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DUI ignition interlock bill passes House committee

A bill that would require an ignition interlock device on someone’s vehicle after their first drunken driving conviction has passed its first committee in the Florida House of Representatives.

The bill (HB 949) passed the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Tuesday. It must go through two more committees before reaching the House floor.

The interlock device prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking. The current law makes it mandatory for six months for a first offense if the person’s blood alcohol content is higher than 0.15 percent or a minor is in the vehicle. The devices are also mandatory for multiple DUIs.

There are approximately 9,000 interlock devices active in Florida at any given time.

Florida would join 28 other states and the District of Columbia with similar laws.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Andrew Gillum: GOP plan to raise food stamp eligibility ‘inhumane’

Tallahassee Mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum is pushing House Republicans to drop an idea that could take away food stamps for about 229,000 Floridians.

Gillum held a news conference Tuesday and then dropped off a petition at House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s office that asks lawmakers to maintain current food stamp eligibility rather than making it harder to receive assistance.

A House bill would limit food stamps to families that earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty limit or $2,633 a month for a family of four. Families who earn twice the poverty limit are now eligible for food assistance.

Gillum told reporters it would be “inhumane” to remove the assistance. He noted that his family relied on food stamps when he grew up.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump signs NASA bill, ponders sending Congress to space

President Donald Trump signed legislation Tuesday adding human exploration of Mars to NASA’s mission. Could sending Congress into space be next?

Flanked at an Oval Office bill-signing ceremony by astronauts and lawmakers, Trump observed that being an astronaut is a “pretty tough job.” He said he wasn’t sure he’d want it and, among lawmakers he put the question to, Sen. Ted Cruz said he wouldn’t want to be a space traveler, either.

But Cruz, R-Texas, offered up a tantalizing suggestion. “You could send Congress to space,” he said to laughter, including from the president.

Trump, who faces a crucial House vote later this week on legislation long promised by Republicans to overhaul the Obama-era Affordable Care Act health law, readily agreed. The health care bill is facing resistance from some conservative members of the party.

“What a great idea that could be,” Trump said, before turning back to the space exploration measure sponsored by Cruz and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

The new law authorizes $19.5 billion in spending for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the budget year that began Oct. 1. Cruz said the authorization bill is the first for the space agency in seven years, and he called it a “terrific” achievement.

Trump last week sent Congress a budget proposal that seeks $19.1 billion in spending authorization for the agency next year.

“For almost six decades, NASA’s work has inspired millions and millions of Americans to imagine distant worlds and a better future right here on earth,” Trump said. “I’m delighted to sign this bill. It’s been a long time since a bill like this has been signed, reaffirming our commitment to the core mission of NASA: human space exploration, space science and technology.”

The measure amends current law to add human exploration of the red planet as a goal for the agency. It supports use of the International Space Station through at least 2024, along with private sector companies partnering with NASA to deliver cargo and experiments, among other steps.

After signing the bill, Trump invited several lawmakers to comment, starting with Cruz. When Trump invited Vice President Mike Pence to speak, he suggested that Nelson be allowed to say a few words. Nelson traveled into space when he was in the House.

“He’s a Democrat. I wasn’t going to let him speak,” Trump quipped, to laughter. Nelson ultimately got a chance to briefly praise his bill.

Pence also announced that Trump plans to re-launch the National Space Council, with Pence as chairman, to coordinate U.S. space policy. The council was authorized by law in 1988, near the end of the Reagan administration, but ceased to operate soon after Bill Clinton took office in January 1993.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump to Capitol in last-ditch lobbying for health care bill

President Donald Trump is rallying support for the Republican health care overhaul by taking his case directly to GOP lawmakers at the Capitol, two days before the House plans a climactic vote that poses an important early test for his presidency. Top House Republicans unveiled revisions to their bill in hopes of nailing down support.

At a rally Monday night in Louisville, Kentucky, Trump underscored what he called “the crucial House vote.”

“This is our long-awaited chance to finally get rid of Obamacare,” he said of repealing former President Barack Obama‘s landmark law, a GOP goal since its 2010 enactment. “We’re going to do it.”

 Trump’s closed-door meeting with House Republicans was coming as party leaders released 43 pages worth of changes to a bill whose prospects remain dicey. Their proposals were largely aimed at addressing dissent that their measure would leave many older people with higher costs.

Included was an unusual approach: language paving the way for the Senate, if it chooses, to make the bill’s tax credit more generous for people age 50-64. Details in the documents released were initially unclear, but one GOP lawmaker and an aide said the plan sets aside $85 billion over 10 years for that purpose.

The leaders’ proposals would accelerate the repeal of tax increases Obama imposed on higher earners, the medical industry and others to this year instead of 2018. It would be easier for some people to deduct medical expenses from their taxes.

Older and disabled Medicaid beneficiaries would get larger benefits. But it would also curb future growth of the overall Medicaid program, which helps low earners afford medical coverage, and let states impose work requirements on some recipients. Additional states could not join the 31 that opted to expand Medicaid to more beneficiaries under Obama’s law, the Affordable Care Act.

In a bid to cement support from upstate New Yorkers, the revisions would also stop that state from passing on over $2 billion a year in Medicaid costs to counties. The change was pushed by Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., one of Trump’s first congressional supporters. Local officials have complained the practice overburdens their budgets.

Republican support teetered last week when a nonpartisan congressional analysis projected the measure would strip 24 million people of coverage in a decade. The Congressional Budget Office also said the bill would cause huge out-of-pocket increases for many lower earners and people aged 50 to 64.

Democrats have opposed the GOP repeal effort. They tout Obama’s expansion of coverage to 20 million additional people and consumer-friendly coverage requirements it imposed on insurers, including abolishing annual and lifetime coverage limits and forcing them to insure seriously ill people.

The GOP bill would dismantle Obama’s requirements that most people buy policies and that larger companies cover workers. Federal subsidies based largely on peoples’ incomes and insurance premiums would end, and a Medicaid expansion to 11 million more low-income people would disappear.

The Republican legislation would provide tax credits to help people pay medical bills based chiefly on age, and open-ended federal payments to help states cover Medicaid costs would be cut. Insurers could charge older consumers five times the premiums they charge younger people instead of Obama’s 3-1 limit, and would boost premiums 30 percent for those who let coverage lapse.

House approval would give the legislation much-needed momentum as it moves to the Senate, which Republicans control 52-48 but where five Republicans have expressed opposition. Trump used Monday’s trip to single out perhaps the measure’s most vociferous foe — Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul.

“He’s a good guy,” Trump said of one 2016 rival for the GOP presidential nomination. “And I look forward to working with him so we can get this bill passed, in some form, so that we can pass massive tax reform, which we can’t do till this happens.”

Enactment of the health care bill would clear the way for Congress to move to revamping the tax code and other GOP priorities. Defeat would wound Trump two months into his administration and raise questions about his ability to win support from his own party moving forward.

Among the disgruntled were GOP lawmakers in the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, though the strength of their opposition was unclear. The group has seemed to have around 40 members, but that number may be lower now and some have expressed support or an open mind for the bill.

Caucus leader Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., an outspoken opponent, said the group was not taking a formal position on the measure. That could indicate that a significant fraction of its members were not willing to vow “no” votes.

Meadows said he believes the House will reject the bill without major changes.

___

Reprinted with permission of the Associated Press

First daughter Ivanka Trump gets West Wing office

Cementing her role as a powerful White House influence, Ivanka Trump is working out of a West Wing office and will get access to classified information, though she is not technically serving as a government employee, according to an attorney for the first daughter.

Since President Donald Trump took office, his eldest daughter has been a visible presence in the White House, where her husband, Jared Kushner, already serves as a senior adviser. On Friday, she participated in a meeting on vocational training with the president and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Jamie Gorelick, an attorney and ethics adviser for Ivanka Trump, said Monday that the first daughter will not have an official title, but will get a West Wing office, government-issued communications devices and security clearance to access classified information. Gorelick said Ivanka Trump would follow the ethics rules that apply to government employees.

“Our view is that the conservative approach is for Ivanka to voluntarily comply with the rules that would apply if she were a government employee, even though she is not,” said Gorelick, who also helped Kushner with the legal strategy that led to his White House appointment. “The White House Counsel’s Office agrees with that approach.”

Ivanka Trump’s role has already come under scrutiny because there is little precedent for a member of the first family with this kind of influence. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A person with knowledge of Ivanka Trump’s thinking, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations, said she believes she can offer more independent perspective to her father by not serving as a White House staffer.

A popular surrogate for her father on the campaign trail, Ivanka Trump moved her young family to Washington at the start of the administration and signaled plans to work on economic issues, like maternity leave and child care. In a statement, she said: “I will continue to offer my father my candid advice and counsel, as I have for my entire life.”

Federal anti-nepotism laws prevent relatives from being appointed to government positions. But the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel recently said the president’s “special hiring authority” allowed him to appoint Kushner to the West Wing staff. Gorelick noted the office also made clear that the president could consult family members as private citizens, arguing that this is what Ivanka Trump will be doing.

The first daughter has sought to distance herself from the Trump Organization and her lifestyle brand, which offers shoes, clothing and jewelry. She has removed herself from executive roles and will have a more hands-off approach to the brand — though she will still get certain information and will have the power to veto new deals if they raise ethical red flags.

Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor who served as President George W. Bush‘s chief White House lawyer on ethics, said that Ivanka Trump is effectively working as a White House employee. He said that “means that she, like her husband, has to follow the rules. It’s not a huge deal if she stays out of things that affect her financial interests.”

Painter said that means Trump should avoid anything to do with foreign trade with countries where her products are made, as well as recuse herself from real estate matters, given Kushner’s family real estate business.

Trump says she will follow ethics rules and some of her financial information will be included in Kushner’s official disclosures. She would have to disclose additional financial information if she were in a senior White House role, said Painter. That could include more details about her lifestyle brand, including her contracts and income.

Attorney Andrew Herman, who has advised lawmakers on ethics issues, said he thought the administration should make her role official. He said: “I think the right way to do that is to make her a special government employee. But that implicates all kind of formal and disclosure issues.”

Ivanka Trump continues to own her brand. But she has handed daily management to the company president and has set up a trust to provide further oversight. The business cannot make deals with any foreign state, and the trustees will confer with Gorelick over any new agreements. Ivanka Trump will also be able to veto proposed new transactions.

Ivanka Trump has also barred the business from using her image to promote the products in advertising or marketing.

To be sure, the trustees are in the family — her husband’s siblings Joshua Kushner and Nicole Meyer. But Gorelick said the goal of the trust wasn’t to shield Trump from everything, but to remove her from the day-to-day operations. She also acknowledged that the arrangement did not eliminate conflicts, but she said Trump is trying to minimize them and will recuse herself from any administration decision-making that affects her business.

With the Trump Organization, Ivanka Trump has stepped down from a leadership role and will receive fixed payments rather than a share of the profits.

Ivanka Trump has also written a book, “Women Who Work,” that will be released in May. The proceeds and royalties will be donated to charity, Gorelick said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump tweets video clip of James Comey testimony

The Latest on a congressional inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election (all times local):

2:25 p.m. — The White House is distancing itself from two former senior members of Donald Trump‘s team, amid an FBI investigation into possible connections between Trump “associates” and Russia.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday referred to Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, as a “volunteer of the campaign.” And he said Paul Manafort, who ran Trump’s campaign leading up to the Republican National Convention, “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”

Flynn resigned from the White House last month after he was found to have misled senior members of the administration about his contacts with Russia’s top diplomat to the U.S.

Manafort resigned from Trump’s campaign last summer following allegations of contacts with Russian intelligence officials.

1:35 p.m. — Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi says an independent investigative commission should be created to look into possible links and coordination between associates of President Donald Trump and Russian officials seeking to undermine Hillary Clinton‘s presidential campaign.

Pelosi’s comments came after FBI Director James Comey confirmed in congressional testimony that the agency has been investigating the matter since last July. He also told the panel that he has no evidence that former President Obama ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower.

California Democrat Pelosi said that “the American people deserve answers.”

She said that the possibility of Trump officials and Russian officials conspiring to influence the election “represents a grave threat to our national security and our democracy.”

Pelosi says Trump should apologize over his extraordinary wiretapping claim.

1 p.m. — President Donald Trump is highlighting FBI Director James’ Comey‘s refusal to say whether he briefed President Barack Obama on a Trump adviser’s contacts with Russia.

Trump tweeted a video clip of Comey being asked if he informed Obama about calls made by Michael Flynn, who was fired as White House national security adviser. Comey says he won’t discuss that case or any other discussions he had with Obama.

The tweet appears to suggest that the Obama administration was behind leaks about Flynn’s contacts with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Flynn was fired after news reports revealed that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other top officials about his discussions with the envoy.

11:25 a.m. —  Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, is denying that the British intelligence community was ever asked to conduct electronic surveillance on President Donald Trump at the behest of former President Barack Obama.

Earlier this month, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer referred to unsubstantiated allegations made by a Fox News analyst that GCHQ, the British electronic intelligence agency, had helped Obama wiretap Trump. The British intelligence agency flatly denied it happened.

The ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, asked Rogers if he thought it was “utterly ridiculous” that anyone in the U.S. would ask British spies to do surveillance on a presidential candidate. Rogers said it was and added that he had seen nothing at the NSA that would indicate that happened.

11:25 a.m. — The Senate’s top Democrat says that President Donald Trump “severely damaged his credibility” with Twitter postings claiming that former President Barack Obama ordered wiretaps of him.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer issued the statement after FBI Director James Comey told a House panel that there was no information that supports Trump’s allegation.

Schumer said Trump “needs to retract his claim immediately.”

He added that Trump “should admit he was wrong, stop the outlandish tweets.”

11:10 a.m. —FBI Director James Comey says the FBI and Justice Department have no information to substantiate President Donald Trump‘s claims that former President Barack Obama wiretapped him before the election.

Comey says no individual can order surveillance of an American. He says courts grant this permission after a rigorous application process.

Comey was testifying before the House intelligence committee. Comey said the Justice Department also asked him to share with the committee that the answer also applies to the Justice Department and its various components. The Justice Department oversees the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

10:48 a.m. —FBI Director James Comey and Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, say they have no evidence or intelligence that Russian cyber actors changed vote tallies in key states during last year’s presidential election.

Testifying at a highly politically charged congressional hearing in the House, both said they had no evidence that any vote tallies were changed in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina or Ohio.

The House intelligence committee is holding a hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

10:45 a.m. — National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers says the intelligence community stands behind its January assessment that it is highly confident Russia interfered in the 2016 election with the goal of electing Donald Trump.

In a Monday morning tweet, Trump blamed Democrats for the investigation into his contacts and said the House intelligence committee should be focus on investigating leaks.

Rogers said that his agency is working to provide Congress the material it needs to investigate the intelligence agencies’ findings.

Rogers was testifying before the House intelligence committee alongside FBI Director James Comey.

10:35 a.m. — FBI Director James Comey is publicly confirming for the first time that the FBI is investigating Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, including any potential coordination between Trump campaign associates and Russia’s government.

Comey is testifying before Congress. He says he’s authorized by the Justice Department to make the disclosure. Typically, the FBI does not discuss or even confirm the existence of ongoing investigations.

Comey says the probe is part of the FBI’s counter-intelligence mission. He says the investigation includes the nature of any links between individuals associated with Trump’s campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between Russia’s efforts and the campaign.

Comey says the investigation will also look at whether crimes were committed. He says he can’t provide details about the investigation.

10:25 a.m — The top Democrat on the House intelligence committee says he hopes FBI Director James Comey will put questions about whether Trump Tower was wiretapped by President Barack Obama “permanently to rest.”

Rep. Adam Schiff is speaking at the start of the committee’s hearing on Russia’s interference in the presidential election. Comey is testifying at the hearing, along with National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers.

Schiff says Democrats on the committee will be focused in part on whether Americans helped Russia with its hacking of Democratic groups and individuals.

Trump has said he has no knowledge of his associates coordinating with Russia during the election. He’s refused to back down from his assertion that Obama wiretapped his New York City skyscraper during the campaign, despite there being no evidence.

10:10 a.m. — The chairman of the House intelligence committee says there was no physical wiretap on Trump Tower, but it’s possible that “other surveillance activities” were used against President Donald Trump and his associates.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., is speaking at the opening of the committee’s first public hearing on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. He says the committee has seen no evidence to date that officials from any campaign conspired with Russian agents, but will continue to investigate that question.

He also says the committee will investigate who has been leaking classified information about investigations into Russia’s interference.

Nunes says he hopes the committee’s hearings will result in a “definitive report” on Russia’s involvement in the presidential election.

Reprinted with permission of the Associated Press

Powerful Florida panel that could bring big changes gears up

A powerful panel that has the power to alter the Florida Constitution is getting down to work.

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission is holding its first meeting on Monday.

The 37-member panel meets every 20 years and is allowed to propose changes to the state constitution. The commission’s amendments will go before voters during the 2018 election.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed Carlos Beruff, a Manatee County homebuilder as chairman. Beruff unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in last year’s election.

The members of the commission are appointed by the governor, the president of the state Senate, the speaker of the Florida House and the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. Attorney General Pam Bondi is automatically a member of the panel.

Reprinted with permission of The Associated Press

House to take up red-light camera repeal

The House on Wednesday is expected to take up a bill that would ban red-light cameras in the state.

The bill (HB 6007), which has easily passed House committees and is slated for a Wednesday floor session, would repeal a law that allows cities and counties to install and use red-light cameras. The ban would take effect July 1, 2020.

Some House Republican leaders have long been critical of red-light cameras, which they argue have become a revenue source for local governments.

But the issue has stalled this year in the Senate. A repeal bill (SB 178) failed to get approval last month from the Senate Transportation Committee, which deadlocked 2-2 on the heavily lobbied issue.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

State drops charges in case that shook Florida politics

Florida is dropping charges against an attorney once accused of being at the center of a $300 million gambling ring that led to the 2013 resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll.

Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis was convicted of 103 counts of racketeering, possessing slot machines and other charges and sentenced to six years in prison. But an appeals court last year ruled that Mathis deserved a new trial because his attorneys were not allowed to call witnesses that could have bolstered his defense against the charges. The Florida Supreme Court in February declined to take up the case.

The legal setback meant Florida either had to start over with a new trial or drop the charges.

Statewide Prosecutor Nicholas Cox – who works directly for Attorney General Pam Bondi – said in a statement released Wednesday that it was time for state authorities to direct their attention elsewhere.

Cox said that the state’s “current priorities are fighting synthetic drugs, illegal opioids, human trafficking and gang violence. I feel that we should focus our resources on these priorities for the best interest in the state of Florida.” Cox also noted the company targeted by authorities is no longer in business.

Mathis, who was first charged in 2013, told media outlets in Jacksonville on Thursday that he had always vowed to fight the charges to the end.

“I didn’t think that it would take four years to do so,” Mathis said. He said it can be hard to stand for what one believes. “The road is more challenging than you anticipate. But with strength, you continue to go on. You continue to take each step. And I vowed to prove my innocence and establish that I had not done anything wrong. I’m pleased now with the outcome.”

Four years ago Bondi stood alongside law-enforcement officials who contended that Mathis was at deeply involved with an organization called Allied Veterans of the World that ran what were known as internet cafes or parlors.

The cafes, which operated in a legal gray area in Florida’s gambling law, had computerized slot machine-style games. Investigators said the charity was a fraud and executives gave precious little to veterans while lavishing millions on themselves, spending it on boats, beachfront condos and Maseratis, Ferraris and Porsches.

Bondi at the time called the alleged scam “callous” and “despicable” and said it “insults every American who ever wore a military uniform.”

The fallout from the case was immediate and led Gov. Rick Scott to force Carroll to resign. Carroll, who had been seen as a rising star for Republicans, was never charged, but she did eventually admit to violating state ethics law and paying a $1,000 fine. Carroll acknowledged she did not properly disclose on required financial disclosure forms all the money paid to her by Allied when she was a state legislator.

The Florida Legislature in 2013 also passed a law banning internet cafes.

Mathis’ defense team wanted to make the case at trial that, in his capacity as Allied’s attorney, Mathis actually thought the cafes were legal under Florida law. He didn’t game the system, the defense theory goes, but advised his clients in his belief that the cafes were legal at the time.

The trial judge said Mathis was not being charged as a lawyer, however, but as a member of the organization, and barred the jury from hearing that line of defense.

Republicans lead fight to ban fracking in Florida

Citing unresolved health concerns, Florida lawmakers are weighing the fate of a measure that would ban fracking across the state.

Legislators are pushing the bill to safeguard Florida’s clean water supply, which is the drinking water source for 90 percent of Floridians and a major player in the state’s economy, from agriculture to tourism.

If passed, the bill would effectively ban any type of well stimulation technique statewide. That includes fracking — a practice that requires pumping huge volumes of chemicals, sand and water underground to split open rock formation to allow oil and gas to flow.

Environmentalists say chemicals used in the process can leak into underground water sources. Because Florida sits atop porous, spongelike sedimentary limestone, environmentalists believe it is at a higher risk of chemical leaks.

The Environmental Protection Agency concluded in 2016 that fracking poses a risk to drinking water in some circumstances, but added that a lack of information on the practice makes it hard to know how severe that risk would be.

Those opposing the measure argue the fracking ban could cost the state, litigation-wise, because it would result in taking away property rights and the ability to extract oil.

“The bill does nothing to foreclose the traditional oil and gas operations that we currently have here in the state of Florida, and we currently — at least to our knowledge — are not fracking the state,” Sen. Dana Young, the bill’s sponsor, said at a news conference.

The legislation comes at a time when the anti-fracking movement has ballooned across the state. According to a Floridians Against Fracking report, 90 communities have introduced measures seeking to ban the practice in one way or another. Young joined the momentum not too long ago. Last year, she helped advance a bill in the House that would have created a pathway to legalizing the practice, but the measure died in the Senate.

Young said her stance changed after meeting with stakeholders and “exhausting hours of research and soul-searching.”

On day one of the 60-day legislative session, Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee members advanced this year’s bill. It now has two more stops before heading to the full Senate. While Senate President Joe Negron has vowed to make the environment one of his priorities, he has not taken a firm stance on the ban.Joe Negron has vowed to make the environment one of his priorities, he has not taken a firm stance on the ban.

A similar bill moving to prohibit fracking has been introduced in the House. While it has received support from Democrats, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Miller, is the only Republican backing it.

“I would hope that Florida is a leader in this regard, and considering we are a diverse state and a swing state, purple through and through, we hope and expect the country will be looking at us,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters.

State legislators in Maryland and Nevada are also considering a ban on fracking this year. Vermont and New York are currently the only states with an outright ban on the practice.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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