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42 posts from March 2019

March 29, 2019

Floridians in Congress urge quick passage of Puerto Rico aid as Trump threatens cuts

Trump (3)

@alextdaugherty

Donald Trump wants to stop sending disaster aid to Puerto Rico. Senate Democrats are threatening to vote down a $13.5 billion disaster aid bill unless Puerto Rico gets more money.

But Democrats and Republicans from Florida want the bill — which includes $600 million for Puerto Rico’s bankrupt nutrition assistance program — to pass as is immediately.

“We’re talking about hungry kids here,” said Rep. Darren Soto, a Puerto Rican Democrat from Central Florida who represents the state’s largest Puerto Rican community. “I realize that in an ideal world we would have more, but I realize there’s going to be interplay between the House and the Senate. There’s going to have to be some compromise about this stuff.”

The latest Puerto Rico fight, over 18 months after Hurricane Maria made landfall and left tens of thousands without power for months, comes after the president told Republican senators during a private lunch that the U.S. territory was receiving too much disaster aid from the federal government.

Trump claimed Thursday that he’s “taken better care of Puerto Rico than any man ever.”

Senate Democrats are pushing for more money for Puerto Rico and, after Trump’s comments, have threatened to vote against a disaster relief bill that could make it to the floor next week. Ten Republicans voted against the bill during an earlier procedural vote and more of them could be spurred to vote against the proposal if they think that’s what Trump would prefer.

“I’d love to have some additional money in the bill, but we don’t have the support for it, the president won’t sign it,” said Sen. Marco Rubio. “So we can least get the [nutrition] money taken care of.”

More here.

A multimillionaire construction magnate is Florida’s most pro-environment Republican

Rooney (2)

@alextdaugherty

Francis Rooney made millions on sprawling building projects like the Dallas Cowboys’ football stadium. He parlayed his status as a George W. Bush mega donor into a diplomatic post. He fended off frequent Fox News guest Dan Bongino in a 2016 primary to win a Naples-based congressional seat that is one of the most conservative in the state. And he once called for a “purge” of career FBI and Justice Department officials during Robert Mueller’s investigation.

But the 65-year-old Rooney is now Florida’s most pro-environment Republican in Congress.

Rooney is the only Republican in Congress currently supporting a tax on carbon emissions, and is one of two vocal critics of the state’s sugar industry in Washington. His considerable wealth — Rooney ranked as the 26th richest member of Congress in 2018 and drew a $5.5 million salary the year before entering elected office — means he doesn’t need checks from lobbyists to fund his reelection campaigns.

“I’m kind of a lone wolf on this from a conservative district,” Rooney said in an interview at his Capitol Hill office. “I’m certainly not doing it for politics. In fact I may be doing it against politics.”

Before entering the House, Rooney was the majority owner of Manhattan Construction Group, a firm that built the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, the underground U.S. Capitol visitor center and both Bush presidential libraries. He pines for the eventual demise of the nation’s coal industry through a carbon tax, wants Florida’s sugar industry to stop burning cane fields and give up land for a proposed Everglades reservoir, and said Republicans need to start talking thoughtfully about the environment if they want college-educated suburbanites to vote for them.

But he’s also operating in a climate where many Republicans are happy to dunk on a proposed Green New Deal by liberal Democrats without offering a substantive alternative.

At the same time Rooney talked about the need for a carbon tax in his office, other congressional Republicans drank milk at a press conference to argue that a Green New Deal would hurt dairy farmers and Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe wore a tie with oil rigs on it while casting his vote against the proposal.

Rooney’s environmental bent comes from a lifetime spent on the water — he once sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and holds a boat captain’s license from the U.S. Coast Guard — and a lot of conversations with his adult children. He noted that his parent’s generation was OK with dirty steel mills in Pittsburgh and factories in Chicago until the pollution started killing people. He said his children’s generation won’t accept that.

“He’s not in Congress to pass the time,” said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, whom Rooney succeeded as the GOP head of the Climate Solutions Caucus. “This is someone who’s overqualified to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. For most people in Congress, their main goal is to get reelected; for Francis Rooney, his main goal is to address some of the greatest challenges facing our country.”

More here

Ron DeSantis appoints two new Tampa-area judges

Tampa judges
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to reporters flanked by two prosecutors he appointed to be judges in Tampa-area courts on Friday. Thomas Palermo, left of DeSantis, will serve on the 13th Judicial Circuit Court and Jessica Costello, right of DeSantis, was appointed to the Hillsborough County Court. Emily L. Mahoney | Times/Herald
 
TAMPA — Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed two new judges to Tampa-area courts on Friday, one of whom is replacing Laurel Lee, who was a judge in the 13th Judicial Circuit Court before DeSantis named her to be secretary of state.
 
Thomas Palermo, an assistant U.S. Attorney working as a prosecutor for the Department of Justice, will replace Lee in the circuit court, which is located in Tampa. Florida’s circuit courts handle felony cases, civil disputes of more than $15,000 and appeals from county courts.
 
Palermo, 43, said he was humbled to replace Lee, whom he called “a dear friend.” Lee was present at Friday’s announcement on the University of South Florida campus.
The second appointment was Jessica Costello, an assistant statewide prosecutor working in the Florida Attorney General’s office who will now serve as a judge in Hillsborough County Court.
 
“As a member of the Tampa community, I can’t explain how honored I am to serve,” she said. “As a local and statewide prosecutor I’ve prosecuted cases ranging from human trafficking to homicides, drug trafficking and counter terrorism matters — all with a focus on making our community safer and stronger.”
 
DeSantis commented that Costello, at 34, will be one of the youngest judges in the state, adding that she has “accomplished a lot in a relatively short time.”
Both appointees will serve with distinction, he said.
 
“As prosecutors they’ve demonstrated a commitment to serving the public, and also a commitment to being there for our victims and also supporting the rule of law.”

March 27, 2019

Senate Democrats take stance against 'sanctuary city' bill

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Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, speaks on the Senate floor during the 2017 session. FLORIDA SENATE

Senate Democrats have unanimously decided to take a caucus position against SB 168, a bill by Sarasota Republican Sen. Joe Gruters to address so-called “sanctuary cities.”

The decision was announced after an emergency meeting during Wednesday’s floor session, according to a press release from the Florida Senate Democratic Office.

The legislation, which has moved through committees with split votes along party lines, creates rules relating to federal immigration enforcement by prohibiting “sanctuary” policies and requiring state and local law enforcement to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The bill also would give whistleblower status to officers who report undocumented immigrants detained in local jails on unrelated charges.

Under this bill, local law enforcement would be required to honor federal law enforcement’s request for an “immigration detainer,” meaning a request that another law enforcement agency detain a person based on probable cause to believe that the person is a “removable alien” under federal immigration law. The bill would essentially make the “request” a requirement.

“We opposed this bill at its first hearing. And we will continue to oppose this bill as it moves through the process,” said Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville. “The vote of the Caucus signals our unwavering commitment to the protection of immigrants in this state, and a repudiation of the scapegoating of immigrants in this country.”

Sen. Annette Taddeo said she and fellow Miami Democrat José Javier Rodríguez pushed for a caucus position, something she doesn’t take lightly.

“We’d rather each Senator vote, but I’m heartened by the fact that it was unanimous,” she said. “Taking a caucus position is not something we do often, and we do not take it lightly. We’re united on this issue.”

Activists and leaders across the state have spoken out against the bill both at the Capitol and in their communities.

Speaking on Spanish-language radio station Actualidad Radio 1040 AM, Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina told interviewers he would rather be thrown out of the police department than forced to comply with the proposed law. He said he didn’t think he could sleep at night if he had to spend time addressing a victim’s immigration status.

“The truth is I’d prefer not to have this job if I have to ask fellow officers to go check where someone came from before helping them,” he said.

Kara Gross, the ACLU’s Florida legislative counsel, said last week that the bill will disproportionately affect people who are not dangerous because those who are detained in jail — not prison — have not yet been convicted of a crime. The bill also applies to people who are being released from jail, meaning they are likely not considered dangerous enough to be held without bail.

“There are lots of reasons people, and often disproportionately people of color and immigrants or perceived immigrants, end up in jail for non-violent minor offenses,” Gross said. “Driving without a license, driving with a suspended license, underage drinking, graffiti, possession of small amounts of marijuana … they haven’t been convicted of anything at all, let alone a violent offense.”

The bill has been referred to the Rules committee for its last stop before the floor, but has not yet been put on the committee's agenda. 

March 25, 2019

Will Florida become a hemp 'pioneer?' Senate panel gives hemp program the green light.

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STEVE HELBER/ ASSOCIATED PRESS

A bill aimed at making the hemp plant an agricultural option for farmers across the state took a second step forward Monday, passing unanimously through the Senate agriculture committee.

Bill sponsor Sen. Rob Bradley said this bill aims to make Florida a “pioneer" when it comes to the burgeoning crop.

The Fleming Island Republican’s SB 1020 authorizes the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to administer a state hemp program and sets up rulemaking and a board of experts to develop the system. The idea is modeled after what Kentucky has done to revitalize farmland once used by the tobacco industry, Bradley said.

Hemp, a form of the cannabis plant, contains only trace amounts of THC — the naturally occurring component in marijuana that produces a high — and uses less water and fertilizer to grow. Hemp has been cultivated for approximately 10,000 years, according to the University of Florida’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Project, and can be used for fiber, building materials, animal feed and pain relief.

The 2018 Farm Bill allows a state department of agriculture to submit a plan to the United States Secretary of Agriculture and apply for primary regulatory authority over the production of hemp in their state. The plan, which is required under Bradley’s bill, must include a procedure for tracking land upon which hemp will be produced as well as testing, disposal, enforcement, inspection and certification procedures.

The bill doesn’t allow for Floridians to grow hemp for individual use, which is also not allowed under the federal farm bill.

Bradley’s bill also authorizes the department to oversee the development of pilot projects for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at UF, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and any university in the state that has an agriculture program.

“Because there will be unforeseen issues, it’s good to have experts in the industry to get together and discuss the challenges and the opportunities that are present,” he told the committee.

The bill passed its first committee stop unanimously on March 6, and will be heard in the Senate Rules committee next.

A similar House version of Bradley’s proposal sponsored by Republican Rep. Ralph Massullo is being heard Tuesday.

Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who chairs the Senate agriculture committee, has also filed a similar bill to create a state hemp program

According to the bill’s staff analysis, at least 38 states considered legislation related to industrial hemp last year. Those bills ranged from clarifying existing laws to establishing new licensing requirements and programs. In 2018, Alaska, Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, New Jersey and Oklahoma enacted established hemp research and industrial hemp pilot programs.

Jeffrey Sharkey of the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida helped write the legislation that authorized the Department of Agriculture to issue hemp field study permits through Florida A&M and the University of Florida.

UF’s two-year program is housed on three sites across the state, where researchers are studying the risk of hemp plants becoming invasive threats as well as identifying hemp varieties suitable for Florida’s various environments. The first sponsor of the pilot was Green Roads, a CBD oil manufacturer.

Researchers have since said that hemp is proving successful at adapting to Florida’s growing conditions, which vary dramatically across the state. A staff analysis of Bradley’s bill said Florida farmers will likely benefit economically by the opportunity to plant, process and sell hemp and hemp-based products.

Bradley said he hopes the Legislature understand that the bill’s intent is to get an emerging industry to be viable in the state of Florida “while also considering the guides” the federal government has provided in the farm bill.

“It’s not the same as growing apples and oranges,” he said. “We want to be a leader in hemp, rather than a follower.”

Florida Senate committee to hear Amendment 4 bill today

The debate over how to carry out Amendment 4 continues today in the Florida Senate, where a committee is scheduled to take up its own bill for the first time.
The historic amendment, passed by voters in November, would allow more than a million ex-felons be eligible to vote, as long as they’ve completed their sentence and weren’t convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.
But lawmakers have been debating over what it means to complete someone’s sentence, what “murder” means and what a “sexual offense” is.
Last week, a Florida House committee approved its own version, which took a broad view of “sexual offenses," to include prostitution, and required felons pay back all court fees, fines and restitution before being eligible.
It was blasted by critics across the country as a “poll tax” and another way in which Florida’s Republican-led Legislature was trying to keep people from voting.
The Senate is taking up the debate for the first time today. The Senate’s version isn’t as broad, but its definition of “murder” includes attempted murder and manslaughter.
And it’s likely to be narrowed even further. The bill’s two Republican co-sponsors added an amendment that would allow thousands more felons to vote.
The amendment, which is scheduled to be taken up today, defines “murder” and “sexual offense” more narrowly than it did before.
And it also allows ex-felons to vote if their court fees and crimes have been converted to a civil lien, which often happens. Restitution to victims, however, would have to be paid back in full before they could be eligible to vote.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee meets at 1:30 p.m. today. You can watch it online at thefloridachannel.org.

March 21, 2019

Nikki Fried taps FDOT attorney to be LGBTQ liaison

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Florida LGBTA Democratic Caucus

The state is getting its first advocate for LGBTQ consumers, thanks to Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Nik Harris, currently a senior attorney at the Florida Department of Transportation, was appointed to serve as the department's liaison to Florida’s LGBTQ community, "raising awareness on opportunities within the agriculture industry," according to a Thursday press release. 

Harris previously served as Assistant General Counsel at FDOT and as Claims Administration Director for the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.

Harris, who has been an attorney since 2004, has been involved with the Human Rights Campaign as a member of the Board of Governors and the LGBTA Democratic Caucus, among other things. 

She received her undergraduate degree from Florida A&M University and her law degree from Florida State University. In 2013, she moved to South Florida where joined the Human Rights Campaign.

According to the Florida LGBTA Democratic Caucus website, Harris is an avid golfer and traveler. 

“Historically, the State of Florida has turned a blind eye to discrimination against our LGBTQ community – but today is a new day in our state," Fried said in a statement Thursday. "We’re building a Department that represents all Floridians, and it’s paramount that LGBTQ Floridians have a voice in defending their safety, economic security, and well-being." 

The appointment follows Fried's motion in January to adopt a sexual orientation and gender identity workplace discrimination policy. 

March 20, 2019

Bill to protect well owners from tainted water clears first Senate stop

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Tim and Linda Lawson stand by the well outside their Ocala home. The Lawsons, who have lived there for 33 years, were told in November that the well is contaminated with elevated levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which early tests have suggested can be carcinogens. SAMANTHA J. GROSS SGROSS@MIAMIHERALD.COM
If you’re a Floridian with a private drinking water well and a fear of chemical contamination, it could take weeks or months for state officials to test it. Sen. Bill Montford’s bill wants to change that.

SB 1100 would not only allow anyone fearing contamination to request the Department of Health test their water source but would require samples be analyzed no more than three business days later.

Without any debate, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources committee Wednesday.

The Democrat from Tallahassee said he decided to file the bill after he talked to other lawmakers at a delegation meeting earlier this year.

"I heard from a lot of people that they had a concern about it," he said. "A good government response to that is to test it."

Montford’s bill follows a Herald/Times investigation that found state health officials took four months to notify well owners in Marion County they had found elevated levels of PFOS and PFOA chemicals, which are found in firefighting foams that had been used at the nearby Florida State Fire College in Ocala.

DOH notified affected residents on Nov. 5 — two months after the Fire College started using bottled water and three days after test results showed contamination in their wells.

Of the 80 to 90 wells in a mile radius around the college, 16 wells were initially tested. According to emails obtained by the Herald/Times, levels of PFOS and PFOA in the water at the college were found to be between 250 and 270 parts per trillion, more than three times higher than the advisable 70 parts per trillion for drinking water.

Montford said the conversation started after he and other lawmakers read the report. 

"We read that and it certainly raised all of our attention," he said. "How big of a problem do we have, and not only in this area but we need to look statewide." 

According to the South Florida Water Management District, groundwater is the primary source of drinking water in Florida. While most groundwater is naturally protected from contaminants, pollution from human activity chemicals can reach drinking water sources. According to the Department of Health, contaminated drinking water results in “thousands of cases of illness each year” and “can even be fatal.”

While the Florida Safe Drinking Water Act establishes a water supply program implemented by the Department of Environmental Protection and DOH, private or multi-family wells are too small and are not covered by the act.

While all public water systems in Florida are required to perform routine testing, private well owners are responsible for testing the safety of their own water.

When owners and operators of private or multi-family wells request a test, DOH has to charge a fee to cover the costs of sampling and analysis. This bill would absorb some of the cost and expedite the process.

March 19, 2019

DeSantis appoints Stephen Everett to replace Circuit Judge Karen Gievers

Everett
Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed a Leon County judge Tuesday to sit on the circuit court that handles most of the litigation involving the state government in Tallahassee, replacing a long-time judge who handed a string of legal defeats to his predecessor’s administration during her tenure.
Stephen Everett, who currently serves as a judge in county court, will replace outgoing circuit court judge Karen Gievers when she is required to step down by her 70th birthday near the end of April.
"I’m impressed with Judge Everett’s temperament, his knowledge of the law and his understanding of the proper role of a judge,” DeSantis said, as Everett stood next to him during the announcement. “He will bring a real strong work ethic, great intellect and humility to his new role as a circuit judge.”
Everett, 38, won out over five other candidates who had been recommended by the Second Judicial Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission to fill the seat, including FDLE general counsel Jason L. Jones and the Agency for State Technology general counsel Anthony B. Miller. The announcement happened quickly, DeSantis acknowledged — he had interviewed Everett for the seat just that morning.
Everett's appointment fills the impending gap in Leon County circuit court, which handles most of the lawsuits filed against the state by virtue of its location in the capital. Gievers, who was first elected to the seat in 2010, earned a reputation for being a sharp legal thorn in former Gov. Rick Scott’s side, ruling against the state in a series of high-profile cases including a challenge to a ban on smoking medical marijuana and a case involving Joe Redner, the Tampa strip club owner seeking to grow his own medical marijuana for his lung cancer. She also ruled against Scott when she allowed a legal challenge to the former governor’s blind trust to proceed. 
Gievers, a former child advocate in Miami-Dade, had tried twice to run for statewide office and failed, once for insurance commissioner in 1994 and once for secretary of state in 1998. She lost both times.
Everett was appointed to county court by Scott in 2016 and won re-election last year. Before becoming a judge, he was an assistant public defender and assistant prosecutor in Fort Myers and Sarasota respectively. He also worked in the general counsel’s office at the Department of Economic Opportunity.
Image: 2nd Judicial Circuit of Florida

House panel clears bill to help stop recycling from ending up in the trash

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LILY OPPENHEIMER / WLRN

 

The House Agriculture and Natural Resources subcommittee approved a bill Tuesday that, among other things, would require municipalities to address contamination of recyclable materials.

HB 771, put forward by Palm City Republican Rep. Toby Overdorf, passed unanimously.

Many municipalities currently have single-stream recycling programs in place, which means all recyclable material is placed in a single container. This method increases the potential for contamination and rejection of recyclable material, resulting in the disposal of recyclables into landfills. Counties and municipalities can contract recycling programs out to private companies but are currently not required to address contamination of recyclable materials.

The bill doesn’t mandate that local governments do a contract in a particular way and doesn’t restrict the type of items being recycled, Overdorf said.

“This would hopefully reduce the amount of material that is going into the landfills by having the local governments basically be responsible for ensuring that the clientele that’s using the recycling is providing clean, recycled materials,” he said. “In other words, they aren’t contaminated so it allows for the waste companies to have more material going to recycling rather than the landfills. “

Recyclable material gets contaminated when residents put materials that are not recyclable into bins, like plastic bags, styrofoam peanuts and other thin plastics. While facilities are equipped to handle some of these materials, excessive contamination can undermine the recycling process. According to the bill analysis, some local governments have contamination rates reaching more than 30 to 40 percent by weight.

Contamination can happen if a greasy pizza box leaks onto other previously clean, recyclable materials. And when plastic bags get recycled, they clog up the sorting machines and stall production at the plants. 

Miami-Dade County has one of the lowest recycle rates in the state. According to Florida Department of Environmental Protection, just 18 percent of total collected waste gets recycled. Broward and Palm Beach Counties recycle 33 and 45 percent of their waste.

The Florida League of Cities says they support the bill.

The bill would require that municipalities address the contamination in contracts with both residential recycling collectors and recovered materials processing facilities. The contracts would have to define the term “contaminated recyclable material” and include strategy to reduce the amount of contaminated material being collected.

“It would be a negotiation between the recycling hauler as well as the local governments and what they choose to have,” Overdorf added. “I imagine there would be a give and take between the two entities and it would work that way.”

A New York Times report this week highlighted the issue, pointing out how plastics and papers from dozens of American cities and towns are being dumped in landfills after a rule change in China stopped recycling most “foreign garbage.” The Times reported that about one-third of America’s 66 million tons of annual recycling is exported. The majority of those exports once went to China.

The bill passed unanimously in the House Federal and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee last week, and will go on to the State Affairs Committee

Counties in the state are already required to have programs that with a goal of recycling 75

percent of recyclable solid waste by 2020. Recycling programs have to recycle a significant portion of newspaper, cans, glass, bottles, cardboard, office paper and yard trash.