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Charlie Crist co-sponsors pair of puppy protection bills

Charlie Crist is co-sponsoring two bills aimed at protecting puppies by improving standards for federally licensed commercial dog breeders.

“The Bible teaches us to care for all of God’s creatures, and that includes man’s best friend,” said the St. Petersburg Democratic congressman. “I’m proud to help introduce bipartisan legislation that protects dogs from unprincipled dealers and breeders, providing a voice for the voiceless.”

Crist is working with Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick on proposals aimed at strengthening the Animal Welfare Act, which is meant to ensure dogs in federally licensed facilities are treated humanely, but which critics charge falls woefully short.

The two legislators are introducing the Puppy Protection Act, which creates stronger standards for veterinary care, housing, breeding practices, and specific standards for socialization and placement of retired breeding dogs.

They are also sponsoring the WOOF! Act, which would prohibit the USDA from issuing commercial breeding licenses to individuals or shell companies directly connected to dealers of dogs who have had their licenses suspended or revoked.

Like the Puppy Protection Act, the bill will not impact family pets, livestock, or hobbyist breeders.

“It’s crucial we stand up for animals — both as individuals and as a society. That means strengthening important regulations under the Animal Welfare Act to meet this goal,” says Fitzpatrick. “As a member of the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus, I’m committed to ensuring our government is doing its part to promote animal welfare.”

The bills also have a buy-in from the animal rights community.

“No dog should spend her entire life in a tiny cage, her paws never touching grass, outside and exposed to frigid temperatures and winds, and bred so relentlessly that her body eventually wears out,” says Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society. “Some puppy mill operators game the system and register their mill under a different name after they are cited for animal welfare violations.

“These two bills will prevent that trickery and also strengthen the standards of care for hundreds of thousands of dogs on commercial breeding facilities.”

“The bills introduced by Representatives Fitzpatrick and Crist would significantly improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of dogs kept in inhumane conditions by federally licensed commercial breeders,” adds Matt Bershadker, ASPCA president and CEO.

Local DEA raids lead Bill Nelson to inquire on Canadian drug availability

Recent DEA raids on storefront shops that specialize in selling Canadian prescriptions drugs to Central Florida seniors have U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and others in Florida’s congressional delegation wondering whether there has been an unannounced change in federal policy.

In the past few weeks, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided nine shops in the region Central Florida region including Tampa Bay, The Villages and Orlando, seizing records including customer lists, Canadian pharmacy vendors, drug transactions, and electric bills.

According to Bill Hepscher, co-owner of Canadian MedStore, which runs six of the raided stores, the businesses have been operating for up to 15 years, using direct computer links to allow customers, mostly senior citizens, to buy lower-priced prescription medications such as blood-pressure drugs.

Hepscher insisted the shops do not deal with any controlled substances such as opioids, and do not handle cash or medicines, but provide direct-link services to accredited pharmacies for mail delivery to Florida.

The FDA did not respond to an inquiry Wednesday from Florida Politics but has indicated that it is concerned about the quality of prescription medicines not approved under U.S. regulations.

Hepscher just returned from a trip to Washington D.C., where he met with Nelson and members of Congress or their staffs, including those of Republican U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Dennis Ross, and Democratic U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist, Kathy Castor, and Stephanie Murphy.

Nelson immediately responded Wednesday with a letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. demanding answers about why the DEA raided the Central Florida companies, and whether this meant the administration of President Donald Trump would oppose Americans buying lower-cost Canadian medicines when they are available. Hepscher said he received assurances of similar concerns from other Congressional offices.

“I appreciate that we need to keep dangerous drugs like fentanyl and counterfeit pharmaceuticals out of our country, but many of my constituents are confused about why they are suddenly receiving a seizure notice instead of their necessary medication — if there has been no change in policy,” Nelson wrote. “To the best of my knowledge, no new FDA policies have been publicly announced or shared with Congress.”

American access to Canadian drugs has been a long-standing issue for Nelson, who first got involved in 2004, according to a news release from his office. That year he sent a similar letter to the heads of the FDA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection after the government seized an elderly Florida couple’s medication ordered from Canada.

Two years later, at Nelson’s request, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee launched an investigation into the customs department seizure of prescription drugs purchased for personal use from pharmacies outside the U.S.

Later that same year, Nelson, along with Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, filed legislation, which Congress passed and the president signed into law, that allowed Americans crossing the Canadian border to bring back small amounts of prescription drugs.

Shortly after Nelson’s bill was approved, U.S. customs officials announced in Oct. 2006 that it would no longer seize individuals’ prescription drugs purchased from pharmacies outside the U.S.

That same year, Nelson received assurances from the FDA that it, too, would no longer act on small amounts of prescription drugs being imported into the U.S. for individual use, according to the news release.

Despite the agency’s 2006 announcement, some Floridians have reportedly received notices in the past couple of months indicating their prescription drugs are being held at their local post office at the request of the FDA, Nelson’s office reported Wednesday. That occurred around the same time as the raids on the Central Florida storefront operations.

“If there has been a change in policy, I urge the FDA to announce those changes publicly,” Nelson wrote. “Americans, especially our seniors, shouldn’t be left in the dark waiting for needed medication to arrive without clear guidance from the agency.”

Dana Young, Jamie Grant seeks to provide cash for ‘innovative’ Tampa Bay transit

It’s no secret that one of the most significant problems dragging down the Tampa Bay-area economy is a lack of sufficient transportation options, as well as the lack of money to fund potential solutions.

Attempting to provide a partial solution are Tampa-area state legislators Dana Young and Jamie Grant, who publicly discussed their bill that would provide $25 million for the recently revamped Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA) in what is being called “innovative” transportation options.

“We think it makes a lot of sense to see how quickly we can put innovative solutions out on our roads at a cost-efficient way to our taxpayer,” said Grant, who is sponsoring the bill (HB 535) in the House. He hopes that the funding would “leverage the innovation” that is occurring when it comes to developments like Automatic Vehicles (A/V), ride-sharing, ferries and Bus Rapid Transit.

Young says the proposal (SB 1200) would repurpose $60 million annually out of a $240 million existing rail fund and would be labeled the Statewide Alternative Transportation Authority. Of that $60 million, $25 million would go to the Tampa Bay area (and be administered by TBARTA), $25 million would go to Miami-Dade County, and the remaining $10 million would be allocated to projects throughout the state that are ranked by the state Dept. of Transportation. There would have to be local funding to match the state grant, though the specifics of how that will work out is still being considered, Grant said.

One thing officials gathered at the news conference that was held outside the Tampa Convention Center were adamant about is the money would not go toward funding any light-rail projects.

“What we don’t want to be is SunRail,” Grant said, referring to the commuter rail system started up in Orlando three years ago. “What we don’t want to be is a local community having a train that costs us more money to print a ticket than it would to give away the ride for free.”

In fact, the bill takes funding currently going toward SunRail and redirects it to the Tampa Bay and Miami regions.

“I think we have to look at a whole constellation of different ideas in Tampa Bay, and not just locked into the old idea that rail is the only way. Because rail is not the only way,” said James W. Holton, the president of Holton Companies. Holton is Gov. Rick Scott’s hand-picked choice to head TBARTA.

“There are numerous other ways to do it,” Holton added. “And potentially the combination of a lot of different modalities is where we want to go.”

Created a decade ago under former Gov. Charlie Crist, TBARTA is a regional transportation agency through the seven counties of the Greater Tampa Bay area. But TBARTA always struggled due to a lack of significant funding from the Legislature.

Reconfigured in the 2017 Legislative Session as a smaller agency (though not much smaller; now consisting of five counties — Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee, and Hernando) with an emphasis on transit, TBARTA still did not get additional funding.

Legislation sponsored by Sarasota Republican Rep. Joe Gruters (HB 2451) to fund the agency with $1 million has been introduced for the 2018 Session.

“I’m thrilled to hear about this legislation,” gushed St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. “As a member of TBARTA, it’s one thing to come up with a plan, but if we don’t have the resources to see that plan implemented, then we’ve all spent a lot of time and energy not really moved the ball at all.”

While additional funding would not go toward light rail, an ongoing project studying transit options for the Tampa Bay region paid for by FDOT released their top five recommendations back in SeptemberThe number one ranked option was a light-rail system from Wesley Chapel to the University of South Florida Tampa campus and on to St. Petersburg.

Young said the proposal would not interfere with other transit studies.

“We’re not taking anything off the table for traditional projects that would be funded in a traditional way through the FDOT five-year plan,” she said. “What we are doing is providing an additional fund that we are going to dedicate to innovative, alternative transportation projects.”

Even if the bill passed the Legislature in the 2018 Session, nobody would see those funds for years.

According to a news release issued after the news conference (but not mentioned during it), “funding for TBARTA and other statewide projects through the authority will not be available until the 2021-2022 fiscal year.”

The bill has already passed through one committee in the House.

(Photo credit: Kim DeFalco).

Wengay Newton shrugs off Vito Sheeley criticism of car theft measure

Vito Sheeley, who has filed to oppose Wengay Newton in 2018 for House District 70, blasted the St. Petersburg Democrat Friday for proposing legislation that would criminally charge car theft victims.

“This is one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard out of Wengay Newton,” Sheeley said. “And that’s saying a lot.”

Making his first run toward elective office, Sheeley had served as an aide to Democrats like Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist.

“We can have a productive conversation about car theft, but throwing victims in jail is just crazy. It’s time for our community to have a serious advocate in Tallahassee — this is embarrassing.”

Newton’s legislation (HB 927) calls for criminal penalties if a car is left unattended without first stopping the engine, removing the key from the ignition, and locking the door. It would be a second-degree misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail.

There are laws on the books right now that allow law enforcement to cite motorists for a noncriminal traffic violation for leaving their car running.  It would enhance the penalty.

Members of the South St. Pete community — including Crist, Newton and state Sen. Darryl Rouson — have convened meetings over the past year with members of the community to address the explosion of youth stealing automobiles. Newton’s proposal is the first piece of legislation proposed to try to address the problem.

When contacted to respond to Sheeley’s criticism, Newton said he didn’t know who Sheeley was and didn’t believe he had to answer to anything he had to say.

“Who is he?” Newton asked. “What has he done for juveniles?”

Newton then told Florida Politics he had to leave for a television interview but would be willing to come back to speak about the bill itself later in the day. He did acknowledge seeing Facebook comments on the bill.

Since entering the race in July, Sheeley has raised $4,222; Newton has raised $14,870.

HD 70 covers parts of Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.

Charlie Crist, Gus Bilirakis team up on anti-Iranian legislation

Who says bipartisanship is dead in Washington?

Tampa Bay-area Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist and Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis are teaming up to sponsor a bill that would prohibit U.S. military assistance to any country that sells restricted weapons or technology to Iran.

The No Arms Sales To Iran Act‘s goal is to discourage foreign governments from engaging in arms sales to Iran, named earlier this year by the U.S. State Department as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.

“Iran’s aggressive actions remain a threat to America, Israel, and the rest of the world. As the top state sponsor of terrorism, Iran’s nefarious pursuit of restricted weapons further destabilizes the region,” Crist said. “Our bill sends a strong message to countries considering arms deals with Iran that supporting state sponsors of terrorism will not be tolerated.”

Bilirakis said that despite the Iranian nuclear deal that was negotiated by the Obama administration and the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany in 2015, Iran “continues to demonstrate its commitment to tyranny through its continued support and spread of terror in an effort to destabilize the Middle East.”

“As we work with allies to keep the pressure on Iran, we must ensure that our efforts are not being undermined by other nations and, if so, that they are exposed and held accountable,” Bilirakis added.

President Donald Trump announced in October that he would not certify the Iran nuclear deal, and instead called for a variety of new sanctions against the government in Tehran.

While serving as governor in 2007, Crist signed the first bill in the country that called for a state to divest in any investments in companies that would invest in Iran.

Larry Sabato ‘Crystal Ball’ moves Charlie Crist seat to ‘likely Democratic’

With the way U.S. congressional districts are apportioned, any representative who wins their seat by less than five points is considered to be in a swing-seat district.

That makes them potentially vulnerable in a re-election bid.

Other (sometimes unforeseen) variables also determine the political landscape in an electoral cycle, such as a “wave” election that can result in dozens of seats switching parties.

For example, wave elections took place in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2014.

In 2016, Charlie Crist defeated David Jolly by 3.8 points. And while that makes the former Florida governor potentially vulnerable to a 2018 challenge, that is growing less likely by the day.

In the latest Sabato Crystal Ball (the prediction newsletter named after University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato), managing editor Kyle Kondik now moves Crist’s 13th Congressional District from “leans Democratic” to “likely Democratic.”

“Both Crist and (New Jersey Democrat Josh) Gottheimer represent ‘swingy’ districts, but these freshmen members are also raising boatloads of cash and benefit from the environment,” Kondik writes. “Crist does not have a viable challenger at the moment.”

Jolly has previously said that he would declare whether he would run again for his former seat in January, but the odds look less likely that will occur. Never a prolific fundraiser, there is still considerable doubt whether the National Republican Congressional Campaign (NRCC) would come to Jolly’s financial aid next year.

The NRCC opted not to help out Jolly when he truly needed it in his 2016 bid to maintain the seat against Crist, still indignant over the Pinellas Republican outing the organization for placing an emphasis on the need for members of Congress to fundraise every single day.

The district was also substantially redistricted in 2015, making it much more Democratic in voter registration, as well as much harder for any Republican to win.

Add to the fact that Crist had more than $1.4 million cash on hand, and it does seem a safe bet to move the St. Petersburg Democrat into the “likely Democratic” category.

Other Sabato predictions include Republican Mario Diaz-Balart moving from “likely Republican” to “safe Republican” in District 25; Republican Brian Mast in District 18 staying “likely Republican”; Carlos Curbelo‘s District 26 seat being a “tossup” against an eventual Democratic nominee and Florida’s 27th Congressional seat — vacated after 30 years by Republican Illeana Ros-Lehtinen — leaning Democratic.

Voting restoration amendment has 900,000 signatures

The main backer of a proposed constitutional amendment that would automatically restore some felons’ voting rights after they complete their sentences told Florida Politics his effort now has collected over 900,000 signatures.

“Knowing that we set the goal of collecting 1 million, the fact that we are less than 100,000 petitions away from our goal is an amazing attestation to the growing energy, excitement, and support around second chances,” said Desmond Meade, chair of Floridians for Fair Democracy and president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, in a Tuesday email.

The Florida Division of Elections website showed as of the end of Tuesday that the citizen ballot initiative, known as “The Voting Restoration Amendment,” has 442,969 verified signatures.

Initiatives need 766,200 valid signatures for ballot placement. Signatures must be spread across Florida’s 27 congressional districts, with the total number due pegged to voter turnout in the most recent presidential election.

According to the ballot summary, “This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.

“The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis.”

Former state Senate Democratic Leaders Arthenia Joyner of Tampa and Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale separately filed the proposal with the Constitution Revision Commission, which has the power to put it directly on the ballot.

During his term as Florida governor, then-Republican Charlie Crist worked with Cabinet members Alex Sink and Charles Bronson to push through restoration of rights for more than 150,000 non-violent felons. That process was quickly halted by Gov. Rick Scott when he took office in 2011.

Current law requires Florida convicts to wait years after they complete their sentences to apply for rights restoration through the Board of Executive Clemency, made up of Scott and members of the Cabinet.

“This news has increased my level of excitement about what’s happening in Florida, and it has definitely increased my confidence that the desire of Florida voters to have this issue on the ballot will become a reality,” Meade said. “In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I am extremely thankful for the tremendous efforts of the grassroots, and the diversity of the growing support to this campaign.”

Nat’l Republicans take another whack at Charlie Crist over tax reform bill

Like most House Democrats, St. Petersburg Congressman Charlie Crist voted against the GOP tax reform bill that passed last Thursday.

The House’s tax overhaul reduces the number of individual tax brackets, cuts the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent and curbs other tax breaks and deductions.

The plan, in total, would lower taxes on all income groups on average in 2019, but the Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that some Americans would eventually see tax increases.

Democrats are depicting the bill as a tax cut for wealthy Americans and corporations, with middle-class families footing the bill — an issue they say they’ll be happy to run against Republicans next year.

The National Republican Congressional Committee thinks the public will side with Republicans, and they’re targeting 25 Democrats who they believe are in vulnerable districts in new 15-second digital ads that are running on Facebook.

Crist defeated Republican David Jolly by 3.8 points in 2016. Jolly says he’ll decide by January if he’ll challenge Crist again in 2018.

A new digital ad that began airing Friday depicts the former Florida governor as out of touch with his voters.

A similar ad is being run against Orlando area Democrat Stephanie Murphy.

“If anyone is looking for Stephanie Murphy or Charlie Crist — they were last seen bowing to their party bosses instead of providing essential tax relief for the people who need it most: the middle-class,” said NRCC spokesperson Maddie Anderson. “It’s a shame Stephanie Murphy and Charlie Crist couldn’t be a part of historic tax reform simply because of their unwavering allegiance to Nancy Pelosi.”

Personnel note: Chris Hart IV to head Court Clerks group

Chris Hart IV, who last was with Florida TaxWatch, will be the next CEO of the statewide Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers association, according to a Friday press release. He starts Dec. 4.

Hart “will provide strong leadership to our association,” said Marcia M. Johnson, Franklin County Clerk and Comptroller and 2017-18 Board President, in a statement.

“He brings extensive knowledge of the legislative process, which will be critical as we work together with lawmakers to establish sustainable funding for our offices,” she said.

Hart served in the Florida House of Representatives for Hillsborough County’s District 57 in 1998-2002. He later was president and CEO of CareerSource Florida, the state’s employment services operation, from 2007-17.

He left that position to become CEO of Enterprise Florida (EFI), but stepped down after less than three months on the job.

“I’ve come to realize that Gov. (RickScott and I do not share a common vision or understanding for how Enterprise Florida can best provide value within his administration,” he wrote in his resignation letter. “This difference of opinion is of such a critical nature that I no longer believe I can be effective in my position.”

He then joined TaxWatch as the organization’s executive vice president.

Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers represents the interests of Florida’s 67 elected Clerks of the Circuit Court and one independently elected County Comptroller.

“Clerks are independently elected as their duties provide a system of checks and balances, ensuring transparency, access and accountability in local government,” the release said. “While the Constitution Revision Commission convenes this year, Hart and the association will support preserving the roles of constitutional officers as elected, not appointed, positions.”

“Our association can achieve great things with a sharpened focus on our vision and mission,” Hart said in a statement.

“This is a pivotal point in time for the Clerks and Comptrollers, and I look forward to supporting them in their shared commitment to excellence as they seek to effectively and efficiently serve the citizens of Florida.”

He also has been interim director of the now-defunct Governor’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development under both Scott and Gov. Charlie Crist.

Hart was appointed by Crist in 2010 to chair the Governor’s Gulf Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force, responsible for coordinating state efforts in response to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

He received an MBA from the University of South Florida and an undergraduate degree in political science from Florida State University. Hart and his wife Amy reside in Tallahassee and have two adult children.

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