February 22, 2017

House hands Rick Scott defeat on jobs programs, tourism


TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott suffered another political setback with the Legislature.

Over the last two weeks he has toured the state, recorded campaign-style automated phone calls and penned a sharply worded letter in newspapers statewide to pressure fellow Republicans in the Florida House to back off of a bill that would eliminate the state agency that has been at the center of his job creation efforts.

It didn't work.

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee responded with a rejection of the Republican governor's agenda. It voted 18-12 to kill Enterprise Florida and decimate Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency that Scott credits with helping the state set tourism records for six straight years. Seventeen of the 20 Republicans on the committee voted for the bill.

"It all comes down to: Is this the purpose of government?" said House budget chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami.

Trujillo said with all of the other state needs, the government should not be taking money from taxpayers and giving it to companies to create jobs.

His comments hit at the crux of a raging philosophical debate that has consumed state government over the past four weeks. On one side, chamber of commerce Republicans like Scott see tax incentives for companies and government marketing as critical to growing the economy. On the other side, tea party-infused groups see both programs as corporate welfare that benefits only a few companies.

Full Story Here

February 21, 2017

Daily recess requirement advances in Florida Senate

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Parent-driven efforts to require daily recess in Florida’s public elementary schools cleared a key milestone on Tuesday: An actual hearing — plus a favorable vote — in a state Senate committee.

Although similar legislation last year earned near-unanimous approval in the House, senators never had the chance to formally consider the issue, because one committee chairman refused to take up the bill.

Not this year.

The 7-0 vote by the Senate Education Committee gives the recess legislation (SB 78) a more viable path in the upcoming session, which begins March 7.

More here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald

PolitiFact: Do most mass shootings happen in gun free zones?

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In the wake of mass shootings at the Pulse night club in Orlando and at the Fort Lauderdale airport, Florida lawmakers are expected to act on a series of bills to expand where people can carry their guns.

The bills would allow concealed-carry permit holders to carry their guns in places such as airports, schools, college campuses, police stations and polling places. Florida leads the nation in conceal-carry permits with more than 1.7 million permits.

Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran supports expanding the list of where permit holders can carry their guns, possibly as a way to avert future attacks. (So does President Donald Trump, who promised to get rid of gun-free zones in schools and military bases.)

"Most of these mass shootings take place in arenas where you're not allowed to have a concealed weapons permit," he told CBS4 Miami’s Jim DeFede on Feb. 12. (By "arenas" Corcoran seemed to be referring to places in general, not sports arenas.)

Corcoran argued that people who commit mass shootings say they chose certain areas because they "knew nobody had guns." That raises an interesting question, but it’s separate from the focus of this fact-check: whether most mass shootings happen in places where concealed carry permits don’t apply, or "gun-free zones."  

Corcoran was citing research from a pro-gun advocate who reached that conclusion. But anti-gun advocates have argued that the data isn’t so clear cut; they see other patterns in the statistical evidence. Overall, the evidence remains murky and depends on how researchers define "gun-free" or "mass shooting."  

Keep reading from PolitiFact Florida.

Senate advances bill to ask Florida voters to tell Miami-Dade to elect its sheriff

Frank ArtillesVoters across Florida would be asked to decide if Miami Dade County should have an elected sheriff under a proposed 2018 constitutional amendment that passed the Senate Community Affairs on Tuesday.

The bill, SJR 134 by Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, would ask voters to require Miami-Dade to convert the county's appointed sheriff to an elected post.

In 1996, Miami-Dade voters updated the county charter to provide for an executive mayor system that included giving the mayor the ability to appoint a county manager who hired department heads, including the police director, making Miami-Dade the only one of the state’s 67 counties not to have a sheriff on the ballot. 

In January 2007, Miami-Dade changed to a strong mayor system, giving the mayor direct oversight over county operations including the appointment of a police director and other department heads. 

For Artiles, a Miami Republican who has considered seeking county office in the past, the current arrangement is devoid of the proper checks and balances needed for a local government. He noted that the Florida Sheriff’s Association supports the proposal.

“This is a no-brainer,” he said. “The sheriff’s association was very clear: 66 out of 67 counties have an elected sheriff. This is the most viable alternative to get this passed.”

But the proposal is opposed by Miami-Dade County, which argues that if county voters want an elected sheriff, they should be able to make the decision themselves, not get permission from voters from Pensacola to Key West.

“We oppose the entire state deciding for Miami-Dade County,” said Jess McCarty, Miami-Dade County lobbyist, noting that if Miami-Dade voters voted against it, the rest of the state could impose something on it. “I would ask you to see if you would want this for your community?”

Artilles countered that while McCarty was “a great guy. He works for the mayor.”

John Rivera, president of both the Miami-Dade and Florida Police Benevolent Association, said his organization also supports the bill. The police union has been a long-time foe of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and supported his opponent in the 2016 election, Raquel Regalado.

After narrowly missing an outright win in the August primary, Gimenez became the first incumbent mayor forced into a November runoff since the strong mayor system was implemented.

“Sometimes there are bills that hit the hornets’ nest,” Rivera told the committee. He said the current system violates the principle of separation of powers, noting that in 2012 the former mayor dismantled the office of public corruption to interfere with an investigation into fraudulent absentee ballots.

“We need some separation of power, otherwise you have absolute power, absolute corruption,” he said.

He noted that Gimenez submitted a qualifying check that was dated 2015 instead of 2016 and the supervisor of elections, whom Gimenez also appoints, allowed the Gimenez campaign to replace the check.

Regalado filed suit just days before the election but failed to disqualify Gimenez’s candidacy.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, who voted against the bill, said that asking 66 counties to decide the fate of another county was neither a “good solution nor a good precedent.”

“Whether we need an elective sheriff or not should be up to Miami-Dade,” he said. “I don’t think a very, very blunt instrument going statewide is the way to resolve this.”


'We choose life,' say churches calling to stop executions


IMG_6530As state lawmakers prepare to pass legislation requiring juries vote unanimously to sentence convicted murderers to death, a coalition of churches has a different idea: Abolish the death penalty entirely.

Members of the Florida Council of Churches and representatives from the AME and Catholic denominations on Tuesday called on lawmakers to pass a moratorium on executions, citing high cost of death penalty appeals, the possibility of wrongful convictions and the impact on victims' families being forced to relive their loved one's murder repeatedly in court.

"Even if we pass unanimous juries, we still haven't solved the economic issues and we still haven't solved the fact that familiesk eep being dragged through this trauma over and over again," said Rev. Russell Meyer, a Lutheran pastor from Tampa and executive director of the Florida Council of Churches.

What's more, they say, there is a moral problem with the state killing people -- even the most depraved criminals.

"The church has come today on the issue of life and death," said AME Rev. James Golden. "We choose life."

The religious groups are meeting with lawmakers to urge them to pass a moratorium. Lawmakers will consider death penalty legislation today and Wednesday, and activists plan to speak up in those hearings

So will Darlene Farah, a Jacksonville mother whose daughter Shelby was murdered in 2013. Farah has been urging the court not to give a death sentence to her daughter's killer, who she says she has worked to forgive.

"I know what it feels like to have a child taken away from you," Farah said. "The mother of the person who committed the murder is going to have her chld taken away from her."

Photo: Darlene Farah, whose daughter Shelby was murdered in 2013, calls for an end to the death penalty surrounded by church leaders in the state Capitol on Tuesday. (Michael Auslen | Times/Herald)

Should food stamps be used to buy soda and candy? No, says a Tampa Bay lawmaker

Should people who qualify for food stamps be allowed to buy candy and soda with them? A newly-elected Tampa Bay legislator says no, and he's pushing to change state law to prevent it.

MassulloRepublican Rep. Ralph Massullo of Lecanto is one of 24 GOP freshmen in the state House and represents parts of Hernando and Citrus counties on the North Suncoast. He's also a dermatologist who says that something has to be done about the rising rates of obesity in the U.S., especially among children.

"The fact that we're allowing junk food as the most common purchased item leads to non-nutritional states and disease," Massullo said in a Herald/Times interview. "I don't want the government to get into the nitty-gritty of our lives, but I also don't want government making us sick."

By 2030, he said, quoting a projection he had seen, almost 60 percent of the population in the state of Florida will be obese, which will be at a staggering cost to the state.

Massullo filed House Bill 593, which would add soft drinks and candy to the list of items banned under the EBT cards issued through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, along with alcohol, gambling, slot machines, commercial bingo and adult entertainment.

Asked about banning food stamp purchases of other foods with low nutritional value such as potato chips, pastries or sugar-laden cereals, Massullo said: "I draw the line with sodas and candy. Those are the two most common things." He added

Three freshmen, Reps. Randy Fine, Jason Fischer and Don Hahnfeldt, have signed on as co-sponsors. No Senate companion bill has yet surfaced. The House bill will get its first hearing Thursday in a House subcommittee chaired by Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart.

Read Massullo's two-page bill here.

Similar legislation has been filed in other states, but usually draws strong lobbying opposition from the food and beverage industries. The New York Times last month reported on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it said showed food stamp recipients spend 5 cents of every dollar on soda. The report quoted a nutritionist who said it's "pretty shocking" to see taxpayer money in effect subsidizing the soft-drink industry.


Advocates for gun safety set to take on Republican-led Florida Legislature today

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Steve Frappier was one of the lucky ones in baggage claim at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6.

As a gunman abruptly opened fire that afternoon, killing five and wounding six, Frappier escaped injury when a bullet miraculously struck the laptop in his backpack instead of him.

Frappier, a former Coconut Grove resident who moved to Atlanta last summer, is taking that life-changing experience and turning it into advocacy.

He has joined Everytown for Gun Safety and other national gun-control organizations in calling on Florida lawmakers to oppose a slew of NRA-backed measures this spring that would make it easier for conceal-carry permit-holders to have guns in public places.

Among those measures is one that now hits close to home for Frappier: Allowing concealed guns in airport terminals.

Some conservative lawmakers argue the Fort Lauderdale airport tragedy might have had a different outcome or might have ended sooner with fewer casualties had concealed-weapons permit-holders been legally allowed to carry their guns in baggage claim.

The shooting lasted less than 90 seconds.

“That type of legislation actually feels like the survivors are being blamed — as if we should have been able to have been armed and done something about it,” Frappier said.

Frappier’s story is one of many that advocates from Everytown and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America hope will resonate with lawmakers as the two groups host a lobby day at the Florida Capitol on Tuesday.

Full story here.

Photo credit: A bullet was lodged in Steve Frappier’s laptop after suspected shooter Esteban Santiago opened fire in baggage claim at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6. Frappier has become a gun-safety advocate and is speaking out against proposals in the Florida Legislature that would allow the open-carrying of guns and allow guns in airports and other areas that are currently “gun-free zones.” (c/o Facebook)


February 20, 2017

Bill Nelson's post-election pep talk: 'It has been a difficult slog'


+Sen. Bill Nelson sounded a little like the coach of a losing team in the locker room at half time Monday as he made the rounds in the state Capitol, delivering pep talks to House and Senate Democrats.

"I know that it has been a difficult slog," Nelson told a gathering of six Senate Democrats. "We ended up with one net plus in the Florida Senate. But the next time around is a very, very good opportunity for Democrats. I think you see the lay of the land on the national scene, and I think that's going to translate in all the races on the ballot."

The only Democrat elected statewide in Florida, Nelson is holding out hope that progressives upset about President Donald Trump's election will turn out in massive numbers to vote in 2018.

He needs that hope. He'll be on the ballot, too, defending himself first against possible primary challenges from several Democrats mulling a run and then against the winner of a Republican primary in which Gov. Rick Scott is already seen as a favorite in Tallahassee.

Nelson said he would "fight" against turning Medicaid into a block grant system "with everything I have because it's not the right thing for Florida" and called it a "double whammy" that could drain state coffers. He also decried Trump nominees, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whom he voted against confirming.

In the House, where Democrats have even less influence than the Senate, Nelson acknowledged the difficulty of being in the majority but told lawmakers to hold out for redistricting in 2022.

"Even though we've got our hands full up in Washington, you've got your hands full right here," he said. "But if you all continue to stand up and keep fighting for Florida just like you have, everything's starting to change, and you'll start seeing that as a reflection in the next election."

Photo: U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (right) speaks to Florida Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens on Monday as part of a pep-talk tour of the state Capitol. (MICHAEL AUSLEN | Times/Herald)

Richard Corcoran: Cut Visit Florida to $25M, impose new cost controls

Corcoran0213_8colOn the eve of a key committee vote, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran on Monday offered what he considers an olive branch: He would let Visit Florida survive but with a much-reduced annual budget of $25 million and restrictions on bonuses, benefits and travel.

A Corcoran-crafted amendment to an incentives bill (HB 7005) that will be offered by Rep. Paul Renner in the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday would require Visit Florida to agree to a series of restrictions as conditions for getting a $25 million a year from the Legislature.

Read a summary of the proposed changes here.

The quasi-government agency would have to post every contract on a state website; require the governor to approve all out-of-state and foreign travel; require that every contract worth $750,000 or more be given to the Legislature for consultation; require it to submit its operating budget to the Legislature every year; and require Senate confirmation of Visit Florida's CEO.

In a release, Corcoran said that Visit Florida's budget has increased by 169 percent since 2009, from $29 million to $78 million, and that the average state tourism marketing budget is $20 million. As part of the amendment, not immediately available, "Compensation of Visit Florida employees will be limited, benefits frozen at current levels and bonuses prohibited." Employees and board members will be prohibited from receiving food, beverages, lodging, entertainment or gifts from the agency or from any local tourism or economic development agency,

And in the event Gov. Rick Scott and Visit Florida still don't get the message, Corcoran's young team of audio visual experts has even crafted a new logo showing a construction cone in front of the Visit Florida and the slogan: "Reforms in progress."

Rick Scott: 'Absurd' House Republicans guilty of 'hypocrisy,' 'playing games'

RickScottGov. Rick Scott on Monday went after "absurd" House Republicans for "hypocrisy" and "playing games" in response to a post on this blog that quoted two high-ranking GOP lawmakers as saying they would vote to wipe out Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida as part of a broader "conversation" about the future of the jobs and tourism programs.

The earlier blog post that immediately got the governor's attention can be found here.

As tensions continue to rise in the state Capitol between Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, Scott sent an opinion column to all Florida newspapers for immediate online use and for Tuesday's print editions. In the op-ed, Scott ratcheted up his criticism of his fellow Republicans.

"That's correct," Scott writes. "Many of your elected members of the Florida House have decided their top priority this year is to eliminate funding for Florida's economy. They want to eliminate Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida ... They have decided to try to totally eliminate funding for the one area where we can easily show a major return on the investment of your tax dollars -- jobs are being created by more companies moving to our state and our tourism industry has recruited a record-breaking number of visitors over the last few years."

Corcoran has repeatedly said both programs are expensive failures and has cited a number of Enterprise Florida deals that collapsed. He exposed a secret $1 million contract between Visit Florida and the hip-hop artist Pitbull; and considers both programs to be "corporate welfare," and released a taxpayer-produced video last week that included the message: "No more corruption." As governor, Scott is chairman of the Enterprise Florida board of directors.

In an obvious reference to a Herald/Times Naked Politics blog post, Scott said: "Even more absurd, the politicians in the Florida House who already voted for this bill say they don't necessarily want to abolish these programs but instead want to advance a 'conversation' ... meaning they voted for something they don't support. This is hypocrisy at its best and these are the kind of games I came to Tallahassee to change."

In yet another jab by Scott that appeared aimed directly at Corcoran, who's considering a bid for governor, the governor said: "I cannot allow thousands of Floridians to be denied jobs and opportunities in our state just so a few in elected office can get headlines in their campaigns for higher office."