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Scott Powers

Airbnb inks tax deal with Polk County

Airbnb, the internet-based home-sharing lodging service, announced Thursday it reached a deal with Polk County to collect tourism taxes from host clients.

The company said it is seeing rapid growth in Polk County over the past year, ending 2016 with 160 hosts — people who make their houses or apartments available through Airbnb for visitors on a night-by-night basis -and about 3,000 guest arrivals. That’s more than double the 2015 activity. Based on that, Airbnb projected it could collect more than $200,000 in new annual tax revenue for Polk County in 2017.

Airbnb said it generated $4.8 million in rent for the property owners in 2016.

“Tens of thousands of travelers are authentically experiencing Polk County’s neighborhoods and attractions through Airbnb,” Airbnb Florida Policy Director Tom Martinelli stated in a news release issued by the company. “While Polk County’s hosts and merchants are already benefiting from this economic impact, our collaboration with Tax Collector Tedder will unlock a new revenue stream for the County continue marketing itself as a preferred family-friendly tourist destination.”

Polk is now the 35th Florida county, out of 67, in which Airbnb is collecting and remitting bed taxes on behalf of its hosts, joining neighboring Hillsborough and Pasco counties as well as other large counties like Pinellas, Orange, Brevard and Lee. In the past month, Airbnb signed tax collection agreement with Hillsborough, Okaloosa and Hardee counties,

“We began negotiations with Airbnb early in 2016 and stayed focused on making sure the agreement was not confidential and available for public inspection, that it was understood our office would continue to pursue back taxes due from prior rental activities, and that there were adequate mechanisms in place for our office to conduct audits and pursue enforcement actions,” Tedder stated in the release.

Stephanie Murphy sets listening tour in her new district

Newly-sworn in U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy is coming back to Central Florida to ask constituents for their guidance.

The Democrat from Winter Park, who entered Congress last week after defeating the district’s 12-term incumbent U.S. Rep. John Mica in November, announced Wednesday she is setting up three town hall-style listening meetings next week, in Orlando, Sanford and Altamonte Springs.

“U.S. representative is more than just a title; it’s a job description,” she stated in a news release. “If you’re truly going to represent people, you’ve got to listen to them. I’m hosting these listening sessions so that my constituents may come share their ideas, thoughts and concerns as the new Congress begins. I’ll take the information from these sessions and use it to set my priorities and guide my work fighting for central Florida in our nation’s capital. I encourage anyone who lives in Florida’s Seventh District to join us and make their voices heard.”

Murphy represents Florida’s Seventh Congressional District, which includes all of Seminole County and much of northern Orange County, including downtown Orlando, Maitland, Winter Park, and the University of Central Florida.

The sessions will be held next Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Boone High School in Orlando; Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Westside Community Center in Sanford; and Jan. 19 at the Eastmonte Civic Center in Altamonte Springs. All are open to the public, but anyone wishing to speak will be asked to fill out comment cards. Constituents who cannot attend are advised to send their thoughts to her office at or by calling 1-888-205-5421.

Darren Soto announces home-grown senior staff

Freshman U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando announced his senior staff, heavy on local connections and including a key former staffer of his predecessor Alan Grayson.

Christine Biron, who was Soto’s campaign manager and before that his legislative assistant in both the Florida House of Representatives and Florida Senate, was announced Wednesday as his chief of staff in Washington. Biron and Soto have worked together since Soto’s first campaign.

Alex Barrio, who served as Florida’s house district secretary and as a legislative analyst for the Florida Senate Democratic Caucus before making an unsuccessful run for a house seat himself last summer, will serve as Soto’s district director.

Mike Nichola, who served as legislative director for former former U.S. Rep. Grayson, will be Soto’s legislative director.

Iza Montalvo, a former journalist who served as communications director for Soto’s congressional campaign and also served as Grayson’s press secretary, was announced as Soto’s press secretary.

All of them are longtime Floridians with deep ties to Central Florida.

Soto, a Democrat, represents Florida’s 9th Congressional District, which covers south Orange County, Osceola County and east Polk County.

Marco Rubio grills Rex Tillerson on Russia: Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio‘s concerns regarding Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin took center stage in Senate confirmation hearings Wednesday when he grilled Rex Tillerson over whether the secretary of state nominee believes Putin is a war criminal, and whether he believes Putin was directly involved in cyber attacks to affect the 2016 American election.

Tillerson said he was not willing to call Putin a war criminal without having more information, all but visibly infuriating Rubio.

However, the nominee of president-elect Donald Trump did say that the reports he has read on Russian cyber interference attempts with the American election are “clearly troubling” and that the assumption that Putin was involved is “a fair assumption.”

Rubio’s entire time questioning Tillerson focused on Russia. He began by questioning Tillerson about the reports that Russia ran a broad hacking campaign and then leaked the gleaned information to harm Democrat Hillary Clinton‘s candidacy and to forward Trump’s. When Tillerson first demurred about whether he believed Putin was directly involved, Rubio pressed, pointing out that the Exxon-Mobile CEO’s long, personal relationship with Russia and direct dealing with Putin, and demanding to know if  he had an opinion that Putin most likely would have been involved.

“I think that’s a fair assumption,” Tillerson finally responded.

Next, Rubio turned to a bill that he and a bipartisan coalition of senators rolled out Monday, which would impose a variety of sanctions on Russia for the  election campaign hacking, and for other Russian international aggressions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere. Would Tillerson advise the president to sign it?

Tillerson declined to say, noting he would need to know all the facts.

Rubio grew frustrated. He pressed if Tillerson would support sanctions against any country involved in cyber attacks on the United States.

Again, Tillerson said he would need more information, and that the full circumstances would have to be considered.

When Tillerson mentioned trade considerations, Rubio responded, “What’s troubling about your answer is the implication that if there is a country that we’re trying to improve relations with or have significant economic ties with, you may advise the president not to impose sanctions on that country or individuals in that country, out of concern that it may damage our relations with them, on a cyber attack, which is a direct attack on our electoral process.”

Rubio asked Tillerson if he would advise Trump to appeal Obama’s executive orders to sanction Russia over the cyber attacks. Tillerson said he would have to look at it and consult with others in the administration. Ultimately, Rubio got him to say he would not automatically support such sanctions against Russia.

Then came the show-stopper.

“Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?” Rubio asked.

“I would not use that term,” was Tillerson’s first response.

Rubio then went on a roll, describing reports of the Russian military targeting civilians in Syria, killing thousands, and in Chechnya, killing hundreds of thousands. Tillerson said he would want to have more information. Agitated, Rubio, interrupted him saying, “Mr. Tillerson, what has happened in Aleppo is in the public domain. The videos and the pictures are there.” But Tillerson persisted, saying he would want full classified briefings before advising the president.

“There is so much out there, it should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin’s military has conducted war crimes,” Rubio responded. “I find it discouraging, your inability to cite that.”

Finally, Rubio asked Tillerson about political prisoners in Russia, and the deaths and disappearances of political dissidents. “Do you believe that Vladimir Putin and his cronies are responsible for the murder of countless dissidents, journalists and political opponents?”

Again, Tillerson demurred.

“I look forward, if confirmed, to being fully informed. But I am not willing to make conclusions based only on information that is publicly available or publicly reported,” Tillerson said.


Marco Rubio, bipartisan group of Senators, throw down gauntlet on Russia

As new allegations arise charging details of Russian interference in the American presidential campaign, Florida’s U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio joined a bipartisan group of senators to unveil a bill calling for comprehensive sanctions on Russia for cyber intrusions, aggression, and destabilizing activities.

Rubio, a Republican, was joined by Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, Arizona Republican John McCain, New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, and Ohio Republican Rob Portman in announcing the “Countering Russian Hostilities Act of 2017.”

The bill is far sweeping in its directives, including imposing specific sanctions on Russia, codifying executive orders issued by President Barack Obama, authorizing a campaign by the Department of Homeland Security to educate the public about cybersecurity, identifying Russian government-controlled media and the American companies that advertise with them, and developing campaigns to counter “fake news.”

The bill explicitly states that Russian President Vladimir Putin orchestrated an influence campaign to affect the 2016 American elections; and also addresses Russian activities in attempting to influence elections in other countries; and Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, and its operations in Syria and elsewhere.

The move, introduced Tuesday evening, may become a Senate gauntlet throw-down to President-elect Donald Trump‘s reluctance to criticize Russia or express serious concerns about the election influence allegations. Rubio, McCain, Graham, the Democrats and many of the other senators signed on as co-sponsors already have spoken out forcefully about Russia’s activities. That criticism is reinforced by statements made by each of the co-sponsors in a news release they jointly issued, though none of them explicitly criticize Trump.

The bill had entered the Senate before new allegations emerged on CNN Tuesday evening and the internet site published a dossier floating around Washington D.C. claiming that Russia not only gathered and leaked embarrassing and harmful intelligence on Democrat Hillary Clinton but also collected and is holding embarrassing and damaging intelligence on Trump.

“Vladimir Putin is not an ally of America, and he only understands strength, not weakness in the form of unilateral concessions. These two facts are important to remember as a new president takes office,” Rubio stated in the release. “I will continue working with our bipartisan coalition to pressure Putin and his corrupt regime until Russia changes its behavior.”

“Every American should be alarmed by Russia’s brazen attack on our democracy,” McCain stated.

“The facts are clear, and it’s time to act. America must stand united in sending a strong message to the Kremlin that this attack on the foundation our democracy will not go unpunished,” Shaheen stated.


Freshmen Congress members from Orlando get top choices for committee seats

Central Florida’s three freshmen in Congress all got top-choice A-list committee assignments Tuesday, with Val Demings of Orlando serving on the Homeland Security Committee, Darren Soto of Orlando on the Agriculture Committee, and Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park on the Armed Services Committee.

Congressional leaders announced their choices for freshmen and others to fill spots on the top committees Tuesday. More committee assignments are likely late this week and early next week. While “top choice” often is something like appropriations, which is rarely if ever available to freshmen, incoming members of Congress also have their top realistic choices.

For Demings, a former Orlando police chief who was part of much of the post 9-11 Homeland Security planning and implementation for Orlando, that was the Committee on Homeland Security, according to her office.

The same is true for Murphy, who spent several years as a strategy analyst in the U.S. Department of Defense.

And Soto’s top pick was agriculture according to his office, given that his district includes the huge cattle ranches of Osceola County and many of the huge citrus groves of Polk County.

Murphy’s appointment also gives her a close look at federal spending available for the military’s modeling and simulation centers in Orlando, as well as for the state’s large military presence.

“Florida is home to numerous military installations and hundreds of thousands of military personnel, veterans, and their families. I’ll use my previous experience at the Department of Defense and my position on the Armed Services Committee to support our men and women in uniform and strengthen our national security,” she stated in a news release. “From cybersecurity to terrorism, we must ensure our service members have the resources and training they need to adapt to rapidly-evolving threats, and I will work with both Democrats and Republicans to help keep our country safe.”

Val Demings, Florida members, lead moment in Congress to remember Orlando’s fallen officers

With a bipartisan gathering of other Florida congressional members, Orlando’s former police chief Val Demings, now a congresswoman from Orlando, led the House of Representatives in a moment to remember and honor Orlando’s fallen officers Monday night.

“I rise today to honor the lives of Master Sgt. Debra Clayton of the Orlando Police Department and Deputy Norm Lewis of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office,” Demings declared in the house chamber. As the former Orlando police chief I had the honor of knowing both Sgt. Clayton and Deputy Lewis. Sgt. Clayton was violently murdered while responding to a call this morning. Deputy Lewis was killed responding to the scene during a search for the suspect.

“As we recognize law enforcement appreciation day, we mourn the deaths of these two public servants. Sgt. Clayton was a fine officer, wife, mother, 42 years young, and had just celebrated her first anniversary with her husband. Deputy Lewis was deeply admired by all of his colleagues. He loved helping people and it showed in his work. He was just 35,” Demings continued. “Mr. Speaker, I respectfully ask that all members join me in honoring and remembering these heroes during this difficult time.”

A moment of silence followed. In the well of the house, Demings was surrounded by her fellow Orlando Democratic U.S. Reps. Darren Soto and Stephanie Murphy; as well as U.S. Reps. John Rutherford, Ted Yoho, Matt Gaetz and Brian Mast, all Republicans; and U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, Lois Frankel, Ted Deutch and Al Lawson, all Democrats.


Survey finds bipartisan divide on ACA but bipartisan support for key provisions

The Affordable Care Act has a clear partisan divide but individual, key provisions have broadly bipartisan support, the Pew Research Center is reporting Monday.

Pew found that the partisan divide that began immediately in 2009 when Congress was debating President Barack Obama’s health care bill that got dubbed “Obamacare” remains a gulf – with more than 70 percent of Democrats wanting to keep the law and more than 85 percent of Republicans wanting to scrap it, as the now solidly-Republican led Congress and president-elect Donald Trump intend to do as soon as possible.

But individual provisions? Pew cited a Kaiser Family Foundation survey that shows that’s where the challenge is for Republicans pledging a repeal-and-replace plan.

Kaiser asked people about ten specific ACA provisions: nine of them got overall 60 percent support, and eight of them even got 60 percent support from Republicans.

The only provision Kaiser inquired about that clearly lacks support is the one requiring people to pay tax fines if they don’t sign up for a health insurance plan. Only 21 percent of Republicans support the idea, and only 35 percent of all Americans surveyed support it. Democrats still favor it, with 57 percent support.

Otherwise, Americans like the provisions in Obamacare:

– Overall, 85 percent of Americans surveyed said they like that young adults can stay on their parents’ policies through the age of 26, and that rule also got an 82 percent approval rating among Republicans.

– 83 percent of Americans said they like that there’s no out-of-pocket expenses for preventative-care medicine, and that includes 77 percent of Republicans surveyed.

– Closing the Medicare prescription drug “donut hole;” creating insurance exchanges for small businesses; providing subsidies for low- and moderate-income people to buy coverage; and giving states the option to expand Medicaid to cover uninsured; all got approval from at least 80 percent of Americans and at least two-thirds of Republicans.

– Preventing insurance companies from refusing coverage because of pre-existing conditions; and increasing the Medicare payroll tax on upper-income Americans; both got 69 percent overall approval and 63 percent approval among Republicans.

The only other provision Republicans rebelled against besides the fines for uninsured is the requirement that businesses with at least 50 employees provide health insurance. Just 45 percent of Republicans liked that, though overall 60 percent of Americans like it.

Democrats pretty much liked everything, giving 75 percent approval ratings for all the provisions Kaiser, asked about except the fines for uninsured people.

“Regardless of what they would like to see happen with the law, a growing share of Americans – across partisan lines – now see a dim future for the law’s major provisions. Roughly half of U.S. adults (53 percent) expect that its major provisions will probably be eliminated, while 39 percent say they are probably here to stay,” reported Pew authors Kristen Bialik and Abigail Geiger.


Val Demings ‘devastated’ by Orlando officer deaths

U.S. Rep. Val Demings – a retired Orlando police chief who spent 26 years on the force before entering politics – is “devastated” to hear about the murder of her former colleague Orlando Police Department Master Sergeant Debra Clayton followed by the traffic death of an Orange County deputy sheriff working that scene, Demings office reported Monday.

The Orlando Democrat, whose district includes the area where the deaths occurred, continues to monitor the situation. She is married to Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, and knew Clayton personally on the Orlando force.

“On Law Enforcement Appreciation Day it deeply saddens me that my community has to deal with this kind of tragedy,” Demings stated in a release issued by her congressional office. “As we celebrate the bravery of law enforcement officers all over our nation, I join Orlando, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and my Orlando Police Department family in mourning the violent death of one of our own and the death of a deputy killed in the line of duty.

“I had the honor of working with Sgt. Debra Clayton for many years at the Orlando Police Department. Sgt. Clayton was a fine law enforcement officer, wife, and mother who served her community with pride and as a mentor to young women.

“Gone, but never forgotten,” she concluded.

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat from Winter Park also issued a statement:

“The central Florida community today is in deep mourning over the loss of two public servants and heroes: Master Sgt. Debra Clayton, who was shot and killed in the line of duty, and an Orange County Sheriff’s deputy, who was killed in a motorcycle accident while searching for the suspect. Our sorrow is compounded by the fact that these deaths occurred on National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day – a day when we as citizens express our support to members of the law enforcement community for all they do.

“Central Florida stands united against senseless acts of violence – including those targeted at law enforcement officers and other public servants. Today’s events are another reminder of the risk these community heroes undertake every day to protect and serve. We owe them our deep gratitude and full support. Thank you to all who serve.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the families of Master Sgt. Clayton and the Sheriff’s deputy; the Orlando Police Department and Orange County Sheriff’s Office; and to law enforcement communities throughout central Florida. We join your sorrow today.”

Marco Rubio puts Russian in political oppression spotlight – and calls out Vladimir Putin

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio restarted his social media campaign to highlight political prisoners worldwide Monday, this time spotlighting a Russian imprisoned under President Vladimir Putin for “unauthorized assembly, and calling out Putin by name.

“#Russia must immediately and unconditionally release prisoner of conscience Ildar Dadin #expressionNOToppression,” Florida’s Republican senator tweeted Monday morning.

It’s a restart of an occasional serial of tweets and other social media posts that Rubio has been providing in late 2014 and the first few months of 2016 before his U.S. Senate campaign. Yet while it’s not the first time Rubio has highlighted a Russian, it comes with explicit denunciation of Putin – at a time when the Russian president’s relationship with president-elect Donald Trump and allegations of election campaign interference, together with reports of Putin’s own totalitarian approach to governing, are at the top of the news.

The tweet included a meme that declared, “Russian human rights activist Ildar Dadin was sentenced to two years in prison for participating in an ‘unauthorized assembly’ – in other words, expressing his right to freedom of expression. He is the first person convicted in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s new law that bars any form of public dissent. Status: Reportedly held in a prison camp in Siberia.”

Rubio brought his campaign to the Senate floor last May with a speech that included, “Every day, people are unjustly detained, they’re tortured, publicly shamed, and murdered, often at the hands of their own government. And here’s what their crimes are: Simply disagreeing with the government… disagreeing whether through journalism, through blogging, through peaceful organizing, or for simply [believing] in a different religion.”

In the first few months of his campaign, which ran until last July, Rubio highlighted at least two dozen cases of politically-oppressed individuals in North Korea, Cuba, Syria, Pakistan, Iran, China, Venezuela, Egypt, Kenya, Turkey, Bahrain, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Laos, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. He’s posted at least four on Russians, and called out Putin by name before, something he has rarely done with leaders of the other countries.

“With this effort, we will continue to shine a light on the courageous men and women who risk their lives every day fighting for basic human rights and democratic principles,” Rubio declared in a news release Monday. “While their oppressors may seek to silence them, #expressionNOToppression will serve as a voice for the voiceless.”


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