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#15 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Gus Bilirakis

In the time that’s elapsed since the noise that erupted around U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis in early 2017 died down following his brave decision to face angry constituents at a packed town hall, things have been pretty quiet for the Palm Harbor Republican.

That’s no surprise to anyone familiar with Bilirakis, 55, who tends to eschew political theater in favor of buckling down and getting things done. His district, Florida’s 12th Congressional District, comprises all of Pasco County as well as parts of northern Pinellas and northwestern Hillsborough counties. First elected to Congress in 2006, he is particularly active on veterans’ issues.

At a time when bitter divisions reign, Bilirakis is known for being likable and easy to work with.

“The nicest guy in Congress, and also the hardest working, Representative Bilirakis truly cares about his constituents and making Florida a better place to live,” said Southern Strategy Group’s Laura Boehmer.

Earlier this year, he scored a legislative win when the House unanimously passed a bill he sponsored that aims to strengthen air travel safety measures.

Following a WTSP report about “zombie campaigns” of former candidates that still spend money years after the politicking ends, Bilirakis teamed up with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor on a bill targeting the practice. A Republican teaming up with a Democrat on a proposal that outlaws something that (however dubiously) puts money in fellow politicians’ pockets? That’s not something you see every day. But it speaks to Bilirakis’ character and his willingness to reach across on the aisle on important issues like accountability.

He faces a midterm challenger in Democrat Chris Hunter, a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent. CD 12 overwhelmingly went for Donald Trump in 2016, so it’s unclear whether a blue wave would reach Pasco County.

Bilirakis climbs up a notch this year; in 2017, he came in at No. 16.

Joe Henderson‘s take: “Maybe needs to consider the ‘weight’ of his words when planning talks to women’s groups in the future.”

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

Two progressive organizations, but different candidates?

Many political junkies are questioning whether two different entities that support the same goal — a Democrat in Florida’s 15th Congressional District — are backing two different candidates in the primary.

Andrew Learned of Valrico has been a candidate for the post since June 23, 2017, and has the advice and help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and some well-known Democrats like Congresswoman Kathy Castor of Tampa.

Attorney Kristen Carlson of Lakeland opened her campaign May 2 this year, two days before qualifying deadline for federal office adding that she had been encouraged to run by local Democrats and Emily’s List.

One Democratic candidate, Gregory Pilkington of Indian Lake Estates, pulled out the primary days before federal qualifying for the ballot, accusing the DCCC of supporting Learned in the primary. Learned said he is being given advice from the committee and others, but only after Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross announced he would not run for re-election to the district.

A third candidate in the primary, Raymond Pena Jr. of Lakeland, has been largely quiet since qualifying.

And while Carlson said it was the urging of Emily’s List members that convinced her to jump in the race, she was not listed as being officially recommended among the organization’s 2018 list of 49 women candidates on its website Friday.

The DCCC, as its practice, has not openly endorsed Learned, but Castor’s hosting of a fundraiser for him likely would not have occurred without the tacit approval of the campaign committee.

Carlson sounds like a candidate full of confidence in her run.

“I met with Andrew sometime before I decided to run. I admire him for jumping in the race and the work he has done for a year, but then the gameboard flipped when Dennis announced that he would not run again,” Carlson said. “We have done our work. We have already identified and hired some staff members, but I am not going to release all the names until we have the full staff on board.”

Carlson said she does not believe having three Democrats in the CD 15 race weakens the movement to elect a Democrat there.

“The benefit of having more than one person in a (primary) race is that people get a choice for the primary as well as the general,” she said.

Learned, who began running for the spot more than a year before Ross announced he wouldn’t run said his campaign is perplexed by Carlson’s claim about Emily’s List support because he has seen no official endorsement. Some attending Castor’s Valrico fundraiser for Learned said the campaign expressed upset with the late entry.

“I wouldn’t say upset,” Learned said of his staff’s comments. “It’s just very confusing. If you are claiming (Emily’s List) support, then why isn’t she on the actual endorsement list?”

He said Carlson’s stances were not the same as many he is pushing forward.

“She sat on the bench on Parkland (shooting) and she wants to make the tax cut permanent. She is out of touch with the party of 2018,” he said.

Still, the two candidates’ shadow boxing with each other promises a vigorous Democratic primary for the seat, something lacking for a couple of decades in the heretofore solid-Republican district.

Report says changes will increase health premiums

Premiums for health insurance plans sold on the federal marketplace are expected to increase by nearly 16.9 percent in Florida next year due to changes in the Affordable Care Act, according to a new analysis released Friday.

Released by the Center for American Progress, the analysis estimates that a decision by Congress and President Donald Trump to repeal the mandate that people buy health insurance, coupled with proposed changes to the types of policies that can be sold, will increase premiums for Floridians by $1,011.

The report by the left-leaning group estimates that the average unsubsidized health insurance premium for a 40-year-old male buying a marketplace policy in 2019 will be $6,995.

The Affordable Care Act has provided subsidies for many people buying coverage, reducing their costs. More than. 1.7 million Floridians enrolled in the health insurance marketplace this year, with more than 1.5 million receiving subsidies either in the form of advanced premium tax credits or additional cost-sharing reductions that help lower co-payments and coinsurance requirements.

The new analysis accounts for the impact of repealing the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that individuals buy health-insurance policies as well as a Trump administration proposed rule to rescind limits on the sale of short-term insurance plans.

The individual mandate, one of the most controversial parts of the federal health care law commonly known as Obamacare, was repealed as part of a tax overhaul that passed in December.

In a prepared statement, Topher Spiro, vice president for health policy at the Center for American Progress, blasted Trump and Congress for what he called “sabotage of the insurance marketplaces.”

“First they passed massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, and now they’re asking middle-class Americans and people with pre-existing conditions to pick up the tab,” Spiro said. “They should be focused on lowering health care costs, not increasing them and intentionally undermining the stability of the insurance marketplaces that millions of Americans benefit from.”

The analysis came a day after Florida Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott urging him to take steps to protect Floridians from spikes in health insurance premiums. They also asked that Scott — who adamantly opposes the Affordable Care Act — require health plans to provide for essential health benefits, like hospital care or prescription drugs, and raised concerns that consumers could end up buying low-benefit plans.

“These junk plans would return patients to the days where only upon illness did they discover their plans imposed limits on coverage and excluded vital benefits,” said the letter, signed by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Congresswoman Kathy Castor and 10 other Democratic members of the delegation. Nelson faces an election challenge in November from Scott.

The letter asked Scott to work with state Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier to take steps to make sure consumers are kept safe. Democrats also asked that Scott consider investing in outreach and enrollment efforts and help provide funding to navigators who can connect patients with the federal marketplace. Floridians buy coverage through the federal marketplace because the state decided against setting up its own exchange.

John Tupps, a spokesman for Scott, said the governor’s office received the letter, adding that “Congress hasn’t controlled the nation’s health care costs or passed a balanced budget in decades.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Bill Nelson, Democrats blast proposed Medicaid cuts

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Democratic U.S. House members Thursday called for the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to reject a move by Gov. Rick Scott’s administration to cut $98 million by trimming the length of time people have to apply for the Medicaid program.

“I rise here today because the state of Florida has again proposed to harm thousands of seniors and folks with disabilities who rely on Medicaid for their health care,” Nelson, a Democrat who faces an election challenge this year from Scott, said on the Senate floor.

Nelson, along with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and 10 other Democratic members of Florida’s congressional delegation sent a letter to CMS Director Seema Verma urging her to reject a proposed amendment to a state Medicaid “waiver” that would exempt Florida from a federal requirement that gives people up to 90 days following a health problem to apply for Medicaid coverage.

The Scott administration proposed — and the Republican-led Legislature agreed — to require people to apply for Medicaid during the same month of the health event.

“Retroactive eligibility is designed to protect Medicaid beneficiaries — including seniors, pregnant women, individuals with disabilities, and parents — and their families from the steep costs of medical services and long-term care. Importantly, this protection was also designed to minimize uncompensated care costs faced by hospitals and other health care providers who take care of our neighbors and are already challenged by the state’s low reimbursement rates,” the letter said.

The state Agency for Health Care Administration estimates that 39,000 people could be impacted by the change. Hospitals and nursing homes, though, say the numbers could be much higher.

The change has become a flashpoint between Democrats and Scott.

“It is our duty to ensure eligible individuals have access to care without going into debt to obtain it, which is why retroactive eligibility is so vital. This proposal would not only wipe out many families’ pocketbooks, but it would also place a financial burden on health care providers, the state and indeed all Florida taxpayers through increased uncompensated care costs,” the letter said. “We fail to see how this proposal will ‘enhance fiscal predictability’ as the state claims when it will increase costs across the board.”

But Mallory McManus, a spokeswoman for the Agency for Health Care Administration, issued a statement Thursday saying it is “categorically false to assert that this change impacts the care” provided to Medicaid beneficiaries.

“Florida continues to focus on quickly enrolling Florida’s most vulnerable people including children, frail elders, those with disabilities and pregnant women,” the statement said. “By enrolling individuals quickly, you ensure better-coordinated fully integrated care, as well as access to preventative services.”

Democrat Gregg Pilkington drops out of CD 15 race, blames ‘rigged primary’

Accusing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee of meddling in the 15th Congressional District Primary, Gregg Pilkington of Indian Lake Estates said he is discontinuing his race for the seat.

“It would be against my principles to continue, knowing that this is a rigged (primary) election by the DCCC,” Pilkington said. He added that he wouldn’t pay his qualifying fee Friday, the last day to get on the ballot, thereby withdrawing from the race he began 14 months ago.

The opponent in the Democratic Primary who is getting special treatment from the party is Andrew Learned of Valrico, Pilkington said.

“The DCCC has not endorsed anyone in the Democratic primary” Learned said.

“Members only contacted me two weeks ago,” Learned said, “to offer advice aimed at the general election and to invite me to Washington.”

That was when Republican Congressman Dennis Ross announced that he would not run for the seat again.

While in Washington at the offer of the DCCC he confirmed that he had briefly met U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, minority party whip,

Congresswoman Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, is hosting a fundraiser for him, Learned said.

“Whatever happened to the party staying out of it until voters had chosen their nominee in the primary?” Pilkington asked.

Two other candidates in the Democratic primary are Raymond Pena and Kristen Carlson. Neither has been contacted or asked to come to Washington.

Three other Democrats did not qualify. A fourth, Greg Williams, a Democratic Party activist from Lakeland, pulled out several weeks ago to endorse Learned.

Two political science professors from Florida Southern College in Lakeland Zach Baumann and Bruce Anderson said it isn’t unusual anymore for both major parties to involve themselves in primaries.

“We do see parties getting more involved in primaries to make sure the most viable candidate wins,” Baumann said. “It isn’t as hands-off as it used to be, but it is still fair if you have something to say.”

While Learned, Pilkington and Pena have been in the race for more than a year, Anderson said Learned got out early and made contact with the right people in the district and beyond more than any other Democrat did.

“He is probably the most viable because of that. Do parties have preferences in a primary? Yes. Mr. Pilkington could be a viable candidate, but not by complaining,” Anderson said. “Get out and work.”

FEMA extends Puerto Rican transitional housing to June 30

Puerto Rican evacuees from Hurricane Maria’s wrath last fall have been granted another six weeks of federal assistance to live in emergency motel shelters in Florida, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy announced Thursday.

The latest extension, through June 30 according to social media posts Thursday afternoon from the Winter Park Democrat, means that families who migrated from the island to Florida, or to other states, will have federal assistance to stay long enough for their children to complete the school year.

Gov. Rick Scott also applauded the extension Thursday afternoon.

The extension also means the families living in motels and paying their rents with Federal Emergency Management Agency vouchers, because there is little  available affordable housing, will not face a last-day crisis, at least not any time soon. That happened on April 20 when FEMA agreed to extend the program through May 14 on the very day that the previous extension was set to expire. Hundreds of families were reportedly packed up and being told to leave, with no place to go, on the day the extension was approved.

On April 18 Murphy, U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, four other members of Congress from Florida, Democrat Darren Soto of Orlando, Republican Carlos Curbelo of Kendall, Democrat Kathy Castor of Tampa, and Republican Dennis Ross of Lakeland, as well as U.S. Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico, all signed a letter urging FEMA to extend the program through June.

They also urged Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to seek the extension. FEMA could not extend the program without a formal request from the governor of the area affected, Puerto Rico.

On April 24, Rosselló told FloridaPolitics he would ask FEMA to extend the program through June, in part so that Puerto Rican migrant families with children could at least get through the school year.

“Pleased to report that FEMA will be extending the Transitional Shelter Assistance program for displaced Puerto Rican families in Florida and other states through June 30,” Murphy posted on Facebook Thursday afternoon. “This will give families more time to find permanent housing and won’t result in children being evicted during the school year. Another successful bipartisan effort! Thank you to Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello for seeking the extension.”

Said Scott, in a press release: “Florida has done everything possible to help our neighbors in Puerto Rico with their continued recovery from Hurricane Maria. Over the past seven months since Maria made landfall, we have remained in constant communication with Governor Ricardo Rosselló and his leadership team and I have made five trips to Puerto Rico to offer our full assistance and guidance. Florida remains the only state with a Host-State Agreement with FEMA to help families from Puerto Rico.

“I also recently spoke with FEMA Administrator Brock Long about our joint efforts to make sure we are doing everything possible to help those who evacuated here. This includes keeping the FEMA case managers I requested on the ground across our state to offer assistance. I’m glad to hear that FEMA is once again extending Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) for the many families from Puerto Rico in the Sunshine State and we continue to stand ready to assist in any way possible,” Scott added.


CD 15 Democratic hopeful puts focus on fixing public education

Public-school teachers should not have to pay federal income taxes, a Democratic candidate for Florida’s 15th Congressional District declared Thursday.

“It will be the Rewarding American Educators Act, and I will file it when I get to Congress,” said Gregory Pilkington of Indian Lakes Estate. “It will attract new teachers and keep those who then will be able to afford staying.”

Pilkington, 55, is one of six Democrats hoping to run to fill the CD 15 seat now held by U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican who is not seeking re-election.

The erosion of the education system and infrastructure have hit the nation particularly hard, but it is even worse in the 15th District which includes portions of Polk, Hillsborough and southern Lake counties, he said. He promised to bring relief to the district and blamed Republican predecessors for neglect causing the conditions.

“We have problems that must be solved in our public education system. Tenoroc High School (in Lakeland) has a 50 percent graduation rate. And If you are an African-American male who drops out of school, you have a 90 percent chance of winding up in jail.”

Pilkington fills his policy discussions with more statistics than perhaps even the Census Bureau then quickly emails the names of the studies, dates and sample sizes.

It seems, because of his background, numbers and their proofs are natural things for him. A former executive at the World Customs Organization, in Belgium, and previous positions with DHL Worldwide Express and FedEx Express, he backs up claims with statistics. The ones that worry him, he said, are education and dilapidated infrastructure numbers.

“I support charter schools. They have they have a place, but no tax monies should ever go to for-profit charter schools. And we should not penalize public schools like (Tenoroc High) by sending the money it needs to charter schools,” he said.

Pilkington said that exempting the 3 million public school teachers, some of the poorest paid professors in the nation, from federal income tax would cost $19 billion, which could be immediately recouped by reducing the big tax cut to the wealthy by only 1 percent.

“We should revisit the tax cut to give it to the working people and not just to the wealthy,” he said. “The theory of trickle-down economy — the wealthy investing their additional money from tax cuts into the economy — has never proven to be true. That money largely goes offshore and to reserves. But the middle-class use that extra money for cars, kids’ education and expenditures helping local economies.”

Pilkington said that unlike some other Democratic candidates, he wouldn’t campaign against the departing Ross, but farther into the interview with Florida Politics, he couldn’t help it.

“If you look to the east, (U.S. Rep.) Darren Soto has obtained monies for improving business and health care for his district. To the west of us (Democratic Congresswoman) Kathy Castor has brought back grants and money to help the economy of her district,’’ he said.

“But if you look in the middle, our own congressman (Ross) has done nothing for us. And even the post office he renamed is no longer in the district,” Pilkington said.

He said the struggle for economic help in the CD 15 is partly due to lack of investment in infrastructure and the economy in the last decade and impacts to the quality of life.

“There are nine facilities of higher education in this district, but graduates can’t find a job here,” he said, adding that the flight of young graduates leaves the district older with less high skill trained people to attract business.

Currently, although living in Polk County for several years to be near his parents, Pilkington lives outside of the CD 15 but noted that he and his wife are actively looking for a home in Lakeland since it would be in the center of the district.

Florida’s delegation presses for Kennedy Space Center launch support money for NASA’s next big rocket

Congressional letters signed by a large majority of Florida’s delegation are urging congressional leaders to support full funding not just for NASA’s next spacecraft and rocket but for critical upgrades at Kennedy Space Center to launch them.

The letters to chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees subcommittees overseeing space have drawn signatures of 21 of Florida’s House members and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and also have support of others who couldn’t appropriately sign because they’re on the committees, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

The letters focus on the multi-billion dollar projects to build NASA’s big new rocket, the Space Launch System, and the Orion Spacecraft, which are to carry astronauts into deep space. That’s not new. But the letters give equal weight now to urging full funding for the related Kennedy Space Center upgrades, to exploration ground systems, and for a new mobile launcher, huge boons to the space business at Florida’s Space Coast.

A letter sent last month by U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, the Rockledge Republican who sits on the House Space Subcommittee, and co-signed by 10 other members of Florida’s delegation, urges $557 million for the exploration ground systems improvements in the 2019 federal budget, and another $17 million for other construction. It also calls for $150 million in 2019 to build a new mobile launcher that could support the SLS rocket for 40 years, a recent NASA policy direction change from plans now seen as problematic to retrofit the current mobile launcher. The letter also calls for another $2.15 billion for the SLS rocket development, and $1.35 billion for the final Orion crew vehicle development.

The rocket’s debut has been pushed back, but still is possible by the end of 2019, or in early 2020.

Most of the ground systems work has been underway for several years, but risks falling behind without full funding, and that could further delay the first launches of the SLS, even if the rocket and Orion spacecraft are fully developed and ready to go, the letters argue.

“The exploration ground systems are an indispensable part of the infrastructure of space exploration,” Posey’s letter states.

Posey’s letter drew signatures of 11 of Florida’s members of the House: Posey, Gus Bilirakis, Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, Ron DeSantis, Neal Dunn, Matt Gaetz, Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto, Daniel Webster, and Ted Yoho.

A follow-up letter from Republican U.S. Sen. Brian Babin of Texas, making the same pleas, included 163 members signatures from throughout the country, and drew most of the 11 Florida members who signed Posey’s letter, plus ten more from Florida: Al Lawson, Val Demings, Dennis Ross, Brian Mast, Francis Rooney, Alcee Hastings, Lois Frankel, Ted Deutch, Carlos Curbelo, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Three other House members from Florida, Tom Rooney, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz are, like Rubio, on the main committee receiving the letters, and so do not sign under Congressional protocol.

Thirty-one senators including Nelson signed the Senate version, sent out Tuesday by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch.

Rubio’s office said he’s supportive, had an active role in pushing for $2.15 billion for the SLS rocket, $1.3 billion for Orion, and will “continue to push for increased funding in order to keep the ground system upgrades on track.”

Gus Bilirakis

Gus Bilirakis, Kathy Castor set sights on ‘zombie campaigns’

U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Kathy Castor are sponsoring a bipartisan bill to close the campaign finance loopholes highlighted in “Zombie Campaigns,” an investigative report from the Tampa Bay Times and 10News WTSP.

Bilirakis, a Tarpon Springs Republican, and Castor, a Tampa Democrat, told the Times they were sponsoring the “Honest Elections and Campaign, No Gain Act,” as a direct result of the investigative report.

Zombie Campaigns examined political accounts that were still paying staff and making purchases years after candidates had left office, seven of which were for Florida politicians.

Among them was the campaign account for disgraced former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, who had used leftover funds to dine out in Palm Beach as recently as 2017. He left office more than a decade ago.

Bilirakis said some of those zombie account holders would be against the change.

“You’re going to get some resistance,” he told the Times. “Probably some former members of Congress will lobby against this bill.”

Bilirakis and Castor’s bill would require lawmakers to begin shutting down their campaign accounts if they don’t qualify for another election the cycle after leaving office, while ex-pols looking to break into the lobbying industry would need to shut accounts down before they start the new job.

The bill, in its current form, would not make any changes when it comes to lawmakers who have died.

The lead item in the “Zombie Campaigns” account was the re-election campaign for Hawaii Congressman Mark Takai. Despite Takai’s death in 2016, the re-election campaign paid his chief strategist $5,700 a month for at least 17 months. The strategist was the one signing the checks.

Kathy Castor urges Rex Tillerson to restore U.S. diplomats to Cuba

Fresh off a Cuban visit last week, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is calling on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to return consular officials and diplomatic personnel to the U.S. Embassy in Havana as soon as possible.

Tillerson withdrew 60 percent of diplomats from the embassy in Havana last fall after unexplained attacks harmed at least 22 American government workers and family members. Investigators explored the possibility of a “sonic attack” injuring diplomats through sound waves; they discovered no device nor a culprit.

“While I appreciate your overriding concern with the health and safety of our diplomats following the unexplained health incidents, it is time to increase staffing and re-establish an American presence to serve our interests and our citizens,” the Tampa Democrat wrote in the letter to Tillerson sent Wednesday.

The State Department is scheduled to decide the status of the embassy by next week.

Shortly after Tillerson ordered the removal of U.S. diplomats from Cuba, the State Department then opted to suspend all visa processing in Havana, moving that function to Bogota, Columbia.

Castor, representing a district that is home to one of the largest Cuban-American populations in the country, said it’s “unreasonable and unaffordable” for Cubans who want to travel to Tampa or Miami to go to another country to do so.

The U.S. had provided 1,100 visas a month to Cuban immigrants last year before the diplomatic imbroglio; that number has since trickled down to just 350 per month.

In 2013, Castor became the first member of Congress from Florida to call for removing the Cuban economic embargo, a decision that can only happen via a congressional vote. She has consistently championed the liberalization of the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba since the early part of this decade.

But the diplomatic breakthrough started by President Barack Obama in late 2014 came to a screeching halt when Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Among the policy changes his administration rolled back from the Obama White House was travel.

Last summer, Trump announced that Americans would no longer be able to plan their own private trips to Cuba, and those who did had to go through authorized educational tours, subject to strict new rules and audits to ensure that they are not going just as tourists.

Castor calls that plan “overreaching.”

“This is counterproductive and complicates America’s ability to support everyday Cubans and promote the exchange of ideas,” The Tampa Democrat complains.

Castor visited Cuba earlier this month with fellow Democratic Reps. James McGovern from Massachusetts and Susan Davis from California, as well as Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Gary Peters from Michigan and Ron Wyden from Oregon.

The entire delegation, except for Castor, chose to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro during the visit. Castro will step down in April.

You can read Castor’s letter here.

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