Joe Henderson - SaintPetersBlog

Joe Henderson

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

Joe Henderson: Richard Corcoran’s moves show that real power is taken, every bit of it

On the old TV show Dallas, family patriarch Jock Ewing once memorably screamed at his son Bobby: “So I gave you power, huh? Well, let me tell you something, boy. If I did give you power, you got nothing! Nobody gives you power. Real power is something you take!”

The 2017 version of that story is playing out now in real life, with Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran in the starring role. He is taking every chance to show who has the power. It’s his way, or no way, and that’s not likely to change.

His latest joust is with the mayors and leaders of cities and counties throughout the state. He is pushing measures through the House that basically would let all those leaders know who is in charge. Hint: it ain’t them.

There was a telling quote from Corcoran in Steve Bousquet’s story on this subject in Tuesday’s Tampa Bay Times.

“Our founders got it right. When they set up a Constitution, they basically said that the federal government exists with these enumerated powers,” Corcoran told the newspaper. “What’s not enumerated, all of it, belongs to the states. Every bit of it.”

Repeat that last sentence: Every bit of it.

The contradiction, of course, is that Corcoran and fellow Republicans routinely rail against mandates coming from the federal government or court rulings. But they apparently have no problem turning Tallahassee into a Mini-Me of sorts that bosses cities and local municipalities around and doesn’t care how they feel about that.

That includes prohibiting them from raising taxes without satisfying Tallahassee’s demands. They want to restrict the right of cities to pass laws that could affect businesses. One bill would prevent cities from regulating the rentals of private homes.

That’s specifically aimed protecting companies like Airbnb in case cities decide to act on local complaints about quiet neighborhoods that can be disrupted by tourist churn. Tallahassee is in charge now. Local zoning ordinances? Ptooey!

This is the natural progression of the tone Corcoran has brought to the Speaker’s chair. His fights with Gov. Rick Scott have been in the headlines for months. He took a no-prisoners approach with lobbying and legislative reforms. He is even trying to reshape how the state Supreme Court is run.

Don’t act surprised. He has vowed to reshape Tallahassee, and that requires equal parts of determination and power. No one doubts that he has plenty of determination.

And power?

He seems to be taking it.

Every bit of it.

Joe Henderson: Proposed new transportation agency a good start toward solving an old problem

Short of hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, the surest way to get a headache is to wade deep into Tampa Bay area transportation problems. You encounter a mishmash of competing agencies and agendas that has resulted in legislative and automotive gridlock for frustrated commuters for years.

Given that, I’m encouraged by what is coming out of Tallahassee. A pair of Republican legislators — state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and state Rep. Dan Raulerson of Plant City — have introduced bills that would create a five-county regional transit agency.

Hernando County is a late addition to a group including Manatee, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas.

But wait, you say. Didn’t the Legislature already try something like that?

Yep.

A decade ago, Tallahassee gave us the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority — known in wonk terms as TBARTA. Its scope was as large as its acronym, an attempt to bring seven counties together under a single transportation tent.

Nice sentiment, but poor execution. Trying to meet the needs of seven counties proved unwieldy.

“What Jack and I are trying to do is tweak this thing,” Raulerson said. “We want to get everybody moving in the same direction so we can put together a plan and get federal money for this. We have been woefully short there.”

The revamped board would have 13 members — seven elected officials, and six from the private sector. The elected officials likely will include the mayors from Tampa and St. Petersburg along with a commissioner from each county affected.

“That part is a work in progress right now,” Raulerson said. “But it is important to have more elected officials on the board because that provides for transparency and accountability.”

Both bills have sailed through their respective committees and appear to be gaining local acceptance. Tampa Bay Partnership President Rick Homans gave an enthusiastic endorsement to the plan, telling Mitch Perry of FloridaPolitics.com, “ … we realized that in order to get this started, we needed to have the right kind of planning and the right operational structure in place that will give us a greater chance of success.”

During committee hearings on the proposed bills, some lawmakers were skeptical that a new regional transportation agency would just be more of the same. Given the history on this issue, I certainly understand that point of view.

But I do like that this new authority would be smaller and focused on the counties of greatest need. Having Latvala and Raulerson behind this doesn’t hurt, either. Not only are they capable of guiding this from proposal to reality, they also represent both sides of Tampa Bay.

How soon can this happen?

“Once this becomes law, we probably need to have a good plan in place to take to the feds within 12 months,” Raulerson said. “The good news on that is that there already are a lot of plans out there, so we wouldn’t be starting from scratch. We just need to get moving.”

Joe Henderson: GOP’s only option now on health care could be to work with Democrats

Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives is in a position that must have seemed unthinkable after November’s election mandate. The only way they’re going to make good now on their 7-year crusade to repeal and replace Obamacare is if Democrats help them.

For that to happen, Republicans will have surrender any notion of gutting the current health care law and actually work with the opposition party to craft something that makes people happy on both sides of the political divide. Otherwise, it’s status quo.

If it wasn’t clear before Friday afternoon when the proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act collapsed, it should be now. This what happens when the party in power can’t reach consensus and gets its butt kicked on a high-profile issue.

Republicans are a house divided on this issue and it won’t be bridged without help from Democrats. Good luck with that, right? Minority leader Nancy Pelosi was smirking and giddy in remarks after Speaker Paul Ryan admitted this was “a setback, no two ways about it.”

President Trump, even with his art of the deal skills, couldn’t convince members of the Freedom Caucus to stop drinking the tea of an all-or-nothing, no-compromise bill. And guess what? That won’t change. The Freedom folk don’t believe in compromise, especially on something like this.

And when polls showed Americans were getting extremely concerned about the proposed bill would to gut benefits they have come to rely upon, Ryan realized he had to make some concessions to keep the public from full revolt.

The problem for him is, the Freedom Caucus doesn’t concede, no matter the political cost. It wanted to get rid of Obamacare taxes and let states run their own Medicaid programs. In some places that could have included requiring work in exchange for Medicaid benefits.

Equally damaging was a widely-held belief that rooms filled with white Republican men were deciding what women’s health care would look like under the new plan.

It was a colossal mess and the plan died an ugly death.

So now what?

Short of allowing Obamacare to continue indefinitely, thus failing to deliver on a central campaign promise to repeal/replace it, Republicans need reach across the aisle. Democrats have to be involved, and that means compromise on multiple issues.

Why?

Because as tough as it might be to negotiate with Democrats on changes to President Obama’s signature achievement, there’s probably a better chance of reaching consensus there between moderate Republicans and the Freedom Caucus.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland seemed to offer that olive branch to the GOP leadership.

“I hope we can work with the administration and with the other side and not just abandon this effort,” he said, “and not make an effort (going forward) to destroy indirectly what we did not destroy directly today.

“That’s our responsibility as Republicans, as Democrats, sent here by our people to make their lives better.”

It’s an opening if Ryan and GOP leaders are willing to take it. That could be humiliating, but it may be the only move they have left.

Joe Henderson: Gus Bilirakis keeps up fight to get medical drugs to market faster, easier

Anyone facing a dreaded disease themselves or watching a loved one go through it knows the frustration of seeking treatment. They want to know the system is on their side, but often it seems rigged against them.

I think it’s safe to conclude U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who represents Florida’s 12th District, is on their side. He has been a champion for increasing medical options.

In 2014, along with Democrat Kathy Castor, he was part of the congressional bipartisan 21st Century Cures initiative that sought to speed up the process for getting new life-saving drugs to market.

And while all the focus has been on the fate of the Affordable Care Act, Bilirakis took the opportunity of a hearing about the over-abundance of regulations at the Food and Drug Administration to push for a measure that would provide incentives for drug companies to develop treatments for rare diseases affecting a small portion of the population.

It’s called the Open Act.

“Today, it takes 10 to 12 to even 15 years and upwards of $2 billion to move a drug or biological product from a good idea to an approved product,” Kay Holcombe, Senior Vice President, Science Policy, Biotechnology Innovation Organization, said in a statement to the committee.

“During that lengthy period, unmet medical needs remain unmet and patients wait.”

And patients die.

Bilirakis asked, “There are about 500 approved rare disease drugs, but 7,000 rare diseases affecting some 30 million Americans.  They’re taking medication off-label, not knowing if their drugs are safe and effective for their conditions, or if it’s the proper dosage, and fighting with their insurance companies on coverage of their medications.

“Does it make sense to incentivize development for a targeted population when there are clearly defined needs?”

Holcombe answered simply: “Yes.”

Bilirakis has long argued that the lengthy development requirements hurt patient care and increase costs.

“This isn’t political at all,” Bilirakis told me during an interview about the 21st Century Cures initiative. “I want to take the politics out of it.”

Well, this is Washington, where politics is the milk on morning cereal. Diseases aren’t political, though, and there has to be a way to make it easier to develop these treatments and get them to market at prices people can afford. At least Bilirakis is trying.

Joe Henderson: Time for wall between whiskey & Wheaties to crumble

It’s not surprising that the so-called “whiskey and Wheaties” bill that cleared a Florida House committee Wednesday did so by a bare 15-13 margin.

Any measure that makes it easier to buy booze will mobilize people on both sides. This bill is basically equivalent to one in the Senate, which would knock down the legislative wall that requires retailers to sell hard liquor in a separate store.

That’s how you get booze stores attached to places like Publix, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. It always seemed silly to me. Given that you can already buy beer and wine in retail groceries, making them go next door to bring home a bottle of gin seems antiquated at best.

The primary argument that allowing so-called big box stores like Sam’s and Target to openly sell booze would put small retailers out of business is not a good enough reason to keep things the way they are.

Jim Rosica of FloridaPolitics.com quoted state Rep. Tom Goodson, a Rockledge Republican, saying the small stores already compete with the big players; the competition just happens at another location.

That’s an inconvenient truth opponents of this measure have to face. In the interest of full disclosure, it has been my experience that dropping into a neighborhood liquor store to stock up for the weekend is going to be considerably more expensive than one of the bigger places. Fewer choices, too.

This is another one of those probation-era laws that are falling by the wayside. People of a certain age can remember a time in Hillsborough County where you stocked up by midnight Saturday because you couldn’t buy beer or wine on Sunday.

Trust me on this: You didn’t want to be caught with nothing in the fridge on a Sunday afternoon to soothe the pain of watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in those days. That didn’t apply to fans only.

I remember being in their locker room after a loss back then and listening to defensive coordinator Abe Gibron repeatedly ask a flunky with increasing volume, “Did you get the beer? The beer? Did you get the beer? THE BEER!”

Fortunately, I think Abe was able to shake off that day’s loss with some cold ones. If the messenger had given him bad news, Abe would have found a way around it. A flunky would have been driving to Pasco.

People will always find a way around these things, but they shouldn’t have to. There is a battle cry in Tallahassee these days against picking winners and losers. That’s what this bill seeks to address.

It’s time.

Joe Henderson: Time to get rid of red-light cameras, but turn up heat on texting

Depending on your point of view, red-light cameras in Florida are either: A) Of great benefit to public safety by making drivers think twice when approaching a changing traffic light; or B) a cash grab by communities that amounts to a backdoor tax.

Just we’re clear, I’m on the side of Option B.

While several communities throughout the state have discontinued use of the cameras for reasons best explained by Option B, the Legislature has never mustered enough support for a complete ban on them.

Bless ‘em, though, House members keep trying. They are scheduled once again to take up a proposal (HB 6007) by Rep. Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, and Spring Hill Republican Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, to repeal laws that permit the cameras.

Maybe they will succeed this time. I wish they wouldn’t stop there, though. I wish that for once, lawmakers could finally put their foot down on the practice of texting while driving. Currently, it is only a secondary offense, punishable by a fine only if officers can stop a violator on another charge.

The state transportation committee will consider whether to recommend toughening the law by making it a primary offense — meaning that if an officer sees someone obviously texting while driving, they can be pulled over for that.

Sadly, even something so obvious is complicated after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it takes a warrant to search a cellphone. It’s unlikely a motorist about to be hit with a big fine for texting would voluntarily turn over their phone. I appreciate the complication.

It’s worth the battle, though.

So why the battle against cameras but support for a texting ban?

Simple.

In 2015, the state reported nearly 46,000 accidents due to distracted driving. That’s more than 12 percent of all crashes in Florida, and we’ve all had the experience of watching drivers weave in and out of highway lanes while they’re focused on their phone instead of the road.

Red-light cameras, on the other hand, appear to contribute to crashes as well as being the aforementioned cash grab. The News Service of Florida reported in a four-year study of 148 intersections with cameras, across the state, crashes increased by more than 10 percent.

Rear-end collisions were the main culprit.

Add to that the fact that cameras are operated by an out-of-state firm and that appealing the fine can result in even heavier costs and points on your driver’s license. People usually give in and pay, and that’s not what a law like this should be doing.

Get rid of the cameras.

Joe Henderson: No matter what comes out, Donald Trump’s true believers don’t seem to care

I could waste words here on President Donald Trump’s hallucinations about the truth, but why bother. Y’all know that story as well as I do. The president either is delusional or cynical about what the people will believe or maybe both.

There is a bigger story, though, one that reduces all the drama about nonexistent wiretaps and possibly existing collusion with Russia to subplots.

It is simply this: His supporters don’t care.

A large, energetic crowd of believers showed up Monday night at his rally in Louisville to give a united upraised middle finger to those who call out this president on his lies, deceit and all the other things are supposed to spell his doom.

They don’t care.

This was in Kentucky, mind you — a state where residents likely are to be among the hardest hit if/when the Affordable Care Act is repealed. Instead of draining the swamp, the man these people adore will be draining the ranks of those who can afford health insurance. That may include some of those who were shouting his praises the loudest.

They don’t care.

He spits on our allies.

They don’t care.

While his proposed budget eviscerates social safety nets, the president’s regular weekend trips to Mar-a-Lago are estimated to cost taxpayers $3 million a pop. That’s on top of millions more spent on security at Trump Tower. The people who voted for Trump screamed bloody murder when President Obama took getaway trips to Hawaii.

But now? They don’t care.

The New York Times, Washington Post, and all the others that quoted “unnamed sources” saying there was no truth to Trump’s claims that Obama illegally wiretapped him during the campaign WERE CORRECT! Trump and those who parrot him dismissed the reports as Fake News. That was wrong. The media were CORRECT!

What else will it be correct about?

Trump’s supporters don’t care. They wouldn’t believe it anyway.

All the things that are supposed to define a successful, competent commander in chief don’t seem to matter now.

That’s why Monday could go down as one of the most significant days in American history. It’s the scene-setter for a showdown. How the testimony from Washington trickles down to places like Tallahassee is the next thing to watch.

The FBI is actively investigating if there is proof Trump’s campaign conspired with Russian agents to rig the November election. No doubt hundreds of professional, well-sourced reporters are looking into that as well.

Health care, security, and all the rest could get pushed to the side while his opponents, including some in his own party, dig in for the fight.

Florida’s governor and attorney general are tucked deep into Trump’s pocket. Their political futures could be tied to the outcome of this continuing drama — maybe. No one matter what the investigations and hearings uncover, I don’t believe the true supporters will abandon the president.

Nobody paid attention to them until the morning after the 2016 election. No one is paying attention to them now that their man is in the White House.

Huge mistake.

Joe Henderson: Aramis Ayala should follow law in death penalty case, not try to make it

I’m not a big fan of the death penalty.

I think having condemned inmates spend 20 years or more on death row while their appeals play out thwarts the argument that is a deterrent. Inmate Douglas R. Meeks, for example, has been awaiting execution since March 21, 1975.

He is one of 16 inmates who have been on Florida’s death row since the 1970s.

And keeping inmates locked up 23 ½ a day in a cramped cell with no air conditioning for the entire time they’re awaiting execution is borderline inhumane.

By the way, I’ll concede that the people on death row committed inhumane acts in the first place.

Having said that, State Attorney Aramis Ayala in Orlando was wrong on multiple levels when she announced she wouldn’t seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd, who is accused of killing Police Lt. Debra Clayton and his pregnant ex-girlfriend.

Gov. Rick Scott did the right thing Thursday with his order that took the case away from Ayala and gave it another state attorney who will pursue the death penalty if Loyd is found guilty.

In a statement, Scott said: “I want to be very clear, Lt. Debra Clayton was executed while she was laying on the ground fighting for her life. She was killed by an evil murderer who did not think twice about senselessly ending her life.”

Ayala referenced several of the factors I mentioned as a reason for not seeking the death penalty in this emotionally charged case. The trouble is, it is her job to follow the law — not make it. If this were a 50-50 decision under existing law, then yes, she could decide not to go for death. But it’s not even close.

If we’re going to have the death penalty, then cop killers go to the head of the list. It is the duty of people in Ayala’s position to prosecute those offenses to the full extent of the law.

There are valid reasons lawmakers should consider abolishing the death penalty, but that’s their call. Death penalty opponents praised Ayala, but that missed the point. What they should be doing is bringing public pressure on legislators.

Just so we’re clear, they also should pick a better case to make their point than one involving the murder of a police officer.

Ayala made history in January when she was sworn in as Florida’s first African-American State Attorney. She made history this time for a different reason. She may not like the death penalty, but it’s part of the job.

Joe Henderson: Miami trial shines light on smuggling Cuban baseball players to U.S.

It is not unusual when a Major League Baseball team signs a Cuban defector. There is a lengthy list of players who fled that island nation so they could barter their skills for the considerable cash that comes with playing in the United States.

Usually, those stories have been treated as valiant escapes from a repressive government and the search for a better life.

A trial that concluded Wednesday in a Miami courtroom though painted a different story. Instead of something heroic, the way some players escaped was judged to be a felony.

The trial pulled back the curtain on how that process works — or at least worked in the case of agent Bart Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada. Both men face five years in prison after being found guilty of smuggling Cuban players to this country in return for receiving a big chunk of their contracts that could total in the millions of dollars.

The Miami Herald reported that Hernandez and Estrada deceived the U.S. government into granting visas to two dozen Cuban players. The players were transported by what the Herald called “an underground pipeline” that included Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Testimony showed Hernandez and Estrada paid off boat captains and falsified immigration documents. In return, they charged players up to 30 percent of their contracts.

Players include Leonys Martin, who signed a $4.8 million contract this season with Seattle, and Jose Abreu, who signed a $68 million deal with the Chicago White Sox in 2013. Abreu testified that he ate pages from his fake passport and washed it down with a Heineken beer while on a flight from Haiti to the United States.

He admitted he was traveling illegally because, he told jurors, “If I had not been there on that particular day, the deadline, then the contract would not be executed and would no longer be valid. We had to be in Chicago to sign the contract.”

By contrast, defense attorney Jeffrey Marcus told jurors players in Cuba might receive as little as $20 per month.

In addition to showing what risks players are willing to take to achieve their baseball aspirations, it highlights the still-thorny relationship between the United States and Cuba.

Immigration hawks have been pushing to roll back attempts by President Obama to normalize relations with Cuba. Last spring, the Tampa Bay Rays became the first MLB team to play a game on that island when they defeated the Cuban national team.

That move generally was hailed as a breakthrough in relations between the two nations. This trial showed that reality remains something different.

Joe Henderson: ‘Shy’ Rick Scott needs to pipe up on Medicaid expansion

Gov. Rick Scott hasn’t been shy about sharing his feelings on the Affordable Care Act. Like any good Republican, he hates it. He wants it to go away.

Now that Republicans have a legitimate proposal on the table to replace Obamacare, though, Scott has gone into stealth mode on the subject. In an Associated Press story, the governor did the Rick Scott Shuffle when asked for his reaction to the plan now being debated intensely in Washington.

Scott said he was glad there is “good conversation” happening on the subject. Not exactly a stop-the-presses comment.

He even met recently with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is pushing a plan that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said could leave up to 24 million Americans without health insurance.

Would the governor like to let us mere mortals in on what was discussed? People in Florida will be greatly affected by whatever finally becomes law, especially if it has a significant impact on Medicaid.

Florida depends heavily on federal money for Medicaid funding, and under the plan being discussed more than 4 million residents here would see their benefits reduced. That probably suits budget hawks in the state House just fine, but wouldn’t be good for many of the state’s elderly and low-income residents.

That’s where Scott needs to pipe up on this subject. In 2014, remember, he went to war (and lost) with the House over Medicaid expansion. Scott pushed for it; now-Speaker Richard Corcoran was intractably against.

Given his background as a hospital administrator before he went into politics, there are few people in the state better versed on health insurance than Scott. He could help frame the debate if he chose.

He certainly hasn’t been shy about making his opinions known recently on other subjects. He has been outspoken about his trying to save Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. But now that the health care debate has intensified, we get crickets from the governor.

Curious.