Note: This blog's templates will be updated this afternoon to a responsive design bringing it in line with MiamiHerald.com.

At that time, we will also change to the Facebook commenting system. You will need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment.

March 08, 2018

Democratic super PAC reserves $1.1 million in Miami TV time

Curbelo

@alextdaugherty

A super PAC that seeks to elect Democrats to the House of Representatives is reserving $1.1 million in Miami TV time ahead of the 2018 elections, the first of what could be millions in outside TV spending in two competitive Miami congressional races. 

House Majority PAC announced Thursday it has reserved just over $43 million for television ads in the final weeks of the 2018 election cycle nationwide. The outlay includes $1,119,500 in Miami and $420,000 in West Palm Beach.

“The Republicans are panicking about losing their majority in the House, because they know that across the country Democrats have top-notch candidates running, and there’s a surge in grassroots participation,” House Majority PAC Executive Director Charlie Kelly said in a statement. “2018 will bring a barrage of frantic negative attack ads from GOP outside groups, but HMP is ensuring we’re prepared early-on to fight back. Momentum is on our side, and with smart, strategic investments, we will help Democrats win across the country.” 

The largest chunk of the $43 million is $5.2 million for the Los Angeles media market, while the group is spending more than $2 million in the Dallas, Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Minneapolis media markets. 

The most competitive House election in Miami is expected to be incumbent Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo's race against Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. Curbelo represents a Miami-to-Key West seat that leans Democratic, though he enjoys a sizable lead in fundraising along with greater name recognition. Multiple election prognosticators rate Curbelo's seat as a toss up. 

The race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen could also get some attention from national groups, though Democrats are favored to flip a seat that Hillary Clinton won by over 19 percentage points in 2016. 

The other two incumbents whose districts fall mostly within the Miami media market, Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson, have not drawn serious challengers yet.  

Treasure Coast Republican Rep. Brian Mast, whose district includes parts of Palm Beach County, is also facing a competitive reelection bid. 

March 07, 2018

Teaching high schoolers to balance a checkbook likely won't be a graduation requirement, despite bill's advancement toward passage

Sen.-Dorothy-Hukill
Sen. Dorothy Hukill presents her bill Nov. 8, 2017, to set a financial literacy high school graduation requirement. [The Florida Channel]

Despite several years of trying from the bill's sponsors, a financial literacy course likely won't be a graduation requirement for high school students in Florida next school year.

The Florida House advanced a bill on Tuesday to require schools to offer students a "financial literacy" course, but does not require students to take the elective. The House also added on a few other issues to the bill, including that schools provide computer science classes.

For Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, making this course a graduation requirement has been a passion project for the past five years. She said she was unsatisfied with the House's changes.

"It has nothing to do with my financial literacy bill," she said.

A financial literacy course would include teaching high schoolers how to balance a checkbook, manage debt, pay taxes and apply for loans.

Hukill's bill passed three Senate committees unanimously. At one point, this graduation requirement was also part of the Legislature's massive education package, HB 7055, but it was removed in a last-minute, sweeping amendment in the Senate.

Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, who has also worked on this issue for several years, said it was changed to be an optional class so it could get enough support in the House.

"There were some concerns that we would be putting a mandate on school systems," she said. "The only way it was able to get the traction necessary to get to the floor was for it to become a permissive course."

The bill still needs to formally pass the House and will then go back to the Senate so it can approve the changes. There, it could be amended but it is unlikely because there are only a few days left in session and that would elongate its progress.

Hukill said she hopes for better luck next session.

"It's a disappointment," she said. "But I'm a patient woman at this point."

Lawmakers announce agreement on $87 billion budget

SP_409497_KEEL_15_FLGOV
SCOTT KEELER | Times Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R- Land O' Lakes and Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R- Stuart, talk during a joint session of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, 3/7/17 in Tallahassee.

Florida lawmakers have reached an agreement on an $87 billion budget, leaders for the House and Senate said this afternoon.

They settled one of the biggest hangups - how to reimburse the state's 200-plus hospitals for Medicaid. The Senate wanted to change the formula, which would hurt some public hospitals.

They agreed to go with the House plan, which will keep the current hospital funding.

In exchange, House leaders agreed to millions more in Medicaid funding for nursing homes, as the Senate wanted.

Legislators barely missed their Tuesday deadline for settling a budget, promising that the session will be extended into Saturday.

It's the second straight year that the Legislature needed extra time to pass a budget, its only constitutional responsibility every session.

Herald/Times staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.

Human trafficking victims urge Florida Senate to pass bill

IMG_IMG_Book_9_1_7OBMTF1_7_1_J6D3LTF7_L365265728
State Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation

Human trafficking opponents held a rally in Tampa Tuesday to demand the state legislature pass a bill that would allow human trafficking victims to sue the hotels that turn a blind eye to their plight.

The bill appeared to be headed towards passage in the Senate when its sponsor, state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, mysteriously stalled the bill last week, effectively killing it.

"We know that Sen. Lauren Book has been a great advocate and that in her heart of hearts, she truly believes in the bill," said Tampa attorney Karina I. Perez, who has represented a number of human trafficking victims. "We can only assume the bill stalled because of politicas as usual and lobbyists."

They urged people to call state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, to hold another Senate Rules Committee to hear the bill. The bill would need to pass that committee before making it to the Senate floor.

But Benacquisto shot down the idea Tuesday, saying that lots of people have asked her to told another Rules committee.

"We’re not going to do that for any issue," she said. "I think we’re coming toward the close of our legislative session."

Benacquisto blamed Book for postponing her own bill, and she speculated that Book did it because she was preoccupied by the events in Parkland.

"She is in charge of her legislative package," Benacquisto said. "And I think the events of the last two weeks have really shaped her final days in the legislative process, and I think that is very valuable."

Book said she postponed the bill out of fear it wouldn't pass the House. It has the support of Speaker Richard Corcoran, but it's stalled and hasn't been taken up on the House floor.

Perez said the hotel industry, "incredibly," wants immunity from civil liability in exchange for training employees on the indicators of human trafficking. Those indicators including noting when young women or men arrive with older adults who don't appear to be their parents, guests who stay in a room for five days or more and decline service, and guests who ask for the phone to be removed.

"Providing immunity to hotels would be worse than having no law at all in our state," Perez said. "If we provided civil liberty to the hotel industry, we would create a safe haven in Florida where hotels would be allowed to profit off of human trafficking without any fear of consequence."

They also want Disney, the leader of the hospitality industry, to take a stand on the issue and be clear on its position. The victim advocates are convinced workers can lend a watchful eye and help curb trafficking. One survivor, Edie Rhea, said during her ordeal, she wondered how no one could see the signs of her suffering.

"There were many times I wanted to scream, shout, say what was going on, but I couldn't," Rhea said. "But I'm sure my body languague, my facial expressions told what was going on in those rooms, the horrific things.

"I guess the question now is are we going to see those children and are we going to help them."

Gun debate divides House Democrats as they split over whether to oppose school safety legislation

Dem CaucusThe tensions that have divided the nation over gun control have also split the Florida Legislature's Democrats as a bitterly divided House Democratic caucus voted 21-9 Wednesday to oppose the school safety bill because what many consider a "poison pill"  that will introduce armed school personnel into Florida schools.

Democrats took the vote just before the House was set to vote on SB 7026, which is expected to pass narrowly and be sent to the governor.

As Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky stood in the back of the room, Rep. Robert Asencio of Miami moved that the House Democrats vote in a block against the bill, arguing that the optional proposal to put armed personnel in Florida schools was too risky to pass the bill. Black lawmakers warned that the policy will disproportionately threaten blacks students or even black armed school personnel whom law enforcement may misidentify as the gunman in a active shooter situation. 

But several Democrats urged their colleagues to reject that approach because they believe the bill before lawmakers is better than no bill at all. 

"From a strategic standpoint, I don't think a caucus position adds anything other than the appearance that unfortunately, some of us that feel it is necessary to vote for the bill, will be outside of the caucus,'' said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat who represents Parkland.

He noted that noting that Democrats have already inflicted pain on Republicans by forcing them to take recorded votes on dozens of Democratic amendments that were rejected on Tuesday.

"We put them on the board on issues that we've never been able to put them on the board in the six years I've been here,'' he said.. "We created a record that will haunt them for a generation of elections."

Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, who also represents Parkland urged them to reject a caucus position because it they look fractured.

"We don't look unified and I don't think it serves us well to not be able to pull a caucus position together," she said. "We have never taken controversial issues up where we know this room doesn't all feel the same." She said she will vote against the caucus as others will and added, "I don't think it's smart for this group to show that kind of mess."

Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, opposed being told what to do but he said he couldn't recall "having to cast a vote that made me as sick as this has made me. Because I think I'm going to vote for someone to die and the question is who and how many - and that would be sick,'' he said. "I don't care who is where or what the NRA wants. For me, I have to look myself in the mirror and live with the vote that I cast today."

But several black legislators urged resistance, arguing they could force House Republican leaders to amend the bill and take out the provision opposed by the governor to arm school personnel.

Rep. Barbara Watson of Miami urged her colleagues to "try and stay in a party line because we have them on the ropes. They are short four votes." 

She offered a note of optimistic that others said they had: "If we can carry this today, it will force them to give us something better."

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, the Orlando Democrat who was elected after the Pulse shooting, said he understood the position of Parkland-area representatives like Jacobs and Moskowitz. But he noted he had been in the same position.

"They have extended session because they can't agree on a handful of line items," calling the original scheduled end of session on Friday a "fake deadline." "Why not ask them to extend session because we can't agree on a meaningful gun safety package that was slapped together in three weeks that is half baked, that makes no one happy?...We can get better from this Legislature, and I think we do it by standing together."

But Rep. Larry Lee of Port St. Lucie told his colleagues their hope was misplaced. He has decided not to run for re-election and has concluded "change is not going to come from this legislature. It's not going to come within this system that we have. Change is going to come from the outside and I'm going on the outside. I'm going to work with those kids, because we would not be having this discussion if it weren't for those kids."

The caucus then voted on the motion. Rep. Lorann Ausley, Lori Berman, Ben Diamond, Nick Duran, Katie Edwards-Walpole, Joe Geller, Kristin Jacobs, Jared Moskowitz, and Matt Willhite voted no.

Before ending the caucus meeting, Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa urged members to respect any decision to break the caucus position. 

 

"No one should be bullied for their decision or their vote,'' she said. "We made the vote that we think best serves our communities."

 

Miami Herald reporter Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report. 

Photo by Mary Ellen Klas: Rep. Lori Berman, D-West Palm Beach, asks for debate as members of the House Democratic caucus discuss whether to take a caucus position on the school safety bill, SB 7026. 

March 06, 2018

Families of all 17 Parkland victims send letter to lawmakers: Vote 'Yes on 7026'

Parkland posterOne the eve of a final vote on the school safety bill before the Florida House, the families of all 17 victims of the Parkland shooter urged legislators to pass the school safety bill saying "the issue cannot wait."

"You must act to prevent mass murder from ever occurring again at any school,'' the families wrote in an letter emailed to all 120 members of the Florida House on Tuesday.

The Florida House debated the bill, SB 7026, for more than six hours Tuesday, rejecting 37 amendments and leaving in tact the plan that narrowly passed the Florida Senate on Monday.

"This issue cannot wait,'' the families wrote. "The moment to pass this bill is now. We must be the last families to suffer the loss of a loved one due to a mass shooting at a school. We demand action by the entire Florida Legislature to keep our schools safe.

"Vote “YES” on SB 7026 ‐ Public Safety. This Time Must Be Different!"

The letter was signed, "Sincerely, Lori Alhadeff, Max Schachter, Ryan Petty, Linda Beigel Schulman, Fred Guttenberg, Damian and Denise Loughran, Manuel and Patricia Oliver, Mitch Dworet, Jennifer and Tony Montalto, Kong Feng Wang and Peter Wang, Andrew Pollack, Tom and Gina Hoyer, Vincent and Anne Ramsay, Miguel Duque, Debbi Hixon, April Schentrup, and Melissa Feis."

Florida environmental regulators approve billion-dollar Everglades reservoir despite questions over water quality

ENP spoonbills

 

by @jenstaletovich

 

Florida environmental regulators have signed off on a billion-dollar reservoir that some Everglades activists say still does too little to fix the ailing watershed.

In an order issued Monday evening, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection concluded the 23-foot deep, 10,500-acre reservoir and 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area will succeed at slowing polluted discharges to the coasts and clean water before sending it south to Everglades marshes. The governing board for the South Florida Water Management District, which is overseeing the project, will vote on a final plan to forward to the Assistant Secretary of the Army on Thursday.

State regulators also sent a clear message about water quality standards. Over the last year, some district board members have suggested standards should be eased. But regulators say they expect the district to continue upholding the rules and tweak the project if needed.

"Our team has been pretty clear on the water quality side and to the department's credit, and secretary's credit, this speaks to the issues we've raised," said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg, who helped broker legislation last year to kick-start the reservoir.

Since planning began over the summer, environmentalists have repeatedly raised concerns that the project falls short of what was originally planned. It's about a third of the size of the original reservoir planned in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, requiring it to be much deeper, which could make water harder to clean. The Everglades Foundation has estimated that at least 13,000 acres of treatment marshes are needed and pushed district planners to be more aggressive in buying additional land. But Florida legislators, pressured by farmers, refused to allow the district to take land through eminent domain, essentially tying their hands.

"The bill got beaten up by lobbyists and lawmakers. Now we have a project implementation that is crippled by not having enough land to let it do what it is supposed to and be cost-effective," the Sierra Club said in a statement. "We have no real guarantees that the agencies building the reservoir will use it to significantly cut the discharges it was funded to eliminate. We're being asked to blindly trust this $2 billion project to [the] same Governor-appointed officials who've openly opposed it from the start."

Bullsugar, a Treasure Coast advocacy group created to fight pollution in the St. Lucie estuary, said the plan offers "zero guarantees" that lake discharges will stop.

"The DEP's vague pledge to enforce water quality standards leaves the door open to simply reduce the reservoir’s benefits," the group said. "If communities and businesses that depend on clean water can't get the same guarantees of drainage and water that lawmakers give the sugarcane industry, the EAA reservoir plan is a $2 billion trust fall."

The state's two biggest environmental brokers, the Everglades Foundation and Audubon Florida, however, have backed the plan, in part because it speeds up work that otherwise would have taken another 15 years, Eikenberg said.

"The last thing we want is less than nothing. And the folks who live along the coast expect something," he said. "Everglades restoration has been notorious for incremental progress....and the biggest fear was getting less than nothing."

The sugar industry and farmers have bitterly fought the project, complaining that it was a land grab that would drive away jobs.

 

Nelson votes in favor of banking bill trashed by liberal Democrats

Bill Nelson

@alextdaugherty

Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson voted against the majority of his party on Tuesday, joining Republicans to pass a bill that eases regulations on banks. 

The Senate bill sponsored by Idaho Republican Mike Crapo lessens oversight requirements on banks that hold between $50-250 billion in assets. Every Republican present, including Marco Rubio, voted in favor of the bill while 16 Democrats and independents who caucus with Democrats voted with Nelson and the Republicans to pass it with 67 votes.

A host of Democrats with 2020 presidential ambitions, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have said the bill could have dangerous financial implications for the nation's markets. 

Proponents of the bill say it reduces the regulatory burden on financial institutions while maintaining oversight of the nation's biggest banks. 

Nelson, a moderate Democrat, is up for reelection this year but doesn't face a serious primary challenge from the left. Gov. Rick Scott is expected to announce if he'll challenge Nelson after the current legislative session wraps up in Tallahassee. 

How Miami Republicans plan to help DACA recipients

Mario Diaz-Balart

Monday was supposed to be the deadline for Congress to get its act together and find a way for 690,000 young immigrants to avoid potential deportation.

But lawmakers have at least a few more months to pass a law as the court system continues to determine the legality of President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

For Miami Republicans, caught between a national party that is agitating for stricter immigration laws and a diverse constituency back home, the delay on DACA gives them more time to find a compromise but also keeps thousands of their constituents in limbo.

“It’s good news for people in the DACA program because they can continue renewing their permits,” Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said. “I have mixed feelings on what it means for us here because we know this institution [Congress] sometimes only works as deadlines approach and now there isn’t a deadline. Now, on the other hand, it gives us more time, especially here in the House, to work towards that consensus position that has eluded both the House and Senate.”

Curbelo and Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Republican leaders need to come up with a solution, though the sole immigration bill currently being considered by House leadership is a conservative plan that Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen don’t support. The U.S. Senate tried and failed to pass a slew of immigration bills last month.

“I’m incredibly disappointed that the leadership in the House and Senate have failed to find a legislative solution to protect our DREAMers,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “While a court decision has halted the Trump administration’s plan to begin deporting DACA recipients, circumstances can and do change thus Congress should not rest on this one decision. We should take action now.”

Read more here.

Senators who voted for gun bill received 'gift' of tar and feathers from 'Bradford County children'

Jar of tar and feathersShortly after Florida senators narrowly passed a bill that raised the age to buy a gun from 18 to 21 and imposed a minimum three-day waiting period on gun purchases, several Republican members received a gift hand delivered to their offices: a jar of tar and feathers. 

"From the Children of Bradford County,'' reads the note, written in red tape across one side of the jelly jars. "The tar and feather enemy of freedom award," they read on the other side. On the top, the jars are decorated with a plastic "poop" emoji and a glued feather. 

Senators aren't sure who distributed the gifts to their offices but aides say it wasn't children. They do know that the backlash has begun in the wake of the 20-18 vote that moved the school safety bill through the Senate Monday. 

Eleven of the Senate Republicans who voted for the measure is either termed out or does not have to face voters in November. Six of them, however, are up for re-election in in November and must now face the wrath of their gun lobby if they attempt to put someone up against them in a primary. They include: Sens. Jeff Brandes, Kathleen Passidomo, Keith Perry, Wilton Simpson, Kelli Stargel and Dana Young.

Marion Hammer, head of the National Rifle Association's Florida chapter, denied they have threatened any legislators. "We don't make threats. And we never discuss our strategy,'' she told the Herald/Times. 

The NRA posted an alert to its members, claiming that "Senate leadership strong-armed Senators to vote in favor of the bill," and warned that House leaders are now "trying to bully Second Amendment supports to get them to vote for the gun control package."

"YOU and every other law-abiding gun owner is being blamed for an atrocious act of premeditated murder,'' they wrote. "Neither the 3-day waiting period on all rifles and shotguns, raising the age from 18 to 21 to buy any firearm, or the bump stock ban will have any effect on crime.  Despite that fact, Senate leaders rammed through gun control as part of the bill."

The NRA urged members to email members of the Florida House and urged them to reject the amendment. 

 Photo credit: Austin Knipper.