December 04, 2014

Court ruling means gay couples could wed as early as Jan. 5 in Florida

@SteveRothaus

Same-sex couples in Florida could begin marrying shortly after the new year, after a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that a stay in the state’s gay-marriage ban case will be lifted at the end of the day Jan.5.

In a two-page ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta turned down a request by Florida’s secretaries of health and management services and the clerk of the court in the Panhandle’s Washington County to extend the stay. A federal judge based in Tallahassee ruled in August that the state’s gay-marriage ban is unconstitutional, but stayed his decision until Jan.5 to give the state time to appeal.

“This is a clear victory for us because it finds the harm is being done to the people, not the state,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, which is representing same-sex couples from throughout Florida and gay-rights group SAVE, who sued to have out-of-state same-sex marriages recognized in the Sunshine State.

“It means that relief is finally in sight for the same-sex married couples suffering under Florida’s refusal to recognize their legal unions,” SAVE Executive Director Tony Lima said in a statement. More here. 

 

December 03, 2014

FPL parent, NextEra, buys Hawaiian Electric for $4.3 billion

Florida Power & Light's parent company, NextEra Energy, announced Wednesday it has reached a $4.3 billion deal to buy Hawaii's largest utility, Hawaiian Electric Industries.

The transaction includes the assumption of $1.7 billion in HEI debt and excludes HEI's banking subsidiary. 

"NextEra Energy and Hawaiian Electric share a common vision, a more affordable clean energy future for Hawaii," said Connie Lau, Hawaiian Electric's president and chief executive. "While our goals are among the most ambitious in the nation, including increasing renewables to 65 percent, tripling solar and lowering customer bills 20 percent by 2030, we are confident that by leveraging both NextEra Energy and Hawaiian Electric's expertise and the additional financial resources that NextEra Energy brings, we can meet these targets even sooner."

The merger raises lots of questions about what this means for the Juno Beach-based company. Hawaiian law requires utilities to meet get 70 percent of their supply from clean energy by 2030 and, in Florida, NextEra's largest subsidiary, FPL, has aggressively fought off attempts to establish a similar clean energy goal here.

NextEra has also effectively blocked the emergence of competitive distributive energy generation in Florida with a dominant, take-no-prisoners approach to regulation and politics, while Hawaii has merged as one of the nation's top one of the markets where competitive distributive generation is becoming a reality.

Forbes contributor William Pentland points out that "Hawaii has become a flash point in the battle over the future architecture of the electric grid. The relentless rise of power prices in the state has accelerated customers’ adoption of distributed generation."

That's in stark contrast to Florida where FPL and its parent, NextEra, has kept wholesale competitors out by controlling access to the transmission grid except for incumbent utilities.

"NextEra’s expansion into Hawaii is likely a mixed blessing for the distributed generation business,'' Pentland wrote.

NextEra's press release didn't offer too many answers.

“NextEra Energy shares Hawaiian Electric’s vision of increasing renewable energy, modernizing its grid, reducing Hawaii’s dependence on imported oil, integrating more rooftop solar energy and, importantly, lowering customer bills,” it said.

The transaction is subject to approval by regulators and Hawaiian Electric shareholders. 

Here's the investor presentation.

Here's the joint press release:

Continue reading "FPL parent, NextEra, buys Hawaiian Electric for $4.3 billion" »

Medicaid expansion by any other name may fly for Florida lawmakers

A coalition of business interests and private citizens, including some prominent Republicans, unveiled a plan on Wednesday to accept federal dollars to extend publicly funded healthcare coverage to nearly a million Floridians — without calling it “Medicaid expansion,” as envisioned under the Affordable Care Act.

The plan, called A Healthy Florida Works, offers an alternative to the ACA model while proposing a politically viable path for Florida’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives, an obstinate opponent of the health law, to extend coverage to more residents.

Proponents have presented the plan as a "free market" solution that promotes "personal accountability" among beneficiaries by requiring them to pay monthly premiums and to search for employment or enroll in job training programs.

"Trying Medicaid expansion as envisioned in the Affordable Care Act hasn’t worked in Tallahassee," said Linda Quick, a coalition member and president of the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association. "So this proposal is a Florida solution."

It was unclear Wednesday how the proposal would be received by Republicans in the state legislature.

State Rep. Richard Corcoran, who in 2013 proposed an alternative to Medicaid expansion that did not use federal dollars, said he would be willing to consider the coalition’s plan.

"It sounds like they are headed in the right direction," said Corcoran, a Land O' Lakes Republican who was recently tapped to lead the House Budget Committee.

The proposal also had the support of powerful Senate Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs — a close ally of Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. The upper chamber has been supportive of expanding Medicaid.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott has also said he supports expanding healthcare coverage to poor Floridians.

Read more here.

Why Eric Garner's death in New York strengthens the case for cop cameras, even in Miami

@MarcACaputo

If a police officer can avoid charges in the choke-hold death of an unarmed man while on video, how will putting cameras on cops stop law-enforcement from abusing citizens?

It's a reasonable question to ask in light of a New York grand jury's refusal Wednesday to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the homicide of Eric Garner, whose "crime" was apparently selling unlicensed cigarettes. 

Just two days before, President Obama issued a call for $75 million in federal money to help underwrite the costs of body cameras for as many as 50,000 officers. Here in Miami-Dade County, the money would come in handy as the county commission prepares to spend at least $1 million this budget year for law-enforcement body cameras.

In the wake of the Garner grand jury, however, "the timing couldn't really be worse for the White House," the Washington Post wrote today in reaction to the New York grand jury. It's tough to disagree with that idea entirely. 

But it misses a crucial point: The fact that nearly everyone on the left and right on social media are united in their criticisms of what happened to Garner. For a brief moment, conservatives at Red State and the Federalist and liberals at Vox and Salon were equally appalled. That seldom happens.

This didn't happen with the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri.

This didn't happen with the Trayvon Martin case in Sanford, Florida.

The big difference: video. There was evidence. We could all see for ourselves. 

The court of public opinion is speaking. Right, left and center agree. It's a matter of time before courts of law and other politicians catch up.

Some politicians are ahead of the curve, starting with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

More than a year before Brown was shot in Missouri, Gimenez pushed for cop cameras and a study of them. A pilot program was wrapped up in February. For this budget year, he requested $1 million for a program to equip 500 county police officers with cameras. Miami-Dade hasn't had a case like Brown's or Trayvon's recently (although Trayvon was from the county), but the 2011 caught-on-video Miami Beach police shooting of Raymond Herisse has raised questions about use of force.

The Police Benevolent Association doesn't like Gimenez's plan, and the union's allies on on the county commission have tried to delay the action. 

Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz on Tuesday spoke against the cameras, saying too many unanswered questions remain about how video footage would be collected, retrieved and released to the public.

"How do we know to protect citizens' rights when they come into a domestic situation in someone's house and they have a camera on?" he said.

Gimenez said he has already asked the police department to work on camera procedures. Some action by the Florida Legislature might be required settle the question of which footage would be public record, he added.

"I know that there are questions, and the devil's always in the details," he said. "Eventually, every officer on the street needs to have this."

So do the citizens.

--- Patricia Mazzei contributed

Gloria Estefan rips Friends of Miami Marine Stadium

@NewsbySmiley

Weeks after eagerly serving as the celebrity face of a proposed $121 million restoration and redevelopment plan of the Miami Marine Stadium site, Gloria Estefan has blasted the group behind the project.

The plan by the Friends of Miami Marine Stadium went down in flames before the Miami City Commission on Nov. 20, just days after Estefan appeared with leaders of the group at the stadium to announce their proposal. Estefan now says she was never told about the true scope of the project, including $90 million in commercial development, including a marine expo center and dry boat storage facilities that proved controversial.

She also criticized the not-for-profit's co-founders, Hilario Candela and Jorge Hernandez, for attempting to profit from the project through their architecture firm.

"As the public face and spokesperson for the restoration of the Miami Marine Stadium, I feel that my credibility and reputation have been put into question merely by my presumed association with the plan presented by [Friends of Miami Marine Stadium]," she wrote.

Commissioners agreed to continue to pursue a stadium restoration and improvements that would guarantee the Miami International Boat Show will move to the Virginia Key area in 2016. The Friends group was potentially to be involved in the restoration efforts, but Estefan's letter shows that the organization, which had been the leader of the restoration of the historic stadium, might be toxic.

Florida Senate's new power lineup has a familiar look

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, announced the complete lineup of new Senate committee chairs and members Wednesday, and it has a very familiar look.

Like his predecessor, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, Gardiner gave chairmanships to three Democrats: Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, at Agriculture; Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, at Governmental Oversight and Accountability; and Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, at Children, Families, and Elder Affairs. The three Democrats chaired those committees for the past two years.

Gardiner handed three of the most coveted appropriations subcommittee chairmanships to Gaetz, a former school superintendent, at Education, and to the two senators locked in a competition to succeed Gardiner as president in 2016. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, will chair the budget subcommittee on transportation and economic development and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, chairs the subcommittee for criminal and civil justice appropriations.

Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, will chair the budget panel for health and human services and Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, stays put as chairman of the budget subcommittee for general government.

Several others are also staying put: Sens. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg (transportation); Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach (Health Policy); Thad Altman, R-Melbourne (Military & Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security); Wilton Simpson (Community Affairs); Greg Evers (Criminal Justice); Charlie Dean (Environmental Preservation and Conservation); Nancy Detert (Commerce and Tourism). Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, remains chair of Finance & Tax, which is now a full-fledged committee again.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, is the new chair of the Banking & Insurance Committee, perennially a focal point of business lobbying, as is the Communications, Utilities and Public Utilities committee, now chaired by Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring. Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, chairs Education Pre-K-12, and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, chairs Higher Education.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, is the new chairman of the Regulated Industries Committee, overseeing gambling, alcohol, tobacco and other assorted vices. Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, now chairs the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, heads the Ethics & Elections Committee, which figures to be a quieter place for the next two years.

 

Court deals blow to Gov. Scott's drug testing of welfare applicants

A federal appeals court on Wednesday dealt another blow to Gov. Rick Scott’s crusade to conduct drug tests on welfare applicants and upheld a lower court ruling that the practice was unconstitutional.

The unanimous ruling from a bipartisan panel of judges concluded that the state failed to show any evidence as to why it was necessary to force applicants seeking Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to surrender their constitutional rights as a condition of receiving the aid and instead suggested that the policy played on stereotypes.

"We have no reason to think impoverished individuals are necessarily and inherently prone to drug use, or, for that matter, are more prone to drug use than the general population,’’ the court said in its 54-page ruling.

Proponents hailed the decision, which came just two weeks after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges heard arguments in the case, and predicted it would have broader impact in protecting the rights of people receiving a wider range of government benefits – from Bright Futures scholarships to licenses.

"This should be the end of the road for the governor’s crusade,’’ said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, which sued the state. "The opinion says that people cannot be forced to surrender constitutional rights as a condition of any government benefit – driver licenses, library cards, student loans and farm subsidies."

Continue reading "Court deals blow to Gov. Scott's drug testing of welfare applicants" »

Fact-checking Jeb Bush's claim about tattoos and military

Failing test scores aren't the only problem that has caused the military to reject applicants, says former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Another problem is, well, more colorful: tattoos.

While talking about his push to improve public education at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council event Dec. 1, Bush pointed to problems the military has finding qualified applicants.

Bush mentioned a video in which a military official talked about the challenge:

"In the video beforehand, Gen. Dempsey talked about a 25 percent pass rate. Now that’s not just because of the test, that’s also because of obesity, and too many tattoos, to be honest with you, on visible body parts for people that are trying to get into the military. But the pass rate for a high-school-level test to join the military is about 35 percent, I think, or 40 percent at best. These are abysmal numbers."

PolitiFact has previously fact-checked claims about whether obesity andphysical fitness have kept applicants out of the military (both true). But we hadn’t explored the role of tattoos in filling the military ranks. We couldn’t resist taking a look. See what PolitiFact found.

White House, Florida politicians mark anniversary of Alan Gross' Cuban confinement with calls for release

@CAdamsMcClatchy

On the fifth anniversary of U.S. contractor Alan Gross being held captive in Cuba, Florida politicians and the White House called for his release.

Gross was a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development when he was arrested by Cuban authorities on Dec. 3, 2009; they said he had smuggled satellite communications equipment to Cuba as part of pro-democracy programs.

The White House, in its statement, talked about Gross’ “efforts to help ordinary Cuban citizens have greater access to information through the Internet” and said the administration “remains focused on securing Alan’s freedom from a Cuban prison, and returning him safely to his wife and children, where he belongs.”

The White House continued: “We remain deeply concerned for Alan’s health, and reiterate our call for his release. The Cuban government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba.”

Among South Florida politicians, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Miami, noted that Gross has been “unjustifiably held in a Cuban prison for the so-called ‘crime’ of helping Cuba's Jewish community connect to the internet.”

He continued: “During Mr. Gross’ unjust imprisonment, his family has been forced to confront many significant moments without their husband, father, and son by their side, like his daughter’s marriage or her battle with breast cancer. The regime also deprived him of attending his mother's funeral when she passed away earlier this year… Alan Gross' unjustifiable imprisonment is a tragic reminder of the moral depravity of the Castro regime, which has no qualms about attempting to use an innocent American with ailing health as a pawn.”

And U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, also a Republican from Miami, said, “Alan Gross should never have been imprisoned by the Castro regime. All free people and free nations around the world have a moral duty to advocate for Alan Gross’ immediate, unconditional freedom, and make clear that the freedom to access and communicate via an uncensored Internet is a fundamental human right.”

Rubio called on the Obama administration to step up its efforts to free Gross.

December 02, 2014

The 'Jeb Bush Doctrine'

@MarcACaputo

The Bush Doctrine is on the verge of making a comeback.

As Jeb Bush weighs a presidential bid, the former Florida governor on Tuesday laid out his foreign policy precepts, which closely mirror that of his brother, former President George W. Bush.

Bush detailed seven points in all during a speech to the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, where he told the crowd that the United States shouldn't back away from engaging its friends or enemies anywhere in the world.

For Bush, that starts 90 miles from U.S. shores, with the Cuban embargo and travel policy.

“I would argue that, instead of lifting the embargo, we should consider strengthening it,” Bush said, calling for free elections, free trade and the release of political prisoners on the communist island.

The crowd of donors, the backbone of Cuba’s exiled elite, applauded loudly.

Bush called for more military and cyber-security spending, strengthening international alliances, robustly criticizing enemies and expanding free trade. He sounded notes of concerns with nearly every quarter of the world: Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel.

Bush’s speech doubled as a campaign trial balloon and as payback against President Obama, who successfully campaigned in 2008 against George W. Bush’s foreign policy. Obama promised to withdraw from Iraq and generally called for a less muscular overseas engagement.

Jeb Bush inverted those criticisms of Obama, pointing to the chaos in Syria and the rise of the terrorist group ISIS there and in Iraq.

“In this unstable and uncertain world, the United States has actually played a part in creating greater instability and greater unraveling,” Bush said, adding that the United States, “because we’ve retrenched,” now has “worse relations than what we had before.”

More here