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March 26, 2015

House committee workshops gambling plan but progress looks dim

The odds of passing a sweeping rewrite of the state’s gambling laws appeared to dim Thursday as a House committee began debate on a draft proposal to expand gambling in Florida and ended with no commitment to take up the bill for a vote.

Meanwhile, progress appeared to be occurring on another gambling debate -- behind closed doors – as key lawmakers confirmed they continue to talk about renewing the portion of the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe that expires in July.

“I would describe our discussions as having been more detailed than they have perhaps been in the past,’’ said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee.

He said that he has been in meeting with tribal negotiators “over the past several days” as the Seminoles discuss renewing their exclusive agreement with the state to operate black jack and other banked card games in return for an estimated $136 million in revenue sharing each year.

Continue reading "House committee workshops gambling plan but progress looks dim" »

Prediction for Pinellas visitors: 2015 session is headed into OT

A visiting delegation of local business leaders from Pinellas County got insights Thursday on where the 2015 session might be headed. The Pinellas Chambers Legislative Coalition heard Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater predict that a "vast gap" between the Senate and House over health care spending will force the session into overtime.

"My prediction is we won't get done on time this year," said Latvala, in his 13th year in the Legislature. "I think the Senate is pretty committed to properly funding health care, and I think the House is pretty committed to their position of whatever we do has got to be done with just state funds." He added: "I'm not making any plans for the month of May to do anything other than to be here."

The coalition's priorities include dedicating part of the new Amendment 1 money to beach renourishment; exempting business rents from the sales tax; reducing the state's emphasis on standardized testing for K-12 students; expanding the use of federal health care money to cover uninsured Floridians; and a series of local transportation projects, including widening the Howard Frankland Bridge from 10 to 12 lanes to accommodate projected population growth.

Jeb Bush: 'Stay the course' on Gitmo

From Alex Leary of the Tampa Bay Times:

Jeb Bush just wrapped up an interview with a Fox News radio host and said the U.S. should not close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

The discussion began when the host asked Bush about the desertion charges facing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

"To try to bring back someone who turns out to have been a deserter is just heartbreaking," Bush said, speaking from a cell phone on the road in Texas, while an aide in the back seat streamed the interview on Meerkat. "The president is totally focused on closing Guantanamo as an organizing principle. And it's all based on politics. It's not based on keeping us safe, which should be his first obligation. We shouldn’t be closing down Guantanamo. We shouldn’t be releasing Taliban that are openly organizing once again to attack us."

The host then asked more specifically about closing the prison. “We have a real challenge bringing people back inside of our criminal courts," Bush said. "It’s not going to be appropriate for every one of these folks. They themselves are threats to our country and so I’m not sure there is an easy answer to this. But closing it down for political purposes is not the right thing to do. Unless there is some compelling alternative, I do believe that we ought to stay the course."

Sen. Marco Rubio visited Guantanamo in 2012.

In a diss on Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, Rand Paul says he has best shot at beating Hillary Clinton

Among the potential Republican contenders, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., says he is best-positioned to take on likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

In an interview with Fox News host Megyn Kelly, who asked about his chances at a win, Paul said, "I think when you see my polling, the polling that's out there so far, nobody is doing better against Hillary Clinton than myself."

"Also though, when you poll people not just against each other, but against the other side, that shows which candidate has the best chance of picking up the independent vote," he added. "And right now I'm the only one that beats Hillary Clinton in certain purple states. I'm the only one that also scores above all the other Republicans in whether or not I can beat her."

We wondered if Paul really is doing the best in polls against Clinton in a hypothetical 2016 general election match-up. See what Lauren Carroll and Katharina Fielder of PolitiFact found.

Allen West's claim about the EPA and backyard BBQs

Hands off our backyard barbecues, says former Rep. Allen West, R-Fla.

West -- now the president and CEO of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a Dallas-based free-market think tank -- leapt to the defense of home-cooked meat in a signed item posted on his personal website on March 19, 2015.

The article was headlined, "Two things the EPA wants to regulate in your life," and referred to alleged interest by the Environmental Protection Agency in backyard barbecues and hotel shower water. Here’s an excerpt of West’s post:

"Ladies and gents, I just cannot ascertain when the absurdity of this current administration will cease. The weather is finally warming up and one of the rituals of spring and summer is the family BBQ. Well, it is for now until the Environmental Protection Agency has its way.

"As reported by Fox News, ‘the EPA is funding a $15,000 University of California-Riverside study to look at the particulate emissions you breathe when grilling over an open flame. … Why is the EPA concerned about BBQ grill emissions? Who are these people and why are they using one single dime of American taxpayer dollars for this tomfoolery?"

A reader saw West’s claim about barbecue and asked us to check it out. So we took a look at whether West was correct that the EPA wants to regulate the family BBQ. Turn to Louis Jacobson's fact-check from PunditFact.

Have lawmakers flushed the transgender bathroom bill?

There just wasn’t time Monday to hear the Senate counterpart to a bill by Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, that would ban transgender people from using restrooms for the sex they identify as, unless it’s on their driver’s license.

But other bills that weren’t heard in this week’s Criminal Justice Committee meeting are scheduled for hearings next Monday by the panel, chaired by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker. Among them: a plan to penalize sexting, which was inadvertently decriminalized.

Without a first committee hearing before the sixth of nine weeks in the legislative session, the Senate bathroom bill (SB 1464) by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, could be dead. Without a Senate version moving forward, so could Artiles’.

It’s worth noting that Dean’s bill doesn’t address gender, the main source of controversy surrounding the House proposal, which critics say would require transgender men and women to use the restroom they don’t identify with, possibly putting them at risk.

Instead, Dean’s bill would have banned entering “a public facility with the intent to harass or engage in harassment, lewd behavior, assault, battery, molestation, rape, or voyeurism. Now, though, he’s changed his tune on the matter.

“I feel we have adequate statutes covering issues of safety,” he said Tuesday.

Artiles’ bill (HB 583) has passed two House subcommittees and is slated to be heard in the Judiciary Committee next but has not yet been put on an agenda.

Warning signs were ignored by Broward sheriff in dead boy's violent, 'painful' life

Ahizya OsceolaThe purple bruises on either side of Ahizya Osceola’s jaw were telltale signs: Someone, a child abuse expert said, had grabbed the 3-year-old’s face forcefully enough to leave fingerprints.

But Ahizya’s bruised jaw was only a small part of what the boy faced. The state’s abuse hotline received a report on April 21, 2014, that he had scratches on both sides of his neck, and a “large bruise and bump” on his forehead. Two weeks earlier, teachers saw a “pinch mark” on one ear, a bruise behind the other and two bruises on his face.

Two weeks before that, Ahizya had a busted lip, another scratch on his face, a bruise on his shoulder blade and pinches and bruises on his ears. Ahizya told his preschool teacher that “daddy” hit him with a belt. His father, Nelson Osceola, instead described an active and clumsy toddler who frequently injured himself in run-ins with furniture, walls, a toilet and other children during an Easter party.

Broward County child protection investigators discounted the possibility of abuse and left him with a father who had a lengthy rap sheet — including aggravated assault charges — and a history of alleged drug use. The Broward Sheriff’s Office had one last chance to intervene in December, when the state’s abuse hotline was told that Ahizya’s stepmother had beaten his bottom, and he had bruises and abrasions on his face. But that call, too, went unheeded.

On Wednesday, Nelson Osceola and the stepmother, Analiz Osceola, were arrested by Hollywood police in connection with Ahizya’s death the previous week. He was found last Friday concealed by garbage bags in the family’s laundry room. Analiz Osceola faces the bulk of the charges: aggravated manslaughter, child neglect and giving false information to police conducting an investigation. Nelson Osceola is charged with one count of child neglect. Story by Carol Marbin Miller and Carli Teproff here. 



Jon Stewart: No 'climate change' for Scott but how about a 'surprise pool party'?

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, got some national TV airtime last night — but maybe not for what he’d like.

In a Daily Show segment on Gov. Rick Scott’s alleged ban on the phrase “climate change,” Jon Stewart showed last week’s Senate committee meeting, chaired by Latvala, when lawmakers gave Bryan Koon, chief of emergency management, a ribbing for refusing to say...those words.

Said, Stewart, focusing in on Latvala, who almost fell out of his chair from laughter: “I think that one guy needs the Heimlich!”

But don’t worry, Gov. Scott, Stewart has some suggested phrases to replace “sea level rise” in the Florida vernacular: Let’s try “moisture inconvenience,” “statewide jacuzzi-fication” or maybe get ready for a “surprise pool party.”

Thursday: Five things to know in Tallahassee

The 24th day of the 60-day Legislative Session could have been a lot busier had not the Senate cancelled its appropriations meeting. But it will still be plenty busy.

  1. The House Regulatory Committee will hold a 4-hour workshop on gaming starting at 8 a.m. The agenda includes a discussion on the gambling agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe that's set to expire in July.
  2. The Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee will meet at 9 to consider a plan to expand Florida's civil citation program, which allows police officers to prescribe community service to young people who commit minor crimes instead of arresting them  (SB 378).
  3. Also at 9 the Senate’s Transportation Committee meets to discuss a bill that probably should have passed many years ago. SB 908, sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, seeks to increase the safety of “vulnerable users of public-right-of-way.”  The bill would do a number of things, but one stands out: “Prohibits harassing, taunting, or throwing an object at a person riding a bicycle.” That sure sounds like a good idea.
  4. The House Judiciary Committee will consider a plan to make sweeping changes to the state guardianship system (HB 5) at 1 p.m. The measure comes on the heels of a Sarasota Herald Tribune investigation that found some guardians had removed seniors from their homes and sold off their belongings.
  5. The House will debate a series of education bills during a 3:30 p.m. floor session. Among them: a proposal encouraging school districts to adopt school uniform policies, a proposal to help new charter schools, a proposal giving principals more autonomy to run their schools, and a proposal giving schools more flexibility to meet the Constitutionally required limits on class size.

--MICHAEL VAN SICKLER, Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

March 25, 2015

MSNBC: Former GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison says she will back Jeb Bush in 2016

Former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison appeared on MSNBC on Wednesday and said she is going to support Jeb Bush for president.

"I think he is exactly what we need right now that will take us in the right direction," Hutchison said on MSNBC's NOW w/Alex Wagner.

"I think he will have a vision and I think he will implement the vision because he's been a governor, he's run things.  He knows business and I think he will help our economy," she said.

She also described as being a "Floridian" as opposed to a Texan.

Said the former senator: "I think he is his own person.  He is not a Texan.  He's a Floridian.  He has a great record as governor in his own right in Florida."

Florida Senate finds compromise on student testing

Florida lawmakers may have found a middle ground on the controversial subject of student testing.

A Senate panel tweaked its testing bill Wednesday so that the results of this year’s Florida Standards Assessments would not be used to determine whether third-grade students can be promoted to the fourth grade, or high-school students can graduate until an independent review of the exam is conducted.

The amendment was intended to be a compromise between Republican lawmakers who have vowed not to retreat on school accountability, and the parents and educators who have asked for a pause while Florida transitions to new academic standards and assessments. Their outcry has only grown louder since the state botched the roll-out of the online writing exams earlier this month.

"We want to do two things," said Senate Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who proposed the amendment. "We want to make sure students are being tested but not overtested, and whatever test instrument is used is reliable and valid."

The change led the Senate Appropriations Committee to approve the bill in a 15-1 vote. But it failed to win over the teachers union and some parents, who said the new language should have also prevented this year’s test scores from being used to determine teacher pay and school grades.

"It doesn't seem to be saving students from the high-stakes decisions," said Karen Effrem, of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition.

Read more here.

When Jeb Bush helped launch the rescue operation for Ethiopian Jews

via @learyreports

Jeb Bush this week has worked to assert his pro-Israel credentials after criticism from the right surfaced over comments James Baker, an adviser to Bush’s presidential campaign in waiting, made about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bush first issued a statement distancing himself from Baker’s remarks, made to the liberal J Street on Monday, and on Wednesday, penned a National Review column bashing the Obama administration's relationship with Israel. This afternoon Bush's PAC put out anemail soliciting donations to support candidates who “stand with Israel against a nuclear Iran.”

What Bush hasn’t mentioned is his role in a little-remembered secret mission to rescue an obscure sect of Jews from starvation.

As head of the Miami-Dade GOP in the early 1980s, Bush became a fixer of sorts, "tooling around Dade in a silver Thunderbird," as a Miami Herald story put it. He was not shy about contacting the White House when issues arose, sometimes to the annoyance of officials there, including, it seems, Baker, who was President Reagan’s chief of staff.

“James Baker explained several times that the White House could not be involved in any exemption decision,” a presidential aide wrote in a memo after Jeb Bush passed along a complaint from a supporter about federal noise regulations at airports.

In 1984, Bush heard from a Miami attorney Ron Krongold about Ethiopian Jews, the Falashas, who had fled their homeland due to famine for a refugee camp in Sudan. Bush, according to a report a decade later in the Herald, tipped off his Vice President father and the U.S. got involved in a top-secret mission, “Operation Moses,” to rescue them.

Thousands of people were airlifted to Israel, though the U.S. involvement dealt with hundreds of those, according to news reports at the time.

Opa-locka taxpayers may foot legal bills for commissioner’s corruption case


Taxpayers may end up paying the legal bills for Opa-locka City Commissioner Terence Pinder, who served probation on minor charges after his arrest in a corruption case.

The commission on Wednesday night will consider a resolution authorizing the payment of "reasonable fees" to Pinder's criminal defense attorney, Ben Kuehne. The city is also pondering giving Pinder back pay for the several years he spent out of office after his arrest.

Pinder was first arrested in 2006. Prosecutors had alleged that Pinder over the years engaged in a series of schemes, including accepting cash and gifts from a lobbyist working for a construction company doing business with the city. But after years of winding through the court system, the case fell apart.

Last year, Pinder pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor counts, while prosecutors dropped racketeering and unlawful compensation charges. Pinder was granted a “withhold of adjudication” – meaning no conviction appears on his record. He had to pay fines and was sentenced to probation, which he finished last month, according to court records.

Voters returned Pinder to office last fall, several months after he accepted the plea deal.

More here.


GOP group says Patrick Murphy voted for free health care for life for Congress

The 2016 Senate race in Florida officially kicked into high gear March 23 when U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, became the first major candidate to announce he will run for Sen. Marco Rubio’s seat.

Murphy, 31, has built a reputation as a middle-of-the-road Democrat, but he could face a challenge on the left from U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando. If Rubio runs for president, Murphy is still certain to face a heavyweight on the GOP side -- potentially Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera or CFO Jeff Atwater. Murphy has said he will run whether Rubio runs or not.

On the day of Murphy’s announcement, the National Republican Senatorial Committee unveiled a website attacking his positions on several topics, including the Affordable Care Act and health care for members of Congress:

"Murphy voted to keep Obamacare the law of the land but also voted to allow members of Congress to receive taxpayer-funded health care for life!"

Did Murphy vote for permanent health care for members of Congress, including himself? Actually, no. Members of Congress do not get health care for life, and Murphy has never voted to give them health care for life.

Instead, the NRSC is twisting generic votes in favor of the health care law into an entirely new -- and false -- attack. Turn to PolitiFact Florida for the rest of our fact-check.

Senate Medicaid expansion plan inches forward

A third panel approved the Senate's proposed alternative to Medicaid expansion.

But things got dicey Wednesday when the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the bill (SB 7044).

As Health Policy Chairman Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, walked his colleagues through the proposal, several powerful senators became engaged in intense side conversations. The discussions grew so large that the committee went into an impromptu recess.

Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, later explained that some members had expressed concerns because the plan would put some beneficiaries into Medicaid Managed Care plans temporarily until the state creates a new private health insurance marketplace.

"The options before us were to temporarily pass the bill while we worked through it and got people involved, or try to draft changes on the fly," Lee said.

Ultimately, Senate leaders decided to move forward with the plan before them, which would expand access to health care insurance to nearly one million poor Floridians. Beneficiaries would be required to pay small monthly premiums, as well as meet a work requirement.

Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, called the proposal a "major step forward toward solving a significant problem that is facing the state of the Florida and the nation."

Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rene Garcia, R-Miami, urged his fellow colleagues to "let Washington know that we are serious about taking care of our residents in the state of Florida."

"Let's not get caught up in some of the politics associated with this," he said.

The meeting wasn’t entirely a love fest.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, noted the shortage of primary-care physicians in Florida, and said the state healthcare system "does not have the capacity to treat a million new patients."

"I've got to believe you are setting yourself up for failure," Hays said.

But he, too, voted in favor of the plan.

The controversial bill is now headed to the Senate Floor.

Bean acknowledged that there was still "a long way to go." The House has said it won't consider the proposal, and it would need to win approval from the federal government.

Still, Bean was optimistic. "By sticking together, we can do a lot of great things for Florida and its citizens," he said.

Charlie Crist endorses Patrick Murphy for U.S. Senate

Former Gov. Charlie Crist endorsed U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, for U.S. Senate today.

“Patrick Murphy has the energy, integrity, and work ethic we need in the United States Senate,” Crist wrote on Facebook. “I hope you'll join me in supporting his campaign.”

Crist was mentioned as a potential contender for the race for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's seat but he decided not to jump in shortly before Murphy’s final decision to jump into the race which he announced Monday. Crist essentially gave Murphy a heads-up that he wouldn’t run (not so with DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz who also recently announced she won’t run statewide).

Crist's endorsement came as no surprise since Murphy's family and Crist are longtime friends and Murphy's chief of staff, Eric Johnson, was also a former Crist advisor. But this is Murphy's first major endorsement by a former statewide office holder. Murphy has also been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton.

So far, Murphy is the only major candidate to announce that he will run though he could face a challenge from the left by U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando. That would create a primary battle because Grayson is popular with progressives while Murphy has voted as a centrist while representing his right-leaning Treasure Coast district. On the Republican side, CFO Jeff Atwater and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera are strong contenders.


In Texas, the Bush family chases campaign cash together

via @learyreports

Jeb Bush's race for cash takes him to Texas Wednesday to begin a series of fundraisers featuring his family.

George W. and Laura Bush will attend a fundraiser in Dallas today. On Thursday, George H.W. and Barbara Bush will attend one in Houston.

Per the Dallas Morning News: The invitation, with the list of about 50 Texas supporters, indicates the millionaire-business class that have been big backers of establishment Republicans in Texas.

Among those joining the event are real estate developer Woody Hunt, oil man T. Boone Pickens, attorney Mike Boone, former U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans, former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, former ambassador to Switzerland Pam Willeford, homebuilder David Weekley, former U.S. Rep. Tom Loeffler and beer distributor John Nau.

ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Wednesday: Things to know in Tallahassee

The 23rd day of the 60-day session is here. It’s not halfway yet, so there’s still no light at the end of the tunnel. But that’ll give everyone time to mull over just how far apart the House and Senate budgets are when lawmakers begin discussing them later today.

Five things:

The House Insurance and Banking Committee will debate the so-called Right to Try Act (HB 269), which would let terminally ill patients access experimental drugs. The committee meets at 8 a.m. in 404 HOB.

The House Higher Education and Workforce Committee will take up a proposed committee bill at 9 a.m. that would prevent universities from raising graduate school tuition above the rate set by the state (PCB HEWS 15-01). The proposed measure is a priority for Gov. Rick Scott. (102 HOB)


The House Justice Appropriations committee will consider a proposal on sexting by new state Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale. The proposal (HB 845) fixes a 2011 law that inadvertently made underage sexting a crime that can't be punished. The committee meets in 17 HOB at 9 a.m.


Yes, Florida still has growth management laws. But perhaps not for long. The House’s Economic Development and Tourism subcommittee will meet at 10 a.m. at 12 HOB to consider HB 933, sponsored by Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud. A companion to SB 832, which is sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, the bill eases an assortment of land regulations, including allowing aerial photographs  to substitute for a survey in defining conservation easements on large developments, a new requirement for a protection for private property rights in comprehensive plans, and scrapping an extra layer of scrutiny for large projects called “Developments of Regional Impact”, or DRI.


The main event -- both the House and Senate appropriations committees will take up their respective budgets. The Senate goes first, meeting at 9 a.m. to consider the $80.4 billion budget bill, SB 2500 at 412 Knott. There will be about two dozen amendments to consider as well. Then at noon, the House will ponder its $76.2 billion appropriations bill, APC1. Both budgets are scheduled for floor votes next week.

--MICHAEL VAN SICKLER, Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

March 24, 2015

Legislators advance different prison plans while some House members seek compromise

As the Florida House and Senate advanced vastly different prison plans on Tuesday, some House leaders hinted that there may be room for compromise.

The full Senate advanced SB 7020, a proposal to create a Florida Corrections Commission, an independent oversight board with the power to hold Department of Corrections officials accountable for prison budgets, discipline and investigations. The Senate adopted a handful of amendments to the bill and will take it up for a final vote as early as next week.

Meanwhile, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted unanimously for it modest prison plan, PCB CRJS 15-07, that serves as a counter-point to the Senate proposal by stripping out all prison oversight and penalties. But, moments after the committee passed that measure, two influential Republican lawmakers said they want the House to consider alternatives. 

“There is a need for a practical outside oversight -- with reputable people -- that can make strong recommendations,’’ said Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, a retired law enforcement officer, after the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted unanimously for a modest prison bill, PCB CRJS 15-07, that serves as a counter-point to a broad Senate plan. 

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, chairman of the committee, said he hopes to see some changes in the House bill that will serve to provide more safeguards for inmates who have died as a result of homicides in prison.

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