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March 21, 2017

Trump signs NASA bill in Oval Office, with Nelson at his side

via @learyreports

WASHINGTON - Some issues transcend partisan politics, so it was not surprising to see Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson next to President Donald Trump this morning for the signing of the NASA Authorization Act. (Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was there too, to the right of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and cut off in the photo.)

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Photo credit: Screen capture via @NASASpaceflight


Club for Growth kicks off ads urging Ros-Lehtinen to oppose 'Ryancare'


The conservative Club for Growth wants Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to hold firm on her opposition to the House GOP healthcare plan.

The group has kicked off a TV and digital ad campaign asking Ros-Lehtinen to vote no. She has already said she will -- but not for the reasons endorsed by the Club for Growth. Ros-Lehtinen says the bill would hurt too many people in her district insured under the Affordable Care Act. The Club considers the legislation, backed by Speaker Paul Ryan, not conservative enough.

“The RyanCare bill fails to keep President Trump’s promises of interstate competition and health insurance deregulation,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in a statement. “Republicans promised a bill that would stop Obamacare’s taxes and mandates, and replace them with free-market reforms that will increase health insurance competition and drive down costs. RyanCare fails on those counts and that’s why the Club is letting millions of constituents know that their Representative should reject RyanCare.”

The $500,000 ad campaign will target Ros-Lehtinen and nine other Republican lawmakers: Leonard Lance of New Jersey, Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Rob Wittman of Virginia, Peter King of New York, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Darrell Issa of California and Don Bacon of Nebraska.


Would tax cut bill result in insurance premium hike? Insurance industry says yes


Undeterred by threats that everyone in Florida would face premium hikes, a key Florida Senate committee pressed on and voted unanimously to strip the insurance industry of a tax credit in exchange for a broader tax cut to help more businesses.

“Baloney,” Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said after more than a half dozen insurance industry lobbyists warned that cutting their tax break would end up getting passed on to consumers everywhere.

Under Flores plan, the state would get rid of a tax credit created in the 1980s aimed at attracting insurance companies to Florida. In exchange for hiring Florida workers, they would get a tax credit from the state to offset other taxes. Getting rid of that tax cut would mean redirecting almost $300 million in tax cuts into the state’s budget.

Flores initially wanted the saved money to become a tax break on communications service taxes that people pay on their mobile devices and cable television services. But Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, amended the bill to take the savings from the insurance tax credits and repurpose them to cut sales taxes businesses in Florida pay when they lease commercial space. Stargel’s idea is to cut the sales tax from 6 percent to 5 percent. Florida is the only state in the nation that charges a commercial lease tax.

Stargel said since the credit was created as an incentive to one industry, she wanted to make sure it was used for another kind of incentive - reducing commercial lease taxes.

Cutting the commercial lease tax has been a big priority for Gov. Rick Scott, who has made it the centerpiece of his tax cutting plan this year.

But the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, both supporters of Scott’s tax cut plan, strongly opposed Flores proposal. Brewster Bevis with AIF said they want commercial leases lower, but “not on the backs of another industry.”

Paul Sanford, another insurance industry lobbyist, warned that under this bill “everyone’s insurance in the state of Florida is going up to accommodate the $300 million in new premium taxes.”

Flores told the committee that the sky-is-falling approach from the industry doesn't work anymore, because even when the Legislature helps the insurance industry they promise rate cuts, but the never come.

"Let me tell you, your insurance rates are going to go up no matter what," Flores said.

The tax cut still has a ways to go. Tuesday’s 4-0 vote was the first committee stop for the bill. It still must clear at least one other committee before it can go to the full Senate for debate.

Small world: Enterprise Florida and Richard Corcoran's law firm

RichCorcoran020817_18766492_8colA priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran in this year's legislative session is abolishing Enterprise Florida, the "unreformable" taxpayer-supported program that uses state money to attract private employers that Corcoran calls a total failure. 

Clearly Enterprise Florida is no fan of Corcoran. So it may come as a surprise that the agency has repeatedly given legal work to Broad & Cassel, the law firm that employs the House speaker.

Enterprise Florida has done about $235,000 in legal work with Broad & Cassel over the past three years, the agency said. "Enterprise Florida hires legal counsel on a case-by-case basis, depending on a wide range of factors," spokesman Nate Edwards said.

Edwards said the hiring of an outside law firm is a business decision made by EFI's chief operating officer or vice president for administration, not by its board of political appointees, which is chaired by Gov. Rick Scott, who for months has criticized Corcoran and other House members for wanting to destroy an agency that is critical to job creation. In a speech in Pensacola Friday, Corcoran called Enterprise Florida a "pay to play" operation where board members' companies get incentive money.

EFI hired Broad & Cassel's Orlando office for legal issues related to a State Small Business Credit Initiative, a federally-funded program, as well as the deposition of an EFI executive in a case involving a personal bankruptcy of an executive of a firm that received state incentives. Edwards said Broad & Cassel handles accounting and administrative work for the Florida Opportunity Fund and the Florida Development Finance Corp. The fund is sponsored by Enterprise Florida and FDFC is a separate company that leases space from EFI.

Corcoran said in an interview that he had no knowledge of his law firm's work for Enterprise Florida and that the managing partner of the firm's Orlando office, C. David Brown II, is an "old school" attorney who has never raised the legal work or EFI's future with him. "It's an exceptional firm and it's a Florida firm," Corcoran said of Broad & Cassel. "That whole side has zero effect on this side."

EFI's Edwards said the agency and Broad & Cassel have had a relationship for two decades, long before Corcoran joined the firm. Corcoran joined Broad & Cassel's Tampa office in 2011, the year after he was elected, and was recruited by the late Steve Burton, who ran the firm's Tampa office. Corcoran brought with him one client, the Pasco County sheriff's office, and is of counsel, meaning he does not share in the firm's profits. He listed $175,000 in income from the firm on his latest financial disclosure statement.


March 20, 2017

Republican Lawmaker calls for Orlando state attorney to be suspended over death penalty comments



A Central Florida lawmaker is now urging Gov. Rick Scott to suspend the Orlando state attorney who last week said she would not seek the death penalty in any cases, including that of a man accused of the execution-style shooting of a police officer.

On Thursday, Scott removed State Attorney Aramis Ayala from that case and reassigned it to another state attorney, but Ayala challenged the action in a court filing Monday.

Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, said in a letter to Scott on Monday that the governor should suspend Ayala from office.

"If she continues to follow through with her promise to not hear current death penalty cases, including six pending cases, justice may be thwarted for additional victims of heinous crimes," Cortes said in a statement accompanying the letter. "I appreciate the Governor’s swift response thus far. I am confident he will continue to act within the scope of Florida law to ensure that justice is done for Markeith Loyd’s victims and everyone in the Ninth Circuit."

Loyd is accused of killing Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton, as well as his ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon.

Earlier Monday, Scott left open the possibility of suspending Ayala, but he has not made any moves to do so.

"With regards to that, we're continuing to look at our options," he said in response to reporters' questions.

Scott has authority under the Constitution to suspend Ayala from office but it takes action by the state Senate to remove her. At least one state senator has already indicated he thinks the state attorney should be out of a job: Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

The full text of Cortes' letter is included below:

Dear Governor Scott,

Thank you very much for your quick actions yesterday regarding the issue with our Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala. Her decision to not seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd was against the Legislative intent set forward in Florida Statute 782.04. Your actions have secured this case moving as it should without the personal feelings of a State Attorney being a distraction to all parties involved. However, her other comments in her press conference concern me even further.

I am respectfully requesting from your office an official review of ALL pending death penalty cases in the Ninth Judicial Circuit. I further request that since State Attorney Aramis Ayala has indicated she will not seek the death penalty in all cases, past and present, that you, by executive order, reassign ALL cases to other State Attorneys per Florida Statute 27.14. It is obvious these cases will not be handled in the manner they should by the current State Attorney.

It has come to my attention that as of March 16, 2017, the State Attorney’s office has already filed intent not to seek the death penalty on current cases. One current example is The State of Florida vs. Larry D. Perry. Therefore, I am also respectfully asking that you suspend State Attorney Aramis Ayala from her position on the Ninth Judicial Circuit on the basis of Article IV, Section 7 of the Florida Constitution.

I await your response and diligence on this most important manner.

I thank you for your service.


Bob Cortes

Photo: State Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, center, has called for State Attorney Aramis Ayala to be suspended after she publicly said she would not seek the death penalty while in office as the top prosecutor for Orange and Osceola counties. (MICHAEL AUSLEN | Times/Herald)

Constitution Revision Commission opens but without rules

The state panel assigned to review the state Constitution got off to a rocky start Monday as the 37-member commission met for an organizational session in the Florida Senate chambers but delayed adopting rules after several members privately raised questions about whether the proposals diluted the public’s input in the process.

The Constitution Revision Committee, which is convened every 20 years and given the power to put proposals directly on the 2018 November ballot, met for just over an hour and reviewed the state ethics laws that apply. But a proposal to have the commission adopt rules drafted by the commission staff in advance of the meeting was indefinitely postponed until after public hearings begin next week in Orange County.

Under the proposal, Chairman Carlos Beruff would be given the power to send a proposal back to a committee after it has been amended in another committee — a tool used to effectively kill proposals — and it will take a two-thirds vote of the full commission to reverse these rulings.

“I am personally looking forward to advancing policies that will help make the future of our state even stronger than it already is,” said Beruff, the Manatee County businessman appointed to chair the commission by Gov. Rick Scott.

Beruff said the draft rules “create an unprecedented level of transparency and increase public input from Florida citizens” but to give members more time for input they would not be voting Monday on the rules.

As happened in 1998, when the commission was last convened, the group will be divided into committees, and those committees will have the power to adopt and amend proposals. But under the draft rules distributed to members last Thursday, Beruff would be given sole discretion over what proposals will be referred to which committee and and proposed amendment to the constitution could not be amended by the full commission.

“Everyone is not going to agree, not just on our rules but on everything before this commission,’’ Beruff told the commission. “But we will debate and we will reach a conclusion that is best for Florida citizens.”

He said they will conduct a separate meeting to vote on the rules some time in the future, likely in Tallahassee, but offered no details. Until then, he said he considers “everything is open meetings and open records as far as I’m concerned rules or no rules,’’ he said, noting that they are launching a web site and will post “everything on the web site immediately.”

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, asked the commission to amend its proposed rules to bring them into line with existing law regarding open meetings and public records, including a requirement that “public records shall be open to personal inspection and copying at reasonable times,” instead of allowing records to use a new standard not in law and to require meetings be open when two or more members meet to discuss business.

“We should note that the higher standard under Article I applies to every collegial body in Florida except the Florida legislature, and we strongly urge the CRC to adopt the Article I standard rather than the weaker legislative standard,” Petersen wrote in a letter to Beruff on Monday.

Arthenia Joyner, former Senate Democratic leader who was appointed to the commission by Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga. said she objects to the proposed rules because they give Beruff “ultimate power.” 

“There's too many strong, intelligent people in here to have somebody try to exercise absolute control,’’ she said.

She said she will recommend that Beruff appoint a committee “to work on the rules because it’s obvious that the vast majority of the people here did not like what was proposed.”

Former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, appointed to the commission by Senate President Joe Negron, said he would have voted against the rules and strongly objected to a provision that would have allowed members to cast a vote by being present only by teleconference, and not in person.

Roberto Martinez, a Miami lawyer who was appointed to the commission by Labarga, said he served on the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission and several state boards which prohibited members from discussing business outside of the sunshine and “it did not” interfere in their ability to conduct business.

“I’m so used to it, it’s in my DNA,’’ he said.

Tim Cerio, former general counsel to Scott and a member of the commission, defended the proposed rules as more transparent that the process used in 1998, which imposed no limits on commissioners meeting to discuss proposals and required only that meetings be noticed.

“What we’re doing is going beyond that,’’ he said.

There are other significant departures from the rules adopted by the 1998 Constitution Revision Commission, which succeeded in passing eight of the nine proposals it put before voters. Many on that commission, which included a bipartisan blend of members, attribute the carefully-crafted rules of the commission for helping bring consensus and strengthen the proposals that won voter support.

“It puts the responsibility on the committees and the committees have more power to pass stuff and kill stuff,’’ Cerio said.

One important rule that has been proposed to be carried over from 1998 is the requirement that in order for a measure to be put on the November ballot, it must receive a super majority of 22 votes from commission members. 

Each of the presiding officers who appointed members of the commission made brief remarks at the Monday meeting. Scott, who appointed Beruff and 14 members of the commission called it a “distinct opportunity” and “everyone will have fun.”  Labarga said the commission “has awesome power” and his three appointments were made to “bring a balanced perspective” and an understanding of “the importance of separation of powers.”

Negron, R-Stuart, who appointed nine members, said his request to them is “just to recognize that our entire system of government is founded on the supremacy of the individual” and that all power derives from the people.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, called the group a “statewide all-star team” and he encouraged the members to “encourage dissent” and have “robust debate.”

If they succeed at that, they will “get to fix what still exists in Florida: some serious injustices,’’ he said. When asked to elaborate, Corcoran said he was referring to “great injustices robbing children -- sticking them in failure factories” by putting them in schools that “take that a child’s dignity and hope away.”

He said if the commission only accomplishes reversing the Florida Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling on Bush v. Holmes, “it will be a wonderful success.” That ruling said the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which allowed students in failing schools to obtain taxpayer-financed vouchers to attend private schools, violated a provision in the state constitution that requires a “uniform” system of public schools for all students. end print trim

Beruff said he hopes to have at least two rounds of public hearings around the state and possibly a third after they put together the proposed amendments to the ballot.  

The commission has scheduled a public hearing in Orange County for March 29, in Miami Dade County on April 6 and in Palm Beach County on April 7 -- all days the Legislature is in session, posing a conflict for several of the legislators on the panel.


Labor union targets Curbelo on 'Trumpcare'


A liberal labor organization has begun a web campaign urging Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo to oppose the House GOP's healthcare legislation.

UNITE HERE is going after 15 Republicans in moderate districts with its "Don't Tax Our Health Care" campaign, which includes web ads, direct mail, neighborhood canvassing and protests outside lawmakers' offices, according to the organization.

“Trumpcare is a disaster for working people,”UNITE HERE President D. Taylor said in a statement. “It fulfills none of the promises that Trump and the Republicans ran on. Where’s the better coverage at lower costs? How does this rein in out-of-pocket and prescription drug costs? The truth is Trumpcare isn’t about fixing the ACA with ‘insurance for everybody’ that would be ‘much less expensive and much better,’ as President Trump promised. It’s about destroying it with a half a trillion-dollar tax cut for the rich on the backs of the poor, the sick, and the vast majority of Americans who get coverage through work.”

Curbelo is getting hit from all sides on the healthcare plan, which is scheduled for a House vote on Thursday. A political committee affiliated with Speaker Paul Ryan is imploring the congressman to back the legislation. Curbelo already voted for it once, on the Ways and Means Committee, but has since noted he has "concerns" after the Congressional Budget Office found millions of Americans would drop or lose insurance coverage.


Ros-Lehtinen, unlike other Republicans, questions FBI chief about Russian election meddling

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As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen got to question FBI chief James Comey on Monday. But unlike some of her GOP colleagues, she steered clear of any talk about leaks to reporters about FBI investigations -- and focused rather on the investigations themselves, into Russian meddling into the U.S. presidential election.

It was during Ros-Lehtinen's questioning that Comey made the -- perhaps underappreciated -- admission that hackers will probably try to interfere with future elections, too.

"They'll be back in 2020. They may be back in 2018," he conceded, noting that cyber actors may consider their "sowing discord" in the 2016 campaign to have been a success.

"We will follow the facts wherever they lead, on a bipartisan level," Ros-Lehtinen said about the committee's investigation. "And there will be no sacred cows."

That time Rubio asked, 'Can this country afford to have a president under investigation by the FBI?'

via @learyreports

Days before the presidential election, Marco Rubio asked a crowd in Punta Gorda, "Can this country afford to have a president under investigation by the FBI?"

"No," the audience shouted.

That comment, captured by the liberal opposition research group American Bridge, was directed at Hillary Clinton. But it has a new meaning Monday as the FBI confirmed it has an ongoing investigation into Russian involvement in the election and possible ties to the Trump associates, which would include Roger Stone.

We have asked for Rubio's reaction to today's House Intelligence Committee hearing and will update if he responds.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Puerto Rican governor asks for Rick Scott's help asking for Medicaid increase


F60c314186539e3f43a33bec_1156x1496Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on Friday issued a warning to Gov. Rick Scott: Help Puerto Rico advocate for more federal Medicaid money, or caring for the island's poor could become Florida's problem.

After next year, the feds are expected to send dramatically less Medicaid money to Puerto Rico, which already gets an "inequitable" amount compared to states, Rosselló wrote. If there are additional cuts, he said, more Puerto Ricans could flock to the mainland United States, and Florida would be a likely place for them to go.

"If this issue is not addressed by Congress in the very near future, the fallout will be felt not only in Puerto Rico but also in the states because the already high rate of migration of U.S. citizens moving from Puerto Rico to the states will likely increase significantly, affecting Florida in particular," the letter says.

With Congress currently considering a replacement for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, Rosselló says now is the perfect time to act on Puerto Rico's Medicaid problems.

Scott, a former hospital executive and outspoken critic of the ACA, has been involved in putting together and pitching the Republicans' replacement plan.

Similar letters were sent to governors in 12 other states, including Ohio, Texas, New York and California.