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Senate Democrats could help block budget veto override — with caveats

Senate Democrats are ready to work with Gov. Rick Scott should he veto the massive education reform bill pushed by House leaders in the final days of the 2017 Session.

Mary Ellen Klas of the Miami Herald reports that Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon is prepared to help prevent an override of Scott’s veto, under the right circumstances.

A chorus of voices are calling Scott to veto HB 7069 — as well as the entire K-12 budget.

If that happens, the 15-member Senate Democratic caucus will be crucial to preventing the Republican-controlled Legislature from overriding a veto.

“We have to have a reason to override,” Braynon told the Herald about his Democratic colleagues. “It would depend on what the veto message looks like and if his vetoes include a bunch of things that matter to Democrats, then we’re not going to override. We’re willing to come back and work.”

Twenty-Six Senate votes are needed to override the governor’s veto, and as Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala publicly saying he would support a veto — and the three Republican senators who voted against HB 7069 — Senate Democrats could very well prevent an override if the voting bloc holds firm.

“We’re not against funding VISIT Florida,” Braynon said. “If the Republicans ask for an override of 7069, we’re not going to do it. If they want an override of the whole budget, we will withhold our judgment on overriding until we see what happens.”

A single candidate scores interview for DEP top job: Noah Valenstein

Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet will interview a single candidate for the vacant secretary slot at the Department of Environmental Regulation — Noah Valenstein, a former environmental aide to the governor.

His was the only name put forward for an interview during a meeting of aides to the governor and Cabinet Wednesday morning.

“The governor would like to schedule an interview with Noah Valenstein,” Scott aide Kristin Olson said.

“If there’s anybody else that any other principal would like to be interviewed, let us know and we’ll make sure they’re there,” Olson asked the aides flanking her in the Cabinet meeting room.

None piped up with a nomination.

“My sense from checking in with the Cabinet leaders is that they knew Noah was likely to be the candidate and were comfortable with it,” Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, told reporters following the meeting.

In fact, Draper had lobbied for Valenstein.

“I think Noah’s a great choice,” he said.

“I’ve worked with him a long time. He was part of the conservation community at one time. We lobbied together up here. He’s got a great reputation,” he said.

Left on the shelf is interim secretary Ryan Matthews. He’s been running the agency since Jon Steverson quit in January to join the legal-lobbying firm of Foley & Lardner.

Draper described Matthews as “a really good guy” who “would have been a good choice, also.”

The Audubon chief praised Valenstein for his work at Suwanee River.

“We’ve seen a change in the tone over there since he’s been the executive director. Noah’s really demonstrated his leadership skills. I think he has the potential to be one of our best environmental secretaries.”

Valenstein is closely tied to Scott, having served in the administration and the 2014 re-election campaign. With Scott likely poised to run for U.S. Senate, are they too close?

“I certainly would hope that Noah’s not coming over to just be part of a campaign. Running an environmental agency is a lot different that running the environmental policy office in the governor’s office,” Draper said.

“I don’t think there’s anything more important for the success of our conservation mission than good leadership at DEP,” he added.

“If that leadership is focused on getting the agency to enforce the laws, and to come up with a water plan for the state, which we desperately need, and to get the land acquisition program moving again, I think that DEP can be what people expect it to be.”

Pam Bondi wants to protect ‘military consumers’

Attorney General Pam Bondi on Wednesday announced a new consumer protection program “that will serve the unique needs of our military and veteran communities and directly assist with consumer protection-related issues.”

The Military and Veterans Assistance Program (MVAP) is Bondi’s “most recent effort to spread awareness of and stop deceptive business practices affecting military service members, veterans and their families,” according to a press release.

“Florida has more than 90,000 active duty and reserve military members and more than 1.5 million veterans,” she said in a statement. “To the men and women who have put on a uniform to protect our country, we will continue to do everything we can to protect you from these scammers. As Memorial Day approaches at the end of this month, I am honored to have the opportunity to assist the heroes who lay their lives on the line to keep us safe.”

Here’s more from the release:

Members of Attorney General Bondi’s MVAP team will provide resources and information to base JAG officers, county veteran service officers and other organizations across the state to help service members and veterans learn how to protect themselves from scams and file complaints.

As part of Attorney General Bondi’s efforts to protect military consumers, the MVAP team will also:
— Partner with military and veteran leadership statewide to provide education regarding emerging scams targeting active military and veterans and how to report them;
— Provide both internal and external assistance on consumer protection-related issues;
— Connect service members and veterans with legal aid offices or other agencies if needed; and
— Foster open communication between local, state and federal partners to help ensure complaints are being handled by the correct organization and new information is shared.

The Attorney General’s Office works tirelessly to ensure that all military members, whether active duty, returning from deployment, guard and reserve members or veterans of the Armed Forces, are protected from unscrupulous businesses and individuals.

State will exhaust budget for agriculture conservation easements by year’s end

The state would run out of money to buy agricultural conservation land easements by the end of 2017 under the budget approved by the Legislature, the head of the Florida Forest Service said Wednesday.

The service asked for $50 million and got $10 for the Rural & Family Lands Protection Program, land program administrator John Browne told aides to Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet. Combined with about $11 million for the current fiscal year, that would leave around $21 million for easement acquisition, Browne said.

“So you’ll see easements at least until the end of this calendar year. After that, it’s kind of questionable,” Browne said.

That would mean placing “one or two” acquisitions per month before the governor and Cabinet though the year’s end, he added.

Last year, the Legislature gave the service $35 for easements under the program. The new budget would take effect on July 1.

Scott and the Cabinet have two acquisitions on their May 23 agenda — $7 million on 4,177 acres of the Triple S Ranch in Okeechobee County, and $1.5 million in state and federal money for 1,034 acres of the S.Y. Hartt Ranch in Highland County.

Both are Tier One targets for the Forest Service, and both are deemed critical to recharge zones for the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, and other state waterways.

The $11 million would be left following those acquisitions. Surveys, site assessments, and related costs take up between 5 percent and 7 percent of the cost of acquisitions, Browne told reporters following the meeting.

Being ranked Tier One means “we want them bad,” he said.

Both Triple S and Harrt support extensive natural habitat and represent important water recharge areas. “These ranches are impeccable,” Browne said.

Moreover, the Harrt Ranch easements would protect the military’s Avon Park bombing range from encroaching development — helping to keep the facility and its payroll in Florida.

The program keeps valuable agricultural lands free from intensive development — and also to protect historical and environmental treasures.

The Legislature did pass SB 10, a $1.5 billion plan to restore Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. That commitment absorbed many of the state’s resources for environmental conservation.

Does Browne worry about the program’s future?

“I’m not really worried about it, because the constituency that we support, they’re very vocal about it. They love the program. They’ll continue to lobby. We’ll continue to push for it. We’re doing a lot of good things. This just happened to be a year where there were other things that were determined to be more important,” he said.

Without money to spend on new acquisitions, the service will continue to scout prospects for the future and keep an eye on existing easements, Browne said.

“We’ve got a really small group of people who do this. Actually, there’s only three or four of us. So we’ve got plenty of work to do.”

Still, without new money, the program will leave “a lot — thousands” of acres on the table, Browne said.

“This is a real problem,” Audubon Florida executive director Eric Draper said.

“Florida is developing very quickly and these landowners have a choice — ‘Do I develop the land, or do I try and hold onto it in difficult economic circumstances, or to I try to wait until the state can come up with some money to provide an easement,” Draper said.

“These landowners are stepping forward and being willing for essentially a fraction of the price of the land commit to protecting it perpetually,” he said. “Fifteen hundred dollars an acre is a huge bargain for the state of Florida.”

Andrew, R. Jai Gillum add baby Davis to family

R. Jai Gillum and her husband — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum — have welcomed another member to their family, announcing the birth of baby Davis Allen Gillum.

Davis, born Monday night at 8 pounds, 3 ounces, is the Gillum’s third child, joining three-year-old twins Jackson and Caroline.

Gillum, who serves as Tallahassee mayor, reported on Facebook that mother and child both are doing well.

“Everyone on Team Gillum all across the state is thrilled for them!” spokesman Geoff Burgan said.

Thousands of acres of conservation easement on Cabinet aides’ agenda

The Triple S Ranch lies 15 miles north of Lake Okeechobee — a 7,000-acre cattle operation, relatively untouched by development, within the recharge zone for the Kissimmee River.

Rare and endangered species, including a Florida panther, wander its streams and cypress swamps.

On Wednesday morning, aides to Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet will peruse a proposal to buy a conservation easement on 4,177 acres of the Okeechobee County property, for close to $7 million.

The deal is scheduled to go before Scott and the Cabinet on May 23.

“The property has been in the Scott Family since 1948 and is primarily improved pasture,” according to a summary prepared for the governor and Cabinet.

“About one-fifth of the property supports natural upland vegetation, including scrub and mesic flatwoods, which are considered underrepresented communities on public lands in Florida. With the exception of the improved pasture, the property has remained in its natural state as acquired in 1948,” the summary says.

The Florida Forest Service has rated the property Tier One for easement acquisition under the Rural & Family Lands Protection Program, intended to keep valuable agricultural lands free from intensive development — and also to protect historical and environmental treasures.

The state holds easements on close to 36,000 acres under the program.

Streams including Cow Creek, Gomez Creek, Quail Creek, and Telegraph Branch, which feed into the St. Lucie Estuary, run through the ranch.

“Other species that occur are bald eagles, gopher tortoise, Florida scrub Jay, indigo snakes, burrowing owls, and fox squirrel,” the summary says.

The Smiths would retain title, but would be barred from developing the land, or exploiting any mineral wealth.

“Activities that affect the hydrology of the land or that detrimentally affect water conservation, erosion control, soil conservation, or fish and wildlife habitat,” would be banned.

Also on the agenda is the $1.5 million state-federal purchase of an easement on 1,034 acres of the S.Y. Hartt Ranch in Highland County — another Tier One project. That deal would bring total state and federal easements on the property to 6,622 acres.

“S.Y. Hartt Ranch drains to Arbuckle Creek, which eventually flows into Lake Okeechobee. It is located within the Northern Everglades Watershed and the recharge range for the Kissimmee River Basin and contains freshwater marshes, oak hammocks, swamps, wet and dry prairies, cypress domes, improved pasture, and citrus,” the summary says.

Partly in disbelief, Florida’s members of Congress denounce Donald Trump’s revelations to Russians

A lot of Florida’s Democratic members of Congress are responding with stunned disbelief to news reports — and President Donald Trump‘s Tuesday morning tweet — that he shared classified, highly sensitive ISIS information with Russian diplomats last week, calling the prospect inexcusable and demanding details.

Republican U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami and Mario Diaz-Balart also denounced the events, while most other Republican members from Florida have yet to react Tuesday morning to Monday evenings’ news, and Trump’s tweet essentially acknowledging the information exchange.

On the other hand, Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Posey of Rockledge argued that if the concerns are real and serious, the sources who brought the story forward need to be taking their concerns to Congress, not offering unnamed source tips to the media.

“The President has the authority to make decisions regarding our national security and work with other nations to combat international terrorism,” Posey stated. “It’s time for these unnamed sources to come forward and inform Congress and the public of any specific allegations.”

After reports first in The Washington Post and then other major media outlets, Trump responded Tuesday morning with two tweets stating, “As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining …” and “… to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”

Essentially The Washington Post and others had reported that Trump told the Russian officials about intelligence it had gathered on ISIS in Syria, from third-party sources that presumably would not want that information shared with the Russians, who are not aligned with the United States in the multisided Syrian conflicts.

“If the story is true,” began a statement from Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

“If these allegations are true,” opened Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando.

“If reports are accurate,” surmised Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton

“If true,” started Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston.

“Putin and the Russian regime are dangerous players in the global arena,” Diaz-Balart stated. “They are not our allies and cannot be trusted with sensitive, classified information.”

Ros-Lehtinen spoke on CBS Miami, and then passed along her essential position in a tweet Tuesday morning: “No one should share classified information with nations like #Russia that have interests adverse to ours.”

Democrats were no less direct, including those who caveated their statements in initial disbelief, calling for damage assessments and more.

And with later reports on Tuesday that the intelligence may have come from Israel, Deutch really let loose.

“It is shocking that President Trump shared classified information reportedly obtained by Israel with the Russians. Not only does this endanger Israel’s intelligence network, but it puts highly sensitive information into the hands of Russia — a partner of Israel’s enemies Syria, Iran, and its proxy Hezbollah,” Deutch said. “Intelligence cooperation between the United States and Israel has always been a cornerstone of our relationship, and to jeopardize this while boasting to the Russians puts America’s national security and Israel’s security at serious risk.”

“When you betray the trust of our allies and national security partners, it jeopardizes our safety and future intelligence sharing. As the former vice chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, I can’t stress enough how serious of a blunder this is,” declared U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar. “It is imperative that Congress is given a full briefing on the extent of the damage that President Donald John Trump has caused in compromising highly classified code-word intelligence to the Russians.”

“If the story is true, this is a serious breach of security and will have lasting and dangerous consequences for the U.S.,” Nelson said.

“Trump betrays our country & allies when he leaks classified info to Russia,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando.

“The news that the president gave highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador in the Oval Office is deeply, deeply disturbing. His actions are indefensible,” declared U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg. “They delivered a self-inflicted wound to our national security, imperiling secret, sensitive operations overseas battling ISIS, putting the lives of our operatives in grave danger. Congress must exercise its oversight responsibilities immediately. The repercussions of the disclosure, and measures to prevent the President from repeating such a serious error, must be weighed.”

“If these allegations are true, they are inexcusable and deserve immediate action from Congress. In leaking this kind of intelligence, the President would be putting lives in danger. Our allies need to know that they can trust us,” Demings offered.

“As president, Trump has the right to declassify anything he wants, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do,” offered U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens. “Russia is not our friend, and the sooner he realizes that, the better off our country will be.”

“If true, news reports indicate that President Trump compromised America’s intelligence gathering operations and security, and possibly harmed a relationship with a key ally and put lives at risk,” stated Wasserman Schultz. “His disclosure would be a gravely dangerous compromise of classified information with an adversary. Congress needs an immediate and full briefing on what damage has been done.”

“If reports are accurate, President Trump revealed vital and highly classified information in the Oval Office to Putin’s top officials. This reckless move jeopardizes our intelligence sources, exposes extremely sensitive information, and seriously calls into question our president’s judgment,” Deutch declared in his original statement, before the Israel report. “This dangerous behavior threatens our global alliances in the fight against terrorism and actually makes America less safe.”

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee posted on Facebook, “Reports of President Trump sharing highly sensitive information with Russian officials is extremely concerning. This underscores the need for a Special Prosecutor to investigate this administration’s ties to Russia.”

At a news conference Tuesday morning, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa said: “If it’s true that President Trump shared classified information with one of our adversaries while they were invited into the Oval Office, it’s simply outrageous and it undermines the ability of the United States of America to cooperate with our allies across the world, gathering intelligence. It undermines the effectiveness of the brave men and women in our intelligence agencies.”

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park, also sent out a tweet, stating, “If other nations can’t trust us to keep shared classified info secret, then they will stop sharing it with us — making us less safe.”

Murphy’s campaign side had a lot more to say on the subject late Tuesday, in a fundraising email, demanding that transcripts of Trump’s meeting with the Russians be sent to Congress for review:

“These leaks could put American lives in danger and no one — not even the President — should be given a free pass for this kind of reckless behavior. Nothing is more important than the safety and security of American citizens. Trump’s leaks to the Russians put our national security at risk and endanger our relationships with key allies.

“In fact, The Associated Press is reporting that other countries may stop sharing intelligence that could prevent future terrorist attacks. As a former National Security specialist with one of the nation’s top security clearances, Stephanie knows the importance of keeping classified information within the intelligence community.

“That’s why she’s taking Trump’s leaks VERY seriously and calling for the immediate release of the meeting transcripts for Congressional review.

“Congress should at least have the same information the Russians now have in their possession. If our President put our nation in danger — we deserve to know.”

The email then directs people to click on a link to send a message to Trump, but the link first sends visitors to a fundraising page for Murphy’s 2018 re-election.

Lobby firms bring in more than $35.7M in first quarter

The numbers are out.

Registered legislative lobbying firms reported median earnings of more than $35.7 million in the first quarter of 2017. The Top 5 earners during the three-month period were Ballard Partners, Southern Strategy Group, Ronald L. Book PA, Capital City Consulting, and Greenberg Traurig.

If those rankings look familiar, there’s a reason for that. The five firms were ranked among the Top 5 firms each quarter in 2016. And according to LobbyTools Legislative IQ, it appears the pentad of firms started 2017 in the same spot on the earners’ list as the first quarter of 2016.

Ballard Partners and Southern Strategy Group led the pack in the first quarter, reporting median earnings of more than $2.4 million and $2.3 million respectively. Book’s firm reported median earnings of more than $2 million in the first three months of 2017.

Capital City Consulting reported median earnings of more than $1.6 million; while Greenberg Traurig reported media earnings of more than $1.2 million in the first quarter of 2017.

GrayRobinson, which reported more than $1.1 million; The Rubin Group, which reported $936,000; Floridian Partners, which reported $935,000; Johnson & Blanton, which reported $910,000; and Metz Husband & Daughton, which reported $882,000 rounded out the Top 10 earners during the first quarter of 2017.

Registered principals reported paying legislative lobbyists more than $38.4 million during the first quarter, according to LobbyTools Legislative IQ.

FCCI Insurance Group paid a median of $383,000 to legislative lobbyists during the first quarter, while AT&T paid a median of $275,00 during the three-month period.

State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company paid a median of $255,000, followed by Associated Industries of Florida at $250,000. U.S. Sugar rounded out the Top 5, paying an estimated $243,000 to legislative lobbyists during the period.

George Sheldon, under fire in Illinois, also faces questions at home

George Sheldon, a former Florida official now facing an ethics inquiry as director of Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services, also ran into a spot of trouble at home this week.

Property records show Sheldon, secretary of Florida’s Department of Children and Families in 2008-11, claimed a homestead exemption on his Tallahassee house while he was living and working in Chicago.

He also was listed as “delinquent” on paying his Florida Bar dues, according to its website.

In a phone interview Tuesday morning, Sheldon said he’s never considered himself a permanent Illinois resident, and wherever work may take him, “Florida is my home.” He has owned a home in Tallahassee’s Golden Eagle neighborhood since 2007, Leon County property records show.

He also sent a copy of a lawyer’s opinion letter saying, in part, “mere absence for a protracted period of time is not of itself sufficient to establish abandonment of homestead.” The opinion was by Tallahassee attorney Ronald Meyer, a veteran labor lawyer who also represents the Florida Education Association.

Also Tuesday, a Bar spokeswoman told FloridaPolitics.com that Sheldon “is no longer fee delinquent.”

“His fees are current and he’s paid the reinstatement fee of $150,” the Bar’s Karen Kirksey said. He is, however, still listed as “not eligible to practice in Florida” because he had not yet returned a required form, she added.

As reported Monday by the Tallahassee Democrat, “Sheldon, a well-known figure in Florida politics who took over Illinois’ troubled child welfare agency in 2015, is embroiled in ongoing state ethics probes and facing scrutiny over contracts given to past campaign donors and consultants.”

A spokesman told the paper Sheldon “saw no personal financial benefit from any of the Florida contracts” that went to Gary Yordon, a political consultant and former Leon County commissioner, and Adam Corey, part-owner of Tallahassee’s Edison restaurant.

Yordon got “$35,000 to produce two television public service announcements about child drowning danger and safe infant sleeping practices,” and Corey “lobbied for a company, Presidio Networked Solutions, that was awarded more than $1 million in contracts with (Illinois’) DCFS.”

Sheldon now is weighing a return to Florida to head the Our Kids nonprofit that provides child services in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said Tuesday. “I’m torn. But I have never run from a challenge, and Illinois is a challenge.”

On his residency, Sheldon added: “It’s a fair question and it was a fair question when they were trying to knock me off the ballot.”

Sheldon, a Democrat, lost a challenge to incumbent GOP Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2014. Before that campaign, he lived in Washington while serving as acting assistant secretary in 2011-13 for the federal Administration for Children and Families under President Barack Obama.

After his legal residency was challenged in court, a Tallahassee judge ruled that his “professional sojourn out of state didn’t disqualify him for holding office if elected,” the Tampa Tribune reported. Meyer also represented him during that case. 

Over a long career, Sheldon also has served in the state House, was an aide to then-state Sen. Reubin Askew, and was a deputy to Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

This is all part of being in the public eye,” Sheldon said. 

Updated 9 p.m. — The Miami Herald reported that the Our Kids board voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to hire Sheldon as its new CEO, but he “has given Our Kids no assurances yet that he will accept the offer.”

Ryan Yadav mulling Democratic run for attorney general

Winter Park attorney Ryan Yadav said Tuesday he is contemplating a Democratic run for Florida attorney general.

Yadav ran unsuccessfully last year for the House District 30 seat. Republican state Rep. Bob Cortes won re-election, beating him, 53 to 47 percent.

“I have recently been contacted by people throughout the State encouraging me to run for Attorney General in 2018. I am seriously considering the venture and will make a decision over the summer,” Yadav declared in a message to Orlando-Rising.com. “Based upon my qualifications, trial experience, and fire in the belly — If I run I will win!”

The only declared candidate in the attorney general’s race so far is Republican state Rep.  Jay Fant of Jacksonville.

Yadav’s race against Cortes last year was largely self-funded, with $75,000 in personal loans, plus about $23,000 in donations. Cortes hugely outspent him, with more than $370,000, and also received indirect support from the Republican Party of Florida and other organizations. Yadav received a few endorsements, including from school groups and unions, but little money.

Yadav, who turns 33 at the end of the month, has his own law firm in Sanford, practicing mostly criminal defense law, though he said he also practices a wide range of law.

“I feel that I have, in all candor, more legal experience, varied legal experience, than the past three attorney generals combined. And the Republican candidate has only done legal work for a bank,” he said, referring to Fant.

But Yadav also cautioned that he has a lot to contemplate before deciding to run, including whether he can assemble fundraising and grass-roots support for a statewide race.

“I’m not naive to the challenges of running a statewide campaign,” he said. “But I think it is within reason.”

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