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Judicial term limits, death penalty bills clear final House committee votes

Bills that would require unanimous jury votes to impose the death penalty, and ask voters whether to impose term limits on appellate judges, were headed to the House floor following their approval Tuesday by the House Judiciary Committee.

The death penalty bill attracted a single “no” vote, and that was from Democrat Joe Geller, who said he would never again support any proposal that would “keep the horror of a death penalty.”

The judicial term limits bill passed on a vote of 11-8. The only Republicans to vote against it were Jay Fant and George Moraitis Jr.

The committee also approved HB 65, which would allow victims of terrorist acts to sue perpetrators and their enablers in state court; and HB 301, requiring the Florida Supreme Court to report each year to the the governor, attorney general, and legislative leaders the number of cases still pending 180 days after oral argument.

HB 527, the death penalty bill, answers qualms by the Florida Supreme Court about putting people to death absent unanimous jury recommendations. In October, the court struck down a law allowing executions upon 10-2 jury votes.

Only Monday, the court said executions could proceed in cases where that wasn’t a factor.

“We’ve had paralysis in our death penalty cases until yesterday,” said sponsor Chris Sprowls, who chairs the committee.

The Palm Harbor Republican said that, when he was a prosecutor, uncertainty regarding the penalty for murder was painful to victims’ families.

In sending the bill to the floor, “we would do just our small role for these families, in ensuring we have a death penalth statute that is constitutional, legal, and that these cases can move forward.”

The committee voted after death penalty opponents — including a man exonerated after serving on death row, and the mother of a murder victim — argued for abolition of capital punishment.

HJR 1, the term limits bill by Eustis Republican Jennifer Sullivan, would need approval by three-fifths of the House and Senate to appear on the ballot, where it would become a constitutional amendment upon approval by 60 percent of the voters.

It would limit judges of the district courts of appeal and justices of the Florida Supreme Court to 12 years in office.

Representatives of an array of legal groups — including the Florida Bar, the Florida Board of Trial Advocates and the Florida Justice Reform Institute — warned it would discourage bright lawyers from seeking the bench and interfere with judicial independence.

The latter argument struck a cord with Tallahassee Democrat Ramon Alexander.

“There was a time when people who look like me weren’t allowed to vote,” he said. “Because of the independent judiciary, I am afforded the opportunity to sit here today.”

Yalaha Republican Larry Metz said judges should be subject to term limits, the same as governors and legislators.

“With respect to the judiciary, one might argue, well, they’re not policymakers,” he said.

“But I would say that appellate judges in Florida — not all of them, but many of them — act as policymakers; they actually legislate from the bench.”

Supporters including Sullivan argued the bill would promote accountability — and noted that the proposal would merely place the question before the voters.

“At the end of the day, leave it to the voters of Florida decision,” she said.

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Red-light camera ban clears green-lighted by House committee

A House bill to ban red-light cameras cleared its final committee Tuesday and is ready for a floor vote when the 2017 Legislative Session kicks off next month.

The House Government Accountability Committee approved HB 6007 with a 13-3 vote; the only no votes came from Democratic Reps. Joe Abruzzo, Carlos Guillermo Smith and Clovis Watson.

Last month, the bill had made it through the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and the House Appropriations Committee with similarly lopsided votes.

The bill would not take effect until July 1, 2020, though it would cause a substantial dip in revenue on the state and local levels. According to the Government Accountability Committee’s staff analysis, banning red-light cameras would cause the state to lose out on about $63 million in general revenue a year, while local governments would lose nearly $73 million.

Earlier this month, a Senate bill that would put an end to the cameras failed to make it through the Senate Transportation Committee, though Democratic Sen. Daphne Campbell filed an identical bill Feb. 1.

Lawmakers backing a total ban on red-light cameras have pointed to a study from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles that showed crashes were up more than 10 percent at intersections with cameras.

While the data shows an increase in rear-end collisions and crashes involving injuries, it did show a 3 percent decline in crashes involving running red lights and a 20 percent reduction in accidents involving pedestrians or other non-motorists.

Detractors say that study is flawed, however, because it includes crashes up to 250 feet away from intersections.

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Senate committee OK’s 3 bills: job protection, veteran IDs, emergency management

Three bills were passed unanimously Tuesday by members of the Senate Military and Veteran’s Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee as legislators shuffled back into the state capital following a long holiday weekend.

Gulf Breeze Republican Doug Broxson, the committee’s vice-chair, led the 45-minute meeting.

SB 370, introduced by Lakeland Republican Kelli Stargel, requires certain public and private employers to provide up to 15 days “of unpaid leave to an employee engaged in a Civil Air Patrol mission, or training,” prohibiting the firing of members of the Florida Wing of the Civil Air Patrol because of his or her absence in the duty.

SB 440, introduced by Jacksonville Democrat Audrey Gibson, who chairs the committee, expands “the list of forms of identification which a notary public may rely on in notarizing a signature on a document to include a veteran health information card,” in the event a veteran doesn’t have a state-issued ID card or driver’s license.

SB 464, introduced by Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens, creates an interagency workgroup to share information, coordinate ongoing efforts and collaborate on initiatives relating to natural hazards, and designates each relevant county director of the division of emergency management, or his or her subordinate, as the liaison to, and coordinator of, the workgroup.”

Later, Veterans Florida gave a presentation.

 

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business incentives

Bill to kill business incentives, Enterprise Florida cleared for House floor

A House bill that would abolish the Enterprise Florida economic development organization, eliminate a throng of business incentive programs, and strip the VISIT FLORIDA tourism marketing agency down to a barebones $25 million budget cleared its second and final panel Tuesday.

That means the measure (HB 7005), OK’d by the House Appropriations Committee on an 18-12 vote, is ready to be considered by the full House when the 2017 Legislative Session begins March 7. 

The vote was another hit to Gov. Rick Scott, an advocate of both agencies and economic incentives, which he says create jobs for Floridians. In a statement, he again responded to the House with the “P” word.

“Today’s vote by politicians in the Florida House is a job killer,” the governor said. “I know some politicians … say they don’t necessarily want to abolish these programs but instead want to advance a ‘conversation.’

“This is completely hypocritical and the kind of games I came to Tallahassee to change,” he added. “Perhaps if these politicians would listen to their constituents, instead of playing politics, they would understand how hurtful this legislation will be to Florida families.”

Even if the House passes its bill as currently is, however, it could well be dead on arrival in the Senate. The House originally aimed to kill VISIT FLORIDA, then offered to keep it but with far less money.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development, on Tuesday filed his own economic development legislation. It would leave VISIT FLORIDA alone, and overhaul but not get rid of Enterprise Florida and incentive programs.

“The focus of economic development should be on Florida’s small businesses,” Brandes said. “Fostering a start-up culture in our state and encouraging small business development will create a better ecosystem where opportunity can thrive.”

But the House legislation is the star of GOP House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s push for more government transparency and better stewardship of the public’s money.

Corcoran had threatened to sue VISIT FLORIDA after it refused to reveal a secret deal with Miami rap superstar Pitbull to promote Florida tourism, later revealed to be worth up to $1 million. The ensuing controversy cost former agency CEO Will Seccombe his job.

That’s what got the measure support from House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa: “We need to see (VISIT FLORIDA) on the front page when they’re helping us, not embarrassing us.”

She also noted that singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett has promoted the state for years. “He’s the loser here because he never earned a dime for that,” Cruz said.

As state Rep. Paul Renner, the Palm Coast Republican behind the 190-page bill, told the committee: “No more Pitbull contracts in secret …  no more money going to a privileged few.”

An array of local economic development interests, regional tourism groups, small business advocates and small business owners themselves opposed the bill, including hoteliers, restaurateurs, and even a co-operative of Panhandle oyster farmers. 

Chris Hart, Enterprise Florida’s CEO, told lawmakers his group is “fiscally responsible. We have integrity, we are stewards of public dollars … and we take the job very seriously.”

But state Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who voted against the bill because of the VISIT FLORIDA reduction, said he had “nothing good to say about Enterprise Florida … I have grave concerns about the incentives paid and the return on investment.”

Give him a bill only on that organization, he added, “and I’ll kill that for you.”


After the hearing, committee chair Carlos Trujillo held a brief media availability, which can be seen in the Periscope video below:

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Flood insurance, HMO liability legislation clear Senate committee

A Senate committee approved bills Tuesday that would encourage Florida insurers to write flood insurance as an alternative to expensive federal coverage, and would allow patients to sue HMOs for declining to cover doctors’ treatment recommendations in bad faith.

“Why shouldn’t the HMOs be held liable for the decisions they make and the doctors aren’t making, and people are dying? I just don’t think that’s equitable,” said Sen. Greg Steube, the Sarasota Republican behind SB 262, the HMO bill.

Existing law exempts HMOs from liability for treatment decisions by doctors with whom them contract to treat patients.

“What other businesses are prohibited by law from being sued from decisions they make that actually kill people?” Steube said following the committee’s 6-3 vote to approve his bill.

The measure would repeal legal protections for HMOs for vicarious liability for medical negligence unless the doctor is an employee. It also would create a cause of action for bad-faith refusal to provide a treatment recommended by a doctor.

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat and a trial attorney from Broward County, said he entered the law after the mother of the best man at his wedding died after being denied a new treatment for the fatal side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

“I just do not believe a good-faith argument can be made that in a situation like that, an HMO cannot be held liable,” Farmer said.

Representatives of a number of medical professional organizations endorsed the bill, while insurance and business interests warned it would inflate coats for insurance companies and the state, through Medicaid and Medicare.

Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, expressed sympathy with those qualms.

“It’s going to increase costs to the state and policyholders,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Brandes sponsored the flood insurance bill — SB 420.

Existing law allows insurers to offer flood policies through 2019 without having to wait for the Office of Insurance Regulation to review their rates. Brandes’ bill would extend that until 2025.

Farmer said he agreed with Brandes in theory, but worried the measure would encourage growth of unregulated surplus lines insurance — designed for “sophisticated” customers to protect against unique risks — “Liberace’s fingers. Dan Marino’s knees. Things of that nature.”

“We want more admitted carriers to write,” Brandes said following the 7-1 vote in favor his his bill. He referred to policies requiring pre-approval by regulators.

“But we also understand that surplus line carriers are writing, as well.”

And the bill encourages regulated insurers to enter the market.

“We’re offering them more flexibility in rates and forms. We’re making sure they are well-capitalized companies. But we want to create the right ecosystem for them to thrive in Florida.”

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Dennis Freytes: Safe fracking — good for America

Many veterans of war, including myself, have concerns with foreign products being purchased from countries at war, namely the Middle East. We have come a long way in recent years to obtain our own oil and natural gas within the U.S. However, we can’t lift our feet off the proverbial pedal. Our country must use all forms of energy to become energy independent for the good of all. There is a direct correlation between energy reliability on the Middle East affecting matters of national security. Many American veterans agree in order to improve our quality of life at home, it’s imperative we continue safely improving all energy infrastructure on our homeland.

One safe and viable option for domestic oil and natural gas production is through hydraulic fracturing. Contrary to popular belief, this process has been used in the United States for nearly 70 years. It’s not a new technology; the practice has been tested and refined for decades. Another important point to remember is fracking falls under at least eight different federal regulations, not to mention state and local laws.

Fracking serves to enhance the flow of energy from a well. Many people who are nervous about the concept just don’t understand how it works – it’s actually quite simple. First, a hole is drilled vertically to form a well that is thousands of meters underground, and then drilled horizontally into an oil or gas deposit. The hole is cased with a steel pipe cemented into place, which isolates the area of the rock to protect our water supply. Then, a special perforation gun is lowered through the pipe, and forms holes through small, quick charges. Once the holes are formed, fracking fluid is pumped through with pressurized bursts. This creates small cracks throughout the rock so that trapped oil or gas can easily flow through.

The fracking fluid is a mixture of 99.5 percent water and sand, combined with chemical additives which control bacteria growth and prevent corrosion. These chemicals make up less than 1 percent of the fracking fluid and are significantly below the maximum levels required by the Environmental Protection Agency. Any water or fluid that is released through fracking is stored in a safe treatment facility. And once the process is complete – which can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days – a well can produce energy for years, even decades.

Currently, there is inaccurate information circulating the media about fracking’s effect on our drinking water. I want to be clear: there have been no confirmed cases of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing in the 2 million wells fracked since the 1940s. Before fracking even begins, casings are placed into the well, and the space between the casings and the drill hole is filled with cement. This ensures neither the water and sand mixture that is pumped through the well, nor the oil and gas eventually produced, will enter the water supply.

In fact, a 2015 study conducted by Yale University found that fracking fluids do not contaminate aquifers. The researchers also found that contamination to drinking water does not occur because of casing failures, which has been an argument by those opposed to the practice.

Here in the sunshine state, scientists are currently considering using deep injection wells, a form of fracking, to restore Lake Okeechobee and the South Florida Water Management District has stated that this process would not affect Florida’s drinking water supply.

Fracking is one of the ways we can obtain reliable, homegrown energy to power our homes, buildings, phones, cars – you name it.

Oil and natural gas production keep our everyday conveniences — ones that many countries do not have — at our fingertips. Let’s avoid national security risk and ensure progress for our beloved U.S.A. by continuing processes like fracking within our borders and keep things moving, literally.

___

Lt. Col. Dennis Freytes, United States Army (Ret.) – Florida Veterans Hall of Fame, is co-chair of Florida Vets4Energy, a group of volunteer veterans who continue to serve America as advocates for energy policies to sustain our national security.

 

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Ridesharing bill advances 21-1 in House committee

A bill to create statewide regulations for ridesharing companies easily advanced in its last committee stop Tuesday in the Florida House, but not without some dissent from a handful of Democrats on the panel.

The bill (HB 221) is sponsored by Tampa Republican Jamie Grant and Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls, and officials with Uber and Lyft are hoping that this is finally the year that such legislation is finally passed.

The bill would require transportation network companies to have third-parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers. People would be prohibited from becoming rideshare drivers if they have three moving violations in the prior 3-year period; have been convicted of a felony within the previous five years; or have been convicted of a misdemeanor charge of sexual assault, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, hit and run, or attempting to flee a law enforcement officer within the past five years.

It also calls for drivers to carry insurance coverage worth $50,000 for death and bodily injury per person, $100,000 for death and bodily injury per incident and $25,000 for property damage when picking up passengers. Coverage would jump to a minimum of $1 million in coverage in the case of death, bodily injury and property damage while a passenger is in the vehicle.

The bill also tells local governments they cannot set their own conflicting regulations, which is why the Florida League of Cities opposes it.

All told, 21 of the 22 members of the House Committee on Government Accountability supported the bill. The lone dissenter was Miami Gardens Democrat Barbara Watson, who said she has severe concerns about safety, specifically taking issue with the fact that background checks on ride-sharing drivers will only take place every three years.

“This bill is lacking in so many ways,” she said. “So many public safety issues are brought to bear.”

Democrat Kristen Diane Jacobs said she continues to consider the fact that the bill does not mandate signage on rideshare vehicles to be “problematic.”  She stated that the problem is now acute at the Fort Lauderdale airport and seaport.

“Somewhere along the line I hope we realize that signage is not only good for the company, the company’s already doing it, it’s good for those who are calling for the service, and I also think it’s really important for those governments that are having to do with so many drivers on governmental property,” Jacobs said.

“It’s been a cluster,” Orlando Democrat Carlos Guillermo Smith cracked regarding the lack of uniformity of ridesharing from city to city in Florida. “The reality is when tourists come to our state, they’re coming from around the country, they arrive in airports in our state, and they’re confused because they’re able to request Uber and Lyft rides at certain airports, but they’re not able to request them in other airports.”

Like Watson, he also expressed concerns about the safety standards on ridesharing vehicles. The Sprowls-Grant bill (sponsored in the Senate by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes) does not require mandatory vehicle inspections, as happens in most local jurisdictions regarding taxicabs and limousines.

“Our work on this bill, I think is far from done,” Guillermo Smith said, blasting the notion that the Ubers and Airbnb’s of the world are the future of the workforce in America. “I hope not, because most Uber drivers are driving for supplemental income,” he said.

The taxicab industry remains unsatisfied as well with the progress of the bill.

Louis Minardi, the owner of Yellow Cab Company of Tampa, feared that the bill allows for very limited oversight of ridesharing vehicles, “because most cities and counties will quit doing what they were doing before,” regarding regulations.

Other critics, like Dwight Mattingly from Palm Beach County, said that with more public transit agencies partnering up with Uber and Lyft, TNC drivers “must conform” to the same regulations that public for hire vehicles have had to adapt to.

Sprowls disagreed, saying those transit agencies can place those regulations in contracts with those companies. “If they want to add more onerous regulation than we have in our bill because they feel that they want to…they are able to do that,” he said.

A former prosecutor, Sprowls disputed the notion that a Level II background check is more rigorous than the ones that ridesharing drivers will be subjected to. “The FBI database has 95 million records. These multistage databases that we specifically outline in the bill, have 500 million records,” he said.

After passage of the bill, Uber and Lyft representatives were ecstatic.

“Today’s bipartisan vote is an encouraging indication that lawmakers recognize the safety and economic value of statewide access to ridesharing,” said Javi Correoso, public affairs manager with Uber Florida. “At Uber, our highest priority is the well-being of riders and drivers alike. Our commitment to innovation has created a layered system using the latest technology to protect all involved.

“Today’s approval of the ridesharing bill by the House Government Accountability Committee clears the way for this important legislation to be voted on by the full House,” said Chelsea Harrison, senior policy communications manager for Lyft. “We are grateful for the advocacy of Reps. Sprowls and Grant on behalf of the millions of passengers and drivers who benefit from ridesharing in Florida. We look forward to continuing to advocate for consistent statewide rules for ridesharing that expand economic activity, prioritize public safety, and encourage innovation across the state.”

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Headaches and money drain of “Water Wars” nearly avoided a decade ago

An old issue returned to the news last week when a U.S. Supreme Court-appointed special master recommended the Court rule against Florida in the ongoing Water Wars saga. Ralph Lancaster said Florida has not “met its burden” in proving reduced water flows from Georgia into the Apalachicola River are the cause for the harm befalling the region’s seafood industry.

For nearly three decades Florida has tried to ensure sufficient water comes into the panhandle region that houses a good portion of this state’s seafood industry. While the Apalachicola region will suffer the most, Florida taxpayers have a stake in all of this as well.

Since 2001, Florida has shelled out $72 million in legal costs to fight this battle. Of that total, as much as $41 million is coming out of this year’s coffers. Much of this money drain is going to outside law firms.

The price tag is not lost on state lawmakers. It is certainly front and center with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), who reported a $17 million shortfall in covering current and pending bills.

“I think the price tag is what is raising some eyebrows,” said House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican. “We really want to dive down into the bills, the action items and the cost.”

The litigation, originally begun in 1990, picked up steam in 2004 following the failure of the three states to achieve a negotiated settlement on river flows and consumption. Metro Atlanta’s increased desire/need to tap into Lake Lanier in north Georgia was also a major issue.

Both Florida and Alabama have long argued that Atlanta’s booming growth came without responsible water management. That has left all three states susceptible to catastrophic damage when droughts occur.

Anyone remember the 2006-2008 drought in the south? Apalachicola certainly does.

There was one huge opportunity to reach that cherished negotiated settlement which would have saved all of these millions along with the oysters. The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Compact, established in 1997, appeared as though it would achieve its goal of preventing more litigation.

Governor Jeb Bush was personally involved in working out an agreement with his counterparts, Gov. Don Siegelman of Alabama and Gov. Roy Barnes of Georgia. Then-DEP Secretary David Struhs and his team were involved in the nuts and bolts.

The compact was extended numerous times, but shortly before it would finally expire in 2003, a tentative understanding was reached between the states. Florida negotiators indicated all that remained was literally putting the final details on paper.

But it was not to be. At the last moment, Florida negotiators said Georgia blew up the agreement.

Teri Donaldson certainly remembers it. As DEP’s General Counsel from 1999-2004 and a former federal prosecutor, she was significantly involved in the negotiations with Georgia and Alabama.

I remember being in her office the next day. As DEP’s spokesman, I had to ask the inevitable question of “what happened?” I won’t forget her response.

“Georgia moved the goal posts,” she said.

Georgia’s decision to back away effectively, but not officially, marked the end of sitting around the table to make a deal. After 2004, the parties would still be seated at tables, but on opposite sides in courtrooms.

More than a decade and $72 million later, this is where the water wars stand. Florida, especially Apalachicola, is worse off since the day the tentative agreement collapsed.

It is tough to see how things get better.

Florida lawmakers may be asking for some of that money back. At issue is the presentation of Florida’s case, which did not include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lancaster prominently mentioned this in his recommendation to the Court.

The Corps controls water flows coming from Georgia and has basically taken Georgia’s position. How could they not be named as a defendant?

That’s exactly what House Speaker Richard Corcoran wants to know. According to a report in the News Service of Florida, the legislature may “aggressively” seek refunds for this “failure to include an indispensable party.”

The water wars will continue and apparently the legal wars will soon begin. Legal wars are not cheap either.

We were so close to avoiding all of this.

 

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tourism

State economists see tourism growth cancelling out lagging housing starts

Nothing emerged during a numbers-crunching exercise by state economists Tuesday to change the economic picture the Legislature will confront this year — growth in tourism and slack housing starts will offset each other as overall growth produces about $31 billion in general revenues.

“Those are going to compensate for each other. So, overall, you end up about where you were, on the same path where we were heading,” said Amy Baker, coordinator for the state Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

Together with unspent money left over from the current fiscal year, legislators will have about $32.3 billion in general revenues to spend during the fiscal year that begins July 1. That doesn’t count taxes and fees that feed trust funds dedicated to specific programs.

“Florida has been moving in lock step in line with our forecasts for several years now. We have not really had any big surprises. I think that will continue to be the case,” Baker said.

“It’s positive, from the fact that we continue to see some strength. But it’s not going to change what they’re facing this year.”

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed an $83.5 billion state budget for next fiscal year, but House approproprations subcommittees are taking a more pessimistic view of state revenues and are looking for programs to trim.

Economists from Baker’s office, the Legislature and the governor’s office reviewed data suggesting growth of about 4.5 percent in the tourism sector, notwithstanding declines in overseas visitors, including Canadians. Yet a long-anticipated growth in housing starts has yet to materialize.

Multifamily housing starts ought to be growing faster than they are, Baker said — particularly given young people’s penchant to cluster in rental apartments in cities. The economists suspected a lag time to put together construction deals. Or perhaps builders were awaiting the results of the presidential election.

Overall, construction “is growing with population growth, because our population is growing. But the amount it grows per new person is pretty steady,” Baker said.

“Even with the ginormous growth rate we’ve had — we’ve had double-digit growth rates for three of the last your years — we’re still nowhere back to normal.”

The prospect is for weak private housing starts through next fiscal year. “But then we have really good growth rates next year. So you’re coming back to where we were” before the recession “and going slightly ahead” in years to come.

Zika virus has not seriously crimped tourism, but Baker hadn’t expected that it would yet. The economists last considered the Zika factor last fall — going into the winter, when mosquito activity declines.

“The question is, as we go back into a higher period of time for mosquito activity, will we start off with no Zika effect or will we get back pretty fast to where we were, with an increase,” she said.

“Beause we think of it as a black swan” — a big surprise — “we’re not building a Zika problem into our forecast. But that would be a threat, because it’s such a strong part of our forecast.”

 

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VIDEO: Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense takes the Capitol

Michelle Gajda, the Florida chapter leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, spoke to reporters in the Capitol’s rotunda Tuesday as the group’s members met with lawmakers about gun-related legislation.

Monday’s story about the organization is here.

A Periscope video of Gajda’s remarks to news media is below:

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