April 08, 2019

'It’s going to kill ballot initiatives': bill upping vote requirement is called unjust for voters

Parents of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a shooter killed 17 people in 2018, push petitions for 2020 ban on assault weapons in Florida. MIAMI HERALD

The effort by Republicans to complicate the citizen-initiative ballot process marches on.

A joint resolution that would up the number of votes required to approve a constitutional amendment passed its second committee meeting Monday, raising the threshold from 60 percent to 66 and two-thirds percent.

Citizens will first have to vote on the amendment, which would then be approved by a three-fifths vote in both chambers of the Legislature.

Bill sponsor Rep. Rick Roth, a Loxahatchee Republican, said the bill is a “broad base approach” to protect the state’s constitution.

“The constitution is the document that defends the least able to defend themselves,” he said, “Not the wealthy or the lawyers who have millions of dollars to have a medical marijuana bill.”

If adopted, the resolution would take effect in 2021. The Senate version of the bill, put forward by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, has cleared its first two committee stops.  

The bills are not the first to make it more difficult to get constitutional amendments before voters this year, particularly before a crucial presidential election in which other groups hope to get before voters amendments banning assault weapons, requiring Medicaid expansion and raising Florida's minimum wage.

Another pair of bills put forward by Republicans would require, among other things, that ballot initiatives pay petitioners by wage or hour, not by signatures gathered; include the name of the initiative's sponsor on the ballot; disclose the percent of money raised by sources in-state and allow for interested parties to weigh in, and file a 50-word “position statement” either for or against the proposal to be posted on the Department of State’s website.

Lawmakers have steadily made it more difficult to amend Florida’s constitution in the past, limiting the amount of time a group has to collect signatures and raising the threshold for an amendment’s passage to its current 60 percent.

Without much power in Tallahassee over the last 20 years, progressive groups have been most successful pushing policies passed by voters who approved amendments.

Rep. Margaret Good, a Sarasota Democrat, said voters who care about topics like the environment, medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion turn to the ballot process to make change.

“Citizens have a real and effective voice in our government when it is clear that our legislature is not adequately addressing issues that are important to our citizens,” Good said. “This is, right now, the only answer that citizens have to this very, very broken process. Raising the bar is quashing the voice of the voters and the citizens of this state.”

The signature-focused bills would affect two major amendments that could appear on the 2020 ballot, one raising the minimum wage and the other allowing “energy choice,” advocates for those ideas say.

Alex Patton, chairman of a committee trying to get an energy-choice amendment initiative on the ballot, said that the bill makes it “obvious: that “the powers that be do not like citizens speaking up them.”

“In almost all cases, it’s impossible to get two-thirds of the state of Florida to agree on anything,” Patton said. “It’s going to kill ballot initiatives.”

Police groups come out in support of Legislature’s Amendment 4 efforts

Two major police associations have come out in strong support of Republican lawmakers’ efforts to implement Amendment 4, which promised the right to vote for more than a million felons.
Last week, the Florida Police Chiefs Association came out in support of Rep. Jamie Grant’s bill, which would prohibit former felons from voting until they’ve paid off all their fines, fees and restitution.
And on Monday, the Florida Sheriffs Association also chimed in, accusing supporters of Amendment 4 from backtracking after the amendment passed in November with 64 percent of the vote.
“Now that they got you to vote for Amendment 4, the advocates are switching their position and claim that Amendment 4 requires restoration of voting rights even with outstanding victim restitution and financial obligations imposed by a judge as part of criminal sentencing,” Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter, president of the association, said in a statement.
“This is wrong, victims’ rights matter and truth in sentencing matters.”
The statements from the two police groups is part of pushback against national attention and outrage as Republicans in the Legislature look to implement Amendment 4, one of the biggest expansions of voting rights in decades.
Democrats, including New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have accused Republicans of creating a “poll tax.”
Grant and other supporters say the comparison is offensive.
But by requiring felons pay back all fines and restitution before being allowed to vote, it would likely prevent tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of people from voting.
Some people would never be able to vote. One woman told lawmakers last month that she owes $59 million in restitution and won’t be able to vote even though she said she’s dutifully paying towards the amount each month.
Requiring restitution be paid back in full has other issues as well. Nobody state or local government tracks restitution, and it could cost millions to create such a system.
Amendment 4 allowed felons to vote once they’ve completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”
When the amendment was being vetted, supporters of Amendment 4 told the Florida Supreme Court that terms of someone’s “sentence” includes fines, fees and restitution — a point that Grant and other Republican lawmakers have made.
Supporters, including the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, say that fines and fees should not be considered part of someone’s sentence.

This bill would name a Broward bridge after a former state senator (and FPL lobbyist)

A bill moving through the Legislature has a nice idea: name roads after police officers killed in the line of duty.
There’s a stretch of I-10 that would be named after Highway Patrol Trooper Sherman Scott, who was shot and killed by an escaped convict in 1965.
A part of I-95 in Miami would be named after Trooper Owen Bender, who was struck and killed by a car while manning a roadblock during Hurricane Betsy in 1965.
And a bridge on Broward Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale would be named after former Democratic Sen. Chris Smith, a lobbyist for Florida Power & Light.
Wait, what?
Smith’s name wasn’t originally on the bill when it was filed by Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat.
Rather, Smith’s name was added by a Republican: Sen. Travis Hutson of Elkton, who is vying to become Senate president in 2022.
When Hutson amended the bill during a committee last month, it raised a few eyebrows, including from Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa.
“I thought we were trying to wait until people passed away until we did these designations,” he said.
Hutson replied that the person didn’t have to be dead. (Smith’s name was not mentioned during the meeting.)
“I think that this former senator has done a wonderful job for his community," Hutson said, "and I look to try and get his name out there so everybody remembers him and all the hard work he’s done.”
Smith is a former House and Senate minority leader — a rare distinction — but has been out of office since 2016. He’s also a longtime lobbyist for Florida Power & Light, and he’s also registered to lobby for State Farm insurance this year.
When asked to elaborate on why Smith deserved a bridge be named after him, Hutson cited Smith’s time in the House and Senate and that other senators had tried to name the bridge after him.
But Smith said there’s a backstory to the potential naming, and it has nothing to do with his lobbying work. (He said he’s never raised money for Hutson.)
The bridge in question is on Broward Boulevard, and it goes over the North Fork of the New River, a canal that reaches the intracoastal.
Smith said during his time in the Senate, he repeatedly asked FDOT to raise the bridge, because it was so low that people on the north side of the bridge — a predominantly black neighborhood — couldn’t easily access the intracoastal by boat.
“It was something that I pushed and pushed and pushed every year in the Senate,” Smith said.
FDOT replaced the bridge last year and raised it three feet, according to the Sun-Sentinel. Now, boaters can cross under the bridge without having to wait for low tide, Smith said.
Those boaters include Smith himself: the dock off the back yard of his home is just 1,100 feet away — on the north side of the bridge.
“I’ve lived there since ’98, and I guess for my homeowners’ group, it was a major issue for them,” Smith said. “It’s become a thing now. They’re talking about starting up a boat club for the first time in the black community.”
If Book’s bill (SB 100) passes, the new bridge would officially be known as the “Senator Christopher L. Smith Bridge.”
“I’m ecstatic. It’s a great honor,” Smith said. “If people have concerns about it, I understand. I’m just glad the damn bridge finally got done.”

April 05, 2019

Only in Florida could a billionaire’s massage parlor pit stop unmask a possible spy ring


A full-blown spy mystery with a Florida twist is playing out at the president’s winter White House in tony Palm Beach.

A Chinese national sits in federal custody, the public face of a newly revealed FBI investigation into whether one of America’s biggest global rivals is using Donald Trump’s eagerness to sell access to himself at his own private club to its advantage. Yujing Zhang, who Secret Service say was caught slinking around Mar-a-Lago last weekend with four cell phones, waffling explanations for her presence and a thumb drive loaded with “malicious malware,” could be anything from an unwitting businesswoman to a linchpin in an international intelligence operation.

Speaking through a Mandarin interpreter at a preliminary hearing this week, Zhang said she’s an employee of a private equity firm who flew in from Shanghai to attend an ultimately canceled social event and hopefully meet with the president’s family to talk shop. Federal agents, on the other hand, believe she may be a Chinese intelligence agent and an “extreme” flight risk.

Determining which scenario is closer to the truth is an effort that feels like a spy novel with considerable national security implications.

But if you peel back the layers around Zhang’s arrest and the public’s awareness of its significance, the story begins to feel less like a John le Carré book and more like an only-in-Florida Carl Hiaasen tale. Because before there was a furor around a possible spy infiltrating Trump’s South Florida resort, there were revelations that a Chinese-American businesswoman had built a cottage industry of selling access to Trump back home in the Far East and a tabloid scandal involving a strip mall day spa in a sleepy South Florida beach town and a Super Bowl-winning NFL owner caught on hidden camera with his pants down.

“The idea that this is about a Chinese spy ring disguised as a rub-and-tug disguised as a day spa ... It’s just peak," said Miami filmmaker Billy Corben, who’s built a cult following shooting popular documentaries about the state’s craziest stories. "We’ve reached peak Florida."

Read the rest here.

Miami Dade College hopes new president will avoid Tallahassee missteps


As Miami Dade College’s Board of Trustees searches for a successor to the retiring and revered Eduardo Padrón, there are but a few concrete requirements: The next president must have a doctorate, and must have 10 years of senior management experience, six of them at an institution of higher learning.

But there’s another qualification that, while not exactly set in stone, carries weight: The college’s next president must work well with the people who hold the purse.

For all of the unequivocal praise heaped upon Padrón toward the end of his nearly 25 years atop the college, few would quibble with the belief that his relationship with Tallahassee Republicans could have been better. Padrón, a Democrat, infamously called current House Speaker José Oliva a college dropout during a 2014 meeting with the Miami Herald Editorial Board about the college’s unsuccessful pursuit of a local half-penny sales tax to support the college, and said the cigar company executive was “born into money.”

So, as the search for Padrón’s replacement gets going, there are some around the process who want to make sure that the college’s leadership finds someone who will not only know Miami inside and out, but also Tallahassee.

“Every year, dealing with the Legislature is a saga,” MDC Board of Trustees Chairman Bernie Navarro said late last month during the first meeting of a selection committee put together to help vet and pare down an expected lengthy list of candidates. “And we have to understand they’re 50 percent of our stakeholders.”

Lawmakers in state government do indeed have a great deal of influence over the laws that govern the college’s operations, as does the governor, who just appointed four of the seven members on the board. They help set the budget for the Florida College System — a network of 28 community colleges of which Miami Dade College is a member — and control, for instance, the extent to which MDC can offer four-year degrees.

Read the rest here.

April 04, 2019

A Venezuelan-born Miami lawyer becomes one of the U.S.’s youngest lifetime judges

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The U.S. Senate confirmed a Venezuelan-born Miami lawyer on Thursday to the federal bench in South Florida, the first judicial nominee confirmed after Senate Republicans changed the rules to lessen the power of the minority party during the confirmation process.

Roy Altman, a lawyer at Miami firm Podhurst Orseck, was approved by the Senate to be a U.S. district judge in a 66-33 vote on Thursday, with 14 Democrats joining Republicans to confirm him. Republican Sen. Rand Paul joined 30 Democrats and two independents to vote against Altman’s nomination.

Altman’s private work was centered on aviation law, and he represented victims of high-profile airline crashes like the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared over the Indian Ocean in 2014. He also worked as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

“Today’s vote is an important step in ensuring Florida’s federal judiciary continues functioning at a high level. I am confident that Roy Altman will serve Florida’s Southern District with honor and integrity,” Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement.

Altman, 36, will be one of the youngest judges ever confirmed for a lifetime post. Washington lawyer Allison Rushing, also 36 but two months younger than Altman, was confirmed as a federal appeals court judge in March. Altman was first nominated for a federal judgeship by President Donald Trump last year, but his nomination expired at the end of 2018.

More here.

Republicans and Democrats do damage control after Trump rips Colombia president Duque

Marco Rubio 3


Florida lawmakers went into damage control mode after President Donald Trump attacked Colombian President Ivan Duque during an off-the-cuff comment about closing the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday.

Trump said Duque, the U.S.’s most important ally in the ongoing effort to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, “has done nothing for us” in combating the flow of illicit drugs.

The comments, which were not shared with members of Congress in advance, prompted at least four lawmakers, Republican Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio along with Democratic Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Debbie Wasserman Schultz to speak with Duque directly.

“I think that the president should extend an apology to the President of Colombia,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “Not only should we be supporting their efforts but there’s a lot more the U.S. can do to support Ivan Duque in his fight against drugs.”

Duque, who visited the White House last month and has held office for less than a year, was “quite upset” with Trump’s remarks, according to two sources with knowledge of his discussions with lawmakers.

“I’ll tell you something, Colombia, you have your new president of Colombia,” Trump said during a visit to tout repairs on Lake Okeechobee’s dike. “Really good guy, I’ve met him — we had him at the White House. He said how he’s going to stop drugs. More drugs are coming out of Colombia right now than before he was president, so he has done nothing for us.”

More here.

Another poll reinforces DeSantis' popularity in Florida


He’s got a looooong way to go before he even gets through his first legislative session, much less his first year or term. But so far, the evidence is overwhelming that most Florida voters believe Gov. Ron DeSantis is making smart decisions as the head of the nation’s largest swing state.

On Thursday, Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy released the latest poll showing that, following a contentious and often acrimonious campaign, DeSantis has built up good will during his first three months in office. His approval rating is at a striking 62 percent according to the poll, conducted from March 18 to 20 .

Perhaps even more striking, Mason-Dixon found that some 53 percent of voters in heavily Democratic South Florida say they support what DeSantis has done since his election in November following a hard-fought and contentious race with Andrew Gillum. And registered Democrats are split on how they feel about him, with 41 percent approving and 41 percent opposing, according to the poll.

The Mason-Dixon poll queried 625 voters by phone, and has a margin of error of 4 percent. In January, two weeks after DeSantis was sworn in, the same pollster found that 48 percent of voters approved of how DeSantis was handling himself – a noted spike in a favorability rating that Mason-Dixon had found in the high 30s during the campaign.

Mason-Dixon’s latest poll echoes the findings of other recent polls.

Last month, Quinnipiac released a poll that pegged DeSantis’ approval rating at 59 percent, significantly better than either his predecessor, Rick Scott, or Florida’s other U.S. Senator, Marco Rubio. That came after a Saint Leo University poll put DeSantis’ approval rating at 64 percent, and Bendixen & Amandi International put it at 50 percent.

The gaps in those numbers are significant. And those polls don't take into account a new flap over DeSantis' controversial pick to lead Florida's health agencies, and can't take into account the most bruising portion of the ongoing legislative session when most the work of the state government will be conducted.

But the constant thread through all of them is that DeSantis is at this point the most popular statewide politician in Florida, and that overall a majority of voters believe he’s doing a good job.

April 03, 2019

Owner of Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine files to run for Congress against Mucarsel-Powell


The face of a well-known Cuban restaurant chain in Miami is running for one the country’s highest profile congressional seats.

Irina Vilariño, co-owner of Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine restaurants, announced Wednesday that she’s launching a campaign for Florida’s 26th congressional district, a bellwether seat representing south Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys. The seat is currently occupied by Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who beat Republican Carlos Curbelo this November in a race that was viewed nationally as a referendum on the Republican Party.

Vilariño, 43, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On her website, she frames her candidacy as a backlash against the leftward movement of the Democratic Party.

“I am deeply concerned about the extreme leftward shift in our political discourse,” said Vilariño, who came to Miami with her family at the age of 4 during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift after her father was released from a Cuban prison. “Young people today are being sold a lie by the liberal media and the Democrat Party leadership who are promising them that they can have everything for nothing. This is the promise of every socialist movement, and it ultimately ends in unfulfilled expectations and tyranny.”

Vilariño is mostly known for her work on behalf of her family’s restaurants. The first Las Vegas restaurant opened in 1984 in Hollywood after her family fled Cuba, and at least a dozen locations are now spread around South Florida. She listed the family’s downtown Doral restaurant as her campaign address.

But Vilariño is hardly a political neophyte.

Read more here.

A Miami detention center for migrant children will soon be bigger than Homestead High


Already a lightning rod in the national fight over immigration policy, a detention center for unaccompanied migrant children in Homestead is once again expanding to shelter the growing number of teenagers in federal custody.

The government announced this week that an old 75-acre Job Corps campus reopened last year as a youth center for children detained at the border will grow again in April to more than double the capacity that existed at the beginning of the year. By the end of the month, the Office of Refugee Resettlement intends to house as many as 3,200 children at the “temporary” center — creating a compound able to accommodate more teenagers than Homestead Senior High.

The 850-bed expansion — the second in 2019 — comes amid heightened immigration rhetoric from President Donald Trump and as the Department of Homeland Security braces for what it’s calling an unprecedented number of children crossing through Central America and Mexico to the border without parents. In announcing the move, the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees refugee resettlement, explained that it is planning for an extended period in which it will need to care for a larger number of youths.

“Based on the anticipated growth pattern in referrals,” the agency stated, “HHS is preparing for the need for high-bed capacity to continue.”

Health and Human Services stresses that none of the roughly 2,000 children housed today in Homestead nor any of the children expected to occupy the new beds were separated from their families under a hardline immigration policy that began and ended last year. The agency also said it is not expanding the Homestead facility to accommodate children who were previously sheltered at the now closed child detention center in Tornillo, Texas — previously the only other “temporary” child migrant shelter in the country.

But the continued expansion of the center in Homestead all but guarantees that the complex will remain a national symbol of the fight over Trump’s hardline immigration stance well into 2019 and likely the 2020 campaign.

If anything, it could be a bigger flash point.

Read the rest here.