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February 15, 2019

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell can’t get GOP support for a Venezuela humanitarian aid plan

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@alextdaugherty

South Florida Democrats haven’t owned the Venezuela issue like Republicans for the past few years, but Miami’s congressional delegation is introducing bills in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Donna Shalala has a bill that would ban the U.S. government from selling items like riot-control gear to Nicolás Maduro’s security forces. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has a bill that would require the State Department to monitor and provide Congress with steps to curb Russian military influence in Venezuela. And Debbie Mucarsel-Powell has a bill that would compel the Trump administration to provide a long-term humanitarian aid strategy in Venezuela and allocate $150 million for the effort.

But Mucarsel-Powell, whose seat is being targeted by Republicans as a 2020 pickup opportunity, is the only one who hasn’t received GOP support for her bill.

Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart signed onto Shalala and Wasserman Schultz’s bills the day they were introduced. He also introduced a bill, with Florida Democratic Rep. Darren Soto, to extend Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans living in the U.S. But he hasn’t signed onto Mucarsel-Powell’s bill despite signing onto an almost identical piece of legislation in the last Congress.

“It mirrors the same bill that [Rep. Eliot Engel] filed last year, except it has the humanitarian aid funding,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “Our office worked closely with USAID and the State Department to get to that figure. I have met with Mario Diaz-Balart to discuss the bill. I’m hoping that if he really does think that Venezuela really does need the aid, he should support that bill as well.”

Read more here.

February 14, 2019

House committee considers how to implement Amendment 4

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@elizabethrkoh

Most former felons now have the right to vote, but legislative guidance is still needed to help implement Amendment 4, a panel of officials told a joint House committee Thursday.

The amendment, which was approved by more than 60 percent of voters in the November midterms, broadly restores voting rights to former felons after they have completed their sentences, except in cases of murder or felony sexual offenses.

But panelists told a joint meeting of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee and Judiciary Committee that questions remain over what specific offenses might fall under those categories, as well as how officials can determine that a sentence has been satisfied.

“There is some ambiguity at this point,” said Jack Campbell, state attorney for the 2nd Judicial Circuit, asking whether crimes like manslaughter or certain sexually motivated crimes would qualify under the language of the ballot initiative. “We don’t understand exactly what the law is.”

Paul Lux, the supervisor of elections in Okaloosa County and president of the Florida State Association of Supervisor of Elections, said the confusion meant that he and other supervisors of elections could not always give people straight answers when they asked if they were eligible to re-register: “Our answer unfortunately right now is ‘We’re not really sure.’”

The confusion also extends to what responsibilities various agencies would have for determining those conditions, even when defined, have been met, panelists said.

“We are not comfortable with being a criminal justice agency” to determine if someone has met those requirements, said Maria Matthews, the director of the Department of State’s Division of Elections. But “if we can’t get guidance we will proceed as best we can.”

A patchwork of local and state databases would be needed to determine if felons have completed all the requirements of their sentence, including paying fines and court costs, and no single form or repository collects all that information in one place, they added.

Some older records are also stored in hard copy like microfilm, microfiche or paper at the local level, Martin County Clerk of Courts Carolyn Timmann said, and clerks are still working to digitize their records.

Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, who chairs the Criminal Justice Subcommittee, questioned if that scattered system could cause problems in a “nightmare scenario,” where a narrow outcome to an election might trigger a series of public records requests to question if those now-eligible voters had indeed completed their sentences.

Legislators are “100 percent” committed to addressing the issue, House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast told reporters afterward.“They've given us what they’ve given us,” he said of voters. “It’s up to the committee and the House and the Senate to in good faith talk through where that line should be drawn. The voters have drawn it in the broadest sense but there are areas in the gray we need to look at.”

Renner added there were several areas — noting the questions around manslaughter and what would count as a sexual offense — where people might have differences of opinion, but that the committee will “have to aggregate that in good faith and try to hit the right spot.”

Patronis asks judge to dismiss ex-staffer's lawsuit

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Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a former employee who alleges she was fired for not donating to his campaign or attending a fundraiser event for his reelection last fall.

According to a 21-page document filed by Patronis' attorney Brian Keri in federal court in Tallahassee, Patronis says the claim "wholly lacks merit."

In her original complaint filed in October Christine Taul, a 32-year veteran of the Department of Financial Services, alleged she received a phone call at work from a third party inviting her to a fundraiser being held for the CFO on Aug. 20. The caller told Taul, a registered Democrat, to "bring a check," she said. 

Taul was scheduled to leave Tallahassee for a vacation on the day of the fundraiser but said she wouldn't attend anyway because of her differing political views. 

When she returned from her vacation on Aug. 27, she was told she would be terminated. Taul, who had been an administrator for the CFO's risk management program since 1994, resigned instead. In September, Taul's attorneys sent a letter to the CFO's office in demanding she be reinstated with full back pay. 

The department's general counsel, Chasity O'Steen, said then that the department did not know of any third party activity, and that attributing the phone to the CFO's office was an "erroneous assumption." O'Steen said Taul was terminated because she didn't show improvement after mandatory remedial training in April 2018. Taul was also responsible for an employee who lied about her hours on a timesheet. 

O'Steen said then that department was within its rights to discipline Taul for her poor performance, even after counseling and remedial trainings. Her personnel file shows Taul she received a "commendable" overall rating in 2017. Her manager wrote that she is a "valued asset to the Division" and that her "experience and knowledge are often utilized in solving complicated issues." 

Taul’s complaint alleges that Patronis violated her First Amendment rights by dismissing her "in retaliation," but Patronis "vehemently denies" the allegation.

Miami Beach elections heat up as Mayor Dan Gelber announces he’ll run for re-election

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@KyraGurney

Miami Beach’s elections are still nine months away, but the ballot is already filling up with familiar faces.

On Thursday, Mayor Dan Gelber announced that he’s running for a second term. Gelber, a former state legislator and federal prosecutor, was first elected in 2017 and is eligible to serve two more two-year terms as mayor.

“It’s been my greatest privilege to serve the only hometown I’ve ever known,” Gelber said in a statement. “I’ve tried to serve honorably and openly, and would like to continue to help make our City the best version of itself.”

Former Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who resigned last year to run for Congress, told the Miami Herald that she plans to run for a commission seat in November, but hasn’t yet decided whether to run for her old seat or challenge Commissioner Ricky Arriola for his.

“Right now, I am observing the field and considering my options,” Rosen Gonzalez said in a text message. “A lot of residents have asked me to run against Ricky Arriola.”

Read more here.

How Parkland parents and lawmakers built relationships to help prevent school violence

Parkland shooting anniversary

@alextdaugherty

Days after the Parkland shootings just over a year ago, Fred Guttenberg and Marco Rubio met for the first time on national television.

The Republican senator, who introduced pro-gun legislation while gearing up for a 2016 presidential run, was booed by thousands in the CNN townhall audience as the father of Jaime Guttenberg, one of 17 people killed in the nation’s deadliest high school shooting, grilled him.

“Your comments this week, and those of our president, have been pathetically weak,” Guttenberg said, his voice trembling. “Look at me and tell me guns were the factor in the hunting of our kids in this school this week. And, look at me and tell me you accept it, and you will work with us to do something about guns.”

Rubio said he was supportive of laws that prevent 18- to 21-year-olds from purchasing rifles, though he wasn’t in favor of a ban on assault-style weapons. Further jeers followed when he said the National Rifle Association donates to his campaigns because they buy into his view of the Second Amendment, not the other way around.

But a year after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, the Republican officials who were vilified on stage have closer relationships with the families of the victims than two officials who received applause during the television town hall: suspended Broward Sheriff Scott Israel and Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie. Those relationships developed away from the cameras, press conferences and viral social media posts, and are largely policy-focused, even as Rubio’s views on guns have remained unchanged despite some of the statements he made on stage that night.

“I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to meet some of them without the town hall,” Rubio said. “I’m glad I went.”

Since the shooting, Rubio said he has met at least two dozen times with five or six of the families and stayed in constant contact with them. But their conversations are very different than the exchange at that early townhall in Broward’s BB&T Center.

“Our meetings are largely about the issues that affect them,” Rubio said. “From time to time the conversation might be about another topic, but in terms of politics, when they come to DC they’re not coming to hang out, they’re coming here to get work done.”

Some of the parents are now so well connected with federal agencies they don’t need lawmakers or their staffs to set up meetings, Rubio said.

Their shared work involves issues where Rubio and the families are in agreement, like increasing funding for school safety and passing nationwide red-flag laws that make it easier for law enforcement to identify potentially dangerous individuals. Other times families come to Washington to support causes, like banning assault rifles, where they actively oppose Rubio.

More here.

February 13, 2019

Miami Beach Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán will not seek re-election

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@KyraGurney

Miami Beach Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán will not seek re-election when her four-year term ends in November.

Alemán announced the decision at a City Commission meeting on Wednesday, citing a desire to spend more time with her family.

“While I may consider a future role in public service, the timing is right for me now with both sons in their teens to focus on their needs and see them successfully launched on to college and their own adult lives,” Alemán said, reading from a letter she wrote.

In another surprise announcement, former State Rep. David Richardson said later Wednesday that he plans to run for Alemán’s seat in November.

Read more here.

Nikki Fried taps Gwen Graham's husband, a cop-turned-attorney, to oversee Division of Licensing

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Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried announced Wednesday that Stephen Hurm, a former police officer and attorney, will serve as the next Director of the Division of Licensing. 

Hurm, a police officer-turned-lawyer who is married to former U.S. Representative Gwen Graham, will oversee the concealed weapons permitting and licensing program.

“One of my top priorities is to adequately screen applicants for concealed weapons permits and correct the previous administration’s serious failures in oversight,” Fried said in a statement Wednesday. “Stephen’s experience implementing successful risk management strategies makes him the careful, competent, and qualified leader the Division needs as we move forward to remedy the past failures.”

Grea Bevis, the former Director of the Division of Licensing, resigned effective January 11. A 2013 lawsuit from a former supervisor in former Commissioner Adam Putnam's department alleged Bevis and another supervisor told her she "worked for the NRA" and pointed to "gross misconduct."

The lawsuit came about after a Tampa Bay Times report found that Putnam's office revoked 291 concealed weapons permits from people who should have been disqualified after an employee failed to review the results of a national background check for more than a year.

Hurm will serve under Miami attorney and one-time congressional candidate Mary Barzee Flores, a gun control advocate and vocal critic of the National Rifle Association.

"When someone applies for a concealed weapons permit in our state, we will ensure they receive the full and complete background check required by law — anything less is a disservice to public safety and a failure to uphold our responsibility to the people of Florida," he said in a statement Wednesday. "I’m appreciative of the opportunity to serve the state I love and to do my part to keep our communities safe."

Hurm, Graham's husband since 2010, is general counsel for the Leon County Sheriff's Office. He's also the director of the Policing Research & Policy Institute at Florida State University. 

Fried also announced Jordan Anderson, a voter outreach advocate, as the Assistant Director. Anderson worked on Gwen Graham’s 2014 campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Two fracking ban bills passed today, but critics say one isn't green enough.

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In this March 29, 2013 photo, workers tend to a well head during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Oil & Gas Inc. gas well outside Rifle, Colorado. BRENNAN LINSLEY AP

Both House and Senate committees voted positive on bills banning fracking Wednesday afternoon, but only one left those in the environmental community content.

The House bill, put forward by the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee, passed without an amendment environmentalists say was necessary in order for them to support it.

The amendment, filed by Rep. Evan Jenne, included language that defines matrix acidization as part of the definition of fracking.

Matrix acidizing is performed by pumping acidic fluids into a well at a pressure low enough to often not be considered “fracking” by definition. Operators use acid to dissolve minerals and bypass formation damage around the well.

Rep. Holly Raschein, who filed the bill, said it wasn’t her intent to “slip daylight past a rooster.”

“This is not the only time this bill is going to be heard,” the Key Largo Republican said. “Today we didn’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction. This is a very important issue, a complex issue and one that I do not take lightly.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis made fracking bans a priority this year after he unveiled sweeping measures to protect Florida's vulnerable aquifer and clean up the state's water supply. 

Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat, explained that because Florida is largely a porous plateau of limestone, matrix acidizing could be the most likely fracking technique to be used in Florida.

“This bill would work in other states due to their geology,” Jenne said. “But here, it is somewhat different.”

While Representatives discussed their proposed committee bill, Sen. Bill Montford’s bill, which included language to ban matrix acidization, passed in the other chamber.  

Environmentalists cheered for the Senate bill, but showed their disappointment with Raschein’s bill, saying hers leaves an “enormous loophole” in allowing matrix acidizing.

They said if the bill is in the same shape by the time it hits the House floor, groups like Kanter — which recently won a permit to drill in the Everglades — could technically frack the already vulnerable land.

“We’re happy with what happened in the Senate, and disappointed but not overly surprised by what happened here in the House,” said David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “It’s very disappointing and indicative of significant hostilities against what we are trying to accomplish which is to protect the health of Floridians and the health of our water-based economies.

Michelle Allen, the Florida organizer of the Food and Water Watch, said the bill as it stands, only deals with “half the fracking problem.”

“Matrix acidizing works by using chemicals so powerful they dissolve rock formations underground to get to oil deposits, and in doing so, exposes our water to toxic leaks,” she said. “Experts have said the cocktail of toxic chemicals known for contaminating water and endangering public health is nearly the same for matrix acidizing and hydraulic fracturing.”

Jenne said he plans to continue filing amendments as the bill moves through its next committee stops.

“We’re far from done on this,” he said. “It’s a long haul, but we’re not going to go anywhere and we are going to fight every inch of the way to make sure of that.”

Jenne added that aside from the matrix acidization loophole he would have wholeheartedly supported the bill.

“I would have jumped up and down and sung everyone’s praises in the room,” he said.

February 12, 2019

Bill to arm Florida teachers passes first committee along party lines

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SCOTT KEELER | Times 20 protesters participate in a Die-In on the fourth floor rotunda of the Florida Capitol, 3/6/18. They continue to push for an assault weapons ban. Lawmakers in the Florida House were debating a gun/school safety bill at the time.
 
A bill that would allow Florida’s teachers to carry guns in schools passed its first committee along party lines Tuesday, setting up what could be one of the most heated debates of the 2019 legislative session.
 
Senate Bill 7030 expands the “Guardian” program created by last year’s post-Parkland bill, by which school staff can volunteer to carry guns on campus and then be screened and trained by local law enforcement. In current law, teachers that “exclusively perform classroom duties" are ineligible to participate.
 
But this new expansion would remove that prohibition. An amendment to once again remove teachers from the program was proposed by Sen. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, but it also failed along party lines in the Senate Education Committee.
 
Students “deserve to have someone ready,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala during the committee meeting, shortly before he voted against Berman’s amendment. “Certainly if you’re charged with their safety we should not ask them to charge hell with a water pistol, stand there and be a victim with no way to defend yourself or others from harm.”
 
The committee room was packed on Tuesday as groups including the state teachers’ union and Moms Demand Action spoke against the bill, citing the many risks associated with bringing more guns on campus. There have already been instances of guns accidentally being fired or being left in school bathrooms for students to find in other states, they said.
 
Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said the state has not allowed enough time to evaluate the current success arming school staff but is charging ahead with expanding the program anyway.
 
"We’re at the verge of considering a monumental change in public education,” he said. "We are shifting the mission of public education from being one of teaching to being one of teaching and law enforcement.”
 
Montford did, however, successfully add an amendment to the bill that gives school superintendents the authority to approve or reject specific teachers who want to be armed in their districts.
 
The Republicans who supported the bill emphasized that this proposal is based on the recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which has spent months reviewing the footage and failings of the Parkland shooting nearly one year ago. That commission, led by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, formally recommended training teachers to carry weapons in school for a quick response to school shootings.
 
If the teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School “had the opportunity to be ‘guardians’ they would be alive today and so would many other students,” said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. “That sends chills up my spine.”
 
The chair of the committee, Sen. Manny Diaz of Hialeah, also pointed to the fact that many teachers who take on additional duties, such as being a “hall monitor” or “sponsoring a club” would already be eligible to carry a gun under the current law. This bill “simply just removes the piece that says they have to have an additional duty,” he said.
 
It was unclear Tuesday whether the bill would have any additional committee assignments. None were listed online, but Diaz speculated it could head to Senate Appropriations to determine how different pieces would be funded. If not, its next destination would be the Senate Floor. The formal legislative session does not begin until March 5 and lawmakers are only meeting in committees in the weeks leading up to that date.
 
In addition to allowing all teachers to be eligible to carry guns, Senate Bill 7030 also increases state oversight over districts’ compliance with the various school safety measures in last year’s post-Parkland bill. It also would require sheriffs to offer training to school staff if the school district decides to opt-in to the program.
 
Currently, it is optional for both the district and the local sheriff’s office, and the commission has reported that there are several districts who want to arm staff but the local sheriff’s departments won’t agree to implement the program.

DeSantis, Scott and Rubio ask Trump for $200 million for Everglades projects

 

Tamiami bridge construction

Ever since he started his term as Florida’s most powerful leader, Gov. Ron DeSantis has held true to his stance on the environment, particularly his commitment to the Everglades.

The self-titled “Teddy Roosevelt-style Republican” sent a letter to President Donald Trump Monday, asking for $200 million to fast-track construction for Everglades restoration.

The letter, co-signed by U.S. Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, asks that the president include the money in his annual budget request to fulfill “long overdue federal commitments to restore the Everglades.”

“Florida’s recent struggles with harmful algal blooms have raised the stakes for accelerated progress on Everglades restoration,” the letter said. “Enhanced federal funding to complement years of historic state funding levels would fast-track design and construction [...] to divert and clean Lake Okeechobee releases and increase water deliveries to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay/”

DeSantis, who has made the environment a top priority, made a $625 million commitment to the environment in his annual budget proposal, representing a quarter of a $2.5 billion promise he made to spend on water quality over the next four years — a $1 billion increase from past spending.

About half the spending — a record $360 million — would go to Everglades projects, speeding up a 17,000-acre Everglades reservoir in farm fields south of Lake Okeechobee and remove almost 200,000 pounds of discharged phosphorus per year — a major source of nutrient pollution.

The request for federal money would specifically go toward the Central Everglades Planning Project and the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir. They would also advance construction of water storage and treatment facilities planned for the Caloosahatchee River West Basin Storage Reservoir and Indian River Lagoon-South projects, in order to reduce the frequency and intensity of algal blooms.

The state budget proposal makes a commitment to the cause, providing $25 million to treat the blooms and red tide plaguing the state’s water supply.

"Are we spending money now in a way we can look back and say 'it's a good thing they really tackled that?'" he said at a press conference announcing his budget. "With the water, people want us to tackle that and I'm serious and get it done."

An ethics bill is the latest legislation by lawmaker who dressed in blackface

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State Rep. Anthony Sabatini

Over the last week, no Florida lawmaker has been more embroiled in controversy than Republican state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, who has been making national headlines for wearing blackface in a grade school prank 14 years ago.

It hasn’t stopped him from pushing numerous bills in Tallahassee, though.

The latest? A bill about ethics.

Later today, the freshman from Howey-in-the-Hills will be advocating for a sweeping bill that would mostly strengthen the state’s ethics laws. And if the past week is any guide, Democrats will put up little resistance.

“They all know that it’s actual garbage,” Sabatini said of the incident, in which he dressed up as one of his high school friends, who is black, and painted his face black. “They successfully took a childish, naive thing and twisted it into a creepy narrative. There’s not even a piece of racial animosity (to it).”

Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo has called for him to resign amid a national debate about the use of blackface, the deeply racist practice historically used to caricature black people. Governor Ron DeSantis’ first choice for Secretary of State, Mike Ertel, resigned last month after a photo surfaced of him dressing up as a Hurricane Katrina victim.

But the top Democrat in the House, Minority Leader Kionne McGhee, has been silent on the issue, and Sabatini has been presenting other, far more controversial bills without the issue coming up.

The bill he’s bringing up today is HB 1, and it’s mostly a repeat of a bill pushed last year by the House’s Public Integrity and Ethics Committee. It does not yet have a Senate sponsor.

It’s a large, complicated mix of proposals that would mostly toughen the state’s ethics laws.

It includes provisions that would ban officials from getting investment advice from lobbyists, require lobbyists who lobby the executive branch to register online and make it illegal for officials to seek jobs that conflict with their lawmaking duties.

The state’s Commission on Ethics has not taken a position on his bill, but its analysis noted that some of the ideas were beneficial and some of them were redundant or unduly harsh. (The commission has its own legislative recommendations for this year, but no lawmakers have taken them up so far.)

The commission’s analysis also found that Sabatini’s bill is so extensive that it would cost the organization about $136,000 to hire another lawyer and investigator.

“The fiscal impact is substantial, as this bill creates a number of new standards of conduct for public officers and employees, and new and complex provisions, often with equally complex exceptions,” the commission’s analysis states.

The House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee is scheduled to have a workshop on the bill this afternoon.

Jacksonville state Rep. Tracie Davis, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said she hadn’t yet read the bill.

But when asked whether her view on it might be different because Sabatini is presenting it, she said, “I’m sure it will.”

The allegations against Sabatini are not new. They surfaced in October, in the final weeks of Sabatini’s campaign, but resurfaced recently over the discussion over blackface.

Sabatini, now 30, was 16 when he dressed up as his high school friend Brandon Evans, who also dressed up as Sabatini. Evans told the Orlando Sentinel and the Washington Post that he didn’t believe it was racist.

“Every year at high school homecoming week, we had things like ‘80s days and celebrity days,” Evans told the Sentinel last week. “We said, ‘I’m going to be you and you’re going to be me.’ I don’t know how it got to be seen as racial. That’s all it was.”

Amid the controversy, Republican House Speaker José Oliva issued a statement noting that voters elected Sabatini with knowledge of the incident.

“All of us are not the people we were at 16,” he said in a statement. “We grow, we learn, and we realize the world is much bigger than the walls of our high school.”

Sabatini has been presenting bills on school board member term limits, red light cameras and banning bans on plastic straws without it coming up.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who has been one of the prominent freshman Democrats in the House, said legislators have been professional despite finding what Sabatini did “inexcusable.”

She said she’s been talking to Sabatini and understands that he was young when it happened, but feels he should still apologize.
“I think it’s courageous to say, ‘I made a mistake and I’ll do better,’” she said.

Sabatini he initially felt terrible for anyone who saw the photo and didn’t understand the context.

But as the story grew and as he explained the context to reporters, he felt that some news reports were using the incident to be sensational, and he’s since refused to apologize.

“Nobody who understands the full context should possibly expect an apology,” he said. “Anyone who thinks it’s racist is either completely insane or is just looking for clickbait headlines."

February 08, 2019

Want to file for Miami-Dade County Commission? There may be a line.

@doug_hanks

The election is still more than a year away, but the novelty of a crush of open seats on the Miami-Dade County Commission has created such demand that two candidates bumped into each other at the Elections Department Friday while filing their candidacy papers.

Raquel Regalado, a former elected school board member who lost the 2016 mayoral race to incumbent Carlos Gimenez, filed her papers to seek the District 7 commission seat Gimenez once held and that's now occupied by Xavier Suarez. (Really quick: Suarez used to be the mayor of Miami, and so did Regalado's dad, Tomás. Suarez's son, Francis, is the mayor now.) 

"I'm filing to get going," said Regalado after submitting her candidacy papers for the Miami-area seat to the Elections Department in Doral. "It's on." 

One seat away was Marlon Hill, a corporate lawyer who also made his commission candidacy official Friday by submitting filing papers. He's running for the District 9 seat occupied by Dennis Moss, one of the two longest-serving members on the 13-seat board. Hill praised Moss, saying "this election is all about building on the work he has done." 

Continue reading "Want to file for Miami-Dade County Commission? There may be a line. " »

He negotiates lower rates with Florida's utilities. Will lawmakers reappoint him?

When Tampa Electric wanted a $134 million rate hike in 2013, James Ray “J.R.” Kelly and Florida’s Office of Public Counsel fought them down to $57 million.

When Florida Power & Light wanted a $1.3 billion rate hike, Kelly was there, too, fighting it down to $811 million.

In all, Kelly and the Office of Public Counsel have saved Floridians billions of dollars in potential rate hikes since he took charge of its staff of 15 lawyers and accountants in 2007.

But since then, Florida’s House and Senate haven’t reconfirmed him in the job. That could change — or not — this year.

On Thursday, the group that’s supposed to choose who leads the office — the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight — met for the first time since 2013.

And most of their questions Thursday were about what Kelly’s office does, and what they were supposed to do.

Sen. Bobby Powell, co-chair of the committee, asked Kelly how they were supposed to reappoint him. Kelly responded that he wasn’t sure.

Since he took the job, the House Speaker and Senate President, who set his budget, have told him, “Unless we need something, you keep doing your job,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s office has an obscure but important job. When electric, water or gas utilities ask Florida’s Public Services Commission for the ability to raise hikes, his office is the one that represents consumers before commissioners.

His office, created by the Legislature in the 1970s, negotiates with the utilities and has appealed cases to the state Supreme Court. The office is usually successful in lowering rates, saving Floridians billions over the years.

“Tempers flare in negotiations,” he told lawmakers. “But at the end of the day, we always shake hands. We have a very healthy personal and professional respect for each other.”

Kelly said he isn’t asking for more positions. His budget is a meagre $2.3 million, half a million less than when he started 12 years ago.

Lawmakers on Thursday seemed willing to reappoint him. They’ll have at least one more meeting to decide, but they said they wanted more details on the office’s activities.

Kelly said after the meeting that he welcomed the extra scrutiny.

“Only an ignorant person would say you don’t have room to improve,” he said.

February 07, 2019

Patronis to Trump: Ease up on medical marijuana banking

Patronis
Jimmy Patronis, [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

In his recent Senate committee testimony, President Donald Trump's new pick for Attorney General made a point that caught the attention of Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

William Barr, who served as U.S. Attorney General under President George H. W. Bush, spoke Thursday about the fact that several states have made laws allowing the use of medical marijuana. 

Barr said the "right way to resolve" the matter is legalizing medical marijuana through the federal legislative process. As for state law, he promised not to go after medical marijuana businesses in states where it's legal. 

“To the extent that people are complying with the state laws, distribution and production and so forth, we’re not going to go after that,” he said.

The Senate panel voted down party lines to move Barr forward, setting up a confirmation vote next week.

In a letter to the President Thursday, Patronis asked him to advise the banks on how they can service the medical marijuana industry without risk of penalty from the federal government before marijuana legislation is potentially passed nationwide.

"The size and staggering growth of the medical marijuana industry, paired with limited regulated banking options, puts patients and employees in dangerous situations as potential targets for criminal activity," Patronis wrote, describing Florida's $300 million and growing medical marijuana industry. "We are now facing a tremendous safety threat as most dispensaries operating in our state are doing so as cash-only businesses."

Federal data released in June shows that by the end of last March, just 411 banks and credit unions across the country were “actively” banking with marijuana businesses.

Banks have been hesitant to service the medical cannabis industry because it's still illegal on the federal level, and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions once indicated that he was going to be stricter than the previous administration on medical pot.

Patronis said since most Florida banks and credit unions won't bank with medical marijuana businesses, it leads to legitimate medical marijuana treatment centers transporting millions of dollars "in duffle bags of cash and even driving the cash endlessly around in trucks," he wrote.

"I know first-hand the risks that come with handling large amounts of cash, which are even greater when a business operates entirely on a cash basis," Patronis wrote. "These businesses are easy targets for criminals and criminal activity [...] We must reassure financial institutions that there will not be retribution for servicing businesses that act within the state’s legal framework." 

Florida's marijuana banking problems became national news during the midterm elections when then-candidate for Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried had her campaign accounts closed twice — with both BB&T and Wells Fargo citing contributions from the industry. 

“I appreciate Chief Patronis highlighting this crucial issue — an issue I dealt with firsthand while campaigning for this office," she sid Thursday night. "Our growing medical marijuana and cannabis industry faces an uphill battle when they must fight to gain access to basic financial services, which limits their stability, competition, and safety. Secure financial services will allow our businesses to compete and thrive, and add to our state’s economy while expanding access for sick and suffering patients.” 

February 06, 2019

Get the governor an airplane, Florida Senate budget chair says

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis revealed his proposed budget last week, it didn’t include any money for a fleet of state airplanes.
Senate budget Chair Rob Bradley wants to fix that.

Speaking to his colleagues on the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, the Fleming Island Republican said that senators should find money to get the governor an airplane.

“He has to move in very short periods of time when events happen, and he needs to have transportation that’s appropriate, whether he asks for it or not,” Bradley said.

“So I think that’s something that we need to work towards in this budget, to make sure that our governor has appropriate transportation,” he added. “This is a large, diverse state, and he has to have an airplane.”

Florida’s governor and Cabinet have been without an airplane since 2011, when Rick Scott became governor and he sold off the state fleet.

That left DeSantis, who took office last month, to use a plane owned by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Tampa in DeSantis' first week in office.

House Speaker José Oliva has also expressed support for a plane.

Asked afterwards for details about how many planes would be needed and how much they would cost, Bradley said he didn’t know the details.

“The details we will work out,” he said. “I just think that needed to be said.”

February 05, 2019

Should high schoolers be taught how to balance a checkbook? Bill filed again to require it

Grad cap
The Seminole High School Class of 2018 graduation cap and tassel during Commencement Ceremony at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. DIRK SHADD | Times
 
The idea of making “financial literacy” a high school graduation requirement is far from a new idea in the Florida Legislature, but this year its foremost champion has a different face. State Sen. Dorothy Hukill, a Republican from Port Orange, sponsored the measure for years, with the idea that students should be able to balance a checkbook, calculate interest rates and otherwise know how to manage their money before they fully join the workforce.
 
But after Hukill died last year, Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, has taken up the effort.
 
“She was a good friend,” Hutson said. “So it’s an emotional bill and I’m looking forward to getting it across the finish line in her honor.”
 
The bill, SB 114, passed through its first committee, the Senate Education Committee, with unanimous “yes” votes on Tuesday. Hutson said he’s optimistic that the House, which has in the past been resistant to the idea, will be more open to it this year in part due to some fresh-faced new members.
 
“There are people in the House that are younger that believe this is important and they never had this opportunity whereas their parents did,” he said. "We got rid of this program and we’re bringing this back.”
 
After lawmakers from both parties praised the bill, several also said they should consider extending the school day or the school year as more curriculum requirements and programs pile up, plus it would help keep Florida “competitive,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.
 
“When you have a limited amount of time there’s only so much you can do,” he said, after also expressing his support for a different bill that would continue an early education music program.
 
“I’d love to join ... in a discussion of changing that agrarian calendar we go by now and figuring out how we put more hours in the day or look at extending the school year,” agreed Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, the committee’s chairman. “I think we have two examples here that are very valuable but it becomes difficult to put in the school day.”

DeSantis names Palm Beach County real estate executive to lead Department of Management Services

Gov. Ron DeSantis has named commercial real estate executive Jonathan Satter to lead Florida’s Department of Management Services, he announced Monday afternoon.

Satter will now lead the state agency that manages state property and workers' benefits.

“With his extensive experience in real estate development and property management, I know the department is in fantastic hands and I am confident in his ability to use our tax dollars wisely and strategically in his new role at DMS," DeSantis said in a statement.

He was most recently managing director of U.S. operations for Canada-based Avison Young, a private commercial real estate services firm. He had his own company, WGCompass, from 1999 to 2013, when it was acquired by Avison Young.

In 2005, Satter was named by former Gov. Jeb Bush to the board of Palm Beach County’s Health Care District, a safety net health system created by voters.

He served on the health care district from 2005 to 2011. During his tenure, a couple of the taxpayer-funded district’s real estate decisions raised eyebrows.

In 2011, health care district officials decided to buy $4 million in land to build a new public nursing home, rather than use land the county was willing to give away nearly for free.

A Palm Beach Post investigation into the sale found it was sold to a group of investor’s led by the district’s own real estate agent. The agent was also friends with Satter’s wife, professional golfer Michelle McGann.

Satter told the Post that he had no involvement in the sale.

Also while he was chairman, the district bought an office building in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, according to the Post. When the district sold the building six years later, the district ended up losing $2 million on the deal.

Chief Executive Nicholas Romanello told the Post in 2015 that the health care district would be changing its real estate strategy.

“Special taxing districts should probably not be in the business of being big real estate owners,” Romanello told the Post.

February 04, 2019

After report of low Hurricane Michael donations, readers send in thousands

Envelopes
Readers of the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times sent in more than 40 checks to the United Way of Northwest Florida to go toward Bay County's long term recovery group. Many of their letters referenced the story. (Courtesy of Bryan Taylor).
 
In the days following a Times/Herald report that donations toward Hurricane Michael recovery were severely lacking, Bryan Taylor, the president of the United Way of Northwest Florida, arrived to the post office to see the charity’s mailbox stuffed with envelopes.
 
“We’re so grateful for the overwhelming response,” he said.
 
This local chapter of the United Way manages the funds for the new Bay County Long Term Disaster Recovery Organization, which was highlighted in the Times/Herald report. That group, which is made up primarily of local nonprofit and faith leaders, is just getting off the ground to address the many issues still ahead for recovery in Bay County — home to Panama City and Mexico Beach where Michael made landfall last October.
 
In the five days following the story’s publication, Taylor said they received approximately $16,200, a massive uptick. Of that, about $7,100 came in the mail from Times/Herald readers who referenced the story in their letters, all of whom asked that the funds be designated for the Bay County group.
 
“I’ve been wanting to contribute to Michael recovery and this is a perfect way — having a long-term recovery organization can help a community in so many ways,” one reader wrote.
 
“I realize this is a drop in the bucket, but I want you to know that this donation is a direct result of the January 27th article in the Tampa Bay Times,” wrote another.
 
The rest of the donations came online or through United Way’s text-to-give option. A single donor in Miami gave $5,000. Most, if not all, of those gifts will also be dedicated to the Bay County group, depending on what instructions the donors gave in the online portal.
 
The Bay County Long Term Disaster Recovery Organization will use this money to help families in some of the hardest-hit areas to fix their homes and clear debris, Taylor said.
 
“I want to send our most sincere thanks to those who not only read (the) story but responded in such a generous way,” he said.
 
Those still wishing to give can donate online at this link, or send checks to United Way of Northwest Florida (Indicate in the check’s memo line that it is for BCLTDRO), P.O. Box 586, Panama City, FL 32402.

February 01, 2019

About 2020 run, Messam says 'all options will remain on the table'

Messam

Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam acknowledged his interest in a presidential run Friday, explaining in a statement to the Miami Herald that "all options will remain on the table."

The Herald reported Thursday that Messam was gauging interest in a long-shot presidential bid. He did not respond to requests for comment for the story - read the article here - but on Friday issued a statement confirming that he is interested in taking a shot at the Democratic party's nomination in 2020.

"Miramar is home, and as mayor I am focused on my upcoming reelection in March. However, I am grateful for the calls and messages I have received from all over the state of Florida and the country. My wife Angela and I count it a blessing that the great record of the city of Miramar would even place us in this conversation," Messam said. "When it comes to being an ambassador for the city, I have always said that all options will remain on the table. Our country's leadership over the last few years has failed to address the myriad of challenges hardworking men and women face every day. Our future as a community, a state, and a country has never seemed more uncertain. Please keep our family in your prayers."

Sen. Lauren Book revives human trafficking bill, but this version doesn't allow victims to sue hotels

Last year, Sen. Lauren Book’s human trafficking bill had a radical idea: allow trafficking survivors to sue the hotels that turned a blind eye to their suffering.
 
But the bill ran up against a behind-the-scenes effort by the powerful hotel lobby to kill it in the waning days of last year’s legislative session.
 
Now, Book, a Democrat from Hollywood, is back with a new version of the bill (SB 540).It does not include allowing trafficking victims to sue hotels, but it does require hotels train their employees to watch for trafficking, like last year’s bill did.
 
Hotels and motels often profit from trafficking, since that’s where it often takes place.
 
“We’re not trying to create the fights and problems there were last year,” Book said. “We know this is a problem. We know where it’s a problem. And we need to address it.”
 
Book’s new bill does four main things:
  • Require hotels to train managers and employees to recognize and report human trafficking. Failing to do so would result in a $1,000 fine per employee per day.
  • Creates a corporation under the Department of Children and Families that collects those fines, raises money and uses both sources to help trafficking survivors.
  • Creates a registry of pimps and johns.
  • Requires police recruits, during their academy training, to be taught how to identify and investigate human trafficking.
The details of some of the programs are still up in the air, Book said. The registry, for example, could only be used by police, or it could be made public.
 
After the defeat of last year’s bill, Book said she spent the summer speaking with police and trafficking survivors. This year’s bill includes some of the best ideas she heard, she said.
 
“I think, overall, this addresses a lot of the things that we heard from last session,” Book said. “We’re third in the country when it comes to human trafficking. We need to do better.”
 
The bill does not yet have a House sponsor, but Book believes she can get the bill passed. Last year’s bill sailed unanimously through the Senate’s committees, thanks in great part to the testimony of trafficking survivors and prosecutors
 
Book said some of those survivors will be traveling to Tallahassee again to convince lawmakers.
 
“I’m hopeful we’ll be able to move this along better than last year’s,” Book said. “I’m happier with this product than last year’s, because I think this does more for survivors.”