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March 15, 2017

Summer is coming. So is Zika.



Three months after Gov. Rick Scott stood in Miami Beach and declared that the Zika virus was no longer spreading in Florida, mosquito control experts are warning people not to be complacent.

Zika could come back.

“Those same risk factors that we saw in 2016 are also still present today,” said Andrea Leal, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.

Among them: The presence of Aedes aegypti, the species of mosquito that can transmit the virus and the risk of tourists or Florida residents bringing the virus with them from countries where it is more prevalent. All of it made worse by a warm winter that could have helped more mosquito eggs survive the season than usual.

Zika, which has been linked to birth defects when pregnant women are infected, put mosquito control districts, once an obscure government bureaucracy, at the front lines of a public health crisis.

Last year, Florida had 1,093 cases of Zika picked up by people traveling abroad. Another 279 were infected as Zika spread in Florida, most of that in Miami-Dade County, according to the state Department of Health.

To fight Zika this summer, mosquito control districts are asking the state for $3.8 million to pay for research and a helping hand to counties that have small anti-mosquito budgets.

“As you know, mosquitoes do not recognize county borders,” Leal said Wednesday in the state Capitol. “While some larger counties may have very robust mosquito control programs, smaller neighboring counties may not have similar local budgets, which can greatly reduce our overall effectiveness.”

The Legislature regularly helps fund mosquito control. This year, lawmakers put $2.6 million into it, and Scott recommended the same amount for the 2017-2018 budget year. An additional $1.2 million would help what Leal called a “very challenging mosquito season.”

The Florida Mosquito Control Association has a useful ally in state Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, who has made their case in Tallahassee. But the state’s resources are limited, which makes every interest group’s request for taxpayer dollars a tough sell this year.

“In order to be effective, our local mosquito control efforts must have the necessary funds,” Caldwell said. “Increasing that as a response to a threat is important.”

Although most people infected with Zika in Florida contracted it in a few areas of Miami-Dade, Director Dennis Moore of Pasco County Mosquito Control said the entire state needs to be prepared.

“It’s kind of like hurricane season,” he said. “We don’t know where the hurricane is going, and similarly we don’t know where Zika might end up this year.”

Photo: An Aedes Aegypti mosquito, the species that can carry Zika virus, in the lab at Pinellas County Mosquito Control. (JIM DAMASKE | Tampa Bay Times)

'Religious liberties' measures diverge, but advance

Religious liberties

@ByKristenMClark & @loujacobson

Efforts by the Legislature to make explicitly clear the rights students and teachers have to express their religious beliefs in Florida public schools is ready for a floor vote in the Senate, while earning high praise in an initial House hearing.

A fast-tracked measure in the Senate (SB 436) — one of President Joe Negron’s top priorities — passed its second and final committee Tuesday on a party-line vote, shortly before a House panel unanimously advanced its own version (HB 303).

The House conversation was in stark contrast to the Senate’s discussions, where that chamber’s measure has polarized members.

MORE: “Lawmakers push for more ‘religious liberties’ in Florida public schools”

The bills were once identical, but the House Pre-K-12 Quality Subcommittee amended its bill to make it more narrow than the Senate’s — removing some of the more controversial elements, such as a requirement that school districts adopt a Florida Department of Education-crafted policy that “establishes a limited public forum for student speakers at any school event.” Such a provision would allow students of different faiths to, for example, pray at school assemblies.

The House’s pared-down bill won bipartisan support and near-universal endorsement from a crowded audience. When the House committee ended its meeting after passing the bill unanimously, one audience member shouted out: “Can we close with a prayer?” The remark drew scattered applause.

Lithia Republican Jake Raburn, the House Pre-K-12 Quality Subcommittee chairman, called it “a bit perplexing that we have to be here when these protections are provided for.”

Read more.

Photo credit: Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, presents his “religious liberties” bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, March 14, 2017. The panel sent it to the Senate floor on a 5-4 vote, with Democrats opposed. Louis Jacobson / PolitiFact

March 14, 2017

How many Floridians have Alzheimer's disease?

by @loujacobson 

A Florida physician who specializes in geriatrics and memory care warned a Florida Senate committee that Alzheimer’s disease is both a present and a looming problem for the state.

"Please make no mistake -- we are in the midst of an epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease," Rosemary Laird, a geriatrician at the Centre for Senior Health in Winter Park, told the Senate Health Policy Committee on March 14. "Currently, half a million Floridians have Alzheimer’s disease, and in less than 10 years, a 40 percent growth rate means that another 200,000 Floridians will develop this devastating illness."

Laird was testifying in favor of SB 1050, a bill sponsored by Sen. David Simmons, R-Longwood, to establish a memory disorder clinic at Florida Hospital in Orange County.

Laird’s office did not return a call, but we were able to find statistics that closely matched what she told the committee.

Keep reading from PolitiFact Florida.

Florida Senate panel OKs formalizing non-abortion pregnancy centers into law


by @loujacobson

After a brief but divisive debate, the Senate Health Policy Committee Tuesday advanced a bill that would enhance an existing state pregnancy services program that excludes abortion referrals.

SB 1130, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, would for the first time place into Florida statute a program that provides state funds to a network of pregnancy centers. The program has been operating since 2005 outside of statute, with funding provided on an annual basis during budget negotiations.

The Pregnancy Support Services program has fielded 5,796 hotline calls and provided 120,929 services to 24,184 women and families, Bean testified.

“In statutes, we can further direct the Department of Health to firmly establish the program rather than relying on a proviso that could be changed every year,” Bean testified.

Testifying against the bill, Missy Wesolowski, director of public policy for the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said her group has seen such clinics use questionable studies -- such as those that aren’t peer reviewed or those that cite results that don’t track with scientific consensus -- as “fact.”

The bill “excludes family planning providers who provide birth control, testing for sexually transmitted diseases and referrals to safe and legal abortion services,” she said.

During the debate, Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, echoed Wesolowski’s concern about Bean’s assurances that the bill requires “factual” information from participating centers.

“Sometimes you and I, we may both cite facts that are opposite,” Montford said. “Is there some assurance that the facts in this network that are used are medically sound?”

Bean responded that “that’s another reason why we should have the bill codified” in statute.

When Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, asked Bean what a center would do if a young woman came in and asked for information on abortion, Bean responded, “They would not refer them to an abortion provider. They would say all of the other choices that are available out there.”

Bean’s response drew audible laughter from opponents of the bill.

Representatives of Florida National Organization for Women and the Democratic Women’s Club of Florida joined Planned Parenthood -- a provider of health services including abortion -- in registering their opposition to the bill at the committee meeting. A representative of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops rose in support.

The measure passed with two votes against: Book and Sen. Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach.

Fact-checking a claim by a Florida Democrat about gender pay gap

by @allisonbgraves

Dozens of women rallied Tuesday at the Florida Capitol to fight for equal pay for women and men.

Democrats organized the rally to bring attention to SB 410 and HB 319, which have not been scheduled for a hearing. The bills would enact penalties on employers who pay women less than men, allow victims of discrimination to sue for wages, and would extend protections to the transgender workers.

An official of the Democratic Women's Club of Florida offered up a quick snapshot of the reality of today’s gender pay gap, which refers to the difference between what men and women earn.

"A woman working full-time is paid 79 to 80 cents for every dollar a man is paid, and it's even less for women of color, and on average $11,000 per year is lost simply because she isn't a man," said one of the club’s vice presidents, Patricia Farley.

We did not hear back from Farley, but PolitiFact has explored claims about the gender pay gap more than once. Farley is referencing data widely available from the U.S. Census Bureau.


Keep reading from PolitiFact Florida.

Nelson to support Acosta for labor secretary


Sen. Bill Nelson plans to support President Donald Trump's nominee for labor secretary.

That's according to a Nelson spokesman, who we'd asked for comment. Alex Acosta is a Miami native and the dean of Florida International University's law school.

Acosta's confirmation hearing is next week.

Photo credit: Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg

Rick Scott adds some interesting GOP muscle to help protect Visit Florida funding


Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam joins Gov. Rick Scott in his defense of Visit Florida funding during a rally in Tallahassee on Tuesday. (Jeremy Wallace/Tampa Bay Times)


For well over a month, Gov. Rick Scott has been traveling the state slamming House Republicans for their attempts to cut and reform the state’s tourism marketing agency Visit Florida.

But Tuesday was different.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater all joined Scott at a rally on Tuesday in the Capitol aimed at fighting a House plan that would dramatically cut the state’s investment into Visit Florida. That additional political muscle - all Republicans - was a show of force illustrating just how alone the House is politically in attempting to pull back support for Visit Florida.

“I find it so hard to comprehend that all of you needed to leave your businesses to come here to fight for the most obvious brand that Florida is, which is a family friendly tourist destination,” Putnam told about 200 tourism industry officials at the rally.

Putnam, considered a leading contender for governor in 2018, repeated a line of reasoning Scott has used frequently, noting that big companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s don’t stop advertising because they know they risk losing market share if they pulled back. It’s the same for tourism marketing Putnam warned. To make his point, Putnam pulled out a quote from late-Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat who was governor from 1990 to 1998.

“As Lawton Chiles used to say, it’s a poor frog who won’t even croak in his own pond,” Putnam said.

But House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, was undeterred by the show of force from Scott and the rest of the Cabinet.

"We've said it 1,000 times," Corcoran said. "We don't care how big the crowd is against us, or how difficult the fight, we will always do what is best for the taxpayer."

Continue reading "Rick Scott adds some interesting GOP muscle to help protect Visit Florida funding" »

Miami-Dade superintendent voices 'grave concern' of lawmakers' plans

Carvalho at MH editboard 031417 (1)


The superintendent of Florida’s largest school district says he has “grave concern” about state lawmakers’ proposed reforms in how charter schools get taxpayer funding for maintenance and construction projects.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Miami-Dade public schools stand to pay $83 million the district hasn’t accounted for if the Legislature goes through with its plan to force school districts to share their local tax revenue for capital projects with charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.

Carvalho first expressed those concerns in a letter to a Senate committee chairman last month and he elaborated further in speaking with the Miami Herald’s editorial board on Tuesday.

More here.

Broward Commission delays action on resolution related to Trump sanctuary order



Fearing that President Donald Trump will cut off funding to Broward, the county commission considered a resolution Tuesday arguing that it is in compliance with federal law and isn't a so-called sanctuary county for undocumented immigrants.

The commission tabled the vote after immigrant and Democratic activists called for its defeat and commissioners couldn't agree on the wording or whether such a resolution is necessary.

The resolution proposed by Mayor Barbara Sharief, a Democrat, stated that the county has never labeled itself a "sanctuary." The resolution called for the county attorney to take legal action if the county is denied federal funds based on immigration policies. Some commissioners argued that the resolution is unnecessary since the county attorney already has the power to defend the county if necessary. The commission didn't set a future date to revisit the resolution.

Trump issued an executive order in January directing the Attorney General's office and the Department of Homeland Security to cut off grant funding from local jurisdictions that shield undocumented immigrants from U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement. Broward expects to get funds this year through the U.S. Department of Justice funneled through the state. The grant criteria states that the county must prove it complies with Section 1373 of federal law which essentially bans governments from restricting federal access to information about a person's immigration status. Broward officials argue that the county already complies with the law.

There is no definition in federal law of sanctuary cities or counties which has left some communities scrambling to avert any such label. The Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors restricting immigration laws, named six counties in Florida including Broward that have policies “limiting cooperation with ICE specifically by placing conditions on honoring immigration detainers.” (Miami-Dade County was previously on that list until the county changed its policy in response to Trump.)

Broward County never declared itself a sanctuary county but landed on that list because the Broward Sheriff's Office issued a policy in 2014 stating that personnel would only honor ICE detainers when they are accompanied by a warrant. That policy was issued following federal court rulings.

Broward officials are lobbying against a Florida house bill which passed a committee March 13 seeks to crack down on jurisdictions that pass such sanctuary policies. 

“Broward County has never adopted any law, any regulation, any practice, any custom — at all — limiting our cooperation with ICE officials, the federal government or anything having to do with enforcing federal policy,” said Edward Labrador, the county's intergovernmental affairs director, in Tallahassee Monday. 

In February, the Broward County Commission passed a resolution honoring diversity without mentioning sanctuary cities or counties. Some local governments in South Florida have passed or proposed resolutions declaring their facilities "safe zones" for undocumented immigrants.


Ros-Lehtinen opposes GOP health plan that 'leaves too many' uninsured


Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen plans to vote against the House GOP plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, becoming the first Florida Republican to reject the legislation outright.

“After studying the impact of this proposed legislation on my district and speaking with many of my constituents, I have decided to vote no on the bill as currently written," she said in a statement to the Miami Herald. "The bill’s consequences for South Florida are clear: too many of my constituents will lose insurance and there will be less funds to help the poor and elderly with their healthcare."

Ros-Lehtinen's 27th district, which includes Southeast Miami-Dade County, had the largest number of Obamacare enrollees in the country -- about 96,300 -- as of January, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated Monday that some 14 million people would lose or drop coverage by 2018 under the proposed American Health Care Act, which has been endorsed by President Donald Trump.

With her opposition, Ros-Lehtinen is breaking with fellow Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who last week voted for the bill in the House Ways and Means Committee. Both lawmakers represent Democratic-leaning districts won by Hillary Clinton.

Florida Democrats have universally opposed the plan — “It is wrong to take away health insurance for 24 million people, as well as increase the cost to seniors,” Sen. Bill Nelson said — but the party accused Ros-Lehtinen of political pandering.

“After voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act dozens of times without a replacement plan — including as recently as January — it’s clear that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen makes her decisions in Washington D.C. based on political calculation and self-preservation, not what is best for the people of South Florida,” Javier Gamboa, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman, said in a statement.

Curbelo hasn't commented on the CBO report. On Monday, American Action Network, a Republican political group linked to House Speaker Paul Ryan started airing TV ads in Miami to give Curbelo cover for his support.

The third Miami Republican in the House, Mario Diaz-Balart, is still reviewing the legislation and CBO report and has some "concerns," his spokeswoman said.

Some Florida Republicans have questioned the House plan on conservative grounds, arguing it remains too interventionist in its approach to the insurance market. Others have said it's a good first step that still needs work.

Ros-Lehtinen is still not a fan of the existing law but said its replacement needs to be bipartisan and more humane.

"I voted to repeal Obamacare many times because it was not the right fix for our broken healthcare system and did not live up to its promise to the American people but this plan is not the replacement South Florida needs," Ros-Lehtinen said. "We should work together to write a bipartisan bill that works for our community and our nation without hurting the elderly and disadvantaged among us." 

Photo credit: Matias J. Ocner, for the Miami Herald

This post has been updated.