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February 15, 2017

After Pulse, Fort Lauderdale tragedies, 2 lawmakers want to end 'gun-free zones'


Concealed guns at Miami Dolphins games, local bars and even voting booths could be commonplace under a sweeping measure introduced this week in the Florida Legislature.

With the recent, tragic history of the Pulse nightclub massacre last June in Orlando and the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting last month, two conservative Republican lawmakers want to do away with all of Florida’s “gun-free zones” — 15 locations in state law where concealed weapons are currently prohibited.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, of Ocala, and Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, of The Villages, have proposed eliminating all state-imposed restrictions on where Florida’s concealed weapons permit-holders can carry their guns — with the goal of allowing businesses, institutions and people to have greater control over their own protection, Hahnfeldt said.

If the proposal (SB 908/HB 803) became law, that would mean concealed guns could be carried in a plethora of places they aren’t allowed now.

Full details here.

Photo credit: First responders secure the area outside of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport after a shooting took place near baggage claim in Terminal 2 on January 6, 2017. Five were killed and eight wounded in an attack from a single gunman. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Florida lawmakers to unveil school testing reforms

Bileca Diaz JMI 012617


Instead of scattering K-12 assessment tests throughout the spring months and disrupting teaching time, a reform proposal being unveiled Wednesday morning in the Florida Legislature would require all such exams to take place only in the final three weeks of the school year, starting next year.

Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., and Palm Harbor Republican Rep. Chris Sprowls call their plan the “Fewer, Better Tests” bill — with the goal of reducing the stress and anxiety that teachers, parents and students grapple with during testing time.

The lawmakers are formally announcing their proposal at an 11 a.m. press conference at the Capitol. Their legislation (SB 926/HB 773) was filed within the past week.

“Seeing firsthand the angst and all the scrambling, the biggest impact that can be had is pushing back the calendar,” Diaz told the Herald/Times.

Full details here.

Photo credit: Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, addresses a luncheon audience at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla. on Jan. 26, 2017 with Miami Republican Rep. Michael Bileca, left. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

The silent treatment between Gov. Scott and Speaker Corcoran

In the heated battle over job incentives and tourism money, Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran are goading each other with tweets, press releases and Scott's media events, like the ones in Tampa on Monday and Panama City on Tuesday.

But are these two strong-willed Republicans actually talking to each other? No, and that's rarely a good sign in Tallahassee.

4619Corcoran spokesman Fred Piccolo said the speaker called Scott's cell phone late last week before the governor launched a statewide tour in which he has publicly criticized two GOP House members in their districts, Reps. Paul Renner (left) and Jay Trumbull, for supporting the elimination of Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.

"The speaker had reached out to the governor in the past week prior to the governor's state tour," Piccolo said.

A phone conversation wouldn't change either man's mind, but the deepening rancor over incentives and tourism could easily spread to other policy areas, such as the budget, tax cuts and education.

Scott's office did not deny that he got the call from Corcoran, and spokeswoman Jackie Schutz did not directly address the question of Scott giving him the brush-off. She said that before last week's vote by a House subcommittee to ax the programs, Scott chief of staff Kim McDougal and legislative affairs director Kevin Reilly walked the halls and visited with every Republican member of the panel but one to express Scott's view that the agencies must survive. "He's been very clear how he feels about it," Schutz said.

Meanwhile, the back-and-forth continues. First-term Rep. Alex Miller, R-Sarasota, fired back at critics in a guest column in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, tweeted: "The Gov is a good man and I agree with him on many things, but he is wrong to go after good House members."

Scott will hold two more "Fighting for Florida Jobs" roundtables Wednesday in Sunrise and Riviera Beach. Two of five House members who sided with Scott in a 10-5 subcommittee vote last week are Democrats from Palm Beach County. Corcoran has referred the bill to the full House Appropriations Committee in advance of a scheduled Feb. 21 vote.

Should teachers punish students with no recess? Lawmakers aren't weighing in this year.

Recess Bill 01 EKM


An elementary student acts up in class. No recess for him.

Another student didn’t turn in her homework. Five fewer minutes of recess for her.

While some school districts, like Miami-Dade, Hillsborough or Pinellas, ban such practices, no state law prohibits public school teachers from dangling recess time before their students — a carrot to keep them in check and, if necessary, revoke as a tool to discipline them.

Florida lawmakers in 2016 considered prohibiting teachers from using the threat of limited or no recess as a punishment, but that detail isn’t in the conversation at all this year as the Legislature again contemplates making daily recess mandatory in public elementary schools.

The provision was stripped from this year’s legislation (SB 78/HB 67) — at the request of two, now powerful Republican House members who were the only ones who voted to oppose the recess bill last year.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Kindergarteners Trenevia Desiree and Jenny Farias, right, get some push-ups in during the 20-minute daily recess at Miami Gardens Elementary School on Feb. 3. The school is part of a pilot program in Miami-Dade County that allows students recess time five days a week. Florida lawmakers are again considering a statewide mandate for daily recess in public elementary schools. Emily Michot / Miami Herald

February 14, 2017

Rubio and wife to dine with Trumps at White House

GOP 2016 Rubio

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and his wife, Jeanette, will dine privately Wednesday night with President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump.

The Rubios will join the Trumps at 6:30 p.m. in the Blue Room, according to the White House. Trump has met with a number of lawmakers in Washington, but none has had a one-on-one dinner, wives included, on the schedule.

Trump and Rubio put aside the colorful exchanges they had during the Republican presidential primary (think "Little Marco" and...hands) once Rubio sought reelection to the U.S. Senate and received Trump's endorsement. Rubio also backed Trump's candidacy, even after a slew of controversies, though he didn't publicly campaign with him.

Rubio harshly questioned Rex Tillerson when Trump nominated him for secretary of state but ultimately voted for his confirmation.

Photo credit: Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press

Gov. Rick Scott getting help from Democratic mayors on job incentives


Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn met with Gov. Rick Scott in Tallahassee on Tuesday to strategize over how he can help save Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida from Republican critics in the Florida House. (Jeremy Wallace/Tampa Bay Times)


A day after attending a rally with Gov. Rick Scott, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was in Tallahassee on Tuesday meeting with the governor yet again.

Buckhorn and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, both Democrats, said they met with the governor to offer their help in protecting Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida - two agencies that some state lawmakers have vowed to eliminate.

“I’d be more than happy to go anywhere and speak to anyone about the importance of these incentives for us to be able to grow our economy,” Buckhorn said after his meeting with Scott.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has called the incentive programs forms of corporate welfare that put too much government influence in the marketplace. Last week a House subcommittee voted to kill both agencies. The bill still has a long way to go, but supporters of the two agencies are pulling out all the stops to protect both.

Buckhorn said on Tuesday that if Florida doesn’t have job incentive money to offer companies, other cities and states will have a competitive advantage in convincing them to go elsewhere.

Buckhorn acknowledged he’ll take some heat from Democrats who question him being on the same side as the Republican governor and even sounding a little like him in defending the programs.

“There will be people who are mad at me because I stand up there with the governor, but ultimately it’s to the benefit of my city and it’s what I was hired to do - what I was elected to do,” Buckhorn said.

On Monday, Buckhorn attended a meeting with Scott in Tampa that had all the feel of a pep rally for Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. At that event, Buckhorn told the crowd the incentives have benefited Tampa and need to continue.

Rating company warns: It's downgrading 10-15 Florida insurance companies because of losses from claims abuse

An Ohio insurance-rating company has warned that recent court rulings and skyrocketing losses from water-damage claims have created an “uncertain operating environment” for Florida’s property insurers and that it will downgrade the financial stability of 10 to 15 Florida-based companies, potentially threatening the solvency of thousands of homeowners policies.

Demotech, Inc., a company which rates the financial strength of 400 companies nationwide including 57 in Florida, said Tuesday that the company is likely to reduce the financial stability rating of the Florida-based companies from A to B, below the level needed for federally backed mortgages, beginning in March.

The decision could put the mortgages of thousands of homeowners in jeopardy because mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require property insurance to be A-rated or the policies could be in default. Story here. 

Chaffetz wants answers on Mar-a-Lago security

via @learyreports

WASHINGTON - A top House Republican wants the White House to answer questions about President Trump's handling of sensitive information while at Mar-a-Lago as North Korea tested a ballistic missile.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz sent a letter Tuesday to White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus asking for details about documents seen in photographs, whether classified information was discussed in open and the vetting of Mar-a-Lago guests.

The inquiry comes as Trump's administration is reeling from the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn -- a matter Chaffetz says he won't investigate.

The White House contends classified information wasn't discussed in public and scenes of Trump, Japanese officials and others at Mar-a-Lago reflect planning for a news conference to address North Korea.

The letter:

Continue reading "Chaffetz wants answers on Mar-a-Lago security" »

Despite $100 million in legal bills, Florida loses water wars argument; special master rules for Georgia

Apalachicola Patrick FarrellA special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Florida Tuesday and in favor of Georgia in the 16-year water war over water rights to the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River Basin.

The ruling by Ralph Lancaster, Jr., a civil attorney from Portland, Maine, concluded that Florida failed to prove that new limits on Georgia’s water consumption were needed. He made the ruling after five weeks of hearings last summer and more than $98 million in attorneys fees spent on the case by the state of Florida.

“Florida has failed to show that a consumption cap will afford adequate relief,”  Lancaster said in a 70-page ruling.In his ruling, Lancaster’s suggested that Florida made a serious tactical error by not including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a party to the lawsuit.

“Without the Corps as a party, the Court cannot order the Corps to take any particular action,” Lancaster wrote. 

The Florida House of Representatives  has called into question the cost of the litigation as authorized by Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Office of the Attorney General. It found that in the last two years, after Florida asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and the court appointed a special master to resolve the dispute, the state spent $54.4 million on legal help from four law firms. 

According to a spreadsheet obtained by the Herald/Times, the numbers showed that the lead lawyers, Washington-based Latham Watkins, would be paid $35.9 million between 2015 and 2017.

Foley Lardner, the Florida firm where Steverson’s predecessor, Hershel Vinyard, works and where Steverson is now headed, would be paid $2.6 million over the same time. Two other firms also were paid lesser amounts: $1 million to Blankenau and $966,000 to Carlton.

The records also show that Latham Watkins charged the state for 32 to 35 full-time legal staff for 40 hours a week over four months. The firm also charged significantly more than the other firms for lawyers of comparable experience.

Photo: Oyster fisherman on the Appalachicola River by Patrick Farrell of the Miami Herald




Rubio backs broad investigation into Russian meddling

via @learyreports

WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio says questions into Michael Flynn’s dealings with the Russians are best handled as part of a broader investigation into Russia’s involvement in U.S. affairs.

“There’s an ongoing, bipartisan investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee,” Rubio, a member of the committee, said Tuesday at the Capitol. “I believe the scope of that would cover anything that has to do with Russia and its involvement in before, during and after the election. …

“I have full confidence that the intelligence committee is going to do a good job. If they don’t, I’ll let everyone know that we didn’t, but I believe that we can and I believe that we will.”

Yesterday, Rubio made similar remarks. “We are going to go wherever the truth leads us,” he said.

Rubio did not directly comment on the Flynn situation.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times