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Florida sues open-carry group run by former Libertarian Senate candidate for illegal fundraising

Alexander Snitker

A Pasco County-based political group promoting “liberty” and smaller government, as well as open-carry and campus-gun laws, is being sued by the state of Florida for fundraising as an illegitimate nonprofit.

Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is suing Liberty First Network, demanding the New Port Richey-based organization cease fundraising immediately and pay a $1,000 fine.

Alexander Andrew “Alex” Snitker, 41, founded the Florida Liberty Network in 2013, which was later renamed Liberty First Network. Its principal business address is listed as 9851 State Road 54 in New Port Richey.

Those who follow politics may remember Snitker as the 2010 Libertarian Party candidate for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat. Snitker left the Party in 2016 to join the Republican Party, despite his continued support for Libertarian Gary Johnson for president.

In a Sunshine State News Op-Ed, Snitker explained why he left: “The Libertarian Party of Florida is filled with far too many bureaucrats who continuously look to bring more power within the party up to the top and will do so by any means.”

On the Liberty First website, Snitker established the organization with one principle: “To place Liberty first in Tallahassee.”

As a self-described “pending” 501(c)(4) Florida nonprofit organization, Liberty First seeks to “educate citizens about Liberty, and to advocate for the restoration of Liberty in the Florida Legislature and elsewhere.”

Nevertheless, charities who raise funds in Florida are required by the state to register annually with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — something Liberty First failed to do, since registration for the Network lapsed last year.

On Feb. 1, 2016, the Department filed a complaint, accusing the group of illegally soliciting contributions. By March 26, the state had ordered the Network to stop fundraising and pay the $1,000 fine.

In a suit filed Jan. 4 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, the state says the Network, as of yet, had done neither. Now the department is asking the court to intervene.

The Network’s primary goals are to limit government’s role in the lives of Floridians. To that end, it employs lobbyists — John Hallman, Danielle Alexandre and Theile Riordan (for “marketing”) — in an effort to push an extensive priority list: enact open-carry and campus-carry gun laws, abolition of red-light cameras, reduce funding for state purchases of conservation land, and eliminate funding for Enterprise Florida, the governor’s corporate relocation incentives fund.

The Network has also actively supported the effort to prevent Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

By way of the Florida Action Alerts website, the Network also issues calls to Florida lawmakers (as well as concerned citizens) to take legislative action on its agenda.

One such call to action came in October 2015, when Liberty First and Florida Citizens Alliance asked supporters to email state representatives and senators in support of open-carry bills HB 163, from state Rep. Matt Gaetz, and SB 300, from Gaetz’s father, state Sen. Don Gaetz. Both bills sought to establish what state Rep. Julio Gonzalez, a Venice Republican, described at the time as the “God-given right to openly carry weapons.”

Janet Cruz among those backing Stephen Bittel’s bid for Florida Democratic Party leadership post

Coconut Grove real estate developer and major political donor Stephen Bittel rolled out a list of new endorsements of bid for Florida Democratic Party chair on Monday, including South Florida congressional members Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, and Alcee Hastings .

Also backing Bittel is Janet Cruz, the House Minority Leader from Tampa, which also is the (once and former) home of Alan Clendenin, who is running again for the leadership post after losing a close race in 2013 to outgoing chair Allison Tant.

Clendenin lost his bid for state committeeman in Hillsborough County last month, losing by 12 votes to Russ Patterson. Although much was made about a bylaw interpretation by party chair Ione Townsend that precluded local elected officials from voting in the race, those votes would not have put Clendenin over the top in his own county. He ultimately moved to Bradford County and was elected as a state committeeman there, making him eligible to run for the chair position (a similar fate that occurred with Dwight Bullard, who, after losing to Bittel last month in Miami Dade County, moved to Gadsden County to become a committeeman and keep himself viable).

When Clendenin ran for party chair in 2013, there were some local Democrats who were not in his corner. Some of those sentiments were expressed in the aftermath of last month’s Hillsborough DEC vote.

On Tuesday night, Cruz issued this statement to FloridaPolitics.com.

“Alan Clendenin has been a dear friend of mine for many years. I supported Alan for his first bid for Party Chair and there is no doubt that there is a great need for his voice within the Party.

However, if we are going to be successful in 2018 & beyond, we need a Chair with a proven record of delivering victories for Democrats up and down the ballot. Stephen Bittel is a dedicated, progressive warrior with the business and grassroots organizing experience necessary to execute a 67-county strategy that energizes Florida Democrats as we head into a crucial midterm election cycle.

I believe Stephen has the vision and the ability to raise the resources we will need to ensure Senator Bill Nelson is reelected, that we elect a Democratic Governor for the first time in 20 years, and that we continue to grow our legislative caucuses in the State House and State Senate. For the future of Florida’s working families, we need Stephen Bittel as the next Chair of the Florida Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, Bittel and Bullard both released a list of endorsements on Monday.

“In the past month, I’ve traveled from Destin to Dade, listening to the ideas of Democratic leaders in more than 40 Counties across the State,” Bittel said in a statement.“If we are to win statewide, we need to make sure that every voice is heard.  Today, we announce the endorsement of two dozen caucus chairs, Counties and voters who represent all the best Florida has to offer.  I’m proud to have their support, because together we will build a Democratic Party that will win for Florida’s families.”

Rounding out the field is Duval County’s Lisa King and Osceola Democratic party chair Leah Carius.

The election takes place this Saturday in Orlando.

Protesters in Tampa tell Marco Rubio to hold Rex Tillerson accountable during confirmation hearing

Rex Tillerson‘s confirmation hearing for Secretary of State begins Wednesday morning at 9 a.m., and dozens of activists in Tampa want to make sure that Marco Rubio holds Tillerson’s feet to the fire during that hearing.

At a rally in front of the Senator’s district office in Tampa’s Westshore area on Monday afternoon, approximately 75 people stood alongside Kennedy Boulevard denouncing Tillerson, with many critics mentioning his close ties to Vladimir Putin and the Russian government as a reason to oppose his nomination.

“Marco Rubio can stop this madness of Rex Tillerson’s appointment, and we’re out here to stand by him and say we agree with your concerns and thank you for looking out for us. You can be the one that stops this,” said Dayna Lazarus with Organize Now in Tampa.

Lazarus isn’t overhyping Rubio’s power in the confirmation process. With Republicans having just a one-seat majority on the 19-member Foreign Relations Committee, Rubio’s opposition — combined with ten Democrats on the panel — could keep the nomination from advancing out of committee, although his nomination would still ultimately come up before the entire U.S. Senate.

Rubio has already expressed some skepticism about Donald Trump’s nomination of Tillerson, who built a close relationship with Putin through his leadership as CEO of ExxonMobil. Putin awarded Tillerson with Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013, a special honor bestowed upon foreign citizens who contribute to Russia’s culture, economy or international relations.

Rubio’s initial reaction to the pick wasn’t positive.

Rubio later said that he had “serious concerns about Tillerson’s nomination.

Rubio “has a responsibility to the state of Florida” to thoroughly vet Tillerson, said Marina Welch, who is heading up the Tampa Bay area region’s trip to Washington for the Women’s March on D.C. the day after Trump’s inauguration on January 21.

“We are out here to show Senator Rubio that we support his skepticism about this Rex Tillerson appointment, ” said Kent Bailey, chair of the Tampa Bay area chapter of the Sierra Club. “We want him to feel supported in doing the right thing, the courageous thing in standing up to the expected appointment of a man who has no business being Secretary of State, a man who has been Putin’s partner in crime for decades.”

Referring to the report that in 2001 Tillerson became the long-time director of a US-Russian oil firm based in the tax haven of the Bahamas, Bailey said that was a very profitable relationship for both Tillerson and Putin. “Tillerson got a friendship award from Putin just months before Russian invaded the Crimea and went into Ukraine. Our country put sanctions on Russia, which Rex Tillerson publicly and loudy argued against.”

About halfway through the event, protestors began chanting, “Reject Rex! Reject Rex!” Later, group of five were allowed to enter Rubio’s office and tell his staffers their feelings about why they want him to reject Tillerson.

On NBC’s Meet The Press on Sunday, Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham both said they still have questions about they can support Tillerson.

There were many in the crowd who are also suspicious of Tillerson when it comes to his stance on global warming. In a 2012 speech, Tillerson said about the issue (which he does believe is a problem) that,”We have spent our entire existence adapting. We’ll adapt,” he said. “It’s an engineering problem and there will be an engineering solution.”

“Who’s going to pay for this engineering problem?” asked Tampa activist Jim Shirk at the protest. “Is he foisting off the response to global warming on everybody else except the people causing it?”

Tillerson’s confirmation hearing begins at 9 a.m. on Wednesday in Washington.


Kathy Castor calls on GOP not to repeal ACA without a viable replacement

When Christine Roeper was about to turn 26 last year and thus no longer be eligible to stay on her parents health care insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act, she says she contacted the navigators based at USF to help her find a plan.

“I definitely do need health insurance,” Roeper said on Monday at a news conference called by Tampa Democratic Representative Kathy Castor. “I have a heart condition called mitro valve regurgitation, so that requires even more doctor visits and different medications and different procedures. Without the ACA, I wouldn’t be able to afford insurance. It costs me a dollar to get medicine, a couple of dollars to see a doctor. It’s been phenomenal.”

Greg Robinson was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of blood cancer in October of 2015, and underwent extensive chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant to “essentially save my life” at Moffitt Cancer Center.He’s always been able to receive insurance through his employer,  but he says that the thought of his insurer no longer having to carry a patient with pre-existing conditions – a key tenet of the ACA- is something he calls “terrifying.”

The two Hillsborough County residents spoke at a news conference organized by Castor at Royal Sun Park, an assisted living facility located in North Tampa.

The Tampa Democrat has been a huge supporter of the ACA since Barack Obama signed it into law in 2010. With congressional Republicans poised to repeal parts of the ACA as early as this month, she says she’ll continue to hold press events bringing forth those who would be deleteriously affected if the plan goes away without a viable replacement. ‘We’re saying, Republican congress, don’t throw our families into chaos,” Castor said. “Don’t proceed on this ideological repeal plan without a replacement.”

While House and Senate Republicans remain relatively firm on repealing the ACA as soon as possible, no one has said how long it might take before a working alternative will replace it. There has been speculation that it could be as long as two to three more years before a completely new plan could be viable.

Although talk of repealing the ACA has been in the headlines for the past week, “enrollment again is off the charts” says Jodi Ray, principal investigator for the USF Navigator grant, which works towards signing the noninsured on to a health care plan.

“We’ve been busy,” Ray said, adding that the numbers of people signing up to get the ACA in 2017 has exceeded last year’s numbers. Ray said that there are at least 280,000 individuals from the Tampa Bay area on the ACA, with at least a third of them being Hispanic.

“We’re reaching women, students, folks who are in rural areas who are hard to get to,” Ray said. “We’re working nights and weekends and we are seeing consumers that are having their life changed … because they have access to health care now, and they didn’t have access to health care prior. Overall, 1.7 million Floridians are now on the ACA.

There is an immediate deadline of next Sunday, January 15, for people to begin getting coverage by February 1. The next deadline comes at the end of this month to begin qualifying for any type of health insurance this year.

Although there has been very little specific information about what a replacement health insurance program would look like, there has been renewed discussion of changing the way that the Medicaid funding formula works, with the money ultimately going to the states as a block grant.

“When you hear block grant, or per capita cap, or greater flexiblty, what that really means is you’re not going to have the same amount of money, your families are going to be left out in the cold, they’re not going to have a place to go for skilled nursing or assisted living care,” said Castor. “It’s something of a shell game that will leave our families out in the cold.”

Castor says she does believe she can work with Republicans on some improvements to the program without throwing it all out. She says working on controlling the costs of pharmaceuticals and working on bringing greater competition in those areas of the country that have seen exponentially large premium increases (because in some cases there is only one insurance company available) as two viable examples.

While Castor was making her case to save the ACA, Rick Scott was weighing in as well, applauding congressional Republicans for working immediately to dismantle the program.

“For far too long, it has been fashionable in Washington to say Obamacare can only be tweaked,” Scott wrote to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. “The impact of Obamacare has been devastating in Florida and our nation. Obamacare was sold on a lie from the very start. Costs are skyrocketing, people have not been able to keep their doctors and many people have fewer doctors to choose from. The increases in health care costs are at a 32-year high and are expected to continue increasing in the coming months. Recent news of Obamacare rates rising 25 percent is absurd and families simply cannot afford it. We can do better and the families and businesses footing the bill deserve better.”

Vern Buchanan to chair key Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan has been named chairman of the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee, a key watchdog panel with investigative authority over all issues under the full committee’s jurisdiction, including health care, the IRS, welfare, Social Security and Medicare.

“I look forward to chairing this important watchdog panel that will monitor government’s largest federal agencies and programs,” Buchanan said. “I intend to make sure these programs are accountable and working for the people.”

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady was effusive in praising Buchanan.

“While serving on Ways and Means, Vern has proven to be an effective, hardworking, and thoughtful leader. As the newly-selected Chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee, Vern will be at the center of the House’s efforts to hold the IRS accountable and ensure the faithful execution of our laws. I appreciate his hard work and am confident he’ll continue to deliver real results for Floridians and all Americans.”

Buchanan said he is in the process of developing his agenda for the 115th Congress, but said it will include fighting fraud in Medicare and Social Security, making the Internal Revenue Service more responsive to ordinary citizens, safeguarding Americans from identity theft and increasing transparency in government.

“I intend to be fair but relentless in exposing government malfeasance,” Buchanan said. “Fraud, waste and abuse will not be tolerated. Government exists to work for the people, not the other way around.”

Buchanan, who chaired the Human Resources Subcommittee in the last Congress, also sits on the Health Subcommittee and Social Security Subcommittee of Ways and Means.

The congressman has served on the Ways and Means Committee since January of 2011. His 2015 appointment as subcommittee chairman marked the first time a Floridian led a Ways & Means Subcommittee since U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw chaired the Trade Subcommittee for the 109th Congress (2005-2006).

Ways and Means is widely considered the most powerful committee in Congress because of its broad jurisdiction, including taxes, health care, Social Security, Medicare, welfare and international trade.

Polk County Democratic Women’s Club to host Lakeland walk, rally

The Democratic Women’s Club of East Polk County will sponsor a walk and rally at Lake Mirror in downtown Lakeland 5-6:30 p.m., Sunday, which it says is to emphasize women’s and social rights.

Karen Welzel, president of the club, said the rally followed by the march around the lake is “to give a voice to groups and individuals feeling marginalized and attacked during this election cycle, and to bring to the forefront issues of importance to women.”

Among those issues, sponsors said, are civil rights, economic issues including equal pay for equal work, health care, religious freedom, environmental concerns, reproductive freedom and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

The rally follows one in Winter Haven last month and several throughout the state building toward the Women’s March on Washington, Jan. 21.

Among the speakers for the Lakeland rally will be Welzel, president of the Democratic Women’s Club of East Polk Ridge; former Lakeland City Commissioner Keith Merritt; Dr. Maureen McKenna, president of the Democratic Women’s Club of Florida; Professor Emeritus Dr. Sharon Kay Masters of Florida Southern College, who specializes in Women’s Studies; along with several other speakers.


Ed Hooper to launch campaign for Jack Latvala’s Senate seat February 1

As hard as it will be to fill the shoes of Jack Latvala in the Florida Senate, Ed Hooper believes he’s up for the task.

Hooper, the former Republican state Representative and Clearwater City Commissioner, will officially launch is campaign to succeed Latvala on February 1st with a kickoff event at Marina Cantina in Clearwater Beach.

The event begins at 5:30 p.m.

Hooper filed paperwork a year ago to run for what is now Senate District 16 after backroom maneuvering tied to the redistricting process created a situation in which Pasco County’s John Legg would not run in a primary against a powerful colleague in exchange for support for a possible 2018 bid for the Latvala seat.

Legg was drawn into the same district as Republican Sen. Wilton Simpson, who is slated to become Senate President in 2020. Legg agreed not to challenge Simpson.

That someone not from Pinellas might takeover the seat held by the lawmaker known for his “Pinellas first” attitude did not sit well with Hooper.

“It just upset me … that a deal had been cut for a lifelong Pasco guy,” Hooper told FloridaPolitics.com.

“John Legg is a nice man and I respect him very much, but over two thirds of this seat is located in Pinellas County,” Hooper said. “I just think that a deal ought not be cut to just hand it to him.”

Hooper said he is surprised that after the redistricting imbroglio that has gripped state politics this decade that the Florida Senate – and not the electorate – is still trying to pick its members.

“I think the voters of Pinellas and western Pasco ought to have a say,” Hooper said.

A former firefighter who served four terms in the Legislature before being term-limited from the House, Hooper, 68, lost a contentious race in 2014 for the Pinellas County Commission to Democrat Pat Gerard, but since then has maintained a public profile.

During his final year in the Legislature, Hooper was chair of the Transportation & Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee. He also received numerous “A” ratings from the Florida Chamber of Commerce Honor Roll, Florida Education Association, and the Florida Home Builders Association.

Throughout most of his political career, Hooper has been seen as a strong ally of Latvala, the veteran lawmaker he hopes to succeed. But so too has been Legg, so it will be very interesting to see who, if anyone, Latvala supports.

Of course, this all assumes Legg runs for Latvala’s seat in 2018. In extended conversations with FloridaPolitics.com, Legg has indicated that the north Pinellas state Senate seat is just one of several options he is considering.

Airbnb says its guests will make $1 mil impact on Tampa during College Football Championship

College football could mean big business for Airbnb.

The online home-sharing giant announced Friday that Florida’s Airbnb community is expected to generate more than $1 million in economic activity during the college football championship game between Alabama and Clemson.

“Home sharing is allowing Tampa to substantially expand lodging capacity and take full advantage of this incredible economic opportunity,” said Tom Martinelli, Airbnb Florida policy director, in a statement. “Our host community is stepping up in a big way to serve as ambassadors for their City as the eyes of the sporting world turn to Tampa.”

The company expects that in the days leading up to the game — Jan. 7 through Jan. 9 — Tampa will welcome more than 1,700 arrivals through Airbnb. The host community is expected to earn about $529,000 in supplemental income during the period, and the company estimates Airbnb visitors will contribute $512,000 to the Tampa economy.

That sum, the company noted, does not take into account the potential for extra spending in connection to the game

This economic infusion comes as Tampa – with its total inventory of 21,600 hotel rooms reaching maximum occupancy – prepares to welcome over 100,000 travelers from across the world in anticipation of the game. The growth of home sharing in Tampa is allowing the City to utilize pre-existing resources – people’s homes – to expand lodging capacity and keep as many visitors as possible within its corporate limits. Most of Tampa’s Airbnb listings are located outside of the downtown hotel district, therefore routing college football travelers to neighborhoods that lack hotels and do not typically benefit from tourist economic activity.

The estimated 1,700 guests is one of the largest surges of travelers to Tampa over a typical weekend period. The host community has grown by 26 percent in the past month, according to data provided by Airbnb.

“As a destination, we are happy to that our local authorities and Airbnb were able to hammer out an agreement that benefits everyone involved,” said Santiago Corrada, the president & CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. “The sharing economy is a growing, dynamic part of the travel industry, and we expect Airbnb to contribute to Tampa Bay’s international reputation as Florida’s most exciting, inviting destination for travelers.”

Last month, Airbnb announced an agreement with the Hillsborough County Tax Collector that will allow the company to collect and remit the area’s 5 percent tourist tax on behalf of the Hillsborough host community. That agreement begins in February.


Charlie Crist praises imminent buyback agreement between St. Petersburg, Jordan Park

Congressman Charlie Crist is applauding the imminent return of the troubled Jordan Park public housing complex back to the St. Petersburg Housing Authority.

“Having heard the concerns from Jordan Park residents firsthand this past summer, it was clear urgent action was needed on their behalf,” the St. Petersburg Democrat said in a statement Thursday.

Inhabitants of the 237-unit complex have brought a steady stream of complaints over the past few years including broken appliances, mold, mildew, rodent infestation, poor maintenance and landscaping.

Crist, who represents Florida’s 13th Congressional District, which includes Midtown St. Petersburg, is encouraging the federal government to work with the city of St. Petersburg to approve the agreement quickly, which would help make much-needed improvements to the living conditions of residents

The final agreement, which has been reported to be “any day now,” must be approved by both the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Florida Housing Finance Corp.

The complex, at Ninth Avenue South in 22nd Street in St. Petersburg’s historic African-American district, is currently owned by Jordan Park Development, a partnership of the Richman Group of Florida and Landex of Jacksonville.

Winn­Residential, the firm hired by Jordan Park Development to manage the property, has been accused of being unresponsive to resident complaints.

Crist sees the pending agreement as a significant step forward for residents of Jordan Park.

“I am happy to see the city moving forward with plans to take over this complex, which has been lacking oversight and standards enforcement to the detriment of its tenants,” Crist said. “I encourage the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to do all they can to see this deal through to help better the lives of those living in this community.”


Bill would qualify Ruth Eckerd Hall for tourism tax dollars

Legislation filed in the Florida Senate would allow Ruth Eckert Hall and similar auditoriums to benefit from taxes raised to promote tourism.

SB 68 by Sen. Denise Grimsley would clarify that tourist development tax dollars may flow to facilities, like Clearwater’s Eckerd Hall, that are publicly owned but managed by nonprofit organizations.

Existing law allows tourism tax money to be spent only on convention centers, sports stadiums or arenas, or coliseums that are publicly owned and operated.

“This measure offers clarity for communities on the appropriate uses of their local tourist dollars,” Grimsley, a Lake Placid Republican, said via email.

Pinellas County collected around $49 million through the tax last year, but Eckerd Hall has not qualified for any proceeds.

In 2013, declining corporate, state and federal support forced Eckerd Hall to lay off 13 employees, nearly one-third of its workforce. During the past two years, however, the Hall reportedly has posted record ticket sales.

The venue ranks No. 3 in the world for venues with fewer than 2,500 seats, chosen by leading industry trade magazines.

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