April 22, 2014

Rubio calls Snowden scandal 'most damaging' espionage case in U.S. History. Is it?

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio makes it clear where he stands on Edward Snowden’s exposure of the National Security Agency’s spying programs: The situation couldn’t be more dire.

"The single most damaging revelation of American secrets in our history," Rubio said when asked about the matter after a foreign policy speech at the University of Texas on April 15.

"I can say to you unequivocally that there are Americans whose lives are at risk because of those disclosures," Rubio said, adding, "It’s been this massive revelation of all sorts of information about the way we operate to keep Americans safe delivered to potential adversaries, both the Russians and potentially the Chinese, done in the most damaging way possible and sprinkled with a bunch of lies."

There’s little question that the revelations are nearly unprecedented in the history of American espionage.

Snowden, a former CIA employee, gave a small group of reporters thousands of classified documents he found with his security clearance as a contractor for the NSA. The information detailed surveillance programs and data mining operations against world leaders and American and European citizens. Facing espionage charges, he is now living in an undisclosed location in Russia.

Rubio’s comments did make us wonder whether there were other instances of espionage that would qualify as more wide-reaching than Snowden’s case. (Rubio’s office pointed us to an article in The Hillthat argued Snowden’s actions no doubt helped terrorists.) We can’t fact-check Rubio’s opinion on the situation, but we did survey a raft of historians and experts to see if they felt the senator was making a reasonable point.

The verdict: Reasonable, perhaps, but not definitive.

The many experts we spoke with had different opinions on the matter, and a lot depends on how you define "damaging." Read more from PolitiFact.

-- Joshua Gillin

Dane Eagle arrested for DUI


Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, was arrested Monday morning and charged with DUI by Tallahassee police, according to the Tallahassee police.

Download arrest/probable cause affidavit: Dane Eagle 

Eagle, 30, was driving a black SUV at about 1:50 a.m. after leaving a Taco Bell on W. Tennessee Street. A Tallahassee police officer noticed that the SUV turned left, striking a raised median, and turned back. It crossed into the intersection of Caliark Street and Tennessee, past the stop bar and waited at a red light.

When the light turned green, the officer watched as the SUV made a U-turn and almost struck the curb near the Papa John's Pizza at the intersection of Stadium and W. Tennessee St. near the Florida State University campus. Traveling at about 45 mph in a 35 mph zone, the SUV then veered right and struck a raised curb. After it didn't brake and passed through the Dewey Street and Tennessee at a red light, the officer turned his lights on pulled it over.

As the SUV pulled over, it struck the concrete curve.

"Before I made contact with the driver, I could smell the strong odor of alcoholic beverage coming from the passenger compartment," the report states. "When (Eagle) spoke, I could smell the strong odor of alcoholic beverage coming from his breath. The defendant's eyes were bloodshot, watery and glassy. The defendant denied consuming any alcoholic beverages."

When the officer asked him to step out of the vehicle, Eagle "stumbled to his left and fell against the rear passenger door of his vehicle."

Denying again that he consumed alcohol, Eagle told the officer he had been with friends in his vehicle earlier and they were at a bar. He declined to do a field sobriety test.

The officer arrested him for DUI. He then refused a breath test.



House and Senate settle on $47 million in new money for child welfare

With breakneck speed, House and Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations conference committees met Tuesday morning and agreed to $47 million in new money for child welfare services, far below what child advocates had hoped for but more money for treatment services than either chamber had originally sought.

The proposal also gives the governor only about $21 million of the $40 million he sought to expand child protection services -- $31 million of which the governor wanted to be controlled by the Department of Children and Families.

The budget conference is an annual ritual in which legislators meet in public to agree on what has been hammered out behind the scenes as they try to reach accord on differences between the differing budgets drafted by the House and Senate.

In this case, Senate HHS Appropriations Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, made the first offer early Tuesday. The group adjourned for five minutes to "confer" and, with zero comment, discussion, questions or elaboration, the House HHS Appropriations Chairman Matt Hudson, R-Naples, agreed to it.

Here are the details as presented by Grimsley:

* $13 million to hire 191 child protective investigators, as requested by the governor -- far short of the $32 million he initially sought,

* $5 million for expansion of the Healthy Families program,

* $8 million for select sheriff's departments that handle investigations of child abuse, the same amount requested by the governor.

* $10 million to the Community-Based-Care organizations; this is a net increase of $4.6 million because their initial budgets were reduced by $5.4 million,

* $3 million for human trafficking,

* $5 million to target at-risk families with young children who need subtance abuse treatment.

The final item is a major shift in funding from where the House and Senate started and a reflection of the pleas by child advocates to shift more money into services that could make the most diference in changing family behavior. Child advocates also asked for $25.4 million to allow the privately-run local agencies that manage the cases of at-risk kids to hire more case workers as additional children are brought into the system by the new child protection investigators.

The budget proposal also is a bit of a rebuke to Gov. Rick Scott, who initially asked for $31 million to hire more child protective investigators. The governor reached that number in January and never modified that request to seek additional money for treatment services, even after the Miami Herald Innocents Lost series in March demonstrated that 80 percent of the 477 children who died of abuse and neglect in the last six years were to families whose parents were suffering from mental health and substance abuse problems.

Child advocates warned that the governor's plan would do a better job of keeping a tally of the at-risk kids but would do little to get at the root causes that led to the abuse in the dysfuncational families.


Rick Scott's team outlines "most robust 'Hispanic Outreach' seen yet"


Gov. Rick Scott's earlier-than-usual Spanish-language TV ad (background here) is just the start of what his team promises is the "most robust 'Hispanic Outreach' seen yet." Here's the memo:

TO: Campaign Team
FROM: Jaime Florez, Hispanic Communications Director
DATE: April 21, 2014
RE: Enlace Hispano

This week, Let’s Get to Work will be launching Oportunidad, its first Spanish language TV and digital ad. I cannot recall a previous gubernatorial campaign in Florida where Spanish paid media started this early. The initial $500,000 Spanish media buy, which launches Wednesday, is only the first of many to come that will share with Spanish-speaking Floridians Governor Rick Scott’s record and vision for our state. Still, paid advertisements are just one component of a comprehensive effort in engaging Hispanic voters throughout our state at every level, especially at the grassroots, with a sustained volunteer-to-voter contact.

Continue reading "Rick Scott's team outlines "most robust 'Hispanic Outreach' seen yet"" »

Will latest gambit save Weatherford's pension reform?

An Easter Miracle resurrected Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford’s efforts to reform the state’s Florida Retirement System.

On Easter Sunday, the House State Affairs Committee filed a bill that would combine HB 7173, which already passed the Appropriations Committee 16-10 and awaited a floor vote, and HB 7179, which hadn’t passed or been assigned a committee.

The bill merger was meant to gain support in the Florida Senate, which was the reason why Weatherford’s efforts to overhaul the system were defeated last year.

Both bills dealt with retirement. The similarities ended there. HB 7173 would change enrollment procedures into the Florida Retirement System -- changing vesting from eight to 10 years, prohibiting senior management and elected officials to enroll in the pension, and giving all other employees nine months to decide which plan to enroll, pension or private investment, before defaulting into the private investment plan. HB 7179 changes how insurance premium taxes are used in firefighter and police officer pension benefits.

The Senate is dubious on the HB 7173 part. The state’s pension is considered one of the strongest in the nation, a point that even Gov. Rick Scott has made this year. HB 7179, however, is popular in the Senate and is reflected in a bill sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate.

Continue reading "Will latest gambit save Weatherford's pension reform?" »

April 21, 2014

Advocates raise new doubts about House child safety overhaul

Children’s advocates showed the first sign Monday that they might not support the Florida House’s sweeping rewrite of the state’s child-welfare laws, saying the proposal may produce only superficial reforms and not result in substantial changes that protect children.

“It’s going to do a job of better documenting societal issues, and I don’t think it’s going to change a thing,” said Mike Watkins, chief executive of the Big Bend Community Based Care organization after the House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved HB 7169.

The bill would increase the professional requirements of investigators in charge of responding to complaints from the state’s child-abuse hotline by requiring most staff to have social work or other professional degrees, and it would require more transparency from the state Department of Children & Families about child deaths.

The House and Senate have allocated up to about $45 million in additional money to address the issue, much of it devoted to increasing the number of DCF child-protective investigators. Families are then referred to local community-service organizations where they are assigned to a case worker for follow-up attention.

Watkins said that while child-protective investigators are fact-finders, and case managers are “scorekeepers on how parents and their kids are doing,” it is the treatment programs — from mental health to substance abuse — that result in meaningful behavioral change for the troubled families. The legislative reforms are silent about those services, and no additional money is being allocated for them, he said.

The governor’s proposal to spend $40 million to add 400 investigators was written before the Miami Herald’s report, Innocents Lost, came out and child advocates said Monday that the legislature’s adherence the to governor’s proposal, and refusal to modify in light of the findings, is short-sighted.

“It’s not better score-keeping” that will fix the problem, Watkins said. “It’s a matter of changing behavior for children of Florida.”

Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, the sponsor of the bill, acknowledged that the bill was not perfect. More here. 


Governor's surgeon general opposes marijuana bill

Efforts to legalize a specific strain of marijuana to help children with intractable epilepsy faced a new hurdle Monday as the governor’s chief medical advisor said he opposed the bill because it will allow untested drugs into the market, raising the specter that the governor may veto the bill.

“We must be wary of unintended consequences and remember that first we must do no harm,” said John Armstrong, the Florida Surgeon General and head of the Florida Department of Health. He told the House Judiciary Committee that the better approach would be to allow for research and testing of the marijuana extract under the federal system.

Armstrong then abruptly left the meeting and would not say if his statement was a signal from the governor that he might veto the bill it it reaches his desk. Gov. Rick Scott has refrained from endorsing or rejecting the bill in public.

The House sponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, said he was confident that he will work with Armstrong to address his concerns about quality control and predicted the bill, which the committee substantially revised on Monday, will pass.

“We intend to send to the governor a medical cannabis bill, and I expect that he will support it,’’ Gaetz said after the meeting. Story here.


Voucher provision could be back in play

The immigrant tuition bill isn't the only bill that will get a second chance in Tuesday's Senate Appropriations Committee meeting.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, has filed an amendment to SB 1512 that would put the controversial school voucher proposal back in play. 

Galvano's amendment is not the expansion of the Tax Credit Scholarship program that leaders in the House and Senate once sought. It would not increase the cap on the tax credits available to businesses that fund the scholarships, or create partial scholarships for children from higher-income families. It would, however, open up the program to more foster children, and increase the amount of the scholarship slightly in 2016-17.

The new Galvano language also deals with accountability. One provision seeks to establish a Learning System Institute at Florida State University to conduct annual reports on student performance and year-to-year learning gains.

The amendment does not require scholarship students to take the state exams or something similar, as Senate President Don Gaetz has demanded. Still, Galvano said Gaetz considers the proposed changes "a step in the right direction."

Galvano acknowledged that there were still "a lot of differences" between the House and Senate versions. He called the differences "fourth-floor issues," meaning they would need to be resolved by the president and speaker.

The Senate Appropriations Committee will weigh in on the amendment Tuesday morning.

Not much ground to cover in House and Senate budget negotiations

It’s a magical time for the budget season, when projects suddenly appear in the proposed budget, or, just as easily, vanish with nary an explanation.

Monday was the first day when the House and Senate officially met to negotiate their proposed budgets, and they’re already pretty close. (Makes it hard to believe they haven’t already been meeting, amirite?)

Out of a proposed spending of $75 billion, lawmakers have already agreed on $500 million in tax and fee cuts (they still need to figure out the shape of about $100 million), a $580 million to cover unfunded liabilities in the state’s Florida Retirement System, and $3 billion in reserves so we “don’t eat our seed corn,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

“There are no differences that can’t be worked out,” Gaetz said. “We’re starting fairly close…There are no insurmountable issues here.”

The biggest differences can be found in the pet projects, which grew  in number this year because of a pent-up demand combined with the first budget surplus in an election year since 2006.  

But already that gap started closing, and that meant good things for Clearwater’s Marine Aquarium. The House budget proposes $4 million for the aquarium, which received $5 million last year, partly because Dolphin Tale 2 is being shot there. The Senate only proposed $1 million, but doubled that offer with its first offer to the House.

Other winners include:

-- Le Feria De Las Americas, a non-profit multicultural event produced in Miami by Exponica International that started in 1991. The Senate didn’t propose anything in its original budget, but offered $250,000 on Monday to match the House offer.

-- A BMX training facility in Oldsmar, which the Senate didn’t budget initially. It offered $750,000 to come closer to the House proposal of spending $1,270,000 on it.

-- Traffic enforcement: the Senate threw in about $500,000 more in upping offers to match the House in spending $3.18 million to replace Florida Highway Patrol pursuit vehicles and $3.48 million on “enhancing traffic law enforcement.”

-- The Florida African-American Heritage Preservation Network, which the Senate offered $400,000, a $100,000 increase from its original offer, so that it could match the House.

-- Port St. Joe’s Historic Cape San Blas Lighthouse Complex Rescue and Relocation Project, which the Senate didn’t even budget for. But it matched the House offer of $200,000.It received $325,000 last year.

-- Palm Harbor Historical Society Museum, where the Senate matched the House’s $387,753 after initially proposing nothing on the project.

-- Dunedin Fine Art Center, Inc. Expansion got the Senate to meet the House offer of $500,000, after not proposing a dime for it in its initial budget.

-- The Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center crashed the proceedings with a $500,000 offer from the Senate. It wasn’t in either the House or Senate budget.

-- The Urban League of Broward saw its take from the Senate climb from $150,000 to $200,000. The House offered nothing for it in its initial budget.

-- Metropolitan Ministries in Pasco climbed to $1 million in the Senate to match the House’s proposal, way more than the original $100,000 from the Senate.

-- Hernando County’s Nature Coast Educational Plaza shot up in the Senate from $200,000 to $1 million, matching the House offer.

Losers include Visit Florida, which saw the Senate shave $1 million from its proposed budget and offer $30.5 million to the state’s tourism agency, moving it closer to the House’s $27.8 million.

Other losers, so far:

-- SkyRise Miami -- The tower/amusement ride in downtown Miami has $10 million in the House budget. The Senate proposed spending  nothing on it in its budget. In its first offer, it still doesn’t.

It’s early. More will change. And it will all happen behind the scenes in a state where there are now 1,100 exemptions to Florida's public records law. There were only 250 exemptions in 1985.

Florida senator hopes to keep immigration tuition bill alive

A procedural maneuver could save a bill that would grant in-state college tuition rates to certain undocumented immigrants.

Last week, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, announced that his committee would not hear the proposal, which weakened its chance of becoming law.

But Monday, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he would try to add the language to four other bills that come before the panel on Tuesday. If Latvala is successful, the immigrant tuition provision would stay alive.

He probably has the votes.

"Unless some of the [Republicans who supported the bill in previous hearings] get their chains pulled by leadership, we should be fine," he said.

Read more here.