Hurricane Irma Archives - Page 5 of 44 - Florida Politics

Calls increase for Irma aid to flow to farmers

Pressure is growing from Florida and other states as the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to determine how to move forward with a disaster-relief package President Donald Trump signed in early February.

Florida’s Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson joined colleagues from Texas, Louisiana and California this week in prodding U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to start distributing $2.3 billion intended for farmers who sustained damages last year in hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

“We are concerned that to date there has been no implementation guidance for producers in our states,” the senators wrote Wednesday to Perdue.

The letter followed phone calls from Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott to Perdue in the past week regarding the federal money.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, industry representatives and members of the state’s congressional delegation have also been pushing the federal agency.

“We need these funds to be distributed quickly, but it also needs to be done the right way,” Putnam spokesman Aaron Keller said in an email.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a statement Wednesday night saying that it “understands the anxiety in Florida and other disaster-stricken areas that are waiting on critical assistance.”

“The Bipartisan Budget Act passed in February gave the secretary a lot of discretionary authority to establish an ad hoc disaster program,” the federal agency said. “USDA is in the final stages of outlining the parameters of the program and hopes to announce more information regarding sign-up and eligibility in the coming weeks.”

In the letter to Perdue, the senators noted that agricultural producers in a wide range of industries remain affected by the storms.

“The citrus industry in Florida was especially devastated by Hurricane Irma because the storm struck just a few weeks before harvest, destroying most of the fruit and many trees as well,” the letter said. “For an industry already weakened by citrus greening, this storm has pushed many growers to the brink of financial ruin.”

Florida citrus growers suffered at least $761 million in losses from Hurricane Irma, which hit in September and caused an estimated $2.5 billion in losses to the state’s agriculture industry.

At a March 21 meeting of the Florida Citrus Commission, Chairman G. Ellis Hunt expressed frustration as the wait continued.

“We’re still waiting, maybe not as patiently as we were to start with,” Hunt said at the meeting.

With Irma-induced losses at citrus groves in parts of Southwest Florida reaching 70 percent to 90 percent, orange production across the state is forecast to be down 34.5 percent from a year ago. At the same time, grapefruit production is off by 40 percent.

Democrats aim new website at Rick Scott

Democrats are sharpening their attacks on Rick Scott just as Florida’s Republican Governor bides his time with a no-comment period until the big announcement Monday when he’s expected to become a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

On Thursday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee launched a new website “SelfServingScott.com” anticipating Scott’s candidacy. The site lays out several attacks on Scott, claiming he will say and do anything to help himself at Floridians’ expense.

The rollout of the site continues an aggressive anti-Scott campaign Democrats began last month as it became increasingly apparent Scott would soon formalize his long-known intentions to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. The attacks come in the period when Scott and many of his advisers and allies are reluctant to respond, lest they acknowledge a Senate candidacy before it can be rolled out with a splash.

Three weeks ago, the released two digital videos alleging that Scott had used his tenure as governor to increase his personal wealth and that he’d had several instances of forgetting or losing information that some charged could have been key evidence of crimes. Last week the Florida Democratic Party organized a news conference to charge that Scott had been avoiding accountability on tragedies.

On Wednesday, American Bridge released a memo detailing what it called Scott’s weaknesses Democrats could exploit.

The new DSCC site features the two videos the committee already has released attacking Scott, and links to several pages going into details on allegations the Democrats are making about his seven-year tenure as governor, and what they say will happen if he runs for the U.S. Senate.

Among the Democrats’ allegations:

— That he personally made lots of money on investments as wages remained low in Florida.

— That his business holdings make him a walking conflict of interest, and that he has kept his finances secret through his blind trust.

— That his offer for nursing home directors to call his cellphone in a crisis, combined with his alleged failure to respond to such calls, may put some blame on him for the tragic deaths at Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills after Hurricane Irma last September.

— That Scott supported drilling near shores and beaches even as he has claimed to oppose it in more recent times.

— That he broke a promise to expand Medicaid health care to 800,000 Floridians.

— That he let 612 days pass between the Pulse and Parkland mass murders without taking any action regarding gun violence.

Takeaways from Tallahassee — Python purge

Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill this week aimed at eradicating invasive species, such as the rightly maligned Burmese python, from wreaking havoc in Sunshine State ecosystems.

SB 168 creates a pilot program within the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) allowing them to hire private contractors to capture or kill any of a long list of “priority invasive species” — currently five species of python, two species of lionfish, and a group of lizards known as tegus.

Former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican, first filed legislation early last year to rid the state of tegus, a lizard he said was “decimat(ing) the fauna and flora of the Everglades and other natural areas and ecosystems in the southern and central parts of this state at an accelerating rate.”

Former Sen. Frank Artiles first filed legislation to stop invasive species from wreaking havoc on the Everglades.

Tegus, native to South America and brought to Florida as pets, have either escaped or been released over the years, creating new wild populations in Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties.

The program, funded at $600,000 over two years, also requires FWC to identify and add species that threaten Florida’s native wildlife to a state list and set up rules for exotic pet dealers to tag them with transponders.

The measure was sponsored by Sarasota GOP Sen. Greg Steube and won unanimous approval from both chambers of the Legislature in the closing days of the 2018 Legislative Session.

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

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

Special Session on gambling, anyone? — Top officials in the Legislature are considering a Special Session to tackle unresolved gambling issues from the 2018 Regular Session, including renewal of a deal between the state and the Seminole Tribe. It’s all about the money: The Tribe paid a little more than $290 million last fiscal year into state coffers. As part of a blackjack lawsuit settlement, the sides are now in a “forbearance period” that ends March 31, after which point the Tribe is entitled to stop paying. That possibility concerns House Speaker Richard Corcoran. “The Seminoles’ potential to completely walk away from the forbearance agreement jeopardizes the stability of the state budget,” Corcoran said in a Thursday statement. “We would be forced to cut between $390 and $441 million in General Revenue, or we would have to allow our reserves to be drained, which could jeopardize our state bond rating.”

Judge orders new voting rights restoration — A federal judge ordered Gov. Scott and the Board of Executive Clemency to come up with a new system for restoring ex-felon voting rights within a month. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker deemed the process unconstitutional in February calling it a violation of the First and 14th amendments. Walker criticized the Governor and the board for threatening to ditch the ex-felon voting restoration process altogether after last month’s ruling. The Governor’s office continues to argue the process should be at the discretion of elected officials, as outlined in the state constitution.

Rick Scott planned drilling ban — When Gov. Scott and U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced in an impromptu Tallahassee news conference that Florida’s coastal waters would be “off the table” for oil drilling, speculations rose that it was a political move tailored to help Scott in an expected 2018 Senate bid. Records, text messages and emails obtained and reviewed by POLITICO Florida showed that a staffer from the Interior planned to be in Tallahassee at least four days before the announcement and was in the capital city the day before Zinke and Scott said Florida would not be subjected to drilling. “It’s no secret that our office worked with the Department of the Interior to set up a meeting that the Governor publicly requested on Jan. 4,” Scott’s spokesman McKinley Lewis told POLITICO.

Randy Fine wants gun laws repealed — Palm Bay Republican Rep. Fine is aiming to repeal three gun-control measures passed by the Legislature in the 2018 Session. He told Florida Today this week that he’ll file a bill ahead of the 2019 Session that would walk back Florida law that now bans the purchase and sale of bump stocks, raises the minimum age for firearms purchases to 21 and mandates a three-day waiting period for gun purchases. Fine voted for the firearms measures, which were included in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, but said he did so only to secure the funding to increase school safety, which was tied to the same package. Fine’s move follows the NRA’s recent lawsuit against the state claiming the new laws are a violation of the Second Amendment.

Adam Putnam ordered to pay up — Agriculture Commissioner Putnam was ordered this week to pay claims to 12,000 homeowners whose citrus trees were destroyed by the state more than a decade ago. Circuit Judge Keith Kyle of Fort Myers ruled those homeowners can force the commissioner to make a list of state assets to sell to cover the claims, which now total nearly $17 million. The trees were destroyed as part of a statewide initiative to eradicate citrus canker in the Sunshine State. The order focuses on claims in Southwest Florida. Judge Kyle, in his order, wrote that “wildly different amounts” have been paid for canker claims in different regions of the state. Kyle said Putnam’s office contended each case be tried in separate counties. Putnam’s spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said the department intends to appeal the ruling and that claims should be appropriated by the Florida Legislature.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

Gov. Scott’s former chief of staff, Jackie Schutz Zeckman, abruptly left her position at the beginning of the week with a resignation letter that looks more like a formality than a farewell.

“Governor Scott, Effective today, 3/25/18, I resign as chief of staff. It has been an absolute honor to serve in the Governor’s office as your communications director and chief of staff. Thank you for this amazing opportunity!” the letter reads.

Jackie Schutz Zeckman, shown to the left of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, resigned abruptly this week.

For someone leaving after seven years in the Governor’s office, there’s nothing melancholy or bittersweet in that missive. Perhaps because that “amazing opportunity” may be her next job, not the chief of staff gig.

When Scott announces his run for U.S. Senate, Schutz Zeckman is likely to be one of his top campaign staffers.

It’s not the first time Schutz Zeckman has left the Scott administration — she did the same thing in 2014 to take the deputy communications director position on Scott’s re-election campaign.

Scott signs ‘Condo Cleanup’ bill

The “Condo Cleanup Bill” (HB 841) was signed into law last week by Gov. Scott with this note from the press office:

“This bill revises numerous provisions relating to community associations regarding reporting requirements, official records, websites and bylaws.”

Rick Scott signs a bill to ‘clean up’ condominium associations, cooperatives, and homeowner associations.

Largely technical in nature, it “cleans up” how condominium associations, cooperatives, and homeowner associations govern themselves and conduct business.

Almost 10 million Floridians live in homes with a community association, making Florida the number one state in the country for residents in community associations.

“This will save homeowners money and headaches — and we applaud Governor Scott for signing it into law,” said Mark Anderson, Executive Director and Lobbyist for Chief Executive Officers of Management Companies (CEOMC).

“We appreciate the Florida Legislature and especially Rep. George Moraitis and Sens. Kathleen Passidomo and Debbie Mayfield for providing the clarity our association members need,” he added.

Instagram of the week

AHCA fines ALF beset with bedbugs

The Agency for Health Care Administration slapped a South Florida assisted living facility with a $1,000 fine this week after the facility was found to be infested with bedbugs.

The bloodsucking parasites were in no way bedridden — an AHCA inspection found them “crawling on the walls” in at least one room at South Hialeah Manor.

South Hialeah Manor needs a new pest control company, pronto.

A separate inspection by the state Department of Health uncovered bugs in a dozen rooms. Their take: South Hialeah Manor needed a new pest control company, proto.

AHCA also said the ALF shirked its responsibility to make sure one of the three residents who was bitten got treatment.

Topping the list of ALF resident rights in Florida law is the right to live “in a safe and decent living environment, free from abuse and neglect.”

Hurricane money available for homeowners and evacuees

The Florida Housing Finance Corporation announced this week that it has $5 million in funding on hand to help out Florida homeowners as well as Puerto Ricans and S. Virgin Islander evacuees in the Sunshine State.

Florida Housing said the money was available through the State Housing Initiatives Partnership, or SHIP, and is slated to head to the 12 counties — and the cities within them — that were the hardest hit during the 2017 hurricane season: Broward, Collier, Duval, Hendry, Highlands, Lee, Monroe, Miami-Dade, Orange, Osceola, Polk and Seminole.

Help is on the way, says Florida Housing executive director Trey Price.

“Florida Housing is following through on its commitment to provide long-term housing solutions in times of disaster,” said Trey Price, executive director for Florida Housing. “This funding will not only assist the citizens of Florida who were impacted by the hurricanes with their housing needs but also our fellow Americans from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands that had to evacuate to Florida.”

Depending on income, homeowners and evacuees affected by Hurricanes Irma or Maria may be eligible for home repair or replacement, down payment assistance, rental housing assistance and other affordable housing assistance.

The week in appointments

Children’s Services Council of Brevard CountyAdrian Laffitte, 62, of Melbourne, is the retired director of government relations for Lockheed Martin. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico and his master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Laffitte fills a vacant seat and is appointed for a term ending May 2, 2019.

Board of Pilot Commissioners Sherif Assal, 55, of Miramar, is the senior vice president of American Guard Services, Inc. and the president of United Stevedoring of America, Inc. He is reappointed for a term ending Oct. 31, 2021. This appointment is subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

Jacksonville Port Authority J. Palmer Clarkson, 61, of Jacksonville, is the president and chief executive officer of Bridgestone HosePower. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina. Clarkson succeeds Joseph York and is appointed for a term ending Sept. 30, 2021. This appointment is subject to Senate confirmation.

Anderson to continue tenure at NICA

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis this week reappointed Bryan Anderson to the Florida Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Association, or NICA.

Anderson, a veteran of the health care industry, now will continue to provide oversight for the Florida Birth-related Neurological Injury Compensation Plan, which was created by the Legislature in 1988 to help families cover the costs of needed care for infants without having to worry about costly litigation.

Longtime health care veteran Bryan Anderson will continue to serve on the NICA board.

“Bryan is a wonderful asset to the NICA board,” said Patronis. “He will continue his good work to ensure infants with birth-related neurological injuries and their families receive the care they need without the financial burden.”

Anderson was first appointed to the board in 2009. He was reappointed again in 2012 and 2015.

In addition to his service for NICA, Anderson is vice president of government relations at Hospital Corporation of America, where he aids in the implementation of HCA’s legislative and regulatory agenda by representing the company before Florida’s executive and legislative branches of government and key state agencies.

State senators exhibit ‘upper chamber’ character

Much is said about collegiality in the Senate. Yet sometimes the public displays of mutual respect and affection still surprise and impress.

Such was the case Tuesday when state Sen. Linda Stewart realized that there was no way that Orlando traffic was going to let her get to a Tiger Bay of Central Florida gun control debate on time. She and Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley were the headliners.

She wasn’t going to make it, and she needed a pinch-hitter.

Orlando traffic forced Linda Stewart to call on a last-minute pinch-hitter for a gun control debate.

There were plenty of Democrats in the room, certainly including a few who would have jumped at the chance to be the impromptu fill-in for the Democratic senator from Orlando who had proposed banning assault weapons. Hello, Anna Eskamani? Hey, Geraldine Thompson? Hi, Eddy Dominguez?

But whom did Stewart call? Republican state Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs. He was honored, he said. And of course, he would, allowing that he couldn’t and wouldn’t represent Stewart’s views, but would do his best to debate at least the nuances with Baxley, author of Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law and a fervent Second Amendment advocate. As it happened, Stewart arrived as Simmons was finishing opening remarks, arguing there could be acceptable language dealing with assault weapons, and she took over.

Smith gets props for Publix PrEp win

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith received the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation’s Legislative Leadership Award this week for his work to change Publix’s mind on covering PrEp, an HIV prevention pill, for its employees.

“Our recent success with encouraging Publix to change their employee health plan to begin offering PrEp is a great example of how we can get things done when politicians are unresponsive to important issues facing our communities,” the Orlando Democrat said.

Carlos Guillermo Smith earned recognition for his work to change Publix’s mind on covering PrEp, an HIV prevention pill.

“I am extremely humbled to be recognized by The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation for our work to educate the private sector on both the modern science of HIV transmission and on how they can be responsible corporate partners to local, state and federal HIV prevention strategies.”

Earlier this year the grocery giant, which employs more than 130,000 Floridians, revealed the medical coverage it offered employees did not cover PrEp. Officials cited an internal policy that their plan only covered “only covered identification, treatment or management of a medical condition” and not preventive care for ailments employees might get in the future.

Shortly after the news broke, Smith met with Publix’s government relations team. Less than 24 hours later the company announced it had changed its policy.

CRC coming back in ‘style’

The Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) noticed the following meeting schedule for next week. Most meetings are of the commission’s Style and Drafting Committee, charged with grouping amendments and writing ballot summaries:

Monday, April 2: No meetings scheduled.

Tuesday, April 3: Style and Drafting Committee, 1-6 p.m., 102 House Office Building.

Wednesday, April 4: Style and Drafting Committee, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., 102 House Office Building.

Thursday, April 5: Style and Drafting Committee, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., 102 House Office Building.

Friday, April 6: Rules & Administration Committee, 8:30-9 a.m., 401 Senate Office Building; Style and Drafting Committee, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., 102 House Office Building.

Daily agendas are available on the commission’s Calendars Page.

Insurers urge evacuations for wildfire-affected homeowners

As numerous wildfires scorch the state, a large insurance association is reminding Floridians that their policies provide coverage for additional living expenses — should those homeowners feel the need to evacuate.

Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, or PCI, sent the alert out this week, as fires sprouted across the state, particularly in Southwest Florida. PCI represents more than 1,000 member companies nationwide.

Insurers remind Floridians that additional living expenses are covered in the case of wildfire evacuations.

“PCI urges Florida homeowners and renters impacted by the severe wildfires occurring in Southwest Florida to evacuate if instructed to do so and contact their insurance companies immediately to help in the recovery process,” said Logan McFaddin, PCI’s regional manager. She added that in instances of evacuation, policyholders typically are covered for hotel expenses.

The alert provided other tips for homeowners, including updating policies to cover new additions to homes, developing an inventory of household items, and reviewing the fine details of policies with professionals.

The group also explained preventive measures homeowners can take to prepare for and protect against wildfires. Among them: Clear dead brush around your home and in gutters, cut anything growing over a chimney, create a family wildfire plan, keep an extinguisher on hand and consider landscaping with fire-resistant plants.

Hurricane claims keep insurers busy

It’s been months since Hurricane Irma ravaged the state, and as time lapses, circumstances change for those who experienced damage.

Citizens Property Insurance Corporation to date has received 66,400 claims from the storm — roughly 37 percent of which have recently been reopened to reassess and revise damage estimates.

Hurricane Irma is keeping insurers busy, says Citizens’ chief of claims Jay Adams.

“We want to reinforce to people that what we have provided them is an estimate and that estimates may change as repairs begin,” said Jay Adams, Citizens Chief of Claims. “The initial estimate and payment does not necessarily mean your claim has been concluded.”

Ninety-percent of Citizens’ claims are closed. The insurance group doled out initial payments immediately after the storm based on the actual cash value of damages incurred. But in the repair process, additional costs may arise.

For policyholders, Citizens said it’s important to reach out before beginning repairs not covered under the initial estimate. The group wants homeowners to know that supplemental payments are available, and field adjusters are working diligently to help with any questions.

Free-market solutions for Florida?

Florida’s known for its competitive business environment — but according to liberty-minded thought leaders, there’s still work to be done.

A new policy brief from Florida’s premier free-market think tank, The James Madison Institute, suggests two major reforms for the Legislature to consider that could lead to a “more prosperous Florida.”

Sal Nuzzo is pushing two free-market proposals for a ‘more prosperous Florida.’

“While we do get much correct in the policy trajectory, Florida is by no means perfect,” reads the introduction to the brief, authored by JMI Vice President of Policy Sal Nuzzo and Goldwater Institute’s Director of National Litigation and General Counsel Jon Riches.

JMI wants lawmakers to look to The Right to Earn a Living Act, recently adopted by Arizona, to reform occupational licensing in the Sunshine State. The legislation would require regulators to show they are restricting an industry because of a public health, safety, or welfare concern. It also gives businesses a legal pathway to repealing existing barriers to entry enforced by regulators.

The think tank also points to the REINS Act as a potential solution to encourage free enterprise in the state. If adopted by Florida voters, language provided in the REINS Act would require new agency rules that significantly affect the economy be approved by the Legislature before coming into effect.

FSU College Of Law Moot Court team wins national competition

The Florida State University College of Law Moot Court Team has earned first place in the Seigenthaler-Sutherland Cup National First Amendment Moot Court Competition. The tournament was held March 23-24 in Washington, D.C.

Third-year law students Jenna VonSee and Brenda Czekanski won the Seigenthaler-Sutherland Cup National First Amendment Moot Court Competition. They were coached by FSU College of Law alumni Jonathan Martin (left) and Ian Waldick (right).

Twenty-four law school teams took part in the competition, including teams from some of the nation’s top law schools. Florida State beat South Texas College of Law Houston, which is ranked by preLaw Magazine one of the nation’s best law schools for moot court, in the final round of competition at the Newseum.

Winning team members are third-year law students Brenda Czekanski, from Miami and Jenna VonSee, from Orlando. FSU College of Law alumni Jonathan Martin (’15), assistant general counsel at the Florida Department of Financial Services, and Ian Waldick (’16), a staff attorney at the Florida Supreme Court, coached the team to victory.

Martin and Waldick previously won a national moot court competition in 2015 when they were law students at FSU.

Leon County designated leader for disaster preparedness

Communities across the U.S. will now look to Leon County as a prototype for hurricane and disaster resilience.

The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) in partnership with FEMA this week designated the capital city’s surrounding area as the first #HurricaneStrong community in the nation. That means other areas will look to Leon’s response to hurricanes Irma and Hermine as textbook examples of how to bounce back from a disaster.

Leon County Commission Chair Nick Maddox.

“This is big. It is a reflection of the tremendous emphasis we have placed on one of our most important responsibilities,” said Leon County Commission Chairman Nick Maddox. “Keeping our citizens safe and informed in the event of a hurricane and getting our community back to normal as quickly as possible afterward has always been a top priority.”

Through the 2018 hurricane season, the county will continue to codify criteria for other local governments to use in the event of natural disasters. Leon will work alongside FLASH, which launched three years ago as an outreach campaign to beef up personal safety, financial security, family preparedness, damage prevention and community service across states.

“Every emergency gives us the knowledge and opportunity to build a more resilient community ahead of the next storm,” said Leon County Administrator Vincent S. Long. “And our County’s partnership with FLASH will make us even stronger as we leverage national networks, best practices and other resources.”

Wading birds bounce back

Bird watchers and ornithologists rejoice: Florida’s wading bird nesting season produced one of the highest nest counts the past decade.

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) released its annual South Florida Wading Report this week. In the Greater Everglades Ecosystem, it showed 2017 increases when compared to the 10-year average in several species, including the Wood Stork, White Ibis, Great Egret and Little Blue Heron.

Everglades Little Blue Heron is one of Florida’s wading birds on the rebound.

“The 2017 numbers represent a ray of hope for the future of wading bird populations in America’s Everglades,” said Celeste De Palma, director of Everglades policy for Audubon Florida, an environmental group known for its focus on bird preservation.

Audubon attributed the success to near-historic water conditions. But, the group noted, conditions were worse in Florida Bay and Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and consequently, nesting counts for individual species in those areas continued to decline.

“Though the count was one of the highest in nearly a decade, the underperformance of special wading bird historic strongholds like Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Florida Bay, should put the impetus on accelerating Everglades restoration efforts to get the water right for the entire watershed,” De Palma said.

Now for this week’s edition of Capitol Directions:

Ante up: Dan Adkins, Hartman & Tyner suing each other over lost ‘millions’

Updated May 1 — Court records show that the cases reported below were settled out of court and closed. The terms of the settlements were not disclosed.

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As news broke earlier this year that a real estate tycoon was in talks to buy Hallandale Beach’s Mardi Gras Casino and Race Track, longtime casino head Dan Adkins began taking stock of his life.

“I’m still employed by Hartman and Tyner (H&T) at this point,” he told The Miami Herald in January, referring to the Southfield, Michigan property management firm that’s owned the facility for four decades.

“It’s a landmark decision, and for a guy like me, who’s been around for so many years, it’s a little disheartening,” added Adkins, who started in 1987 and rose to CEO and vice president from his Broward County base. “Things change.”

That change apparently included his relationship with his longtime employer: Since November, Adkins had been locked in a legal battle with H&T and its directors, accusing them of lying to him that he’d be paid “millions of dollars” upon sale of the company’s gambling businesses in Florida, West Virginia and Michigan.

Billionaire Jeffrey Soffer, who also owns the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, is in the process of buying the Mardi Gras gaming hall and greyhound track, which closed last year after damage from Hurricane Irma.

But Adkins’ suit blames H&T director Heidi Hartman Wenokur, daughter of H&T co-founder Bernard Hartman and now company president, for “accept(ing) an offer for the sale of Mardi Gras Florida for substantially less than market value,” costing the company $20 million. The full terms of the deal were not in the complaint.

Adkins’ lawsuit, now moved to federal court, also says his “day-to-day authority has been stripped” and he has “effectively lost the ability to govern the enterprise he has been at the helm of for almost 30 years.” H&T also removed him from its board and cut his pay, the suit says.

Last Friday, H&T struck back by filing its own federal suit. It says the 60-year-old Adkins “engag(ed) in self-dealing, corporate waste, and gross mismanagement … conceal(ing) the poor financial state of H&T’s businesses caused by his misconduct so that he could … enrich himself and his family members.”

A complaint in a lawsuit tells one side of a story. A message seeking comment was left Thursday with Adkins’ assistant. Alec Schultz, a lawyer representing H&T, said the company “does not comment on pending litigation.”

The company has seen at least one other high-profile legal fight. After co-founder Herbert Tyner died in 2015, “his widow and their four children claim(ed) Hartman (went) back on a deathbed pledge to take care of Tyner’s wife and keep Hartman & Tyner Inc. operations as usual,” The Detroit News reported.

That case was settled in July 2017 “due in large part to Adkins’ tireless efforts to mediate the litigation between the two families,” his suit says.

Adkins says he had intended to leave H&T ten years earlier “to pursue his own entrepreneurial interests.” In staying, he lost an opportunity to become a gambling lobbyist, in which he claims he could have “earned over $1 million annually.”

Hartman persuaded him to remain by promising him—falsely, Adkins says—that “upon a sale of gaming operations Adkins would receive millions of dollars if he built them up and made them more valuable.”

In his complaint, Adkins takes credit for gaining “additional gaming in both West Virginia and Florida, such as approval of card and table games” and “legislation in Florida that reduced the slot machine tax rate” from 50 percent to 35 percent. His efforts resulted in “H&T increasing in value by tens of millions of dollars,” Adkins says.

In its own action, H&T lobbed a litany of accusations against Adkins, including that the casino lost “millions of dollars each year” under his leadership. Also, it says he:

— “(P)laced several of his family members on H&T’s payroll even though they did not report to work.”

— Disregarded orders while the Mardi Gras Casino was closed to “cut payroll and lay off employees to cut costs, caus(ing) H&T to pay out more than $1.5 million in payroll.”

— “(C)aused H&T to ‘loan’ himself approximately $1 million, which … served no legitimate business purpose.”

— Cost the company “about $8 million in legal legislative fees and lobbying fees with no material results” over the last decade.

— “(C)aused H&T to loan outside lobbyist John Cavacini $75,000 on an unsecured basis without any authority from the Board of Directors.”

Cavacini’s LinkedIn profile lists him as president of the West Virginia Racing Association. H&T has operated a Mardi Gras Casino and Resort there. A phone number for the association listed on its most recent federal tax filing goes to the casino. A message for Cavacini was left there Thursday.

H&T’s suit also blames Mardi Gras’ damages on Adkins, saying “oversight was poor, (and) the roof of the racetrack came off during Hurricane Irma because it was incorrectly installed under Adkins’s direction.” It seeks an unspecified amount of damages.

Child marriage ban, year-round Daylight Saving time signed into law

A bill that would ban marriages for anyone under the age of 17 and legislation expressing the state’s intent to observe Daylight Saving time year-round were among 74 bills Gov. Rick Scott signed into law on Friday.

The marriage bill (SB 140) prevents minors from being granted nuptial licenses. With parental consent, 17-year-olds can wed under the new law to a partner within two years of age.

Bill sponsor Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto initially championed an all-out ban on minor marriages through her chamber, but the House held reservations and ultimately modified the legislation to allow exemptions for 17-year-olds.

Currently, Florida law allows 16- and 17-year-olds to marry and gives a county judge discretion in providing licenses to women, of any age, who are pregnant and wish to wed their partner.

The ban will repeal those provisions at the start of July.

The Daylight Saving time legislation (HB 1013), dubbed the “Sunshine Protection Act,” notifies Congress that the Sunshine State wishes to observe Daylight Saving, or ‘summertime,’ year-round.

No changes to time observance will be made unless Congress authorizes the U.S. Department of Transportation to exempt Florida from ‘falling back’ each year.

Scott also signed a $171 million tax package. Per the News Service of Florida, it includes homestead breaks for those affected by Hurricane Irma and a back-to-school tax holiday in August. It also includes tax exemptions for nursing homes that purchase generators.

The Legislature ratified a rule this Session mandating all nursing homes have generators for potential future hurricanes.

All of the bills signed on Friday can be found here.

Citrus farmers in waiting game for hurricane aid

Frustration is growing among Florida citrus farmers awaiting the distribution of $2.36 billion in federal disaster-relief money for agriculture losses sustained in Hurricane Irma.

“We’re still waiting, maybe not as patiently as we were to start with,” Florida Citrus Commission Chairman G. Ellis Hunt said Wednesday.

President Donald Trump signed the disaster-relief package in February, five months after Hurricane Irma slammed into Florida. The approval came after months of lobbying by Florida officials.

“We’ve got to get this money,” Hunt added Wednesday. “Growers are hanging by a thread, and it’s going to make a difference for a lot of people whether they survive or not.”

Florida’s agriculture industry suffered an estimated $2.5 billion in losses from Hurricane Irma, with the citrus industry — seeing record lows in production this growing season — accounting for $761 million of the total.

The loss estimates were released in October by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Since then, citrus losses have been estimated by state lawmakers to have stretched over the $1 billion mark as the growing season progressed and as damage to trees from flooding has become more pronounced.

With losses at groves in parts of Southwest Florida reaching 70 percent to 90 percent from Irma, orange production across the state is forecast to be down 34.5 percent from a year ago, with grapefruit production off by 40 percent in the same time.

A request for comment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was not immediately returned.

Mike Sparks, executive vice president of Florida Citrus Mutual, said “our frustration” is tied to getting the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release a draft on how or when the money will be distributed.

“It’s been over six, seven months since the hurricane, coming up on eight, and we are still on hold,” said Sparks, who was in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. “We’ve just got to get something out of USDA.”

Sparks noted he’s been working with members of Florida’s congressional delegation to speed the distribution of funding.

Earlier this month, Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson took to the Senate floor to call out the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for “foot dragging” on the distribution of the overall $90 billion disaster relief package.

Signed by Trump on Feb. 9, the relief package is aimed at recovery efforts from Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Harvey in Texas and other areas of the western Gulf Coast, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and wildfires in California.

Nelson tweeted on March 6 that he was advised by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that “help will arrive within weeks, not months.”

State officials have submitted recommendations on how the federal money could be distributed, Sparks said.

Florida lawmakers approved some short-term patches for the agriculture industry as part of a roughly $170 million tax package (HB 7087) approved March 11.

The package includes tax breaks for such things as materials used to repair nonresidential farm buildings and fences and for citrus packing houses that had their businesses interrupted by Hurricane Irma or by the deadly disease citrus greening. Also, tax breaks were included for fuel used to transport agricultural products after Irma.

Despite Irma, Florida sets another tourism record

Gov. Rick Scott vowed to ensure tourism stayed vibrant even after Hurricane Irma wreaked its havoc, and the numbers released Tuesday in Naples show that he pulled it off.

The 116.5 million visitors, per VISIT FLORIDA, mark a 3.6 percent increase over the 112.4 million visitors in 2016. This was despite a loss of 1.8 million visitors because of Hurricane Irma.

Governor Scott said, “Today, I am proud to announce that Florida has continued our record-breaking success by welcoming more than 116 million visitors in 2017. Because of VISIT FLORIDA’s aggressive marketing efforts to make sure families across the world knew that Florida was open to visitors following Hurricane Irma, we are able to celebrate another record-breaking year for tourism. This is especially great news for the 1.4 million jobs that rely on our growing tourism industry. We will continue to market our state as the number one global destination for tourism.”

Overall, the state recorded 102.3 million domestic travelers last year, up from 97.9 million in 2016 and 91.3 million 2015. Meanwhile, overseas travel dropped for the second consecutive year, from 11.4 million in 2015 to 11.1 million in 2016 and 10.7 million last year.

Canadian tourists, who have been a target of Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson, grew from 3.3 million in 2016 to 3.5 million last year.

Airport visitors and hotel room stays were both up over 4 percent — despite huge September drops throughout most of the state in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Hotel stays saw a pronounced drop in the Keys, which reported a 44 percent year-over-year decrease in room demand in September.

Lawson credited “the cutting-edge marketing programs at VISIT FLORIDA, particularly following Hurricane Irma” for the increases.

A report for Visit Florida by Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics company, found that Irma cost the state 1.8 million visitors, based on tourism trends before the September storm swept through the state. Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys and Collier County before barreling north.

“The majority of these lost visits occurred during September,” the report stated. “By December, the number of actual out-of-state visitors was nearly equal to the number of expected visitors to the state.”

Outside of the Keys, the storm is credited with helping to boost hotel room demand in October — up 10 percent from a year earlier — and November — 7 percent — due to displaced residents and workers responding to the disaster.

As 2017 got underway, Scott had sought to push the annual tourism figure to 120 million.

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The News Service of Florida contributed to this post. 

Lawmakers pass some post-Irma proposals, ditch others

When legislative budget chiefs agreed during negotiations to spend $1.5 million on a study about extending a toll road north to Georgia, they started to lock into Florida’s new budget some of the 78 recommendations a House select committee created in the wake of last year’s deadly hurricane season.

Also crossing the finish line as the annual Legislative Session ended Sunday was storm-related money for farm repairs, nursing homes to buy generators, affordable housing in Monroe County and to help students displaced from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Still, many of the high-profile measures crafted in response to hurricanes Irma and Maria failed to win support. They included creating a strategic fuel-reserve task force, requiring the Division of Emergency Management to use certified sign-language interpreters during emergency broadcasts and using rail-tank cars to bring fuel into evacuation areas to avoid a repeat of runs on gas stations.

Rep. Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican who was chairwoman of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness, said “a good amount” of the overall recommendations were approved by lawmakers. But she said the Senate failed to “step up to the plate” in matching the House in many of the policy changes sought by her committee.

“It was easier to address things on the budget side, even with our budget challenges at the last minute with the Parkland situation, than it was to really act on policy,” Nunez said, referring to the Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that led to a $400 million school-safety package.

The select committee recommendations were approved as the regular session started in January.

“It’s a shame,” Nunez said. “We spent a lot of time, and we really did take that select committee seriously. We listened to countless hours of presentations. And I thought we had a really unique opportunity to address some significant gaps — given our exposure and our risks with all the things that come with hurricane season — which is now just three months away.”

In a news release after the budget was approved, Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, said he was proud of the Senate, which conducted “a thorough review of these critical issues and pleased that the Legislature passed a comprehensive recovery and preparedness package.”

At least $272.45 million in hurricane-related spending is included in the budget (HB 5001) that awaits a trip to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

That includes a study of a northern extension of the 57-mile Suncoast Parkway, which now ends just south of Citrus County. The House had initially proposed $10 million for the parkway extension study, but the number came down $1.5 million as budget chairmen started negotiations.

“We think you can do a feasibility study for $1.5 million, that’s a lot of money to do a feasibility study,” said House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican.

Other storm-related budget projects, according to a Senate summary, include $15 million for affordable housing in the Keys, $11.2 million for beach repairs and $5.9 million for the Monroe County Emergency Operations Center. Also, spending includes $126 million for education services for students displaced by Hurricane Maria and $750,000 for the state Department of Transportation to conduct at least three exercises by May 1 using contraflow lanes — directing traffic on both sides of a highway to travel the same direction — to determine if such operations could speed evacuations.

During the evacuation for Irma, with 6.5 million people ordered to move inland and away from the storm path, motorists spent up to 12 hours on routes that typically are covered in six to seven hours.

The idea of contraflow hasn’t drawn support from transportation officials, who instead favor using road shoulders to provide additional lanes for fleeing motorists.

A month ago, Scott backed his agency leaders by including the expansion of “emergency shoulder use” when he issued a series of post-storm directives to the Department of Transportation. Those directives also included “dynamic” message signs along Interstate 75, completing certain turnpike projects on time, installing cameras and message signs along I-75 from Ocala north to the Georgia state line, and increasing the capacity of the state’s Florida 511 website, which provides real-time traffic information about major roads.

Separately during the Session, legislators approved a pair of bills (HB 7099 and SB 7028) that ratify rules requiring nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have generators and 72 hours of fuel.

The measures replace a pair of emergency rules that the Scott administration issued in September following the deaths of residents of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, a Broward County nursing home that lost its air-conditioning system in Hurricane Irma.

Meanwhile, a roughly $170 million tax package (HB 7087) that passed Sunday includes tax breaks on agricultural fencing materials purchased for repairs after Hurricane Irma. Also, it includes tax breaks for citrus packing houses that had their businesses interrupted by Hurricane Irma or by the deadly disease citrus greening and for fuel used to transport agricultural products after the storm.

Nunez noted that most of the committee’s agricultural recommendations made it into bills approved by both chambers.

The tax package also includes a property-tax break for homeowners displaced by Irma and a break for nursing homes that purchase electric generators. It also offers, starting June 1, a seven-day tax “holiday” on hurricane-related gear, such as tarpaulins, batteries, weather-band radios and portable generators.

The 2018 hurricane season starts June 1 and will last six months. The term-limited Nunez said she hopes lawmakers try to tackle some of the recommendations that failed to advance this year rather than grow complacent.

Looking back at the 10 big issues of the 2018 Legislative Session

The Florida House and Senate ended the 2018 Legislative Session Sunday by passing a budget and a tax-cut package for the upcoming year. The Session became dominated in February by the aftermath of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. That led to a massive debate about how to improve school safety and whether to revamp the state’s gun laws.

Here is a recap of 10 big issues from the 2018 Session:

Budget

Lawmakers passed an $88.7 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, though they were forced to extend the Session by two days to finish the spending plan. The budget includes increased funding for education, with per-student spending in the kindergarten through 12th-grade system going up $101.50. The Senate also pushed through increased funding for nursing homes, while the House blocked a Senate attempt to change the way some Medicaid money is distributed to hospitals.

Health care

After years of legal battles in the hospital industry, lawmakers approved a plan to revamp the approval of new trauma centers. They also approved a long-discussed proposal that could lead to the use of “direct primary care” agreements, which involve patients and doctors contracting directly for primary care, reducing the role of insurers. The House, however, was unable to convince the Senate to go along with eliminating the controversial “certificate of need” regulatory process for hospitals.

Higher education

Throughout his term as Senate president, Stuart Republican Joe Negron has made a top priority of revamping the higher-education system. Gov. Rick Scott on Sunday signed a wide-ranging bill that includes permanently expanding Bright Future scholarships. The bill also calls for expanding some need-based aid programs and would require the state university system to use a four-year graduation rate as part of its performance-funding formula, instead of the current six-year measure.

Hurricane Irma 

Lawmakers came into the Session still grappling with the effects of Hurricane Irma, which slammed into the state in September and caused billions of dollars in damage. The House and Senate took steps such as ratifying rules for nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have backup generators and fuel supplies to help keep the facilities cool. Scott’s administration issued the rules after residents of a sweltering Broward County nursing home died after Irma knocked out the building’s air-conditioning system.

Insurance

The two highest-profile insurance issues of the Session involved proposals to eliminate the no-fault auto insurance system and revamp a controversial practice known as “assignment of benefits.” In the end, however, both issues died. The House approved repealing no-fault, which includes a requirement that motorists carry personal-injury protection, or PIP, coverage. But the proposal couldn’t get through Senate committees. Similarly, the Senate did not approve changes sought by insurers in assignment of benefits.

K-12 education

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and other school-choice supporters got a victory Sunday when Scott signed a controversial bill that will expand voucher-like scholarship programs. The bill includes creating the “hope scholarships” program, which will help pay for children who have been bullied in public schools to transfer to private schools. The bill also includes a heavily debated change that targets teachers’ unions whose membership falls below 50 percent of the employees they represent.

Opioid epidemic

In one of the final issues decided during the Session, lawmakers late Friday approved a bill to stem the opioid epidemic that has caused a surge in overdoses across the state. A key part of the bill calls for placing limits on prescriptions for opioids. In most cases, the bill would place three- or seven-day limits on prescriptions, though it includes exemptions for people who are terminally ill, need palliative care or suffer from major trauma. The idea behind the limits is to prevent patients from getting addicted to painkillers.

Parkland aftermath

The Feb. 14 shooting deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland forced lawmakers to quickly deal with school-safety issues and spurred a contentious debate about gun laws. Scott on Friday signed a $400 million package that includes improving mental-health services and allowing trained employees to bring guns to schools. The package also raises the minimum age to 21 and imposes a three-day waiting period for people buying rifles and other long guns. The National Rifle Association quickly filed a federal lawsuit challenging the age restriction.

Tax cuts

Getting ready to hit the campaign trail, lawmakers Sunday approved a bill that includes about $170 million in tax breaks. The measure includes holding a three-day tax “holiday” in early August to allow back-to-school shoppers to buy clothes and school supplies without paying sales taxes. A similar seven-day “holiday” will be held in early June for residents to buy hurricane supplies. The bill also includes tax breaks for farmers and ranchers who suffered damage in Hurricane Irma and would trim a lease tax paid by many businesses.

Texting while driving

With support from Corcoran, it appeared lawmakers this year could approve a long-discussed idea to toughen Florida’s ban on texting while driving. But the proposal did not make it through the Senate, at least in part because of concerns about racial profiling of minority drivers. Currently, texting while driving is a “secondary” offense, meaning motorists can only be cited if they are pulled over for other reasons. The proposal would have made it a primary offense, with police able to pull over motorists for texting behind the wheel.

Democrats hammer Rick Scott’s finances, statements with new digital ads

Republican Gov. Rick Scott still isn’t officially in the race for Florida’s U.S. Senate election this year but that’s not stopping Democrats from hammering him with two new digital ads being released Monday, raising questions about his financial blind trust and his missing nursing home voicemails.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is releasing the digital ads “Truth” and “Blind,” and both question whether Scott is using the governor’s office to enhance his own wealth.

“Rick Scott has only ever looked out for one person: himself,” David Bergstein of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee stated in a news release. “In order to advance his agenda, Scott’s shown he’ll mislead Floridians, abuse his position as governor to make himself richer, and help his political donors and cronies at Floridians’ expense. He’ll say and do anything to benefit himself, which is why Floridians just don’t trust Scott to look out for them.”

Scott is widely anticipated to be preparing a run for the U.S. Senate against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson this year, and most polls have shown the race to be fairly close. However, he has not filed yet, leaving a little of a gray hole on if and how he might respond. The governor’s office was asked if it would respond but has not done so yet.

The “Blind” ad cites media reports including one from the Tampa Bay Times and FloridaBulldog.com that suggest that Scott’s has handled his finances in a way as governor that would not be permitted if and when he runs for federal office, and raising questions about potential conflicts of interest.

“Is Rick Scott using the governor’s office to enrich himself? He’s had a close business partner manage his so-called blind trust, something prohibited for federal officeholders,” a narrator inquires. “He’s a walking conflict of interest, taking actions as governor to help entities doing business in Florida that he’s owned stock in. One company he owned just sold for $825 million, but he won’t tell us how much he personally made — hiding behind a secretive blind trust. Rick Scott: is he in it for Florida, or for himself?”

The other ad, “Truth,” questions three different instances in which the narrator contends Scott cannot tell the truth, including an oldie used against Scott in his first election run in 2010: a deposition video in which he appears to be unwilling to even acknowledge his own signature in a suit alleging Medicare fraud against his former company. The ad also cites the missing cellphone voicemails dating from his conversations last September with nursing home executives about Hurricane Irma and finishes again with questioning the source of his personal wealth.

“He refused to tell the truth 75 times under oath when he led a company that was fined 1.7 billion for committing the largest Medicare fraud in history,” the narrator states. “He hid the truth by deleting voicemails on his cellphone during the recent nursing home tragedy. He has avoided telling the full truth about how he’s increased his personal wealth by 46 million dollars while governor. Let’s face it, Rick Scott just can’t tell the truth.”

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