Note: This blog's templates will be updated this afternoon to a responsive design bringing it in line with MiamiHerald.com.

At that time, we will also change to the Facebook commenting system. You will need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment.

March 31, 2015

Senate panel advances abortion bill

After 20 minutes of rushed discussion Tuesday, a Senate panel approved a plan that would require women to wait 24 hours before having an abortion.

The party-line vote took place at the end of a Senate Health Policy Committee meeting, which also included a discussion on medical marijuana. Only one senator had time to speak about the abortion bill, along with just two of the 32 citizens who had signed up to testify.

The fast pace infuriated women’s rights activists, who blasted the panel after the meeting during an impromptu press conference.

"It was purposely put before lunch to stifle free debate," said Terri Wonder, a member of the Democratic Women’s Club of Manatee County.

The bill (SB 724) would require women to discuss the risks of having an abortion with their physician at least 24 hours before the procedure. The conversation would have to take place in person.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said she sponsored the proposal because an abortion is a "major medical procedure."

"You don't go into a knee surgeon one day and say tomorrow I want to get a full knee [replacement]," Flores said. "I don’t think this should be treated any differently."

Read more here.

WaPo: New group formed by Jeb Bush ally can accept secret, unlimited donations

From the Washington Post:

Jeb Bush has given his tacit endorsement to a new group that can collect unlimited amounts of money in secret, part of a bold effort by his advisers to create a robust external political operation before he declares his expected White House bid.

The nonprofit group, Right to Rise Policy Solutions Inc., was quietly established in Arkansas in February by a friend and former Bush staffer. The group shares the name of two political committees for which Bush has been aggressively raising money — blurring the line that is supposed to separate a campaign from independent groups.

While ideological nonprofits have become major players in national politics in recent years, this marks the first time one has been so embedded in the network of a prospective candidate.

More here.

Judge: Ex-Miami Lakes mayor can return to office

via @Paradise_Afshar

Former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi has won his reinstatement lawsuit against the town and current Mayor Wayne Slaton, although the judge who ruled in his favor issued a 30-day stay to allow the town time to appeal.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Gisela Cardonne Ely ruled Tuesday afternoon that Pizzi can return immediately to his duties as mayor, and receive back payments, allowances and benefits from Aug. 13, 2013 to the present. The mayor’s position earns $18,000 annually, but that doesn’t include the cost of the benefits, which Pizzi figures exceeds $40,000 a year when tallying salary and benefits.

“This a total and complete victory for democracy and the constitution and rule of law,” Pizzi said following the ruling. “The big winners are the people of Miami Lakes, who are getting their rightfully elected mayor back where he belongs, in town hall — where I should have never left.”

Pizzi has been fighting to return to the mayoral seat since being acquitted of federal bribery charges in August 2014.

More here.

Senate advances medical marijuana fix but new hurdles emerge

Leticia Wilson black farmersA bill attempting to get the implementation of the state's Charlotte's Web marijuana law back on track has created a new dilemma for its sponsor: how to make it equitable for black farmers.

Under the existing law, only farms that have been in continuous existence for 30 years and grow 400,000 or more plants are eligible to bid for one of five licenses to cultivate and distribute the non-euphoric strain of cannabis for patients with epilepsy, cancer and chronic muscle spasms.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, there are 99 Florida farms that qualify for the list. Left out of the equation, however, are hundreds of black farmers who say that 30 years ago they were still arguing with the U.S. Department of Agriculture over discriminatory lending practices and were not yet in business.

The result: the law has a "disproportionately negative impact on minority farmers,’’ said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, sponsor of the original legislation, which passed on the last day of the 2014 session.

Bradley has filed a new bill, SB 7066, that attempts to expedite the implementation of the law which intended for the non-euphoric marijuana to be available to families by now. But, but with every step forward, he has found a new hurdle.

Continue reading "Senate advances medical marijuana fix but new hurdles emerge" »

South Florida students celebrate STEM day at the Florida Capitol

Stewart
Students from five South Florida high schools dazzled lawmakers with their robotics skills Tuesday.

It was part of a celebration of STEM education. (That's science, technology, engineering and math, if you've been living under a rock.)

Joining the students: Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and Department of Economic Opportunity Director Jesse Panuccio.

"Florida is laser-focused on being a global leader for jobs and a critical component of that must be the development of a talented workforce," Lopez-Cantera said. "We are proud of the work our students are doing to learn about what it takes to compete in today's global economy."

The students came from TERRA Environmental Research Institute in Miami-Dade, Western High School in Davie, NOVA High School in Davie, West Broward High School in Pembroke Pines, and North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek. They belong to teams participating in the FIRST Robotics national competition.

Patrick Hermes, who directs the Northwest Florida Regional Tournament for FIRST, said the teens were gaining skills that would help them in the workforce.

"Today they are competing in robotics competitions," he said. "But tomorrow they will be using this technology for the greater good, helping to improve healthcare, transportation, and even our nation's space program."

Tuesday's celebration was sponsored by Florida FIRST Robotics and the Motorola Solutions Foundation, which has invested nearly $2 million in STEM-related education in Florida since 2007.

Miami Commissioner Willy Gort draws a challenger in reelection campaign

@NewsbySmiley

Looks like Miami Commission Chairman Wifredo "Willy" Gort will have to campaign to keep his seat after all.

Gort, who is running for his second consecutive term representing Miami's District 1, stood unopposed until Monday, when Miguel Angel Gabela filed to challenge him. Gabela, formerly a member of Miami's Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board, briefly filed to run against Gort in 2011 but quickly withdrew.

Although Gort only just now drew a challenger, he hasn't rested on his laurels. The incumbent had raised $86,000 as of the last campaign report, filed March 10.

Fact-checking Jeb Bush's claim comparing the religious freedom laws in Florida and Indiana

Likely presidential candidates have reacted to Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act as Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, has had to defend the law against those who say it discriminates against gays and lesbians.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush sided with Pence in a radio interview on Monday.

"I think Gov. Pence has done the right thing," Bush said in a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt on March 30. "Florida has a law like this. Bill Clinton signed a law like this at the federal level. This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs, to be able to be people of conscience. I just think once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all."

How similar is the Florida law to the Indiana law, or the federal law before that? When we reached out to Bush’s office, they reiterated that Bush was describing the laws as "very similar." We decided to delve into the evidence for a complete picture.

Hold the anchovies! Florida senator suing pizza delivery guy

Hold the anchovies: Republican Sen. Charlie Dean of Inverness is suing a 19-year-old former delivery guy for Hungry Howie's pizza.

News reports say the delivery man took a wrong turn on a dark night in Inverness, ended up in Dean's backyard and the imposing former Citrus County sheriff appeared in the moonlight with a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other. Dean is seeking nearly $15,000 in damages to cover his legal costs and is claiming harm to his reputation. The Citrus County Chronicle's account, with all the toppings, can be found here.

School guns bill suffers setback in Florida Senate

A contentious proposal that would let designated teachers bring their guns to school suffered a serious setback Tuesday when a Senate panel declined to vote on it.

Because the Senate Education Committee won't meet again, the bill (SB 180) won't have another opportunity for a committee hearing. It could still be incorporated into another proposal, but Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said he would raise strong objections.

"It would be a large lift knowing that the Education Committee [deferred] it," the Trinity Republican said.

Legg said he has "significant concerns" with the bill, which would allow school employees with law enforcement or military experience to carry concealed weapons on school property.

"Deputizing private citizens to protect a school is not an avenue I want to go down," he said.

Both the Senate and House are considering a separate proposal that would allow permitted individuals to carry concealed weapons on college campuses (SB 176/ HB 4005).

The so-called campus carry bill has found support in both chambers. Legg says he supports the proposal because it is about "individual protection."

But college presidents and police chiefs say the campus carry bill is just as dangerous as its K-12 counterpart. And on Tuesday, the non-profit Everytown for Gun Safety and the Florida Chapter of Moms Demand Action released a poll showing 61 percent of Floridians oppose allowing concealed weapons on college campuses.

"We already know campus police, college presidents, faculty, and students stand against this legislation," said Chryl Anderson, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action. "This is more evidence that the legislators who support these dangerous bills are out of touch with what Floridians really want."

Florida lawmakers travel to DC to talk health care

ReneWondering why Sens. René García, R-Hialeah, and Garrett Richter, R-Naples, aren't in Tallahassee today?

They are meeting with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The two lawmakers flew to Washington at the request of Senate President Andy Gardiner, spokeswoman Katie Betta said.

The purpose of the trip: to get a better idea of where Florida stands on some key health care issues.

"With tomorrow marking the halfway point of the session, we are nearing the time when the legislature is going to have to start finalizing decisions on the budget," Betta said.

Among the unresolved issues: what the future holds for Florida's Low Income Pool program.

The federal government has said it will not renew the $2.1 billion program, which helps hospitals treat uninsured and Medicaid patients, as it exists today. But the state and federal government have been unable to reach consensus on a successor program. 

The Senate recently recommended a new program would distribute the Low Income Pool funds more broadly than the original program. It was not clear how the idea was received by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The Senate has also been driving a push to expand health care coverage to nearly one million poor Floridians. That, too, would require approval from the federal government, assuming it passed through the resistant House.

Amendment 1 advocates turn up the heat on Sen. Charlie Dean

Supporters of Amendment 1 are busy phone-banking a key state lawmaker in support of setting aside millions for the Florida Forever land acquisition program. Their calls have been targeting Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, chairman of the Senate Environmental Preservation and conservation Committee, the sponsor of the Amendment 1 implementing bill (SB 584) that is on the floor calendar for Wednesday's Senate session.

"I'm asking him to please support Amendment 1 money for the Florida Forever program," said Kathleen Betsko of Sugarmill Woods, a community in Citrus County in Dean's sprawling district. "I thought Senator Dean was going to be in favor of this and it sounds like that's not what they're doing."

Betsko identified herself as a Democrat who has voted for Dean in the past. She is among the 75 percent of Florida voters who approved Amendment 1, the so-called water and land amendment, in the November 2014 election. Conservation groups across Florida are emphasizing the same message in phone calls and on social media.

Marco Rubio: The MJ of politics? (or so says his pollster)

@CAdamsMcClatchy

A Marco Rubio pollster said there are a number of candidates in the crowded Republican presidential field who could put together the right mix to win the GOP nomination in 2016 – although his candidate is the most “transformational” of the bunch, and that’s what Republicans need right now.

Whit Ayres
GOP pollster Whit Ayres (Photo: Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor)

In a Tuesday breakfast with reporters sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, Whit Ayres said that the Republican Party needs somebody who can reach out in a meaningful way to Hispanic voters, allowing them to get the kind of support George W. Bush had in 2004.

“Republicans can do very well among Hispanics,” said Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research and author of the recently released book “2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America.” “They don’t have to win a majority, but they sure gotta do in the 40s rather than in the 20s like Mitt Romney.”

He added: “We need to nominate a candidate that sends a message that we want Hispanic-Americans in the center-right coalition – that we want you as part of our team, because the Republican values of equal opportunity for all and greater economic growth and limited government work for all people regardless of race, creed or color.”

A good choice, he noted, would be Rubio, the West Miami Republican expected to announce his candidacy within two weeks.

Although the first-term senator is in the top tier among the Beltway political class, he’s still in the single digits in polls of likely Republican primary voters. That means very little so early in the race. Then again, there are several Republicans with strong resumes who also are credible candidates.

Rubio, Ayres said, has the ability to be the one to break out of the pack.

“He’s substantive, he’s talented, and I am very confident that once the voters get the chance to see the kind of candidate he is – and the kind of vision he paints for the country – that they will place him in the top tier as well,” Ayres said.

Rubio has gifts in the political world that Ayres – who received a graduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – once saw in a Tar Heel legend.

“I loved watching Michael Jordan play basketball because he could just do things with a basketball that were not teachable – and were just instinctively amazing,” Ayres said. “Marco Rubio is the Michael Jordan of American politics. And anyone underestimates his ability at their peril.”

Medicaid expansion supporters strike back

One day after a conservative advocacy group sent out mailers attacking the senators who support Medicaid expansion, a coalition of business leaders released a video thanking the Senate for its "bold leadership and courage."

The group, a Healthy Florida Works, was instrumental in drafting the Senate's plan to expand healthcare coverage to nearly one million poor Floridians.

"As highlighted in the coalition’s new video, the Senate's comprehensive health care package will save the state billions, create good paying jobs and provide health care coverage to more than 800,000 Floridians," the group said in Tuesday press release.

The video will be blasted out on social media and will run in certain TV markets.

 

Cabinet hires RPOF's lawyer for Sunshine Law suit

Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet voted Tuesday morning to hire Daniel Nordby and law firm Shutts & Bowen to represent them in a case alleging Sunshine Law violations — the same legal representation as the Republican Party of Florida.

Nordby has a history of representing Florida Republicans. From 2012-14, he was general counsel to the House of Representatives, a GOP-controlled body, and he represented the chamber during lawsuits over proposed redistricting plans.

Five law firms applied for the job to represent the governor and Cabinet — which includes Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — and they made a hiring decision just 10 minutes after starting the call. (Watch the full video on the Florida Channel here.)

Bondi recommended hiring Shutts and Bowen, citing the firm’s experience with state government.

“Dan (Nordby) and Jason Gonzalez have vast experience with state government,” she said. “I’m confident they will do a superb job on our behalf.”

Shutts & Bowen proposed a $275 per hour rate, which will be paid by taxpayers. In total, the Cabinet has budgeted $50,000 to spend on outside legal counsel to represent the group, not including any outside lawyers hired by the individual Cabinet officers.

Bondi said this rate was the lowest bid, one of two at that price. 

A survey of the proposals shows that’s mostly true. Two other firms — Foley & Lardner and Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson — offered a range of rates for various members of their teams, which spans $210-$305 and $110-$290, respectively.

The Cabinet has been sued by St. Petersburg lawyer Matt Weidner and most of the state’s news organizations — including the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald — in a case alleging that they violated the Sunshine Law in the forced resignation last December of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

Hialeah mayor pleads 5th more than 30 times in ethics deposition, calling it a 'circus'

via @jayhweaver

Accused of lying to the public about his high-interest loans, Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez told Miami-Dade County ethics officials in a recent deposition that their case against him was a “political witch hunt.”

Hernandez pleaded the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination more than 30 times as he was peppered with questions by a lawyer for the Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. “I don’t want to be part of this circus,” the mayor responded repeatedly in his March 16 deposition.

The commission’s lawyer, Michael Murawski, grew so frustrated with the mayor that he urged a Miami-Dade circuit judge on Monday to hold Hernandez in “contempt” because he refused to answer questions about his series of exorbitant loans totaling $180,000 to a convicted Ponzi schemer.

Circuit Judge Bertila Soto stopped short of issuing a “show-cause” order requiring Hernandez to explain why he should not be held in contempt for repeatedly invoking the Fifth Amendment during his deposition. Soto said she understood the mayor’s “fear” that he could be caught in a “perjury” trap if he answered the questions, but also said the ethics commission had a right to hear his responses before he faces a civil ethics trial later this year.

More here.

BuzzFeed: The political education of Ted Cruz's father, who was once a pro-Fidel Castro student activist

From BuzzFeed:

Long before his son would run for president, or he himself would become a popular political speaker, Rafael Cruz was something else for a brief period: a pro-Castro student activist.

The story of Cruz’s departure from Cuba is an arduous story that the father of Sen. Ted Cruz, the newly-announced presidential candidate, tells often — a story his son referenced, at the beginning of his presidential announcement speech, as a tale of the “promise of America.”

As Rafael Cruz tells it: He was a teenager from Matanzas, Cuba, picked up by the secret police of the American-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. He was jailed, then tortured for days. The regime released Cruz, but only after threatening him with execution, and ostensibly so that they could spy on him in the hopes of finding more young revolutionaries.

After a fellow revolutionary threw cold water on his plans to join Castro’s guerrillas in the mountains, he says he fled to the United States after quickly being accepted at the University of Texas as a foreign student. 

More here.

Quinnipiac poll: Hillary Clinton less popular than she used to be in Florida

@PatriciaMazzei

Hillary Clinton remains a formidable presidential candidate in Florida, but the Democrat's popularity has dropped in the nation's largest swing state after a controversy over her email use as U.S. secretary of state, a new poll found.

The public-opinion survey, by Quinnipiac University, found former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush edges Clinton 45-42 in a potential match-up -- essentially a tie, given the poll's error margin of 3 percentage points. Clinton tops Florida Sen. Marco Rubio 46-44, also a tie. Both Bush and Rubio are Republicans.

A single poll's results matter little this early in the 2016 presidential race -- so early that Bush, Clinton and Rubio have not even declared their candidacies. But each politician's popularity trend is noteworthy, and that's where Clinton is struggling a bit. The last Quinnipiac poll, released Feb. 3, showed Clinton topping Bush 44-43 and Rubio 49-39.

Since then, more Florida voters have learned about Clinton's exclusive use of private email as secretary of state. She deleted the emails from her personal server after turning over to the State Department the ones she and her staff deemed pertinent.

When asked if Clinton is honest and trustworthy, 50 percent of poll respondents said no, compared to 41 percent who said yes. Fifty-one percent called Clinton's email troubles very or somewhat important to their presidential choice, with 38 percent saying it would affect their vote and 56 percent saying it would not.

"The good news for Hillary Clinton is that the e-mail controversy has not done huge violence to her presidential chances. But the matter is taking a toll on the former secretary of state's public image," Peter A. Brown, the poll's assistant director, said in a statement.

Clinton is viewed favorably by 49 percent of respondents and negatively by 46 percent. That rating has fallen from 53-39 percent in February. Bush's is 47-42 percent, compared to 46-38 percent last month. 

Quinnipiac also surveyed two other crucial swing states. Clinton tops Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul 46-41 percent in Ohio, and Paul edges Clinton 45-44 percent in Pennsylvania. Paul has not yet announced his candidacy, either.

This post has been updated.

March 30, 2015

Florida House moves to reduce youth arrests

A Florida House panel on Monday gave its overwhelming support to a proposal seeking to reduce youth arrests by expanding civil citation programs.

"It appears to me that all across this state, people are realizing we should not criminalize, we should not have knee-jerk reactions and make arrests when there are more appropriate consequences," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

Civil citation programs, which exist in 59 of Florida’s 67 counties, provide police officers with an alternative to arresting young people.

Under current law, officers can issue a civil citation or prescribe community service to young people who are first-time misdemeanor offenders. The proposal under consideration (HB 99) would extend the program to young people who have already been in trouble. It would also give officers the option to call the young person’s parent or give a verbal warning instead.

More here.

Legislators want for-profit HMOs to compete with non-profits for mental health

The data on Florida’s mental health problem tells the story: People whose mental illness goes untreated are more likely to be addicted to drugs, have children in the state’s child welfare system, draw unemployment checks, and land in prison.

The total cost to taxpayers is unknown but, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Florida ranks 49th in terms of per capita spending on mental health.

After another year of tragic headlines, Florida legislators have proposed at least 22 bills that make the most dramatic changes to the state’s mental health delivery system in decades.

The proposals would change everything from the way the mentally ill are treated by law enforcement, doctors, child welfare workers and courts to the way the state matches federal mental health money. If successful, the state also would get $40 million more in federal Medicaid funds to cover mental health services for uninsured Floridians.

But there is a catch: The reform effort would also end the system’s dependence on not-for-profit managed care providers and would open the door to for-profit managed care companies to compete for the $506 million in state business.

“We need to allow competition in the system,’’ said Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, who is sponsoring the House bill, HB 7119.

More here.

Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio back contentious Indiana law

via @lesleyclark

Republican presidential hopefuls are lining up behind a controversial Indiana law that allows businesses to turn away gay and lesbian customers by invoking religious freedom.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Monday that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence did “the right thing” -- despite calls from some businesses to boycott the state over the law.

"This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs, to be able to be people of conscience," Bush said, suggesting the critics don’t know enough about the law. "I think once the facts are established, people aren't going to see this as discriminatory at all."

Bush noted that Florida has a similar law and that President Bill Clinton signed a federal measure, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, into law in 1993. Some legal analysts, however, have noted that the Indiana law is more broadly written than most state laws or the federal law.

Fla. Sen. Marco Rubio also backed the law during an appearance on Fox News.

"Nobody is saying that it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or at a hotel because of their sexual orientation,” Rubio said. “I think that's a consensus view in America.” But Rubio asked whether a photographer should be “punished for refusing to do a wedding that their faith teaches them is not one that is valid in the eyes of God?"

The White House last week decried Pence’s decision to sign the legislation, with Press Secretary Josh Earnest saying that it “doesn't seem like it's a step in the direction of equality and justice and liberty for all Americans.”