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39 posts from February 2019

February 22, 2019

New space company to launch, build rockets in Cape Canaveral

LUIS SANTANA | Times The SpaceX Falcon Heavy blasts off of launch pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on it's first ever flight. [Tuesday February 6, 2018]
A young rocket company called Firefly Aerospace will manufacture and launch rockets from Cape Canaveral, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Friday from a launch site at the Cape’s Air Force Station where the company will begin operations.
Firefly, which is headquartered in Austin, Texas, will build small rockets designed to deliver satellites into orbit that would also have the capability to deliver cargo to the moon. That means
Firefly could be a major competitor for contracts with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to help with future missions, speakers at the event said.
“NASA is once again preparing to explore the moon in a sustainable way in preparation for the deep space exploration of Mars,” said Janet Petro, the deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center. “Firefly and others will compete for NASA contracts to deliver lunar payloads.”
Firefly’s arrival to Florida will mean the creation of 200 jobs and an investment of $52 million over the next few years, according to DeSantis.
“Here in Florida we are proud of our place in history as the gateway to space,” he said. “I’m excited. I think this is good for our economy, it’s also just good for exploration. I think with our space missions, we’ve got our good mojo back.”
DeSantis said that Firefly’s addition to Cape Canaveral could also create opportunities for local high school and college students to have apprenticeships with the company.
Firefly has yet to launch its first rocket into space, which the company’s co-founder said would happen from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Santa Barbara, California before it begins launching from Florida. Once those launches begin, though, Firefly intends to keep them up at a rapid pace.
CEO Tom Markusic said they would like to launch up to 24 rockets per year once they become fully operational.
“We’re going to continue to light up the sky here in Florida," he said.

Dark money fueled ballot initiative debates in Miami, Miami Beach

MB Connect Park View

@joeflech & @KyraGurney

In Miami’s political scene, money doesn’t just talk. It screams — in English, Spanish and Creole, filling the airwaves, flashing on TV and computer screens, crowding email inboxes, text messages and snail mail.

The push to sway votes is expensive, and the true source of the dollars that pay for the ads can be a mystery. Whether it’s candidates or ballot measures, moneyed interests use political groups that can receive and spend unlimited, untraceable “dark money” to influence elections and pay for attack ads. Florida’s lax campaign finance laws allow donors to seed thousands into committees that can donate to one or more other committees.

Read more.

February 21, 2019

House bill to repeal medical marijuana smoking ban advances


As Sen. Jeff Brandes put it Wednesday, "The end is in sight, we’re not far.”

Both the House and Senate bills to repeal a ban on smokeable medical marijuana are hitting some of their final stops this week, bringing them one step closer to the chamber floors.

The House bill, brought by Rep. Ray Rodrigues and the Health and Human Services Committee, passed favorably in appropriations Thursday, including a strike-through that got rid of requirements for filters on medical marijuana cigarettes. The amendment also appropriates $1.5 million in recurring general revenue to fund a consortium to research the effects of medical marijuana.

Only Rep. Clay Yarborough, a Jacksonville Republican, voted no. 

“Bronchitis, lung issues, all these other things that are a big concern to me,” he said about the bill last week. 

The two bills have grown more similar through each committee stop, which Brandes said has helped the process. A key difference is that Senate version doesn't limit smoking to pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes and instead allows for a 35-day of whole-flower supply.

The House bill recommends the Board of Governors designate which state university will hold the consortium, a change from the bill's former language specifying the University of Florida. It also sets aside about $705,000 for three positions at the Office of Medical Marijuana Use and about $215,000 for technology upgrades to the medical marijuana registry.

Lawmakers in both chambers agree that more needs to be done to make access more affordable and accessible to patients across the state. But they say they plan to address that kind of legislation in the future, and are more focused now on getting smoking ban repeal bills to the Governor's desk by the deadline.

"I've been given assurance that future legislation that will be considered by this body will address cost and affordability concerns," said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who voted yes on the bill. "Although this isn't perfect, it's hard for me to vote against it."

Rep Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said he thinks Rodrigues' bill will help patients, but that issues like vertical integration will need to be taken up in a future bill. Vertical integration is the part of the medical marijuana law that requires license holders to grow, process and sell their own product, as opposed to offering contracts to other vendors. 

"There are some things we need to do that aren't addressed in this bill, and don't need to be," he said. "Something needs to be done to break the logjam that is keeping the medicine from the people who need it."

Gov. Ron DeSantis in January tasked the Legislature with amending Florida law to allow smoking medical marijuana. If legislators don’t by the deadline, the governor said he will do so with litigation.

In 2016, about 71 percent of voting Floridians approved a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana. While the 2017 bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott legalized access to the drug in pill, oil, edible and vape form, it made smoking it illegal. In addition to the ban on smoking, the law also capped the number of medical marijuana licenses and the number of dispensaries in the state.

The provision, which became known as the “smoking ban,” was challenged in circuit court in July 2017. In its complaint, People United for Medical Marijuana, Inc., argued the smoking ban altered the definition of “marijuana” and by banning smoking in public, implicitly authorized smoking marijuana in a private place.

In May 2018, Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers declared the smoking ban unconstitutional, but the Department of Health appealed the ruling later that month.

After DeSantis announced his intent to drop the appeal should the Legislature not act to remove the smoking ban, both parties filed a motion to stay the appeal until March 2019.

Florida Senate Republicans propose new voucher, changes to teacher bonus program

Thirty-five kindergarten students pack the rug for a story and lesson as teachers Ann Renee Evans, center back, and Cassandra Hinson, right, lead the way at Connerton Elementary. Times | 2013
After a string of announcements from Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiling his proposals for a new school voucher and other changes to education policy, the Florida Senate responded with its own plan to shape the state’s schools — which had some differences.
At a press conference at the Capitol on Thursday, three top Republican senators said the Senate is seeking to create a new school voucher called the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which would help reduce the lengthy waiting list of students awaiting the state’s existing scholarship for low-income students, called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.
Unlike the existing scholarship, though, the new voucher would draw its funding from the pot of money typically set aside solely to be distributed to districts based on the number of students they have — a dramatic change. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is funded through corporate donations that the companies deduct from their taxes.
“My plan is to provide relief for these kids that are on a waiting list and these parents that want provide a better educational setting for their child and they are not able to simply because there are arbitrary financial barriers in place that won’t allow them,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah.
The statewide teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, called this move dangerous for the state’s public schools.
“This plan represents a monumental shift of taxpayer funds to private schools,” said union president Fedrick Ingram in a statement. “What our students need is a monumental commitment to their neighborhood public schools, the schools that educate most of our kids.”
Diaz said the Senate's proposal is very similar to the Equal Opportunity Scholarship that DeSantis proposed last week, which relied on the same funding source. However, there is major difference in eligibility, as the Senate’s proposed scholarship would only be available to students who had previously been enrolled in public school or who were entering kindergarten. DeSantis’ plan aimed to make the voucher available for students even if they had only attended private schools, a wish-list item for school choice advocates.
There is also a slight difference in the income eligibility requirements between what DeSantis’ proposed, which allowed families making up to 265 percent of the poverty line, which is higher than the 260 percent provided in current law. The Senate is looking to keep that eligibility requirement at 260 percent, Diaz said.
The Senate incorporated DeSantis’ ask that teachers’ SAT and ACT test scores should no longer be factored into their consideration for recruitment and retention bonuses under the Best and Brightest program. But the Senators went a step further, saying they want to create a new category for teacher bonuses that could be awarded by school principals who see excelling educators who weren’t awarded bonuses based on the typical metrics of student performance.
Diaz also said they would follow DeSantis’ recommendation that to receive a bonus, teachers must work at a school that is improving its letter grade, with exceptions for schools that are consistently performing at the top grade levels.
“We don’t want to punish a school that has been at the top because they have a small blip,” Diaz said. “It’s hard to stay up there.”
Finally, the Senate would also like to remove some requirements for teacher certification, giving more time for prospective educators to pass the general knowledge exam, according to Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who was also at Thursday’s announcement. And they are hoping to expand a grant program for schools in low-income communities to offer health care, social services and other aid to students who need it, said Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs.
The policy proposals will be filed as one, large package bill by the first week of the legislative session, which begins March 5. That’s a strategy that has been used by the House in the past, which faced criticism in 2017 for combining many education bills into one omnibus, House Bill 7069, at the eleventh hour of the session.
Critics say package bills create a take-it-or-leave-it bargaining environment, but Diaz said filing it as a package from the start rather than bundling bills together at the end will be more transparent.

February 20, 2019

DeSantis welcomes Amazon to Florida, says it has better political climate than New York

Gov. Ron DeSantis said today that he welcomed Amazon to put its second headquarters in Florida after the online retailer pulled out of a deal to build the campus in New York City.

“What I can say on behalf of Florida to companies like Amazon: We welcome you to come to Florida,” he said.
DeSantis said that New York’s political climate — not opposition to the nearly $3 billion in tax incentives New York was offering — that caused the company to leave.

Many cities, including Miami, had been courting the corporate giant, which is one of the most valuable companies in the world. After facing fierce opposition from some New York Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the company backed out of the New York deal last week.

DeSantis, a Republican, said that Florida’s political climate was better than New York’s.

“I think if you look at what just happened with Amazon in New York City, there is a hostility to some of these companies — political hostility — that I think mattered more than a lot of the other things that they were talking about,” DeSantis told the Economic Club of Florida in Tallahassee. “I know that there’s a debate about tax incentives, this, that, but I think it was beyond that.

"I think that this hostility to companies like Amazon, a lot of the financial institutions are consistently demagogued, and I just think they’re paying a price for doing that.”

He added that Florida, in addition to not having a state income tax, is also more welcoming to big companies.

“I think Florida’s a place where you can do well without having to face some of the political blowback that you see in other parts of the country,” he said. “And so our posture here is one of welcoming, not one of demagoguery and hostility.”

February 19, 2019

Andrew Gillum, United Teachers of Dade's pick for governor, featured on robocall endorsing union leadership


Back when the Florida gubernatorial primaries were in full swing last fall, Miami's teacher's union went out on a limb for Andrew Gillum -- against its Tallahassee union leadership's pick of Gwen Graham.

Gillum appears to have returned the favor. The former Democratic nominee for governor sent a robocall to Miami-Dade County Public Schools teachers on President's Day endorsing the incumbent leadership of UTD in Wednesday's union election.

"Hi, this Mayor Andrew Gillum calling on the behalf of UTD's Frontline Caucus," Gillum said in the message, praising the "incredible leadership" of president Karla Hernandez-Mats, vice president Tony White and secretary treasurer Mindy Grimes-Festge.

"When Karla and Tony and Mindy told me they had a bold plan to campaign for the largest teacher pay raise in Miami-Dade history, I said, 'Count me in,' because you all deserve it," he said. "And wow, the Frontline Caucus delivered."

Gillum went on to call the base 12.5 percent supplement that came out of a four-year, voter-approved referendum, which he endorsed on the campaign trial, a "pay increase." In annual pay raise negotiations, UTD and the school district agreed to a raise this year that yielded 0.8 percent to 1.1 percent more for teachers.

UTD's political action committee, Teachers for Public School Excellence, donated $40,000 to Gillum's committee Forward Florida just before the November election. UTD also hosted Gillum's election night watch party in Miami.

Only UTD members can vote in Wednesday's leadership election. Member teachers vote on ballots at their school site, which will be taken to Firefighter's Memorial Building, 8000 NW 21st St in Doral, for the tally around 3 p.m. Candidates run for three-year terms.

The Frontline caucus faces opposition from UTD's Progressive caucus, which has named Mari Corugedo, Harold Ford and David Moss to its executive board slate. Candidates Ricardo Ocampo and Joseph Howard are also running for president.

The Miami Herald has reached out to Hernandez-Mats for comment.

Proposed expansion of needle exchange programs advances in committee

Needle exchange

A state Senate committee voted Tuesday to advance a proposal that would allow needle exchange programs statewide — with a key amendment that allows county commissions to decide if a program can open in their area.

SB 366 would expand an existing pilot needle exchange program in Miami-Dade, which allows injection drug users to trade dirty needles for clean ones at no charge and connects them to additional health resources like wound care and drug treatment. Expanding the program was has been proposed since the pilot was created in 2016, though those efforts have stalled in prior years.

State law currently does not allow legal needle exchanges elsewhere in the state. But this year, the proposed legislation has more backing in the Legislature, including a Republican co-sponsor in the House and the praise of House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, the bill’s sponsor, told the Senate Health Policy committee Tuesday that the program is “more than just a needle exchange.”

“This has become a roving triage and health center for these people who do not have access,” he added, citing the program’s testing for HIV and hepatitis. “We’ve had hundreds of people into rehab and thousands of people saved with the Narcan given out.”

The amendment, which Braynon worked on with committee chair Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, would change the requirements for a new needle exchange program so that a county commission’s approval is required for it to open. The previous version of the bill required simply that a potential exchange program notify the state Department of Health before commencing operations.

The bill also allows for counties to help subsidize programs. The current version in Miami-Dade, which is run by the University of Miami, receives no state or county funding.

Several lawmakers praised the work of the Miami-Dade program Tuesday before it was unanimously approved, including Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.

He acknowledged that there had been concerns when the program started that it “may actually be creating more addiction by supporting the negative habits.” But he acknowledged several benefits resulting from the exchange program, including the reversal of overdoses and the reduction of discarded dirty needles.

“Everything that has happened over this three-year journey has demonstrated a very successful program,” he said. “It was certainly worth any risk that was perceived.”

Photo: Miami Herald.

Bill to allow overnight ambulatory surgical center stays moves forward in the Senate


A proposal to allow patients at ambulatory surgical centers to stay overnight was approved by the Senate Health Policy committee Tuesday, with a promise from its sponsor that she would not seek to further extend how long patients can remain at those facilities.

Patients at ambulatory surgical centers can currently only stay for the duration of the day but SB 434, which was passed unanimously, would allow patients to stay at such centers up to 24 hours, enabling them to remain overnight. Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, the chair of the committee, said the change would help lower health care costs by preventing costly transfers to hospitals that are required to happen under the current statute if a patient needs more time before returning home.

Children are exempted for now from the bill, Harrell added, to allow the Agency for Health Care Administration to develop rules for their care in conjunction with medical boards.

“Many patients end up transferred to the hospital in order to wake up or get through a little bit of pain,” she said, noting that 39 other states allow 24-hour stays. Extending the time they can recuperate gives them a “patient-centered option.”

Increasing how long patients can stay at ambulatory surgical centers has been a regular issue in recent sessions, and proposals allowing the increase to 24-hour stays have been floated before. The House has proposed also allowing recovery care centers to house patients for up to 72 hours, though the Senate has not typically agreed.

Some members of the committee, including Democratic Sens. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg and Janet Cruz of Tampa, raised concerns that extending stays might negatively affect hospitals by increasing their burden of high-risk patients more disproportionately on Medicaid.

But Harrell said ambulatory surgical centers were the appropriate venue for such low-risk patients “to get the appropriate care” and that such centers take all patients, including Medicaid ones.

Michael Madewell, the administrator for the Panama City Surgery Center, urged lawmakers to support the bills. When the current law was first written decades ago, he said, the only surgeries being performed were colonoscopies and cataract surgery. More advanced surgeries now being performed regularly at centers like his, he said, require more anesthesia and time to recover.

“We’re still stuck with a thirty-year old statute that doesn’t really apply to what we do anymore,” he told legislators. Patients call him to complain about more expensive stays when they are transferred to hospitals, but he said under the current law he does not have other options.

In response to some concerns the bill would change more before it reaches the Senate floor, Harrell promised that the 24-hour cap would stay in place before the bill passed out of committee Tuesday.

“We’re not going to 72 hours. This is 24 hours,” she said.

Photo: Florida Senate

Miami-Dade Democrats elect new chairman


Steve Simeonidis is the new chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.

Simeonidis, an attorney and the general counsel to the local party's executive committee, was elected chairman late Monday night, beating JP Bado, Ricky Junquera and Jeff Solomon.

Simeonidis beat Junquera in a runoff. Upon his victory, he was handed a copy of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War."

Simeonidis, 31, replaces Juan Cuba, who stepped down last month after serving two years of a four-year term.

In a post ahead of the election, Simeonidis talked about the need to boost Democratic turnout in Florida's most populous county, which came out strong for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but dropped off considerably in the 2018 midterms.

"We have made great strides as a local party. Each election nets us more and more Democratic votes, but we need to push even harder because the big Democratic vote totals out of Miami-Dade are not large enough to overcome the GOP strongholds in our state," Simeonidis wrote. "We need a leader with experience driving large voter turnout."

He also wrote that he wants to focus on electing more Democrats to local positions, including county mayor in 2020.

Simeonidis earned his law degree at the University of Miami. He is deputy general counsel at Windhaven Insurance Company.

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.