« February 2017 | Main | April 2017 »

294 posts from March 2017

March 30, 2017

Winners and losers under new House rules for hometown spending

When it comes to hometown porkbarrel spending in Florida's next budget, this should be a good year for Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties for two reasons: Key members of House Speaker Richard Corcoran's inner circle are from Miami, and the Senate's lead budget-writer is Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

But projects must clear new hurdles this session, and some clear winners and losers are emerging. Corcoran and the House instituted new rules for projects that require that each one must be filed as a standalone bill, must be heard by a House committee and must be paid for with one-time, nonrecurring money.

Diaz033017Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami (in photo), is the runaway winner with 23 projects eligible to be in the House budget. Diaz is chairman of the Miami-Dade delegation and chairman of the House Commerce Committee that handles most business-related legislation. 

"I take a lot of the county's priorities on my shoulders," Diaz said. "I believe in every House project that I file, and I pester people until they hear my bills. You have to work your stuff."

In a revolving-door Legislature hobbled by term limits, Diaz said that personal relationships are paramount, and a well-liked legislator is more likely to have success pushing a project.

Miami-Dade benefits by having Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, as the House budget-writer, though he has been outspoken in calling for a smaller budget than in past years.

Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, got 13 projects through a committee, and so did Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, who represents 10 small, rural counties in North Florida, according to a LobbyTools analysis. Rep. Liz Porter, R-Lake City, steered 11 projects through a committee.

Among the most successful Democrats were Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, with nine projects, and freshman Rep. Nick Duran, D-Miami, with eight.

Projects would benefit people with Alzheimer's, hearing loss or developmental disabilities, restore historic buildings, install street lights and drainage systems and build community centers. Corcoran's new system requires a level of disclosure for each project that was not available in past years.

For example, Lauren's Kids, a non-profit founded by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, to promote awareness of and to prevent sexual abuse against children, is eligible for another $1 million from taxpayers. Nunez is the sponsor of the project (HB 3261) and its lobbyist, Ron Book, is the senator's father.

The nine-page project application says that most of the $1 million would be spent on printing of materials, curriculum fulfillment, storage, travel and videography. Other expenses include $75,000 for consultants, $55,000 for an executive director and $35,000 for a communications director. The application says Lauren's Kids, which is overseen by the Department of Education, will seek an additional $3 million to $10 million in public money in the next five years. The Book program was recommended by the Department of Education and the governor, so it appears veto-proof.

In a tight budget year, many projects won't survive the upcoming weeks of legislative maneuvering. Even if they do, they're still subject to Gov. Rick Scott's veto pen in a year when House Republicans have targeted Enterprise Florida for extinction.

Of all 1,205 House projects, 516 or 43 percent made the first cut, according to LobbyTools, the legislative tracking service. The rest are dead in the House for this session because House appropriations subcommittees aren't scheduled to meet again. A project can still energe in the Senate but it has to exist as a bill or amendment at the start of a joint budget conference committee process.

Of the 516 approved House projects, not one was rejected by a committee, and most were explained and endorsed unanimously in an assembly-line fashion. One project (HB 2291), for a statewide leadership conference for girls at a cost of $500,000, was postponed and did not get a favorable vote after members questioned it. 

Of those 516 projects in the running, 384 or 74 percent were filed by Republicans and 132 or 26 percent were sponsored by Democrats. Republicans occupy two-thirds of House seats (79 of 120), so the GOP is outperforming in terms of getting money teed up for the budget.

The House is scheduled to release its first budget proposal Friday, when a new list of project winners and losers will emerge.

Sen. Bill Nelson to hold first major Miami fundraiser



U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who is expected to face a major reelection battle in 2018, will hold his first major Miami fundraiser Friday.

Ira and Cynthia Leesfield, major donors to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, are hosting the event at their Miami home Friday evening. About 100 people are expected to attend the fundraiser where the minimum donation is $1,000.

"There were some reservations that it would be hard to raise money after the presidential election but the fact of the matter is that's not so," Ira Leesfield said. "People are very motivated out of fear or whatever you name it."

Nelson will attend a smaller fundraiser later in the evening at the home of Roger Thomson and Jim Tyrell in Miami Beach. That fundraiser is expected to draw members of the LGBT community and beach residents.

Nelson is likely to face Republican Gov. Rick Scott who is considering a bid. Nationally, Republicans are targeting Nelson as a Democrat in a swing state where President Donald Trump won. Nelson is Florida's only Democratic statewide office holder.

Nelson has easily won elections multiple times, but the millionaire Scott would be a far more formidable opponent. In 2012, Nelson was reelected to his third term when he beat Connie Mack IV, a Fort Myers Congressman.

Early polls have shown Nelson leading Scott.


Auto insurance rates could plummet in Miami under proposed legislation, but there's a catch



Getting auto insurance would get a lot more expensive for those who can least afford it in Florida — those living paycheck to paycheck — under a pair of proposals gaining traction in the Legislature.

Drivers who can only afford the bare minimum of insurance to keep their cars on the road would have to pay, on average, $250 more a year for coverage under a House plan. Under a Senate plan they’d have to come up with nearly $323 more a year.

For other drivers who already pay for extra protection for insurance, their rates will go down, at least under the plan the House is championing. Drivers who pay for bodily injury coverage now would see their bills drop by an average of $81 a year.

No one will be happier than Miami-Dade residents, where personal injury protection insurance rates are highest. Those already with bodily injury insurance would see their rates drop by an average of $259 a year.

The rate shock for those at the lower economic end would be worse in some counties where the kind of coverage the Legislature wants to require is more expensive because of traffic density, percentage of uninsured and accident rates.

In Broward County, getting car insurance would cost $265 more on average for those who have the bare minimum coverage, according to a statewide report commissioned by the state Office of Insurance Regulation. In Miami-Dade, those without bodily injury coverage will pay $70.64 more per year, the lowest jump of any county in Florida.

Rates vary depending on a county's traffic density, percentage of uninsured drivers and accident rates.

"If you take the folks who are paying the least, because that is all they can afford, these are the people who are going to see increased rates," state Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville, told the Times/Herald.

Full Story Here

Because all stories have a South Florida connection: the Miami link in the explosive Trump-Russia dossier


The Washington Post published a detail-rich report Wednesday of one of the sources behind the explosive dossier on President Donald Trump's supposed ties to Russia.

The only evidence linking the source, a Belarusan American named Sergei Millian, to Trump is a photograph taken of the two men with Miami developer and Trump friend Jorge Pérez, according to the Post. Millian also claimed to Russian media that he met Trump in 2007 at an unspecified Miami horse-racing track:

[Millian] told the Russian state-operated news agency RIA Novosti last April, for instance, that he met Trump at a Miami horse-racing track after “mutual associates” had organized a trip for Trump to Moscow in 2007.

From there, Millian said, he entered into a business arrangement in which he says he helped market a Trump-branded condominium complex in Hollywood, Fla., to international investors, including Russians.

Millian’s description of the Miami event appears to match up with a picture he posted on Facebook that appears to show him posing with Trump and the project’s developer, Jorge Pérez — the only evidence that Millian ever met Trump.

A spokesman for Pérez said his company has no record of paying Millian in connection with the project, and Pérez declined to comment further.

A White House spokeswoman said, “Sergei Millian is one of hundreds of thousands of people the president has had his picture made with, but they do not know one another.”

The full story is really worth a read. The Miami Herald has documented some of Trump's Russian real-estate deals in South Florida here and here.

Photo credit: Kirill Kallinikov/Sputnik via AP (via Washington Post)

Next week at Mar-a-Lago: Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping


President Donald Trump will host his second head of state at Mar-a-Lago next week, the White House confirmed Thursday.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Trump's Palm Beach estate April 6-7. It will be the two men's first meeting in person. 

Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago last month -- and faced controversy when the men appeared to be discussing national security matters out in the open over dinner.

As part of next week's trip, Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, will have dinner with Trump and First Lady Melania Trump on April 6.

Xi, however, is not expected to be an overnight guest at Mar-a-Lago. Though the White House didn't outline Xi's accommodations, the Lantana police chief told town council members earlier this week Xi plans to stay at the Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa in Manalapan, the Palm Beach Post reported.

Photo credit: Charles Trainor Jr., Miami Herald staff

House education chairman: I’ve been clear where I stand on school recess



The only lawmaker on record still opposing state-required daily recess in Florida’s elementary schools wields a lot of power over education policy this session.

But Miami Republican and House education chairman Michael Bileca won’t say whether he intervened to water down this year’s recess bill to eliminate the daily requirement and cut off guaranteed recess from more than 430,000 fourth- and fifth-graders in Florida.

“I think I’ve made the thoughts that I’ve had on recess clear, so how they chose to change it is how they chose to change it to move things through,” Bileca told the Herald/Times.

More here.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times 

What's a 'tax increase'? House, Senate at odds over increases to education spending



Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran famously said “hell, no” last month to any property tax increases during the 2017 legislative session. That’s not scaring off the state Senate, though.

Senators plan to test Corcoran’s hardline stance and are proposing to spend almost $540 million more than the House next year on K-12 public education by using extra property tax dollars gleaned from rising property values.

Senate budget leaders contend it is “not a tax increase” because the tax rate won’t change under their budget plan. But the House says that it is, because homeowners and businesses will pay more money toward their tax bill if their property value went up this year.

Those opposing philosophical views — now laid out in official House and Senate education budget proposals released Tuesday — set up the Legislature for a showdown in budget negotiations over the next month in how much to spend on public schools in 2017-18 and how to fund any increase.

More here.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

March 29, 2017

Curbelo on health care: 'We should continue working on this'

IMG_Curbelo_4_1_MK8ILVUK_L234499753 (1)

The Republican effort to overhaul the nation's healthcare system isn't over yet, at least not for Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo.

Curbelo told constituents Wednesday he's committed to replacing the Affordable Care Act, even after the American Health Care Act, House Republicans' proposed alternative, was unceremoniously withdrawn from consideration last week due to insufficient GOP support.

"I believe we should continue working on this -- if not this year, next year -- and figure out a way to empower consumers," Curbelo said on a telephone "town hall" meeting organized by the AARP for seniors in his 26th congressional district. The congressman hasn't held any in-person town halls.

The call wasn't solely on health care. But coming days after the AHCA's failure, a majority of listeners' questions inevitably focused on what would happen to the system in place known as Obamacare. The AARP had opposed the legislation.

One caller, Alonzo from Miami, called the AHCA a "horrible bill" and asked Curbelo why he supported it. Curbelo noted he backed it on the Ways and Means Committee but later had concerns.

"I had not made a final decision on the bill," he said -- in part because he knew he probably wouldn't have to. "I had known for some days that there wasn't sufficient support here in the House...so I doubted that there would be a vote."

Some callers helped Curbelo make his points about the existing ACA being too costly for some people -- especially in the Florida Keys, where the federal insurance marketplace only offers a single provider.

"This is the first year that I have not been able to afford healthcare," said Sally, an X-ray technician from Summerland Key who said she chose to pay her mortgage instead. "What do I pick: health care or my house?"

Another caller, Julia from Miami, questioned seeking to overturn the ACA entirely.

"Why don't you take the time and the effort to fix the Affordable Care Act, instead of throwing away all the effort and time that has gone into getting it done?" she asked. "Isn't it much better to just change it?"

Curbelo responded that a lot of conservative Republicans opposed the replacement bill because they argued the GOP was doing just that -- trying to pass "Obamacare 2.0," or "Obamacare lite."

"For a lot of people, this was a political effort: It was about a law named after a president," Curbelo conceded. "I took a much more sober approach to it."

For now, however, he acknowledged that nothing would be undone.

"That effort is kind of on pause," he said, "and we'll just have to see if there's the political will to get it going again."

Photo credit: Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press

House amendment turns the tables on judges in redistricting cases

RedistrictOldNewIn an aggressive attempt to weaken the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution, a House committee on Wednesday passed legislation to create new hurdles to legal challenges to the maps lawmakers draw. 

The House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee voted 14-3 to change the implementation of the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the Constitution, which subjected the Republican-led Legislature to years of litigation and an embarrassing admission that they intentionally drew districts that favored incumbents and parties in violation of the law. Three Democrats joined with Republicans to support the bill.

Under the amendment added to HB 953 by Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, any challenges to a redistricting map would have to occur within 60 days after the maps are passed, effectively short-circuiting the time challengers can obtain records and documents to prepare a case. 

The bill also suspends any litigation that occurs 71 days before candidates qualify for election and freezes the districts in place until after the election. And, in an attempt to turn the tables on the judiciary if it must resolve a dispute over the maps, the bill subjects judges to cross-examination. Story here. 

Miami Republicans divided over internet privacy rules

Roslehtinen2 castro lnew cmg

Two Miami Republicans, Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, voted this week to lift restrictions on internet providers from tracking and sharing personal data without consent, joining a Republican majority that sent the legislation to President Donald Trump's desk.

Diaz-Balart's office said he supported the bill because it "eliminates confusing regulations" that allow both the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission to regulate the internet. The FCC rules that would be repealed by the law apply only to major providers like Verizon but not to giant websites like Google.

"This evens the playing field for the entire internet," Diaz-Balart spokeswoman Katrina Valdés said in a statement. "At the end of the day, the bill doesn't strip consumer privacy, but rather, strengthens the power of the one agency that had already been enforcing it."

Curbelo made a similar argument.

"The FCC has been trying to expand its rulemaking authority and grow our government and regulations in a way that inhibits the free market competition," he said in a statement. "This joint resolution does not modify or reduce existing privacy regulations, and does not put consumers at any increased risk."

But the third local Republican lawmaker, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, disagrees. Ros-Lehtinen was absent from Tuesday's vote because she had to go out of town to be with her daughter, the congresswoman's office said Wednesday. But if Ros-Lehtinen had been in Washington, she said she would have broken with Diaz-Balart and Curbelo.

"I would have voted no on the bill because of the potential for individuals' private information to be shared," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement to the Miami Herald after a reporter inquired about her absence. "Many treat their online searches and activity as a part of their private lives and to have that information exposed for no or little other purpose than targeted advertising or data mining betrays the public's trust." 

All House Democrats voted against. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which plans to target Curbelo in the 2018 election, accused him of putting "corporate interests over the private, personal interests of Florida."

When the Senate passed the measure last week, Floridians Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio split their votes along party lines. Rubio, a Republican, voted in favor, while Nelson, a Democrat, voted against.

This post has been updated.

Photo credit: C.M. Guerrero, el Nuevo Herald