Hurricane Irma Archives - Page 3 of 36 - Florida Politics

Airbnb a key player in record-setting year of Florida tourism

Florida and Airbnb are making an excellent pair, as a new report shows users of the global vacation rental website had a significant role in the state’s record-setting tourism year.

In 2017, nearly 40,000 Florida Airbnb hosts earned a combined $450 million from approximately 2.7 million guests, according to company figures released Thursday. That is a 75 percent increase over the previous year, with each host earning an estimated average of $6,700 annually.

In addition to its regular Florida tourism revenue, Airbnb also played a vital role in the aftermath of September’s Hurricane Irma, as many hosts offered their properties at no charge to evacuees of the storm as part of the company’s Disaster Sponsor Program.

The report’s statewide data suggests the vacation rental community complements — not harms — the state’s hotel industry with strong growth in occupancy rates, prices and revenue throughout 2017. This also indicates the use of vacation rental websites such as Airbnb actually opens Florida to a broader range of tourists, instead of restricting competition, as some in the hotel industry argue.

For example, Airbnb extends options for the nontraditional traveler, such as visitors unable to afford higher-end hotels or those families preferring an affordable vacation, wanting to stay together under one roof.

“We are proud to contribute to Florida’s record-setting tourism by opening up the state to new segments of visitors,” said Jennifer Frankenstein-Harris, President of the Florida Vacation Rental Management Association (FVRMA). “We are committed to partnering with the Governor and lawmakers to further infuse Florida’s economy with additional revenue and elevate Florida’s status as a global hub for family-friendly tourism.”

Not only do Airbnb hosts enjoy additional personal income renting everything from apartments and homes to villas and tree houses, but the overall expansion of the state’s short-term rental industry generates more money for both the state and dozens of communities where the company has tax agreements.

While Airbnb pays state sales tax on all Florida bookings, it also collects and pays local bed taxes in 39 of the Sunshine State’s 67 counties. This year, the company secured new tax arrangements with Miami-Dade, Broward, Sarasota, Polk, Hillsborough and Leon counties.

Florida’s top Airbnb county for 2017 was Miami-Dade, with more than 667,000 hosts generating $134.6 million, followed by Osceola with $39.6 million from 358,000 rental hosts.

As well as vacation rentals, Airbnb in 2017 developed Experiences, a program that gives users exclusive access to communities and their unique activities as recommended by locals.

Courtesy: Airbnb

New survey shows Tampa voters really like Bob Buckhorn, police

Tampa residents really like Bob Buckhorn.

A new citywide poll is showing three-quarters of Tampa voters approve of the mayor’s job performance — and more than half will support a mayor like Buckhorn, one who will continue his policies.

They also favor Tampa developing a citywide rail system to ease traffic congestion, paid for by taxpayers.

The survey, taken in late November, was from Washington D.C.’s Keith Fredrick, a frequent Buckhorn campaign pollster. The poll asked 350 registered city voters — nearly half on cellphones — with a margin of error of +/- 5.3 percent.

Sixty-two percent of respondents said the city is headed in the right direction, with about 26 percent saying it was mixed (or they didn’t know); 12 percent say Tampa is going the wrong way. Fifty-one percent said they want the city’s next mayor — Buckhorn is term-limited from running again — to be “like Buckhorn and will continue with his policies.”

In addition to Buckhorn’s job approval — 75 percent saying he is either “excellent” (23 percent) or “good” (52 percent) — 88 percent of respondents said they liked the job performance of Tampa police. Seventy percent felt safe and “free from the threat of crime.” And 68 percent were feeling positive about race relations.

African-Americans in Tampa gave the police very or somewhat positive ratings (82 percent), as did 90 percent of Hispanic respondents and 88 percent of Anglos.

Among other issues, 64 percent of city voters support a higher sales tax for a citywide rail system; 28 percent opposed. Traffic congestion is the biggest concern on the minds of Tampainians (51 percent said it was either first or second on a list of six top issues), followed by “better-paying jobs” (34 percent and “street flooding and sea level rise” (27 percent).

Buckhorn also received high marks for how he handled Hurricane Irma, with 81 percent saying it was either “excellent” (45 percent) or “good” (36 percent). On that, Hispanics were the most favorable, with 91 percent applauding both the city and mayor in how they handled September’s storm.

Seventy-eight percent of voters overall also support the mayor’s welcoming residents of Puerto Rico to Tampa after Hurricane Maria. Fifteen percent opposed.

The also poll asked how Tampa residents felt about President Donald Trump and how he managed Puerto Rico relief efforts in the wake of Maria. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of respondents felt either somewhat or very negative about Trump and how he managed the territory after the storm; only 28 percent were positive. As for Republicans, however, they approved of the president 67 to 23 percent.

Pollsters also asked whether voters agreed with a national organization recently rating Tampa as one of America’s Best Cities to live; 81 percent agreed overall — with Republicans favoring most (88 percent), followed by independents (80 percent) and Democrats (79 percent). Only 15 percent of all respondents disagreed.

Irma brings ideas – and costs – for state

As the state House plows through a long and potentially expensive menu of options to recover from Hurricane Irma and brace for Florida’s next hurricane, Senate President Joe Negron is confident the storm that walloped the state in September won’t blow a hole in the upcoming budget.

But potential public and private costs from Irma are staggering:

– Agriculture officials have estimated Irma caused a $2.5 billion hit on crops and facilities.

– The insurance industry is facing $6.55 billion in property damage claims.

– Utility customers could be asked to pay more than $1 billion to cover the costs of getting power restored.

– The Florida Division of Emergency Management said that as of Dec. 14, federal agencies had provided more than $2.49 billion to help cover Irma-related losses.

State officials have yet to put an overall price tag on Florida’s costs from Irma, which left destruction from the Keys to Jacksonville. Added to that are potential costs from Hurricane Maria, which is impacting Florida as evacuees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have moved to the state.

Negron said during an interview this month that as lawmakers await a February update on tax revenues, the short-term effect of Irma on the state has been “modestly negative.”

While Irma cut revenue in September, Negron said forecasters anticipate an uptick in post-storm revenue to offset the losses.

He retained optimism about drawing up a 2018-2019 budget, which economists had expected to be tight even before Irma hit.

“I don’t think that it dramatically alters how we build our budget,” Negron said. “I still think there will be room for environmental priorities, educational priorities, and so I don’t think the hurricane spending will necessarily mean that there are other things that simply can’t be done. They’re not going to displace priorities that the House and Senate have. We’re going to have to address it, but we’ll still be able to do other things as well.”

But as the annual 60-day legislative session prepares to start Jan. 9, ideas for addressing hurricane issues – some of them potentially expensive – have continued to emerge.

Members of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness have continued to revise and offer recommendations that they will discuss Jan. 8 on the eve of the session. Any recommendations would need approval from the full House and Senate, but the ideas touch a wide range of issues.

For example, some lawmakers are looking for ways to speed evacuations when big storms threaten the state. Among proposals tossed out are using passenger trains, using a cruise ship to get people out of the Lower Keys or extending the Suncoast Parkway toll road north of the Tampa Bay area.

Other potentially high-profile recommendations include such things as strategically locating petroleum distribution centers and requiring utility lines to be placed underground.

Cape Coral Republican Rep. Dane Eagle, who offered the proposal to use passenger trains to get people out of evacuation zones, also suggested the state look into the Florida Department of Transportation purchasing emergency generators for vital highway-railroad crossings.

“It is in the public interest to ensure that railroads in Strategic Intermodal System corridors are able to quickly resume operations following a hurricane event in order to deliver critical fuel supplies, bulk liquids such as chlorine for water treatment plants, building materials and other relief supplies to affected areas of the state,” Eagle’s recommendation said.

Republican Rep. Elizabeth Porter from Lake City earlier suggested the state consider using rail transport before, during and after hurricanes to speed fuel to impacted areas.

Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and barreled up the state, was Florida’s first major hurricane since the devastating 2004 and 2005 seasons. Along with evacuation issues, Irma also caused widespread damage in the agriculture industry, left millions of Floridians temporarily without electricity and led to problems in cleaning up debris.

Lawmakers are discussing a variety of those types of issues as they prepare for the session.

For instance, Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who is a citrus grower, outlined several proposed tax exemptions for the citrus industry. That included exemptions for material used to repair or replace damaged fences and structures and for fuel used to transport crops during an emergency.

Meanwhile, deaths at a Broward County nursing home that lost its air conditioning system after Irma have resulted in a number of proposals, including Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration pushing forward with requirements for nursing homes and assisted- living facilities to add generators that can keep buildings cool.

Rep. Robert Asencio, a Miami Democrat, suggested an “at risk registry” to identify vulnerable people at care facilities, as well as creation of an industry panel to review and approve emergency plans for nursing homes and other facilities.

House Select Committee Chairwoman Jeanette Nunez, a Republican from Miami, suggested the state explore on-site options to maintain care for dialysis patients in nursing homes during disasters.

Nunez also has offered one of the few proposals that came with a price tag already attached, $1.46 million to serve as a match for federal funds to install generators at Florida’s 42 shelters for victims of domestic violence.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Rommel, a Naples Republican, would like the state to require each county to determine how much fuel it needs to operate generators for critical infrastructure and first responders during the first 72 hours following a storm. The proposal also would let counties build or maintain fuel depots or create agreements with current fuel depots.

Some of the proposals deal with the difficulties of cleaning up communities and rebuilding after major storms.

Key Largo Republican Rep. Holly Raschein suggested a pilot housing program that would use $2.85 million from the state as a match for federal Community Development Block Grant money that could be used to build temporary and permanent affordable housing in storm-battered Monroe County.

Trying to help post-storm cleanup efforts, Rep. Michael Grant, a Port Charlotte Republican, has recommended prohibiting tree trimming and discontinuing non-containerized yard waste collection services 72 hours before hurricanes. He also suggested traditional garbage collection be suspended 48 hours before storms.

“Time is needed in order to get our employees off the street, so they can prepare for the storm and make sure materials in trucks have time to dispose of items and landfills have time to process,” the recommendation from Grant said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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.

More Floridians, more members of Congress

Florida’s congressional delegation may grow by two, to 29, in 2020 based on new Census numbers and population projections by the Manassas, Va.-based political consulting firm Election Data Services.

The U.S. Census estimates Florida’s population is now 20.98 million, with the state growing at a 1.6 percent clip — tied with Arizona for the fifth-largest percentage population increase between July 1, 2016 and July 1, 2017.

Only Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Washington expanded at larger percentages, as the nation’s estimated population stands at 325.7 million, a 2.3 million increase.

The addition of 327,811 Floridians over the past year, and a projection by Election Data Services for the state to hit 22.23 million in 2020, accounts for the likely expansion of the state’s congressional delegation.

Election Data Services projects Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Oregon would each gain a seat, while Texas could grab three, after the 2020 Census.

Meanwhile, to keep the U.S. House at 435 members, Alabama, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia would each drop a seat. Illinois could lose one or two, having to battle Minnesota for the other seat.

Illinois was one of eight states that lost population in the latest Census estimate, dropping by 33,703 people, the most of any state.

Election Data Services President Kimball Brace cautioned the projections are “very preliminary.”

“The change in administration and the lack of a Census director could have a profound impact on how well the 2020 Census is conducted, and therefore the counts that are available for apportionment,” Brace noted in a release. “Having worked with Census data and estimates since the 1970s, it is important to remember that major events like (Hurricane) Katrina and the 2008 recession each changed population growth patterns, and that impacted and changed the next apportionment.”

California, 39.5 million, and Texas, 28.3 million, remain the only states ahead of Florida in terms of population. California grew by 240,177, the third-largest increase. Texas topped the growth list in adding 399,734 people.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Imported citrus numbers continue to grow in Florida

An increase in imported orange juice is anticipated by the Florida Citrus Commission to offset a decline in tax revenue from the state’s hurricane-battered growers, who await congressional action on disaster relief.

The commission – during a brief conference call Wednesday – agreed to shift $556,147 from reserves to help cover the Department of Citrus’ budget for the current fiscal year, with the transfer leaving a $682 negative balance. Taxes on citrus pay for the department’s operations.

Christine Marion, commission secretary, said continued demand by Floridians for orange juice is expected to increase the need for citrus to be imported, which – because it is taxed like citrus grown in the state – should offset the negative balance.

Unlike in past years, imported citrus now accounts for more than half – currently topping 55 percent – of the citrus taxed by the state.

Meanwhile, Florida agriculture leaders, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Citrus Commission Chairman G. Ellis Hunt, rushed to Washington, D.C. as some kinks emerged in a reported deal announced Tuesday to include $2.6 million for crop losses – with an emphasis on citrus – in an expanded $81 billion disaster-relief bill.

“It’s a roller coaster up here,” Hunt said Wednesday morning. “We’ve had some good news yesterday, and then we a little jumped the tracks, maybe, at the moment. … There’s quite a team assembled and we’re all working extremely hard and trying to kind of push this thing over the finish line.”

The overall relief package – nearly double the White House’s requested $44 billion proposal – has been attached to a short-term “continuing resolution” needed to keep the federal government open through January 19.

The resolution was initially expected to go before the U.S. House on Tuesday, but is now expected to come up for a vote later this week. The measure would then go before the Senate.

Issues have emerged regarding reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in the package, while Texas officials are pushing to get more money for its post-Hurricane Harvey recovery.

The plan is the third disaster-relief package this year in response to hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and wildfires in California. The biggest parts are $27.6 billion that would go to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster-relief account and $27.8 billion for community development block grants that could be used toward flood prevention and infrastructure repairs.

Gov. Rick Scott released a statement Wednesday saying disaster relief is critical for the agriculture industry, as well as local school districts educating students who came to Florida from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. He also said the package needs to be clear that money would go to infrastructure projects such as repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.

“As Hurricane Irma was bearing down on our state, we were forced to evacuate communities surrounding the lake due to safety concerns identified by the Army Corps of Engineers,” Scott wrote. “The lake reached dangerous levels, and Florida cannot go through another hurricane season without exploring all avenues of federal funding to fix the dike.”

For Florida’s citrus growers, on pace for the lowest harvest since the 1944-1945 growing season, the impact of Hurricane Irma in September came after they have struggled for a decade against citrus greening disease.

Putnam’s department estimated in October that the state’s agriculture industry suffered a $2.5 billion hit from Irma, with the citrus industry losses at $761 million. The citrus figure is expected to top $1 billion as damages continue to be reported and some growers in the southwestern part of the state face 70 percent to 90 percent losses.

Putnam, in seeking citrus-industry aid in the disaster relief package, has warned that imports could take hold in greater numbers as the state’s signature crop continues to struggle while beverage companies seek alternative sources of citrus.

“You have the major brands, Coke, Pepsi, Florida’s Natural, who are trying to meet the needs of consumers,” Putnam said last week. “And in many cases, it’s going to result in additional imports from Brazil, which also undermines Florida citrus and its market share.”

The Citrus Commission, while determining revenue for the Department of Citrus’ $17.8 million budget, had previously projected that orange juice imports – primarily from Brazil and Mexico – would surpass, in terms of volume, the amount of oranges grown this season.

A so-called “box” tax on growers, which provides revenue for the Department of Citrus, was set in October with a projection of 124.34 million 90-pound boxes being filled with oranges, grapefruit and specialty fruits by Florida growers and through imports.

The agency charges growers 7 cents on each box of processed oranges, grapefruit and specialty fruits.

In the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast, Florida growers were projected during the current growing season to fill about 51.5 million boxes, of which 46 million were expected to contain processed oranges.

When setting its budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, the Department of Citrus projected – based upon June figures – that imports would account for 37.5 million boxes, almost all oranges.

Since then the import projection has already been raised to 63.9 million boxes.

Marisa Zansler, director of the agency’s Economic and Market Research Department, has indicated the imports will likely continue to grow to reach the budget projections.

The agency is awaiting the January crop estimate for Florida and revised data from Mexico and Brazil to determine if a revision is needed.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Disaster relief package would help citrus industry

Florida’s storm-battered citrus growers are closer to landing federal relief sought since Hurricane Irma devastated large parts of the state’s agriculture industry in September.

The U.S. House on Wednesday will consider providing $2.6 billion for lost farm crops as part of an $81 billion disaster-relief package, which has been attached to the latest short-term “continuing resolution” needed to keep the federal government open.

The overall relief package, nearly double the amount requested in November by the White House to aid communities recently damaged by hurricanes and wildfires, comes after Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said last week there was no “plan B” for the state’s citrus industry without federal assistance.

“Today’s announcement of proposed emergency funding for Florida agriculture is the first bit of good news we’ve heard in months,” Putnam said in a prepared statement Tuesday.

If the package passes the U.S. House on Wednesday, it then would go to the Senate for consideration.

Putnam and Gov. Rick Scott have pushed Florida’s congressional delegation to attach assistance for the citrus industry to post-storm relief packages.

“I am glad to say we finally cleared the first major hurdle by securing this funding in the latest disaster supplemental bill,” U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican who is the only Floridian on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, announced late Monday.

The Florida agriculture industry, which Putnam’s department estimated took a $2.5 billion hit from Hurricane Irma, was left out of two earlier disaster-relief packages approved by Congress.

Florida is expected to get a large part of the money for farmers, with crop losses covered for citrus growers.

The biggest parts of the relief package are $27.6 billion that would go to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster-relief account and $27.8 billion for community development block grants that could be used toward flood prevention and infrastructure repairs.

Another $12.11 billion would go to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair damage from the natural disasters and to bulk up facilities from future risk, including $537 million for flood control and coastal repairs.

Another $3.99 billion would help public and private schools handling displaced students.

Florida citrus growers, including many in the southwestern part of the state who were hit hard, incurred an estimated $761 million in damage from Irma. However, that estimate from early October is expected to top $1 billion as flood damage to trees continues and as harvest numbers drop.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, said the funding will help the industry, which before Irma had been fighting citrus greening disease and is now on pace for its lowest harvest since the 1944-1945 growing season.

“We finally reached a deal that will help Florida farmers recover from the storm with $2.6 billion and prevent these jobs from going overseas,” Ross said in a prepared statement. “While we still have a long road ahead, I’m glad that Florida citrus will have a fighting chance.”

Also Wednesday, the Florida Citrus Commission will discuss shifting about $556,000 from reserves — nearly matching the amount in its reserves as of Oct. 31 — to cover programs in the current fiscal year.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Irma insurance claims near 866,000 as pace slows

Estimated insured losses from Hurricane Irma have topped $6.55 billion, with the number of claims approaching 866,000, according to information released Monday by the state Office of Insurance Regulation.

The latest report showed that 865,974 claims from the September storm had been filed with insurance companies as of Friday, with 719,512 involving residential properties.

While people have several years to file claims, the numbers indicate a slowing in reported damages, as numbers posted by the state office on Dec. 4 showed 853,356 claims with estimated losses of $6.3 billion.

Lynne McChristian, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, said Irma could have been “much worse” for homeowners and the industry.

“The insurance companies have been well-capitalized,” McChristian said. “They have been waiting for this. There may be some claims that will continue to be filed, but insurance companies know that this is what happens when you are dealing with Florida’s hurricane risk.”

While figures are not available from individual private insurers, state-backed Citizens Property Insurance reported last week it had received 63,500 claims from Irma. Most were in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties.

Citizens anticipated its number of Irma claims will grow to 70,000, with $1.2 billion in damages, over the next year.

Citizens President and CEO Barry Gilway also said Wednesday that he expected the storm to increase Citizens’ policy count from “about 442,000 policies back up to 500,000” in the next year.

In the overall industry, Miami-Dade County has the largest number of Irma-related claims, with 114,078 as of Friday, according to the Office of Insurance Regulation numbers. Other counties with large numbers of claims included Broward, 71,970; Orange, 68,306; Lee, 65,311; Collier, 63,644; and Polk, 50,180.

Irma made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties, causing widespread destruction and at least 84 deaths in Florida. The insurance industry has closed 48 percent of Irma claims with some payment. Another 31 percent were closed without any payments.

In most cases where money did not change hands, the damages failed to meet policyholders’ deductibles, McChristian said.

To reduce risk in Florida, the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness has received a number of potential housing changes — as part of the more than 140 recommendations — for lawmakers to consider during the 2018 legislative session, which begins in January.

Among the proposals, Rep. Holly Raschein, a Key Largo Republican, suggested the state identify areas where rebuilding after disasters might be high-risk and to consider options for not rebuilding, including the possible purchase of the properties. The land, she suggested, would be used to create additional open space and natural buffers.

Meanwhile, Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, and House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, of Tampa, introduced a proposal (SB 1282 and HB 1011) last week that would require insurance companies to disclose to homeowners when coverage lacks flood insurance.

“I’ve met many constituents who had no idea that their hurricane coverage did not include protections when their homes flooded,” Taddeo said in a prepared statement. “This is especially problematic in South Florida as we face sea level rise and stronger storm surges from climate change.”

Assisted living group challenges generator rule

A statewide long-term care association has challenged a proposal by Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration to make permanent a controversial rule that requires assisted-living facilities to have generators and enough fuel to provide 96 hours of backup power.

Attorneys for the Florida Senior Living Association filed a petition Friday in state administrative court arguing that the Florida Department of Elder Affairs overstepped its legislative authority and that the new proposed rule puts requirements on assisted-living facilities that are not authorized in state law.

The Florida Senior Living Association, formerly known as Florida Argentum, also argues in the petition that the proposed rule is vague. The group represents more than 350 assisted living facilities across the state.

“The proposed rule is impermissibly vague as evidenced by DOEA’s (the Department of Elder Affairs’) inability to answer basic questions relating to standards it intends to enforce should the proposed rule go into effect,” one part of the petition says.

The proposed rule closely tracks an emergency rule the Department of Elder Affairs issued in September following Hurricane Irma. That rule and one issued by Agency for Health Care Administration that affects nursing homes were invalidated in October after a trio of industry groups, including The Florida Senior Living Association, challenged them.

Despite the invalidation decision by an administrative law judge, the Scott administration maintains that the emergency rules remain in effect and has been enforcing them. A Scott spokesman also fired back against the new rule challenge filed Friday.

“This rule is solely focused on saving lives. This association should focus on keeping seniors safe and not on lawsuits,” Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said.

The rules stem from the deaths of eight residents of a Broward County nursing home on Sept. 13, three days after Hurricane Irma hit the state. The nursing home, The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, lost its air conditioning system in the storm and did not have a backup power system to cool the building.

The emergency rules drew criticism and opposition from nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, in part, because of a short timeframe to install generators and add fuel supplies.

Amid the legal wrangling about the emergency rules, the Scott administration proposed the more-permanent rules. Also, lawmakers are expected to consider several proposals during the upcoming legislative session about requiring generators and fuel supplies.

State estimates indicate that complying with the generator and fuel-supply requirements would cost $280 million for assisted-living facilities and $186 million for nursing homes. The large price tags mean the rules would have to be ratified by the Legislature before they could take effect.

The Scott administration also has moved to revoke the license of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, which is fighting the decision. A multi-day hearing is scheduled to start Jan. 29 in that case.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Takeaways from Tallahassee — Praying for DACA?

Some send letters to Congress, others pray. When it comes to DACA, some Floridians do both.

DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is the “government program that protects young undocumented immigrants from deportation,” as NBC News explains it.

In Florida, the effort to push Congress to pass a replacement for the Obama-era program was bolstered last week by prayer.

Demonstrators protest in front of the White House after the Donald Trump administration scrapped DACA.

About 100 people gathered in collective prayer at the state Capitol, asking God to guide members of Congress to pass a resolution that will protect hundreds of thousands who came to the U.S. illegally as children.

They’re also known as “Dreamers” after the “Development Relief And Education For Alien Minors” bills filed several times by pro-immigration members of Congress in recent years.

“We pray that you will protect approximately 800,000 Dreamers — including 33,000 in Florida — who are currently living and working in the United States but face the imminent threat of deportation,” 60 proponents of the program wrote in a letter Friday to seven U.S. representatives from Florida.

The letter to U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan, Ron DeSantis, Brian Mast, Bill Posey, Francis Rooney, Dennis Ross and John Rutherford was signed by members of the League of Women Voters, Spanish American League Against Discrimination, and Faith in Florida, as well as students, business owners and workers.

“We have enjoyed working with you over the many prior months, but now is the time for a permanent solution that can’t be taken away,” the letter says.

In September, the Trump administration opted to end DACA and put the burden on Congress to pass a permanent replacement. If that doesn’t happen, the protections granted to Dreamers under the two-year permit will start to wither away starting in March.

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican whose district has thousands of Dreamers, joined congressional Democrats this week in saying he will not support any funding bill without a resolution for DACA.

If the program is repealed, advocates estimate his district would be hit with a $9.5 million loss to the gross domestic product.

Curbelo wants to have a replacement by the end of the year. Democratic U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson and Ted Deutch also have backed Curbelo.

Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Ana Ceballos, Jim Rosica, Danny McAuliffe, Andrew Wilson and Peter Schorsch.

But first, a program note: This is the final edition of Takeaways for 2017. We wish you and yours a healthy, happy Holiday Season. We’ll return Jan. 6.

Now, the “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:

Harassment settlements under Scott — Sexual harassment has become a pervasive issue in Tallahassee after back-to-back sex scandals rock the Capitol. But while the Rick Scott administration has escaped recent headlines, court records obtained by Florida Politics show that it has not been immune to harassment claims that were investigated and ended without the dismissal of the accused, or settlement payout, which have totaled $413,750. The cases involve women who were sexually harassed by co-workers or supervisors, with abuse that included their vaginas being grabbed, being photographed naked and even beaten. On Wednesday, Scott signed an executive order that would strengthen the reporting and investigating of sexual harassment complaints.

Gubernatorial appointment power unchallenged — The state’s highest court dismissed a challenge to Gov. Scott’s power to appoint three new justices on his last day in office in 2019. The case was tossed in a 6-1 decision with the reason being the issue wasn’t ready for judicial review. The Florida Supreme Court said it couldn’t step into the controversy because the governor hasn’t taken any action yet. The three justices who are retiring and will be replaced, however, took issue with the decision. In the end two of them agreed with the result, but one called Scott’s intentions “blatantly unconstitutional.”

Campaign finance reform tossed — A proposal to repeal Florida’s system of public financing for statewide campaigns won’t make it into the state constitution, at least for now. Frank Kruppenbacher, who was sponsoring the proposed amendment, withdrew his measure from consideration, but he said he intends to press lawmakers to think about reforming the system this year. Kruppenbacher was appointed by Scott, who has supported abolishing public financing for campaigns. In the 2014 election cycle, the state spent over $4.3 million to finance campaigns. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has also been a big proponent of the change.

Marijuana lawsuits pile on — A 238-page lawsuit filed by Joe Redner‘s Florigrown company — replete with references to Encyclopaedia Britannica, ancient Roman medical texts and the Nixon White House tapes — alleges that the state is failing its responsibility to carry out the people’s will when it comes to medical marijuana. The complaint was filed in Leon County Circuit Civil court against the Department of Health, its Office of Medical Marijuana Use, Gov. Rick Scott and others. This latest action adds to the growing amount of litigation over medical marijuana, which has state lawmakers concerned it’s interfering with the department’s ability to process vendor licenses and patient ID cards, among other things.

Citrus industry squeezed — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said no “plan B” is available for the citrus industry if Congress does not add funding to the latest disaster relief package. A day after the U.S. Department of Agriculture further reduced a forecast of the post-Hurricane Irma orange harvest, Putnam said there is a need for federal assistance to help the industry. He said the damage from the storm tops $1 billion.

Scott recognizes ‘outstanding’ educators

Scott and the Cabinet recognized seven educators with the governor’s Shine Award, meant for teachers and administrators in the state who make significant contributions to the field of education.

“The educators honored today represent the thousands of great teachers around the state who are dedicated to preparing students for college and a future career,” Scott said.

Rick Scott honors seven outstanding Florida educators. (Courtesy: The Office of Gov. Rick Scott.)

The educators that received the award are the following: Rudy Diaz, a TV Production Media teacher at South Miami Senior High School; Lisa Gault, a veteran educator teaching Adult Special Needs Transition at the Bradford-Union Technical Center; Felecia King, a fourth-grade English teacher at Lockhart Elementary Magnet School; Anne Jones, an Instructional/Reading Coach at Ruth Raines Middle School; Nardi Routten, a fourth-grade teacher at Chester A. Moore Elementary School; Timothy Stevens, a fifth-grade English and social studies teacher at Ochwilla Elementary School; and Dr. Karen P. Welch, an Intensive Reading and Intensive Language Arts teacher at Bell High School in Gilchrist County.

State re-employment tax rate will stay at $7

For the third year in a row, Florida businesses will continue to pay $7 per employee as their re-employment tax rate next year.

The Scott administration said that as a result of the thriving economy, more than 60 percent of Florida employers will pay the minimum tax rate, which is at the lowest it’s been since 2004.

“By keeping the re-employment tax law, we are putting more money back into the hands of job creators, so they can invest in their businesses. This continued low rate is another example of the steps we are taking to make Florida No. 1 in the nation for job growth and opportunities.” Scott said.

The $7 per employee minimum tax rate for 2018 is down from a high $120.80 per employee in 2012, a 94-percent tax reduction that has resulted in savings of more than $4.9 billion.

State business pay the re-employment tax as a percentage of the first $7,000 in wages for each employee.

Instagram of the week

‘Oregon’ is state’s newest canine detective

Scott and the Cabinet held a swearing-in ceremony for the newest member of the Department of Financial Services: Oregon, an 18-month-old German Shepard.

Oregon will be working as an explosive-detecting canine for the DFS’s Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit. His handler, Detective Monty Taylor, has more than 15 years of experience with K-9 dogs and has served for that specific unit for nine years.

‘Oregon’ is Florida’s newest investigator. (Photo: Florida Department of Financial Services.)

Oregon will be taking over for Bella, who recently retired as an explosive-detection canine after more than eight years of service and hundreds of requests for assistance.

The bureau in which Oregon will be working has a 41 percent arson clearance rate. The average national rate is 20 percent.

The week in appointments

Curley moves to circuit court — Scott appointed Gerard Joseph Curley Jr. to the 15th Judicial Circuit Court.

Curley, 57, of West Palm Beach, is a shareholder at the Gunster law firm and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and has a law degree from Stetson University College of Law.

He will fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Judge James T. Ferrara.

Nutt promoted to circuit court — Scott appointed James Nutt to the 15th Judicial Circuit Court to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Judge Richard Oftedal.

Nutt is a 55-year-old Palm Beach Gardens resident and currently serves as Litigation Practice Group Leader of the South Florida Water Management District’s Office of General Counsel.

He received his bachelor’s degree from Oglethorpe University, and his master’s and law degree from Nova Southeastern University.

Albers moves to Correctional Medical Authority — Scott appointed Kris-Tena Albers to be the program director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence.

She was appointed for a term beginning Dec. 8 and ending July 1, 2020, and will succeed Joyce Phelps.

Holidays bring more DUI enforcement

The Florida Highway Patrol will join thousands of other law enforcement and highway safety agencies across the nation in the “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign.

“In an effort to get drunk and drugged drivers off Florida roads, FHP troopers will aggressively enforce impaired driving laws to ensure motorists and their families arrive to their destination safety,” said Colonel Gene Spaulding, the FHP director.

The department is offering some tips to ensure motorists “arrive alive” to their holiday destination that include finding a designated driver or call a ride-hailing service, adjust speed accordingly and to buckle up. Drivers are also advised to not text, talk on the phone, eat, or adjust the stereo while driving.

Motorists are asked to call FHP at 347 if they see an impaired or aggressive driver on the road.

Dep’t of Education says industry certifications rise

Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart said this week that industry certification completions among Florida high schoolers have jumped by about from 81,970 in the 2015-16 school year to 102,044 through the 2016-17 school year.

The Florida Department of Education said Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs give students a “school-to-career connection,” and more than 400,000 Florida students are currently enrolled in secondary technical education programs.

Florida Department of Education Commissioner Pam Stewart says industry certifications are on the rise. 

Career and Adult Education Chancellor Rod Duckworth said the “Industry Certification component of CTE provides students with a business and industry-recognized credential that is another tool in their educational toolbox. We are fortunate in Florida that all 67 school districts in the state have CTE programs as part of their educational system.”

Stewart said such certifications “open the door to high-skill, high-demand career opportunities,” while Scott added that the “great news shows that more of our students are getting prepared for future success.”

Joe Negron named ‘Champion of the Everglades’

Environmental group Audubon Florida presented Senate President Joe Negron with an award this week recognizing his “steadfast leadership” in Everglades restoration.

Negron earned the “Champion of the Everglades” award for a bill he ushered through the legislature earlier this past session that mandated the construction of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and prevent a repeat of the historic and harmful algal blooms that wreaked havoc on Florida waters in 2016.

Senate President Joe Negron accepting Audubon Florida’s Champion of the Everglades Award. Left to right: Audubon Florida Deputy Director Julie Hill-Gabriel, Senate President Joe Negron, and Audubon Florida Everglades Policy Associate Celeste De Palma.

“President Negron helped secure a much-needed restoration project for America’s Everglades. His tireless efforts responded to an ecological crisis by garnering support for one of the most important wins for Florida’s environment in a decade,” said Audubon Florida deputy director Julie Hill-Gabriel.

Audubon said the award is reserved for “individuals who have gone above and beyond their call of duty to protect Florida’s water and wildlife in the River of Grass.” Past winners of the award include Nathaniel Reed and former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Lori Berman marks Sandy Hook anniversary

Five years after children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School were killed by a gunman, State Rep. Lori Berman, a Lantana Democrat, said legislators “must do more to prevent these senseless tragedies.”

“One way to do so is to address the crucial need for stronger and better mental health resources,” Berman said. “There is so much to be done and I will not stop advocating for more.”

Rep. Lori Berman memorialized the five-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting.

Berman, who is running in the special election for Senate District 31, said she is introducing legislation (HB 231) that would allow a family member or law enforcement officer to seek a risk protection order to prevent a person who is at high risk of harming themselves or others from accessing firearms.

Every year that she has served, Berman said she has “filed legislation to strengthen gun violence protection and prevention and bring attention to mental health issues that need to be addressed more effectively.”

“Unfortunately, many of these bills have yet to be heard in a committee,” she added.

Evan Jenne wants to curtail fundraising

Dania Beach Democratic Rep. Evan Jenne filed a bill this week that would force the governor and Cabinet to play by the same fundraising rules as lawmakers while the legislature is in Session.

Jenne’s bill (HB 707) would put the kibosh on executive branch members soliciting or accepting contributions during the Legislative Session, either for one’s own campaign, one’s own political party, a political committee or an aligned candidate.

Evan Jenne
Evan Jenne seeks to scale back fundraising during Session.

“The Governor and members of the cabinet all have their own legislative agendas each Session and it’s time they abide by the same rules as legislators,” Jenne said.

“It’s in complete conflict with common sense and fairness that those with influence on the legislative process can raise money from special interests and pad their campaign war chests during Session while being bills are being vetted, voted on, and making their way toward becoming law.”

During each Legislative Session from 2011 to 2017, the Governor and members of the Cabinet have collectively raised $16,163,474.87, which averages out to a $2,309,067.84 haul during each sixty-day session.

How many bills are being heard in the House?

Less than a month before Session starts, Florida House members have filed 136 bills on committee agendas for consideration.

According to data provided by the House Democratic Caucus, 94 of those bills are sponsored by Republicans and 21 of those measures are being pushed by Democrats. In addition to those, 21 bills have bipartisan co-sponsors.

CRC announces second statewide tour

The Constitution Revision Commission this week announced its second round of public hearings to be held statewide in 2018.

Carlos Beruff, the CRC chairman, said commissioners will be hitting the road again in 2018 to hear what the public wants to see changed in the state constitution.

Carlos Beruff and the CRC are going on the road.

“This is a public driven process and upcoming public hearing will allow Floridians the opportunity to shape proposed constitutional revisions before they are placed on the ballot,” Beruff said.

The dates, times and locations for confirmed public hearings are below:

South Florida: Tuesday, Feb. 6, 1-7 p.m., Nova Southeastern University, Rick Case Arena at the Don Taft University Center (UC), 3301 College Ave., Fort Lauderdale.

Central Florida: Monday, Feb. 19, 1-7 p.m., Eastern Florida State College, King Center, 3865 North Wickham Road, Melbourne.

Northeast Florida: Tuesday, Feb. 20, 1-7 p.m., University of North Florida, Herbert University Center, 12000 Alumni Drive, Jacksonville.

Northwest Florida: Tuesday, Feb. 27, 1-7 p.m. (Central time), University of West Florida, Conference Center & Ballroom, 11000 University Parkway, Building 22, Pensacola.

Tampa Bay Area: Tuesday, March 13, 1-7 p.m., University of South Florida — St. Petersburg, University Student Center, 6th Avenue S., St. Petersburg.

A venue for Southwest Florida is yet to be determined.

JMI report lauds UF free speech promotion efforts

A report released and conducted by the conservative-leaning James Madison Institute has found the state higher education system is “very well positioned to meet the growing demand for intellectually-serious academic study at an affordable cost.”

But citing room for improvement, JMI President and CEO Dr. Bob McClure said all Florida university leaders should “abolish all ‘speech codes,’ and ‘speech zones.’”

James Madison Institute CEO Bob McClure takes a selfie with leaders fellows in Orlando.

“It would be a mistake to think that Florida’s public universities are in no way threatened by the rise of speech-bullying nationwide,” said William Mattox, the report author and director of JMI’s Marshall Center for Educational Options.

The report, “Free Expression and Intellectual Diversity: How Florida Universities Currently Measure Up,” compiled measures that examined how universities protect free speech, promote a campus culture open to different viewpoints and respond to speech-bullying by those seeking to drown out viewpoints they oppose.

Florida Horse Park gets new director

Jason Reynolds will become the next Executive Director of the Florida Agricultural Center and Horse Park. Reynolds won a unanimous vote of its Executive Committee.

“It is with great enthusiasm that we welcome Jason to this vibrant equestrian community,” said Carol B. Dover, Chair and President, and also CEO of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association (FRLA).

“We are extremely excited with this selection and I am confident Jason’s strong ethics and diligent work will significantly elevate our efforts,” she added. “Reynolds offers a fresh perspective and possesses the experience necessary to take FHP in the right direction as we enter 2018.”

Reynolds said, “I’m thrilled for the opportunity to cultivate this world-class facility and proud to have been selected to lead this fantastic organization.” He will relocate from Tallahassee to Ocala and start in January 2018.

Reynolds was Director of Public Policy at FRLA for 12 years. He’s been a horse owner for over 15 years and volunteers his time at several horse show facilities in the Tallahassee area.

He has also served on the Florida Agricultural Center & Horse Park Building Subcommittee. Reynolds is a proud veteran of the U.S. Air Force, where he served as a member of the Air Expeditionary Force and deployed twice to the Middle East.

To learn more about FHP, visit A full list of events may be found here. For event booking, contact (352) 307-6699 or email

FSU maintains ‘most efficient’ streak

Florida State University is once again among U.S. News & World Reports’ list of most efficient universities.

FSU has placed first or second every year since 2013, taking the No. 2 spot this year behind Miami University in Ohio.

FSU named one of the ‘most efficient ‘ universities.

The list is based on the operating efficiency of schools in the top half of U.S. News’ Best College rankings, in which FSU ranked 81st in 2018.

University faculty said the ranking stems from the school’s active effort to streamline operations, reduce costs and review processes. FSU has two committees in place that aim to reduce overall costs.

“We pride ourselves on being careful with every dollar and investing any savings into areas that benefit academic programs for students,” said FSU President John Thrasher. “This has been an enormous campuswide effort that we take very seriously.”

Leon County Commission considers ‘resilience’

The Leon County Board of County Commissioners held its annual retreat earlier this week and considered “ongoing efforts to build disaster and community resilience,” according to a news release.

Commissioners also “reviewed and amended Leon County’s five-year strategic plan through the addition of 15 specific strategic initiatives that direct and align organizational action to advance the County’s strategic priorities related to Economy, Environment, Quality of Life and Governance.”

The board also heard a presentation from Leslie Chapman Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), reviewed tourism efforts, upgrading or eliminating septic tank systems, and securing Veterans Affairs benefits for local County veterans, among other things.

The strategic priorities and initiatives discussed today will come back before the Board for final approval and ratification in January.

Time for Soul Santa, Elf Night in Tallahassee

There is nothing quite like Santa in a helicopter.

The Tallahassee tradition of “Soul Santa” will touch down Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Walker-Ford Community Center, 2301 Pasco St. Each child up to age 10 will receive a special gift. A parent should accompany children to get registered for a present upon arrival.

After Soul Santa, the jolly man himself will stay in town to make an appearance at Dorothy B. Oven Park, 3205 Thomasville Road, during the 18th annual “Elf Night” Thursday, Dec. 21, 5:30-8:30 p.m.

Santa’s little helpers will provide hot cocoa and cookies while supplies last. Over 250,000 lights will twinkle against the night sky. Visitors are invited to stroll the decorated grounds.

Take note: Vehicles will not be allowed to drive through Oven Park during the event. Public parking will be available next to the park at Thomasville Road Baptist Church, 3131 Thomasville Road.

All events are free. For information, call the city’s holiday hotline at (850) 891-3115.

Now for this week’s edition of Capitol Directions:


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