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December 01, 2016

USDOT awards FIU $1.4M grant to study bridge restoration

@PatriciaMazzei

Florida International University won $1.4 million from the federal government earlier this week. The grant, from the U.S. Department of Transportation, is intended to pay for research on how to restore aging bridges and build new ones.

Miami members of Congress pushed for the money, according to U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican whose district includes FIU's main campus. The grant is part of USDOT's University Transportation Centers program, which was signed into law last December. Curbelo had introduced the program in a bill he filed in September 2015.

"FIU's work to address substandard bridges is critical to restoring our transportation infrastructure in South Florida and across the county," Curbelo said in a statement. "I'm grateful for the support of my colleagues Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and the Florida Delegation for championing this effort with me."

Atorod Azizinamini, chairman of the structure and bridge engineering program at FIU, said in a statement issued through Curbelo's office that supporting FIU "will benefit South Florida and the country as we improve our aging infrastructure."

Jeb Bush returns to Trump's Washington

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via @learyreports

WASHINGTON -- The last time Jeb Bush held an education summit in Washington, as he does today, scores of reporters and a big crowd showed up. The headline: Bush seeks balance on Common Core under 2016 glare.

Two years ago, speculation raged over whether Bush would run for president. Finally, in June 2015, he jumped in with a big splash of money. The rest is well-known.

Today, Bush continued his re-emergence in a space he feels most comfortable in: policy wonk. He kicked off his Foundation For Excellence in Education summit with an 8:45 a.m. speech.

"This is a time for big thinking and courageous leadership, to encourage each other to move the needle so that more and more children gain the power or knowledge in this turbulent world, this exciting world that we’re living in," Bush said.

National political reporters, who used to show up en masse to hear the presumed presidential front-runner, blew off the speech.

Bush began with a nod to the election. "I actually planned not to be here this year," Bush said to laughter. "I hoped to be pursuing a different type of public service."

Turning more introspective he said, "It's always a good learning experience to get beat bad ... It is humbling and that's not bad." 

The 2016 election wasn’t all bad for Bush. President-elect Donald Trump picked Betsy DeVos, an ExcelinEd board member, for his education chief.

Continue reading "Jeb Bush returns to Trump's Washington" »

Report: Utilities and fossil fuel industry are orchestrating a campaign to oppose solar expansion


Blocking the Sun reportWith Florida now a battleground over the future of solar energy, "utility interest groups and fossil fuel industry-funded think tanks is providing funding, model legislation and political cover for anti-solar campaigns,'' according to a new report funded by environmental activists and think tanks that are opposing the effort. 

The report, “Blocking the Sun,” released by the Environment Florida Research & Policy Center, singles out Florida's four largest utilities -- Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Gulf Power and Tampa Electric -- as being among 17 entities nationwide that are working aggressively "to block solar policies."

The report was written by the Frontier Group and Environment America Research and Policy Center, two environmental think tanks backed by pro-solar and anti-climate change activists. The report says it was funded by several individuals that are who are listed in the report's opening pages. 

Coming after the pro-solar groups' defeat of the utility-backed Amendment 1, the missive is a sign that the battle over solar power in Florida is still young. 

It also come out the same day that SolarCity, a subsidiary of Tesla Motors, Inc., announced that it has launched residential solar service in Orlando and is hiring sales staff and installers at its Clermont offices. The company said it plans to expand to additional areas of the state in the coming months.

The debate has already begun over how the issue will be framed. The utilities, with the help of a report by the conservative James Madison Institute and advocacy by the Florida Chamber of Commerce's Tallahassee leaders, have tried to make the case that as more individuals and businesses install solar panels, the cost of providing access to the grid will be divided among fewer paying customers with those left on the grid "subsidizing" others.

Their greatest worry: a “utility death spiral” triggered by customers who abandon the grid as the price of solar panels and energy storage technology declines. 

In some states, "utilities have responded to the challenge posed by solar energy by working constructively with regulators and other decision-makers to develop new business models that maintain consumers’ access to an affordable, reliable electric grid,'' the report says. In others -- like Florida -- they have fought to limit customer-generated solar by attempting to pass the failed Amendment 1 and now want regulators to rollback net metering policies that encourage solar investment. 

The report attempts to provide a road map for the source of much of that information by detailing the role of several organizations have had in the elaborate campaign to limit customer-owned solar expansion throughout the nation:

  • The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the trade group that represents U.S. investor-owned electric utilities, worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on model legislation to repeal state renewable electricity standards and run an anti-solar public relations campaigns.
  • The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which has drafted anti-net metering resolutions and legislation.
  • The Koch brothers, who have funneled tens of millions of dollars through a network of opaque nonprofits, including the 60-Plus organization which spent more than $1 million to promote the utility-backed Amendment 1 in Florida.
  • Americans for Prosperity (AFP) which has run "misinformation campaigns against net metering and other solar policies."
  • The Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), a Houston-based front group for the fossil fuel industry.

Environment Florida proposes several recommendations for legislators and state regulators to push back. It urges them to resist caps on net metering, added surcharges and tariffs on solar customers and to reject attempts to roll back renewable electricity standards.

Instead of focusing on the "subsidy" narrative pushed by the utility companies, it also wants regulators to calculate the value of distributed solar energy to the grid, encourage community solar projects and they want to polices that allow for "strong net metering and interconnection standards, which enable many customers to meet their own electricity needs with solar power." 

 

Bondi to meet with Trump on Friday

@MichaelAuslen and @VeraMBergen

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, rumored to be in the running for a job in Donald Trump's administration, is scheduled to meet with the president-elect Friday.

Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller announced the scheduled meeting in a Thursday morning conference call, according to reporters who were on the call.

It is planned for 1 p.m. in Trump Tower. The presidential transition has been silent about what Trump and Bondi, who are personal friends, will discuss.

Bondi's name has been mentioned in connection to several high-level positions, including White House "drug czar" and U.S. trade representative. She could also be nominated as a deputy or assistant U.S. attorney general or as a candidate to chair the Republican National Committee.

However, she could also be wary of any job that would require a rigorous Senate confirmation process, as Bondi tends to cringe under critical spotlight.

Bondi was an early Trump supporter and appeared alongside him at rallies around the state, as well as at the Republican National Convention.

For the last week, Bondi has been out of the public eye, missing ceremonial events in the state Capitol, and her office has refused to respond to questions about where she is.

Gov. Scott seeks 5 percent raises for some state police officers

Gov. Rick Scott wants the Florida Legislature to approve a 5 percent pay raise for about 4,000 state law enforcement officers in next year's budget.

Scott, who has generally opposed across-the-board raises for all state workers during his six years in office, made the proposal at a Florida Highway Patrol station in Orlando Thursday. He cited their heroic efforts at the Pulse nightclub massacre in June, followed by two hurricanes and a tropical storm.

"We must always do everything we can to recognize our law enforcement officers and let them know how much we appreciate their service," Scott said in a statement. "It is thanks to their hard work and sacrifice that Florida persevered throiugh these difficult times and has achieved a 45-year crime rate low."

The Republican governor said he has attended 32 funerals for fallen law enforcement officers since he took office in January 2011.

Scott has advocated performance-based bonuses for state workers in most of his budgets. Last year he vetoed a $2,000 raise for state forestry firefighters, who did receive a pay raise in the current year's budget.

Scott's new proposal, which will be in his proposed budget for fiscal 2017-18, would cover sworn officers in nine state entities, the governor's office said. They are FHP, FDLE, Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Department of Financial Services, Lottery, Agriculture and Consumer Services, Business and Professional Regulation, attorney general and Florida School for the Deaf and Blind.  

Scott's pay raise would not include the more than 22,000 correctional officers who work in Florida prisons. Like other state workers, they have received only one small raise in the past decade. Correctional officers voted last month to fire the Teamsters as their bargaining agent and rehired the Police Benevolent Association, which represented prison guards until 2011.

By making police pay raises a priority, Scott will likely have to bow to the Legislature's spending priorities in at least one other area.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, has already raised doubts about plans by Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to ramp up spending for state universities and the environment.

"The budget, I think, is going to be difficult," Corcoran told Capitol reporters last week. "My hunch is ... that we're going to be, at best, flatlined, and at worst, we could have a deficit."

In just two days, they will graduate from 'Legislator University'

A motivational speaker who worked in the White House. A mandatory seminar on sexual harassment. Breakout sessions on the death penalty, workers comp, Medicaid, the courts and the Florida retirement system.

It's all part of two days of member training next week in the Florida House of Representatives, with code numbers assigned to each seminar, just like at UF and FSU. The "Legislator University" is part of House Speaker Richard Corcoran's plan to upgrade civility and professionalism in a House where more than one-third of the members (46) are newbies.

Corcoran is bringing in Shelby Scarbrough, a motivational speaker who will discuss the importance of civility in politics and how to apply it to lawmaking. Scarbrough, whose fees and expenses were picked up by the Republican Party of Florida, is a Harvard Business School grad who worked in the White House Office of Presidential Advance and once owned a group of Burger King franchises in Northern Virginia.

Scarbrough's general session talk (GS 101) is one of three must-attend seminars for all House members. The others are Respect in the Workplace, with a focus on sexual harassment, and Ethics in the Legislature.

One class likely to draw a crowd (GS 303), inspired by the Corcoran-inspired new rules for lobbyists and House members, is "What Do the Rules Changes Mean for Me?" The program guide describes it this way: "Confused about how the recent rules changes related to lobbyists will impact how your office operates? Unsure what your responsibilities are? This session will clear up some of the common misconceptions."

Another seminar is entitled "Things I Wished Someone Told Me 6 Years Ago" in which members of the Class of 2010, now in their last terms, "share what they've learned so you don't have to make the same mistakes."

 

November 30, 2016

Fact-checking Ted Cruz's claim about political arrests in Cuba

CruzAP

@amysherman1

The son of a Cuban immigrant, Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said that he hoped President-elect Donald Trump could press for change for Cubans following Fidel Castro’s death.

But in a Nov. 27 interview on ABC’s This Week, Cruz expressed some skepticism that anything will be better under Castro’s brother Raúl Castro, who began taking over in 2006.

"What the Obama administration has done is strengthen Raúl Castro. Raúl is the dictator now," Cruz said. "You know, I asked my dad at dinner last night, what do you think happens now that Fidel is dead? And he shrugged and said Raúl has been in power for years. The system has gotten stronger. ... You know, in 2015 roughly 10,000 political arrests occurred in Cuba. That is five times as many as occurred in 2010, when there were only about 2,000."

We were interested in his statistic, so we contacted Cruz’s office. Spokesman Phil Novack told us the senator slightly misspoke, but his point is still basically accurate.

Keep reading from PolitiFact Florida.

Who will Sen. Bill Nelson support for Florida Democratic Party chair?

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@amysherman1

Sen. Bill Nelson, the key elected Democrat in Florida who will likely have influence in selecting the next Florida Democratic Party chair, hasn’t publicly revealed who he will support.

“The Senator is aware of some candidates who have expressed an interest and will be monitoring the upcoming local DEC elections which determine who is officially eligible to run,” said Pete Mitchell, Nelson’s former longtime chief of staff who is advising him on his 2018 campaign.

It appears that Nelson is waiting for some of the large Democratic counties to first elect their own leaders before he weighs in publicly on who should replace Allison Tant, who announced after the Nov. 8th election that she wouldn’t seek re-election in January.

Broward Democrats will elect their state committeeman and woman Saturday while the Miami-Dade party elects its leaders Tuesday.

Across Florida, committeemen and women vote for the state party chair according to a formula based on the number of registered Democrats in the county which means that Broward and Miami-Dade have the most influence.

Nelson is the lone statewide Democrat in elected office in Florida and the Republicans have placed a target on this back for 2018.

While Nelson easily beat U.S. Rep. Connie Mack in 2012, this time he could face a far more formidable opponent: Republican Gov. Rick Scott appears poised to run. A former hospital CEO, Scott can tap his personal wealth and friendship with President Elect Donald Trump.

Broward County Commissioner Steve Geller who has known Nelson for decades said he hasn’t heard from Nelson who he plans to support.

“When he weighs in I think for a lot of us that will be a very very important step,” Geller said. “He is the single individual that if he chooses to influence the race will have the most influence. Thus far I have not heard him choose to use it.”

In 2013, Nelson backed Tant.

Nelson will want a party chair who can help unify the party and raise millions of dollars. The key candidate who could generate big bucks for the party is Stephen Bittel, a prominent national fundraiser and Coconut Grove developer. Bittel told the Herald earlier this month he “might” want the position but he appears to be a serious candidate because he has been contacting Democratic activists. However, for Bittel to run would require some maneuvering because he isn’t a precinct committeeman, a prerequisite to run for the state chair position.

There is a long list of potential candidates to run for state chair. Sen. Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay and Susannah Randolph, former district director for U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson have both said they will run for chair.

In-state college tuition rates for Florida's undocumented students could be in danger

Steube 2014  - keeler

via @clairemcneill

Heralded as a bipartisan victory when it passed, a Florida law granting in-state college tuition rates to undocumented students could now be in danger.

A bill filed Wednesday by conservative Florida Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, seeks to erase that 2014 provision. Colleges no longer would have to waive out-of-state fees for undocumented students who attend Florida high schools.

"It is certainly a big issue in my district among my constituents, who were frustrated and upset that the state would allow undocumented illegal immigrants to receive taxpayer-supported in-state tuition," he said. "So I think it's important to file the bill and have a discussion on it."

Steube said he knocked on thousands of doors in his primary campaign. Unfailingly, voters asked about two things: the Second Amendment, and illegal immigration. He remembers one working-class man in particular, disappointed that after working so hard to put his family through college, the state would give undocumented immigrants a tuition break.

"I just don't think it's good public policy for the state," Steube said. "And with the change in leadership and the change in both of the chambers, I think it's a policy that is worth revisiting."

More than a decade of contention preceded the 2014 tuition bill. When it finally passed in a high-profile 26-13 vote in the Senate, Republican Gov. Rick Scott deemed it "a historic day."

"Just think," Scott said then. "Children that grew up in our state will now get the same tuition as their peers."

The vote felt like victory for Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who sponsored the bill.

"The eyes of America are on us," he said. "I think we're setting an example. I think we're doing the right thing."

On Wednesday, Latvala had little to say about the new Senate Bill 82.

"First I've heard about it," he said. "I'm out of state, so I really don't want to talk about it until I've had a chance to take a look."

Before passing in spring 2014 with significant Republican support, the tuition proposal faced strong opposition within the party.

Then-Senate President Don Gaetz rebuked the bill in an email to his constituents, incensed that it would aid even those from countries rife with "anti-American violence." And incoming Senate president Joe Negron, R-Stuart, then chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said his committee wouldn't hear the bill, deflating its potential of becoming law.

Latvala crafted a strategy in response, adding the language to several other bills going before the panel to keep the effort alive. Student activists also kept the heat on Senate leaders, staging news conferences and pressing for meetings. Scott told reporters he considered the bill a priority.

On Wednesday, his office said it was taking a look at the new proposal.

Steube, who was elected to the Senate in 2016 after six years in the House, said he hasn't talked to Negron or Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran about the legislation yet. But knowing of their previous opposition gave him hope.

Negron and Corcoran have not returned calls for comment.

The benefits of the bill are already being felt by young adults who were brought to the U.S. through no fault of their own, said Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, who sponsored the 2014 bill in the House. 

“This really isn’t an immigration bill, this is access to higher education,” she said. “I for one am focused on empowering families and being able to provide opportunities for students.”

Despite the Senate president’s likely support, she said she’s not too concerned about Steube’s bill just yet. She vowed to fight it tooth and nail.

“Clearly, in my mind, he’s still in campaign mode,” she said. “There’s a lot of football to be played, and we’re in the preseason at this point. Hopefully at the end of the day we’ll prevail.”

Photo credit: State Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, in 2014 when he was in the Florida House. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

Gov. Rick Scott's key job creation agency gets new leader

@JeremySWallace

There is a new leader for the agency Gov. Rick Scott has most relied on to achieve his job creation campaign promises, but turmoil under the previous director still isn’t quite over.

Enterprise Florida agreed on Wednesday — with Scott in attendance during the entire two-hour meeting — to hire former Tampa state Rep. Chris Hart IV to run the embattled quasi-governmental agency that oversees the recruiting of businesses to relocate to Florida.

Hart, 48, has run the state's job training development agency, CareerSource Florida under Scott and prior to that he was the interim director of the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development under former Gov. Charlie Crist from Jan. 2010 to early 2011. A Republican, he was in the Florida Legislature from 1998 to 2002.

"I'd like to thank you for inviting me to be apart of this grand adventure with all of you," Hart told Enterprise Florida board members at a meeting in Miramar Beach in Northwest Florida. "What better place than Enterprise Florida to help our fellow Floridians realize their hopes and their dreams and their aspirations."

Enterprise Florida board members are touting Hart's past as a state legislator as a sign that the agency will work better with the Florida Legislature, which gutted Scott's job incentives programs last year by refusing to give Scott any of the $250 million he requested. Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Pasco County, has declared the incentive program as "corporate welfare" that conflict with his view of government's proper role.

Hart will take over an Enterprise Florida that is still paying for issues left over from former CEO Bill Johnson. Enterprise Florida announced this week it had spent $107,000 since June on an outside accounting and management firm that specializes in taking on "distressed situations" and "helps clean things up." Another $10,000 might still need to go to that company, CFO Strategic Partners in Orlando, before they complete their task, said Rodney Ownby, vice president of accounting and finance at Enterprise Florida.

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