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November 16, 2017

Florida's new mobile app for car tags -- and what it will cost you

Florida is offering a new mobile app for car and vessel registration renewals, giving motorists the opportunity to complete tag transactions on their smartphones or tablets.

You can avoid standing in line at your local tax collector’s office or tag agency, but you’ll also pay a $4 credit card processing fee for the convenience -- or $3.75 if a checking account is used. You can renew up to five vehicles and/or vessels and you’ll be charged a fee once.

Motorists can still renew tags in an office or online at

“It’s important to offer services on mobile platforms and remain responsive to customer expectations,” the state highway safety agency said in a memo to tax collectors. A technical memo said no personal information will be returned in the app and motorist address changes aren’t permitted.

The state contracted with Tal Search Group, which subcontracted with PayIt, LLC, for a mobile application called MyFlorida.

Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano noted that tax collectors can charge a credit card processing fee of 2.5 percent, or $2.50 on renewals that cost $100. Most renewals cost less than that.

“I’m not opposed to giving people more choices,” said Fasano, whose office already has a mobile app. “I just want people to know the cost.”

The danger with misreading Florida's number of Puerto Rican arrivals since Hurricane Maria


The number of Puerto Ricans who have arrived in Florida since Hurricane Maria hit the island Sept. 20 is large. But it's probably not as large as the figure being mentioned in news articles, opinion columns and social-media posts.

According to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, more than 160,000 people have arrived from Puerto Rico to the Miami, Orlando and Tampa airports (MIA, MCO and TPA, respectively) since Oct. 3, when regular commercial flights to the island resumed after the storm.

That doesn't necessarily mean more than 160,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida.

The state's number includes everyone who has landed in Florida from Puerto Rico, including aid workers, reporters, government officials and Puerto Ricans who already live on the mainland and went to help their families. It also includes Puerto Ricans who might have landed in Florida but continued to travel elsewhere. And it doesn't include Puerto Ricans who might have arrived to some other airport and then traveled to Florida.

The number of Puerto Ricans assisted by the state government's disaster relief centers at the Miami International Airport, Orlando International Airport and the Port of Miami has been far lower. As of Nov. 10, for example, more than 73,000 people from Puerto Rico had arrived to MIA, MCO and Port Everglades, but the number of people served at the disaster relief centers was about 15,000.

As of the same date, Florida public school districts had enrolled some 3,500 displaced Puerto Rican students.

Of course, not every Puerto Rican will need state help, especially if they already have family and friends here. Not all will have children. Some will register children in private schools.

But, in short: None of these numbers offers a clear picture yet of exactly how many Puerto Ricans have moved to the state or plan to remain here permanently -- though it's safe to assume at least some will, and that might be enough to shift the state's demographics, including for the 2018 election.

The number of Puerto Ricans arriving in Florida has continued to grow as the island's prolonged power outage continues to be unresolved, and jobs continue to be scarce, and clean water continues to be a luxury.

But it's still too early to say by how much Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans will alter Florida's swing politics and decidedly make Central Florida blue.

Emily's List backs Barzee Flores in Democratic race to replace Ros-Lehtinen


Miami Democrat Mary Barzee Flores won the endorsement Thursday of Emily's List, which backs progressive, pro-abortion rights female candidates.

Barzee Flores, a former state judge, is one of two women seeking to replace Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring, in Florida's swing 27th congressional district.

"This open seat represents an opportunity for Floridians to send a message to Washington," Emily's List president Stephanie Schriock said in a statement. "Working families need a representative who will fight to protect basic women's health care services, defend against the rolling back of environmental protections, and push to reform our broken immigration system. Mary is ready for the job, and we look forward to supporting her every step of the way."

Last week, Barzee Flores joined a small group of vocal Democrats across the country calling for President Donald Trump's impeachment.

The only other woman running in the packed field of eight Democrats is Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez., who sent supporters a fundraising email Thursday blasting Emily's List.

"Well, the establishment has spoken. Emily’s List has decided who your Congressperson should be. Did they ask you?" Rosen Gonzalez wrote. "No. They told me their endorsement came at a price. They told me I'd have to hire their consultants at astronomical prices as the price for their endorsement. I said 'No.' They said I'd have to sit in a room and 'dial for dollars' all day, putting the arm on all the special interests as the price for their endorsement. I said 'No.' Selling my independence is too high a price to pay."

The fundraising leader so far is Matt Haggman, former program director for the Knight Foundation.

This post has been updated.

November 15, 2017

Martin County agrees to pay $12 million for shielding and destroying public records


Circumventing Florida's public records law, and destroying public documents, has cost Martin County commissioners more than $12 million -- and the toll keeps rising. 

The commission on Tuesday agreed to a $12 million payout to Lake Point, a rock quarry company that has plans to become a water company, sued the county for breach of contract and for violating the state's Sunshine Law.

The agreement will put an end to a four-year legal dispute but not the end of the county's woes. A grand jury is investigating allegations that at least one county commissioner destroyed records relating to the case, which could draw criminal penalties. 

The county also agreed to buy 300 acres of land from Lake Point, refund environmental surcharge and impact fees, and grant a permit for an onsite cement plan. It also agreed to issue an apology letter.

In the letter, released on Tuesday, the commissioners apologized to Lake Point, "its principals and its employees for the harsh words and inappropriate deed of certain commissioners that unnecessarily tarnished the reputation of Lake Point." It also admitted that it needed "to improve its public records practice" particularly as it related to using private emails for public purposes.  Download 17-11-13 Settlement Agreement (All pages) (1)

"We now know that the use of private e-mail accounts by certain County commissioners had become too commonplace, resulting in a lack of the transparency and accountability that the public rightly expects from its government, and that is required by law,'' the letter states. "We have addressed these public records problems through new policy and practices, by which we hope to restore the public’s trust in how Martin County transacts its public affairs."

It's a dramatic admission for a county that spent two years denying the existence of public records, until a court ordered them released, and it is the second settlement agreed to by the commission this year.

A a court-appointed arbitrator in February concluded the county “engaged in a pattern of violating the public records act” in an attempt to shield that they were using private email accounts to communicate with former Martin County Commissioner and environmental advocate Maggy Hurchalla. The court found that “certain commissioners failed to take public records requests seriously.”

The county agreed to pay more than $371,800 in attorneys’ fees at the time, and to establish a new policy for how to handle public business on private email accounts.

The Lake Point venture began as a public-private partnership that would allow Lake Point’s owners to operate a for-profit rockpit to mine and sell aggregate — a mixture of minerals —for construction projects. In exchange, Lake Point would donate the 2,200-acre property to the district, which would use it to divert water from Lake Okeechobee or the C-44 Canal to avoid discharges into the St. Lucie Estuary.

The water on the land, which former owners had used to grow sugarcane, would be treated and then sent south into Florida Bay. Lake Point argued the agreement with the district gave it the right to transport and supply water; the company wanted to sell water to Palm Beach County. Martin County countered that Lake Point was not allowed to conduct a revenue-generating public water-supply project on the property.

The county canceled the contract in late 2012, after Hurchalla urged county commissioners to reject it, claiming it could destroy as much as 60 acres of wetlands. Lake Point countered that Hurchalla’s claims were false, and sought copies of private emails between commissioners and Hurchalla.

Emails discovered in the case revealed that more than one commissioner used personal email accounts to conduct public business, and Lake Point sued. 

In March 2016, Hurchalla produced emails that the county had denied existed for two years. They showed that she had been engaged in discussions with former Commissioner Anne Scott and Commissioner Ed Fielding about canceling the contract and appeared to coach Scott to “limit the discussion” and cancel the contract. 

The court-appointed arbitrator concluded that County Commissioner Sarah Heard scrubbed information and altered public records, after she claimed her private Yahoo! account was hacked. Now, a grand jury is reviewing those developments. 

The county commission voted 4-1 to approve the settlement with only Heard voting no. 

County Commissioner Ed Ciampi called it "a dark day in Martin County."

Commission Chair Doug Smith called the need for the settlement "reckless,'' according to TC Palm. "We are borrowing money to dig our way out of a hole," he said, adding that the county could have built two fire stations with the money spent on the settlement.

Heard, however, maintained she had done nothing wrong.

"This is the most alarming proposal I've ever seen put before any board,'' she said, according to TC Palm. "We didn't do anything wrong. This is an unveiled assault on opposition, on criticism. It's meant to vanquish opposition and critics, to muzzle the public and critical public officials."

Related: Martin County slapped with big public records fine



Florida Turnpike chief is advising N.J.'s new Democratic governor

The executive director of Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, is advising the newly-elected Democratic governor of New Jersey on transportation issues.

Gutierrez-Scaccetti is listed among 145 transition team members for Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, who was elected last week to succeed Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

Before Gutierrez-Scaccetti came to Florida six years ago, she was executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. She was hired in Florida by former transportation secretary Ananth Prasad.

The Times/Herald asked Gov. Rick Scott’s office if the governor approved of his top Turnpike executive advising a Democratic governor who’s a former appointee of President Barack Obama (Murphy served as ambassador to Germany).

Scott’s response: “Florida is home to the country’s best transportation system. It’s no surprise that other states would seek the guidance of Florida’s transportation professionals.”

For the record, Murphy’s transition announcement about Gutierrez-Scaccetti made no mention of her Florida position, only her past work in New Jersey.

Trump, who mocked Rubio's water moment, has one of his own


via @learyreports

WASHINGTON – Move over, Marco. It's Donald Trump's time to reach for water.

Moments ago during a live address about is Asia trip, the apparently parched president stopped for a drink of water, summoning Marco Rubio's infamous water lunge when he gave the GOP response to the State of the Union in 2012.

The Internet goes nuts.

Trump mocked Rubio during the presidential primary. 

Even Rubio weighed in.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times, with Patricia Mazzei

Florida may have a housing crisis but governor wants $92 million in housing funds used for his other priorities

Workforce housing in the Keys  Al DiazAs every Florida county struggles with an affordable housing problem, Gov. Rick Scott signaled Tuesday he is poised to engage again in the annual real estate bait and switch on taxpayers.

In the last budget proposal of his term, the governor wants to sweep money from the affordable housing trust funds and use $92 million of it for other priorities. If the Legislature agrees, it will be the 17th time since Jeb Bush took office that millions of dollars intended to lower the cost of housing in Florida will be swept into the general revenue account to fund pet projects, other spending priorities and tax breaks.

The governor’s budget includes $230.3 million for housing programs — the most he has proposed since he was elected in 2010. That includes $20 million steered to workforce housing in the Florida Keys, $96.3 million to pay for projects funded by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation and $34 million for the State Housing Initiatives Partnership program, which works with local governments.

Scott’s increased focus on housing comes after Hurricane Irma wiped out workforce housing in the Keys. Thousands of Puerto Ricans are living on temporary hotel vouchers with no place to go in Central Florida. The Florida Housing Coalition reports that nearly 1 million Florida households use more than half their income on housing. And studies show that inMiami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Naples, families need to earn more than $22 an hour to afford the rent on the average two-bedroom apartment. Read more here. 

Photo: The stock of affordable housing in the Keys took a big hit in Hurricane Irma. This is the Seabreeze trailer park along the Overseas Highway, Tuesday, September 12, 2017. AL DIAZ

Tis the season: Trump set to return to Mar-a-Lago for Thanksgiving

From the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is set to spend Thanksgiving in Palm Beach, Florida, continuing a family tradition he maintained before moving to the White House.

A Federal Aviation Administration notice advises that Trump will be in the area that hosts several of his private clubs Nov. 21-26. Trump has frequented the area for decades, owning the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach and a golf course a mile away in West Palm Beach. A White House official didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the president’s travel plans.

Earlier this year, Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago. As president, Trump has spent all or part of more than 75 days at properties he owns in Florida, Virginia and New Jersey.

Photo credit: Charles Trainor Jr., Miami Herald staff

Rubio sees ‘progress’ on Senate tax bill

Marco Rubio 3

via @learyreports @alextdaugherty

Senate Republicans unveiled changes to their tax overhaul plan on Tuesday, and one of the changes is a $2,000 child tax credit championed by Sen. Marco Rubio.

The $2,000 tax credit is the minimum amount that the Florida Republican said was necessary to help working families in a tax proposal and he previously indicated he would vote against any plan that did not meet the $2,000 minimum.

"We are making progress," Rubio said Wednesday on Twitter.

The initial Senate plan increased the child tax credit to $1,650 from the current $1,000 maximum, $50 more than the House proposal released two weeks ago. Democrats say the credit should be even higher and Rubio at one point talked up $2,500. 

Rubio held numerous meetings with Ivanka Trump and Utah Sen. Mike Lee to discuss a higher child tax credit. 

"I’m not going to vote for an increase on the middle class," Rubio said in October. "But we’re not going to get to that point. We’re not that crazy around here."

Democrats are not expected to vote in favor of the GOP tax bill, especially after Republicans included a provision to repeal Obamacare's individual mandate on Tuesday. Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, is frustrated that Democrats were not included in any preliminary discussions on a tax bill. 

Florida Democrats have bashed lobbyist candidates. Will they now support one?



On the heels of a special election where Florida Democrats successfully snatched a state senate seat from Republican hands while hammering their opponent for being a land-use attorney and lobbyist, is the party's best hope for keeping disgraced Rep. Daisy Baez's House of Representatives seat in the fold a ... land-use attorney and lobbyist?

Florida House Democrats on Tuesday announced that Javier Fernandez, a Holland and Knight attorney, will seek Baez's District 114 seat. Baez resigned the post this month just before pleading guilty to misdemeanor perjury charges after lying about her address on her voter's registration form.

Gov. Rick Scott has scheduled a primary for Feb. 20. Liz de las Cuevas, a Republican, announced her campaign for the seat last week.

Fernandez, 42, has been involved with the party for years. He earned his bona fides advocating for affordable housing and twice served as chief of staff to former Miami mayor Manny Diaz back when Diaz was a rising star in the party. Fernandez has a reputation around Miami-Dade as a straight-shooting, meticulous attorney.

But Fernandez's profile is a bit unusual for the party if he wins the primary, given that they spent the last year attacking Republican legislators Jose Felix Diaz and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla over their jobs as land-use attorneys who lobby local governments for private clients.


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