Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster – Page 3 – Florida Politics

Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster

VA reform bill backed by Marco Rubio, Bill Nelson headed to Donald Trump

A bill to reform the Department of Veterans of Affairs is heading to President Donald Trump, after the U.S. House of Representatives approved it this week.

The House voted 368-55 on Tuesday to approve the the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, gives the VA secretary the authority to fire and demote employees. It also adds protections for whistleblowers, by prohibiting the secretary from using his or her authority to fire employees who filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel.

The bill cleared the Senate on a voice vote last week. It now heads to Trump for his signature.

The bill had significant bipartisan support in the Senate, including from Sen. Bill Nelson, who signed on as one of 39 co-sponsors.

The measure comes more than three years after a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center, where some veterans died while waiting months for an appointment. VA employees created secret lists to cover up delays.

The VA has been plagued by years of problems, and critics complain that too few employees are punished for malfeasance. The bill lowers the burden of proof needed to fire employees — from a “preponderance” to “substantial evidence,” allowing a dismissal even if most evidence is in a worker’s favor.

“At the end of the day, this bill is about holding the bad actors accountable, protecting the whistleblowers, and refocusing the VA on its missions to serve our nation’s heroes,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Palm Harbor Republican during a floor speech Tuesday. “With the passage of the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, we are turning the page to a fresh start for the VA.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permission.

Ray Rodrigues: ‘We believe we will win’ suit over medical marijuana smoking ban

The sponsor of a bill to implement the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment said he is confident the state would prevail if sued over the proposal’s smoking ban.

“We believe we will win that lawsuit,” said House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, who sponsored the House’s version of the medical marijuana implementing bill during both the regular and special session this year. “We’re proceeding ahead as if the bill we passed is going to be the way the bill is implemented.”

Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved an implementing bill during the special session, which ended Friday. The measure, which Gov. Rick Scott has said he will sign, allows patients who suffer chronic pain related to 10 qualifying conditions to receive either low-THC cannabis or full-strength medical marijuana. Under the bill, edibles and vaping is allowed, but smoking is banned.

“We don’t believe you smoke medicine,” said the Estero Republican. “We believe that smoking causes as much harm as the benefits, particularly when we’re offering vaping, which provides all of the benefits and none of the harm.”

That ban has drawn the ire of John Morgan, the Orlando attorney who helped draft the constitutional amendment and bankrolled the 2014 and 2016 campaigns, and other medical marijuana advocates.  Morgan has said once Scott signs the bill he plans to sue over the smoking ban, saying the 71 percent of Floridians who voted for the amendment expected smoking to be a way to consume it.

“I don’t know why they would object to anyone on their death bed wanting to use what they wanted to relieve pain and suffering,” he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press last week. “If they were really concerned about smoking, why don’t they heavily tax cigarettes?”

Morgan said he plans to file the suit in Leon County, and has enlisted John Mills, a constitutional law expert and the dean emeritus of the University of Florida’ Levin School of Law, to help in the upcoming legal battle.

“I know John Morgan believes he wrote (the amendment so) that it would include smoking. We’ll see what the courts say about that,” said Rodrigues. “We had our legal staff review it first, and it’s very clear where he enumerates in the amendment this was illegal and now this is legal. He did not include smoking in this section, and smoking is illegal today. The section where it enumerated where medical marijuana would be legal does not include that.”

Legislation to implement the 2016 constitutional amendment fell apart on the final day of the regular 2017 Legislative Session after the Senate pushed for retail caps for growers. While medical marijuana wasn’t included in the initial special session call, it was added on Wednesday afternoon — the first day of the three-day of the special session.

Rodrigues said leadership had been in discussions since the end of the regular session about how to work out differences, and finally reached an agreement late Tuesday.

The final bill caps the number of retail locations growers can have at 25 locations across the state. However, the measure allows each grower to open five more locations for every new 100,000 patients in the state’s medical marijuana use registry. The limit on retail locations expires in 2020, a provision that was important for House members, said Rodrigues.

Another important provision was making medical marijuana tax exempt. Rodrigues said that was something House leaders said they wanted to do from the beginning, and something that they were able to get in to the final bill.

Rodrigues said he expects legislation to be filed each session to try to tinker with the state’s medical marijuana program, but said there’s only one way there will be a total overhaul of the system

“I only see one instance where what we’ve implemented is blown up.  We make it clear this is an implementing bill for Amendment 2. Should there be a future amendment for how marijuana is treated in Florida, our amendment is clear … this implementing bill sunsets and an entirely new implementing bill must be devised,” he said. “That’s the only way I see it blowing up, and given how polling numbers have been on recreational marijuana, below 50 percent for years, I don’t’ see that happening anytime soon.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permission.

Amid continued calls to veto HB 7069, Rick Scott says he is still ‘reviewing it’

Gov. Rick Scott isn’t showing his cards when it comes to a wide-sweeping and contentious education bill, despite rumblings he could sign the measure as early as this week.

The Naples Republican said he is still reviewing the bill (HB 7069), which, among other things, creates a “Schools of Hope” charter school program backed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran. However, many people believe Scott will sign the bill in return for Corcoran’s support of his priorities, including full funding of Visit Florida and money for an economic development fund, during a special session which ended last week.

“We all want school choice, we want to make sure our kids are going to good schools,” said Scott, when asked by reporters about continued calls for him to veto the bill during a stop in Fort Myers on Tuesday. “I know the Speaker is very passionate about it and it was something that was very important to him. I’m reviewing it, and I’ll do the best thing for the citizens of the state.”

The governor’s comments came as two state lawmakers sent letters to Scott urging him to veto the legislation. Rep. Ben Diamond and Sen. Gary Farmer, both Democrats, both called on Scott to veto the bill, telling the governor if signed it will divert money away from traditional public schools to charter schools.

The bill, among other things, extends the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program; reduces state testing, and requires test results be provided to parents and teachers in a timely fashion; expands eligibility for the Gardiner Scholarship Program; and requires 20 minutes of recess each day for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The bill also requires school districts share capital project tax revenue with charter schools, which Corcoran argued is one of the reasons why some school district officials have come out in opposition to the bill.

“What they’re really crying over is their bricks and mortar money,” said the Land O’Lakes Republican following a stop in Fort Myers on Tuesday. “The problem with bricks and mortar is they’re building $40 million Taj Mahals up and down the state, 67 counties (building) the most expensive buildings they can build. What we’re saying is focus on beautiful mind, not beautiful buildings. It doesn’t matter what the buildings look like, what matters is having that money follow the student and having that student have a world class education.”

But opponents aren’t just concerned about the capital outlay portion. In a statement, Diamond said the bill will “divert significant resources away from our traditional public schools for the benefit of charter schools, many of which are run by out-of-state, for profit corporations.”

“The bill includes little oversight or accountability for these charter schools, which would receive a significant investment of taxpayer money. The bill also makes it harder for our school districts to retain our best teachers,” said Diamond.

Corcoran said “every single penny” in the bill goes to public schools, and called outrage over the “Schools of Hope” component misplaced.

“The real outrage shouldn’t be that we’re funding ‘Schools of Hope,’ it should be that we’re the third largest state and the richest country in the world and we have failure factories. Some of our students, from the time they enter school to the time they graduate, spend their entire educational career in a failure factory. That’s where the outrage should be,” said Corcoran. “We’ve come in and said ‘enough is enough.’ We’re going to create ‘Schools of Hope,’ where those children are able to be afforded a world class education just like every other child in the state of Florida. That is transformative and that’s beneficial.”

Scott and Corcoran were in Fort Myers on Tuesday as part of a five-city “Fighting for Florida’s Future Victory Tour.” The one-day swing was meant to highlight the successes of the special session, which ended Friday.

The event at the Sun Harvest Citrus retail store and package facility struck a much different tone than a “Fighting for Florida’s Future” tour Scott embarked on in May. While Scott used that trip to hint at vetoes and take swipes at lawmakers over their decision to slash funding for Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, this swing has been a chance for Scott and Corcoran to mend fences and show a unified front.

“The speaker is passionate about what he believes in and you know what I believe in,” said Scott. “We worked hard to get something done, and we had a very good session and a very good special session.”

Corcoran called the governor is “a passionate warrior,” and he looks forward to another session of working together.

“The neat thing about this is the two of us have another session together,” said Corcoran. “I can assure you, we’re looking forward to coming back next session with another bold agenda that’s transformative and continues on this great path the governor has led us on.”

Jose Felix Diaz raises about $450K for SD 40 race

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz has raised more than $400,000 in the special election to replace Sen. Frank Artiles in Senate District 40.

Diaz, a Miami Republican, said his campaign raised about $450,000 — about $280,000 for his official campaign and another $167,000 for Rebuild Florida, his political committee — between May 10 and June 8.

“Our goal was to talk to as many people as possible, to reach out to old friends, to see what the momentum was like,” said Diaz. “I was amazed to get as much support as I did.”

The deadline to report money raised in the Senate District 40 special election is Monday. Neither Rebuild Florida nor Diaz official campaign had posted campaign finance information to the state Division of Elections website as of Monday afternoon, however Rebuild Florida posted contribution data through June 6 on its website.

Records posted to the site show top donors include the Conservative and Principled Leadership Committee, a political committee affiliated with Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican and the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; Free Markets Florida, a political committee associated with Rep. Travis Cummings, Rep. Manny Diaz, and House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues; and Friends of Matt Caldwell, the political committee associated with Rep. Matt Caldwell, who recently announced he was running for Agriculture Commissioner in 2018.

The committee also received contributions from the Florida Prosperity Fund, a political committee chaired by Ryan Tyson, the vice president of political operations for Associated Industries of Florida; Frontline Insurance; and Sunshine Gasoline Distributors.

State records show Rebuild Florida raised nearly $1.3 million through April. It ended the month of April with $825,082 cash on hand. All told, Diaz said he has raised about $1.25 million for his campaign.

Diaz said he has been in nonstop campaign mode while back at home, and said it has been “fun getting to know the voters.”

“It’s been an overwhelmingly fund experience,” he said.

Diaz faces former state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Lorenzo Palomares in what is expected to be an expensive and contentious GOP primary. Outside groups are already pouring money into the race, and the battle is only expected to get more volatile as Election Day nears since Democrats see it as a must-win seat.

Diaz de la Portilla raised $22,500 during the fundraising period. Records show he loaned his campaign $50,000 during the same time period

State records show Palomares reported raising $9,000 during the fundraising period. Palomares, according to state records, also loaned his campaign $15,000. He spent $13,953 during the same time span.

Democrats Ana Rivas Logan and Annette Taddeo are battling it out for their party’s nomination. Rivas Logan raised $10,425 and loaned her campaign $2,500. As of Monday afternoon, Taddeo had not yet posted fundraised numbers to the state website.

The special primary election to replace Artiles, a Miami-Dade Republican who resigned in April amid scandal, is July 25. The general election is Sept. 26.


Baxter Troutman files to run for Agriculture Commissioner

Baxter Troutman has made it official.

The Winter Haven Republican filed to run for Agriculture Commissioner on Monday, joining an already crowded field vying to replace Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in 2018. Troutman filed the necessary paperwork Monday, and opened his campaign account with a personal contribution of $2.5 million, according to his campaign.

“For two decades, I’ve been building a business and continuing my work in Florida agriculture. Real experience and success in the private sector is what we need more than ever,” said Troutman in a statement. “Working side by side with folks who send their hard earned money to Tallahassee, I know why it is so important to keep taxes low, balance our budgets and grow Florida’s economy.”

Troutman is the grandson of late citrus baron and one-time gubernatorial candidate Ben Hill Griffin Jr.

The 50-year-old served in the Florida House 2002 to 2010. His disagreements with his cousin, former state Sen. J.D. Alexander, both in the Legislature and in the family’s agri-businesses are legendary, but both men have said they have since settled their differences.

Troutman, who proposed to his wife Rebecca on the floor of the House while it was in session, campaigned for her last year in her unsuccessful run for Polk County School Board. She will serve as the co-chair of his campaign, and Troutman said he looks forward to “spending the months ahead traveling the state to talk with Floridians about our future.”

“Every corner of this great state feels the practical and economic impact of agriculture, and we simply cannot afford someone in this important leadership position who doesn’t understand how to make it work for taxpayers,” he said. “For these reasons, I have spent the past few weeks talking to friends, neighbors and my family. The strong encouragement to move forward with this campaign has been humbling. Winning the faith and support of so many is truly a blessing.”

Republicans Denise Grimsley, Matt Caldwell, and Paul Paulson have already filed to run for the seat.

Commission clears Cary Pigman in state ethics case

The Florida Ethics Commission has cleared Rep. Cary Pigman of charges that he misused his position to retaliated against a school principal in his district.

The approved a recommendation by Judge June C. McKinney to dismiss the case against Pigman. At least one member of the commission abstained from the vote, while another member voted against the recommendation.

Pigman, a doctor of emergency medicine and Army Reserve physician, was accused of “linking his efforts to obtain legislative funding for the Okeechobee School District … to retaliate or attempt to retaliate against an employee of the School District.”

The employee in question was Tracy Maxwell Downing, an elementary school principal and the ex-sister-in-law of Pigman’s former secretary, Libby Maxwell, with whom he had been having and an affair and to whom he is now married.

The commission’s decision to accept McKinney’s recommendation comes just days after the TC Palm reported Pigman is serving one-year probation following a March arrest for driving under the influence.

According to the TC Palm, Pigman, pleaded no contest to a charge of driving under the influence, was found guilty in April. The paper reported his license was suspended for six months, he was ordered to pay a $500 fine, do 50 hours of community service and go to DUI school.

Pigman was arrested in March after a Florida Highway Patrol trooper noticed his Jeep “drifting” between his lane and the highway’s shoulder around 10:45 p.m., according to the arrest report.

The trooper reported “immediately smell(ing) an odor of alcoholic beverage” when he came up to the open window, and “saw an open wine bottle in the front passenger seat.” Pigman, the report said, failed field sobriety tests, including almost falling and not following instructions.

The Avon Park Republican resigned his position as chairman of the House Health Quality Subcommittee in the days following the incident.


State budget includes $654K to enhance security at Jewish day schools

Florida is taking extra steps to boost security at Jewish day schools across the state.

Lawmakers tucked $654,000 into the fiscal 2017-18 budget, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott law week, for security funding for Jewish day schools throughout Florida. The request for funding came after a string of bomb threats against Jewish institutions across the country earlier this year.

“There has recently been a dramatic rise in the threats against Jewish day schools and I was proud to join Governor Scott and my fellow Legislative members in taking immediate action to help protect our Jewish communities,” said Rep. Randy Fine, who joined Scott at the Orlando Torah Academy earlier this week to discuss the funding. “This funding will help provide Jewish day schools with important security resources and ensure our students, teachers and parents feel safe.”

Fine, a Brevard County Republican, pushed for the funding during the 2017 Regular Session. His proposal (HB 3653) received bi-partisan support; unanimously clearing the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, and picking up a half dozen co-sponsors, ranging from Republicans Jason Fischer and Bill Hager to Democrats Joseph Geller, Jared Moskowitz, Emily Slosberg and Richard Stark.

The money, according to the Governor’s Office, will be used to help provide security and counter-terrorism upgrades such as video cameras, fences, bullet-proof glass, and alarm systems.

Scott visited two Jewish day schools — the Orlando Torah Academy and the Brauser Maimonides Academy in Fort Lauderdale — to highlight the funding.

There were 167 bomb threats made to Jewish institutions in 38 states and three Canadian provinces as of March 21, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which is tracking threats made to Jewish institutions.

The ADL reported that 18 Jewish day schools, at least one of which was in Florida, received a bomb threat as of March 21.

“We want to make sure our students stay safe and focused on what is most important- getting a great education, and I appreciate the Florida Legislature for taking quick action to come together and fight for this important funding,” the Naples Republican said in a statement earlier this week. “We will continue to work closely with the members of Florida’s Jewish community and our partners in the state and federal government to do all we can to help keep all of our students and families safe.”

Rick Scott expands special session call to include medical marijuana

Medical marijuana has officially been added to the agenda for this week’s special session.

Gov. Rick Scott issued a proclamation Tuesday afternoon expanding the three-day special session to include medical marijuana implementing legislation. The announcement came shortly after Scott met with House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, who carried the implementing legislation during the regular session.

“Medical marijuana was approved by 71 percent of Florida voters in 2016, and I believe that it is the role of the Florida Legislature to determine how to best implement this approved constitutional amendment,” said Scott in a statement. “I am glad that both the Florida Senate and House are moving toward crafting legislation to help patients, and I have added medical marijuana to the call for special session.”

Sen. Rob Bradley has filed legislation that will be taken up this week. During a brief floor session Wednesday, Rodrigues told members the bills appeared to “match up” with the House’s position. He expected a bill on the House floor by Thursday.

The agreement calls for 10 new growers to be licensed this year, in addition to the seven that already hold a state license under the existing, limited cannabis program. Five new growers would be added for every 100,000 patients.

Retail facilities would be capped at 25; however, the cap on dispensaries will sunset in 2020.

“I know many members of the Legislature, including Senate President Joe Negron and Speaker Richard Corcoran, have worked hard on implementing Amendment 2 and I look forward to the Legislature passing a bill this week that puts Florida patients first,” said Scott in a statement.

The 2017 Legislative Session ended without a bill to implement the state’s medical marijuana constitutional amendment. An implementing bill gives guidance and instructions to state agencies on how to enforce state law.


Florida colleges to Rick Scott: ‘Urge legislative leaders to restore our cuts’

As state lawmakers head back to Tallahassee for a special session this week, the Florida College System is are asking Gov. Rick Scott to reconsider millions upon millions of cuts to their base budgets.

Thomas LoBasso, the president of Daytona State College and the chairman of the Council of Presidents, sent a letter to Scott asking the governor to “reconsider the proposed Florida College System budget, which includes $30.2 million in recurring base cuts to one of Florida’ most critical economic engines.” The letter asks Scott to urge legislative leaders to restore cuts and “make the FCS whole again.”

“We are all focused on developing a world-class higher education system and building the workforce pipeline — continuing Florida’s course of outpacing the nation as you continue to build our economy, jobs, and education to be the best in the nation,” wrote LoBasso in his letter. “The $30.2 million in permanent funding reduction to the Florida College System will be detrimental to our state and local communities and could take years to restore and even longer to recover. The range of reductions at each college is between $190,000 at our smallest institution to over $4.6 million at our largest with the average a little under $1.1 million.”

LoBasso said the services that will be cut help the state’s “most vulnerable and underserved students succeed, and these budget cuts will hurt them the most — many of whom are first-generation college students, minorities, veterans, students from families with low incomes or nontraditional students returning to the classroom.”

“The Florida College System is essential in the seamless connection between K-12 and our university system,” wrote LoBasso. “As we all work together to boldly ensure student success for our 800,00 students, we urge you to reconsider the Florida College System budget during this special session.”

Scott signed the fiscal 2017-18 budget on Friday, vetoing nearly $11.9 billion, including the main state account that goes to public schools and $410 million in projects.

However, Scott has not yet signed a sweeping higher education bill, a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron. That bill (SB 374) calls for several reforms of the state college and university system. The bill, among other things, modifies oversight and operations of colleges, sets limits on what four-year degrees colleges can offer, and renames the state college system the Florida Community College System.

The Senate sent Scott the bill on June 5, and he has until June 20 to act on it.


Special session called to tackle economic programs, public education funding

Florida lawmakers will head back to Tallahassee for a special session next week to address economic programs and public education funding.

Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, and Senate President Joe Negron announced Friday morning lawmakers will convene in a special session from June 7 to June 9 to tackle several issues relating to the budget.

The announcement coincided with news that Scott signed the budget 2017-18 budget, vetoing $410 million in legislative projects. The Naples Republican also vetoed the Florida Educational Finance Program, which funds K-12 public education, and a bill (HB 5501) that, among other things, slashed funding for Visit Florida Funding by 60 percent. A full list of vetoes is expected to be released later today, according to the Governor’s Office.

The governor is calling on the Legislature to provide an additional $215 million to K-12 public education, which would increase per student funding by $100; establish the Florida Job Growth Fund to promote public infrastructure and individual job training and fund it at $85 million, the same amount he requested for incentive programs for Enterprise Florida; and pass legislation that sets aside $76 million for Visit Florida and includes comprehensive transparency and accountability measures for the organization.

In a memo to House members Friday, Corcoran said the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund would be housed within the Department of Economic Opportunity and would provide “$85 million in new resources to be used for public infrastructure and workforce training.”

The House railed against incentive programs this year, even voting overwhelming to abolish Enterprise Florida, the state’s private-public economic development program. However, Corcoran told members the new program would not be used for the exclusive benefit of one company, and could become “a model for the nation.”

“The bill will be a flexible fund that the Governor can use to help create the infrastructure and job skills necessary to support economic diversification for targeted industries or for specific regions of the state,” he wrote. “The bill will require that funds be used for broad public value and not for the exclusive benefit for any one company. We believe that this new tool can become a model for the nation.”

In his memo to members, Corcoran said legislation filed during the special session, which will be carried by Rep. Paul Renner, will including $76 million in funding, but maintain the “kind of strong accountability and transparency language passed” during the 2017 regular Session.

The Senate did not support the House position on cuts to Enterprise Florida or Visit Florida, and Negron said Friday he was pleased the House was moving to the Senate position on those issues. The Senate also wanted a higher per-pupil funding model.

“As we prepare to return to Tallahassee, it appears that our colleagues in the House have expressed a willingness to move toward the Senate position in several key areas, including a significant increase in per student funding for our K-12 public schools, as well as elevating the state investment in tourism marketing and economic development efforts,” said Negron in a memo to members. “I look forward to advocating for Senators’ budget priorities during the upcoming Special Session.

In return for reaching a compromise on his top priorities, the governor is expected to sign a wide-sweeping education bill (HB 7069), a top priority for Corcoran, and a higher education bill (SB 374), a top priority for Negron. Both bills have come under scrutiny in recent weeks, in part over concerns they were negotiated largely behind closed doors.

When asked whether he planned to sign the education bill during a press conference in Miami on Friday, Scott said he was reviewing it.

The call, signed by Scott and filed with the Department of State at 9:30 a.m., does not include medical marijuana. However, Corcoran told members in a memo Friday morning the “House has communicated to … the Senate that this is an issue we believe must be addressed and that we are prepared to expand the call to address the implementation of the constitutional amendment approved by voters of the constitutional amendment approved by the voters during the 2016 election.”

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