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June 26, 2019

Miami's Democratic debates draw out the first television ad of the 2020 mayor's race


Daniella Levine Cava is a Democrat hoping to ride a blue wave into County Hall in the 2020 race for Miami-Dade mayor, and she's using her party's Miami debates to attract some attention. 

The two-term county commissioner is airing campaign ads on NBC's Miami station during the Wednesday and Thursday primary debates, her campaign said. The spot ticks off problems in Miami-Dade, including affordable housing, wages, transit and the environment. The "community in crisis" spot  includes an implicit swipe at her Democratic rival in the non-partisan race: former county mayor Alex Penelas.

Penelas championed the county's half-percent sales tax for transportation, enacted while he was mayor in 2002. The narrator in the Levine Cava ad states: "Traffic worsening with nothing more than empty promises from yesterday's politicians." 



June 05, 2019

Kionne McGhee running for Miami-Dade County Commission in 2020


He was endorsed by the incumbent months ago, but Kionne McGhee had declined to publicly confirm he was running to succeed Commissioner Dennis Moss in Miami-Dade's District 9 next yea. On Wednesday, McGhee, a 41-year-old lawyer who was born in Naranja in South Dade,  made it official and filed for what's already a crowded race.

The Democratic minority leader of the Florida House, McGhee's District 117 overlaps with the county district Moss has represented for nearly three decades. Term limits taking effect for the first time in 2020 are requiring most incumbent county commissioners to leave office over the next three years, while state term limits have required McGhee's 2020 exit from Tallahassee since he was first elected in 2012. 

"I believe I have the expertise and the know how and the experience to get the job done on Day One," McGhee said in an interview. "Transportation has plagued and stifled this community in more ways than you can imagine. Affordable housing is similar in that it's causing a crisis in our South Dade community." He also pointed to small-business relief and violence reduction as priorities. 

Moss endorsed McGhee in a February interview with Naked Politics, and McGhee's plan to run for the District 9 seat in South Dade was not a secret. 

McGhee joins three existing candidates for the open, non-partisan seat: former county aide and school administrator Mark Coats, corporate lawyer Marlon Hill, and Johnny Farias, a member of the South Bay Community Council. 

The 13-seat commission holds staggered elections every two years, with odd-numbered seats up in 2020. Five of the seven commissioners with seats up in 2020 are required to leave under term-limit rules. Two others with seats up in 2022, Daniella Levine Cava and Jean Monestime, are planning to run for county mayor next year. If they qualify for the race in the summer of 2020, that will open up their seats as well, creating seven open races for county commission. 

May 21, 2019

Fourth Miami-Dade commissioner: I'm running for mayor in 2020


It's not official yet, but a fourth Miami-Dade commissioner is sending word he plans to run for county mayor in 2020.

Jean Monestime, a former commission chairman who took office in 2014 as the first Haitian-American member of the 13-seat board, has privately told fellow commissioners he is running. Publicly, he sounds like a candidate-in-waiting. "I'm speaking to leaders in the community right now. I'm reaching out to different advisers and counselors and elders in the community. I'm trying to formulate a plan to get in there," Monestime said of the 2020 race during a Tuesday interview. "I think I should be able to do that formally within the next 30 days." 

The Democrat joins three fellow commissioners on the list of 2020 contenders. Only one, Daniella Levine Cava, has actually filed candidacy papers. The other two, Esteban "Steve" Bovo and Xavier Suarez, are raising money for a potential 2020 race to succeed term-limited Carlos Gimenez, but have not filed papers or made an announcement. 

Bovo and fellow commissioner Joe Martinez both said Tuesday that Monestime told them he was running for mayor in 2020. While county offices are non-partisan, Florida's Democratic Party tried to recruit Monestime to challenge Gimenez, a Republican, in 2016. Monestime considered it but ultimately passed on the race. 

While in place for the mayor since the 1990s, term-limit rules in 2020 will force their first retirements for county commissioners, including Bovo and Suarez. Monestime and Levine Cava's final four-year terms do not expire until 2022. 


May 13, 2019

Florida banking regulator suspended over harassment allegation

Florida’s top banking regulator was suspended Friday after an employee accused him of “inappropriate and uncomfortable" behavior just weeks after he took the job.
Ronald Rubin, commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation, is on paid leave while an inspector general investigates.
An agency spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the open investigation. Rubin was unable to be reached for comment Monday, but he declined to comment to the American Banker newspaper over the weekend.
On Friday, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis issued a press release announcing Rubin’s suspension and released a redacted complaint filed by one of the employees working in Rubin’s agency.
The employee, whose name and title were redacted, described behavior by Rubin that forced the employee to hide and take time off to avoid seeing the commissioner.
On the way to lunch with Rubin one day in April, the commissioner suggested the two stop by his downtown Tallahassee condominium “so that he could show me the renovations that had been done,” according to the complaint.
Rubin asked the employee to remove their shoes, and the employee described it as an “uncomfortable situation.”
While at lunch, Rubin mentioned his parents’ sex life. On the way back from lunch, Rubin again wanted to stop by his condo to talk to people who were painting it.
The next day, Rubin offered the employee to go with him to a conference in Washington. When the employee declined, he offered a key to his D.C. apartment whenever the employee wanted to visit the city.
The behavior prompted the employee to ask for another position within the agency. And in other instances, the employee hid in an office and declined to hang out with coworkers out of fear of running into Rubin, according to the complaint.
“I feel like my opportunities to get to know my coworkers and people in this agency have been hindered by inappropriate and uncomfortable circumstances,” the employee wrote. “Considering I am new to the agency it has made my transition here much more difficult than I feel it should be or would be otherwise.”
“Every person deserves to feel safe and respected in their work environment,” Patronis said in a statement Friday. “That standard is non-negotiable.”
On Monday, Attorney General Ashley Moody called the allegations “deeply troubling" and said they should be addressed during an emergency Cabinet meeting. Rubin reports to the Cabinet, which includes Moody, Patronis, the governor and the Commissioner of Agriculture.
Rubin, a former special counsel in the Division of Enforcement at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, was named in February to handle oversight of Florida’s banks, check-cashing stores and payday loan shops.
The appointment came nearly nine months after Patronis forced out Rubin’s predecessor, former Commissioner Drew Breakspear.
Patronis had cited concerns over Breakspear’s “lack of cooperation, responsiveness, and communication,” and Patronis’ office also said he was upset over Breakspear’s handling of a sexual assault complaint between two Financial Regulation employees.

May 08, 2019

FBI will meet with Florida lawmakers to discuss 2016 Russia hack

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The FBI will meet with Florida Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives on May 16th after they asked for a briefing on the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in Florida during the 2016 presidential election, a congressional source told the Miami Herald. 

Politico Florida first reported the meeting, which Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Michael Waltz requested on May 2nd. The FBI is also meeting with Sen. Rick Scott and Gov. Ron DeSantis after the Mueller Report said an FBI investigation found that "at least one Florida county" was infiltrated by Russian spear phishing attempts during the 2016 campaign. It's unclear which county was hacked and how much information the hack elicited. 

Sen. Marco Rubio told the New York Times that an intelligence operation uncovered the breach some time ago. But he said national security officials chose to protect intelligence methods by issuing a broad warning to Florida’s 67 elections offices instead of informing the state or the local office that had been hacked.

“Everybody has been told what it is they need to do to protect themselves from the intrusion,” Rubio said. “I don’t believe the specific victims of the intrusion have been notified.”

The confirmation by Rubio, a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, elevated concerns about the security of elections in a state of 13 million voters. It also shed a new light on why there has been so much confusion around whether Florida was, in fact, hacked during the 2016 campaign.

Republicans think Ilhan Omar is a winning message against South Florida Democrats



South Florida Democrats are among the most knowledgable lawmakers on the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, and frequently work with Republicans on the issue. After all, they represent some of the largest Venezuelan and South American communities in the United States. 

That doesn't matter to national Republicans.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, a group that seeks to elect Republicans to the House of Representatives, launched a Facebook ad campaign this week targeting Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell for not calling on Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar to step down from the foreign affairs committee after she referred to U.S. support for Juan Guaido as a U.S.-backed coup attempt.

"Ilhan Omar blamed the U.S. for the Venezuela crisis and openly supports murderous socialist dictator Nicolas Maduro," the ad says. "But Debbie Mucarsel-Powell has been SILENT. Tell Debbie it's time to remove Omar from the Foreign Relations Committee." 


Omar is a lightning rod for controversy during her first months in office, making comments about Jewish people that evoked anti-Semitic stereotypes in addition to her critical comments on the administration's decision to recognize Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader. Republicans have called on her to step down from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mucarsel-Powell, along with South Florida Reps. Donna Shalala and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, were the first three members of Congress to sponsor legislation in response to the crisis in Venezuela and they do not share views of some of their colleagues on the left. Their bills passed the House of Representatives and await consideration in the Senate. 

"We are targeting key swing voters who don't share in the socialist Democrats' embrace of a brutal dictator," NRCC spokesperson Camille Gallo said in an email. The ads will run for seven days and she said the total spending of the ad by is in the "thousands," according to Gallo. 

Mucarsel-Powell has an announced Republican challenger in Irina Vilariño, the owner of Las Vegas Cuban restaurants, but she remains the favorite to win reelection in a Democratic-leaning district after raising over $450,000 in the first quarter of 2019.  She won one of the most expensive congressional races in the country in 2018 on a healthcare-focused message and her district is rated as "lean Democratic" by the Cook Political Report.

The NRCC has also attacked South Florida Democrats on whether or not they support impeaching Donald Trump, though none of them back impeachment. 

'You can call him our water czar': Nikki Fried names Florida's new water policy director


Florida's got a new "water czar," agriculture commissioner Nicole "Nikki" Fried announced Wednesday.

Chris Pettit, who has worked for years in water management districts and county water utilities, will replace Steve Dwinell, who retired as water policy director for the state's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Office of Agricultural Water Policy.

Fried said Pettit and his office will work to develop and implement best management practices, known as BMPs, for agriculture. BMPs, which have been criticized in the past for not being enforced, aim at lowering and maintaining nutrient runoff from farming operations. The nutrient runoff is a key source in the development of the red tide and blue-green algae that choked Florida's coasts and waterways last summer.

Fried said she is still seeking money for BMP implementation. This year she requested $25 million in the budget to help Florida farmers implement water efficiency improvements and reduce nutrient usage, but only received $4 million — a $1 million reduction from last year's budget. 

"Addressing our state's water issues was one of my top priorities when I was running for office," Fried said during a press conference at the South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach. "Today's appointment is an important step in achieving that goal. Cleaning up our water and keeping it clean for generations to come involves real comprehensive solutions to our water problems." 

She said Pettit's new role will involve building partnerships to the state's agriculture and environmental community to build a "path forward" to a cleaner Florida. 

"Chris and I have a shared approach of really bringing everybody together, listening and finding common ground," she said. 

Pettit said he hopes to move past any "divisiveness" in the communities, which have blamed one another for last summer's outbreak. 

"We share a vision, finding common ground between agricultural, environmental and urban communities in pursuit of healthy ecosystem and watersheds," he said. "My responsibility is to ... bring stakeholders together and tackle these difficult issues."

Who are the six Republican Florida lawmakers who voted against the bill allowing teachers to be armed?

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami
Perhaps the bill that drew the most local and national headlines during Florida’s legislative session was Senate Bill 7030, which allows classroom teachers to be armed on campus. The bill was a follow-up to last year’s law passed in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, which first created the “Guardian program” to allow school staff to be armed but excluded teachers who “exclusively perform classroom duties" from being eligible.
This year’s bill, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in the coming days, undid that exception. Anyone volunteering to participate in the program must undergo screening and training by law enforcement.
The bill was largely passed along party lines. However, a handful of Republicans broke ranks to also vote against the bill along with the Democrats.
In the House, five GOP state representatives voted “no:" Reps. Mike Beltran of Lithia, Vance Aloupis of Miami, Chip LaMarca of Fort Lauderdale, Mike Caruso of Delray Beach and David Smith of Winter Springs.
All five are freshmen, meaning they were just elected to the Legislature last year. Several said they had not coordinated their vote, but instead had decided on their own they would not support the bill.
Beltran said his vote was the result of several months’ worth of research as well as “overwhelming opposition” from his constituents.
“I feel that firearms in our schools belong in the hands of trained law enforcement professionals. I am prepared to allocate the resources necessary to protect each school,” he wrote in a statement. “Community sentiment strongly aligned with my own analysis and so the answer was clear.”
Similarly, Aloupis said his vote was influenced by his community’s reaction to the idea.
“School safety isn’t a partisan issue,” he said. “There’s much good that the bill will do, especially in the area of data sharing. However, many parents and other stakeholders in my community urged me to vote ‘no’ for reasons specific to the Guardian program — and it’s my responsibility to make sure that those voices are heard in Tallahassee.”
In addition to the contentious piece involving teachers carrying guns, the bill also adds a slew of other school safety measures, such as more specific guidelines for how schools should offer mental health services to students as well as creates a standardized, statewide “threat assessment” tool for schools to keep records of students they feel may pose a “behavioral threat” to themselves or others.
LaMarca said the fact that his district is in Broward County played a role.
“Having heard from hundreds of families, parents, students, school district members, law enforcement officers, as well as members of the (Marjory Stoneman Douglas) Public Safety Commission ... I voted NO,” he wrote. “My geographic location and personal relationships with many of the families and elected officials made this a very personal issue for me.”
In the Senate, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said during a committee meeting in mid-April that she would not be supporting the bill in an emotional speech, so her “no” vote was expected.
When it comes to putting more guns in schools, "there’s more things that can go wrong than can go right in that situation,” she said at the time. “I really hope that I’m wrong. I hope we’re all wrong and it will be a lot more good that comes from this than bad, but I firmly believe our kids’ lives should be protected by more than just hope.”
To see how other state senators voted on the bill, click here.
To view the votes in the state House, click here.

May 04, 2019

Changes to Bright Futures test score requirements passed by Florida Legislature

Senate keeler
SCOTT KEELER | Times The Florida Senate was in session on Tuesday, April 30, 2019 during the last week of the sixty day session.

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature passed a bill, Senate Bill 190, that will result in higher required test scores for Bright Futures college scholarships for students who graduate in 2021 and beyond.

For students who would receive the “Academic” scholarship, which covers full tuition and fees at state universities and colleges, the required SAT score will rise from 1290 to around 1330. For the second-tier “Medallion” award which covers 75 percent of tuition and fees, the benchmark would climb from 1170 to about 1200.

The specific number for the new scores would be set by the Department of Education based on national averages, which are rising as a result of the test-makers removing the quarter-point penalty for wrong answers in 2016.

Even still, the change in scores will likely result in thousands of high school students no longer being eligible, and Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said low-income and minority students would be disproportionately affected.

READ MORE: Bright Futures standards could rise, hurting students of color — again

Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, who sponsored the House version, said the change is needed to ensure the scholarship goes to students who are “indeed our best scholars.”

The bill also, notably, did not include another measure supported in the House that would have required universities to survey their faculty and students about their political leanings to ensure “intellectual diversity.”

Republicans in the Senate, however, rejected that language.

“I tell you this bill doesn’t have that in it because many of us ... find that idea dangerous," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. “Any time our country’s ever gone down that road it’s ended poorly.”

May 02, 2019

FL House passes bill to bury power lines

FPL elnuevo 91917

A bill that would require utilities to give long-range storm protection plans to the Florida Public Service Commission got the OK from the Florida House.

Without any debate and an overwhelming 110-3 vote, the bill passed through the House Wednesday. The bill passed 37-2 in the Senate last week.

The bill aims to create more plans to bring power lines underground, an expensive process that may or may not deliver significant improvement in the grid. It provides an opportunity for investor-owned utilities to build infrastructure and profit from the capital improvements — charges that will show up on customer utility bills.

According to the staff analysis by the House and Senate, these new bills create a new cost recovery charge, separate from a utility’s base rates. An investor-owned utility can recover its costs to implement a 30-year storm protection plan, including a profit on capital projects.

Sen. José Javier Rodríguez spoke to House Democrats at their pre-session caucus meeting Tuesday, pointing out issues in the bill. 

“There’s going to be less scrutiny on what they’re spending it on and it will be more expensive for consumers on this state,” said the Miami Democrat, who was one of two “no” votes in the Senates.

Rodríguez compared the bill to an action in 2011 when the state approved requests by FPL and another utility, Progress Energy, to add more than $2 monthly to their customers’ bills for nuclear “cost recovery.” The “cost recovery” is for plants that may never be built including proposed new reactors at Turkey Point, 25 miles south of Miami near Homestead.

“This is basically the same thing,” he added.

House Democratic Reps. Anna Eskamani, Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, and Cindy Polo, D-Miami Lakes, voted no after bringing up similar concerns in debate Tuesday night.

Eskamani, D-Orlando, asked a series of questions regarding the cost being passed off to customers and the utility companies that would benefit. 

“I have serious concerns around any legislation that provides another avenue for investor-owned-utilities to increase rates,” she said.

Rep. Randy Fine, who sponsored the House bill, said constituents will appreciate the extra costs when their lights stay on, bringing up anecdotal examples of nursing homes that go black during hurricanes or restaurant workers who lose when the power goes out.

The Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, already has a plan in place for storm hardening.

After the rash of Florida hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, the Public Service Commission imposed several new requirements on utility companies with respect to preparing for storms and strengthening infrastructure. The commission adopted a rule that requires each company to file storm hardening plans every three years.

“Do we want resiliency?” the Palm Bay Republican asked. “Do we want hardening? Do we want long-term plans?"

The Public Service Commission estimates that the implementation of the bill would require them to hire four more employees, which Fine said is a testament to an increased focus on transparency. In total, they would cost about $261,269 in the next fiscal year.

Undergrounding just 4 percent of Florida Power and Light’s overhead power lines would cost about $577 million per year, according to a staff analysis of the bill. The state’s largest utility’s current undergrounding program costs more than $632,000 per mile.

Democrats are coming to Broward as part of a national voting rights effort

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Broward County was ground zero for claims of election fraud, blown deadlines, lawsuits and incompetence during the 2018 election.

Now, Democrats are coming from Washington to hold hearings in Fort Lauderdale as part of a national effort to examine voting rights and election administration issues.

On Monday, four members of the Committee on House Administration, along with local Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Alcee Hastings, will hold an official field hearing at the Broward County Governmental Center. Former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who is leading an effort to register one million new voters ahead of the 2020 election, is among the witnesses.

Since taking control of the House in November, House Democrats, led by Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, had or are planning hearings and listening sessions in Brownsville, Texas, Atlanta, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Alabama and Washington, D.C. The Atlanta hearing included former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and Gillum ally Stacey Abrams, and Republicans argued that her testimony was being used to raise her political profile.

Democrats are using the hearings to build evidence for future legislation that would require certain states to obtain federal pre-clearance before changing any voting laws or practices. In a landmark 2013 case, the Supreme Court ruled that a provision in the Voting Rights Act designed to prevent laws or policies that deny people the right to vote based on race was unconstitutional. Since the decision, certain states have tried to pass voter ID laws or revived voter ID laws that were declared invalid by the federal government.

More here.

May 01, 2019

FL Legislature approves right to grow veggie gardens


The Miami Shores front-yard vegetable garden, as seen in 2013, that created a dispute leading to this year's legislation that would prevent local governments from regulating locations of such gardens (Walter Michot / Miami Herald file)





A bill that will ban local governments from regulating vegetable gardens — and herb, fruit and flower gardens — is headed to the governor’s desk.

The House bill, which passed 93-16 on Wednesday, prohibits local governments from regulating vegetable gardens on residential property and voids any existing ordinances or regulations that tell people where they can and can’t grow their own produce.

An identical Senate version passed 35-5 out of the chamber last week.

The conversation surrounding vegetable gardens is rooted in a legal dispute about an ordinance in Miami Shores that banned the gardens from being planted in front yards. Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll, who ate from their vegetable garden for 17 years, sued the village after they faced $50 in daily fines after the village amended its ordinance in 2013. They had to dig up their garden — which can’t grow in their backyard because of a lack of sun. Gone were their tomatoes, beets, scallions, spinach, kale and multiple varieties of Asian cabbage to boot.

In November 2017, an appeals court upheld a ruling that the couple does not have a constitutional right to grow vegetables in their front yard. They appealed the ruling to the Florida Supreme Court, which declined to grant review.

The main opponent to both vegetable garden bills has been the Florida League of Cities, who have argued that the unique aesthetic of Florida’s cities are brought about through code enforcement. They also argued against the idea of preemption, which would undo rules like a 2013 Orlando ordinance that allows residents to use 60 percent of their front yard as a vegetable garden.

While other concerns over too much preemption came up in committee, the bill specifies that the language does not apply to other regulations like limits on water use during droughts, regulated fertilizer use or the control of invasive species.

“This bill should not be viewed as an attack on home rule, but rather a defense of our most basic rights as Floridians," said House bill sponsor Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff, R-Deland. "Whether it’s a hobby or a way for a cash strapped family to save money without sacrificing their nutrition, government at any level has no business telling Floridians that they cannot grow their own food because of where they live.”

The Senate passed a similar bill during the 2018 session, but the clock ran out and it never got a House companion.

Rickets said she is relieved that she can finally regrow her garden, which she leaned on as a hobby and source of nourishment.

“After almost six years of fighting, I am relieved that my right to grow my own garden, on my own property, is finally going to be protected,” Ricketts said. “Once it was taken from me, my health suffered severely. I am looking forward to the time that I can once again grow my own food, for my own consumption, without having to worry that an overzealous code enforcement officer will try to fine me into destitution.”

Ari Bargil, who represented Ricketts and Carroll, said he was happy to hear that the Legislature understood the importance of the family's case.

“This bill eliminates the ability of local governments to enact senseless laws targeting basic acts of self-sufficiency under the pretense of ‘aesthetics,’” said attorney Ari Bargil, who represented the Miami Shores family. “By signing this bill, the governor will reaffirm that Florida is a state that respects both basic property rights and constitutionally protected civil liberties."

FL Dems say shot at killing sanctuary cities bill fell 10 minutes short

Photo courtesy Florida House


The clock neared midnight Tuesday as Representatives in the Florida House debated at length over an amendment to a larger healthcare bill that would put a proposed cap on THC for smokable medical marijuana.

House Democrats asked amendment sponsor Rep. Ray Rodrigues a series of questions related to the affordability of medical cannabis, potential for litigation and the issue of patients turning to the black market to treat their ailments with stronger marijuana. 

But at 11:50 p.m. the bill was temporarily postponed before the main debate on the bill even began. House Speaker José Oliva then told the chamber they'd be taking up SB 168, or the Senate's version of a bill to ban so-called "sanctuary cities" in Florida. 

"I hope that we can get through this before it’s time to be back in here tomorrow morning," the Miami Lakes Republican said. 

Because the bill was taken up before midnight, the Democrats said they fell 10 minutes short of killing the contentious bill, as House rules maintain that a bill cannot be heard twice in one day. If the bill were to be taken up twice, session would have to "gavel out" and then "gavel back in" for a new floor session, according to House spokesman Fred Piccolo.  

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who pushed back against THC caps when it came up in Health and Human Services Committee, said he thought the Democrats would have been able to stop the bill if they continued the questions past midnight.

'Hard-line immigration laws will have a terrible impact on our state. I had a chance to kill the bill by running out the clock, so I went for it," the Orlando Democrat said. "It almost worked. I like cannabis almost [as much] as I like to talk so it was a win-win."

"As the minority caucus in the Florida House, our options in stopping dangerous bills are limited," said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. "I am proud of our caucus for leaving nothing on the table when it comes to respecting the rule of law and pushing back against anti-immigrant legislation.”

The Senate version was replaced early Wednesday by a strike-all amendment from House bill sponsor Rep. Cord Byrd. 

Critics say his version is harsher than the Senate version, as it builds in a rule that local government employees or elected officials who permit sanctuary-city policies may be suspended or removed from office. It also includes fines of up to $5,000 for each day that a sanctuary-city policy is in place, an “anonymous complaint’ web portal through the attorney general for any person to submit an alleged violation of the policy and the threat of removal of state grant funding for entities with so-called “sanctuary policies

The House has put forward a similar bill over the past few years, but it has always died in the Senate.

If the new, House-like version of the Senate bill passes, it will be sent over to the Senate for one last vote. Only after they vote to approve the bill can it be sent for signing by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has pushed the proposal as one of his most hardline Republican campaign promises.

April 30, 2019

Healthcare bill breathes new life into proposal to cap strong smokable medical pot


While House Health & Human Services Chairman Ray Rodrigues' bill to cap medical THC — the naturally occurring element in marijuana that produces a high — was never heard on the floor and failed to get a Senate companion, the Estero Republican's proposal is not dead yet.

But although there is only a matter of days left in the legislative session, the proposal to cap strong medical pot was tacked on as an amendment to a larger health-related agency bill, as often happens to some major changes in the final days of session.

The amendment was filed to a Senate bill dealing with the Department of Health and could be taken up later Tuesday night on the House floor. The proposal would limit the amount of THC, in dried leaves and marijuana flowers to 10 percent, citing research indicating that high-potency marijuana is associated with earlier onset of psychosis and the development of schizophrenia in marijuana users.

Current law places a limit on the amount of THC in edible products only, which may only contain 10 mg of THC per serving and 200 mg in total. The levels are much higher than what most patients would normally consume, according to industry experts.

Despite criticism that the bill is trying to curb the Legislature’s recent repeal of a ban on smoking medical marijuana, committee chair Rep. Ray Rodrigues said the bill is necessary because of the research around harmful effects of high-THC marijuana.

April 29, 2019

Florida's tourism arm Visit Florida gets money for one more year

The state-funded tourism agency Visit Florida survived a potential death this week, with lawmakers deciding to fund it for one more year.
But it’s getting a big budget cut. Lawmakers are assigning it $50 million for the next fiscal year, $26 million less than Gov. Ron DeSantis asked for in his budget.
The amount is a compromise between the Senate and the House, where Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said he wanted to kill the state’s tourism arm outright.
He saw it as a waste of money when companies like Disney already do their own marketing for Florida, where tourism is one of the state’s main economic drivers.
“In a trillion-dollar economy, a few million dollars put towards advertising a few different places cannot possibly have a direct correlation with tourism,” Oliva said last week.
The agency did itself no favors the last few years after spending millions on several controversial promotions, including $11.6 million to sponsor a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and $1 million for Miami rapper Pitbull to promote Florida in videos and on social media.
The agency is now set to expire on June 30, 2020, unless lawmakers next year decide to keep paying for it.

Florida Legislature finishes K-12 education budget with $248 increase per student

Miami Herald file photo
TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers said they were finished negotiating the preK-12 education portion of the budget during a Sunday evening meeting, closing out one of the largest and typically one of the most contentious areas of the state’s massive funding plan. If the session is to finish on time, the entire state budget must be finished by the end of the day Tuesday.
Highlights of the preK-12 education budget include a $248 per-student increase in state funding that’s distributed based on enrollment, also called the “FEFP.” However, it’s important to note that lawmakers have also boosted the number of programs that are funded through the per-student pot, so comparing that to last year’s $101 per-pupil increase is not completely representative.
The best measure, perhaps, is the portion of that increase dedicated to flexible district spending, in a category called the “base student allocation.” This year, lawmakers have agreed to a $75 per-student boost to that portion.
Last year’s increase to the base student allocation was only 47 cents, which sparked outrage among districts and superintendents demanded that the Legislature reconvene to redo their education funding after the session had ended.
This year’s amount elicited a much warmer response from school leaders.
Pinellas County schools superintendent Mike Grego, who was a vocal critic of last year’s budget, praised the agreement, saying he was “very much more excited about the budget this year than last.”
“It’s obviously moving in the right direction,” said Grego, vice president of the state superintendents association.
He said this increase to the base student allocation could help the district cover retirement costs, electric bills and health insurance benefits — all of which are rising. At $75 per student, Pinellas schools would get about $7.3 million, Grego said.
Other than the base student allocation, there are other important categories within the per-student funding that are dedicated to certain expenses, such as school safety and mental health services offered in schools by counselors and school psychologists. The breakdown of those categories was not yet released as of early Monday evening.
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho noted that this $75 boost represents the highest increase in the flexible district spending, which he called the “clearest indicator” of state education funding, since the 2015-2016 budget.
“We certainly should celebrate a $75 increase to the BSA,” he said. “We could very well see ourselves in a position where … in this next year, we would not have to make reductions to balance the budget as was the case in the last four years.”
Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning, president-elect of the state superintendents association, got word of the base-student allocation amount while traveling abroad. He was among the superintendents who most loudly criticized the Legislature's 47-cent increase a year ago.
“The additional $75 in BSA is welcomed,” Browning said via text message, noting he had not seen all the other details in the budget. “Grateful, but hoping for more for teacher raises.”
Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman Tamara Shamburger said she viewed the budget as more of a mixed message.
“We’re grateful and we’re happy that the legislators have heard us,” she said, but noted the higher funding level does little to boost Florida’s national standing when it comes to per-student funding. “We certainly will encourage everyone next year to do a little bit better."

Florida House passes criminal justice reform package bill. But it’s not over yet.

Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, is the sponsor of the House's criminal justice reform package.
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House passed a sweeping, 296-page criminal justice reform package on Monday with only one lone “no” vote, signaling to the Florida Senate that they are willing to come to an agreement on many issues that have long failed to cross the finish line in the Legislature.
The proposal, House Bill 7125, contains a slew of changes praised by both Democrats and Republicans, including raising Florida’s theft “threshold” — the dollar amount at which a misdemeanor theft becomes a felony — from $300 to $1,000. This would bring Florida’s amount close to the national average and adjusts for inflation since the $300 amount was set in 1986.
We all know theft is wrong,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples. “The question is, ‘At what point are you going to be branded a felon for the rest of your life?’ Because once you’re a felon in this system, there’s no coming back from that.”
The bill also would allow state attorneys to decide if juvenile cases should be transferred to adult court, which currently happens automatically if the crime is severe or the child has certain prior convictions. In a win for advocates for former felons’ rights, the bill would also make it easier for people with prior felony convictions to get occupational licenses for everything from barbering to auctioneering, helping people get jobs more easily after they are released from prison.
It also repeals and reduces driver’s license suspensions as a penalty for non-driving related crimes, and would give crime victims a longer period of time to file for compensation after the original crime was committed.
The only “no” vote came from Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola, who said he was concerned that being more lenient on theft was not “moral."
“I don’t think we should be soft on crime, because we are not championing the rights of the individual,” he said.
There are major things the Senate has sought that the House does not have: chiefly, a piece that would give judges discretion over the sentences they hand down for certain drug trafficking crimes — under current law for example, someone caught with at least 28 grams of cocaine would face a required sentence of at least three years imprisonment and a $50,000 fine. Those required sentences are often referred to as “mandatory minimums.”
The Senate bill would also allow prison inmates to earn “gain time," through programs and good behavior, that would allow them to be released after a maximum of 65 percent of their sentence. Current law requires them to serve at least 85 percent. It’s estimated that that change alone could save the state $860 million and remove about 9,000 people from prison by 2024.
But that piece has also prompted major opposition from Gov. Ron DeSantis as well as the Florida Sheriffs Association, who have both said 65 percent is not enough.
Those major differences are still being negotiated behind the scenes, which means the House’s passage Monday was just one step in that process. The Senate is expected to amend the House bill and then send it back to the House for their final approval in the coming days.
The legislative session is scheduled to end Friday.

April 27, 2019

Florida is spending $200 million on affordable housing next year, most of it in Panhandle

The Florida Legislature is assigning $200 million to affordable housing programs next year, doubling what the state spent last year but short of what Gov. Ron DeSantis wanted.
Most of the money — $115 million — is going toward affordable housing programs in the Panhandle areas affected by Hurricane Michael. Another $77 million is going to programs around the state, and another $8 million is going to the Jacksonville area.
State Sen. Rob Bradley noted that the amount is about $100 million more than the state spent last year.
“We made a big jump compared to where we were last year,” Bradley said.
But it falls far short of what DeSantis wanted in his budget. He wanted the state to spend $338 million on the programs, which provide low-interest loans to developers of affordable housing and build affordable housing for low- and middle-income families.
Affordable housing has been a growing problem in the state. A recent study showed Orlando the worst among the nation’s 50 largest metro areas for the availability of affordable housing.

April 26, 2019

Ron DeSantis to get $4 million from the Florida Legislature for a new(er) plane

A 2003 Raytheon Aircraft Company B300 fixed wing, multi engine plane, as it takes off from Prestwick Airport in Scotland, United Kingdom in September 2011. The plane is believed to be the same plane that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is using and is currently registered to Florida Department of Law Enforcement. [Photo courtesy of Robert Banks]
As the Florida Legislature continued haggling over various items in the state budget from school scholarships to hospital funding late into Thursday night, one item emerged settled: a new plane for Gov. Ron DeSantis.
It’s been three months since DeSantis’ plane had its air masks drop and his team made an emergency landing, leaving the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to do some much-needed
upgrades. DeSantis took over the plane, which has a mysterious past once thought to be connected to a drug seizure, after former Gov. Rick Scott sold off the state’s fleet when he was in office.
Scott, a millionaire former health care executive, used his own private plane to travel the state.
Since then, DeSantis’ hand-me-down plane has become a point of fascination in the world of Florida politics.
The Legislature has agreed to set aside $3.8 million for a plane, pilots and maintenance staff. At that price, DeSantis may have to start by leasing a plane, which Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said could lead to an eventual purchase.
“This is the third largest state in the country,” Brandes said after a Thursday night budget meeting. “The governor needs to get around effectively.”

State budget negotiators agree to smaller shift in hospital Medicaid reimbursements funding

Lawmakers tasked with negotiating the state’s health care budget agreed late Thursday night to a smaller shift in reimbursement funding for hospitals’ Medicaid cases, meaning hospitals with the largest fractions of those cases may not face nearly as severe a reduction as initially proposed.

Senate budget writers had previously raised a plan that would have redistributed a $318 million additional fund of “automatic rate enhancements” to those hospitals into general funding for all hospitals in the state. (The state currently reimburses all hospitals for Medicaid care at a certain base rate.) But negotiators agreed to shrink that redistribution to just $9.5 million, or 3 percent of the total fund, for the upcoming budget year.

The change means that potential cuts to the state’s largest safety net hospitals, like Jackson Health in Miami-Dade or Tampa General, are unlikely to reach into the tens of millions as had been first projected.

“It means a slight reduction that hospitals can live with. Hospitals can plan. It’s not a drastic reduction,” said Sen. Aaron Bean, the joint panel’s health care budget chief. “I think the industry can live with it. Floridians are going to be well taken care of at their local hospital.”

The House had initially suggested trimming hospital Medicaid reimbursement spending by 3 percent in both inpatient and outpatient care, which would have been about $110 million. That would have meant slight cuts for every hospital across the board. But the Senate’s plan, to instead reshuffle the additional Medicaid “enhancement” payments into the base rates paid to all hospitals, would have given the majority of hospitals a small boost while dealing major cuts to the approximately two dozen hospitals that currently get the additional funds.

Proponents of the Senate plan had said bolstering the base rate funding would mean money more fairly “follows the patient.” Safety-net hospitals, which labeled the additional money a “critical care fund,” said that the money was necessary because those hospitals disproportionately handle more severe and complex cases.

Though it’s clear those hospitals will not lose as much, it’s not yet clear how much individual hospitals will gain or lose. Lawmakers are still negotiating other details related to hospitals’ Medicaid reimbursements, such as how the base rate funding is weighted to pay for more complicated, complex medical cases.

What House and Senate negotiators are also likely to agree to early is how the state will handle its policy of retroactive eligibility for Medicaid, which determines how long the program will cover past medical bills. Last year, the Legislature had approved shortening the period from three calendar months to just one calendar month, though advocates said the change could hurt seniors and those with disabilities.

Bean said the House is likely to agree to a plan to extend the policy for just one year, rather than permanently as initially suggested, and authorize a study to collect data on how the change affects patients before it is reconsidered in 2020.

Lawmakers also plan to “bump” up still unresolved differences in the budget to each chamber’s budget chief Friday, and those reimbursement details are just one of several health care issues left on the table. The chambers still have to reach agreement on some funding related to child welfare, how to fund a waitlist for caring for people with disabilities, and a proposal that would require the Agency for Persons with Disabilities to restructure its Medicaid waiver.

And though both chambers have now agreed to a mild cut to the “enhancements” fund, the fund may be trimmed further in future years, suggested Sen. Rob Bradley, who will soon take over budget negotiations with his House counterpart Rep. Travis Cummings.

“What happens in future years we're still discussing,” he said Thursday night. “We want the system to wean off [those] payments over time but those are ongoing discussions.”

The legislative session is scheduled to end by May 3. For that to happen, the chambers must reach agreement on all budget issues by Tuesday, so the budget can sit for a required 72 hours before the vote.