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January 25, 2018

Higher bar for new state taxes and fees clears Florida House

The Florida House of Representatives voted 80-29 Thursday to make it more difficult for a future Legislature to increase state taxes or fees.

Subject to approval by voters in a statewide referendum, the bill (HB 7001) would require a super-majority vote of two-thirds of both houses to raise revenue -- meaning that one third of the House or Senate could block future tax hikes.

Ten Democrats joined all Republicans present to give Speaker Richard Corcoran a cushion above the 72 votes needed to pass a proposed constitutional amendment.

“I believe that taking a citizen’s hard-earned money should not be done lightly,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach. “You either stand with the people whose money the government takes or you stand with the government that takes it, and I urge you today to stand with the people.”

Democrats who voted to put the question before voters included Reps. Kionne McGhee of Miami, the next House Democratic Leader; Katie Edwards-Walpole of Plantation and Shevrin Jones of West Park.

If the Senate follows the House in passing the proposal, it will be on the general election ballot on Nov. 6 and will need support from 60 percent of voters to become law.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, predicted the proposal would receive a positive reaction from senators.

“We have a proposal we’re moving on,” Negron said. “I think the majority of senators support having an extra-majority for a vote ... We know that’s a strong priority of the governor, and something that the speaker has also made a priority. So I think you’ll see that legislation move forward in plenty of time to get it in front of the Senate.”

As a proposed constitutional amendment, the proposal requires a three-fifths vote in the Senate, or yes votes from 24 of the 38 members (two seats are vacant). The Senate has 23 Republicans and 15 Democrats.

Making it harder to raise taxes is an election-year priority of Gov. Rick Scott, a term-limited Republican who’s considering running for the U.S. Senate against three-term Democrat Bill Nelson.

“I don’t see why we need to tie the hands of future Legislatures,” said Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, who voted no. “This is a short-sighted idea. I know it sounds good ... The fact is, we have a system. It has worked well for the people of Florida.”

Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa, a candidate for attorney general, rattled off a series of areas in which he said Florida trails most other states because an imperative to keep taxes low has resulted in basic programs being underfunded.

Fifteen states already require super-majority votes for tax hikes, including Arizona, California, Michigan and Oregon.

The last big revenue increase approved by the Florida Legislature was in 2009, when a Republican-dominated House and Senate approved a $2 billion plan by then-Gov. Charlie Crist to plug a budget deficit with higher car registration fees and a cigarette tax increase. As Florida’s economy improved, the higher tag fees were eliminated under Scott.

House K-12 mega-bill has first public airing

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Rep. Michael Bileca, R- Miami SCOTT KEELER | Times

A giant K-12 education package bill had its first public presentation on Thursday in the House Education Committee, where it passed despite light criticism from Democrats who requested more time to review its many provisions.

The bill, which was posted online Tuesday night on the committee's page, addresses a myriad of issues such as accountability of private schools receiving tax credits, allows schools to set up their own governing boards with school board approval and expands a now-pilot program for excelling principals to oversee multiple schools.

It would also create a new tax credit scholarship of about $300 to $500, called the Reading Scholarship Account, for third-graders who do poorly on reading exams.

When Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, requested the committee wait until a later date to vote on the bill so they had more time to review the specifics, committee Chair Rep. Michael Bileca said the bill was a "work in progress" and they needed to keep it moving.

Addressing one provision that concerned some members, Bileca, R-Miami, said allowing principals to establish independent governing boards will allow district schools to better compete with charter schools by having more autonomy and room to experiment.

"When I was meeting with districts something I heard over and over again was, 'Just let us have a level playing field,'" he said. "Let's look for those areas that can give you (districts) more ability for meaningful change."

Another provision that stirred skepticism among some members of the committee and the public were the allowable uses of the reading scholarship, which include paying private tutors and supplemental learning materials but also putting the money into a college savings account.

"Why are we allowing these funds to be saved for college? How is that going to help the student to read in third grade?" asked Marie-Claire Leman, a leader in the grassroots group Common Core who spoke at the meeting.

Bileca said that section could change based on the concerns he heard.

Although it is the most far-reaching preK-12 bill this session so far, this 109-page proposal joins the ranks of many other school choice-related bills that have been passing through committees as the topic remains a central focus of the Legislature. Others would grant scholarships for students with disabilities so they could attend private schools, or expands the Schools of Hope program that encourages charter schools to open near low-performing district campuses.

Barzee Flores to run impeachment commercial around Trump's State of the Union speech



A former judge running for Congress in Miami is rolling out a campaign commercial based around her belief that President Donald Trump needs to be impeached and removed from office.

"As a former judge, I can tell you there's a reason the founders made the rules for impeachment different from a criminal trial," Mary Barzee Flores says in a commercial released Thursday by her campaign. "They gave Congress the power and responsibility to remove a dangerous president. Donald Trump has abused his power, obstructed justice, encouraged hate and used his office to enrich himself."

Barzee Flores, who is running in a crowded Democratic primary to claim the U.S. House seat being vacated by the retiring Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, first called on Trump to be impeached back in November, joining a small but vocal group of Democrats demanding the president's ouster. At the time, she called on her Democratic opponents to do the same.

Chatter on whether to impeach Trump has focused on allegations that he colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election, and that he obstructed an investigation into the issue.

Barzee's campaign says she'll the first to air a television commercial in the race. She will be airing the spot before and after Trump's State of the Union speech on Jan. 31.

Also in the race on the Democratic side: Matt Haggman, Michael Hepburn, Mark Anthony Person, David Richardson, Jose Javier Rodriguez, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Ken Russell

House GOP to test conservative immigration bill as deadline for Dreamers looms


@alextdaugherty @emma_dumain

House Republican leaders are moving ahead to see whether there’s support within the ranks for a hardline conservative immigration bill with less than six weeks remaining until thousands of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as young children could face deportation.

According to an invitation obtained by the Miami Herald, the office of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., will host a staff briefing Thursday afternoon to educate aides about immigration legislation sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

A Scalise aide said that the meeting was routine.

“It’s the same process we would follow on any big issue, bringing in staff and members to learn about what’s being proposed and provide input,” the aide said. “In this case, Judiciary and Homeland Security [Committee] staff will be on hand to answer questions and hear concerns.”

Some Republicans have already voiced public concerns. Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo said Goodlatte’s bill “reads as if it was drafted by [former Donald Trump advisor] Steve Bannon.”

Privately, some members are concerned that Thursday’s meeting is a “tacit nudge” in favor of the bill from leadership to rank-and-file members.

But the briefing is also in keeping with a commitment House GOP leaders made to members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. They promised the roughly three-dozen members of the contingent that in exchange for voting to avert a government shutdown, they would take measures to determine whether the so-called “Goodlatte bill” could be brought to the House floor and pass with 218 Republican votes.

The Goodlatte bill would cut legal immigration levels by 25 percent, block federal grants to “sanctuary cities” that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities, fund Trump’s wall at the southern U.S. border, end the diversity visa lottery and scrap green cards for many immigrants’ extended family members.

It also would provide a three-year renewable status for current recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program instead of providing a path to permanent residency or citizenship. That’s a major nonstarter for Democrats and even many Republicans who are seeking permanent protection for so-called “Dreamers,” the young immigrants brought to the country illegally as young children by their parents.


Read more here.

January 24, 2018

More than $600 million? That's a key difference between Florida House and Senate higher education plans.

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Sen. Bill Galvano, left, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, have about $645 million of differences to work out on higher education spending. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

The Florida House and Senate started the 2018 session with unified messages supporting increases to higher education funding. Two weeks later, however, the chambers have a difference of opinion — worth more than $600 million.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education introduced its budget proposal Wednesday, calling for a 6.6 percent increase in spending for colleges and universities, or $383 million.  Meanwhile, the House’s proposal, unveiled Tuesday, proposes to cut $217 million from universities alone with about a $45 million net reduction for colleges.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who chairs the subcommittee, said the extent of the House cuts caught him off guard.

“The level of cuts proposed by the House was more than I expected,” he said. “It just means there’s a bigger delta that has to be negotiated going forward into conference.”

Because these plans or so different, higher education will likely become a major bargaining chip in the weeks to come if lawmakers want to approve a state budget by the time regular session ends on March 9.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has repeatedly said increased university funding is a top priority, and the first act of the Senate this session was to pass a bill with sweeping changes aimed at elevating Florida's university status nationally. One of the costliest provisions is an expansion of the merit-based Bright Futures Scholarships so that above average students who don't qualify for full rides would have 75 percent of their tuition covered (up from about half now).

Negron told reporters then that he considered House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, a “strong ally” who would help him make Florida’s universities “top-notch.”

And in an interview two weeks ago, Corcoran emphasized the need to improve Florida’s universities, saying that it was “inexcusable” for the third-largest state to have only had a university ranking in the top 10 nationally for the first time last year.

“We don’t have enough faculty,” he said. “Now we're going to give money to a company in North Palm Beach, we're going to give them tens of millions of dollars to relocate 6 miles down the road to Palm Beach? Or are we going to give that money to hiring more faculty at the University of Florida? They’re all binary choices.”

Despite those sentiments, two other goals sit atop Corcoran’s session wishlist: a crackdown on “sanctuary cities” and school vouchers for bullied students.

Additionally, the House and Senate disagree over how to pump more money in preK-12 education. The House rejects the Senate’s proposal to capitalize on increased property values, which it views as a tax hike.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said the House's proposed higher education budget was a "departure” from where the Senate is heading.

"A lot of people are speculating that this is about the back and forth between the House and the Senate and the House is aware that our president's priority legislation is his higher education bill," said Farmer, who sits on the higher education budget committee. "I’m hopeful the Senate stands strong on our policy and the products we've come up with that are a result of a lot of discussion and comprise. That’s the way the legislative process is supposed to be. It's not supposed to be about forced tactics."

There is still a House companion bill for the Bright Futures Scholarship change that passed in the Senate, which has to pass two more committees before it is brought to the House floor. However, unlike the Senate, the House did not include the Bright Futures increase in its budget proposal, raising questions about its funding.

“The policy we agree on, but the policy is not going to go anywhere unless we have the dollars to support it,” Galvano said.

When the House subcommittee proposed its cuts, Chair Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, said higher education has a surplus of funding because universities and colleges can rollover extra cash into rainy day funds, and state funding for universities has steadily grown in recent years.

“In this budget we will be recommending that we start slowing that growth,” he said. “The intent is to reduce operating funds, and thereby entice colleges to spend some of their fund balances.” Michael Brawer, executive director and chief executive of the Association of Florida Colleges, said he disagreed that higher education should be used to balance the state’s budget.

"I really don't have much to say about the House budget,” he said. “We’re starting in a hole, again."

Mark Walsh, a lobbyist for Tampa’s University of South Florida, said the universities’ reserve funds would offset the House’s cuts, although he still thinks a funding increase for universities is “likely.”

“The Senate has made a priority of increasing funds specifically for universities and even state colleges this year, so I think they’re going to negotiate hard for that,” he said. “I think the House will get there.”

Because the House’s proposed cuts are based on complex funding categories and formulas, there was no breakdown of cuts for each school. However, Walsh said it’s probable that any cuts would be based on how much each university or college has in the bank.

Times staff writer Claire McNeill contributed to this report.

Miami's mayor headed to White House with transportation on the mind



Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is headed to the White House Wednesday afternoon and is expected to pitch the county's regional SMART transportation plan.

Suarez, who couldn't be immediately reached Wednesday, is in Washington D.C. with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The event -- which some Democratic mayors are skipping over the Justice Department's handling of sanctuary cities -- is expected to include a conversation about infrastructure. (Suarez is Republican and Miami is not a sanctuary city).

"President Donald Trump will host mayors from across the country at the White House to discuss the growing economy, as well as working together to tackle the opioid epidemic and rebuild the nation’s aging infrastructure," White House spokeswoman Helen Ferre wrote in an email.

Suarez, elected mayor in November is vice chair of the county's regional transportation organization. He's given transit a prominent place in his platform.

Rubio calls for sanctions against Venezuela’s Diosdado Cabello

Marco Rubio 3

via @francoordonez 

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is calling for sanctions against one of Venezuela’s most powerful leaders.

Rubio, one of the most outspoken critics of the Caracas regime, is pressing President Donald Trump to hold Diosdado Cabello accountable for human rights abuses and undermining democracy in Venezuela. Rubio’s call comes after the European Union included the former leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly in sanctions against seven senior Venezuelan officials.

"While the United States has imposed its own sanctions against almost all of these senior officials in the Venezuelan government, it has not yet designated Cabello," Rubio wrote in a letter to Trump Tuesday. "I therefore respectfully urge your Administration to join the European Union in imposing sanctions against Diosdado Cabello."

The United States has slapped sanctions against more than 20 current and former Venezuelan government officials in recent months, including President Nicolas Maduro. The White House has prohibited U.S. banks from purchasing new Venezuelan debt, a deep blow to the country’s finances.

But, so far, Washington has stopped short of issuing sanctions against Cabello, a former military chief, who maintains strong influence over the Venezuelan military. Cabello, 54, a longtime ally of late President Hugo Chavez and a leader within the ruling Socialist party, is often referred to as Maduro’s second in command.

Read more here.

Poll: Bill Nelson has highest net approval of any red state Senate Democrat running in 2018



Sen. Bill Nelson is facing criticism from his own party and Gov. Rick Scott, his likely 2018 opponent, after helping craft a plan to reopen the federal government on Monday. 

But Nelson does have one advantage over his nine fellow Democratic Senators running for reelection in states won by President Donald Trump in 2016: a 25 percentage point net approval rating that ranks as the best among senators facing tough reelection challenges, according to a new poll released by Morning Consult

Fifty-one percent of registered voters polled by Morning Consult approved of Nelson's job performance while 26 percent did not approve. Nelson's net approval rating fell by two percentage points from an earlier Morning Consult poll but his marginal drop was smaller than many other Democrats facing tough reelection bids. Additionally, 23 percent of registered voters either have no opinion of Nelson or don't know enough about him to form an opinion. 

Only three senators have a net disapproval rating, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican Trump critic who is retiring and Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who is being retried for corruption after beating charges last year. Flake and Menendez are two of the most vocal senators on Cuba, with Flake favoring a thaw between Washington and Havana while Menendez advocates for a tough-on-Cuba approach. 

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has a 10 percentage point net approval rating, with 47 percent favoring his job performance and 37 percent disapproving. Rubio isn't up for reelection until 2022. 

FHP official retired in quota blunder, but drew pay for five more months

Mike Thomas, the former No. 2 official at the Florida Highway Patrol, announced his retirement effective last Sept. 1 after acknowledging his role in asking troopers to meet a two-tickets-per-hour quota for issuing tickets to drivers.

But in Florida, retiring and leaving the state payroll are two different things.

Thomas, a 31-year veteran of the patrol, was its deputy director and retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He earned so much paid leave that he remained on the public payroll through Monday, and that extended his departure date by five months.

“His last day in the office was September 1, but he did use his accrued leave time,” said Beth Frady, a spokeswoman for the state highway safety agency.

Thomas, a Navy veteran who began his long law enforcement career as a road trooper in Broward County in the 1980s, was forced to retire on Aug. 29.

The Times/Herald reported that Thomas wrote an email last May in which he told top aides “to encourage our members to maintain our 2.0 citations per hour ratio as we attempt to provide a safer driving environment for Floridians.”

Thomas called it a “goal,” not a quota, but he acknowledged a “grave error” and retired.

Ticket quotas are illegal. A second FHP official also was forced to retire and the agency changed its personnel policies to require that all new employees be reminded of that. The agency’s top official reaffirmed the quota ban to Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, which oversees the state highway safety agency.

Thomas’ annual salary was $132,000 a year, so that five months of accrued time at his normal pay rate was worth about $55,000.

A starting state trooper is paid about $34,000 a year in most Florida counties.

The patrol has suffered from rampant turnover for a number of years and has lost more than half its workforce since 2010, the Times/Herald reported last year.

That in turn has led to a steep decline in the number of citations being written to motorists.

Officials say a big reason for turnover is that troopers’ starting salaries are so low. Troopers often leave after a few years for better-paying positions as county sheriff’s deputies.

The Legislature and Scott raised troopers by 5 percent last July, and Scott has proposed a 10 percent raise effective July 2018.

January 23, 2018

Former Sen. Latvala’s payment to a private eye causes conflict among prosecutors


In the midst of his sexual harassment scandal last year, former state Sen. Jack Latvala paid a private eye to find out if he was being spied on.

The $645 charge covered the inspection of his car, office and Tallahassee home for listening devices, Latvala said.

But the modest fee is raising questions weeks later because of who received it: Todd Chaires, an investigator who is married to one of Tallahassee’s top prosecutors who would be in line to oversee the criminal corruption case against Latvala.

Leon County State Attorney Jack Campbell said Tuesday that he was unaware about the payment when asked about it by the Times/Herald. But he said that it represented a conflict for Chaires’ wife, Deputy Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman. He said he would remove her from any potential case involving the Clearwater Republican.

Although the case has not advanced to the point where he’s assigned it to prosecutors, Campbell said there was a good chance Cappleman, who is one of four top prosecutors in his office, could have been involved.

But Campbell said the conflict wouldn’t prevent other prosecutors at the office from prosecuting Latvala.

“There’s no conflict,” Campbell said.

Latvala, 66, was at the pinnacle of his power as Senate budget chairman until allegations of sexual harassment, first reported by Politico, surfaced in November.

The Senate initiated two investigations, including hiring retired Judge Ronald Swanson to serve as special master. On Dec. 19, Swanson found probable cause that Latvala had violated Senate misconduct rules and sexually harassed a legislative aide.

Swanson also said that Latvala may have violated state corruption laws by seeking sexual intimacy with lobbyist Laura McLeod in exchange for legislative favors.

Since then, the Florida department of Law Enforcement has said the case is in a “review” status and has not advanced to a “full investigation.”
Investigators, led by the head of FDLE’s executive investigations team, Scott McInerney, have still not reached out to key players, including Latvala and McLeod, lawyers for both said Tuesday.

Around the time the harassment allegations surfaced, Latvala hired Chaires, a former Leon County Sheriff’s deputy, according to Latvala’s attorney, Steven R. Andrews.

Tallahassee was being shaken by news that private investigators, financed by unknown parties, were following and spying on politicians. Days before his harassment allegations surfaced, Politico broke a story that a private eye had photos of Latvala kissing a woman outside of a bar.

“I used Todd Chaires to do two things: No. 1, check my car, my office and my home for electronic listening devices after I was told how long I’d been followed by a private investigator myself,” Latvala said Tuesday. “And the second thing he did — and I’m not sure he even actually did it — but research some public records.”

Chaires, who owns Warrior Security Contractors, did not turn up any listening devices, he said.

Latvala added, “He was not hired, and did not on my dime follow anybody or do any of the kinds of things that were done to me.”

Andrews noted that the work was completed before any potential criminal charges had emerged. Chaires was paid the $645 — not even a full day’s work for a typical investigator — on Dec. 11, nine days before Latvala resigned.

Andrews said he was not aware that Chaires was married to the deputy assistant state attorney.

“He was retained well before Judge Swanson’s report came out and well before we had any knowledge there would be a referral for a criminal investigation,’’ Andrews said. “Had we known, we would not have wanted to establish any perception of conflict.”

Chaires said he was hired by Latvala to “just do a little look around the house, make sure everything’s secure.”

For Campbell, it’s the second case in a year involving Chaires that had a conflict.

Chaires is under investigation for “exploitation of the elderly,” according to an order from Gov. Rick Scott, who allowed the case to be taken from Campbell and turned over to prosecutors in nearby Suwannee County in May. The charge, with deals with defrauding the elderly, could merit a first-degree felony under Florida law.

The status of that case is unknown. State Attorney Jeff Seigmeister did not return a call for comment.

Chaires’ lawyer, Eric Abrahamsen, said Chaires has offered to provide information in the case to resolve it.

Criminal defense lawyers told the Times that Campbell did the right thing in removing Cappleman, who is also a candidate for judge, from a potential Latvala case. Although Latvala’s attorneys could try to move the case to another state attorney’s jurisdiction, it’s unlikely to be successful.

“In a small town, everybody knows everybody.” said former Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery. “There has to be something to really sink your teeth into to be a conflict.”

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed.