs ad thanking Curbelo for immigration work

Curbelo (1)

@alextdaugherty

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is going to bat for Rep. Carlos Curbelo in the midst of an immigration fight. 

The Miami Republican has spent weeks negotiating with GOP leadership, the conservative wing of his own party and Democrats in an attempt to pass an immigration bill in the House of Representatives. 

Those efforts could fall short today if an all-GOP immigration compromise bill fails on the floor of the House, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is cutting an ad on behalf of Curbelo thanking him for his work on the issue. 

"Do you want to protect Dreamers? Carlos Curbelo does," the ad says. "Carlos believes Dreamers belong here, they are one of us and deserve permanent legal status. Help stop the unfair treatment of Dreamers, protect DACA, stand with Carlos." 

The ad is part of an initial digital buy that will later transition into a larger TV ad buy, according to U.S. Chamber communications director Stacy Day. 

Curbelo likely faces a serious challenge from Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in November, who has hammered the Miami Republican in recent days for negotiating with the conservative wing of his own party on an immigration bill after a petition led by Curbelo that would have forced immigration votes with the help of Democrats failed. 

The compromise immigration bill includes a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants known as Dreamers though it will permanently reduce the number of immigration visas available every year.

Watch the ad below: 

 

Blind trusts and what the millionaires running for Florida's governor say they'll do to avoid investment conflicts

Jeff Greene and familyJeff Greene's entry into the Florida governor's race Wednesday underscored the unavoidable conclusion: Florida's highest offices are quite appealing to the state's richest people. 

Greene, a Palm Beach real estate investor who has said he will spend as much as $200 million to replace Republican governor and millionaire Rick Scott, confirmed he'll be self-funding most of his campaign and "will spend whatever's needed to get the message out." He said he is "not taking a penny from special interests,' but conceded he will accept donations, as long as they are $100 or less.

Greene joins former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine, worth $133 million, and Chris King, an Orlando businessman, who are also the primary contributors to their campaigns for the Democratic nomination. 

Like Levine and King, Greene also told reporters that he would establish a blind trust to shield himself from potential conflicts of interest with his investments. 

"There will be no conflicts of interest if I am elected governor,'' Greene said, launching into his life story in which his father "lost everything" in the 1970s and moved to Florida as Greene remained in Worcester, Massachusetts, to finish high school and then attend Johns Hopkins University.

"If there is anything that I own that will in anyway pose any kind of conflict, I will sell it before taking office or I will put it in a blind trust. But I absolutely won't have any conflicts, that's for sure." 

He said that despite his financial disclosure that shows he is worth $3.3 billion, Greene said his "real worth to Florida is that he is someone that is going to go fight for them because I don't have special interest money behind them. I don't need to do this." 

But not everyone is convinced Florida’s blind trust law is trustworthy.

Gwen Graham, the former congresswoman also seeking the Democratic nomination, disclosed more than $14 million in assets when she filed to qualify Friday, including $13.7 million in stock in the Graham Companies. But Graham is not confident that Florida’as blind trust law really works, as evidenced, she said, by the lawsuit Scott has against him alleging he and his wife have joint control over assets in her trust, which is not disclosed.

Matt Harringer, a spokesman for Graham, said she's placed her Graham Companies holdings in a trust in order to distance herself from the management of her investment. But she has no intention to create a blind trust "because we've seen the problems caused by Scott hiding his assets from the public,'' he said.

Levine said Monday that he would also put his assets $133 million in assets in a blind trust. 

"I think when you're the CEO of an $89 billion organization, I'm not so sure you have time to run anything else,'' he said. "When you become governor, your No. 1 priority is to be governor 24/7. I only wish that same law in Florida would apply to the presidency -- full disclosure and everything else."

Greene said that having rich Democrats run is the only way they can beat Republicans. "The Democrat message is the winning message in the state of Florida. There are more independents who absolutely lean Democratic. The problem is, we have not had the funds to compete with this Republican onslaught that has been two to three times what we've been able to spend."

He said that if he wins the nomination, he will also "do everything I can" down the ballot to "take with me senators, house members, to finally get this state in the right direction."

Photo by Mary Ellen Klas: Jeff Greene with his wife Mei Sze and sons, Malcolm, 8, Brandon, 6 and CamerAn, 4, at the Florida Division of Elections office on Tuesday, where Greene filed his qualification papers to run for governor.

June 20, 2018

Curbelo says children at Homestead separated from their parents will be reunited

Curbelo

@alextdaugherty

Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told him during a meeting on Wednesday that the 94 children residing at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children will be returned to their parents due to an executive order signed by President Donald Trump that temporarily ends the White House's child separation policy. 

Curbelo said the children will be transferred from Health and Human Services custody to Department of Homeland Security custody to be reunited once the Department of Justice is finished prosecuting the parents who are currently separated from their children. 

"We're trying to get a time and a date to visit the facility," Curbelo said, adding that he thinks Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz should have been let into the shelter on Tuesday. 

The Homestead facility is located within Curbelo's Miami-to-Key West district, as the Miami Republican tries to find enough Republican votes to pass a compromise immigration bill on Thursday. A number of conservative Republicans appeared upset with Speaker Paul Ryan during House votes on Thursday, and if they vote en masse against the compromise bill it will fail. 

Trump's executive order is a shift from yesterday when the president claimed he couldn't act to end family separation without a bill from Congress. The executive order would end the policy of separating children from their parents while keeping families who attempt to cross the border illegally in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security. 

"We're signing an executive order," Trump said. "I consider it to be a very important executive order. It's about keeping families together, while at the same time being sure we have a very powerful, very strong border." 

Shalala still holds a strong lead in Miami congressional race despite weeks of pummeling

SP_shalala

Donna Shalala has been attacked by her opponents in the press, at debates and on TV for months now in a brutal Democratic primary to win a high-profile Miami congressional race, but a new internal poll suggests she’s still the clear frontrunner.

A poll conducted by Bendixen & Amandi International found that were the Democratic primary for Florida's 27th congressional district held in early June, Shalala would have taken 43 percent of the vote in the five-way contest. Her closest competitor, David Richardson, netted 16 percent, with Kristen Rosen Gonzalez at 8 percent, Matt Haggman at 5 percent and Michael Hepburn at 2 percent.

A little more than a quarter of likely voters were still undecided little more than two months out from the Aug. 28 primary, which will decide who will face the Republican nominee in the campaign to replace the retiring Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Congress.

The poll was conducted through live bilingual interviews with 600 likely Democratic voters from June 2 through June 8. The margin of error was four percent. As with all internal polls, the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

Download Shalala POLL 6.19

The survey, though, is the first published since Shalala’s campaign released a poll conducted in January, and the first since the field dwindled to five and the ballot was set for the Democratic primary. It was conducted after Richardson launched a TV and mail campaign that harshly attacked Shalala's record, and before longtime friend Hillary Clinton endorsed her campaign Monday.

The results are also fairly consistent with an independent poll given privately in April to POLITICO, which reported that Shalala was pulling 40 percent of the vote at the time.

But it’s not all bad news for Shalala’s opponents, who threw shade at the numbers Wednesday and said the poll was already outdated.

While Shalala is known among two-thirds of the voters in the district and the number of undecided voters has dwindled, the poll found her opponents remain largely unknown, suggesting they still have room to snare some of her voters as they roll out their campaigns and voters begin to pay more attention to the race. Richardson’s ad blitz -- which began in May and is ongoing -- also boosted his numbers, and Haggman only began airing his first television commercial Wednesday. Rosen Gonzalez has maintained that her own, informal queries show her in a much different position.

"We have the resources to make sure all of the voters hear our message, and we will be rolling out more ads in the next few weeks," said Helena Poleo, a spokeswoman for the Haggman campaign. "This poll was conducted before our ads were up, so these numbers don't mean much."

And while their attacks didn’t appear to have knocked down Shalala’s lead by early June, they did appear to have kept it from growing further considering that her “unfavorable” numbers grew from 8 percent in January to 18 percent in June. The poll also found lower favorable numbers for Shalala in June (46 percent) than the independent query released to POLITICO in April (58 percent).

"In politics, when a campaign releases an old poll it always means they don't want you to know what's happening in the race today," Eric Johnson, a political strategist for the Richardson campaign, said after this blog first published. "By her own poll, Shalala's negatives were on the rise three weeks ago as voters learned how she sold out progressive values for profits. If you fast forward to three more weeks of TV and mail about her record versus David Richardson's accomplishments, the poll results would be much worse for her."

Jacksonville lawmaker doesn't mention his bank failures in application for banking regulator

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State Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville

State Rep. Jay Fant touts his experience leading his family's Jacksonville bank as justification for becoming the state's banking regulator.

But in his application, released Wednesday, he doesn't mention the most important aspect of his experience: it was run into the ground under his leadership.

Fant, a Jacksonville Republican, spent 18 years working at First Guaranty Bank & Trust of Jacksonville, the last nine as its CEO. The bank was founded by Fant's grandfather in 1947, and at one point it was the oldest bank in Jacksonville.

According to his application, his "reason for leaving" First Guaranty was that it "became CenterState Bank."

That's technically true, but it's the nicest possible version of the story of First Guaranty.

The reason why the bank "became" CenterState Bank was because it was shut down by the Office of Financial Regulation in 2012, and the FDIC turned over its assets to CenterState, based in Winter Haven.

Banking regulators at OFR found that under Fant's leadership, the bank started offering riskier commercial real estate loans, including loans to people with questionable backgrounds. When the Great Recession hit, the bank went under.

That version of events is nowhere in his application to become OFR commissioner, overseeing the very regulators who shut down his bank. The Florida Cabinet could choose the next OFR commissioner as early as next week.

In his cover letter, he cites his "direct involvement with regulatory agencies including the OFR," but he doesn't appear to be keen on some aspects of regulation.

"As prospective commissioner, my primary objective is to provide Floridians with responsible financial oversight while ensuring that innovation in the marketplace is not unduly inhibited with draconian regulatory policy, state or federal," he wrote in his cover letter.

On Tuesday, Fant announced he was dropping out of the attorney general's race and would instead throw in to become OFR commissioner. He blamed his bank's failure on "wayward government policy."

We've reached out to Fant for comment but have not yet heard back.

Jack Shreve, 85; took on utilities on behalf of Florida consumers

Jack Shreve, a long-time champion of the rights of Florida consumers in cases involving telephone and utility companies, died June 12. He was 85.

Shreve served two terms in the state House as a Democrat from 1970 to 1974, representing Brevard County.

After he left the Legislature, he ran the Office of Public Counsel for a quarter of a century, acting as the people's lawyer on behalf of consumers in utility rate-increase cases. The post was created during an energy crisis in 1974.

"I love the job, and I've been at it for 25 years," Shreve said in a Times story when he retired in 2003. "A lot of people retire to try to get away from work, but I don't feel that way. But it's probably time for me to go."

Tall and courtly with an easy smile, Shreve had a low-key demeanor and avoided confrontation, and won praise for getting results.

"Shreve has survived not by being a bomb-throwing publicity hound, but a mild-mannered compromiser," Times columnist Howard Troxler wrote in 2003. "His demeanor is Jimmy Stewart-ish, or sometimes Columbo."

As the Times reported, Shreve negotiated many rate-case settlements with electric utilities and phone companies including a 1994 agreement in which Southern Bell, as BellSouth was then known, agreed to reduce rates by $300 million a year.

"When they (utilities) file, they know they're going to have to deal with him," Bill Newton of the Florida Consumer Action Network told the newspaper. "So that's kept things reasonable."

Shreve later returned to state government as special counsel and consumer advocate in 2007, working for Gov. Charlie Crist.

A native of Crestview, he was a U.S. Navy fighter pilot and later was a helicopter pilot in the Navy reserves while attending law school at the University of Florida.

At UF, he was a track champion, president of the prestigious Florida Blue Key and a classmate of Lawton Chiles, who served three terms in the U.S. Senate and two terms as governor.

Shreve also served as Cocoa city attorney, assistant state attorney and general counsel for the Florida Department of State.

Kids separated from their parents in Homestead are at the center of a political fight

Immigration Florida(3)

@alextdaugherty

Bill Nelson didn't show up for work on Tuesday, but he likely won't get dinged for it.

The Democratic senator fighting for reelection against Republican Gov. Rick Scott was 1,100 miles away from Washington, sweating in front of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children after being denied entry to the facility with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Dozens of news cameras surrounded him.

"This is not a good day for our country, where a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Congresswoman have been turned away from a federal facility because the Trump administration does not want us to check on the welfare and care of the children inside, children who have been taken from their moms and dads," Nelson said.

The moment has marked the most media exposure Nelson has secured during his Senate campaign so far. His face was plastered on front pages across the state and across evening newscasts, while his opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, saw his latest trip to Puerto Rico relegated to second-fiddle status.

The Trump administration's decision to separate immigrant children from their families after they attempt to cross the border illegally has turned into a political firestorm in Miami-Dade, where the presence of three facilities that house unaccompanied minors and children that were separated from their parents is the physical embodiment of a White House policy that is widely condemned throughout the country.

And it has given Democrats a chance to go on offense to blame the Republican Party for standing by as the Trump administration loses of nearly 6,000 children.

It puts Republicans, including members fighting for reelection, in a tough spot. Miami Rep. Rep. Carlos Curbelo has blamed the Trump administration for the situation in Homestead, which lies within his Miami-to-Key West congressional district, as he works with the Trump administration to stitch together support for an all-GOP compromise immigration bill in Washington.

"I do think that anytime a Member of Congress shows up at one of these facilities, they should be granted access," Curbelo said Wednesday morning. "It's the Congress that funds all of these government departments, and the administration should welcome members into these facilities to make sure they know exactly what is going on there so we can explain it to our constituents."

But even as Curbelo said that he would fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions for implementing the policy and asked him to stop it immediately, Democrats excoriated him.

Read more here

 

Democratic candidates for Florida governor plan to march Saturday at Homestead child migrant shelter

Dems brady bunch

Four of the five Democrats running for Florida governor say they plan to attend a rally Saturday outside a child migrant shelter in Homestead.

Andrew Gillum, Gwen Graham, Chris King and Philip Levine have all announced plans to attend. Jeff Greene has not said whether he'll attend, and a spokeswoman said Wednesday afternoon that he was on a plane to Tallahassee and could not immediately be reached.

The March to Keep Families Together is planned for 4 p.m. Saturday at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, on the corner of Southwest 288th Street and 137th Avenue. The event is a collaboration by at least 16 organizations, including the New Florida Majority and ACLU Florida.

 

The facility has become a flashpoint in a new federal policy of separating children from their parents when families are caught crossing U.S. borders illegally, though President Donald Trump said today he'll sign an executive order keeping migrant families together.

Click here for yesterday's coverage of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and state Rep. Kionne McGhee being barred from entering the shelter.

A foul mouth and filthy attitude: Was Miami's mystery Russian a spy or a con man?

Foto_fittedLying, cheating and charming, spying and scamming his way through the world with a warm smile on his face and a gun tucked in his back pocket, Henry Greenberg — or whatever his name is; he uses at least four — was born in Russia. But the sun and the swindles brought him to South Florida, which is now the backdrop for the latest chapter in the seemingly endless controversy over who may have have ripped off whom in the 2016 presidential election.

Greenberg, who has left a trail of arrests halfway around the world, is the mystery man at the center of the newest report of contact between Donald Trump's 2016 campaign staff and shadowy Russians. Greenberg stands accused by Trump associates of trying to peddle derogatory information about Hillary Clinton to Trump's organization for a cool $2 million.

But if it's true, was Greenberg part of a Russian government attempt to tilt the scales of the election in Trump's favor? Or a sinister undercover shill for the FBI, trying to lure Trump's lieutenants into an illegal act for which they could be prosecuted? Or just a run-of-the-mill Russian con man trying to make a quick freelance score for himself?

The strange and captivating tale of Greenberg came to light over the weekend in The Washington Post. The Post reported that two former senior Trump campaign advisors who had previously told a congressional committee that they didn't recall talking to any Russians during the campaign both changed their testimony. They said they now remembered having fleeting contact — "a matter of minutes," one said — with Greenberg, who wanted to sell them political dirt on Clinton.

The two former advisors — Roger Stone, who now runs a Fort Lauderdale political consulting company, and Michael Caputo, co-owner of the Miami Beach-based public relations company Zeppelin Communications — said they originally dismissed Greenberg as "crazy" and a "waste of time" and promptly forgot about him. They didn't mention him when they were questioned under oath by the House Intelligence Committee as part of the burgeoning number of Washington investigations of possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

But in April, according to Caputo, as his attorney grilled him in preparation for questioning by the Senate Intelligence Committee as well as FBI agents working for special counsel Robert Mueller, Caputo suddenly remembered the encounter. Greenberg had allegedly reached out to Caputo's business partner with the offer of information, after which Caputo asked Stone to take the meeting.

His memory allegedly refreshed, Caputo told both the Senate investigators and the FBI about Greenberg — but was surprised that the FBI agents already seemed more familiar with the subject.

Read the rest by clicking here.

Gwen Graham's second-biggest donor has been fined nearly $2 million for environmental violations

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Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham.

As Gwen Graham's campaign for governor continues to rack up financial contributors, one of her top money-makers stands out.

It's not her father, Bob Graham, the former governor and senator who's given a quarter-million dollars. Nor is it his old college fraternity brother, a Winter Park developer who's poured in $150,000.

It's actually a Lynn Haven contractor who's been fined nearly $2 million by state and federal authorities for various environmental violations.

James D. Finch, owner of Phoenix Construction Services outside Panama City, has given $290,000 to her campaign so far, making him the second-biggest donor to her campaign. (The top giver is easily Emily's List, the organization giving loads of money to "pro-choice Democratic women" across the country.) 

Over the decades, he's been cited multiple times, none bigger than in 2009, when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection levied a $1.7 fine for environmental permit violations.

Here's what happened, according to Politifact:

Finch, a former NASCAR team owner, has given to Republicans and Democrats over the years, but he's chosen to side with centrist Democrats as of late.

He gave more than $200,000 to then-Democrat Charlie Crist's run for governor four years ago, and got called out by Republicans for flying Crist around in his private plane. They dubbed him a "serial polluter" in campaign commercials.

Check out the extensive Politifact piece on Finch's record here.

Finch didn't respond to a request for comment left with his company, Phoenix Construction.

But a year ago, he told Politico that he thought Graham did a good job during her two years in Congress, citing her 2015 vote in support of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Since that quote, he's poured another $240,000 into her campaign. 

Graham's campaign isn't embarrassed by it, though.

"Yep, Finch has contributed. He obviously admires Gwen's leadership," campaign spokesman Matt Harringer said. "So does the Environmental Defense Fund, which has also given to Gwen — and the more than 20,000 individual supporters who have also contributed to Gwen."

The environmental nonprofit gave $1,000 this month, Harringer said.

June 19, 2018

Miami, Miami Gardens mayors heading to Texas border to protest 'tent city' with other U.S. mayors

Mayor-suarez

@joeflech

Amid growing backlash against President Donald Trump's policy to separate immigrant children from their parents — including uproar over an immigrant children center in their own backyard — Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert are joining a group of other U.S. mayors on a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border to protest at shelters housing unaccompanied migrant children.

The nonpartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors is paying to fly the mayors out to Tornillo, Texas, to join Stephen K. Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, to tour the tent city that has been erected to house children of immigrants.

Benjamin is president of the national mayor's group, which passed a resolution condemning the policy. The mayors of Los Angeles; Augusta, Georgia; Gary, Indiana and Rochester Hills, Michigan, are among the other municipal leaders who will attend.

Suarez said Benjamin called him Tuesday to ask him to join him and other U.S. mayors on the trip.

"Hopefully, they will give us access," Suarez said Tuesday evening. "The images we are seeing are very troublesome and appalling."

Suarez, a Republican, echoed bipartisan calls to end the separation of children from their parents. 

"It's contrary to our core values as a country," he said.

As Suarez prepared for the trip, controversy continued to swell in his own county Tuesday as U.S Sen. Bill Nelson and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz were blocked from entering a Homestead shelter housing as many as 1,000 immigrant children.

The mayor, who will return to Miami late Thursday, said he attempted to arrange a visit to the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children but was told he wouldn't be allowed.

FWC sets new requirements for airboat operators, spurred by death of University of Miami grad

IMG_3000

@elizabethrkoh

Airboat operators carrying passengers on their boats will soon have more stringent requirements to pilot their vessels, after a deadly crash that killed a University of Miami graduate last year.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved new course requirements Tuesday, following the passage of a law that directed the agency to set new regulations for commercial airboat operators earlier this year. The legislation, named for 22-year-old victim Ellie Goldenberg, requires airboat operators to complete a more comprehensive training course and pass an exam to pilot the powerful boats, which are popular with tourists in the Everglades.

In the last several years, commercial airboat tours have had little official oversight, with no required licenses for operators or specific safety classes. Though airboat operators are currently required to complete a general eight-hour boating safety course, no background checks are required and no education specific to airboating is mandated. The flat-bottomed boats, propelled by powerful airplane-like engines, do need to be registered with the FWC and have basic features like a muffler for the engine’s sound. But insurance is often not required and airboat operators have been otherwise unregulated.

A Miami New Times analysis found more than 75 accidents involving private and commercial airboats in the last three years, with at least seven deaths and more than 100 injuries.

The rule approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission Tuesday will require operators to be certified in CPR and first aid, subject to a fine. Anyone operating an airboat with passengers must also take a course with at least 24 hours of instruction, including 8 hours of classroom time and 14 hours on the water. Courses will be required to cover several topics, including state and federal boating requirements, navigation rules, environmental concerns, ecosystem awareness and the causes and prevention of airboat accidents.

Airboat operators will also have to pass a final exam of at least 50 questions, and course instructors will have their own standards too: at least 120 hours of experience operating an airboat in the last three years and no felony convictions in the last five years.

“Public safety is important to the FWC, and with the Legislature’s guidance, this new rule provides additional requirements for airboat operator courses which will improve safety measures for passengers aboard an airboat for hire,” commission chairman Bo Rivard said in a statement.

The law behind the new rules was approved during this year's legislative session after Goldenberg, a recent theater graduate at the University of Miami, was killed during an Everglades airboat tour last May. The 22-year-old died the day after she received her diploma when, during the tour her family took to celebrate, the craft flipped over and trapped her underneath. The other passengers on the boat and the operator survived.

Blood tests showed the airboat operator, Steven George Gagne, had high levels of THC, the active compound in marijuana. But Gagne was not charged with a crime after prosecutors said they were unable to definitively prove Gagne was piloting recklessly. Among the obstacles in charging Gagne was the fact Florida law does not set a standard for how much THC can be considered operating a vehicle or vessel “under the influence.”

Goldenberg's death spurred her family to push for legislation in Tallahassee that would tighten requirements in airboating. The bill, which was nicknamed “Ellie’s Law,” directed the FWC to set stronger standards for airboat operators and for required courses before they can pilot the crafts.

The rules will go into effect by Jul. 1, 2019.

Goldenberg's father, David, said the rules were a "step in the right direction" but insufficient in addressing his daughter's death. He said he intends to return to lawmakers next year to increase the penalties for violating the new boating requirements to make sure the law "has some teeth."

An earlier version of the legislation made violating the new regulations a more severe second-degree misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for up to 60 days, though it was amended down to a more lenient penalty.

"A misdemeanor means nothing — it's not even a slap on the wrist," he said. He said he also intends to advocate for a law punishing drug use among operators: "Just because there's no marijuana law in Florida yet is not a good enough reason," he said. Gagne "walked off scot free and he killed my daughter."

Photo: The airboat that crashed last year in the Everglades, killing recent University of Miami graduate Ellie Goldenberg. [Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office]

Lawmaker wants to lead the office that shut down his family's bank

Fantastical
Rep. Jay Fant, R- Jacksonville. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

State Rep. Jay Fant is dropping out of the attorney general's race to try to become the state's financial regulator, leading the office that shut down his family's bank six years ago.

In a Tuesday evening announcement, the Jacksonville Republican said that he wanted to become commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation, which oversees banks, check-cashing stores and payday loan shops.

That was the same institution that blamed Fant for the failure of the First Guaranty Bank and Trust, founded by Fant's grandfather in 1947.

At one point, it was Jacksonville's oldest bank. But under Fant's leadership, the bank engaged in risky loans, some of which state regulators said violated banking regulations. When the Great Recession hit, the bank was crushed.

"The bank's financial deterioration is a direct result of poor loan underwriting and a lack of sound lending department controls," OFR examiners wrote in 2009. "The board and executive management are responsible for the resulting deterioration as they failed to institute sound policies and procedures and appropriately oversee credit practices."

That report also said Fant accepted the blame.

"Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Julian E. Fant III acknowledged the board's responsibility for the condition of the bank. … Chairman Fant acknowledged that in hindsight he did not appreciate the gravity of the concerns raised in prior examinations," examiners wrote.

But on Tuesday, Fant blamed "wayward government policy" for the bank's failure:

"I was running a small community bank during the Great Recession and Florida real estate crisis," he said in a statement. "Our company, like all banks and financial firms, suffered tremendously. The federal government intervened by passing a massive bank bailout that helped the largest banks and left the small community banks out in the cold. 64 banks in Florida alone, including ours, went out of business. Wall Street won. Main Street lost."

Fant would be replacing outgoing Commissioner Drew Breakspear, who was pressured to resign by CFO Jimmy Patronis, who complained that Breakspear was not being responsive to people in the industry.

On Tuesday, Fant told Politico, which first reported his announcement, that he wants to instill a "servants culture" in the office.

He's going up against 22 applicants, including Linda Charity, who twice led the office in an interim role.

In April, Charity defended Fant's role in the banking failure, telling the Herald/Times that "people just walked away from their loans."

The Florida Cabinet, made up of Patronis, Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi, could pick a replacement as early as next week.

Fant's chances are likely better than they were in the attorney general's race, where he was falling behind in fundraising. And one of his opponents, Ashley Moody, was already endorsed by Bondi.

Herald/Times staff writer William March contributed to this report.