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March 12, 2015

Univision fires TV host who compared Michelle Obama to 'Planet of the Apes'

via @SarahMorenoENH

Univision fired Emmy-award winning Spanish-language television personality Rodner Figueroa after he said that First Lady Michelle Obama looked as if she were a member of the cast of the Hollywood film Planet of the Apes.

Figueroa, who’s known for his biting fashion commentary, made his remarks Wednesday during a live segment of the show El Gordo y la Flacain which the hosts were commenting on a viral video that shows a makeup artist transforming himself into different celebrities, including Michelle Obama.

“Well, watch out, you know that Michelle Obama looks like she’s from the cast of Planet of the Apes, the movie,” Figueroa, 42, said with a giggle.

When hostess Lili Estefan countered with “What are you saying?” and host Raul de Molina said Obama was very attractive, Figueroa defended his remark, saying “but it is true.”

In a statement Thursday morning, Univision called Figueroa’s comments “completely reprehensible.”

More here.

Miami Republican congressman questions need for Iran letter


Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo told a Spanish-language television station this week that he opposes the Obama administration's nuclear talks with Iran.

But he also said, when pressed in the interview, that the letter from 47 GOP senators (and Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal) to the government of Iran may have taken things a bit too far. The letter warned Iran that any potential deal might not pass long-term muster with the U.S. Senate.

"I understand that the letter maybe wasn't necessary," Curbelo said, repeating the sentiment in acknowledgment of critics who have lashed out at the senators for intervening in sensitive diplomatic negotiations.

Inviting Israeli Prime  Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress about the Iran talks, however -- an invitation that was extended without first reaching out to the White House, as is tradition -- was a good idea, Curbelo added.

"I applaud that Congress invited Mr. Netanyahu," said Curbelo, who attended the speech.

The discussion arose from a question from América TeVe's Juan Manuel Cao about Curbelo's relationship with Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat reportedly under federal corruption investigation and a fellow Cuban American. Curbelo said he knows Menendez, though they're not friends, and praised the senator's hard line foreign-policy positions, which coincide with his own.

Curbelo echoed other Cuban-American Republicans who have suggested news about the Menendez investigation is an Obama administration attempt to weaken a Democrat critical of the president on U.S. policy toward Cuba and Iran.

"I'm not surprised that this information has leaked before any indictment," Curbelo said, adding that the timing "raises suspicions."


How much of the state budget goes to Medicaid?

After rejecting Medicaid expansion in 2013, the Florida Legislature is taking a serious look at it this session. The program pays for health insurance for the very poor.

On March 10, a state Senate panel approved a proposal that would allow Florida to accept $50 billion in federal dollars to expand coverage to about 800,000 low-income residents. The plan would establish a state-run private insurance exchange for residents who earn less than $16,000 a year or $33,000 for a family of four.

Though the bill won unanimous support of the GOP-dominated Senate Health Policy Committee, it faces an uphill battle in the more conservative House. Also, it would require the federal government to grant Florida a waiver. The feds might object to parts of the Senate proposal that require beneficiaries to pay a monthly premium based on their salary, ranging from $3 to $25.

During the Senate hearing, the Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson said he had met with legislators to discuss the chamber’s ideas for a Medicaid proposal.

"We recommended a 32 percent cap on state expenditures, we are coming close to 30 percent right now," he said. "It's the biggest expenditure at the state and we’d like to protect taxpayers with a 32 percent cap."

Does Medicaid come close to eating up nearly one-third of the state budget and is it the state’s biggest expenditure?

Turn to PolitiFact Florida for the answer.

New Hampshire GOP summit next month to draw Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio

via @learyreports

They failed to connect last weekend in Iowa, but Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have heard the cattle call in New Hampshire.

The Florida Republicans are scheduled to appear at the NH GOP's #FITN Republican Leadership Summit next month in Nashua. Rubio will appear on April 17. Bush's time has not been set. Candidates won't appear on stage together. Each one will speak and take questions from the audience, according to organizers.

Bush went to an Ag summit in Iowa last weekend but Rubio canceled, citing a family wedding.

Bush will be in New Hampshire this weekend, and his campaign depends heavily on the state.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

New hires for Jeb Bush's soon-to-be campaign

via @lesleyclark

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is adding staff to his likely presidential campaign, including a Wall Street investment firm director and a strategist instrumental in U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's landslide win last year.

The National Review reported last night that Bush soon will name Justin Muzinich, vice chairman of the New York City investment firm Muzinich & Co., as policy director. It noted that Bush announced last month that he was bringing on April Ponnuru, “a leading member of the reform-conservative movement (and the wife of National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru) as a senior policy adviser.”

The Democratic opposition group, American Bridge, criticized the Muzinich hire, saying his experience at a hedge fund “certainly won't do anything to help the perception that Jeb doesn't represent the values of the middle class.”

Scott Jennings, a Louisville, Ky., Republican strategist and former adviser to former President George W. Bush, is joining Bush's political action committee, Right to Rise, as a senior adviser, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports, noting that Jennings “would be in line for a senior role on the campaign, most likely as national political director, if Jeb Bush goes ahead with a run for the White House.”

In an email message to the Herald-Leader, Jennings said "Bush has a strong record of cutting taxes, protecting life and finding ways to reform government with solid conservative ideas."

Jennings, who ran former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's losing 2012 battle in Ohio, was a key player in McConnell's overwhelming win over Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in last year's U.S. Senate race.

His firm, RunSwitch PR, handled the super PAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the issues group Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, both of which flooded the airways on McConnell's behalf.

Revoke Venezuelan diplomat's visa, Miami Republican members of Congress say


The Venezuelan ambassador to the Organization of American States in Washington D.C. had a few choice words this week for members of the political opposition in the South American country.

"There comes a time when an opposition supporter's head can't be differentiated from a government supporter's head except for its contents," Amb. Roy Chaderton said. "The sound produced [by a bullet] in an opposition supporter head is like a click because the skull is empty."

The comment, made on Venezuelan television, prompted a harsh rebuke Wednesday from U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican. By Thursday, she had assembled a group of colleagues to sign a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking that Chaderton's U.S. visa be revoked.

"Any foreign diplomat who supports and facilitates the use of violence against peaceful protesters should not enjoy the privilege of access to the United States," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. "Ambassador Chaderton's words are incompatible with American values and he must be held accountable for his vile and reprehensible conduct."

The move comes on the same week the Obama administration imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan government officials and declared a state of emergency in U.S.-Venezuela relations. Congress passed legislation that the president signed in December penalizing Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's administration for political oppression. Two weeks ago, Maduro called Ros-Lehtinen and other U.S. members of Congress "terrorists" and banned them from Venezuela. 

Ros-Lehtinen's letter was signed by fellow Miami Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, and by Reps. Jeff Duncan, R-South Carolina, and Albio Sires, D-New Jersey.

WaPo: Once the sideshows, super PACs now at the forefront of presidential runs

From the Washington Post:

In the last presidential contest, super PACs were an exotic add-on for most candidates. This time, they are the first priority.

Already, operatives with close ties to eight likely White House contenders have launched political committees that can accept unlimited donations — before any of them has even declared their candidacy. The latest, a super PAC called America Leads that plans to support Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, was announced Thursday.

The goal is simple: Potential candidates want to help their super PAC allies raise as much money as possible now, before their official campaigns start. That’s because once they announce their bids, federal rules require them to keep their distance.

More here.

Rubio to hold hearing on worsening situation in Venezuela, and on U.S. reaction to it


U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from West Miami who last year prodded the White House to take strong action against Venezuelan officials for human rights abuses, will convene a hearing next week on unrest in the South American nation and the U.S. response to it.

Earlier this week, the White House issued an executive order that slapped sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials, including the heads of military intelligence and the police, and said the situation in the country posed an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

Rubio said the White House’s action was a good first step but that more could be done.

Rubio co-sponsored legislation last year that directed the White House to take the kind of action it did on Monday. Florida’s other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, also co-sponsored the legislation.

As chairman of a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rubio will hold the hearing on Tuesday on the “deepening political and economic crisis in Venezuela." Scheduled witnesses include those from the State Department and the Treasury Department.

Said Rubio in a statement announcing the hearing: “The human rights and economic crisis in Venezuela is only going to get worse and will have major repercussions on America’s interests there and throughout the entire Western Hemisphere. While the financial sanctions on individual human rights violators that were announced earlier this week have put a spotlight on the disaster Nicolas Maduro and his regime have inflicted on the Venezuelan people, more must be done and more attention must be paid to this humanitarian and economic crisis that increasingly threatens regional security.”

House panel rejects pitch to pause school grades

A proposal to eliminate some testing requirements for Florida schoolchildren won the unanimous support of a second House committee on Thursday.

The real debate centered around an amendment proposed by Rep. Mia Jones.

Jones, D-Jacksonville, proposed holding off on school grades during the transition to new standards and assessments -- something superintendents, school board members and parent groups have long been asking for.

Jones noted that students had trouble accessing Florida's new online exams last week -- the result of both software problems and cyber attacks -- and argued it would be unfair to hold students responsible for the results.

"Today, I ask you not to put a scarlet letter on our young people," she said.

Several members of the public spoke in support of her recommendation.

Duval County School Board member Becki Couch pointed out that when the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests were given for the first time in 1998, the results were used only as a baseline and not for high-stakes decisions.

"School grades would be meaningless this year because there would not be a baseline [and] there would not have been a uniform testing environment that was provided for the students," Couch said.

Joy Frank, of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said pausing school grades for a year would "recalibrate the system."

"This is not been an easy transition,” Frank said. "The teachers have been working very hard and diligently to implement these standards and administer this test with fidelity. The students have been prepared and ready to take the assessment, and many of them last week could not get on the system. I think it behooves us to support the teachers and the students."

Representatives from the Broward, Palm Beach, Pasco and Polk school districts also endorsed the proposed amendment.

But Republicans on the panel disagreed.

“The pressure helps our schools to continue to strive to do better,” said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach.

The proposed amendment was rejected.

The bill itself was approved by a unanimous vote. Frank called it an "excellent product."

"You have listened to us and we appreciate it," she said.

But Florida Education Association President Andy Ford expressed lingering concerns.

"We truly believe there needs to be a time out on the consequences for students, teachers and schools until we work through this year and see what the baseline data shows us," he said.

Thursday: What to watch in Tallahassee

Thursday marks the tenth day of the 2015 legislative session. More than a dozen House committees and subcommittees are scheduled to discuss a variety of issues. It will be much slower in the Senate.

Here are five things to watch:

The House Education Appropriations Subcommittee will discuss a bill that would scale back testing in public schools (HB 7069). The panel will also debate a proposal encouraging school systems to adopt school uniform policies (HB 7043).

The House Health Quality Subcommittee moves forward with a proposal that would expand the use of telehealth, the practice of using web and videoconferencing technology to let doctors treat patients remotely (HB 545).

The House Regulatory Affairs Committee takes up a bill (HB 239) that would increase the penalties for people whose greyhounds or racehorses test positive for a prohibited substance.

The Senate Rules Committee will hear legislation that expresses "profound disagreement" with President Barack Obama's decision to open diplomatic relations with Cuba (SM 866). The proposal by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, is largely symbolic, but likely to find support.

It is worth noting that the Senate cancelled an Appropriations Committee meeting scheduled for Thursday afternoon. Last week, Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said the budget process had come to a halt on account of a possible $1.3 billion hole in the healthcare budget. Apparently, he wasn't bluffing.

-KATHLEEN McGRORY, Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau