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June 09, 2017

Funding for HB 7069 left alone after Senate backs off

Florida Legislature (22)


Florida senators wanting a second crack at stopping a contentious $419 million education reform bill that narrowly passed the Legislature last month were unsuccessful on Thursday in defunding it to redirect the dollars to general K-12 public school spending.

Broward County Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer led the charge to undo HB 7069, after Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons — earlier passionately defiant — backed off his plans to force lawmakers to revisit the legislation during a three-day special session, even though it’s not on the Legislature’s restricted agenda.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, of Land O’Lakes, and his Republican caucus have dismissed the Senate’s effort as a waste of time and said even if the Senate approved changes to the HB 7069 funding, they wouldn’t support them. The bill is a top priority of Corcoran’s.

But Senate Democrats cast Thursday as the day for the Senate to stand up for itself and “redo” the May 8 result when the legislation passed by one vote.

Full details here.

Photo credit: AP

Florida Senate set to roll back hospital cuts, but don't expect the House to go along

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Senators are poised to vote today to roll back $260 million in cuts to Medicaid that they passed during the regular session, bringing hospital funding yet again into a political stalemate between the House and Senate.

During regular session, lawmakers agreed to $521 million in cuts to hospital payments, with about $92 million coming from Tampa Bay.

The cuts were part of the budget deal that led to the end of regular session in May.

But Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, says the Senate wasn't happy with that level of cuts, even though the final number was less than what the House or Gov. Rick Scott wanted.

"If we're going to be up here trying to fix the budget, then let's fix the budget," said Flores, the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations chairwoman, on Thursday.

Senators have proposed spending another $100 million in state money to shore up the cuts for one year. With federal matching funds, that's a reduction of roughly $260 million from what is in the budget Scott signed last week.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, says it isn't going to happen, though.

For one thing, it's not formally on the agenda for special session, he told reporters Thursday. But for another, he views hospitals as profitable enterprises and has equated increased spending to a handout for hospital CEOs.

"We're very happy with where we are with the funding for hospitals that we did," Corcoran said. "I think they'll be fine."

With the clock ticking toward a scheduled Friday end of the special session and no resolution in sight on the two issues that originally brought lawmakers back to Tallahassee -- education spending and economic development -- Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has made demands if Corcoran and Scott want his suppport of a deal on those other issues. Among the demands: more hospital spending.

It makes Flores think Corcoran's opposition to restoring the cuts may change.

"There will be at some point an endgame, be it on Friday, or be it two Fridays from now," Flores said. "There will be an endgame beyond what just the speaker and the governor agreed to."

Photo: Sens. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, share a laugh on the Senate floor. (Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times)

June 08, 2017

Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell weighing bid for Carlos Curbelo's seat



U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo could soon get a Democratic challenger. 

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Republican state Sen. Anitere Flores in 2016, was in Washington on Thursday to meet with party leaders and members of Congress. 

Mucarsel-Powell confirmed in an interview with the Miami Herald that she is taking a hard look at Curbelo's seat in 2018. 

"I met with various members of Congress who are extremely concerned about the direction our country is in, they are encouraging me to take a serious look at it," Mucarsel-Powell said. "One of the reasons I'm considering it is that I'm fully committed to the people in the district. The horrible healthcare vote that Curbelo took a few weeks ago shows that they don't have a member in Congress. He doesn't represent the district." 

Mucarsel-Powell met with Florida Reps. Stephanie Murphy, Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel along with Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell and Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark. She also took meetings with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the group tasked with getting Democrats elected to the House nationwide, and EMILY's List, a group that aims to elect female politicians. 

"I’m leaving extremely impressed with the members I met," Mucarsel-Powell said. "It gives me hope we can stop Trump's agenda."

Curbelo, a second-term Republican, has yet to draw a Democratic opponent despite a district that has voted for Democrats at the presidential level. A host of Miami-area Democrats are weighing a bid for Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's seat after she announced her plans to retire.

"I know we're going to be okay in that district," Mucarsel-Powell said, adding that her main priorities are education and healthcare. 

Mucarsel-Powell wants to consult with her family and friends before making a definitive decision, she said and acknowledged that a run against Curbelo, who ranks among the GOP's top fundraisers, will be challenging. Mucarsel-Powell captured 45.8 percent of the vote against the well-funded Flores, a moderate Republican, in 2016.

"The Democratic Party and EMILY’s List have to make sure that someone’s viable, candidates have to raise a significant amount of money first," she said. 

Curbelo's district extends from Central Miami-Dade County down to Key West. 



Legislature's new economic development grant program labeled 'slush fund' and 'end of corporate welfare'

Scott at MIA with CorcoranDoes $85 million directed to a new economic grant program qualify as a slush fund for the governor?

The head of the agency that will manage the newly-developed grant fund, the Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Cissy Proctor, wouldn't embrace the loaded language but, in meetings before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday she didn't correct legislators who said the money gives the governor unfettered ability to steer money to hand-picked programs without transparency.

"Sometimes we take different paths to get to the goal,'' she said, when asked how the program morphed from incentives to grants. She rejected claims that the program offers no transparency.

Also taking different paths are the House and the Senate which are poised to pass different approaches to how far much oversight to impose on the governor, a rift that needs to be resolved before session ends on Friday. Each chamber gave their respective proposals preliminary approval on Thursday.

The legislation is a priority for Gov. Rick Scott, who called lawmakers into special session and, after conversations with the Senate president and House speaker, asked them to pass legislation to restore $75 million in Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, and create the $85 million grant fund managed by the Department of Economic Opportunity and controlled by the governor.

"This is obviously the main reason we are back here,'' said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the Senate Appropriations Committee chair in opening debate on the measures on Thursday.

Under the proposals, the state will no longer use taxpayer money to attract specific companies to Florida. Instead, the newly-created Florida Jobs Growth Grant Fund, a creation of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, gives the governor power to approve state and local infrastructure projects that diversify the economy or target specific areas, but money can't be steered to specific companies.

Although both the House and Senate establish a new framework for the grant fund, only the Senate imposes restrictions on the governor's latitude.

"We've heard a lot of about accountability about Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida from the House of Representatives in the last several months,'' Latvala said as the full Senate adopted the amendments. "The bill that they're passing creates this grant program with virtually not accountability in them. This structure is a good structure."

Corcoran dismisses the criticism and declared that the House bill, HB2A, makes sure that "corporate welfare is dead in the state of Florida. Picking winners and losers is dead in the state of Florida."

"We're giving a fund for the governor to do across the board infrastructure in the state of Florida,'' he said. The oversight exists because the governor is elected, he said. "But they're broad-based benefits to the entire state."

He compared the grants to  special projects sought by legislators that impose few hurdles, audits or applications.

"It was just a line-item in the budget that went to an entity with zero oversight,'' he said. "Now we we can do that but the governor can't do that with projects he thinks are beneficial?"

But Latvala was adamant that the Senate approach supports more transparency.

"The way the House bill is written, an individual citizen, a campaign contributor, could call up the governor's office and ask him for this project and there is no due diligence anywhere, and the governor could approve it. Yes or no?'' Latvala asked Proctor during a meeting of Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

Proctor didn't deny it but said "the process is set up to allow projects to come in from many different sources."

To underscore that oversight, the Senate on Thursday adopted a series of amendments to the economic development bill, by Latvala, Sen. Audrey Gibbons, D-Jacksonville Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, that expand the list of entities eligible to receive grant funding.

Among the changes, they require that the grants have a positive economic benefit, supported by the local community and abide by performance metrics established by the department.

Brandes' proposal also requires that any project valued at more than $2 million must get approval from the Legislative Budget Commission and sunsets the program on June 30, 2019.

Without the amendment, Brandes argued, "it's virtually a blank check with no accountability."

Gibbons' amendment would require Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency, to post on their websites on all proposals and applications for grants, including scoring criteria the amount of the award, project start and completion dates, and the final contract and agreement.

The Senate prohibits grants from going to retail businesses to reimburse them for trainee wages, it allows certain non-profits -- such as libraries,, correctional facilities, state colleges and technical centers -- to apply for the workforce training grants as long as all expenses are documented.

In the House, Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast defended the House's economic development bill, HB1A, against complaints from Democrats that the money allows the governor and his staff control over spending without legislative oversight. 

He said the program takes money out of the hands of unelected officials at Enterprise Florida and puts it "where the buck stops." 

"Only we in the Legislature appropriate money and the governor is involved in spending and in doing so we offer some level of discretion,'' he said.

Continue reading "Legislature's new economic development grant program labeled 'slush fund' and 'end of corporate welfare'" »

Miami Republican who bashed rival for Havana photos had ties to Cuba exporter


The Republican primary in a special Florida House race has quickly become a battle over the granddaddy of Miami political issues: Cuba, and which Cuban-American candidate is a more staunch opponent of the island's communist regime.

Jose Mallea, whose campaign last week attacked rival Daniel Anthony Perez for taking wedding engagement photos in Havana despite opposing U.S. policy that would make that sort of trip possible, has old ties of his own to a well-known local exporter to Cuba.

As the Miami New Times noted Thursday, the Miami Herald reported in 2010 that Mallea co-chaired a political fundraising committee with Ariel Pereda, a longtime adviser to companies looking to trade with Cuba.

Over its active life of about six years, the Future Leadership Committee raised some $243,000. It spent tens of thousands of dollars to campaign workers for then-state Rep. David Rivera, an anti-embargo Cuba hardliner who in 2010 was running for Congress.

The committee shared an address with two of Pereda's firms, PM Strategies and The Havana Group. As first reported by the New Times, Mallea conceded to lobbying for PM Strategies for three months in 2007, on behalf of Dell Computers.

"It had nothing to do with Cuba," Mallea told the Herald on Thursday. "What he chooses to do as a private citizen, while I disagree with him, shouldn't reflect on me just because I have a relationship with the guy."

Pereda has had longstanding ties with Miami-Dade County Republicans despite their ideological disagreements over Cuba; his lawyer in 2010 was Nelson Diaz, who now chairs the Miami-Dade GOP, and U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo sat on the board of PM Strategies, before Curbelo was elected to Congress and before Pereda dived into the Cuba business, Curbelo has said.

Mallea stressed to the New Times that, unlike his opponent, he hasn't traveled to Cuba: "As the son of a Cuban father whose family was torn apart, I would never honor the Castro dictatorship with my presence, much less with my dollars."

Sen. Bill Nelson says AG Sessions should testify before Senate Intelligence Committee (UPDATE: Rubio wants Sessions to testify)

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Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson nabbed the hottest ticket in Washington on Thursday—a front row seat to former FBI Director James Comey's hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

As other senators who weren't on the committee went about a normal work day in Washington, Nelson leaned back in his chair to hear the detailed steps that Comey took to document his conversations with President Donald Trump because he didn't feel the president was trustworthy. 

"Let me give you my strongest impression, the testimony was riveting and I was riveted when he (Comey) answered that he took copious and detailed notes because he felt that the president would lie," Nelson said. "That was stunning."

Nelson told reporters after the hearing that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should testify before the committee to explain his role in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

"He was part of it," Nelson said. "The special counsel certainly has lots of information to work with." 

Sessions, a former senator from Alabama and Trump ally, recused himself from the Russia investigation after a flurry of criticism over his previously undisclosed contact with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Nelson, leaned back in his chair as his fellow Floridian, Sen. Marco Rubio, asked Comey questions during Thursday morning's open hearing. Rubio repeatedly questioned Comey about why he chose not to disclose publicly that Trump was not a target in the Russia investigation. 

UPDATE 3:23pm: Rubio said Sessions should testify before the Intelligence Committee to reporters after the hearing. "The attorney general...will hopefully answer some questions on a number of topics." 

Rubio defends Trump, pushes Comey to say Trump wasn’t involved in Russia probe

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Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio defended President Donald Trump during a widely publicized hearing with former FBI Director James Comey on Thursday.

Rubio, who dined with the president earlier this week, pushed Comey over his decision to not publicly disclose that Trump was not a person of interest in the ongoing investigation into Russia’s influence in the 2016 election.

Rubio asked Comey about his conversations with Trump in which the president asked about the ongoing investigation.

“We keep talking about this cloud, you perceive the cloud to be the Russia investigation in general, but the specific ask [from Trump] was that you would tell the American people what you had already told him, what you had already told the leaders of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, that he was not personally under investigation,” Rubio asked.

“Yes sir,” Comey replied.

“Just to be clear, for you to make a public statement that he was not under investigation would not have been illegal but you felt it made no sense because it could potentially create a duty to correct if circumstances changed,” Rubio asked.

“I wrestled with it before my testimony where I confirmed that there was an investigation and that there was two primary concerns,” Comey said. “One was that it creates a duty to correct, which I’ve lived before and you want to be very careful about doing that, and second it’s a slippery slope because if we say the president and the vice president aren’t under investigation, what’s the principled basis for stopping?”

Rubio, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, questioned that decision from Comey, saying that the overall Russia investigation was full of leaks from the news media, and that Comey’s decision not to disclose that information implied to the American people that the president was potentially part of the investigation.

“This investigation is full of leaks left and right,” Rubio said. “We’ve learned more from the newspapers sometimes than we do from our open hearings for sure. You ever wonder why in this Russia investigation the only thing that’s never been leaked is the fact that the president was not personally under investigation?”

“I don’t know, I find matters that are briefed to the gang of eight are pretty tightly held in my experience,” Comey said.

The Gang of Eight are Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate and each chamber's intelligence committee.

Two days before the hearing, Rubio and fellow intelligence committee member Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., had dinner with President Trump and a small group of lawmakers at the White House, and Rubio has been working closely with the White House on rewriting the nation’s Cuba policy in recent weeks.

Comey’s hearing attracted widespread national attention, and early in his testimony the former FBI director said President Trump told lies about why he was fired in May.

Read more here. 

Senate caves on strategy in effort to reach compromise on K-12 spending

Florida Legislature (8)


Lawmakers on Thursday morning inched closer to agreeing on how to boost state funding to K-12 public schools starting on July 1, even as a few senators still have plans to revive a debate over a controversial education reform bill, which could wrinkle any compromise.

In amending legislation to add money to the K-12 budget in 2017-18, the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to forgo the chamber’s plan of using local property tax money to pay for the new spending — a plan House Speaker Richard Corcoran had rejected outright as a “massive tax increase.”

The Senate now agrees with the House’s method of paying for the extra $215 million using general revenue — money freed up from Gov. Rick Scott’s vetoes handed down last week. About $150 million of that would be one-time spending that lawmakers would have to make up for the next budget year in order to keep spending level, or else schools would lose funding in 2018-19.

The Senate also withdrew its intent to demand the Legislature respect the Constitution’s required 72-hour “cooling off” period for general budget bills, which would have kept lawmakers in Tallahassee for longer than the three-day special session that’s supposed to end Friday evening.

By approaching the extra school money as “supplemental” spending to the K-12 budget lawmakers passed in May — instead of starting from scratch with a whole new budget — the 72-hour period wouldn’t be necessary, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said in explaining his changes to the Senate’s K-12 spending bill (SB 2500A).

Full details here.

Photo credit: Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, speaks to the Senate about overriding Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of the public schools budget during a special session of the Florida Legislature Wednesday June 7, 2017 at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. AP

Was there a strategy behind the Senate vetoes of $75 million in higher education overrides?

Galvano special session Mark WallheiserIn swift fashion, the Florida Senate passed $75 million in veto overrides late Wednesday.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the head of the Senate higher education budget, said that the governor's vetoes seemed to be "an inordinate amount of vetoes" to universities and colleges that betray the Senate's goal of shoring up universities and colleges this session.

The move appears destined to be essentially ignored by the House at this point. So was there a rhyme or reason for which projects were chosen? Were they targeted projects, intended to put pressure on the House to persuade Speaker Richard Corcoran to reconsider his opposition to overriding vetoes?

The answer is "not really," according to Senate sources. The selection of projects was handled by Senate President Joe Negron's office and appear to be based on "whoever had juice."

"We're feeling left out in Jacksonville,'' said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, whose district was left off the override list. 

The biggest projects include: $15 million for Florida Gulf Coast University's integrated watershed and coastal studies, $15 million for Florida International University's School of International and Public Affairs, $8 million for the Florida State University Interdisciplinary Research & Commercialization Building and $7 million for the University of Florida's Music Building. Here's the list:  Download Veto Overrides Higher Education