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Staff Reports

Gwen Graham talks about making a difference in first campaign video

Gwen Graham is out with her first campaign video, highlighting recent Workdays and her 2018 gubernatorial launch.

“My love for Florida runs deep, but my patience, my patience for inaction in the state I love has run out,” Graham says in the video over scenes of her announcement speech and Workdays across Florida teaching, installing solar panels and restoring wetlands.

Graham, the former congresswoman from Tallahassee, formally announced her 2018 run on May 2. Since then, she’s been traveling the state participating in Workdays and meeting with Floridians.

“I really could care less about the title of governor. I would prefer always to be just Gwen,” she says in the video. “But what I do care about is being in a position where I can make a difference for Floridians and the state that I love so much. But I still just want everyone to call me Gwen.”

Graham, who is the daughter of former senator and Gov. Bob Graham, faces Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Orlando businessman Chris King in the Democratic primary. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Orlando attorney John Morgan are both believed to be considering a run.

On the Republican side, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam officially launched his campaign Wednesday. Sen. Jack Latvala and House Speaker Richard Corcoran are also believed to be considering a run.

Jeff Atwater sticking around as Florida CFO until state budget is nailed down

Jeff Atwater will remain in office as state chief financial officer until the state budget is completely settled, his office confirmed Wednesday.

Atwater has announced plans to leave Tallahassee to become CFO at Florida Atlantic University upon the conclusion of the Legislative Session. That came last Friday, although the Legislature required another three days to pass an $83 billion state budget.

Atwater’s plans were first reported by Brian Burgess of The Capitolist.

That budget — plus conforming bills spelling out some of the spending — is now in Gov. Rick Scott’s hands. He could veto individual line items or the entire spending plan. That latter option would force the Legislature to return to the Capitol to attempt an override or, theoretically, give the Governor more of what he wants.

As for replacing Atwater, Scott seems in no particular hurry. When asked about the transition, the Governor’s press office issued this statement:

“Gov. Scott thanks CFO Atwater for his hard work and service to the state of Florida. There is not a list of candidates for this position or a deadline.”

The names of a number of replacement candidates have been bruited. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry has taken himself out of contention. But state Sen. Aaron Bean, a Republican from Jacksonville, is interested. Joe Gruters, a GOP House member from Sarasota, has been mentioned.

In fact, at various stages, speculation has settled on a number of sitting and former state legislators.

Former state Sen. Jeremy Ring of Broward County is deciding whether to run for the office next year.

Democratic leaders touring Panhandle

Florida Democratic Party Chair Stephen Bittel and President Sally Boynton Brown are taking a two-day tour of the Panhandle to “energize the Democratic base and spread the party’s message of economic growth and opportunity to all corners of the state,” they said in a Wednesday news release. 

“I ran for party chair to build permanent progressive infrastructure throughout the state and elect Democrats at every level of office,” Bittel said.

“The Florida Panhandle provides a unique opportunity for us to show the entire nation how to communicate our Democratic values in red areas and find ways to connect to all types of voters,” he added. “We are thrilled to hear from Party leaders from around the region about what they need from our staff to run effective electoral programs.”

More from the release:

The trip throughout the Panhandle will serve as a listening tour encouraging discussion about the unique challenges that counties in the Panhandle face regularly when working to elect Democrats.

In 2008 President Obama performed better in parts of the Panhandle than any Democrat running for President since Jimmy Carter. This tour will serve as the beginning of a long-term initiative to turn the Panhandle blue again.

Below are​ the tour stops and details:

Tuesday, May 9th:

Escambia County

Santa Rosa County

Okaloosa County

Walton County

Holmes County

Wednesday, May 10th:

Washington County

Bay County

Gadsden County

Jefferson County

Madison County

Taylor County

New law expands use of therapy animals for children facing court proceedings

One of 11 bills signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Rick Scott expands use of therapy animals in court proceedings involving child abuse, abandonment, and neglect.

“This legislation will help children and individuals with unique abilities in our state as they face some of the most challenging times in their life,” Scott said in a written statement.

“I cannot imagine the emotional toll these terrible circumstances place on our state’s most vulnerable populations. The comfort and support provided by therapy animals can make a profound difference in someone’s life and I’m proud to sign HB 151 today.”

HB 151 allows courts to authorize use of therapy animals or “facility dogs” for emotional support in proceedings involving children, victims, and people with intellectual disabilities.

Scott also signed legislation creating statewide regulations for ride-sharing companies like including Uber and Lyft; Senate President Joe Negron’s Lake Okeechobee restoration plan; and creating a public records exemption to shield the identities of murder witnesses.

Rick Scott signs SB 10, the Lake Okeechobee restoration plan, into law

Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation Tuesday pledging $800 million in bonds toward Senate President Joe Negron’s signature project — a $1.5 billion plan to restore Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades by building a reservoir south of the lake.

Scott had signaled his intention to sign the legislation earlier in the week, calling Everglades restoration “a top priority.”

SB 10 did not include Scott’s call to invest $200 million in the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding the lake.

Still, the governor said President Donald Trump had pledged federal money to the project and that “Florida cannot miss this opportunity to partner with the Trump Administration for a project that will significantly benefit Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and our environment.”

“After 20 years of talking, southern storage is finally becoming a reality,” Negron said. “We are well on our way to putting the harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the pages of history, instead of the front pages of daily newspapers.”

The project is designed to stop discharges of toxic algae-infused overflow into streams and estuaries to the east and west by storing 78 billion gallons of water in a reservoir to the south, with treatment and ultimate discharge into the Everglades and Florida Bay.

The law forbids use of eminent domain, relying on land the state already owns or can swap with private landowners.

“I look forward to the work ahead as we continue to work with Governor Scott and our federal partners to expedite the planning and construction of this critical project,” Negron said. “Together, we will end the plague of toxic blue-green algae that harms the health of our citizens and destroys our environment and our economy, once and for all.”

Keep Florida Fishing, the advocacy arm of the American Sportfishing Association, issued a written statement praising the governor’s action.

“With today’s signing of SB 10, Gov. Scott has shown his strong commitment to advancing Everglades restoration,” said Kellie Ralston, Florida fishery policy director for the Association.

“Thank you to Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran for their leadership in preserving and protecting Florida’s natural resources,” said Gary Jennings, director of Keep Florida Fishing. “This will ensure that Florida remains the ‘Fishing Capital of the World’ for generations to come.” 

NRCC releases ad to thank Brian Mast, Republicans for health care vote

The National Republican Congressional Committee is thanking Republicans in new digital ad campaign.

The committee released a new web ad — called “Promise Made, Promise Kept” — to highlight the passage of the American Health Care Act. The 50-second spot thanks Republicans for their support, and targets Democrats for their support of the Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare.

“The NRCC plans to remind voters through 2018 that Democrats were happy to continue to condemn them to a rapidly failing health care system that was in a death spiral. The status quo was insufficient, and Republicans took action,” said Maddie Anderson, a spokeswoman for the NRCC, in a statement. “Delivering on promises to Americans should not be a groundbreaking concept, but somehow the Democrats are unable to wrap their minds around it.”

The ad is running in Florida’s 18th Congressional District. Rep. Brian Mast supported the bill.

Jose Felix Diaz officially jumping into race to replace Frank Artiles

Jose Felix Diaz is jumping into the race to replace former Sen. Frank Artiles in Senate District 40.

“I am filing for Florida Senate District 40. It is the area that I have represented for the past seven years and the place where I am raising my kids,” he said in a statement. “I plan to mount a strong campaign and I will work diligently to represent the best interests of my community.”

His departure from the Florida House had been expected; on Monday, he gave an emotional farewell speech on the House floor.

The 37-year-old Cuban-American told his colleagues he “was never supposed to be here, because my grandparents came to this country with nothing … but they persevered.

“As a kid I spoke funny, I didn’t believe in myself, and I let others define my expectations of myself,” he said. “But I persevered.

Diaz spoke directly to his two sons, Dominick and Christian, telling them not to be afraid to cry and to help the disadvantaged.

“I pray that you realize that helping others is everything,” Diaz added. “There are rich people, and there are poor people. Help the poor ones. Help the disadvantaged; help the sick. Don’t do it because someone is watching—do it because it will make a difference in their lives, not yours.”

A government law attorney at Akerman, Diaz was first elected to the Florida House in 2010. He is currently the chairman of the House Commerce Committee, and has been the chamber’s point person on gambling legislation in recent years.

The 37-year-old Miami-Dade Republican expressed interest in filing Attorney General Pam Bondi’s seat if she took a job in the Trump administration, and even said he was thinking about was running for the seat in 2018.

He was  believed to be a top contender to become South Florida’s top federal prosecutor. In April, POLITICO Florida reported Diaz and John Couriel interviewed with the Justice Department and were recommended — along with attorney Jon Sale — for the Southern District of Florida U.S. Attorney post. All three men were recommended by Sen. Marco Rubio.

Legislature OKs 2017-18 state budget in extended session

The Senate approved a roughly $83 billion state spending plan during a legislative overtime Monday, including a raft of conforming bills implementing House and Senate priorities on matters including public schools, colleges, and universities.

The 34-4 vote sent the General Appropriations Act to the House, which later approved it on a 98-14 vote. The annual ‘sine die’ ceremony, with the sergeants-at-arms for both chambers dropping handkerchiefs simultaneously, happened at 8:52 p.m.

The budget now heads to Gov. Rick Scott, who was at a “Freedom Rally for Venezuela” in Miami Monday night and did not attend the hanky-drop ceremony as he has in previous years.

It remains whether Scott will veto some or all the budget, which guts his favored tourism marketing and business incentive programs. His office did not issue a statement late Monday.

The budget gives $25 million — down from around $75 million — in recurring operating funds for VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing arm, and only $16 million to Enterprise Florida, the economic development organization.

The sine die ceremony was more subdued than earlier years, with far less than the usual complement of lobbyists and staffers hoisting red cups to toast the end of another Legislative Session.

The final Senate vote came at about 8:30 p.m. without debate, following a day spent in extensive debate over the budget package. The chamber sent the usual implementing bill over by the same margin, then paused to give the House time to act.

House Democrats debated the budget only briefly before Speaker Richard Corcoran dimmed the lights in the chamber, joking “We don’t want you to see the (budget) so we’re gonna vote on it blindly.” He actually was getting ready to show a House-produced video. 

Corcoran, who is rumored to be eyeing the Governor’s Office in 2018, called the session’s work “bold and transformative,” mentioning the nearly 100 votes the budget got in the House.

With the Senate’s vote, “that’s way more than two-thirds,” he said — the margin needed to override the governor’s veto legislatively. “I think it’s more likely that (Scott) will veto (member) projects, and I have always told you that my encouragement to the governor is, ‘ go ahead and veto all the pork you can.’ “

Senate President Joe Negron also told reporters that policies in the budget “are things that this governor supports … I think that all of us will spend some time over the next week to 10 days to make our case. We have the burden of proof.”

House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, however, said she didn’t “feel all the transparency that people professed” — a shot at Corcoran.

“We sat outside,” she said, referring to House Democrats in the budget process. “If Floridians who elected us really understood what was happening here, they would quite frankly be surprised at how few people make the decisions.”

Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, warned earlier in the day that failure to adopt any of those bills could sink the entire budget.

“From a real-life perspective, if we fail to adopt one of the priorities of the other House, that’s going to have an impact on the whole process, and probably the budget as a whole. You know that as well as I do,” he said.

Nevertheless, there were bipartisan protests by senators who warned of the potential to sink bad policy into these must-pass bills without scrutiny by substantive committees.

“It’s easy for us to say, well, there’s good policy in here, and so that’s why we should do it,” Democrat Jeff Clemens argued. “Well, sometimes there’s bad policy in conforming bills, and we don’t get a chance to amend that here. All we can do is vote yes or no.”

There were protests about trade-offs. Sen. Bill Montford asked a series of questions about language providing defined contribution retirement plans to state workers, which the Senate agreed to in exchange for state workers raises.

“If we want the pay raise … we had to bite the insurance and the pension changes,” Latvala finally told Montford. “If you don’t think they’re worth the pay raise, vote against the bill.”

Thirteen senators took that advice, against 24 who voted for that conforming bill.

The budget act and conforming bills contain the first across-the-board salary increase for state workers in 11 years — with the biggest increase for people paid $40,000 per year and less. It would steer extra money to corrections officers and other positions plagued by high turnover.

The budget for PreK-12 would grow by $241 million but, because Florida will have 24,000 more students, the base per-student allocation would actually shrink by $27. But there’s $140 million for a Schools of Hope program, to lure charter schools to replace failing public schools, and $234 million for the Best and Brightest bonuses.

In companion legislation, the Legislature would require state universities to charge students per semester, so they could load up on courses and perhaps graduate sooner. There would be no tuition increases, but there would be increases in aid and scholarships.

Support foundations would open more of their books to public scrutiny. State colleges would get a new governing structure and limits on upper-level enrollment.

The state would spend $3.6 billion for agriculture and environmental programs. Some $13.3 million are for beach recovery and $39.9 million for beach projects, on top of the $10 million base budget. But the offer zeroed out funding for land acquisition under the Florida Forever program — sacrificed for a $1.2 billion rainy day fund.

“There’s nobody in this chamber that regrets that more than I do,” Latvala said. “But when you put that up against all that we did for the environment … we’ve had quite a year.”

The budget would allow the state to get cracking on Negron’s $1.5 billion Lake Okeechobee plan, designed to stop discharges of toxic algae-infused overflow into streams and estuaries to the east and west by storing 78 billion gallons of water in a reservoir to the south, with treatment and ultimate discharge into the Everglades and Florida Bay.

Total spending on the Everglades next year would total $274 million.

Plans for substantial cuts to hospitals were mitigated by a Trump administration offer of as much as $1.5 billion for charity care — although the conditions on that aid would restrict the amount to about $1 billion, according to Anitere Flores, who chairs the relevant Appropriations subcommittee.

The legislation would allow the county clerks of the courts to keep $10.4 million in court fees they otherwise would send to the Legislature, plus another $11.7 million from the state for jury-related costs.

Tallahassee correspondents Michael Moline and Jim Rosica contributed to this post. 

Updated 9:45 p.m. — The tax package included nearly $815 million in cuts, including repeal of Florida’s “tampon tax,” and back-to-school and pre-hurricane season tax holidays. There’s also a $25,000 boost in the homestead exemption, contingent on voter approval.

That deal almost hit a snag when the House added two last-minute amendments. Senate bill manager Kelli Stargel wasn’t having it. She urged senators to say “No” to the House.

 “It’s not about the policy. It’s about at the last minute of the last hour of the last day of what has been a very difficult session that we do an amendment that we were not prepared to do,” Stargel said.

The House accepted the trimmed version.

Rick Scott sets special election dates to replace Frank Artiles in Senate

Gov. Rick Scott has set the dates for a special election to replace former Sen. Frank Artiles, setting the stage for what could the first in a series of special elections in South Florida.

The special primary election in Senate District 40 is scheduled for July 25, with a special general election to follow on September 26.

While the Miami-based seat leans Democrat, Artiles, a Cuban-American Republican, defeated Dwight Bullard, an African-American Democrat, 51 percent to 41 percent in November. Bullard, a former state representative and senator, raised little money for the race and was viewed by many as an ineffective lawmaker.

Rep. Daisy Baez, a Coral Gables Democrat, has filed to run for the seat; while the Miami Herald reported Rep. Robert Asencio, a Miami Democrat, is also considering a run. Both are freshman Democrats. On the Republican side, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz is widely believed to be planning a run for the seat; and if he doesn’t, Rep. Jeanette Nuñez could throw her hat in the race.

Any sitting state lawmaker who were to run for the seat would need to resign to run, triggering a special election to fill their seat. That could lead to a significant change over in the Miami-Dade delegation.

Artiles resigned on April 21, after he made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b****h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor.

Jeff Atwater’s office defends pay increases for top administrators

The office of Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who is stepping down with the conclusion of the Legislative Session, has defended pay raises for his top staff as in line with long-overdue increases throughout his department.

In a letter dated Thursday to Senate President Joe Negron’s chief of staff, Cheri Vancura, Atwater’s chief of staff, Budd Kneip, said he wanted to explain the situation in light of a press inquiry.

“When the CFO first arrived, we found that department personnel were woefully lagging in compensation compared to their appropriate peer groups. As a result, turnover was high, occasioning operating inefficiencies and excessive costs relating to recruiting and training,” the letter says.

Atwater’s office worked “closely and openly” with legislative Appropriations staff to reduce headcount but boost salaries. “From the very outset, the Legislature has been sympathetic and supportive,” the letter continues.

“In the interest of fairness, we began with lower compensated positions and worked our way up through the organization. We are now in a position to make similar adjustments to those responsible for implementing the changes and creating significant cost savings, bringing them into closer alignment with their peers.”

Over all, the department has eliminated 240 positions and realized annual salary reductions of $4.6 million, Kneip wrote.

“The total of these recent adjustments represents less than 1 percent of the annualized savings and an infinitesimal percentage of all savings realized.”

Among the increase, the chief of staff went from nearly $151,000 per year to $158,550; the deputy chiefs of staff for operations and fraud from $127,000 to $139,700; the general counsel, $125,000 to $128.750; and the director of internal affairs and appointments from $108,400 to $114,924.

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