June 25, 2018

Nelson says top Trump official barred him from seeing immigrant children in Homestead

Bill Nelson

@alextdaugherty

Bill Nelson was on his way to the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children last Tuesday, attempting to gain access to the second-largest shelter in the country for children who crossed the border illegally by themselves or with their parents, when he called a top Trump administration official to get access. 

As he drove from Miami International Airport to South Dade, the Florida Democrat said he tried to call Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar but was instead referred to Deputy Secretary Eric Hargen.

Nelson said the number two official at the federal agency responsible for the Homestead facility told him it would take two weeks to schedule a tour.

"We had a rather heated conversation," Nelson said. "He said the policy of the department is that you fill out the forms, which I had done on Monday, and you have to wait two weeks. To which I replied 'Mr. Secretary, you and I both know that's bullhockey.'"

Nelson said the Trump administration's decision to deny his tour request was based on partisan politics as he fights for reelection against Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a supporter of the president.

"It's pretty obvious that this was being directed from on high," Nelson said.

An HHS spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Two days after Nelson and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz tried to visit the Homestead facility, HHS officials sent an email to lawmakers allowing them to request a tour of Homestead and other facilities around the country at predetermined times due to a high demand for visits. Lawmakers were not allowed to photograph or record their visits, and they were not allowed to speak with the children.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and about 20 members of the press toured the facility on Friday while Nelson and Florida Democratic Reps. Frederica Wilson, Ted Deutch, Darren Soto and Wasserman Schultz toured the facility on Saturday. Scott has not toured the Homestead facility yet, though other state-level elected officials were told on Saturday they also had to wait two weeks to enter.

Nelson also said he was unable to meet with the woman in charge of reuniting the children at Homestead with their parents, because she wasn't working on Saturday. He plans to speak with Azar in Washington on Tuesday.

 

June 22, 2018

Potential high-speed rail line linking Tampa and Orlando announced

Rickscott
Gov. Rick Scott

State officials will consider private bids to build a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando, reviving a dormant project to link the two cities, Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday.

Brightline, the high-speed rail linking Miami and West Palm Beach with hopes of reaching Orlando, said it has put it in a bid to build track along I-4, leasing land owned by the state and the Central Florida Expressway Authority.

"As one of the nation’s fastest growing regions, Tampa Bay is a natural extension for Brightline," Patrick Goddard, president and COO of Brightline, said in a statement. "We are currently engaged in the RFP process, which is the first step needed to extend the system to the Tampa Bay region."

Taxpayer dollars would not be used, sidestepping the reason why Scott struck down a similar rail proposal seven years ago.

"This is an exciting opportunity for Orlando, Tampa and our entire state," Scott said in a statement. "Instead of placing taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, our goal is for the private sector to invest in this project."

Brightline's pitch prompts the Florida Department of Transportation to open up for other competitive bids. Interested parties would have 120 days to submit proposals.

Where the rail would go, how many stops it would have and the cost of a ride are details that are months or years away, but Tampa Bay officials praised the news as long overdue.

Such a connection opens up a whole host of opportunities, such as those in Orlando attending Rays games or Tampa Bay residents taking the train to an NBA game. Out-of-state tourists no longer have to choose between Tampa Bay’s beaches and Orlando’s amusement parks.

And residents who commute between the two cities for work or play would have an alternative to the unpredictable, often anger-inducing traffic jams that line the interstate between Tampa and Orlando.

“It’s a no brainer from a transportation perspective," Forward Pinellas Executive Director Whit Blanton said.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, a Democrat and the board's loudest voice for transportation, said she remains "greatly disturbed" that Scott canceled the high speed rail money in 2011, putting the region behind when it could have become "one of the leaders in the nation if not internationally with a high speed rail."

Nevertheless, she said she was "excited by the news" and hopes it will help the county's transportation quagmire.

"It has reached that point," she said. "We need to take a giant leap forward and hit the minimums for this that other communities have gone way beyond."

Weeks after he took office in 2011, Scott turned down $2.4 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail connecting to the two cities, stunning lawmakers throughout the state.

"The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits," Scott said in 2011.

Transit advocates, including the Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman have spent the past seven years wondering how things would have been different had Scott not rejected those federal dollars in 2011.

“It would have been done by now and functioning,” Buckhorn said Friday of the private rail opportunity. “But that was (Scott’s) prerogative and there was nothing I could do to change that decision.”

While both mayors were disappointed the region had to wait an additional seven years, they were excited for new transportation options that connect the two regions.

“I think this is exciting news and certainly applaud the private sector for recognizing the important impact mass transit can have not only on quality of life but economic development efforts,” Kriseman said.

But the announcement also prompted questions of election-year antics.

Scott is challenging Sen. Bill Nelson this year, and the Friday announcement prompted Philip Levine, Miami Beach Mayor and Democratic governor hopeful, to wonder on Twitter: "Another-election year ploy?"

"No, it's not," said Ed Turanchik, a Democrat and Hillsborough County commissioner in the 1990s, when another high-speed rail project was conceived. Gov. Jeb Bush later killed it in one of his first acts as governor. "It's very real. The third times a charm, maybe."

In his Friday announcement, Scott justified quashing the project years ago because it carried "an extremely high risk of overspending taxpayer dollars with no guarantee of economic growth."

But the bids back then would have required companies bidding on the project to cover any cost overruns and operating losses from low ridership.

Scott said that he didn't believe the companies, and that Florida taxpayers would have been on the hook for $1 billion. Politifact rated the latter claim "false" in 2011.

"Here's my experience in business," he said then. "If you enter into a project where it's not a good transaction for the other side it always comes back to be a problem for you. My concern with this is, you look at the ridership studies, and I don't think there's anyway anyone's going to get a return."

Kriseman and Blanton said one drawback of privately-financed rail is that ticket prices could be higher than normal.

But the impact of the potential high-speed rail corridor goes beyond just linking two cities, Buckhorn said.

The project has the ability to motivate local transit projects that politicians and advocates have been trying for years to get up and running in Tampa Bay, such as an expanded street car in downtown Tampa, bus rapid transit between downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches and a three-county bus rapid transit line that would connect St. Petersburg, Tampa, University of South Tampa and Wesley Chapel.

“I think (the I-4 rail line) will drive a greater sense of urgency in this discussion about local mobility options,” Buckhorn said. “I think it will be a great shot in the arm for the effort to try to get something on the ballot this fall,” he added, referring to a citizen lead initiative to add a one-cent sales tax for transportation referendum in Hillsborough.

Times/Herald staff writers Caitlin Johnston, Steve Contorno and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

June 20, 2018

Kids separated from their parents in Homestead are at the center of a political fight

Immigration Florida(3)

@alextdaugherty

Bill Nelson didn't show up for work on Tuesday, but he likely won't get dinged for it.

The Democratic senator fighting for reelection against Republican Gov. Rick Scott was 1,100 miles away from Washington, sweating in front of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children after being denied entry to the facility with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Dozens of news cameras surrounded him.

"This is not a good day for our country, where a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Congresswoman have been turned away from a federal facility because the Trump administration does not want us to check on the welfare and care of the children inside, children who have been taken from their moms and dads," Nelson said.

The moment has marked the most media exposure Nelson has secured during his Senate campaign so far. His face was plastered on front pages across the state and across evening newscasts, while his opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, saw his latest trip to Puerto Rico relegated to second-fiddle status.

The Trump administration's decision to separate immigrant children from their families after they attempt to cross the border illegally has turned into a political firestorm in Miami-Dade, where the presence of three facilities that house unaccompanied minors and children that were separated from their parents is the physical embodiment of a White House policy that is widely condemned throughout the country.

And it has given Democrats a chance to go on offense to blame the Republican Party for standing by as the Trump administration loses of nearly 6,000 children.

It puts Republicans, including members fighting for reelection, in a tough spot. Miami Rep. Rep. Carlos Curbelo has blamed the Trump administration for the situation in Homestead, which lies within his Miami-to-Key West congressional district, as he works with the Trump administration to stitch together support for an all-GOP compromise immigration bill in Washington.

"I do think that anytime a Member of Congress shows up at one of these facilities, they should be granted access," Curbelo said Wednesday morning. "It's the Congress that funds all of these government departments, and the administration should welcome members into these facilities to make sure they know exactly what is going on there so we can explain it to our constituents."

But even as Curbelo said that he would fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions for implementing the policy and asked him to stop it immediately, Democrats excoriated him.

Read more here

 

June 18, 2018

Miami Republicans condemn Trump policy of separating families at the border

IMG_Economic_Impact_of_I_2_1_8BAO5GJG_L296697696 (4)

@alextdaugherty

Republicans from Miami-Dade on Monday condenmed the Trump administration's decision to separate families crossing the southern border, with adults being sent to detention centers while their children are housed in cages and cry for their parents.

"It is totally unacceptable, for any reason, to purposely separate minor children from their parents," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who, along with Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo is leading negotiations on a compromise all-Republican immigration bill in Congress. "Any and every other option should be implemented in order to not separate minors from their parents, which I believe is unconscionable. We cannot allow for this to continue happening, and it must stop. I continue to work with my colleagues to ensure that the provision included in this week's immigration bill puts an end to this cruel practice.”

Curbelo called the separation policy "a tragedy" on Twitter over the weekend, and referenced former President Barack Obama's policy of detaining families and unaccompanied minors.

"While some tolerated it when it happened under the previous administration, I found it unacceptable then & I find it unacceptable now," Curbelo tweeted. "We’re crafting legislation to remedy this sad situation."

The White House announced the policy in April as a way to deter immigrants from entering the country illegally, and administration officials have defended it in the face of widespread criticisms from across the political spectrum.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio advocated for changing laws to allow families to stay together while being held in detention instead of separating them. Current law does not require separating families who cross the border illegally, and the compromise immigration bill includes a provision that would end the practice.

"Currently govt must either release parents & continue incentive for illegal entry with children or separate families by detaining parents," Rubio tweeted. "Neither is good. Lets change the law to allow families to be held together at family facilities & shorten detention with expedited hearings." 

Read more here.

June 15, 2018

Nelson offered this man up for a judicial position. Now he’ll vote against him.

Bill Nelson

via @learyreports

Sen. Bill Nelson said today he will vote against a judicial nominee he offered up to the White House along with Sen. Marco Rubio, a remarkable turn that raises questions about Nelson's own vetting process as he tried to put the focus on the state's Judicial Nominating Commission

"Because of the information brought up by the Senate Judiciary Committee, I will vote against the confirmation of Allen Winsor," the Florida Democrat said in a statement that provided no specifics.

His office would not elaborate on the record.

Nelson and his staff interviewed Winsor, who has opposed same-sex marriage, before his name was submitted to the White House, along with a list of other candidates. A spokesman, Ryan Brown, would not answer questions about that vetting.

Nelson's statement punts to the JNC.

"For years, Florida's two senators have relied on a bipartisan Judicial Nominating Commission to select our state's judicial nominees. This system, which was designed to take politics out of the process, only works if Florida's two senators agree to respect the commission's choices and jointly send the names they choose to the White House for consideration. This is exactly what we did in the case of Allen Winsor."

Winsor, picked to succeed U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle for a spot in the Northern District of Florida, was approved along partisan lines by the Judiciary Committee on Thursday and was sent to the full Senate for consideration. Democrats objected over his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Winsor was among the named Nelson and Rubio offered to the White House in December.

"We received the following unranked list of finalists on November 15, 2017: Martin Fitzpatrick, Jan Shackelford, Kent Wetherell, and Allen Winsor. We have separately interviewed the finalists. Subject to further review of their records and background, we are submitting them to you for the president's consideration," a letter read.

That means the White House picked Winsor.

As Gary Fineout of the Associated Press reported, Winsor is currently a Florida appeals court judge, but before he was appointed to that job by Gov. Rick Scott in 2016, he worked as solicitor general for Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Winsor was in that role when he defended Florida's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages that was eventually struck down. He was one of the lawyers who argued in a legal brief for the state that recognizing same-sex marriages from other states would "impose significant public harm" and that the state has a legitimate interest in defining marriage as between a man and woman.

Scott, who is challenging Nelson for Senate, issued a statement through the campaign.

"Bill Nelson is so partisan that a small group of out-of-state democrats can force him to vote against a Floridian that he interviewed, recommended and supported," spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said. "Despite claiming to be independent, Bill Nelson's own actions show that when democrats like party boss Chuck Schumer say 'jump,' Nelson's only question is 'how high?'"

Rubio in 2013 held up a judicial nominee — after submitting a JNC approved name to the Obama White House –amid objections from Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, now chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

June 14, 2018

Nelson up with first Spanish-language ad

Bill Nelson

via @learyreports

Sen. Bill Nelson has released his first Spanish-language ad, which will begin today on Facebook and Twitter and other digital platforms, the campaign said.

It follows Gov. Rick Scott's latest Spanish-language ad, one tied to the World Cup. And like Scott, Nelson shows off his bilingual skills in the spot. It highlights Nelson's voyage into space.

The campaign did not say how much money is behind the ad.

Politico today reported on Nelson's struggle with name ID among Hispanics, another worry for Democrats.

Watch Nelson's ad below: 

Here's Scott's ad:

What is Scott and Cabinet's approach to questions at Department of Revenue? Not my problem

Florida Cabinet KeelerThe state agency charged with collecting taxes purged the top employees at the Division of Property Tax Oversight, left positions vacant for months, filled the positions with people close to the governor and refused to provide a reason.

Should the public have confidence in the tax agency?

The agency staff wants employees to avoid building a records trail and encouraged behavior that requires them to conduct business primarily face to face or by phone.

How is that transparent and accountable?

DOR requires each employee to sign a gag order prohibiting them from providing any information to the media.

Is that a violation of the employees' First Amendment rights?

DOR removes the visitor parking spaces at agency headquarters and replaces them with tow-away zones, reserved parking for executive staff.

How is that in the public interest?

Gov. Rick Scott and the three members of the Florida Cabinet, who oversee the Department of Revenue, had an answer to those questions Wednesday: not my problem.

"DOR is overseen by the governor and other members of the Florida Cabinet. The governor, like them, expects the department to follow all laws and act in an ethical and transparent manner,'' said McKinley Lewis, Scott spokesman, in an email response to a series of questions Wednesday.

The governor and Cabinet, all Republicans, asked no questions of DOR Executive Director Leon Biegalski Wednesday as he appeared before them and asked for approval of his agency performance review and three routine rules changes. It is the same treatment they have given Biegalski since he was appointed in April 2016, the hand-picked choice of the governor.

This key agency answers to the governor and Cabinet, but they don't ask many questions

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, hand-picked by Scott to replace former CFO Jeff Atwater, has never publicly contradicted Scott. Attorney General Pam Bondi has also not demonstrated an inclination to be independent of the governor. And Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who has often sparred with the governor for the last seven years, mostly behind the scenes, has also now avoided any public conflict. He hopes to be on the November ballot with the governor who is running for U.S. Senate.

Since Beigalski last appeared before the Cabinet in March, he has ousted top employees and kept positions vacant for months to make room for Scott's staff. After the Herald/Times reported the shake up, one of the appointments from the governor's office, Thomas Adams, took a $5,000 pay cut and left to work for Patronis.

After the Wednesday Cabinet meeting, the Herald/Times asked Scott to explain why he had confidence in the agency.

"We do reviews of Leon. I can get you a copy of that record,'' he replied, before cutting off questions.

The Herald/Times then posed the following questions to the communications offices for Scott, Putnam, Bondi and  Patronis to get them to elaborate on their reasoning.

Bondi and Patronis did not respond. Lewis provided the above response and Putnam spokesperson Jennifer Meale said: " The executive director is charged with managing the department, and the governor and Cabinet will hold him accountable for its performance."

Here are the questions for which we did not get answers:

* How has the governor been assured that actions are being taken to ensure that there is proper training given to the remaining staff in the PTO section that reviews property appraiser and property tax budgets -- since they do not have anyone with slightly more than a year of experience?

* Please explain how it is not a violation of a state employee's First Amendment rights for DOR to prohibit them from being allowed to have a conversation on background to inform a journalist? 

* Please explain how it is acceptable that DOR is allowed to avoid the creation of public records trails? 

* What will you do if the agency has a misguided employee who is engaged in illegal or unethical conduct at work and, because the agency discourages creating a paper trail of controversial issues, the practice makes it difficult to apprehend and find evidence against them? 

* What deterrence is there to inappropriate behavior if an agency requires employees NOT to rely on emails, has prohibited them from keeping substantive meetings off the calendar, and encouraged behavior that requires them to conduct business primarily face to face or by phone?

* Please explain why it is acceptable that DOR removes the visitor parking spaces at agency headquarters and replaces them with tow-away zones reserved parking for executive staff?

June 12, 2018

Remember when Cabinet meetings used to focus on agency oversight?

Florida Cabinet KeelerThe state agency in charge of regulating taxation in Florida has four equal bosses — Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected members of the Cabinet — but in the past two years, in public meetings and correspondence, they have asked few questions and have given the agency scant public scrutiny.

The agency's director, Leon Biegalski, was the governor's choice to lead the Department of Revenue when he was elevated from deputy secretary at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation in April 2016. Since then, the governor has canceled DOR's regular appearance in 9 of 19 before the Cabinet meetings.

When Biegalski appears before the Cabinet on Wednesday, it will be the first time this year. Will they ask any questions?

Judging from the transcripts of the previous meetings, that's not likely. Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam asked only two questions in Biegalski's 10 appearance before them — and both came from Putnam. Story here. 

Until Scott's tenure, the Florida Cabinet had a tradition of meeting every other week. 

Florida, unlike most other states, has a unique power-sharing relationship between its governor and the Cabinet members. They share oversight and hiring authority of the directors of the departments of revenue, law enforcement, highway safety, the division of bond finance and the state board of administration.But the shared role also underscores the structural weakness of Florida's governor in controlling the shared agencies and Scott has ratcheted down the amount of substantial dialogue that takes place during Cabinet meetings.

In the last seven years, Cabinet sessions have been more ceremonial and less substantive. More time is devoted to award ceremonies than under previous governors, and a regular feature is Bondi’s promotion of offering dogs for adoption.

Scott, who is running for U.S. Senate, sets the calendar and has convened only three Cabinet meetings this year. He scheduled eight meetings for the entire year, the fewest in recent memory, and canceled the meeting in May.

When the Cabinet had both Democrats and Republicans on it, there were more questions of agency heads in the public forum than there have been under Scott.

At a Nov. 20, 2008, Cabinet meeting, as former Revenue Director Lisa Echeverri Vickers presented her legislative budget request and annual performance report, former CFO Alex Sink grilled her about enforcement of tax revenue collection. Vickers acknowledged that she is asking for more auditors to help them collect the unpaid taxes.

Sink, a former banker and a Democrat, then asked about tax collections on short sales, a policy based on the rule because the Legislature failed to pass a statute, and the agency's application of "a glitch in the depreciation laws" that had left many businesses vulnerable.

The discussion provided an opportunity for the public to hear the agency's response to handling two important issues in an open forum.

Under Gov. Jeb Bush, former Revenue Director admitted during his annual performance review on Sept. 21, 2004, that the measures related to review of property appraisers "were fairly easy to achieve."

"You're an honest man, Zingale,'' Bush replied.

"Well, we want to do better than that,'' Zingale responded.

June 11, 2018

Democratic super PAC reserves air time for Bill Nelson

Bill Nelson

via @learyreports

Sen. Bill Nelson will get a "seven figure" advertising boost from Senate Majority PAC, which today announced it has reserved $80 million in air time in Florida and eight other states.

"Our record fundraising this cycle has allowed us to both be on-air in several states now and increase our strategic investments," said J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC. "We are implementing an aggressive media strategy to combat the Republicans' baseless, partisan attacks and promote our candidates that are fighting for higher wages and lower health care premiums."

The TV time is reserved from after Labor Day through Election Day in November. This reservations will total roughly $80 million and cover Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia.

The group did not provide specifics other than each state will get at least seven figures.The super PAC in May spent $2.2 million for a bio ad about Nelson and that was followed by a $600,000 digital campaign in partnership with Priorities USA Action.

But Nelson continues to be far outpaced in advertising by Gov. Rick Scott's campaign and the pro-Scott New Republican PAC, which Monday announced another $3.5 million in spending, in the form of a negative ad about the long-serving Democrat.

June 08, 2018

Rick Scott appears to support Curbelo's immigration plan, but how would he vote?

Gov Rick Scott

@alextdaugherty

Gov. Rick Scott appears to be on board with Rep. Carlos Curbelo's plan to bypass House Speaker Paul Ryan to force a slew of immigration votes, putting the Republican running for Bill Nelson's U.S. Senate seat in line with Democrats and a small group of moderate Republicans.

But while Scott offered support for Curbelo's idea to force action, it isn't clear what types of immigration policies he would champion in the U.S. Senate if elected.

"We need to secure our borders and help these kids. Congress needs to get DACA legislation done. Thanks Congressman Curbelo for fighting for this," Scott tweeted on Thursday night.

Scott's campaign confirmed that he supports the Miami Republican's effort to force votes in Congress but did not offer an endorsement for specific immigration-related bills.

Scott has said in the past that he doesn't support deporting 1.8 million immigrants who came to the United States illegally as young children, a position that most Republicans and President Donald Trump share.

Scott has also demanded that Congress pass legislation that protects the young immigrants from deportation while securing the border, a wide-ranging policy position that could include a bill promoted by Donald Trump that failed to garner 40 votes in the U.S. Senate earlier this year and a bipartisan proposal called the USA Act that provides a pathway to citizenship for the young immigrants while also providing funding for a "smart wall" at the U.S.-Mexico border.

It's not clear where Scott stands on four immigration-related bills that failed in the U.S. Senate earlier this year. Two bipartisan compromises received a simple majority but failed to clear the required 60-vote hurdle after a majority of Republicans voted against them, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The bill promoted by the White House, which provided a path to citizenship in exchange for border security funding and cuts to legal immigration, received 39 votes in the Senate.

Nelson voted in favor of the two bipartisan compromise bills and voted against the Trump-sponsored bill.

Read more here.