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Kathy Castor one of six Democrats calling on EPA IG to probe potential conflicts of interest with Scott Pruitt

Tampa Representative Kathy Castor is one of six Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who reached out to the EPA inspector general earlier this week, calling on him to investigate the agency’s conflict of interest policies and procedures in the wake of reports of a close relationship between industry groups and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

The letter to Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins, Jr comes in response to Pruitt’s rejection of scientific evidence that human activity is a significant contributor to global warming, as well as reports that he coordinated closely with the oil and gas industry while serving as attorney general of Oklahoma, and the fact that he has sued the government because of environmental rules in the past.

“It is critical that EPA and all federal agencies maintain effective conflict of interest policies and ethics requirements in order to ensure government operates in an honest and transparent manner,” the letter said. “Your investigation will help us better understand the role your office will play in ensuring strict adherence to such rules and guidelines, and how EPA and its new management will address these concerns.”

In addition to Castor, the letter was signed by New Jersey’s Frank Pallone, the ranking member of House Energy and Commerce Committee; Illinois’ Bobby Rush, the energy subcommittee ranking member; New York’s Paul Tonko, the environment subcommittee ranking member; Oversight and Investigations Ranking Member Diana DeGette of Colorado and Maryland Representative John Sarbanes. 

As part of the investigation, the Democrats say that they want the answers to these questions:

What conflict of interest policies, procedures, and laws exist to ensure Pruitt and all other current political appointees do not have conflicts of interest with their positions at EPA or with EPA enforcement actions?

Do these policies specifically consider whether Pruitt or other political appointees or their spouses maintain any financial holdings (including but not limited to stock holdings or mutual fund holdings) in the oil and gas industry or electric utility industry

What agency ethics trainings and certifications are Pruitt and all other current political appointees required to complete in order to join the agency

How do agency conflict of interest policies, procedures, and any relevant laws restrict Pruitt’s ability to coordinate, fundraise, or otherwise support organizations in which Pruitt previously served in a leadership capacity?

You can read a copy of the letter here.

Florida’s Congressional Dems blast GOP health care plan after budget report

As expected, the scoring of the Republican health care plan in Congress affirmed many of Democrats’ biggest warnings.

And, as expected, many of Florida’s delegation wasted no time Monday attacking the “American Health Care Act” as “wrong,” “inhumane,” “alarming,” and “ruthless and cruel.”

No word yet from any of Florida’s 17 Republican members of Congress on how they feel about the Congressional Budget Office legislative analysis of the bill Republicans introduced last week. Its aim is to replace “Obamacare,” the Affordable Care Act President Barack Obama and Democrats pushed through in 2010.

Democrats loaded up Monday at several of the CBO findings of the bill being dubbed both “RyanCare” for House Speaker Paul Ryan and “TrumpCare,” for President Donald Trump. The CBO reported that 14 million people would drop from being insured in the first year, and that a total of 24 million now covered would be without health insurance in a decade. The CBO also projected rapidly increasing premiums for the first couple of years, that it would cut $880 million from Medicaid, and increase costs for seniors on Medicare. And it reported that cuts to Planned Parenthood would mainly affect low-income women.

Almost all 12 Florida Democrats decried all those findings, through news releases, social media posts and statements on their websites. Among the responses:

“It is wrong to take away health insurance for 24 million people, as well as increase the cost to seniors,” wrote U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

“This legislation is terrible for those in their golden years, our seniors. And most distressing is how this bill treats the poor and the disabled of our society,” wrote U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, representing Florida’s 13th Congressional District. “The Gospel of Matthew teaches us that we will be judged by how we treat the ‘least of these.’ But this bill treats the least among us in the most inhumane way possible.”

“Biggest non-shocker of the week #Trumpcare knocks 24M people off insurance,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando, representing Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

“This report from the nonpartisan CBO confirms what we already knew to be true, millions of Americans will lose health insurance, hardworking families will be forced to pay higher premiums, and Medicaid recipients will suffer greatly,” declared U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando, representing Florida’s 10th Congressional District. “As Republicans recklessly work to push through this plan, the people who need it the most, working families, seniors, and children stand to lose the most. The GOP plan is not better than the Affordable Care Act and Republicans know it.”

“This bill does not make good on claims by @SpeakerRyan,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, representing Florida’s 22nd Congressional District. “It will block millions from coverage in exchange for cutting taxes for the wealthy.”

“Despite numerous promises by Trump that no one would lose health insurance, Republican scheme does just that!” tweeted U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, in Florida’s 14th Congressional District. “Irresponsible @SpeakerRyan!”

“Yanking insurance coverage from 14 million people and leaving them uninsured next year would be ruthless and cruel,” wrote U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, representing Florida’s 23rd Congressional District.

“House Republican leaders are rushing this process with closed-door meetings and midnight committee sessions,” wrote U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park, representing Florida’s 7th Congressional District. “We need to slow down, bring both parties together, and get health care reform right so there aren’t any unintended consequences that hurt families, seniors, and small businesses.”

After 27-hour committee hearing, Kathy Castor calls GOP House push to pass health care bill without CBO scoring ‘ unconscionable’

The House Energy & Commerce Committee passed the GOP health care repeal bill this afternoon, in a session that lasted 27 hours. It was the second committee on Thursday to pass the legislation, after the House Ways and Means Committee voted 23 to 16 to advance the American Health Care Act shortly before 4:30 a.m. Thursday after about 18 hours of debate.

Tampa Representative Kathy Castor serves as Vice Ranking Member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, and she went off her GOP colleagues after the bill passed this afternoon.

“It is unconscionable that House Republicans rammed this repeal bill through committee without understanding how much the bill will cost, the impact on the deficit and how many Americans will lose their health insurance,” Castor said. “Republicans repeatedly rejected amendments to protect and fight for patient protections and health care affordability.  We stayed up through the night and forced them to debate and go on record opposing measures that address the concerns that we have all have been hearing about from our neighbors at town halls throughout the country.”

The requirements for the bill have been extensively reported on this week since it was unveiled on Monday night. It would result in major cuts to Medicaid funding which has been crucial for people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act, and eliminates the subsidies that approximately 85 percent of those on the ACA are relying on to stay on their current plan.

Castor also took aim at the fact that the House Republican declined having the bill “scored” by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to determine the costs to the American public, and how many people will be able to afford the new plan.

“Rather than rush a Republican repeal bill, I urge my colleagues to work together to improve health care coverage for families across America,” she said. “We are at the lowest rate of uninsured in history, we have kept health care costs in check for people with insurance and we can do more by tackling the cost of pharmaceuticals, but that has been left out of the Republican repeal bill.”

Although the bill did make it through the two GOP-led committees and may ultimately pass in the GOP-held House, there is considerable pushback from a number of Republican Senators, jeopardizing the repeal and replace plan at the moment.

Kathy Castor calls new GOP House health care plan ‘Robin Hood in reverse’

Congresswoman Kathy Castor has always been an unflagging champion of the Affordable Care Act, so you could bet she would have a harsh reaction to the plan unveiled by House Republican leaders on Monday night.

“It’s pretty horrendous,” the Tampa Democrat told a group of reporters gathered in front of a medical building Tuesday morning on West Swann Avenue in South Tampa.

Castor said Floridians arguably have the most to lose under the GOP proposal. More than 1.7 million Floridians signed up for ACA plans on Healthcare.gov in 2016, the most of any state. They would automatically lose coverage when the exchanges are eliminated.

Although Florida Gov. Rick Scott did not allow for Medicaid expansion which could have brought on at least 750,000 more Floridians to the ACA, there are groups of Floridians — children, the disabled, people with Alzheimer’s and others — whose coverage is funded by Medicaid. The GOP House plan calls for a change Medicaid funding which would have it distributed by a per-person allotment to the states.

“If they devastate Medicaid, they will harm families across the state,” Castor warned.

Approximately 85 percent of those on the ACA receive some government subsidy to pay for their coverage. Under the House GOP plan, that subsidy would go away, to replaced by a tax credit that would start at $2,000 annually for those under 30 years of age, and max out at $4,000 for seniors.

“Instead of going to the doctor’s office, they want to ask working families across America to go to the accountant’s office for care,” Castor remarked, adding that such credits won’t be available until after a citizen gets their income tax refund, which could be a full year or longer from when they would have to pay for a medical procedure.

Higher-income Americans could pay fewer taxes and get more tax benefits with the new plan, according to an analysis from CNN/Money. The legislation would eliminate two taxes that Obamacare levied on the wealthy to help pay for the law. Nearly everyone in the top one percent who earn more than $774,000 a year, would enjoy a hefty tax cut, averaging $33,000, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Those in the top 0.1 percent would get an average tax cut of about $197,000.

“It’s a reverse Robin Hood,” the Congresswoman quipped. “It’s a steal from the poor to give to the rich, and even (a) steal from working families,” adding, “to give huge tax cuts for the wealthiest among us and withdraw coverage to so many more of our neighbors? I don’t understand that.”

As she has done in previous news conferences focused on maintaining the ACA, Castor featured a Tampa citizen who testified on behalf of the current health care system. Joe Nammour, 36, is a small-business man who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis five years ago, where he said that he was denied access to coverage because it’s a disease that is very expensive to treat. He praised the ACA for not discriminating against people like him who have a pre-existing condition.

Republicans are touting that the most popular provisions of the ACA, including not discriminating against pre-existing conditions, are maintained in their proposal. Like Obamacare, it requires insurers cover these people and prevents carriers from charging them more because of their health.

However, the GOP plan would lift the requirement that insurers cover a certain share of the cost of getting care. This change would allow carriers to offer a wider selection of policies, including more with higher deductibles and copays. That could make it harder to find plans with low deductibles that the sick often want.

Castor is the Vice Ranking Member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, which will be voting on the new bill on Wednesday. That’s despite the fact that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has yet to score this repeal bill, which would determine what it would cost and how many people would remain uninsured. She disputed a reporter’s question that the Democrats pushed the ACA through Congress without anyone reading the bill.

“The difference is, before we went to a committee markup, we had had months and months of hearings and heard from experts and folks from all across the spectrum, and many academics and crafted that bill,” she said, calling that notion “a canard.”

Charlie Crist calls new Trump travel ban ‘deeply troubling’

While calling it a slight improvement, Charlie Crist says that President Donald Trump’s newly revised version of his executive order that will bar migrants from predominantly Muslim nations from entering the U.S. remains “deeply troubling.”

The Trump administration released its new executive order travel ban on Monday, more than a month after federal judges blocked the initial ban on residents from seven Middle Eastern and African countries that created legal challenges and spontaneous demonstrations in airports across the country. The new executive order removes citizens of Iraq from the original travel embargo and deletes a provision that explicitly protected religious minorities.

“While it’s an improvement that Iraq was taken off the list of countries under the travel ban, this executive order is still deeply troubling, and we can’t take our eye off the ball,” Crist said in a statement.

“By cutting the number of refugees able to seek freedom and safety in the U.S. by over 50 percent annually, we are condemning the lives of up to 60,000 people – a population the size of Fort Myers, Florida – who fear persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, or political views,” said the Pinellas County Representative. “It’s unconscionable, flying in the face of our American values as the beacon of hope and light to the rest of the world.”

Like some foreign policy observers, Crist says the new executive order makes America less safe, “damaging the alliances we need to stop terrorism at home and against our allies and interests abroad.”

The release of the statement shortly after it was announced is another example of how Crist appears to be more focused in his job as a Congressman. When the original travel ban was announced late in the afternoon of Friday, January 27, citizens converged the next night to airports around the country to protest the decision (though in Tampa, citizens who initially were rebuffed by Tampa International Airport officials relocated in front of Marco Rubio’s then Tampa office).

Crist did not issue a statement that entire weekend, finally sending out a statement via his spokeswoman on January 30.

Not this time, however. Tampa Representative Kathy Castor, Crist’s Democratic colleague from across the Bay, has not weighed in with a statement as of yet on Monday afternoon.

Pat Kemp wants public to put pressure on Hillsborough County Commissioners to fund transit now

Pat Kemp lost her battle this week to redirect approximately half of the $812 million in public funds toward transit and not just roads in the next decade.

But Kemp says she will continue to advocate for the county to directly fund transit projects over the course of the next four years.

During the debate about the Go Hillsborough half-cent sales tax proposal last year (which a majority of County Commissioners ultimately deemed unworthy of inclusion on the ballot), County Administrator Mike Merrill knocked down calls by members of the public and even other commissioners to look at spending money out of general revenues vs. going to a sales tax.

But in the aftermath of their voting down Go Hillsborough, the board somehow later found a way to find (initially) $600 million — and ultimately $812 million — of general revenue funds to pay for transportation projects.

“That’s the reason we were told that we needed a sales tax — that there just was no money in the county budget,” Kemp explained to a crowd who gathered at the Oxford Exchange Friday as the featured guest at the weekly Cafe Con Tampa meeting.

Kemp’s alternative plan was to delete some of that $812 million for earmarked mostly for roads (specifically cutting the $97 million to widen Lithia Pinecrest Road) and reallocate it for more trails, greenways, and buses for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

However, unlike in the state legislature where lawmakers can work with colleagues to get them to sponsor bills before presenting them, Sunshine laws prevent fellow commissioners from meeting outside of official meetings to do likewise. That’s something Kemp says is a challenge in creating support for her own proposal. When she presented her alternative plan at Wednesday’s meeting, no other lawmaker was prepared to go with her idea, and she failed to get a second vote to at least continue the debate.

When Kemp presented her alternative plan at Wednesday’s meeting, no other lawmaker was prepared to go with her idea, and she failed to get a second vote to at least continue the debate.

“It really is a process that is very mysterious to me,” Kemp said, despite the fact that she spent three years in the aughts working as an aide to then Commissioner Kathy Castor. “It lends itself to having county staff and the county administrator being powerful and strong in the process. It lends itself really to the strength of lobbyists.”

Kemp is moving forward, though, saying that with enhanced revenues increasing the country budget by some $350 million, now is the time for the board to begin setting aside money for future transit projects.

“We need to stop starving HART, our transit agency,” she said, calling it an issue of social mobility and economic development. Currently, HART gets its funding solely through property taxes at a set rate (Kemp says only Hillsborough and Pinellas are the only Florida counties to fund transit agencies this way).

In something of a radical departure for a transit activist in the Tampa Bay area, Kemp says she now doesn’t believe that light rail is necessary for Tampa Bay. Light rail was a key component of the Go Hillsborough, Greenlight Pinellas and Moving Hillsborough Forward transit initiatives that failed over the past decade. Kemp says that with so many new innovations being developed in the world of transportation, it just doesn’t make sense financially to commit to such a system.

“We’re talking about $90 million a mile. We wouldn’t even be voting to do it for several years,” Kemp said. “We would be acquiring the right of way and wouldn’t start building for a decade or two.”

She’s much keener on autonomous vehicles but says it won’t work if everyone owns a car.

It’s obvious that when it comes to public transit, there is much more support for it in the major cities of the Tampa Bay area like Tampa and St. Petersburg, vs. the rest of Hillsborough and Pinellas, respectively. At least that’s the perception, which Kemp disagrees with.

“I ran countywide, and I won with 63 percent of the vote,” she said of her victory last November (she actually defeated Republican Tim Schock by a 56-44 percent margin). “I was all over this county talking about transit. I was doing it in Brandon, in Fishhawk, I did it in Ruskin, in Sun City Center, I was out in all kinds of places. I think it’s more a failure in leadership,” as the crowd cheered loudly.

Sitting in the audience applauding her was former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who is currently deeply involved in the Cross-Bay Ferry project that will continue taking passengers from Tampa to St. Petersburg through the end of next month.

“There’s a huge amount of money coming into this county with new revenues. Pat’s saying, ‘use some of those for transit,'” Turanchik said. “The county administration has said ‘we’re not going to fund transit, that’s HART’s responsibility. That’s not his call.”

Kemp agreed, saying, “We need to make our elected officials standup! Mike Merrill is not elected. Flood them with emails! Flood them with phone calls! They need to take responsibility, they have the vote!” she said to more cheers.

Kathy Castor says Jeff Sessions should resign

Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor joins the chorus of Democrats who are calling for the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions following published reports surfacing that he met twice with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. during the presidential campaign last year.

The former Alabama senator had said as recently as last month that he had not done so.

“Lying to a congressional committee while you are under sworn oath is illegal,” Castor said Thursday morning. “Attorney General Jeff Sessions should resign and at the very least must recuse himself from the investigation into illegal collusion between Vladimir Putin, the Russian government and the Trump Campaign. President Trump’s failure to release his tax returns (unlike any other presidential candidate or President) continues to be a cloud over his Administration.”

“An open and transparent review of his tax returns could answer questions related to whether or not he or his company have ties to Russia,” she added.

Shortly before Castor released her statement, her fellow Democratic colleague across Tampa Bay, Charlie Crist, was also calling on Sessions to resign.

“As the former Attorney General of Florida, I find Attorney General Sessions’ actions inexcusable, and call for his immediate resignation,” Crist said. “How can we have faith that the duties of the office of the Attorney General will be carried out when the chief legal officer of the country doesn’t tell the truth under oath to the United States Congress.”

At his Senate confirmation hearing last month, Sessions denied ever having met with Sergey Kislyak, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, during the presidential campaign. However, a report in The Washington Post said that Sessions had met with him twice during the presidential campaign.

Sessions said Thursday that he would consider recusing himself from any investigation that the Justice Department could be conducting related to any ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

Kathy Castor preferred Obama policy on deportations, acknowledges ‘we’re a country of laws’

For Kathy Castor, it’s simple: “We’re a country of laws, and if you’re in the country illegally, you are subject to deportation.”

However, perhaps acknowledging the sentiment among the American public, the Tampa Democratic congresswoman had little to say Monday about the recent directives from the Department of Homeland Security that expand the scope for law enforcement officials to deport undocumented immigrants.

Instead, Castor said the situation calls for a return to looking for a more comprehensive solution to the issue.

Castor prefers the priorities of the Obama administration, who directed federal agents to concentrate on deporting gang members and other violent and serious criminals, and left most other undocumented immigrants alone.

“What is missing from the dialogue is how we address folks who have overstayed a visa and simply want to work legally in the country,” she said, bemoaning the fact that there is no discussion on Capitol Hill to discuss finding a pathway to citizenship for those whose work skills are needed in the U.S.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said last week the president wants to “take the shackles off” of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

On that subject, Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund, pointed to a published report about ICE agents waiting in a Denver courthouse hallway without a warrant to apprehend an undocumented immigrant.

“When a president gives the green light to federal law enforcement agencies that target vulnerable immigrants and operate with impunity,” Sharry said Monday, “this is what you get: out of control police forces that declare open season on anyone they encounter.”

“This is not the America we aspire to be,” he added. “Both the policy and the implementation of the policy run counter to our self-proclaimed identity as a nation that welcomes immigrants and refugees.”

“Our law enforcement does a very good job if someone is here illegally and they commit a crime. There’s a lot of cooperation between local law enforcement and federal agencies,” Castor said.

“But if we can’t address a legal pathway, then we’re not going to find a solution [for] immigration issues.”

Though there hasn’t been a whole lot of public polling on the issue, a McLaughlin & Associates survey published earlier this month showed that 69 percent of respondents approved of Trump’s executive order to make deportation of undocumented immigrants “who are criminals” a top priority.

That poll also showed the majority of voters support cutting off federal grants to sanctuary cities that refuse to turn in undocumented immigrants, 59 percent to 29 percent.

A Harvard–Harris Poll published last week found that 80 percent of voters say local authorities should have to comply with the law by reporting to federal agents the undocumented immigrants with whom they come into contact.

The poll showed that 52 percent said in that poll that they support Trump’s two executive orders allowing for the construction of a southern border wall, increasing the number of immigration officers by 10,000 and finding a way to revoke federal funds for sanctuary cities.

Castor is critical of an attempt to build a security wall on the Mexican border. Some estimates have show that it cost more than $20 billion.

President Donald Trump announced Monday he would boost Pentagon spending by $54 billion in his first budget proposal, slashing the same amount from non-defense spending, with that increase being funded partly by cuts to the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other non-defense programs.

“We also have to be very cognizant of the costs of all of this. Can America afford now to pay for this border wall, and a huge increase in border patrol agents?” Castor asked, adding that she believes government needs to invest in places that create jobs.

GOP proposed health reforms care would ’cause chaos,’ Kathy Castor says

Tampa Democratic Representative Kathy Castor says that a leaked GOP alternative plan for healthcare would have “dire consequences for families here in the state of Florida.”

A draft bill detailing Republican plans to begin repealing and replacing many facets of the ACA would provide expanded tax credits and health savings accounts for individuals while reducing federal spending on tax subsidies and Medicaid and practically eliminating both the current employer and individual mandate to provide and carry health insurance, according to NBC News.

“The changes that the Republicans have put on the table would really cause chaos,” Castor said on Monday at a news conference held in front of the Tampa Family Health Center clinic on Dale Mabry Highway.

The purpose of the event was to announce that Kathy Palmer, a Tampa resident currently on the Affordable Care Act, will be Castor’s guest at President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night  Many of Castor’s Democratic House colleagues have also invited members of the public whose lives could be deleteriously affected by losing their care if the ACA is repealed as their guest of honor.

Palmer said that she was hospitalized at Tampa Community Hospital in December because of extreme chest pains. After a series of tests determined she was actually okay, she said she was dumbfounded when she was hit with a $70,000 bill.

“Because I had the Affordable Care Act, I only have to pay $179 of it. I can afford that. This is the only way I can afford insurance,” she said, adding that the two companies she works part-time at are “really small businesses, and they’re struggling too.”

Castor dissected the leaked plans for health care reform, popping a balloon into every one of them as being unworthy as a successor to the ACA.

She dismissed the idea of providing certain high risk pools for the state, saying that Florida tried that in the 80’s and 90’s to little success because “it’s very difficult to commit to controlling the costs.”

The tentative plans also include offering Health Saving Accounts to members of the public, which Castor says are fine if one has the money to put in a savings account. “A lot of folks in this community are working paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “They don’t have the ability to put a couple of hundred dollars away from every paycheck and an illness or a broken arm is not going to wait for you to save up to $10,000 -$20,000 in a Health Savings Account.”

Refundable tax credits also received a thumbs down from the Tampa Democrat, saying that would work out “great if you get it right after you get your tax refund, but an illness is not going to wait until your tax refund.”

While some Democrats have said they won’t consider working with Republicans on health care if the ultimate goal is to completely dismantle the ACA, Castor insisted she would “love” to be working the Republicans on possible solutions. While saying that there are plenty of different health care plans for someone in Hillsborough County to choose from, she acknowledged that there are far too many parts of the country that lack such competition.

“We’ve got to tackle that problem, ” she said. “Does that mean bringing a public option into those areas, or giving incentives to insurance companies to go into those areas? We’ve got to sort that out.”

Castor also said she would like to work with Congressional Republicans on reducing drug prices, noting that’s an issue that President Trump has repeatedly said he wants to tackle. However, she also noted, that in her decade in Congress, she’s never seen Republicans show much of an appetite for such reform.

House Speaker Paul Ryan says that the House is working to bring a bill to the House floor for a vote the first week of March.

 

Moms Demand Action promise to be a presence during 2017 Legislative Session

Late last week, a federal appeal court struck down an NRA-backed law that restricted doctors in Florida from talking to patients about gun safety.

The legislation, often referred to as “Docs vs. Glocks,” passed during the 2011 Legislative session. It said doctors could be censored, fined, and have licenses revoked if asked or talked to patients about their firearms.

The court ruling stands out as a rare loss for the National Rifle Association in Florida, but only because they haven’t faced strong enough opposition, contends Michelle Gajda, the Florida chapter leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

“The truth is, the gun lobby has run roughshod over the state for decades and they’re finally being countered by a coalition of concerned Floridians, moms, gun owners, educators, gun violence survivors and gun owners themselves,” she says of her organization, created in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012.

Bills in the 2016 legislative session on open carry and allowing guns on college campuses passed through the House but were thwarted in the Senate after Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla refused to hold hearings on those two bills. However, the Miami Republican was defeated in November for re-election, and the pre-session hype is that those bills have a better chance in the 2017 Session.

Acknowledging that Diaz de la Portilla’s departure is “deeply felt,” Gajda says she remains confident that her organization’s advocacy can make a difference on those and other NRA-sponsored bills that will be winding their way through the Legislature when the regular session begins next month.

To assert their presence, more than 100 volunteers from Moms Demand Action intend to visit legislators in the Capitol Tuesday, where they will be joined by activists with the Michael Bloomberg founded gun control group Everytown, as well as gun violence survivors.

“The gun lobby has never encountered opposition in Florida like they’re encountering now and they don’t know how to react to it,” Gajda boldly declares. “They don’t know how to react to real citizens standing up and demanding that they operate in the sunlight. They’re used to operating in rooms in with closed doors in secret meetings and in committee hearings that nobody attends, and what Moms have been able to do is force their agenda into the daylight, and we will be at every single committee hearing, telling them that this is not what Floridians want.”

At least eight bills dealing with guns are currently pending in the Legislature this year.

Meanwhile, Moms Demand Action are sponsoring the screening of a documentary, “The Armor of Light” Wednesday night on the USF campus.

The film centers around the relationship between Lucy McBath, the mother of unarmed 17-year Jordan Davis, who was shot and killed by in 2012 in circumstances that highlighted the state’s Stand Your Ground law, and Evangelical minister Rob Schenck, who is searching to find the courage to preach about the growing toll of gun violence in the U.S.

Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor is scheduled to speak before the screening, and there will be a panel discussion after the film featuring former Tampa assistant Police Chief Mary O’Connor, Hillsborough Safe & Sound Executive Director Freddy Barton, Assistant State Attorney Chinwe Fossett and Hyde Park United Methodist Director/Pastor Reverend Justin LaRosa.

That screening will take place Wednesday, Feb. 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the University Lecture Hall on the USF campus. Parking will be available at the USF Sun Dome. (You can RSVP here).

Speaking of Stand Your Ground, on Wednesday, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee will take up HB 245, filed by Palatka Republican Bobby Payne and Jacksonville Republican Jason Fischer. HB 245 would shift the burden of proof in “stand your ground” self-defense cases to prosecutors during evidentiary hearings. Last year, a similar bill was sponsored by Fleming Island Republican Rob Bradley in the Senate and passed through before dying in a House committee.

“I want to make it super clear that there’s absolutely no constituency crying out for this bill,” says Gajda, “Not a single private citizen demanded this legislation. The gun lobby just wants to override Florida courts to advance its own agenda. There’s no demonstrated need to expand Stand Your Ground.”

“What I hope is the outcome of this is something that I hope we all agree on, that people who should not be arrested are not arrested, and people who should not go to trial do not go to trial,” Bradley said after his bill passed in a Senate committee last month. “If I believed that an individual who was otherwise guilty would go free because this bill passed, then I wouldn’t have filed the bill.”

 

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