Joe Henderson, Author at Florida Politics - Page 7 of 21

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. I covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. I also was the City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. I served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. I have numerous local, state and national writing awards. I have been married to my wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and have two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

Joe Henderson: Proposed new transportation agency a good start toward solving an old problem

Short of hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, the surest way to get a headache is to wade deep into Tampa Bay area transportation problems. You encounter a mishmash of competing agencies and agendas that has resulted in legislative and automotive gridlock for frustrated commuters for years.

Given that, I’m encouraged by what is coming out of Tallahassee. A pair of Republican legislators — state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and state Rep. Dan Raulerson of Plant City — have introduced bills that would create a five-county regional transit agency.

Hernando County is a late addition to a group including Manatee, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas.

But wait, you say. Didn’t the Legislature already try something like that?

Yep.

A decade ago, Tallahassee gave us the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority — known in wonk terms as TBARTA. Its scope was as large as its acronym, an attempt to bring seven counties together under a single transportation tent.

Nice sentiment, but poor execution. Trying to meet the needs of seven counties proved unwieldy.

“What Jack and I are trying to do is tweak this thing,” Raulerson said. “We want to get everybody moving in the same direction so we can put together a plan and get federal money for this. We have been woefully short there.”

The revamped board would have 13 members — seven elected officials, and six from the private sector. The elected officials likely will include the mayors from Tampa and St. Petersburg along with a commissioner from each county affected.

“That part is a work in progress right now,” Raulerson said. “But it is important to have more elected officials on the board because that provides for transparency and accountability.”

Both bills have sailed through their respective committees and appear to be gaining local acceptance. Tampa Bay Partnership President Rick Homans gave an enthusiastic endorsement to the plan, telling Mitch Perry of FloridaPolitics.com, “ … we realized that in order to get this started, we needed to have the right kind of planning and the right operational structure in place that will give us a greater chance of success.”

During committee hearings on the proposed bills, some lawmakers were skeptical that a new regional transportation agency would just be more of the same. Given the history on this issue, I certainly understand that point of view.

But I do like that this new authority would be smaller and focused on the counties of greatest need. Having Latvala and Raulerson behind this doesn’t hurt, either. Not only are they capable of guiding this from proposal to reality, they also represent both sides of Tampa Bay.

How soon can this happen?

“Once this becomes law, we probably need to have a good plan in place to take to the feds within 12 months,” Raulerson said. “The good news on that is that there already are a lot of plans out there, so we wouldn’t be starting from scratch. We just need to get moving.”

Joe Henderson: Gus Bilirakis keeps up fight to get medical drugs to market faster, easier

Anyone facing a dreaded disease themselves or watching a loved one go through it knows the frustration of seeking treatment. They want to know the system is on their side, but often it seems rigged against them.

I think it’s safe to conclude U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who represents Florida’s 12th District, is on their side. He has been a champion for increasing medical options.

In 2014, along with Democrat Kathy Castor, he was part of the congressional bipartisan 21st Century Cures initiative that sought to speed up the process for getting new life-saving drugs to market.

And while all the focus has been on the fate of the Affordable Care Act, Bilirakis took the opportunity of a hearing about the over-abundance of regulations at the Food and Drug Administration to push for a measure that would provide incentives for drug companies to develop treatments for rare diseases affecting a small portion of the population.

It’s called the Open Act.

“Today, it takes 10 to 12 to even 15 years and upwards of $2 billion to move a drug or biological product from a good idea to an approved product,” Kay Holcombe, Senior Vice President, Science Policy, Biotechnology Innovation Organization, said in a statement to the committee.

“During that lengthy period, unmet medical needs remain unmet and patients wait.”

And patients die.

Bilirakis asked, “There are about 500 approved rare disease drugs, but 7,000 rare diseases affecting some 30 million Americans.  They’re taking medication off-label, not knowing if their drugs are safe and effective for their conditions, or if it’s the proper dosage, and fighting with their insurance companies on coverage of their medications.

“Does it make sense to incentivize development for a targeted population when there are clearly defined needs?”

Holcombe answered simply: “Yes.”

Bilirakis has long argued that the lengthy development requirements hurt patient care and increase costs.

“This isn’t political at all,” Bilirakis told me during an interview about the 21st Century Cures initiative. “I want to take the politics out of it.”

Well, this is Washington, where politics is the milk on morning cereal. Diseases aren’t political, though, and there has to be a way to make it easier to develop these treatments and get them to market at prices people can afford. At least Bilirakis is trying.

Joe Henderson: Time for wall between whiskey & Wheaties to crumble

It’s not surprising that the so-called “whiskey and Wheaties” bill that cleared a Florida House committee Wednesday did so by a bare 15-13 margin.

Any measure that makes it easier to buy booze will mobilize people on both sides. This bill is basically equivalent to one in the Senate, which would knock down the legislative wall that requires retailers to sell hard liquor in a separate store.

That’s how you get booze stores attached to places like Publix, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. It always seemed silly to me. Given that you can already buy beer and wine in retail groceries, making them go next door to bring home a bottle of gin seems antiquated at best.

The primary argument that allowing so-called big box stores like Sam’s and Target to openly sell booze would put small retailers out of business is not a good enough reason to keep things the way they are.

Jim Rosica of FloridaPolitics.com quoted state Rep. Tom Goodson, a Rockledge Republican, saying the small stores already compete with the big players; the competition just happens at another location.

That’s an inconvenient truth opponents of this measure have to face. In the interest of full disclosure, it has been my experience that dropping into a neighborhood liquor store to stock up for the weekend is going to be considerably more expensive than one of the bigger places. Fewer choices, too.

This is another one of those probation-era laws that are falling by the wayside. People of a certain age can remember a time in Hillsborough County where you stocked up by midnight Saturday because you couldn’t buy beer or wine on Sunday.

Trust me on this: You didn’t want to be caught with nothing in the fridge on a Sunday afternoon to soothe the pain of watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in those days. That didn’t apply to fans only.

I remember being in their locker room after a loss back then and listening to defensive coordinator Abe Gibron repeatedly ask a flunky with increasing volume, “Did you get the beer? The beer? Did you get the beer? THE BEER!”

Fortunately, I think Abe was able to shake off that day’s loss with some cold ones. If the messenger had given him bad news, Abe would have found a way around it. A flunky would have been driving to Pasco.

People will always find a way around these things, but they shouldn’t have to. There is a battle cry in Tallahassee these days against picking winners and losers. That’s what this bill seeks to address.

It’s time.

Joe Henderson: Time to get rid of red-light cameras, but turn up heat on texting

Depending on your point of view, red-light cameras in Florida are either: A) Of great benefit to public safety by making drivers think twice when approaching a changing traffic light; or B) a cash grab by communities that amounts to a backdoor tax.

Just we’re clear, I’m on the side of Option B.

While several communities throughout the state have discontinued use of the cameras for reasons best explained by Option B, the Legislature has never mustered enough support for a complete ban on them.

Bless ‘em, though, House members keep trying. They are scheduled once again to take up a proposal (HB 6007) by Rep. Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, and Spring Hill Republican Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, to repeal laws that permit the cameras.

Maybe they will succeed this time. I wish they wouldn’t stop there, though. I wish that for once, lawmakers could finally put their foot down on the practice of texting while driving. Currently, it is only a secondary offense, punishable by a fine only if officers can stop a violator on another charge.

The state transportation committee will consider whether to recommend toughening the law by making it a primary offense — meaning that if an officer sees someone obviously texting while driving, they can be pulled over for that.

Sadly, even something so obvious is complicated after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it takes a warrant to search a cellphone. It’s unlikely a motorist about to be hit with a big fine for texting would voluntarily turn over their phone. I appreciate the complication.

It’s worth the battle, though.

So why the battle against cameras but support for a texting ban?

Simple.

In 2015, the state reported nearly 46,000 accidents due to distracted driving. That’s more than 12 percent of all crashes in Florida, and we’ve all had the experience of watching drivers weave in and out of highway lanes while they’re focused on their phone instead of the road.

Red-light cameras, on the other hand, appear to contribute to crashes as well as being the aforementioned cash grab. The News Service of Florida reported in a four-year study of 148 intersections with cameras, across the state, crashes increased by more than 10 percent.

Rear-end collisions were the main culprit.

Add to that the fact that cameras are operated by an out-of-state firm and that appealing the fine can result in even heavier costs and points on your driver’s license. People usually give in and pay, and that’s not what a law like this should be doing.

Get rid of the cameras.

Joe Henderson: No matter what comes out, Donald Trump’s true believers don’t seem to care

I could waste words here on President Donald Trump’s hallucinations about the truth, but why bother. Y’all know that story as well as I do. The president either is delusional or cynical about what the people will believe or maybe both.

There is a bigger story, though, one that reduces all the drama about nonexistent wiretaps and possibly existing collusion with Russia to subplots.

It is simply this: His supporters don’t care.

A large, energetic crowd of believers showed up Monday night at his rally in Louisville to give a united upraised middle finger to those who call out this president on his lies, deceit and all the other things are supposed to spell his doom.

They don’t care.

This was in Kentucky, mind you — a state where residents likely are to be among the hardest hit if/when the Affordable Care Act is repealed. Instead of draining the swamp, the man these people adore will be draining the ranks of those who can afford health insurance. That may include some of those who were shouting his praises the loudest.

They don’t care.

He spits on our allies.

They don’t care.

While his proposed budget eviscerates social safety nets, the president’s regular weekend trips to Mar-a-Lago are estimated to cost taxpayers $3 million a pop. That’s on top of millions more spent on security at Trump Tower. The people who voted for Trump screamed bloody murder when President Obama took getaway trips to Hawaii.

But now? They don’t care.

The New York Times, Washington Post, and all the others that quoted “unnamed sources” saying there was no truth to Trump’s claims that Obama illegally wiretapped him during the campaign WERE CORRECT! Trump and those who parrot him dismissed the reports as Fake News. That was wrong. The media were CORRECT!

What else will it be correct about?

Trump’s supporters don’t care. They wouldn’t believe it anyway.

All the things that are supposed to define a successful, competent commander in chief don’t seem to matter now.

That’s why Monday could go down as one of the most significant days in American history. It’s the scene-setter for a showdown. How the testimony from Washington trickles down to places like Tallahassee is the next thing to watch.

The FBI is actively investigating if there is proof Trump’s campaign conspired with Russian agents to rig the November election. No doubt hundreds of professional, well-sourced reporters are looking into that as well.

Health care, security, and all the rest could get pushed to the side while his opponents, including some in his own party, dig in for the fight.

Florida’s governor and attorney general are tucked deep into Trump’s pocket. Their political futures could be tied to the outcome of this continuing drama — maybe. No one matter what the investigations and hearings uncover, I don’t believe the true supporters will abandon the president.

Nobody paid attention to them until the morning after the 2016 election. No one is paying attention to them now that their man is in the White House.

Huge mistake.

Joe Henderson: Aramis Ayala should follow law in death penalty case, not try to make it

I’m not a big fan of the death penalty.

I think having condemned inmates spend 20 years or more on death row while their appeals play out thwarts the argument that is a deterrent. Inmate Douglas R. Meeks, for example, has been awaiting execution since March 21, 1975.

He is one of 16 inmates who have been on Florida’s death row since the 1970s.

And keeping inmates locked up 23 ½ a day in a cramped cell with no air conditioning for the entire time they’re awaiting execution is borderline inhumane.

By the way, I’ll concede that the people on death row committed inhumane acts in the first place.

Having said that, State Attorney Aramis Ayala in Orlando was wrong on multiple levels when she announced she wouldn’t seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd, who is accused of killing Police Lt. Debra Clayton and his pregnant ex-girlfriend.

Gov. Rick Scott did the right thing Thursday with his order that took the case away from Ayala and gave it another state attorney who will pursue the death penalty if Loyd is found guilty.

In a statement, Scott said: “I want to be very clear, Lt. Debra Clayton was executed while she was laying on the ground fighting for her life. She was killed by an evil murderer who did not think twice about senselessly ending her life.”

Ayala referenced several of the factors I mentioned as a reason for not seeking the death penalty in this emotionally charged case. The trouble is, it is her job to follow the law — not make it. If this were a 50-50 decision under existing law, then yes, she could decide not to go for death. But it’s not even close.

If we’re going to have the death penalty, then cop killers go to the head of the list. It is the duty of people in Ayala’s position to prosecute those offenses to the full extent of the law.

There are valid reasons lawmakers should consider abolishing the death penalty, but that’s their call. Death penalty opponents praised Ayala, but that missed the point. What they should be doing is bringing public pressure on legislators.

Just so we’re clear, they also should pick a better case to make their point than one involving the murder of a police officer.

Ayala made history in January when she was sworn in as Florida’s first African-American State Attorney. She made history this time for a different reason. She may not like the death penalty, but it’s part of the job.

Joe Henderson: Miami trial shines light on smuggling Cuban baseball players to U.S.

It is not unusual when a Major League Baseball team signs a Cuban defector. There is a lengthy list of players who fled that island nation so they could barter their skills for the considerable cash that comes with playing in the United States.

Usually, those stories have been treated as valiant escapes from a repressive government and the search for a better life.

A trial that concluded Wednesday in a Miami courtroom though painted a different story. Instead of something heroic, the way some players escaped was judged to be a felony.

The trial pulled back the curtain on how that process works — or at least worked in the case of agent Bart Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada. Both men face five years in prison after being found guilty of smuggling Cuban players to this country in return for receiving a big chunk of their contracts that could total in the millions of dollars.

The Miami Herald reported that Hernandez and Estrada deceived the U.S. government into granting visas to two dozen Cuban players. The players were transported by what the Herald called “an underground pipeline” that included Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Testimony showed Hernandez and Estrada paid off boat captains and falsified immigration documents. In return, they charged players up to 30 percent of their contracts.

Players include Leonys Martin, who signed a $4.8 million contract this season with Seattle, and Jose Abreu, who signed a $68 million deal with the Chicago White Sox in 2013. Abreu testified that he ate pages from his fake passport and washed it down with a Heineken beer while on a flight from Haiti to the United States.

He admitted he was traveling illegally because, he told jurors, “If I had not been there on that particular day, the deadline, then the contract would not be executed and would no longer be valid. We had to be in Chicago to sign the contract.”

By contrast, defense attorney Jeffrey Marcus told jurors players in Cuba might receive as little as $20 per month.

In addition to showing what risks players are willing to take to achieve their baseball aspirations, it highlights the still-thorny relationship between the United States and Cuba.

Immigration hawks have been pushing to roll back attempts by President Obama to normalize relations with Cuba. Last spring, the Tampa Bay Rays became the first MLB team to play a game on that island when they defeated the Cuban national team.

That move generally was hailed as a breakthrough in relations between the two nations. This trial showed that reality remains something different.

Joe Henderson: ‘Shy’ Rick Scott needs to pipe up on Medicaid expansion

Gov. Rick Scott hasn’t been shy about sharing his feelings on the Affordable Care Act. Like any good Republican, he hates it. He wants it to go away.

Now that Republicans have a legitimate proposal on the table to replace Obamacare, though, Scott has gone into stealth mode on the subject. In an Associated Press story, the governor did the Rick Scott Shuffle when asked for his reaction to the plan now being debated intensely in Washington.

Scott said he was glad there is “good conversation” happening on the subject. Not exactly a stop-the-presses comment.

He even met recently with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is pushing a plan that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said could leave up to 24 million Americans without health insurance.

Would the governor like to let us mere mortals in on what was discussed? People in Florida will be greatly affected by whatever finally becomes law, especially if it has a significant impact on Medicaid.

Florida depends heavily on federal money for Medicaid funding, and under the plan being discussed more than 4 million residents here would see their benefits reduced. That probably suits budget hawks in the state House just fine, but wouldn’t be good for many of the state’s elderly and low-income residents.

That’s where Scott needs to pipe up on this subject. In 2014, remember, he went to war (and lost) with the House over Medicaid expansion. Scott pushed for it; now-Speaker Richard Corcoran was intractably against.

Given his background as a hospital administrator before he went into politics, there are few people in the state better versed on health insurance than Scott. He could help frame the debate if he chose.

He certainly hasn’t been shy about making his opinions known recently on other subjects. He has been outspoken about his trying to save Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. But now that the health care debate has intensified, we get crickets from the governor.

Curious.

Joe Henderson: After Enterprise Florida fight, Rick Scott has little political capital left

Rick Scott went to Tallahassee in 2011 as an outsider. He often has operated like one as well, and not always in a good way.

In a private company, stubborn employees can get fired for standing up to the boss. In politics, though, defiance can be considered a virtue. Eventually, people who vow to run government like a business learn you can’t just issue orders and expect things to get done.

Real democracy can be a free-for-all.

That brings us to the current state of affairs in the capitol city, a time that has the seen the governor behaving less like a CEO and more like a politician trying to win friends and influence people.

To save his most-favored Enterprise Florida agency, the governor put a public campaign that included visits, robo-calls, videos and a public mocking of House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

It didn’t work, at least not yet.

The House dealt the governor a stinging rebuke last week with by passing HB 7005 – or what Scott calls “job-killing legislation” – by an overwhelming 87-28 vote.

Scott responded with a statement reading in part, “Many politicians who voted for these bills say they are for jobs and tourism. But, I want to be very clear – a vote for these bills was a vote to kill tourism and jobs in Florida.”

Everyone waits now to see what happens in the Senate, where Jeff Brandes has a bill that would keep Enterprise Florida but with much greater state oversight. Scott, meanwhile, is keeping up the pressure.

His office sent out eight news releases Monday within 19 minutes touting job gains in cities around the state. He made sure to credit the embattled jobs agency.

It was easy for Scott to get his way when he arrived in Tallahassee on a populist wave, promising to produce jobs and get Florida out of the Great Recession. He certainly wasn’t the only political leader in the land who favored subsidies to jump-start the economy.

Now that those jobs have been created – Scott claims more than 1.3 million overall so far – the mood in Tallahassee has shifted away from what Corcoran calls “corporate welfare.”

That has forced the governor into a defensive posture that he clearly isn’t used to and hasn’t shown evidence yet of mastering.

Meanwhile, the Commerce and Tourism Committee is set to consider a bill from Republican Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa to repeal a program designed to make it easier for pro sports franchises to get state money for stadium projects.

Scott signed that bill in 2014, although an aide was quick to correct me recently when I called it a “pet project” of the governor’s. But, the governor obviously supported the measure and in a statement at the time said, “This sports development program will allow franchises to expand in Florida, and create more jobs and opportunities for Florida families.”

Times have changed, though, so I doubt the governor will spend any political capital now to save that pot of state money for professional sports franchises.

With all his chips in the middle of the table for Enterprise Florida, he likely won’t have much of an appetite to fight for sports teams. Judging from the way things are going, lawmakers probably wouldn’t listen anyway.

Joe Henderson: ‘Stand Your Ground’ lacks common sense, legalizes lethal impulse

Supporters will argue that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law is vital to individual safety, but the measure never took judgment and common sense into the equation. It legalizes impulses that can be deadly.

On Friday morning in a Dade City courtroom, Judge Susan Barthle ruled that retired Tampa police officer Curtis Reeves’ impulse when he shot Chad Oulson to death after an argument didn’t convince her that he was in sufficient fear for his life.

This clears the way for the 74-year-old Reeves to stand trial for second-degree murder. He could win acquittal there if a jury of his peers find his story more believable than the judge. Fox 13 in Tampa reported she wrote in her ruling, “The physical evidence contradicts the defendant’s version of events.”

Reeves’ version of the fatal afternoon when his argument with Oulson got out of control can be summed up in a statement he made last week during his testimony: “At that point (in the argument), it was his life or mine.”

I can’t crawl insides Reeves’ head and neither can you to know if he was using “Stand Your Ground” as a ready-made excuse after realizing what he had done. But I can say that this tragic situation is exactly what people who oppose this law warned could happen – and likely will happen again.

There is a proposal in the Legislature to make prosecutors prove a defendant didn’t feel threatened.

Imagine the havoc that could unleash.

This law assumes that anyone under duress will be cool enough under pressure to use lethal force only to save themselves or their family from a real threat. This isn’t a movie set though, where James Bond calmly dispatches three or four bad guys trying to kill him and then orders a martini, shaken not stirred.

In the real world, a jittery old man in a darkened movie theater decides a younger, larger man is out to kill him when the two started arguing over cellphone use (before the film started, by the way).

There is no doubt Oulson could have handled the situation much better, but so could Reeves. Either one could have walked away, and we never would have heard of either man.

But no. We have “Stand Your Ground” and its false premise that every situation like this could be lethal. How can you tell? It makes the shooter the victim.

Judge Barthle didn’t buy that argument.

If the looney bill that would force prosecutors prove a defendant didn’t feel threatened ever becomes law, though, judges may have no choice but to buy it next time.

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