Jenna BuzzaccoFoerster - 3/97 - SaintPetersBlog

Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster

Criminal justice reform remains a top priority for Jeff Brandes

Sen. Jeff Brandes said he plans to continue his push for criminal justice reform, advancing a multi-year process to take a closer look at the state’s criminal justice system.

Brandes, who has made criminal justice reform a top priority, was in Washington, D.C. last week for the Right on Crime annual summit. The conservative-leaning organization has been working on criminal justice issues in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida.

Brandes said the key takeaway from the summit was that “many states are struggling with criminal justice reform at the same time.”

“They’re all realizing that the current trajectory they’re on isn’t working,” said Brandes, who sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “I think one of the things is we’re learning from each other’s experiences. Texas started this years ago, and we’re learning from their experience. We know what is palatable and we know what the outcomes are.”

Brandes said Florida can learn from other states, including Texas, about “what works and what doesn’t.”

“We don’t have to go out and reinvent the wheel,” he said. “They’ve been able to have a meaningful impact and still reduce recidivism and overall crime.”

Gov. Rick Scott announced in 2016 the state’s crime rate was at a 45-year low, dropping to 3.1 percent in 2015. However, the state saw an increase in the number of murders, rapes and motor vehicle thefts during that same time period.

But Brandes said while crime is falling, the number of people in prisons remains static. And Brandes said the state needs to look at issues like sentencing, education, life skills and how to deal with addiction and mental health problems.

“What we know is that most people in jail today are going to get out. Are they going to get out as productive members of society or are they going to get out as better criminals,” said Brandes. “What are we doing (to address) education, life skills, addiction. Are we dealing with those appropriately?”

Brandes proposed a bill (SB 458) to create a 28-member task force to conduct a comprehensive review of the state’s criminal justice, courts and correction system. While the bill received unanimous support in early committee meetings, it didn’t get a vote of the full Senate before the end of the 2017 Legislative Session.

The St. Petersburg Republican has said he plans to make criminal justice reform a top priority during his term. He told the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists last year that while it wasn’t something his constituents were clamoring for; it was an issue that needs to be addressed.

Brandes didn’t just focus on criminal justice during his trip to D.C. last week. He also met with Rep. Dennis Ross to talk about flood insurance; as well as Uber and Tesla to talk about bills passed during the 2017 Legislative Session.

Rick Scott says he’s ‘reviewing’ whether to call medical marijuana special session

Gov. Rick Scott did not close the door entirely on a special session on medical marijuana, telling reporters his office was reviewing his options.

“I know there’s a lot of people involved and interested in the issue,” said Scott, following a stop in Fort Myers on Tuesday morning.

Scott said a special session was “something we’re reviewing.”

The comments come as calls for a special session to pass rules governing medical marijuana implementation continue to mount. More than a dozen state lawmakers have sent letters to the Department of State asking for a special session, and others have taken to social media to show their support for a special session.

Lawmakers couldn’t agree on an implementing bill before the end of the 2017 Legislative Session earlier this month. One of the main sticking points between the House and Senate was whether to limit the number of retail facilities licensed growers could have. The Senate supported caps; the House did not.

Calls for a special session to address medical marijuana began almost as soon as the 2017 Legislative Session ended. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has said he supported a special session on the issue; while Senate President Joe Negron has asked members for their input on how they think the they should proceed.

Lawmakers could head back to Tallahassee if Scott were to decide to call a special session; or if Corcoran and Negron issue a call for a special session. There is also a process for rank-and-file members to trigger a special session, something some members are trying to do.

As of last week, 16 members of the House and Senate had sent letters to the Department of State asking for a special session. The department received 11 letters from House members, including Rep. Kathleen Peters and Rep. Katie Edwards, and five from senators, including Sen. Darryl Rouson and Sen. Greg Steube.

“It is with great urgency that I write this letter to you requesting that the State of Florida properly and efficiently convene a Special Session that serves the purpose of ensuring that the 71% of Floridians that voted for the legalization of medical marijuana are heard,” wrote Rep. Shevrin Jones in a May 24 letter to Secretary of State Ken Detzner. “It is our duty to ensure that the usage of medical marijuana serves its purpose here in the great state of Florida to enervate medical conditions.”

If 32 lawmakers formally request a special session, the department must poll the Legislature. Three-fifths of each chamber need to agree before a call is issued.

Rick Scott still mum on 2017-18 budget veto plans

Gov. Rick Scott hammered state lawmakers over reduced funding for two of his top priorities, but once again declined to say whether he’ll veto the budget when it gets to his desk in the coming days.

“I’ve been in business all my life and I love to see people succeed, to take risks, and when they do that they hire more people,” said Scott during a stop in Fort Myers on Tuesday. “So the most important thing for me to do is create an economy where everybody can get a job.”

While the Naples Republican highlighted job growth during his stop at Fish Tale Boats in Fort Myers, he also took a swipe at state lawmakers, who cut funding for both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida in the fiscal 2017-18 budget.

“We have to keep fighting for jobs,” he said. “We are on a roll right now, but unfortunately the politicians in Tallahassee turned their back on two agencies that create jobs.”

The fiscal 2017-18 budget includes $25 million in it for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency. The budget includes some funding for Enterprise Florida operations, but does not include the money Scott requested for business development incentives.

Scott said the reason the state has been doing so well in recent years is because “we’ve marketed our state well.”

While the governor has been critical of the budget, he has avoided saying whether he will veto the entire spending plan when it reaches his desk. That could happen any day now; the Tampa Bay Times reported the Senate could send the budget to Scott as early as Tuesday.

“I’m going to do what I do every year,” said Scott when asked by reporters Tuesday about budget vetoes. “I’ll look through the budget and make sure the dollars are allocated in a manner that I think is good for the state.”

The governor went on to say he expected to receive the budget “sometime this week” and will have 15 days to review it.

“I can veto the entire budget, I can veto a portion of the budget or I can veto a line in the budget,” said Scott. “This is my seventh budget and every year, I have a team that works with me. But what’s different or frustrating is we knew nothing about the budget until right at the end, because it was done all behind closed doors.”

Scott vetoed more than $256.1 million in spending when he was presented the 2016-17 budget last year. According to data compiled by LobbyTools, the governor has vetoed more than $1.9 billion during his first six years in office.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the 2017-18 budget had not yet been sent to Scott.

First Amendment Foundation calls on Rick Scott to veto education bill

The First Amendment Foundation is weighing in on a wide-sweeping education bill, asking Gov. Rick Scott to veto the measure when it gets to his desk.

In a letter to Scott on Tuesday, Barbara Petersen, the president of the First Amendment Foundation, said the organization’s concerns “relate only to the lack of transparency in the process by which major policy decisions regarding Florida’s education system were decided.”

Lawmakers narrowly approved the bill (HB 7069) on the final day of the 2017 Legislative Session. The proposal, which is tied to the state budget, was a top priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, and, among other things, steers more money to privately run charter schools, requires recess in elementary schools and tinkers with the state’s standardized testing system.

While the measure includes several education changes legislators had been considering, the final bill was negotiated largely in private and wasn’t seen by the public until the final days of the session.

“The secretive process precluded any opportunity for public oversight or input on major changes to Florida’s education policy,” said Petersen in her letter to Scott. “Alarmingly, local school officials were also shut out of the process, as were many legislators who were ultimately asked to approve this voluminous and complicated legislation decided in a manner closed even to them.”

Petersen said Floridians deserve “the respect and the commitment of our elected leaders to uphold our Florida Sunshine laws, a 33 years old tradition and benchmark of good government.”

One of the major provisions of the bill creates the “Schools of Hope” program, which would offer financial incentive to charter school operators who would agree to take students attending chronically failing schools, many in poor areas and urban neighborhoods.

The bill has been criticized by state’s teacher unions, parent groups, and superintendents of some of the state’s largest school districts.

The First Amendment Foundation has also called on Scott to veto the entire fiscal 2017-18 budget once it reaches his desk. Much like the organization’s request to veto the education bill, the group said its concerns relate “only to the lack of transparency in the process” and it wasn’t “objecting to any of the substantive programs and issues.”

Neither the budget nor the education bill have been sent to Scott.

The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permission.

Graduation spending expected to reach $5.4B in 2017

Graduation season means big business for Florida businesses.

The National Retail Federation estimates total spending is expected to reach $5.6 billion this graduation season, a nearly 4 percent increase over last year when consumers spent $5.4 billion buying gifts for graduates.

The 2017 estimate is expected to be the highest amount spent in the 11 years the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insight & Analytics have surveyed consumers about their spending habits for graduates.

“Graduation is a significant achievement in someone’s life as they end one chapter and begin a new one and recognizing this is important for a graduate’s family and friends,” said R. Scott Shalley, the president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation. “With loved ones eager to celebrate this important milestone, we expect the gifts to Sunshine State graduates to reach record numbers this year, which is great news for Florida retailers.”

The survey asked 7,335 consumers across the nation about the graduations gifting plans.

Cash was the most popular gift, with 53 percent of respondents saying they planned to give graduates money as a graduation present this year.

The appeal of cash seems to have waned over the years. A 2007 survey of graduation gifting habits by Prosper Insights & Analytics found 59 percent of respondents planned to give the graduates cash. By 2013, the percentage of people giving cash as a gift had dropped to 57 percent.

Source: National Retail Federation

Women tend to give cash more than men, with 57 percent saying they planned give money as a gift; while 48 percent of men said they were giving cash. The report found 63 percent of Americans over the age of 65 are planning to give cash this year; compared to just 44 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 will give their money as a graduation present.

Interest in giving graduates gift cards appears to be holding steady, if not increasing slightly, since 2007.

According to report, 33 percent of respondents said they planned to give graduates gift cards this year as part of a gift to celebrate their graduation. That’s up from 2007, when 31 percent of respondents said they planned to give a card, and is on par with 2012 when about 33 percent of respondents said they were giving gift cards.

The survey found 41 percent of people planned to give graduates a card; 16 percent planned to give the gift of apparel; and 11 percent planned to give electronics as a present.

“As students mark the end of one chapter in their lives and start the next, friends and family will help prepare them for this new journey,” said Matthew Shay, the president and CEO of the National Retail Federation in a statement. “From gift cards to clothing and electronics, retailers will have their shelves stocked with a variety of options.”

Consumers, the report found, will buy for an average of two graduates this year, which is similar to previous years. However, while consumers aren’t buying for more graduates on average, they do appear to be poise to spend more money.

Source: National Retail Federation.

Consumers will spend an average of $104.92, or $53.29 per person, on graduates this year. That’s up from 5 percent from 2007, when consumers spent an average of $99.91, or $51.05, on graduates.

The report found the biggest spenders will likely be adults between the ages of 45 and 54, who said they planned to spend $119.84 on presents. Adults over the age of 65 said they planned to spend $112.34; while 18- to 24 year olds, most likely gifting to their peers, said they would spend an average of $78.42.

The survey, conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics from May 2 through May 9, has a margin of error of 1.2 percent.

The Delegation for 5.25.17 — Insights from the Beltway to the Sunshine State

Criticism of Trump budget proposal to grow upon his return from overseas

President Donald Trump presented his budget proposal to Congress this week. Like other budgets proposed by his predecessors, the term “dead on arrival” quickly becomes the operative word for those paying attention.

Usually, this event is well covered, especially on the cable news channels. This year, despite eye-popping proposals from the White House, the budget has taken a back seat.

Events in Manchester, England, and the president’s well-received foreign trip have rightfully received higher billing. While Manchester could never be predicted, give the President’s people some credit for dropping this newsmaker while he was overseas with Muslim, Jewish and Catholic leaders.

Trump’s trip to the Middle East produces the irony of high-level diplomacy and a budget proposal that would cut the Department of State by 29 percent. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is reportedly seeking a 9 percent cut in the Department workforce.

Other controversial proposals include cuts to Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent, 13 percent to the Department of Education and other cuts to farm programs, welfare programs and Medicaid. Winners include substantial increases to the military, border security, public safety and school choice programs.

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney holds up a copy of President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 federal budget as he speaks to members of the media in the Press Briefing Room at the White House. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney describes the proposal as fulfilling “campaign promises the president made.” St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist had a somewhat different description.

“This budget is fiscally irresponsible and morally repugnant,” Crist said in a statement. He spoke for nearly everyone in both parties by saying “it is the Congress that ultimately decides funding priorities.”

This proposal reflects the priorities (and promises) of Trump with numbers attached to them. Many in Congress want to spend more than we already are, while others want to get to a balanced budget.

Trump appears to be deploying the art of the deal with a lowball bid. Republicans in Congress will smile, but not go along with the deep cuts proposed. In the end, they may not go along with any cuts.

Or, Congress may continue with the recent practice of continuing resolutions and not even agree on a budget. The committee hearings should provide excellent opportunities for props and sound bites.

More will be paying attention by then.

The Associated Press broke down Trump‘s $4.1 trillion budget proposal in one handy graph:

Programming note: Just like Florida’s congressional delegation, we occasionally need to take a week off from the hustle and bustle from the beltway. We’re taking next week off to celebrate Memorial Day and recharge before what will likely be a busy few months before the summer recess. We’ll return Thursday, June 8. Until then, here are this week’s insights from the Beltway to the Sunshine State.

Sinkhole opens outside of Mar-a-Lago

The town of Palm Beach reported Monday that a 4-foot by 4-foot sinkhole formed directly in front of Mar-a-Lago.

President Trump spent several weekends at Mar-a-Lago during his first few months in office. And as news of a sinkhole in front of the luxury resort spread, Amy B Wang with The Washington Post reported that metaphors began to pour in. A common theme of the social media feedback, wrote Trevor Nace with Forbes, had to do with how much time and money Trump has spent at Mar-a-Lago. For instance, Peter Stevenson with The Washington Post tweeted: “The swamp is draining?”

Town officials said the sinkhole appeared to be “in the vicinity of the newly installed water main. West Palm Beach Utilities distribution crews secured the area and did exploratory excavation on Monday. The Palm Beach Post reported the hole in front of the club grew to about 10-feet by 6-feet because of the digging.

Delegation members react to extension of Haitian Temporary Protected Status

Members of the Florida delegation are grateful that Haitian refugees have six more months before their Temporary Protected Status (TPS) runs out, but most feel that is not enough time. Following his announcement of the extension, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly advised those Haitians temporarily in the U.S. following the devastating earthquake of 2010 to use the time to “handle their affairs.”

In March, a bipartisan group of South Florida delegation members, as well as both U.S. Senators, wrote to Kelly urging him to extend the deadline, “within all applicable rules and regulations.” A length for the extension was not suggested.

A release announcing the extension said: “Secretary Kelly was particularly encouraged by representations made to him directly by the Haitian government regarding their desire to welcome the safe repatriation of Haitian TPS recipients in the near future.”

Sen. Bill Nelson was among those who signed the March letter urging the Trump administration extend the deadline even further. He called for an 18-month extension.

“There’s just no way that in six months the nation of Haiti could absorb 60,000 of its people back,” Nelson said on the Senate floor.

Miami Republican Mario Diaz-Balart did not ask for more time. “I thank “President Trump and Secretary Kelly for this TPS extension, and I support the people of Haiti as they continue to rebuild,” he said in a statement.

 “I am pleased that the Administration gave Haitians a temporary six-month extension of TPS rather than abruptly ending the humanitarian measure and throwing thousands of lives in limbo,” said Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch in a statement. “But it’s quite clear that conditions in Haiti won’t improve sufficiently in six months to justify letting TPS expire.”

Weston Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz expressed gratitude for the six months, but called it “woefully short of what is needed.”

“There are still tent cities from the earthquake,” said Miami Gardens Democrat Frederica Wilson.

Delegation focuses on Lake O, Everglades restoration efforts

Senate panel OKs bill to provide Fed help for toxic algae outbreaks — The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved a measure by Sen. Bill Nelson that could open the door to federal assistance for states and local communities hit by toxic algae blooms.

Isadora Rangel with TC Palm reported that, under the proposal, toxic algae blooms could be considered an event of national significance. The bill authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare several algae bloom an event of national significance and determine how much money is needed to help the community address environmental, social and health effects.

It would also set aside $110 million over five years for research how to control algae blooms, like the ones that plagued Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie River last summer.

“Floridians have borne the brunt of recent toxic algae outbreaks, but by law have been unable to qualify for federal help,” said Nelson, in a statement. “Algae blooms are more than just a nuisance — it can be an environmental, economic, and public health nightmare that warrants emergency relief.”

Nelson has long worked to curb the impact of toxic algae blooms. In 2014, he shepherded a law through Congress that authorized $82 million for research to help battle outbreaks.

The 2017 measure now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

Nelson, Rubio, others invite Zinke on Everglades tour — The congressional delegation — led by Sens. Nelson and Marco Rubio — want to take Interior Sectary Ryan Zinke on a tour of the Florida Everglades.

The two senators, along with a bipartisan group of nearly two dozen representatives, sent a letter to Zinke inviting to get a firsthand look at the ongoing efforts to restore the Everglades. In their letter, the group of lawmakers said while they understand Zinke’s schedule is “incredibly busy,” they would be “honored to personally show you the River of Grass.”

“As the newest secretary of the interior, we welcome you to visit a unique treasure, America’s Everglades,” the lawmakers wrote. “As secretary, you serve as chairman of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force and play a vital role in the effort to restore the balance of water flow and management.”

The letter continues: “The Everglades faces numerous challenges, but with a successful state and federal partnership, we are committed to ensuring future generations are able to enjoy this treasured ecosystem.”

Reps. Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, Carlos Curbelo, Val Demings, Ron DeSantis, Ted Deutch, Mario Diaz-Balart, Lois Frankel, Matt Gaetz, Alcee Hastings, Al Lawson, Brian Mast, Stephanie Murphy, Bill Posey, Francis Rooney, Tom Rooney, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, John Rutherford, Darren Soto, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Daniel Webster, Frederica Wilson and Ted Yoho joined Nelson and Rubio in signing the letter.

F. Rooney talks Everglades projects funding — Plans have been approved, but without funding, it’s difficult to move forward.

That’s why Rep. Francis Rooney, a Naples Republican, met with representatives of the Office of Management and Budget last week to discuss funding for Lake Okeechobee and Everglades restoration projects authorized through the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

“The key to Everglades restoration is the funding and completion of a series of projects authorized in the Water Resource Development Acts (WRDA) of 2007, 2014 and 2016 pursuant to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP), enacted in 2000,” he said in a statement. “Additionally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs funding to complete reinforcement of the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee. Florida’s entire Congressional delegation agrees on this issue and we ask that The White House include this important funding in their infrastructure budget, as President Trump promised during his campaign.”

Rooney sent a letter to Trump, signed by every member of the delegation, calling on Trump to support Everglades restoration projects. A member of the Everglades Caucus, Rooney has taken top House officials, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, on tours of the Everglades to stress the need for funding.

Nancy Pelosi travels to South Florida on Friday to support LGBTs, raise cash

The House Minority Leader will be in South Florida on Friday to attend a public event and a private gathering to raise money for Democrats. Along with Pelosi, Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch and Weston Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz are the featured attractions.

On Friday morning, the trio will hold a public event in Wilton Manors to bring attention to discrimination against LGBTs. They will speak of their support for the Equality Act, legislation designed to include LGBT as a protected class.

The event begins at 10:45 a.m. at the Pride Center located at 2040 N. Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors.

Following the public event, Pelosi and her colleagues will head for a luncheon fundraiser at a private home in Ft. Lauderdale. Deutch will serve as host for the fundraiser, which will benefit the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Democrats are targeting the 27th District seat currently held by the retiring Republican from Miami, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, in 2018. Also, they are making a strong play to oust Kendall Republican Carlos Curbelo in the 25th District.

The minimum donation, according to the Miami Herald, is $5,000.

Rubio, Yoho sponsor bills to help victims of North Korean regime

Florida’s Republican senator and the Republican congressman from Gainesville have each recently launched proposals on behalf of the internal victims of the brutal regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Rubio initiated the North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2017. Among other things, the bill uses the work of a United Nations commission that found “grave human rights violations still being perpetrated against the people of North Korea” and calling for international cooperation to helping refugees.

The bill also seeks to provide North Koreans with accurate information about what is happening in their country. It is co-sponsored by Democrats Ben Cardin of Maryland and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, along with Texas Republican Ted Cruz and Colorado Republican Cory Gardner.

“The human rights situation in North Korea is horrific,” Rubio said in a release. “The United States has a moral obligation and diplomatic imperative to prioritize human rights and access to information for the North Korean people, and this bipartisan legislation would do just that.”

Access to information is precise the topic of Yoho’s Distribution and Promotion of Rights and Knowledge Act of 2017. This bill, similar to Rubio’s Senate bill, seeks to increase the use of improved American technology to broadcast truthful information about the rogue regime to North Koreans able to listen.

Yoho, the chairman of the Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has gained the support of both the full committee Chairman Ed Royce, a California Republican and Ranking Member Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, as co-sponsors.

“I applaud Asia Subcommittee Chairman Yoho for introducing this important legislation to support new ways for North Koreans to access this information,” Royce said in a release. “I’ve long said that increased broadcasting into North Korea must be part of any strategy to address the urgent threats from the Kim Jong Un regime.”

Paulson’s Principles: Party Prospects for the 2018 Congressional Elections

It has been decades since Democrats had majority control of the Florida congressional delegation. Democrats, who held only 10 of the 27 seats entering the 2016 election, hoped to narrow the gap with Republicans. They did. They picked up one seat, leaving Republicans with a 16-11 advantage.

A potential problem for Republicans is President Trump. His approval ratings have never been above 50 percent, and they are currently at 40 percent. That is unheard of for a president only four months into his term. Even worse, only 28 percent strongly approve of Trump, while 46 percent strongly disapprove.

The firing of FBI Director James Comey has met with public disapproval out of concern that Trump was attempting to pressure Comey to drop the investigation of fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and that Trump wanted Comey to terminate the investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 election.

Republicans control the White House and the party controlling the White House almost always suffers midterm losses. Those losses are even greater when the president’s popularity is low.

Democrats have an advantage by being more motivated than Republicans. Motivation is a major factor in voter turnout. Democrats currently hold a 6 percent lead in a generic ballot.

In other words, Democrats are more likely to turn out.

Finally, Democrats are also advantaged because Republicans have more seats in play and more seats in jeopardy. Two Republican members of Congress from Florida currently represent Democratic districts.

Republican Carlos Curbelo in District 26 in Miami holds the seat with the largest Democratic advantage in the United States to be won by a Republican. Curbelo’s district has a +6 Democratic advantage.

Neighboring District 27, held by Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — who just announced her upcoming retirement — won her district by 10 points even though it has a +5 Democratic advantage. Hillary Clinton defeated Trump by 19 points. Ros-Lehtinen’s departure makes District 27 the most likely Democratic pickup.

Mario Diaz-Balart, in neighboring District 25, easily won re-election in 2016 although the district is only a +4 Republican district. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has made District 25 it’s Number 3 target on its “2018 Republican Retirement Watchlist.” Number 2 on the Watchlist is Vern Buchanan in District 16 in Sarasota and Manatee County.

The two most vulnerable Democratic seats are those won by newcomers in 2016. Charlie Crist defeated Republican David Jolly in District 13, a seat which Republicans have held since 1954.

Crist has raised almost a million dollars for his campaign account, and no serious Republican has emerged to challenge him. Larry Sabato rates the district as “leans Democrat.”

Stephanie Murphy defeated long-term Republican John Mica in District 7, a district evenly split between the parties.

Republican State Sen. David Simmons, who represents much of the district, has said he is “98 percent sure” he will run. Sabato rates it a “leans Democrat” district.

Democrats should pick up Ros-Lehtinen’s seat in District 27 and, if things fall in place, have a great shot at picking up two other Republican seats. A three-seat switch would leave the Democrats with a 14-13 majority in the congressional delegation.

It would be a significant boost to the Democratic Party in fundraising and candidate recruitment.

Gaetz targets invasive species with Reef Assassin Act

The Fort Walton Beach Republican is proposing legislation designed to protect Florida coral reefs and native fish from a carnivorous invasive species. The bill, known as the Reef Assassin Act, provides incentives to those who would help in the effort to rid Florida waters of the menace.

Lionfish, native to Pacific and Indian Ocean region, are now in coastal Florida waters and prey upon species such as red snapper and grouper. They also are known to damage Florida’s iconic coral reefs. The legislation provides that those providing dead Lionfish tails would be given “tags authorizing fishing for coveted reef fish.”

Volunteers show off a lionfish during the FWC’s 2017 Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival in Pensacola last week. (Photo via Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

“By providing red snapper, bay grouper, triggerfish, and amberjack tags to those who kill lionfish, we can use our resources to protect our resources,” Gaetz said in a release.

Gaetz says the lionfish population in the Florida Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico has exploded in the past three decades. Female lionfish can release up to 2 million eggs per year.

“We applaud Congressman Gaetz for his new incentives-based legislation, and for bringing creative solutions and heightened awareness to the lionfish threat,” said Brian Yablonski, Chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The bill already carries broad, bipartisan support within the delegation. Co-sponsors include Democratic Reps. Hastings, Lawson and Soto; along with Republican Reps. Ron DeSantis, Neal Dunn, F. Rooney, T. Rooney, Ros-Lehtinen, Mast Yoho and Rutherford.

House passes Buchanan’s bill to enhance punishment for cop killers

Late last week, the House passed the Thin Blue Line Act, a bill sponsored by the Sarasota Republican. The vote tally was a bipartisan 271-143.

The bill’s primary focus would make the killing of a police officer or first responder an “aggravating” factor when determining the sentence for offenders. The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

“America’s police officers and first responders are the first ones on the scene to help those in harm’s way,” Buchanan said in a statement following passage. “Getting this bill signed into law will protect those who serve our communities and send a clear message: targeting or killing our first responders will not be tolerated.”

Last year, 11 Florida police officers were killed in the line of duty.

Joining Buchanan as co-sponsors of the bill were Florida Republicans Brian Mast of Hutchinson Island, Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach and Bill Posey of Rockledge. All delegation Republicans voted for the bill except Tom Rooney of Okeechobee and Carlos Curbelo of Kendall. Neither cast a vote.

Most Florida Democrats were among the 48 in their party voting in favor. The only “no” votes came from Alcee Hastings of Miramar, Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Weston. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens did not cast a vote.

Mast, Curbelo receiving thanks for AHCA vote via mail

Already supported by digital and television ads, constituents of the two South Florida Republicans will soon have “thank you” mailers show up in their mailboxes. The American Action Network (AAN), a conservative group with close ties to Speaker Paul Ryan, will drop mail pieces expressing gratitude for the vote of 24 other Republicans in addition to the two Floridians.

“The AHCA will give families real choice, better coverage, and lower premiums,” said Corry Bliss, Executive Director of the American Action Network, in a release. “AAN will continue to promote the AHCA and thank lawmakers for keeping their promise and fighting for better health care.”

This marks the third different media outreach undertaken by AAN on behalf of Curbelo and Mast, part of a core group of endangered Republicans. Shortly after passage, the group announced television and digital media ads.

The television ads began this week. A smaller radio ad buy did not include the two Floridians. Ryan was one of the very few listed in all four buys.

Deutch backs sunlight on “dark money”

On a media conference call, the Boca Raton Rep. Deutch joined with Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse to promote legislation designed to increase reporting requirements for presidential nominees and high-level appointees. The Conflicts from Political Fundraising Act seeks to enhance current law by requiring nominees to disclose their political contributions or solicitations.

Current law only requires the revelation of personal financial information. The intent of the legislation is to address a concern that nominees and appointees could receive funding from entities they would be called upon to regulate.

“Because of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizen’s United decision, big money has too much influence in our elections,” said Deutch, a co-chair of the Democracy Reform Task Force. “That’s why we need to be certain that presidential nominees aren’t going to put their own political interests above the interests of the American people.

For his part, Whitehouse repeatedly used the term “dark money.” During the confirmation hearings for Judge Neil Gorsuch, Whitehouse focused a great deal of his time focusing on this issue.

“We ask high-level appointees to disclose their financial relationships, which may have a serious influence on the work they do if confirmed,” Whitehouse said. “We also need to ask about financial relationships, which can be just as thorny.”

Curbelo, Murphy assume leadership roles in millennial-focused caucus

The Congressional Futures Caucus, an arm of the Millennial Action Project, has tapped the Kendall Republican as a co-chair and the Orlando Democrat as a vice-chair. Their new roles were announced at a Tuesday event at Facebook’s Washington office.

The Caucus membership consists of about 25 members who are aged 45 or younger. The group’s mission statement says “These members come together across partisan lines to creatively and pragmatically for nonpartisan common ground on issues facing America’s next generation, such as enhancing American competitiveness and innovation.

Curbelo, 35, will serve with the other caucus co-chair, Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Senema, 40. Joining Murphy, 37, as the other vice-chair is Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher, 33.

Mr. Ingoglia goes to Washington

Blaise Ingoglia took a quick jaunt to Washington, D.C. last week, as part of a small delegation of Republican leaders who met with President Donald Trump and Reince Priebus to talk about issues important to their communities.

Ingoglia, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and a state representative, was one of 10 party leaders from swing states to meet with Trump and Priebus to talk about issues important to their states. The Spring Hill Republican said he was others in attendance included the chairs of the Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Michigan Republican parties.

Rep. Blaise Ingoglia was one of 10 state party chairs invited to the White House last week to meet with President Donald Trump. (White House Photo by Shealah Craighead via Facebook)

“It was a little surreal,” he said of his Oval Office meeting. “If you know the president, he’s very welcoming. He likes to talk; he likes to get feedback. It was a very humbling experience.”

Ingoglia said he talked with Priebus about the temporary protected status for Haitians, which the Trump administration announced Monday it would extend for another six months.

Ingoglia said the president and Priebus asked lots of questions about what the federal government could do to help communities within the state, and Ingoglia said what was impressive is they didn’t care if the issues were Democratic or Republican issues, they just “wanted to reach out to (as many) community leaders as possible.”

Ballard Partners adds third foreign client

Brian Ballard is continuing to grow his reach, inking a deal this week with the government of Turkey.

The firm signed a $1.5 million contract with the Turkish government, which will be represented by former Rep. Robert Wexler, reports Marc Caputo with POLITICO Florida. The new contract comes after Ballard Partners signed agreements with two other international clients, the Dominican Republic and the Socialist Party of Albania, the Balkan nation’s ruling party.

Ballard told POLITICO Florida he was excited about the firm’s “growing international practice” and he looks forward to working “with this important US and NATO ally.”

The new contract could be one of the firm’s most controversial. Earlier this week, The Associated Press reported Turkey summoned the U.S. ambassador in Ankara to protest what it called “aggressive and unprofessional actions” by U.S. security against Turkish bodyguards in Washington during President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit.

Florida House intern speaker series kicks off June 8

The Florida House on Capitol Hill’s popular intern seminar series is back.

The annual series is one of the most popular and successful education programs and gives Florida college students a chance to interact and exchange ideas with each other, members of the Sunshine State’s congressional delegation, and business and government leaders.

Rep. Ron DeSantis kicks off the 2017 Florida House Intern Seminar Series on June 8. Other speakers this year include Rep. Stephanie Murphy on June 15, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart on June 22; Rep. Brian Mast on June 29, Rep. Kathy Castor on July 13, Rep. Charlie Crist on July 20, and Rep. Vern Buchanan on July 27. A tour of the U.S. Supreme Court is tentatively scheduled for 10 a.m.

Seminars begin at 8:30 a.m., with a light breakfast served at 8 a.m. The seminars take place at Florida House. Students interested in attending can RSVP to each event at rsvp@floridahousedc.org.

The Florida House on Capitol Hill is the only state embassy in the nation’s capital.

D.C. porta-potty industry booming

The first few months of the Trump administration have been good for the portable toilet business Washington, D.C., reports Perry Stein with The Washington Post. The reason? Increased protests on the Mall mean a greater need for porta-potties.

The National Park Service requires demonstration permit holders provide one portable toilet for every 300 participants, 20 percent of which must be wheelchair-accessible. That means, for example, the Women’s March on Washington needed nearly 600 loos.

The Washington Post reported that portable toilet rental companies said an increase in political advocacy has translated to boom times. The National Park Service has experienced a 30 percent increase in permitted protests compared with this time last year.

“All I’m going to say is that we love the activism. I’ll leave it at that,” Rob Weghorst, the chief operating officer of Virginia-based portable toilet rental company Don’s Johns told The Washington Post. “It’s been good. It’s made for an interesting and lucrative spring.”

Rick Scott signs $180M tax cut package into law

Florida will reduce the tax pay on business pay on rent, have two, three-day sales tax holidays, and eliminate the so-called tampon tax under a $180 million tax cut package signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott signed the measure (HB 7109) during an event at 3C Interactive in Boca Raton on Thursday. While the tax cut package is significantly smaller than the $618 million tax cut plan Scott proposed in January, the Naples Republican said he was proud to sign legislation that continues to cut “taxes for Florida families and businesses.”

“Since I’ve been in office, I’ve fought to cut taxes and reduce burdensome regulations to help boost Florida’s economy and ensure our children and grandchildren have the opportunity to succeed in our great state,” said Scott in a prepared statement. “Every time we cut taxes, we are encouraging businesses of all sizes to create opportunities for families across the state and more money is put back in taxpayers’ pockets.”

Approved on the final day of the 2017 Legislative Session, the tax cut package reduces the tax on commercial leases by 0.2 percent in 2018. Florida is the only state that has a tax on commercial leases, and the reduction is expected to save Florida businesses $61 million a year.

“Cutting this business tax will help the small, local businesses in our communities that lease property,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, who carried a bill (SB 378) in the Senate to lower the business rent tax. “This legislation is a great step towards reducing and hopefully one day eliminating this burdensome tax on business.”

The Florida Retail Federation, a proponent of reducing the tax on business leases, said it was pleased the governor decided to sign the tax cut package, saying it would allow business owners to keep more of their money.

“We are grateful to Governor Scott for signing these important tax measures that will allow retailers, consumers, and other businesses to see their money stretch farther and help grow this economy,” said R. Scott Shalley, the president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation in a statement. “The .2 percent reduction in the business rent tax will allow small businesses to keep more of their own revenue, allowing them to reinvest those funds and create jobs.”

The tax cut package also includes a three-day, disaster preparedness sales tax holiday and a three-day, back-to-school sales tax holiday, which runs from Aug. 4 through Aug. 6.

The 2017 Disaster Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday runs from June 2 through June 4. During the three-day window, items like flashlights, batteries, coolers, and portable generators are tax-exempt. The sales tax holiday is estimated to save Floridians $4.5 million.

“The 2017 Disaster Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday is an opportunity for Floridians to purchase supplies in preparation for a variety of storm-related activity,” said Leon Biegalski, executive director of the Florida Department of Revenue, in a statement. “From powerful thunderstorms and tornados, to tropical storms and hurricanes, Florida experiences a range of potentially dangerous weather throughout summer and fall. We encourage Floridians to participate in this sales tax holiday as being proactive is in the best interest of their safety.”

Scott’s decision to sign the bill also means Florida will join 13 other states and the District of Columbia in exempting taxes on the sale of feminine hygiene products or have enacted laws to exempt these products in the future.

Advocates for the change have said these items are a necessity for women, and should be considered a “common household remedy.” In Florida, the push to make feminine hygiene products tax exempt was pushed by Rep. Katie Edwards and Sen. Kathleen Passidomo.

“This common sense legislation will result in a tax savings for women all over the state who purchase these necessary products,” said Passidomo in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permission.

Rene Garcia: ‘The people of Miami-Dade County … cannot wait any longer’ for signature bridge

Sen. Rene Garcia is weighing in on a multi-million dollar bridge project planned for South Florida, telling the Florida Department of Transportation that the Miami-Dade community can’t wait any longer.

In a letter to FDOT Secretary Rachel Cone this week, Garcia said he was confident the procurement process established by the state transportation agency “followed the spirit and the letter of the law put forth by the 2013 settlement agreement between the city of Miami and the state.” His letter to transportation officials comes less than a week after Miami-Dade commissioners voted to ask the state to hold off awarding an $800 million contract to redo Interstate 395 so elected officials and residents could weigh in on proposals.

The Miami Herald reported last week that Miami-Dade commissioners voted unanimously to ask the state to stop the awarding of the contract, which includes building a “signature bridge” near the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County. Some local officials argue that FDOT might not have adhered to a 2013 settlement agreement, that allowed local leaders to help pick the design.

On May 12, the state Department of Transportation announced it intended to award the project to Archer Western-de Moya Joint Venture. The Miami Herald reported Archer Western received a score of 88.4 and was the group preferred by a committee transportation administrators. However, the Herald reported a second group — Fluor Enterprises and Munilla Construction Management — was favored by a local advisory council, which included the head of the Miami downtown business authority and County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, and received a score of 87.8.

Some local officials have said the state agency’s decision to go with Archer ignored agreements to give design aspects more weight in the process.

In his letter, Garcia said he was “in firm support of the way that the state has handled balancing local interests and its responsibility to the state taxpayers.”

“Through establishing an inclusive Aesthetics Review Committee including local leaders and interested parties, the public had numerous occasions to provide input and to review the aesthetic qualities each project brought to the table using a pass/fail grading system,” wrote Garcia in his letter, which he posted on Twitter on Wednesday. “Additionally the rules of engagement for procurement were established in advance according to standard operating procedures within the department. All parties seeking procurement were aware of the criteria of evaluation, and were held to the same standards.”

Garcia went on to say that he hopes the department can “commit to the residents, families and drivers of Miami-Dade County that a bridge will be built according to the strictest timeliness put forth by the selection plan.” He also encouraged the state to make sure the project and contracts include the same “accountability measures that may include penalties to venders who cannot hold up their end of the bargain in order to prevent further delay over-runs.”

“This bridge is twenty years in the making, and the people of Miami-Dade County as well as the millions of visitors to our community cannot wait any longer,” he wrote.

Blaise Ingoglia calls Oval Office meeting with Donald Trump a ‘humbling experience’

Blaise Ingoglia was part of a small group of state party heads who met with President Donald Trump earlier this month to talk about issues important to their communities.

Ingoglia, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and a state representative, was one of 10 Republican party leaders, primarily from swing states to meet with Trump and Reince Priebus, the president’s chief of staff, during a meeting in Washington, D.C. last week. The Spring Hill Republican said the president was interested in discussing issues that were important to the states, and wanted to know how the government could help states and local communities.

Ingoglia said the chairs of the Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Michigan Republican parties also attended.

Ingoglia said he talked with Priebus about the Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, which the Trump administration announced Monday it would extend for another six months.

Temporary Protected Status was given to Haitians living in the United States after a 2010 earthquake devastated parts of that country. Haitians granted the protection can live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation. Haitian participation in the program has been regularly renewed for 18-month intervals and the latest extension expires in July.

The Associated Press reported Haitians nervously anticipated the Trump administration’s decision given the president’s tough stance on immigration, both legal and illegal. Immigration was a top campaign issue and one that’s important to his political base.

Ingoglia said the group also spoke to Trump about economic issues, and the president and Priebus asked questions about how the federal government could do to help communities within the states. Ingoglia said what was impressive is they didn’t care if the issues were Democratic or Republican issues, they just “wanted to reach out to (as many) community leaders as possible.”

Ingoglia helped deliver Florida, a critical swing state, to Trump during the 2016 election. He said the visit to the Oval Office last week was the first time he had spoken to the president since Trump took office.

“It was a little surreal,” he said of his Oval Office meeting. “If you know the president, he’s very welcoming. He likes to talk; he likes to get feedback. It was a very humbling experience.”

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

Rick Scott sets special election dates to fill House seat being vacated by Jose Felix Diaz

South Florida voters will have more than one race on their ballot this summer.

Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order Monday calling a special election to replace Rep. Jose Felix Diaz in House District 116. Diaz resigned his seat to run in the special election to replace Sen. Frank Artiles in Senate District 40.

The House District 116 special primary will be held on July 25, with the special general election scheduled for Sept. 26. Those are the same dates as Senate District 40 special elections.

Diaz sent a letter to the Florida Division of Elections on May 17 resigning from the Florida House effective Sept. 26.

Florida law requires candidates who currently hold an elected position to resign their seat in order to run for another position, if the terms overlap. The law does not apply to candidates seeking federal office.

Republican Lorenzo Palomares Starbuck has also filed to run in Senate District 40. On the Democratic side, former state Rep. Ana Rivas Logan and Annette Taddeo, who ran for Congress in 2016 and was former Gov. Charlie Crist’s running mate in 2014, have announced they are running.

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