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39 posts from February 2019

February 28, 2019

Gaetz laughs off Florida Bar inquiry, says he didn’t talk about Cohen with Trump

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@alextdaugherty

Matt Gaetz isn’t backing down.

The two-term congressman from the Florida Panhandle laughed off a Florida Bar inquiry into his tweets, which claimed, the night before former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified in a congressional hearing, that Cohen had extramarital relations, statements that invited claims of witness intimidation.

And he also vigorously denied claims that he’s been in touch with anyone at the White House regarding Cohen’s testimony this week, after a reporter said Gaetz had a phone conversation with President Donald Trump while the president was in Vietnam negotiating with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. Recent conversations between Trump and Gaetz could mean that the president is coordinating with allies to discredit Cohen.

Gaetz, who said any reporting of phone conversations with the president this week was #FakeNews, paused when asked if he spoke with anyone at the White House this week.

“Not this week,” Gaetz said. “Wait I take that back, I had an unrelated conversation about trade with someone. Nothing about Cohen or any of that.”

Gaetz is one of Trump’s biggest defenders in Congress, frequently appearing on cable television and earning Trump’s respect and trust. He later apologized for his Cohen tweet and said Thursday that he reached out to Cohen via text message.

“I told him I was sorry and I shouldn’t have mentioned his family,” Gaetz said. “He appreciated that I acknowledged that mistake on my part. He asked me to publicly ask folks to leave his family alone and I thought that was a fair request.”

Read more here.

Dems want Acosta out over Epstein. GOP wants to know more... Then there’s Matt Gaetz

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@alextdaugherty

Democrats are calling for Labor Secretary Alex Acosta’s resignation. Republicans support an internal investigation into Acosta’s role in a controversial plea deal for multimillionaire sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein in 2008.

But Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of President Donald Trump’s biggest defenders in Congress, is taking a different approach.

In an interview with the Miami Herald on Wednesday, Gaetz said reexamining Acosta’s handling of Epstein’s case, which came under increased scrutiny after the Herald’s three-part series Perversion of Justice, sets a “dangerous” precedent for prosecutors. A federal judge ruled last week that prosecutors run by Acosta, then the U.S. attorney for South Florida, broke the lawwhen they failed to inform Epstein’s underge victims of the plea agreement. The judge gave federal prosecutors 15 days to confer with Epstein’s victims and their attorneys to come up with a resolution. 

“I don’t know what I don’t know and certainly if there is ever an indication of misconduct, that has to be thoroughly reviewed, but I think it’s a dangerous thing to go back and second-guess decisions that prosecutors have to make in real time,” Gaetz said. “I’m deeply troubled by Mr. Epstein’s actions, I think that he certainly should have faced a far stiffer consequence than he did, but having tried cases I know that it’s hard to go back and sort of second-guess the risk analysis that goes into putting witnesses before a jury and subjecting them to cross examination.”

Read more here.

Bill filed to require 80 percent of school funding spent ‘in the classroom’

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A bill filed to fulfill Gov. Ron DeSantis' campaign pitch that 80 percent of education funds be spent "in the classroom" would include student materials, like textbooks, in that calculation. [Times (2014)]
 
On the campaign trail, Gov. Ron DeSantis pitched the idea that 80 percent of education funding be spent “in the classroom,” claiming that there is too much wasted on administration and not enough spent on kids’ learning.
 
Questions have surrounded that proposal from the start, but it’s also taken its first step toward becoming law.
 
Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, filed a bill that makes that percentage a requirement and also takes a stab at defining what “classroom” spending would include. The bill says teachers’ salaries and bonuses, classroom supplies, technology for students and tutoring would all fall into this category.
 
Still, even Republicans have expressed doubt that making it to the 80 percent threshold is possible, considering the costs of guidance counselors, school buses, cafeteria staff and the myriad of other expenses that are related to student success and not included in the administration.
 
“This is clearly a bill that is going to need a lot more work. This is a starting point and a tip of the hat to governor’s desire (to get to 80 percent),” Diaz said.
 
He added that the Legislature will need to work to further define “classroom” spending and may also need to completely remove from the percentage calculation some, non-classroom expenses that are deemed essential by lawmakers, such as those related to school lunches.
 
“Our funding system is so complex most people, even in the Legislature, don’t understand it,” Diaz said. That means it’s time to be “having that conversation and digging deep into the weeds … (to find) which one of these (expenses) was put in because it was politically viable.”

February 27, 2019

Miami Beach Rep. files first bills to legalize recreational pot

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Associated Press

Miami Beach Rep. Michael Grieco made the first go at legalizing recreational marijuana in Florida Tuesday, filing two separate bills that would legalize personal pot use and create an excise tax on the drug.

HB 1117, co-sponsored by Orlando Democrat Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, would make recreational marijuana legal. The bill specifies that only those 21 or older could purchase the drug in no more than 2.5 ounces at a time and restricts smoking the drug to private places only. If someone were to smoke in public, according to the bill, they would face a $100 penalty.

In the 58-page bill, Grieco and Smith also addresses the highly criticized vertical integration model, which by law requires medical marijuana treatment facilities to grow, process, market and sell their own goods. The bill says if passed, retail stores could buy, sell or deliver marijuana from another marijuana cultivation facility.

The bill also mandates that 5 percent of the recreational marijuana revenues be given to the Department of Health to provide grants for peer-reviewed research on marijuana's beneficial uses and safety.

HB 1119, which Grieco filed separately, creates an excise tax to charge growers $50 an ounce for marijuana that is sold or transferred from a marijuana cultivation facility. It also caps the application fee for a marijuana establishment license at $5,000.

Considering the amount of pushback medical marijuana bills have already faced this session, these bills will likely face an uphill battle. House Speaker José Oliva has openly criticized smoking medicinal marijuana, and said efforts to legalize it was just “some cover” for getting access to recreational use.

He pointed out that the drug is still illegal under federal law, and is still a concern because of its “highly marketable” quality.

The recreational use of marijuana is currently legal in 10 states, with New Jersey soon to be the 11th. In 2018, Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana for adult use through the legislative process.

Grieco said even though he and Smith expect pushback on the bill, the language is "consistent with the will of the majority of Floridians." 

"We're going to see next year a majority of Floridians voting on this," Grieco said, referring to potential ballot initiatives. "Even if we get pushback, it continues the conversation. It’s a conversation that’s being had nationally. I expect some movement to be had federally, prior to the presidential election next year." 

In 2016, Grieco received $20,000 from marijuana entrepreneurs Rustin and Evan Kluge for a mayoral campaign fundraising operation the then-Miami Beach commissioner denied involvement with. That committee, called People for Better Leaders, raised more than $200,000 from Miami Beach developers, lobbyists, city vendors and residents in the run-up to the 2017 mayoral election.

"Rep. Smith and I worked tirelessly to try to get the bill language perfect to ensure access, protect local decision making and create a revenue-generating structure for the state," Grieco said.

Smith, who serves on the House Health Quality Subcommittee and has been vocal about legalizing smokeable medical marijuana, said he co-sponsored the bill because criminalizing adult use "just doesn't make any sense." 

"There’s no reason cannabis can’t be regulated in ways similar to alcohol," he said. "No one is dying from cannabis overdoses but they are getting arrested and being given criminal records for no good reason ... We expect that it’s always going to be a tough legislative route, but that’s not a reason to stop advocating for it." 

Gary Stein, of Clarity PAC, said while the bills do important work like move the program under-regulated industries and separate it from the medical program, it still has issues Stein says could be roadblocks.

Stein points out that the excise tax imposed “far too high” and that the term “recreational” is a misnomer. He also thinks the Legislature needs to fix the medical marijuana program before it can move in this direction.

“This is a good legislative start and a way to open the discussion for the future,” he said. “But we still have to fix the medical program before we can move in this direction. Other states have hurt their med programs by rushing to adult use, and we need to be cautious that it doesn’t happen here.”

February 26, 2019

A bloody omen is the latest messaging from Miami Republicans on Venezuela

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@alextdaugherty

After 24 hours of minute-by-minute updates on the failed push to deliver humanitarian aid in Venezuela, Marco Rubio tweeted his first omen at 2 a.m Sunday.

On the left was a picture of a sword-wielding Manuel Noriega, the leftist Panamanian dictator. On the right was Noriega’s jail photo in Miami. Fourteen hours later, Rubio posted a picture of a grinning Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi next to an image of his bloody face minutes before his death. He followed it up with a photo of communist Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu being led to his death after a military tribunal.

The posts, which included no further explanation, caused a stir. Many Venezuelans praised Rubio. Critics said the graphic photos don’t help Rubio’s cause of ending the humanitarian crisis and questioned the use of Gaddafi in particular, given Libya’s ongoing civil war and migration crisis. Social-media users reported the bloody Gaddafi image to Twitter, which resulted in its being flagged for containing sensitive material.

Rubio told the Miami Herald that the posts are “a reminder that things don’t turn out so well for dictators. Their own people get rid of them.”

Rubio said the posts were not a call for military force in Venezuela, and repeated that it’s President Donald Trump’s decision to use military force and that Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro is the only person being violent right now. Two of the three dictators in Rubio’s tweets, Gaddafi and Ceausescu, died at the hands of their own people. Noriega was ousted in a U.S. invasion and brought to the U.S. on drug and money laundering charges, and he spent the rest of his life in prison before his death in 2017.

“The Maduro regime has a lot of the attributes of the dictatorships that look strong and then suddenly collapse,” Rubio said. 

Read more here.

DeSantis, Florida Cabinet approve $2.54 million in Florida Forever land acquisition

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PATRICK FARRELL / PFARRELL@MIAMIHERALD.COM

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Cabinet Tuesday voted to spend $2.54 million to buy land in Hamilton and Lake counties as part of the Florida Forever conservation program, the state's leading conservation and recreation lands acquisition program.

The 83.4-acre property acquired in Lake County includes five continuous lakefront properties as part of the Wekiva-Ocala Greenway Florida Forever project. The parcels, which line Lake Norris, are worth a total $540,000.

The corridor is rich with diverse habitats, including forested pinelands and floodplain that are home to the largest black bear population in the state.

Lindsey Stevens, the land program manager for Nature Conservancy, said since the greenway is in a “rapidly urbanizing” part of the state, the smaller parcel of land is important to conserve. She pointed out the crystal-blue water of the springs, which she said are crucial to preserve.

“It’s an important piece to build this green connection,” she said. “As the land goes, so does the water. We have to strategically protect the land to ensure that our springs are something that our children can enjoy and future generations can enjoy.”

In Hamilton County, the 316 acres “Hardee Spring property” include parcels along the Withlacoochee River. The $2 million property is near the Twin Rivers State Forest.

Julie Wraithmell, director of Audubon Society, said without protecting vulnerable places such as these, Florida “wouldn’t be able to function.”

“These projects will protect a clear spring that stands out like a sapphire,” she said. “By protecting these places, its not just an investment, but it’s important to the health of the larger watershed.”

Florida Forever is the largest public land acquisition program of its kind in the United States, managing over 10 million acres of preserved land. Under the program and its predecessor, P2000, more than 2.5 million acres were purchased. 

Both of the projects approved Tuesday show “increasing value of our current green infrastructure,” Department of Environmental Protection Noah Valenstein told the cabinet.

February 25, 2019

Florida Supreme Court approves DeSantis’ ask for grand jury on school safety

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The Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee. [Scott Keeler Tampa Bay Times]
 
The Florida Supreme Court justices unanimously agreed to impanel a statewide grand jury to broadly investigate school safety, in an order issued Monday. The decision came after Gov. Ron DeSantis filed a petition on Feb. 13 to ask for the grand jury, which he said should have sweeping powers to oversee both the government failures leading up to last year’s Parkland school shooting as well as any ongoing misdeeds committed by districts that are not following the school safety law passed after the tragedy.
 
“I am pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision,” DeSantis said in a statement. “This grand jury will work to investigate practices, identify failures and recommend solutions to keep students, teachers and staff safe in our schools.”
 
Mirroring the language in DeSantis’ request, the court’s order said the grand jury will investigate whether districts’ “refusal or failure” to follow school safety laws put students at risk, whether government officials committed “fraud and deceit” by using public money designated for school safety for other purposes or whether schools intentionally under-report criminal incidents to the state.
 
The grand jury, which will have jurisdiction over the entire state, will have its presiding judge be in the 17th Circuit — which is Broward County. It will meet for a year and will have the regular powers to issue subpoenas and indictments.
 
It’s a highly unusual use of a statewide grand jury, but DeSantis has said it will compliment the work of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which investigated the shooting and made recommendations to the Legislature.
 
Except the grand jury will have much more legal might to investigate the Broward school district and others statewide. Both the commission and several Parkland families have complained publicly about what they say is continued incompetence in Broward to implement school safety measures even now, more than a year after the shooting.
 

February 22, 2019

Senate president Galvano cautious on DeSantis drug importation proposal

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A proposal from Gov. Ron DeSantis to reduce prescription drug prices by importing medications from Canada is drawing concerns from the leader of the Florida Senate, who said Friday he worries parts of a plan sketched out by the House might run afoul of Congress’ jurisdiction.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told reporters Friday that the governor’s plan to allow the state to import drugs from America’s northern neighbor was something he was “interested in exploring,” particularly to save the state money for Medicaid patients or institutions like state prisons’ health care.

But he threw cold water on another potential plan, included in a House bill mirroring DeSantis’ announcement, that would allow individuals or private entities to receive imported drugs from abroad.

“We would not have enforcement from the federal government, similar to the situation we find ourselves in with marijuana,” said Galvano, nodding to the fact that medical marijuana is authorized by the state but still prohibited federally.

He also questioned the regulatory authority of such a program: “Once you’re moving across from state to state, or from other countries to our state, that is interstate commerce, and that’s the province of the U.S. Congress.”

DeSantis announced in The Villages Wednesday that he would ask the Legislature to craft a program that would allow importing drugs from Canada into the state — and that he had spoken twice in recent days with President Donald Trump about securing federal approval with the president’s “enthusiastic” support.

A provision in a 2003 federal law would permit the federal Department of Health and Human Services to green-light any state program to import drugs from abroad, though it has never approved such a state program since the law went into effect.

A bill filed by Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, later that day appeared to outline some of the working details of DeSantis’ plan, directing the state Agency for Health Care Administration to find a vendor that would create a list of drugs that might yield savings and find Canadian sources to export drugs to the state. It would require a list be determined by December and a proposal to federal officials be submitted by July 2020.

But House officials are also hoping to create an avenue to allow drug importation from other countries that could benefit private citizens: The bill filed by Leek also allows for an “international” program where wholesale drug distributors and pharmacies abroad could export medication to similar drug distributors, pharmacies and pharmacists registered with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. (Pharmacists can currently only order drugs under a pharmacy permit.)

Galvano said he was “not as comfortable” with the second path but that he remains open to considering the first proposal included in Leek’s bill, which does not yet have a Senate companion. “If we can reduce prices after the people who are the vendors have been properly vetted, that’s a good thing.”

Puerto Rico’s governor praises Rick Scott’s work after backing Bill Nelson in 2018

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@alextdaugherty

Puerto Rico’s governor was no friend of Rick Scott’s during the 2018 campaign, even as Scott visited the territory eight times and pitched himself as Puerto Rico’s de facto senator in ads around the state as he sought votes from Puerto Ricans in Florida.

But Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said he’s impressed with Scott’s work on Puerto Rico during his first two months as a senator in Washington, even though Rosselló endorsed Democrat Bill Nelson after fighting with the White House over Hurricane Maria recovery efforts.

“Rick Scott has been a great friend of Puerto Rico,” Rosselló said in an interview in Washington on Friday. “There’s no doubt about it, he was a great friend prior when he was a governor and right now he’s used time on the floor, he’s submitted meaningful amendments and he has given a fight for some of these issues.”

Rosselló was referring to Scott’s first speech on the Senate floor, when he spoke in English and Spanish about his amendment to provide $600 million in nutritional assistance for Puerto Rico over the Office of Management and Budget’s objections.

“I rise today as a voice for the people of Puerto Rico. I intend to be their voice in the United States Senate,” Scott said in his maiden floor speech. “They are American as the people of Florida I was elected to represent. Their recovery is America’s recovery.”

Rosselló said he is in constant contact with Scott and his staff, and that his knowledge and dedication to Puerto Rico has continued after the 2018 election. Scott also has a close relationship with Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress who is a pro-statehood Republican who endorsed Scott over Nelson last year.

Read more here.

Florida Senate President Bill Galvano says DeSantis is ‘more collaborative’ than Scott

During a briefing with reporters this morning, state Senate President Bill Galvano praised Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for being “more collaborative” with the Legislature than his predecessor, now-Sen. Rick Scott.

“It feels much more collaborative than it did under the last administration,” the Bradenton Republican said. “The last administration was very successful in many many ways. But it’s certainly a different style of relationship between the two branches, and I’m really looking forward to our work together.”

Galvano chalked it up to DeSantis’ time in Congress before deciding to run for governor last year.

“What helps his influence with the Legislature is the respect he has for the process, and I think a good bit of that comes from having served in a legislative body himself, albeit a very ineffective one,” Galvano said. “But he knows that we have to work together, and he’s working hard to at least let us know where the executive stands.”

On the day of his inauguration, DeSantis extended an olive branch to lawmakers in Tallahassee, complaining that in Congress, “The average member did not have much of a voice."