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March 13, 2017

President Trump will be back in Mar-a-Lago this weekend

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President Donald Trump is heading back to sunny South Florida this weekend, after a winter snowstorm is forecast to wallop Washington.

The president will travel to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach on Friday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer announced Monday.

Trump is expected to be back in early April to host Chinese President Xi Jinping, Axios reported.

--with Anita Kumar

Photo credit: Susan Walsh, Associated Press


Federal lawsuit challenges Florida's civil rights restoration system

A federal lawsuit filed Monday against Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected Cabinet members seeks to end Florida's "unconstitutionally arbitrary" system for restoring the civil rights of convicted felons.

A voting rights group, the Fair Elections Legal Network, filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee on behalf of seven felons. The lawsuit says 1.6 million Floridians are currently disenfranchised, the most of any state, and that more than 10,000 are awaiting public hearings on their restoration applications. In most states, a felon's rights are automatically restored after the completion of a sentence, including probation and payment of court costs.

Under the state's arcane and secretive clemency process, most documents are exempt from disclosure and Scott and his colleagues can deny a clemency petition without giving an explanation, which is what happened to Orville (Lee) Wollard, who's serving a 20-year sentence in state prison for firing a warning shot in a family dispute in which no one was injured. 

"Florida's arbitrary rights restoration process violates the U.S. Constitution and hinders former felons from truly re-entering society," Fair Elections said in a news release.

Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, who took office in 2011, supported a policy shift that requires most convicted felons to wait for five years after leaving prison before they can petition the state to regain the right to vote, serve on a jury or run for public office. That change was also supported by the two other Cabinet members, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. All four officials will be termed out of office in 2018. 

The lawsuit alleges that since 2011, only 2,488 applications for restoration of civil rights have been granted by Scott and the Cabinet, who meet four times a year as the state clemency board. That number compares to 155,315 approvals during the four-year term of former Gov. Charlie Crist and 73,508 during the eight years Jeb Bush was governor.


Rick Scott back on the road to keep heat on Florida House members


Gov. Rick Scott is not letting up on Florida House members who voted last week to kill Enterprise Florida, the agency he has relied on to attract companies to Florida in the name of creating jobs.

Scott this afternoon has scheduled what he has been calling a "Jobs Roundtable" with business leaders in Tallahassee to discuss the impact that killing Enterprise Florida and diminishing Visit Florida would have. Later this week he plans another stop in Sarasota to hold a similar event. And tomorrow, his office announced they will have a rally at the Florida Capitol with "tourism leaders, business owners, and community members" about the need to fully fund Visit Florida, an agency House leaders want to cut back funding for in light of controversial marketing expenses on celebrities to promote the state.

Over the last month Scott has held similar job promotion rallies in Miami, Tampa, Flagler Beach, Panama City and St. Cloud. At each of those events he has called out Republicans who have voted for the bill to kill Enterprise Florida and cut back Visit Florida.

On Friday, the House voted 87 to 28 for House bill 7005, which would kill Enterprise Florida and 23 other state tax incentives and programs. State Rep. Paul Renner, a Republican from Flagler Beach, said the government should not be in the business of favoring some businesses and industries over others.

Scott's stops in Tallahassee will be in seemingly friendly territory. He'll be in a city represented by Loranne Ausley and Ramon Alexander - both Democrats who voted against the bill to kill Enterprise Florida.

Magic Johnson meets with state lawmakers on HIV/AIDS



Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the NBA star, is lobbying state lawmakers on a health care agenda and awareness of HIV/AIDS.

Monday morning, he told Senate Democrats about a need for better dental care for children and emphasized his work on HIV. Johnson left the Los Angeles Lakers in 1991 after announcing that he was HIV-positive. Since then, he has been an advocate for better treatment and open discussion about the disease.

“What we were able to do was have so many effective town hall meetings of people who were living with HIV and AIDS and that sort of had them say, ‘Okay, maybe I can come out to my family that I do have HIV and people will accept me and people won’t discriminate against me,’ ” Johnson said.

Johnson came to the state Capitol with another motivation, however: He is an investor in Simply Healthcare Plans, which holds an expiring state Medicaid managed care contract and has a plan specifically for Medicaid recipients living with HIV/AIDS. 

Johnson and Simply Healthcare’s top brass were scheduled to meet with Republicans, as well.

In recent years, this state -- and South Florida especially -- has experienced high rates of HIV. Senate Democrats, along with a few outspoken Republicans, refused to confirm Surgeon General John Armstrong last year after Times/Herald reporting showed that the state Department of Health was making staffing cutbacks while not emphasizing the HIV outbreak.

"Progress has been made," said Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, who was critical of Armstrong and has led the charge on needle exchange programs as a way to combat the spread of HIV. "Now, it's definitely something that's on (DOH officials') tongues, something that they're talking about. I think the next step is some of the reasons why we have such high rates, like the opioid crisis."

In the Democratic caucus, he found lawmakers eager to find a connection with one of basketball’s greatest stars. Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Ocoee, played basketball at College of William and Mary. Said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, “I grew up as Magic Montford."

Photo: Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and her newborn twins meet Magic Johnson Monday in the state Capitol.

Miami Republicans to Iowa's Steve King: 'Get a clue'

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Two Hispanic Republican members of Congress from Miami have denounced an inflammatory comment from one of their colleagues who seemed to endorse white nationalism.

Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King shared a story Sunday on Twitter about Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician known for his anti-Islam views.

King's remark was praised by David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard.

Sunday night, Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, the son of Cuban immigrants, responded to King on Twitter:

Monday morning, Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was born in Cuba, shared a story about King calling on a "homogeneous" U.S. population.

King hasn't responded to either comment.

UPDATE: Jeb Bush has praised Curbelo:

Photo credit: Jose A. Iglesias, el Nuevo Herald

Gov. Scott's ideas for teacher incentives didn't resonate; Legislature has own plans



Back at the end of January, Gov. Rick Scott made teachers a top priority in his budget recommendations to the Legislature for next year.

But his proposals aren’t getting much traction, now that lawmakers are delving into the nitty-gritty of their own ideas.

More here.

Photo credit: AP

March 12, 2017

Frank Artiles drops green flag, accelerates bills favorable to FPL

Frank Artiles NextEraSen. Frank Artiles put on a brown jacket with “NextEra” emblazoned on the back and waved the green flag for the unofficial start to the Friday night truck race at this year’s Daytona 500 weekend.

Within minutes, a dramatic crash became the highlight of the season-opening event sponsored by NextEra, the parent company to Florida Power & Light.

Artiles, the chairman of the Florida Senate’s Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee, also used the event to conduct a fundraiser, which he says raised him more than $10,000. Now, Artiles, a Republican from south Miami-Dade County is returning a favor to Florida’s largest utility.

In the first meeting of his energy committee since the start of the Legislature’s annual session, Artiles has scheduled two recently filed bills sought by FPL that will address two court rulings that dealt significant blows to the company.

One bill, SB 1238, by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, would allow utilities to charge customers for exploratory natural gas fracking in other states, overturning a Florida Supreme Court ruling against FPL last year.

Another bill, SB 1048, by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, would revise state law after the Third District Court of Appeal ruling that found Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet — acting as the state siting board overseeing power plants — failed to consider the city of Miami’s development rules when it signed off on allowing FPL to string 88 miles of line atop towers 80 to 150 feet high.

The legislation would unravel the court decision and revise existing law relating to rights of way corridors, allow new variances for local land use regulations, and give the Public Service Commission the exclusive authority to order utilities to bury utility lines, said Victoria Mendez, general counsel for the city of Miami, which filed the lawsuit. Story here. 


March 11, 2017

About that Miami-Dade state attorney's investigation into Steve Bannon


In a story published Saturday, The Washington Post mentioned that Steve Bannon, now President Donald Trump's senior White House adviser, is being investigated by the Miami-Dade County state attorney's office over his time as a registered Florida voter.

Prosecutors began looking into whether Bannon was a Florida resident in August, after The Guardian reported Bannon was once registered to vote in Miami, where he had leased a home in Coconut Grove. (The Miami Herald followed up with a story on Bannon's brief Miami presence here.) The Miami-Dade elections department confirmed the investigation to WTVJ-NBC 6 on Aug. 31 after prosecutors had requested records from elections staff.

The Post reported Saturday investigators had questioned Bannon's landlords, gardener and handyman. But the most explosive detail seemed to be that the state attorney's office, run by Democrat Katherine Fernández Rundle, still considers its Bannon case an "active criminal" investigation.

That's true because the review hasn't been closed yet. But local prosecutors are notoriously slow in closing out investigations that lead nowhere. And, six months later, it appears that little has come from the Bannon case. The Post's confirmation of the still-open investigation, however, might actually pressure prosecutors to complete it.

Bannon, it should be noted, never actually voted in Florida.

--with David Ovalle

This post has been updated.

Photo credit: Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS

Have a laugh -- for a good cause -- at 2017 Press Skits


There's general consensus around the Florida Capitol these days that it's going to be a long spring.

So with Week 1 of session behind us, why not take a load off while you still can and enjoy a night of jokes, music and laughter for a good cause?

The Florida Capitol Press Corps has just the event.

The "sometimes" annual Press Skits begin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at The Moon, 1105 E. Lafayette St. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

This year, it's the "Crony Awards" so come watch your favorite Capitol reporters -- with a couple surprise guests -- sing and dance and poke fun at Tallahassee's elite. No one and no topic is off limits.

Floor seats have sold out, but general admission tickets are still available for $30. (They're going fast; don't wait!) Buy tickets online here.

Proceeds benefit the Barbara L. Frye Scholarship, which the Press Corps awards annually to high school seniors and college students pursuing careers in journalism.

p.s. Thanks for indulging our shameless plug. See you at Press Skits!

New Veterans Affairs secretary visits busy Miami hospital

VXS11 Veterans News rkvia @dchangmiami

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin visited the Miami VA Healthcare System on Friday, less than a month after he was unanimously confirmed to lead the Veterans Affairs Department in February.

He is the only member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet to have served in the Obama administration, having previously spent 18 months as undersecretary for health in charge of the sprawling VA medical system, which serves 9 million veterans a year.

The 57-year-old internist and longtime healthcare executive is the first non-veteran to serve as VA secretary. Shulkin was president and CEO of New York City-based Beth Israel Medical Center from 2005 to 2009 and he supports integrating the VA system with private-sector healthcare.

With a $75.2 billion annual budget, the VA manages veterans benefit programs and operates the largest integrated healthcare system in the nation, including nearly 1,300 VA medical centers. The Miami VA Healthcare System is among Florida’s busiest, serving about 58,000 patients a year, with an annual budget of $537 million and about 2,800 employees.

Among Shulkin’s first acts as secretary was to offer urgent mental-health care beginning this summer to thousands of veterans with less-than-honorable discharges, part of a broader effort to stem a high rate of suicide among former service members.

Following confirmation, Shulkin publicly outlined his priorities for the department. His goals include passing the new accountability legislation and extending the Choice Program that allows veterans to see doctors and hospitals outside of the federally run system.

Questions and Shulkin’s responses have been edited for context and length.

More here.

Photo credit: Roberto Koltun, el Nuevo Herald