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June 08, 2017

Sen. Bill Nelson says AG Sessions should testify before Senate Intelligence Committee (UPDATE: Rubio wants Sessions to testify)

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Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson nabbed the hottest ticket in Washington on Thursday—a front row seat to former FBI Director James Comey's hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

As other senators who weren't on the committee went about a normal work day in Washington, Nelson leaned back in his chair to hear the detailed steps that Comey took to document his conversations with President Donald Trump because he didn't feel the president was trustworthy. 

"Let me give you my strongest impression, the testimony was riveting and I was riveted when he (Comey) answered that he took copious and detailed notes because he felt that the president would lie," Nelson said. "That was stunning."

Nelson told reporters after the hearing that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should testify before the committee to explain his role in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

"He was part of it," Nelson said. "The special counsel certainly has lots of information to work with." 

Sessions, a former senator from Alabama and Trump ally, recused himself from the Russia investigation after a flurry of criticism over his previously undisclosed contact with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Nelson, leaned back in his chair as his fellow Floridian, Sen. Marco Rubio, asked Comey questions during Thursday morning's open hearing. Rubio repeatedly questioned Comey about why he chose not to disclose publicly that Trump was not a target in the Russia investigation. 

UPDATE 3:23pm: Rubio said Sessions should testify before the Intelligence Committee to reporters after the hearing. "The attorney general...will hopefully answer some questions on a number of topics." 

Rubio defends Trump, pushes Comey to say Trump wasn’t involved in Russia probe

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Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio defended President Donald Trump during a widely publicized hearing with former FBI Director James Comey on Thursday.

Rubio, who dined with the president earlier this week, pushed Comey over his decision to not publicly disclose that Trump was not a person of interest in the ongoing investigation into Russia’s influence in the 2016 election.

Rubio asked Comey about his conversations with Trump in which the president asked about the ongoing investigation.

“We keep talking about this cloud, you perceive the cloud to be the Russia investigation in general, but the specific ask [from Trump] was that you would tell the American people what you had already told him, what you had already told the leaders of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, that he was not personally under investigation,” Rubio asked.

“Yes sir,” Comey replied.

“Just to be clear, for you to make a public statement that he was not under investigation would not have been illegal but you felt it made no sense because it could potentially create a duty to correct if circumstances changed,” Rubio asked.

“I wrestled with it before my testimony where I confirmed that there was an investigation and that there was two primary concerns,” Comey said. “One was that it creates a duty to correct, which I’ve lived before and you want to be very careful about doing that, and second it’s a slippery slope because if we say the president and the vice president aren’t under investigation, what’s the principled basis for stopping?”

Rubio, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, questioned that decision from Comey, saying that the overall Russia investigation was full of leaks from the news media, and that Comey’s decision not to disclose that information implied to the American people that the president was potentially part of the investigation.

“This investigation is full of leaks left and right,” Rubio said. “We’ve learned more from the newspapers sometimes than we do from our open hearings for sure. You ever wonder why in this Russia investigation the only thing that’s never been leaked is the fact that the president was not personally under investigation?”

“I don’t know, I find matters that are briefed to the gang of eight are pretty tightly held in my experience,” Comey said.

The Gang of Eight are Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate and each chamber's intelligence committee.

Two days before the hearing, Rubio and fellow intelligence committee member Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., had dinner with President Trump and a small group of lawmakers at the White House, and Rubio has been working closely with the White House on rewriting the nation’s Cuba policy in recent weeks.

Comey’s hearing attracted widespread national attention, and early in his testimony the former FBI director said President Trump told lies about why he was fired in May.

Read more here. 

Senate caves on strategy in effort to reach compromise on K-12 spending

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Lawmakers on Thursday morning inched closer to agreeing on how to boost state funding to K-12 public schools starting on July 1, even as a few senators still have plans to revive a debate over a controversial education reform bill, which could wrinkle any compromise.

In amending legislation to add money to the K-12 budget in 2017-18, the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to forgo the chamber’s plan of using local property tax money to pay for the new spending — a plan House Speaker Richard Corcoran had rejected outright as a “massive tax increase.”

The Senate now agrees with the House’s method of paying for the extra $215 million using general revenue — money freed up from Gov. Rick Scott’s vetoes handed down last week. About $150 million of that would be one-time spending that lawmakers would have to make up for the next budget year in order to keep spending level, or else schools would lose funding in 2018-19.

The Senate also withdrew its intent to demand the Legislature respect the Constitution’s required 72-hour “cooling off” period for general budget bills, which would have kept lawmakers in Tallahassee for longer than the three-day special session that’s supposed to end Friday evening.

By approaching the extra school money as “supplemental” spending to the K-12 budget lawmakers passed in May — instead of starting from scratch with a whole new budget — the 72-hour period wouldn’t be necessary, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said in explaining his changes to the Senate’s K-12 spending bill (SB 2500A).

Full details here.

Photo credit: Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, speaks to the Senate about overriding Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of the public schools budget during a special session of the Florida Legislature Wednesday June 7, 2017 at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. AP

Was there a strategy behind the Senate vetoes of $75 million in higher education overrides?

Galvano special session Mark WallheiserIn swift fashion, the Florida Senate passed $75 million in veto overrides late Wednesday.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the head of the Senate higher education budget, said that the governor's vetoes seemed to be "an inordinate amount of vetoes" to universities and colleges that betray the Senate's goal of shoring up universities and colleges this session.

The move appears destined to be essentially ignored by the House at this point. So was there a rhyme or reason for which projects were chosen? Were they targeted projects, intended to put pressure on the House to persuade Speaker Richard Corcoran to reconsider his opposition to overriding vetoes?

The answer is "not really," according to Senate sources. The selection of projects was handled by Senate President Joe Negron's office and appear to be based on "whoever had juice."

"We're feeling left out in Jacksonville,'' said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, whose district was left off the override list. 

The biggest projects include: $15 million for Florida Gulf Coast University's integrated watershed and coastal studies, $15 million for Florida International University's School of International and Public Affairs, $8 million for the Florida State University Interdisciplinary Research & Commercialization Building and $7 million for the University of Florida's Music Building. Here's the list:  Download Veto Overrides Higher Education

Sarah Palin's falsely linked Florida House photo with her Facebook rant on climate accord



It’s clear that Sarah Palin hates the Paris climate agreement.

What’s unclear is why she used a photo of Florida lawmakers to make her point in a Facebook meme.

"Don’t be fooled! The Paris climate accord is a scam," stated the headline at the top of Palin’s Facebook post June 6, 2017. (By June 7, the Facebook meme was no longer available but PolitiFact had taken a screenshot of her post, which had been shared at least 8,000 times.)

Beneath the headline is a photo of an unidentified group of mostly men cheering. The Facebook post doesn’t identify the people in the photo, but they are Florida House members at the state Capitol in Tallahassee.

Beneath the photo Palin shared is text that says: "They pretend it’s about fixing our environment ... But it’s really about stealing billions from the American people and giving it to foreign countries, governments and lobbyists!"

The Facebook meme, posted after President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement, could leave the impression that the people in the photo are rejoicing using the agreement to steal billions from Americans.

That's not the case.

PolitiFact fact-checked Palin’s photo as part of our effort to debunk fake news on Facebook. Our efforts to reach a spokesperson for Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, were unsuccessful. (Palin’s post was previously debunked by other news outlets including the Miami Herald, a partner along with the Tampa Bay Times in PolitiFact Florida, and Politico.)

Keep reading from PolitiFact Florida.

Trump 'listening session' perfect time to discuss Pasco's plight

PascoSnipGov. Rick Scott is scheduled to be at the White House Thursday as President Trump holds a "listening session" on how to improve America's infrastructure (on Scott's official schedule, it's a four-hour event). It seems like the perfect moment for Scott to nudge the President on a long-delayed road project in the heart of Pasco County.

The Tampa Bay Times has been chronicling the story of the Ridge Road Extension project since the days when people watched Seinfeld -- the first time -- and Bill Clinton was in the White House. It's an eight-mile, multi-lane county highway linking Ridge Road's terminus at Moon Lake Road to U.S. 41 in central Pasco. Environmentalists consider the project a threat to wildlife habitats, and the rising cost of land acquisition has become a problem, the Times reported last year.

Scott sent a letter and a background packet to the White House on March 23 with a plea for help from the feds, about three weeks after the governor got a letter urging action from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

"For 19 years," Scott wrote, "federal permits have delayed Pasco County's work to develop the Ridge Road Extension, which will provide critical hurricane and tropical storm evacuation capacity for more than 200,000 residents in the county's coastal areas." The enclosed packet said Pasco's population has grown 37 percent in the past decade and will close in on 1 million people by the year 2040.

The governor said a permit required under the Clean Water Act is the last remaining hurdle and asked that the prokect be given an expedited review by the Army Corps of Engineers under an executive order Trump signed a few days after he took office in January. Scott's office has not provided details of any response from Washington.

"When I was in business," Scott wrote, "I often waited a long time for a simple yes or no. Regardless of what the reason is, Pasco County deserves a timely response."

Miami sends default letter to Flagstone



Miami's city manager notified developer Mehmet Bayraktar Thursday morning that Flagstone Island Gardens is in default of its master agreement on Watson Island.

In a letter sent by certified mail, Alfonso said Flagstone had failed to secure a construction loan as required by an agreement to enter into ground lease before nailing down an upland lease, and had failed to meet a May 1 construction deadline. The letter does not explain what process Flagstone might have for challenging the declaration of default.

"Please govern yourselves accordingly," Alfonso wrote.

The notice comes one week after city commissioners stunningly voted that Flagstone had violated its city agreements, potentially ending a long and troubled relationship. The controversial developer, which won the right to build a resort on the public island in a 2001 referendum, has so far only built a mega-yacht Marina.

Bayraktar's representatives have been adamant that the city's declaration of default -- issued against the recommendation of the administration -- is illegitimate.




Jeff Brandes doesn't like the medical pot deal

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Negotiators in the House and Senate have reached agreement on how to put medical marijuana into effect. But one senator says lawmakers are going about it the wrong way.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was the first lawmaker to publicly support Amendment 2, which 71 percent of voters supported, forcing lawmakers to implement medical marijuana. On Thursday, he proposed an alternative to House and Senate leaders' plan. He has long been a critic of the way lawmakers are going about implementing medical pot, saying it is too regulated.

A key disagreement: From the beginning, House and Senate negotiations have centered on a system that would require any company licensed to sell marijuana to grow, process and dispense the drug. Brandes supports allowing companies to choose to do one or multiple of those functions.

He also would allow smoking in his proposal.

"This proposal is the purest implementation proposal that the Legislature has seen to date for Amendment 2," Brandes said in a statement. "For the first time, the Florida Senate will have an opportunity to vote consistent with our Republican principles of free markets and fair competition."  

The House and Senate plan to vote Friday on a deal (HB 5, SB 8) legislative leaders agreed to privately late Tuesday night.

During a Senate meeting late Thursday, lawmakers will face a vote on Brandes' proposal. Given that a deal was already struck, however, its odds of passing are slim.

Photo: Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, (right), and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. (Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times)

Speaker Richard Corcoran: Florida Senate 'did not stick to the plan'

FullSizeRender (13)At the end of Day 1 of the special session, House Republicans dodged the rain to attend a reception Wednesday night that was planned as a grand exit, a celebration of an agreement on schools, jobs and tourism money. But the session is in a ditch with the House and Senate battling each other.

"That was the plan," House Speaker Richard Corcoran told about 35 lawmakers who attended the social hour at the Hotel Duval ballroom. "I don't want to say who, but one of them did not stick to the plan," an obvious dig at the Senate.

Then the Land O'Lakes lawyer rallied members to continue to "go after the status quo" on education and taxes. He dismissed talk that his deal with Gov. Rick Scott was cloaked in too much secrecy: "Every special session is done the same way." He said Scott's signing of HB 7069 signals "transformational" education policy in Florida, to be followed by Scott replacing three retiring state Supreme Court justices right before leaving office in January 2019, a scenario that could face a challenge.

Corcoran described a Senate willing to "cave to special interests" by pushing a property tax increase on new construction to pay for a K-12 funding increase and by challenging Scott's vetoes of their "porkbarrel projects."

"It's going to be a tough three days, or three weeks. But we'll find out," Corcoran said. "Hopefully, we'll get all this squared away."

Defund HB 7069? Senator will attempt it, although House won't accept it



A contentious, charter school-friendly education reform bill that has incensed traditional public school advocates — and given some in the Florida Senate feelings of buyers’ remorse — isn’t on the agenda as the Legislature meets in special session this week.

But some senators will force the issue on Thursday morning — by proposing to strip out most of the $419 million in HB 7069 and redirect the money toward increasing general spending for K-12 public schools.

Approving a boost in K-12 funding is one of the reasons lawmakers are back in Tallahassee after Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the Legislature’s original spending level — an extra $24 per student — as insufficient. 

The House and Senate disagree over how to pay for the $215 million it would take to increase spending by $100 per student over this year, as Scott wants. That divide threatens to blow up the special session, which would leave 4,200 public schools without billions of dollars in state funding on July 1.

The ideas now offered by Senate K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons — with support from some senators — to partially or mostly defund HB 7069 won’t help ease the tension.

Although his proposals are gathering steam among some rank-and-file senators who oppose HB 7069, they’re dead-on-arrival in the House.

Full details here.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times