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March 20, 2017

Jeb Bush makes endorsement in Coral Gables mayor's race

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via @LDixon_3

One of the more notable residents of the City Beautiful, recent presidential candidate and former Gov. Jeb Bush, has thrown his support behind Coral Gables mayoral candidate Raúl Valdés-Fauli.

Bush’s endorsement was announced Monday in a press release from the Valdés-Fauli campaign.

“I’ve rarely entered the fray to lend support for a local candidate. This is different," Bush said in a statement. "I’ve known Raúl for nearly 40 years and long admired his integrity, competence and vision for our community.” 

Valdés-Fauli, a registered Democrat, is seeking the nonpartisan mayoral seat in Coral Gables, a position he held from 1993 to 2001. Bush is a Republican.

“His endorsement means the world to me, but even more important than his political support is his friendship,” Valdés-Fauli said in a statement.

Valdés-Fauli has also been endorsed by incumbent Mayor Jim Cason, a Republican.

The mayoral hopeful has set up shop in the same Calle Ocho location, 5430 SW Eighth St., that housed Bush’s Miami field office during his presidential campaign.

He’s running against another well-known name in the Gables, Commissioner Jeannett Slesnick, whose husband, Don, defeated Valdés-Fauli in 2001. Like Valdés-Fauli, Jeannett Slesnick is also a Democrat.

The Gables election is set for April 11 and a runoff election, if needed, will be held April 25.

--LANCE DIXON

Photo credit: Pedro Portal, el Nuevo Herald

Congressman to FBI chief: 'Do you know who Roger Stone is?'

Trump Russia
via @learyreports

“Do you know who Roger Stone is?”

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, asked that question Monday morning of FBI director James Comey during a hearing into Russian meddling in the election, putting a spotlight on the Florida operative Stone.

Stone has long been allied with Donald Trump and in 2011, helped set up a speech before a tea party group in Boca Raton in which Trump tried out the themes he ran on in 2016. This month, Stone acknowledged he had contact with Guccifer 2.0, an online persona considered a front for Russian intelligence operatives. But he disputes collusion.

Stone, who lives in South Florida, has flirted with running for office in Florida but mainly seems to relish his role as a provocateur and former Nixon operative with a tattoo of the former president on his back. He’s written books attacking Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

His new book is about the Trump campaign. Last week, Stone claimed he was on his way to a book signing in Orlando when he was the victim of a hit-and-run driver in Pompano Beach.

At the Intelligence Committee hearing, Comey acknowledged an investigation into Russian interference in the election and ties to the Trump campaign. Comey also said there is no evidence to support Trump’s tweets, sent from Mar-a-Lago on a recent Saturday morning, that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.

Rep. Tom Rooney of Okeechobee used his early time at the hearing to question intelligence leaks, in line with other Republicans.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Photo credit: Mary Altaffer, Associated Press

Still no decision from Bill Nelson on Gorsuch vote

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via @learyreports

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bill Nelson remains undecided on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, a spokesman said this morning as the confirmation hearing begins.

Nelson faces pressure from the left and right over Gorsuch. The Florida Democrat met with Gorsuch for about an hour earlier this month Nelson discussed his concerns about the suppression of voting rights and the amount of undisclosed, unlimited money in campaigns.

Republicans have targeted Nelson and other Democrats who saw their states go to Donald Trump in the November election.

Nelson is up for re-election next year and his decision will likely play a role in the campaign.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio today sent an email to supporters that called Gorsuch "a highly qualified, mainstream jurist. Most importantly, he is committed to the principles of original intent and judicial restraint. This is critical, because too many in the federal judiciary today believe it is appropriate for judges to invent new policies and rights instead of interpreting and defending the Constitution as it is written."

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

First Amendment Foundation raises concerns about Constitution commission's 'lesser' openness standards

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, is asking the the Constitution Revision Commission to amend its proposed rules to bring the commission into line with existing law regarding open meetings and public records.

The 37-member commission, which meets today for the first time in an organizational session, has drafted rules that depart from the existing Sunshine law, which is intended to apply to public officials -- including appointed boards and commissions.

"Given the gravity and importance of the work of the Commission and its impact on citizens across the state, we would expect the CRC to hold itself to the highest standards of transparency, allowing all Floridians to oversee the work of the Commission and hold it accountable for its actions,'' Peterson wrote in a letter to commission chair Carlos BeruffDownload Response to CRC Proposed Rule

Specifically, she said: 

"Rule 1.23, Public Records, states, “All records of the Commission shall be accessible to the public unless otherwise exempted by law.” (Emphasis added.) The rules of the previous CRC used the phrase “open to the public,” which comports with the statement of public policy found in s. 119.01(1), F.S. and s. 11.0431, F.S., stating that “public records shall be open to personal inspection and copying at reasonable times . . .” We respectfully suggest Rule 1.23 be amended to follow the standard articulated in Florida statutes.

"In addition, we have concerns regarding Rule 1.24 relating to meetings of the CRC. Specifically, Rule 1.24 adopts the legislative standard under Article III, s. 4(e) that states that meetings between three or more CRC members at which Commission business is discussed must be open. This is a lesser standard than that found in Article I, s. 24(b) requiring that meetings between two or more members of a collegial body be opened and noticed to the public. 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."

(The First Amendment Foundation is a non-profit advocate of open government and open records. The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are members.)

This was initially posted at 12:15 p.m. and we sought the comment of the CRC staff. At 9:23 p.m., Chairman Beruff issued the following comment: 

“Transparency is of the utmost importance to the Commission and all meetings will be noticed and open to the public. I look forward to working with the Commissioners to adopt rules which reflect the importance of transparency and ensure total public access and involvement throughout this process.”​ 

Lawyers say Rick Scott overstepped by taking case from Orlando state attorney

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@MichaelAuslen

Two former chief justices of the Florida Supreme Court and a former Florida State University president are among the lawyers and judges who publicly chastised Gov. Rick Scott on Monday for removing the state attorney in Orlando from prosecuting an alleged cop killer after she announced she would not seek the death penalty.

In a letter, more than 100 current and former law professors, judges, prosecutors and lawyers told Scott they were "deeply troubled" and that his removal of State Attorney Aramis Ayala from the prosecution of accused killer Markeith Loyd "sets a dangerous precedent."

Last Thursday, Ayala announced she would not seek the death penalty for Loyd -- accused of killing Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton, as well as his ex-girlfriend Sade Dixon -- or any other accused murderer while she is in office. That set off a firestorm of calls for Ayala to be suspended from office and led Scott to reassign the case to another state attorney.

"We believe that this effort to remove State Attorney Ayala infringes on the vitally important independence of prosecutors, exceeds your authority, undermines the right of residents in Orange and Osceola counties to the services of their elected leaders, and sets a dangerous precedent," they wrote.

The letter was signed by former Florida chief justices Harry Lee Anstead and Gerald Kogan, as well as Talbot “Sandy” D'Alemberte, past president of FSU and of the American Bar Association.

Deciding not to seek the death penalty is an example of prosecutorial discretion, the lawyers wrote. But it has been roundly criticized, including by other state attorneys and Attorney General Pam Bondi, for being outside the spirit of the state's criminal laws.

Photo: Sandy D'Alemberte (Steve Bousquet | Times/Herald)

Constitution commission proposes key changes to rules that steer more power to Carlos Beruff

Carlos Beruff Miami HeraldFlorida's unique quest to update its state Constitution begins today as the 37-member commission meets for an organizational session the Florida Senate chambers.

The group, dominated by Republicans, will meet briefly for two hours, review its proposed rules and go over the state's ethics and Sunshine laws.

The draft rules, however, are already stoking some debate. They allow Carlos Beruff, the Manatee County businessman who was selected to be chairman of the commission by Gov. Rick Scott, to consolidate his power over the group by giving him sole discretion of what expenses will be reimbursed and to use his committee referrals to kill proposals that have been amended by members.

The commission will be divided into committees and committees will have the power to adopt and amend proposals but there are other significant departures from the rules adopted by the 1998 Constitution Revision Commission, which succeeded in passing 8 of the 9 proposals it put before voters. Many on that commission, which included a bi-partisan blend of members, attribute the carefully-crafted rules of the commission for helping bring consensus and strengthen the proposals that won voter support.

According to draft rules 2.14 and 4.5, Beruff will have the power to refer proposals that have been amended back to committees -- where they can be killed with an unfavorable vote. It will take a two-thirds vote of the full commission to reverse his ruling.

Another change is in rule 1.23, which says that CRC records will be “accessible” to the public and strikes the word "open" from the 1998 rules.  Why the change?  Is “accessible” meant to mean something different than “open?”

What will be the budget and who will pay for it? Will outside groups be allowed to finance campaigns related to the proposals advocated by the commission? Will coordination between outside groups and commission members be reported? Will they be allowed?

There is no indication as to how much money will be allocated to pay for the expenses of commission members but that is being determined by the governor's office, the House speaker and Senate president, said Meredith Beatrice, spokesperson from the commission.

She said the rule regarding reimbursement of commission expenses was rewritten to "enhance clarity. The intent is still the same." 

"The chairman is committed to empowering the commissioners at the committee level so they can do their job," Beatrice said. 

Beatrice said that a process is also being established for lobbyists who attempt to influence the commission to register.

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

Other changes include allowing members to attend meetings via teleconference, giving Beruff the power to determine if amendments offered by members to change proposals are germane. Rules can be waived by two-thirds vote of those present and voting -- which includes people present only by teleconference.

Here are the proposed rules in the committee packet.

Here is the strike-through of the 1998 rules that was used to develop this draft.  Download CRC draft Rules 16 Mar 2017

Photo: Carlo Beruff

Florida Lottery rakes in cash but fewer students get scholarships

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via @KyraGurney

Gabriela Fowler has a 4.7 GPA, takes college-level calculus and statistics courses, and is the president of her school’s business leadership club. But for the 17-year-old Hialeah High senior, a college scholarship funded by the record-setting revenues of the Florida Lottery somehow remains out of reach.

Like many low-income and minority students in Miami-Dade County, Fowler has been shut out by tougher eligibility requirements for Bright Futures college scholarships. A few years ago, her SAT and ACT scores would have been high enough to earn money that, along with federal financial aid, would have covered most of her college costs. Instead, Fowler is now scrambling to find a way to pay for college.

She’s far from alone.

Since the Florida Legislature started instituting tougher standards tied to higher test scores beginning in 2011, Miami-Dade schools with large populations of low-income and African-American and Hispanic students have seen a drastic decrease in the number of students who qualify for what has long been billed as the Lottery’s primary payout for education.

At Hialeah High, where many students come from immigrant families and speak Spanish at home, almost a fifth of the graduating class qualified for the scholarship funding in 2011. By 2015, the most recent year for which statewide data is available, that number dropped to 8 percent. At Homestead High, which has similar demographics, 25 students were eligible for the scholarships in 2011. Four years later, only three students qualified. And at Miami Jackson High, where almost all of the students are low-income, just 2 percent of the graduating class qualified in 2015.

“We have the GPA, we have the grades, we have the other requirements, everything is there except the test scores,” Fowler said.

When lawmakers changed the scholarship standards, they said the goal was to control spiraling costs in the wake of Florida’s foreclosure crisis and plummeting government revenue. Now, the economy is again humming, revenue has rebounded and the Florida Lottery has seen record-breaking sales for five years in a row, earning more than $6 billion last year.

But the Bright Futures program last year dropped to the lowest level of funding since 2003. Money paid out for scholarships has been cut nearly in half over seven years and the number of incoming freshmen awarded last year was almost as low as when the program was created in 1997. And, along with hiking the standards, lawmakers have cut the size of the awards.

More here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell, Miami Herald staff

Will Negron and Corcoran promise of transparency include their political committees?

AIF Keeler 2016The ritual is so routine it hardly draws attention but, in the ramp-up to the annual legislative session, Florida’s most politically powerful corporations seed hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash into the political committees of legislators.

Sometimes legislators hold fundraisers at swanky resorts or sporting events. Other times, they corner lobbyists over cocktails in a Tallahassee bar, usually during the busy committee weeks leading up to the regular session before the self-imposed fundraising ban takes effect at the start of the 60-day session.

But getting all the details on who got what is impossible. Florida law allows groups that accept contributions from corporations to legally distribute money to other political committees, including those controlled by legislators, without reporting the original source of the cash. The practice of shielding political spending from public view has fueled the “dark money” trend in politics that has allowed groups to launch political attacks in state and local campaigns without fear of being traced.

Gruters and Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, have proposed legislation that would ban the practice of committees transferring funds to other committees, allowing the public to better see who gives and who gets millions in political contributions.

This year, two of the state’s biggest donors — Florida Power & Light and U.S. Sugar — contributed more than $2 million in the first two months, according to a Herald/Times review of Division of Elections records. FPL is attempting to win support for two bills to overturn unfavorable court rulings, and U.S. Sugar is working to oppose Senate President Joe Negron’s plan to buy farm land for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

So how much of FPL’s $1.5 million went to the eight members of the Senate committee that unanimously supported FPL’s bills last week? Senate Energy Committee chair Frank Artiles reported travel, drinks and food from FPL only after the Herald/Times disclosed it, but did the Miami Republican or other legislators on the committee receive any contributions from the company?

There is no way to know. Although committees must report all contributions and are barred from coordinating with donors about how to spend the money, the lack of transparency has prompted two legislators to propose bills to reform the system.

“Everything we do is a complete joke,” said Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who was elected last year after a divisive and close primary contest. “All the reporting is a waste of time if we have no transparency.”  More here, where we look at what's disclosed about how much FPL and U.S. Sugar gave to whom here.

Photo: AIF's annual pre-session cocktail party and fundraiser. By Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times. 

New batch of digital ads pressure Curbelo, Ros-Lehtinen to back GOP health plan

@PatriciaMazzei

Ahead of this week's expected House vote on the Republican healthcare plan, a political group linked to Speaker Paul Ryan is putting out a new batch of digital ads meant to nudge two South Florida members of Congress to vote in favor.

Starting Monday, American Action Network's web campaign will target 29 Republican lawmakers, including Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, both of Miami, whose Democratic-leaning districts have among the highest number of Obamacare enrollees in the country.

"Tell Congress it's time for better health care," the display ads say. There will also be video ads.

Ros-Lehtinen has said she won't vote for the American Health Care Act as written because it would leave too many people uninsured. Curbelo, who voted for it in committee, late last week expressed some concerns and said he would work with Ryan and other House leaders to improve the legislation. American Action Network had already backed Curbelo with TV ads to bolster his position.

A vote is planned for Thursday,

March 17, 2017

Why do Florida House Republicans keep driving money into the World Golf Hall of Fame?

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@JeremySWallace

TALLAHASSEE — Republicans in the Florida House proudly declared they were rooting out wasteful "corporate welfare" in state government to protect taxpayers.

But while they agreed to eliminate tax credit programs for everything from the state's job recruitment agency to sports stadiums, they carved out an exception for what is considered the worst tax incentive of all.

Tucked on page 65 of a 187-page bill is a clause that continues to award $2 million in annual tax credits to the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine for the next six years. Even in their analysis to members, House Republicans called the museum the single worst bet the state is making with tax credits.

The House voted March 10 by a 87-28 vote to kill 24 tax credits — but saved the one paid to the Hall of Fame.

The bill has become the biggest political battle in Florida politics. Gov. Rick Scott has touted tax credit programs like the corporate recruitment done by Enterprise Florida as key reasons why the state has added more than 1.2 million private sector jobs since he was elected. But Corcoran and other House leaders say those programs betray their vision of the role of government. Corcoran has argued that the vast majority of businesses don't get tax breaks, so the state should not be handing them out to a select few.

That hard line against incentives makes the golf museum a curious outlier. It's located in St. Johns County, which is partly represented by Rep. Paul Renner, the Republican sponsor of the bill. He said the hall's location didn't influence his decision to preserve its tax credit.

When asked why the tax credit was left alone, Renner replied: "I don't know."

In a subsequent interview with the Times/Herald, Renner said the House did not want to disrupt existing deals with museums.

Full Story Here