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Scott Powers

Charlie Crist, Brian Mast lead 18-member Florida delegation urging Everglades attention from Donald Trump

Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Mast have pulled together 18 of Florida’s 27 members of Congress to co-sign a letter to President Donald Trump urging that he “expedite and energize” Everglades restoration projects.

In addition to Crist of St. Petersburg and Mast of Palm City, the letter is signed by Republicans Matt Gaetz, Neal Dunn, Ted Yoho, John Rutherford, Ron DeSantis, Bill Posey, Daniel Webster, Gus Bilirakis, Vern Buchanan, Tom Rooney, Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; and Democrats Al Lawson, Darren Soto, Val Demings, and Kathy Castor.

The letter follows up on a plea Mast made earlier this month on the House of Representatives floor when he called on Trump to create an “Everglades Restoration Infrastructure Taskforce” and secure full funding to accelerate projects to completion.

The letter calls for the same thing.

“We urge you to join our efforts to expedite and energize the federal government’s role in this critical mission,” they wrote. “Specifically, we ask you to convene an ‘Everglades Restoration Infrastructure Taskforce’ to develop an action plan to secure new infrastructure funding and accelerate project completion to meet or beat the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ current Integrated Delivery Schedule timeline.”

The letter’s non-signatories include some significant omissions: Democratic U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Alcee Hastings, and Republican U.S. Reps. Francis Rooney and Mario Diaz-Balart all have significant swathes of Everglades in their districts, but did not sign. Still, much of the Everglades are in Curbelo’s and Ros-Lehtinen’s districts, and they signed.

The letter noted Trump’s plans for a $1 trillion infrastructure program and said the Everglades need just “a fraction” of that.

“The bipartisan Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, authorized by Congress in 2000, is one of the most ambitious ecological restoration projects ever undertaken. Beyond restoring the unique Everglades ecosystem, CERP would improve vital flood protection for neighboring communities, protect the main source of drinking water for 8 million South Floridians, and enhance the Everglades’ substantial $2 trillion economic impact in the state,” the letter states. “Working together, the State of Florida, the Army Corps, and other federal agency partners have made important — but incremental — progress toward meeting the Plan’s Integrated Delivery Schedule road map of completing over 60 proposed projects over a 30-year period.

“More must be done, however, as many projects are still awaiting construction, and delays could threaten to increase project completion costs,” they add.

Church, Civil Rights leaders, slaying victims’ mothers rally for Aramis Ayala

A group of church and civil rights leaders joined mothers of slaying victims from Florida and Central Florida Friday outside the office of State Attorney Aramis Ayala.

They were there to send a message to her and the community.

“We stand with you, State Attorney Ayala,” proclaimed Christine Henderson of Equal Justice USA of Florida.

She and a dozen other speakers proclaimed that people throughout Florida stand with Ayala for her controversial decision to not pursue death penalty prosecutions in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties. Her decision that the death penalty is unjust for all brought loud and long condemnations Thursday from Gov. Rick Scott down to Orlando Police Chief John Mina.

But on Friday, a tide rolled Ayala’s way.

Among them were three mothers of murder victims who said they share Ayala’s belief that a death sentence does not help some family’s healing, and that the long, drawn-out appeals process can only increase a family’s pain.

Among them was Stephanie Dixon, mother of Sade Dixon, the pregnant girlfriend of Markeith Loyd, who is charged with killing her and Orlando Police Master Sergeant Debra Clayton.

Loyd’s case is at the center of the Ayala controversy, an alleged heinous pair of murders that sparked widespread anger in Orlando. On Thursday Scott stripped the case away from Ayala and gave it to neighboring State Attorney Brad King.

But Scott did not ask Sade Dixon’s mother, who stands with Ayala

“You have to understand we want closure. And with closure doesn’t mean to be dragged in and out of courts of appeals and anything else,” she said. “So with the death penalty he’s not going to be executed for another 30, 40 years anyway. But he’s going to continue to have the appeals to drag us back in court and relive this violent, hideous act.

“Life in prison, any way it goes, he will die I prison,” she said. “He will never see the light of day. He will never be back in court … This monster will die in prison.”

The procession of supporters included representatives of the Catholic Diocese of Orlando, and several local and statewide church and Civil Rights organizations fighting against the death penalty,

“Let us end this cycle of violence and vengeance,” said Deborah Shearer of the Catholic Diocese

It was proceeded by an impromptu press conference by a father of a victim who offered the other view: that some families want the death penalty.

As Ayala supporters gathered to address the media, Rafael Zaldivar, father of slain Alex Zaldivar, took to the microphone stand to denounce Ayala in the name of his fallen son, and to demand the death penalty for convicted murderer, Bessman Okafor. Okafor’s case is among those awaiting a decision by the Florida Supreme Court.

Rafael Zaldivar

Zaldivar called for Ayala’s resignation, or at least that she not touch Okafor’s case if it is remanded back.

“I cannot allow her to destroy five years of work,” Zaldivar said. “It is not her right to decide for the rest of us. Twelve people must decide that.”

But a few minutes later, the podium was taken by Darlene Farah of Jacksonville, Marietta Jaeger Lane of Punta Gorda, and Dixon of Orlando, all saying that Ayala is offering what they all wanted in their daughter’s cases – the opportunity for swift, sure justice, and healing that does not include revenge.

Jaeger Lane, whose daughter Susie was murdered at age 7 in Montana, said she shared Zaldivar’s desire initially, but moved on.

Darlene Farah and Marietta Jeager Lane.

“As a Florida resident I am extremely proud of State Attorney Ayala’s wisdom,” she said. “In the beginning, I had the normal reactions of rage and seeking revenge. I wanted the killer to die. But in time I came to see what the death penalty is. It is an insult to the victims of the offenders. To kill somebody in my little girl’s name would be to demean and profane my sweet little girl’s name.”

Farah’s case, involving her daughter Shelby Farah, also was high-profile, in Jacksonville. She said she sought life imprisonment without parole from the start, but got that only after Melissa Nelson defeated incumbent State Attorney Angela Corey and agreed to take the plea in January.

“The death penalty harms the surviving families,” Farah said. “We spent three and a half years waiting and the trial hadn’t even started yet because the prosecutor was seeking the death penalty. For the emotional well-being of my family, I did not want them returning for trials and appeals for years, and probably decades.”


Ted Yoho introduces health care transition bill

Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho has introduced a bill he says will give insurance companies flexibility while Congress tries to work out a replacement plan for ObamaCare.

Yoho’s Holding Health Insurers Harmless Act would roll back many of the regulations of health insurers in a strategy the Gainesville congressman said would free them to provide more plan options until the Affordable Care Act is replaced.

“It is important that all Americans have access to quality health insurance. Since ACA was signed into law, many insurers have either refused to participate in the exchanges established by the ACA, or have stopped participating in them altogether. In some states there is only one health insurance provider and option,” Yoho stated in a news release issued by his office. “This is unacceptable and not what was promised. “

Among the aspects in the bill, it would:

– Return federal requirements on health insurance plans back to pre-ACA days, removing mandates and penalties.

– Provide some certainty to private sector insurers that they can provide plans outside of the ACA’s requirements.

– Repeal requirements that insurers to provide certain plans, nor does it prevent them from providing plans that still comply with the ACA.

Police union head John Rivera calls Aramis Ayala coward

Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala‘s decision to not pursue death penalty cases drew blistering criticism from one of Florida’s police union heads who called her a coward and a traitor.

John Rivera, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, blasted Ayala in a press release saying that her decision outraged law enforcement officers. He called for her resignation.

“In life there are cowards, and then there are cowards with titles,” Rivera stated. “Orange-Osceola State Attorney Ayala is a coward with a title. In fact, it is our opinion that she is a bigger coward than the killer of pregnant Sade Dixon, and an honorable guardian angel of society, Orlando Lt. Debra Clayton.”

Ayala, state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, announced Thursday that after a review of Florida statutes and case law she concluded that the state’s capital punishment laws were not just for anyone, in part because they lead to years and decades of costly appeals and delays that force victims’ families to endure endless disappointment.

She said she would not pursue death penalty charges but would instead seek life imprisonment, including for the case of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd, charged with killing Dixon and Clayton, who was a master sergeant when she was slain in January.

Gov. Rick Scott then took the Loyd case away from Ayala late Thursday, using an executive order to reassign it to State Attorney Brad King of the neighboring 5th Judicial Circuit. Ayala said she would cooperate.

But Rivera called for more action.

“Anything short of Ayala’s resignation amounts to an act of terrorism against victims within our justice system – the very people our justice system seeks to protect,” he concluded. “We are a nation of laws and Ayala’s inability to follow our laws makes her unfit for office.”


Few warm greetings from Florida for Donald Trump’s budget

There seems to be something for almost everyone to dislike in the budget proposal President Donald Trump unveiled Thursday morning.

“The plan doesn’t make any sense,” stated Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

“I do not support the proposed 28 percent cut to our international affairs budget and diplomatic efforts led by the State Department,” stated Florida’s Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

The president’s proposed budget, released early Thursday, drew a handful of responses from Florida’s 27 members of House of Representatives, mostly from Democrats, and most of them went much further than Nelson in their condemnations, citing proposed deep cuts ranging from the arts to the Coast Guard, cancer research to the TSA, or schools to seniors’ programs like Meals on Wheels, jobs training to Everglades.

“The Trump budget is an immoral affront to nearly all of our most important priorities,” declared Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

So far only Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross in Florida’s congressional delegation has spoken out in strong support, though Rubio did point out something he liked in the budget: Trump’s incorporation of Rubio’s ideas to expand school choice with tax credits. But the senator cautioned to not take Trump’s budget too seriously, because, “it is Congress that will actually set the nation’s policy priorities and fund them.

“I will continue to review all the details of this budget proposal for areas of common interest,” he concluded.

Ross, of Lakeland, said the budget was true to Trump’s promises and a snapshot of “a strong conservative vision for the size and role of our government.”

“In addition to a renewed focus on the military, this proposed budget keeps the President’s word to prioritize border security, veterans’ health care, and school choice, as well as reduce burdensome regulations that harm small businesses and economic growth,” Ross continued. “With our national debt quickly approaching $20 trillion, we cannot afford to waste any more taxpayer dollars on duplicative and ineffective government programs.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart took a similar tone to Rubio, saying the budget “attempts to focus on our nation’s real fiscal challenges” and presents an opportunity for conversations about national priorities and the national debt.

Then he concluded, “I look forward to Congress exercising its oversight role and ultimately making funding decisions.”

Not many areas of common interest were cited by Florida’s 12 Democrats, including Nelson.

“You’re going to cut some of our most important agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, which is working to find cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s, the Environmental Protection Agency, which keeps our air and water clean, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which is working to restore the Everglades,” Nelson stated. “I agree that we must do whatever is necessary to keep our country safe, but cutting all of these important programs to pay for things, such as a wall, just doesn’t make any sense.”

In a Facebook post, Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando called Trump’s proposal an “irresponsible budget which decimates investments in America’s future to fund tax cuts for the rich. He proposed cuts to our Coast Guard (border security?), scientific research, commerce, state department, environment protection, agriculture and our nuclear program among countless others. We will fight to protect our future!”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg declared “Budgets are statements of our values as a people. The statement made today by the Trump Administration is that climate change isn’t real, our environment is not important, diplomacy is a waste of time, medical breakthroughs aren’t beneficial, the poor are on their own, and the arts, despite their small price tag, aren’t of significance.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa went into far more detail, arguing from the start that the budget fails to deliver on Trump’s campaign promises to help the middle class and create jobs.

She cited deep or complete cuts in after-school programs, college students’ PELL grants, transportation projects such as Tampa’s Riverwalk, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s efforts to improve marine biology health, and the EPA.

“It is clear that Trump’s budget is not balanced in a way that our community needs and expects.  It shifts even more economic burdens onto the shoulders of working families, guts important services and investments in our economy, attacks vital education programs and hurts Tampa Bay’s sensitive natural resources,” she concluded.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee said a budget should reflect society’s values, and that this budget does not reflect those of his district.

“President Trump’s budget calls for extreme cuts to vital funding for job training, clean energy, medical research, and public education,” Lawson stated. “It is a shortsighted plan that seeks to give tax breaks to the wealthiest while taking away lifelines for those who need it most.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando responded only by retweeting a post from Congressional Black Caucus chair U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat who noted that African Americans “have a lot to lose under this administration” and the budget proposal “is proof.”

Wasserman Schultz provided the strongest language in her condemnations.

“Aside from the horrific health care cuts that will push tens of millions of people into higher-cost plans, or no coverage at all, this budget proposal sacrifices too many safety, environmental, labor and health protections, all just to ultimately deliver grotesque tax breaks to the wealthy,” she stated in a release issued by her office. “It weakens or eliminates funding for, among many other things, transportation, clean energy, health research, public education and housing, legal services, national diplomacy, the arts and humanitarian aid. And while Trump’s budget purports to improve our national security, it reportedly starves crucial aspects of it by putting our coasts and airports in dire jeopardy. This budget proposal is a gut punch to America’s families, their needs, and their values.”

Rick Scott yanks cop-killer case from Aramis Ayala, reassigns it

Gov. Rick Scott has used an executive order to pull the prosecution of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd away from Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala and to reassign it to State Attorney Brad King in Lake County.

Scott’s unprecedented move comes hours after the unprecedented announcement by Ayala that she would not prosecute death penalty charges, including in the case of Loyd, charged with killing his pregnant girlfriend Sade Dixon last December and that of Orlando Police Master Sergeant Debra Clayton in January.

Ayala stated later she is complying.

“Upon receipt of any lawful order, my office will follow that Order and fully cooperate to ensure the successful prosecution of Markeith Loyd,” she said in a written statement issued by her office.

The move is the latest event in a day of uproar that began with reports that Ayala, a newly-elected state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, had concluded that Florida’s death penalty law was unjust and would not use it, even in the Loyd case.

The outrage included Scott and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s swift condemnations, the head of Florida’s largest police union to demand Ayala resign, and Scott’s demand that she recuse herself from the Loyd case.

“She informed me this afternoon that she refuses to do that. She has made it clear that she will not fight for justice and that is why I am using my executive authority to immediately reassign the case to State Attorney Brad King,” Scott announced in a press release this afternoon.

Ayala was elected as state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties. The Dixon and Clayton murders occurred in Orange County.

King was elected as state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit, covering Marion, Lake, Citrus, Sumter, Hernando counties.


Jeff Ashton: Aramis Ayala may not have legal grounds to ban death penalty

Former State Attorney Jeff Ashton – former boss and then election opponent to current State Attorney Aramis Ayala – said Thursday he believes she might not have legal ground to take the unprecedented “no death penalty” position she announced earlier Thursday.

Ashton also said he believes Ayala may have adopted the position to please her political benefactor, New York progressive activist billionaire George Soros, who ran an independent campaign on her behalf last summer.

Ayala beat Ashton in the Democratic primary last August after she had worked as an assistant state attorney under him in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties.

On Thursday she announced that, after a review of law, she concluded the death penalty is not just for anyone and she would not pursue it in any cases in the circuit, including that of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd.

Ashton said her position enters unchartered legal waters for a state attorney, and that he knows of no top prosecutor anywhere who has done so, certainly not in Florida.

“I don’t know, honestly, based on the statute, that she even has the right to do any of this,” he said in an interview with

Ashton’s position is that Florida statutes, including the new one just approved by the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott, give prosecutors the discretion to decide whether a case has enough aggravating circumstances to merit a death penalty. He argued they do not give discretion to make a decision about the death penalty without even considering the aggravating circumstances.

He predicted legal challenges to her policy, perhaps by families of victims who want suspects  prosecuted for capital crimes. And even though he is a Democrat, Ashton applauded Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi for accusing her Thursday of dereliction of duty, which could be a precursor to attempts to oust her.

“As they should,” he said. “It’s the law. You can’t just pick and chose which laws you will follow.”

Ashton has reason to be bitter about how he lost re-election to a former protege who not only challenged him but questioned his efficiencies, management, and priorities.

Ashton’s beef, however, goes deeper, because of Soros. In the last month before the election, Soros ran a surprise, ugly, third-party, $1.4 million advertising campaign on Ayala’s behalf against Ashton, going so far as to accuse him of racist policies.

Ayala, the first-ever African American elected to the office of state attorney in Florida, denied then and denied Thursday that she had any contact with Soros or anything to do with his campaign for her and against Ashton, or that she owes Soros anything.

Soros has never discussed why he got involved in the race, though he also got involved in at least a half-dozen other elected prosecutor races across the country last year, backing African American candidates in all of them.

Ashton said Ayala’s justifications for abandoning the death penalty “parrot” statements made by Soros’ political committees, such as his Safety and Justice Political Action Committee.

“When you throw in the George Soros money, it smells really bad,” Ashton said of her ban on death penalty prosecutions. “That’s why I suspect it’s purely political.”

While serving under Ashton, Ayala began prosecuting a death penalty case, that of David Payne, suspected of kidnapping an ex-girlfriend and then murdering her in the trunk of her car in late 2015.

Ashton said Ayala was excited about having the opportunity to prosecute the case, though she didn’t stay long enough to do so. A few weeks after receiving the assignment, she resigned to run against him.

But because of that case, Ashton said he was confident that Ayala did not oppose the death penalty. Before she was assigned to that unit, “as a part of that process we discuss with them their feelings about the death penalty,” he said. “She made it very clear to us she didn’t have any qualms about the death penalty.”

The Payne case, still pending, is one of the cases for which Ayala vowed Thursday to withdraw capital charges, and to then prosecute seeking life imprisonment.

Ayala said in her press conference that her conclusions about the death penalty came only recently after reviewing her staff’s analysis of the laws and case history, and that her personal feelings did not factor into her decision.

Ashton, however, claimed she offered no justifications Thursday that provided any new evidence or insight that hasn’t been part of the anti-death-penalty movement’s playbook for decades.


Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala vows no death penalties

Saying she has concluded that Florida’s capital punishment laws are unjust for all, State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced Thursday she would not pursue the death penalty in any cases in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, which includes Orlando.

The policy begins with perhaps the most obvious and highest-profile potential death penalty case that has come along in Orlando in years, that of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd. She said she would prosecute him for life imprisonment for the alleged murders of his pregnant girlfriend Sade Dixon last December and that of Orlando Police Master Sergeant Debra Clayton in January.

Making her announcement on the steps of the Orange County Courthouse, newly-elected Ayala declared that she made the decision after asking her staff for a full review of the death penalty, Florida’s law, including the newly-enacted statute approved by the Florida Legislature this Session, and case history. After reviewing the findings, she said only then did she conclude that she could not and would not pursue death penalty prosecutions.

“I took an oath to support, protect and defend the Constitution and the American Bar Association rules of conduct outline my duties as a prosecutor. My duty is to seek justice, which is fairness, objectivity and decency. I am to seek reform and to improve the administration of justice. I am prohibited from making the severity of my sentences the index of my effectiveness,” she said.

“What has become abundantly clear through this process is while I currently do have discretion to pursue death sentences, I have determined that doing so is not in the best interests of this community, or in the best interest of justice,” she said. “After review and consideration of the new statute, under my administration, I will not be seeking death penalty in cases handled in my office.”

Word of the policy leaked and was reported Wednesday by WFTV news, leading Orlando Police Chief John Mina to condemn her decision passionately.

It also brought a swift reaction from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Gov. Rick Scott

“State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s decision today sends a dangerous message to residents and visitors of the greater Orlando area — furthermore, it is a blatant neglect of duty and a shameful failure to follow the law as a constitutionally elected officer,” Bondi declared in a written statement.

“I want to be very clear, Lt. Debra Clayton was executed while she was laying on the ground fighting for her life. She was killed by an evil murderer who did not think twice about senselessly ending her life,” Scott stated. “I completely disagree with State Attorney Ayala’s decision and comments, and I am asking her to recuse herself immediately from this case. She has made it abundantly clear that she will not fight for justice for Lt. Debra Clayton and our law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day.”

It also brought praise from Civil Rights leaders.

“A powerful symbol of racial injustice has now been discarded in Orange County,” declared Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, in a written statement. “We are so thankful that Aramis Ayala recognizes that an institution plagued by racial bias has no place in our society today. Ending use of the death penalty in Orange County is a step toward restoring a measure of trust and integrity in our criminal justice system.”

“I applaud State Attorney Ayala’s announcement to no longer seek the death penalty,” the Rev. Russel Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, stated. “People of faith across Florida are deeply troubled by capital punishment–its needless destruction of human life, its toll on murder victims’ families, and its enormous cost to the state.”

On Thursday Ayala held firm against criticism, insisting that families of slaying victims are ill-served by a death penalty process that almost assuredly leads to years and decades of delays and costly appeals, and insisting she was prepared for consequences.

When asked why she did not express such doubts about the death penalty during her campaign last year to allow voters to know, Ayala replied, “All voters know now.”

Nor does she express fear or concern about House Joint Resolution 999, which would create an avenue for the impeachment of state attorneys. That bill moved swiftly through a house committee Thursday morning after news first was reported about Ayala’s policy.

She said she is confident she is doing her duty under the  Constitution and Florida Bar requirements.

She said she would withdraw death penalty charges in current cases, and would deal with mandated cases sent back to her from the Florida Supreme Court on a case-by-case basis, and follow the Supreme Court’s instructions.

Ayala outlined five reasons for her decision, her conclusions that:

— The death penalty has no public safety benefit. She cited studies showing no difference in homicide rates between places that have it and places that do not.

— It does not increase safety for law enforcement officers. She said she could not find any credible evidence that suggests it does.

— It is not a crime deterrent. She said deterrents need to be swift and consistent, and said death penalty administrations are neither.

— “False promises of death penalty give families no closure … I have learned that death penalty traps many victims’ families in decades-long cycles of uncertainty … some are left waiting for an execution that may never occur. I cannot in good faith look a family in the face and say any death penalty handed down by our courts will result in an execution.

— “The death penalty costs millions of dollars that far outweigh the costs of life sentences.”

Ayala was elected in what was largely a surprise course of events last year, ousting high-profile State Attorney Jeff Ashton after New York progressive politics billionaire George Soros spent $1.4 million on an independent campaign to support her. It left her Thursday deflecting questions about whether Soros had any influence on her policy. She insisted she did not know what Soros’ position was and had not communicated with him. “Ask him,” she said.

She also attempted to dismiss her “personal feelings,” and to distance herself from statements she made during the campaign that she could support death penalty prosecutions.

“When I am in the position of state attorney I have to eliminate my personal feelings and pursue whether or not the evidence supports my decision, and I believe it does,” she said.

She also said she does not worry about taking the death penalty off the table in cases where it could be a bargaining chip for police or prosecutors to extract information or plea bargains.

“One thing I think is inhumane is to negotiate life,” she said.

Bill to revamp community college system sparks mission debate

A Florida Senate bill aimed at making what all involved said was a great community college system even better opened a debate Wednesday about how much of the colleges’ missions should be about granting four-year degrees.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education unanimously approved Senate Bill 374 creates a new governing system for the state’s 28 community colleges and sets new rules on how they operate.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Dorothy Hukill, the Port Orange Republican, expressly re-affirms the colleges missions as providing two-year degrees that students can use either as is, or as automatic bridges into one of the state’s 12 universities to complete four-year degrees. In particular, the bill builds on Florida’s highly-praised 2+2 program that requires and fosters partnerships between colleges and universities to make that seamless.

But there is emerging a new mission in the past 15 years that also generally drew across-the-board praise, yet it competes with the 2+2 model. Increasingly, community colleges own four-year programs are attracting students.

The bill – and the committee – seek to put a cap on that, and that drew numerous objections from witnesses, who argued that community colleges are a major source of four-year degrees for older, working, non-traditional students who don’t have the opportunities to move to a university.

“No one is taking back any four year degrees,” said Chairman Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who presented SB 374 in Hukill’s absence Wednesday. “Let’s just make sure we review them properly and keep an eye on it as a Legislature. That’s what we do.”

An amendment from Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, raised the cap, essentially to 15 percent of all students in a college, unless the college seeks special permission from the Florida Legislature. While critics of the cap applauded that move, they remained concerned about any limits on students’  access to degree programs in the community colleges.

Joanne Bashford, president of Miami Dade College’s InterAmerican Campus, was among several who spoke of how the colleges are providing four-year degrees to non-traditional students, and also serving employers who want or need their employees to get four-year degrees, while still working.

“We help make their dreams come true,” she said.

Overall, the bill creates a new State Board of Community Colleges. The states’ colleges will be moved under that umbrella from being under the State Board of Education.

The only opposition to the bill was voiced by The United Faculty of Florida, the professors’ union. UFF President Jennifer Proffitt argued that the state was unnecessarily adding a new layer of bureaucracy to the community college system.


Brian Mast, Carlos Curbelo call for ‘American innovation’ on climate change

A group of Republican members of Congress including U.S. Reps. Brian Mast and Carlos Curbelo have introduced a climate change resolution calling for ‘American innovation’ efforts to address it.

Curbelo and Mast, along with Elise Stefanik of New York, sponsored the resolution declaring that climate change is a real and growing problem, but espousing conservative principles to work on economically viable solutions.

“If we’re going to make progress to protect our environment, it’s critical that people on both sides of the aisle speak out about the serious impact that climate change will have on our environment and our economy,” Mast stated in a news release issued by his office. “Treasure Coast residents know all too well about the crippling impact on both the quality-of-life and economy when environmental disaster strikes. We must act now to find economically-viable solutions to address the risk of climate change.”

“Our goal with this resolution,” Curbelo added, “is to shift the debate from whether climate change is real toward the tangible efforts to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate its effects.”

The trio, along with U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who cosponsored the resolution along with 13 other Republicans, are members of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. However, no Democrats in that caucus have signed on to cosponsor this particular measure.

The language of the resolution may keep many of them away, as it cautions against any solutions that would constrain the U.S. economy.

Yet the decisive language in the resolution, declaring climate change as a threat and identifying manmade pollution as a contributor, may give the GOP Climate Solutions Caucus members as much trouble seeking support from their own party.

Among the stipulations in the resolution: “Whereas, if left unaddressed, the consequences of a changing climate have the potential to adversely impact all Americans, hitting vulnerable populations hardest, harming productivity in key economic sectors such as construction, agriculture, and tourism, saddling future generations with costly economic and environmental burdens, and imposing additional costs on State and Federal budgets that will further add to the long-term fiscal challenges that we face as a Nation.”

Curbelo said every member of Congress has a responsibility to future generations to support market-based solutions, investments and innovations that could alleviate the effects of climate change.

“With forty percent of Florida’s population at risk from sea-level rise, my state is on the front lines of climate change,” Curbelo stated in the news release. “South Florida residents are already beginning to feel the effects of climate change in their daily lives – from chronic flooding to coral bleaching to threats to our freshwater supply in the Everglades.”

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