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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.

St. Pete College announces five finalists for new president, interviews scheduled for May

Dr. Bill Law

St. Petersburg College has narrowed the list in its search for a new president, replacing the retiring Dr. Bill Law.

The college’s search and screen committee announced five finalists Monday, each scheduled to visit the campus through next month to meet with faculty, staff, students and members of the community.

Members of the SPC board of trustees will interview the candidates, through five special meetings scheduled for May.

An announcement of the final choice is tentatively set for a special meeting at 9 a.m. June 9. All interviews and meetings will be at the St. Petersburg/Gibbs Campus Music Center, 6605 Fifth Ave. N.

Finalists, interview times and dates include:

Edward Bonahue, Ph.D., Provost and VP for Academic Affairs, Santa Fe College, Gainesville — 4 p.m. May 4.

Stan Vittetoe, Ph.D., Provost, St. Petersburg College, Clearwater — 4 p.m. May 9.

Tonjua Williams, Ph.D., Sr. vice president, Student Services, St. Petersburg College, St. Petersburg — 4 p.m. May 16.

James Henningsen, EdD, President, College of Central Florida, Ocala — 4 p.m. May 22.

Frank A. Biafora, Jr., Ph.D., Dean and professor, College of Arts and Sciences at University of South Florida St. Petersburg — 4 p.m. May 26.

The winning candidate will become SPC’s seventh president, replacing Law, who has held the post since June 7, 2010. Law announced his retirement in November, and will step down July 1.

Law played a crucial role in the development of the Douglas L. Jamerson, Jr. Midtown Center, which opened August 2015 in South St. Petersburg, with a commitment to provide educational equity in a traditionally underserved community.

Among Law’s other achievements include working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Aspen Institute, offering expert testimony to Congress, and serving on the Florida Task Force on Community College Baccalaureate Education. Law is also co-chair of the SPC Strategic Issues Council, a foundation of the Achieving the Dream Initiative.

During Law’s tenure, SPC was recognized as one of 30 community colleges in the nation to be part of the Pathways Project led by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). He also launched The College Experience, which received a Chancellor’s Best Practices Award in 2014 and as a Model of Excellence by University Business Magazine in 2015 for its effect on student success rates four First-Time-In-College (FTIC) students and minority males.


Rick Scott says he will sign ‘Uber bill’

Gov. Rick Scott tweeted on Monday that he will sign into law a bill creating statewide regulations for ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft.

“I look forward to signing the @Uber/ @lyft bill,” Scott tweeted from his official account, @FLGovScott.

Colin Tooze, Uber’s director of public affairs, tweeted back, “Many thanks for your leadership, @FLGovScott ! All of us at @Uber are excited to have a permanent home in the Sunshine State.”

Lawmakers had considered legislation for four years before passing a bill this year.

The Senate finally approved a House measure (HB 221) on a 36-1 vote, with Sen. Jack Latvala the only ‘no’ vote.

The legislation, among other things, requires Uber, Lyft and similar “transportation network companies” to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged into the app, but hasn’t yet secured a passenger.

When a driver gets a ride, they need to have $1 million in coverage.

The bill also requires companies to have third parties run criminal background checks on drivers. It also pre-empts local ordinances and other rules on transportation network companies, or TNCs.

Nearly 22K ballots now returned in St. Pete Al Lang Referendum

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark released updated vote by mail numbers for the St. Petersburg Special Referendum election Tuesday, May 2.

On Monday, of the 68,694 mail ballots sent, just over 31 percent – 21,756 – have returned. By party, 9,904 Democrats, 7,804 Republicans and 4,048 NPR/other have cast ballots.

Turnout now stands at just under 13 percent of the 168,145 registered voters eligible to vote in this election: 46,658 Republicans, 77,825 Democrats and 43,662 No Party Affiliation/other. The City of St. Petersburg will not conduct early voting as provided in Florida Statute.

Residents will decide whether to allow the City Council to approve extending the Al Lang Field lease with the Tampa Bay Rowdies for up to 25 years, part of a plan by the Rowdies to attract a Major-League Soccer expansion team.

According to the referendum language: “These conditions include but are not limited to: term not exceeding 25 years; primary but not sole purpose is a home field for a Major-League Soccer expansion team; and City funding shall not be used for stadium upgrades or expansion proposed in bid for expansion team or required for award of expansion team.”

Rowdies owner Bill Edwards is also paying for the referendum itself.

Mail ballots must be received by 7 p.m. election day at one of the Pinellas elections offices: 315 Court St, Room 117, in Clearwater; 13001 Starkey Rd, Largo (Starkey Lakes Corporate Center) and 501 1st Ave. N (5th St. N Entrance), St. Petersburg. Office hours are Monday – Friday: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Election day hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.


Senate budges little in initial gambling negotiation

Saying he wanted to “start taking small steps,” state Sen. Bill Galvano on Monday tendered the first offer in the Legislature’s negotiation on a gambling bill this year.

The initial tender, though it largely maintains what’s in the Senate’s bill, also would classify contentious “pre-reveal” games as slot machines, and would limit two new slots facilities to either Broward or Miami-Dade counties.

A circuit court ruling last month against the state said entertainment devices that look and play like slot machines, called “pre-reveal” games, were “not an illegal slot machine or gambling device.” House leaders in particular feared that meant they would wind up in bars, restaurants, and even in family fun centers.

The Senate offer also would give the state more time, up to two years, to address any future violation of blackjack exclusivity brought by the Seminole Tribe of Florida with a legislative fix. That also was addressed to court rulings that create such “violations.”

The House and Senate are far apart on their respective gambling bills this session, with the House holding the line on gambling expansion, and the Senate pushing for new games.

A deal is pending to grant continued blackjack exclusivity to the tribe in return for $3 billion over seven years, though that money isn’t part of ongoing budget talks between the House and Senate. A request for comment is pending with the Tribe’s spokesman.

Galvano’s House counterpart, state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, said he appreciated the offer “to get the conversation going,” specifically mentioning the 2-year provision in the context of court decisions on gambling.

“There are still plenty of threats out there and we’re constantly playing a game of catch-up,” he said. Diaz added that he expects to respond some time later this week: “There is some low-hanging fruit here and some more complicated issues to work through.” The 2017 Legislative Session is scheduled to meet May 5.

Galvano mentioned last Thursday’s Supreme Court decision that cleared the “Voter Control of Gambling” amendment for the 2018 ballot.

He surmised from Justices Ricky Polston‘s and R. Fred Lewis‘ dissent in that case that the court is ready to rule in favor of expanding slot machines to counties that approved them in local referendums.

“One can almost glean from the dissent that it’s a fait accompli just pending in the court,” Galvano said. “Either we do it or the courts are going to do it.”

“When I look at the dissenting opinion, it almost references (new slots in referendum counties) as if they’re existing,” Galvano later told reporters. “All of these things play into the big picture.”

He also has concerns that the amendment, if adopted, could retroactively quash new slots approved for Hialeah. When asked whether he were reading between the lines, he added, “That’s a good way of putting it.”

Bubba the Love Sponge legal update: IRS files tax lien, ex-girlfriend drops injunction

Bubba the Love Sponge can now add a federal tax lien to his recent legal troubles.

But as one issue pops up, another appears to have worked itself out for the embattled Tampa Bay shock jock.

Formerly known as Todd Alan Clem, Bubba the Love Sponge Clem is the owner of the Bubba Radio Network Inc., headquartered at 5021 W. Nassau St. in Tampa.

Over the years, the infamous radio host, who now lives in South St. Petersburg, has either directly or indirectly been involved in multiple legal cases, both in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

In the latest of his legal difficulties, the Internal Revenue Service filed a tax lien last month against the Bubba Radio Network, saying the company owes $23,295 in unpaid ‘941’ taxes for the tax period that ended Sept. 30, 2016.

This latest problem comes on top of former girlfriend Nicole Maria “Nikki” L’Ange seeking an injunction February against Bubba for domestic violence. The same week, Bank of America sued him over a defaulted $75,000 line of credit.

In December, Beasley Media Group, part of the Beasley Broadcast Group, removed Bubba’s show from WBRN-FM 98.7 in the Tampa area, leaving his show on a single Beasley station: WRXK-FM 98-Rock in Fort Myers.

Tampa’s WWBA-AM 820 later picked up the show.

But at least one of the actions seemed to have been settled. On March 13, L’Ange voluntarily dismissed her petition for a restraining order against Clem. She did not list a reason.

As for Bank of America’s $75,000 lawsuit, neither Clem nor the Bubba Radio Network has responded as of mid-April.


Enviro group fronting Florida’s ‘ban the bag’ effort spends next to nothing, accused of skirting lobbying rules

Single-use plastic bags, found at nearly every retail, grocery and convenience store in the nation, are now the latest target of environmentalists, as well as by state and local lawmakers.

However, in the case of the leading nonprofit behind Florida’s growing “ban the bag” movement, something is not quite right.

The Surfrider Foundation, headquartered in San Clemente, began as a small environmental organization to “champion surf and sand” of California beaches. Thirty years later, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit has evolved into a multimillion dollar nationwide concern, claiming to be “dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans and beaches through a powerful activist network” and focusing on such hot-button environmental issues like climate change.

Having a growing presence — 11 chapters in Florida — Surfrider is working to ban not only plastic bags but also polystyrene, balloons, plastic water bottles, plastic drinking straws and the like.

But through financial secrecy, open politicking and skirting state and federal lobbying rules, Surfrider seems to be expending a lot of energy to “ban the bag” — while spending next to nothing to get it done. A closer look at the Surfrider network reveals a dubious lack of spending on lobbying efforts, clearly disproportionate to its actual activities.

Steven Allen writes in The Orange County Register: “According to the group’s Form 990, Surfrider generates $6.7 million in annual revenue, supposedly to combat climate change, but claims to spend minimal sums on political advocacy and lobbying. From 2010 to 2014, the group’s total lobbying limit, given its 501(c)(3) status, was roughly $2.3 million, yet Surfrider reported less than $70,000 in lobbying expenditures — 3 percent of the total limit.”

“During that period,” Allen notes, “Surfrider’s total grassroots lobbying limit was about $600,000, yet the group only spent a reported $24,909 on grassroots lobbying — 4 percent of its limit.”

Surfrider — which sends groups to lobby legislators in Washington D.C. — primarily targets local ordinances, as they seek to block or undermine statewide measures for uniformity of commerce (as described by Surfrider CEO Chad Nelson).

The group urges cities to mount legal challenges in parts of the county (such as Florida) where the regulatory authority to tax and single-use plastic bag bans is reserved exclusively for the state.

As part of its campaign, Surfrider has become a regular fixture at legislative lobby days and fly-ins, most recently in support of legislation that would authorize localities to enact pilot ordinances to ban or tax plastic bags.

Pushing its legislative agenda in Tallahassee, Surfrider helped write the statewide “ban the bag” bill sponsored in 2017 by Miami Beach Democrat David Richardson. HB 93 would allow water-adjacent municipalities of less than 100,000 residents to pass pilot programs banning single-use plastic bags. The Senate companion (SB 162), is now in the Community Affairs Committee.

In addition to its statewide campaign, Surfrider’s most recent local victory was in Coral Gables, which became the first city in Florida to move toward a total ban on the single-use plastic bag.

On March 14, the Coral Gables City Council gave the OK to a preliminary ordinance prohibiting plastic bags used by retailers or at special events. A vote May 8 could make the ban permanent.

Coral Gables represents a key part of Surfrider’s strategy. All they need is a single city to contradict state policy, provoking a lawsuit and giving the group an opportunity to legally challenge the entire state law. For this, Surfrider is willing to pay for the fight.

That enthusiasm to provide financial support to a range of political, legal and legislative battles raise a number of red flags.

For example, Surfrider’s spending irregularities have caught the attention of the Capital Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based investigative think tank.

In February, the CRC published an extensive examination of the Surfrider Foundation’s activist history as a 501(c)(3) organization, which included several examples of financial filing discrepancies, potential political underreporting and activist training. Soon after, the group issued a shorter synopsis following up on Surfrider’s possible abuses of nonprofit status.

On March 22, CRC submitted a formal complaint against Surfrider Foundation with the Internal Revenue Service.

As a nonprofit, tax-exempt public service organization, federal rules prohibit Surfrider Foundation from engaging in direct action politics. To most taxpayers, it is straightforward — tax-exempt, nonprofit service organizations should not be in the business of politics.

In stark comparison, Surfrider wears its political activates like a badge of honor — claiming more than 400 campaign victories since 2006, and an activist campaign school for members (even offering courses such as Advocacy 101, Campaigns 101 and Lobbying 101 courses).

An egregious case of this gray area between nonprofit and active politicking is demonstrated in a YouTube video posted June 2016 — “How Political Hardball Can Save Our Oceans and Coast” — which features a Surfrider attorney openly colluding with candidates and talking strategy of using PACs and fundraising.

The video brings up an interesting issue: a lawyer for a 501(c)(3), onstage with a c(4) director and a candidate for public office, holding a panel with the theme “politics and grassroots DO mix.”

As part of the Environmental Media Association Speaker Series, the conversation also preceded a candidate fundraiser — with suggested donations to said candidate — something undoubtedly troublesome in light of candidate prohibitions for (c)(3)s. Flyers promoting the forum, and a fundraiser for Salud Carbajal running for California’s 24th Congressional District, were at the same address, with overlapping times.

It is also somewhat unwise for a candidate to speak openly about how a (c)(3) works in concert with a (c)(4), acknowledging that specific political issues/candidates/ballot discussions are being raised in (c)(3) chapter meetings.

What’s more, financial records show Surfrider claimed to spend no more than $25,000 on political activities since 2012 — well below its legal caps. That alone is improbable, given the degree they have been active in Florida and nationwide: lobbying Tallahassee this year, as well as its actions in Coral Gables and helping craft bills such as Richardson’s HB 93.

The fundamental question is this: How can a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) get away with open politicking, claiming political activities nationwide and “hundreds” of victories, all while spending practically nothing on the politics and lobbying to do so?

Legislature at stalemate over new state budget

With time running out in this year’s regular session, Florida’s legislative leaders are at a stalemate over a new state budget and are starting to lash out at one another over the breakdown.

The first but crucial round of negotiations between the House and Senate fell apart on Sunday. The session is scheduled to end on May 5, but state law requires that all work on the budget be finished 72 hours ahead of a final vote.

The lack of a budget deal can also derail other crucial legislation since many times stand-alone bills get tied to the spending plan or are used as leverage in negotiations.

The growing divide prompted Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran to lash out at fellow Republicans in the Senate, comparing them to national Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders.

“There are no limits to their liberalism,” Corcoran said.

Sen. Jack Latvala, the Senate budget chief, said that Corcoran was acting as if “everyone was a liberal but him.”

“I just think it’s very unfortunate for the process, where we start calling names and broadly classify people instead of trying to constructively work out solutions,” Latvala said.

The House and Senate are working on a new budget to cover state spending from July 1 of this year to June 30, 2018. The two chambers started their budget negotiations with a roughly $4 billion difference in their rival spending plans.

For more than a week, the two sides privately traded broad offers that outlined how much money would be spent in key areas such as education, health care, the environment and economic development.

Gov. Rick Scott has been highly critical of a House plan to shutter the state’s economic development agency and to sharply cut money to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing corporation. Scott has urged Senate Republicans to stand firm against House Republicans.

Part of this broad framework also included how much money the state should set aside in reserves.

Corcoran said one stumbling block was that the House wanted to place more money in reserves because of projections that show a possible budget deficit in the next two to three years if spending continues to increase.

“We refuse to let the state go bankrupt,” said Corcoran, who also said such a strategy could force Florida to raise taxes.

Unable to reach a deal, the House over the weekend offered a “continuation” budget that would have kept intact state funding at current levels in many places. That would have allowed legislators to end the session on time and avoid the need for a costly special session. But it would have meant that there would be no money for any new projects.

The Senate, however, rejected this idea. Senate President Joe Negron, in a memo sent out to senators Monday morning, called it a “Washington creation where Congress is habitually unable to pass a budget.”

Reprinted with permission of The Associated Press.

Florence Snyder: Why children die, Part 5 — An alphabet soup of agencies can’t drain the swamp

After a lifetime of drawing the short straw, Keishan Ross may finally have caught a break.

The 17-year-old Broward County boy has an IQ that tops out at 61, on a good day. By age 3, his teachers knew that he was severely limited in his capacity to learn. He suffers from mental illnesses that he can’t understand. He will never be able to reliably cooperate with doctors, teachers or his loving mother.

By age 11, Keishan was labeled a delinquent. His mother, his public defender, and a caring judge have tried and failed to extricate him from the Government Shuffle between the Broward Regional Juvenile Detention Center and the Apalachicola Forest Youth Camp, neither of which is equipped to meet the public’s need for Keishan and children like him to be kept in a safe and secure environment under the care of appropriately trained professionals.

What Keishan needs would cost about $130,000 a year. That’s a small price to pay to avoid the bad PR generated by the horror stories that leak out of the medieval snake pits where Florida warehouses thousands of faceless, forgotten children whose “maladaptive behaviors” are a manifestation of their extreme disabilities.

It’s pure, dumb luck that brought Keishan’s plight, and his picture, to public attention. A Miami Herald investigations team, working under a reporting grant from the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, was being squired about the Broward detention center by Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Secretary Christy Daly, when Keishan’s “deep, primal, piercing, unrelenting screams” made it impossible to think of anything else.

Jail guards are used to such Bedlam, but Herald photographer Emily Michot‘s picture of Daly’s stricken face is worth a thousand words about the gap between the professional skills it takes to run DJJ and the political connections it takes to get the job.

It’s been two months since Daly admitted to the Herald that Keishan does not belong in the Broward gulag. But it took an order from Circuit Judge Michael Orlando to get him into a Broward County psychiatric hospital for tests and treatment.

Judges prefer to leave the social work to social workers, but DJJ’s “partners” at the Department of Children & Families were unwilling to consider anything other than more of the same.

In cases like Keishan’s, a judge who’s willing to “retain jurisdiction” is the only protection a disabled child has in an elaborate ecosystem that enables an alphabet soup of agencies to evade meaningful responsibility for meaningful draining of the bureaucratic swamp where children drown.

Stop stealing our video, Florida Channel says

The Florida Channel wants you … to stop stealing its videos.

A new disclaimer began popping up Friday under the channel’s online video feeds: “Programming produced by The Florida Channel CANNOT be used for political, campaign, advocacy or commercial purposes!”

It adds: “ANY editing, embedding or distribution without permission is strictly PROHIBITED. Direct linking to complete video files is permissible, except in the case of political campaigns.”

Florida Channel executive director Beth Switzer on Monday explained the “terms of use” reminder was sparked by the “increasing number of people stealing (videos) for advocacy purposes.” She did not point to specific examples. 

Switzer referred to a state law that she said prohibits such use.

It says, in part, that the “facilities, plant, or personnel of an educational television station that is supported in whole or in part by state funds may not be used directly or indirectly for the promotion, advertisement, or advancement of a political candidate for a municipal, county, legislative, congressional, or state office.”

The law, which doesn’t mention work product such as videos, provides that a violation is a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Those parts of the law were added in 2014.

Aside from a “huge number of videos being lifted and put out there,” Switzer also said her office is getting swamped with calls asking her staff to provide edited clips for use in commercials and other promotions.

“Making copies of what we do is not really in our scope of work,” she said.

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