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Marco Rubio hires new chief of staff away from Heritage Action

Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio today announced he has hired Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action for America, as his new chief of staff.

Needham fills a position vacated in late January when Rubio fired Clint Reed for violating policies “regarding proper relations between a supervisor and their subordinates.”

Deputy Chief of Staff Jessica Fernandez served as acting chief in the interim

Heritage Action is the political action arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

There, Needham was responsible for setting strategy and vision, and overseeing policy decision that held members of Congress such as Rubio accountable. Prior to that, he served various roles at the Heritage Foundation, and in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.

“Mike brings a wealth of policy, political and management experience that will greatly complement our office’s mission of serving the people of Florida and leading the effort to modernize the conservative movement in the 21st century,” Rubio stated in a news release issued by his office. “Mike understands and shares these goals, and I look forward to his contributions.”

Mike Miller digital ad highlights Marco Rubio endorsement in CD 7

Republican state Rep. Mike Miller has launched a new digital video ad that offers U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio‘s endorsement praise in Florida’s 7th Congressional District race.

The ad shows Miller and Rubio together at a recent fundraiser for Miller’s campaign, walking a corridor of Orlando’s Amway Center with Miller, stating, “The people of Central Florida will have a pretty clear choice to make. I know Mike will win. And I believe with all my heart that he will make a difference, and I look forward to working with him and making that difference.”

Miller worked on Rubio’s campaigns, and Rubio endorsed Miller last summer.

The new ad also uses footage featuring Gov. Rick Scott, who was featured in Miller’s first ad. Scott also praised Rubio at a recent event in Central Florida, though he did not endorse him in the race, which includes fellow Republicans Scott Sturgill, Vennia Francois and Patrick Weingart.

They all seek to win the August 28 Republican primary for the chance to take on Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in CD 7, which covers Seminole County and north-central Orange County.

Senators back hospitals on payment challenges

Tampa General Hospital is throwing its support behind a bipartisan proposal that, if passed by Congress, would allow it and other large health-care systems to challenge how the government estimates additional Medicare payments.

Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson are filing legislation Tuesday that would strike a provision in current law that precludes hospitals from challenging such payment decisions or the data used in reaching the decisions.

John Couris, president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital, said in a statement that the legislation would restore “transparency, fairness, and due process for Tampa General Hospital and all of Florida’s safety net hospitals, allowing us to challenge major errors made by the (federal) Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) when they occur.”

Tampa General was at risk of losing $2 million in what are known as Medicare “disproportionate share” payments last year after a Medicare claims administrator did not include updated Medicare uncompensated-care claims data in government forms. Rubio’s office intervened to prevent the cut to the 1,011-bed hospital, which serves as the primary teaching hospital for the University of South Florida’s medical school and cares for large numbers of low-income patients.

The legislation, though, would offer a more-permanent fix by eliminating a prohibition on administrative and legal challenges.

The original purpose of Medicare disproportionate share payments was to provide additional money to hospitals that treat large shares of low-income patients, who tend to be sicker and cost more.

The so-called DSH payment is calculated as a percentage add-on to the basic Medicare payments hospitals already receive. The amount of DSH money a hospital receives has traditionally been determined by a formula that includes the sum of two ratios: the proportion of all Medicare days that are attributable to beneficiaries of Supplemental Security Income and the proportion of all patient days for which Medicaid is the primary payer.

The federal Affordable Care Act changed the DSH formula, though, and after fiscal year 2014, hospitals are receiving 25 percent of the amount they previously would have received. The federal law, better known as Obamacare, also made clear that hospitals aren’t entitled to administrative or judicial review of any estimate used to determine DSH payments.

Stephen Harris, Tampa General Hospital vice president of payor and government relations, told The News Service of Florida that “a good deal” of hospital information is used to derive the formulas.

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.”

Rick Scott urges quick action on agriculture aid

Gov. Rick Scott is asking U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to move quickly to get disaster-relief funding into the hands of Florida citrus growers, as it may be another three months before farmers can start to apply for the money.

In a letter Tuesday, Scott also asked Perdue to “customize federal aid for Florida citrus growers” to meet their needs.

“Many growers, both large and small, in Florida are awaiting details on the USDA’s (U.S. Department of Agriculture’s) plan to distribute funding,” Scott wrote.

On Friday, Perdue announced that a program to distribute $2.36 billion to farmers in Florida and other areas would be running by July 16. The agriculture aid is part of a $90 billion disaster-relief package signed by President Donald Trump in February. The package is directed towards victims of hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria and wildfires in California.

Florida’s agriculture industry suffered an estimated $2.5 billion in losses from Irma, with the citrus industry accounting for at least $761 million of those damages.

Perdue’s announcement Friday said distribution information will come “at a later date.” His office also noted, in part, that compensation will be determined by producers’ individual losses rather than by average losses in particular areas and that people receiving aid obtain future crop insurance.

Scott’s letter followed a request by Florida’s Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to “avoid arbitrary limitations on disaster relief so we can get Florida’s farms, groves, and nurseries back to full operation” as soon as possible.

“USDA is right to incentivize personal responsibility through the purchase of crop insurance, however some crop policies work better than others,” Rubio wrote. “USDA should not punish citrus growers and others who understandably forgo purchasing higher levels of coverage of a poor insurance product.”

Economic impact of defense in Florida? It’s big, naval regional commander says

The Sunshine State is a hotbed of military activity and in turn, defense spending takes up a decent-sized portion of the state’s economic tally, according to one of the Navy’s top-ranking members.

Rear Admiral Babette “Bette” Bolivar, commander of Navy Region Southeast, spoke to the Economic Club of Florida Monday in Tallahassee. She’s one of two female regional commanders overseeing the 11-unit shore-based organizational structure. 

As expected, much of her discussion focused on economics.

Citing figures from an Enterprise Florida-conducted study of defense spending, Bolivar said that military activity was responsible for $84.9 billion of Florida’s Gross State Product, a little more than 9 percent of all economic activity in 2016. 

The figure factored in procurement, salaries, and pensions or transfer payments “for all those retired veterans who come to settle in the state,” Bolivar said.

Defense spending, Bolivar said, “increased jobs in every Florida county.”

“Most of those jobs are high-wage positions,” she added.

Bolivar, who oversees 18 installations spanning locales in Texas to Guantanamo Bay, said the Navy, specifically, is an economic driver in Florida. Seven installations are peppered across the state, the largest of which, Naval Air Station Pensacola, employs more than 22,000 military and civilian personnel. 

“The real heart of the naval air station is the training,” added Bolivar. She said more than 59,000 members of the military and foreign allies graduate from training programs each year in Pensacola.

Combined with Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Milton, Bolivar said, the two Panhandle installations are the “backbone of the naval aviation training pipeline.”

At Whiting Field, 60 percent of all primary and fixed-wing naval aviators receive their training. Every helicopter pilot in the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard also is trained at the base.

Another Panhandle base, Naval Support Activity Panama City, has an estimated economic impact of $673 million. It’s the second-largest employer in Bay County, ranked right after Tyndall Air Force Base.

During a brief question and answer session, Bolivar was asked by a member what “the future of Florida bases” looks like, given potential future cutbacks.

Responded Bolivar: “I would say that we’re pretty safe.”

She then gave a nod to Gov. Rick Scott, along with Florida’s U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson.

“Between Gov. Scott and our senators, we have so much support in this state — it’s amazing,” Bolivar said. Her last regional operation was headquartered in Guam, where she said the culture was different. There is support there for the military, but it’s coupled with some opposition.

Since she’s taken over the Southeast headquarters in Jacksonville, “it’s been nothing but great support from the community and the state.”

Joe Henderson: Guns and Trump form backdrop of Rick Scott

Guns and Trump.

Let’s just cut to what figures to be the essence of a showdown between three-term incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and two-term Republican Gov. Rick Scott for a Florida U.S. Senate seat.

Scott’s entry into the race, long a foregone conclusion, becomes official Monday and signals the start of what could the most expensive and nasty race in the country. These days, that’s a high bar to hurdle but it can be done here.

There also could be a false assumption about this election.

So, you think Democrats are building toward a blue tsunami this fall? You think Donald Trump’s record unpopularity will suck down Republican candidates like the vacuum effect from a sinking ship?

Maybe so.

As we know in Florida all too well though, it’s dangerous to make assumptions about politics. And Scott’s candidacy already is a problem for Democrats.

To have any hope for their party to gain control of the Senate, Nelson must win. To do that, he will need lots of money from the national Democratic machine, potentially taking resources away from races in other states.

Scott, meanwhile, could again choose to self-fund a large part of his campaign, which would be heaven-sent to Republicans.

There are 33 Senate races this fall and nearly a dozen are expected to be competitive. Democrats must defend 25 seats, including 10 in states where Trump won in 2016. Eight of those seats are considered tossups.

Florida, of course, is one of those and it figures to be the big prize for both parties. Polls have been all over the place in this race so far.

That brings us back to the two things that matter most in this campaign: Guns and Trump.

Scott has been joined at the hip to Trump, which Nelson’s camp will exploit to the max. It may not matter as much as Democrats would like, though.

While Trump’s approval is hovering around 40 percent, and perhaps a little higher in Florida, his people will turn out and vote no matter what. In a mid-term election, turnout is the key and Democrats have fallen short there in the past.

The X factor is whether the slaughter of innocents at Parkland brings out thousands of new voters. If so, it could turn the election in Nelson’s favor.

Although Scott pushed through and signed a law imposing modest gun restrictions after 17 people were shot to death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, he still is closely identified with the National Rifle Association.

Nelson, on the other hand, proudly points to his F rating from that organization. And in an interesting twist, he has developed a close working relationship with his Republican counterpart in the Senate, Marco Rubio.

They have appeared together several times, and Rubio has vowed he will not campaign against Nelson.

Scott is not happy about that.

There’s another bit of unpredictability tossed into the stew. Start with how they got to this position.

Neither candidate is dynamic on the stump. Even their record of election wins comes with question marks. Nelson won three races against Republican opposition that seemed to get weaker every time.

Scott likely will be a tougher opponent, but by how much? He won both his gubernatorial races by about 1 percentage point. A win is a win, but wins like that are hardly an overwhelming mandate.

Democrats will attack Scott’s record on the environment, various scandals that popped up during his two terms, and – did we mention – he endorsed Trump.

He is friends with Trump.

He hangs out with Trump.

Trump. Trump. Trump.

Guns. Guns. Guns.

The question becomes whether making that argument to voters over the next seven months will convert hearts and minds or just reinforce existing opinions.

My guess is the latter. We’ll find out soon enough.

Game on.

Irma agriculture aid slated to start in summer

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 urging Perdue 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

Lenny Curry, Aaron Bean, Marco Rubio claim Jacksonville Talleyrand Connector is no ‘turkey’

Per the Florida Times-Union reportage of Wednesday’s Florida Taxwatch media call, $12.5 million state money for the Talleyrand Connector was a “turkey” in the state budget.

The Talleyrand Connector will tear down Jacksonville’s current Hart Bridge offramps, routing traffic toward JAXPORT and the Sports Complex.

The “turkey” designation was because the money circumvented usual process, added in late in the Legislative Session. State Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican, was pivotal to ensuring the money got through.

Curry is still seeking outside money: a federal infrastructure grant for $25 million, backed by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio via the Department of Transportation’s Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program.

In the context of the turkey designation, we asked Curry, Bean and Rubio to evaluate the project.

They both said it was in the best interest of constituents, especially in this region.

Curry noted that the Florida Department of Transportation “commissioned a study … that clearly recommended that reworking that will enhance traffic flow for trucks to the port.”

Curry noted that JAXPORT supports the proposal.

“I’m grateful to the Senator for his support for the project at the state level,” Curry said. “Sen. Rubio’s working with me and my team and I think Congressman [John] Rutherford at the federal level. The city’s going to do its part as well. I absolutely support this project and I’m going to fight for this project all the way.”

We asked Bean why the appropriation was slid into the budget rather than going through a more traditional appropriations process.

“It’s not the first time TaxWatch has called anything we’ve done a turkey,” Bean noted.

“It’s of vital importance to the city of Jacksonville,” Bean added. “During the Legislative Session, we’re going to use any and all means to address my constituents and North Florida. We’ve always done that.”

Curry added that he “asked the Senator to help in the middle of Session. We have a relationship. It works for the city of Jacksonville. And here we are.”

Rubio added that “just because something’s not in an agency budget doesn’t make it a non-worthy project. No one elected the agencies.

“And so a turkey or pork spending in my view is when someone comes up with something that no one wants but them, or a small group of people. But when something has a regional impact,” Rubio said, “people can debate about whether it can be spent better one way or another, but in Congress, we fund state projects that go through a state process.”

“Just because something is not requested by an agency doesn’t make it a bad project. At the end of the day,” Rubio added, “these agencies are run by very good people who work hard but they aren’t elected.”

The city is expected to spend $12.5 million of the $50 million price tag, assuming federal money comes through as requested.

Marco Rubio pitches business tax cuts in Jacksonville, as federal deficits spike

Sen. Marco Rubio picked a safe market Thursday (Jacksonville) to message on a topic expected to resonate well with the area’s media contingent (the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act).

However, even in what seemed to be invulnerable economic messaging at a business expanding from 6,500 to 47,000 square feet and adding 100 jobs in the next five years because of tax cuts, narrative pitfalls abounded.

Despite these tax cuts, the federal government continues to spend money the American taxpayer doesn’t have. The latest $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill is funded via deficit spending (almost a quarter of a trillion dollars in February), and a concerted policy to weaken the dollar via issuance of short-term debt.

In this context, it was worth asking Rubio if the price of the tax cuts (future obligations and a currency being divested of spending power) was worth it given the increasing spread between revenue and spending.

“I think the rate of spending needs to be controlled,” Rubio said. “Ultimately the thing that drives long-term debt is the structure of very important programs that I support, Medicare and Social Security. I want to save those programs. They need to be reformed for future generations.”

“I would add that the best way to generate more revenue for government is not through more taxes, but more taxpayers. You’re going to have more taxpayers, for the local government, the state government, and the federal government because they’re hiring people, they’re creating work, they’re creating jobs,” Rubio said.

“When a business is able to keep more of the money that they are earning,” Rubio added, “they’re able to reinvest it. That reinvestment creates jobs, not just in that business but in all the businesses that support them. Those jobs become taxpayers.”

“We have to grow the economy,” Rubio said, “but we have to deal long-term with Social Security and Medicare. Those programs … are the driver of U.S. debt.”

Rubio attributed the weakening dollar to “fluctuations in currency” at first, before we pointed out that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said that he welcomes dollar weakness in recent months.

“That fluctuates based on global trends, it also fluctuates based on the administration,” Rubio said.

“What we do know for certain,” Rubio said, “is that we’ve got a historic number of people who are going to retire, they’re going to live longer than they’ve ever lived, in programs that were designed when we had 16 people working for every retiree.”

The ratio is 2:1 now.

“I support those programs. My mom is on Social Security and Medicare,” Rubio said. “I don’t want to see any changes to [those programs] that would harm her or people like her.”

“I’m talking about my generation and people younger than me. We want there to be Social Security and Medicare … that they’re able to exist and provide services long term. We have to address that in Congress,” Rubio added.

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