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

March 14, 2017

Florida scientists fear hurricane forecasts, climate research will suffer under Trump

via @jenstaletovich

A growing chorus of scientists is raising the alarm over reports of Trump administration budgets cuts that would affect climate change research and hurricane forecasting.

On Monday, 32 Florida scientists sent a letter to the president voicing worry over reports that the Department of Commerce, which overseas the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has proposed cutting 17 percent from its budget, with the nation’s network of satellites taking the biggest hit. The satellites include a system of polar orbiters that provide critical data from the top and bottom of the planet and help scientists understand two of the biggest threats facing the peninsula.

“It would be like looking at the world with a half-blind eye and not two good eyes,” said Frank Muller-Karger, a University of South Florida oceanographer who was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy by President George W. Bush.

Last week, the Washington Post obtained a four-page budget memo outlining the cuts. The cuts were so steep and in such critical areas that scientists immediately sounded the alarm. Cuts also included the popular and bipartisan Sea Grants program, which matches local money for coastal research.

A Department of Commerce spokesman said Monday that agency would not comment.

A spokesman for Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said his office had not been provided any details. But in a statement, Nelson said, “We’re not going to allow that to happen. NOAA’s mission is too important.”

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s staff declined to comment on the record about the reports.

More here.

Photo credit: Joe Raedle, Getty Images

March 02, 2017

Sen. Negron goes to Washington; reports there will be no repayment for dike repair, no raising lake levels

EvergladesSenate President Joe Negron on Thursday sent a gentle push back against agriculture and other interests who are calling for alternatives to building a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce the algae-causing discharges. In an email to senators he said he was in Washington, D.C. on Monday and Tuesday and met with Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson as well as members of Congress, "senior budget staff, and high-level representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers."

The topic: "to discuss the best way to reduce and ultimately eliminate the devastating discharges from Lake Okeechobee,'' one of Negron's top legislative priorities. In classic Negron fashion, he offered a summary of his meetings and used it to counter the push for a bill by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, that would allow the state to provide an interest-free loan to the federal government to accelerate repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike in order to allow it to increase water storage in the lake.

Here's Negron's synopsis:

Continue reading "Sen. Negron goes to Washington; reports there will be no repayment for dike repair, no raising lake levels" »

February 15, 2017

Florida lawmakers in Congress pledge to deal with water issues

via @learyreports

WASHINGTON -- Florida's congressional delegation, which stretches from the far left to the far right, has successfully joined together to fight oil drilling efforts. Now the lawmakers are seeking common cause on a broader array of water quality issues facing the state.

A group of Republican and Democratic members met this morning to discuss algae blooms, red tide, Everglades restoration and Apalachicola Bay, even the sewage situation in St. Petersburg.

“Let’s get the politics out of this and make a difference,” said Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, co-chairman of the delegation. “We should be doing all we can to preserve the natural beauty of our state’s beaches and waterways. Coasts, lakes and rivers are key contributors to Florida’s thriving economy and serve as a vital habitat for plants and wildlife.”

It was the first meeting of the delgation this year and members posed questions to officials from the Army Corps and NOAA.

Attending the meeting was Buchanan, Neal Dunn, Gus Bilirakis, Darren Soto, John Rutherford, Francis Rooney, Charlie Crist, Al Lawson, Ted Yoho, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Brian Mast and Lois Frankel.

"We are a powerful delegation when we united together," Wasserman Schultz said, recalling the effort to fight oil drilling. She and Buchanan are preparing new legislation against drilling. 

Buchanan said he wants the group to develop a multi-year plan. "A lot of things have been brushed under the rug for too long and now we need to get a comprehensive vision."

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

February 14, 2017

Despite $100 million in legal bills, Florida loses water wars argument; special master rules for Georgia

Apalachicola Patrick FarrellA special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Florida Tuesday and in favor of Georgia in the 16-year water war over water rights to the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River Basin.

The ruling by Ralph Lancaster, Jr., a civil attorney from Portland, Maine, concluded that Florida failed to prove that new limits on Georgia’s water consumption were needed. He made the ruling after five weeks of hearings last summer and more than $98 million in attorneys fees spent on the case by the state of Florida.

“Florida has failed to show that a consumption cap will afford adequate relief,”  Lancaster said in a 70-page ruling.In his ruling, Lancaster’s suggested that Florida made a serious tactical error by not including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a party to the lawsuit.

“Without the Corps as a party, the Court cannot order the Corps to take any particular action,” Lancaster wrote. 

The Florida House of Representatives  has called into question the cost of the litigation as authorized by Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Office of the Attorney General. It found that in the last two years, after Florida asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and the court appointed a special master to resolve the dispute, the state spent $54.4 million on legal help from four law firms. 

According to a spreadsheet obtained by the Herald/Times, the numbers showed that the lead lawyers, Washington-based Latham Watkins, would be paid $35.9 million between 2015 and 2017.

Foley Lardner, the Florida firm where Steverson’s predecessor, Hershel Vinyard, works and where Steverson is now headed, would be paid $2.6 million over the same time. Two other firms also were paid lesser amounts: $1 million to Blankenau and $966,000 to Carlton.

The records also show that Latham Watkins charged the state for 32 to 35 full-time legal staff for 40 hours a week over four months. The firm also charged significantly more than the other firms for lawyers of comparable experience.

Photo: Oyster fisherman on the Appalachicola River by Patrick Farrell of the Miami Herald




January 23, 2017

Dana Young proposes 'tightly drafted' bill to ban fracking in Florida

Dana YoungA Republican state senator who faced a competitive election in which opponents accused her of being pro-fracking has filed legislation to ban the controversial practice in Florida.

Sen. Dana Young of Tampa, the former House Republican leader elected to the Senate in November, wants the state to ban "advanced well stimulation treatment," specifically hydraulic fracturing, acid fracturing and matrix acidizing which use high pressure techniques to inject water into rock formations to extract oil and gas.

Young, who practices environmental and land use law, last year voted for a House bill to regulate and authorize the technique in Florida beginning in 2017 after a study. She told the Herald/Times the proposal this year was not so much a change of heart as an opportunity to better understand what voters want and expect in Florida. 

"I'm absolutely in favor of energy independence and in favor of harnessing our natural resources safely but Florida is unique,'' she said Monday. "I believe, and it is the belief of most Floridians, that our fragile limestone geology and fragile environment as a whole is incompatible with fracking of any kind. So it's a balancing act."

During her campaign, the left-leaning advocacy Florida Strong accused Young of benefiting from the proceeds of her husband's investment firm, which has had stakes in companies that profit from the oil industry. Young dismissed the claims as distortions of her record.

Under the bill proposed last year, the state would impose a two-year moratorium on fracking while the Department of Environmental Protection would study the impact of hydraulic fracturing and similar technologies on Florida and propose rules to regulate it. The rules would have had to come back to the Legislature for ratification.

While proponents of the measure, like Young, focused on the two-year ban as the key feature of the bill, environmentalists focused on the parts that prohibited local governments from imposing their own bans or regulations, shielded from public disclosure the specific list of chemicals used in the process and ultimately opened the door to fracking.

Environmentalists cited the state’s fragile water table, the latent impact the bill could have on public health, and urged lawmakers to pass a bill proposed by Democrats to ban fracking instead. The bill didn't get a hearing in either of the Republican-led chambers.

Young, who faced Democrat Bob Buesing and no-party candidates Joe Redner and Sheldon Upthegrove during the election, said her views changed "as the fracking issue became front and center" in the campaign.
"I learned more and it became an important issue, not only for my region but for our whole state,'' she said. "I'm fulfilling my contract with the voters to get it passed."
Young acknowledged that the oil and gas industry does not support her bill but believes that her measure will get widespread support from legislators and environmentalists. A companion measure in the state House is being co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Miller, R-Orlando, who also faced a competitive election in November, and House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa.
"It's very, very tightly drafted to not impact traditional oil and gas extraction processes,'' Young said. "Some people may want to do away with that but this legislation is not designed to adversely impact the traditional oil and gas operations in our state." 
Photo credit Tampa Bay Times: Dana Young at a press conference before her election. She said opponents distorted her position on fracking in Florida.