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Voters give Rick Scott high marks for Irma, but thumbs down on evacs

Gov. Rick Scott scored high marks from Floridians for his handling of Hurricane Irma, but a new poll showed that his demands for mass evacuations may result in fewer people hitting the road the next time a storm threatens the Sunshine State’s shores.

A Mason-Dixon Polling & Research poll released Wednesday found Scott received “excellent” marks from 35 percent of the 625 registered Florida voters interviewed statewide in telephone surveys from Oct. 17 to Oct. 19. Another 31 percent described Scott’s storm response as “good.”

Another 25 percent graded Scott as “fair,” with 4 percent listing him actions as “poor” and 5 percent unsure.

Not surprisingly, his fellow Republicans gave Scott higher marks, with 89 percent of GOP respondents giving the governor “excellent” or “good” grades. Only 49 percent of Democrats polled put Scott in those top categories, while 62 percent of independents considered his handling of the storm “excellent” or “good.”

Scott has taken heat for a hike in debris removal rates in the Florida Keys, and for deleting voicemail messages from officials with The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills nursing home in Broward County. The calls were made as residents, many of them elderly, overheated after the facility lost air conditioning due to the deadly storm. Fourteen residents eventually died.

But voters’ overall satisfaction with how Scott managed the storm — which impacted nearly every part of the state after making landfall in the Florida Keys on Sept. 10 — can’t be good for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who is likely to face-off against the governor in his bid for re-election next year.

A University of North Florida poll of registered Florida voters released Monday put Nelson and Scott in a near dead heat, with 37 percent supporting Nelson and 36 percent for Scott. Another 20 percent undecided.

More importantly, the statewide poll by the school’s Public Opinion Research Lab, found that nearly half of the voters queried — 49 percent — couldn’t say how Nelson is doing as senator, a position he’s held since 2001. The poll, conducted from Oct. 11-17, had a 3.39 percentage point margin of error.

The Mason-Dixon poll, conducted via landline and cell phones, had a 4-percentage point margin of error.

Among those polled, 10 percent reported “very serious” property damage, while 50 percent suffered little or no property damage from the storm.

Those figures, along with the shifting storm track that put many evacuees into the eventual path of Irma, could help explain the reluctance to evacuate from the next storm revealed by the polling outfit.

“Next time round could be a different story, as many Floridians indicate they will rethink their actions,” Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker stated in a release. “Statewide, only 57% say that they will follow an evacuation order in the face of a hurricane similar in strength to Irma.”

The state has estimated that about 6 million people were ordered to evacuate, but it’s unknown how many actually took to the road. Many people who weren’t under evacuation orders decided to skedaddle.

Among those surveyed, 19 percent were ordered to evacuate and did. From that group, 71 percent said they would pack up for the next storm.

Another 14 percent of those surveyed didn’t heed the evacuation orders they were given. Among them, 19 percent said the next time they would hit the road.

Of those polled, 13 percent did evacuate despite not being in an evacuation zone.  Just over half, 57 of those people would leave home in the next storm.

Finally, of the 54 percent of Floridians polled that stayed put and weren’t told to leave, 62 percent said they “definitely would” evacuate if told to move out before the next storm.

New poll pegs Bill Nelson vs. Rick Scott as a dead heat

While still a hypothetical race — for now — a new poll from the University of North Florida says a contest between Bill Nelson and Rick Scott is a dead heat.

In a statewide, live-dial poll of 838 registered voters, Nelson was the choice of 37 percent of respondents, Scott of 36 percent, while 20 percent were unsure.

The party split: likewise similar, with 66 percent of Democrats saying they’d vote for Nelson, and 68 percent for Scott. Nelson also had a 4 point edge (32 to 28) with NPA voters.

However, one potentially critical weakness for Nelson — and one that can be exploited by Scott — is that many poll respondents don’t know much about the veteran Democratic Senator.

“The one major concern for Democrats has to be the public’s lack of awareness of Nelson. When a three-term sitting U.S. senator has almost half of the sample unable to assess his job approval, you have a problem,” observed UNF polling director Michael Binder.

Nelson seems to be the invisible man in this poll, with 35 percent approval, 15 percent disapproval, and a full 49 percent with no opinion — making him potentially easy prey to be defined by a Republican opponent and associated political committees.

Scott’s approval numbers, in what is a sharp contrast to much of the Republican Governor’s tenure, look impressive at 59 percent approval — including 40 percent of Democrats.

One potential strategy for Democrats: yoking Scott to President Donald Trump, whose 37 percent approval is largely bulwarked by 72 percent favorability among Republicans.

Scott likes to call Trump his “partner in the White House.” And as next year’s general election approaches, expect that partnership to be spotlighted by Democrats.

The poll was conducted between Oct. 11 and Oct. 17. There is a 3.39 point margin of error.

Bill Nelson has $6.3 million on hand after Q3 report

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson added nearly $1.8 million in the third quarter according to a new report filed with the Federal Elections Commission.

The new numbers also show Nelson’s principal campaign committee spent about $600,000 between the first of July and the end of September, leaving the longtime Democratic lawmaker with a little over $6.31 million in the bank heading into Q4.

That amounts to a net gain of about $1.17 million for the campaign, which had about $5.14 million in the bank at the end of Q2.

The FEC had not finished processing all the contributions and expenditures in the quarterly report as of Sunday, though the big-picture numbers show $1.43 million of the Q3 money came in from individuals, while $243,550 came from political committees.

The campaign also brought in another $78,450 worth of funds transfers from other authorized committees and received $2,000 from political party committees, with rebates, refunds, dividends, interest and other miscellany making up the rest of the balance.

Nelson has been in the U.S. Senate since 2001, winning handily in each of his three campaigns, but in 2018 he is likely to face a major roadblock for a fourth term due to Gov. Rick Scott, who is widely expected to enter the race.

Scott has never had a problem pulling in money – or dipping into his personal fortune – during his two successful bids for governor. His political committee, Let’s Get to Work, currently has about $2.8 million on hand even without him officially announcing his plans post-governor’s mansion.

That number will likely balloon once Scott makes a formal announcement due to his strong support among state businesses and the loaded political committees that back pro-business policies and politicians.

House leaders seek KidCare waivers

The list of those asking Florida Gov. Rick Scott to waive insurance premium requirements for low-income families in 48 counties impacted by Hurricane Irma is growing.

Five top-ranking state House Democrats sent a letter Friday to Scott and the Agency for Health Care Administration, urging the administration to waive premium requirements in the Florida KidCare program for families living in counties hardest hit by the massive storm.

The state has agreed to extend the deadline for impacted families to pay the October premium until the end of the month, but House Democrats said that doesn’t provide enough leeway for low-income families forced to make two premium payments by the beginning of November.

“We believe that AHCA should live up to its commitment that `the state will do everything in our power to help these families in the wake of Hurricane Irma,’” the letter reads. “Surely, it is within the state’s power and resources to spend $240,000 in state funds in order to provide these families financial relief and the peace of mind that their child’s health insurance is secure as they recover from the storm’s aftermath.”

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Senate Democrats and health care advocates across the state have asked Scott to waive the premium for the children’s health insurance program.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush waived KidCare premiums for Florida families during the tumultuous 2005 hurricane season and just last month the state of Texas received federal approval to waive premiums for Texas families impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

“Governor Scott, we are hopeful you agree that Florida’s low-income working families deserve the same support and that you will take action now on their behalf. Please direct AHCA to immediately waive KidCare premiums for families receiving subsidized coverage in the 48 disaster-declared counties,” the House Democrats wrote in Friday’s letter.

AHCA estimated that waiving KidCare premiums for October and November in the 48 disaster-declared counties would cost the state approximately $14.8 million. But in their letter, House Democrats say the estimate assumes premiums also would be waived for children who don’t qualify for state subsidies because of their family income level.

“However, if the state were to request federal approval to waive premiums only for the 185,000 poorest children in those 48 counties, it would cost only $240,000 in state funding because more than 96 percent of the funds come from the federal government,” the letter concluded.

The letter was signed by House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, Democratic Leader Pro Tempore Bobby DuBose, Leader Designate Kionne McGhee, and Reps. Amy Mercado and David Richardson.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Bill Nelson asks for senate panel investigation of Niger ambush

Florida’s U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is asking the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee to investigate the ambush of American soldiers in Niger, wondering if they were adequately supported.

Nelson, a Democrat, sent a letter Thursday to Committee Chair John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Ranking Member Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Republican, stating that too little has been disclosed about the circumstances yet for the Oct. 4 battle in the Niger desert that left four American soldiers dead.

“According to published reports, when U.S. and partner forces were ambushed by ISIS-linked militants they were insufficiently equipped to respond to the attack and air assets were not readily available to provide rapid and necessary support,” Nelson wrote.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has a responsibility to ask critical questions about our mission in Niger and ensure our troops have the resources they need,” Nelson continued. “I appreciate your attention to this request and I look forward to working with you to get a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding the October 4th incident.”

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.”

U.S. Senate panel to investigate Hollywood Hills tragedy, at Bill Nelson’s request

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee announced today that it is launching an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 14 residents at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills nursing home in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

The investigation comes following a request from Florida’s U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a senior member of the committee.

The residents of the nursing home were left without power and no air conditioning in the days following the Sept. 10-11 devastation by Hurricane Irma. Two days after the storm left, two residents were found dead in their beds and others were rushed to the hospital, where 12 more would die after apparently being baked in the sweltering facility.

Florida is investigating, and has revoked the home’s license, and the owners of the home are suing the state over that revocation.

“It is my understanding that it is the state’s responsibility to certify a nursing home’s compliance with all federal emergency preparedness regulations in order to receive federal payments under the Medicare and Medicaid programs,” Nelson wrote on Sept. 29 to U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, who serve as the panel’s Chairman and Ranking Member respectively.

“Because the certification for a skilled nursing facility is subject to CMS approval, and the Senate Committee on Finance has jurisdiction over the Medicare and Medicaid programs, I urge the Committee to use its authority to conduct a complete investigation into the State of Florida’s certification of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills to determine what led to the deaths of 12 seniors there in the wake of Hurricane Irma,” Nelson’s letter continued.

Responding to Nelson’s request, Hatch and Wyden sent letters Tuesday to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, requesting information about its new nursing home emergency preparedness requirements, and to the state of Florida seeking answers to questions regarding the state’s emergency preparedness plans and response to Hurricane Irma.

The committee also requested similar information from Texas, regarding nursing homes affected there by Hurricane Harvey.

“Similar reports after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma raise concerns about the adequacy of emergency preparedness and response at nursing homes and other facilities,” they wrote. “Our committee would like information about the federal requirements that were applicable during these events and the actions CMS has taken since.”

“We are writing to request information from Florida about its preparations for and responses to Hurricane Irma as it relates to nursing homes and other similar facilities,” the senators wrote in a letter to Florida’s Secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, Justin Senior. “The Senate Committee on Finance has jurisdiction over both the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs. As part of our oversight responsibilities, we want to ensure the safety of residents and patients in nursing homes and other similar facilities during natural and manmade disasters.”

In 2016, CMS finalized new national emergency preparedness requirements for Medicare- and Medicaid-participating providers and suppliers. This new rule requires long-term care facilities to develop emergency preparedness plans to ensure that staff’s and residents’ basic needs are met in the event of natural or man-made disasters, including hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding. It also explicitly requires facilities to have policies and procedures in place to address alternate sources of energy to maintain temperatures during these emergencies.

According to federal regulations, it is the state’s responsibility to certify that a nursing home is in compliance with all applicable federal rules and regulations, including the new rules put in place 2016.

Despite receiving state certification, the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills did not have an alternate source of energy powering its air conditioning unit and, as a result, was unable to maintain temperatures after the facility lost power.

At a hearing last week of the Florida Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Health and Human Services, Molly McKinstry, deputy secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration said her agency and other state agencies were in constant contact before, during and after Hurricane Irma with all the state’s nursing homes.

McKinstry said that many nursing homes and assisted living facilities lost power and quite a few visited by state officials had interior temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s, despite meeting all the current state requirements. She said loss of power and heating issues were a “prevalent” problem.

AFP ad: Bill Nelson is standing in the way of a simple, fair tax system

Americans for Prosperity is upping attention on Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson for the congressional budget fight Wednesday by launching an internet commercial declaring that he is standing in the way of a “simple, fair tax system.”

The conservative organization is including Nelson, through its Americans for Prosperity-Florida affiliate, as a target in a nationwide, multi-million dollar advertising buy that targets a handful of U.S. Senators, including Republicans, who’ve shown some interest in tax reform but appear unlikely to support the Republican budget plan that includes language-making sweeping tax reform possible.

Among others being targeted: U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat; Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat; and John McCain, an Arizona Republican. On Tuesday Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group founded and heavily funded by David H. Koch and Charles Koch, released a letter sent to Nelson and the other senators urging them to vote yes on the Republican proposal.

The new ad features a woman talking into the camera, saying, “People are sick of politics. I am too. But fixing our broken tax system isn’t about politics – it’s about helping people. It means the powerful, the well-connected, the politicians — they’ll stop benefiting from a rigged system. It means everyday Americans will have more to spend on what’s important to them. That’s what tax reform will do. So, what’s stopping us?”

The answer comes next, with a picture of Nelson, and the statement, “Senator Nelson is standing in the way of a simple, fair tax system.”

“Nelson has hinted at being willing to work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to reform the tax code to make it more fair and efficient,” AFP-FL State Director Chris Hudson stated in a news release issued by his organization. “This is a once in a generation opportunity that deserves his full endorsement immediately. It’s time for him to help pass tax reform and not obstruct the process any further. Our activists are ready to make sure that Senator Nelson does not get in the way.”

Americans for Prosperity urges Bill Nelson to support Republican budget bill

The conservative fiscal policy organization Americans for Prosperity-Florida Monday urged Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to vote yes on the U.S. Senate’s Republican budget bill.

AFP-FL stressed that the bill contains a set of parameters for a tax reform package that could pass the U.S. Senate by a simple majority vote. The budget blueprint outlined Sept. 29 by the Senate Budget Committee calls for $1.5 trillion worth of tax cuts over the next decade.

“A vote against the budget is a vote to obstruct tax reform,” AFP-FL State Director Chris Hudson stated in a news release. “Tax reform will unrig the economy by making the tax code fairer and simpler, and stopping the politicians and well-connected from gaming the code for their personal benefit. If Senator Nelson is serious about helping middle-class Floridians, he should vote ‘Yes’ on the Senate Budget Resolution.”

On Monday the national Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group founded and heavily funded by David H. Koch and Charles Koch, sent a letter to Nelson and other senators urging them to vote yes on the Republican proposal.

AFP-FL also indicated it would begin airing an ad urging voters to urge Nelson to do so.

“We urge you to vote YES on the Senate Republican fiscal year 2018 budget resolution. Americans for Prosperity will include this vote in our congressional scorecard,” the letter opens.

“The Senate budget resolution includes many important reforms that would restore responsibility in our federal finances. It reins in federal non-defense discretionary spending by $632 billion, respects the overall discretionary spending caps established by the Budget Control Act, and includes many other provisions that would incite economic growth. Most notably, it provides a pathway for passing comprehensive, pro-growth tax reform,” the letter states. “The resolution includes reconciliation instructions that give the Senate Finance Committee the flexibility it needs to fix the broken tax code.

“Passing a budget resolution is the first step toward delivering a fairer, flatter, and simpler tax code that works better for everyday Americans,” the letter continues. “A vote against the budget resolution is effectively a vote against tax reform. A vote against the budget resolution is a vote for the status quo and the status quo is unacceptable. Conservatives in Washington should not miss this once-in-a-generation opportunity.”


Rick Scott’s political committee added $75K in September

Gov. Rick Scott’s Let’s Get to Work committee added $75,000 in contributions last month after showing just $1,000 raised in August.

The committee supported Scott’s successful re-election campaign for governor and could be back in action soon as a pot of money backing his probable campaign to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson next year.

The September money came in through just two contributions, one for $50,000 from the Florida Retail Federation’s political committee, and another from $25,000 from Tampa-based check cashing company Amscot Financial.

Both donors have a bit of a history supporting Scott’s committee.

FRF Political Committee gave Let’s Get to Work $25,000 in August 2016, while Amscot had given the committee $125,000 across four major contributions since 2014 before chipping in last month.

Let’s Get to Work’s income was offset by $66,873 in spending, with a good deal of the money heading to Maryland-based political consulting and advertising firm On Message.

The group, which took in about $21,000 last month for media production and consulting, has been Scott’s favored shop for such services for a while and has received millions of dollars from the Let’s Get to Work committee and well as the ECO of the same name that preceded it.

Grassroots Targeting picked up $15,000 for data services and Tallahassee-based ContributionLink picked up $8,000 for database services. Most of the rest of the September spending went toward various political and fundraising consultants.

With September in the books, Scott’s committee has nearly $2.8 million on hand.

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