For the second time in a week, Florida citrus growers got what could be considered good news for the struggling industry.
A forecastTuesday from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed this season’s projected orange crop holding steady for the third consecutive month.
The estimate followed an announcement Friday by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that anxiously awaited disaster-relief programs for farmers who suffered damages in Hurricane Irma will be in place by mid-July.
“After a season of crisis, our industry finds hope in a new bloom, a new crop, disaster relief on the horizon and the opportunity a new season brings,” Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, said in a prepared statement.
Despite the latest outlook, the citrus industry, which has been fighting deadly citrus-greening disease for a decade and then was ravaged by Irma in September, continues to be on a pace to produce the lowest citrus counts since World War II.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimate Tuesday said Florida will grow enough oranges in the current season to fill 45 million 90-pound boxes, a mark unchanged since the February forecast.
By comparison, the industry filled 68.7 million boxes of oranges in the 2016-2017 season, which itself was a five-decade low.
Meanwhile, estimated grapefruit production in the latest forecast fell 14 percent, from 4.65 million boxes in March to 4 million boxes in Tuesday’s report. The forecast number, if it holds, would be down 48.5 percent from the past season and 63 percent off the 10.8 million boxes filled in the 2015-2016 season.
Also, Florida’s production of specialty crops, tangerines and tangelos, is down 13 percent from the March outlook, in the latest federal numbers.
The industry had hoped to surpass 2016-2017 totals before Irma struck at the start of the current growing season, causing groves, particularly in Southwest Florida — where trees were knocked over or suffered long-term damage because of weeks of flooding that impacted root systems — to incur losses up to 70 percent, Shepp said.
In October, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs estimated hurricane damage to the citrus industry at $761 million. State officials later said damages have increased above the $1 billion mark.
Citrus officials have expressed frustration awaiting the release of $2.36 billion in federal disaster aid for farmers in Florida and other states affected by hurricanes and wildfires. The agriculture money was part of a $90 billion disaster-relief package signed by President Donald Trump on Feb. 9.
While Perdue announced Friday that programs for farmers to apply for the money will be set up by July 16, it remains unclear how claims can be filed or how money will be distributed.
A program to distribute federal disaster aid to Florida farmers hit by Hurricane Irma will be set up within the next 100 days, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Friday.
“USDA (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) is working as quickly as possible to develop procedures and a system by which affected producers can access disaster assistance,” Perdue said in a prepared statement.
The announcement added that “sign-up for the new program, authorized by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, will begin no later than July 16,” about 100 days from now.
It remains unknown how claims can be filed or how money will be distributed.
Members of Florida’s congressional delegation have lobbied Perdue to release the money as the state’s citrus growers express frustration in waiting for federal assistance after last September’s deadly hurricane.
In all, the federal program will provide $2.36 billion to farmers in Florida and other states affected by hurricanes and wildfires, part of a $90 billion disaster relief package signed by President Donald Trump on Feb. 9. Friday’s announcement came the same week Florida’s U.S. senators joined colleagues from Texas, Louisiana and California in sending a letter urgingPerdue to hurry up in making the agriculture share of the money available.
“Florida’s farmers and citrus growers are a vital part of our state’s economy and we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help them recover from last year’s storms,” Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said in a statement Friday.
Perdue’s announcement said distribution information will come “at a later date.” Also, the announcement said farmers seeking aid should contact local U.S. Department of Agriculture service centers about establishing farm records.
The relief funding is directed at 2017 victims of hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria and a series of wildfires in California.
Florida’s agriculture industry took a $2.5 billion hit from Irma in September, according to an October estimate from the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The state’s struggling citrus industry accounted for $761 million of those losses, according to the initial estimate.
Citrus growers and state lawmakers have estimated that lingering damages have since topped the $1 billion mark.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam thanked Perdue for moving forward with the “long-awaited” disaster relief.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the USDA to ensure that this program is implemented quickly and in the best way possible to help Florida’s producers recover from the devastating hurricane,” Putnam said in a statement Friday
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.
“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 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.
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 anews conference to charge that Scott had been avoiding accountability on tragedies.
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.
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. FrankArtiles, 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.”
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 RichardCorcoran. “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.
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.”
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. GeorgeMoraitis and Sens. KathleenPassidomo and DebbieMayfield for providing the clarity our association members need,” he added.
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.
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.
“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 County — Adrian 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 JosephYork 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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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 IanWaldick (’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.
“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.
“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:
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.
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 DanAdkins 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 JeffreySoffer, 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 BernardHartman 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. AlecSchultz, 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 HerbertTyner 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 JohnCavacini $75,000 on an unsecured basis without any authority from the Board of Directors.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 lossof 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.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post.
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. JeanetteNunez, 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 JoeNegron, 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. RickScott’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 CarlosTrujillo, 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.