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October 13, 2017

The Scott administration and the saga of Hurricane Irma debris removal in the Florida Keys

From Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS 4's Jim DeFede:

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy Perkins was standing alongside U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys when he spotted a large dump truck heading south.

“See that,” he said, pointing to the truck. “Yesterday that truck right there was working for AshBritt in Monroe County and it was hired away from us this morning. So I lost another truck again today.”

AshBritt is the name of Perkins’ company, one of the largest debris removal firms in the country. Perkins claims he has lost dozens of trucks, and the crews that go with them, because they have gone to work for his two competitors in the Keys – MCM and Community Asphalt.

Why would the drivers and crews leave Perkins for the other firms?

Because they can make a lot more money thanks to a never-before seen contract put out by the Scott Administration immediately after Hurricane Irma. The emergency contract, uncovered by CBS4 News, dramatically raises the cost of cleaning up the Florida Keys. And it came at a time when Governor Scott was publicly claiming his Administration was holding the line on costs and demanding debris removal firms not raise their rates.

Under the emergency contract awarded through the Florida Department of Transportation, MCM and Community Asphalt are being paid anywhere from three to 10 times more to do the same work that AshBritt is doing under a separate agreement the firm has with Monroe County.

More here.

Florida Democratic Party outraises once mighty Florida GOP

via @adamsmithtimes

For the second fundraising quarter in a row, the Florida Democratic Party raised more than the increasingly beleagured Florida GOP. The state Democratic Party raised $1.6 million from July through September, compared to the Republican Party of Florida, which raised $1 million - five times less than it did in the same fundraising period five years ago.

This would have been almost unthinkable a few years ago, and it reflects the waning influence of state parties as political committees rise in importance. Even more so it reflects how the state GOP has essentially been orphaned by Gov. Rick Scott and most other major GOP players. Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran had been keeping some money flowing to the party, but lately he’s been concentrating on his own political committee.

The bad news for Democrats -- besides the GOP gubernatorial candidates blowing away their Democratic counterparts in money-raising -- Democrats spent more than $2 million in that same period, compared to nearly $1.6 million spent by the Republican Party.

--ADAM C. SMITH, Tampa Bay Times


October 12, 2017

Every Floridian in Congress votes for $36.5 billion hurricane relief bill

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All 27 Floridians in the House of Representatives voted in favor of a $36.5 billion hurricane relief bill on Thursday, a measure that funds the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other hurricane relief programs as the federal government manages a massive recovery effort in Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico. 

The bill now heads to the Senate, which is not in session this week, for approval. 

"In the weeks following Hurricane Irma, we are able to see the lasting effects this storm will have on our community, and it is evident that additional funding is necessary," Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said in a statement. Diaz-Balart is a leading member of the congressional committee that oversees federal spending. 

"This legislation delivers over $18 billion directly to FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, ensures the National Flood Insurance Program has the funding it needs to pay its claims, and grants food aid and loan eligibility to the storm-ravaged island of Puerto Rico," Diaz-Balart said. 

The bill passed the House by a vote of 353-69. All 69 "no" votes were Republicans, who were mainly concerned that the bill did not include federal spending offsets and did not overhaul the nation's flood insurance program. Instead, the bill included $16 billion to keep the nation's flood insurance program running as thousands of policyholders file claims after the hurricanes. 

"The NFIP urgently needs an overhaul, and until the House passes legislation that reforms this fractured program, I cannot support a $16 billion bailout that further kicks this problem to the future," said Texas Republican Roger Williams, one of the "no" votes, in a statement. 

Florida has the more national flood insurance policyholders than any other state. 

The bill also includes nearly $5 billion in low-interest loans to Puerto Rico to help the U.S. territory rebuild after Hurricane Maria. 

Thursday's bill did not include $2.5 billion in Department of Agriculture funding to help Florida's citrus industry recover from the storm. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam was in Washington on Wednesday to push for the money's inclusion, but there wasn't enough time to get the provision in the bill, according to Rep. Tom Rooney's office. 

"I will fight to ensure Florida’s agricultural industry has the resources it needs to get back on their feet," Diaz-Balart said. 

A third hurricane relief bill is expected in the coming weeks, where Putnam's proposal and other Florida-specific provisions will be under consideration. 

Congress passed an initial $15 billion hurricane aid bill in September after Hurricane Harvey caused widespread flooding in Texas. Two Florida Republicans, Reps. Matt Gaetz and Ted Yoho, voted against that bill after President Donald Trump negotiated a deal with Democrats to raise the nation's debt ceiling as part of the relief package. Gaetz called that package "generational theft." 


After traffic headaches during Irma evacuation, Scott orders FDOT to review I-75



When Hurricane Irma threatened the entire Florida peninsula last month, millions fled their homes to seek refuge elsewhere — with untold thousands opting for a long trek northward out of Florida and into Georgia via Interstate 75.

Drivers complained of lengthy delays, traffic jams and a lack of basic services — such as open bathrooms and gas stations stocked with fuel — along what is one of only a few primary north-south evacuation routes in the state.

A month after Irma blew threw, Gov. Rick Scott is now asking state transportation officials to explore ways to better expedite the outbound traffic next time.

RELATED: “Built for bottleneck: Is Florida growing too fast to evacuate before monster storms?”

He announced Thursday that he wants the Florida Department of Transportation to specifically look at ways the state could speed up the section of northbound I-75 from the interchange in Wildwood — where the Turnpike merges with the interstate — to the Florida-Georgia line.

The 144-mile stretch takes about 2 hours to drive under normal circumstances, but during the Irma evacuation, motorists reported being stuck for hours in gridlock.

More details here.

[Photo credit: AP]

Rubio, Frederica Wilson call for federal investigation into nursing homes in Florida, Puerto Rico

Marco Rubio


Sen. Marco Rubio is asking the Senate Finance Committee to investigate the oversight of nursing homes in Florida and Puerto Rico after 14 people died at a Hollywood nursing home after Hurricane Irma. 

Rubio sent a letter on Thursday to Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the leading members of the Senate committee responsible for oversight of Medicare and Medicaid. 

"As the chairman and ranking member of the committee with jurisdiction over Medicare and Medicaid, I implore you to investigate the failures that occurred at this nursing home and others throughout the country, particularly in Florida and Puerto Rico, to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future," Rubio said in the letter. "Additionally, I respectfully request that you consider examining other ways in which Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries were impacted by these storms and how better planning and coordination between the federal, state, and local government could mitigate harm caused by hurricanes." 

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, whose district contains the Hollywood nursing home, also called for a federal investigation during a meeting between Florida's congressional delegation and Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday. She plans to introduce legislation that would require nursing homes and long term care facilities that receive federal funding to have generators. 

"We have to do everything we can to keep all these individuals safe," Scott said. "We live in a peninsula, we are going to have hurricanes, we've got to be prepared." 

"While this terrible tragedy is currently under investigation, it has been widely reported that these individuals were left in sweltering conditions after the nursing facility’s air conditioning system lost power," Rubio said. "This has shocked the state of Florida, and rightfully raised questions about the oversight of nursing homes, particularly the enforcement of existing emergency preparedness requirements." 

House Republicans unveil concept for helping bullied, abused students with ‘Hope’ vouchers

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Children in Florida’s K-12 public schools who have been victimized by bullying, assault or other violent trauma will have a new option to change schools — including an incentive to leave the public school system for a private alternative — under an initiative announced Wednesday by House Republicans.

House leaders won’t have specific legislation available for at least another month for the school choice program they’re proposing as a “Hope Scholarship,” but their announcement sets the stage for a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran in the 2018 session.

Many of the details are still being ironed out — including how much tax money would be diverted to fund the program, which Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, says he envisions “would be funded very similarly to the [Florida] Tax Credit Scholarship.”

The tax credit scholarship is a controversial, voucher-like program that traditional public school advocates argue takes taxpayer money away from public education.

Businesses get a tax break in exchange for funding scholarships that help 100,000 poor — and often minority — children afford a private school education. The money is funneled directly through designated “scholarship organizations,” so it never passes through the state’s hands as “taxpayer” money.

Citing data from the Florida Department of Education, House Republicans said more than 47,000 incidents of violence were reported in the 2015-16 school year involving children in the K-12 public school system — acts that included hazing, fighting, threats and bullying.

“We know from all of the studies that, if you’re fearful of stepping on to a school campus, if you’re worried for your own safety — you will not learn,” Corcoran said, when he announced the proposal during a press conference Wednesday at the Capitol flanked by six of his top lieutenants in charge of education policy and funding.

Full story here.

Photo credit: House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, announced on Oct. 11 a new “Hope Scholarship” proposal to help public schoolchildren who are victims of bullying, assault or other trauma to attend a different school of their choice. Joining Corcoran were his top lieutenants on education policy and spending, from left: Republican Reps. Jake Raburn of Lithia, Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah, Chris Latvala of Clearwater, Michael Bileca of Miami, Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora and Byron Donalds of Naples. [Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times]

Sen. Dennis Baxley: Nursing home may not be to blame for deaths of 14 elders

Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation CenterA Republican state senator — and funeral director — is suggesting that a South Florida nursing home may not be to blame for 14 deaths that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said Wednesday he isn't convinced that all 14 deaths now associated with The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills stemmed from sweltering heat that filled the nursing home after it lost power following the powerful storm.

“Look at the population. You're dealing with the 90-somethings. Some of these deaths would naturally occur, storm or no storm,” Baxley said Wednesday at the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, adding “eventually everyone who was in that nursing home will die. But we don't need to attribute those all to the storm and bad policy.”

Baxley became one of the few politicians to take a different stance following the high-profile deaths at the South Florida nursing home. Many leaders, including Gov. Rick Scott, have sharply criticized the nursing home. A criminal investigation is underway. Read more here. 

Sen. Jeff Brandes: We need a 'deep dive' after Herald investigation into Department of Juvenile Justice

Fight Club Emily MichotThe lawmaker who oversees a powerful criminal justice committee said he will spearhead a much-needed reform of the state’s juvenile justice system in the wake of a Miami Herald series that detailed the existence of a mercenary system in which detainees are given honey buns and other treats as a reward for pounding other youths.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who is the new chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, said he believes the state is ripe for reform. “It gives me pause. There is a lot of work that can be done,”' Brandes said at a meeting of the committee Wednesday. “There are going to be many tough questions that we're going to be going through in the next committee weeks.”

On Tuesday, the Herald published a six-part series, Fight Club. Among the findings: the widespread use of unnecessary and excessive force; officers and youth workers who outsource discipline by appointing goons; a high degree of sexual misconduct by staff, some of which goes unreported; and the propensity of employees to neglect the medical needs of teens, often calling them fakers.

One of the root causes of such misconduct, the Herald found, is the low pay of youth workers. The state offers starting detention officers $12.25 an hour to protect and supervise youths. That’s $25,479.22 a year for a new recruit. Private contractors who oversee programs where detained teens serve their sentences often pay less than that. TrueCore Behavioral Solutions, the largest provider, offers new hires $19,760.

Brandes said he supports a proposal by the agency and Gov. Rick Scott to hike the salary of detention center officers, saying “there is a systemic problem at the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice on salaries.”

“There's no reason we're paying people to watch these kids less than I'm paying my babysitter at home to watch my three kids,” Brandes said. “Many of these circumstances are much more difficult and so we need to look at that and probably do an entire review of the system based on this report.” More here. 

Related: Fight Club: Dark secrets of Florida’s Juvenile Justice system

Photo: Berlena Sheffield's grandson, Andre, 14. died of untreated bacterial meningitis — only one victim of poor treatment in Florida’s juvenile justice system. He got sick while at Brevard Regional Juvenile Detention Center. Berlena holds a memorial photo of her grandson and displays other favorite photos and letters from him at her Jacksonville home. Emily Michot

October 11, 2017

Only one ship headed to Puerto Rico under the Jones Act waiver is delivering FEMA aid

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Waiving the Jones Act for 10 days in Puerto Rico was touted as a way to deliver crucial aid and supplies to the U.S. territory in its time of need after Hurricane Maria.

But the Trump administration did not renew the waiver when it expired on Sunday night, despite Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s desire for an extended waiver that allows foreign ships to deliver goods to Puerto Rican ports from the U.S. mainland.

“I think we should have it. I think we should have all the tools that we have at hand,” Rosselló said to CBS news. “I don’t know what the results are of that Jones Act, again, we only had it for 10 days. It still needs to be analyzed. It couldn’t hurt, it couldn’t hurt to have it.”

“Most humanitarian relief supplies are being delivered by U.S. government (DHS, FEMA and DoD [Department of Defense]) assets, or Jones Act-qualified vessels,” said DHS spokesman David Lapan.

Ships operating under the Sept. 28 waiver must have loaded their cargo by the October 8 deadline and have until October 18 to transport their cargo to Puerto Rico.

Sen. John McCain, a longtime opponent of the Jones Act, called on Congress to pass a permanent Jones Act exemption for Puerto Rico after the temporary waiver expired.

“Now that the temporary Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico has expired, it is more important than ever for Congress to pass my bill to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from this archaic and burdensome law,” McCain said in a statement. “Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria.”

McCain and some libertarian-leaning Republicans oppose the Jones Act because they argue that it stifles economic competition in U.S. ports. A number of Puerto Ricans in Congress also support a permanent Jones Act exemption because they argue it causes the cost of goods to rise on the island, though Florida benefits from the 1920 law intended to bolster the domestic shipping industry.

Read more here.

White House nominates former Ros-Lehtinen aide to State Department


The White House has nominated a Miami native, Yleem Poblete, to serve as assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, an appointment that will require approval by the U.S. Senate.

Poblete is a former chief of staff to Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a former chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, where Poblete eventually served as chief of staff and staff director, the first Hispanic woman in that role. President Donald Trump announced her nomination on Tuesday.

"At every step of the way, Yleem was instrumental in crafting laws that sought to counter proliferation threats from Iran, North Korea, and Syria to help advance U.S. national security interests around the world," Ros-Lehtinen said Wednesday in a statement. "Her vast knowledge and expertise on the totality of matters related to sanctions, nuclear agreements, nonproliferation, and security have prepared her to serve with distinction in this national security capacity for the Trump administration at the State Department."

Poblete, who lives in Virginia, is currently a senior State Department adviser. With her husband, Jason, she is the co-owner of the Poblete Analysis Group. She is also a fellow at the Catholic University of America and a foreign policy analyst for U.S. government projects at the Hudson Institute. 

Poblete has a bachelor's degree from Saint Thomas University, a master's degree from the University of Miami and a doctorate from the Catholic University of America.