News Service Of Florida, Author at Florida Politics

News Service Of Florida

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

UF ready for white nationalist speech

University of Florida students arose Thursday to a campus outwardly expressing messages of love against the backdrop of a heavily armed law enforcement presence and the specter of a divisive mid-afternoon speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer.

Banners hung outside fraternity and sorority houses called for “Love Not Hate #TogetherUF.”

The Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Student Center had been open since Wednesday for a three-day “Good Deed Marathon,” which drew praise from University President Kent Fuchs.

Spencer, a self-described “identitarian” whose supporters chanted “Jews will not replace us” at a Charlottesville, Va., rally that turned deadly this summer, has been labeled an anti-Semite and white supremacist by groups such as the Anti-Defamation League.

“Another example of countering darkness with Light on Oct 19,” Fuchs, who has repeatedly called on students to Spencer and “his racist and anti-American message,” tweeted Wednesday night of the “Good Deed Marathon.”

Just before 11:30 a.m., the first of Spencer’s supporters, claiming they “like being part of a collective,” arrived. At the same time, the first protesters showed up, one carrying a sign stating “No Trump Nazis.”

Wary of clashes that have erupted on campuses elsewhere, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Alachua County Monday night, at the behest of county Sheriff Sadie Darnell.

The head of the National Policy Institute, Spencer was one of the key speakers at an August “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., that turned deadly when a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters. Heather Heyer, 31, was killed, and dozens were injured.

Girding for the Thursday afternoon speech in Gainesville, streets near the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, where Spencer is to speak, were barricaded. Heavily outfitted law enforcement, some carrying riot helmets, marched along roads near the performing arts center.

Hundreds of journalists from around the globe inundated the campus of the state’s premiere university.

Some facilities near the center were closed, but the campus remained open, adding to the anxiety of students and faculty, many of whom strongly objected to the university allowing Spencer to appear.

While touring barricaded roads near the performing arts center and away from the heart of campus,  Jawamza Tucker, a 21-year-old telecommunications major from Miami, said that the university has been calm during the past week.

The emergency declaration issued by Scott “kind of set a precedent,” he said.

“A lot of my friends are telling me to be careful, and I’m not taking their words lightly, but I’m not worried,” said Tucker, who said he intends to “observe” the event. “I will proceed with caution. You never know what people have up their sleeves.”

Spencer, Tucker said, “feels threatened,” adding that the UF appearance won’t change things.

“This is, honestly, just one big event to get attention, to increase his platform, to increase his notoriety and infamy,” Tucker said.

The school had initially denied Spencer’s request to speak. But Fuchs has noted that, while Spencer’s appearance isn’t sponsored by any student group, the public university couldn’t lawfully prohibit the event based on the content or views expressed in the speech.

Security costs for the UF event have grown to $600,000, and an estimated 500 law enforcement officers, from the city, county and state, are said to be on campus.

It is unknown how many of Spencer’s supporters will attend the speech — organizers are distributing 600 tickets to individuals they view as friendly — or how many others will show up to protest his appearance and white ethno-state platform.

Antifa – anti-fascists – members from Atlanta and Orlando are expected to flood into Gainesville, even though they may not have access to the venue where Spencer will speak.

Organizers of the event decided to distribute tickets to the speech, instead of the typical process in which the center provides the tickets, after reports that ticket-holders could exchange the passes for free beer or even money.

A group called No Nazis at UF, which called for classes to be canceled and asserted that their mobilization kept “fascists” from marching Wednesday night, used Facebook to plan a demonstration for Thursday. More than 1,000 people expressed interest for the event.

University graduate U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is among state leaders, including Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, urging students to boycott Spencer’s event.

“#GatorNation not asking u to ignore his racist message.” Rubio tweeted Wednesday. “I am suggesting you embarrass him by denying him the attention he craves.”

Richard Spencer group denies being ‘hateful’ as UF braces

Supporters of Richard Spencer, the firebrand white nationalist whose upcoming appearance at the University of Florida sparked a state of emergency, say he’s not a racist.

And, they insist, he’s not to blame for violent clashes like the one at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., that left one woman dead and dozens more injured.

But the Anti-Defamation League brands Spencer as a white supremacist whose buttoned-down appearance and articulate speech belies a hateful, anti-Semitic ideology.

Attorney General Pam Bondi this week painted Spencer, the head of the National Policy Institute, as a dangerous provocateur who has incited violence across the nation.

“This guy is out there espousing violence and hatred and anger,” Bondi told reporters Tuesday.

Gov. Rick Scott, who declared a state of emergency in Alachua County this week, has also urged people to avoid the event Thursday.

Bondi’s and Scott’s take on Spencer and his followers is “complete nonsense,” Evan McLaren, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Policy Institute, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview.

“And they know it’s nonsense, because they have no substantial or serious response to our message and to our presence and so they’re trying to deal with it by portraying us as violent and hateful,” McLaren said. “There’s nothing hateful about what Richard or myself or National Policy Institute expresses.”

Spencer calls himself an “identitarian” who wants “to preserve the white majority” in the country.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and University of Florida President Kent Fuchs also urged people to boycott Spencer’s speech as Gainesville braces for the kinds of skirmishes between Spencer’s supporters and opponents, including “Antifa,” or anti-fascists, that have erupted on campuses elsewhere.

The university initially balked at allowing Spencer to speak, but relented after his attorney threatened to sue.

“I think Gov. Scott and the attorney general would be well-advised to see that the First Amendment is protected and upheld instead of injecting themselves into a political dialogue that they are obviously not able to handle like responsible adults,” McLaren said.

McLaren blamed Antifa, many of whom wear black helmets and carry pepper spray, for the melees at Spencer’s other appearances.

“When we hold events by ourselves that we control, there is no violence,” McLaren said. “The only time that there is violence is when the left shows up to counter-demonstrate and attack us, or even when elements of the left show up on their own.”

At the Charlottesville rally in August, Spencer supporters carried tiki torches and chanted “Jews will not replace us” before a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.

But counter-protesters and Spencer supporters may not be the only ones in danger.

McLaren went to work for Spencer shortly after passing the Bar exam in late July.

“My first business purchase was a ballistics vest. So we’re definitely mindful of the threat that we face. But this is just how the game is played. If you want to say something serious and meaningful and change-oriented, then obviously it’s going to upset a lot of people,” McLaren said.

Antifa members from Atlanta and Orlando are expected to flood into Gainesville, even though they may not have access to the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, where Spencer will speak.

Organizers of the event decided to distribute tickets to the speech, instead of the typical process in which the center provides the tickets, after reports that ticket-holders could exchange the passes for free beer or even money.

McLaren said he will hand out tickets inside the venue to people who make it through a primary security check, and he won’t give them to anybody who looks like they are there to create a disturbance.

The selective ticket situation could heighten tensions already ramping up at the university.

“It made us all upset because it’s happening on our campus and we can’t even attend the event,” said Christopher Wilde, a 21-year-old senior from Miramar who is a member of the “No Nazis at UF” group opposing Spencer’s speech and the university administration’s handling of it.

In Gainesville, barricades are already erected, streets will be shut down and Florida Highway Patrol officers are on the ground, creating a forbidding aura.

Many students are torn between boycotting the speech, as advised by Fuchs and others, protesting or attending. Despite the state of emergency issued by Scott, Fuchs has not canceled classes Thursday.

Dozens of members of the “No Nazis at UF” group marched to the school’s administrative offices Monday to protest Spencer’s appearance, pledging to show up en masse on Thursday. The group, which collected more than 3,500 online petitions urging the university to cancel the speech, participated in a sit-in on campus Tuesday evening to protest the university’s refusal to cancel classes.

“They’re pretending you can go to campus safely if you stay away from the Phillips Center, but they’re shutting down buildings that are far away,” Wilde said in a telephone interview. “It’s a mixed message. School isn’t closed but we’re going to have cops and National Guard all over campus and buildings are shut down. If it’s safe out there, why is there such a heavy police presence and why are buildings being closed early?”

Wilde is ignoring advice from his parents, who told him to treat the rest of the week like a hurricane and stay shuttered in his apartment, even though he said he is afraid of what might happen Thursday.

“I’m worried for everyone’s safety but I also know that we have to show our opposition to this kind of ideology because in history the only thing that has stopped it is opposition to Nazism or white supremacy,” he said. “It’s scary but it’s the only way.

Meanwhile, a group of students has organized an online event scheduled to take place at the same time as Spencer’s 2:30 p.m. speech.

“If people want to protest, they’re going to protest. But there’s also people on campus who feel very unsafe and would rather stay inside so this gives them an outlet to engage with the university community and not be alone on that day,” said Cassie Bell, a 22-year-old senior from Margate who is one of the organizers of “TogetherUF.”

The Facebook event, which Bell called an “online assembly” and will be accompanied by live social media posts, gives students “an opportunity to stay safe and be inside if that’s what they prefer to do.”

The speech coincides with exams for most students, adding to anxiety, said Bell, who hasn’t decided what she will do on Thursday.

But participating in the TogetherUF group has given students like Bell an outlet to protest Spencer’s platform, even if only from afar.

“I obviously don’t agree (with him). I have yet to meet somebody that does. But I almost feel that they’re so radical I’m not sure what I can do as an individual to combat their beliefs,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s given me a sense that I’m not just sitting on my hands, that we’re actively making an effort.”

State board approves schools for ‘Hope’ money

With 13 school districts challenging the constitutionality of Florida’s new “schools of hope” law, the State Board of Education on Wednesday used the law to select 11 low-performing public schools to receive additional funding.

The schools will qualify for up to $2,000 in extra per-student funding over the next two years to carry out improvement plans that will include efforts such as tutoring, after-school programs, counseling and teacher development.

At the state board’s meeting in Jacksonville, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said the schools were part of a group of 59 schools that had sought the funding. Schools that did not make the initial cut will have a chance to reapply in the near future, Stewart said.

Miami-Dade County has five schools on the approved list, followed by Palm Beach County with three, Bay County with two and Seminole County with one.

Among the districts that did not make the initial selection were Polk County, with eight schools; Orange County, with six; and Duval County, with five schools.

Stewart said she and Public Schools Chancellor Hershel Lyons will work on “strengthening” the proposals of schools that submitted applications but did not make the cut.

She also said schools that did not apply for the extra funding can still submit applications in the next selection process.

Lawmakers this year set aside $140 million in the new “schools of hope” program, specifying that a portion of the funding would be used to provide extra funding for up to 25 low-performing traditional public schools. The rest of the funding would go to “hope operators,” who could set up charter schools within five miles of “persistently” low-performing public schools.

With the state Department of Education still working on rules for the new “hope operators” program, no charter school companies have sought approval under the new law.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in Leon County circuit court, 13 school districts challenged numerous provisions of the “schools of hope” law related to the charter schools. They argued the law is unconstitutional because it limits the power of local school boards to “control and supervise” all public schools in their districts.

Charter schools are public schools, though they are often operated by private entities.

Bay County was the only district that joined the lawsuit and received approval Wednesday for extra funding for two of its public schools under the “schools of hope” law.

The 59 public schools that sought the extra “schools of hope” funding were part of a larger group of 80 schools that received performance grades of two consecutive “Ds” or an “F” and had to submit turnaround plans to improve their standing. The turnaround plans were approved Wednesday by the Board of Education.

Under another provision in the new law, the state board also approved 643 “schools of excellence,” which because of high performance will have more autonomy. The designation will provide the school principals with more power over budget and personnel decisions. It will lift mandates for reading instruction time and it will give the schools more flexibility in dealing with class-size requirements.

The schools approved for additional funding under the “schools of hope” program were:

— Miami-Dade County: Homestead Middle, Lorah Park Elementary, Miami Carol City Senior High, Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary and West Homestead K-8.

— Bay County: Lucille Moore Elementary and Springfield Elementary.

— Palm Beach: Gove Elementary, Palm Beach Lakes High and West Riviera Elementary.

— Seminole County: Idyllwilde Elementary.

Court upholds $35 million verdict in smoker’s death

A South Florida appeals court Wednesday upheld a $35 million verdict — including $25 million in punitive damages — in a lawsuit filed against two cigarette makers over a lung-cancer death.

The Miami-Dade County case, filed by the estate of Patricia Mary Ledoux, is one of thousands that have targeted cigarette makers in Florida during past decade. The cases — known as Engle progeny cases — stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about issues including the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.

In the Ledoux case, a jury ruled against Philip Morris USA, Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, awarding $10 million in compensatory damages and saying each company should pay $12.5 million in punitive damages. The companies appealed and raised a series of issues, including that a plaintiff’s attorney made improper statements during closing arguments and that the $10 million in compensatory damages was excessive.

But a three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal rejected the arguments.

“Upon our consideration of the record in this case as well as other compensatory damages awards in similar Engle-progeny cases, and giving proper deference to the jury’s award and the trial court’s subsequent review of that award, we cannot conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in denying defendants’ motion” to reduce the award, said the 19-page opinion, written by Judge Kevin Emas and joined by Chief Judge Leslie Rothenberg and Judge Ivan Fernandez.

Regulators deal with FPL nuclear license, costs

Grappling with a long-discussed nuclear project in Miami-Dade County, state regulators Tuesday backed Florida Power & Light continuing to pursue a critical license for two new reactors — but turned down a company request involving costs.

The decisions by the state Public Service Commission were the latest chapter in years of controversy about a 2006 law aimed at increasing nuclear power in the state and FPL’s subsequent proposal to build the reactors at its Turkey Point complex. Julie Brown, who chairs the Public Service Commission, pointed Tuesday to key issues surrounding the project.

“Whether the (2006) statute has worked out for customers is a question that everyone has,” Brown said. “And whether Turkey Point 6 and 7 (the proposed reactors) are going to come online and are feasible, are practical, are realistic is a question that we as regulators have. Like it or not, nuclear power has been (a) very important (part) of our fleet over decades for many, many Floridians. It’s provided clean energy, it’s been reliable.”

The issues confronting the commission Tuesday were rooted, at least in part, in the 2006 law, which allowed utilities to recover money from customers during the early stages of work on nuclear projects. That is different from the way utilities typically recoup money after power plants are finished and start producing electricity.

As of the end of 2016, FPL had spent $260 on licensing efforts for the reactors and is likely within months of receiving a critical federal approval known as a “combined operating license,” according to a Public Service Commission staff recommendation.

But in a filing this year, FPL proposed what it described as a “pause” in recovering project costs incurred after Dec. 31, 2016. The request effectively sought to defer for a number of years costs that customers would pay and temporarily eliminate the need for annual regulatory hearings on the project.

Opponents of the request, however, argued FPL had not submitted a needed study that would show whether the nuclear project is feasible. They contended that the company should not be allowed to continue running up costs and then be able to come back in the future and recover the money from customers under what is known as the “nuclear cost recovery clause.”

Public Service Commission staff members recommended rejection of the utility’s request to defer costs without the feasibility study. Commissioners went along with that recommendation Tuesday, turning down FPL’s proposal in a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Gary Clark dissenting.

FPL customers also will not pay any nuclear costs in 2018. Commissioners made clear, however, that FPL might have other avenues in the future to try to recoup the money it is spending on the combined operating license — outside of the nuclear-cost recovery clause. That could include seeking recovery through the process of setting base electric rates.

State Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, whose office represents consumers in utility cases, expressed concern after Tuesday’s meeting that FPL could seek the money through another route. Kelly’s office opposed allowing the deferral of costs.

“Are you giving the utility two bites at the apple?” Kelly said. “And we think that would be inappropriate.”

During the meeting, the commission also unanimously supported a finding that it is reasonable for FPL to continue pursuing the combined operating license. Commissioner Art Graham said the license would provide a long-term option for the utility to eventually build nuclear reactors.

“I think the COL is basically a 20-year option,” Graham said. “Are we going to do it in the foreseeable future? Are we looking to have that option on the table? And I think we’ve come this far, you need to have that option on the table.”

Brown and Clark said the state has become increasingly dependent in recent years on natural gas to fuel power plants, suggesting that it might need nuclear power to help diversify in the future. They also pointed to the large amount of money already spent on seeking the license.

“I think that the continued pursuit of this license is critical from an infrastructure standpoint, from a base-capacity standpoint,” Clark said. “Our current dependence on natural gas is extremely alarming to me.”

FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski released a statement after the meeting saying the utility will continue pursuing the license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“We have a responsibility to provide for the energy needs of our customers today and well into the future,” the statement said. “As we invest in high-efficiency natural gas energy and one of the largest solar expansions on the Eastern seaboard, we continue to believe having the option to add clean, zero-emissions nuclear energy is important for Florida’s energy future.

“After nearly a decade of working through lengthy, stringent regulatory processes at the local, state and federal levels, we are on track to receive final approval from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the coming months, and we intend to complete the licensing process such that the option of new nuclear power is available for our customers for many years into the future.”

The utility also touted a less-controversial move Tuesday by regulators that approved a $7.3 million rate reduction for customers in 2018. That reduction stems from what is known as an “over recovery” of nuclear-project costs from customers in 2015 and 2016.

John Thrasher among veterans named to hall of fame

Florida State University President John Thrasher, a former state House speaker who served in the Vietnam War, is among 20 members of the 2017 class of the Florida Veterans’ Hall of Fame.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — approved the class recommended by the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame Council.

A display of hall of fame members is on a wall near the east entrance of the Florida Capitol. An induction ceremony is being planned for the week after Thanksgiving.

Cabinet approves protecting Okeechobee ranch land

Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet agreed Tuesday to spend about $5.7 million to conserve more than 2,500 acres of ranch land in a deal that nearly depletes this year’s funding for a program used to keep agricultural property from development.

The deal — known as purchasing a conservation easement — allows the owners of the Corona Ranch in Okeechobee County to continue using the land for cattle, but it prevents future development of the property, which drains into the Kissimmee River.

Owned by the Corona family, the land, which is less than five miles south of Kissimmee Prairie State Park, houses species such as gopher tortoises, fox squirrels, and burrowing owls and has had three recent Florida Panther sightings, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

About 34 percent of the land is considered wetlands. The Corona family, which started in the cattle business in the mid-1800s in Cuba, has been ranching in Florida since 1961, including since the 1980s on the Okeechobee property.

Money for the deal comes from the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, which has been championed by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. The program has been used 31 times by the current Cabinet since 2011 to preserve 35,644 acres.

“With more than 1,000 people moving to Florida every day, we must continue to prioritize the conservation of our agricultural lands and world-renowned natural spaces,” Putnam said.

In the 2017-2018 budget, $10 million was set aside for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said after Tuesday’s meeting the deal uses the remaining funding from the program.

“We’re going to go back the Legislature and ask them to put more money in the program,” Draper said. “It’s been so successful it’s already generated 38,000 acres of land that has been conserved (since the program’s start).”

More variances sought on nursing home generators

At least 21 more long-term care providers have filed requests for variances with the state Agency for Health Care Administration as they seek additional time to comply with Gov. Rick Scott‘s mandate that they add generators that can power air-conditioning systems.

The latest requests were published Monday in the Florida Administrative Register and are in addition to 33 requests for variances published last week. Scott’s administration issued emergency generator rules in September for nursing homes and assisted living facilities after eight residents of a sweltering Broward County nursing home died. Six more residents died later after being evacuated.

Hurricane Irma knocked out the air conditioning at the nursing home, The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, which did not have a backup generator for the cooling system.

Long-term care facilities are seeking the variances because a Nov. 15 compliance deadline is nearing, and facilities that aren’t in compliance face steep penalties, including possible license revocation.

Florida law allows variances, saying that the “strict application of uniformly applicable rule requirements can lead to unreasonable, unfair, and unintended results” and, as a result, agencies are authorized to grant variances and waivers to rules that cause a substantial hardship.

To clarify the process, the Scott administration last week issued another emergency rule that, in part, laid out information the Agency for Health Care Administration wants providers to include in the requests for variances. Meanwhile, three industry groups have challenged the rules in the state Division of Administrative Hearings.

A judge is expected to issue a decision within two weeks.

Supreme Court sets arguments in red-light camera battle

The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments in February in a battle about a red-light camera program in the city of Aventura that could have broader implications across the state.

The court issued an order Monday that scheduled oral arguments for Feb. 7.

The case, like others, focuses on whether Aventura gave too much authority to a private company that contracted to help run the red-light camera program.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal upheld the Aventura program in a decision involving a motorist who received a ticket for improperly turning right at a red light.

In challenging the ticket, motorist Luis Torres Jimenez contended the city had illegally given “unfettered discretion” to a red-light camera company to review images of potential violations and to print and send out citations.

While the 3rd District Court of Appeal sided with Aventura, it also urged the Supreme Court to take up the case, saying the “lawful use of cameras to enforce red lights has attracted the attention of the public, local governments, and the Legislature.”

Red-light cameras have long been controversial, and the Florida House has started moving forward with a bill (HB 6001) for the 2018 session that would repeal a state law that allows local governments to use the cameras.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Farmers may get loans to help with Irma damage

Florida farmers in 44 counties may be eligible for federal loans to help cover damage inflicted by Hurricane Irma, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced.

Still, Florida might have to wait months for broader federal assistance to the agriculture industry, which sustained more than $2.5 billion in losses from the storm.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue notified Gov. Rick Scott on Friday that the federal agency determined that Florida had sufficient production loss to warrant a “secretarial natural disaster designation” for most of the peninsula.

The designation makes farmers eligible to be considered for Farm Service Agency programs, including emergency loans, Perdue wrote in a letter to Scott. Farmers have eight months to apply for the loans.

“FSA considers each emergency loan application on its own merits, taking into account the extent of production losses on the farm and the security and repayment ability of the operator,” Perdue wrote.

The federal designation names 19 counties as “primary” natural disaster areas and 25 as being in “contiguous” counties. Farmers in primary and contiguous counties are eligible to apply for loans.

The state on Sept. 28 had requested the primary designation for 19 counties. Irma made landfall in Monroe and Collier counties on Sept. 10 and then barreled up the state.

Under Perdue’s designations, the primary counties are Alachua, Bradford, Broward, Charlotte, Collier, Gilchrist, Glades, Hendry, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lake, Lee, Marion, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Osceola, Palm Beach and Sumter.

The “contiguous” counties are Baker, Brevard, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, DeSoto, Dixie, Hardee, Hernando, Lafayette, Levy, Manatee, Martin, Okeechobee, Orange, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, St. Lucie, Sarasota, Seminole, Suwannee, Union and Volusia.

A preliminary report from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services released Oct. 4 estimated that citrus industry losses from the storm approached $761 million. The state’s vegetable, nursery, cattle, dairy, sugar, non-citrus fruit and timber crops all were impacted by the massive storm.

In a statement Friday about the federal designations, state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said, “it’s important to recognize that the damage is still unfolding.

“By making more federal help available, combined with our Florida Citrus Emergency Loan Program, we are giving farmers a way to immediately address the losses they incurred during Hurricane Irma,” Scott said in a prepared statement.

Scott has authorized a $25 million interest-free loan program for citrus farmers.

The federal designation also came as Florida officials have turned their attention to the U.S. Senate, which this week is expected to take up a $36.5 billion disaster-relief package directed at hurricane damage in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and the ongoing wildfires in California. The money doesn’t include agricultural assistance for Florida.

The House on Thursday did not attach a measure to its relief package to cover losses incurred across Florida’s agricultural landscape. The measure was proposed by U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican whose district covers rural lands northwest of Lake Okeechobee.

Putnam, a former congressman who is running for governor, told reporters Thursday that the federal assistance may not be available until early next year if the Florida agricultural funding isn’t added to the current relief package.

“If we’re not in that one, it could be as late as mid-December before the next one moves,” Putnam said “And then when you back that up from how long it would take to implement a program to get assistance out the door you’re looking at well into the first quarter of next year before growers are seeing any relief.”

Putnam, expressing concerns that foreign growers could make inroads into Florida, criticized the “traditional” disaster relief programs as “wholly inadequate.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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