Darren Soto Archives - Florida Politics

Wayne Liebnitzky qualifies by petition for CD 9 race

Republican Wayne Liebnitzky qualified by petition for this year’s ballot in Florida’s 9th Congressional District Monday.

Liebnitzky of St. Cloud is seeking a rematch with Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando. Soto beat him 57-43 in 2016.

On Monday the Florida Secretary of State’s Office posted that it had received 120 valid petition signatures for Liebnitzky from Orange County voters, 525 from Polk County, and 4,441 from Osceola County. That gave him 5,086, 18 more than he needed to qualify.

He said Monday he believes he is the first federal candidate to qualify by petition in Florida for this year’s election.

“I have to admit, I feel so relived,” said Liebnitzky, a small business owner who’s been manning a petition booth at events throughout the district for months.

He said he probably submitted more than 7,000 signatures to the three counties supervisors of elections, adding, “I knew I had them in, but sometimes it takes a week or two to get them counted…. I just hate to procrastinate.”

The next step, Liebnitzky said, was to turn all of the face time he had with voters while gathering the signatures into campaign donations and grassroots supporters. He said he has not begun fundraising yet. Through December his campaign reported it had just over $500 cash.

Another Republican, Sean Alan Buchan, a banker for Winter Haven, briefly entered the fray last spring, but last summer he apparently withdrew, reimbursing all his campaign donors, and Buchan has not filed any reports since June 30. He could not be reached Monday.

Soto, a former state senator serving his first term in Congress, reported fairly modest campaign contributions through October, and had about $220,000 in cash on hand. [His December reports still have not been posted by the Federal Election Commission.] No one else has entered the race, but former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando, who had held the seat for two terms prior to Soto, has been positioning himself for a possible new run.

Doanld Trump administration official admits Florida offshore drilling still ‘on the table’

Florida is not yet “off the table” in a federal plan to expand offshore oil drilling, according to an official of the Donald Trump administration.

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) acting director Walter Cruickshank revealed to a congressional committee Friday that Florida could still be included in offshore drilling activities, paving the way for future offshore drilling in Florida.

In attendance at the House Natural Resources Committee meeting was Florida Democratic Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando.

“We have no formal decision yet on what’s in, or out, of the five-year program,” Cruickshank told lawmakers. “We are following the process conducting a full analysis of all areas included in the draft proposed program.”

He added that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s commitment to withdraw Florida from offshore drilling was not a “formal action” and the state “remains subject to the government’s official analysis.”

“So, there’s been no decision to exempt Florida?” California Democrat Jared Huffman asked.

“The secretary’s statement stands for itself,” Cruickshank responded.

The admission stunned many Florida lawmakers, particularly Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who was apprehensive after Zinke made the declaration that the state was exempt from offshore drilling after a brief 20-minute meeting with Gov. Rick Scott.

Nelson blasted the move as nothing more than a “political stunt” and not announcing official policy.

Soon after Cruickshank’s admission that there was no formal action to take Florida off the table, Soto asked the administration official for clarification.

The statement “stands on its own,” Cruickshank responded.

 “By ‘stand on its own,’” Soto pressed, “… it’s not an official action, is that what you mean?”

“It is not a formal action, no,” the official admitted.

 “So there has been no formal action to remove Florida from the five-year drilling plan, as of right now?” Soto questioned.

“We will be including it in the analysis,” Cruickshank responded.

Immediately after Zinke made the announcement last week, Nelson shot off a letter to the secretary demanding specific details on what changes will be made to the agency’s five-year drilling plan.

Zinke has not yet responded.

That day, Nelson filed legislation to permanently ban drilling off Florida’s coast, taking to the Senate floor with a warning to his Florida colleagues that the secretary’s promise to take the state off the table is “just empty words” until taking formal steps to publish a new draft plan.

On Wednesday, Nelson he will place the “hold” on three Interior Department nominees slated to work under Zinke, vowing to keep that hold in place until the Secretary rescinds the current draft five-year drilling plan and replaces it with a new draft that fully protects Florida’s coasts.

Cruickshank’s revelation – despite Zinke’s pronouncement – shows that Florida may still face new offshore drilling, which comes just days after Interior held its first public meeting on the plan.

What’s more, Nelson’s office said maps used by Interior officials as part of the meeting also suggested waters off Florida were still open to drilling.

In a statement, Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo called the incident further proof that Scott and his “close ally” Trump will “say and do anything to further Scott’ political ambitions, while Floridians pay the price.”

“Scott’s long record of backing drilling off our shores and beaches is well documented, and it’s clear his most recent words were nothing more than a dishonest and self-serving political stunt,” Rizzo added. “Once again, Floridians are seeing they can’t trust Scott to look out for anyone but himself.”

Darren Soto under fire for having urged Puerto Ricans to declare they intend to stay

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando has come under fire for statements he made last Friday at a Puerto Rico town hall meeting in Kissimmee, when he urged evacuees to declare they intend to stay in Florida.

Soto’s comments had come during a question-and-answer period after he, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, and others including Florida Gov. Rick Scott had addressed more than 500 people gathered at the Kissimmee Civic Center about issues surrounding Puerto Rico, evacuees who have fled to Florida following Hurricane Maria, and federal, state, and local assistance and recovery efforts.

Responding to a question about federal assistance, Soto noted inequities and legal quirks in the federal Medicaid and Medicare programs. He noted that when evacuees go home to the island they lose coverage, and that he and others are working on legislation to try to make benefits more seamless as people move back and forth. But that’s not the case yet, he said.

“One thing for those who recently arrived need to know is, you’re going to be asked the question, ‘Do you intend to stay?’ I urge you to say ‘yes, for now,'” Soto told the town hall. “Because otherwise you’re going to get rejected, and then you’re going to find yourself without health care. So I urge you to watch for that pitch-fall question.”

A report on WFTV-News in Orlando and posts on Facebook other social media, raised the question of whether Soto was encouraging people to make false claims about their intentions to stay in Florida or not.

In a written statement provided by his office Wednesday morning, Soto denied he made any such overture.

“I do not encourage anyone who is planning to leave our state to falsely claim otherwise. Many recently arrived Puerto Ricans have a high probability of staying in Florida. The intent of my statement was to encourage them to err on the side of caution and declare their intent to stay if they are in doubt about their future plans,” Soto said. “If they eventually leave, their Medicaid or Medicare will automatically be terminated and they will have to reapply back in Puerto Rico. Healthcare could mean the difference between life and death for eligible seniors, disabled and children evacuees, many of whom have been without healthcare for months.”

One of Soto’s Republican opponents seeking to take him on in the 2018 election, Wayne Liebnitzky of St. Cloud, said he did not think Soto said anything that would raise legal problems, but he questioned the ethics of the statement.

“There is an ethics problem here,” Liebnitzky said. “Is it a big problem? Probably not. It is an ethical problem. He shouldn’t have done it.”

Most of Florida congressional delegation protests lifting oil rig safety rules

A bipartisan group from Florida’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the Donald Trump administration opposing any rollback of safety regulations adopted after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the group of 20 lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — warned that “an oil spill can devastate a regional economy and inflict long-term environmental damage” and asked the secretary to “reject any proposals to roll back regulations that were specifically adopted to address systemic safety failures that led to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.”

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement announced last week that some of the regulations adopted in response to the tragedy created “potentially unduly burdensome requirements” on oil and gas operators. The proposal to roll back safety rules was published in the Federal Register at the end of 2017.

Proposals to weaken safety requirements reportedly under consideration include:

Reversing a rule that called for more frequent testing of blowout preventers — the same device that failed in the Deepwater Horizon spill, which is intended to serve as a fail-safe against explosions in undersea oil and gas wells.

No longer requiring independent auditors to certify that safety and pollution prevention equipment works under extreme conditions. This would remove any federal requirement and instead allow [the] industry to adopt their own set of standards, the guideline industry utilized prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Scrapping the requirement that an investigation into equipment failure be completed within 120 days. This would enable oil companies to delay indefinitely with no required date of completion.

Removing the federal government’s authority to regulate maximum or minimum drilling pressures at new sites. This important provision maintains a safe pressure for drilling that prevents surges and potential blowouts similar to what occurred in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The letter was led by Republican Vern Buchanan from Longboat Key and Democrat Alcee Hastings from Delray Beach. It was signed by GOP Reps. Gus Bilirakis, Carlos Curbelo, Bill Posey, Dennis Ross, Brian Mast Frances Rooney, John Rutherford and Illeana Ros-Lehtinen. Democrats who signed on included Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, Val Demings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Al Lawson, Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson.

The Florida members of Congress said, “It would be a huge mistake to weaken these safety regulations and risk not only lives, but catastrophic consequences to our environment. Florida’s coastal communities depend on a clean and healthy ocean and we should not jeopardize the state’s economy or environment by gambling on operations that lack adequate safeguards.”

You can read the entire letter below:

The Honorable Ryan Zinke

Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior

1849 C Street, NW

Washington, D.C. 20240

Dear Secretary Zinke,

We are writing to convey our strong opposition to any attempts by the U.S. Department of the Interior to weaken critical oil drilling safety rules adopted in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. As Floridians know all too well, an oil spill can devastate a regional economy and inflict long-term environmental damage.

That is why we are asking you to reject any proposals to roll back regulations that were specifically adopted to address systemic safety failures that led to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Recently, a division of your agency, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) stated some of the regulations adopted since the spill created “potentially unduly burdensome requirements” on oil and gas operators.

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon spill spewed more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, claimed the lives of 11 workers, decimated the region’s iconic wildlife and severely damaged our fishing and tourism industries.

It would be a huge mistake to weaken these safety regulations and risk not only lives, but catastrophic consequences to our environment. Florida’s coastal communities depend on a clean and healthy ocean and we should not jeopardize the state’s economy or environment by gambling on operations that lack adequate safeguards.

As you are undoubtedly aware, BSEE adopted these regulations over the course of several years and after significant input and engagement with the public, federal policymakers, and industry stakeholders in order to enhance the safety of offshore oil and gas drilling.

Some of the most noteworthy and egregious proposals under consideration would:

Reverse a rule that called for more frequent testing of blowout preventers — the same device that failed in the Deepwater Horizon spill, which is intended to serve as a fail-safe against explosions in undersea oil and gas wells.

No longer require independent auditors to certify that safety and pollution prevention equipment works under extreme conditions. This would remove any federal requirement and instead allow [the] industry to adopt their own set of standards, the guideline industry utilized prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Scrap the requirement that an investigation into equipment failure be completed within 120 days. This would enable oil companies to delay indefinitely with no required date of completion.

Remove the federal government’s authority to regulate maximum or minimum drilling pressures at new sites. This important provision maintains a safe pressure for drilling that prevents surges and potential blowouts similar to what occurred in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Our constituents, which were severely impacted by the Deepwater Horizon spill, vehemently oppose any effort to weaken these common-sense regulations, and increase the likelihood of another oil spill off the coast of Florida. We urge you to reject these ill-advised proposals.  Thank you for your time and consideration, and we look forward to your prompt response on this critically important matter.


Bill Nelson slams GOP response to Puerto Rico

Senator Bill Nelson met with local representatives from the Tampa Bay Puerto Rican community on Friday, blasting recent actions (and non-actions) by congressional Republicans in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact on the island exactly 100 days ago.

“A knife was put to the neck of Puerto Rico.”

That’s the phrase the Florida Democrat employed in discussing how the island fared out of the recently passed GOP tax reform bill. He was referring to a provision of the legislation that places a 12.5 percent tax rate on intellectual property. Manufacturing accounts for nearly half of the island’s economy and a third of government revenues.

“This is not right. This is not fair,” Nelson told the group who gathered at his Tampa district office on Friday. It followed the senator’s one-day trip on the island on Wednesday with Orlando U.S. Rep Darren Soto, who announced on Thursday the formation of a regional task force to address the needs of displaced Puerto Rican evacuees who have arrived in Central Florida since Hurricane Maria’s landfall.

Over 250,000 Puerto Rican residents have left the island for Florida, half to the Orlando Metro area, according to Nelson.

Nelson also criticized Republicans for including Puerto Rico in a recently passed federal disaster relief bill, but requiring the territory to provide FEMA with a percentage of marching funds – something that he says the cash-strapped island government can’t afford.

“This is how the island – our fellow American citizens – are being treated. They are not being treated like fellow American citizens,’ the senator said.

Authorities on the island said that nearly half of power customers – 55 percent of the nearly 1.5 million customers – have electricity.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the entire nation won’t have power until May.

Nelson’s criticism of the Republican Party’s handling of the crisis also has a political dimension. The 75-year-old lawmaker is on the ballot next fall in what he hopes will be a successful bid to remain in the Senate. He he was first elected in 2000.

He said that Puerto Ricans relocating to Florida are angry about the federal government’s response to their issues, which could have an impact on next year’s election.

“Most of them would like to return to the island,” Nelson said on behalf of the more than 250,000 who now live in the Sunshine State. But he acknowledged that the “hard realities of recovery” dictate that many of them won’t be returning anytime soon.

“If they are going to stay, I think they are going to know who helped them and who didn’t help them, and I assuredly want them to register to vote and express their feelings by the way they cast their vote,” he said candidly.

In the weeks following Maria, retired U.S. Air Force Col. E.J. Otero created Course of Action PR, under the umbrella of the Course of Action Foundation to send approximately 40 containers of goods to the island from Tampa. Otero says he’ll meet with officials from the USF business school next month on conducting a study on the economic impact of the storm on Florida and Puerto Rico.

A registered Republican who ran against Kathy Castor for Congress in 2012, Otero initially declined to comment specifically on Nelson’s anti-GOP remarks, saying that “both parties’ emergency response leave a lot to be desired.”

He later added however, that he wished the meeting had been solely about Puerto Rico and “inclusion into the economy” rather than talk of partisan issues.

(Photo credit: Kim DeFalco).

Puerto Rico evacuees to Florida need immediate, long-term housing, task force concludes

Housing continues to be the toughest challenge and most likely  the biggest long-term challenge as Central Florida absorbs tens of thousands of people displaced from Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria, surmised a new task force formed by U.S. Rep. Darren Soto.

There still is no clear idea how many of the more than 260,000 people who’ve come from Puerto Rico to Florida in the past three months plan to stay, or where Yet several task force members said it is increasingly looking as if many if not most want to make Florida their permanent home.

“I have spoken to many, many, many of these families… and most of the people say they are here to stay, especially those who have children,” said Osceola County Commissioner Viviana Janer.

Family and friends’ homes, and hotels and motels augmented by Federal Emergency Management Agency vouchers, are temporary housing at best, and many of the displaced Puerto Ricans have nowhere near the $5,000 or so landlords expect for first and last months rents and damage deposits.

Much of Florida, and particularly the Central Florida area, already had a serious shortage of affordable housing before the great migration of late 2017.

At a meeting in Kissimmee, everal task force members, notably state Rep. John Cortes of Kissimmee and Amy Mercado and Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando, emphasized the need to see more of Florida’s Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund actually go toward affordable housing developments, rather than allowing budgetary raids. Yet all agreed that program would take years to create more affordable housing. And it’ll be needed immediately and throughout 2018 as evacuees transition out of brother-in-laws spare bedrooms and motels.

“Before Hurricane Maria, we had a crisis,” in affordable housing, Cortes said. “We still don’t have affordable housing. They’re living in motels. Now we’re waiting on FEMA to give them 60 days, maybe more, even 180 days…. The main problem here is we have no housing in our area, or in Seminole, or Orlando. We need affordable housing. We need to do it now. Not later.”

Soto organized his regional Task Force on Puerto Rico Arrivals to Central Florida seeking to bring together public officials from throughout Central Florida to talk about local, school district, state, and federal issues, problems such as red-tape for developers, and for different levels of government, and ideas.

“Certainly, we’re not going to solve it all today, but there are a lot of solid ideas,” Soto said. “This is the first list. It’s not the last list.”

Some ideas emerged. Osceola County Commissioner Peggy Choudhry said businesses are ready and eager to transform old motels into efficiency-style apartment buildings, but need more waivers and help from local and state government. Others noted the Supportive Housing Program, run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, may be able to provide more assistance to people who cannot yet afford, or qualify for apartments, if HUD will provide more flexibility for use of those grants. State Rep. Rene Plasencia noted that there are other places in Florida, such as Marion County, where there are both jobs and housing available, and local officials need to be encouraging evacuees to look there.

“Our ability to provide affordable housing is something that is going to happen over the next two to five years, not over the next two to five months,” Plasencia said. “So we need to look at options to help people now, and those options may not be in this particular area.”

As promised by Soto’s office, the task force took on at least the beginnings of bipartisan participation, with the late additions of Plasencia of Orlando and Seminole County School Board Chairwoman Amy Lockhart. Soto and others said he hopes more will accept invitations to participate, as he expects the task force to have two or three more meetings in coming months.

In addition to dissecting the concerns, Plasencia took the opportunities Thursday to expound on state legislation sponsored by Republican colleague state Rep. Bob Cortes that seeks to provide more affordable housing incentives for local government, to offer insights into what may be available in other parts of Florida, and to offer details on education initiatives being pursued by Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart. Lockhart explained what she said were the challenges of a school district run by conservatives, as Seminole is cautious about adding school capacity until its needed, and now suddenly with 500 newly-enrolled Puerto Rican children in recent weeks, it’s needed quickly.

The Democratic state lawmakers and Plasencia, whose wife Marucci Guzman runs one of the more active non-profits helping displaced Puerto Ricans, LatinoLeadership found plenty to agree upon regarding defining the needs that the Florida Legislature should address, focusing on the housing crutch, possibly starting with including Bob Cortes’ House Bill 987.

“I agree with what Rep. Smith said,” Plasencia said. “I too believe that the vast majority of people who came here don’t want to go back to Puerto Rico. I think the majority will stay here and find a way to get to a certain area probably within close proximity of CF where they can have good jobs, and find affordable housing.”

Bill Nelson, Darren Soto heading for Puerto Rico, Kissimmee

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Darren Soto are planning to head to Puerto Rico Wednesday to check on recovery efforts and reports that up to 1,000 deaths might now be related to Hurricane Maria.

Nelson and Soto, both Democrats from Orlando, plan to meet with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and other leaders during their one-day trip to discuss the island’s recovery, Medicaid needs, and the potential effects of the new excise tax included in the new federal tax reform law approved and signed last week.

They then plan to be in Kissimmee Thursday to meet with Puerto Rican community leaders in Central Florida to discuss their findings from Puerto Rico, and the needs faced by Puerto Ricans who’ve evacuated to Florida. That meeting, open to the public, is set for 1 p.m. Thursday at the Osceola County Commission Chambers.

Both Nelson and Soto have made previous trips to the island since Hurricane Maria devastated it on Sept. 20-21.

Among their stops in Puerto Rico will be a hospital in the city of Bayamón that, like many hospitals, is still using generators for electricity, and a factory where they will discuss the ramifications of the new excise tax being imposed on Puerto Rican manufacturers shipping to the United States, a tax that Rosselló, Nelson and Soto all have condemned as likely to cripple the island’s already depressed economy.

“We’re going to Puerto Rico to assess the recovery and get a sense of what will happen to manufacturing after the tax reform, and do our best to bring additional attention to the issues,” Soto said.

Nelson also cited the death toll inquiry as part of the trip.

The official death toll from the hurricane is set at 64. Rosselló has contended that number grossly undercounts the number of people whose deaths may be attributable either directly to the storm or to injuries and inhabitable conditions that have persisted through much of the island, conditions that have left most of the island without power or water, hospitals underpowered and understaffed, and transportation restricted.

Last week, after reporting by both the New York Times and the Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism suggested there were more than 1,000 more deaths than normal in the weeks following the storm, Rosselló ordered a review of all deaths on the island since the storm.

Jim Rosica’s review of top state government stories of 2017

Spoiler alert: If you’re a regular of this site, and reading this story, you can guess what the #1 pick is.

Otherwise, 2017 still offered a bounty of material to Tallahassee’s reporting ranks. We still chuckle at the uninitiated who ask, “What do you write about when the Legislature isn’t in session?”

Without further ado, here’s the admittedly subjective list of the Top 10 (and a half) stories to come out of the Capitol in the Year That Was:

#10 — State finally passes ride-sharing legislation: After years of trying, lawmakers OK’d, and Gov. Rick Scott signed, a bill (HB 221) creating statewide regulations for ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft. In fact, lawmakers had considered such legislation for four years before passing a bill this year.

The legislation, among other things, requires Uber, Lyft and similar “transportation network companies” to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged into the app, but hasn’t yet secured a passenger. When a driver gets a ride, they need to have $1 million in coverage.

The bill also requires companies to have third parties run criminal background checks on drivers. It also pre-empts local ordinances and other rules on transportation network companies, or TNCs.

The losers? Local governments, whose attempts to regulate or rein in ride-share got pre-empted, and, well, taxi companies.

#9 — Rick Scott, Aramis Ayala and the debate over the death penalty: Ayala, a Democrat and the Orlando area’s top prosecutor, enraged Scott and conservative lawmakers when she announced in March she would not seek capital punishment in any murder cases.

Scott, a Naples Republican, began unilaterally reassigning death penalty-eligible cases to another state attorney. Republican Rep. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs called for Ayala to be removed from office for dereliction of duty.

The controversy made it to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled Scott has the authority to transfer murder cases away because she refuses to pursue death. Ayala, elected in 2016, responded by announcing she would set up a special panel to review the death penalty’s appropriateness of each case.

But as of this month, Ayala and Scott were still sniping, with the governor accusing her of missing a deadline and blowing a capital punishment prosecution. Ayala denied that but did cut a plea deal with Emerita Mapp, in which she pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence for a Kissimmee slaying.

#8 — Puerto Rico migration could remake Central Florida: With many still without power after Hurricane Maria slammed the island in September, more than 250,000 residents of Puerto Rico have now decamped to Florida, most to the Central Florida region, with one advocate calling it a “migration of biblical proportions.”

Curbed said the “sudden influx will also put pressure on housing, social services, and the job market that have yet to be fully addressed by state, local, and federal officials.”

But Scott ordered the opening of “disaster relief centers” providing state services to thousands. Cortes filed a bill to address housing needs for evacuees. Sen. Vic Torres, a Kissimmee Democrat, pressed FEMA to provide more housing relief. U.S. Reps. Darren SotoStephanie Murphy, and Dennis Ross co-signed a letter to the feds for Florida get its full funding as a host state to support the migration.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is working on a plan to allow Puerto Rican high schoolers to receive Puerto Rico diplomas in Florida, in case they can’t meet Florida’s graduation requirements. And those are just a few examples.

#7 — The fight over HB 7069: The wide-ranging education law passed this May — a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran — has been called a “brew of bad policy” and “a textbook example of a failure in government transparency” by opponents.

They say it will benefit charter schools to the detriment of traditional public schools. Supporters counter that it “helps all students” by holding failing public schools to account.

The law offers all kinds of changes, including requiring recess and reducing mandatory testing. It accelerates state tax dollar funding to for-profit and nonprofit charter and private schools, expands parents’ abilities to choose schools, and tightens Tallahassee’s control over what local school boards can and cannot do.

A group of school boards sued in the Supreme Court to block the law; the justices, in a 4-3 decision, have since transferred the case to a Tallahassee trial court to handle. 

#6 — Enterprise Florida, VISIT FLORIDA survive a hit: Corcoran went full frontal this year, trying to scuttle Scott’s favored organizations and a multitude of business incentives last Legislative Session.

He derided Enterprise Florida, the state’s jobs-creating organization, as little more than a dispenser of “corporate welfare.” Though a public-private partnership, it doles out mostly public dollars.

He slammed VISIT FLORIDA, the tourism marketing group, for secret deals and an overall lack of transparency. Scott and lawmakers eventually worked out a deal to save the agencies and create an $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, focused on promoting public infrastructure and job training.

Meantime, the organizations now are subject to heightened oversight. And Ken Lawson, the former DBPR secretary whom Scott moved to head the tourism agency, toured the state to meet with local tourism leaders. “I want to earn your trust and learn from you first hand. This has been a hard year for all of us,” he said.

#5 — Special elections churn the Legislature: The turnover in legislative seats began with former South Florida Sen. Frank Artiles resigning after an epithet-laden tirade against two black lawmakers was made public, eventually leading to the seat flipping to a Democrat, Annette TaddeoRepublican Jose Felix Diaz lost that race but had to resign the House to run, meaning his House seat is open.

Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson quit the House this year for health reasons; Republican Lawrence McClure won the District 58 seat in a December special election. Republican Alex Miller, just elected in 2016, also resigned her Sarasota-area House seat this summer. She cited a need to “spend more time at home than my service in the Legislature would allow.”

But wait — there’s more. Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens quit after his extramarital affair with a lobbyist came to light. Republican Neil Combee resigned the House to take a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the GOP’s Eric Eisnaugle also left the House to become an appellate judge, and Democrat Rep. Daisy Baez resigned before pleading guilty to perjury in a criminal case over her residency in Coral Gables-based House District 114.

#5(a) — Speaking of Artiles … : He resigned his Senate seat rather than face a hearing that could result in his expulsion. The Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at The Governors Club.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor, but Thurston filed a Senate rules complaint. Artiles, elected to the Senate in 2016 after six years in the House, initially called efforts to remove him politically motivated. (Sound familiar?)

#4 Speaking of Clemens … : The Lake Worth Democrat was the first in the Legislature this year to resign after reports of sexual misconduct. “I have made mistakes I ashamed of, and for the past six months I have been focused on becoming a better person,” he said in a statement to news media. 

“But it is clear to me that task is impossible to finish while in elected office. The process won’t allow it, and the people of Florida deserve better. All women deserve respect, and by my actions, I feel I have failed that standard. I have to do better.”

Clemens, the incoming Senate Democratic Leader, apologized for having an affair with a lobbyist during the last legislative session. That woman “came into possession of Clemens’ laptop, gained access to all his contacts and personal information, then informed his wife of the tryst,” according to POLITICO Florida.

#3 — Jimmy Patronis replaces Jeff Atwater: Patronis had been a Panama City restaurateurstate representative and Public Service Commissioner when Scott tapped him to replace Atwater and become the state’s fourth Chief Financial Officer this June. Atwater quit his term early to become chief financial officer of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

As CFO, Patronis — a Scott loyalist — now is one vote on the Florida Cabinet, in addition to Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. And he has since announced he will seek a full term as CFO in 2018.

The position heads a roughly 2,600-employee agency that includes the state treasury and insurance regulators, as well as being state fire marshal. The CFO also oversees management of the state’s multibillion-dollar financial portfolio. The office was created after the 1997-98 Constitution Revision Commission recommended collapsing several state departments into one, including Insurance, Treasury, State Fire Marshal and Banking and Finance.

#2 — The politics and policy of Hurricane Irma responseIrma’s size and strength put the entire state on notice; thousands of residents and visitors left in advance of catastrophic winds and flooding.

The most significant casualties were in a South Florida nursing home. The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was evacuated Sept. 13 after the facility lost power to its air conditioning system. Eight elderly residents died, with another six perishing in the weeks that followed. Most died from heat exposure. The deaths were later classified as homicides, with a police spokeswoman saying, “Who gets charged is part of the continuing investigation.”

Scott took his own heat after Democrats charged that he had ignored calls for help from the home’s administrators to his personal mobile phone; he said his staff took the messages and forwarded them to the appropriate state officials.

The governor also ordered an emergency generator rule to “ensur(e) that facilities across Florida are coming into compliance and are installing generators to keep their patients safe during a disaster,” he said. But the facilities themselves challenged that move.

The Florida House formed its own special panel to consider the state’s readiness to deal with monster hurricanes. The Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness has been meeting since October. 

#1 — Jack Latvala quits the SenateIn the face of two damning reports on his alleged serial sexual harassment, Latvala turned in his resignation, not effective till Jan. 5, on Dec. 20.

The Clearwater Republican said in a statement he “never intentionally dishonored my family, my constituents or the Florida Senate.” He first served in the Senate 1994-2002, then returned in 2010. Latvala was term-limited next year.

In his characteristically defiant manner, he said: “Political adversaries have latched onto this effort to rid our country of sexual harassment to try to rid the Florida Senate of me.” The 66-year-old Latvala admitted, however, that he “ … perhaps (had not) kept up with political correctness in my comments as well as I should have.”

An investigative report found Latvala “on multiple occasions” offered to trade his vote for sex with an unnamed female lobbyist. That bombshell came toward the end of retired appellate Judge Ronald V. Swanson‘s report into a complaint filed by Rachel Perrin Rogers, a top aide to future Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Perrin Rogers accused Latvala of sexually harassing her and assaulting her on a number of occasions over several years. A second investigation into sexual harassment claims against Latvala, prompted by a POLITICO Florida story, turned up another witness who bolstered an allegation that the senator would offer to trade sex for favorable votes on legislation.

Bill to rename Kissimmee post office for Borinqueneers gets Marco Rubio, Bill Nelson push

A bill shepherded through the House of Representatives last week by U.S. Rep. Darren Soto to rename a Kissimmee post office for the Puerto Rican “Borinqueneers” U.S. Army regiment now is getting pushed in the U.S. Senate by Florida’s U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson.

The bill, House Resolution 4042, intends to rename the Kissimmee post office to honor the U.S. Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment, first established in Puerto Rico in 1898, and which was recognized for fighting with valor in World War II and the Korean War among others. The regiment was known as the “Borinqueneers,” named after the historic inhabitants of the island. In 2014 the Borinqueneers were honored with Congressional Gold Medals.

Soto, an Orlando Democrat with Puerto Rican heritage whose district includes Kissimmee, introduced the bill in October and it was approved by unanimous consent in the U.S. House of Representatives last Thursday. On Monday Rubio and Nelson wrote to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs urging swift and full support.

“That’s great,” said Dennis Freytes, a Central Florida Puerto Rican activist who is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and professor of military science at the University of Puerto Rico, and whose father, Celio Freytes-Menendez, was a Borinqueneer who fought in both World War II and Korea. “I think it is a great honor that the 65th U.S. Infantry receives of their glorious fight for our flag, for all of us, since 1898.”

Report says loss of health care mandate would hit South, Central Florida hard

Three South Florida congressional districts represented by Republicans would be among the hardest-hit in the country according to a new report assessing how many people would lose or drop health care coverage if the final tax reform bill in Congress includes the U.S. Senate’s provision to repeal the individual coverage mandate in Obamacare.

A report “Estimates of the Increase in Uninsured by Congressional District Under the Senate GOP Tax Bill” from the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress calculated the prospects for people dropping insurance in all 435 U.S. congressional districts, based on numbers produced by the Congressional Budget Office, if the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate is repealed. The report, first produced earlier this week but revised late Wednesday, found the districts of U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo all would be among the top seven in the country in the numbers of people dropping health care coverage.

Districts of Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Val DemingsAlcee HastingsDarren SotoTed Deutch, and Frederica Wilson would not be far behind.

Only one Florida member of Congress, Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, could expect to see his district among the 100 in the nation that are least-affected by projected health care coverage reductions, according to the center. Florida’s 11th Congressional District in west-central Florida could expect to lose 24,100 people from health care coverage, the 18th-least among the nation’s 435 congressional districts.

The fate of the mandate is in the hands of the congressional conference committee, as the tax reform bill approved by the Senate includes the mandate repeal, while the bill approved by the House of Representatives does not.

Overall, Florida could see 873,000 people drop their health care coverage by 2025 if the mandate is eliminated the center estimated, according to the center. Nationally, state-by-state numbers pretty much rank the same as a state’s population size, and Florida would expect to have the third-highest number of people losing or dropping health care coverage, behind the only two states with higher populations, California and Texas.

With congressional districts, however, the variances range more widely, dependent on how many people in each district now are enrolled in Medicaid, or in health insurance policies purchased through the individuals’ market, or in insurance packages purchased through employer-sponsored plans.

The CBO projected that 5 million of those people dropping health care coverage would be dropping from Medicaid, another 5 million from the individuals’ market, and about 3 million from employer-sponsored health insurance.

“Mandate repeal has two effects on the individual market,” Emily Gee, a health economist at the Center for American Progress, explained in her report. “First, some healthy enrollees would drop out of ACA-compliant plans and become uninsured or underinsured. Second, because the remaining enrollees in the risk pool would be sicker on average, insurance companies would need to raise rates about 10 percent to cover the increased average cost. The resulting higher premiums would discourage even more people from obtaining coverage through the individual market.”

With those factors, Diaz-Balart’s district could become one of the most vulnerable in the nation to reductions in health care coverage, a phenomenon expected to not just affect individuals, but also the financial pressures on hospitals, other health care entities, and local governments, the report notes.

The center’s report says that Florida’s 25th Congressional District could expect to see 41,000 people drop or lose insurance, the fourth-highest number of any congressional district. Ros-Lehtinen’s district is projected to lose 40,800, the nation’s sixth-highest total; in Curbelo’s district, 39,900, seventh-highest among the 435 congressional districts, according to the Center for American Progress.

Diaz-Balart’s, Ros-Lehtinen’s, and Curbelo’s offices did not respond Thursday to a request from Florida Politics to comment on the center’s findings.

Several Democrats, already opposed to either version of the tax bill, responded, including Demings, whose 10th Congressional District was projected to lose 37,700 health care enrollees.

“After much debate, the facts are in: the president’s tax bill will raise your healthcare costs, putting your right to manage your own health further out of reach. Without a second thought, donors came first,” she said in a written statement. “The GOP’s proposal would mean nearly a million Floridians would lose their healthcare over the next eight years. Floridians have done their part by turning out in record numbers during the open enrollment period. However, the people seem to have been forgotten in a tax bill that was supposed to be all about the people.”

Soto, whose Florida’s 9th Congressional District in Central Florida is projected to lose about 35,400 enrollees, declared that “Florida’s hardworking families should be troubled by the current GOP Tax bill. As it stands, it is disastrous for our state’s health programs. In Central Florida alone [including his, Demings’ and Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy‘s districts,] approximately 103,000 people would face a reduction in health insurance coverage due to the individual mandate repeal.”

The other four Florida districts projected to be among the nation’s 50 hardest-hit nationally are Wasserman Schultz’s 23rd Congressional District in South Florida (expected to lose 37,700 health care enrollees); Hastings’ 20th Congressional District in South Florida (36,300); and Deutch’s 22nd Congressional District and Wilson’s 24th Congressional District, both in South Florida, both 35,200.

Across the country, the average congressional district would lose about 29,800 enrollees from health care plans, the center reported. Eighteen of Florida’s 27 congressional districts would exceed that average.

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