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20 posts from February 2019

February 15, 2019

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



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

IMG_voting-booth1_2_1_US9MTFJ2_L267071205 (1)


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


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



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


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



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


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.

AP Economy Survey-Energy Exports-1
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

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."