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February 16, 2017

House Democrats call out Republicans' closed-door meeting

@MichaelAuslen and @stevebousquet

11212016_190301_cruz_8colHouse Minority Leader Janet Cruz on Thursday responded to a closed-door caucus meeting held by Republicans in Tallahassee to discuss taking down Enterprise Florida.

"Transparency when conducting the people’s business is of the utmost importance and that’s why our caucus room is always open to the public," Cruz, D-Tampa, said in a statement.

Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, assembled his Republican members at an upscale bar not far from the Capitol called The Edison on Wednesday night, where he played a video targeting Enterprise Florida, instructed members to "stay on the moral high ground" and blocked a Times/Herald reporter from observing the meeting.

Several Democrats voted against a Corcoran-backed proposal to gut Enterprise Flat a committee meeting last week. But Cruz said the minority party wants to reform the program.

"It’s also no secret that Enterprise Florida is an agency in serious need of reform and House Democrats look forward to having that debate," she said. "Floridians deserve an end to corporate welfare that benefits large corporations and the ultra-wealthy and a renewed focus on growing jobs here at home by supporting our local small businesses."

Photo by Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

Anti-Trump protesters in Florida try to figure out what comes next

ACTIVISTS a epf
@PatriciaMazzei

Three weeks after they wore pink knitted hats, waved homemade protest signs and marched in Washington and in Miami, the women determined to keep confronting President Donald Trump filed into the pews of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Coconut Grove — if not to pray, then at least to commune.

“If you feel comfortable closing your eyes, please do so: We’re in a safe space,” Natalia Vásquez urged as she led an opening moment of meditation that felt a lot like the start of a yoga class. “Ask yourself, ‘Why am I here? What is important to me right now? And how can I become involved in loving action?’”

They breathed and applauded and cheered together. And then came the hard work: trying to figure out how to turn their anti-Trump fervor into a long-term political movement — one more akin to the tea party, which quickly dominated U.S. elections, than to Occupy Wall Street, which didn’t.

The women’s marches held on Jan. 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration, drew such extraordinary crowds that organizers across the country have spent the past few weeks dealing with the consequences of their unexpected success. Protesters wanted to know what more they could do — now and over the next four years.

No one had planned that far in advance.

More here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell, Miami Herald staff

Gov. Rick Scott takes on more state legislators in their home districts

ScottMosi21317

@JeremySWallace

Standing in a zoo, Gov. Rick Scott made clear today that he’s not done handing out political retribution to state legislators who have dared oppose him on two of his biggest priorities.

At the Brevard Zoo, Scott ripped into state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, for being one of 9 Republicans that voted to eliminate funding for the state’s primary economic development agency, Enterprise Florida, and Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency.

Scott told business and tourism leaders that the committee Fine sits on decided “we’re not going to spend any more money on marketing our state. We’re not going to spend any more money trying to get jobs from other states.”

Scott said Fine’s vote was hard to take because of his background in business.

“What’s even more frustrating is that you have a local state Rep that’s a business person - Randy Fine - and he’s saying the same things,” Scott said with television camera’s rolling.

Fine said he would not comment until he heard all of Scott’s comments. But on Wednesday, Fine sent Scott a letter that read as a warning for him to not call him out by name.

“Rather than us talking at each other in the media, I’d prefer to talk to you in person,” Fine wrote in the letter he delivered to the Governor’s office. “It’s much easier for me to make a five minute elevator trip from the 14th floor to the first floor of the Capitol than you to fly to the Brevard Zoo.”

Clearly it didn’t cause Scott to change his plans. Scott’s trip to Brevard marked the five stop this week to a district of a Republican on the House subcommittee that voted to kill the bill. In each stop, Scott has been sure to call out members by name for voting to kill the two agencies. Later today, he was expected to be in St. Cloud, the home district of Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud.

La Rosa expected the visit. On Wednesday he said he welcomed the governor visiting with business leaders in St. Cloud, but doesn’t regret his vote at all.

“Because I think it was the right vote,” La Rosa said.

Scott’s stops in La Rosa’s and Fine’s backyards come as House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, released a new 3 minute video that shows how Florida taxpayers gave millions of dollars to companies to locate in Florida that later went bankrupt. But both examples in the video - Sanford Burnham and Digital Domain - are from deals struck before Scott was elected.

Scott has argued that there are now protections in place that require companies to create jobs before they get their money. In addition, there are provisions that require companies to maintain the jobs for years, otherwise they face the potential of clawbacks.

Trump names Miamian Alex Acosta to lead labor department

One16 Arrest Lnew jmb
@jayhweaver @PatriciaMazzei @NickNehamas

President Donald Trump nominated R. Alexander Acosta, a former Miami U.S. attorney and the current dean of Florida International University’s law school, as labor secretary Thursday after Trump’s initial choice failed to gain support in the Republican-led Senate.

Acosta, a 48-year-old Republican who served as South Florida’s top federal prosecutor during President George W. Bush’s second term before joining FIU’s faculty, not only boasts stellar conservative credentials but is also recognized locally as a political pragmatist.

“He has had a tremendous career,” Trump said Thursday. “He will be a tremendous secretary of labor.”

Trump made the announcement from the White House East Room. Acosta wasn’t present, suggesting Trump decided on his new nominee so quickly that Acosta didn’t have enough time to make it to Washington.

Acosta, who is Cuban-American, would be the first and only Hispanic on Trump’s Cabinet, and the third Cuban-American Cabinet secretary in history, after Mel Martinez and Carlos Gutierrez. Acosta’s full name is Rene Alexander Acosta; he goes by Alex and lives in Coral Gables.

The president spent most of the news conference Thursday laying into reporters, whom he characterized as unfair. Trump has scheduled his first post-inauguration political rally for Saturday afternoon in Melbourne. 

More here.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file

Senate will seek to 'take some of the edges off' controversial teacher bonuses

Capitol@ByKristenMClark

David Simmons, the Senate's pre-K-12 education budget chairman, elaborated slightly on Thursday about the Legislature's intent to expand the controversial "Best & Brightest" teachers bonuses into a potentially quarter-of-a-billion-dollar program next year aimed at incentivizing more teachers to join and stay in the profession.

MORE: "$200 million for teacher incentives? Florida lawmakers crafting plan to do it"

During another meeting of his committee, Simmons indicated that the crux of "Best & Brightest" might still remain but that the Senate will seek to "take some of the sharp edges off."

He said qualifying criteria for the expanded teachers incentives could perhaps include "other avenues, such as a grade point average" and "something that would deal with the principal's own assessment, as to those who deserve to be rewarded for hard work and improvement of their students."

Members of the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Appropriations Subcommittee will get a draft plan of the proposal in "the next several days," Simmons said.

Asked by the Herald/Times, Simmons wouldn't say where the money might come from to pay for the expansion or if another education program might have to sacrifice in the process.

"I think we pay for it because we need to pay for it," Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said, referencing a looming nationwide teachers shortage. "I think there’s $250 million in the budget to pay for this."

"I’m not concerned that we’re talking about $200-250 million," he added. "It’s an investment, it’s not an expenditure, and I think we can find it in an $83 billion budget."

A quarter of a billion dollars is about three-tenths of 1 percent of the total state budget and, more specifically, about 1 percent of the state’s $23.4 billion pre-K-12 budget.

In case you missed it, more details here.

Photo credit: Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

*This post has been updated.

Miami lawmakers praise Trump's new labor pick, a local

@PatriciaMazzei

Even before President Donald Trump announced Alexander Acosta as his new secretary of labor pick, a Miami Republican lawmaker started singing Acosta's praises.

NBC News reported Thursday -- ahead of Trump's White House press conference announcing his choice -- that it would be Acosta, the dean of Florida International University's law school and former U.S. attorney for the southern district of Florida. Acosta would be Trump's first and only Hispanic Cabinet member.

The still-unconfirmed news prompted immediate support from U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart:

I am excited to learn of Alex Acosta’s nomination for Labor Secretary. He has an impressive record of achievement, having served on the National Labor Relations Board, as well as receiving  presidential appointments to both U.S. Attorney for Southern District of Florida and Assistant Attorney General during his career. Alex has also been an exemplary Dean of one of the best law schools in the state, leading FIU to earn the highest bar passage rates in Florida for three years in a row. He is a man of great principle, integrity, and courage, and I am confident he will do an excellent job serving our nation.

Here's the reaction from U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami:

And from U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami:

And from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida:

I know Alex Acosta well, and he is a phenomenal choice to lead the Department of Labor. Whether it was his distinguished service as U.S. attorney in Florida’s Southern District or as dean of Florida International University’s school of law, Alex has succeeded in all endeavors he has taken on, and managing the Department of Labor will be no different. I look forward to his confirmation hearing, where I’m confident he will impress my colleagues and secure the support necessary to be the next secretary of labor.

Supreme Court upholds order blocking 24-hour abortion waiting period

@MichaelAuslen

435307636.1_18279405_8colWomen do not have to follow a state law requiring them to see a doctor 24 hours before having an abortion, the state Supreme Court made clear Thursday in a ruling that upholds an existing, lower court decision blocking the law from going into effect.

The 4-2 decision says the 24-hour delay law, passed and signed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2015, has a "substantial likelihood" of being ruled unconstitutional under broad privacy protections in the state Constitution.

"Because the right of privacy is a fundamental right within Florida’s constitution, this Court consistently has required that any law intruding on this right is presumptively unconstitutional and must be justified by a 'compelling state interest' which the law serves or protects through the 'least restrictive means,' " Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in the decision.

The law has been effectively blocked for most of the 20 months since it went into effect.

The Supreme Court has not ruled on whether the law is constitutional -- only on an injunction that keeps it from going into effect. A lawsuit over constitutionality will likely continue but could take years to complete.

Two conservative justices, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented with the court's opinion, writing that "there is no basis" for the other justices to conclude that the abortion clinic that sued the state over the law would "prevail in meeting their heavy burden" of proof in the case.

Justice Alan Lawson, appointed to the court after its November oral arguments in the case, did not vote.

Photo: Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

State lawmakers vote to pull Florida from federal refugee program

@MichaelAuslen

502557398_18779970_8colLawmakers took their first step Thursday toward removing Florida from the refugee resettlement program amid charges that the federal government was not an effective partner with state law enforcement.

The House’s Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee voted 9-5 along party lines for legislation (HB 427) to pull out of the refugee program. Similar legislation has not been filed in the Senate, indicating it may have limited possibility to become law.

With refugees at the center of national debate on President Trump’s travel ban, pulling out of the program has been called a political move.

Doing so would not end the flow of refugees to the state. Rather than state officials coordinating a $250 million federal program in Florida, the feds would partner with nonprofits in the state.

Q&A: Refugees are in the spotlight again. Here's everything you need to know.

State Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, filed the legislation in response to complaints that state law enforcement agencies do not receive enough information about refugees before they arrive. Refugees face a lengthy vetting process that can take two years but is conducted by the UN and several federal agencies, not state law enforcement.

“The intent of this bill is to send a clear message to the feds that if we are going to be partners in a program, we ought to be true partners,” Santiago said.

The fear is that a terrorist might pose as a refugee to gain entrance to the country.

Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Sarasota, said the program is effectively a contract in which the state of Florida does not benefit.

However, there have been zero instances of a refugee committing an act of terrorism in Florida, and there are few documented cases in other states.

In fact, experts said, Florida could actually lose access to the limited information its Department of Children and Families currently receives by leaving the refugee program.

“If this bill were to pass, the consultation that does occur now and has for quite some time would be cut off completely,” said Mark Schlakman, senior program director for the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.

Democrats said the legislation would have no real impact on security, calling it a politically motivated attack on refugees in need of help and support.

“The bill does not prevent the federal government from sending refugees here,” Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, said. “What the bill does is it sends red meat to the base of a political party in order to justify future elections.

Photo: The Alsaloum family waits in line at a social security office in Tampa on Feb. 2, 2017, with case worker Rana Al Sarraf of Coptic Orthodox Charities, Inc. Al Sarraf plays a crucial role in assisting refugee families with getting their lives started in the United States. Florida lawmakers are considering withdrawing any state assistance in a federal program that resettled refugees in Florida. Last year, 3,272 refugees resettled in Florida. (Loren Elliott, Tampa Bay Times)

Senator says Florida Legislature crafting plan for $200M+ in teacher incentives

Simmons david 021517@ByKristenMClark

The amount of money Florida spends to recruit and keep good teachers for its K-12 public schools could potentially quadruple next year, under tentative plans being crafted in private by Republican House and Senate leaders ahead of the 2017 session.

Gov. Rick Scott last month recommended $58 million be spent in 2017-18 to fund a variety of teacher incentives, which would replace the controversial “Best & Brightest” teacher bonuses that reward top teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores in high school.

But one key senator revealed Wednesday that lawmakers are exploring a vastly larger amount than Scott proposes — in order to keep the best of “Best & Brightest” and expand the incentives to benefit more teachers.

Their ballpark amount? More like $200 million or more in potential funding, said Sen. David Simmons, the Senate’s pre-K-12 education budget chairman.

Full details here.

Photo credit: Florida Channel

February 15, 2017

Behind closed doors, Corcoran rallies House GOP members to keep fighting Gov. Scott

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, summoned his fellow Republicans to a private event at an upscale bar and restaurant in Tallahassee Wednesday night, and nearly all of them showed up to hear his message.

FullSizeRThe House Republican caucus meeting at The Edison was closed and a Herald/Times reporter was not allowed to cover what Corcoran (left) said was a social function. The speaker, who has emphasized transparency and accessibility, closed the doors as he played a five-minute video eviscerating Enterprise Florida.

The video was produced by the House Majority Office, meaning it was paid for by taxpayers and played at a private event where the media was excluded. The video repeatedly showed the message "No more" and included a graphic that said: "No more picking winners and losers."

Summarizing his message to his members, Corcoran said: "Stay on the moral high ground. Don't get down in the weeds. Be statesmen and keep talking about facts and issues." Explaining why he refused to allow a reporter inside the room for the 20-minute event, Corcoran said: "You'll change the dynamic."

Corcoran and Gov. Rick Scott are locked in a bitter political struggle over the use of tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money for Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida for job and tourism subsidies that Corcoran says are "corporate welfare." Some House members are livid that Scott has traveled to suburban Jacksonville and Panama City this week to personally criticize two of Corcoran's allies, Reps. Paul Renner and Jay Trumbull, for supporting elimination of the two programs.

On Thursday, Scott is headed to Brevard County, the home of a third Republican who opposes Scott on incentives, freshman Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay.

In an obvious reference to Scott's tour, Corcoran said: "When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the facts aren't on your side, pound the table. They're pounding the table. They're condemning our members. Just crazy stuff."