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Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster

Rick Scott announces resignation of his chief inspector general

Melinda Miguel, the state’s chief inspector general, is stepping down.

Gov. Rick Scott announced Miguel, who has served as the governor’s chief inspector general since 2011, has resigned to pursue opportunities in the private sector. Her last day, according to the Governor’s Office, is today.

“Over the last 27 years, I have been trusted with the mantle to stand and sere our great State of Florida and have been inspired and moved by your leadership and courageous determination to make it better,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “Now more than ever, I appreciate your stance for liberty, freedom and justice and you fighting for Florida’s families.”

Miguel’s career with the state dates back to 1989, when she served as a supervisor for player accounting services at the Florida Lottery. She worked her way up the ladder at the Lottery, spending four years as a supervisor, before becoming an auditor and investigator with the agency’s inspector general’s office.

Over the years, she served stints at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the Department of Elder Affairs, Department of Education, and the Attorney General’s Office. In 2006, she was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to the Council of State Agency Inspectors General, a role she served in for about a year.

“Melinda has done a great job serving our state as Inspector General, and I’m extremely grateful for her commitment to ensuring government remains accountable to Florida taxpayers,” said Scott in a statement.

Scott announced Eric Miller, who currently serves as the inspector general at the Agency for Health Care Administration, will serve as the Governor’s Chief Inspector General.

Miller has served in his current position since September 2011. Prior to joining AHCA, he served as manager of corporate compliance at Citizens Property insurance.

“Eric has dedicated his career to serving our state for more than twenty years. As Inspector General at AHCA, Eric has firsthand experience in fighting fraud and ensuring tax dollars are used efficiently and effectively,” said Scott in a statement. “I am confident he will continue his great work as Chief Inspector General in my office.”

Miller’s first day as chief inspector general is April 21.

Bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana likely dead for this year

A Senate proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana was temporarily postponed, effectively putting an end to any hopes that legislators would act on the legislation this year.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, the Lake Worth Democrat sponsoring the bill (SB 1662), asked that the Senate Criminal Justice Committee temporarily postponed the measure after a 15-minute discussion Monday.

While Clemens said he was thankful that Sen. Randolph Bracy, the committee’s chairman, decided to hear the bill, he said he knew that there was “virtually zero chance” of it passing the Legislature this year.

A similar proposal (HB 1403) by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith has not received a hearing in the House. If Clemens’ bill had passed the committee, it still would have needed to clear two more committees — the Judiciary and Rules committees — before it made it to the Senate floor for a vote.

“I’m encouraged we’re able to have this discussion,” said Clemens. “We are in Week 7 right now, and this is the first committee this bill was to be heard in. It has not gotten a hearing in the House, meaning that there is virtually zero chance of this bill passing this year.”

The bill would have made possession of one ounce or less of cannabis — described as a “personal use quantity — would be a civil violation, rather than a misdemeanor.

Under the proposal, a person over the age of 18 who knowingly possesses an ounce of marijuana or less would be assessed a civil violation of no more than $100. Juveniles would be ordered to complete up to 15 hours of community service.

Sens. Dennis Baxley and Rob Bradley both expressed concerned about the proposal.

“When I see a bill like this, I understand where Sen. Clemens is coming from, but I’m not prepared to go as far as this bill goes,” said Bradley. “I appreciate the discussion.”

71% of Floridians think conversion therapy for minors should be illegal, bills to prohibit it stalled in Legislature

A recent poll shows an overwhelming number of Floridians believe conversion therapy should be illegal, leading LGBT advocates to renew their call for a statewide ban.

According to a recent Orlando Political Observer-Gravis Marketing poll, 71 percent of Florida voters think conversion therapy should be illegal for minors in Florida. The poll found 18 percent of respondents said they were uncertain, while 11 percent said they thought conversion therapy should be legal.

The survey of 1,243 registered voters was conducted April 4 through April 10. It was conducted using interactive voice responses and online panels of cell phone users, and has a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

“Conversion therapy is fraudulent, dangerous, and inflicts immeasurable harm on its victims,” said Hannah Willard, public policy director for Equality Florida, in a statement. “We now have confirmation of what we’ve known along: Floridians overwhelmingly support equal protection for LGBTQ people and do not support any efforts to target or harm gay and transgender youth.”

Conversion therapy is a controversial technique designed to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Several states have passed laws, and lawmakers in about 20 more have introduced legislation, to prevent mental health professionals from providing conversion therapy to minors.

Earlier this month, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican signed legislation to ban the use of conversion therapy on minors. Under the New Mexico law, the prohibition applies to licensed physicians, nurses, psychologists and other health practitioners who apply conversion therapy to people under 18. It changes provisions of a consumer protection law and outlines disciplinary measures that can be taken by state licensing boards.

That is similar to legislation filed by Sen. Jeff Clemens and Rep. David Richardson this year.  Their proposals (SB 578 and HB 273) would also prohibit health practitioners from practicing or performing conversion therapy on people under 18.

Under their proposal, licensed professionals who performs or attempts to perform conversion therapy on a minor is considered to be engaging “in unprofessional conduct and is subject to disciplinary proceedings by the department and the appropriate regulatory board.”

Clemens bill was referred to four committees; while Richardson’s was referred to three. Neither bill has received a committee hearing.

According to Equality Florida, 12 Florida cities — including Tampa, West Palm Beach, Miami, and Key West — have all banned conversion therapy.

“We applaud the twelve Florida cities who have enacted local bans on conversion therapy and call on more municipalities to outlaw this dangerous and deceptive practice that puts LGBTQ youth at risk,” said Willard.

 __The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permissions.

House approves its spending plan, setting up budget negotiations

The House approved an $81.2 billion budget Thursday afternoon, sending the proposed fiscal 2017-18 spending plan to conference.

The House voted 89-26 to approve the budget proposal after about 45 minutes of debate, mostly from Democratic members raising concerns over spending for public school education, the environment and health care.

“I have to rise in opposition to this budget simply because of the fact that our priorities are out of whack,” said Rep. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat.

The House proposal, among other things, sets aside $200 million to create a “schools of hope” program that would shift students from failing schools to charter schools; includes $22.8 million for pay increases for corrections officers; includes $25 million for Visit Florida; and funds 46 new counter-terrorism positions.

The House proposal, however, doesn’t fund Enterprise Florida or a host of economic incentive programs associated with the public-private economic development agency, and does not include across the board pay raises for state employees. The Senate’s $85 billion proposal, which passed on a 39-0 vote Wednesday, includes both.

It also includes a partial cut to the office of State Attorney Aramis Ayala; while the budget the House approved Thursday strips Ayala’s office of $1.3 million.

“As far as this budget is concerned, I am rising in opposition for five distinct reasons. I oppose this budget because of the attacks we’ve decided that we wanted to take on business and our tourism, the attack on our children and education, the attacks on patients by cutting hospitals, the attacks on our seniors” said Rep. Amy Mercado, an Orlando Democrat. “But last, and definitely not least, I oppose this budget because of the political retribution that this body has decided on against State Attorney Ayala for executing and exercising her discretion in her office.”

Last month, Ayala announced she would no longer seek the death penalty in capital cases. Lawmakers acted swiftly, with Gov. Rick Scott reassigning 23 of her capital cases to State Attorney Brad King, while House and Senate budget writers proposed cuts.

State lawmakers will now head to conference over the budget. During a press conference last week, House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo said those negotiations could begin as early as next week.

House, Senate bills to repeal PIP clear committees despite questions, differences

Florida lawmakers appear to be taking steps to repeal a state law requiring personal injury protection coverage, but differences remain between the House and Senate proposals.

The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee voted 8-1 to approve a bill (SB 1766) that would repeal the Florida Motor Vehicle No-Fault Law, replacing the PIP mandate with a requirement that motorists carry bodily injury protection.

The Senate proposal, sponsored by Hillsborough County Republican Sen. Tom Lee, would create a medical payment, or MedPay, coverage mandate of $5,000. That system, according to a staff analysis, would provide “substantially similar coverage to current PIP medical benefits.”

That provision is not included in the House proposal (HB 1063) which cleared the House Commerce Committee on Thursday morning. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Erin Grall, also repeals the portion of the state law that requires motorists to obtain and maintain PIP coverage. Like Lee’s proposal, the House bill replaces the PIP mandate with a requirement to purchase bodily injury protection.

The bill bill increases the minimum bodily injury coverage limits to $25,000 of injuries to another person, and $50,000 of injuries for two or  more people.

The decision not to include MedPay in the House proposal had members in both chambers concerned. During discussions of the Senate bill, Sen. Rene Garcia asked Lee what commitment he has that the “MedPay component stays as part of the package.”

“I’m going to do my best to make sure hospitals and ER physicians aren’t adversely impacted,” said Lee, before saying it would likely be something that would have to be hammered out during negotiations.

But even then, Lee conceded there was no guarantee the MedPay component would end up in the final bill.

“At some point, we have to agree to disagree … and that’s why they make next year,” he said.

Garcia was the lone dissenting vote on the Senate proposal, citing the panel’s decision not to take up and adopt several amendments. Lee withdrew the amendments, citing concerns that amending the bill in the committee would slow down the process and decrease its chances of getting to the floor.

That could be a valid concern for those looking to reform the system. Lee’s bill received its first of three committee hearings on Thursday, with just three weeks until the end of the 2017 Legislative Session. The last day for regularly scheduled committee meetings is April 25.

The House bill cleared the Commerce Committee on a 22-5 vote, and is now headed to the floor. During the meeting, some members expressed concerns about the impact it could have on rates. However, several members said they were supporting the bill because they thought the current system needed to be changed.

“PIP as we know it is a dinosaur,” said Rep. Richard Stark, who said he was supporting the bill in committee but wasn’t prepared to commit to supporting it on the floor.  “The current system can’t prevail.”

Former congressman Robert Wexler joins Ballard Partners D.C. office

Ballard Partners is continuing to add to its D.C. roster, announcing Thursday former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler has joined the firm as a senior counselor.

“The idea is to develop an international practice,” Wexler told POLITICO. “My hope would be to focus on certain international relationships that I’ve worked on for decades and I’m confident are consistent with the best interests of American foreign policy.”

“Having someone of Robert Wexler’s caliber on our team is a tremendous win for the firm,” said Brian Ballard, the president of Ballard Partners, in a statement.

A South Florida Democrat, Wexler served in Congress from 1997 until 2010. Wexler, who served in the Florida Senate for six years before his time in Congress, raised eyebrows when he announced in 2009 that he planned to resign from the U.S. House to join the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, of which he is the president.

During his time in Congress, Wexler was an outspoken advocate for the bond between the U.S. and Israel. He made several trips as part of congressional delegations to the Middle East, meeting with the leaders of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Turkey, Syria, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and the Palestinian Authority.

He also served as the chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, a senior Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and a member of the Middle East Subcommittee.

Wexler served as an advisor on Middle East and Israel issues during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and served on the president’s 2012 re-election steering committee.

“I myself enjoyed strong relationships with the Obama administration,” Wexler reminisced, “so I know what a benefit that can be.”

“Having worked with numerous governments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East throughout his tenure as U.S. Congressman and advisor to President Barack Obama, Robert’s three decades of political experience will advance our work for international clients,” said Ballard. “We are pleased to welcome him to our office in the nation’s Capitol.”

In his role as senior counselor, Wexler is expected to “apply his foreign policy expertise while spearheading the firm’s growing international affairs practice,” according to the firm.

The announcement comes about a week after it was reported that Ballard Partners secured its first foreign government as a client. The Hill reported last week that the Dominican Republic signed a one-year contract with the firm worth about $900,000.

House votes down budget amendment calling for report on cost-effectiveness of Florida’s death penalty

The Florida House rebuffed an attempt to include proviso language in the budget for a report on the “imposition and execution of capital punishment” in Florida.

The amendment, put forward by Rep. Sharon Pritchett, called for the state to use money to fund a report from the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) looking at the death penalty.

The report, among other things, would have had to identify the actual fiscal cost associated with maintaining a capital punishment system; the average cost to the state and local government associated with the the execution of a single offender from indictment to execution; and address the “causes driving disparities in capital sentencing outcomes on the basis of demographic factors of the offender and the victim including, but not limited to, race, gender, sex, and geography.”

“It is good to see that the House engaged on the death penalty and recognized the constitutional importance of unanimous juries,” said Pritchett in her comments. “What is concerning, however, are the many other parts of the death penalty which may be subject to a constitutional challenge which we did not address in our previous reforms.”

Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation last month requiring unanimous jury recommendations before the death penalty can be imposed.

 The U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016 declared the state’s death penalty was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision. The ruling was based on a case where a judge issued a death sentence after a 7-5 jury recommendation.

In 2016, the Legislature overhauled the state law to let the death penalty be imposed by a 10-2 jury vote. But in October, the state Supreme Court voted 5-2 to strike down the new law and require unanimous jury decisions.

Pritchett’s amendment also comes as state lawmakers are calling for State Attorney Aramis Ayala to be suspended or removed from office after she said her office would no longer seek the death penalty. Scott reassigned 23 of her capital cases, and the House has proposed cutting her budget by $1.3 million.

Rep. Bill Hager, the chairman of the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, said the money was being moved “in respect to capital cases.” He defended the decision to cut the budget, saying he was “not familiar with a circumstance that would justify the transfer of the money.”

While the Senate initially proposed cutting the funding for Ayala’s office, members OK’d a compromise Wednesday. The amended Senate spending plan moves more than $569,000 into Ayala’s budget and restores nine of the 21 positions cut. It then sends $622,000 and six positions to the office of State Attorney Brad King, who has been reassigned Ayala’s capital cases.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo called Pritchett’s amendment an “unfriendly amendment from a very friendly lady.”

“We ought not be imposing the ultimate penalty in disparate ways,” said Rep. Sean Shaw during debate on the amendment. “The least we can do is study ways we can make it better and study ways to we can improve the system, no matter how you feel about it.”

The amendment failed on a 42-71 vote.

Pritchett’s amendment was the only floor amendment to the lower chamber’s proposed $81.2 billion spending plan. The chamber spent about 90 minutes discussing the bill, teeing it up for a vote later this week.

Bill Nelson talks offshore oil drilling ban during Southwest Florida stop

Sen. Bill Nelson vowed to fight off threats to drill in the waters off Florida’s west coast, telling Southwest Florida officials he’ll do whatever he can to protect the coastal communities.

“Increasingly we have threats to drill in the Gulf of Mexico off the west coast of Florida, and it’s getting to the point that I have to keep beating back these attempts,” said Nelson during a meeting in Fort Myers on Tuesday.

In 2006, Nelson and then-Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, passed legislation to ban oil drilling off much of the Sunshine State’s Gulf Coast through 2022. The no-drilling zone, according to Nelson’s office, extends 125 miles off much of the Florida Gulf Coast, and as far as 235 miles at some points, to protect military training areas in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Nelson filed legislation in January that would extend the ban another five years, from 2022 to 2027.

While President Donald Trump’s administration has announced they were implementing the same five-year oil and gas leasing plan as President Barack Obama’s administration, Nelson said there are concerns the 2006 law could be overturned.

“What I find is one of the newer senators from Louisiana keeps filing bills that do all kinds of things, very subtle like the proverbial camel getting its nose under the tent.” said Nelson. “That’s what we’ve had to fight off over and over. The good news is almost all, in a bipartisan way, of the congressional delegation wants to keep oil drilling off of the coast of Florida. The Atlantic is another matter … but we have that kind of unity, in the Atlantic as well.”

In March, Nelson and several members of the Florida congressional delegation — including Republicans Vern Buchanan, Francis Rooney, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Democrats Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, and Darren Soto — sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urging him to keep the eastern Gulf off limits for oil drilling.

“Drilling in this area threatens Florida’s multi-billion-dollar, tourism-driven economy and is incompatible with the military training and weapons testing that occurs there,” read the letter.

Sanibel Island Mayor Kevin Ruane said his community could be negatively impacted if drilling were to occur off the coast, noting that it’s part of a trickle-down effect.

“No one I’m aware of is in favor of drilling,” he said.

Nelson said he plans to have a similar meeting with members of Florida’s east coast delegation in the coming weeks about off-shore drilling.

Rick Scott’s approval rating ticks up to 57% in new poll

Gov. Rick Scott’s approval rating is ticking up, something that could prove critical as the Naples Republican ponders a 2018 U.S. Senate bid.

A new survey from Morning Consult showed Scott has a 57 percent approval rating. That’s up 8 points from similar rankings released in September, which showed Scott had a 49 percent approval rating.

Scott’s disapproval rating dropped to 36 percent in the most recent Morning Consult survey, while 7 percent of Floridians surveyed said they didn’t know or didn’t have an opinion. In the September survey, 42 percent of Floridians disapproved of Scott and 9 percent said they didn’t know or didn’t have an opinion.

The survey of 8,793 Florida voters was conducted from January to March. It was part of a nationwide survey that evaluated the job performance of the nation’s senators and governors.

The Morning Consult survey shows Scott with a higher approval rating than two recent surveys of Florida voters.

In March, the Florida Chamber of Commerce released a survey that showed Scott’s approval rating at 50 percent. When broken down by political party, the Florida Chamber poll found 76 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of independents gave Scott good marks, while 77 percent of Democrats said they didn’t approve of the way he was doing his job.

A few weeks later, the Florida Hospital Association released a survey that showed Scott’s approval rating was at 45 percent, while his disapproval rating was at 41 percent.

Still, the Morning Consult survey could bode well for Scott, who is widely believed to be considering a run for the U.S. Senate in 2018. According to the survey, Scott’s approval rating among Florida voters is slightly higher than Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

The survey found Nelson’s approval rating is 53 percent. That’s up ever-so-slightly from September rankings, which showed Nelson had a 52 percent approval rating.

Nelson’s disapproval rating is 26 percent; up 2 points from September when it clocked in at 24 percent. The survey found 21 percent either didn’t know who Nelson was or didn’t have an opinion of the state’s senior senator.

Several early polls have shown Nelson leading Scott in hypothetical 2018 match-ups. The Chamber poll showed Nelson leading Scott 48 percent to 42 percent; while the Florida Hospital Association poll showed a much closer race, with Nelson leading 46 percent to 44 percent.

According to the Morning Consult survey, Sen. Marco Rubio’s approval rating is at 52 percent, a 10-point increase from the September survey.

Jack Latvala raises more than $244K on eve of 2017 Legislative Session

Jack Latvala raised more than $250,000 in the first week of March, much of which was raised in a single day.

Florida Leadership Committee, the Clearwater Republican’s political committee, raised at least $252,160 between March 1 and March 6, according to contribution data posted to the committee’s website. The committee received about $244,600 of that sum on March 6, the day before the 2017 Legislative Session kicked off.

Top contributors during the brief fundraising period, according to data posted on the website, including Associated Industries of Florida, Comcast Corp., Amscot Corp., Friends of Mount Sinai Medical Center, Minto Communities, Auto Tag of America, and the Florida Manufactured Housing Association PAC.

Latvala, the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, is believed to be considering a 2018 gubernatorial bid and appears to be boosting his coffers ahead of an eventual decision. State records show Latvala raised nearly $1.1 million in February, marking one of the committee’s largest fundraising hauls to date.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and House Speaker Richard Corcoran are also often mentioned as possible 2018 contenders

On the Democratic side, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Orlando businessman Chris King have already announced their 2018 run, and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham are expected to formally jump into the race soon.

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