Associated Press, Author at Florida Politics

Associated Press

Jeff Sessions: U.S. to continue use of privately run prisons

Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled Thursday his strong support for the federal government’s continued use of private prisons, reversing an Obama administration directive to phase out their use. Stocks of major private prison companies rose at the news.

Sessions issued a memo replacing one issued last August by Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general at the time. That memo directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to begin reducing and ultimately end its reliance on privately run prisons.

It followed a Justice Department audit that said private facilities have more safety and security problems than government-run ones. Yates, in her announcement, said they were less necessary given declines in the overall federal prison population.

But Sessions, in his memo, said Yates’ directive went against longstanding Justice Department policy and practice and “impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.” He said he was directing the BOP to “return to its previous approach.”

The federal prison population — now just under 190,000 — has been dropping due in part to changes in federal sentencing policies over the past three years. Private prisons hold about 22,100 of these inmates, or 12 percent of the total population, the Justice Department has said.

The federal government started to rely on private prisons in the late 1990s because of overcrowding. Many of the federal prison inmates in private facilities are foreign nationals who are being held on immigration offenses. The Yates policy did not extend to prisons used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which hold tens of thousands of immigrants awaiting deportation.

Immigration and human rights advocates have long complained about conditions in privately run prisons. An inspector general audit from last August said problems at private prisons in recent years included property damage, injuries and the death of a corrections officer.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

GM bill is self-driving and self-interested

With states seizing the initiative on shaping the future of self-driving cars, General Motors is trying to persuade lawmakers across the country to approve rules that would benefit the automaker while potentially keeping its competitors off the road.

The carmaker denies trying to freeze out other brands, but legislators in four states say GM lobbyists asked them to sponsor bills that the company’s competitors contend would do just that. The bills set a blueprint for the introduction of fully self-driving cars that are part of on-demand, ride-sharing fleets, but they must be owned by an automaker.

Competitors working on self-driving technology like Uber and Alphabet’s Waymo fear the measures could shut out their companies because they don’t manufacture cars. And some automakers that are developing autonomous cars say they could be shut out, too, because their vehicles still rely on having a driver ready to step in.

GM began by getting a bill passed last year on its home turf, in Michigan. In response to complaints from Waymo, a compromise bill was also passed to allow participation by technology companies. But Bryant Walker Smith, a leading legal expert on self-driving cars, said the compromise was poorly worded and that it’s unclear what it would do.

This year, bills similar to the Michigan law, but without the compromise language, have been introduced in at least five states: Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Tennessee. GM lobbyists have also urged lawmakers in other states to introduce versions of the bill.

Prospects for passage of the bills are uncertain. But the state-by-state lobbying by the powerful automaker and its competitors shine light on the behind-the-scenes fight to determine how self-driving cars will operate on American roads and which companies will have the competitive edge.

With no federal regulations for self-driving cars in place, states are assuming responsibility for ensuring the benefits of the technology can be reaped without sacrificing safety. Federal regulators provided safety guidance to states and automakers last year, but stopped short of issuing binding rules. Key members of Congress say they also are exploring legislation. Eight states have self-driving car laws, and 55 bills have been introduced in 21 states this year, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

General Motors’ dealerships throughout the United States, many of which have close ties to local politicians, give the giant carmaker a lobbying advantage. GM has also made campaign contributions to state lawmakers who introduced the legislation it favors.

GM supports restricting who can deploy self-driving cars because “public acceptance of the technology is going to be very critical,” said Harry Lightsey, a top GM lobbyist. “If somebody is allowed to put technology on the roads and highways that proves to be unsafe, that could have very harmful repercussions.”

The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which includes Ford, Lyft, Uber, Volvo and Waymo, opposes the bills, saying they “would favor one company, create an uneven playing field and deter lifesaving innovations from reaching citizens in these states by precluding or severely limiting technology companies from testing or deploying fully autonomous vehicles.”

Audi and its parent company, Volkswagen, worry that the bills could exclude partially self-driving cars like the one Audi plans to introduce next year, said Brad Stertz, Audi’s government affairs director. GM hasn’t been willing to see the bills modified or to answer other companies’ concerns so far, he said.

Lightsey said lawmakers who have introduced bills are acting on their own, not at GM’s behest.

“These bills aren’t being introduced at GM’s urging,” he said.

But several lawmakers told The Associated Press that GM lobbyists asked them to introduce bills based on the Michigan law.

Illinois state Rep. Mike Zalewski, a Democrat, said he sponsored a bill after GM sought him out. State records show Zalewski has received $2,000 in GM campaign contributions. The bill’s Republican co-sponsor, state Rep. Tom Demmer, has received $2,500 from GM and the bill’s state Senate sponsor, Democrat Martin Sandoval, has received $3,500.

“I don’t make a connection between campaign contributions and policy,” Zalewski said.

Maryland state Sen. William Ferguson said he introduced a bill at GM’s urging in part because he hoped the automaker would expand its transmission facility near Baltimore, creating jobs.

The Democrat said GM lobbyists told him the company would “certainly look more favorably toward expanding in Maryland if there were a legal framework to test and develop (self-driving cars) more freely.” After the AP asked GM about the transmission facility, Ferguson sought to clarify his remarks, saying the automaker didn’t explicitly promise to expand its operations.

Several bill sponsors said they’re willing to consider changes to the measures.

Tennessee state Sen. Mark Green, a Republican, said he wants to reach a compromise. Language that has drawn objections “is there now to get people to join the discussion,” he said. Green’s political action committee has received $3,000 from GM. The bill’s Tennessee House sponsor, Republican William Lamberth II, received a $2,000 contribution from GM a month before introducing his bill.

Lamberth said the contribution had nothing to do with his decision to introduce a bill. Green, Demmer and Sandoval didn’t respond to questions from the AP about the contributions.

Some lawmakers said they didn’t introduce bills despite GM’s requests because they view the measures as anti-competitive.

“We didn’t want to pick winners and losers in the autonomous vehicle arena,” said Colorado state Rep. Faith Winter, a Democrat.

Arizona lawmakers met last month with Gov. Doug Ducey‘s staff, GM, Waymo, Uber, Lyft and other companies in response to GM’s effort to get a bill introduced there, said state Sen. Bob Worsley, the Senate transportation committee chairman. While GM argued in favor of the measure, everyone else opposed it, he said.

Worsley, a Republican, called GM’s proposal “a protectionist measure for everybody in manufacturing.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Rick Scott to court: Throw out Richard Corcoran’s Lottery lawsuit

Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration is asking a judge to throw out a lawsuit filed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

A Leon County circuit judge held a brief hearing Thursday over Corcoran’s lawsuit that maintains the Florida Lottery broke the law when it approved a more than $700-million contract with IGT Global Solutions to help run lottery games.

Corcoran’s lawsuit contends the contract is illegal because it exceeds the department’s authorized budget.

Barry Richard, an attorney hired to represent the state’s lottery secretary, argued the agency followed the law because the contract states it is contingent on state funding.

Richard told reporters after the hearing that if the Legislature “doesn’t like it, they don’t have to fund it.”

The case could get decided quickly. Judge Karen Gievers scheduled a March 6 trial.

2 protesters removed from section of Sabal Trail pipeline

Two people protesting the 515-mile-long Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline wedged themselves into a section of the pipe in north Florida.

The Ocala Star-Banner reports that the man and woman were eventually removed Wednesday afternoon from the 3-foot-wide pipe after Marion County Fire Rescue responded.

One of the protesters, Carrie Ford, sent a video while lying inside the pipe saying she wanted to spread the word about the pipeline. The $3.2 billion Sabal Trail pipeline will transport natural gas from Alabama, Georgia and parts of Florida. Protesters have raised concerns about the pipeline’s potential to leak hazardous chemicals into wetlands and other waters it crosses under.

Officials with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the project after saying the project’s harm to the environment was properly minimized.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Lottery fight between Gov. Scott and House could be costly

Florida could spend up to $100,000 in the skirmish between House Speaker Richard Corcoran and the administration of Gov. Rick Scott.

Corcoran last week asked a court to block a contract the Florida Lottery approved last fall. The contract with IGT Global Solutions is worth more than $700 million.

Corcoran’s lawsuit maintains lottery officials broke the law because they approved a contract that exceeds the department’s authorized budget.

The Florida Lottery this week hired attorney Barry Richard with the Greenberg Traurig firm to represent them in the legal battle. Richard represented President George W. Bush during the presidential election recount battle in 2000.

Richard’s contract calls for him to be paid up to $60,000 for a trial and an additional $40,000 for any appeal. The Florida House is using lawyers who work for the state on the case.

Rick Scott says fellow Republicans — he’s looking at you, Mr. Speaker — are spreading fake news

Gov. Rick Scott is now saying that his fellow Republicans in the Florida House are using “fake news” to justify their plan to scrap the state’s economic development agency.

Scott used his campaign Twitter account on Wednesday to distribute a video critical of House Speaker Richard Corcoran and House Republicans. The video labels Corcoran a “career politician” who wasted money by having the House produce a video that trashed programs championed by Scott.

The House video released last week blasted Visit Florida, the agency that promotes tourism, and Enterprise Florida, the organization that uses taxpayer money to lure companies to the state. The House is considering a bill that would eliminate Enterprise Florida.

Scott’s video points out that the House criticized incentives handed out before Scott was governor.

Conservatives welcome Donald Trump with delight – and wariness

For the past eight years, thousands of conservative activists have descended on Washington each spring with dreams of putting a Republican in the White House.

This year, they’re learning reality can be complicated.

With Donald Trump‘s presidential victory, the future of the conservative movement has become entwined with an unconventional New York businessman better known for his deal-making than any ideological principles.

It’s an uneasy marriage of political convenience at best. Some conservatives worry whether they can trust their new president to follow decades of orthodoxy on issues like international affairs, small government, abortion and opposition to expanded legal protections for LGBT Americans — and what it means for their movement if he doesn’t.

“Donald Trump may have come to the Republican Party in an unconventional and circuitous route, but the fact is that we now need him to succeed lest the larger conservative project fails,” said evangelical leader Ralph Reed, who mobilized his organization to campaign for Trump during the campaign. “Our success is inextricably tied to his success.”

As conservatives filtered into their convention hall Wednesday for their annual gathering, many said they still have nagging doubts about Trump even as they cheer his early actions. A Wednesday night decision to reverse an Obama-era directive that said transgender students should be allowed to use public school bathrooms and locker rooms matching their chosen gender identity has thrilled social conservatives.

“He’s said that on multiple occasions that he’s not a conservative, especially socially,” said Zach Weidlich, a junior at the University of South Alabama, “but my mind-set was, give him a chance, especially now that he’s elected.'”

“He was the better of two evils given the choice,” added Timmy Finn. “I agree with his policies, however, I think he’s moving a little too fast.”

Trump has a somewhat tortured history with the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual convention that’s part ideological pep talk, part political boot camp for activists. Over the past six years, he’s been both booed and cheered. He’s rejected speaking slots and galvanized attendees with big promises of economic growth and electoral victory.

At times, he has seemed to delight in taunting them.

“I’m a conservative, but don’t forget: This is called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party,” he said in a May interview on ABC’s “This Week.”

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, said Trump’s aggressive style is more important than ideological purity.

“Conservatives weren’t looking for somebody who knew how to explain all the philosophies. They were actually looking for somebody who would just fight,” he said. “Can you think of anybody in America who fits that bill more than Donald Trump?”

Trump is to address the group Friday morning. Vice President Mike Pence is to speak Thursday as are White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior advisers Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway.

The tensions between Trump’s brand of populist politics and conservative ideology will be on full display at the three-day conference, which features panels like: “Conservatives: Where we come from, where we are and where we are going” and “The Alt-Right Ain’t Right At All.”

Along with Trump come his supporters, including the populists, party newcomers and nationalists that have long existed on the fringes of conservativism and have gotten new voice during the early days of his administration.

Pro-Brexit British politician Nigel Farage will speak a few hours after Trump.

Organizers invited provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after protesters at the University of California at Berkeley protested to stop his appearance on campus. But the former editor at Breitbart News, the website previously run by Bannon, was disinvited this week after video clips surfaced in which he appeared to defend sexual relationships between men and boys as young as 13.

Trump “is giving rise to a conservative voice that for the first time in a long time unabashedly, unapologetically puts America first,” said Republican strategist Hogan Gidley. “That ‘America First’ moniker can very well shape this country, but also the electorate and the Republican Party and conservative movement for decades.”

Trump’s early moves — including a flurry of executive orders and his nomination of federal Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court — have cheered conservatives. They’ve also applauded his Cabinet picks, which include some of the most conservative members of Congress. The ACU awarded his team a 91.52 percent conservative rating — 28 points higher than Ronald Reagan and well above George H.W. Bush who received a 78.15 rating.

But key items on the conservative wish list remain shrouded in uncertainty. The effort to repeal President Barack Obama‘s health care law is not moving as quickly as many hoped, and Republicans also have yet to coalesce around revamping the nation’s tax code.

No proposals have surfaced to pursue Trump’s campaign promises to build a border wall with Mexico that could cost $15 billion or more or to buttress the nation’s infrastructure with a $1 trillion plan. Conservatives fear that those plans could result in massive amounts of new spending and that Trump’s penchant for deal-making could leave them on the wrong side of the transaction.

“There is wariness,” said Tim Phillips, president of Koch-brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity.

But with a Republican-controlled Congress, others believe there’s no way to lose.

“He sits in a room with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Is there a bad a deal to made with those three in the room?” asked veteran anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. “A deal between those three will, I think, always make me happy.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

‘Refugees Welcome’ banner unfurled at Statue of Liberty

The National Park Service is trying to figure out who unfurled a giant banner at the Statue of Liberty saying “Refugees Welcome.”

Park Service spokesman Jerry Willis says the 3-by-20-foot banner was hung from the public observation deck at the top of the statue’s pedestal Tuesday afternoon. The banner was taken down more than an hour later.

Willis says regulations prohibit anything fixed to the statue.

The stunt happened the day the Department of Homeland Security announced expanded immigration enforcement policies.

Donald Trump denounces ‘horrible’ threats against Jewish centers

President Donald Trump on Tuesday denounced recent threats against Jewish community centers as “horrible” and “painful.” He said they are a “very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

Trump made the remarks after touring the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“This tour was a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms,” Trump said.

His comments about recent threats at Jewish community centers across the country marked the first time he had directly addressed a wave of anti-Semitism and followed a more general White House denouncement of “hatred and hate-motivated violence.”

That statement, earlier Tuesday, did not mention the community center incidents or Jews. Trump “has made it abundantly clear that these actions are unacceptable,” that statement said.

The FBI said it is joining with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to investigate “possible civil rights violations in connection with threats” to the centers.

On Monday, Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, wrote on Twitter, “We must protect our houses of worship & religious centers,” and used the hashtag #JCC. She converted to Judaism ahead of her 2009 marriage to Jared Kushner. She joined her father at the African American museum tour.

The White House was criticized by Jewish groups after issuing an International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement last month that did not mention Jews.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump Month Two: Talks on health care and on tax overhaul

As President Donald Trump begins his second month in office, his team is trying to move past the crush of controversies that overtook his first month and make progress on health care and tax overhauls long sought by Republicans.

Both issues thrust Trump, a real estate executive who has never held elected office, into the unfamiliar world of legislating. The president has thus far relied exclusively on executive powers to muscle through policy priorities and has offered few details about what he’ll require in any final legislative packages, like how the proposals should be paid for. The White House also sent conflicting signals about whether the president will send Congress his own legislative blueprints or let lawmakers drive the process.

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus told The Associated Press that he expects a health care plan to emerge in “the first few days of March.” Pressed on whether the plan would be coming from the White House, Priebus said, “We don’t work in a vacuum.”

On Sunday, White House advisers held a three-hour meeting on health care at Trump’s South Florida club, their third lengthy discussion on the topic in four days. Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs banker now serving as Trump’s top economic adviser, and newly sworn in Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have been leading talks with Republican lawmakers and business leaders on taxes. Neither man has prior government experience.

Republicans long blamed Democrats for blocking efforts to overhaul the nation’s complicated tax code and make changes to the sweeping 2010 health care law signed by President Barack Obama. But with the GOP now in control of both the White House and Congress, making good on those promises rests almost entirely with the president and his party.

To some Republicans’ chagrin, both issues were overshadowed during Trump’s first month. The president spent more time publicly fighting the media than selling Americans on his vision for a new health care law. Fresh questions emerged about Trump’s ties to Russia, particularly after national security adviser Michael Flynn was fired for misleading the White House about his conversations with a Russian envoy. The White House botched the rollout of a refugee and immigration executive order, Trump’s most substantive policy initiative to date, and the directive was quickly blocked by the courts.

Priebus said the distractions did not slow down work happening behind the scenes on the president’s legislative priorities.

“Obviously with the White House staff, you’re able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Priebus said. “The economic team isn’t screwing around with the legal case and the lawyers aren’t screwing around with tax reform.”

One of the biggest questions on Capitol Hill is how involved Trump plans to be in legislative minutia. One GOP leadership aide whose office has been working with the White House described the president as a “big picture guy” and said he expected Trump to defer to Capitol Hill on health care in particular. The aide was not authorized to speak publicly and insisted on anonymity.

Priebus said he expects Congress to pass both a tax package and legislation repealing and replacing Obama’s health care law by the end of the year. But the White House’s outward confidence belies major roadblocks on both matters.

After spending years criticizing “Obamacare,” Republicans are grappling with how to replace it and pay for a new law. While some lawmakers worry about getting blamed for taking health insurance away from millions of people, others worry the party won’t go far enough in upending the current system.

“My worry now is that many people are talking about a partial repeal of Obamacare,” Rep. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said. “If you only repeal part of it and you leave it some sort of Obamacare light, which some are talking about, my fear is the situation actually gets worse.”

Trump has said he wants to keep popular provisions like guaranteeing coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions and allowing young people to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26. He’s also raised the prospect of allowing people to buy insurance across states lines, which is not part of the law.

On taxes, Republicans have a potentially more vexing impasse. House Republicans want to scrap the 35 percent tax on corporate profits, which is riddled with exemptions, deductions and credits, and replace it with a “border adjustment tax.” The system would tax all imports coming into the U.S., but exclude exports from taxation.

House Speaker Paul Ryan‘s office has been vigorously promoting the idea to Trump, who has called the system “too complicated.” Some House aides have privately voiced optimism that the White House is coming around, though Priebus would only say that border adjustment was “an option we’re all discussing and debating.”

The president has said he plans to release a “phenomenal” tax plan in the coming weeks.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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