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January 28, 2016

In Clinton-Sanders battle, Wasserman Schultz becomes a target

Like all members of Congress, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz must stand for re-election in November. Unusually, for a six-term incumbent, she’s facing a challenger in the Democratic primary.

But that’s not the election fight Wasserman Schultz is most engaged in now. Instead, she’s become a target in the intensifying battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic party’s presidential nominee. Sanders supporters across the country accuse the South Florida lawmaker of using her powerful post as chair of the Democratic National Committee to tip the scales toward Clinton.

It’s a dispute for which there is no definitive evidence. Even some of Sanders’ most fervent partisans don’t believe it. Wasserman Schultz herself denies it.

“If I wanted to favor a candidate, I would not be DNC chair,” she told McClatchy last week after headlining a fundraiser in Tallahassee, Florida. “I would support that candidate. It’s a pretty convoluted way to help a candidate when I have to actually function neutrally as the DNC chair.”

Keep reading James Rosen's story from McClatchy.

House health care budget chairman: Hospital profit caps 'off the table'


The House and Senate are saying “no” to Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal that would penalize hospitals that earned a profit in 2014.

Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, and Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, on Thursday unveiled parts of the legislative chambers’ health and human services budgets for the 2016-17 fiscal year. Although the House’s plan is similar to Scott’s in some ways, it’s clear the Legislature has no interest in a 9.3 percent profit cap.

“That issue is off the table,” said Hudson, who chairs the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.

After federal regulators shrunk the Low Income Pool to $608 million this year and changed some of its rules, lawmakers have to find a new model to reimburse hospitals for uncompensated charity care. The House plan is “substantially” similar to one proposed by the governor, Hudson said. It has three tiers, based on the percentage of charity care each hospital performs.

Full details of the House’s LIP model, including how much each hospital in the state would receive under the budget plan, will be available Friday when the chamber’s budget is released.

The House proposal sets aside $4.9 million for rural hospitals to offset their losses through LIP and $198 million for physicians at medical schools.

In the wake of reporting by the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune highlighting violence at the state’s crowded, underfunded mental hospitals, the House is asking for $3.8 million to expand the number of forensic beds and increase staff by 43.

Nevertheless, under the plan, deep personnel cuts recommended by the governor would hit several agencies, most severely the Department of Health. Nearly all of those positions were never filled by agencies after the Legislature authorized them, or they have been vacant for years, Hudson said.

“Clearly the organization has figured out how to make up for that and how to compensate for that,” he said.

County health departments, for example are “kind of out of the primary care business,” Hudson said. They could take the brunt of hundreds of position cuts in this year’s budget alone.

Democrats on the committee pushed back against Hudson, asking whether there was more the Legislature could do to ensure jobs they authorize executive agencies to fill actually get used.

“Frankly, I think what’ll happen if they don’t is we’ll take them right away from them,” Hudson said. “I think that’s where the appropriate check and balance is supposed to be.”

The Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee released its budget proposal earlier Thursday. The two chambers have not yet started their negotiations to finalize a budget. 

And let’s not forget Scott wields the power of the veto pen.

Scott: Don't count Jeb out


Gov. Rick Scott hasn't written off one of his famous predecessor's chances of becoming president.

Scott, in Washington to deliver an address on reforming hospital pricing practices at the American Enterprise Institute, put on his politics hat after the talk.

Scott, governor since 2011, said it's too soon to give up on former Gov. Jeb Bush despite his failure to gain traction in polls.

 "I still think it's early," Scott told the Miami Herald. "I mean, we haven't even done the first primary yet."

Scott said that Bush "was a very successful governor" when he headed the state from 1999 to 2007, noting in particular his education reforms.

"We're at a 12-year high in our K-12 graduation rate," Scott said.

Adding that "Jeb is working hard," Scott said, "The person that works the hardest generally wins."

Despite praising Bush's record in Florida, Scott declined to endorse him. Neither is he endorsing -- yet -- fellow Floridian Marco Rubio, the first-term U.S. senator, nor any of the other Republican presidential hopefuls.

"Like a lot of voters in Florida, I'm watching the candidates," the governor said.

Four days before the Feb.1 Iowa caucuses, Bush tallied just 4 percent in a NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll of that state's Republican voters released Thursday. He was far behind businessman Donald Trump and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio of Florida, while also trailing neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Bush is faring better in New Hampshire, which will hold its primary Feb. 9, according to a poll released Thursday by Suffolk University. Bush broke out of the single digits with 11 percent, putting him in a second-place tie with Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Rubio, with all four men well behind Trump's 27 percent standing.

In addition to Bush, Scott said he has personal relationships with Rubio, along with Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie through the Republican Governors Association.

Scott criticized the Republican National Committee for having scheduled just nine presidential debates this year.

"I wish the national party hadn't limited the number of debates and limited the locations," he said.

The RNC is weighing three additional possible Republican presidential debates.

The March 10 GOP debate will be at the University of Miami, nine days after Super Tuesday, when 14 states will hold Republican primaries or caucuses. Florida will hold its primary on March 15.

Scott declined to comment directly on Trump's decision to skip Thursday night's Fox News debate because of his ongoing feud with Megyn Kelly, one of its moderators.

"Every candidate's got to think about what's the best forum for them to get their message out, whether it's debates, whether it's town halls," Scott said.


Miami-Dade's new police director has a retirement date set for 2020


Juan perez 2
The law enforcement veteran tapped to replace Miami-Dade’s retiring police director already has a retirement date of his own.

Juan Perez, the longtime deputy to outgoing director J.D. Patterson, entered the state’s deferred-retirement program in July, meaning he must leave the county payroll by 2020. Patterson was also part of the so-called DROP program, and is set to collect about $857,000 in deferred pension payments when his retirement officially kicks in on Feb. 1.

Like Perez, Patterson was already in the DROP program when he was named police director nearly three years ago in early 2013 by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. State records show Patterson entered the program in 2011. 

The DROP program allows municipal and state employees across Florida to start accumulating pension payments for up to five years while remaining on the government payroll, provided they agree to a mandatory retirement date within those five years. After retiring, they are paid the accumulated pension payments and then begin collecting their regular pension checks.

Patterson’s monthly pension payment amounts to about $13,000, according to the state’s Department of Management Services. Local governments pay into Florida’s pension system, which is administered by the state.

Gimenez announced Perez as Patterson’s replacement at a police swearing-in ceremony Thursday, confirming what has been an all-but public plan at County Hall and beyond. When Patterson began taking time off ahead of his retirement late last year, Perez’s title shifted to acting director.  Perez has been with the Miami-Dade police department for 25 years.

Perez, 48, entered DROP as soon as he became eligible for the program last July, according to the county’s personnel department. At the time, Perez was considered Gimenez’s pick to succeed Patterson once he unofficially began his retirement at the end of 2015.

He isn’t the first county administrator to have set a retirement date before being promoted to the top job. In June 2014, Gimenez appointed deputy corrections director Marydell Guevara to be the department’s director. Her mandated retirement in the DROP program arrives May 31.   

In his current post, Perez earns $170,000. County officials on Thursday could not provide information on Perez’s compensation as the county’s new police director. Through DROP, Perez would receive a lump payout of $643,000 at the end of the five-year waiting period in July 2020, then begin collecting about $11,200 a month, according to the state.

Miami congressman returns from Afghanistan trip



In his first overseas trip as part of a congressional delegation, Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo traveled to Afghanistan for four days last week, visiting U.S. service members stationed at military bases.

The trip was kept hush-hush due to security reasons, as most "codels" to dangerous places are, until after Curbelo and the three other members of Congress who took part returned safely home.

Curbelo and Democratic Reps. Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut and Julia Brownley of California traveled at the invitation of U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who sits on the House Armed Services Committee. They visited the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and three military bases in Bagram, Kandahar and Nangarhar. 

"I wanted to hear directly from the generals in the field," said Curbelo, a freshman. "When generals go and speak on the Hill and testify, they tend to feel scripted. When you go out to the field and meet with them in their offices, on their bases, you really get a better feeling of what the the challenges are, where we're failing, where we're succeeding."

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Florida Senate approves changes to "stand your ground" law


By a 24-12 vote, the Florida Senate on Thursday approved changes to the state's "stand your ground" law -- which are endorsed by the National Rifle Association but which opponents argue would "stack the deck against justice for the dead," especially if the victim is a racial minority.

The legislation shifts the burden of proof in a pre-trial hearing from defendants to prosecutors, requiring state attorneys to prove "by clear and convincing evidence" why a defendant could not claim "stand your ground" in self-defense cases.

Its prospects at becoming law are unknown, because a House version -- which required the demonstration of a higher burden of proof from prosecutors -- unexpectedly stalled in November in committee, a rare defeat for a priority of the NRA.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island -- sponsor of SB 344 -- said again Thursday he wants for House leadership to take up his bill directly on the House floor. It's unclear whether House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, intends to exercise that option.

Crisafulli spokesman Michael Williams told the Herald/Times that “the House will take up the bill for consideration when it comes over from the Senate,” but it hasn’t been decided whether it will be brought immediately to the floor for a vote or referred to committees.

Bradley said he “anticipates” a floor vote in the House.

"I've gotten general indications that's where it's headed," he said. "I'm confident there's a majority of House members who would agree with the majority of the Senate that this is the right public policy for the state of Florida."

Bradley sought the changes to "stand your ground" in light of a Florida Supreme Court ruling last summer that he has argued "overreached" the court's powers.

In the case known as Bretherick v. Florida, five of seven justices ruled defendants who claim a stand-your-ground defense have to prove before trial why they’re entitled to that immunity, but Bradley contends the justices "misinterpreted legislative intent" of the decade-old law.

Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law, adopted in 2005, allows residents to use deadly force in defense of their lives or property in certain circumstances, with no obligation to retreat or flee.

"We're getting it right today," Bradley said on the Senate floor, adding that "the state should have the burden of proof in criminal prosecution from beginning to end."

Sen. Gwen Margolis, of Miami, was the only Democrat to join the chamber's Republican majority in passing the bill. She changed her vote afterward, but the official record reflects the result as 24-12 with her as a “yes” vote.

Prior to the floor vote, several Democratic senators invoked the names of high-profile victims -- including Trayvon Martin -- in expressing their opposition to "stand your ground" and Bradley's proposed changes, but Republicans said Trayvon's case had nothing to do with the law.

Trayvon, a 17-year-old from Miami Gardens, was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford four years ago. Zimmerman was later acquitted.

Shifting the burden of proof in self-defense cases would require prosecutors to "somehow prove a negative; that there was no threat, no reason to be fearful," Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said.

"In these cases, you only have one person’s side of the story; it's the last man standing," Thompson said. "Trayvon couldn’t tell his side of the story because he was dead. So we only have the version that was presented by the individual who hunted him down, who tracked him, who engaged him in an altercation."

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, said the enforcement of “stand your ground” has already proven to have wide disparities depending on the race of the victim, and this legislation could further hurt the chances for minority victims to get justice.

She cited statistics from the American Bar Association that she said show a white shooter of a black victim is 350 percent more likely to be found justified in use of deadly force than if the victim was white.

Bradley said, "it's simply incorrect to suggest this bill would result in otherwise guilty individuals going free."

He described his measure as "procedural" and said if prosecutors have sufficient evidence to prove a case before a jury at trial, they should have no problem convincing a judge in a preliminary hearing.

But Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the hearing happens when "the case is still ripe; they haven't even got all the evidence in."

"You’re getting the immunity, the least you can do is put on some evidence of it," he said.

He also criticized Bradley for citing the dissent of Justices Charles T. Canady and Ricky Polston as part of his rationale for seeking to change the law.

"When I was in law school, the dissent was what we called: 'What the law is not,' " Smith said.

Marco Rubio walks into an Iowa bar...and so does Dave Barry


From Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry:

WEST DES MOINES -- I went to hear Marco Rubio speak, for two important journalism reasons:

  1. The event was near my hotel.
  2. It was in a bar.

Rubio is a classic only-in-America story: The son of Cuban immigrants, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Florida at the age of 12, and now, at age 14, he is running for president of the United States.

Rubio’s big rival at the moment is Jeb Bush. They used to be friends, but now they hate each other, because they are both vying for the coveted role of Establishment Republican Who Will Probably Not Get Nominated. The other hot Republican battle is between front-runners Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, who also used to get along but now detest each other to the point where there may be, if they can work out their schedules, a duel between their top aides.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have also reached the stage of intense mutual loathing. And we’re just getting started! By the time we actually elect a president, he or she will be so filled with rage that I wouldn’t be surprised if he or she launched a unilateral nuclear attack on Belgium just to let off steam.

But getting back to the Rubio event: There was a good-sized crowd of Iowans packing the bar, and when Rubio appeared they showed their enthusiasm Iowa-style, by which I mean they applauded politely. Some of them also went “Whoo!” In Miami, there would have been gunfire. It would have been positive, friendly, welcoming gunfire, but still.

More here.

Photo credit: Daniel Acker, Bloomberg

Marco Rubio's final TV ads in Iowa


WEST DES MOINES -- Marco Rubio's campaign put out two new TV ads in Iowa over the past two days, aiming for what his aides call a "strong close" in Monday's caucuses.

One spot, released Wednesday, focuses on Rubio's love of families and faith. The other, released Thursday, hones in on Democrat Hillary Clinton. Both feature the Florida senator speaking directly into the camera.

No campaigns (including super PACs) have spent more on Iowa TV than Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.



Set to run for Congress in Miami, son of Hillary Clinton donor now also considering state Senate seat


Andrew Korge let it be known two weeks ago that he intended to run for Congress as a Democrat in the Florida district now represented by Republican Carlos Curbelo.

But he has yet to file paperwork for his candidacy, and now he's taking a second look at running for Florida state Senate, his spokeswoman said Thursday.

"He has been approached by leaders in the community about running for District 39," Helena Poleo told the Miami Herald. "He hasn't made a decision yet."

Korge, a political novice and the son of Chris Korge, a prominent Hillary Clinton financial backer, had originally considered a Senate run. After new districts were redrawn and Miami Democratic Sen. Gwen Margolis said she'd seek reelection, however, Andrew Korge set his sights on Congress instead.

What's changed in the past two weeks? Two things: Former U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia sounded more serious about campaigning for his old seat again, taking on Democrat Annette Taddeo.

And word leaked from Tallahassee that a deal might be in the works between Sens. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, and Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, to avoid running against each other. Such an agreement could tacitly signal to other Democrats not to run against Flores.

Korge and other Democrats privately panned the notion of a deal, saying it wouldn't make sense for the party not to compete in new District 39, which leans Democratic. So does District 40, where Bullard and Flores live now. Both are heavily Hispanic. Neither Bullard nor Korge are.

After lengthy, lively debate, open-carry proposal heads to full Florida House



Despite discord among the state’s law enforcement officers and passionate efforts to derail it, a National Rifle Association-backed measure to allow nearly 1.5 million people to openly carry guns in Florida is ready for consideration by the full state House.

A compromise version of HB 163 -- by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- easily passed the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The 12-4 vote came after 2-1/2 hours of debate that included mentions of terrorism, God and the Wild West, and four unsuccessful amendments aimed at scaling back the drastic shift in public policy.

Tallahassee Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda was the only Democrat to side with Republicans in supporting the measure.

If it becomes law, concealed-weapons permit-holders could carry handguns openly wherever they're allowed to carry concealed. Private businesses -- ranging from grocery stores and bars to Disney World -- would be able to decide whether people can carry guns, but no public place -- such as a public hospital -- could ban them, unless guns are banned already under state law.

The Senate version -- SB 300, sponsored by Gaetz's father, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville -- awaits consideration before that chamber's Judiciary Committee, its second of three committee stops. Chairman Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, has said he'll give it a hearing.

Matt Gaetz's measure is likely to earn favor in the full House, where 81 of the 120 members are Republicans, but Democrats said they plan to continue fighting.

Republicans and gun-rights supporters heralded the proposal on Thursday as one that fortifies constitutional rights, or what Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, called a "God-given right to openly carry weapons."

But Democrats and gun-control advocates blast the measure because they fear it would jeopardize law enforcement officers' safety as well as public safety. They say it could harm Florida's "family friendly" tourism industry, and some also worry about the ready ability terrorists could have to openly carry handguns.

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