May 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 23, 2017

New DEP secretary, Noah Valenstein, says there's no conflict in political side businesses

Noah Valenstein@MaryEllenKlas

When Noah Valenstein, the newly appointed head of the Department of Environmental Protection, was applying in April to be the state's top environmental regulator, he left one thing off the application: Companies he started and his wife runs have been paid nearly $1 million by politicians and lobbying groups, many of whom sought to influence the administration’s policy or advance the governor’s political fortunes.

Valenstein, the current executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, was appointed DEP secretary Tuesday by the governor and Cabinet. He was hired by Scott in December 2012 as the governor’s policy coordinator for energy, agriculture and the environment and worked in that position until he left for the water management district — its board is appointed by Scott — in October 2015. He took a three-month leave of absence in 2014 to advise Scott’s re-election campaign.

Before he joined the governor’s office, Valenstein was director of legislative affairs for the non-profit Everglades Foundation from August 2011 until December 2012.

But while Valenstein was holding each of these policy jobs, his wife was also operating two political consulting and polling companies that Valenstein started: Campaign Facts, LLC, and Voter Opinions, LLC. Each catered exclusively to Republican candidates, advocacy groups and political committees.

In a statement to the Herald/Times, Valenstein said he has removed himself from the businesses, but he would not explain how he distances himself from the special interests that contribute heavily to the party, candidates and political committees that hire the companies.

“When I began my job as Policy Coordinator at the Governor’s Office in 2012, I immediately removed myself from all aspects of these businesses,” Valenstein’s statement said. “As Secretary of DEP, I will continue to remain independent of these matters, and I will take every precaution to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.” Read more here. 

April 17, 2017

In a breakthrough for Senate President Negron, Scott endorses reservoir plan with some conditions

Gov. Rick Scott added some tension to the feud between the House and Senate over priority legislation and on Monday endorsed Senate President Joe Negron's proposal to build a deep-water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee on existing state lands to reduce the need to discharge polluted water in fragile estuaries.

But the governor added a new proposal, urging legislators to find $200 million to loan the federal government to accelerate improvements to the Herbert Hoover Dike.

“I support storage south of the lake in the A2 Reservoir which utilizes state-owned land and does not take people’s private land,'' Scott said at a rare press conference about a pending legislative issue. "This is a big step toward protecting our pristine environment. This additional storage, in conjunction with our currently planned projects around the Lake, will help reduce harmful discharges to the estuaries in South Florida."

Sen. Rob Bradley, the Fleming Island Republican who has shepherded the bill through the Senate with a 36-3 vote last week, met with Scott early Monday said the announcement was "a huge step forward in bringings this in for a landing."

"The legislative process is about compromise and I look at the governor's statement today as nothing other than a positive development,'' he said. "Everybody doesn't get everything in this process...We now have the governor's endorsement, all we need is our House partners to get on board."

Scott said that he wants the state to lend the federal government $200 million to help accelerate the repairs to the dike by three years. The federal government has committed to repairing the dike by 2025 and, Scott said Monday.

"My goal is for the dike to be completely repaired by 2022, and I look forward to continuing to work with the Trump Administration to complete this, which would substantially reduce future discharges,'' he said. 

Bradley said that leaves many unanswered questions, such as where the money will come from and how the state will get paid back for its loan to the feds.

"Those of us in the Senate want to learn more details about what assurances we will have from the federal government that they would pay us back that $200 million,'' he said. "That is a federal responsibility of course and it's important the federal government maintain its responsibilities. They own the dike, maintain the dike. They built the dike and it is their responsibility."

Scott added what Negron has emphasized, that money for the project not be taken from existing restoration projects, such as the building the C43 and C44 canals.

"Also, it is important to me that whatever is passed does not impact any person’s job,'' he said. And embracing the position of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the governor said: "We have dedicated record funding toward Everglades restoration and I am confident we have the funds available to get these projects done without taking on more debt."

Bradley said the Senate plan does not call for bonding in the first year but leaves open the door for bonding in future years to pay for land under the state's existing bonding authority. Bradley said he wants to see how the governor envisions the plan working without that.

"We need to see the cash flow,'' he said. 

When asked if the governor, whose political committee has accepted $425,000 from U.S. Sugar, said he has not spoken to the sugar industry about Negron's retrofitted proposal which many farmers have rejected.

Here's the governor's statement:

Continue reading "In a breakthrough for Senate President Negron, Scott endorses reservoir plan with some conditions" »

April 13, 2017

Florida lawmakers ask feds to keep listing manatee as endangered

via @learyreports

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota is leading a push to reverse a federal decision to downgrade protections for manatees.

“This decision was disappointing and potentially very harmful to the survival of the iconic Florida animal,” reads a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “Based on widespread opposition from the public and scientists, we urge you to overturn this decision and restore manatees to endangered status.”

The letter said, “during the public comment period for the downlisting rule, nearly 87,000 comments opposed the rule with only 72 comments in support. We would also note that the scientists invited by the Fish and Wildlife Service to formally review the downlisting plan opposed weakening manatee protections.”

Letter signers included Reps. Kathy Castor, Daniel Webster, Alcee Hastings, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ted Deutch, Frederica Wilson, Val Demings, Darren Soto, Stephanie Murphy and Charlie Crist.

Read the letter below.

Dear Secretary Zinke,

We urge you to reconsider and reverse the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision last week to downgrade protections for the Florida manatee.

This decision was disappointing and potentially very harmful to the survival of the iconic Florida animal.

Despite the agency’s assertion that a downlisting from endangered to threatened would not affect federal protections for the manatee, the move could cause a broader reassessment of critical state and local protections for the animals.

In fact, just days after this rule proposal was announced, the Brevard County commissioners approved a resolution requesting that the Florida Legislature review slow-speed zones currently in place for boats and called for a reconsideration of the state’s Manatee Sanctuary Act, which established protections for manatees and their habitats in several counties, including Sarasota and Manatee.

As you may know, the manatee at one time was on the brink of extinction. We cannot support any action that could lead to such conditions again.

Manatees face a variety of threats to their existence, including watercraft collisions, habitat loss and red tide. Additionally, the warm water springs manatees depend on during the winter months are disappearing. We also would note that manatee deaths are on the rise, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

During the public comment period for the downlisting rule, nearly 87,000 comments opposed the rule with only 72 comments in support. We would also note that the scientists invited by the Fish and Wildlife Service to formally review the downlisting plan opposed weakening manatee protections.

Based on widespread opposition from the public and scientists, we urge you to overturn this decision and restore manatees to endangered status.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Photo credit: Associated Press

April 12, 2017

Senate approves plan to store and clean 78 billion gallons of Everglades water

EvergladesAfter more than 20 years of mapping the need for a deep-water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, the Florida Senate voted 36-3 Wednesday for an ambitious proposal that will set in motion the $1.5 billion project.

The proposal, SB 10, is a top priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and will use state and federal money to build a deep-water reservoir to store and clean water before it is released into the Everglades and to avoid toxic discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. The proposal now moves to the House, where it will be woven into negotiations over the budget.

The plan will create at least 240,000 acre feet of storage — that’s about 78 billion gallons — south of the lake by converting 14,000 acres of state land now used as a shallow reservoir to build a deep-water reservoir.  It accelerates the timeline for the reservoir and requires congressional approval. Half of the cost will be shared by the federal government because it is already on the list of projects intended to repair the ailing Everglades. Story here. 

April 11, 2017

99 apply to run Florida's DEP


The application process still has two weeks to go, but the resumes are piling up from candidates wanting to be Florida’s next leader of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Already 99 people have applied to replace Jon Steverson, the head of DEP who resigned suddenly in January, according to the Florida Cabinet which has posted the names of all 99.

Currently the agency is being led by Ryan Matthews, who had been the deputy secretary for regulatory programs before he was appointed as interim secretary back in February. Matthews is not among the people to have applied so far for the permanent job.

The Cabinet has set a goal of having a final vote on a new DEP leader by May 23.

April 06, 2017

Because Miami: DeVos drops in on rapper Pitbull's charter school


via @KyraGurney @harrisalexc

President Donald Trump’s controversial education secretary paid a whirlwind visit to Miami on Thursday, making her first stop at a public university since taking office.

Betsy DeVos started the day at CARE Elementary, a Christian school in Overtown, before visiting Florida International University, where she toured a nursing simulation lab and took questions from students and faculty. Then, her carefully choreographed visit took a very Miami detour — a meeting with the rapper Pitbull at a charter school he supports in Little Havana.

Standing on stage alongside Armando Christian Pérez, also known as Pitbull, DeVos was greeted warmly as she addressed a gym full of students at SLAM, a charter middle and high school backed by the rapper.

“I know that many of you are blazing the trails in your family and showing what can be done if you’re just given the opportunity,” DeVos said. “I want to encourage you, encourage you in your studies, encourage you to continue to pursue the passion that is inside of you, whatever that may be.”

Then DeVos met with students and school leaders to talk about the charter network. After the meeting, she lauded Miami for the city’s embrace of school choice options, including charter schools.

More here.

Photo courtesy of David Fisher

April 05, 2017

FPL drafted portions of bill that puts tough requirements on rooftop solar companies

Solar panelsThe parent company of Florida’s largest utility was so intent on influencing the implementation of a constitutional amendment expanding solar installation in Florida, it drafted legislation designed to create new requirements for homeowners and businesses that install rooftop solar and sent it to the legislator who was authoring the language.

The proposal, HB 1351 by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, which was passed Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee, contains sections that include verbatim language supplied by NextEra Energy, the parent company of Florida Power & Light.

The bill is intended to implement Amendment 4, the proposal approved by 73 percent of the voters on the August primary ballot, which prohibits tax assessors from increasing the taxable value of a home or business because of a solar installation. But, unlike a similar bill in the Senate, Rodrigues is using the bill to implement the amendment to also impose disclosure and paperwork requirements for companies that finance and install solar energy products on homes and businesses.

Florida’s utilities have largely remained silent on Amendment 4 but documents from the industry’s trade organization, the Edison Electric Institute, show it has conducted a nationwide campaign to raise concerns about the rooftop solar industry, including letters to Congress and state officials.

Florida’s utility industry worked unsuccessfully to pass Amendment 1 on the November ballot, which would have allowed regulators to impose fees and barriers to rooftop solar installation. Story here. 

On Jan. 18, Rodrigues accepted a $15,000 contribution to his political committee from Florida Power & Light, and $2,000 from Tampa Electric. Five days later, on Jan. 23, he sent an email asking a lawyer in the House bill drafting office to analyze NextEra’s proposal and compare it to the Arizona bill he was considering using as a model for his “consumer protection language.”

“I received the following document as a suggestion on the consumer disclosure for the Solar Amendment. Can you compare this to the Arizona bill that we sent and let me know the differences?” he wrote to staff attorney Yvonne Gsteiger.

Gsteiger responded that the NextEra draft “establishes extensive requirements before a solar electric equipment [SEE] can be installed. This could be a huge barrier to selling SEEs.”

On Feb. 24, Rodrigues filed his original bill primarily modeled after an Arizona law that was pushed by the utility industry in that state. He said the consumer safeguards are needed to protect against “bad actors” in the solar industry.

On March 21, when his bill came up for its first hearing before the House Energy & Utilities Subcommittee, Rodrigues filed an amendment that included NextEra’s language verbatim in eight different sections.  Download RE_ Feedback on Consumer Disclosure for Solar A... (1) Download Chapter 501 Electricity Consumers Solar Energ (1)


This wasn’t the first time FPL or its parent company provided documents to legislators advancing positions the company supported.

Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, acknowledged Tuesday that he received “talking points” he used when he presented his bill to senators. The bill, SB 1248, would overturn a Florida Supreme Court ruling last year that said that Florida regulators exceeded their authority when they allowed FPL to become the first utility in the nation to be allowed to charge its customers, not its shareholders, for speculative investment in fracking operations.

The Word document, titled “Gas Reserves Talking Points” and obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute, was sent to Bean’s personal email address by FPL lobbyist John Holley on Feb. 28. The document was authored by FPL’s Vice President of State Legislative Affairs Daniel Martell. Download Gas Reserves Talking Points V5 saf  Download FW FWD Gas Reserves Talking Points V5 saf docx

“Here you go. I would love to catch up if you have any questions, comments, concerns,” Holley wrote. “Thank you so much Aaron!!”

The two pages of talking points defend FPL’s “innovative approach” to natural gas exploration as a hedge against price spikes, how the practice of drilling for gas “removes the middle man,” and how “the proposed legislation will allow customers to reap the economic and price stability benefit of a robust gas production market.”

Bean said Tuesday he was asked to sponsor the bill by Senate “leadership” but declined to identify the senator, he said, at the senator’s request. He defended the practice of accepting talking points from lobbyists.

“It happens all the time. We get information from lobbyists every day,” he said. “It’s not unusual for a lobbyist to send talking points.” Read more here.

April 04, 2017

Negron offers compromise plan to build Everglades reservoir -- state-owned and leased land

EvergladesSenate President Joe Negron on Tuesday filed a sweeping rewrite to his top priority legislation to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee by abandoning plans to buy up to 60,000 acres of agriculture land and rely on more state-owned and state-leased sugar fields to store and clean more water to be sent into Florida Bay.

Under the proposed amendment to SB 10, which will be presented Wednesday to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the state would convert state-owned land in the A-1 and A-2 parcels, currently being leased by Florida Crystals and Duda & Sons, and use it to create a 14-foot deep storage reservoir.

The proposal reduces the total cost of the plan from $2.4 billion in state and federal funds, to $1.5 billion. The state's share would be $750 million, which would include an additional $100 million in Legacy Florida funds, bringing the total amount from the documentary stamp tax earmarked by the 2014 Land Acquisition Trust Fund to $300 million. The federal government would be expected to match the remaining $750 million. 

Negron's move is a signal that he faced a steep climb to pass the proposal in his own chamber. The changes attempt to counter some of the most effective arguments used by the sugar industry, which was aggressively opposing it. Although Negron's proposals had support from many Senate Republicans, Democrats were opposed and were prepared to vote in a block to derail it.

"We've listened to our constituents, our fellow citizens in the Glades, and scientists,'' Negron, R-Stuart, told reporters. "We have been working to find the right balance between the goals we have and addressing concerns of fellow citizens in the Glades community."

Continue reading "Negron offers compromise plan to build Everglades reservoir -- state-owned and leased land" »

March 28, 2017

Miami Republicans call Trump order on climate change 'dangerous,' 'misguided'


Miami Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo on Tuesday once again criticized President Donald Trump, their party's leader, this time over his executive order undoing many of the Obama administration's climate change rules.

The reversal is "troubling" and "dangerous," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. Curbelo called Trump's action "misguided."

Both lawmakers represent coastal South Florida districts directly affected by rising sea levels and other effects of global warming. They have already been critical of Trump's executive order on immigration.

"The administration's decision to roll back emissions standards is troubling due to the impact it has on sea level rise and ocean acidification on our South Florida beaches," Ros-Lehtinen said. "Instead of taking this dangerous path, we should be working to promote clean energy and other methods that will help preserve our environment for future generations to come. My coastal South Florida district is negatively impacted by this order and it takes us backward during a time when we should be monitoring climate change and working assiduously to stop its damaging impact."

"While I am encouraged the Administration did not ask the EPA to reconsider its endangerment finding, which declares greenhouse gas pollution threatens human health and welfare, today's rollback of emission standards is misguided," Curbelo said in a statement of his own. "Climate change is occurring and it is not a coincidence global temperatures have risen at the same time tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide have been added to the atmosphere.  We see the effects of climate change firsthand in South Florida, resulting in rising sea-levels, bleached coral reefs, and salt water intrusion. Climate change is also a threat to our national security and local economies across the country. We cannot, and must not, ignore these challenges.

"I continue to believe economic growth and dealing with this threat are not mutually exclusive. We have a responsibility to our citizens and future generations to support market-based solutions, investments, and innovations that could alleviate the effects of climate change and make our nation more resilient. In South Florida we know well that the economy and the environment are one in the same. Weak environmental policies ultimately lead to the destruction of jobs and quality of life. I hope the Administration will work with me and my colleagues in the Climate Solutions Caucus to Act on this in a responsible, bipartisan way going forward, but today that is clearly not the case."

Democrats also decried Trump's action -- including Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman.

 That prompted the National Republican Congressional Committee to criticize Luján for caring "more about serving his far-left environmentalist financial backers than New Mexico families."

The same NRCC will be tasked next year with defending Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen from almost-certain challengers in their Democratic-leaning districts.

Photo credit: José A. Iglesias, el Nuevo Herald