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January 03, 2017

Rubio lands appropriations committee spot

via @learyreports

Sen. Marco Rubio, sworn in this afternoon to a second term, has taken on two new committees: Appropriations and the Special Committee on Aging.

He retains his posts on the Committee on Foreign Relations, the Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

He will no longer serve on the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which had oversight on space issues.

“With so many threats to America’s national security around the world, I look forward to continuing my work on the foreign relations and intelligence committees," Rubio said in a statement. "In the days and weeks ahead, we must reestablish America’s moral standing in the world, and make it absolutely clear that the United States will remain a true friend of Israel and a beacon of hope and freedom to oppressed people everywhere. The challenges posed by countries like Cuba, Iran, Russia, China and North Korea will require decisive American leadership and resolve.

“We also have a lot of work to do here at home. Too many Americans have been left behind in the 21st century economy, and there is real anxiety among parents that their children will not have the same opportunities they had to work hard, pursue the American Dream, and climb the economic ladder. That’s not acceptable, and I’m going to work with anyone who wants to find real solutions for workers and their families. Of course, a key factor in growing our economy from the bottom up is our small businesses, and I’ll continue to collaborate closely with Florida job creators during my work on the small business committee.

“One major thing that will cost us jobs and hamstring our economy is our rising debt. With federal spending at record highs, our national debt has nearly doubled over the last eight years, despite the fact that government is taking in more tax revenue than ever before. The primary drivers of this unsustainable imbalance are our entitlement programs. More and more people are retiring, and while sunny Florida hopes to welcome them all, the rising number of retirees means we’re going to have to find ways to make Medicare and Social Security work better for everyone, so that people like my mother can continue to rely on these important programs and they are still there when our children need them. The committees on aging and appropriations will be at the center of these policy discussions, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to go to work for the people of Florida on these committees.”

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

2 Miami Republicans favor gutting congressional ethics office


UPDATE: In an emergency meeting Tuesday, House Republicans agreed to reverse their decision to curtail the powers of the Office of Congressional Ethics, after facing public backlash and skepticism from President-elect Donald Trump. Here's an updated statement from Curbelo:

"The House ethics process needs to be reformed in order to better investigate allegations of misconduct. I support referring this matter to the House Ethics committee where Republicans and Democrats can work together on bipartisan reforms that would ensure Members of Congress are‎ held accountable while given due process to address accusations."

A full, updated story has been posted here.

ORIGINAL POST: U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Tuesday they backed the Republican conference's move to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

The OCE, created eight years ago after a series of congressional scandals, would be renamed the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and, instead of being independent, report to the GOP-controlled House Ethics Committee.

Republicans' decision, proposed by U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and made without notice in a private party meeting on Monday, a federal holiday, prompted immediate rebuke from Democrats, government watchdog groups and even some Republicans. But don't count Ros-Lehtinen and Curbelo among them.

"I voted for Rep. Goodlatte's amendment to improve and reorganize the renamed Office of Congressional Complaint Review (OCCR) because it includes much needed oversight and accountability from the House Ethics Committee," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement to the Miami Herald. "The reforms will allow for due process rights for all parties involved and will ensure a fair hearing as Members of Congress seek to better serve our constituents."

Curbelo spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez said in a statement to the Herald that Curbelo also backs the changes.

"Coming from a district that knows firsthand the impact corruption has on a community, Congressman Curbelo has always been committed to ensuring members of Congress are held accountable and allegations of misconduct are investigated seriously<" she said. "The Office of Congressional Ethics has not lived up to its stated mission and reforms are long overdue to strengthen its ability to take complaints from the public, complete independent investigations, and provide due process for those facing allegations of misconduct. The Congressman supports Speaker [Paul] Ryan's commitment to protect the Office's independence and he is dedicated to making sure that commitment is honored.

"The Congressman will be supporting H.Res. 5, the complete Rules Package for the 115th Congress on the House Floor later today."

Ryan opposed the ethics amendment, which the GOP conference agreed to with a 119-74 vote. Because the vote took place in a private party meeting, there is no public disclosure of how each member voted.

The third Miami Republican in Congress, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, told the Herald in a statement that while the ethics office needs an overhaul, he doesn't think the rules legislation is the way to change things.

"The Office of Congressional Ethics is in dire need of reform," Diaz-Balart said. "Members of Congress must be held accountable to the highest standard in a process that is fair and just. I strongly believe the way to do this is in a bipartisan, open discussion through legislation, not through the rules package."

President-elect Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday morning that dealing with the ethics office shouldn't be Congress' first priority, though he still called the office "unfair." He used the hashtag "#DTS," from his campaign mantra to "drain the swamp."

This post has been updated to include Diaz-Balart.

Ron Book is big winner in local government lobbying contracts

For the first time, the Florida House is posting copies of contracts between lobbyists and local governments online and more than a third of the first set of contracts posted are with one lobbying firm: Ron Book of Aventura.

BookSarnoffBook has been a fixture in the halls of the Capitol for four decades and has built local government lobbying work into a cottage industry in Florida.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O-Lakes, is a vocal critic of the practice. He has called it a "disgrace" that cities, counties, school boards, sheriffs and others spend tax dollars on hired lobbyists to represent their interests in Tallahassee. Corcoran says local elected officials should be doing that work themselves, and that legislators should be able to look out for local interests without the help of hired guns.

But the practice is common and has grown over the past decade. Lobbyists hired to represent local governments often get unparalleled access to the powerful because they make campaign contributions, which cities and counties can't do. Many local governments also hire lobbying firms in Washington, too.   

Corcoran, who has challenged business as usual in the state Capitol on a number of fronts, could not get a consensus of House members to outlaw the practice in the House rules, which they could have done. Instead, the rules require mandatory disclosure of all government contracts by any lobbyist who lobbies the House. No such requirement exists in the Senate.

Taxpayer-funded lobbying contracts are already public record. However, this is the first time they will be posted in one place where anyone can compare what comparably-sized cities and counties pay for the same work by contract lobbyists. The disclosures could easily set off a bidding war, as lobbyists and local officials discover for the first time wide disparities in what cities and counties are paying.

Seventeen of the first 46 contracts posted online are with Book's Aventura firm, totaling more than $1 million a year.

Nearly all are with local governments in South Florida. Miami-Dade County paid Book $120,000 over the past year, Fort Lauderdale paid him $97,500 and Broward County paid $53,000. The city of Tallahassee pays a total of $90,000 to Book's firm and the lobbying firm of Sean Pittman.

Nine small-to-medium sized South Florida cities also pay Book an average of about $50,000 a year each. They are Aventura, Bal Harbour Village, Cooper City, Dania Beach, Marathon, North Miami, Sunny Isles Beach, Sunrise and Tamarac.

Book and his associate Kelly Mallette also lobby on behalf of the Public Health Trust, which operates Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

Book, whose daughter Lauren Book is a newly-elected Democratic senator from Broward County, said his first tax-supported client was the South Broward Hospital District in Hollywood more than 20 years ago. "When nobody was representing local government, we started representing local governments," Book told the Herald/Times. ""We felt they were entitled to the same type of representation that private sector clients were receiving."

Book also posted his lobbying contracts with Brevard County and the cities of Palm Bay and Marco Island.

Marco Island, on Florida's southwest coast, with a year-round population of about 17,000 residents, pays Book $60,000 a year to lobby on its behalf in Tallahassee. A 10-page contract requires that Book meet with city officials no less than once a year and to "monitor and track all legislation of interest to the city."

Lobbyist and former state Rep. Paul Hawkes, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Cardenas Partners LLC, the Fiorentino Group and Rutledge Ecenia are among the other firms whose contracts are the first to be posted online.


Report: Women in Florida are poorer, have less health care and make up a growing racial divide compared to other states


In Florida, women are poorer and have less access to healthcare and development opportunities than most states in the country, according to a recent poverty report.

The number of women 18 and older in Florida living below the poverty line is 15.4 percent (compared to men, which is 12.2 percent), according to the study, The Status of Women in Florida by County: Poverty & Opportunity, by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In 2004, the percentage of women below the poverty line was 12.6.

The number of women and men living below the poverty line in Florida is higher than the national average. In the United States, 14.6 percent of women 18 or older and 11.1 percent of men live below the poverty line.

“Poverty, and especially poverty among women and women of color, continues to be a persistent problem” in Florida, states the annual report, published since 2004 and supported by various women and non-profit organizations. The Institute has been publishing a national report on the status of women since 1996.

Read more here:

December 30, 2016

Florida Democratic Party chair forum set in Broward



The drama of the race to lead the Florida Democratic Party will travel to left-leaning Broward when the candidates convene at a forum in Pompano Beach Jan. 11.

Wealthy donor/developer Stephen Bittel, activist Alan Clendenin, former state Sen. Dwight Bullard, Duval County's Lisa King and Osceola Democratic chair Leah Carius have all confirmed they will attend, said Tim Canova, one of the organizers. The forum gives Democratic activists in Broward -- the county with the highest number of registered Democrats -- a chance to hear how the candidates hope to reinvigorate the party after its crushing defeat in November with an eye toward 2018 races for Senate and governor.

But ultimately, the opinion of only two Democrats in Broward matter -- state committeeman Ken Evans and committeewoman Grace Carrington -- who get a powerful vote in the chair election in Orlando Jan. 14th.

Evans said he hasn't decided who he will vote for but said he will base his decision on who Broward Democrats coalesce around. Carrington said in a text to the Miami Herald "I'm not making my decision until 10 minutes before the vote."

Votes are weighted based on the number of registered Democrats in each county which means that Broward and Miami-Dade get a major say in the chair election to replace Allison Tant.

Chair candidates have been racing around the state meeting with Democratic leaders who get a vote and other activists who will try to sway the vote.

One of the key organizers of the Pompano forum is Progress for All, a group headed by former Congressional candidate Canova who lost the Democratic primary to U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Canova said he hasn't backed any candidate so far. 

The race for Florida Democratic Party chair has been full of drama. Weeks ago, it appeared that Bittel, a wealthy donor and Coconut Grove developer, was the frontrunner when other key candidates failed to become eligible in their own counties. In Miami-Dade, Bret Berlin won a state committeeman seat and then quickly resigned to make way for Bittel to run for the post, a prerequisite to running statewide. Bittel beat Bullard 250-161.

It appeared that Bullard had given up -- he didn't show up for his own election because he was on a family cruise. But then he revived his bid by moving to Gadsden County, a small rural county in northern Florida, where he won a state committeeman spot Tuesday. 

Bullard was the second candidate to move to keep his candidacy alive: after Clendenin lost in Hillsborough County, he moved into a rented trailer in Bradford County and won a similar post there.  








Justice Perry on lingering racism in Florida and the justice system: lynching and the death penalty

James-E-C-Perry-APJustice James E.C. Perry nestled a box of mementos under his arm, pulled his black robe off the hook in his Tallahassee office overlooking a grove of live oak trees, and left his corner office in Florida’s Supreme Court for the last time two weeks ago.

Perry’s nearly eight-year career on the state’s highest court ends Friday. He is forced to retire because, at 72, he has reached Florida’s mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices.

The trail-blazing child of Jim Crow segregation, describes his time on the bench simply: “I kept it real,” he says with a characteristic belly laugh.

He leaves with no regrets and plenty to say. One of his last acts on the court was to author a blistering dissent in a seminal death penalty ruling last week in the case of Mark James Asay. As the court majority upheld the death penalty in dozens of cases prior to 2002, Perry declared that it was an uneven and “discriminatory” application of capital punishment and left the state’s constitutional protections to “little more than a roll of the dice.”

I no longer believe that there is a method of which the State can avail itself to impose the death penalty in a constitutional manner,” Perry wrote in a 10-page dissent.

In many ways, the proclamation was not only a parting shot at one of the most vexing issues before the court, but the culmination of a career by someone shaped in an era he calls “apartheid America” who continues to be pelted by the arrows of racism today.

“There’s a reason the people who led the nation in lynching of black people also lead in electrocutions,” Perry said in an interview with the Herald/Times. “There’s a nexus there.” Story here. 

Top photo: Associated Press; bottom: Perry on his last day in his office in the Florida Supreme Court building. He retires today. By Mary Ellen Klas

December 29, 2016

PolitiFact Florida: Top 10 viewed fact-checks in 2016



Donald Trump’s wealth and Hillary Clinton’s record as Secretary of State were some of the contentious topics in 2016 that fueled our most clicked-on fact-checks at PolitiFact Florida.

Also fueling our Truth-O-Meter were statements by two of Florida’s Republican presidential primary opponents -- former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio-- as well as former Democratic National Committee chair U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

But it was a story about race and murder statistics that we wrote in 2015 hat drew the most clicks in 2016. Our story explained that FBI data shows that whites usually kill whites, and blacks usually kill blacks. In recent years, these statistics have repeatedly drawn interest in the aftermath of high-profile shooting deaths in which race was a factor.

Here’s a look at the most-clicked on fact-checks and articles we published in 2016 from PolitiFact Florida.

Will a President Trump change NASA’s Mars goals? Sen. Bill Nelson says no


NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a sloping hillside within the "Murray Buttes" region on Mars. (IMAGE CREDIT: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS)


Turmoil with Russia and uncertainty with how Donald Trump will “refocus” the U.S. space program is having no effect on NASA’s goal of getting humans to Mars, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is telling anyone who will listen.

During a recent stop in Tallahassee, the lone statewide elected Democrat in Florida, chided reporters for not asking more about the space program and the nation’s efforts to explore Mars.

“It is my interest to see that NASA doesn’t miss a beat,” under the Trump administration, Nelson told reporters. He re-affirmed plans to get humans to Mars by 2033 and another to have a new American rocket to take U.S. astronauts to space within the next two years.

“We’re well on our way,” said Nelson, who is the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee with jurisdiction over NASA.

His comments come as National Geographic Channel’s docudrama Mars sets rating records for the typically low profile cable network channel. The $20 million mini-series co-produced by director Ron Howard pulled in more than 1 million views nationally and 15.5 globally during just its first week on air.

It is not a shocker that Nelson, who flew on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986, would be an ardent backer of NASA’s mission. But Nelson’s comments come during a time of increasing distrust with Russia of their interference in the U.S. presidential election and Trumps victory in November.

But Nelson said America and Russia are still working on the international space center together well despite the tension. And he said he is hopeful the Trump administration will also be committed to heading to Mars.

During the campaign, Trump said NASA needed reforms but said he supported space exploration, like a mission to Mars.

“Under a Trump Administration, Florida and America will lead the way into the stars,” he told a rally in central Florida in October.

December 28, 2016

PolitiFact Florida: No permit needed for driverless cars, Tampa Bay senator says

Driverless car 0401


Uber hit the road with self-driving cars in San Francisco in December, but California regulators quickly hit the brakes.

In Florida, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, saw an opening for the Sunshine state.

"Hey @Uber, unlike California we in Florida welcome driverless cars - no permit required. #OpenForBusiness #FlaPol," Brandes tweeted Dec. 22.

Brandes, who has been advocating for laws to allow driverless cars, is correct that Florida does not require a permit to operate or test a driverless car. But that doesn’t mean people should expect to hitch an automated ride any time soon.

Keep reading from PolitiFact Florida.

(Photo: Anthony Ruvalo checks out the driverless car, Plan B, being demonstrated and on display at the Miami-Dade Government Center lobby on March 31, 2016. Al Diaz/Miami Herald)

Responding to critics, state GOP chairman says he has 'great' relationship with Florida Senate


Republican Party of Florida chairman Blaise Ingoglia says endorsements from 10 state senators for his re-election as party leader is evidence that the GOP is far more unified than his critics contend.

Ingoglia on Wednesday morning released a list of new endorsements that includes Senate-president-in-waiting Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

“The fact is that I, as well as the RPOF, have a great working relationship with our Florida Senators and their leadership,” Ingoglia said.

But Ingoglia’s rival for the RPOF’s top spot says those endorsements do little to change what has happened over the last two years. Sarasota Republican Christian Ziegler said when Ingoglia, who is also a state representative from Hernando County, won the chairmanship, the Florida Senate pulled out $800,000 out of the RPOF’s accounts. Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, responded similarly, pulling $600,000 out of the RPOF.

“They pulled their money out and have worked independently of the RPOF,” Ziegler said Wednesday.

Zeigler has made the need to re-unify the party a big part of his campaign to unseat Ingoglia. The two face a Jan. 14 vote among RPOF activists to decide who will lead the party over the next two years.

On a weekly basis Ingoglia has rolled out endorsements from RPOF activists, U.S.  Sen. Marco Rubio, 11 members of Congress from Florida, Florida’s elected CFO Jeff Atwater and now the 10 state senators.

“I am committed to working collaboratively with the Florida Senate, the Florida House, our Congressional delegation, the Governor and the cabinet to advance our shared goals of making Florida the best state in the nation!” Ingoglia wrote in a letter sent to voting members of the Republican Executive Committee.

Ziegler said the endorsements mean little to him because the vote is ultimately a secret ballot and just because people are publicly supporting Ingoglia doesn’t mean they will actually vote for him. He said Senators might largely be supporting Ingoglia to offer and olive branch to the Florida House as they prepare for the 2017 legislative session, given Ingoglia is an ally of House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Ziegler said if the Senate Republicans really supporter Ingoglia they will park their money back with the RPOF, something they have not done.

The Senators who backed Ingoglia on Wednesday included: Sens. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland; Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island; Frank Artiles, R-Miami; Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala; Travis Hutson, R-Jacksonville; Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach; Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples; Greg Steube, R-Sarasota; Dana Young, R-Tampa, and Galvano.