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42 posts from March 2019

March 13, 2019

Marco Rubio’s inaccurate tweets on Venezuela embolden liberal critics

Marco Rubio 3

@alextdaugherty

Over the past six weeks, Marco Rubio has used his Twitter account to post minute-by-minute updates and lengthy threads on Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, making him a must-follow for anyone keeping up to date with the latest news.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Rubio writes his own posts. 

Though Rubio continues to earn widespread praise from Venezuelans, Republicans and most Democrats for keeping Venezuela’s plight in the news, his Twitter account amplified three inaccurate reports in recent days, giving fodder to those on the left who want to negotiate with Nicolás Maduro instead of getting rid of him.

The first instance: widespread reports shared by Rubio, White House officials and other prominent lawmakers that Maduro’s security forces set fire to humanitarian aid at the Venezuela-Colombia border on Feb. 23. Video evidence analyzed by The New York Times showed that a Molotov cocktail thrown by an anti-Maduro protester was the likely culprit.

The second instance was a tweet by Rubio highlighting widespread blackouts in Venezuela over the weekend. He tweeted: “Today another transformer explosion at the German Dam in Bolivar State caused another massive blackout. The result? Critically ill patients have died, the Caracas metro remains out of service & few if any flights have arrived at or departed from Caracas in over 20 hours.”

There is no German Dam in Venezuela. German Dam is a reporter who was writing about the ongoing blackouts. Rubio deleted the tweet after it was online for 24 hours and later said the message was a mistake. “I meant to type ‘Today another transformer explosion in Bolivar State caused another massive blackout according to German Dam,’ ” he tweeted.

The third instance was Rubio’s retweeting of a report from Venezuela-based news outlet VPItv, which he translated into English on Sunday. “Report that at least 80 neonatal patients have died at University Hospital in Maracaibo, Zulia, since the blackout began on Thursday in Venezuela. Unimaginable tragedy. Heartbreaking.” Wall Street Journal correspondent Juan Forero said the report was inaccurate. “Actually, sources at the hospital said no neonatal deaths recorded as of this afternoon,” Forero tweeted in response.

The Miami Herald reported Tuesday that 21 people died in hospitals without backup generators during the ongoing blackout, though the number was shared by Venezuelan opposition deputy José Manuel Olivares and could not be independently confirmed.

Rubio said Tuesday he has no plans to change his social media presence.

“Independent journalists in Venezuela are doing a great job under tremendous circumstances,” Rubio said. “A very prominent one [Luis Carlos Diaz] was just arrested today by the special police. To the extent we can give them voice by tweeting out their reports, I’m going to do that as often as I can to be supportive of their work.”

Read more here.

Florida House files bill with broader school voucher expansion than the Senate’s proposal

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EVE EDELHEIT | Times Students work in a classroom at Brighton Preparatory School in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, May 3, 2016.
 
The Florida House Education committee filed a major education bill Tuesday evening that would create a new private school voucher paid for by general revenue dollars in an aggressive expansion of voucher programs much broader than what was proposed by the Senate.
 
Even though the Legislative session is only in its second week, already, both chambers have proposed major education packages that promise to bring heated debate over the issue of using public dollars to help families send their kids to private schools. After the Senate proposed their bill, the House companion has been eagerly awaited.
 
But, according to the bill analysis, the House version would offer 28,000 of the new vouchers, called the Family Empowerment Scholarship, for next school year. That’s about double what the Senate pitched for its first year of the program. Both plans are designed to eliminate the waiting list of about 14,000 students currently approved to receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is offered to low-income families.
 
The House goes beyond that waiting list figure by offering vouchers to families that make up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $77,250 for a family of four, according to the bill analysis. That income threshold would steadily rise over time, allowing families that make up to $96,572 to participate in the 2022-2023 school year.
 
The Senate proposed a cutoff around $67,000 for next school year and does not raise its threshold over time.
 
The other major difference between the two chambers is that the House’s bill is limited only to the expansion and revision of school vouchers. Meanwhile, the Senate has consistently said they were taking a “balanced approach” to this issue by providing a package bill that creates the new voucher but also beefs up the teacher bonus program and allows districts increased flexibility to build new construction, which districts have long desired.
 
This House bill is scheduled to be heard for the first time on Thursday in the House Education committee.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gets high marks in yet another poll

Gov. Ron DeSantis’s first few months continue to get high marks, with a new poll showing 59 percent of Floridians and 42 percent of Democrats approve of how he’s doing.
That’s the highest approval rating for a Florida governor in 10 years, according to Quinnipiac University, who called 1,058 Floridians who said they were registered voters.
Just 17 percent of the respondents disapproved, including just 28 percent of Democrats. The poll was conducted last week and has a margin of error of +/- 3.7 percentage points. About 28 percent identified as Republicans, 29 percent as Democrats, 36 percent independent and 8 percent were “other” or “didn’t know.”
Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, said in a statement that the high rating is better than other governors around the country.
DeSantis’ support for popular, bipartisan issues like the environment, supporting smokable medical marijuana and pardoning the Groveland Four have earned him high marks in previous polls.
And they buck the priorities of the outgoing Republican governor, Sen. Rick Scott, who, received mixed marks in the Q poll.
Just 42 percent of respondents approved of the job he’s doing in Washington, with 38 percent disapproving. His senior colleague, Sen. Marco Rubio, did better at 50-34.
The poll also showed that 61 percent of respondents supported DeSantis’ policy of requiring local police to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement officers, which is part of his so-called “anti-sanctuary cities” policy.
But respondents rejected several of the gun-related issues DeSantis supports:
  • 57 percent opposed arming teachers
  • 58 percent said stricter gun laws would reduce gun violence in schools
  • 59 percent supported stricter gun laws.
  • and 55 percent rejected the idea that more people with guns would make Florida safer.

March 12, 2019

State Senate puts ex-Broward sheriff's hearing on hold amid lawsuit

Israel pix
Citing a lawsuit from former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel challenging his suspension, the president of the Florida Senate said Tuesday he is putting Israel's scheduled hearing before the chamber on hold until the lawsuit is resolved.
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, wrote in a memo to fellow senators Tuesday afternoon that he was halting the proceedings regarding the embattled former official until further notice, on the recommendation of the special master assigned to Israel's case.
"Special Master [Dudley] Goodlette recommended the matter be held in abeyance until a final determination in the pending litigation has been rendered, including the exhaustion of all appellate remedies," Galvano wrote to senators, noting he was accepting Goodlette's reasoning. "My decision is not in any way a reflection of the merits of the proceeding, but is necessary to ensure due process."
Israel, who was suspended from office in January by Gov. Ron DeSantis in part over the department’s response to the Parkland shooting, had requested the Senate review that suspension under the chamber’s authority granted by the state constitution. The Senate had scheduled a pre-hearing for March 20 and a full hearing before the chamber in early April.
But Israel also filed a lawsuit in Broward County Circuit Court last week petitioning to be reinstated immediately to his position and challenging DeSantis’ Jan. 11 suspension order. That order cited failures in the response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as well to a shooting at the Ft. Lauderdale airport in 2017, which Israel’s lawyers have argued do not fall under DeSantis’ purview since they occurred before his election.
Israel has also contended that DeSantis’ suspension was politically motivated. He has declared he intends to run again for his old position during the next election cycle, if the state Senate does not reverse the governor’s suspension.
Galvano, in noting Israel’s new lawsuit, told senators the case “would likely come back to the Senate depending on the action taken by the courts. As such, I encourage you to continue to refrain from commenting on these matters.”
Image: AP

DeSantis proposal to import Canadian prescription drugs clears first House committee

A bill building off Gov. Ron DeSantis’ call to import prescription drugs from Canada cleared its first committee stop Tuesday, amid ongoing concerns from some lawmakers about how a potential program would be structured and how much it might save Floridians and the state.

The House Health Quality subcommittee voted 12-2 to advance HB 19, which would direct the state Agency for Health Care Administration, via a vendor, to establish a list of drugs and Canadian suppliers that might yield savings for the state. The bill also proposes a similar “international” program that would allow private citizens to import drugs from other countries aside from Canada by permitting wholesale drug distributors and pharmacies abroad to export medication to similar drug distributors, pharmacies and pharmacists registered with the state.

Under a 2003 federal law, the proposal would need the approval of the federal Department of Health and Human Services to take effect. Past federal Health and Human Services secretaries, including current Secretary Alex Azar, have declined to do so.

Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, who is sponsoring the bill, told committee lawmakers the proposal would shift cost savings to consumers, citing the high cost of prescription drugs nationwide.

“We’ve allowed the government to create a regulatory scheme so complex and so convoluted that we’ve stacked the deck against the consumer and put profits over patients,” he said. “Today, you — we — have the chance to win one for the consumer.”

He acknowledged in response to some lawmakers’ questions that there were no specific price controls built into the bill, but “what’s built into this bill is the free market… It’s a simple economics philosophy that we know will work here.”

Canada imposes restrictions on how much pharmaceutical companies are allowed to charge for medicines — the U.S. does not. Though it is technically illegal to import prescriptions from Canada, many Americans currently do so, including some entities in Florida.

Allowing the importation of prescription drugs from America’s northern neighbor has also been floated by a number of other politicians, most notably presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Last year, Vermont was the first state to pass a bill that would have allowed prescription drugs to be imported from Canada, though it has not obtained the federal approval required for implementation.

When DeSantis proposed allowing drug importation from Canada last month, he acknowledged that the federal government had never granted such approval to a state. But the governor said at the time that he had spoken to President Donald Trump about ensuring that approval, and that he was “not only supportive, he’s enthusiastic.”

The White House subsequently released a statement suggesting that it was still reviewing the details of the proposal, and that the administration “looks forward to educating Governor DeSantis on the many policy options [it] has proposed to reduce costly drug prices for American families.”

Supporters of such proposals say it could save millions in rising drug costs in the country, and DeSantis has projected similarly significant savings for the state.  But others have raised concerns about how prescriptions in the supply chain would be deemed safe and how other countries, insurers or pharmaceutical companies might react to such importation programs.

In Tuesday’s hearing, some pharmacists and pharmaceutical officials questioned the proposal and how effectively and how safely it would address what they agreed was a rapid rise in prescription drug costs.

“What kind of reasoning are we giving to patients?” asked Vikram Rao, a pharmacist who leads the Florida Independent Pharmacy Association. Noting the government has previously barred importing drugs from abroad, he said patients might question “why have you been telling me all these years that we cannot buy drugs from Canada?”

He and other pharmacists pressed the committee to address pharmacy benefit managers, which Rao said contribute to the marking up of prescription drugs in the state.

John Clark, a vice president and chief security officer for Pfizer, also raised concerns about the potential for counterfeit drugs, saying the pharmaceutical company had seen an increase in in its own drugs being copied over the years.

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, also asked about potential unintended consequences of the bill, raising issues like whether Canada’s existing supply of pharmaceuticals might accommodate Florida’s population of 20 million. Others questioned whether insurance companies or pharmacy benefit managers might move to reject covering prescriptions that are imported from other countries, nodding to the second, broader portion of the bill.

Leek acknowledged repeatedly that “there are no guarantees” of the bill’s specific impact, but said “expanding the footprint of the market” would likely reduce prices by increasing supply to meet demand.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said he was pleasantly “stunned” to hear the potential for importation raised in a House committee, though he pressed Leek on why the state might not also consider Medicaid rebates or price controls similar to Canada’s to also reduce prescription drug costs. He also highlighted concerns he had about preventing a potential state vendor from having conflicts of interest with drug manufacturers, noting the state “does not have a great track record” in selecting such entities.

“Can we make sure the state of Florida doesn’t hire a total bozo to run this program?” he asked after the meeting.

The proposal — as a priority of the governor and Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes — is likely to coast through the House. But to reach federal officials, it must also clear the Senate, where the bill's companion faces a tougher field. SB 1528, the Senate bill that is moving through the chamber, only includes the Canadian portion of the proposal.

That mirrors concerns raised by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who told reporters last month that the governor’s plan to allow the state to import drugs from Canada was something he was “interested in exploring,” but that he worried the portion that would allow individuals or private entities to receive imported drugs from abroad might run afoul of Congress’ jurisdiction.

March 11, 2019

Senate committee backs more regulation of plastic surgery centers

Citing multiple deaths of patients after botched plastic surgeries in South Florida, a Senate committee voted Monday to advance a proposal that would tighten regulations for offices performing such procedures across the state.

Members of the Senate Health Policy committee voted unanimously to approve SB 732, filed by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, which would direct the state Department of Health to set requirements for registration of such clinics and require them, if not completely owned by a licensed doctor, to show financial responsibility for claims against them. The bill would also increase the state’s ability to enforce those regulations by revoking a center’s registration, restricting offices from reopening and imposing fines.

Flores cast the bill as a way to demand accountability from clinics where patients had died and said it would give the state “the tools they need to shut down these butcher shops.” She cited some of the victims named in a recent USA TODAY investigation on plastic surgery deaths in South Florida — including 30-year-old Jasmine Smith from New Jersey and Heather Meadows, 29, from West Virginia — who came to Miami seeking what they thought were safe, simple cosmetic procedures.

“There were never able to go back home because they died,” Flores said. “I mention all those names so you can see that this is really a national problem.”

The bill included a substantial amendment Monday, crafted with medical doctors’ associations, that changed the bill’s focus from physician licensure laws to those overseeing healthcare clinics. Flores also noted that the Board of Medicine is revisiting new rules for surgeries in such clinics next month, but said the legislation closes a loophole that unscrupulous offices have been able to exploit.

“Our conversations with DOH were that they don't have the authority to go after the clinics — they just have the ability to go after the individual doctors,” she later said.

Some legislators raised questions about a provision in the bill that would require certified registered nurse anesthetists to operate under a “written protocol” with an anesthesiologist, citing concerns about increased costs that might be passed onto a patient and hindering nurse anesthetists’ ability to operate independently.

Flores said she was open to changing the language of the bill, but also described those objections later as the criticism of a special-interest group.

Those providers “already have a protocol” with a physician, she told reporters after the meeting. The new provision “would just be switching over.”

The bill has two more stops before it can reach the Senate floor.

Increased oversight of children’s heart surgery programs clears first Senate committee stop

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@elizabethrkoh @kmcgrory
A proposal to increase oversight of children’s heart surgery programs in Florida cleared its first legislative hurdle in a state Senate committee today.
The Senate Health Policy Committee voted unanimously to advance SB 1126, which would let teams of physician experts make unannounced visits to children’s heart surgery departments and inspect the facilities and outcomes. Those teams would then report back to the state’s Pediatric Cardiology Technical Advisory Panel, which would recommend corrective action.
“When you are dealing with any kind of cardiac surgery in children, it is probably the most difficult procedure you can do,” said Senate Health Policy Committee Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, who sponsored the bill. “We want to make sure those children are protected.”
Harrell said she filed the bill in response to incidents at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach and Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. A November Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed widespread safety problems in the All Children’s heart surgery program. The St. Mary’s program was shut down in 2015 after reports of issues in the unit.
At All Children’s, six top administrators and surgeons left the hospital following the Times’ reporting. The program is not currently performing heart surgeries.
In addition, federal regulators found systemic problems that went beyond the hospital’s Heart Institute. Some problems were so serious that the government threatened to withhold the hospital’s public funding if the issues were not immediately fixed.
“We’ve seen some untoward events in hospitals treating children having open heart surgery,” Harrell said.
Harrell’s bill seeks to further empower the Pediatric Cardiology Technical Advisory Panel, a committee of cardiologists and cardiac surgeons from hospitals across Florida that has been meeting since 2017.
After the problems at St. Mary’s, lawmakers tasked the group with creating standards for heart surgery programs. But last year, when a group of pediatricians recommended that the panel look into the increase in mortality at All Children’s, state health care regulators said that wasn’t allowed under Florida law.
Senators praised Harrell’s bill and said it would improve accountability, particularly in light of the All Children’s issues.
Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said several senators “had lots of conversations with the hospital in St. Pete.”
Leaders at the hospital, he said, had already “started on a path of correcting all of the problems that had caused this controversy.” But the bill would help even more children with complex heart conditions, he added.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said lawmakers had “empathy for the families that were tragically impacted by what occured at All Children’s Hospital” and the employees who “tried to sound that whistle that things were going awry and were not listened to by old staff.”
He called the bill “a great step forward from where we have been.”
Harrell said she plans to add a provision that would set aside $150,000 in state funding for the panel to get annual reports on programs’ surgical outcomes and publish them.
For the bill to become law, it must win the support of two additional Senate committees and receive a final stamp of approval on the Senate floor. An identical proposal, HB 1207, must go through the same process in the Florida House of Representatives.
The legislative session runs through May 3.
Image: Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, via Scott Keeler of the Tampa Bay Times

March 08, 2019

Gillum to make 'major announcement' in Miami

Ron DeSantis isn't the only around here making "major announcements."

Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost the Florida governor's race to DeSantis in November, announced Friday morning that he's coming to Miami this month to make ... an announcement.

Gillum sent out an email to supporters saying he'll be in South Florida March 20. He didn't explain the reason for the occasion or the exact location, but alluded to statements he's made since his gubernatorial loss about continuing to make use of the organization that brought him to the brink of the governor's mansion.

"This fight is about the future of our state and our nation. I’m not going anywhere — and I know neither are you. We have to stand strong and speak out," he said.

Gillum quickly released a video teasing the appearance. It was distributed by his political committee, Forward Florida, which still had close to $4 million in its coffers at the end of January.

Harris, Klobuchar, Schultz head to Florida as 2020 arrives in the Sunshine State

The end of winter is near. And while the north remains frigid, the timing and conditions are ripe for 2020 hopefuls to till the fertile Sunshine State soil for grassroots support and campaign cash.

Hoping to bear early fruit, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris is heading this weekend to South Florida, where she’ll be the first top-tier presidential candidate to campaign in-person since the young election season began. On the Gulf Coast, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, from Minnesota, will attend a climate change roundtable in Tampa. Mulling an independent run, Howard Schultz will visit Miami Dade College on Wednesday

Sen. Sherrod Brown would have made four had he not canceled a Friday morning breakfast in Coconut Grove shortly before announcing that he would not seek the presidency.

That’s not to say that 2020 candidates weren’t already blowing up phones in Miami, where some of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors live. “You name ‘em and I’ll tell you which one isn’t trying to meet with me,” says Chris Korge, one of the party’s top bundlers of campaign donations.

But with Florida’s presidential primary falling two weeks after Super Tuesday in what may still at that point be a wide-open race, contenders are beginning to make their way south in order to establish a presence. Harris’ supporters hope to get ahead of the competition, even as some of the biggest Democratic donors remain unavailable while awaiting decisions from former Vice President Joe Biden and former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.

“We certainly put in the push to get her here early,” said Kirk Wagar, co-chairman of political consulting firm Mercury and a former U.S. ambassador to Singapore. “Some of it is money and some of it is contact as well. That doesn’t mean she’s going to be doing big rallies. It’s to kind of put a stake in the ground and say I believe in Florida, I believe I can win in the primary and in the general.”

Read the rest here.

March 07, 2019

Florida House takes microscope to university and college construction

FSU drone shot
SCOTT KEELER | Times FOR FILE- Aerial of Florida State University campus with Doak Campbell Stadium in the foreground, Tallahassee.
 
Two days after Florida House Speaker José Oliva criticized higher education’s “endless appetite for new construction," colleges and universities appeared before a House committee to justify their requests for state funds to build or renovate buildings.
 
They faced a meticulous financial questioning about each project on Thursday, and House Higher Education Appropriations committee chair Rep. Randy Fine said that process would continue for the next two weeks.
 
The questioning spurred universities and colleges to bring out the big guns — Florida State University President John Thrasher, a former speaker of the Florida House and Florida Atlantic University Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, former president of the Florida Senate, both attended. So did a slew of other college presidents and provosts, in addition to the usual cadre of lobbyists.
 
“This is not a kabuki exercise, this is a legitimate exercise to vet these projects," Fine said. “I think some projects did a great job of justifying themselves, and may be frankly, to me a no-brainer. Others, I still have some questions.”
 
Thrasher said he felt the process was appropriate scrutiny over how the institutions use taxpayer money. After it was discovered that the University of Central Florida and others improperly used operational dollars for construction, the Florida House has turned up the heat.
 
But Thrasher also said he hopes the Legislature will continue to recognize that the universities are investments for the good of the entire state. Lawmakers in past years have challenged Florida’s universities to rise in national rankings, which several, including FSU, have done.
 
“Our overall point is to try to reach a higher level of expertise,” he said. “We think (the construction projects) will be beneficial to the university system and to the state of Florida, for that matter.”
 
Many of the projects under scrutiny have already begun with an initial investment of state dollars. However, that doesn’t mean that the state has an obligation to fund the rest of the construction. Among the projects addressed were: a new data sciences facility and new music building at the University of Florida; a business studies building, an interdisciplinary facility and a sciences lab at Florida State University.
 
Miami-Dade College’s executive vice president and provost Lenore Rodicio also presented, making the case for funding so the college can renovate its law enforcement training facility as well as a building it will use to train students to engineer and fix Tesla electric cars.