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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.

Ballots trickle in for November election

The first ballots of Florida’s 2018 general election have been cast, according to the state Division of Elections.

A division webpage said Thursday morning that four Democrats and one Republican had returned vote-by-mail ballots and that more than 1.5 million vote-by-mail ballots had been requested.

Two of the Democratic voters who had already returned their ballots were from Monroe County, with the other two from Manatee and Leon counties. The Republican was from Lee County.

In the Aug. 28 primary elections, 1.28 million vote-by-mail ballots were cast from 2.4 million that were sent out.

Earlier this week, the division announced that Saturday is the deadline for county supervisors of election to send the first vote-by-mail ballots to uniformed service members who are absent overseas or stateside and to civilian voters who are overseas.

The initial window for supervisors to get the first ballots in the mail to other voters is from Oct. 2 to Oct. 9. The last day a voter can request that supervisors send a vote-by-mail ballot is Oct. 31. The last day for supervisors to send mail-in ballots is Nov. 2. Voters can pick up vote-by-mail ballots from their local supervisors’ offices up to the day before the election. The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 9.

Ron DeSantis, Andrew Gillum back boosting vocational programs

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis and Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum have vast differences in their education policy proposals, but they agree on one area: Not everybody needs to get a four-year college degree.

Although the details are somewhat scant, DeSantis and Gillum this week emphasized their support for energizing Florida’s technical and vocational programs as part of their overall education priorities.

“We are going to add major investments in jobs and skills training,” said Gillum, a Florida A&M University graduate and former student leader. “While college worked for me, for my older siblings, it was access to woodwork and shop and mechanical and technical degree programs that allowed them to gain a skill that they could monetize, go to work and get a good job.”

Gillum gave credit for the visibility of the issue to Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who made the issue a top priority during his gubernatorial primary campaign against DeSantis.

Among other issues, Putnam noted that more than half of the jobs expected to be created in Florida’s fastest-growing employment sectors by 2025 will require advanced training but less than a four-year degree.

Putnam, who lost in the Aug. 28 GOP primary, also noted that while Florida’s Bright Futures merit-scholarship program will receive a record $523 million this year, the scholarships for vocational students represent only 1 percent of the students receiving those awards.

Of the 103,000 Bright Futures scholars this academic year, state analysts project only 1,000 will qualify for the “Gold Seal” vocational scholarships. Putnam noted that Florida had more than 10,600 Gold Seal scholars when the Bright Futures program began in 1997.

 “I believe there can be bipartisan agreement around our need to reinvest in those early skills programs that don’t allow for any of our students’ talents to go to waste,” Gillum said.

DeSantis made similar comments Tuesday after touring a science and technology school in Okaloosa County.

He said he would support enhancing programs that let students earn industry or technical certifications while in high school, allowing them to more quickly enter the state’s workforce rather than pursuing four-year degrees.

“You then can go and get gainful employment, maybe you do some more training, but you’re not having to go $100,000 into debt, get a degree in zombie studies and then end up in a job you could have had out of high school anyways,” said DeSantis, who is a Harvard-educated lawyer.

But Gillum and DeSantis are likely to clash on other higher-education issues.

Gillum criticized DeSantis, a former congressman from Ponte Vedra Beach, for supporting a budget plan in the U.S. House in 2015 that sought to freeze Pell grants for 10 years as a cost-cutting move. Pell grants, which currently have an annual cap of $6,095, are awarded to students from low-income families and do not have to be paid back.

“He voted for a 30 percent cut in Pell grants over the next 10 years,” Gillum said. “I don’t know if this point has been lost on Mr. DeSantis or not, the candidate for governor of the state of Florida, but 41 percent of Florida tuition is covered by Pell grants.”

As of the fall of 2016, 38 percent of the students enrolled in public universities in Florida were on Pell grants, according to the state university system’s Board of Governors. Some 63 percent of the students at Florida A&M University were on Pell grants, as well as more than half of the students at Florida International University, according to the data.

House Republicans defended the proposed Pell grant freeze, which was not enacted, as a means of making the program “more sustainable.” A memo in support of the plan noted the grants had been expanded to more students from higher-income families.

“Increasing eligibility to those with higher incomes drains resources from those who need the most help,” the memo said. “Our budget adopts a sustainable Pell grant maximum.”

This report includes information from David Bishop of FLA News.

FEA committee spends $100K to back Andrew Gillum

With Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis offering vastly different plans to address the state’s public schools, a Florida Education Association political committee spent $100,000 during the past week to boost Gillum’s gubernatorial campaign.

The Florida Education Association Advocacy Fund on Friday sent $100,000 to a Gillum political committee known as Forward Florida, according to a report on the state Division of Elections website.

Among other contributions, the FEA committee also sent $25,000 to Sean Shaw for Florida, a committee tied to Democratic Attorney-General candidate Sean Shaw.

Gillum and DeSantis, the Republican nominee for governor, launched competing education plans Wednesday.

Gillum, in part, wants to provide a minimum starting salary of $50,000 for teachers and would boost the state’s corporate income tax to fund it. DeSantis, meanwhile, released a plan that includes requiring 80 percent of school funding to be spent in classrooms and not on administration. He said the plan could help boost teacher pay. But the FEA, the state’s major teachers union, was highly critical of DeSantis’ plan.

Court keeps Rick Scott records ruling on hold

Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday received a legal ruling that will at least temporarily allow him to keep from turning over his calendar — including information about fundraising events and where he will reside at night — to a health-care organization.

A Tallahassee appeals court agreed to extend a hold on a Sept. 5 ruling that mandated Scott provide the requested information to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which has been wrangling with the Scott administration over a canceled Medicaid contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The 1st District Court of Appeal also agreed to expedite Scott’s challenge to Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson’s Sept. 5 ruling that said Scott should turn over the information.

The order extending a stay on Dodson’s ruling negates a move by attorneys representing the foundation to have Scott found in contempt of court and fined $1,000 for each day he didn’t provide the information. The foundation had filed an emergency motion, arguing that Dodson’s 10-day window for Scott to provide the information had expired.

“This earned him a brief reprieve from the contempt,” said Tallahassee attorney Ryan Andrews who is handling the public-records case for the foundation.

In their emergency filing, attorneys for the foundation said holding Scott in contempt and fining him would be the “least intrusive and most effective” means to ensure the governor complied with the initial court order.

“Imposing contempt sanctions are not only appropriate to accord petitioner relief but also proper as this court has the inherent authority to impose such sanctions when a party — i.e. EOG (the executive office of governor) — intentionally or willfully refuses to obey a court order,” the emergency filing said.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation filed the underlying public-records lawsuit in July after the administration did not provide the requested calendar information in response to a public-records request. The request was made after the state Agency for Health Care Administration did not renew a five-year Medicaid contract with the foundation’s subsidiary, Positive Healthcare, to provide Medicaid services in Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

The Scott administration argued that releasing the information could jeopardize the governor’s safety, but Dodson disagreed, noting it “simply is information regarding the governor’s travel schedule.”

Florida governors and other elected officials have routinely released their schedules to the media outlining commitments for each day. Often, those schedules were released in advance.

But the Scott administration has been less forthcoming with the details. And the schedules that get released haven’t always accurately reflected the governor’s meetings

Andrews, a Tallahassee lawyer, said he recalled seeing former governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist often walk downtown by themselves. “For them (the Scott administration), to say nobody can know where this governor is, is disingenuous and not supported (by law),” Andrews said. “Their argument is that he’s so unliked that people can’t know where he is because his life would be in danger.”

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation also filed a second public-records lawsuit in circuit court alleging that the administration did not provide records of communications with managed-care plans that bid on the Medicaid contract.

The organization also requested any correspondence between the Scott administration and lobbyists for managed-care plans, a list that includes a lengthy list of Tallahassee lobbyists.

That lawsuit is slated to be heard Friday by Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers.

In addition to filing the public records lawsuits in circuit court, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation also has challenged in administrative court the state’s decision not to renew the organization’s Medicaid contract.

The Scott administration has maintained that all the legal wrangling is tied to money. Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis reiterated that argument Tuesday, when he released to the press an e-mail exchange between attorneys for the Scott administration and attorneys for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

In an email, Andrews wrote to Scott’s outside counsel, Barry Richard, and offered a deal to end the litigation. In the exchange, Andrews described a proposed settlement in which the AIDS Healthcare Foundation would withdraw its legal challenges in exchange for a Medicaid contract in Broward, Miami Dade and Monroe counties.

“This vendor offered to drop their two public records lawsuits if they were awarded a state contract — that’s not in the best interests of taxpayers or the patients who will benefit from enhanced HIV/AIDS services that the state is offering,” Lewis said.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation offered no apologies on Tuesday.

“As a public official, Rick Scott should have to appear publicly and answer questions about his policies,” AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein said in a statement. “The court has already ruled that hiding behind a cloak of security is counter to Florida law and the democratic process.”


Bill Galvano, NRA clash over political contribution

Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano is not backing down after finding himself in the crosshairs of the National Rifle Association for receiving a sizable political contribution from a group that backs gun restrictions and has ties to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is slated to become Senate president after the November elections, pointed Monday to the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people. After the shooting, lawmakers passed a bill (SB 7026) that included raising the minimum age from 18 to 21 to purchase rifles and other long guns — a restriction the NRA has challenged in federal court.

“I will make no apologies for the responsible steps we took in a bipartisan manner in the wake of the worst school shooting in our state’s history,” Galvano said.

Galvano’s comments came after NRA Tallahassee lobbyist Marion Hammer, a former national president of the gun-rights organization, called him out for accepting a $200,000 contribution from Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, which has been heavily backed by Bloomberg. The contribution went to a political committee known as Innovate Florida, which is chaired by Galvano.

Hammer, a longtime powerful lobbyist in Tallahassee, sent out an “alert” Monday to members of the NRA and Unified Sportsmen of Florida about the Sept. 4 contribution to Galvano’s committee.

“Incoming Florida Senate President Bill Galvano calls himself a Republican but is rumored to be the one who colluded with anti-gun Democrats to engineer the gun control package included in SB-7026 this past session,” Hammer wrote to members of the groups. “SB-7026 contained three major gun control provisions and was rammed down the throats of Senate and House Republican legislators.”

“Looks like our Second Amendment Rights were sold for a large contribution from anti-gun former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” Hammer wrote. “All of this while the anti-gunners keep accusing legislators of taking money from NRA. In reality, no Florida Senate or House member or candidate for the Florida Senate or House has received a direct contribution from NRA in almost 20 years.”

The NRA filed a federal lawsuit against the state in March immediately after Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the bill that includes a wide range of school-safety and gun-related measures. Along with the age requirement for gun purchases, it also included imposing a three-day waiting period on buying long guns and banned what are known as “bump stocks,” which allow semi-automatic rifles to mimic fully automatic weapons. The lawsuit remains pending.

“I have made it clear that as Senate president I will continue to advocate for increased safety and security in our schools. I am grateful for the support,” Galvano said Monday.

The alleged shooter in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas case, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, legally purchased a semiautomatic rifle that was used in the massacre.

Gun-rights supporters have been frustrated in recent years by the Senate, which has blocked proposals such as allowing people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry firearms on college campuses. Bills have stalled after years of the Republican-dominated Legislature generally being supportive of positions backed by groups such as the NRA.

Money comes from near and far in Governor’s race

With money streaming in from across the country, Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum raised more than $2.7 million during the first week in September in their clash to become Florida Governor.

The contributions went to the candidates and their closely aligned political committees, with DeSantis having an edge. The Republican pulled in $1.4 million from Sept. 1 through Sept. 7, while Gillum raised nearly $1.32 million, according to newly filed reports with the state Division of Elections.

The fundraising period represented the first full week after DeSantis, a former Northeast Florida congressman, and Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor, dispatched their opponents in the Aug. 28 primary elections. The totals are a hint of what is to come this fall as DeSantis and Gillum compete in one of the biggest Governor’s races in the country — and also don’t reflect the millions of dollars that the political parties and outside groups have already started pouring into the campaign.

DeSantis raised $380,951 for his campaign account and $1.023 million for the committee Friends of Ron DeSantis during the week, the reports show. DeSantis had a combined total of nearly $2.57 million in cash on hand as Sept. 7.

Gillum, meanwhile, raised $874,285 for his campaign account and $445,500 for the committee known as Forward Florida, according to the reports. Gillum had a combined total of about $5.17 million in cash on hand at the end of the period.

As a sign of the high-profile nature of the campaign, both candidates hauled in contributions from across the country — often from small donors.

Among the nearly 2,000 separate contributions that came into DeSantis’ campaign account during the first week of September, about 1,800 were for $250 or less. Contributions came from 49 states, only missing Alaska.

Gillum’s campaign account, meanwhile, received more than 14,000 separate contributions from all 50 states during the week. Of those, Gillum received 13,661 contributions of $250 or less.

Individual contributions to the candidates’ campaign accounts are limited to $3,000, but the closely aligned political committees do not face such limits. As a result, while the candidates’ campaigns received thousands of small contributions, the committees reeled in large checks.

The more than $1 million that the DeSantis committee raised in early September came from 43 donors, according to the Division of Elections website. As examples of the contributions were $250,000 from Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus and $50,000 from Conservative Principles for Florida, a political committee headed by incoming state House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican.

The $445,000 raised during the week by Gillum’s committee, meanwhile, came in seven contributions. Among them was a $200,000 contribution from West Palm Beach attorney Chris Searcy, according to the committee’s report.

Matt Caldwell pulls in $165K in early September

State Rep. Matt Caldwell, the Republican candidate for Agriculture Commissioner, quickly started replenishing his coffers after a tough primary, pulling in about $165,000 during the first week of September for his campaign account and a political committee.

The one-week haul included contributions of $25,000 from Atlanta-based fuel and convenience-store company RaceTrac, $25,000 from the Florida Phosphate Political Committee and $10,000 from Tampa-based TECO Energy, according to a report posted on the state Division of Elections website.

Caldwell, who spent nearly all of the $2.6 million he raised before winning a four-way primary on Aug. 28, had a combined $198,981 on hand as of Sept. 7 in his campaign account and the committee Friends of Matt Caldwell.

Caldwell’s fundraising helped bring him more in line with Democratic candidate Nikki Fried, who ended the first week of September with about $227,000 on hand in her campaign account and the political committee Florida Consumers First.

Fried, an attorney and medical-marijuana lobbyist from Fort Lauderdale, raised $13,394 for her campaign account during the first seven days of the month. Florida Consumers First reported no new contributions in the same period.

Ron DeSantis, Andrew Gillum pile up matching funds

Gubernatorial candidates Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum continue to be the biggest beneficiaries of Florida’s matching-funds program, which has doled out $5.36 million to statewide candidates this year.

DeSantis, the Republican nominee, received $96,938 from the program Friday, while Democratic candidate Gillum got $62,390, according to figures posted online by the state Division of Elections.

DeSantis has received an overall total of more than $1.152 million from the program, which matches individual contributions of $250 or less. Since winning the Aug. 28 Republican primary, DeSantis has received $176,426 from the state. Among the nearly 2,000 separate contributions that came into DeSantis’ campaign from across the country during the first week in September, about 1,800 were of $250 or less.

Gillum has now received $620,631 through the matching-funds program, including $125,567 since the Aug. 28 primary. In September’s first seven days, Gillum received 13,661 contributions of $250 or less. Gillum, DeSantis and three other statewide candidates are taking part in the matching-funds program. The governor’s race has accounted for just over $4 million of the overall total, with two candidates who lost in the primaries — Democrat Gwen Graham and Republican Adam Putnam — also tapping into it.

Among the candidates for attorney general, Republican nominee Ashley Moody received $760 in matching funds on Friday and has received $380,935 from the state. Democratic candidate Sean Shaw got a check for $10,391 on Friday and has received $233,093 from the program.

In the race for state chief financial officer, incumbent Republican Jimmy Patronis received a check for $4,200 on Friday. Patronis has received $309,305 through the state program. Democratic candidate Jeremy Ring has not taken part in the voluntary program.

The amount of matching funds in this year’s elections appears likely to dwarf the amount in the 2014 midterm elections. In 2014, two candidates for governor and four candidates seeking Cabinet positions drew $4.1 million from the matching-funds program during the primary and general elections.

Citrus aid moves a step closer

 As a new citrus growing season gets underway, federal assistance tied to the hurricane-ravaged 2017-2018 harvest is finally moving into the application phase.

The state Division of Emergency Management announced Friday it has secured a $343 million block grant that was part of a wider disaster-relief package signed into law in February by President Donald Trump. The agency also said a series of four application workshops will be held this month for growers.

“Thanks to the hard work of so many, this much-needed piece of disaster assistance is finally on the way and will go a long way to help Florida’s citrus industry rebuild,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a prepared statement.

Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement that the money will “help our hard-working growers continue to rebuild and ensure that Florida remains synonymous with citrus.”

The block grant, part of a $2.36 billion package Congress directed to agricultural businesses damaged by hurricanes and wildfires in 2017, is designed to help the struggling citrus industry, which suffered at least $761 million in losses from Hurricane Irma.

With many farmers facing years of diminished crops, the citrus block-grant application workshops will be held Sept. 24 in Fort Pierce, Sept. 27 in Lake Alfred and Sebring, and Sept. 28 in LaBelle.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had repeatedly said the citrus program would begin no later than July 16. But state Emergency Management Director Wes Maul said his agency has “significantly expedited this process” as the goal is to “get this money into the hands of the many citrus farmers who suffered following Hurricane Irma’s devastating impacts.”

“They are critical to the recovery of Florida’s iconic industry, and we will continue to work with our state and federal partners to make this happen as quickly as possible,” Maul said in a statement released by his agency.

About $129 million of the block-grant money is directed toward new trees, grove rehabilitation and irrigation-system repairs and replacements.

Another $182 million is directed toward future economic losses for growers who lost at least 40 percent of their crop production from Irma.

An estimated $29 million, subject to availability, will go to help growers meet crop-insurance purchase requirements for the 2022 and 2023 seasons.

The first crop estimate for the 2018-2019 season will be made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in just under a month.

In the 2017-2018 growing season, which ended in July, the state produced 34.7 percent fewer oranges and half the number of grapefruits compared to a year earlier.

Growers have battled for years with deadly citrus greening disease. But just as they thought they were making headway against the disease, the industry got smashed by the hurricane.

For the season, growers saw overall production at its lowest — 49.58 million 90-pound boxes, the industry standard — since the 1941-1942 growing season.

Grapefruit production, 3.88 million boxes, hit its lowest output since 1920.

Interim leader remains at OFR helm

Florida appears likely to end the year with an interim commissioner at the Office of Financial Regulation, leaving the future leadership of the agency to the next governor and state Cabinet. Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet in June appointed Deputy Commissioner Pam Epting to serve as interim commissioner.

That move came after former Commissioner Drew Breakspear resigned under pressure from state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. The Cabinet drew 58 applications for the commissioner’s job, and interviews were conducted with five applicants.

But Scott and the Cabinet have not named a commissioner.

Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam will leave office in January, with Patronis the only Cabinet member who could remain if he wins in the November election.

A web page advertising the commissioner position indicates the search is over.

“Sorry, this position has been filled,” the site says.

Scott and the Cabinet have only one scheduled meeting the rest of the year, with it slated to occur Dec. 4.

When asked about filling the position, Scott spokeswoman Ashley Cook on Friday replied with an email that said, “Pam Epting is still the interim commissioner. As you know, the Cabinet must vote to appoint a commissioner of OFR.”

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