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Scott Powers

House forms first-ever Legislative Progressive Caucus

More than a dozen Democratic Florida House members have formed the Progressive Legislative Caucus, with firebrand state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando elected as its first chair.

The caucus held its organization meeting last week with Smith becoming chair, state Rep. Amy Mercado of Orlando vice chair, and state Rep. Joseph Abruzzo of Boca Raton as clerk.

“As we enter the final weeks of the 2017 legislative session, the Legislative Progressive Caucus will adopt caucus positions on key legislation to underscore our values and priorities,” Smith stated in a news release.

Other charter members included state Reps. Robert Asencio of Miami, Lori Berman of Lantana, Daisy Baez of Coral Gables, John Cortes of Kissimmee, Nicholas Duran of Miami, Joseph Gellar of Aventura, Evan Jenne of Dania Beach, Barrington Russell of Lauderdale Lakes, Sean Shaw of Tampa, Emily Slosberg of Boca Raton, Richard Stark of Weston, and Clovis Watson of Alachua.

The caucus put out a release stating that its members were inspired by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and aim to unite the progressive wing of the Democratic Caucus as a collective block to influence key legislation and advocate for progressive policy solutions that benefit all Floridians.

The caucus is committed to advocating for social and economic justice and security for all Floridians, protecting civil rights, civil liberties and advancing environmental protection and sustainability in the Sunshine State, according to the release.

21 “March for Science” events taking place across Florida today

Yes, scientists feel they’re under attack by politics too, and like minority groups, women, gun advocates, gun opponents, social activists, and others, they’re taking it to the streets.

Twenty-one “Marches for Science” are set to take place in Florida Saturday, Earth Day, all declared as satellite marches to the main one that will take place in Washington D.C. Organizers say they’ll have more than 400 such marches worldwide this weekend.

March for Science organizers are declaring their mission as to champion “robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.”

Organized through scientists and supporters discussing the prospect through social media, on their website they declare that, yes, their effort “is explicitly a political movement, aimed at holding leaders in politics and science accountable. When institutions of any affiliation skew, ignore, misuse or interfere with science, we have to speak out.”

In Florida marches are planned Saturday for Clearwater, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Pierce, Fort Walton Beach, Gainesville, Hudson, Jacksonville, Lakeland, Miami, Naples, New Smyrna Beach, Orlando, Palm Beach County, Panama City, Pensacola, Sarasota, Titusville, St. Augustine, St. Petersburg, Tallahassee, and West Palm Beach.

The dozens of partners sponsoring the event range from environmental groups such as the Earth Day Coalition and The Nature Conservancy, to science specialty groups as the American Society for Cell Biology and the Planetary Society, to broad groups such as the National Center for Science Education and the Union of Concerned Scientists, as well as several universities.

They’re maintaining the marches are non-partisan.

“Science is nonpartisan,” said Blake Williams, spokesman for For Our Future spokesman, which is co-organizing the Florida marches. “Advocating for evidence-based policies and solutions serves everyone’s best interests, and Saturday’s march is about speaking out in support of science together.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidates call Frank Artiles’ resignation ‘right thing’

Democratic gubernatorial candidates and potential candidates are declaring Friday that Frank Artiles did the right thing and one is wondering why Gov. Rick Scott stayed out, after Artiles resigned his seat in the Florida Senate because of his vulgar comments to comments earlier in the week.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, an announced candidate, called Artiles’ resignation the “right move for Florida.”

“The kind of hurtful rhetoric that Senator Artiles used, while still far too common, only serves to divide us against each other,” Gillum said. “From every corner of our state, we know that there is a lot more that we share in common than what separates us. Now we must refocus our attention on the issues that can help the most people: creating good paying jobs, reinvesting in public education, and ensuring access to health care for all.”

Orlando businessman Chris King, an announced candidate, questioned the silence of Scott on the Artiles matter, after the senator accosted two black, Democratic colleagues in a private club Monday night with a tirade of vulgar and racist comments.

“While it’s gratifying so many Floridians across the state came together to demand accountability, there was one conspicuous absence — Rick Scott,” King said in a release. “The Governor of our great state should be the first voice to demand racism is never normalized, not duck and hide from leadership. Governor Scott’s refusal to stand with the well-meaning people of Florida is a result of the arrogance that comes with decades of one-party rule, and an important reminder of the need for change.”

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who is exploring a candidacy, declared, “After doing all the wrong things, Sen. Artiles finally did the right thing by resigning.”

Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, who is exploring a candidacy, tweeted her reaction:

“I’m proud of @SenAudrey2eet & @SenatorThurston for standing up to a bully. Their strength is why Artiles’ hate is leaving the Senate.”

David Simmons condemns Frank Artiles comments; calls for due process, suggests PTSD might be factor

Republican state Sen. David Simmons sharply condemned racist and vulgar comments made earlier this week by state Sen. Frank Artiles. 

The behavior is nothing new, Simmons said, but he puts his faith in the Senate’s due process to determine a judgment by the body.

Simmons, of Altamonte Springs, then suggested that Artiles’ behavior might be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder — or some other circumstance — and the Senate needs to hear of any aggravating or mitigating circumstances before passing formal judgment.

Artiles has acted like this before, he added.

“I consider his comments reprehensible and unacceptable. I believe that at the same time that he is entitled to a full and fair hearing,” Simmon said.

On Tuesday night, in the Governors Club in Tallahassee, Artiles reportedly accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, who are both African-American, calling her a “b***h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation.

Artiles also used a variation of the “N-word,” referring to her and to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday, but refused growing calls for his resignation.

Thurston has lodged a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his expulsion. An investigative report by General Counsel Dawn Roberts is due next Tuesday. Simmons said that process needs to proceed.

“I do not believe this is an isolated incident of conduct. I believe that Sen. Artiles has spoken to multiple people in this fashion,” Simmons said.

“I also know that he is an Iraq veteran. I know while there’s no question that he said these things, because he’s admitted it and apologized fort them. The question I have is what aggravating and mitigating circumstances exist regarding why he is and has been acting in this manner. I don’t believe that he should be denied the ability to show that he may have PTSD; he may have some other circumstances,” Simmons continued. “I don’t know. I’m not going to prejudge the type of judgment that we should impose upon him as a Senate.”

Simmons explicitly said he condemned Artiles’ comments Thursday, a declaration that came after the Orange County and Seminole County Democrats jointly issued a statement Thursday afternoon demanding that Simmons speak up. Simmons said he had previously spoken up, giving a similar response to another reporter before the Democrats’ joint statement.

The Orange and Seminole Democrats’ statement, signed by Orange Democratic Chair Wes Hodge and Seminole Democratic Chair Jeff Wilkinson, denounced Artiles’ comments as “bigoted” and called on Simmons, “to immediately condemn his colleague’s remarks. They do not represent Central Florida’s values, and cannot be allowed to go unaddressed.”

Simmons, who says he’s 98 percent decided to run for Congress in Florida’s 7th Congressional District for Orange and Seminole counties, a seat currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, did just that, calling Artiles’ comments “reprehensible,” and part of a pattern of behavior.

“We all know they’re not the only comments he’s made. He made comments against the Senate president. He’s made comments against other Republican senators. And he’s made comments to other senators, on other occasions,” Simmons said.

Airbnb wins stay against Miami anti-vacation rental home rules

Vacation rental home marketing giant Airbnb and five of its Miami hosts have won a preliminary victory in Miami that temporarily blocks that city’s ban on such operations in residential neighborhoods.

In a suit that Airbnb and five vacation rental homeowners filed last week, Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko issued a temporary restraining order late Wednesday enjoining the city from enforcing its ban on short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods.

Miami’s city commission had approved a resolution in March that essentially interpreted existing city codes to forbid vacation rental homes in residential zones.

In its lawsuit, Airbnb argued that the regulations do not say that and that the city was trying to use the interpretation to get around a 2011 state law forbidding cities from taking local actions to ban the operations. That law grandfathered in old city ordinances.

The judge’s ruling also included a broader order that speaks to what happened at the March 23 Miami City Commission meeting, and how the city allegedly responded in the ensuing weeks.

The suit by Airbnb and its hosts alleged that Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado and the city retaliated against Airbnb hosts who spoke out at that meeting, by targeting them for enforcement of the city’s ban on vacation rental homes in the days after the meeting. Those hosts had, under rules held by Miami’s City Commission and virtually all city and county governing boards throughout the state, been required to give their names and addresses to speak.

Airbnb alleged those names and addresses went on a city retaliation list.

So Butchko also enjoined the city requiring constituents to provide their names and addresses when speaking at future city commission hearings.

Airbnb issued the following statement commenting on Butchko’s order:

“On behalf of our Miami host community, we are grateful to the Court for giving this important matter immediate attention. We are hopeful that it will result in relief and fair treatment for the 3,000 Miamians who responsibly share their homes on Airbnb.”

Communications technologies, consumer choices, could end-run taxation

Taxes that Florida and many local governments collect on phone, cable and other communication services are in steady decline for the same reasons as land-line telephones: people are finding different, better, and cheaper ways to consumer communications.

An explosion in popularity of Internet video services such as Netflix and Hulu, combined with other technology and consumer choice advances, and the consequential falling telecommunication prices, are antiquating Florida’s communication services tax structure.

And so the Florida House Ways and Means Committee, briefed on the phenomenon and concerns about the future of communication services tax revenue during a workshop Tuesday, concluded there might not be much that can (or should) be done about it.

For now.

“Consumers control this market,” said Charles Dudley, a lobbyist for the Florida Cable Telecommunications Association.

In the fiscal year ending in 2009, the state and local governments collected a combined $2.5 billion from communication services taxes.

Last year that was down to about $1.7 billion. No one’s quite sure what’s on the horizon, because no one in government economics has much of an idea what technological advances and consumer choices are next, cautioned Ways and Means Staff Director Don Langston.

“The forecast, the official forecast, has no growth in it even though we’re a growing state,” Langston said. “I think that’s a reflection of the unusual technological environment that this tax derives from.”

And, he added: “It could be more declines.”

Taxing technology is becoming unusually complicated, given the migration of consumers from predictable communication forms of land-line telephones and cable TV, to cell phone services and satellite TV, to prepaid phone services and Internet streaming.

Democratic state Rep. Joseph Geller of Adventura raised serious concerns about what the declining revenue is doing for cities.

“That’s a real steep, overall, continuous, steady decline overall for local governments that rely on this,” Geller said.

Yet Republican state Rep. Mike Miller of Winter Park cautioned that Florida and local governments shouldn’t be following the consumers and look at ways to tax the next generation of communications. His House Bill 1377, stalled since mid-March, would prohibit public bodies from imposing a tax on Internet video service.

Miller cautioned the issues around internet taxes — generally banned by federal law and against policy by state law — are getting complicated by the same march or technology, which now allows consumers to consumer internet video through a wide variety of contractual and free means. They should be off-limits, he suggested.

“I appreciate ranking member Geller’s conversation about revenue for cities. Of course, we’ve got to look at revenue for cities. But why should I pay the city of Winter Park to watch MLB.com because I love the Washington Nationals? Why would I be paying a communication services tax to my town to watch the Nationals?” Miller inquired.

“I don’t follow that logic,” he added. “So if we’re going to find other ways for revenue to operate cities, I’m all for that — in another discussion. But I do think, in this case, we should not be taxing Netflix. We should not be taxing Sling or Hulu or YouTube or Amazon Prime.”

Showdown in Miami: Airbnb sues over vacation rental home ban

Airbnb and five of its clients filed suit against the city of Miami Friday over a controversial move the city made last month to ban vacation rental homes in residential districts.

At issue is whether and how cities can regulate vacation rental homes, a rapidly increasing part of the lodging industry in which homeowners turn their spare bedrooms or whole houses into short-term rentals to accommodate tourists and other visitors who prefer homes to hotels.

The Florida Legislature essentially prohibited cities and counties from banning them in 2011, except for those local governments that already had laws on the books. In March the Miami City Commission approved a resolution put forward by Mayor Tomas Regalado that essentially interprets the city’s ordinances, as outlined in the Miami 21 codes, as already banning vacation rentals.

That interpretation was news to Airbnb, the largest marketing company of vacation rental properties. In the suit filed Friday the company alleges the existing ordinances have no such ban, and also claims that the city of Miami is cracking down on those operating in Miami since the March 23 3-2 approval by the city commission.

No one was available at the Miami city attorney’s office to comment on the suit late Friday. The city has not yet filed an answer to the Airbnb complaints.

The Miami strategy began in 2015 with a legal interpretation adopted by the city’s zoning administrator, the suit charges.

“The Individual Plaintiffs had never heard of the City’s vacation rental prohibition before 2015, and it was not for a lack of looking. It simply was not in Miami 21,” the suit states.

The wording of the Miami 21 zoning code, the suit charges,  has no mention of a vacation rental ban, no published interpretations that it does, and that there had been no previous enforcements of any vacation rental prohibition, according to the suit.

The Airbnb suit seeks a court declaration that vacation rental homes are not probated as Regalado had maintained. It also demands that the city stop going after any owners of vacation rental homes in Miami.

Some of that crackdown has come against Miami residents who spoke in opposition of the resolution at that March 23 meeting, and Airbnb also alleges city officials are specifically targeting them, violating their First Amendment rights, the suit alleges.

“The City has recently undertaken an aggressive anti-Airbnb campaign that includes threats against individual Airbnb hosts who attended a City Commission meeting to publicly voice their support for vacation rentals in Miami. The City is now acting to make good on those threats,” the suit alleges. “Airbnb stands together with its Miami hosts in opposing the City’s unlawful efforts, and in particular stands with the brave individuals who have come forward and seek to protect their rights as Individual Plaintiffs in this action.”

Florida’s Hispanic voters optimistic on economy but down on Donald Trump

A new Hispanic consumer confidence survey from Florida Atlantic University finds Latino Florida voters more optimistic than the nation about the economy but about the same in assessing President Donald Trump.

The survey of 600 people, conducted by FAU’s Business and Economic Polling Initiative, found that 39 job approval rating for Trump, and a 60 percent disapproval rating.

It also found majorities are happy and optimistic about the economy, attitudes not shared by Hispanics nationally.

“Hispanics in Florida are better off financially and this is reflected in their feelings about the economy,” said Monica Escaleras,  director of FAU BEPI. “However, they still don’t approve of the president’s performance.”

The poll, conducted during the first three months of 2017, has a margin of error of 3.9 percent.

It found that 53 percent of Florida Hispanics said they expect good times financially for the next five years. This runs counter to the national Hispanic index that found 57 percent of Hispanics said they expect bad times financially for the next five years.

Florida Hispanics by a margin of 59 to 41 percent see business conditions as good for the next year. Overall, 68 percent of Florida Hispanics said they are better off financially than they were one year ago and nearly 4 out of 5 said they will be better off over the next year as well.

About one-third of Florida Hispanics (34 percent) expect the economy will get better, while 20 percent think it will get worse and 45 percent said it will stay the same.

Nearly 6 out of 10 Hispanics think it is a good time for buying a big item for their home. More than half (58 percent) think it is a good time to buy a house, while nearly 65 percent said it was a good time to buy a car.

George Gainer, Jeff Brandes reverse positions on Tri-Rail, push bill to let controversial contract stand

Tri-Rail’s controversial, one-source, half-billion, operations contract could go forward under an amended bill pushed Thursday by the Gov. Rick Scott administration and state Sens. George Gainer and Jeff Brandes.

Just a few weeks ago, both Gainer and Brandes were hostile critics of the contract and Tri-Rail.

Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, sponsored an amendment Thursday that strips away language that he and Scott had pushed for earlier that would have forced Tri-Rail to rebid the $511 million, 10-year contract.

Tri-Rail’s operating agency, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, awarded that contract in January after rejecting five lower bids for technical issues that the companies are contesting. The award brought, from Scott, Brandes and Gainer, harsh rebukes, demands for investigations, vows of new state control, as well as demands to rebid the contract.

Gainer, a Panama City Republican, introduced Senate Bill 1118 to require those things.

Yet Brandes’ new amendment, introduced Thursday at the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development, which he chairs, reverses the demand for the rebid. The amendment was adopted it unanimously, then Gainer’s amended Committee Substitute for SB 1118 was approved unanimously, Thursday.

The amendment and the bill drew strong objections from representatives of the companies that lost the Tri-Rail contract, which runs commuter rail trains through Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Several argued that their companies had agreed to continue current operations contracts until a new one could be rebid, so that there would be no disruption in services for passengers. The new contract, switching operations management to Herzog, is set to begin July 1.

There was little explanation or defense of the change of position from Brandes, or Gainer, or anyone else during Thursday’s committee meeting.

Brandes’ office said the state got assurances it needed through language in the amendment.

The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Jack Stephens said it was a good day for Tri-Rail and its riders in South Florida. He said the bills’ amendments were the results of negotiations between the authority, the governor’s office, and the FDOT secretary’s office. The key was working out a state financing model that could give the state more control yet allow the authority to keep paying its bills.

The state financing model was spelled out in the amendments to SB 1118 and to a related bill, Senate Bill 842, which also eased up on a threatened crackdowns on Tri-Rail. Amendment sponsor Frank Artiles said it was at the behest of Scott’s administration, after the negotiations with the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.

The amendments require the transportation authority to receive FDOT approval for any new, extended or renewed contracts that use state money, and to submit monthly invoices to FDOT for reimbursements, rather than just receive lump-sum quarterly transfers totaling $42 million a year in taxpayer money. There also are other new accounting requirements. “I believe the principal concerns have been addressed, and they have been addressed to the benefits of all involved, in regards to the governor’s office, the secretary’s office and ourselves, and the citizens of South Florida, of course,” Stephens said.

Tri-Rail still faces a budget proviso in the House of Representatives that would require the transportation authority to rebid the contract if it wants to receive state money. Stephens said he was hopeful that, too, could be dropped, though he cautioned he did not want to predict.

Tri-Rail also faces the prospect of court challenges to the bid, from any or all the five companies that offered lower bids that got thrown out by the transportation authority’s procurements director. All of that happened before the single remaining bid, from Herzog Transportation Services, was brought to the authority’s board for consideration and approval in late January.

There also is a Florida Department of Transportation Inspector General investigation of the contract underway.

“We’re disappointed in the outcome,” said Tom Martin, head of Business Development for Bombardier Americas, which had submitted an operations bid that was $115 million less expensive than Herzog’s.

He said all the companies wanted was the state to assure a fair contract competition.

Asked about the prospect that Bombardier might take the Tri-Rail contract to court, he added, “I think we will keep all of our options open.”

Committee Substitute to SB 842 drew less outrage from Herzog’s competitors, but also cut Tri-Rail some slack.

A budget proviso had required that the state Department of Transportation would from now on review and approve all the transportation authorities’ contracts if it were to continue to receive about $42 million in state subsidies.

However, SB 842 draws a tight distinction between funding the transportation authority gets from the state and from other sources, including the federal government and fares, and allows that any contracts paid for with those non-state monies could be exercised without state approval.

Baseball has been very, very good to Airbnb

Apparently there’s nothing like a home-away-from-home for baseball fans wanting to take in Florida spring training.

Airbnb, the leader in marketing vacation rental home, announced Wednesday that all 12 Florida cities that host spring training camps and stadiums for Major League Baseball teams saw remarkable spikes in bookings during the baseball spring training that ended last week.

And the company’s surveys show most of that spike was due to baseball fans, coming down to catch a few spring training games and to watch big-league players and prospects work out and train.

All the cities saw significant increases in Airbnb vacation home rental bookings during the five-week spring training, Feb. 23-March 31, compared with the previous five weeks.

Smaller cities such as Jupiter (64 percent Airbnb spike), Lakeland (82 percent), Port St. Lucie (95 percent), Dunedin (205 percent) and Port Charlotte (78 percent all benefitted significantly from local Airbnb hosts helping to expand lodging capacity and welcome more visitors during spring training, the company claimed in a press release.

Yet bigger cities with large, year-round tourist industries such as Sarasota and Kissimmee also saw considerable spikes, the company noted. Sarasota’s Airbnb bookings were up 91 percent, and Kissimmee’s 46 percent.

In 10 of the 12 Florida cities, residents of the MLB team’s home state accounted for the top supply of Airbnb guests during spring training. For example, Dunedin, home of the Toronto Blue Jays, saw a 1,860 percent increase in guests from Ontario, Canada, while Jupiter, home to the St. Louis Cardinals, saw a 3,400 percent increase in guests from Missouri.

“Spring Training represents a foundational component of the local economies for these 12 Florida cities,” Tom Martinelli, public policy director for Airbnb Florida, stated in the release. “By expanding lodging capacity for regions with limited hotel inventory, Airbnb hosts helped welcome more families and baseball fans to their cities while serving as ambassadors for their local communities.”

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