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March 28, 2018

Rubio: Russian hackers used 2016 as practice and warns of 'chaos' and overconfidence in 2018

Fresh off a new round of questions into the Russian attempt to infiltrate voting systems in Florida and 20 other states, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio warned that the 2016 hackers were “probing” system vulnerabilities and he expects them to return this year with another attempt at putting U.S. elections “in doubt.”

“I’m not satisfied that anyone is doing enough, starting at the federal level — all the way to the state level,’’ Rubio told reporters Tuesday in Tallahassee, on the second day of a two-week swing through the state during the Senate recess. He said the threat is “not necessarily that they are going to break into ballot boxes and change the outcome of an election. The threat is much more nefarious than that.”

Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has held several hearings on Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, said that state and local officials have a dangerous level of “overconfidence” in their systems. More resources, coordination and redundancy in vote tabulation and reporting are needed soon, he said.

He suggested that Russian hackers could get into the voter registration systems in key counties in Florida and change the database — “eliminate people, change your address, whatever.” By hacking voter-registration lists, they will either delay or prevent people from voting and, he suggested, they could alter the “unofficial reporting system” on election night, creating doubt in the results. Read more here. 

Rubio is worried. He's got warnings for Donald Trump, the U.S. economy and the NRA

Marco Rubio U.S Senate.U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was in full-alarm mode Tuesday on the second day of a two-week swing around the state during the spring recess.

He warned that President Donald Trump's scheduled meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un is potentially "dangerous and counter-productive."  He warned of China's "unprecedented" and steady attempt at displacing the U.S. as the world economic power. He warned of overconfidence in the elections system. And he warned the National Rifle Association that if it doesn't focus its energy on reducing mass shootings, the Second Amendment could be at stake.

"I would argue today that perhaps the single, biggest threats to the Second Amendment are these mass shootings because if it weren't for mass shootings and gun crime you wouldn't see this outcry,'' Rubio said at a meeting with reporters at his Tallahassee office in the Florida state Capitol. "It's awakening the conscience of the country."

He called Trump's visit with Jung-un "counter-productive because it will be used just to give him a platform to look important,'' adding that he doesn't know "if the meeting is ever going to take place or not.

Rubio said he was "doubtful" that Jung-un was interested in denuclearization. 

"I am very doubtful that he will ever surrender his nuclear weapons because, for him, that is his life insurance,'' Rubio said. "That is what keeps him in power. Because he is fearful of becoming [deposed Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi and fearful of becoming [executed Iraqi president] Saddam Hussein and he's a young man. He's got to figure out how to hold onto power for 50-60 years."

He said Jung-un benefits from the meeting more than Trump because the dictator "lured an American president' into a meeting and it helps him in his quest "to be accepted as a global power.

"These parameters have to be worked out in ahead of time so that when you're going there, you're going to sign an agreement not negotiate an agreement,'' he said. "So if that's not what's going to happen, I think it's a terrible idea."

He called Trump's Tweet announcing the meeting "a very mysterious announcement that came out of the blue."

Rubio's advice to the president: "If this is a deal to just meet with a guy under false pretense and there's not a pre-arranged outcome, I think not only is it a waste of your time it actually proves to be quite dangerous and counter-productive."

The Florida Republican saved his strongest warnings, however, for the global economic war underway between China and the U.S. 

He said the biggest threat to the U.S. economy and its democratic system is the steady infiltration of Chinese companies into the U.S., where states and local governments are relying on Chinese firms to produce infrastructure and where companies and universities allow Chinese nationals to "embed themselves, even with classified standing, into corporate entities that provide defense contracts and then deliver secrets."

"You cannot be a successful Chinese company until you are willing to do what the government asks of you when they ask it of you,'' Rubio said. "Even if they are just a component in the supply chain, the ability of them to embed in that chain technology that allows them to shut it off or capture information is extraordinary."

He said his frustration was the failure of the U.S. to focus on the threat.

 "We've got a big problem on our hands, particularly as we move into revolutions in artificial intelligence and quantum computing,'' he said. "Whoever wins that battle will win the 21st Century. It's the equivalent of the Brits winning the industrial revolution and America winning the technology revolution."

Rubio dismissed the criticism of him by the students at the March for Our Lives event last week, in which students accused him of selling out to the NRA, and wore $1.05 signs -- a number they said was derived by dividing the number of students enrolled in Florida’s schools by the amount of campaign contributions Rubio received from the National Rifle Association.

"I don't care. It doesn't matter. I'm a grown man and I can defend myself if I needed to,'' he said. "But more importantly, I'm focused on finding answers. I don't spend my day in the Twitter bubble. I have a job to do and I'm going to do it."

He said the Stop School Violence Act that passed Congress and was signed into law in less than a month had "strong, bi-partisan support" because it was achievable quickly. He noted that the 17 parents of the Parkland victims have diverse opinions about gun control, but they agreed on the proposal.

Rubio said he abandoned his initial proposal to raise the age limit for gun purchases because it wasn't possible to pass in the short time.

And he said he hopes to find bi-partisan support on the "red flag" bill that he and Nelson have sponsored that allows family members and others to notify law enforcement if they suspect someone who has access to guns is a threat to themselves and others. He said he does not know the NRA's position on it.

Rubio also said he was prepared to modify his opposition to ban on high capacity magazines, but he was not sure how to do it.

"I have traditionally not supported [a ban] on magazine capacity because I don't think they prevent shootings,'' he said. "What has allowed me to re-examine it is the reality that in Parkland, at some point in that shooting, whether it was a gun jam or reloading, the shooter had to stop and people got away."

Because of that, he said that he is prepared to reconsider his position.

"If I'm being intellectually honest, I have to look at it again,'' he said. "Frankly, I haven't figured out how to regulate it in a way that could also pass. Some people just want to ban them. I'm not sure that's the right answer."

He said he is looking at the idea but added, " I just don't have a proposal to bring to people that we can defend. I have to be able to explain to people in both sides of how we arrived that point."

March 27, 2018

Gov. Scott, Cabinet must create new voting rights restoration system

A federal judge on Tuesday ordered Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to establish a new system for convicted felons to seek restoration of their voting rights by April 26.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee issued a permanent injunction in support of the Fair Elections Legal Network that sued the state a year ago, and successfully challenged the constitutionality of the state’s antiquated voting rights restoration process.

Walker did not order the restoration of voting rights for any felons in his order, but he directed Scott and his three fellow Republicans to establish “specific and neutral criteria to direct vote-restoration decisions,” and “meaningful, specific and expeditious time constraints” for the voting rights restoration process.


FDLE investigating missing hard drives from state Department of Revenue

Florida's Old Capitol, seen from North Monroe Street in Tallahassee.

State police are investigating the possible theft of three external hard drives containing personal information held by the Florida Department of Revenue.

In a press release, the department said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Office of Inspector General were now investigating, after the drives were found missing from employee workstations in Tallahassee.

The department is "working swiftly to identify the information contained on these devices," which were used only by "authorized employees," the release states.

"If, after the full investigation, it is found that any employee did not take the proper steps to protect taxpayer information, they will be held accountable," the release states.

A department spokeswoman would not elaborate on the type of personal information contained on the drives, citing the ongoing investigation. The Department of Revenue collects taxes and manages the state's child support system.

Sen. Marco Rubio on having U.S. Census asking about citizenship: I don't see the problem with it

Marco Rubio 32718U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio departed from his Miami colleagues Tuesday and said the decision by Commerce Secretary Ross on Monday to include a citizenship question in the  2020 Census is, essentially, no big deal.

"I personally don't see the problem with it,'' Rubio told reporters at a "pen and pad" briefing in Tallahassee Tuesday. "I think there's a lot of noise being made about it."

Rubio's comments diverge from the opinion of other members of Congress from South Florida who have said they fear some people could be dissuaded from answering the census if the citizenship question is asked. It would be the first time since the 1950s that the people are asked to identify whether they are legal citizens or not. 

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has said she fears that asking about citizenship could discourage an accurate count and rob South Florida, home to about 450,000 undocumented immigrants, from drawing down federal dollars for infrastructure projects and social service programs that are based on the census count. 

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, said he is also concerned that the question could discourage people from responding to the census tally, and ultimately harm everything from federal money to redistricting. 

The U.S. Constitution requires the federal government to conduct a census every 10 years to determine how many people are living in a given area. The count traditionally attempts to include everyone, regardless of their citizenship status, including undocumented immigrants. 

Rubio, however, said that since the census already asks a host of personal questions one more question -- about the legal status of people living in the country -- won't matter.

"It asks you all sorts of other information for purposes of identifying the demographics of a community,'' he said. "They ask you how much money you make, how many kids you have, your race and ethnicity. Why wouldn't it ask you about your citizenship status?"

"Some people are going around saying they are going to use the census document as some sort of immigration enforcement vehicle and others are concerned that there will be underreporting,'' he said. " But the truth is, congressional districts across the state are designed by population and taking into account how many are U.S. citizens, I personally don't see the problem with it."

Meanwhile, civil and human rights groups have blasted the decision to include the citizenship question in the next census. 

The NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice called it "a political calculation designed to undermine our Constitution and undercount children, people of color, and other vulnerable populations."


Vanita Gupta, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said his organization will urge Congress to overturn the Commerce Department decision. 

"Adding this question will result in a bad census – deeply flawed population data that will skew public and private sector decisions to ensure equal representation, allocate government resources, and anticipate economic growth opportunities – for the next 10 years,'' he said in a statement. "The stakes are too high to allow this. We urge Congress to overturn this error in judgment.”

March 26, 2018

Gov. Rick Scott quickly running out of veto threats

With a final stack of 39 bills on his desk from the Florida Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott is quickly running out of veto threats in his final year in office.

The least productive lawmaking session in years has resulted in 156 bills signed so far, including the new $88.7 billion budget, which included $64 million in line item vetoes.

The Republican governor signed two bills Monday that enact requirements for generators at nursing homes and adult living facilities as a result of the deaths of 12 residents at a Hollywood nursing home that lost power after Hurricane Irma.

Scott has not yet vetoed any legislation from the 2018 session.

He has until April 10 to act on the final bills that reached his desk Monday.

He signed 70 bills into law last Friday, including one that had produced several hundred calls for his first veto of this year.

That bill, HB 631, dealt with access to Florida's beaches.

It bans cities and counties from adopting ordinances to regulate what's known as customary use, or public access to the beach above the mean high-water line, after Jan. 1, 2016. Three counties have passed those ordinances.

Under the bill, only a court can determine customary use, which is generally defined as the traditional use of dry beach sand for recreation by the public.

Walton County in the Panhandle, home to some of Florida's most popular beaches, is one of three counties with customary use ordinances. The two others are St. Johns and Volusia counties.

Some property owners filed suit against Walton County, but the county prevailed in court. The case is now on appeal.

Citing the economic need for a strong tourism industry, local residents, Realtors and others urged Scott to veto the bill, but he signed it.

"Our very livelihood depends on everyone having access to our greatest natural resource," Destin real estate agent Alice Duncan wrote to Scott. "Please, please veto this. Not everyone can own a beachfront mansion."

Attached to Duncan's email to Scott was a sign that said "private beach" and the caption: "The beach is not a gated community. Tell Gov. Scott to protect customary use laws. The coastline belongs to the public."

Scott's office reported last week that opponents outnumbered supporters by an 8-1 margin, with 327 calls and messages against the bill and 40 in favor.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, who sponsored the Senate version, said she found it "appalling" that a city or county can pass an ordinance jeopardizing private property rights.

"If you're going to take away somebody's property, you have to do it through the courts," Passidomo said. "To me, it's just appalling that a local government could do this."

Passidomo said the steady erosion of Florida's coastline and a lack of local beach renourishment will keep the controversy alive in future years.


"This problem is not going to go away," she said, "and it's going to happen up and down the coast."

Passidomo said a similar proposal in the 2017 session, which did not pass, was referred to informally as the "Huckabee amendment," after TV pundit and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who owns a beachfront home in Santa Rosa County in the Panhandle.


"We're not talking about privatizing beaches," the House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, D-Plantation, said when she presented it to the House Judiciary Committee during the session. "We're talking about private land and protecting the public's right to use that private land under the customary use doctrine."

Scott created a stir last year when he vetoed a bill that would have removed the so-called liquor wall that prevents grocery stores and big-box retailers from selling hard liquor.

Earlier, Scott vetoed an intensely-lobbied overhaul of Florida alimony laws and a higher speed limit on certain interstate highways in Florida.

Two years ago, Scott vetoed a bill that would have provided new financial incentives for dentists to care for patients in underserved areas.

He said the bill duplicated other programs and lacked sufficient safeguards to protect Florida taxpayers.

In his seven years in office, Scott has vetoed 55 bills passed by the Legislature. He vetoed 11 bills last year.

The highest number of bills vetoed was 12 in 2012, and the lowest was one in 2014.

Rick Scott signs bills requiring generators in nursing homes, assisted living facilities

SCOTT KEELER | Times Gov. Rick Scott describes what can be done further in Florida to avoid more shootings like the one in Parkland at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation today requiring nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have backup generators, following the deaths of a dozen people at a Broward County nursing home that lost power during Hurricane Irma last year.

The bills require the facilities to keep backup generators capable of running air conditioners when the power goes out. They must provide at least 30 square feet of cool space for each resident - at a temperature of no more than 81 degrees - and keep several days worth of fuel on hand.

The bills made permanent emergency orders Scott put in place after the deaths at a Hollywood nursing home, where a dozen elders overheated and died.

"As we near the 2018 hurricane season, families can now know the facilities responsible for caring for their loved ones will have the resources needed to be fully prepared ahead of any potential storms," Scott said in a statement Monday.

Wasserman Schultz wants background checks for purchasers of ammunition



South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced Monday that she has introduced a bill requiring background checks for the purchase of ammunition.

Just as with firearms, federal law currently bans criminals, domestic abusers and people with mental illnesses from buying bullets. But the law does not require federally licensed retailers to background those customers. Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, says she wants to “close this loophole” through the Ammunition Background Check Act.

She said Monday that the law would require retailers to use the same FBI National Instance Background Check System (NICS) used to background people buying firearms at retail. The same legislation is sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

“This common-sense legislation simply enforces existing federal law, and will make it harder for criminals to amass hundreds of rounds of ammunition without so much as sharing their first name with a gun store clerk,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “Closing this absurd loophole will not by itself stop the next mass shooting tragedy. But this popular approach must be part of our larger strategy for ending gun violence.”

Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey currently require background checks on ammunition purchases, and California and New York have recently passed legslation. Florida has no such law.

The bill is one of several targeting federal gun laws filed in recent weeks. On Thursday, Florida Reps. Ted Deutch, Charlie Crist, Carlos Curbelo and Thomas Rooney filed bi-partisan legislation to raise the minimum age requirement from 18 to 21 to purchase a rifle or shotgun from a federally licensed dealer. Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson announced last week the filing of a "red flag" law that would allow courts to issue gun violence restraining orders.

Major school voucher expansion proposals won't be on November ballot

Commissioner Erika Donalds speaks during a CRC meeting last week on the floor of the Florida Senate. | Florida Channel

When the members of the Constitution Revision Commission were appointed by Florida's top political leaders, the list was full of prominent school choice advocates. It seemed the CRC was gearing up to amend Florida's constitution to finally allow for the major expansion of school vouchers the Legislature has long sought.

Instead, the 37-member commission dropped its two major voucher expansion proposals last week — and the CRC only meets every 20 years to determine constitutional amendments to put on the ballot.

"There is somewhat of a consensus this is going to be resolved by the courts," said CRC member Erika Donalds, a Collier County School Board member who helped found a charter school there. Her husband is state Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican member from Naples.

"In both cases, I think there is great support for both of those ideas on the CRC which is what makes it even harder not to move forward with it ... (but) I try to step back and look at the big picture at what can only be fixed through the constitution."

Proposal 4 would have struck the Blaine Amendment from the state constitution — which prohibits public money from going to any religious institution, and thus any religiously affiliated private school.

After a short but robust debate on Wednesday, that proposal was "temporarily postponed."

Donalds said they will not bring it up again.

She also withdrew proposal 45, which would have added language to the constitution saying "nothing herein may be construed to limit the Legislature from making provision for other educational services ... that are in addition to the system of free public schools."

Both proposals would have paved the way for a major expansion of vouchers by the Legislature, which have so far been limited to students with particular needs, such as being low-income, a victim of bullying or having a disability.

Donalds said several recent actions by the U.S. Supreme Court — including the a decision last year allowing public money to go toward a playground at a church — have made school choice advocates confident that the justices will eventually undo the 2007 Florida Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Holmes, that declared the state's voucher program unconstitutional.

For that to happen, someone must again challenge Florida's voucher programs.

But any proposals that make it to the ballot in the general election must receive at least 60 percent support to make it into the constitution, and recent polling done by Clearview Research found that Proposal 4 fell far below that threshold. Clearview often does work for Democratic causes but this poll was not done for any particular client, according to president Steven Vancore.

Only 41 percent of respondents said they would vote "yes" on the proposal and 51 percent of respondents declared they would vote "no." The research firm did not conduct polling on proposal 45.

The Florida Education Association opined that the polling was more likely the reason for the proposals' removal from consideration by the CRC. A similar amendment was also on the ballot in 2012 and it was defeated.

"There was no reason to submit the same proposal to the voters again especially after  polling was released that shows the voters really haven’t changed their minds on funding religious programs," said FEA president Joanne McCall.

Whatever the reason, Floridians won't be voting on voucher expansion on November's ballot. Instead, the remaining education proposals include term limits for school board members and a program for high-performing districts to have charter-like flexibility on certain regulations for hiring and facilities.

Rick Scott's chief of staff resigns, stirring new Senate speculation

Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that his chief of staff, Jackie Schutz Zeckman, resigned Sunday "to pursue other opportunities."

Her replacement is Brad Piepenbrink, 32, who has served as a deputy chief of staff and earlier ran Scott's external affairs operation and worked on his 2014 re-election campaign. The change is effective immediately.

The departure of Schutz Zeckman is sure to intensify speculation that Scott is nearing an announcement that he will seek the U.S. Senate seat held since 2001 by Democrat Bill Nelson.

Schutz Zeckman, 32, a St. Petersburg native, worked in Scott's press office and was his communications director before she was appointed as chief of staff last May.

In a statement, Scott called her a "trusted and loyal advisor," and said: "She has been dedicated to implementing my agenda throughout my time as governor and I know she will continue to do great things for our state."

Piepenbrink will be the eighth person to serve as Scott's chief of staff during his seven-plus years as governor.

Scott, 65, a Republican, must leave office next January due to term limits. He's the second GOP governor in Florida history, along with Jeb Bush, who was elected to back-to-back terms.

The qualifying period for federal candidates begins at noon Monday, April 30, and ends at noon Friday, May 4.