Ana Ceballos, Author at Florida Politics

Ana Ceballos

Ana covers politics and policy for Florida Politics. Before joining Florida Politics, she was the legislative relief reporter for The Associated Press and covered policy issues impacting immigration, the environment, criminal justice and social welfare in Florida. She holds a B.A. in journalism from San Diego State University. After graduating in 2014, she worked as a criminal justice reporter for the Monterey Herald and the Monterey County Weekly. She has also freelanced for The Washington Post at the U.S.-Mexico border covering crime in the border city of Tijuana, where she grew up. Ana is fluent in Spanish and has intermediate proficiency in Portuguese.

Rick Scott administration again mishandles individuals’ personal information

The private information of nearly 1,000 individuals was mishandled by the state’s Division of Elections as it responded to a public records request last year, making it the second time in four months that a state agency has compromised the private information of Floridians.

State officials said Friday that the last four digits of the social security number of 945 individuals were sent in error to a member of the public.

The department has notified all the individuals whose confidential information was released by mistake.

While officials say there is no reason to believe their private information has been misused, they are offering those affected a year-long membership to an identity theft protection service.

Earlier this month, officials with the Agency of Health Care Administration confirmed that the medical records and personal information of up to 30,000 people enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program may have been compromised after a data breach.

The incident in that agency stemmed from a state employee opening a malicious phishing email. The data breach exposed the Social Security numbers, dates of birth, Medicaid ID numbers and private health care information of clients.

E-Verify proposal opposed by ag and construction groups heads to full CRC

An immigration measure heading toward the full Constitutional Revision Commission would require all employers in the state to use a federal electronic system to verify the legal work eligibility of every new hire drew criticism on Friday from agriculture and business groups concerned with filling a worker shortage in their industries.

Representatives with the Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Homeowners Associations said the verification system, called E-Verify, would make it more difficult to find workers to work in the fields and in the home building industry.

“The immigrant community is not opposed to E-Verify, but the visa program is broken,” Adam Blalock, an attorney with the Florida Farm Bureau, said.

Christopher Emmanuel, of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, also opposed the proposal saying that if it goes on the November ballot and voters approve it, the system’s “unintended consequences” will be harder to fix.

“We are putting it in a nearly permanent and nearly unchangeable place,” he said.

Emmanuel is skeptical about the program’s “random auditing program,” which would allow employers and employees to be investigated.

The proposal cleared its last panel with a unanimous vote on Friday, but commissioners Chris Nocco and Jose Felix Diaz, a former state representative most recently hired by the Ballard Firm, still questioned if the proposal should be part of the state constitution.

Nocco and Diaz were both appointed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a big proponent of tougher immigration enforcement in the state.

“I think (E-Verify) is a good idea, but I think it needs to go back to the Legislature,” Commissioner Chris Nocco said. “It is not enforceable and it is a feel-good band aid.”

Nocco had reservations about the fiscal costs the new system would bring to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which is tasked with licensing and regulating more than a million businesses in the state.

“This is a lot of responsibility on them and the fiscal impact needs to be addressed along with the unintended consequences that can go with (the system),” Nocco added.

Attorney Rich Newsome, a commissioner also appointed by Corcoran, is championing the measure and said the issue has failed to garner legislative support in past years because of “wealthy lobbyists” tied to agriculture and construction. The same groups that opposed his proposal on Friday.

But Newsome believes that if the system is implemented statewide it will prevent illegal employment of undocumented immigrants in the future and protect undocumented workers from exploitation.

Newsome cited a Naples Daily News investigation that found businesses and insurers in the state profit from undocumented workers and then dump them after they are injured. He said a system like E-Verify would help put a stop to that.

Nearly 800 undocumented workers in Florida have been charged with workers’ compensation benefit fraud for using illicit Social Security numbers to either get their jobs, file for workers’ compensation benefits, or both.

As Newsome’s proposal heads to its final stop before it can go on the November ballot, he said he is open to “tweaking the language.”

Senate announces new policy on sexual, workplace harassment

Prompted by a series of sex scandals that enveloped several senators, the Florida Senate on Thursday rolled out new guidelines on how to handle sexual harassment in the workplace.

The new employee code of conduct cites “patting, pinching, or intentionally brushing against an individual’s body,” unwelcome kissing or hugging as part of a greeting — including a peck on the cheek –, and sending emails, text messages or notes — whether it be a cartoon, a photo or a joke — of sexual nature, as examples that could violate the policy.

But any type of sexual harassment, whether verbal, nonverbal or physical, is prohibited. An employee found to be in violation of this policy could face immediate termination.

“The Senate has zero tolerance for sexual and workplace harassment and through these changes to our policies and rules we intend to make our commitment to a safe, professional work environment even clearer and even stronger,” Senate President Joe Negron said in a memo obtained by Florida Politics.

Any individual — including Senate staffers, visitors, senators, lobbyists and members of the media — who experiences sexual harassment in the Senate can log a complaint with numerous individuals, including human resources and their immediate supervisors.

Their identities will be kept confidential and exempt from public records.

Once a complaint is made, the first step is to investigate and try and resolve the issue informally. If no informal resolution is possible due to the severity of the allegations, the Senate may contact an outside professional service provider to conduct an investigation on the allegations. That includes interviewing witnesses.

Once a case is resolved, the Human Resources director will be tasked with provides resources to every complainant.

The new administrative policy takes effect immediately. And in the coming weeks, Negron said online anti-harassment training will be provided to all senators and staff.

The announcement comes as allegations of sexual harassment threatened to overshadow the 2018 Legislative Session since opening day. Gov. Rick Scott, Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran all addressed sexual harassment in their speeches on the first day of session.

But action on this issue became urgent after the conclusion of two separate Senate investigations late last year that said former Sen. Jack Latvala may have violated state corruption laws by trading legislative favor for a sexual encounter.

The reports contained testimony from several women in the legislative process who noted a pattern of sexual misconduct by the Clearwater Republican that stretched for years. No complaints were ever filed against Latvala in the Senate until POLITICO Florida reported the accounts of six unnamed women who accused the once powerful senator of sexual harassment.

Latvala resigned early this month and his misconduct is under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, said Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers has worked to revise administrative policies regarding harassment in the Senate. The proposed change includes annual one-hour anti-harassment training for senators.

Negron said that rule change will be up for a vote on the full Senate floor next week. But Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez is concerned Senate Rules that governor senators have not changed are continue to be vague on sexual harassment.

“If we had another Latvala there are no new rules that would protect victims from the type of behavior his accuser went through,” Rodriguez said. “The rules are the same, very vague. When there are vague rules, the only ones that win are lawyers.”

The House addresses sexual harassment in its formal rules, unlike the Senate. But Negron says a violation of these administrative guidelines would be a violation of the rules.

Phil Ammann contributed to this report.

Lawmakers want to expand University of Miami needle exchange program

Two years after a state law established a sterile needle and syringe exchange pilot program in Miami-Dade County, lawmakers are trying to expand the single-county program to other parts of the state.

In an effort to abate a growing opioid epidemic, state Rep. Shevrin Jones said his bill would act a “liaison” to myriad of opioid measures proposed in the state Legislature this year.

Under his bill, a statewide pilot needle exchange program would be established through the Department of Health, rather than just the University of Miami.

“We want to address this (opioid) crisis and how we can use preventative measure that can mean the difference between life and death,” Jones said.

The pilot program at the University of Miami, which swaps unused needles and hypodermic syringes for new ones to prevent blood-borne diseases, would be implemented statewide under HB 579.

“This is an epidemic, not just in opioids, but there’s an increase of HIV infections that we are seeing all over our state and I know that it this is something vital for our entire state,” state Rep. Rene Plasencia, a co-sponsor of the bill, said.

If implemented, the program could save local and state government thousands of dollars by reducing the number of patients with blood-borne diseases associated with intravenous drug use. Treatment costs for those diseases can be in the tens of thousands of dollars over a patient’s lifetime.

“It’s more than clean needles. It’s Narcan, it’s training for opioid prevention, it’s wound care to prevent costly hospitalizations, it’s a place to be linked to drug rehab, it’s a place to receive HIV and Hepatitis C screenings,” said Hansel Tookes, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami.

In Florida, there were 4,972 individuals newly diagnosed with an HIV infection in 2016. The counties with the highest rate of people living with HIV or AIDS are in the southeast or central parts of the state.

The pilot program would be funded solely through donations and private resources. No state, county or municipals fund may be used to operate them.

An identical bill sponsored by Sen. Oscar Braynon, who championed legislation with Sen. Anitere Flores in 2016 to implement the University of Miami needle program,  is moving along in the Senate this year. The bill has passed one of its three committee assignments.

Richard Corcoran pushes constitutional panel to support 6-year lobbying ban

Florida would have the strictest lobbying ban in the nation under a proposed constitutional amendment that House Speaker Richard Corcoran is pushing Constitutional Revision Commission appointees to support.

Corcoran, who prides himself in running a “House of Reformers,” is seeking to close the revolving door between lobbyists and legislators by implementing a six-year lobbying ban for legislators and statewide elected officers.

In a letter sent this week to commissioners, Corcoran said they should back ethics proposals filed by Commissioners Don Gaetz, a former Senate president, and Sen. Darryl Rouson, which would be put on the ballot for voter approval if passed by the 37-member CRC panel.

Both proposals were temporarily postponed at hearings in mid-December last year.

“Recent legislative attempt to extend the lobby ban and impose stricter ethical requirements have been thwarted by the self-interested politicians we hope to regulate,” Corcoran wrote.

Currently the state constitution has a two year lobbying ban. According to National Conference of State Legislatures report, at least 34 states have a form of lobbying cooling-off period, but none exceed the two-year ban.

The term-limited Republican has advocated for a longer lobbying ban since the day he was sworn in as speaker and said, “it all ends” with him at the helm

Richard Corcoran to DHS: ‘Immediately’ investigate Andrew Gillum, Rick Kriseman

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a supporter of the Trump administration’s immigration crack down, wants federal prosecutors to “immediately” investigate two Democrat elected officials in Florida for supporting so-called sanctuary cities.

“Unfortunately, my state of Florida has two elected mayors — one in Tallahassee and another in St. Petersburg — who’ve publicly stated and continues to openly advocate for these illegal sanctuary policies,” Corcoran wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Wednesday.

The letter came a day after Nielsen testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that her agency is exploring legal avenues to prosecute elected officials that protect immigrants from deportation.

“The Department of Justice is reviewing what avenues may be available,” Nielsen told lawmakers.

Corcoran was quick to jump on that plan and pointed Nielsen to both Gillum and Kriseman.

“I strongly believe that any elected official who picks and chooses which laws to follow and which to ignore, should be removed from office,” Corcoran said.

The Land O’Lakes Republican suggests that advocating for “sanctuary city” policies means it’s likely federal immigration laws may not be followed in their municipalities. Gillum has been a vocal opponent of Corocran’s “sanctuary city” ban bill and has called Adam Putnam, a Republican gubernatorial candidate who campaigns off of his anti-sanctuary stance, a “racist.”

Kriseman recently won a mayoral race in St. Petersburg and has said that his city will protect undocumented immigrants from “harmful immigration laws.”

As the term-limited House Speaker concocts a possible run for governor, he has used his power in the Legislature to push dozens of issues through the Florida House. This would give voters a clear layout of his conservative values when encountering his name on the 2018 ballot.

“No matter how much Richard Corcoran tries, Donald Trump already endorsed Ron DeSantis,” Gillum’s spokesman Geoff Burgan said. “We are proud to stand with Mayor Kriseman on the right side of history.”

Kriseman’s spokesman Benjamin Kirby said there is “plenty of time for Republican primary politics after session” and that Kriseman is focus on “working hard to ensure St. Pete remains a welcoming, inclusive, and lawful city.”

The letter comes hours after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials struck a deal with 17 counties in Florida to hold undocumented immigrants in local jails for 48 hours after they have posted bail or finished their sentences.

The mutual agreement would require civil warrants – not judicial warrants —  to detain undocumented immigrants for a longer period. Federal courts have held ICE using ICE detainer requests is unconstitutional.

House leadership touted the effort, saying the agreement between federal and local law enforcement in the state will “strengthen the legal immigration process.”

Payday lending bill moves ahead in House

A House panel on Wednesday adopted a “strike-all” amendment to a bill that would change regulatory requirements governing the payday-lending industry, which consumer advocates criticize for creating “debt traps” for poor Floridians.

The proposal would comply with new federal rules set last year by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year meant to ensure lenders determine if a borrower can afford to repay the full amount with interest.

State Rep. Jamie Grant, a Tampa Republican, said his bill would move to a “product that does not require the underwriting that makes the economics of the transaction unsustainable.”

Under his bill, a consumer may not borrow or have an outstanding balance that exceeds $1,000. And the maximum fees that a lender may charge cannot be more than 8 percent of the borrower’s outstanding balance on a biweekly basis.

It is expected, however, that the bill will raise the fees consumers must pay in some instances.

In Florida, there are 923 licensed short-term lenders. Between July 2016 and June 2017, these non-bank cash advance services approved $3 billion in loans to consumers with fees totaling $306 million.

Consumer and civil rights groups — including the NAACP, the Florida Alliance of Consumer Protection, the Florida Credit Union Association and Florida Legal Services — have long opposed these services, which they argue are a trap for poor Floridians.

State Rep. Janet Cruz, a Democrat co-sponsoring the bill, defended the effort, saying she grew up with a family that didn’t have access to credit cards. She shared that her mother, Gracie, used short-term loans to provide for her family.

“Being poor or financially challenged doesn’t mean that you are dumb,” Cruz said.

Following an hour-long debate on the bill, Grant admitted he is “conflicted” by the bill and that it is not a bill he would pass if “he was king.”

“The reason why this bill is striking a chord with all of us in this body is because we simultaneously understand that there are people in this state who don’t have access to traditional capital who have legitimate needs — urgent needs,” Grant said.

Rep. Sean Shaw voted in favor of the measure, saying he has constituents in “the most economically depressed part of Tampa” that rely on these short-term loans.

“If they were to go away, I would tell you that cable bills would not be paid, electricity would be turned off, cellphone and water bills (would go unpaid) — and that’s not something I am prepared to do,” Shaw said.

Former Congressman Kendrick Meek and former House Speaker Tom Feeney, who in 2001 helped pass the payday loan law to include protections intended to help cash-strapped Floridians, both spoke out in favor of the proposed legislation.

Feeney said the new federal rules will result in a significant reduction in credit availability and that Florida “needs to avoid this problem.”

“The Florida model for short-term, small-dollar loans has worked for our citizens, and I encourage state lawmakers to consider protecting this important credit option to keep it available for years to come,” Feeney said.

HB 857 now heads to its last committee stop and an identical version of bill, SB 920, is moving ahead in the Senate.

Campaign finance reforms advance with bipartisan support

A pair of measures that would reform the state campaign finance system, including barring Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members from raising money during Session, cleared a House panel on Wednesday with bipartisan support.

State Rep. Evan Jenne said his proposal, HB 707, is a “common sense rule” and not “an indictment or finger pointing” at the governor, who is widely expected to run for U.S. Senate, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who is running for a another term, or Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican gubernatorial candidate.

“This is no indication of those four individuals, it is simply a matter of what is good for the goose is good for the gander,” Jenne said.

Both the Florida House and Senate prohibit members from accepting contributions during a regular, extended, or special Legislative Session. The proposal would add the same restrictions to statewide elected officials.

The proposal would make it a misdemeanor to accept a single political contribution and a felony if an individual solicits or accepts two contributions during Session.

In the vein of reforming the campaign finance system, state Rep. Frank White, who is running for Attorney General, championed a proposal that would repeal a 30-year-old state public campaign financing system.

“Most of you know that I am running for statewide elected office and if this does go on the ballot it would not affect my campaign whatsoever,” White said.

That measure cleared the House Oversight, Transparency & Administration Subcommittee. It would eliminate a system that gives statewide candidates taxpayer-funding matching dollars if they agree to limit their expenditures. Under the current system, outside contributions of up to $250 are matched and contributions above that amount are matched to $250.

“Our system dolls our millions of tax dollars to incumbents and other experienced politicians,” White said.

Speaker Richard Corcoran has pushed to abolish the system with the Constitution Revision Commission, which meets once every 20 years to propose changes to the constitution. Corcoran has called the public campaign financing system a “gross waste of taxpayer money” and “welfare for politicians.”

“You really have to be clueless or just plain selfish to accept money from our state coffers that could go to our school children, first responders, or be put back in the pockets of our taxpayers,” Corcoran has said.

Both measures have one more committee stop before they head to a full House vote.

If the measures are passed by the Legislature, they would be put on the 2018 ballot and would need 60 percent voter approval to go into effect.

Venezuela divestment bills moving ahead in Legislature

Lawmakers are trying to put into statute a Scott administration resolution that has blocked state funds from flowing into companies that do business with the Nicolas Maduro regime.

The House bill has rocketed through its committee assignments and is ready for a floor vote and a similar bill in the Senate is now starting its trek through its Senate stops with two committees remaining after a Senate panel advanced it through its first one on Tuesday.

Sen. Rene Garcia says his bill would ensure the state does not “facilitate” business that could fuel the economic and political crisis in Venezuela and would put “financial pressure on Maduro’s brutal regime.”

Gov. Rick Scott, who is widely expected to announce a run for the U.S. Senate this year, has closely monitored the beleaguered country and championed opposition to President Maduro.

“It’s disgusting what’s happening down there,” Scott said.

In response to the country’s political upheaval, Scott and his Cabinet passed a resolution last year that barred state money managers from making investments in organizations whose majority owners are the Venezuelan government and securities issued by the government.

“The governor would have the ability to bring an end to the bill itself if we find out the regime has changed,” Garcia said.

As Garcia’s bill moves ahead in the Senate, a Democrat already has a suggestion. Sen. Kevin Rader, a Broward County Democrat, wants to add language that includes banning all type of state contracts with the Latin American country.

“I don’t think the state should go into any sort of state contract,” Rader said. “We should not have any state contracts, county or city contracts, that do business with the regime.”

Lawmakers want to toss ‘patchwork’ of local vacation rental regulations

Two measures that would preempt local regulations on vacation rentals featured on sites like Airbnb are facing backlash from the bed and breakfast industry which claims short-term rentals are a “serious risk” to tourists.

“We urge our lawmakers not to put Florida’s world-class lodging reputation at risk for illegal commercial operators,” said Carol Dover, the president of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.

Despite the criticism, dozens of sign-wielding vacation rental advocates gathered at the state Capitol on Tuesday campaigning for the bills, which would preempt a myriad of local rules on vacation rentals that have been set throughout the state.

Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, is fighting for legislation that failed last year that would expand the state licensing system to include vacation rentals. Steube says it’s a “private property rights issue,” but critics call it “Big Government overreach.”

“Just like hotels and motels are regulated at the state level, so you don’t have all this piece meal regulation throughout all the cities and counties, it’s the same reason why we want to do this for vacation rentals,” Steube said.

Steube sponsored similar legislation that passed the House last year, but didn’t get a final vote in the Senate. Republican State Rep. Mike La Rosa is also pushing the measure again this year.

Currently cities and counties have the power to place their own rules. In some areas, homeowners are not allowed to rent their homes for less than 6 months at a time. Others allow renting for a monthly and weekly rentals. And in beachfront communities like Miami-Dade, fines in the tens of thousands of dollars are levied against renters on Miami Beach.

The issue is also heated in Sarasota, a beach community dotted with resorts, which is Steube’s hometown.

While those who oppose it say weekly and nightly rental impact their quality of life, the latest numbers released by Airbnb show there is a great economic impact that comes with vacation rentals.

The online hospitality giant said that in 2017, approximately 40,000 Florida hosts earned a combined $450 million and welcomed 2.7 million guests, boosting tourism numbers and taxes to local communities.

Airbnb is clearly in support of the measures, saying the policy change would add more protections for homeowners using the platform.

“It’s protection for them, so they don’t have to worry about these increasingly creative attempts to get around the state law, which is what we are seeing,” Ben Breit, a company spokesman said.

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