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March 24, 2015

Fretting privacy violations, lawmakers advance drone bills

Trying to preempt privacy concerns with the growing technology, the Florida House and Senate are moving forward with bills regulating the use of drones.

The unmanned aircraft have wide-ranging possible uses, including for a same-day delivery plan announced by Amazon.com, storm chasing, search-and-rescue missions and recording overhead video.

It’s this last possibility that has state lawmakers worried: How can personal privacy be protected, especially on private property, while still allowing the technology’s possibilities to be explored?

Committees in both chambers advanced bills (SB 766 and HB 649) Tuesday seeking to answer that question.

“This is a real this is a real issue,” said Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, the sponsor of the Senate bill. “Just within the last month, we had a drone that crashed into the bedroom window of a Hialeah, Fla., residence.”

Continue reading "Fretting privacy violations, lawmakers advance drone bills" »

Scorecards so far for Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton and other presidential contenders

Ted Cruz announced his intention to run for president on Monday, formally kicking off the 2016 race for the White House. In the coming weeks and months, we expect more candidates to announce.

While we wait, we thought it was a good time to look at the scorecards of some of the people we believe are likely to run.  Below, you’ll see a snapshot of where their Truth-O-Meter scorecards stand today. Click the links on their names to access their dynamic scorecards, which update automatically when we post new fact-checks.

Turn to PolitiFact to see the scorecards for former Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio and more.

Carlos Curbelo to formally kick off reelection campaign

@PatriciaMazzei

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo will officially launch his reelection campaign in South Miami on Monday, a day before the end of the year's first fund-raising quarter.

The event, at Shula's 347 Grill at Sunset Place, will be the first one the Miami Republican freshman's campaign formally hosts. But Curbelo has been meeting privately with political donors since last month. Like most members of Congress, he had to begin gearing up for a new campaign after being in office for barely a month.

For Monday's event, organizers are asking for contributions ranging from $1,000 to $5,400. Among the top donors already listed are former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart -- Curbelo's one-time employer -- and Jeb Bush Jr., according to an invitation obtained by the Miami Herald. Curbelo has yet to endorse any potential Republican presidential contenders but is expected to back former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, given his close ties to Bush and his supporters.

House unveils $690 million tax cut plan, further split with Senate

Florida House leaders unveiled a $690 million package in tax cuts on Tuesday that further highlights a schism with the Senate on Medicaid expansion.

“We’re eager for the Florida senate to join us in our desire to cut taxes,” said the chairman of the House finance and taxation committee, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

About $15 million more than what Gov. Rick Scott proposed to cut in taxes in January, the House plan would:

-- Reduce the communications services tax by 3.6 percent: $470.5 million

-- Reduce the sales tax on commercial leases from 6 percent to 5.8 percent: $53.1 million

-- Exempt college textbooks and other instructional material from sales tax: $43.7 million.

-- Raise the property tax exemption for residents who are widowed, blind or totally disabled: $41.3 million.

-- Exempts certain agricultural items from the sales tax: $13.4 million.

-- Creates a new corporate income tax credit for defense contracting companies who hire Florida-based contractors: $5.5 million.

-- Exempts books and other reading materials sold at book fairs: $2.8 million

-- Exempts support organizations from collecting sales tax if tax is paid on school concessions: $1.7 million.

-- Exempts gun club memberships from sales tax: $1.2 million.

-- Create a credit or refund for wholesales selling aviation fuel to a university based in Florida offering a graduate program in aeronautical or aerospace engineering and flight training through a school of aeronautics or college of aviation: $0.9 million.

-- Exempts vehicles bought by service members overseas and brought back to Florida from the sales tax: $800,000..

-- Increases exemptions for service members: $200,000.

-- Back-to-School Sales tax holiday, July 31-Aug. 2: NA

-- Sales tax exemption for items $1,000 or less sold by small businesses: NA

-- Income tax credits for companies that engage in research in Florida: NA

-- One-time increase in tax credits for environmental clean ups: NA

-- Repeals any remaining exceptions to the 2005 elimination of estate tax repeal: NA

Continue reading "House unveils $690 million tax cut plan, further split with Senate" »

Florida Senate votes to oppose U.S.-Cuba relations

Cuba

In an emotional speech Tuesday, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, asked her fellow senators to oppose President Obama’s recent decision to open up diplomatic relations with Cuba.

All but one agreed.

The measure, which also discourages the federal government from allowing a Cuban consulate in Florida, is largely symbolic. But it was important for the Cuban-American members of the state Senate, Flores said.

"A lot of my friends and colleagues have asked why we care so deeply," she said on the Senate Floor.

Flores told the story of how her mother had fled the island nation as a girl. 

She spoke about the "hundreds of thousands [who] sit in prison every day for having the gall to stand up and say something." And she showed photographs of the Ladies in White, the wives and family members of imprisoned Cuban dissidents who hold regular protests in Havana.

"They are spit upon, they are beat up, they are harassed," Flores said.

Flores said the Obama administration's decision to ease travel restrictions to Cuba would allow American visitors to "have it all," while Cuban residents would continue to suffer.

"I know you've seen the pictures of the beautiful beaches were the tourists can go," she said. "No one who is a Cuban citizen can go to those places."

Her call was echoed by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican who said members of his family had been imprisoned and killed for speaking out against the government.

Diaz de la Portilla said the new Cuba policy would "do nothing but ensure that the [Castro] regime stays in power."

"To think that by spending American cash, so Americans can by Cuban cigars and Cuban rum and stay at hotels on stolen land, that these two obstinate octogenarian dictators and their cronies are going to change anything is naive at best," he said.

Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, urged his colleagues to "send a message to this administration that we understand the plight and the problems [Cubans] are facing, and that we must continue to put the pressure on the Castro regime to open up and be transparent."

The measure passed on a voice vote, with Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, saying he was proud to stand with the members of the Miami-Dade Legislative Delegation.

Only one senator opposed the proposal.

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat, said she understood the Cuban-American senators' "passion and pain." But she defended the Obama administration's "historic steps to chart a new course" in Cuba.

"I know in my heart that there was no malice intended by the promulgation of this policy by the Obama administration, and I know that his moving this forward is an effort to bring freedom to the Cuban nation," Joyner said.

A similar proposal, sponsored by Republican Reps. Manny Diaz Jr. and Jeanette Núñez, is ready for a vote on the House floor.

So far, the House version has yet to win the support of a single Democrat. But Núñez hopes that will change.

"This is not a partisan debate for us," she said. "We're not going to denigrate the president. We're going to keep it to the policy."

Fact-checking SeaWorld's claim about whales

More and more, critics are making the case that keeping killer whales in captivity is harmful to the animals and dangerous for the people who train them. SeaWorld, the theme park that showcases the trained whales, is now fighting back.

A new ad, part of a multimedia blitz for the company, is headlined, "Fact: Whales live as long at SeaWorld," and it is written in the voice of Chris Dold, a SeaWorld veterinarian. The ad, which has appearedin the Tampa Bay Times, takes specific aim at criticism leveled by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, an animal-rights group that has been among the theme park company’s biggest critics. Here’s a portion of the ad’s text:

"You might have heard attacks from PETA saying our killer whales live only a fraction as long as whales in the wild. They say, ‘In captivity, orcas’ average life span plummets to just nine years.’ But the author of an independent study, Dr. Douglas DeMaster, of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, ‘Survival in the wild is comparable to survival in captivity.’ There’s no other way to say it… PETA is not giving you the facts."

PETA, meanwhile, pushed back against the ad’s conclusions, citing the average age of whales that have died since 1965. According to PETA’s documentation of captive whale deaths, the average age of death is 12 years old for SeaWorld’s female orcas -- which are expected to survive in the wild for about 50 years. For males -- which are expected to survive in the wild for 30 years -- the average age of death is 16.

SeaWorld currently has in its care several whales in their 30s and one in its 40s.

Keeping whales in captivity is a complicated issue, and the critical 2013 documentary Blackfish has brought more attention to itClearly, longevity is just one factor, and it isn’t the same thing as the quality of the whales’ daily lives. Here, though, we wanted to drill down on SeaWorld’s specific claim that the whales at their parks live just as long as they do in the wild.

Turn to PolitiFact Florida to read the rest of this fact-check by Louis Jacobson and Lauren Carroll.

House adjourns committee without taking up bill to sheild tobacco industry

The Florida House Civil Justice Subcommittee adjourned its meeting early on Tuesday, with time to spare, but did not take up a bill intended to shield the tobacco industry from punitive damages in thousands of pending cases from injured Florida smokers. 

The bill, HB 1067 sponsored by Rep. David Santiago<\b>, R-Deltona, would retroactively apply a 1999 cap on punitive damages to any claims that were filed before that date. The measure would effectively limiting the potential payments to about 4,500 Florida smokers and their families who have sued cigarette makers but are still awaiting trial over claims that the industry deceived them about the dangerous and addictive properties of cigarettes.

The industry claims it is a fairness issue and the lawsuits unfairly give plaintiffs an advantage in the state, which has more tobacco cases pending that any other state. Sitting in the audience, prepared to testify, were plaintiffs and family members who were victims of the tobacco industry's deceptive practices. 

The committee has one last chance to take up the bill, when it meets again in two weeks, but questions remain about whether there are enough votes on the committee to pass it. The companion bill, SB 978 by Senator Garrett Richter, R-Naples, has been referred to two Senate committees but has not been heard in that chamber either.

The tobacco companies have hired more than 40 lobbyists, not including another 50-plus lobbyists who are also working on litigation reform as part of the state and federal tort reform efforts which the tobacco industry has long supported. The trial lawyers are opposing the effort and created a website to court public opinion www.nobigtobaccobailout.com.

The issue stems from the 1994 landmark class-action lawsuit known as the Engle case. It was brought by Miami lawyers Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt on behalf of Howard A. Engle, a Miami pediatrician. He had been addicted to cigarettes since college, when tobacco companies handed out free cigarettes to students.

The Engle case was the first smokers’ class action to come to trial in a U.S. court. A Miami-Dade jury, after hearing 157 witnesses in two years, decided that the industry had intentionally misled smokers about cigarettes’ dangers and awarded a record-breaking $145 billion in damages in 2000.

The industry appealed and, in 2006, the Florida Supreme Court tossed out the award and ruled that smokers must prove individually that cigarettes caused their illness. The high court also decertified the class-action filed on behalf of approximately 700,000 smokers, but let stand that the tobacco manufacturers committed fraud by deceiving smokers about the addictive nature and harmful effects of cigarettes. Read more about the proposal here. 

 

Scott and Cabinet will spend up to $50,000 for Cabinet counsel

Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet voted Tuesday to spend up to $50,000 in additional legal fees for an outside counsel to represent the Cabinet, the fifth named defendant in a lawsuit by more than a dozen news outlets over the ouster of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

Scott and all three Cabinet members are individual defendants in the case of Weidner v. Scott, which accuses them of violating the Sunshine Law. The suit also names the Cabinet as a defendant, but the Cabinet as a separate entity has no representation in the case. Attorney General Pam Bondi said the state risks being "in default" with a court if the Cabinet has no representation by April 6 and no time extension is granted.

The four officials agreed to let Bondi's office accept applications from interested firms willing to offer discounted rates. They scheduled two rare telephonic Cabinet meetings at 8 a.m. on March 31 and April 1, first to review the list of applicants and to pick a firm the next day.

Scott briefly left the dais during the meeting to confer with his counsel, Tim Cerio. When he returned, he tried to accelerate the hiring process by letting Bondi alone choose a law firm. But Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam objected and called it "troublesome" that he would have no say in the hiring of the Cabinet's counsel, and Scott quickly relented.

The issue of hiring legal representation for the Cabinet was a last-minute item added to Tuesday's agenda after Bondi took the unusual step of using the "good cause" provision in state law. The lawsuit by the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald and other news outlets accuses Scott and Cabinet members of violating the Sunshine Law by orchestrating Bailey's Dec. 16 ouster through private talks among their aides. The news outlets seek a court injunction prohibiting such private conversations in the future.

Scott, Bondi, Putnam and CFO Jeff Atwater together have hired nearly a dozen private attorneys to represent them in the case, which is before Circuit Judge George Reynolds in state court in Tallahassee. Bailey is scheduled to give a videotaped deposition on Wednesday, April 22.

 

 

Senate passes concealed carry bill

During an emergency evacuation, Floridians could soon be allowed to carry a concealed weapon — whether they’re licensed to do so or not.

The Florida Senate approved a bill (SB 290) allowing that Tuesday by a vote of 29-10, with four Democrats and all Republicans voting in favor.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, sponsored the legislation, a version of which failed to pass both chambers of the Legislature last year. It allows anyone legally allowed to own a gun to carry it within 48 hours of a mandatory evacuation beginning.

On the floor last Wednesday, Brandes said the bill’s importance was made clear during Hurricane Katrina, when people were charged with serious crimes for having their guns with them after evacuating.

“This is about this incredibly rare instance, this incredibly tailored instance, when people are fleeing for their lives,” Brandes said. “And yet Florida statute today says if they take that weapon with them and they carry it in a certain manner, they can be charged with a third-degree felony.”

Opponents argue that passing the bill could pose a public safety risk by increasing the number of guns in shelters and in public, especially given the high stress of an emergency.

“I do have issues when it comes to high emotional periods of time,” Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, “when people are displaced, when children are involved, when families are involved and people are living in close quarters.”

A companion bill (HB 493) by Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, is expected to be heard in the House in the coming weeks.

Lopez-Cantera participates in trade mission to Peru

Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera has traded Tallahassee for warmer climes.

Lopez-Cantera is in Lima, Peru Tuesday. 

His visit is part of a "trade mission with Enterprise Florida to bring job opportunities to the state," spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said.

Lopez-Cantera's itinerary includes meetings at the U.S. Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Commerce and Tourism, as well as a luncheon with the American Chamber of Commerce of Peru. He will also chat with President of the National Port Authority Edgar Patino Garrido and Deputy Mayor of Lima Patricia Juarez.

Gov. Rick Scott, meanwhile, will be in the Florida Capital, working to build support for his proposed tax-cut package.