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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.

Psychotropic cocktail may have contributed to Facebook Live suicide

Naika Venant. Photo credit: Facebook

Part of a psychological evaluation administered to Naika Venant in June 2015 included a sentence completion test.

For the beginning stem sentence “The thing I want to do most of all is …” the then-12-year-old girl responded: “Die happy.”

Sentence tests can provide indications of attitudes, beliefs, motivations or other mental states.

Other sentences she finished: “My best friend is … I don’t have a best friend.” “The person I’m most afraid of is … nobody.” “I would do anything to forgot the time that … I made my mom cry.”

Among 3,523 pages of records recently released by the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) about Venant’s history in the child welfare system — and her life — are details about that June 2015 evaluation, carried out by Dr. Terilee Wunderman.

(The trove of documents were only made public after The Miami Herald fought in a court of law to have them released and did not include a DCF rapid response report already public.)

The psychologist goes on to note that Naika was depressed, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety and that her diagnosis for attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder by an earlier therapist was “not entirely appropriate” at the time.

Wunderman said, “there is much concern that her attention problems are due to anxiety and trauma rather than true ADHD symptomology.”

Because of that, her recommendation was to “re-evaluate” the 10 mg of Adderall Naika was prescribed due to the child’s already existing depression since one of the drug’s side effects is depression, “and Naika is coping with considerable depression related to her traumas … another regimen might better address her emotional difficulties,” it said on page 97 in the third installment of a final review of her foster care records.

She had, indeed, been through several traumas to that point. Naika was repeatedly molested and raped by another adolescent boy, 15, also a foster child, in a home with several other foster children, from April to December 2009 — when she was 7. She was Baker Acted once. She had endured physical abuse and had been exposed to sexually explicit material, and had inappropriately become sexualized at a young age.

In Jan. 2009, her biological mother arrived home to find a 4-year-old girl performing oral sex on Naika. Her mother beat her with a belt, leaving roughly 30 lashing marks all over her body — Naika then went into the foster care system, only to be raped by the 15-yr-old foster boy months later.

Her father was absent from her life and her mother struggled to keep the electric on when they were living together.

In all, Naika spent 16 months in foster care three different times, being placed in 14 different homes in the last nine months of her life, four alone in October 2016.

Less than a week before her mother finally gave up custody of Naika, her medication was ramped up.

By May 2016, she was taking 50 mg of Vyvanse, an Adderall generic. Another prescription had been added by Dr. Alon Seifan, page 110 notes on the third part of the final evaluation of her DCF foster care records:  25 mg of Sertraline, or Zoloft, a so-called ‘black-box warning’ drug. The designation comes from the Food and Drug Administration and is given to those pharmaceuticals deemed potentially hazardous.

In the case of Zoloft, it was found to have certain side effects, one of which was suicidal thoughts in children.

FloridaPolitics.com asked DCF about oversight of psychotropic drugs prescribed to children under the care of the subcontracted community-based care agencies (CBCs) handling Naika’s case, Our Kids of Miami-Dade and Monroe and the Miami Gardens-based Center for Family and Child Enrichment, Inc. (CFCE).

A rapid response report issued by DCF March 8 stated in ‘Finding A’ of the organizational assessment of Our Kids and CFCE said that “the child welfare professionals involved in this case were highly experienced and well prepared to perform their responsibilities; and while overall caseloads across the case management agency were slightly elevated, it did not have an impact in this specific circumstance.”

Case managers have the option to seek a second consultation after a first consultation when medication is prescribed for a child under their care. It is unknown if the CFCE case manager or case manager’s supervisor considered a second medical opinion on this matter. CBCs follow the same directives as DCF investigators throughout the state as dictated by Statute 39 of Florida’s judicial branch.

Jessica Sims, spokeswoman for DCF, said medicating a child was an issue that fell under the domain of parents, legal guardians or a court.

“The department does not prescribe medication,” Sims said by email Friday. “Only medical professionals, not child welfare employees, are responsible for the prescription of medication and informed consent must be obtained from a parent/legal guardian or the court. DCF does not determine what medication children take.

FloridaPolitics.com reached out to both Our Kids and CFCE for comment, but did not immediately receive a response before the publishing of this article.

It’s important to note because, on page 118 of Part 3 of the final review of Naika’s foster care records, Seifon made hand-written notes that Zoloft could induce “suicidal ideations” while Vyvanse’s potential side effect could be “sleep disturbance.

A question on the form asked how long the medications were to be prescribed. Seifon wrote, “indefinite.”

If a case manager had questioned any of this, they could have sought a second psychiatric/medical opinion based on both Seifon’s and Wunderman’s recommendations for and against prescriptions for Naika.

She hung herself in the bathroom of her final foster home in the middle of the night Jan. 22. (Her biological mother, Gina Alexis, had been made aware of the unfolding situation via a flurry of text messages, but she had no idea what address her daughter was at in the city if Miami Gardens.)

Seifon checked the “no” box on page 120 to a question on the same form documenting the psychotropic mix he was prescribing the child that asked, “Are there other treatment options available in lieu of administering the psychotropic medications recommended above?”

That was April 26, 2016.

By Dec. 8, Dr. Scott Segal doubled the Zoloft dosage to 50 mg daily and raised the Vyvanse back to 50 mg after it had been reduced to 30 mg.

A month and a half later Naika was dead.

FloridaPolitics.com attempted to reach Segal for comment, but he did not respond before the publishing of this article.

Naika’s case hauntingly parallels that of Gabriel Myers, who hung himself in the bathroom of his foster parent’s home in April 2009. Myers, who had been sexually molested, was also prescribed medication. He was 7 years old. His father was in an Ohio prison, and his mother was reported found unconscious in her car with drugs openly on display around her, which is how Myers wound up in foster care.

The Myers incident shook Florida’s child welfare system to its core and a special panel was formed to seek a way to better improve care for Florida’s foster children.

“Key initiatives from the Gabriel Myers Work Group were implemented and have been further improved over time,” Sims said. “The department’s office of child welfare recently organized a multidisciplinary review team that conducted more research on the procedures surrounding the prescription of psychotropic medication by physicians for children in care, and are exploring additional avenues of systemic improvement. Also, the CIRRT regarding this case outlined the need for enhanced coordination of care by providers and behavioral health professionals to ensure information is appropriately shared for the most effective level of care to be provided.”

But it goes beyond that, according to Howard M. Talenfeld, an attorney specializing in child welfare.

He told FloridaPolitics.com there aren’t enough therapeutic homes within Florida’s privatized child welfare structure to place children in with a complex set of problems, as was the case with Naika.

“Many children in foster care have serious behavioral problems resulting from the traumas of their abuse, removal from their natural parents, and then the further trauma of bouncing from one placement to the next,” Talenfeld, also the president of Florida Children First, said by email Thursday. “In many cases, foster children are medicated and  chemically restrained after appropriate placements, and therapeutic interventions are not made available to address the needs of these children by the private agencies responsible for their care.”

It’s a catastrophe that has repeated itself over and over, he said.

The attorney is currently providing Naika’s mother, Alexis, with advice, but is not representing her because he doesn’t counsel on behalf of adults.

He said Our Kids, which is subcontracted by DCF, handles home placements while CFCE, subcontracted by Our Kids, oversees the case management of those placements.

Dr. James Sewell, a retired assistant commissioner of the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement and child welfare consultant, was a member of the Gabriel Myers Work Group in 2009.

He said it was his understanding there were still significantly fewer therapeutic homes available to place children with specialized mental health or behavioral needs into for Florida’s foster children.

He agreed Naika’s case disturbingly resembled that of Gabriel in several ways, particularly the link between foster children with complex issues and the coupling of medication.

“He was too frequently shuffled from place to place,” Sewell by phone Friday. “All too frequently we put them on psychotropics because it’s easier for the schools or parents than really dealing with the problem. … We don’t adequately prepare caregivers or foster parents with enough resources to effectively deal with them.”

Another part of the problem, he said, was that DCF is underfunded with a large staff — currently about 13,000 — and the pay scales for that personnel are not competitive.

“(They) don’t pay worth a damn and the old adage, ‘You get what you pay for,’ is true here,” he said, referring to the state’s salary rate for DCF employees. “We need to make sure that the folks who are dealing with our children are the best and the brightest, and the most skilled.”

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.

Florida cities among the biggest population gainers

Three metro areas in Florida were among the nation’s 10 biggest gainers in the number of people moving there last year, and another three Florida metro areas were in the top 10 for overall growth rates.

The U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday said the Tampa area had the nation’s fourth-highest gain from people moving there last year. Some 58,000 new residents moved there.

South Florida had the nation’s seventh-highest gain from migration, adding about 48,000 residents who moved there.

Orlando added nearly 47,000 residents through migration, placing it at No. 8.

Those three metro areas also were in the nation’s top 10 for overall population growth — which includes natural population increases and migration.

South Florida grew by nearly 65,000 residents from births and migration, and its population stood at more than 6 million last year.

The Tampa area grew to 3 million residents last year, adding 61,000 residents through natural increases and migration. Orlando grew overall by nearly 60,000 residents and had a population of 2.4 million residents last year.

The Villages community northwest of Orlando had the nation’s highest overall growth rate last year at 4.3 percent.

Fort Myers had the fifth highest at 3.1 percent. Punta Gorda’s 3 percent rate placed it at No. 8.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida’s unemployment rate holds steady at 5%

Florida’s unemployment rate held steady at 5 percent in February.

This marks the second month in a row the state’s unemployment rate has been at 5 percent, and mirrors the unemployment rate the state experienced in the first two months of 2016, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

The state added 239,800 jobs private sector jobs year-over-year in February. According to the DEO, the professional and business services industry added the most jobs — 43,000, or 3.4 percent increase — during the one-year period.

“I am proud to announce that Florida’s private-sector businesses have created nearly 54,000 new jobs in 2017,” said Gov. Rick Scott in a statement Friday. “Over the past six years, we have been relentless in our efforts to make Florida the most business-friendly state in the nation because a job is the most important thing to a family.”

The agency reported trade, transportation, and utilities added 42,000 jobs, or a 2.5 percent increase; education and health services added 40,500 jobs, or a 3.3 percent increase; and the leisure and hospitality industry added 40,300 jobs, or a 3.5 percent increase, during the same one- year period.

The Orlando region continued to lead the state in year-over-year job gains, adding 50,900 jobs between February 2016 and February 2017. The Tampa Bay region added 36,100 jobs during the one-year period, followed by Jacksonville with 25,900 jobs.

Mickey vs. the tax man: Disney, Universal fight tax bills

It takes a lot of land to accommodate Cinderella’s castle, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Epcot’s 11-country World Showcase — and a hefty purse to pay the property taxes on it.

To cut tax bills in the tens of millions of dollars, the specialists at Orlando’s famous theme parks have employed methods from the creative — placing cows on undeveloped land and claiming an agricultural exemption — to the traditional — negotiating or appealing to a county board.

Over the past couple of years, however, such tactics aren’t quite doing the job: Property assessments and taxes have jumped — and so has the number of lawsuits the theme parks and other businesses have filed against Orange County’s property appraiser. That’s Rick Singh, who was re-elected to a second four-year term last fall despite the thousands of dollars in donations park officials gave his opponent.

Park guests relax and cool off with a water mist under the globe at Universal Studios City Walk in Orlando, Fla.

In lawsuits filed last year, the theme parks said Singh’s office had failed to use proper appraisal methodology. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts issued a statement describing increased assessments on some of its properties for 2015 as “unreasonable and unjustified.”

Beyond such terse statements, officials from Disney, the development arm of Universal Orlando and SeaWorld of Florida are saying very little about an issue they hope to resolve in court.

But they have spoken loudly with their wallets. Groups affiliated with all three companies gave $19,000 to Singh’s Republican opponent. Singh, a Democrat, got only $5,000 from the groups.

“If the single mother who is working two jobs has to be held accountable to pay her fair share, so should everybody else.” — Rick Singh, Orange County property appraiser

The backlash isn’t surprising, said Doug Head, chairman of the watchdog group Orange County Watch. Head said the appraiser’s position has traditionally been a cushy post for local politicos waiting to retire, but Singh is one of the first to have substantial professional training.

“He uses professional expertise, and he clearly figured out there is a lot more value than is properly being reflected,” Head said. “He did what he needed to do, and people accustomed to the way business was done weren’t happy.”

Singh said his methods for assessing properties are no different than those of his predecessors — except when looking at resorts and hotels. Then, he considers their income statements and the local “bed tax” paid by hotel customers, which he said his predecessor didn’t use. Income isn’t considered when assessing theme parks.

“It’s a matter of being fair and equitable,” Singh said. “If the single mother who is working two jobs has to be held accountable to pay her fair share, so should everybody else.”

The importance of the three theme parks to Orange County, which includes Orlando, can’t be overstated: The properties owned by Disney, Universal and SeaWorld are valued collectively at about $10.7 billion. Properties owned by the largest resort and timeshare companies are worth another $6.3 billion.

The three theme park companies pay 7 percent of the county’s property taxes — more than $135 million last year. That revenue helps to mitigate the impact of hosting 66 million visitors in 86,000 hotel rooms and 15,500 timeshare units every year, and to finance law enforcement, schools, parks and public health programs. Disney also pays property taxes to a private government established by the Florida Legislature that provides the Disney parks and resorts with services including utilities, roadways and firefighters.

Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh, left, at an election party in Orlando, Fla.

Property values for the theme parks, resorts and other large commercial properties are set by a team of almost two dozen of the county’s seasoned appraisers in what Singh calls “the most complex tax roll in the world” due to the constant growth.

Singh said the appraisers use a “cost approach” when evaluating theme parks. Tax bills go up not just from rising property values but also from new construction, which is constant at the parks.

“What does it cost to improve the land? What does it cost to build this? … What is the labor cost? Factor in all that and then it depreciates, and that’s your cost approach,” he said.

But the results are meeting a wall of resistance. Last year, Disney, Universal and SeaWorld filed a dozen lawsuits against Singh’s office, the tax collector and the state Department of Revenue. Several other Orlando resorts also have sued.

The companies pay taxes only on their properties’ “assessed” values; the “market” values reflect what the properties could be sold for.

SeaWorld is fighting the market and assessed values of its flagship SeaWorld Adventure Park, its Aquatica water park and Discovery Cove, an animal-encounter park. In a separate lawsuit the property appraiser’s office filed against SeaWorld in 2015, Singh’s office listed a market value of $192.5 million; SeaWorld listed it at $143.4 million.

Universal is disputing the market value of its 20,000-vehicle parking garage, which has nearly doubled in two years, from $148.6 million in 2014, to $297 million in 2016. The garage’s assessed value only went up 10 percent a year during that time, however, from $145 million to $175 million.

The entrance to Sea World, in Orlando, Fla.

Disney, whose total properties in Orange County have a market value of $8.2 billion, is not saying publicly what it thinks the value should be. But the company’s tax bill from Singh’s office jumped from $84.5 million in 2014 to $97.2 million in 2015 to $102.6 million in 2016, an average increase of about 10 percent a year. Those numbers exclude what Disney pays its private government in property taxes.

“Similar to other property owners in Orange County, we have no choice but to take action to dispute these errors by the property appraiser,” Disney’s statement said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

White House, in gamble, demands make-or-break health vote

Abandoning negotiations, President Donald Trump demanded a make-or-break vote on health care legislation in the House, threatening to leave “Obamacare” in place and move on to other issues if Friday’s vote fails.

The risky move, part gamble and part threat, was presented to GOP lawmakers behind closed doors Thursday night after a long and intense day that saw a planned vote on the health care bill scrapped as the legislation remained short of votes amid cascading negotiations among conservative lawmakers, moderates and others.

At the end of it the president had had enough and was ready to vote and move on, whatever the result, Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney told lawmakers.

“‘Negotiations are over, we’d like to vote tomorrow and let’s get this done for the American people.’ That was it,” Rep. Duncan Hunter of California said as he left the meeting, summarizing Mulvaney’s message to lawmakers.

“Let’s vote,” White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said as he walked out.

“For seven and a half years we have been promising the American people that we will repeal and replace this broken law because it’s collapsing and it’s failing families, and tomorrow we’re proceeding,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said, then walked off without answering as reporters demanded to know whether the bill had the votes to pass.

The outcome of Friday’s vote was impossible to predict. Both conservative and moderate lawmakers had claimed the bill lacked votes after a long day of talks. But the White House appeared ready to gamble that the prospect of failing to repeal former President Barack Obama‘s health law, after seven years of promising to do exactly that, would force lawmakers into the “yes” column.

“It’s done tomorrow. Or ‘Obamacare’ stays,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., a top Trump ally in the House.

Collins was among those predicting success Friday, but others didn’t hide their anxiety about the outcome.

Asked whether Republicans would be unified on Friday’s vote, freshman Rep Matt Gaetz of Florida said, “I sure hope so, or we’ll have the opportunity to watch a unified Democratic caucus impeach Donald Trump in two years when we lose the majority.”

Thursday’s maneuvers added up to high drama on Capitol Hill, but Friday promised even more suspense with the prospect of leadership putting a major bill on the floor uncertain about whether it would pass or fail.

The Republican legislation would halt Obama’s tax penalties against people who don’t buy coverage and cut the federal-state Medicaid program for low earners, which the Obama statute had expanded. It would provide tax credits to help people pay medical bills, though generally skimpier than Obama’s statute provides. It also would allow insurers to charge older Americans more and repeal tax boosts the law imposed on high-income people and health industry companies.

The measure would also block federal payments to Planned Parenthood for a year, another stumbling block for GOP moderates.

In a concession to the conservative House Freedom Caucus, many of whose members have withheld support, the legislation would repeal requirements for insurers to cover “essential health benefits” such as maternity care and substance abuse treatment.

The drama unfolded seven years to the day after Obama signed his landmark law, an anniversary GOP leaders meant to celebrate with a vote to undo the divisive legislation. “Obamacare” gave birth to the tea party movement and helped Republicans win and keep control of Congress and then take the White House.

Instead, as GOP leaders were forced to delay the vote Thursday, C-SPAN filled up the time playing footage of Obama signing the Affordable Care Act.

“In the final analysis, this bill falls short,” GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state said in a statement Thursday as she became the latest rank-and-file Republican, normally loyal to leadership, to declare her opposition. “The difficulties this bill would create for millions of children were left unaddressed,” she said, citing the unraveling of Medicaid.

In a danger sign for Republicans, a Quinnipiac University poll found that people disapprove of the GOP legislation by 56 percent to 17 percent, with 26 percent undecided. Trump’s handling of health care was viewed unfavorably by 6 in 10.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who as speaker was Obama’s crucial lieutenant in passing the Democratic bill in the first place, couldn’t resist a dig at the GOP disarray.

“You may be a great negotiator,” she said of Trump. “Rookie’s error for bringing this up on a day when clearly you’re not ready.”

Obama declared in a statement that “America is stronger” because of the current law and said Democrats must make sure “any changes will make our health care system better, not worse for hardworking Americans.” Trump tweeted to supporters, “Go with our plan! Call your Rep & let them know.”

Unlike Obama and Pelosi when they passed Obamacare, the Republicans had failed to build an outside constituency or coalition to support their bill. Instead, medical professionals, doctors and hospitals — major employers in some districts — as well as the AARP and other influential consumer groups were nearly unanimously opposed. So were outside conservative groups who argued the bill didn’t go far enough. The Chamber of Commerce was in favor.

Moderates were given pause by projections of 24 million Americans losing coverage in a decade and higher out-of-pocket costs for many low-income and older people, as predicted by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. In an updated analysis Thursday, the CBO said late changes to the bill meant to win over reluctant lawmakers would cut beneficial deficit reduction in half, while failing to cover more people.

And, House members were mindful that the bill, even if passed by the House, faces a tough climb in the Senate.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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.

Jeremy Ring says he’ll decide on CFO race after 2017 Session

Former Broward County Democratic state Senator Jeremy Ring said Thursday he’ll likely decide on whether he will run for Chief Financial Officer after the current legislative session concludes in May.

Coincidentally, that’s when Governor Rick Scott is expected to name a replacement for current CFO Jeff Atwater, who announced earlier this year that he would step down from the Cabinet-level position to take a job at Florida Atlantic University.

Last year, Ring told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that he was thinking of running for Governor in 2018, but says that idea only came after the paper wrote an editorial that said he’d be the best candidate for the job.

“That got my ego going a bit,” he said on WMNF-88.5 FM with this reporter. “It cost probably $75 million to run for governor in the state of Florida, so I’m not quite sure right now.”

Ring is a New England native who attended Syracuse University before beginning a lucrative career with Yahoo, starting in New York City before migrating to the West Coast from 1995-2001.

He then moved to Broward County to work for a new company before deciding 2004 that he wanted to be a state senator, where he said he wanted to help create an “innovation economy” when he was elected in 2006.

He admits it was a culture shock to go from Silicon Valley to South Florida.

“You go down (Highway) 101 between San Francisco and San Jose today you see Apple and Facebook and eBay and Twitter, you name the companies,” he says, “and then you go down I-95 between Palm Beach and Miami and you see strip clubs and pill mills, and that’s sort of world.”

He said he was motivated to create an “innovation economy” in the state, and discovered that Florida universities were doing plenty of innovating, but weren’t commercializing on any of those patents. “So I wanted to create an environment where we could have an innovation economy where we could commercialize our innovation in Florida.”

Regarding current legislation, Ring predicted that after the Legislature produces a medical marijuana bill this spring, activists will probably go to the courts, a la what environmental groups did after the Legislature failed to implement Amendment One a couple of years ago.

Regarding the other Democrats who are in the mix as potential gubernatorial candidates next year, Ring speaks highly of Orlando attorney and entrepreneur John Morgan and Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine.

“When you think about Philip Levine, there’s nothing teleprompter driven about him,” Ring says. “We need people who are going to inspire and inspire you in that way. He’s not going to bore you.”

You can hear the entire interview here.

American Bridge slams Mario Diaz-Balart for ‘selling out’ to support GOP health care plan

(Update – The House of Representatives has announced that there will be no vote tonight on the GOP health care plan).

In the hours left before Congress’ scheduled vote on the American Health Care Act, President Donald Trump and GOP House leadership were doing whatever it took to get the 216 votes necessary for passage of the bill.

In the case of Miami Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, could change in U.S. policy toward Cuba implemented under the Obama administration be the catalyst to lock in his support?

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Diaz-Balart sought assurances from White House officials that the president would maintain his campaign pledge to reverse Obama’s recognition of diplomatic ties with the Raul Castro-led Cuban government.

Diaz-Balart supported the health care plan in the Budget Committee last week, which narrowly passed on a 19-17 vote. A White House official said there was no explicit discussion of trading his vote for a promise on Cuba.

The bill has already been changed to get additional GOP support.

The Times reported in that same story that New York Republican Claudia Tenney said she was likely to support the bill after House leaders added a section that would shift Medicaid costs from New York’s counties to the state government.

The horse trading brings back memories of when the shoe was on the other foot eight years ago, when Barack Obama and congressional Democrats were doing everything in their power to get enough buy-in from Senate Democrats to back the Affordable Care Act in late 2009.

First, there was the $300 million increase for Medicaid in Louisiana designed to win the vote of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in what was derisively referred to as the “Louisiana Purchase.”

Next came the infamous “Cornhusker kickback” to get Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson’s vote. That involved giving Nebraska a permanent exemption from the state share of Medicaid expansion. That meant federal taxpayers would have had to kick in an additional $45 million in the first decade (a provision ultimately removed from the bill).

There was also “Gator-aide,” the label given to the request from Florida Sen. Bill Nelson for the Senate version of the ACA. That included a formula for protecting certain Medicare Advantage enrollees from facing what could be billions in cuts. The formula would only apply to five states, most notably Florida, where 800,000 of the state’s 1 million Medicare Advantage enrollees would be exempted from cuts.

Referring to the Times story, Shripal Shah, vice president of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century, took a swipe at Diaz-Balart.

Shah said: “No matter what his justification, here are the facts: Congressman DiazBalart is selling out millions of Americans in order to cut billions in taxes for a few millionaires, and this bill might not have even be alive today had it not been for his vote in committee. The White House may have been able to buy his vote, but the public is going to hold him accountable.”

Katrina Valdes, the Communications Director for Congressman Diaz-Balart, sent out this statement that he made last week.

“My committee vote does not mean I will support final passage of this legislation as it presently reads. I have clearly stated that I have some serious concerns with the bill in its current form. This isn’t the end of the road, but rather, one step of a long process that will include conference with the Senate.”

“Congressman Diaz-Balart remains in negotiations with House leadership and his colleagues about multiple aspects of the bill,” says Valdes.

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