November 12, 2014

Transgender discrimination ban prevails in Miami-Dade panel, despite fervent opposition


Raw emotion and invocations of biblical damnation over a proposed ban on discrimination against transgender people dominated on Wednesday what was perhaps the fiercest debate Miami-Dade County Hall has seen this year.

Advocates of a more inclusive society, including transgender men and women who spoke of how difficult it can be to find public acceptance, were outnumbered by conservatives who, in a show of force, assailed the legislation as immoral and a threat to public safety. Two likened South Florida to Sodom and Gomorrah.

What proponents called a civil-rights issue was boiled down by opponents to a mundane task that blurred the divide between men and women: going to the bathroom. A law protecting people like him, a transgender man said, offers the “dignity to pee in peace.”

After a public hearing that lasted nearly four hours, the commission’s Public Safety & Animal Services Committee voted 3-1 to bring the legislation to the full board for final approval, probably next month.

Voting in favor were Commissioners Audrey Edmonson and Bruno Barreiro, the proposal’s main sponsors, and Sally Heyman. Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo voted against.

“We need to show some initiative up here,” said Edmonson, whose district extends from downtown through Miami Shores. “It is unfortunate that this has been characterized as a public-safety issue when it is really a fairness issue, an issue of equality, an acceptance issue.”

More here.

Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old chef to the homeless, may be headed back to court in battle with Fort Lauderdale

Looks like the case of Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old who ran afoul of Fort Lauderdale’s laws about feeding the homeless, is headed back to Broward court.

More than a decade ago the city tried to ban Abbott from holding picnics for the homeless at the beach, offering him an alternative site miles away from downtown. But Abbott prevailed when a judge ruled in 2000 that the city had violated his religious rights and that the city’s new location was too remote. Abbott resumed his feedings, and in October and November was arrested three times for feeding the homeless outdoors in violation of city ordinances that set certain rules for such feedings.

On Wednesday, Abbott’s lawyer who handled that previous case, John David, filed a motion in Broward Circuit Court asking a judge to enforce the injunction or show cause for why the city should not be held in contempt of court for violating the injunction.

David wrote that city officials have “once again substantially burden[ed], harassed, threatened and prevented plaintiffs from continuing their religiously motivated feedings by preventing them from feeding the homeless in the South Beach picnic area of Fort Lauderdale beach.”  

The arrests have attracted nationwide attention and scrutiny and the city was lampooned on Colbert. Activists protested in front of Mayor Jack Seiler’s home today.

Seiler has defended the city’s record on serving the homeless.

“Contrary to reports, the City of Fort Lauderdale is not banning groups from feeding the homeless,” Seiler wrote.

Seiler said that the city had established an outdoor food distribution ordinance that “regulates the activity in order to ensure it is carried out in an appropriate, organized, clean and healthy manner.”

But in reality the rules -- such as getting consent of the property owner, and having bathrooms and handwashing stations -- make it extremely difficult for a group to hold outdoor feedings. Abbott’s feedings take place at visible spots along the beach and in downtown close to the county’s main library and businesses. The city’s ordinance allows indoor feedings at houses of worship.

The city has offered Abbott two alternative sites: one at at the city’s aquatic complex and the other at Church by the Sea. Abbott rejected both sites today, according to the city.

Abbott was not taken into custody but was given notices to appear in court. He faces fines plus 60 days in jail if convicted of the violations. No court dates have been set.

Seiler, a lawyer, faces re-election in March and no opponents have filed so far. He has been mentioned as a potential future statewide candidate for the Democrats.

This blog was updated to include more information about the city offering alternative sites. 

Report finds Florida has fifth best business tax climate but TaxWatch says there's a need for reforms

A new national report ranks Florida's business tax climate as fifth best in the nation, but it doesn't reflect the whole picture of the state's tax system, according to Florida TaxWatch.

"In a couple areas, it overstates the quality of Florida's tax structure," Kurt Wenner, vice president of Tax Research for Florida TaxWatch, said. "There's always room for improvement."

Florida's ranking was published in the 2015 State Business Tax Climate Index, an annual report that analyzes how tax structures compare across states.

Florida's high ranking is largely due to its not having a personal income tax, the most heavily weighted tax in the Index, according to TaxWatch, a nonprofit tax research group supported by many of the state's largest businesses.

Continue reading "Report finds Florida has fifth best business tax climate but TaxWatch says there's a need for reforms " »

Bondi denies trips and lobbyists have influence over her

Ahhh, the first Cabinet meeting after winning re-election.

It should be a time to glory in getting confirmed for another four years, take a deep breath, and relax.

And it was all of that after Wednesday's uneventful Cabinet meeting for Gov. Rick Scott, who looked more relaxed than he has in months, and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam.

But it wasn't such an easy welcome back for Attorney General Pam Bondi, who faced questions stemming from a spate of stories from the New York Times, the Times/Herald and AP about a series of trips she’s taken where out-of-state lobbyists have access to her and her staff (we’re talking dinners, drinks and socializing).

But since the New York Times broke the story about how Dickstein Shapiro, a Washington D.C. lobbying firm, has lobbied Bondi at the same time a series of cases against their clients in Florida have fizzled, she’s pretty much maintained that the firm's access hasn't influenced her at all.

On Wednesday, surrounded by a clutch of reporters asking questions about her trips, Bondi stuck to that talking point.

Here’s the q and a.  

Question: The optics of $51,000 of free travel in gifts, some of which potentially funneled through the Republican Attorneys General Association by a Washington law firm, whether it’s legal or not, what about the optics?

Bondi: “No lobbyists, no person, no corporation, no individual, will ever compromise what we do in our office regarding unfair and deceptive trade practices, nor how we protect the consumers of the state of florida. We will continue to protect the consumers of the state of Florida and that’s not going to change. All questions other than that have been answered.”

Question: To the average person, $51,000 (the cost of her trips to conferences) is more than they make in a year.

Bondi: You can refer to the Republican Attorneys General Association for those answers and the amount of dollars. I’m proud of what we’ve done to protect consumers. No access to me nor my staff will ever affect what we do to protect consumers of the state of Florida.

Question: The attention that this has gotten, has it surprised you? Have you learned anything about this experience?

Bondi: I wish our responses were printed in your newspaper. That’s what I wish because no access to me or my staff will ever affect what we do -- and we’ve shown that -- to protect consumers of this great state. And we will continue to fight with everything we’ve got against fraud, unfair and deceptive trade practices and we will continue to do that for the next four years. We’re proud of our record and just wait and see what we have coming to protect our consumers.

Question: Were any lobbying laws broken by having these lawyers lobby (you and your staff) without being registered in Florida?

Bondi: You’re going to have to refer that to their attorneys.

Fact-checking José Díaz-Balart's claim about deportations

As part of his post-election analysis, Telemundo news anchor and MSNBC host José Díaz-Balart argued that the Hispanic vote remains up for grabs going forward because politicians of both parties seem uninterested in addressing Hispanics’ concerns.

"Every single day in this country, 1,000 people are deported and the vast majority of those people that are deported aren't criminals," Díaz-Balart said on NBC’s Meet the Press Nov. 9, 2014. "The people that are being deported many times are family, fathers and mothers and those people don't see anyone in Washington standing up and saying, let's deal with this problem."

We’ll stay out of the politics of the issue, but we were curious about Díaz-Balart’s claim that 1,000 people are deported every day and that the vast majority aren’t criminals. (His brother is U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.)

Turn to Jon Greenberg's fact-check from PunditFact for the answer.

Rep. Jim Boyd to serve as House majority whip


State Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, has been named deputy majority leader and whip, Florida House leaders announced Wednesday.

Incoming Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said Boyd had "earned the respect of Republican and Democrat members alike."

"He has proven himself as a great leader and someone who can effectively communicate the conservative principles and beliefs we both share," Crisafulli said. "He is someone I trust and someone that I rely on for counsel. I firmly believe there is no one better suited to serve as Whip and I look forward to working with him over the next two years."

Crisafulli has already selected Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, to lead the powerful budget committee.

Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, will be majority leader. Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, will be rules chair. And Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, will be speaker pro tempore.


Sellers leading choice to be Scott's new chief of staff

After successfully guiding Gov. Rick Scott's re-election victory, campaign manager Melissa Sellers is a leading candidate to be Scott's new chief of staff in a second term, running state government on a day-to-day basis.

Multiple Capitol sources say Sellers is at the top of a very short list of candidates to succeed Adam Hollingsworth, who will soon return to private life after two-and-a-half years in the high-pressure position.

"It's Melissa's if she wants it," one source said.

One question about Sellers concerns timing, and whether she might take a high-level post in the presidential campaign of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or her former boss, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Contacted Wednesday, Sellers declined to comment.

Sellers, 32, is a driven and disciplined Scott loyalist who joined his staff as communications director in 2012 and was appointed campaign manager last January. 

"It's going to shake out pretty quickly," another source said Wednesday, predicting Scott would reorganize his senior staff within weeks.  

On Election Night in Bonita Springs, Scott told cheering supporters how his late mother Esther shaped his life, before he turned his attention to his campaign team. "I have a tremendous staff," Scott told the crowd, and the next two words out of his mouth were: "Melissa Sellers."

Election altered balance of Florida’s school choice debate

The state representatives who lost their seats last week had more in common than their political party.

Three of the six Democrats were classroom teachers who supported the teachers union — and who opposed plans to expand the school voucher program.

Voucher advocates say they invested "substantial" resources to topple the three incumbents — former state Reps. Karen Castor Dentel of Maitland, Mark Danish of Tampa and Carl Zimmermann of Palm Harbor — as well as former state Rep. Joe Saunders of Orlando.

Their political committee, the Florida Federation for Children, spent $1.31 million on political races in Florida in 2013 and 2014, records show.

It is hard to tell whether the investment tipped the balance in the four House races, but one thing is certain: The incumbents' absence will be noticeable when the Legislature convenes.

"The Dems lost their entire education team," said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity.

What's more, observers say voucher expansion is likely to be on the fast track when lawmakers return to Tallahassee.

"They have the House, the Senate and the governor clearly supporting it," said veteran lobbyist Tom Cerra, who represents the Greater Florida Consortium of School Boards and the Miami-Dade school district.

Read more here.

Half of Florida 'barely getting by' poverty report shows


Almost half the residents of Florida, including much of the state’s glitzy southern half, are barely getting by, living below the federal poverty level or struggling to pay for food, housing, childcare and other basic needs, according to a United Way study released Tuesday.

Dubbed the ALICE report, the study looks closely at the working poor — those people squeezed between the nation’s poorest and its middle class, often overlooked and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Statewide, about 2.1 million households fall into the category, the report found. In Miami-Dade County, the rate is even higher: 21 percent of households live below the federal poverty level and an additional 29 percent can’t afford a “survival budget.”

In Broward and Monroe counties, the numbers are almost as bleak, with 47 and 48 percent living below the poverty level or scrambling to cover basic needs, according to the report. Story here.  

Key excerpts:

They attribute the swelling ranks of the poor to a variety of reasons.

More than half of the jobs in Florida pay less than $15 an hour, with the greatest growth in the job market projected for low-paying retail and service industry jobs. Almost half of households — 48 percent — don’t have enough savings or liquid assets to survive three months without a paycheck. And the state’s aging population means even more residents are likely to slip into poverty.

The state’s demographics don’t offer much hope: Only 27 percent of residents older than 25 hold a bachelor’s or advanced degree.

November 11, 2014

Tribune lays off veteran political reporter William March, without warning


Bad news for Florida politics: The Tampa Tribune yesterday afternoon suddenly and apparently without warning laid off its well-respected political writer William March, who had been with Tampa Bay's smaller newspaper since 1984. He began covering state politics in 1994 when a young GOP activist in Miami named Jeb Bush had the gumption to think he could win the GOP nomination for governor against much more experienced candidates.

I can personally attest to March being an annoyingly tough and well-sourced competitor with vast knowledge and curiosity about Florida's complex politics and a reputation for fairness. He's also a good guy.

We did the Florida This Week TV show together on WEDU Friday, and March had to sprint back to the office after the taping  to finish his weekender. It was nice of the powers that be at the Trib to let March, 65, finish up covering the election a week ago and then his wrap-up weekender before handing him his departure papers Monday. He said he had no warning.

"There were disagreements over our coverage of the governor's race. I don't know whether that had anything to do with it," he said. "I was told it was a straight lay-off."