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Kathy Castor vows Cuba-Tampa Bay engagement will continue, despite Donald Trump’s rollback

President Donald Trump told a crowd in Miami Friday he was keeping a campaign promise to roll back the “terrible and misleading deal” the Obama administration made with the Castro government in Cuba in 2014.

Two hours later, U.S. Representative Kathy Castor told reporters that the work of engaging the Tampa Bay area and the communist island will continue.

“I think President Trump’s new policy is regrettable and it takes us backward, because what it will do will really complicate our neighbor’s ability to travel to Cuba,” said Castor, a Democrat who has been a House leader in trying to end the economic embargo since flying to Cuba in 2013. “It’s going to make it more expensive, more costly and add bureaucratic red tape.”

Trump’s new policy will directly limit commerce with GAESA, the business and commerce wing of the Cuban military.

On non-Cuban-American travel, one change would make Americans visiting under the Obama administration categories of permitted travel subject to a Treasury Department audit, which could have a cooling effect on travel by adding a potential layer of inconvenience.

In his speech, Trump mentioned the lack of political and religious freedom for the Cuban people, as well as the release of political prisoners.

Of course, this is the same politician who said in Saudi Arabia last month“We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.”

“When you look at what they’ve said in Saudi Arabia, the relationship with Turkey, the Philippines, where the leader there is outright taking the lives of some of his citizens there’s a great inconsistency there,” Castor acknowledged.

In the years before Obama’s 2014 announcement, a group of local business and political leaders began pushing for more liberal relations with Cuba, saying that the Tampa region — the third largest area of the country for Cuban-Americans — was strategically behind getting prepared for when the fifty-year plus economic embargo was ultimately a thing of the past.

Nobody has been a bigger leader in the local movement than Al Fox, president of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation. He called Trump’s announcement one of the worst foreign policy decisions in the country’s history.

“A new Trump policy change does nothing to benefit Cuba and more importantly, treats United States citizens as second-class citizens,” Fox said in a statement. “By what logic can Dennis Rodman, as an American citizen, travel freely to North Korea but not to Cuba? You will not find one Cuban on the island of Cuba that will support President Trump’s anticipated announcement, including the small dissident movement.”

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. E.J. Otero, who has family in Cuba, has been a virulent critic of Obama’s move to end the diplomatic freeze out of Cuba back in December of 2014. He said Trump’s announcement “achieves a sense of balance,” adding that it didn’t go as far as the exile community would have liked but (obviously) will annoy supporters of rapprochement such as Castor and Fox.

The most significant fact “is the hotels,” Otero says. “If they’re state-run, you can’t stay there.”

Retired Tampa CPA and Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce official Jose Valiente also has family in Tampa. For years, he was a critic of any type of exchange with the Castro-led government but changed his attitude after a trip with the Chamber to Cuba a few years back.

Valiente said the announcement will affect the burgeoning entrepreneur movement in Cuba, specifically mentioning those who have started up restaurants, bars, bed-and-breakfasts, and farms in recent years and who were getting ready for “an avalanche” of American tourists that were going to be coming to Cuba.

“He said it was a great day in Cuba, ” Valiente said of Trump’s remarks. “I’m still trying to figure that out still what was so great about the announcement today to benefit the Cubans there today.”

Castor held her news conference at Tampa International Airport, which began offering commercial flights to Havana in 2011, and to other Cuban cities last winter.

Joining her at the news conference were officials from the Florida Orchestra, the University of Tampa and the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, all of whom have worked with their Cuban counterparts in recent years. The Aquarium agreed to cooperate with the National Aquarium of Cuba on research affecting their shared marine environment back in 2015.

“We’ve got a lot to learn from them, so the exchange has been tremendously helpful for us, and hopefully productive for them too,” said Margo McKnight, Florida Aquarium’s senior vice president of conservation, science and research. She vowed to continue that relationship,

“We won’t be daunted,” she said. “We have lots more to do and a lot more to learn.”

Castor maintained a similar attitude. She said the Tampa Bay area will continue to be a leader in cultural and scientific exchanges, but said that the loosening of travel restrictions over the past few years is being reversed, costing travelers money and more bureaucracy.

She said her greatest concern was that a reduction of U.S. tourists will erode the ability of private entrepreneurs on the island to grow their business.

Although the Tampa Democrat has a been a leader in trying to increase relations between the two nations, she’s by far not the only member in Congress who believes in that strategy.

Last month, 55 U.S. Senators, led by Arizona Republican Jeff Flake and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, reintroduced the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would eliminate current restrictions on traveling to Cuba for tourism purposes.

“Any policy change that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people,” Flake said Friday. “It is time Senate leadership finally allowed a vote on my bipartisan bill to fully lift these archaic restrictions which do not exist for travel by Americans to any other country in the world.”

Castor has also entered a bipartisan bill in Congress calling for the elimination of the economic embargo. That measure does not have a majority in the House, however.

Kathy Castor: Investigations on Russia, Trump administration are ‘cloud’ over D.C.

While there are many things both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill want to accomplish, Kathy Castor laments the business of Congress has slowed considerably by what she calls a “cloud” over the Trump administration’s possible collusion with Russia during last year’s election.

“What an atmosphere it is,” the Tampa Democratic congresswoman said in opening remarks at the Oxford Exchange Friday morning.

“I hope we can remove this cloud. The economy is better. People are generally hopeful, they want America to be a world leader, and this cloud has got to go away, because I think that everything that we have going for us, as long as that cloud remains over the White House in Washington. We’re not able to reach our full potential.”

For months, Castor had been among Congressional Democrats calling for an independent commission to investigate allegations about members of the Trump administration and the Russian government. She called the recent Justice Department appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate the situation a positive development.

“I think that broke the fever a little bit,” she said, adding that the constant news revelations about Trump and the Russians have “stalled a lot of the business going on in the Congress.”

“There have been some things going on,” she acknowledged, “but the pace of lawmaking is much slower than I’ve seen over the past ten years.”

The Tampa Representative touched on just a few of those items not being covered in the media that she worries about, such as the president’s signing of a Congressional resolution repealing rules that would have required internet service providers to get customer permission to collect, use and sell information about one’s online habits.

Castor says the role of Congress should now be to do a “broader dive” into recommendations on how to prevent the interference of foreign governments into our elections. In March, former FBI Director James Comey told a congressional panel the FBI was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination.

No member of Congress has been more active in promoting relations between Cuba and the U.S. than Castor, who represents one of the largest Cuban-American communities in the U.S. She admitted that recent reports of the Trump administration being ready to roll back some of the major pieces of the Obama administration’s opening with Cuba and reinstating limits on travel and commerce, citing human rights abuses by the Castro government as justification for a more punitive approach.

“I’ve been an optimist on these until the last few days,” she confessed, charging Trump with being on a path “just to flex his muscles, notwithstanding logic and facts.”

“I think we are somewhat in risk of President Trump in his pledge to change Cuban policy and that would be a real shame for the families in this community and families across the country,” she added.

Castor’s appearance at the weekly “Cafe Con Tampa” meeting was, in essence, a regular town-hall meeting. It was the type of event she has eschewed in recent years, opting for events where she invites the public to meetings, meeting up on a one-on-one basis.

Traditional town hall meetings haven’t been scheduled very often after an explosive encounter with Tea Party activists during the discussions about the Affordable Care Act back in 2009.

All of the questions were of a friendly nature, including a softball from an official with the Hillsborough County School Board who asked her opinion of HB 7069, a charter-school-friendly $419 million school bill in the Florida Legislature that she had already vocally opposed. Public education officials and organizations vehemently opposed the legislation.

“What the Florida Legislature has been doing to our public schools is criminal, and we have got to stand up and fight for it,” she said, adding that it wasn’t too late to have people contact Gov. Rick Scott to veto the bill.

Robocalls target Hillsborough School Board’s April Griffin — more than a year before elections

On Memorial Day, April Griffin awoke to a barrage of calls and texts from friends.

The Hillsborough County School Board member learned she was the subject of a negative robocall from a group calling itself “Citizens for Fairness and Equity.”

Griffin initially described the call on her Facebook page as comparing her to “being like President Trump, supporting charter schools, and had racial undertones because it talked about me winning (taking away) an election for the chairmanship over the only black board member.”

“This stuff does not bother me,” Griffin said Monday. “I find humor in it,” comparing it to attacks she received when she last ran for office when she was being compared to President Barack Obama.

She says she has no idea who “Citizens for Fairness and Equity” is, and isn’t spending much time thinking about it.

Griffin has served on the school board since 2006, and re-elected twice since, including in 2014, after initially announcing that she was stepping down from the board and would run for a Hillsborough County Commission seat. In a crowded field of candidates, she easily defeated her opponent to win a third term in office.

She was a leader in speaking out about former superintendent MaryEllen Elia, voting along with three other board members to fire her in January 2015. It was a move that, at the time, alienated those board members from the Hillsborough County political and business establishment.

Yet, despite intense criticism, the only two board members who voted against Elia who were up for re-election last year, Cindy Stuart and Susan Valdes, won their respective elections (though Valdes margin of victory was only 267 votes).

Griffin’s description of the robocall referring to her election as chair was about her victory over former school board member Doretha Edgecomb in November 2015. As described by the Tampa Bay Times’ Marlene Sokol at the time, Edgecomb was next in line for chair, as “rotating the chair has been a tradition for decades.”

However, the board chose Griffin on a 4-3 vote.

Edgecomb no longer serves on the board, after not seeking re-election last year.

Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Chair Ione Townsend is vacationing in New York, but was contacted by party members who said that the phone number listed on those who received the robocall was the official phone number of the DEC.

“We had nothing to do with it,” Townsend said. “We just found out about it because somebody reported it to us.”

Townsend reported the alleged cloning of the number to AT&T, and she said they are investigating the matter.

Griffin, who is running for re-election next year, believes Townsend and says it’s just another sad example of how politics in recent decades has changed for the worst.

“I learned a long time ago that if I was going to make any kind of impact, that I was going to make some people very happy and some people very unhappy,” she says. “I can compartmentalize it.”


Say hello to Jay Fant, first major Attorney General candidate for 2018

Jay Fant has only been in the Legislature for three years, but based on his experience as a Jacksonville attorney, he believes he’s as qualified as anyone to become Florida’s next Attorney General.

On Tuesday, the Florida House Republican from Jacksonville visited Tampa as part of a four-day statewide blitz to begin his candidacy, starting the campaign tour less than 12 hours after the Florida Legislature commenced its 2017 Regular Session.

Speaking with at Sheltair Aviation, just north of the International Mall, the 49-year-old attorney and father of four emphasized he’s all about fighting for the little guy against what can be an obtrusive federal government, even if it now run by Donald Trump, who Fant supports.

“Even President Trump, who I’m a supporter of, can’t control everything his agencies do, or cover every rule that they come up with,” he said about the federal government. “And when they get it wrong, I’m going to fight it. I’m going to stand up for the state of Florida and say, ‘we don’t want that. We can do that ourselves.’”

Fant says he admires how Pam Bondi went after the Obama administration, joining other Republican Attorneys General in filing lawsuits on a number of issues over the past few years. He says if the situation presents itself, he’ll do the same thing. “The federal agencies get it wrong, and when they do get it wrong, I’m going to stand up them.”

“The federal agencies get it wrong, and when they do get it wrong, I’m going to stand up them.”

After graduating from the University of Florida law school, the Jacksonville native joined his family business at First Guaranty Bank, a bank he helped run until 2012.

Fant says what small banks like his went through during the Great Recession was a searing experience, as he saw big banks whose work led to the decline of the economy get bailed out by the feds to the exclusion of small mom and pop operations like First Guaranty.

“There was no way that companies like ours could survive and we didn’t, and many companies like ours didn’t, and that had an effect on me,” he says. “I saw how big government doesn’t care about Main Street, and I said I’m not going to let this happen to anyone else, and that was one of the main reasons I ran.”

On his brief excursion in Tampa, Fant visited Port Tampa Bay. He says Florida’s ports, which drive so much into the economy, are essentially our “borders,” and thus play a critical role when it comes to contending with illegal immigration and drug interdiction.

He said he was worried about the “cultural shift” that has taken place in recent years when it comes to law enforcement. Thanks to citizen derived home videos, there has been an explosion of police violence against black men that has led to civil unrest in some quarters of the country.

“It’s hard to believe that the media portrayal of some things that occur in the course of law enforcement doesn’t affect behavior, but it could also affect rules of evidence, too,” he warns about the prevalence of video recording of law enforcement’s interactions with the public. “The public does have a right to know, but we don’t want to incite enmity against law enforcement by very conveniently clipping pieces,” he says of such video coverage.

When asked if thinks that is what has happened, he says not “in any conspiratorial way,” but believes it’s “tempting” in a news cycle to selectively edit as such.

“It inflames passions,” he says of such video. “At the end of the day when criminal activity takes place, the criminal justice needs to happen in a fair way for those who (not only) have been accused of a crime, but also those who are executing the arrest.”

As for Tallahassee’s just-concluded Regular Session, Fant has enormous respect and reverence for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, but is dead set against his calls to zero out Enterprise Florida and give VISIT Florida a significant haircut in the state budget.

“I think we’ve made a critical mistake in not fully funding up VISIT Florida because that works,” Fant says.

Regarding substantial cuts to Enterprise Florida, the public-private business incentive entity, Fant says if Florida becomes the only state that doesn’t include some component to help a company move here, “we will not get these companies.”

Following his Tampa visit, Fant was off to Orlando for a roundtable discussion with small-business owners, followed by a press availability Tuesday night near his Jacksonville home.

Al Fox celebrated for his work on Cuba

There is perhaps no greater moment reflective of how far the Tampa business and political establishment has come in terms of embracing relations with Cuba than the reaction to then Mayor Dick Greco’s surprise visit to the communist island in the summer of 2002.

“In my opinion, it was his finest hour,” recalled Al Fox, speaking on Friday night at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. It was Fox, through his Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, that helped negotiate the historic meeting between Greco and Fidel Castro 17 years ago.  It was not an easy meeting to broker, as Greco was fully aware that he would alienate the Cuban exile community in Tampa which embraced the embargo designed to bring about the overthrow of the Castro regime.

Over the past two decades, Fox has been the conduit for politicians from around the country to visit Cuba, all part of his ambition to foster positive relations between the two nations in anticipation of the ultimate end to the U.S. embargo that began at the beginning of the Castro era in the early 1960’s.

On Friday night, friends of the 72-year-old activist, including Greco and his wife, Dr. Linda McClintock, gathered at the the Columbia to pay tribute to Fox in what was ostensibly organized as a fundraiser to help defray his legal costs accrued during his battle against the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a division of the U.S. Treasury Department.

Originally, the agency amassed a fine of over $1.4 million against Fox for arranging two trips to Cuba in 2010 and 2011 without obtaining the proper licenses. One meeting was designed for Fox and the Alliance’s efforts to organize the International Association of Drilling Contractors to begin a dialog with the Cuban oil and gas industry on how to protect the Gulf of Mexico from a BP Deepwater Horizon-type oil disaster. The other meeting involved organizing the first inaugural direct flight between Tampa and Havana in over half a century.

Ultimately Fox’s attorney, Arther Heitzer, negotiated a final settlement with the government, reducing the fine to $10,000 for an alleged violation by the Alliance. That was later reduced to nothing, as Fox refused to pay up.

However, he still faces a legal bill of $75,000 that he has been paying off in $500 monthly payments.

“They started on my ass when I took Dick Greco to Cuba,” Fox said earlier in the evening about OFAC’s persecution of him. But what really angered him, he says, is when he learned last year that the agency (based out of Miami, not Washington D.C.) had seized his bank records, beginning from 2009.

“I was livid when I found that out,” Fox recalled. “This is the sh*t that happens in Moscow, or Cuba.”

The good news out of that, Heitzner informed him, was that they had his records from 2009-2012 and found nothing, ultimately charging him with “an alleged violation,” and no ultimate fine.

“What’s unique about this case which we’re settling this legal bill for, is that for the hundreds , if not thousands of people who have gone to Cuba for all types of reasons, legally, illegally, using all kinds of way to get there, Al has been the only person in the US, that the OFAC has gone after to this degree,” says Democratic Party strategist Vic DiMaio, a friend of Fox who helped organize the event.

The sanctions were the first issued by OFAC to an individual at least since 2013.

Also in attendance was Tampa City Council Chair Yolie Capin, who said that “when you work for years and years and your mission does not come in line with the current school of thought, and you persist, that takes courage.”

“That’s what I think of Al Fox.”

Gene Siudut, an editor at La Gaceta who ran last year for the Tampa City Council District 7 seat, says that, above all else, Fox is an educator.

“Everything that I know about Cuba right now I know I’ve learned from Al Fox,” Siudat said. “He’s open my eyes, and a lot of people’s eyes.”

Fox created his Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation in 2001 to advocate for cooperation with Cuba. Since then, he’s taken part in more than 100 delegations to Cuba, helping bring about pioneering partnerships between the two nations and changes in U.S. policy.

A Tampa native, he was not well known in his native city when he returned after a career in Washington D.C. in 2006 to run for a seat in Congress left open when Jim Davis opted to run for Florida governor.

Fox ran on a campaign of re-establishing relations between Tampa and Cuba, but it didn’t catch on at the time. In fact, Fox angered many in the Cuban exile community in Tampa.

“We’ve been called and gotten letters and all sorts of demeaning and terrible things,” Fox’s wife Anne said in introducing him on Friday night. Referring to their daughter, Ms. Fox said ” she knows we have to stand up for what we thinks is best and do the right thing at all times. It’s not always easy.”

Fox lost that 2006 run to Kathy Castor, who in 2013 made headlines blasting the U.S. sanctions against Cuba more forcefully than any previous Florida legislator. Castor later traveled to the island that year, where she called for an end to the U.S. imposed sanctions on Cuba.

Also in attendance on Friday was WEDU and WMNF journalist Rob Lorei, who called Fox “fearless” because of his support for fostering better relations with Cuba long before it was a popular thing to do in Tampa.

“Back in the day, Al would set up events and there would be protests outside,” Lorei recalled. “We’d be scared. I was a moderator of  panel, and there were protests outside, and I think Al had the guts, had the vision to say this is coming, we’ve gotta live with it, and it’s a good thing for Tampa Bay, so Al’s been a pioneer.”

Fox’s battles with the government for his support for improving relations aren’t just at the federal level. Although he came to an agreement with the city of Tampa regarding a bogus DUI arrest a year ago, he still is pursuing charges against former Tampa Police  Sgt. Ray Fernandez, the officer who pulled Fox over on Dale Mabry on July 21, 2013.  That’s where he was subjected to a  field sobriety test, and ultimately arrested, strip-searched twice and held in jail for 12 hours. YetaAn alcohol breath test and urinalysis found no alcohol in his body, and a breath test showed his blood-alcohol content was 0.00. Prosecutors later dropped the charge against him.

In December of 2014, former President Barack Obama ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of an embassy in Havana. Although President Trump threatened to rollback those Obama moves when he was campaigning, his administration has done nothing so far on the issue. Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in February that the administration was conducting a “full review” of all US policies towards the island nation.

Hundreds gather in Tampa for March on Climate

Hundreds gathered in downtown Tampa Saturday morning to protest the Trump administration’s stance on climate change.

A similar scene was duplicated in twenty other cities around Florida, with hundreds more across the nation.

“We know that climate change is happening. That’s why we’re here today,” said Dana Lazarus, the climate change organizer for Organize Now, as she kicked off the event at Lykes Gaslight Park. “And we cannot let climate change deniers keep us from saving our planet and our city, right? Because we know this is happening. We must stop debating about climate change, and start taking real action now.”

Part of that action at Saturday’s event was to urge Tampa lawmakers to commit to a 100 percent clean, renewable energy portfolio, something that officials in St. Petersburg agreed to last year, as have 25 other American cities between now and 2050.

The rallies come as the media and the world take note of the symbolically significant first 100 days of the Trump administration. On Friday, the President signed an executive order that could lead to the expansion of drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, saying it will reverse President Obama‘s Arctic leasing ban and create “great jobs and great wealth” for the country. The order also directs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to conduct a review of the locations available for offshore drilling under a five-year plan signed by Obama in November.

The day of climate change protests come a day after the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was beginning an overhaul of its website, which included taking down a long-standing site devoted to the science of climate change, which the agency said was “under review,” according to The Washington Post.

“The stark situation is that Donald Trump and his cabal of anti-climate, greedy, corporate oil and coal interests, have taken over the White House, and they are trying to lead us in the direction away from addressing climate change,” said Frank Jackalone, the Florida Director of the Sierra Club.

Looking out at the crowd, Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp said it was critical that the public continued to show up, whether it was at rallies like this or important meetings regarding the environment taking place with the Board of County Commissioners.

She hailed the county’s hiring for the first time ever of a sustainability director and a full-time staff member looking at trails and pedestrian walkways to make Hillsborough a more active transportation county. And she promised much more transit. “I guarantee you,” she assured the audience.

“Our mother is sick, she’s in the ER, ” said Russell Meyer, the executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, employing a metaphor about Mother Earth. “Everybody should be concerned about our mother being sick and stop denying it. We need to tend to our mother,” he added.

The rally featured over two dozen groups, including Organize Florida, Environment Florida and the Sierra Club. After the speeches had ended, attendees marched to MacDill Park, where they could observe local art installations and climate science exhibits.

Charlie Crist gives a thumbs down to GOP health care replacement for the ACA

In recent weeks, Charlie Crist has heard loud and clear from constituents that he should stand behind the Affordable Care Act.

On Tuesday, the St. Petersburg Republican registered his strong opposition to the Republican House replacement for the ACA that Democrats say will result in over 10 million Americans to lose their health care coverage.

“The plan Republicans have put forward falls far short of current law — driving up health care costs, stripping away important protections, and leaving millions without coverage,” Crist said. “Even more troubling, it slashes Medicaid, a program that 70 million Americans depend on, hurting those most in need of coverage — seniors and long-term care recipients.

The GOP House bill would replace federal insurance subsidies with a new form of individual tax credits and phase out most of the ACA’s taxes. It would ultimately phase out current Medicaid funding, instead distribute a per-person allotment to the states, but not until 2020.

While Democratic opposition isn’t surprising, criticism from some conservatives exposes the fissures within the Republican Party on how best to replace President Obama’s signature domestic achievement.

“In many ways, the House Republican proposal released last night not only accepts the flawed progressive premises of Obamacare but expands upon them,” said Michael Needham with Heritage Action.” Ronald Reagan once said, ‘Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.’ The AHCA does all three.”

“Keep Medicaid in place until 2020?” said Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus. “We didn’t have Medicaid expansion in the bill we sent to President Obama, but we have it in the one we send to President Trump? That makes no sense to me.”

Crist said that Congress should work in a bipartisan fashion to improve the Academic, “so it works better for all Americans.”

“This proposal would just make things worse for the middle class, cutting taxes for the rich at the expense of seniors and working families,” he said.

Kathy Castor says Rick Scott is spreading misleading and inaccurate information about the ACA

U.S. Representative Kathy Castor says that a letter that Governor Rick Scott recently sent to House of Representatives Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy regarding the Affordable Care Act contains “misleading and inaccurate information.”

The two Florida politicians have always been on opposing sides regarding President Obama’s signature domestic achievement. As a former health care executive, Scott was criticizing what is often called “ObamaCare” before he ever ran for governor, while Castor has been a champion of the law since it was signed into law in 2010.

“For far too long, it has been fashionable in Washington to say Obamacare can only be tweaked,” Scott wrote to McCarthy. “The impact of Obamacare has been devastating in Florida and our nation. Obamacare was sold on a lie from the very start. Costs are skyrocketing, people have not been able to keep their doctors and many people have fewer doctors to choose from. The increases in health care costs are at a 32-year high and are expected to continue increasing in the coming months. Recent news of Obamacare rates rising 25 percent is absurd and families simply cannot afford it. We can do better and the families and businesses footing the bill deserve better.”

Scott also called for giving Florida the “flexibility to run our own Medicaid program that uses the states managed care model,” and that be given the ability to enact reforms such as charging Medicaid beneficiaries a fee for using the emergency room in “non-emergency room situations.” And he advocated for realigning the methodology for calculating Medicare Part B premium cost of living adjustments. The current methodology, he says, is resulting in a disproportionate on state Medicaid programs, including Florida, where he says it has an estimated $82 million inpact over the past two years.

On Tuesday, Castor rebutted Scott, writing her own letter to McCarthy.

In the letter, she says that Scott neglected to mention that 1.7 million Floridians now have health care coverage due to the ACA. She also says that the ACA’s consumer protections (such as banning insurance companies from discriminating against those with pre-existing conditions, removing lifetime caps on coverage and allowing people under 26 to stay on their parents plans) have benefited the nearly 9 million Floridians who have employer backed insurance.

Castor writes that Scott has also overlooked the fact that the rate of growth of private insurance plans “has been held in check” in recent years.

“Governor Scott failed to mention significant cost savings to Floridians in his letter,” writes Castor. “Florida families with employer coverage saw their premiums grow by only 1.3 percent per year from 2010 to 2015, compared with 8.2 percent over the previous decade. If premiums grow in line with the national average in 2016, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that premiums in Florida will be $7,600 lower today than if grown matched the increase pre-ACA.”

Castor also says that plans to offer Medicaid block grants to the states “is a ruse to institute draconian cuts.”

The governor was in Tampa on Tuesday making an announcement about his proposals for higher education. When asked about his letter to McCarthy, he said, “I know it’s really important that everybody has access to high quality health care, but if you can’t afford it it doesn’t matter how good the quality is. That’s not something that we want for our society. What’s important to me is that we have a national plan that works, that controls costs….you have to focus on costs, you have to focus on quality,  you have to focus on service, and the ACA didn’t do those things.”

Pam Bondi announces website to spread awareness of human trafficking in Florida

Since beginning her tenure as Attorney General six years ago, Pam Bondi has made the combating of human trafficking in the state one of her signature issues. Appearing at Tampa International Airport on Friday morning, Bondi announced the partnership with the airport to encourage travelers to spot human trafficking and report suspicious activity. They can do so by going to a new website,

“Thousands of people walk through our airport every single day,” Bondi said. “Partnering with the airport gives us a unique opportunity to spread awareness about human trafficking to thousands of people every single day.”

Bondi said regular citizens can act as the eyes and ears to observing and reporting such transgressions, citing an Uber driver out of Sacramento last week who grew suspicious after picking up a 16-year-old girl (who he originally suspected was only 12) and contacted local police. The teenager was being sold for sex at a Holiday Inn, the police reported, and her eavesdropping Uber driver had saved her. “That is proof that one person…can make a difference if you know what to look for, because sadly it is all around us,” said Bondi.

“The awareness program will be made available for all of our employees,” said Tampa International Airport Police Chief Paul Sireci.

“We’re trying to save that one person who’s drowning out there,” said Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco, who said he wanted to deliver a message to the people who might be sexually trafficked right now: “Your captors are lying to you,” he said, adding that his department only wants to help such victims, assuring them that if they come forward they won’t be going to jail. “You’re a victim. And we’re going to treat you like one.”

And Bondi, who joined a lawsuit with other Republican attorneys general in December of 2014 disputing President Obama’s executive order granting additional protections to millions of undocumented immigrants, said that the undocumented who are being enslaved should not worry about their status if they come out of the shadows.

“That is often how your captor will keep you – by saying we will grab you, and we will deport you, and you are not a victim. That will not happen,” she said, insisting, “We will protect you. We will keep you safe. Because you are a victim.”

Dover House Republican Ross Spano has made the issue of combating human trafficking since being elected to the Legislature in 2012. He said at the news conference that while he didn’t want to “cast any aspersions” regarding Monday night’s national college football championship game in Tampa, but he did say that the ad campaign in Tampa’s airport could only be a plus in trying to heighten awareness this weekend on the issue. Bondi said traffickers bring their victims into cities like Tampa like the NCAA championship game or next month in Houston at the Super Bowl. “That’s why we’re here at the airport.” (Some critics dispute that there are an influx of prostitutes who attend events like the Super Bowl, as this site alludes to).

The state of Florida has over 80 investigations of human trafficking at this time, Bondi said, and over 70 of those cases are active.

Bondi was also asked by reporters about reports about joining Donald Trump’s incoming administration. While she downplayed those reports (which you can read about here), she did say that she has talked about the issue of human trafficking with him, and said that he is “committed to fighting human trafficking in our country.”

Mitch Perry Report for 1.5.17 – Poll says voters want Dems like Bill Nelson to fight Donald Trump when necessary

We’ve heard from several Florida Democrats (such as Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist) that, when appropriate, they look forward to working with President-elect Donald Trump once he takes office later this month.

The question for them and other Democrats concerned about their own poll numbers as well as what’s good for the country is where and when they decide to go along with Trump and, more likely, when do they oppose him.

On a conference call yesterday, the folks with the Center for American Progress provided the details about a new poll they conducted in 14 battleground states where Democrats like Bill Nelson will be running for re-election in ’18. The survey concluded that a majority of the public want Senate Democrats to serve as a check and balance on the new president and congressional Republicans even if it means blocking his initiatives “on many occasions.”

That could be a challenge for Nelson, who, on occasion, can be progressive, but also likes to maintain a centrist mien, especially when election time comes around.

Well, good luck to him on that one, because he’s being challenged right now by his supporters here in the Tampa Bay area. Yesterday, dozens came to call on him to, at the very least, call for a delay in the confirmation vote scheduled for next week for Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for Attorney General.

One area where Nelson one might be surmise he’ll stick with his liberal colleagues is in acting as a bulwark to defend the Affordable Care Act.

“They want to repeal it and then try to hang it on us. Not gonna happen. It’s their responsibility, plain and simple,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said at a news conference.

Dems have been pushing the reality that if the Republicans have a legitimate vehicle to replace the ACA with, nobody really knows what it is. And no doubt, some in the GOP might be fearing the repercussions of taking away people’s care.

“Republicans must be careful in that the Dems own the failed ObamaCare disaster, with its poor coverage and massive premium increases……like the 116% hike in Arizona,” Trump tweeted yesterday, adding, “Also, deductibles are so high that it is practically useless. Don’t let the Schumer clowns out of this web…massive increases of ObamaCare will take place this year and Dems are to blame for the mess. It will fall of its own weight – be careful!”

Meanwhile, Schumer’s office said yesterday that the Democrats are targeting eight Trump Cabinet nominees for extra scrutiny, name checking Rex Tillerson, Betsy DeVos, Steven Mnuchin, Scott Pruitt, Mick Mulvaney, Tom Price, Andy Puzder and Wilbur Ross.

Schumer said he wants their full paperwork before hearings are scheduled, adding that only a few have turned it in while most haven’t. Schumer said he also wants their tax returns, particularly because some are billionaires and given the potential for conflicts of interest.

Those hearings begin next week.

In other news…

The race for the Florida Democratic Party gets crazier by the day. Yesterday we learned that 13 members of the Miami-County DEC filed a complaint with the FDP regarding the circumstances that have allowed Coconut Grove real estate developer and donor Stephen Bittel to be eligible for the party chair position. Earlier in the day, Tampa’s (or should we say Bradford’s) Alan Clendenin was shooting down a complaint filed against him regarding the circumstances that have allowed him to become eligible in the race.

The House of Representatives is poised to vote on condemning President Obama and the UN for that resolution last month castigating Israel for continuing to build settlements in the West Bank. The resolution was written by Polk County’s Dennis Ross.

And newly sworn-in Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren celebrated his victory on Tuesday night with friends and family in Tampa Heights.

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