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March 07, 2017

Rep. David Richardson drops out of race for 2018 House Democratic leader

David Richardson at GadsdenRep. David Richardson of Miami Beach notified members of the House Democratic Caucus late Tuesday that he was no longer running to be their designated leader in 2018-2020, saying instead he prefers the caucus to choose between Reps. Kionne McGhee of Miami and Bobby DuBose, of Fort Lauderdale,

"We must learn from the lessons of years past where a divided Caucus only weakened us,'' Richardson wrote in the email. "A united Caucus strengthens our voice so we can better serve those who look to us for leadership."

He said he will instead continue to focus on his ground-breaking work on prison reform. In the last two years, Richardson, a forensic auditor, has been on a one-man crusade to urge reform in the state's prisons. He has visited dozens of prisons, most recently focusing on the state's private prisons and has forced changes at the Gadsden Correction Facility in North Florida. 

Here's Richardson's letter: 

Continue reading "Rep. David Richardson drops out of race for 2018 House Democratic leader" »

Fact-checking Gov. Rick Scott's speech to Legislature



Gov. Rick Scott vigorously defended the state’s agencies for business incentives and tourism marketing in his State of the State address, delivered just steps away from the fellow Republican attacking the governor’s priorities.

Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran did not call each other out by name in separate opening-day speeches, but each man used pointed language to double down on his view of the fiery Enterprise Florida/Visit Florida debate.

"It’s easy to throw out catch phrases like ‘picking winners and losers’ and ‘corporate welfare," Scott said in reference to Corcoran’s attacks on Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. "But that’s not what we are doing."

Corcoran warned that the House would not back down: "And for anyone waiting for us to slow down, to drop the big ideas, to stop trying to shake up the system, to cower in the face of attacks, or to cave to the demands of special interests; here’s our message to you: We will not."

From PolitiFact Florida, here’s a rundown of the governor’s remarks with context and a fact-check of a Democratic response.

Victory No. 2 for Richard Corcoran: Court orders Lottery to start over on ticket contract

In a stunning rebuke to Gov. Rick Scott and his Lottery secretary, a circuit court judge invalidated a contract the state signed with a ticket vendor IGT Global Solutions, saying the agency overstepped its budgetary authority when it committed to the 14-year deal and obligated the state to nearly $13 million more than the Legislature had authorized.

The 15-page ruling by Leon County Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers said that Lottery Secretary Tom Delacenserie “lacked the legal authority to enter into the IGT contract” when it obligated the state to nearly $13 million more than the Legislature authorized.

She agreed with House lawyers that state law prohibits an agency from both soliciting and signing a contract that exceeds the amount of money authorized by the Legislature and declared the contract “void and unenforceable,” sending the agency back to the drawing board to sign a lease for the full-service vending machines that provide customers with Powerball and other game tickets.

“Today's decision is a victory for the taxpayer and the rule of law,'' said Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, in a joint statement with Rules Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami, and Judiciary Chairman Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.

"It reinforces the idea that respecting the separation of powers is not an arcane idea or an out of date philosophy. In truth it is one of the bedrock principles of our republican government and is essential to protecting the liberties and livelihoods of Floridians.  No branch of government is above the law and the people's House will use every power within our means – from the committee room to the courtroom – to ensure those liberties and livelihoods are protected.”

Gov. Rick Scott, whose office oversees the Lottery, issued a statement immediately saying he would challenge the ruling.

"The Florida Lottery continues to make record contributions to our public schools and today's ruling jeopardizes billions of dollars for Florida students,’’ he said in a statement. “I strongly disagree with today's decision and we will appeal."

It is the second victory for Corcoran, who sued the agency after his budget staff discovered it had inked the agreement in what appeared to be an attempt to get around the Legislature’s refusal to authorize the state to leasing more full-service vending machines.

In December, Corcoran also sued over a contract signed by Visit Florida, another one of the governor’s agencies, for refusing to disclose its $1 million contract with rapper Pitbull but he withdrew the lawsuit when the agency agreed to make the deal public.

During a hearing before Gievers on Monday, Barry Richard, the lawyer for the Florida Lottery defended the contract during a court hearing Monday, arguing that state law requires the agency to “maximize revenues” by operating as an “entrepreneurial enterprise” and said the House’s objection was an illegal attempt to “micromanage an individual contract.”

But House lawyer Adam Tanenbaum countered the agency acted first and planned to get permission from lawmakers later. 

On Tuesday, during his speech on the opening day of the legislative session, Corcoran was confident that the House would prevail.

"That trial was (Monday), and I can assure you, we will win," he predicted hours before the ruling came down.

The contract, which was signed in September 2016 to run until 2028, changed the way the state pays for leasing ticket sales machines by giving the company a fixed percentage of sales from each machine, rather than pay them with a flat $500 per machine fee.

Summer Silvestri, Lottery’s procurement director, testified that by agreeing to extend the contract to 2031, the agency was able to negotiate a lower percentage fee, saving the state an estimated $18 million over the life of the contract.

But under the new deal, IGT would have gotten a slice of the sales of tickets, machines and other services. Based on projected sales, that would increase the amount the Lottery must pay IGT by an estimated $12.9 million in the budget year that begins July 1, according to the House.

For Corcoran, the fight is more than a dispute over a contract. It goes to the heart of the budgetary power that Corcoran claims has been abused and corrupted in Florida, in part because state agencies and lawmakers have let special interests reign.

During the hearing, Gievers, a former lobbyist and child advocacy lawyer, seemed aware that her ruling on high-stakes issue would likely end up in appeals court. She repeatedly urged the lawyers to complete the record in the event the hearing would be reviwed on appeal.

Here's Giever's ruling.  Download Gievers order

Here's our story on the court hearing on Monday. 

Senate committee reverses years of opposition and passes fracking ban

The Florida Senate reversed years of opposition to a statewide ban on oil and gas fracking and advanced a bill Tuesday that will prohibit the controversial practice in Florida.

The Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation voted unanimously to prohibit  "advanced well stimulation treatment," specifically hydraulic fracturing, acid fracturing and matrix acidizing -- the high pressure process that is used to inject water into rock formations to extract oil and gas.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, who reversed her opposition to a fracking ban last year, promising voters in her newly-drawn Senate seat that she would make passage of the ban a top priority. 

"This has been a wonderful journey,'' Young said, acknowledging the shift in position since she voted for a House bill lasts year that would have regulated and authorize fracking beginning in 2017, after a state study. 

She held up a rock of Florida karst limestone: "It is fragile. It is porous,'' she said. "Florida is unique. Florida is special and we do not have to be like every other state in the nation."

Opposing the bill were Exxon Mobile, the Florida Chamber, the James Madison Institute, the Heartland Institute of Washington, D.C., the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Petroleum Council which argued that Florida's ban would be the strictest in the nation, that hydraulic fracturing has been proven safe in other states and must remain an option if Florida is to meet its energy needs. 

Dave Mica, president of the Florida Petroleum Council, said the state consumes 27 million gallons of gasoline every day in the state, the third largest amount in the country, and most of the natural gas used in the state comes from the process of hydraulic fracking. "We have a shared interest in our industry to protect energy resources."

Jake Kramer, attorney at Stearns, Weaver, Millers which represents Collier Resources, the company that has shown an interest in drilling for natural gas in Florida, warned that the measure "will be a lightening rod for litigation in this state.''

Noting that large landowners will be forced to bring lawsuits against the state because the bill could deprive them of access to subsurface minerals, he said the bill will open the door to lawsuits that claim the measure would qualify as an economic taking and qualify landowners for compensation.

But Young disagreed. She said the bill does not foreclose mineral rights and does not prohibiting traditional oil and gas exploration.

"There may be some uncertainty but the question is are you willing to roll the dice with the future of our state?,'' she said. "Are you willing to roll the dice with the future of our environment?"


Donald Trump's misleading claim about Gitmo and Obama


@laurenfcarroll @amysherman1

For his entire term, former President Barack Obama wanted to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but he was unsuccessful.

President Donald Trump promises to keep it open, and he took to Twitter the morning of March 7 to criticize Obama for releasing Guantanamo detainees at all.

"122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama Administration from Gitmo, have returned to the battlefield. Just another terrible decision!" Trump tweeted — from both his personal account and the official White House account, @POTUS.

Guantanamo detainee transfers are likely in the news because a March 2, 2017, U.S. military airstrike killed a former Guantanamo prisoner, Yasir Ali Abdallah al Silmi, who Obama released to Yemen in 2009.

Trump’s claim that the Obama administration released 122 prisoners from Guantanamo that "returned to the battlefield" is right on the numbers but wrong on who is to blame. The vast majority of detainees who fall into Trump’s total were actually released during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Keep reading from PolitiFact.

How Florida legislators plan to open the door for FPL to charge its customers for exploratory fracking

Fracking APAfter losing a major battle in court last year, Florida Power & Light is now turning to the Florida Legislature to change the state law and give it the authority to charge customers, and profit off, speculative natural gas fracking. 

The bill, HB 1043 by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, is titled "Prudent Utility Investments in Natural Gas Reserves," and the Senate companion is SB 1248 by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach.

"Natural gas is a proven commodity that brings rates down and so we are going to allow FPL to go forward with a proven technology to have these reserves so that we pay down the road,'' Bean said in an interview.

The bill would essentially overturn a Florida Supreme Court ruling last year that said that Florida regulators exceeded their authority when they allowed FPL to become the first utility in the nation to be allowed to charge its customers, not its shareholders, for its speculative investment in fracking operations.

In June 2015, the Florida Public Service Commission unanimously went against its staff recommendations and approved FPL's  request to charge customers up to $750 million annually for the speculative natural gas fracking activities. FPL, a regulated monopoly and Florida’s largest utility, then entered into a $191 million joint venture with PetroQuest Energy of Louisiana to explore for natural gas in Oklahoma.

In June 2015, the Florida Public Service Commission went against its staff recommendation and unanimously gave final approval to a request by FPL that it be allowed to pass along costs of investment in natural gas fracking to its customers.  FPL’s original request to charge customers up to $750 million annually was reduced by the PSC to $500 million for the speculative natural gas fracking activities. FPL, a regulated monopoly and Florida’s largest utility, then entered into a $191 million joint venture with PetroQuest Energy of Louisiana to explore for natural gas in Oklahoma.

The process involves injecting large volumes of water, sand and chemicals at high pressures to release oil and natural gas from rock caverns deep underground.

The proposal, called the Woodford Gas Reserves Project, allowed FPL to earn a guaranteed profit off of the investment — about 11.3 percent. Although FPL  claimed the investment would provide a long-term hedge against volatile fuel costs and save customers money, FPL revealed that the Woodford project had cost customers about $5.8 million and did not save fuel costs.

The Office of Public Counsel, which represents ratepayers in utility cases, filed a lawsuit arguing that the PSC exceeded its authority in allowing the company to charge customers for the speculative investment. The Florida Supreme Court agreed and, in a 6-1 ruling, ordered FPL to refund nearly $24.5 million to customers.

“Treating these activities as a hedge requires FPL’s end-user consumers to guarantee the capital investment and operations of a speculative oil and gas venture without the Florida Legislature’s authority,” wrote Justice Ricky Polston. Justice Charles Canady dissented, saying regulators did have the authority to use the fuel clause to allow the company to make risk-based investments.

Bean said his bill is intended to help FPL "do what's best for their ratepayers in Florida."

"I am looking to save the taxpayers and ratepayers money and there is proven technology that can lower consumers energy bills,'' he said. "Do we have things to iron out? We do. And will not everybody agree? maybe."

Photo: Workers tend to a well head during a hydraulic fracturing operation in Colorado. Brennan Linsley AP File/2013


Florida House releases plan for medical pot, which activists criticize



Florida House leaders on Tuesday released their proposal to give patients access to medical marijuana, which would slowly increase the number of businesses licensed to grow and sell cannabis and has drawn criticism for limiting patients' use of the drug.

The bill (HB 1397) gives the existing seven growers licensed under more limited cannabis statutes the first crack at selling the drug. It automatically adds five second-place growers that applied for regionally awarded licenses previously but were rejected after 150,000 patients have registered with the state.

Beyond that, it bans edible cannabis products and smoking. It limits "vaping" -- using vaporizer devices with a cartridge of the drug -- to only terminal patients, though vape pens and cartridges are currently being sold under the existing state laws.

Ben Pollara, executive director of advocacy group Florida for Care, said in a statement that the House's proposal is "moving backwards."

"HB 1397 also offers only a modest expansion of the marketplace for medical marijuana treatment centers and again takes a step backwards in doing so," he said. "Forget about government not being in the business of picking winners and losers, HB 1397 literally picks losers in the issuance of the first tranche of new licenses proposed in the legislation. The bill calls for the first five licenses issued to be awarded to applicants who previously applied for, but failed to win, a license under the current law."

Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, personally filed the House bill, which joins a handful of competing Senate proposals.

On Tuesday, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said he was pleased so many senators had filed bills and that he expects the chamber's Health Policy Committee to put together a piece of compromise legislation.

Photo: Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times    

Why Rick Scott's job creation chief quit suddenly still a mystery to key lawmakers


State Rep. Jim Boyd is as much in the dark about why Enterprise Florida’s CEO quit with little notice as anyone this week.

Boyd, R-Bradenton, is the Florida House’s representative to Enterprise Florida's board of directors but said Tuesday that he had no heads up from Chris Hart IV that he was going to quit just hours before he was scheduled to testify before the Florida House on Monday.

“It came to a surprise to me as well,” Boyd said. “For whatever reason, I guess he felt he couldn’t continue. I don’t know what reasons those are. It was a surprise to many, myself included.”

Hart still has not spoken to the media about his sudden departure. On Monday he sent Gov. Rick Scott a four paragraph letter saying they did not have a “common vision” for Enterprise Florida and was resigning immediately from the job that was suppose to pay him $200,000 a year as a base salary. Hart never signed a contract with Enterprise Florida and is not eligible for any other compensation as a result of his abrupt departure.

According to the contract Hart never signed, he could have received up to $100,000 in severance pay had he been terminated without cause. But again, Hart did on sign the deal.

On Tuesday, the Enterprise Florida board of directors voted to make Mike Grissom, executive vice president for the agency, the interim CEO of the agency. It's a title he also held from June 2016 to January 2017 before Hart officially became the CEO.

Stan Connally, the head of Enterprise Florida's board of directors, said he spoke with Hart on Monday after he submitted his resignation letter, but said he "can't and won't" get into any more about what he called Hart's "personal decision."

Connally would not offer how long Grissom might serve as interim CEO, but said they need time for "the dust to settle."

Hart’s resignation is a major blow to Scott who loses his top cheerleader for Enterprise Florida at a time that the Florida House is pushing legislation to kill the agency entirely. In his state of the state address to the Legislature on Tuesday, Scott said Enterprise Florida has been critical to helping the state create more than 1.2 million private sector jobs since he was elected. Yet, House leaders have continually criticized the private-public agency for essentially picking and choosing winners in the private marketplace.

Cabinet members unaware of proposed provision exempting them from 'gun-free zones'


UPDATE: The bill was postponed. But Steube said after the meeting that one of the three Cabinet members — either Bondi, Atwater or Putnam — asked for the carve-out in state law. He won’t say which, but each told the Herald/Times they had no involvement in the proposal. More here.



Among many gun bills Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube has filed for the 2017 session, one proposal being considered for the first time Tuesday calls for letting the three members of the Florida Cabinet carry guns virtually anywhere -- so long as they have a concealed weapons permit and federal law doesn't prohibit guns in that location.

Each of the Cabinet members -- Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam -- said they were unaware until contacted by the Herald/Times this week that Steube had proposed exempting them from the state's "gun-free zones."

But only one Cabinet member -- Atwater -- would say whether they themselves might be affected by the potential law change.

Continue reading "Cabinet members unaware of proposed provision exempting them from 'gun-free zones'" »

Jewish day school in Davie hit by another anonymous phone threat

Jewish Cemetery Damage
via @harrisalexc

A Davie Jewish Day School was evacuated for two hours Tuesday after a phone threat against the school, the latest in a nationwide series of anonymous telephoned threats to Jewish schools and community centers this year.

The David Posnack Jewish Day School was also evacuated for a bogus bomb threat on Feb. 27, part of a fifth wave of such threats across the country in two months. The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI announced a civil-rights investigation into the threats, but declined to discuss whether they were coordinated.

Davie police, who characterized it as a bomb threat, gave the all clear around noon.

The JCC Association of North America sent out a written statement confirming multiple community centers were threatened with “either emailed or phoned-in bomb threats overnight and this morning.”

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported community centers were threatened in Milwaukee, Maryland, Oregon, New York, Alabama, Toronto and Ontario. Seven Anti-Defamation Leagues offices also received threats, according to JTA.

On Tuesday, U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio sent a letter to the administration asking for “swift action” to deter the anonymous phone threats. It was co-signed by every senator and sent to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey.

“We are concerned that the number of incidents is accelerating and failure to address and deter these threats will place innocent people at risk and threaten the financial viability of JCCs, many of which are institutions in their communities. Your Departments can provide crucial assistance by helping JCCs, Jewish Day Schools and Synagogues improve their physical security, deterring threats from being made, and investigating and prosecuting those making these threats or who may seek to act on these threats on the future,” the senators wrote.


Photo credit: Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press