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Kathy Castor optimistic about bipartisan health care proposal

A potential breakthrough in health care legislation broke out this week with the announcement of a bipartisan deal in the Senate proposed by Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander and Washington Democrat Patty Murray.

The deal would include funding through 2019 for the Affordable Care Act’s cost-sharing program, which President Donald Trump cut last week. It would allow states to use existing Obamacare waivers to approve insurance plans with “comparable affordability” to Obamacare plans. And it would not allow states to duck the law’s minimum requirements for what a health insurance plan must cover.

The House of Representatives are not in Washington this week. Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor says that it would behoove her colleagues on both sides of the aisle to speak with the public on what they think of the proposal.

“I think it would be fair to allow people to go through it and understand what it means,” she said Wednesday in Tampa. “I also think it’s important to hear from folks at home, doctors, hospitals, a lot of our neighbors. I’m going to check in with our state insurance commissioner, because here we are and open enrollment is going to start quite soon and people need to know is it going to be affordable for me and my family.”

Open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act is scheduled to start November 1 and run through December 15. Those “navigators” will attempt to sign up as many people as they can, despite the fact that the Trump administration is reducing their funding, some by as much as 90 percent.

The Alexander-Murray proposal comes a week after Trump finally followed through with his months long threat to yank the funding for subsidies to insurance companies as part of the ACA. Those subsides reduced deductibles and co-payments for low-income Obamacare enrollees. Analysts say the move did not have that significant an impact since many insurers already raised their rates in anticipation of the move. Regulators in several states that didn’t price in the funding loss announced rate hikes soon after the president’s announcement last week. Insurers must continue to offer the cost-sharing subsidies since they are required by law.

Castor says it’s important to let the public “digest the details.”

“We should be cheering on a bipartisan effort to help fix things for families,” she said. “If this bill will really lower costs and provide affordable care to our neighbors, then we need to pass it and the leadership needs to allow a vote.”

Meanwhile on the other side of Tampa Bay, Pinellas County Democratic Representative Charlie Crist is calling on his constituents to sign a petition calling on congressional leaders to demand a vote on the Alexander/Murray proposal.

Four Florida cities receive perfect score from LGBTQ national organization

Orlando, St. Petersburg, Wilton Manors, and West Palm Beach each achieved a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Municipal Equality Index, the only nationwide rating system of LGBTQ inclusion in municipal law, policy and services.

All told, 68 cities across the country achieved the top score from the organization.

“‘This year’s MEI paints a vivid picture: cities big and small, in red and blue states alike, are continuing our progress toward full equality, regardless of the political drama unfolding in Washington, D.C., and in state legislatures across the country,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “Today, the MEI serves as a vital tool for business leaders and municipal officials alike when it comes to economic development. CEOs know that in order to attract and retain the best employees, they must grow their companies in places that protect LGBTQ citizens from discrimination and actively open their doors to all communities. The MEI is the best tool to help these businesses make crucial evaluations about the welcoming — or unwelcoming — nature of towns and cities across the nation.”

The score comes during the same week that a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced legislation that would ban discrimination statewide based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Twelve counties and 30 municipalities have already passed local ordinances banning discrimination. But there is no statewide law.

In St. Petersburg, it’s the third straight year the city received the top score, all under the leadership of Mayor Rick Kriseman.

The score judged municipalities in five categories: nondiscrimination laws, employment policies, city services, law enforcement and municipal leadership.

“We are incredibly proud of our perfect score. It is a reflection of our values and policy advancements and serves as a vital message point for us when recruiting people and businesses to our city,” said Kriseman. “We also recognize that building an inclusive city never ends. There’s always work to do. We are committed to this work and ensuring that LGBTQ residents and
visitors forever view St. Pete as a beacon of progress.”

Kriseman and his supporters have made his advocacy of the LGBTQ community a prime campaign issue in his bid for reelection against former Mayor Rick Baker, who showed little interest in reaching out to that community during his first reign as mayor.

Baker has stressed from day one of his current campaign that the LGBT community “is a vital and important part of our community. I believe that when we work together, we have to work together with everyone.”

Tampa Bay Times seeks court order for DCF investigations

The company that publishes the Tampa Bay Times is asking a Tallahassee court to order the release of records on “abuse, neglect or exploitation of vulnerable adults by providers of home health care services” from the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF).

The petition, agreed to by the department, was filed this week by Times Publishing Co. and Times investigative reporter Kathleen McGrory in Leon County Circuit Civil court.

The newspaper aims to publish a “data-driven … examination of Florida’s methods of investigating and preventing maltreatment of the Florida families who rely on in-home health care providers.”

“Such an examination furthers the Legislature’s express intent ‘to encourage the constructive involvement of families in the care and protection of vulnerable adults,’ ” including senior citizens and the disabled, the Times’ filing says.

In May, McGrory filed a public records request with the department for “records of any DCF investigations involving home health agencies or providers” by county, the suit says. It says DCF has conducted more than 2,000 investigations of home health agencies since 2010, raising concerns of “unqualified personnel and other failures to provide proper care.”

The department responded with a spreadsheet listing cases and findings; McGrory then asked for “the underlying reports for each of the verified cases.”

State law “generally makes (those records) confidential and unavailable to the public,” but allows for a petition for a court order to release such documents if “good cause exists,” the filing explains.

The Times said it’s not asking for names of those who report abuse or victims or wrongdoers from the department, but will seek those identities through already-public court records.

In an agreed-upon process, McGrory will review “investigative summaries” in which DCF verified abuse, neglect or exploitation, then ask for corresponding reports as needed, the petition says. The department will take out any “personal identifying information.”

Veteran media attorney Alison Steele of St. Petersburg is representing the Times and McGrory. Steele has long represented the newspaper, as well as the Miami Herald, the New York Times, the First Amendment Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Karen Gievers. Steele requested an “accelerated hearing date;” an initial hearing has not yet been scheduled, according to court dockets accessed late Wednesday.

• Updated 10:30 a.m. — DCF spokesman David Frady issued the following statement Thursday morning:

“While all records related to adult protective services investigations are confidential per state law, the department has no objection to the Times’ request to waive confidentiality as long as a court determines releasing the information is in the best interest of the public. Furthermore, the department assisted the Tampa Bay Times in crafting the petition and has made it clear that we do not oppose the request.”

Rick Baker says he’d retain Tony Holloway as police chief, but …

Police Chief Tony Holloway has become an issue in the St. Petersburg mayoral campaign, as Rick Kriseman has been on the offensive about public safety, especially with crime down from the era of past mayor and present candidate Rick Baker.

The two squared off Wednesday night during an hour-long debate sponsored by the Council on Neighborhood Associations and moderated by Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam C. Smith at the Sunshine Center.

Kriseman has boasted about his selection of Holloway, a former Clearwater Police Chief, and said that unlike his opponent, he was dedicated to bringing him back. The crime rate is down from the Baker days, but it is in most cities compared to a decade ago.

Baker has been ambiguous about Holloway, but said he didn’t appreciate Kriseman’s references that he wouldn’t keep Holloway around.

Instead, he said that he has objected to the fact that Holloway doesn’t live in St. Petersburg, and emphasized that has been his only criticism of the chief.

“I’ve met with Chief Holloway. I like him. I see no reason why there’s an impediment towards being able to work with him,” Baker said. “The Mayor keeps on implying that I’m going to get rid of Chief Holloway. What I’ve said is, I’m not going to make any decisions on any staff … until I’m mayor.”

But Baker said if he were to win and chose to retain Holloway, he’d have to change some of his policies, such as eliminating the Street Crimes Unit and Auto Theft Unit — changes that Kriseman said that Holloway made.

After Baker announced he would challenge Kriseman’s re-election, he launched an aggressive campaign that kept the pressure on the incumbent throughout the primary. Polls showed Baker might have been able to win the mayoral contest outright.

That didn’t happen and since then the race has de-intensified. Recent public polling shows the race as tight as it was on primary election night, when the two candidates finished in virtual tie (Kriseman won 70 more votes).

The candidates opened up by offering bromides about their love and appreciation for the neighborhoods before reiterating familiar criticisms that have played out over the past four months, going back to the their first debate in late June.

The sharpest divisions came on the issue of spending, with Baker claiming that Kriseman has hired “close to 200” more staffers than he did. Kriseman dismissed the criticism, citing a PolitiFact article that rebuked the notion that he has spent excessively on high salaried employees.

Baker disputed that there was any such article. In fact, the Tampa Bay Times published a PolitFact article on the issue, but it was ambiguous, claiming who had the definitive word on the matter (the story did report that when it came to highly-paid employees, at his peak Baker had 95 such employees, while Kriseman had 79).

With just 20 days before Election Night, there’s very little territory that the two men haven’t discussed at length over the past four months, but some of the questions presented from the members of the Council of Neighborhood Associations were somewhat novel.

Many were not. Baker promised again that if is elected, he would get a new grocery store built in Midtown.

“I don’t agree with the concept by the mayor and his staff who have said that the people in Midtown can’t afford a neighborhood grocery store,” he said. “I believe that in Midtown we can handle a grocery store.”

Kriseman said that his staff was looking at “different models,” such as grocery stores with smaller footprints than traditional stores, as well as co-ops.

On the issue of mandatory curbside recycling, Baker defended the fact that didn’t go that far during his tenure as mayor.. He called the costs for it a regressive tax on those residents who can least afford to pay it. Kriseman followed up by saying that he’d like to consider the idea of composting.

“A lot of communities around the country are doing composting,” he said. “I think it’s something that we also ought to be taking a look at in the city.”

The age old campaign issues of sewage and sea level rise were again revisited. Baker said that he does believe that man has a role in climate change, and said he resented the “spin” that he’s a climate denier. “Sometimes spin can get to the point where it’s actually a lie,” he said.

The discussion allowed Kriseman to associate the former mayor with Sarah Palin and Rick Scott. Scott’s PAC has contributed to Baker’s campaign.

“Sometimes I think Rick Kriseman wishes I was running for governor or president,” Baker said, clearly annoyed. “He needs to start addressing the issues in the city of St. Petersburg.”

Baker bashed Kriseman for allowing the Tampa Bay Rays to negotiate talks with officials in Hillsborough County about a possible new location for a stadium. He said it looked obvious that the Rays would soon announce a site in Ybor City, and he said that Kriseman would have to own that if the team does relocate.

Kriseman dismissively said that Baker hadn’t been reading the papers, or else he would have read a report that the Ybor location is now out, with the team possibly looking in the Westshore area.

And he boasted that he was able to get the Rays to drop the provision in their original contract with the city if they move on getting 50 percent of the development rights to a refurbished Tropicana Field site.

“They only get to keep it if they stay in St. Pete, which is a pretty big carrot, for them when they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to finance their stadium,” Kriseman said.

Voting by mail continues daily. Election Day is Nov. 7.

Opponent blasts Gus Bilirakis for bill hamstringing DEA opioid fight

Gus Bilirakis is taking heat from an opponent for pushing a bill that dilutes the Drug Enforcement Agency’s efforts to stem the nation’s opioid crisis.

Mathew Thomas, a Democrat running against the 11-year Republican incumbent in Florida’s 12th Congressional District, blasted Bilirakis Wednesday for co-sponsoring the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act.

The 2016 bill had a (somewhat unintended) result of severely hampering the DEA’s ability go after opioid distributors supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who flood the black market with pain pills.

Bilirakis was one of six co-sponsors for the House version from Rep. Tom Marino, the Pennsylvania Republican who, until recently, was President Donald Trump’s nominee for drug czar.

On Tuesday, Marino backed out of the position, after CBS’ “60 Minutes” and The Washington Post reported that the bill changed a longtime standard required before the DEA could freeze suspicious sales of painkillers, which cuts the flow of opioids into the black market.

Instead of requiring the DEA to first determine shipments pose an “imminent danger” to the community, the agency must now conclude they represent “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat.”

“I’m appalled, but not shocked,” Thomas said Wednesday. “It has become business as usual for bills like this to roll through as lobbyists team up with members of Congress to ensure these bills succeed.”

Thomas noted that his opponent received $79,000 in campaign contributions from “corporations running this multifaceted campaign to undercut law enforcement.”

Bilirakis has responded. You can read his entire statement here.

Thomas responds: “At some point, we have to question the priorities of a Representative that sides with drug corporations over law enforcement in the midst of an opioid epidemic.”

He calls it “inexcusable” that Bilirakis claims he thought the bill would “strengthen cooperation” on the issue of drug abuse.

“His statement reveals he either never read the bill or he read it and voted for it despite the consequences,” Thomas said. “Both scenarios are unacceptable.”

Thomas added: “We cannot accept Representatives championing and co-sponsoring bills like this while we are losing people. We cannot accept Representatives stating ignorance to the effects of the bill when Judge John Mulrooney II, the DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge, warned about the bill’s diminishing DEA authority.

“That’s why I am running to be the Representative we deserve,” he continued. “I am someone who champions the American people and fights for their interest not lay down in the face of opposition or roll over for corporate donations. We have serious issues, people are drying, we need strong leaders empowering not diminishing our power. I am that leader.”

Thomas is a Palm Harbor-based software architect. He entered the CD 12 race in late June, and to date has raised $6,137.

The other Democrat in the race, Robert Tager, has raised $13,423.

Bilirakis, on the other hand, has amassed more than a half-million dollars in his re-election bid for the seat he has held since 2006.

Kathy Castor pushes bills to help with student loan debt

While Washington is filled with talk about cutting taxes and possibly health care benefits, Tampa Representative Kathy Castor sat down with current and former students from the University of South Florida (USF) and the University of Tampa (UT) at the Attic in downtown Tampa on Wednesday to ask them about two of her potential proposals regarding student loan debt, which continues drag the economy.

Having attended college in the 1980s, Castor said there are students with a lot more debt in 2017, with Pell Grants not keeping pace with inflation, rising tuition costs, and the attendant costs of paying for textbooks, transportation and a higher cost of living.

The average student for UT grads is approximately $31,000. At USF it’s $22,000.

Castor is co-sponsoring two bills to address the issue. The first and most pressing legislation looks to reestablish funding for the Federal Perkins Loan, after Congress failed to reauthorize the program at the end of September. About 2.7 million students in the U.S. received the Perkins Loan, which was subsidized by the students, who paid for it at a 5 percent interest rate.

She’s also sponsoring The Student Loan Relief Act,  which would lower the cap on federal student loan interest to 4 percent for undergraduate students, 5 percent for graduate students and 6 percent for parents.  It would change the way student loan interest rates are calculated, allow borrowers with loans disbursed before the effective date to refinance their loans at the new rates and eliminate loan origination fees.  U.S. Sen. Nelson unveiled the Senate version earlier this month.

“Just having certainty that you know that (the debt rate) is going to stay there…that would be amazing to me and I’m sure a lot of students will have the confidence in what they’ll be paying,” said UT student Aislinn E. Sroczynsk.

“I think people could breath a sigh of relief knowing it’s going to be capped at something, ” added Troy Schneider, also a UT student. “That would really help a lot of people.”

Moneer Kheireddine, USF student body president, said a problem is that the payment schedule is organized so that students must pay for the entire semester just as it begins. “Instead of having to pay off loans at the beginning of the semester, they can space it out and as they accumulate their finances through the semester, they can pay that off as opposed to having to pay off loans.”

“I’ve lived most of my business career with the wolf at the door,” said Kostas Stoilas, entrepreneur-in-residence with Tampa Bay Wave, referring to the loans he continues to pay back, years after earning his MBA at UT.

“You try to keep that wolf at bay by keeping your expenses down,” he says, referring to the $40,000 in debt he incurred in school, and how that affects his monthly bottom line as heads a commercial real estate company.

Sroczynsk says she aspires to go to a top-tier law school like Georgetown. But she worries that if she can’t afford to payback the loans after graduation, it could diminish her zeal for even pursuing such a career.

“I don’t want to have to compromise my career or my passion…just because I can’t afford my loans, or because the minimal payment is too high.”

Castor jokingly asked the students who gave their thumbs up to her proposals if they were ready to lobby the state Legislature, but Kheireddine said he’s already scheduled to travel to Tallahassee three times next month and would gladly advocate on her behalf.

Castor said debt relief for students is rarely discussed in Congress these days, which is why she’s hoping to build a coalition in the House of Representatives to push for her bills.

“The bulk of the year it’s been a fight over healthcare,” she said. “I hope they’re going to talk to state legislators, business leaders and anyone else.”

About face: Chris Burke endorses Nick DiCeglie for HD 66

In an apparent change of heart, Seminole Vice Mayor Chris Burke has endorsed Nick DiCeglie for the Florida House District 66 seat, the campaign announced Wednesday.

In July, before DiCeglie jumped into the race, Burke had endorsed fellow Republican Berny Jacques, a former prosecutor.

“I have known Nick for many years as an excellent family man, successful small business owner and person genuinely concerned for the success of our community,” Burke said in a statement. “Nick will bring a level of awareness and experience to the House that will be an immediate benefit to Pinellas County.

“His dedication to the Republican Party in Pinellas has been apparent and he has been instrumental in advancing the interests of the Party here at home,” Burke added. “His selection as (a Presidential) Elector for the State of Florida makes his commitment even more evident.”

DiCeglie said he was “honored” to have Burke’s support.

“I’ve known Vice Mayor Burke for 17 years and I can tell you, he is the definition of a decorated public servant – having honorably served our country abroad at war and currently here at home as a Councilman and police officer,” he said.

“He has continually proven his leadership and dedication to serving others and I look forward to working with him to keep our neighborhoods safe and ensure our community remains a great place to live, work and raise a family.”

Burke, a Massachusetts native, moved to Pinellas County in 1979, graduated from Seminole High School in 1982 and later graduated magna cum laude from both St. Petersburg College and the University of South Florida with a history degree, according to a news release.

“He is a decorated U.S. Army and Gulf War Veteran and was nominated for the Bronze Star during the first Gulf War,” it said. “Burke has served on City Council for Seminole since 2012 where he currently serves as Vice Mayor. He has two daughters in college and attends St. Jerome Catholic Church.”

DiCeglie, a Long Island native, has been active with the Pinellas Republican Party since 2009, and its chair since 2014. He’s the co-owner of Solar Sanitation, a solid waste collection company serving Pinellas residents since 1980.

The current seat holder, Republican Larry Ahern, is term-limited.

Sarasota attorney David Shapiro files to run against Vern Buchanan in CD 16

Sarasota attorney David Shapiro has filed to run for Congress against Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan in Florida’s 16th Congressional District.

Shapiro, a Democrat, is a longtime Tampa Bay-area resident who has practiced law in Sarasota for 32 years He previously ran for the Florida House of Representatives in 2006, losing a tight election, 51-49, to Republican Doug Holder in Florida House District 70.

In a news release issued by his new campaign, Shapiro said he was motivated to run for Congress “for our need for representatives in Congress who will stand up for the people, not be afraid to work across the aisle, and do what is in the best interests of the hardworking families they were elected to serve.”

CD 16 covers all or parts of Sarasota, Manatee, and Hillsborough counties. Buchanan, of Longboat Key, is in his sixth term representing the district.

“For 32 years I have been fighting to protect my clients,” Shapiro stated in the release. “And as I’ve watched Washington become more dysfunctional and divisive, it’s become clear no one is looking out for our interests. We can’t afford partisan gridlock driven by career politicians like Vern Buchanan. We need new leaders who will listen to our needs, fight for us, and be willing to work across the aisle to do what is best for our community.”

Shapiro, 58, and his wife of 28 years Robin live on Siesta Key and have three grown children.

“No one who puts in a full day’s work should have to hold a second job just to earn enough money to feed their family and save for retirement,” Shapiro stated. Republicans and Vern Buchanan have spent months trying to rip health care away from millions of Americans and roll back vital protections for people with pre-existing conditions. We need to stop using health care as a potential weapon and make it affordable. Lives are at stake. Finally, we need to protect our children, our grandchildren, and our way of life by making sure climate change does not devastate our Florida coastlines. That takes decisive action. We can no longer ignore the urgency of the problem in order to protect special interests who put their own profits over our safety.”

Tampa streetcar study identifies two new downtown routes

As part of a transit feasibility study on expanding and modernizing Tampa’s streetcar system, city officials have narrowed the choices down to two specific routes going into downtown.

Both routes will be unveiled at a community workshop next week.

Earlier this year, Tampa held three workshops for public input on preferred routes; city officials unveiled the top seven possibilities in May.

Those initial seven routes have now been whittled down to two “alignments.” Both would cost $3.6 million to cover maintenance and operation costs.

Alignment A: Runs north/south on Franklin Street to the downtown core, with a short one-way loop along Palm Avenue, North Highland Street and Henderson Avenue in Tampa Heights. This option would cost $94 million to build (in 2017 dollars).

Alignment B: Runs north/south along Tampa Street and Florida Avenue through the downtown core to Palm Avenue in Tampa Heights. That alignment will cost $97 million to build (in 2017 dollars), .

Compared to the other five alignments, both choices rate highly due to lower capital and operating costs. However, Alignment A rates higher in several areas, as it requires a single CSX railroad crossing and has less impact on local roadways and adjacent land uses due to its path along Franklin Street instead of Tampa Street and Florida Avenue.

Alignment B rates higher in other areas as it would not require a crossing of the Esplanade on Franklin Street and has a larger service area due to its alignment along two parallel roadways.

Currently, the streetcar runs 2.7 miles, going through 11 station stops, starting in Ybor City and going south and west along Channelside Drive, moving north past the Tampa Convention Center to the intersection of Franklin and Whiting streets.

Ever since it began operating in 2002, poor ridership numbers have made the streetcar a disappointment from the get-go; many are calling it a financial boondoggle.

The Preferred Options Report is available here

Citizens will get to see the two proposed routes at a workshop Tuesday, October 24, at the Chester H. Ferguson Law Center, 1610 N. Tampa Street beginning 5:30 p.m.

Hillsborough Young Democrat considers challenging Stacy White

Andrew Davis, a 35-year-old Gibsonton resident who resigned from his position as public relations officer with the Hillsborough County Young Democrats on Tuesday night, says he is exploring a challenge to Stacy White for the District 4 seat onthe Hillsborough County Commission.

“We often talk about our desire to help our county and improve such issues as the area’s job market, transportation, affordable housing, and dealing with the challenges that have come with the area’s population surge. I am feeling more and more that my time to help in an even bigger way may be now,” Davis told his colleagues with the Hillsborough Young Democrats Tuesday night.

Davis works as a salesman and also writes a food blog. Like many other Democrats in Hillsborough, he says that the summer-long battle regarding removing a Confederate monument was an important moment for him personally and for the community, as was the fact that he was listed in the so-called dossier of Confederate monument critics published by Save Southern Heritage, the leading advocacy group to maintain the statue in its place.

“It is my belief that anyone regardless of political ideology or party affiliation should be able to voice their opinions to their elected officials without fear of retribution against either themselves or members of their family,” Davis says about that incident. “This is of course also the same David McCallister who was named in August to our county’s Diversity Advisory Board in what I consider an appalling move.”

If Davis opts to challenge White, it will be a formidable contest in what is generally considered the county’s most conservative district.

White has raised more than $152,000 for his re-election race next year. The only other announced Democrat in the race, Angel D’Angelo, has raised just $355.

Angry Hillsborough Democrats have the opportunity next year to defeat all four Republicans who at one point or another voted to maintain the Confederate statue in front of the county courthouse this summer, but the big political question has been if they will be able to field competitive candidates to do so. The BOCC has leaned Republican for years, and all four incumbents — White, Sandy Murman, Victor Crist and Ken Hagan, have years, in some cases, many years of experience serving on the board, which helps them with name recognition.

An energized anti-Donald Trump Democratic wave could change that dynamic, though whether Democrats will remain as focused and as energized as they are now for another year remains unknown at this time.

Davis says he will make a final decision about whether he will run for the District 4 seat sometime after the holidays.

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