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Forecast a glimmer of good news for Florida citrus

 For the second time in a week, Florida citrus growers got what could be considered good news for the struggling industry.

A forecast Tuesday from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed this season’s projected orange crop holding steady for the third consecutive month.

The estimate followed an announcement Friday by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that anxiously awaited disaster-relief programs for farmers who suffered damages in Hurricane Irma will be in place by mid-July.

“After a season of crisis, our industry finds hope in a new bloom, a new crop, disaster relief on the horizon and the opportunity a new season brings,” Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, said in a prepared statement.

Despite the latest outlook, the citrus industry, which has been fighting deadly citrus-greening disease for a decade and then was ravaged by Irma in September, continues to be on a pace to produce the lowest citrus counts since World War II.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimate Tuesday said Florida will grow enough oranges in the current season to fill 45 million 90-pound boxes, a mark unchanged since the February forecast.

By comparison, the industry filled 68.7 million boxes of oranges in the 2016-2017 season, which itself was a five-decade low.

Meanwhile, estimated grapefruit production in the latest forecast fell 14 percent, from 4.65 million boxes in March to 4 million boxes in Tuesday’s report. The forecast number, if it holds, would be down 48.5 percent from the past season and 63 percent off the 10.8 million boxes filled in the 2015-2016 season.

Also, Florida’s production of specialty crops, tangerines and tangelos, is down 13 percent from the March outlook, in the latest federal numbers.

The industry had hoped to surpass 2016-2017 totals before Irma struck at the start of the current growing season, causing groves, particularly in Southwest Florida — where trees were knocked over or suffered long-term damage because of weeks of flooding that impacted root systems — to incur losses up to 70 percent, Shepp said.

In October, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs estimated hurricane damage to the citrus industry at $761 million. State officials later said damages have increased above the $1 billion mark.

Citrus officials have expressed frustration awaiting the release of $2.36 billion in federal disaster aid for farmers in Florida and other states affected by hurricanes and wildfires. The agriculture money was part of a $90 billion disaster-relief package signed by President Donald Trump on Feb. 9.

While Perdue announced Friday that programs for farmers to apply for the money will be set up by July 16, it remains unclear how claims can be filed or how money will be distributed.

Allen Winsor, Wendy Berger picked to serve as federal judges

President Donald Trump on Tuesday tapped two Florida appellate judges with ties to Attorney General Pam Bondi and former Gov. Jeb Bush to serve as federal district judges.

Trump said he will nominate Allen Winsor, a judge on the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal, to serve as a judge in the federal Northern District of Florida. Also, he chose Wendy Berger, a judge on the state’s 5th District Court of Appeal, to serve as a judge in the federal Middle District of Florida. The nominations are subject to Senate confirmation.

Winsor was appointed in February 2016 by Gov. Rick Scott to the 1st District Court of Appeal after a nearly three-year stint as state solicitor general in Bondi’s office. The Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal hears cases from throughout North Florida, ranging from Jacksonville to Pensacola.

Berger was appointed by Scott in 2012 to a seat on the 5th District Court of Appeal, which is based in Daytona Beach and hears cases from a huge swath of Central Florida, stretching from Brevard County to Hernando County. Berger worked from 2001 to 2005 as an assistant general counsel for Bush, who then appointed her as a circuit judge in Northeast Florida’s 7th Judicial Circuit.

Berger also was one of three finalists in 2016 for a seat on the Florida Supreme Court, though Scott appointed Alan Lawson, who at the time was one of Berger’s colleagues on the 5th District Court of Appeal.

The choices of Winsor and Berger for the federal judgeships appear to align with a broader effort by Trump to make the federal judiciary more conservative.

Berger, who was a prosecutor in St. Johns County for almost eight years before working for Bush, pointed in her Florida Supreme Court application to adherence to “judicial restraint” — a common theme in conservative legal circles.

“I respect the legislative process and am committed to the principles of judicial restraint,” she wrote at the time. “I will bring to the bench self-control, integrity, respect, wisdom, good judgment, efficiency and common sense. I can be trusted to follow the law and make just and timely rulings.”

Berger and Winsor also have moderated panel discussions in recent years at Florida meetings of The Federalist Society, an influential legal group among conservatives. Winsor last year moderated a discussion titled “Combating Federal Overreach,” according to video posted on The Federalist Society website.

Judges in the federal Northern District of Florida hear cases from a region that includes Gainesville, Tallahassee, Panama City and Pensacola. The Middle District, meanwhile, covers a massive area, stretching from Fort Myers to Jacksonville and including Orlando and Tampa.

Along with saying he will nominate Berger and Winsor for the district judgeships, Trump on Tuesday also announced selecting Britt C. Grant to serve on the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from Florida. Grant is a justice on the Georgia Supreme Court.

Donald Trump expected to loom over Rick Scott-Bill Nelson battle

More than $100 million will likely be spent during the next seven months as two of Florida’s top elected officials go head-to-head in the mid-term contest for a spot in the U.S. Senate.

The long-anticipated contest in which Gov. Rick Scott will try to unseat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson became official on Monday.

Key issues that could shape the contest include the mass shootings at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and hurricanes Irma and Maria.

But a third man not in the ring, President Donald Trump, is expected to play a pivotal role throughout the campaign.

Alex Patton, a Republican political consultant from Gainesville, simply called the contest a “proxy battle” about Trump.

“No issue will take as much importance other than, ‘Will you support Trump?’ ” Patton said. “Hell, I’m not sure it’s even about supporting Trump’s agenda — it’s about do you support him.”

Scott formally entered the race Monday with an announcement in Orlando, and the contest is considered one of the keys to control of the U.S. Senate.

Neither Nelson nor Scott would be described as overly charismatic.

Scott, 65, is in his eighth year as the state’s top executive. Nelson, 75, the only statewide elected Democrat, is completing his third term in the Senate.

Susan MacManus, a political-science professor at the University of South Florida, said the race will be “highly nationalized.”

“By Election Day, Floridians will be thinking Trump and (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi are on the ballot along with (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell and (House Speaker) Paul Ryan,” MacManus said. “Florida Democrats have warned the party not to focus too much on Trump. But for other Democrats, all they need is to see the strong connections between Scott and Trump.”

The Nelson-Scott contest will be a marquee event in Florida on a ballot that also will feature a governor’s race, contests for the three statewide Cabinet positions and potentially more than a dozen proposed constitutional amendments.

Scott’s history suggests he will attack Nelson aggressively as “a liberal and ineffective,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political-science professor at the University of Central Florida.

“Scott will also emphasize his role in restoring the Florida economy in terms of jobs and growth and probably seek to portray himself as successfully dealing with the Parkland shooting and the nursing home deaths in South Florida,” Jewett said, referring to deaths after Hurricane Irma. “Nelson will attack Scott for his ties to President Trump over and over again and also on nursing home deaths after the hurricane and for not doing enough in the aftermath of the Parkland gun deaths. Nelson will point to his moderate-to-progressive record on a variety of issues that are frequently more in step with Florida public opinion.”

Historic trends show the party that lost the White House in the previous election having a strong mid-term surge. Democrats playing up a “blue wave” in November will have to retain Nelson’s seat to have any hope of reclaiming a majority in the Senate.

The Democratic group American Bridge 21st Century anticipates Scott will revert to digging into his own bank account to offset any backlash against the White House.

Scott spent at least $73 million of his own money to win his first campaign and another $13 million four years later. His closely aligned state political committee Let’s Get to Work burned through $5.8 million after the 2016 contest to mostly promote his agenda.

Nelson’s re-election committee has just over $8 million on hand and minutes before Scott’s announcement on Monday sent out an email saying, “The only way we’re going to defeat Rick Scott and protect Florida’s Senate seat is if everyone — and I mean everyone — gives $5 or more right now.”

Patton said even with “oodles and oodles” of money flowing into a Senate contest, which is considered a toss-up by most political prognosticators, the Nelson-Scott match will “pale in comparison” to feelings about Trump.

“Trump will drown everything else out,” Patton said.

Calling the Trump-factor “huge,” Jewett said Democrats appear unified in their dislike of Trump.

“Scott must walk a fine line when it comes to President Trump,” Jewett said. “Scott must not alienate the Trump voters — without them he has little chance of victory — but on the other hand probably will not appear personally with Trump and (will) seek to make the election about the incumbent Nelson rather than a referendum on Trump, which will be difficult to do.”

The governor was an early endorser of Trump and chairs the New Republican PAC, which has raised money for the president. Scott has also embraced their friendship on issues such as securing funding to speed work to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee and getting the Trump administration to issue a statement that Florida would be removed from offshore drilling plans.

Trump during public events repeatedly encouraged Scott to run for the Senate.

However, the governor has on occasion tried to put some distance between himself and Trump, such as when the president used a vulgar slur to disparage Haiti and African nations or when Scott urged Congress to extend the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program for children who are undocumented immigrants.

None of that means the opposing parties won’t zero in on the rival candidates.

Democrats have already focused on low and stagnant wages to counter Scott’s job-growth narrative. Playing up companies that have handed out bonuses or pay increases, Republicans have gone after Nelson for voting against a federal tax overhaul approved by Congress last year. Nelson criticized the tax bill as being unfair in favor of corporations.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has long focused on Nelson, including portraying him as working for “Washington liberals.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last week set up a website called “Self-serving Scott” that seeks to delegitimize Scott’s improved poll numbers.

Nelson and Scott share one part of their political pasts: They both beat Republican Bill McCollum, a former congressman and state attorney general.

Nelson, a Florida native, defeated McCollum in 2000 to move into the U.S. Senate and later defeated former U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris and former U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV in his 2006 and 2012 re-election bids.

Nelson has lost only one contest since first appearing on a ballot in 1972 when he ran for the state House. He fell to former Gov. Lawton Chiles in the 1990 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Scott, a former health care executive who settled in Naples, upset McCollum, the party establishment pick, in the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2010. Amid Republican waves, he defeated then-state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink in the 2010 general election and former Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2014 election.

In recent months, Democrats, able to focus on special-election contests since Trump’s 2016 victory, have won a number of races nationally in areas carried by Trump. That includes a state House district in Sarasota County that was won by Democrat Margaret Good.

State continues battling wildfires

Florida faced 32 active wildfires Monday, as dry conditions in parts of the state continued to pose a threat for blazes.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose agency includes the Florida Forest Service, announced the updated number of fires, which included a 450-acre fire in Polk County that was 75 percent contained.

Firefighters in recent weeks also have dealt with large fires in areas such as Collier County.

Traffic ticket firm asks justices to reject Bar case

A Miami-Dade County firm that helps motorists fight traffic tickets asked the state Supreme Court on Monday to dismiss a case alleging it has violated a ban on practicing law without a license.

The Florida Bar in January filed a petition requesting that the Supreme Court issue an injunction against TIKD Services LLC. But in a 19-page document filed Monday, TIKD disputed arguments that it practices law without a license and asked the Supreme Court for a summary-judgment ruling and a dismissal of the Bar’s claims.

TIKD, which was created in 2016, operates an online service in which motorists can upload pictures of tickets, according to the document filed at the Supreme Court. TIKD performs a statistical analysis after receiving tickets and determines whether to provide its services to motorists. If it accepts a ticket, TIKD charges a fee and pays an attorney to represent the motorist.

TIKD also pays fines or court costs if tickets are not dismissed, the document said. “This is not a complex case,” TIKD attorneys Christopher Kise and Joshua Hawkes wrote.

“The undisputed facts establish respondents (TIKD and the firm’s founder) do not engage in any acts constituting the unauthorized practice of law, and they do not employ or control the licensed, independent Florida lawyers who provide legal advice and representation to TIKD customers.”

But in the January petition, the Bar argued that TIKD advertises “in a fashion which may lead a reasonable lay person to believe” the firm is qualified to provide legal services.

“Respondents either personally or through advertisement offer traffic ticket defense legal services while suggesting that their services are the equivalent of or a substitute for the services of an attorney,” the petition said.

Florida GOP says it can fend off ‘blue wave’

Florida Republican leaders who gathered this weekend in Tampa believe they can hold back a Democratic wave in November to keep the “Trump agenda alive.”

But to retain congressional and legislative majorities and to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, that means ramping up messaging about economic growth, boosting turnout, particularly among voters who request absentee ballots, and countering what the GOP describes as “mainstream media” narratives of looming Democratic victories.

It also means allowing Democrats to celebrate some high-profile special election victories across the nation as speculation continues that Democrats will capitalize on a traditional mid-term surge by the party out of the White House.

“It’s going to be very hard for them to keep that energy up,” Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia said during a party quarterly meeting at a DoubleTree hotel.

Ingoglia also said Democrats will have to spread resources to campaigns across the country, unlike during their recent special-election victories for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama and a congressional seat in Pennsylvania.

“They’re very good at winning one race at a time,” Ingoglia, a state House member from Spring Hill, said.

Peter Feaman, a member of the Republican National Committee, called GOP candidates who will be on the ballot this year “proxies for keeping the Trump agenda alive,” with the agenda exemplified by tax cuts and secure borders.

“You know the other side is as enthused as we were two years ago,” Feaman said, referring to the 2016 elections, when Trump defeated Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. “So, the enthusiasm gap has been reversed. And now it’s us that has to get back into the game.”

The Republican Party of Florida has 56 paid employees scattered across the state. But Democrats are using the phrase “blue wave” to symbolize efforts to capture the governor’s mansion and Republican seats in Congress and the state Legislature.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham said in a news release this week that women standing up to gun violence and as part of the #MeToo movement “are the driving force behind the 2018 blue wave.”

Meanwhile, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a Democrat also running for governor, was slated to attend a “blue wave” dinner Saturday night in Plant City.

The 2018 elections will ratchet up Monday, when Gov. Rick Scott is expected to formally announce that he is challenging Nelson for the U.S. Senate seat. Nelson is the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida, and the outcome of his battle with Scott could help determine which party wins control of the Senate in November.

A driving force behind Democratic optimism in this year’s races has been the policies and personality of Trump.

But Trump’s actions — rather than his words and tweets — are also why Republicans contend they can hold on to the Florida governor’s office, the three state Cabinet seats, maintain majorities in the Legislature and congressional delegation and capture Nelson’s seat.

“You can’t argue with results,” said Kathleen King, a member of the Republican National Committee. “Thanks to a tax cut signed into law … more than 470 companies have announced pay raises, bonuses, utility rate cuts, 401(k) (investment plan) hikes or other expanded benefits.”

Feaman said, “Pay little attention to what the man (Trump) says — but watch very carefully what the man does.”

Irma agriculture aid slated to start in summer

A program to distribute federal disaster aid to Florida farmers hit by Hurricane Irma will be set up within the next 100 days, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Friday.

“USDA (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) is working as quickly as possible to develop procedures and a system by which affected producers can access disaster assistance,” Perdue said in a prepared statement.

The announcement added that “sign-up for the new program, authorized by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, will begin no later than July 16,” about 100 days from now.

It remains unknown how claims can be filed or how money will be distributed.

Members of Florida’s congressional delegation have lobbied Perdue to release the money as the state’s citrus growers express frustration in waiting for federal assistance after last September’s deadly hurricane.

In all, the federal program will provide $2.36 billion to farmers in Florida and other states affected by hurricanes and wildfires, part of a $90 billion disaster relief package signed by President Donald Trump on Feb. 9. Friday’s announcement came the same week Florida’s U.S. senators joined colleagues from Texas, Louisiana and California in sending a letter urging Perdue to hurry up in making the agriculture share of the money available.

“Florida’s farmers and citrus growers are a vital part of our state’s economy and we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help them recover from last year’s storms,” Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said in a statement Friday.

Perdue’s announcement said distribution information will come “at a later date.” Also, the announcement said farmers seeking aid should contact local U.S. Department of Agriculture service centers about establishing farm records.

The relief funding is directed at 2017 victims of hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria and a series of wildfires in California.

Florida’s agriculture industry took a $2.5 billion hit from Irma in September, according to an October estimate from the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The state’s struggling citrus industry accounted for $761 million of those losses, according to the initial estimate.

Citrus growers and state lawmakers have estimated that lingering damages have since topped the $1 billion mark.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam thanked Perdue for moving forward with the “long-awaited” disaster relief.

“We look forward to continuing to work with the USDA to ensure that this program is implemented quickly and in the best way possible to help Florida’s producers recover from the devastating hurricane,” Putnam said in a statement Friday

Pam Bondi says Florida will file opioid lawsuit

Attorney General Pam Bondi said this week Florida plans to file a lawsuit against drug companies because of the opioid epidemic that has led to overdose deaths across the state.

Bondi, who contends the pharmaceutical industry shares some of the blame for the problems, said her office is interviewing outside lawyers to assist in the litigation. While other lawsuits have been filed against the industry, Bondi said it is important that Florida file its own case to try to stop what she calls “bad behavior” by drug companies.

“Florida, as the third-largest state in the country, we will be filing our own lawsuit just as we did in the BP oil spill,” Bondi said, referring to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. “Florida deserves the maximum compensation for all of the deaths that have happened in our state.”

Bondi did not give a timetable for filing the suit and said Florida is working with cities, counties and states that have already filed cases against drug companies.

FPL gets key approval for nuclear project

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given key approval to a Florida Power & Light project that could lead to adding two nuclear reactors in Miami-Dade County.

The commission announced Thursday that it had authorized staff members to issue what is known as “combined licenses” for reactors at FPL’s Turkey Point site.

“The commission found the staff’s review of FPL’s application adequate to make the necessary regulatory safety and environmental findings,” the federal agency said in a news release. “The staff expects to issue the licenses in the next few days.”

FPL has been seeking the licenses for years, though it has not committed to building the 1,100-megawatt reactors. Critics have argued that FPL has not adequately shown that the nuclear project is feasible.

But the Florida Public Service Commission said in October that it was reasonable for the utility to continue pursuing the licenses.

“I think the COL (combined operating license) is basically a 20-year option,” Public Service Commission member Art Graham, now the commission’s chairman, said at the time. “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.”

Adam Putnam backs Donald Trump on NAFTA revamp

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer that backed President Donald Trump’s push for a “more equitable North American Free Trade Agreement” with Canada and Mexico.

“As you are aware, producers of perishable and seasonal agricultural products in Florida and other regions have been decimated by unfair trading practices resulting in a strong and unprecedented growth in imports from Mexico,” Putnam wrote. “Family farms in Florida and other states have found no relief from these unfair practices in our current trade laws or the current NAFTA agreement.”

Trump campaigned on a need to renegotiate the 24-year-old trade agreement, claiming the pact is unfair to the U.S. He has recently started to tie the deal to immigration issues.

In May 2016, Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private business-recruitment agency, led a four-day mission to Mexico City that included 92 business leaders and officials. In announcing the trip, Enterprise Florida said NAFTA had increased bilateral trade between Mexico and the U.S. by more than 500 percent, with Florida goods that are “ideal for trade including: automotive parts, aviation parts, education services, IT services, medical devices, telecommunications equipment, security services and equipment for transportation.”

Lighthizer is slated to meet Friday in Washington with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Mexican Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo.

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