March 28, 2017

'This is an abomination,' senator says of political games surrounding testing reforms


Efforts by the state Senate to address too much standardized testing in Florida’s public schools this year are on the rocks after a key proposal was abruptly postponed Monday when one senator objected to what he called an “abomination” of the legislative process.

After forcing the delay, veteran Republican and former Senate President Tom Lee blasted his own party leaders for last-minute political tactics and for “stealing” components of a popular Democratic bill in order to salvage a separate reform proposal from Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, who is No. 2 in the chamber behind Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

“There’s right and there’s wrong, and just because Sen. [Bill] Montford is a member of the minority party — that’s the only reason his legislation isn’t up,” Lee, of Thonotosassa, told reporters. “This guy gets run over by the majority party just because they don’t want him to get credit for a meaningful, thoughtful piece of legislation that’s been worked on for a year.”

Lee added: “This is just such a flawed process to undergo, and I’m embarrassed by it. As a member of the Senate that’s been here 15 years and believes this process ought to work off of mutual trust and respect for the process, this is an abomination.”

More here.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file photo

March 27, 2017

FPL's fracking bill returns Tuesday as the only bill on the House committee agenda

Fracking Water Recycling_2The Florida House Subcommittee on Energy and Utilities on Tuesday will hear the proposal sought by Florida Power & Light to allow the company to expand its rate base by charging customers for investments in natural gas fracking operations in other states. 

It's the only bill on the agenda for the committee's three-hour time slot and it's sudden appearance on the committee calendar surprised even the committee's chair, Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, who had been told by House leaders that the bill was not going to get a hearing.

"This is a jump ball bill, is what I'm told,'' said Peters said, who opposes the bill. "There are so many freshman on that committee that I'm not sure they'll know what a jump ball is."

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, the chairman of the Commerce Committee which will hear the bill if it's approved --  as expected -- by the subcommittee, also deflected responsibility for putting the industry-sought bill on the agenda. He would not explain who added it. 

"I did not ask for that to be on the agenda,'' he said. "I reviewed the agenda that had it on it. Nobody forces anybody to hear any bill."

The bill, HB 1043 by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, would give the Florida Public Service Commission the authority to allow utilities that generate at least 65 percent of their electricity using natural gas to invest in oil and natural gas exploration, including fracking.  

Although FPL is the only utility that could meet the criteria to qualify today, Duke Energy Florida, Inc., and Gulf Power Company are expected to qualify in the near future, if the bill is approved, according to an analysis by the House staff. It would also be the first time in the nation that a utility company would be allowed to shift the risk of an exploratory drilling to customers, instead of shareholders, without determining whether the investment is prudent, the analysis said.

The bill is aggressively opposed by environmental advocates, large utility users, and the AARP, which has urged its members to call committee and write legislators and voice their opposition.

Continue reading "FPL's fracking bill returns Tuesday as the only bill on the House committee agenda" »

Corcoran law firm's ties to Enterprise Florida prompts action by Gov. Scott

Gov. Rick Scott's chief of staff on Monday directed every state agency to report any case in which an agency pays a law firm that also employs a member of the Legislature, calling it a potential conflict of interest.

RCethicsThe memo from Kim McDougal came in response to a Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times report that disclosed that Enterprise Florida, the agency that House Speaker Richard Corcoran (in photo) is trying to abolish, has paid more than $235,000 in legal fees since 2011 to the Orlando- based law firm of Broad & Cassel, which employs Corcoran.

"The employment of a legislator by a law firm that does business with the state could easily be perceived as a conflict of interest," McDougal wrote. Her memo cited a provision in the Code of Ethics that prohibit public officers or employees from having an employment or contractual relationship with any business that is subject to the regulation of or is doing business with the state agency that employs the officer or employee.    

"Specifically, it is important to know that the spirit and letter of the law are being followed regarding legislators' or state employees'  contractual relationships with state agencies," McDougal wrote.

Corcoran has said that Enterprise Florida paid Broad & Cassel for legal work before he joined the firm in 2011. Corcoran also has said he was not personally aware that his firm did legal work for Enterprise Florida.

McDougal said she wants a report from every state agency by noon next Monday, April 3.

Read the McDougal memo here.

Florida House panel strips foreign language swap from computer coding bill


The Florida House isn't supporting a controversial proposal to let high school students count computer coding as a foreign language course, likely stalling the concept for the second-straight session.

Instead, a House subcommittee on Monday passed an amended version of HB 265 that removes any mention of foreign languages and focuses more on how the state Department of Education can better promote computer science learning in Florida's public schools.

The original proposal -- which was first pitched in 2016 but didn't pass -- hasn't gotten very much traction so far this session. The Senate version of it (SB 104) cleared its first of two committees during an early committee week in January, but it hasn't been taken up again since.

Monday's hearing in the House Pre-K-12 Quality Subcommittee was the first for the House bill.

More here.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file photo

30 for 30 director and state lawmaker spar on Twitter over accusation of 'pay to play' politics

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Florida Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, this weekend unleashed a Twitter rant at the director behind Cocaine Cowboys and popular ESPN 30 for 30 specials including The U after the lawmaker was accused of engaging in "pay to play" politics to stifle medical marijuana.

Grant is angling for the state to give $500,000 to fund a "marijuana abuse prevention outreach program" in the wake of November's overwhelming vote to allow medical cannabis in Florida. That money would go to Drug Free America, the foundation run by Mel and Betty Sembler, a well-connected couple in Republican circles whose role in the anti-drug movement is highly controversial.

The Semblers dropped $1 million and helped raise an additional $2.4 million for Drug Free Florida, the political committee that aimed to kill Amendment 2, which permitted medical marijuana, in the last election.

Though they have donated to many Tampa Bay Republicans, they have not contributed directly to Grant or a political committee he controls, and there is no evidence in public financial disclosure records that they have given him money personally.

But seeing the connections between Grant's budget ask and the Semblers in a post from the conservative outlet Sunshine State News over the weekend, director Billy Corben called the representative out on Twitter.

"He's 'making money as he builds his career.' Pay to play pays well," Corben tweeted. (The whole back-and-forth is here.)

As proof, he pointed to a 2015 Times/Herald story that showed Grant's net worth increased more than anyone else in the Legislature since he was elected -- from -$5,780 in 2010 to $146,327 in 2015. (It was $153,833 on June 14, 2016, according to the most recent disclosure.)

That story relied on financial disclosures made public by the Florida Commission on Ethics and did not track the source of each lawmaker's growth in wealth. And it's important to note the Times/Herald reporting was about personal net worth, not campaign contributions, and that there is no evidence that Grant has ever received money from the Semblers.

After Corben leveled his accusation, Grant pushed back. In a series of 30 tweets (30 for 30, get it?), he said the rise in net worth came after his parents repaid him for his Stetson College of Law degree, upholding their end of a deal and allowing him to pay off student loans. He also put down a down payment on a house, which has risen in value as the market recovered, he said.

"My parents gave me opportunities in life I wish every kid had," Grant wrote in the 12th of 30 tweets. In the next, he said, "But if them helping me get an education = pay to play, we've hit a new low in politics."

Corben did not seem convinced, but tweeted back in his own mini-tweet storm that "a simple (single tweet) reply to my question will suffice."

Still, one point of agreement between the two men: Grant loves 30 for 30.

"Closest I'll ever come to making @30for30 is these 30 tweets," he tweeted.

Photo: Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa. (Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times)

PolitiFact: A look at Richard Corcoran's claims about Enterprise Florida and Lockheed Martin


via @allisonbgraves

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran told a story about Lockheed Martin as an example of how easy it is to walk back ambitious job goals prescribed in state incentive contracts.

Speaking recently at the Panhandle Tiger Bay Club, Corcoran said, "I say, I promise you 305 jobs, and then I come back to you and say, ‘Hey, I'm not close on the jobs. Can you help me out?' You know what they do? ‘No problem, we'll amend your contract. How many jobs can you deliver?' Six. ‘Fine. Now, the contract says you will deliver six jobs.' And then we go out and tout it community to community as a success."

Corcoran continued: "That's a true story, Lockheed Martin." 

Corcoran's tale has some truth but oversimplifies what happened. PolitiFact Florida has the Truth-O-Meter rating

March 26, 2017

Adam Putnam and the political committee disclosure that fails to disclose

Adam Putnam APAgriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has raised more than $9.4 million for a 2018 governor’s race he has yet to announce and, in the last two years, spent $1.8 million of it on a Lakeland-based political consulting firm that has failed to disclose how the expenses were paid.

According to reports filed with the Florida Division of Elections, 70 percent of the $2.6 million spent by Putnam’s political committee, Florida Grown, went to Silloh Consulting, operated by Justin Hollis, the 36-year-old political consultant and real estate investor who manages Putnam’s political fund.

Nearly $1.3 million in lump sum payments went for the purpose of political consulting, according to the reports.

How much of that was used to compensate vendors, pollsters, fundraisers, advertisers, opposition researchers, media interests and others? His report doesn’t say, raising legal issues about whether the report is in compliance with state campaign finance law that requires all major expenditures to be reported, and federal tax law, which requires that political committees disclose the campaigns for which they are operating.

“The purpose of the law is: who gave it, who got it,” said Mike Cochran, who wrote much of the existing disclosure laws as the legal counsel at the Department of State’s Division of Elections in the 1990s and is now retired from state government. “If the expenditures are being made with the intent to not disclose, that would be something that is potentially a violation of the elections code.”

According to Division of Election records, Florida Grown paid Silloh Consulting more than $14,350 for advertising, $16,300 for event expenses and supplies, $1,488 for food and beverage, $4,300 for meals, phones and utilities. But $1.3 million, and more than 50 individual checks as much as $92,000, were written for “political consulting,” “consulting,” or “management consulting.”

Hollis defended the practice, saying it was not a story. He said it is not accurate to conclude that he is personally making as much as $75,000 a month for the funds received by his consulting firm but would not explain how the practice complies with Florida campaign finance law.

“Silloh Consulting is a Florida-based small business that consists of multiple individuals and offers a myriad of political consulting services, including fundraising, event planning, communications and outreach, among others,’’ he said in a statement.

Abby DuPree, the Florida Grown treasurer, and Richard Coates, the committee’s lawyer, declined requests for comment. Putnam is a Republican who is widely expected to announce his candidacy for governor later this year.

State election law requires any political committee to detail “the full name and address of each person to whom expenditures have been made by or on behalf of the committee or candidate within the reporting period” and specifies that the “primary purpose of an expenditure shall be that purpose ... that comprises 80 percent of such expenditure.” More here. 

Photo credit: Associated Press


March 24, 2017

Florida House committee proposes changes to school recess bill

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Next week would have been make-or-break for this year’s efforts by the Florida Legislature to implement mandatory daily recess in public elementary schools.

While the Senate bill (SB 78) sailed through committees and awaits a floor vote, the House bill had yet to move — and next week is the last week policy subcommittees are expected to meet.

But “recess moms” are in luck.

Clearwater Republican Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, has scheduled the recess bill (HB 67) to be heard Tuesday morning in his House Pre-K-12 Innovation Subcommittee.

However, Latvala’s committee is proposing some hefty changes, which might not leave all “recess moms” happy.

More here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald

Rep. Cary Pigman facing DUI charge after late-night Turnpike stop

PigmanState Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, was charged with driving under the influence early Friday after a state trooper stopped his Jeep on Florida's Turnpike in St. Lucie County and a Breathalyzer test showed that his blood alcohol level was .15, nearly twice the legal limit.

A Florida Highway Patrol arrest affidavit said Pigman's vehicle, with the Florida license tag H55, was weaving in and out of its southbound lane as the lawmaker headed home to Okeechobee County after the third week of the legislative session in Tallahassee.

"Once I got to the front passenger window, I could immediately smell an odor of alcoholic beverage coming from within the vehicle,"  Trooper Abe Dacosta wrote in his arrest report. "That was confirmed when I saw an open wine bottle in the front passenger seat."

The trooper's report said: "I noticed that his pupils were constricted, his eyes were bloodshot and watery while the defendant was standing in front of me. I asked the defendant if he had anything to drink tonight. He stated, 'No.' I then placed the defendant in the rear of my patrol car for his safety." The trooper said Pigman was so off balance that he "almost fell" while being given a field sobriety test. He was booked into the St. Lucie County jail in Fort Pierce and his Jeep was towed away.

Pigman, 58, is an emergency medicine physician and is chairman of the Health Quality Subcommittee in the House. Married with five children, he's a veteran of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army reserves who saw duty in Iraq, Guatemala and Kuwait from 2011-2013.

Pigman has engaged in spirited debate on Twitter because of his skepticism about the effectiveness of medical marijuana. "There's an old adage," Pigman tweeted last Tuesday. "Any substance which is claimed to cure everything rarely cures anything." 


Will state apologize to children tortured at state reform school for decades?



The children killed and tortured at the hands of the state at a reform school in north Florida just might get an apology after all.

Although a pair of bills apologizing to hundreds of then-children sent to the Dozier School for Boys for decades has yet to move in either of the House or Senate, one of the top leaders in the Florida Legislature said it is one of his priorities.

“We know those children were abused and tortured,” House Speaker Richard Corcoran said. “And the question is, how do you try to find some way to close that door in a healthy way that allows people to move on and recognizes the gross injustice that was done.”

Corcoran said he wants to move forward with a bill on both Dozier and another to address the “Groveland Four," a quartet of African-American men accused of raping a white woman in 1949.

"To the extent that we can move forward on both would be great," Corcoran said

Stories had swirled for decades about harsh conditions at Dozier, open from 1900 to 2011 in Marianna in the Florida Panhandle. In 2012, University of South Florida anthropologists began investigating burial grounds on the campus, where pipe crosses marked what was said to be the final resting place for 31 boys who died there. Using ground penetrating radar and excavation techniques, they found 55 graves, many in the woods outside the marked cemetery. Remains were found buried under trees and brush and under an old road.

USF anthropologists last year presented a report to the Florida Cabinet that showed most of the deaths were caused by illness, but others involved shootings, drownings and beatings.

After USF presented their findings last year, members of the Cabinet issued their own apologies to men who survived beatings at the school when they were children. Now. State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, wants a formal apology from the state of Florida. In Senate Bill 1440 he calls for the apology “to the boys sent to the Dozier School for Boys and their family members for the wrongs committed against them during the 111-year operation of the school.”

The Senate bill has not been heard by any of three committees it has to get through to even make it to the floor of the Senate. A House version of the same bill, sponsored by Jacksonville Rep. Tracie Davis, a Democrat, similarly hasn’t been heard in any committees yet.

PHOTO: A University of South Florida assistant professor steps among the more than 50 grave sites that were found at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. Tampa Bay Times files (2013)