Hurricane Irma – Page 6 – Florida Politics

Farm aid on the way after Irma’s devastation

State lawmakers continue to craft tax relief for Florida’s storm-battered citrus industry, as President Donald Trump signed off Friday on billions of dollars in much-anticipated federal disaster relief.

A spending bill approved by Congress and Trump includes nearly $90 billion for disaster relief, with $2.36 billion aimed at assisting the agriculture industry for losses from Hurricane Irma in Florida, Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

“The passage of this spending bill is a critical first step to finally getting Florida’s farmers, ranchers and growers long-awaited and desperately needed relief,” state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a prepared statement. “Without this emergency assistance, Florida agriculture cannot fully recover from the unprecedented damage caused by Hurricane Irma.”

The federal funding — a state breakdown wasn’t immediately available — comes as Florida Senate President Joe Negron, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican, and incoming President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, work on tax-relief measures for the citrus industry. The package could also help other parts of the agriculture industry impacted by Irma.

“I think it’s appropriate for the state to help mitigate some of those losses,” Negron said Thursday.

The state House Ways & Means Committee, which is putting together its own tax package, has reviewed a proposal that would offer one-time tax refunds on fencing and building materials for non-residential farm buildings. Also, a proposal would offer refunds on state and local taxes applied to fuel used to transport agriculture products from farms to processing and packaging facilities.

The Senate proposal, still being drafted, will be part of a broader tax-cut package, Negron said.

Gov. Rick Scott has requested $180 million in tax and fee cuts as lawmakers work on a budget for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Negron said the overall Senate package could feature a reduction in a business-rent tax and include aspects of Scott’s proposal. Scott is seeking reductions in driver’s license fees and to provide tax “holidays” on back-to-school items and hurricane supplies.

Putnam’s department has estimated that Irma inflicted $2.5 billion in agriculture losses, ranging from $761 million in damages in the citrus industry to $624 million in the nursery industry and $237.5 million in the cattle industry.

Scott, Putnam and members of Florida’s congressional delegation have called for months for federal help for the state’s farmers. Irma hit the state Sept. 10 and caused heavy damage in areas such as citrus-growing regions of Southwest Florida.

Florida Department of Citrus Executive Director Shannon Shepp said the newly approved federal money will help growers “reinvest in their groves and look forward to new seasons ahead knowing that help is, indeed, on the way.”

The approval of the federal money came shortly after the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday lowered its projection for the current season’s Florida orange crop by 2 percent from a January estimate. That would put the harvest 34.5 percent below the last season’s five-decade low yield.

The industry also has battled deadly citrus-greening disease for a decade. But before Irma, Shepp said the industry was counting on growers increasing their orange output by nearly 10 percent.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson called the federal relief package “a big win for all those who are still struggling to recover from last summer’s devastating storms.”

Scott, expected to challenge Nelson for the U.S. Senate seat in November, said that in addition to helping with recovery of the citrus industry, the federal funding will “better prepare our communities as they continue to welcome families displaced by Hurricane Maria and aid in Puerto Rico’s recovery.”

Among other things, the federal funding also provides $17.39 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, including funding to repair damage caused by natural disasters, construct flood and storm damage-reduction projects and potentially to speed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.

Down and down it goes: Florida’s orange crop plummets

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the feds this week announced “yet another decrease in the size of the Florida orange crop this season due to Hurricane Irma.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s latest report pegs orange production for 2017-18 at 45 million boxes—”a 35 percent decrease over last season and the lowest crop size in more than 75 years,” according to a Thursday statement from the Florida Department of Citrus.

The USDA’s initial crop forecast in October guessed 54 million boxes of oranges, and grapefruit production was 4.65 million boxes, a drop of 40 percent over last season.

“While this is certainly lower than initial estimates, it was not unexpected,” said Shannon Shepp, the department’s executive director. “We are still hopeful the remainder of the season holds stable.

“Should disaster recovery funding pass today, it would give growers the confidence they need to continue making investments to keep this season’s crop stable and produce more Florida Citrus in the years to come.”

USA Today reported that a “bipartisan spending agreement” was pending, that includes “nearly $90 billion in long-sought disaster relief to help rebuild communities destroyed by wildfires in the West and hurricanes in the Southeast and U.S. territories.”

It also “would set aside more than $2.3 billion for agricultural assistance, much of it expected to help rescue Florida’s battered citrus industry which provides most of the orange juice consumed in the United States,” the paper reported. Last year’s Hurricane Irma devastated the state’s crops, including citrus.

“Florida growers reported 30-70 percent crop loss after Irma’s landfall on Sept. 10, with the southwest region of the state receiving the most damage,” the department said. “The hurricane uprooted trees and left many groves sitting in standing water for up to three weeks, potentially damaging the root systems and impacting future seasons’ growth.”

The usual disclosure: The monthly forecasts are best guesses; the real numbers come after the growing season ends. It’s those figures that tell the story of citrus in Florida.

The state’s citrus industry also has been hit by the citrus greening epidemic. The so-far incurable disease attacks the fruit, causing it to turn green and bitter, and eventually killing the tree.

Capitol reax: AOB, Publix PrEP, campus ‘free speech,’ criminal justice, Rick Scott

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to advance a bill by Sarasota Sen. Greg Steube, SB 1168, that the Consumer Protection Coalition said would “do little to protect consumers” from Assignment of Benefits abuse.

The group said it prefers HB 7015 by Rep. Jay Trumbull, which includes modifications to one-way attorney fees which proponents say will curb frivolous lawsuits over bogus claims.

Edie Ousley, vice president of public affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which is spearheading the CPC put out the following statement after the vote:

“We are extremely disappointed that the Senate Judiciary Committee chose to push forward this bad bill that fails to address the crux of the problem. At the end of the day, this bill doesn’t do what it needs to do, and that’s protect consumers from the onslaught of lawsuits that are burdening property owners and driving up insurance costs.’’

LGBT rights group Equality Florida celebrated Publix Supermarkets today for reversing its stance on providing pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, to prevent the transmission of HIV among employees on the company’s health plan.

Publix announced the change in policy via Twitter in a message to Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who met with the Publix government relations team Monday to discuss the critical importance of PrEP availability.

Publix’s statement read:

“Publix appreciates the concerns shared by our associates and customers. We offer generous health coverage to our eligible full-time and part-time associates at an affordable premium and are committed to the health and well-being of our associates and their families. We regularly evaluate what is covered by our health plan and have made the decision to expand our health plan’s coverage of Truvada to include Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). We are working with our pharmacy benefits manager to implement this change as quickly as possible.”

Equality Florida’s response:

“This is major step in the right direction to knock down Florida from the #1 spot of new HIV transmissions in the nation. In fact, all 7 states where Publix stores exist will benefit from this decision. Southern states account for 44% of all people living with HIV in the United States, and diagnosis rates for people in the South are higher than for Americans overall. The disparity of transmissions disproportionately affects African American men and women; of all HIV new cases among Blacks, 60% of men and 69% of women come from the South.”

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee advanced a bill Tuesday that would set the minimum age for children to be prosecuted as adults at 14.

Southern Poverty Law Center senior policy counsel Scott McCoy put out the following statement after the vote on SB 1552:

“More children are prosecuted as adults in Florida than in any other state. Our lawmakers today took a step toward changing that. The Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted favorably on legislation that would reduce the number of eligible offenses and set a minimum age for children to be transferred from juvenile court. Additionally, SB 1552’s requirements include data collection that would bring more accountability and transparency to Florida’s practice of trying children as adults.

“While this bill puts us on the path toward reducing the number of children tried as adults in Florida, our work will not be finished until no child is sent to the adult system. When a child – whose brain is still developing and malleable – is prosecuted as an adult, the risk to public safety and the risk of harming the child are increased. Children tried as adults and housed in adult facilities are more likely to reoffend, be the victims of sexual assault, and die by suicide than their peers in the juvenile system.

“Children are different from adults, and they should not be prosecuted or punished in the same way. We must prioritize rehabilitation for these children so they can grow up to become successful adults. The adult criminal justice system is no place for a child.”

The Senate Education Committee voted 7-4 in favor of a bill, SB 1234, that would make Florida public colleges and universities legally liable for disruptions caused by student protesters, and much to ACLU of Florida’s chagrin.

Responding to the committee vote, ACLU of Florida policy counsel Kara Gross stated:

“Contrary to the bill’s title, this bill will chill freedom of expression on our state’s college campuses.

“SB 1234 holds colleges and universities liable for when students ‘materially disrupt’ a scheduled event, but because ‘materially disrupts’ is broad and not defined, anyone could bring a lawsuit against the college or university alleging they were ‘materially disrupted.’

“Because it would be up our state’s institutions of higher learning to expend significant resources in defending against such frivolous lawsuits, this bill incentivizes those institutions to restrict students’ speech and peaceful assembly out of concern that someone might boo too loudly.

“While we absolutely support the part of the bill eliminating ‘free speech zones,’ we have serious concerns with creating a separate cause of action against universities for students expressing their protected speech rights.”

Also on Tuesday, the Florida Sheriffs Association and the 67 Sheriffs of Florida recognized and thanked Gov. Rick Scott for how he handled two major public safety events last year.

FSA’s statement:

“On October 16, 2017, Governor Scott declared a State of Emergency well prior to the white nationalist Richard Spencer speaking event on the campus of the University of Florida. This executive order gave Sheriff Sadie Darnell of Alachua County, and other key law enforcement partners, the ability to strategically assemble resources to ensure the safety of the public, and a successful outcome. We thank the Governor for supporting Sheriff Darnell and local law enforcement in their preparation for the high-profile, potentially volatile event.

“In addition, Governor Rick Scott assisted with coordination, preparation, response, and recovery before, during and after Hurricane Irma. He traveled the state to meet with local officials to ensure communities had all the resources they needed and encouraged the citizens to be fully prepared. His efforts regarding Hurricane Irma demonstrated that Florida leads the nation in proactive preparations, no matter the nature of the incident.

“We thank Governor Scott for his continued support for law enforcement as well as his care in bettering the lives of the citizens in this great state.”

Tax law savings eyed for utility customers

With tax savings already expected to cover nearly $2 billion in hurricane-related costs, Florida regulators Tuesday began moving forward with a process to determine how utility customers should benefit from the federal tax overhaul.

Electric, gas and private water and wastewater utilities are expected to pass tax savings from the overhaul to customers, and the Florida Public Service Commission will oversee how much — and when — the money will flow through.

Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric Co., Gulf Power Co. and Florida Public Utilities Co. entered into rate settlements last year that address the issue of passing through tax savings to customers, though those agreements were negotiated before Congress and President Donald Trump approved the tax-cut package in December.

In recent weeks, Duke, Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light have announced that they will use tax savings to avoid billing customers for Hurricane Irma and other storm restoration costs, a total estimated tab that tops $1.9 billion. The Public Service Commission on Tuesday signed off on Duke’s plan to shield customers from getting hit with $513 million in storm costs.

Also, Jeff Stone, general counsel of Gulf Power, said the Pensacola-based utility is working to move forward with savings for its customers by March 1. Unlike Duke, Tampa Electric and FPL, Gulf was largely spared damage from Hurricane Irma in September.

The federal tax changes include reducing the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. But the law and utility finances are complex. Jon Moyle, a lawyer for the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, said Tuesday that money should come back to customers “sooner rather than later” and that it be clear how the savings flow.

Moyle, whose group includes large commercial electricity users, said he doesn’t want to see the money “mushed together with a bunch of other stuff, and then somebody wakes up a couple of years from now and says, ‘Hey, where did that tax reform savings ever show up?’”

Moyle’s comments drew a reply from John Butler, an attorney for FPL, which recently said it would use tax savings to cover about $1.3 billion in storm costs that otherwise likely would have been passed on to customers.

“FPL is not mushing,” Butler said. “We are going to use not only all of one year’s tax savings but multiple years’ tax savings to replenish the reserve for the $1.3 billion write-off that we were able to take. And by doing that, we were able to get tax savings to customers in the form of forgoing what otherwise would have been a storm-cost recovery surcharge as close to immediately as I think is possible.”

The Public Service Commission approved moving forward with a process that will start Thursday with staff members meeting with electric utilities. Meetings will follow next week with gas, water and wastewater utilities.

Commission lawyer Suzanne Brownless said each utility has a “unique financial situation.” Ultimately, parties, including representatives of consumers and businesses, will be able to take part in legal “discovery” to delve into information about the implications of the tax changes for each utility.

“These tax law changes are very complex,” Public Service Commission member Julie Brown said. “I envision that we will have a process or proceedings, plural, to ensure the full transparency and accuracy of all the savings that will accrue to the customers.”

Rick Scott directs efforts to ease evacuations

From “dynamic” message signs along Interstate 75 to completing certain turnpike projects on time, Gov. Rick Scott called Friday for a series of improvements to help with disaster evacuations.

The directives, based in part on suggestions from the state Department of Transportation, came as lawmakers continue to review proposals aimed at addressing fallout from the evacuation of 6.5 million people ahead of Hurricane Irma. During the evacuation, motorists spent up to 12 hours on routes that typically are covered in six to seven hours.

Scott directed the department to immediately expand “emergency shoulder use” along key interstates, a strategy employed in September as traffic backed up while motorists fled north on I-75 ahead of Irma.

The governor also called for 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.

Also, by July the department is expected to identify areas along key evacuation routes where more fuel services are needed and look at ways to expand fuel capacity for first responders.

“It is critically important that we continue to do all we can to make sure our state is fully prepared in the face of any potential disaster,” Scott said in a prepared statement.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who is expected to face an election challenge from Scott this fall, issued a release saying that he filed legislation in October seeking the U.S. Department of Energy to set up east and west coast gasoline reserves in Florida and had called for the state Department of Transportation to examine options for additional fuel storage.

“Unlike Nelson’s bill, this report today by the governor doesn’t offer any real solutions, it simply asks the state to look at doing something Nelson proposed five months ago,” said Ryan Brown, Nelson’s spokesman.

Scott had directed the Department of Transportation in October to work with other state agencies, ports, law enforcement and fuel retailers to determine how to increase fuel capacity during emergencies.

Scott release Friday continued to advise the department to work with Florida’s ports and the fuel industry on additional fuel storage.

Scott’s directive also calls for completing interchange improvements at Florida’s Turnpike and I-75 in 2019. The work is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2019, according to the Department of Transportation report.

Scott also said he wants to widen to six lanes a portion of the turnpike between the Lake-Sumter County line to the County Road 468 interchange in Sumter County in 2023, and to widen the highway from the Country Road 468 interchange to I-75 starting in 2025. The work is currently outlined to begin in those years by the state department.

The department review also suggested emergency shoulder plans for I-75 northbound from Alligator Alley in Fort Lauderdale; on the turnpike northbound from Orlando; on Interstate 95 northbound from Jupiter to south of Jacksonville; and on Interstate 10 westbound from I-75 to just east of Tallahassee.

The Florida House and Senate are reviewing a number of evacuation-related proposals, including an extension of the Suncoast Parkway north from the Tampa Bay region to the Georgia state line. Other proposals include using passenger rail to evacuate citizen; and testing the impact of converting portions of highways during emergencies into all one-way traffic, a process known as “contraflow.”

Department of Transportation Secretary Michael Dew told lawmakers in October that contraflow would require increased law enforcement at each interchange, limit the ability of relief operations and fuel trucks to travel into impacted areas and cause backups where lanes merge as the contraflow comes to an end.

The Senate on Thursday started to move forward with a proposal (SB 700) to set up a Florida Strategic Fuel Reserve Task Force within the Division of Emergency Management. The task force would recommend by April 30, 2019, a strategic fuel reserve plan to meet needs during emergencies and disasters.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Takeaways from Tallahassee — Legislative misses

Hey, we get it. There’s a lot going on in the 2018 Legislative Session — and it’s only Week Five.

With budget negotiations, the passage of 27 bills this week and it being an election year, it’s easy to get lost in the noise. So, here’s a brief — very brief — update on some contentious legislation that is facing some hurdles in the process.

The controversial “sanctuary city” bill is likely dead in the Senate. After much buildup on whether the Senate would act differently on the measure that has been a hot political issue this year, the bill hit a roadblock. Sen. Aaron Bean said his bill did not have enough votes to pass its first of three committee stops and asked a Senate panel to temporarily postpone it. Potentially indefinitely.

Aaron Bean’s ‘sanctuary city’ bill runs out of steam in the Senate.

Controversial bills to ban the breeding of Orcas and fracking in the state — two big money fights — have yet to be heard in committee. Sea World has been lobbying hard against the Orca bill, which doesn’t even have a companion bill in the Senate. The fate of these bills is not looking promising even as advocates rally at the Capitol.

A pair of gun bills that would allow guns in religious institutions with schools attached are headed to the full floors for consideration. The measures have one big difference: The Senate wants to keep guns out of churches attached with schools if school-sponsored activities are going on, the House does not.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, who is championing the effort in the Senate, said he has talked with House members to see where things will go.

The same scenario took place last session, ending with a dead proposal in the Senate. So, this one is a tossup.

With that out of the way, here’s the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Ana Ceballos, Jim Rosica, Danny McAuliffe, Andrew Wilson, Michael Moline and Peter Schorsch.

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

Unconstitutional system — A federal judge Thursday said the process used in Florida to restore voting rights to felons who have served their time is unconstitutional and guided by “no standards.” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said the current system crafted by Gov. Rick Scott’s administration is “nonsensical” and violates the constitutional rights of ex-felons, adding that is it often driven by politics. Scott’s Office said in a statement he would continue to fight for the state system in court. “The Governor believes that convicted felons should show that they can lead a life free of crime and be accountable to their victims and our communities,” Scott’s Office said.

Some child brides OK — Legislation that would prohibit children from getting married in the state headed in two different directions in the House and the Senate this week. In an emotional vote on the full floor, the Senate unanimously passed a strict ban on all marriages if a person is under the age of 18. The next day, however, the House altered its version of the bill to allow 16-year-olds who get pregnant and want to get married to the father of the child, if he is 18 years or younger. House members who were against the all-minor marriage ban said that doing so could lead to someone getting an abortion if they can’t get married or have a child out of wedlock, which would be against some religious beliefs.

Marijuana money — State Rep. Jason Brodeur has told the state’s top health officials to get to work on medical marijuana — or they won’t get paid. The Sanford Republican has offered an amendment to the House’s 2018-19 budget proposal that would freeze more than $1.9 million in salaries and benefits for the Department of Health’s brass, including Secretary and state Surgeon General Celeste Philip and other top officials. They’ll get paid, Brodeur said, when the department’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use starts dealing with the backlog of applications for marijuana growing and dispensing licenses, and for state-issued patient ID cards, among other things.

Florida Forever funding halfway there — Legislators seeking $100 million annually for the Florida Forever land-buying program got a win in the Senate, with the passage of Senate Bill 370. The proposal, by Sen. Rob Bradley, ensures that money will not be spent on general operations, but rather on land and water conservation efforts. The measure would comply with the wishes of voters in 2014 who approved Amendment 1, which sets aside taxpayer money to the conservation of land in the state. The fate of the bill in the House remains uncertain.

Sanctuary cities gubernatorial snafu — The issue of “sanctuary cities” policies blew up in the gubernatorial race this week, even though no such policies currently exists in the state of Florida. The immigration debate snowballed after House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s political committee dropped $500,000 on an inflammatory TV ad that portrays undocumented immigrants as a lethal threat to Floridians. Corcoran has not yet announced his candidacy in the governor’s race, but the ad wiped nearly all doubt. The ad has also unleashed a weary back-and-forth between Corcoran and declared Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum on debating the issue. But no time, place or moderator has been determined and based on their tweets, they have different ideas of where the debate should be.

In wake of Irma, Scott directs FDOT to implement fuel, route changes

On Friday, Gov. Scott directed the Florida Department of Transportation to examine ways to expedite evacuation routes from the I-75/Florida Turnpike Interchange near Wildwood to the Florida-Georgia border.

The improvements would include more cooperation with Florida Ports and the fuel industry to find ways to increase fuel capacity during a storm emergency, which was a big issue when Hurricane Irma barreled through the state.

After Hurricane Irma, Rick Scott has ordered the FDOT to review evacuation route alternatives.

“As Florida continues to recover from Hurricane Irma, the largest storm to impact our state in modern history, it is critically important that we continue to do all we can to make sure our state is fully prepared in the face of any potential disaster,” Scott said.

The short-term evacuation improvement to expand the Emergency Should Use along key interstate routes, install cameras and dynamic signs on I-75 from Ocala to the Georgia state line, and boost the department’s Florida 511 website system to accommodate increased usage are among the plans that are to be implemented no later than June.

Putnam speeds up thousands of concealed weapon licenses

The agency that Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam oversees decided to expedite 100,000 Florida concealed weapon license applications for active military members and veterans this week.

“Florida should the most military and veteran-friendly state in the country,” Putnam said. “I’m proud that we have expedited 100,000 concealed weapon license applications for our active military members and veterans.”

Adam Putnam is expediting thousands of  Florida weapons permits.

Putnam is a declared Republican gubernatorial candidate who has called himself a “proud NRA sellout.” His political foes, however, have called him a “recent convert” on the gun rights issue as he campaigns on it this election year.

Active military personnel who want to apply for a state concealed weapon license are required to have a copy of their Common Access Card or another form of official military identification with their applications.

The applications that will be expedited stretch back to 2015. There are currently 1.8 million Florida concealed weapon license holders.

PIP quibbles

The Legislature is barking up the wrong tree on PIP repeal, according to Florida Justice Reform President William Large. Fixing Florida’s bad-faith laws would do more to lower premiums, he said in a written statement.

“This landmark PCI report on HB 19 proves it — repealing no-fault and mandating bodily injury insurance will cost every driver in Florida more money,” Large said. “And mandating medical payments coverage, as proposed in SB 150, will just cost drivers even more.”

He referred to an analysis released by the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

“Meanwhile, the legislature has yet to show interest in fixing Florida’s bad faith laws, which the PCI report shows could deliver real savings estimated at 6.7 percent,” Large said.

“The bottom line is, more insurance costs more money. HB 19 and SB 150 won’t deliver for Florida’s drivers. The Legislature should start over and commit to an auto insurance system that delivers only the coverages Florida’s drivers need at the lowest cost.”

The week in appointments

Gov. Scott announced the following appointments and reappointments:

Florida Gulf Coast University board of trustees

Stephen Smith, 66, of Naples, is a former partner and board member of Accenture. He received his bachelor’s degree from Lafayette College and his master’s degree from the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Smith will fill a vacant seat for a term ending Jan. 6, 2021.

The appointment is subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

University of Florida board of trustees

Tom Kuntz, 61, of Winter Park, is the retired President and chief executive officer of SunTrust Bank, Florida. He most recently served as the chairman of the Board of Governors of the State University System of Florida.

Kuntz received his bachelor’s degree from Rollins College and is a graduate of the Louisiana State University School of Banking.

Kuntz succeeds Steven M. Scott for a term ending Jan. 8, 2023.

The appointment is subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

Florida Atlantic University board of trustees

Mary Beth McDonald, 66, of Vero Beach, is the former Mayor of the City of Vero Beach. She received her bachelor’s degree from Florida Atlantic University. McDonald is reappointed for a term ending Jan. 6, 2021.

Brad Levine, 49, of Deerfield Beach, is the chief executive officer of Tellus, LLC. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and his master’s degree from Schiller University. Levine succeeds Daniel Cane for a term ending Jan. 6, 2023.

The appointments are subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

Commission on Ethics

Daniel Brady, 70, of Miami Shores, is retired. He is reappointed for a term ending June 30, 2019.

Kimberly Rezanka, 52, of Merritt Island, is an attorney with Cantwell and Goldman P.A. She is reappointed for a term ending June 30, 2019.

Guy Norris, 55, of Lake City, is an attorney with Norris and Norris P.A. He is reappointed for a term ending June 30, 2019.

Ashley Coone, 35, of Arcadia, is a president at ASC Consulting and Marketing and previously served as the DeSoto County Clerk of the Circuit Court. She fills a vacant seat for a term ending June 30, 2018.

These appointments are subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

Pasco-Hernando State College District board of trustees

Dr. Rao Musunuru, 66, of New Port Richey, is a practicing Pasco County board-certified cardiologist at Bayonet Point Hudson Cardiology Associates. He received his Doctor of Medicine from Gunter Medical College. Musunuru is reappointed for a term ending May 31, 2021.

The appointment is subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

Lake Shore Hospital Authority

Lory Chancy, 71, of Lake City, is a radiologic technologist with Raul Zelaya, M.D. She is reappointed for a term ending Aug. 1, 2021.

Rehabilitation Council for the Blind

Louise Peyton, 64, of Tampa, is a retired rehabilitation specialist with the Florida Division of Blind Services. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida State University. Peyton is appointed to fill a vacant seat for a term ending Aug. 31, 2018.

Florida Southwestern State College District board of trustees

Christian Cunningham, 56, of Naples, is the chief human resources officer for Herc Rentals. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. Cunningham succeeds Christopher Vernon for a term ending May 31, 2021.

The appointment is subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

CRC panels shot down a batch of amendment proposals

The full Constitutional Revision Commission is floating a mid-March session start date and as that near commissioners are working to sift through the proposals that will make it to the November ballot.

Just this week, 10 proposals were either killed by commissioners or withdrawn from considerations. Some of those proposals include one that would have amended the state constitution to expand the prohibited basis of discrimination to broadly include “any disability,” not only physical disabilities.

Darryl Rouson is giving his own CRC proposal the boot.

Other proposals that were killed included the six-year lobbying ban and a proposal restricting home rule powers.

Among the proposals that were withdrawn from consideration this week, was Sen. Darryl Rouson’s proposal that aimed at restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences and paid restitution. He withdrew his proposal after a ballot initiative seeking the same thing qualified for the ballot days before.

Anti-fracking advocates to call on Bradley to be their ‘hero’

Anti-fracking activists and supporters of a statewide fracking ban are gathering in Jacksonville Saturday to call on Sen. Rob Bradley to be a “hero” on the Senate bill that would implement the ban.

The Senate fracking ban bill has yet to be heard in its first committee stop, chaired by Bradley.

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman is calling on Rob Bradley to champion a fracking ban.

The rally will be held in front of a mock oil spill at Friendship Park in Jacksonville. The rally is to bring attention to the “ongoing confusion about whether or not the state will be part of a federal offshore drilling plan.”

Jacksonville Councilman Jim Love, Fernandina Beach Mayor Johnny Miller, and St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman will be among those who plan to rally in support of the cause.

The event will start at 10:30 a.m. at Friendship Fountain, located at 1015 Museum Circle, Jacksonville.

Instagram of the week

Grimsley says Florida Farmers need Irma relief posthaste

Sebring Republican Sen. Denise Grimsley said in a letter to U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio that if Florida farmers have to wait much longer on a Hurricane Irma relief package, it could “pose a serious disruption long-term recovery.”

“Florida farmers and ranchers continue to hold out hope that relief is on its way from Congress,” she wrote. “The five months that have now passed since Hurricane Irma struck have only served to confirm that the damages were substantial and widespread.”

Denise Grimsley is pushing relief for Florida farmers after Hurricane Irma.

The agriculture commissioner candidate also said she was grateful for Nelson and Rubio’s advocacy for the package in the Senate.

“Thank you for insisting that the measure before the U.S. Senate receive immediate attention. We stand ready to assist in any way you believe would support your work to secure its passage. Please know that your efforts are not without purpose and many Florida farmers are  prayerful that your efforts on our behalf meet with success.”

House Democrats still keeping track

The House Democratic Caucus updated its “running count” of bills heard in committee or on the House floor to include the third week of the 2018 Legislative Session.

To the surprise of few, the caucus found Republican bills in the House are still getting substantially more attention than Democrat-sponsored ones.

The breakdown on the “What’s the Agenda?” site shows that during Week 3, 15 Democrat-sponsored bills were heard, compared to 116 Republican-sponsored bills. Another 29 bills heard in committee had both Republican and Democrat sponsors.

The “keep track” effort also recorded 13 Republican bills making the House floor during the week, while a pair of Democrat-sponsored bills made the grade.

Including the five committee weeks leading up to the 2018 Legislative Session, Dem bills make up about 18 percent of those on committee agendas while GOP bills take a nearly 70 percent share.

FWC estimates vast majority of scrub jay habitat is gone

Fire isn’t always destructive — just ask anyone who knows a thing or two about Florida scrub jays.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, scrub jays dwell in “areas of deep, well-drained, infertile sandy soils that are typically white or near white.” A lack of natural and prescribed fires allows vegetation to accumulate, spoiling the rare birds’ natural home.

The species is bold, smart and full of personality. And it’s the only bird not found anywhere outside of the state. Unfortunately, habitat loss has plagued scrub jay population counts for centuries.

The endangered Florida scrub jay; bold, smart and full of personality.

FWC estimates scrub jays have lost 90 percent of their habitat since the 1800s. The federal government currently lists the Florida-exclusive screech bird as a threatened species.

Fortunately, there are efforts underway to aid the Sunshine State’s feathered friends.

The Florida Scrub-Jay and Wildlife Festival on Saturday at Lyonia Preserve in Deltona will educate attendees on the ecological significance of the species and how fire assists the scrub jay habitat. The free event offers eco-buggy rides, guided hikes, wildlife exhibits and presentations, and activities for kids. It will continue until 4 p.m.

Scrub jays are populated in pockets across the state, including FWC-managed properties Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area, Salt Lake Wildlife Management Area and Platt Branch WEA. In the wild, the birds often are spotted in Ocala National Forest and Seminole State Forest.

Women in French Conference comes to FSU

The conference exploring how women’s voices have been heard in French language literature is coming to Florida State University next week.

The 2018 International Women in French Conference, hosted by the Winthrop-King Institute at Florida State, will focus on “Le bruit des femmes” or “women and noise” as the #MeToo movement shines a light on women speaking out in the public sphere, particularly in the workplace.

Wesleyan University Professor Elizabeth McAlister.

This year’s edition is ninth in the series and will run Feb. 8 through Feb. 10.

The keynote address featuring Elizabeth McAlister, professor of religion at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, will be held 5:45 p.m. Thursday at the Globe Auditorium, 110 S. Woodward Ave.

Florida Capitol Complex debuts new recycling containers

To minimize waste, four groups have launched the Capitol Complex Recycling Program to encourage people to recycle bottles and cans during the 2018 Legislative Session.

New bottle-shaped recycling containers have been placed throughout the Capitol by the Florida Beverage Association, which received a grant from the American Beverage Foundation for a Healthy America. The containers are wrapped with the FDEP logo “Rethink. Reset. Recycle.”

The Capitol Complex Recycling Program is asking to “Rethink. Reset. Recycle.”

The goal of the project is to increase the recycling rate in the Capitol by 25 percent during the first six months of 2018.

“We are proud to partner with the Florida Recycling Partnership, Keep Florida Beautiful and FDEP on the Capitol Complex Recycling Program,” said Liz DeWitt, the executive director for the Florida Beverage Association.

Stuff the Bus is back

One in five people in Tallahassee and neighboring areas are at risk of not having enough to eat, according to America’s Second Harvest of the Big Bend.

That’s why the City of Tallahassee StarMetro is once again launching the “Stuff the Bus” food drive. The capital city’s transit system last year collected 2,000 pounds of food, which helped provide over 2,000 meals to local families.

Stuff The Bus returns!

The process is simple: throughout the month of February, all StarMetro buses will accept nonperishable food items. Canned vegetables, boxes of pasta, rice, cereal, canned meat and peanut butter are preferred.

The donations will be distributed throughout the 11 counties that make up the region. As a whole, Second Harvest throughout the past year distributed more than 7.2 million pounds of food through its partner agencies, totaling more than 6 million meals.

Donations also will be accepted at some city facilities and more than 30 locations throughout Tallahassee. For a full list of donation drop-off sites, visit Talgov.com/StarMetro.

Now for this week’s edition of Capitol Directions:

 

Plans sought for hurricane fuel reserve

After runs on gas stations as people tried to flee Hurricane Irma, a Senate committee Thursday approved creation of a task force to develop plans for stockpiling fuel across the state.

The proposal (SB 700) would set up the Florida Strategic Fuel Reserve Task Force within the Florida Division of Emergency Management. The task force would recommend a strategic fuel reserve plan to meet private and public needs during emergencies and disasters.

Sen. Victor Torres, an Orlando Democrat co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said the proposal came from people who couldn’t get away from areas that were expected to be hit by Hurricane Irma in September.

“You remember how during Irma drivers were stranded and coming up from the Keys and other areas in the state from where fuel was running out,” Torres said. “I think this bill gives an opportunity now for the state to prepare better in the future so we can have those fuel locations up and ready in case a disaster comes.”

Florida strained to keep up with fuel demand as Hurricane Irma neared the state. As 6.5 million people were ordered to evacuate their homes, others scrambled for last-minute hurricane supplies. Motorists reported spending up to 12 hours on routes that typically are covered in six or seven hours.

The situation grew worse as ports, where fuel is delivered to the state, were closed due to storm winds.

Rushing fuel to South Florida before the storm, the Florida Highway Patrol served as escorts for tanker trucks.

A month later, when Hurricane Nate threatened the Gulf Coast, Gov. Rick Scott acknowledged that Florida was better prepared for Nate than Irma because there weren’t concerns about fuel shortages.

In October, Scott directed the Florida Department of Transportation to work with other state agencies, ports, law enforcement and fuel retailers to determine how to increase fuel capacity during emergencies.

The agency was supposed to produce recommendations by last month for fuel distribution and availability to consumers. Neither the agency nor Scott’s office responded by 5 p.m. Thursday when asked about the status of the report.

The nine-member task force, appointed by the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker, would be required to make recommendations by April 30, 2019. The proposal has a one-time cost of $569,000 for contractor and staff expenses.

The Senate bill doesn’t have a House version, but it is similar to a recommendation from the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness. That recommendation called for the Department of Transportation to contract for an independent study on the feasibility of establishing strategically located petroleum distribution centers.

Other select-committee recommendations included considering the use of railroads to speed fuel delivery into areas affected by storms.

The Senate bill drew unanimous support Thursday from the Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee. It would need to get approved by two more committees before it could go to the full Senate.

House eyes tax help for agriculture

Florida’s Hurricane Irma-battered agriculture industry, growing anxious as it awaits federal disaster relief, could land some help from the state House as part of a tax-cut package.

The House Ways & Means Committee, which is putting together a package, reviewed three measures Wednesday intended to help the industry, which sustained an estimated $2.5 billion in damages from the deadly September hurricane.

Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who owns a citrus grove, outlined a proposal that could offer one-time tax refunds on fencing and building materials for non-residential farm buildings. Also, a proposal would offer refunds on state and local taxes applied to fuel used to transport agriculture products from farms to processing and packaging facilities.

Another idea under consideration would value at salvage level machinery that has gone idle at citrus packing and processing facilities because of Hurricane Irma or because of citrus greening disease, which has ravaged the industry the past decade.

“If you have a packing house that is shut down, some of these packing houses would have employed 100 people, maybe more,” Albritton said. “If you hope and pray like I do that we’ll somehow, some way soon we’re going to find the bottom of citrus production in the state and we’ll turn it around and start growing again, those packing houses would have the opportunity be operational again. If they go in foreclosure and the bank owns them, what’s the good for the property owner.”

While price tags have not been affixed to the proposals and growers maintain that a stalled federal disaster-aid package will provide more relief, Albritton said after the committee meeting that the damage has affected farmers and others in the supply chain.

“In the shape that we’re in right now, every penny matters,” Albritton said.

The agriculture-relief proposals were among 78 recommendations rolled out of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness. The committee was created in the wake of Irma, a Category 4 storm that pounded the state Sept. 10 and 11 and left 84 people dead.

Adam Basford, director of state affairs for the Florida Farm Bureau, hopes the proposals will get further consideration.

“What we can do here at the state is help farmers stretch the dollars they can in recovery,” Basford said. “They’re not huge, life-altering impacts, but they do help farmers stretch the dollars they do have to spend to recover.”

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs has estimated damages to the citrus industry at $761 million, the nursery industry at $624 million and the cattle industry at $237.5 million. The sugar industry has been estimated at sustaining $383 million in losses, while vegetable and non-citrus fruit growers suffered $180 million in damages.

Meanwhile, talk of federal relief as part of an $81 billion disaster-relief package approved by the U.S. House on Dec. 21, has fallen by the wayside as Congress struggles to remain open amid battles over a short-term funding bill.

“Maybe they’ll get through the politics of the day up there and look at the larger picture,” Albritton said. “I’m still optimistic and hopeful that we’ll be able to do something that is bipartisan out of D.C.”

Gov. Rick Scott talked Wednesday by phone with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell regarding disaster relief, according to the governor’s office.

The state House’s overall tax-cut package is likely to meet or exceed $180 million in tax and fee cuts proposed by Scott.

The committee previously heard proposals such as further reducing a business-lease tax, eliminating sales taxes on diapers and holding sales-tax “holidays” for small businesses after Thanksgiving and at the start of the hurricane season.

Scott has requested cuts come by reducing driver-license fees and holding back-to-school and disaster-preparedness tax holidays.

Tampa Electric customers get break from tax law

Joining Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric Co. said Tuesday the new federal tax overhaul will allow it to avoid billing customers for costs of restoring power after Hurricane Irma.

The move will save Tampa Electric customers an estimated $102.5 million that they would have been required to pay primarily to cover Irma expenses and to replenish a storm reserve, according to filings with the state Public Service Commission.

FPL and Duke Energy also announced recently that savings from the federal tax law, which was approved last month, would allow them to forgo collecting a combined total of about $1.8 billion from customers after Irma.

“This is a great solution for our customers,” Tampa Electric President and Chief Executive Officer Nancy Tower said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “Hurricane Irma impacted almost 70 percent of our system. I’m proud to say that — -along with our employees — more than 3,000 additional workers from 64 companies assisted us to safely restore power efficiently and quickly. Redirecting our tax savings to cover these storm costs is an opportunity for our customers to benefit from the tax law immediately.”

Utilities are typically allowed to recoup storm costs from customers, with the issue addressed in FPL, Duke Energy and Tampa Electric rate agreements that were approved in 2016 and 2017 by the Public Service Commission.

Tampa Electric last month filed a petition with the Public Service Commission seeking to recoup about $88 million in storm costs, with small amounts going to expenses from prior tropical storms and hurricanes. The additional charges for customers were slated to begin in March.

The filing Tuesday with the Public Service Commission put the overall total at nearly $102.5 million, with the higher number based on updated cost information. Expenses related to Irma, which hit the state in September, accounted for $92.8 million of that total.

Congress and President Donald Trump approved the wide-ranging tax overhaul in December, with the package including a major cut in the corporate income tax rate. Tampa Electric, which has about 750,000 customers in the west-central part of the state, said its income-tax savings would be used to cover the storm costs.

The tax overhaul also could flow through to utility customers in other ways than covering storm costs.

The Public Service Commission on Feb. 6 is expected to discuss a request from the state Office of Public Counsel to start a process for analyzing and adjusting customer rates based on the utilities’ tax savings.

The Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in utility issues, said in a Jan. 9 filing that Tampa Electric, Duke Energy, Gulf Power Co. and Florida Public Utilities Co. have entered rate settlements in recent years that address how changes in tax laws will be handled.

Democrats’ guests to State of the Union include DACA recipient, medical marijuana patient, hurricane evacuees

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist is bringing a medical marijuana patient. U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch is bringing the wife of an American held hostage in Iran. U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel is bringing a trailblazing anti-sexual harassment advocate. U.S. Reps. Darren Soto and Stephanie Murphy are bringing Puerto Rico evacuees. U.S. Rep. Val Demings is bringing a police officer who responded to the Pulse nightclub massacre.

As usual, a handful of members of Congress are using their guest tickets to the president’s State Of The Union Address to honor someone from their district they admire — and to maybe make a political statement. On Monday and Tuesday a few of them will be holding press conferences introducing their guests, offering their inspiring story, and promoting the political causes they personify.

Florida Politics surveyed Florida’s 27 members of Congress and two senators and got a handful of advance responses on guests being brought to President Donald Trump‘s first State Of The Union address. Almost all of the responses came from Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Ponte Vedra Beach Republican running for governor, is bringing his wife Casey Black DeSantis, his office said.

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson‘s office said she gave her guest ticket to Frankel.

Frankel is not yet saying exactly whom she’s bringing, but said on Friday it will be “a trailblazing anti-sexual harassment advocate” to be introduced on Monday.

Deutch, a Democrat from Boca Raton, is bringing Christine Levinson, wife of Bob Levinson, of Coral Springs, who has been missing in Iran for nearly 11 years, making him the longest-held hostage in American history.

Crist, a St. Petersburg Democrat, is bringing Dani Hall of Clearwater, who was born with a birth defect impacting her lower spine, and who moved from powerful narcotics to medical marijuana, when she finally found relief.

Soto, an Orlando Democrat, will be introducing Claudia Sofía Báez Solá, 18, who was a college student at the University of Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria shut down that institution and most of the island, and who was sent, by her parents, and with her brother and grandmother, to live in Orlando while the parents continued to work to support them, living in a house with limited power.

Murphy, a Winter Park Democrat, is providing her ticket to Emmanuel Ortiz-Nazario, a 30-year-old from Puerto Rico who relocated with his wife and two young children to central Florida after Hurricane Maria.

U.S. Rep. Val Demings, an Orlando Democrat, is bringing Orange County Police Officer Adam Gruler, who was the first on the scene at Pulse the morning of June 16, 2016, and his wife Jaimi Gruler. The couple has just adopted three elementary school-age siblings.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, is providing her pass to Brenda Irizarry, 43, who serves on Castor’s Task Force on Puerto Rico Recovery & Assistance. She was among many Tampa Bay-area Puerto Ricans who took immediate action the day after Hurricane Maria to mobilize relief efforts, collecting supplies to send to the island.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Weston, is bringing a DREAMer from her district, Nicholas Perez, a DACA recipient who is a Broward County businessman.

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat, is bringing Paul Tutwiler, executive director of the Northwest Jacksonville Community Development Corporation, which offers services to 25,000 Jacksonville residents in communities heavily damaged by Hurricane Irma.

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