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Scott Powers

Committee rejects bill that would stop future express lanes

A bill seeking to end Florida’s practice of developing tolled express lanes was rejected Tuesday by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee.

Various members of the committee cited a number of reasons why they would not want to see Florida stop developing special lanes that could give higher-speed options through typically congested areas to high-occupancy cars or drivers willing to pay tolls for that privilege, and House Bill 777 went down.

Part of the debate centered on those who believe such tolled specialty lanes — dubbed HOT lanes, express lanes or Lexus lanes — are the only practical way to add capacity to crowded expressways, versus those who see them as unfair.

But sponsor Democratic state Rep. Matt Willhite of West Palm Beach argued that his bill was a safety measure, citing accident statistics and anecdotes suggesting that they’re a public safety hazard, more trouble than they’re worth.

In making his last pitch, Willhite asked for support, “as we try to move forward, to try to make some measures, make more safety, more concerns at work, and to save our visitors and our residents from the added costs of these roads.”

The bill went down 6-8.

The bill brought particular concerns from areas counting on express lanes to relieve congestion. Republican state Rep. Mike Miller of Winter Park opposed it because he was not convinced by Willhite’s soft assurance that projects already under construction, such as the Ultimate I-4 Makeover through Orlando, would be exempted from the ban. That $2 billion project includes the addition of express lanes through much of the Orlando area to provide quicker transits for people willing to pay tolls on what otherwise is a freeway.

“I do think the Ultimate I-4 project is critical to Central Florida,” he said.

On the other hand, Democratic state Rep. Barbara Watson of Miami Gardens decried the lanes’ economic unfairness in arguing for the bill.

“I’ve heard some of my colleagues this morning refer to this as ‘HOT lanes.’ But on my side of the county refer to it as the ‘Lexus lanes.'” Watson said. “If you don’t have the resources you certainly are caught in traffic. It speeds along individuals who simply have the resources to move, but not necessarily allowing those who are in the traditional lanes to be able to advance.”

Telecom companies get committee nod for deregulation of 5G towers

A bill that would essentially ban Florida cities and counties from regulating the locations or appearances of the next generation technology cell phone towers was approved by a Florida House committee Monday afternoon, but with some expectations that key provisions may be renegotiated.

With backers contending that Florida needs to allow swift installation of 5G technology cell phone infrastructure to compete nationally and serve residents and businesses of the state, yet facing unified opposition from cities and counties, House Bill 596 won a split-vote approval from the Florida Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee.

“We are trying to be on the forefront of bringing 5G to the state of Florida,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Travis Hutson of Palm Coast. “In order to expedite 5G, this bill would streamline that process. Small cells are the building blocks of 5G in Florida, and not only would we stay connected to the internet, it will help cities save energy, decrease traffic congestion, lower fuel costs and help with all our first responders with regard to public safety.”

The “Advanced Wireless Infrastructure Deployment Act” would allow communication companies to select locations in public right-of-way and install the towers, typically 60 feet tall or shorter, for 5G, with little local governments having little oversight or authority to say no. The telecom companies could pay the local government no more than $15 a year in fees. Local governments may apply building, electrical and similar codes to the installation of 5G towers, but the bill would prohibit cities or counties from using zoning, land use, aesthetic ordinances, and of any other source of public safety protections. And the local governments would have to streamline their approval process for the building and electrical codes.

There are exceptions. One covers planned communities such as The Villages backed and got approval from the committee for an amendment that carves them out of the ban, allowing them to regulate where the poles could go and what they could look like.

Democratic state Sen. Kevin Rader of Boca Raton unsuccessfully pushed for a similar carve-out for cities and counties. “I think that cities and counties should have an ability of home rule in deciding what they want to do, what they want to put up, just as The Villages has the ability of doing that in their community,” Rader said.

Rader said he spoke with Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler who said his city has spent nearly a year negotiating an agreement with 5G companies, and that such agreements, and cities’ desires to regulate their aesthetics, would be lost as the bill is written.

“I think every city and county in the state is against this,” Rader said.

That appeared to be the case, as representatives of the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Counties and number and numerous individual counties and cities, including Orlando, offered the committee their opposition Monday, arguing that the bill could hamper efforts to beautify their communities.

Numerous business groups came out in support, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and several telecom companies.

“What I’m here to talk about is design,” said Douglas Metzger, a downtown planner for the city of Orlando who spoke in opposition. “This bill has nothing in it about design or location and that will hurt our communities…. This will allow four consecutive wood poles, 60 feet tall, in our downtown areas, in right-of-ways where we have invested millions of dollars.”

Democratic State Sen. Linda Stewart said she hoped that Hutson would make changes in the bill before it goes to the Senate Floor, and then joined most other committee members voting for it. Moments after the vote, she could be heard in a Florida Channel webcast of the meeting saying into an open mic, “He promised he was going to change it. Sen. Hutson.” In a text exchange with FloridaPolitics.com, she wrote, “I like to give people a chance to change the bill, as I stated.”

Pulse anniversary memorials set; Orlando calling for ‘acts of love and kindness’

The anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre is being declared as “Orlando United Day – A Day of Love and Kindness and will feature several memorial and commemorative events around Orlando and a call for all to join in acts of love and kindness.

The city and Orange County jointly announced Monday that the first anniversary of the tragic mass shooting – in which madman Omar Mateen killed 49 and wounded 53 – will feature at least four public events, including two held at Pulse, which remains boarded up as a shrine on south Orange Avenue.

In partnership with the One Orlando Alliance, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs are encouraging residents and businesses both locally and around the world to join with others in acts of love and kindness to continue the unity that followed the tragedy, according to a news release issued Monday by Dyer’s and Jacobs’ offices.

The One Orlando Alliance has launched a website, Orlando United Day, with a list of various potential acts of love and kindness for the local community.

The official website will provide information and updates also includes a link to the One Orlando Alliance page, and is available in both English and Spanish.

Currently it features a video in which Dyer and Jacobs lay out their feelings and the need for Orlando United Day.

“Our community will never forget the tragedy of pulse, or the grief of those who last loved ones, from heartbroken family and friends, to survivors putting shattered lives back together,” Dyer said. “Our community stands with you.”

“As we prepare for the anniversary of Pulse, the world is working to honor and remember the lives we lost,” Jacobs said. “Through a day of love and kindness, dedicated to the legacy of those who perished, we will continue to cherish their memories.”

Among events already planned for June 12:

– The Orange County History Center, archive for the outpouring of memorials following the Pulse massacre, will host an expanded One Orlando Collection and Digital Gallery from 10 a.m. to y p.m.

– The Orange County Administration Center will re-display a portion of the Sea-to-Sea Rainbow Flag, which was originally went up on the building on June 17.

– The Pulse Nightclub will host an event of reflections and remembrance from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

– The Lake Eola Park Amphitheater will host a one-year remembrance ceremony at 7 p.m.

– Pulse will host moments of hope and healing from 10 p.m. to midnight.

Proposed cuts to colleges and universities unveiled by house committee chair

After weeks of testimony before his committee on various college and university budget requests, Chairman Larry Ahern of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education Appropriations laid out his proposals Monday to slash Bright Futures money, financial reserves, university support for private organizations, and non-recurring programs, including Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center.

Ahern, a Republican state representative from Seminole, proposed cutting more than $164 million overall in non-recurring money for the state’s college and university systems in efforts to bring growth of that system in line with other state-funded agencies and programs. The cuts essentially return Florida’s higher education budget to its 2014-15 levels, though much of how that is done means some programs get more, while others get a lot less.

“In the Appropriations Committee we spent a meeting exploring the growth in higher education funding over the last ten years, when it had grown exponentially faster than the rest of the state budget, with the exception of Medicaid funding,” Ahern said.

The proposals drew only a few questions and no debate yet from the subcommittee members.

First to be cut were funds that shouldn’t affect college or university operations, unless there is a dramatic downturn in the economy or some other calamity. Ahern proposed sheering the systems’ reserve funds back to the state required 5 percent minimum. That resulted in big reductions: $120 million less in cash for the university system, and $62 million less for the college system.

Another big cut that may have limited effect is a $11.5 million reduction in the Bright Futures program; that is based on the estimating conference’s enrollment reduction projections.

After that, he went after proposed projects, recommending funding for some, but recommending cuts for others, such as  the University of Central Florida’s partnership support for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

He also proposed cutting $10 million to help UCF and the University of South Florida in their quest to become preeminent State Research Universities, joining the University of Florida and Florida State University at that level. And for community colleges, he proposed cutting $2.4 million in funding for the Aspen College Awards and $2 million for distinguished colleges funding.

UCF was planning on providing $3.9 million to Dr. Phillips in exchange for hosting the  UCF Celebration Of The Arts downtown, and for other arts partnerships with the Orlando-run arts center. That money is gone in Ahern’s proposed higher education budget. So is $5 million the University of West Florida expected to help the Office of Economic Development and Engagement, $2.5 million, as well as $2 million UWF was counting on for a physician as stance program and a mechanical engineering program. UCF also was counting on $2.5 million for an Istation literary development tracking program; Florida Atlantic University wanted $2.2 million for participation on the Florida Energy Consortium; Florida State University was looking for $1 million ifor a mental health early screening program; the University of South Florida was seeking $850,000 for a cyber security initiative. Florida Gulf Coast University was seeking $750,000 from in academic and career attainment funding. All cut in Ahern’s proposal.

At community colleges, Gulf Coast State College sees a $2.4 million cut in operational support; Pasco-Hernando State College would lose $2.3 million for a STEM program; Polk State College would lose $1.5 million intended for expansion of its art program; Eastern Florida State College would lose $1 million for its critical evaluation learning management system and curriculum.

And some private colleges would see some state money vanish in Ahern’s proposal. That includes $3.5 million envisioned for a medical training and simulation lab at the University of Miami; $3 million to support Embry-Riddle Aerospace Academy; $2 million to support Bethune Cookman University’s small, women and minoirty-owned businesses program; and $1.7 million expected by the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic medicine/Florida.

There were some winners in the proposal. UCF’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinic for Florida veterans and first responders gets $2 million; UF’s Institute for Comparative Veterinary Diagnostics gets $1.5 million; so does the DaVinci Literary Center at Stetson University; and $1 million apiece for two Florida International University programs, for hazardous substance mitigation, and for population health science research.

“I recognize that reducing a budget is never an easy thing to do,” Ahern said. “However, compared to other areas of the state, higher education was due for an adjustment. That will allow for funding other areas of need in the state.”

 

Bill Nelson to vote no on Neil Gorsuch

Bill Nelson ended any suspense there may have been regarding his views of President Donald Trump‘s first Supreme Court nominee.

Florida’s Democratic senator intends to vote no on the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch.

Nelson also announced Monday he also would support a Democratic filibuster, by voting against likely Republican efforts to invoke cloture to prevent a filibuster. If a Republican-led closure procedure wins, Nelson said he will vote no on Gorsuch’s confirmation.

Nelson cited Gorsuch’s own testimony and record, making no references to Democrats’ beef that Republicans refused all last year to hold hearings on the nomination of then-President Barack Obama‘s last Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland‎. Gorsuch now is up for that same seat.

“Deciding whether to confirm a president’s nominee for the highest court in the land is a responsibility I take very seriously,” Nelson stated in a news release issued Monday afternoon by his office. “Over the past few weeks, I have met with Judge Gorsuch, listened to the Judiciary Committee’s hearings and reviewed his record with an open mind.

“I have real concerns with his thinking on protecting the right to vote and allowing unlimited money in political campaigns. In addition, the judge has consistently sided with corporations over employees, as in the case of a freezing truck driver who, contrary to common sense, Judge Gorsuch would have allowed to be fired for abandoning his disabled rig during extreme weather conditions,” Nelson added.

 

Lois Frankel, Palm Beach officials asking for federal help for police overtime, protests, cyber security

Palm Beach County’s challenges with hosting the “Winter White House” begin with police and firefighter overtime but also include such needs as tighter cyber security, officials said Monday morning.

As a result, Democratic U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach is sending a letter today to the White House asking for increased compensation for the local governments’ costs in helping secure Mar-a-Lago. Her letter was co-signed by fellow Democratic U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton and Alcee Hastings of Miramar.

Joined by West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio and Palm Beach County Assistant Administrator Jon Van Arnam, Frankel layer out costs that start with $70,000 for the county and $35,000 for the city each day in extra police, sheriff and firefighter duty and then go on to include increased security for everything from water supplies to municipal computer systems.

‘We understand why the president wants to be here. We understand that. This is paradise, right?’ Frankel said. “But what were asking for is reimbursement for this county and the city.”

Someone is trying to hack West Palm Beach city’s computers, Muoio said. The city is working with the FBI to try to figure out who and why, but now expects to spend $400,000 to upgrade information technology security. She also said the city is looking at spending up to $4 million for additional equipment and staff, particularly since the president’s presence heighten terrorist risks, what she referred to as “critical threats.”

Van Arnam praised the six-member bipartisan congressional delegation, also including Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Mast of Palm City and U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, for working with the White House to try to get reimbursements.

“The reality is that these are federal expenses that local taxpayers are burdened with,” Van Arnam said.

Florida Congress members react to GOP health care plan defeat

As U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was gathering his conference and then announcing the failure of the Republican health care plan, many Florida Democrats were swiftly calling for bipartisan work to improve the Affordable Care Act instead.

Republicans who opposed the bill also responded swiftly, calling for a better bill to be crafted, and some even called for some bipartisan work but showed  no interest in using the Democrats’ Affordable Care Act as a starting point.

Many Florida Democrats, recognizing the ACA remains in trouble as is, are acknowledging the concerns, and offering to work across the aisle on it – after criticizing the Republican bill.

“This is a win for the American people,” stated Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg. “It was a bad bill, plain and simple. It would have harmed our seniors, and particularly those who often don’t have a voice in the debate – ‘the least among us’ if you will, the poor and the disabled. We have the opportunity now to drop the rhetoric, roll up our sleeves, and work together to fix what needs fixing to bring down costs, expand access, and protect the most vulnerable in our society. I’m an optimist, this was a teachable moment, and I think the lesson will be learned. Work together, put people above politics.”

Others were taking the same tack.

“I believe every American should have access to quality, affordable health care, which is why I’m pleased House leadership pulled this bill from consideration,” stated Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park. We must reform the Affordable Care Act, but it should be done in a transparent, bipartisan way that lowers costs and strengthens coverage for all.”

“What we must do now is come together to work to improve the Affordable Care Act,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee said in a statement. “It took us centuries to get to where we are now with our health care, and we’ve already helped 20 million people get the health care they need. Let’s improve the ACA to see how we can help even more people get the health care they need and deserve.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor also called for some bipartisan work, just not on ObamaCare.

“My main concern has been, and will continue to be, making sure my constituents have access to the best possible health care,” he stated. “Our efforts do not stop here to ensure our nation’s health care system is stronger, more affordable, and truly patient-centered. That is my goal, and I will keep working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to accomplish it.”

Others, though, suggested bipartisan efforts as unlikely, giving no quarter for the ACA. U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, was the first Florida Republican to jump in, showing that the GOP bill’s opponents on the right could be just as critical of it as Democrats, without being less critical of ObamaCare.

“The House health care bill is a flawed piece of legislation produced by a hasty process and it shows: by leaving the core architecture of ObamaCare in place, it does very little to address the core problems of rising health insurance premiums and lack of consumer choice that have harmed so many Americans,” DeSantis declared. “In fact, it very well may have caused insurance premiums to increase 15-20 percent over and above the anticipated ObamaCare increases over the next several years, which is unacceptable.”

“There was no reason to rush this bill through the House to begin with,” DeSantis added. “Congress should take its time and pass a good bill that actually repeals ObamaCare, puts a downward pressure on insurance premiums and expands competition in the marketplace. Failure is not an option.”

Representative U.S. Rep. Dan Webster of Clermont had a similar response.

“For six years, I have advocated for repealing the [un]Affordable Care Act and replacing it with real healthcare reform. Obamacare is collapsing across the country – currently 4.7 million people are without an insurer. This failed policy is raising costs for patients and forcing insurers out of the marketplace, which leaves patients and families with nowhere to go,” Webster predicted.

“As I have said, I have concerns with the bill that was to come up for a vote today. In particular, it does not provide the dollars needed for the Medicaid-funded nursing home beds that many of our seniors rely on. I have expressed these concerns to House leadership and the administration,” Webster added.

“It is my hope that House and Senate leadership and the administration will work together and bring to the floor the conservative, common-sense healthcare reform that Americans deserve,” Webster concluded.

Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz blasted Republicans in the House of Representatives for letting down Trump and the American people.

“We did so in the most cowardly, craven way possible — by failing to vote on the repeal of Obamacare. I share the frustration and disappointment of Northwest Floridians who expected and deserved action. We should know who was willing to stand with President Trump and who wasn’t. Now we never will,” Gaetz said in a statement.

He promised not to give up, pledging, “In the weeks and months ahead the Republican party must demonstrate the competence to govern. It is possible.

“I plan to redouble my efforts to bring a renewed sense of urgency to this corrupt and disconnected town. In the face of this setback, we need bold, conservative reform more than ever. The fate of our nation is at stake,” Gaetz concluded.

U.S. Rep. John Rutherford of Jacksonville saw repeal of ObamaCare as the first priority, but without the criticism of Congress.

“Maintaining a status quo is not an option. There is a widespread consensus that President Obama’s signature health care law is broken and unsustainable. I remain committed to repealing and replacing Obamacare to improve and protect Americans’ access to quality, affordable health coverage.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Mast of Palm City focused on how ObamaCare remains a problem. And he use his Army experience to say, essentially, that the war is not over with the first shot.

“I’ve heard over and over again about the incredible burden that ObamaCare has placed on 18th District families. Because of Obamacare, two of our counties now have only one insurer on the individual exchange, while premiums and deductibles have become beyond unaffordable.

“Our broken healthcare system will not be fixed overnight,” Mast said. As I have said from the beginning, the only way we can fix the failures of ObamaCare is through a fully transparent process that engages voices all across the country. Moving forward, I hope my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will join me in working to improve our nation’s healthcare system to ensure that everyone has the liberty to choose the health care that is best for their life.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn of Panama City also focused on his desire to replace ObamaCare.

“Obamacare will continue to harm Americans with higher costs, lost coverage, and fewer choices. That’s unacceptable,” Dunn stated. “We were sent here with orders to end this law and replace it with a patient-centered approach that actually lowers the cost of care. Today’s events will not deter or discourage us from honoring the commitment we made to the voters that elected us.”

Some Democrats gave no quarter on the ACA either, praising it while offering harsh criticism of the American Health Care Act plan that Ryan and President Donald Trump had pushed through to a vote, only to see Ryan pull it at the last moment when its death on the floor was inevitable.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston suggested the Republicans should be thinking about reaching out to the Democrats now.

“America’s seniors, women, children and families scored a major victory today. Trumpcare was a horrible bill from the start, and was only made worse the more it was amended. The lack of transparency, hearings and proper vetting was appalling. President Trump obviously didn’t do his homework, and Republicans are clearly at war with themselves. This defeat was earned and well deserved,” Wasserman Schultz began in a statement.

“More importantly, for millions of individual Americans, Trumpcare would have been devastating. It reduced coverage for millions, gutted benefits and massively increased costs, and added what amounted to an “age tax” for older Americans. It was the worst bill for women’s health in a generation. In fact, for the entire health care system, it would have been a nightmare. The solvency of Medicare would have been weakened, Medicaid would have been gutted, and safety-net hospitals would have been further burdened to truly distressing levels. Doctors, nurses, hospitals and nearly every major medical or health advocacy group opposed it, with good reason.,” she added.

“Hopefully,” Wasserman Schultz concluded, “Republicans will now reach out to Democrats to improve the Affordable Care Act in a serious, meaningful way. We’re more than ready to participate if it means truly improving our health care system.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando said in a written statement that the “voices of the American people were heard.”

“Republicans have been promising to replace the Affordable Care Act with something better for seven years, but the destructive bill that they proposed would force people to pay more for less coverage, erase protections for preexisting conditions, deny veterans additional benefits, force seniors to pay more for care and prescriptions, and shorten the life of Medicare,” Demings said. “I will continue to stand strong for my constituents in my fight to protect the Affordable Care Act.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa called for continued vigilance by Democrats to protect the Affordable Care Act and its coverage.

“Today, my neighbors in Florida and hardworking families across America can breathe a sigh of relief that the Republican TrumpCare bill failed thanks to the outpouring of opposition from citizens, doctors, nurses, hospitals and advocates. They knew it would rip coverage away, raise costs and provide a massive tax break to wealthy special interests,” Castor declared.

“Although we must remain vigilant about future Republican attempts to weaken health care in America, the failure of the Republican bill will allow millions of families to keep their health care and peace of mind. Hopefully we can work together to build on the success of the Affordable Care Act that has dropped the number of uninsured Americans to its lowest in history and ended discrimination against our neighbors with pre-existing conditions,” she continued.

“Republicans tried to ram TrumpCare through the House without a single hearing and then traded consumer protections away with damaging changes to bring the right-wing tea party faction of the U.S. House on board. It collapsed under its own weight and the unmasking of the huge tax breaks to wealthy special interests while raising costs for everyday Americans and weakening Medicare and Medicaid health services,” Castor added.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton declared that “President Trump and Speaker Ryan should be ashamed of themselves for trying to force through a disastrous bill that would have ripped away health coverage from tens of millions of Americans, dramatically increased premiums, and severely cut Medicare and Medicaid. The American people spoke loud and clear; they do not support gutting their own health benefits in order to give massive tax cuts to health insurance companies. House Republicans need to start working with Democrats on real policy solutions that will benefit the American people.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar offered to work with Republicans, but first slammed their plan.

“House Republicans and President Trump tried to takeaway healthcare from millions of Americans and they failed. Today’s defeat of TrumpCare is a victory for seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, families, children, women, and every one of the 24 million people who would have had their health coverage stripped from them under the Republican plan.

“When Congress reconvenes next week, Democrats will continue to stand up for the most vulnerable among us. There are many aspects where healthcare in America can be improved. For many of my constituents, the cost of care remains far too high, while for others, access to care remains a challenge. I, like all Democrats, want to make healthcare better for all Americans. If Republicans are willing to join this process in good faith, I would welcome the conversation and work to make improvements that benefit all Americans,” Hastings stated.

“President Trump’s plan failed today because his legislation did not prioritize the American people. It prioritized a select few – the millionaires and billionaires that President Trump has surrounded himself with – and ripped coverage away from millions of hard working and working poor Americans,” Hastings continued. “I will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that all Americans have access to the healthcare they need. I hope Republicans learn from this experience and begin the process of working Democrats moving forward.”

Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, a likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate, also weighed in.

“Today’s debacle was another example of the so-called political leaders ignoring what is going on in the real lives of every American family. Instead of doing something real to deal with the crushing cost of healthcare, Donald Trump and Republican leaders in Congress pushed forward a plan that would have totally eliminated healthcare coverage for over 20 million Americans, taxed seniors, and forced working Americans to pay billions more straight out of the pocket,” she stated.

“This bill was much more than a failure of leadership — it was a missed opportunity to work in a bipartisan way to cut premiums, lower prescription drug cost, and improve Obamacare. It was simply political cowardice from the Republicans in Congress, who failed in their most basic responsibility and duty to stand up for the American people,” Graham continued.

“The thousands of Floridians who spoke out against TrumpCare should be proud of their efforts to stop this disastrous legislation. But we must also stand ready to fight back if Donald Trump and Paul Ryan try once again to ram this legislation through Congress,” she concluded.

Alcee Hastings seeks to extend protected status for Haitians

Democratic U.S. Rep Alcee Hastings, joined by both Florida U.S. senators and seven South Florida members of Congress, is calling on the President Donald Trump administration to extend temporary protected status for Haitian nationals.

Hastings, from Fort Lauderdale, sent a letter Friday to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly urging the extended protection for Haitians living in the United States. Joining him were U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio; Democratic U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson and Lois Frankel; and Republican U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Carlos Curbelo.

All, except Nelson, who is from Orlando, are from South Florida.

“Through TPS, our country has been committed to providing a safe haven to individuals unable to securely return to their home country due to ongoing environmental disasters and violence that have severely impacted their country,” the letter states. It goes on to cite a serious of calamities that have hit Haiti in recent years, from the the 2010 earthquake to last fall’s Hurricane Matthew.

The U.S. Census American Community Survey estimates there were about 472,000 Haitians in Florida in 2014, almost half of all those countrymen in the United States. That estimate is up dramatically from the 2010 Census, which counted 380,000 in Florida.

While the Miami-South Florida area is home to an estimated 197,000 Haitian immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute’s analysis of those ACS data, it is not the only significant center. Orlando is listed as having the nation’s fourth-largest Haitian community (behind Miami, New York and Boston,) and Naples and Fort Myers-Coral Springs also host significant communities, according to the institute’s data.

“Given the continued difficult conditions in Haiti, we urge your administration to extend the TPS designation, within all applicable rules and regulations, for Haitian nationals who are currently living in, and contributing to, our great country,” the letter concludes.

Bill Nelson, bipartisan Florida Congress members urge drilling ban in Gulf

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has pulled together a bipartisan group of Florida congressmen to sign a letter urging the administration of President Donald Trump to not permit off-shore oil near Florida’s Gulf Coast.

In a letter sent Friday to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Nelson and 16 members of Florida’s congressional delegation urged the administration to maintain the current moratorium on offshore oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico for at least the next five years.

Joining Nelson were Republican U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan, Brian Mast, Francis Rooney, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Daniel Webster; and Democratic U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, Val Demings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Alcee Hastings, Al Lawson, Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson.

Earlier this month, the administration announced it intended to keep the moratorium in place until at least 2022, but recent reports suggest that the administration may be considering a new plan, Nelson’s office reported in a news release Friday morning.

“It’s our understanding that your department may be considering a new Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2017-2022,” the lawmakers wrote. “If you do choose to draft a new plan, we strongly urge you to keep the eastern Gulf off limits.

“Drilling in this area threatens Florida’s multi-billion-dollar, tourism-driven economy and is incompatible with the military training and weapons testing that occurs there,” the letter continues.

In 2006, Congress passed the Gulf of Mexico Energy and Security Act, which created a moratorium on drilling in most of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

The letter notes the Deepwater Horizon explosion seven years ago that killed 11 men, damaged the marine life ecosystem, and soiled an entire tourism season for Gulf states.

“This tragedy was a painful reminder that Florida’s beaches and economy are at risk even when oil rigs are hundreds of miles away from its shores,” the later states.

Marco Rubio, bipartisan Senate group call for U.S. help for starving North Africa

After a hearing on a humanitarian crisis with millions of lives at stake in northeast Africa, U.S. Rep. Marco Rubio joined a bipartisan group of senators Thursday asking Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to intervene by leading an “urgent and comprehensive” diplomatic effort.

Rubio and eight other senators signed a letter Thursday to President Donald Trump‘s secretary of state saying that political obstacles in northeastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen are significantly to blame for humanitarian aid from getting in, and consequently millions of people now are starving to death.

“The scale and complexity of these crises might lead some to say the situation is hopeless,” states the senators’ letter to Tillerson. “We reject such a response as U.S. leadership can make an enormous difference, and we believe the Department of State can and should lead a diplomatic effort now to reduce the political barriers that are hindering the delivery of food to millions of starving people. The U.S. government has a strategic and moral imperative to do nothing less.”

Rubio was joined by Republicans Todd Young of Indiana, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Jeff Flake of Arizona; and Democrats Ben Cardin of Maryland, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Chris Coons of Delaware.

All of them including Rubio serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which held a hearing on the situation Wednesday. Rubio stated that he also received a briefing on the crisis from billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates earlier this week.

The senators’ letter suggests up to 20 million people are at risk of starving to death.

“The testimony of the witnesses underscored the urgent need for a ‘diplomatic surge’ in the next couple weeks to prevent millions of people from dying unnecessarily from starvation,” the letter opens. “Consistent with the national security interests of the United States and the compassion of the American people, we write to ask that the Department of State implement an urgent and comprehensive diplomatic effort to address political obstacles in each of these regions that are preventing humanitarian aid from being delivered to people who desperately need it.

“Mr. Yves Daccord, the director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, yesterday called the crisis ‘one of the most critical humanitarian issues to face mankind since the end of the Second World War.’ He warned that ‘we are at the brink of a humanitarian mega-crisis unprecedented in recent history,'” the letter states.

The senators’ letter details how governmental or nongovernmental actors in each of the regions have blocked or hindered humanitarian access, depriving people of food. But it suggests the U.S. Department of State can potentially address the man-made obstacles and spells out steps that should be taken to convince each country to open the flows of food.

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