Scott Powers, Author at Florida Politics

Scott Powers

Orlando is building the train station, not sure when or if trains will arrive

By the end of this year Orlando’s gleaming new $211 million train station should be virtually finished at Orlando International Airport, but it may be many years before trains start rolling in – if at all.

The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority is building a train station based on a vision of the future in which planes, trains, cars and buses all come together at what would be Florida’s tourism hub, with a people-mover tram connecting the station to the main air terminals, and a walkway to the next big air terminal GOAA plans to build next door. There also will be a new parking garage there.

In the vision, the planes would arrive from Sao Paulo, London, Frankfurt, New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles and elsewhere. The visitors move to the station from the main terminal on the people-mover trams, and then board high-speed trains for South Florida, commuter trains to downtown Orlando and the rest of the SunRail corridor, or light-rail trains to the Orange County Convention Center and the glittery hotels and attractions of International Drive. Or they get off those planes and trains and board buses or taxis, or rental cars, to explore the world’s tourism Mecca of Central Florida.

Construction of the station, known in transportation-jargon as the Orlando Intermodal Transportation Facility, began with contracts and promises for multiple trains and the kind of widespread civic support for which Orlando’s big projects are known.

“We’re moving along. We expect the project to be substantially complete,” GOAA Executive Director Phil Brown said of the train station, the parking garage and the people mover. “We’ll probably be operational in the fall of 2017.”

But trains never come easily for Orlando.

Brightline, formerly known as All Aboard Florida, just unveiled its first train set in West Palm Beach, with assurances that it and 15 others should start rolling, full of passengers, between there and Fort Lauderdale and Miami, by year’s end. Brightline has even begun test runs with the train, on 9 miles of test tracks. The stations there are nearly done. The tracks are nearly all ready. The marketing program is gearing up. Brightline secured $600 million in financing for it all.

The real draw of Brightline, though, may be its future connection from there to the Orlando Intermodal Transportation Facility at Orlando International Airport. With that, the state’s two biggest tourism centers could become an easy, two-day, two-attraction ticket. In addition to Orlando visitors heading south, South Florida visitors could head north.

There’s a place for Brightline at the Orlando Intermodal Transportation Facility.

Brightline has all the track corridor it needs from Palm Beach to Cocoa, has signed contracts with GOAA and the Central Florida Expressway Authority to obtain the corridors needed from there to the Orlando Intermodel Transportation Facility, and has spent at least $90 million on right of way. The company’s environmental impact statement is essentially done, and most of its permits are acquired. Planning, design and engineering work for the final track segments have begun.

Yet Brightline’s track from Palm Beach to Orlando is snarled in opposition and litigation. County and local leaders of Florida’s Treasure Coast want no part of being ride-over territory for trains traveling more than 100 mph through their scores of at-grade intersections and bridging their environmentally-sensitive rivers, canals and wetlands.

Last year Martin and Indian River counties sued in U.S. District Court and won some key preliminary decisions. Brightline’s financing was locked up. So, this past fall the company filed to split its funding plan, severing the $1 billion or so worth of tax-exempt bonds it needs for the controversial Orlando-Palm Beach portion from the rest, in case that portion never comes together. For the moment, that money is gone.

The lawsuit continues, as do other challenges, including to the environmental statement, and the permits Brightline has received from the South Florida Water Management District.

Brightline remains undaunted, though.

“We are committed to extending Brightline to Orlando, and we are exploring financing options for Phase 2,” spokeswoman Ali Soule said.

Initially, back when GOAA and All Aboard Florida reached their first agreements and the Orlando Intermodal Transportation Facility was green-lighted, the plan was for the first Brightline train to arrive at the airport this year. This year became the completion target for Orlando’s station.

Now, no specific timetables are being offered for the Brightline trains, not even ballparks, not even to GOAA officials.

The first rail of track has not been installed yet nor have any of the needed five bridges been built in the 38 miles between Cocoa and Orlando. The company also has to double-track the rest of the route, and the first rail of new track has not yet been laid, nor any of the 18 bridges upgraded, in the 129 miles between Cocoa and Palm Beach. All of that must be built after the lawsuits wrap up, and after new financing is secured.

“I think we anticipate there may be a delay from when we had originally anticipated they would be completed the same time we would be completed,” Brown said. “I don’t think that’s realistic now. But not having ever built a railroad, I wouldn’t want to suggest how they do that.”

Yet Brightline might wind up being the airport’s best train option for the foreseeable future.

The aviation authority, Orlando, Orange County, the Florida Department of Transportation, and the expressway authority also have been talking for years to a group including, at various times, the Spanish train company Globalvia, Florida EMMI LLC of Orlando, and American MagLev Technologies of Marietta, Georgia, for a magnetic-letivation train or, in more recent proposals, a light-rail train, to connect the airport with the Orange County Convention Center and International Drive.

There once was talk of the train starting service to the Orlando Intermodal Transportation Facility next year. But now GOAA officials are not looking for the proposed $560 million, private-planned, -financed, -developed and -operated train anytime soon.

“I don’t think the light rail project, if it goes forward, will be in there any sooner than 2021,” Brown said.

For now, there is disagreement about how welcome it is at the airport. GOAA officials don’t see the train as adding anything for the airport, only supplanting existing transportation: taxis, buses and rental cars. That trio provides significant fee revenue to the airport, so GOAA officials want the train companies to agree to replace those fees.

“They have issues with it, and they are contemplating how that works in with their feasibility,” Brown said.

American MagLev and EMMI already had negotiated a right of way lease along State Road 528 with the Florida Department of Transportation for just over 60 percent of the proposed corridor it needs. But the option has not been exercised and may be in trouble.

Tony Morris, president of American MagLev and manager of Florida EMMI, insisted in an email to that talks with the government agencies are ongoing and well, and he expects to wrap them up early this year.

“We spent all of 2015 and 2016 negotiating with the local stakeholders, for a project that we are paying 100 percent of the costs. That phase took two years longer than expected, but we think we are finishing that up now, hopefully in the next 60 days. When these agreements are done, we can then do the easy part, which is to build it,” Morris wrote. “The land is 100 percent in the public domain… This is a big advantage.”

The right of way lease option was to have expired at the beginning of this year because the companies had not met required conditions demanded by FDOT, and the department reluctantly extended it six months. But only six months. “No further extension will be granted,” FDOT Secretary Jim Boxold wrote earlier this month to Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, and GOAA Chairman Frank Kruppenbacher, who all are on the GOAA board.

Those Orlando-area leaders had advised Boxold, in December, that their talks with the company were leading to other potential alignments. Boxold responded sternly in his Jan. 3 letter, stating that fundamental changes in alignment would not be consistent with “the terms of the EMMI proposal or the negotiated escrowed lease.”

“If the proposal by EMMI to establish a maglev system along State Road 528 does not reach fruition, we will be happy to discuss other concepts you may have for establishing that connection,” Boxold advised the Orlando leaders.

Then there is SunRail, Orlando’s commuter train, run by the Florida Department of Transportation, which operates on a north-south line that runs from DeBary in Volusia County, through downtown Orlando, to Sand Lake Road in south Orange County.

The next phase is an extension of that line southward into Osceola County, through Kissimmee, to Poinciana. That leg is to be finished late this year. The next phase after that was to be an extension of the line northward to Deland, though that died with opposition from U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, whose district includes Deland.

The phase after that was to be a new line running eastward, to Orlando International Airport.

There’s a place for SunRail at the Orlando Intermodal Transportation Facility.

No firm plans, timetables or alignments ever have been announced, though.

The Florida Department of Transportation is still studying the prospect, and it has no federal funding, which was envisioned to pay for most of it. The region’s transportation planning agency, MetroPlan Orlando, now programs federal construction money for the airport SunRail line to become available no sooner than 2020. Another MetroPlan projection has the project completed in 2016, noting that $153 million of the estimated $195 million cost is unidentified.

“Currently, study continues to examine which modes of transport, from SunRail Phase 2 to the airport, would be most efficient, cost feasible, and would qualify to be federally funded in part, as well as meet the needs of the community,” FDOT District 5 public information specialist Jen Horton stated in an email. “Once that additional study/work is complete, the plan would be presented to the public in the form of a public hearing.”

The trains lost crucial support in Congress when two highly committed and active backers, U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville and John Mica of Winter Park, both lost re-election bids last year. Brown had served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, while Mica was a former chairman of that committee with considerable influence at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Both had close ties to both SunRail and Brightline.

In their place, newly-elected U.S. Rep. Brian Mast was given a seat on the transportation committee last week. Mast, a Republican whose Florida’s 18th Congressional District includes the Treasure Coast counties of Indian River and Martin, is “100 percent against” Brightline running through his district from Palm Beach to Orlando, said Mast’s communication director Brad Stewart.

Nonetheless, Orlando airport officials are pushing forward. They do have some financial security. Most of the station was paid for with state transportation grants, and they have a $10 million line of credit from Brightline, provided to help amortize the $52 million in bonds.

Though it is already clear the train station will open without trains, and may stay that way for years, it still will have some use, Phil Brown said.

“We will be using the people mover system … We’ll have a parking garage down there. That clearly will be operational as well, because we, on a regular basis in the last several months, we’ve had to shut down the structured parking at the airport because it’s full. We have a need for more parking,” he said.

CareerSource Florida narrows in on new president

CareerSource Florida, the corporation that serves as the state’s workforce preparation and placement agency, interviewed three finalists Friday to replace Chris Hart as president, including the agency’s current vice president of policy, Michelle Dennard.

Dennard, Mikkel Dixon, the executive director of Florida Career College in Margate; and Kyla Gutierrez-Guyette, the project director of ResCare Workforce Services in Orlando; all were interviewed by a committee of the CareerSource Board of Directors Friday. The committee members will submit their scoresheets to the agency’s chairman Britt Sikes Monday, and he will recommend the selection to Gov. Rick Scott.

The trio aims to replace Hart, who left at the beginning of this month to become the new chief executive officer of Enterprise Florida, the state-chartered corporation that acts as the state’s commerce agency.

Hart had been at CareerSource for nine years and when he left he commanded a salary of $260,000. The next president and chief executive officer of the organization will not come close to that, at least not anytime soon. The job was advertised as paying between $100,000 and $120,000 a year.

Dennard is a lawyer trained at Florida State University, with a background of having worked for both the Republican Party of Florida and in the governor’s office under both Charlie Crist and Scott. Under the governors’ office, she was a senior attorney with the Office of Tourism, Trade & Economic Development. She’s since been director of strategic business opportunity for Scott’s Department of Economic Opportunity, general counsel for Thinkspot, and, since 2014, vice president of policy and senior policy director for CareerSource.

Dixon, who holds a master’s degree in business management from West Texas A&M University, has been with private, for-profit career schools since 2009. That included tenures as a school executive for Keiser University in Fort Lauderdale and GlobalHealth Education in West Palm Beach, before moving on to Florida Career College. With that company, owned by International Education Corp. he has served in executive roles at campuses in Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale Lakes and, since 2015, in Margate. Last year the company ranked him its #1 executive in Florida for the first quarter of 2016.

Gutierrez-Guyette, who studied law at the University of Mississippi and completed a master’s degree in history from the University of South Alabama, was director of the Gulfport, Mississippi, Chamber of Commerce in the early years of the last decade. She has since held management and executive positions in workforce development agencies and private and nonprofit workforce development and management companies in Hawaii, Tennessee, and Florida. She’s been with ResCare in Orlando since 2013.

CareerSource Florida is the statewide workforce policy and investment board charged with guiding workforce development for the state of Florida. CareerSource Florida provides oversight and policy direction for talent development programs administered by the Department of Economic Opportunity, Florida’s 24 local workforce development boards and their 100 career centers. Together, the CareerSource Florida network connects employers with qualified, skilled talent and Floridians with employment and career development opportunities to achieve economic prosperity.

Surprise to Central Florida Expressway Authority: Tom Goodson wants it in Brevard

State Rep. Tom Goodson filed a bill Thursday to expand the Central Florida Expressway Authority into Brevard County, yet it seems no one on the expressway authority knows why.

Goodson filed House Bill 299, which would expand the authority’s realm from its current Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Lake counties base, eastward into the Space Coast county. The bill includes the addition of a board member appointed by the Brevard County Board of Commissioners chairman, and opens another spot for a possible gubernatorial appointment of a Brevard resident.

Neither Goodson, a Republican from Merritt Island in Brevard County, nor his office responded to inquiries from on Thursday.

But Authority spokesman Brian Hutchings said Thursday he is not aware of any plans for the expressway authority to extend its toll-road network into Brevard County. And he said he could find no one on the Authority who is aware of why Goodson would introduce a bill to expand it there.

“It’s the first we’ve seen of that,” Hutchings said after checking on HB 299. “Our board members have not been briefed or anything.”

The expressway authority operates 109 miles of toll roads, mostly expressways, in Lake, Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. The closest it comes to Brevard County is the Beachline Expressway, State Road 528. The Authority operates that toll road only as far as the interchange with State Road 520, about four miles west of the Brevard line. There are some long-term plans regarding extending the authority’s East-West Expressway, State Road 408, further east from where it ends. But that plan currently doesn’t propose taking it east of S.R. 520 either.

The Central Florida Expressway Authority board currently has nine members, including three appointed by the governor, the mayor of Orlando, the mayor of Orange County, and one county commissioner each from the four counties in the system.

Goodson’s bill would expand the board to ten members.


SpaceX to reopen legendary Kennedy launch site

Kennedy Space Center is getting back in the rocket business, now that SpaceX is back in business.

SpaceX is planning to launch its next rockets in the next few weeks from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A . They will be the first rockets to blast off from Kennedy Space Center since the space shuttle program was shut down more than five years ago.

NASA announced Thursday that the company will launch another cargo load to the International Space Station on a Falcon 9 rocket, sometime in February, from Launch Complex 39A. The exact date has not been set.

But that won’t even be the first. SpaceX also is planning a private launch from the site before then, though the company has not announced any details on the exact date or customer. The company is in line to lift two different commercial satellite missions  into space this winter, for the Luxembourg SES-10 satellite, and for the Brazilian EchoStar satellite.

Whichever, it’ll be SpaceX’s first rocket launch from anywhere in Florida since the last Falcon 9 blew up on a launch pad at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in August, though SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from California last weekend.

The location of the next blasts-off – 39A – signals both that SpaceX is back in business launching from Florida, and Kennedy Space Center is finally back in business hosting rocket launches.

Neither NASA nor SpaceX is saying much yet about the grand reopening though.

Launch Complex 39A is legendary. It’s where about half of the Saturn V rockets carrying Apollo launches, including the Apollo 11 moon mission of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins began. It’s where most of the space shuttles were launched. And almost all NASA missions in between. But NASA hasn’t used the pad since Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off on its final mission, July 8, 2011.

SpaceX signed a 20-year lease in 2014 with NASA to take over the complex and rebuild it to support the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy rockets, including those that will carry astronauts into space in the company’s Dragon Crew capsule. SpaceX and has been pouring tens of millions of dollars into rebuilding the complex. Still many of the historic structures where Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and other historic NASA astronauts walked remain in tact.

SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral AFS launch site, Launch Complex 40, was heavily damaged when a Falcon 9 rocket blew up on the pad on Sept. 2. A few weeks ago SpaceX announced it had identified and resolved the issues, and last weekend launched its first rocket since, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. SpaceX had announced earlier in 2016 that it was essentially done rebidding 39A, except for some fine-tuning for the astronaut program, and there had been widespread speculation after the Sept. 2 disaster that it might switch to that site with its return to space.

Launch Complex 39A has a twin, 39B, which has not been used since 2009. NASA is rebuilding that to handle its next big rocket, the Space Launch System. Launch Complex 39B  likely won’t be used before 2018.

NASA has no other active launch sites at Kennedy. So, since Atlantis went up its final time, the federal, civilian space agency has launched all its Florida-based missions, whether on SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK, or other rockets, from Cape Canaveral AFS, just over the fence from Kennedy. All military and commercial launches also have gone up from Cape Canaveral AFS.

Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, push their ‘parent penalty’ tax reform issue with leadership

Contending that parents are double-taxed for children, Florida’s U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah’s Mike Lee are again pushing a plan to eliminate the so-called “parent penalty” in tax reform, with a letter to leaders of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

“Our tax code today treats parents unfairly. The payroll taxes that help pay for federal retirement benefits fall on American parents who simultaneously bear the financial cost of raising their children, the next generation of workers whose paychecks will be taxed to fund federal retirement benefits. This function of the tax code creates an implicit ‘parent tax penalty’ – in effect, a tax bias against parents,” Lee and Rubio, both Republicans, argue in a letter they sent Wednesday to the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Committee on Finance and the House Committee on Ways and Means.

The issue is one Rubio and Lee have pushed before, with a bill introduced in the last session of Congress. That measure sought to address what Rubio and Lee say is a double taxation parents pay, through the income tax and the payroll tax, while only get tax relief for children on the income tax side.

The bill would add an additional $2,500 tax credit per child. Critics, such as the moderately-liberal Brookings Institute, have argued that the notion of a “parent tax penalty” ignores the government benefits that the taxes support for children, including public education, that have no direct benefit to childless taxpayers.

Rubio and Lee suggest they see an opening and support for their proposal in the 115th Congress and in President Donald Trump.

“We have long advocated for reducing the burden of double taxation and freeing private-sector investment from tax penalties through full expensing, and we are glad to see House Republicans share these priorities,” they write.

“Of course, tax reform should not only reduce the burdens that businesses face, but also do the same for working families. Families are the building blocks of our country, the fundamental units of society, and vital to passing down our values from generation to generation. Strong families are also incubators of economic opportunity, financial security, and generate the social capital upon which our free enterprise economy and constitutional republic depend.

With this in mind, it is concerning that our tax code today treats parents unfairly. The payroll taxes that help pay for federal retirement benefits fall on American parents who simultaneously bear the financial cost of raising their children, the next generation of workers whose paychecks will be taxed to fund federal retirement benefits. This function of the tax code creates an implicit “parent tax penalty” – in effect, a tax bias against parents.

“President-elect Trump recognizes this problem, saying that “very little meaningful policy work has been done” to help parents afford the costs of raising children. In 2016, we proposed correcting this inequity with a larger child tax credit, applicable to both income and payroll taxes,” they write.

Bill Nelson to help lead new Senate panel on cybersecurity

The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee has created a new standing subcommittee on cybersecurity and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson will be the ranking Democrat to help lead it.

Little else is determined at this point. U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, chair of the Armed Service Committee, announced the panel’s creation Wednesday afternoon and appointed U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, as chairman. Nelson, Florida’s Democratic senator, was appointed as ranking member.

The rest of the committee will be filled out and its purposes and schedule set as Rounds and Nelson work that out.

Nelson, a former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, noted, in a news release, that the new subcommittee is being formed in the wake of Russia’s alleged cyber interference in the 2016 presidential campaigns.

In addition to ensuring the proper policies, strategies and resources are in place to defend the country in cyberspace, the new subcommittee will hold the administration accountable if they fail to adequately respond to a future attack,” Nelson stated.

“You can’t just sit on your hands and do nothing,” Nelson said. “If we’re going to deter our enemies from attacking us, we have to make it painfully obvious that the consequences are going to be so severe that they won’t want to do it in the first place.”

David Simmons weighing Florida attorney general, congressional runs

While giving his blessing to state Rep. Jason Brodeur to run for his current post, state Sen. David Simmons says he’s weighing his options to go after the Florida attorney general’s post, Florida’s 7th Congressional District seat, which Democrats just flipped, or staying full-time with his growing law firm.

The attorney general option could come sooner rather than later, as Attorney General Pam Bondi is widely reported to be in the running for a position in President-elect Donald Trump‘s administration.

If Bondi leaves, Gov. Rick Scott would be appointing a successor. If she stays, she’ll be term-limited out in 2018, the same year that U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy comes up for her first re-election bid in CD 7, a seat Republicans had held for generations before her arrival. Simmons said it was premature to say if he has spoken to Scott about the prospect of being appointed as attorney general.

One way or the other, Simmons, a Longwood Republican, leaves by 2020, when he term-limits out. That’s the year for which Brodeur, a Sanford Republican, announced he was filing to run to succeed Simmons in Florida Senate District 9, which covers Seminole County.

“I am looking at my options,” Simmons told

“I know that in 2018 the attorney general position will be open, and maybe earlier. And so, at this point in time, we’ll see what happens,” Simmons said. “And then of course, with the events that occurred in Nov. 2016, I believe that there is a need to have a Republican who represents Congressional District 7. And so I’ll look at option as well. When it gets to be 2020, or 2018 — you know how politics is volatile that we don’t’ know what’s going to happen, and who is going to be running for what positions — predicting what is going on is a very difficult thing.”

Becoming just a private attorney with de Beaubien Simmons Knight Mantzaris & Neal also is attractive, he added. That firm, now using the logo DSK Law, has been growing rapidly and now has 50 lawyers and a full-spectrum practice, headquartered in Orlando with offices in Tampa and Tallahassee. Simmons is the financial managing partner, and practices large commercial litigation trial law.

Simmons first entered the Florida House in 2000 and was elected to four terms. He ran and was elected to the Senate in 2010.

The state attorney general’s prospect appears to be leading his current interests. Simmons said he and Bondi are close friends, and was hesitant to speculate about whether she would leave early, or — out of respect — whether he already was posturing to replace her.

Yet Brodeur’s relatively early announcement of interest in Simmons seat may signal that at least Brodeur anticipates that Simmons’ seat might open up soon.

“Certainly I am very interested in the attorney general’s position,” Simmons said.

“I am an attorney who has been involved in the practice of law, has three board certifications, all of them relating to the active practice of law, and having been now the Legislature and the Senate, and having been actively involved in many major issues.”

Simmons said he supports Brodeur to replace him.


Daniel Webster: Congress will not pull rug out on health care coverage

Whether or not congressional Republicans have a plan to replace Obamacare they are beginning to respond to voters concerns about lost coverage, and U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster has told his that “we do not intend to pull the rug out.”

In his newsletter to constituents of Florida’s 11th Congressional District, which includes much of Lake County and north Central Florida to the Gulf Coast, Webster pressed his assurances that the Affordable Care Act could be replaced.

He also made clear the laundry list of concerns that he and many other Republicans have been trying to raise for seven years, with a survey for his constituents, seeking responses.

“The House is working on a plan to provide Americans with the care they need, from the doctor they choose, at a price they can afford. We do not intend to pull the rug of coverage and care out from underneath anyone,” Webster insisted in a newsletter he sent out Tuesday night.

He asked voters to respond to him if they have experienced any of the following:

– An increase in premium costs.

– Lost health care coverage or reduction in plan benefits.

– Denied opportunity to get care from the doctor of choice.

– Increase in out of pocket expenses.

– Cut in work hours because an employer couldn’t afford to provide healthcare.

– The need to get a second or third job because work hours were cut.

– The need to adjust hiring practices because of the 30 hour “full time” standard.

He did not ask any constituents to respond about any potential positives in the ACA, such as if they were able to afford health care coverage for the first time, or if their Obamacare plan had provided them with valuable health care coverage they would not have had before the law was enacted.

High tech money, septic tanks, HIV funding, duck hunting: no shortage of needs as Orange County lawmakers listen

It was like meeting with Santa Claus in January as Central Florida political officials, lobbyists, activists and a few ordinary citizens lined up in downtown Orlando Tuesday afternoon to tell Orange County’s state lawmakers what they want in the upcoming Florida Legislative Session.

Eighteen million dollars for Osceola County’s high tech advanced research manufacturing center. Fifty-five million to take a newly-developed approach to treating septic tank sewage that’s polluting rivers, estuaries and groundwater. Three and a half million to support pre-K programs. Local abilities to ban medical marijuana dispensaries in cities and towns. A ban on duck hunting in the Lake Conway chain of lakes. HIV funding. No guns on campuses.

There may have been only a few surprises for the 12 members of Orange County’s Legislative Delegation as they sat through at least three hours Tuesday of citizen input, delivered in two-minute presentations, as many of the big ticket items were matters already widely discussed and lobbied.

One of the more discussed requests came from Dr. Kevin Sharin, county health department director for the Florida Department of Health, whose two-minute presentation turned into almost 10 minutes as the delegates pushed for more information on his requests. Speaking for the state department he pushed for money to hire 23 epidemiologists and other upgrades from $4.9 million to upgrade computer bandwidth, to statewide funding to address HIV. Florida, he said, has the fifth-highest HIV transmission rate in the United States, and Orange County has the third-highest rate in Florida.

Under further questioning, particularly from state Reps. Kamia Brown, Carlos Guillermo Smith, and Amy Mercado, Sharin delved deeper into the local need.

“Can you tell me how does the funding for Orange County specifically compare to other counties our size?” Mercado asked.

“We’re dead last,” Sharin responded.

But duck hunting?

According to Lydia Pisano, mayor of the tiny suburb of Belle Isle, it has become a big problem for many residents crowding the lake shores, and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission has declined to address it.

“We have a huge safety issue,” she told the delegation, imploring them to declare the lakes a bird sanitary. “We are not trying to hinder anybody’s hunting rights or gun rights. We want safety. Our residents are out on their docks early in the morning, with their kids fishing.

“We need to put a stop to it,” she said of the duck hunting.

The meeting reflected the recent flip in control of the delegation.

State Reps. Mike Miller and Jennifer Sullivan, both Republicans, ran the meeting as chair and co-chair. Democrats state Sen. Victor Torres, Brown and state Sen. Linda Stewart were elected chair, vice chair and secretary for the next year.

Luis Gutiérrez: Puerto Rican prisoner Oscar López Rivera to be freed

Longtime Puerto Rican prisoner Oscar López Rivera — known as a political prisoner to his supporters and as a convicted member of a murderous terrorist organization to his foes — is being freed under a clemency granted by President Barack Obama, according to one key lawmaker

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat who has campaigned for Lopez’s freedom including in a stop in Orlando last year, announced Tuesday that he had been informed Obama is granting clemency. López is from Chicago.

The White House has not yet announced that Obama has granted clemency for López.

López has been in federal prison for more than 35 years after being convicted in 1981 for his participation in the Puerto Rican independence group FALN. He was convicted of seditious conspiracy, use of force to commit robbery, interstate transportation of firearms and ammunition to aid in the commission of a felony, and interstate transportation of stolen vehicles. He was sentenced to 55 years.

López turned 74 last week.

His cause has been taken up by a wide range of politicians who, like Gutiérrez, believe he is being held as a political prisoner of Puerto Rican independence, sentenced and serving far longer than would be justified by the actual crimes for which he was convicted. His has been an issue for much of the Puerto Rican community in particular; many of them consider him a freedom fighter, not a terrorist.

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat of Puerto Rican heritage, is among those who have been urging Obama to grant him clemency or an unconditional pardon.

“We want to congratulate Oscar Lopez Rivera on his new freedom coming up in May and appreciate his long-term fight for Puerto Ricans,” Soto said. “We also want to thank President Barack Obama for doing the right thing.”

Another Orlando supporter, Phillip Arroyo, a Democratic activist who petitioned the White House on behalf of his group, Coalition for Puerto Rico Justice, for Lopez’s release, called it a very emotional day.

“We did it!” Arroyo said. “Oscar will go down in history as Puerto Rico’s version of Nelson Mandela. As a Puerto Rican who worked at the White House, I am so proud of President Obama who has once again showed his compassion and his courage to stand up for justice. Oscar will soon be back in our homeland of Puerto Rico, where he rightfully belongs.”

More than 108,000 people who signed an online petition calling for López’s release.

Gutiérrez office announced late Tuesday afternoon that it had received word from the White House that López will be released unconditionally after 120 more days in prison. The clemency not only releases him but wipes clean his record of convictions.

“I am overjoyed and overwhelmed with emotion,” Gutiérrez declared in a statement. “Oscar is a friend, a mentor, and family to me and he and his brother José have been friends and mentors for my entire adult life. There were times when hope was hard to find but my wife Soraida always had faith that this day would come.  Now it is clear that Oscar will rejoin his family and be able to walk free among the Puerto Rican people.”

López is a cause célèbre in the Puerto Rican diaspora in Florida and throughout the United States, and for residents of Puerto Rico.

His support extends from the capitol of Puerto Rico, where Gov. Alejandro García Padilla; Gov.-elect Ricardo Rossell, and Secretary of Justice César Miranda all have written and called for his release; to the halls of Congress, where López has near-universal support among the Hispanic Caucus members.

The support goes well beyond the Puerto Rican community to include Jimmy Carter, who was president during most of López’s alleged crimes, and who last month called for Obama to release him; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who made a similar call; the New York City Council, which pass a resolution in 2015 calling for his immediately release; the late Coretta Scott King, who backed his release before her 2006 death; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the presidents of the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and SEIU; the United Church of Christ; the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda; the Latino Victory Project, the ACLU, and several international human rights organizations, though not including Amnesty International.

A decorated Vietnam War Army veteran who lived much of his pre-prison life in Chicago, López was an acknowledged member and alleged leader in the 1970s and early ’80s of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or the FALN. The armed, Marxist-leaning, Puerto Rican nationalist group was linked to a number of bombings, shootings, robberies and other violent acts in Puerto Rico and stateside, acts which federal authorities labeled as a terrorist. The 1975 bombing of the Fraunces Tavern in New York City, claimed by FALN as a retaliatory act, killed four people and injured 60. There were other deaths and injuries in other incidents.

While he was not convicted of any charges directly linking him to any of the FALN’s more notorious attacks, prosecutors and the FBI had characterized Lopez as a leader, trainer and bomb maker for the group.

He also was convicted in 1988 of conspiring with others for a prison break, allegedly to be done with smuggled-in weapons, grenades and explosives. The escape attempt never went forward. He got another 15 years.

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