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Orlando airport board votes to send ultimatum to TSA

The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority Board of Directors voted Wednesday to tell the federal Transportation Security Administration that if it does not start pleasing Orlando International Airport officials more the airport will seek to replace federal screeners with a private company.

The board essentially is telling the federal agency that Orlando International Airport leaders are so fed up with what they contend has been a lack of communication, cooperation and accountability by the local TSA leadership, that they’re willing to pursue the extreme measure of becoming just the second or third major airport in America to throw out TSA screeners and replace them with private security.

In a nutshell, the board told TSA Wednesday it wants the local TSA leadership replaced with someone who will work with local officials to cut wait times and improve passenger satisfaction levels, and if the agency won’t do it, Orlando will. Both GOAA Board Chairman Frank Kruppenbacher and Airports Executive Director Phil Brown told the board they have repeatedly tried to get TSA to address their concerns about wait times, passenger satisfaction levels, operational flexibility, and dealing with new rules coming out of Washington D.C.

“I’m taking the gloves off with this: there is a leadership problem at TSA locally,” Kruppenbacher said.

“I don’t think any of us really desire deep in our hearts to go down this road but we’ve talked and talked, and so this is like, we’re moving in this direction,” he said.

Among the seven board members, there appeared to be a wide range of what was in their hearts regarding whether and how aggressively Orlando should begin what could be a year-long process of switching to private passenger screening services.

On one hand, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer voted against the ultimatum-laiden resolution approved Wednesday. He argued that the board was already sending a clear message, and didn’t need to actually begin a game of chicken with federal officials, heading toward something that at least a few of the board members appeared to not really want, private screeners.

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs was not far from Dyer’s position, but she grudgingly, after several rewrites of the resolution, voted yes.

On the other hand, a couple of the board members, notably Ed Fouche, appeared adamant, sounding convinced that Orlando International Airport might be better off with a private passenger screening company.

Kruppenbacher contended he was more with Jacobs, but did not want to show any weakness to the agency, not after years of frustration. And so he sought a firm resolution that would have to be stopped if negotiations between the airport and federal officials succeed in the next 60 days, not a stopped resolution that could be restarted if such negotiations fail.

“I’m sorry; it’s time to go to Washington and tell TSA we mean business,” Kruppenbacher said.

Private screening at airports is available through the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program. The vast majority of the 22 airports that have opted into the program, such as those in Bozeman, Roswell, and Tupelo, are small, and they include four in Florida: Key West, Sarasota, Punta Gorda, and Orlando-Sanford. Only the San Francisco and perhaps Kansas City airports are in Orlando’s class. San Francisco International Airport is a little bigger, in terms of passenger counts, while Kansas City’s is less than half of Orlando’s size.

A switch to a private passenger screening service would come first with Orlando submitting an application to the TSA, while Orlando simultaneously begins interviewing and researching the 15 or so companies authorized by TSA to do the work.

The board struggled with how far members wanted to go Wednesday in a stare-down with the TSA, leading the resolution to be recast at least twice.

Kruppenbacher wants Airports Executive Director Brown and key staff and board members to meet with TSA. And before Wednesday’s meeting, Dyer arranged a meeting with airport officials, federal officials and the Central Florida congressional delegation, notably U.S. Reps. Val Demings and Darren Soto, and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, for March 30. [Word that such a meeting already had been arranged, critical to a process that had not yet been voted on, and involving more than one GOAA board member, clearly irked Jacobs, who only found out about it when Kruppenbacher first mentioned it. Dyer tried to ease her by saying Demings actually arranged it, and texted him about it earlier Wednesday.]

Ultimately, the board offered a 60-day window for TSA to “meet the triggers,” in Kruppenbacher’s words. Those triggers were not explicitly spelled out.

“The step we would take today is to begin the process; the board will not be formally voting to file the application,” he said.

The matter has come up before in past years, previously pushed aggressively by then U.S. Rep. John Mica, who fought a long political battle with the TSA and its unions, and wanted to have his hometown airport become a leading example of one that abandoned the agency.

This time the matter appeared to be more driven by airport staff, as Brown laid out a case Wednesday for why TSA screening operations had become disappointing and frustrating in light of the airport’s standards and objectives. Essentially, the agency appeared unable or unwilling to participate in big-theme-park levels of customer service and satisfaction, what airport officials long have called “the Orlando Experience.”

Kruppenbacher expressed annoyance that TSA officials left Wednesday’s meeting early.

Meanwhile, many of the thousand or so TSA employees at Orlando International Airport could lose their jobs and their federal pensions if Orlando switches to a private company. A number of TSA employees and union officials, some from other aviation unions such as flight attendants, spoke Wednesday, pleading with the board to not switch to a private security company.

“Screeners, you’re in the middle of it, but this is not about you,” Kruppenbacher said.

The screeners and others insisted no private company could offer more dedication to safety than they do.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, noted she was working out of Boston the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists, screened by pre-TSA private security screeners, boarded two planes there and crashed them into the World Trade Center. Air safety is very personal for those in the business, she reminded everyone.

“It could have been me on that plane that fateful day. Instead, it was my good friends…. We can never go back to giving private companies the enormous responsibility of airport screening,” Nelson said.

Chris King, Philip Levine both busing to gun-reform rallies in Tallahassee

The campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King is sponsoring buses to transport gun-law advocates from St. Petersburg and Orlando to a rally in Tallahassee Wednesday, and the campaign of his rival candidate Philip Levine announced Tuesday it would be doing something similar next Monday.

King, a Winter Park businessman, will be joining protesters on a bus heading from St. Petersburg Wednesday, and will attend the rally for gun law reforms being organized in Tallahassee as a reaction to last week’s mass-shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which killed 17, his campaign announced Tuesday.

At least 100 students of that high school are expected at the rally, with the theme #NeverAgain. Some school districts, including Leon County in Tallahassee, are offering excused absences from the classroom for students to attend.

Meanwhile, Levine’s campaign announced it was helping organize another rally for gun law reforms for next Monday in Tallahassee called Rally in Tally for Gun Reform.

Among those that will be joining King on one of the buses will be members of Fired Up Pinellas, Indivisible FL-13, The League of Women Voters, and other groups, his campaign indicated.

In an internet post last week, King vowed that, if elected governor, he would take on the National Rifle Association, and push to ban assault weapons. King also renewed his declaration of support for expanding Medicaid, saying it would provide access to quality, affordable healthcare and mental health services to hundreds of thousands of additional Floridians.

The event that Levine’s campaign announced it was helping organize for next Monday, “Rally in Tally,” also involves the Women’s March Florida and the Miami-Dade and Broward Democratic Party, Levine’s campaign said. There also will be buses coming from cities across Florida for that rally.

“We are coming to Tallahassee with a simple message: enough is enough. We have had it with the chipping away at our gun laws, year after year. The latest incident, which allowed a disturbed 18-year old in Broward County to commit this atrocity, is the final straw,” Levine said in a news release.

The other two major Democrats running for governor, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, already are Tallahassee-based.

Orlando City Council votes to allow home sharing vacation rentals

Orlando city officials took one of the biggest steps of any Florida city in recent years to ease laws that restrict vacation rentals, approving an ordinance Monday to allow owner-occupied rentals in single-family residential zones.

The move, approved 6-1, takes effect July 1, ending what has effectively been a 26-year ban on vacation rental homes that predated the rise of the Airbnb-style, online, home-sharing industry.

Orlando’s law even predated the term “vacation rental,” covering it in city zoning codes with the term “commercial dwelling units,” a code quirk that some had suggested might make the city’s law potentially vulnerable to legal challenge, though it has not been so challenged successfully.

Nonetheless, Orlando officials conceded that as many as 2,000 vacation rentals might be operating in Orlando anyway, or at least were being listed on Airbnb and other vacation rental home marketing companies such as HomeAway, as available for rent by the night, to tourists and other visitors. As the new city ordinance takes effect this summer, most of the current vacation rentals could come into compliance with Orlando codes.

Orlando is among a handful of cities and counties that had laws restricting or prohibiting vacation rentals already on the books in 2011 when the Florida Legislature began pushing to reduce such local laws and regulations. Orlando’s and the other pre-2011 laws were grandfathered in.

With the Florida Legislature pushing this Legislative Session to allow more vacation rental opportunities, Orlando city officials decided to give the rapidly-growing, tourism-based industry, and the homeowners relying on it for income, more legal room in Orlando.

The city’s new ordinance does not go as far as state law requires for cities and counties that did not have pre-2011 laws. Orlando’s law requires the owner to occupy the house, or at least to occupy half a duplex if a duplex is involved.

Orlando also will require local registration, a mandate that a Senate bill would prohibit of cities.

Orlando left much of the accompanying regulation open, for the City Hall staff to develop before the law goes into effect July 1.

“Like a lot of public policy you are trying to balance disparate views,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said afterward. “We want to help the people that would like to participate in a program like Airbnb while at the same time setting up enough rules and regulations to protect our single-family neighborhoods.”

Tom Martinelli, public policy director for Airbnb applauded the ordinance’s passage, calling it “a good day” for people who like to stay in vacation rental homes, and for people who host them.

“These smart, thoughtful regulations will allow Orlando residents across the entire city to share their homes for supplemental income and welcome more visitors to the City Beautiful,” he stated.

Commissioner Tony Ortiz, expressing strong concerns about what vacation rental homes might do to single-family neighborhoods, voted no. He first offered an amendment that would have limited vacation rentals to multifamily residential zones rather than single-family zones, but it died.

Much of the debate Monday at Orlando City Council appeared to be over how to define “owner-occupied,” particularly dealing with duplexes. Commissioner Robert Stuart argued against allowing owners of duplexes to rent out one unit while living in the other, contending that it would encourage more and more of such duplexes to be turned into rentals.

Commissioner Patty Sheehan took the opposite perspective, arguing that the vast majority of duplexes already are [long-term] rentals, and the ordinance would encourage people to buy them so that they could live in one side and make money off the other.

There also was concern about what the city can do, at any rate, with the 2,000 apparently-illicit vacation rental homes. Essentially, now, the city enforces its ban only when the code enforcement department is called up to respond to a noise or parking or some other issue.

That will remain true whether the city legalizes the use or not, Commissioner Jim Gray noted; code enforcement officers essentially would require warrants to determine who is actually sleeping in a house.

Mike Miller announces CD 7 campaign finance team led by Todd Wilcox

Republican state Rep. Mike Miller has announced his campaign finance team for his run for Congress, to be led by businessman and former U.S. Senate candidate Todd Wilcox and to include former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, former Florida Senate President Toni Jennings and a large number of key Central Florida figures.

Miller, of Winter Park, aims to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park in Florida’s 7th Congressional District next November. First, though, he must get by a few other Republicans in the August primary, notably Sanford businessman Scott Sturgill who has, until now, shown an advantage on the money side.

That advantage could start to fall away, with Miller staffing his finance committee with the likes of former Walt Disney World President Dick Nunis; timeshare magnate David Siegel; two former Florida House Speakers, Steve Crisafulli and Dean Cannon; and a host of major players in Florida and Central Florida political fundraising and operations, lobbying, and Republican politics, including Oscar Anderson, Brian Ballard, Daryl Carter, Pat Christiansen, Earl Crittenden, Tre Evers, Charlie Gray, Micky Grindstaff, Phil Handy, Marcos Marchena, Harvey Massey, John Miklos, Rusty Roberts, and Rick Walsh.

CD 7 covers north-central Orange County and all of Seminole County.

Wilcox, president of Patriot Defense Group and a former Army Green Beret and CIA officer, went after Murphy in a news release issued by Miller’s campaign.

“As a former member of our military, I know we need members of Congress who will vote to fully fund and support our men and women in uniform,” Wilcox stated. “Playing games, like our current congresswoman is, supporting the Pelosi Democrats and perpetuating the Schumer Shutdown is irresponsible. I’m supporting Mike Miller because I am confident he will take the tough votes to protect Americans.”

Orange County opens to proposals to salvage from Sanford Burnham center

After watching the county’s biggest tax incentives package turn into its biggest economic development bust, Orange County on Tuesday began in-depth deliberations with at least two and possibly more players offering to salvage a heavily-subsidized Lake Nona biomedical research laboratory that is soon to be departed by Sanford Burnham Prebys.

On Tuesday the Orange County Commission heard pitches from Florida Hospital and the University of Central Florida as the central players in two proposed deals to take over the Sanford Burnham Medical Discovery Institute  at Lake Nona, and then heard a request from a possible third player, Orlando Health, that the county take its time, and openly seek other proposals.

One pitch, from Florida Hospital,  offered no cash return to the county or the other partners who had invested in the Sanford Burnham deal, while the other, from UCF, offered rent, and reimbursement of some of the money Sanford Burnham still owes the state.

The county, along with the city of Orlando, and with the developer of Lake Nona, Tavistock Group, are trying to figure out what to do with the $80 million, state-of-the-art laboratory building constructed at Lake Nona, since Sanford Burnham announced in 2016 that it no longer sees a viable way of succeeding there and intends to walk away.

The California-based non-profit pharmaceutical research institute had come to Lake Nona after receiving $40.7 million from Orange County, $32.7 million from Orlando, $155 million from the state, and $17.6 million from Tavistock’s development company for that project, the Lake Nona Land Co.

Any decision on what to do with the state-of-the-art laboratory building the public monies built, and which Sanford Burnham intends to abandon, will have to be from a unanimous agreement among the county, the city of Orlando, and Tavistock, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said Tuesday.

Tuesday at the Orange County Commissioners meeting, UCF appeared to have an early political advantage, though Florida Hospital made a bold pitch for national preeminence, and former Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, now a vice president with Orlando Health, urged officials to open to other proposals.

Jacobs harshly questioned Florida Hospital over having developed at least the beginnings of its proposal in long-term private talks with Sanford Burnham that left the county and other public stakeholders literally locked out.  Commissioner Emily Bonilla later said that she already prefers the UCF proposal, and she believes other commissioners do too.

The hopes held 12 years ago by state and local officials was for more than just 300 or so high-paying, high-tech jobs the Sanford Burnham projected it would create at Lake Nona, a projection it never came close to achieving.

Sanford Burnham once was considered a cornerstone of what is being developed as Orlando’s Lake Nona Medical City complex of hospitals, medical education, and research institutions, which officials hoped would one day rival huge medical center complexes in other cities, notably in places such as Boston and Houston. While hospitals and medical education have come to Lake Nona, the research component – the component expected to generate the big, long-term, private has not really sprouted. The cornerstone institute, Sanford Burnham, withered compared with expectations before the institute announced the Lake Nona closure.

“It wasn’t so much about the direct jobs at Burnham, and Burnham wasn’t going to be paying property taxes. What Burnham was going to do was be the magnet and bring in all those pharmaceutical and life-science companies,” said Deputy Orange County Administrator Eric Gassman.

The assets may still have considerable longterm value, but Jacobs also talked about having been burned.

“I’ll be candid with you: Sanford Burnham, we invested a lot in their success. We took a huge risk for their success and our success. As gracious as I’m trying to be about their failure, it was a colossal failure, from an economic standpoint,” she said.

Deborah Robison, Sanford Burnham vice-president of public affairs sent a statement to Florida Politics clarifying the non-profit institute’s position that since 2015 it “has investigated many alternative academic, corporate and clinical strategies, and has been working together with local partners and stakeholders, to identify a solution for the long-term sustainability of biomedical research at the site. That is still our goal.

“We have remained in contact with local and state stakeholders, and deeply appreciate their interest and vision for Central Florida. SBP has identified two credible long-term solutions that would not only sustain but also expand biomedical research at Lake Nona, including a proposal to integrate with the University of Florida, which was not completed, and a substantive plan from Florida Hospital,” she wrote. “Ultimately, a decision on the future of the biomedical research enterprise at Lake Nona ultimately lies in the hands of the state and local stakeholders. During this decision making time-period, SBP is not in the process of shutting down, nor have we announced a closure – medical research is continuing, research grants are being awarded to scientists and important scientific papers are being published in prestigious journals.”

Working with the Moffitt Cancer Center, Florida Hospital, which already has other facilities at Lake Nona and had partnered on research with Sanford Burnham, asked the county and the others to give it the building. In exchange, the hospital company proposed creating a multi-use cancer research and treatment center that would include basic and translational research, precision medicine research, clinical genomics, Phase I clinical research, drug discovery, and a stem-cell laboratory.

Florida Hospital projected 205 jobs, with an average salary of $85,000, by the fifth year of operations.

The proposal emphasized that the UF-Moffitt partners know what they’re doing, and have done their homework, have a proposal that is essentially “shovel ready,” and have the credentials and ability to turn the center into a National Cancer Institutes-designated comprehensive cancer center, of which there is currently only one in Florida: the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

“We believe our plan will achieve not in 20 or 25 years but in the very near future a NCI designated cancer center here, in Florida, in Lake Nona,” said Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Steven Smith.

Yet all of that homework had Jacobs and some of the commissioners questioning whether Sanford Burnham and Florida Hospital had been working together for a while on a deal that might not be in the best interest of the county and other public sectors, which already are feeling burned by Sanford Burnham’s deals. Jacobs in particular peppered Florida Hospital officials about a confidential, non-compete agreement. Ultimately, she got Florida Hospital officials to agree to turn over a copy of that agreement to the county before Orange County would consider Florida Hospital’s proposal.

The University of Central Florida’s proposal is to team up with Hospital Corporation of America and other companies, also to create a multi-use cancer research and treatment center, this one tied in with UCF’s teaching hospital and medical school at Lake Nona. The UCF partners would pay the county $2 million a year in rent to take over the building, and also  promised to pay $11 million the state of Florida says Sanford Burnham owes state taxpayers. Their buildup would be slower than that proposed by Florida Hospital, but bigger, ending after five years with 302 full-time jobs, and some of the partners, notably HCA, would be there on a for-profit basis, paying some taxes.

UCF Board Chairman Marcos Marchena said the university also invested in the Sanford Burnham programs, to the tune of $18 million.

“This comprehensive cancer center will delver a new level of cancer care to our community, expand biomedical eosins at medical city, and create jobs and increase opportunities for medial research. our for-profit partners will also generate revenues for Orange County, both in the form of rent and taxes,” Marchena said.

Gardiner, senior vice president of external affairs and community relations at Orlando Health, asked for the county and others to open to other proposals.

“I would encourage you, I stand here today with not a specific ask, other than, this should be opened up to every not-for-profit in our community,” Gardiner said.

Val Demings picks up Democratic primary challenger in CD 10

Orlando businessman Wade Darius is seeking to challenge U.S. Rep. Val Demings in a Democratic primary this year for Florida’s 10th Congressional District.

Darius, 36, chief executive officer of TD Homes Marketing of Orlando, said Monday he is challenging Demings primarily out of his belief that she has not been aggressive enough in opposing the immigration and economic policies of President Donald Trump or to bring home enough grant money for the people of the 10th Congressional District. Darius filed last week with the Florida Division of Elections to seek to qualify for the ballot.

Demings is a former Orlando police chief and freshman member of Congress representing western Orange County.

Darius also said he is concerned about criminal justice issues, notably prison reform, which he said is needed, and police brutality, which he alleged Demings did not address when she was police chief.

A Haitian immigrant to Miami as a child, Darius said immigration policy was his primary concern, especially considering the very large Haitian and El Salvadoran communities in CD 10, two communities facing mass deportations under Trump’s policies.

“We know our district is vastly populated by immigrants,” he said. “You must be on the side of the people.”

Married and the father of five, Darius’s background has been in banking and real estate before he founded TD Homes Marketing, which he said last year helped 200 people arrange to get at least $15,000 in down-payment assistance toward the purchases of homes.

He said his campaign will refuse to raise any money from corporations because he believes there is a required quid pro quo response to all such donations. He said his campaign will be funded by himself and his family. He started that off by donating $500 to start a Go-Fund-Me account for his campaign.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló coming to Kissimmee, Orlando

The governor of Puerto Rico is coming to Kissimmee and Orlando Friday and Saturday to meet with Puerto Ricans in Central Florida and provide information about his administration’s efforts toward recovery from Hurricane Maria and preparations for displaced islanders to return home.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló will be leading a town hall-style meeting in Kissimmee on Friday and will be appearing at various events on Saturday.

Kissimmee and Orlando have received the bulk of Puerto Rico evacuees who have fled the island to Florida since Hurricane Maria devastated the island Sept. 20-21. The Florida Division of Emergency Management reports that nearly 300,000 people have come from Puerto Rico to Florida, primarily through Miami and Orlando, though it is unclear how many have stayed.

Rosselló will be holding a town hall at 10 a.m. at the Kissimmee Civic Center. He’ll also be meeting with various Puerto Rico leaders and business owners in Central Florida on Friday Saturday.

Rosselló will be explaining disaster relief efforts on the island and benefits available there and in Florida, answering questions, and seeking to provide assurances about when displaced Puerto Ricans can to return to their homes, said Luis Figueroa, former Florida regional director for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.

Philip Levine planning another bus tour of Florida

Philip Levine is gassing up a bus again for another tour of Florida, this time as an official candidate for governor.

Levine, the Democratic former mayor of Miami Beach, announced Friday that he plans to take a bus campaign tour that will start in Orlando next Tuesday morning and end in Key Largo on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 12.

His campaign is calling the tour “Live! from Florida’s Living Rooms” and promises he’ll be presenting his vision for Florida’s future  from inside host families’ living rooms, throughout Florida.

Levine plans to kick off the tour in Orlando Tuesday morning by watching Gov. Rick Scott’s “State of the State” address from a host family’s living room, and then providing a direct response, via Facebook Live.

“Tallahassee always tells us what they want us to hear. I’m going around this state to make sure they hear from us. From the living rooms of Florida, we will let Tallahassee know that climate change is real, the minimum wage is unlivable, that drilling off our shores is off-limits, and that taking away our right to home rule is out of the question,” Levine stated in a news release.

“This tour begins a conversation we’ve never had, about things we’ve never done, for people who’ve never been given a chance. We’ve heard from Tallahassee. Now, I’m going to make sure they hear from us,” he added.

Levine faces Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, and Winter Park businessman Chris King in seeking the Democratic primary nomination to run for governor. The leading Republicans are Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam of Bartow and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, who just declared his candidacy Friday.

Last summer Levine took a bus tour of Florida as host of a SiriusXM satellite radio talk show. That was before he officially entered the governor’s race, though the tour had all the trappings of a campaign trip.

The exact locations of host families for each living room stop on the next b us tour still are being confirmed. His campaign plans his first stop, in Orlando, at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday morning, at a location to be announced.

Tuesday afternoon he’ll be in Gainesville. Wednesday morning he’ll be in Jacksonville; Wednesday afternoon, Tallahassee; and Wednesday evening, Pensacola. Thursday morning he’ll be in Tampa; and Thursday afternoon, Fort Myers. Friday morning, Jan. 12, he’ll start in West Palm Beach; Friday afternoon he’ll appear in Fort Lauderdale, and then in Key Largo.

Rick Scott’s Puerto Rico roundtable reaches same concern as others: housing

Having largely tackled many of the education and jobs challenges arising from the mass migration of Puerto Ricans seeking a place to live in Florida after Hurricane Maria largely shut down their lives on the island, state and local officials gathered in Orlando told Gov. Rick Scott that housing remains a major problem.

Scott met with about two dozen Central Florida elected and nonprofit officials Thursday afternoon including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette, Osceola County Chairman Fred Hawkins Jr. and Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alvarez and mostly received praise for his administration’s efforts to coordinate services offered to tens of thousands of people fleeing Puerto Rico since September.

That praise focused mainly on job support and education accommodation efforts, and on coordination of resources and programs, and responsiveness. State Rep. Bob Cortes, a Republican, said Scott and his office responded quickly to all his concerns, starting with solving education matters. State Rep. Rene Plasencia, a Republican, said he would call Scott’s office sometimes five, six times a day, and always got answers.

Not so with discussions of housing challenges, which ran more of a gamut from universal concern to, when state Sen. Victor Torres got his turn, anger and frustration.

That began with Dyer, who like Torres was one of a small number of Democrats in the meeting, urging Scott and the Florida lawmakers present [Torres, Cortes, Plasencia and Republican state Rep. Mike Miller] to focus on freeing up funds for longer-term investment in affordable housing throughout Central Florida.

“Quite honestly there is a crisis, and we can’t solve it … city by city or county by county. we need a statewide strategy on that,” Dyer said.

Cortes pointed out that his House Bill 987 is seeking some long-term answers. Others pointed out that federal tax credit reassignments could be requested, and Alvarez argued that red tape still need to be cut. But with about 300,000 people who’ve come from Puerto Rico to Florida in the past 100 days, the short-term solutions of people sleeping on relatives’ couches or in motel rooms on FEMA vouchers will give way soon, in a housing environment already airtight.

“I think we all have to focus on housing,” Scott agreed. “It actually is a problem all around the state, right? especially in a place like this where you have so many people moving here and, and the jobs, and the unbelievable number of people who have come in.”

In fact, a Career Source official said, people coming from Puerto Rico are finding jobs, and with the state’s ability to waive many of the professional certification requirements in lieu of Puerto Rico certifications, many are finding jobs in their professions. “But once we get them employed, housing is an issue,” she said.

Torres ripped into Scott and the Republican leadership of the Florida Legislature for consistently transferring affordable housing money out of Florida’s Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund, nearly a billion dollars in eight years, by Torres’ count.

“We need to change that. In your budget you have, right now, $92 million being withdrawn from the Sadowski Funds. We need you to put those funds back, and work with us, so we can do more affordable housing,” Torres said. “The question here lies: affordable housing. It has to be on a pay scale. We have workers who work hard but they’re not on good salaries … We have to get them out of the hotels. Get them out of their cars. We need to get them out of places they don’t belong, with their kids. That’s my goal.”

Afterward, Scott defended his commitment to affordable housing, saying he was doing what he could, and that was more now that the economy was strong.

“I put more money in the budget this year. I’m going to continue to focus on it. You have to understand, I grew up in public housing. I know the importance,” Scott said. “I’m going to keep doing it. But the way you do it is you work with the legislative process to get as much as you can.”

Transitional shelter voucher program extended for Puerto Rico evacuees

Evacuees seeking a place to live in Florida after Hurricane Maria wrecked their homes in Puerto Rico will get another two months of a program that allows them to use federal vouchers to live in hotels or motels.

FEMA has extended the Transitional Shelter Assistance Program, set to expire Jan. 13, to March 20, U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando announced Wednesday.

FEMA extended to program at the request of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, recognizing the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who fled to Florida in the past three months, but arrived in regions where affordable housing is scarce. Latest word from the Florida Division of Emergency Management is more than 300,000 people have traveled from the island to Florida since early October, though no one is certain how many have stayed.

“I would like to thank Puerto Rico’s Governor Rosselló for requesting and FEMA for approving a 60-day extension to the TSA/Hotel Voucher program,” Soto said in a news release. “This will help thousands of recent Puerto Rican families relocating to Central Florida with temporary housing. We will continue to work with the Puerto Rico Government to get a direct lease program and make sure we provide adequate housing assistance for those Puerto Ricans still in need.”

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