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297 posts from May 2017

May 31, 2017

Constitution Revision Commission feuds amid power struggle over rules

CRC Miami listeningTwo months after the formation of the Constitution Revision Commission, the rules governing the 37-member panel remain in turmoil as a power struggle between the chairman and the rest of the commission has emerged.

The commission is convened every 20 years and is given the power to put proposals directly on the November 2018 ballot. The chairman, Carlos Beruff, was appointed by the governor along with 14 other members. The remaining commissioners were appointed by the House speaker, Senate president and chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

Before the commission first met on March 20, Beruff proposed a set of rules to shape how the panel operates. They were modeled after the rules used by the CRC that convened in 1997-98 but modified to essentially give Beruff the authority to control which proposals made it to the ballot — more power than the chair had 20 years ago.

Beruff, who is mindful of the fact that Gov. Rick Scott is also likely to be on the 2018 ballot as a candidate for U.S. Senate, faced immediate resistance from the other commission members, who refused to adopt his rules. Read more here. 

Photo: Members of the Constitutional Revision Commission listen to residents during a town hall meeting at Florida International University in Miami, April 6, 2017. PEDRO PORTAL [email protected]

The race to replace Frank Artiles is on

@PatriciaMazzei @martindvassolo

Seven candidates will compete this summer in a special Florida Senate election crucial for Democrats, who consider the competitive seat a rare opportunity to boost their small numbers in the state Legislature.

Three Democrats, three Republicans and one candidate without party affiliation qualified Wednesday for the special Senate District 40 election.

Democrats, who hold 15 of 40 Senate seats, hoped to win the Southwest Miami-Dade County district last November. Instead, it went for Republican Frank Artiles, who resigned in April after unleashing an offensive tirade against two senators and using his political committee to hire a former Hooters calendar girl and a Playboy model as “consultants.”

The primary to replace Artiles is scheduled for July 25, and the general election for Sept. 26.

More here.

Photo credit: El Nuevo Herald file

Former 'liberal' Republican files to run for Florida Senate as a Democrat




For Steve Smith, the decision to run for Florida Senate — his first foray into politics — came after watching Democrats lose big in the November election, both with Donald Trump's win and those of other Republicans down the ballot.

Smith, the founder of a Miami-based tech consulting firm and a former Army captain, said he wanted to help upend the Republican-led Legislature in Tallahassee and hopefully turn South Florida into a "Silicon Beach" for tech companies.

"We need to invest in more technology," the 51-year-old said. "We need to figure out how to really create an environment for education and job sustaining and job creation in South Florida."

He is one of seven candidates running in a special election to fill the Senate District 40 seat left vacant by Republican Frank Artiles when he resigned in April after making offensive remarks to two senators.

The primary is on July 25 and the general election is on Sept. 26.

Although he's running as a Democrat, Smith was registered as a Republican for decades and just switched last year. He considered himself a liberal Republican, but eventually realized the Democratic Party aligned more with his "core values."

"I'm hoping that...my Republican roots help me reach across the aisle both to voters and my Republican colleagues out there," he said.

Some of Smith's plans include adding programming and technology options to younger students' curriculums, to make Florida's high-schoolers competitive in a growing job market.

"We've got to get those skills pushed down into all of our schools at every level," he said. "The future is going to be driven around that."

Smith, who dropped out of high school at 16 to help out his parents, also mentioned expanding tech certification and apprenticeship programs for students who won't go on to college.

"While a university degree is awesome, it's not the only path for everyone," he said.

He eventually earned a GED and attended Syracuse University, where he served as the chairman of the university's College Republicans club and volunteered with George H.W. Bush's first presidential campaign. He served as an active-duty and reserve Army member for 26 years.

Photo: Steve Smith

First Amendment Foundation also wants veto of higher education bill


The First Amendment Foundation wants Republican Gov. Rick Scott to now also veto a third part of the 2017-18 budget over concerns of a lack of transparency: a priority bill of Senate President Joe Negron's that includes sweeping reforms affecting Florida's 12 public universities and 28 state colleges.

The formal veto request from the non-profit foundation -- of which the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times are members -- comes after similar requests by the organization, which called on Scott to reject the main budget act (SB 2500) and a controversial $419 million K-12 schools bill (HB  7069).

The higher ed bill (SB 374), like the public schools legislation, was among a dozen or so budget-related policy bills that lawmakers negotiated and finalized behind closed doors in the final days of session.

One aspect, though, drew particular criticism: A previously undiscussed change to benchmarks that make the state's top-tier, research-focused universities eligible for millions of dollars in additional funding. Several lawmakers in the Tampa Bay area said they were blindsided when they learned the change would prevent the University of South Florida from reaching "pre-eminent" status -- and earn the bonus dollars -- as it had been on track to do.

In a letter to Scott, First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Petersen blasted the fact that SB 374 was "decided in secrecy and seemingly in direct violation of the right of access to legislative meetings."

"The secretive process precluded any opportunity for public oversight or input on major changes to Florida’s to (sic) post-secondary education policy," Petersen wrote. "We are extremely concerned that not only were university and higher education officials shut out, but also legislators from key committees were unaware of changes made to this critically important bill.

Read the foundation's full letter here.

After this post was published, Negron's office offered a statement to the Herald/Times in response to the foundation's criticism of the bill.

“Over the 18 months that we have been discussing elements of higher education reform, I am not aware of the First Amendment Foundation ever contacting me personally, any other Senator, or any member of the Senate professional staff to express any concern with this legislation whatsoever," Negron, R-Stuart, said in the statement. " As a result, today’s critique is completely ill-informed and inaccurate."

Negron said he has "been discussing many of the reforms contained in Senate Bill 374 since my designation in 2015" and that other ideas in the bill resulted from feedback he received while touring all state universities last year. He argued "every component of the bill was vetted by three Senate committees and amendments by senators were offered and incorporated at every step of the process."

"The only significant change to the legislation that occurred during the conference process was to delay the implementation of a four-year graduation metric for one year so that universities have extra time to plan," he said.

However, several lawmakers on the final day of session complained that they were not consulted and were actually left completely unaware of the change in graduation metrics that would cost USF millions of dollars -- that is, until those lawmakers received urgent calls from USF trustees and administrators the weekend before the Legislature voted on the budget package.

“I was flat embarrassed,” Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said on the Senate floor on May 8. “We should never learn about the impact of what we did from the people we’re impacting.”

Scott on Wednesday received the main budget act (SB 2500), but none of the "conforming" bills -- such as SB 374 or HB 7069 -- have been officially sent to him yet.

Photo credit: Barbara Petersen is president of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for open government and access to public records. Miami Herald file photo

'Floridians need a champion again,' Andrew Gillum says

Gillum_TLHtigerbay 053117


Amid a crowded field of contenders for governor in 2018, Democrat Andrew Gillum is casting himself as the “slightly out of place” candidate who would bring years of government experience but also fresh ideas and “something different” than Florida has seen under two decades of Republican rule.

“It is our political leadership — or the lack thereof — that has failed us,” Gillum said Wednesday, speaking for nearly an hour in front of a couple hundred people at the Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee. “We’ve had enough with slogans and showgames, enough with struggling to get ahead, enough with shrinking from our state’s challenges. ... Floridians need a champion again.”

Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, aimed to set himself apart from other Republicans and Democrats seeking to lead the nation’s third largest state, while also acknowledging his long odds against competitors who have more prominent names Floridians likely already know.

“I recognize this is more than a notion — to be on this journey,” Gillum said, when one Tiger Bay Club member bluntly asked Gillum if he’d settle for being just lieutenant governor.

“I don’t have a famous last name and I cannot stroke my own check to become the next governor of the state of Florida,” he said in an apparent reference to his Democratic primary opponents: former Tallahassee U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham — the daughter of Bob Graham, who is a former U.S. senator and Florida governor — and Orlando businessman Chris King, who this spring put $1 million of his own money into his campaign.

Gillum added: “I’m going to have to do this the old-fashioned way — that means going around, that means talking to people, that means asking people for their support, for their investment, for their belief that we can actually do it different.”

“If I become the Democratic nominee for governor, which I’m going to fight hard to accomplish, I believe I can go on and win this race. ... So, I’m running for governor,” he said, drawing applause from the room.

Gillum — who’s viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party and who spoke at the Democratic National Convention last summer — is trying to build up his name recognition across Florida as the 2018 race heats up.

More here.

Photo credit: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, talks to members of the Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee before delivering a luncheon speech on Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The clock is ticking: $82.4 billion budget sent to Rick Scott's desk



The clock starts today for Gov. Rick Scott who has 15 days to decide whether to sign an $82.4 billion state budget -- and just how much of it he wants to veto.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, on Wednesday is sending the budget bill (SB 2500) to Scott, who faces a June 15 deadline to act on it. And speculation is running wild in Tallahassee that the governor could send much of the budget right back to the Legislature.

After Scott's favored projects, economic incentive agency Enterprise Florida and tourism marketer Visit Florida, were gutted in the budget, the governor has been critical of the spending plan passed by his fellow Republicans in the Legislature.

"I have the opportunity to either veto the entire budget or veto parts of the budget or veto a line item," he said last week.

It's a basic fact. But it's also a reminder to legislative leaders that in his frustration, Scott could veto an entire section of the budget -- for example, the $23.7 billion K-12 education budget -- as well as sweeping policy bills that were pushed through the secretive budget process.

Those bills, including a controversial schools bill (HB 7069) that has drawn outrage from parents and school boards, have not yet been sent to Scott, though they are expected to be later this week.

At the very least, Scott will use his veto pen to scratch out projects he doesn't agree with. In six years as governor, Scott has vetoed $1.9 billion in spending.

If Scott were to veto a section of the budget, it would require lawmakers to come back in a special session this month to resolvew the disagreement. Or, if they had enough buy-in from Democrats, they could override Scott's veto. That would take a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate.

Times/Herald staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report.

Photo: Gov. Rick Scott (Chris Urso | Tampa Bay Times)

Paul Manafort, Florida man

via @learyreports

He was a powerful Washington insider brought on to steady Donald Trump’s campaign and is now a key figure in the escalating Russia controversy. But for all the attention Paul Manafort has attracted, one detail is little-known:

He’s a Florida resident.

Manafort has called Palm Beach Gardens his full-time home since at least April 2011, when he registered to vote. He has regularly cast ballots, including voting early in the November contest featuring Trump and Hillary Clinton, records show.

Manafort and his wife, Kathleen, bought the waterfront home in 2007 for $1.5 million, more than twice it sold for in 2000, and paid more than $15,000 in taxes in 2016. The couple previously owned property in nearby Wellington but sold that in 2004 for $1.55 million.

As a Florida resident, Manafort does not have to pay state income taxes, a perk that has beckoned wealthy people from all over, including prominent Republicans such as Mike Huckabee and Rush Limbaugh.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, lived for a while in Miami and was considering buying a home in Sarasota before joining the campaign, the Tampa Bay Times reported in March.

Of course, Trump has Mar-a-Lago, not far from Manafort’s home.

Attempts to reach Manafort Tuesday were unsuccessful. A woman who answered the phone (a cell with a Northern Virginia area code) said she thought it was him calling then ended the conversation with, “Well, good luck.”

Manafort owns property in other states, including New York, where some of his real estate transactions have drawn scrutiny in recent weeks.

He left the campaign last August amid growing tension with Trump and questions about work for pro-Russian figures in Ukraine. Those and other ties have earned Manafort an invitation to testify before House and Senate panels investigating Russian interference in the election.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Photo credit: Patrick Fallon, Bloomberg

Jeremy Ring launches 2018 bid for Florida CFO

IMG_Jeremy_Ring__D-32nd__2_1_5B93IA5N_L249637107via @adamsmithtimes

Promising to protect Florida’s public retirement system and to focus on creating an innovation economy, former Broward County Democratic Sen. Jeremy Ring has jumped in the 2018 race for state chief financial officer.

As a former lawmaker, businessman, investor and one of the founding members of Yahoo, Ring, 46, said he is uniquely qualified for the job about to be vacated by Republican Jeff Atwater, who is resigning this summer. Atwater’s term ends in 2018, creating a rare open seat in that election for a statewide office that’s viewed as a stepping stone to the governor’s mansion.

“I understand the business aspect I’m sure as well as anybody that can run for that seat,” said Ring, who filed papers to begin raising money and is the first major Democrat in that race. No other prominent Democratic names are circulating for the CFO position.

Republicans could wind up without a competitive primary, too. Because Atwater is stepping 18 months before his second and final term ends, Gov. Rick Scott will appoint a replacement who can be a de-facto incumbent running for election in 2018.

Among the leading Republican contenders are developer and former legislator Pat Neal, Sarasota GOP chairman and state Rep. Joe Gruters, and state Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa.

The CFO is part of the Florida Cabinet along with the attorney general and agriculture commissioner. It was created nearly two decades ago after the Constitution Revision Commission asked voters to merge the Department of Insurance, Treasury, State Fire Marshal and the Department of Banking and Finance into the Department of Financial Services.

Ring, of Parkland, said a top priority as CFO would be doing all he can to promote a stronger economy in Florida by pushing for more venture capital, more business ties with Central and South America, and more engineers in the state.

Politicians constantly talk about creating jobs, Ring said, “but that rings hollow. They’re talking about jobs; I’m talking about: How do we make an economy? They’re not focused on how they create the next Yahoo.com, the next Amazon.com.”

As a down-ballot candidate, Ring’s success depends in large part on what happens with the 2018 race for governor, as well as with President Donald Trump, Ring acknowledged. He said he will focus on what he can control.

Ring — known as a moderate Democrat while in the Florida Senate — opened Yahoo’s East Coast office out of his apartment in New York. He reported his net worth as $12.6 million, as of December 2015.

He is capable of spending millions of his own money but said that’s not the plan. 

“I’m going to hold my powder, and if I need to put money in at the end, I’ll do that,” Ring said.

Herald/Times staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed.

Can you lose voting rights for driving with a suspended license?



Desmond Meade, a convicted drug offender who later turned his life around and graduated from law school, is leading the effort in Florida to automatically restore voting rights to many felons.

Meade’s effort to put a question on the Florida ballot got a major plug from comedian Samantha Bee, who used her TBS show Full Frontal on May 10 to highlight the topic of how felons struggle to regain civil rights in Florida.

"Ever since losing the popular vote, President [Donald] Trump has had his Underoos in a wad about 3 million people who voted illegally," Bee said, setting up her interview with Meade. "They don't exist. What does exist is 6 million people whose right to vote has been taken away. To learn about them, I went to Florida, where retirees and democracy go to die."

Meade, from Orlando, told Bee that in Florida, 1.68 million felons have lost the right to vote. And some of those felonies are less serious than others.

"It doesn’t matter if it's a first degree or third degree. You could lose your rights for life over something as simple as driving with a suspended license," he said.

"Come on Florida," Bee replied, "do you really want to be the Florida of everything?"

Meade has a point that not all the felonies that cost a person their right to vote are as egregious as murder or sexual assault.

Keep reading from PolitiFact Florida.


Miami-Dade, Broward prosecutors urge Scott to veto fund 'sweep'

Florida prosecutors are lobbying Gov. Rick Scott to whip out his veto pen and wipe out the Legislature's $542.3 million raid on a wide range of trust funds, including a $10 million "sweep" of the state attorneys' revenue trust fund (page 436 of the budget).  

There's nothing new about lawmakers raiding these piggy banks, or "unobligated cash balance accounts," as the budget describes them, to pay day-to-day state operations without raising taxes or fees. (The raid on the local affordable housing trust fund alone is $95 million). But every trust fund has a powerful constituency, and in this case it's the elected law-and-order leaders across the state, people Scott might want to have on his side when he runs for the U.S. Senate next year.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle sent an email to Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera that said: "Please try to remember to ask the governor to veto state attorney sweeps."

In Fort Lauderdale, Monica Hofheinz, executive director to Broward State Attorney Mike Satz, told the Times/Herald in an email: "These are funds that previous legislatures directed state attorneys to use to operate their offices and pay their staff when Florida’s economic crisis resulted in massive general revenue reductions. None of these reductions were restored." She noted that lawmakers already have cut state attorneys' budgets for next year by $5.2 million.

The fund was created during the Great Recession of 2008-09 to give prosecutors a cushion against shortfalls. The main revenue sources are prosecution costs, worthless check fines and penalties from traffic citations. State attorneys say revenue streams from all three are on the decline, especially from worthless checks, as consumers increasingly use debit and credit cards, not checks. Traffic fines also are down, and it's never easy to collect penalties from hard-pressed offenders. As prosecutors see it, the Legislature's trust fund raid makes a bad situation worse.