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Takeaways from Tallahassee — ‘Invaders’ from beyond

Florida makes the perfect environment for invasive species.

From green iguanas to Cuban tree frogs, Florida’s warm climate draws in its fair share of invasive species. And the state is doubling its efforts to root them out.

This week, Gov. Ron DeSantis was joined by the leaders of the South Florida Water Management District, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to announce an aggressive plan to remove Burmese pythons from the Everglades.

Ron DeSantis joined the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to announce new efforts to remove pythons from the Greater Everglades.

The “python patrol” surge will see the state agencies team up with local governments to allow python hunters onto state lands, launch an outreach campaign, and research new tech to help apprehend the slippery serpents. And instead of holding one “Python Challenge” every three years, the state will make it an annual event.

“I’m excited to announce our efforts to more aggressively tackle the problem of this invasive species and to further protect the Greater Everglades,” DeSantis said. “Pythons are a threat to native wildlife, and removing them is an important component of Everglades restoration.”

Indeed, SFWMD board member Ron “Alligator Ron” Bergeron — who earned his nickname for his Everglades expertise — harped on the disruption caused by pythons.

“Harmful pythons disrupt the natural food chain and prey on native wildlife that depends on the Everglades,” he said.

But pythons aren’t the only pests getting attention this summer. FWC is also amid its annual “Lionfish Challenge.”

The FWC is amid its annual ‘Lionfish Challenge’ to help rid the invasive species.

The venomous saltwater fish are native to the Pacific, but they’ve been abundant in Florida waters ever since the mid-1990s when Hurricane Andrew flung a handful of very prolific aquarium specimens into the ocean.

The commission is offering a payday to the “reef rangers” who submit the largest and smallest lionfishes — $2,000 for first place, $1,000 for second and $500 for third. Also, any recreational competitors who submit 25 lionfish will receive a 2019 Lionfish Challenge T-shirt, a commemorative coin and an entry into the FWC Lionfish Hall of Fame.

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Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Peter Schorsch, Drew Wilson and the staff of Florida Politics.

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

Take 5

FDLE investigating Jeffrey Epstein — Gov. DeSantis announced Tuesday that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would take over an investigation into the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office‘s handling of a work-release program back in 2008. Accused child trafficker Epstein was permitted work release despite facing charges of molesting underage girls. The investigation order came after Sen. Lauren Book called for the investigation to be turned over to the FDLE. Previously, Palm Beach Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and his office had announced they would handle the investigation.

Scott Maddox pleads guilty — Suspended Tallahassee City Commissioner Scott Maddox pleaded guilty Tuesday as part of a 4-year-old FBI investigation into public corruption in the capital city. The 51-year-old Maddox, who was the city’s first directly-elected “leadership” mayor in the late 1990s, pleaded guilty to three substantive ‘theft of honest services’ charges of wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy to commit tax fraud. Also pleading guilty to the same counts was Maddox’s longtime friend, former aide and business partner Janice Paige Carter-Smith.

Florida election websites still connected — Multiple Florida counties’ elections sites are among 19 nationally found to have early results systems vulnerably connected to the internet. The sites for Miami-Dade, Bradford, Charlotte, Flagler, Wakulla and Pasco counties were found to be connected as recently as this week. While the connections are a potential security threat, a spokesperson for Election Systems & Software, the vendor for the vote tabulating machines in those counties, said their equipment is never connected to the internet and that “physical ballots and printed results tapes are protected at all times.”

Senate looking into mass shootings — Senate President Bill Galvano this week called for the chamber “to review and better understand the various factors involved in mass shootings.” They will include “white nationalism, which appears to be a factor not only with regard to these recent mass shootings, but also with other acts of violence we have seen across the country in recent years,” he said. The Bradenton Republican’s announcement came Monday, after two shooting attacks at crowded public places in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. Galvano tasked GOP state Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa to lead the effort.

Voting amendment hits signature requirement — A proposed constitutional amendment concerning the citizenship of Florida voters has enough petition signatures for a spot on the 2020 ballot. As of Wednesday, political committee Florida Citizen Voters had submitted more than 840,000 petitions to county supervisors of election, well over the required 766,200. The proposal, which would change the state’s governing document to allow “only citizens,” rather than “every citizen,” to vote in elections is pending review in the Florida Supreme Court.

Guv highlights health care wins

Most of DeSantis’ health care priorities cruised through the Legislature this year, and he touted the success this week during the Florida Health Care Association’s Annual Conference.

“Since I’ve taken office, we have tackled a number of health care priorities, and we were fortunate to make some major inroads this past legislative session for patients across our state, especially our seniors,” DeSantis said.

Ron DeSantis speaks at the FHCA Annual Conference to highlight the administration’s health care accomplishments to date.

Among the new programs highlighted was a framework to import prescription drugs from other countries, such as Canada. That plan got one step closer to reality last week when the federal Department of Health and Human Services said it was considering allowing drug imports.

DeSantis also touted a plan calling for health insurers to voluntarily establish a shared savings incentive program for certain nonemergency health care services.

And there’s more to come.

“The care and well-being of our seniors will continue to be a priority of my administration,” he said.

Farmers get hurricane cash

DeSantis announced this week that help is on the way for farmers who suffered losses when Hurricane Michael hit Florida last year.

DeSantis said 70 loan applications were approved for farmers in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Okaloosa, Wakulla, Walton and Washington counties. They’ll receive nearly $13 million combined.

Florida farmers are still hurting from Hurricane Michael, but help is on the way.

“We remain committed to utilizing all available resources to help Floridians continuing to recover from the devastation left by Hurricane Michael,” DeSantis said. “I’m glad that farmers in the Florida Panhandle were able to utilize the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan to prepare for the upcoming growing season.”

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity administers the loan program alongside the Florida Small Business Development Center Network and Florida First Capital Finance Corporation.

The short-term, interest-free loans seek to help businesses bridge the gap between when the damage happens and when the company can secure cash from other sources, such as of crop insurance claims or federal disaster recovery money.

Apprenticeship program praised

Charter Communications launched its inaugural apprenticeship program for Florida this week, and DeSantis and Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran were on hand to cheer it on.

“I’m excited to join Charter as they kick off the rollout of their Broadband Field Technician Apprenticeship program,” DeSantis said.

“My administration has made expanding career education programs and hands-on learning opportunities across the state a priority. Through programs like these, we are helping pave the way for Floridians to prepare themselves and our workforce for the jobs of the future.”

Charter’s Broadband Field Technician Apprenticeship program aims to provide workers with career-track training they can progress through at their own pace, at no cost to them. And they can take their on-the-job education with them — program graduates receive an industry-recognized certification that they can carry with whether or not they stay with Charter.

“Apprenticeship programs are essential to ensuring Florida has the best, most qualified workforce and that our students have a wide variety of employment options in our state,” Corcoran said. “As a result of apprenticeship programs like these, Florida is on track to be first in the nation for workforce education by 2030.”

CFO: Prep for the worst

When disaster strikes, business suffers.

While Florida has been spared from a hurricane so far this year, August is when hurricane season starts to heat up and Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis says it’s time to for businesses to get ready.

“The peak of hurricane season is almost here, and now is the time to ensure homes and businesses are protected from a potential storm,” Patronis said. “I know the challenges small businesses face when preparing and recovering from a disaster, and studies show that approximately 40 percent of small businesses won’t reopen after a natural disaster.

The worst of the Atlantic Hurricane Season is yet to come, warns Jimmy Patronis.

“I know, just like protecting your home, protecting your livelihood is one of your top priorities. Good planning now may speed up disaster recovery and help ensure your business is back up and running after disaster strikes.”

Patronis recommends businesses build a disaster preparedness plan, get proper insurance coverage, update emergency contact info for employees, and protect essential documents — preferably off-site.

AG asks feds for opioid help

Opioid addiction kills 17 Floridians a day, making the state ground zero for the nationwide public health crisis.

Attorney General Ashley Moody says Congress can help health care workers combat the opioid epidemic by removing giving them the latitude to offer treatment options tailored to patients suffering from opioid addiction.

Ashley Moody is turning to Congress for help with the state’s opioid crisis.

“Our country has been ravaged by the opioid crisis for years now, and here in Florida, we are working every day to combat opioid abuse,” she said. “We need Congress to assist us in our fight by removing federal barriers that are preventing health care providers from offering more treatment options.

“This national crisis has ruined lives and torn apart families, and we need Congress to act with a sense of urgency to remove these opioid treatment barriers as soon as possible.”

Moody signed onto a letter with other state attorneys general calling for Congress to replace out-of-date privacy rules, pass the Mainstreaming Addiction Treatment Act to eliminate unnecessary burdens on buprenorphine prescribing.

They are also calling for a repeal of the Medicaid Institutions for Mental Diseases exclusion, which prohibits state Medicaid programs from receiving federal reimbursement for adults between 21 and 65 receiving mental health or substance use disorder treatments in residential treatment facilities with more than 16 beds.

Instagram of the Week

The Week in Appointments

U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida — U.S. Attorney Lawrence Keefe appointed three assistant state attorneys this week: Lazaro Fields, Meredith Steer and Kaitlin Weiss. Fields is an alumnus of Florida State University law school who worked as a litigation associate at Colson Hicks Edison. Steer is a George Mason University law school alumna and former U.S. Air Force JAG. Weiss is a Georgetown Law School alumna and former assistant attorney general for Florida. Keefe also appointed Corey Aittama as law enforcement coordinator for the office. He has 26 years of law enforcement experience at the local, state and federal levels.

Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission — House Speaker Jose Oliva appointed Tampa Democratic Rep. Fentrice Driskell to the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. The 19-member commission was established this year to ensure a statewide observance of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020. “The 19th Amendment solidified women’s equal access to the core American value of voting and elevated women’s ability to participate in societal change. I look forward to working alongside fellow members of the Commission to develop thoughtful and exciting ways for our state to celebrate this historic milestone,” she said.

Statewide Council on Human Trafficking Direct-Support Organization (DSO) Board of Directors — Senate President Galvano appointed Toni Azinger of Bradenton to represent the Senate. Azinger has held leadership roles in organizations that raise funds to support victims of human trafficking. The DSO provides assistance, funding and support to the Council. A direct-support organization is a nonprofit organization authorized by statute to carry out specific tasks in favor of a public entity or public cause.

Industrial Hemp Advisory Council — Senate President Bill Galvano appointed Sen. Rob Bradley and former Sen. Denise Grimsley to represent the Senate on the Industrial Hemp Advisory Council. The council was created this year with the passage of SB 1020, sponsored Bradley. The council is charged with providing advice and expertise to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services concerning plans, policies, and procedures applicable to the administration of the State Hemp Program.

Tampa Port Authority — DeSantis reappointed Stephen Swindal to the Port Authority. Swindal, of Tampa, is the owner of Marine Towing of Tampa. He is also the owner and founder of Pan-American Sports Group, a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic that trains prospective major league players. Swindal is the former CEO of Bay Transportation and worked with the New York Yankees Partnership Team for over 10 years. He is appointed to a four-year term and is subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

Daytona State College District Board of Trustees — DeSantis reappointed Lloyd Freckleton to the Board of Trustees. Freckleton, of Flagler Beach, served for over 30 years with the U.S. Army Reserves 1970-2004 and earned the rank of Colonel. As Commander of a military police battalion, Freckleton was involved with the restoration of democracy in Haiti. In 1992, he retired from the NYC Department of Corrections. Freckleton is appointed to a four-year term, subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

Blue Springs renamed

Blue Springs is getting a new name.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced this week that Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park is now Ruth B. Kirby Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park.

Kirby, now deceased, is the former owner of the property. She and her family ran the 407-acre property as a private park and campground known as Blue Springs Park since 1958.

The Gilchrest Blue Springs State Park is now officially the Ruth B. Kirby Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park.

“The renaming recognizes how the stewardship of Ms. Kirby and her family benefited Gilchrist Blue,” Florida Park Service Director Eric Draper said. “We’re excited to continue that legacy of protection and offer visitors a terrific resource for recreation and learning about Florida’s springs.”

The park includes six natural springs and 1 mile of frontage on the Santa Fe River. One of the springs on the property, known as Gilchrist Blue, produces upward of 44 million gallons of water per day.

The other named springs on-site are Little Blue Spring, Naked Spring, Kiefer Spring and Johnson Spring.

Lottery rakes in cash

The state is a winner, according to the Lottery Revenue Estimating Conference.

The panel reported in a Friday meeting that scratch-off sales are through the roof — coming in $50 million higher than what the Florida Lottery estimated for the fiscal year so far.

Much of that growth was attributed to the Lottery’s new $10 scratch-off ticket.

That puts sales growth at more than 5 percent for the percent in the 16 weeks before the release of the new scratch-off ticket and is now up to close to 9 percent in the weeks following the ticket’s release.

That’s no surprise. Floridians buy $4.65 billion worth of scratch-off tickets a year, which accounts for nearly 70 percent of all lottery sales.

The conference also unveiled another major figure — all told, the Florida Lottery invested a whopping $1.9 billion in education funding during the fiscal year ending June 30.

That busts through the record set in the 2017-18 fiscal year, when the Florida Lottery contributed $1.7 billion to the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund.

Poachers get popped

Last month a band of brigands stole more than 4,000 of oysters from the Pensacola Bay Oyster Company. Now they’re behind bars.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission tracked down the oyster thieves using some CSI-level tech — the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory took samples from the stash of shellfish and were able to determine their origin.

Poachers stole nearly 4,000 oysters from the Pensacola Bay Oyster Company. Now the crustacean cutpurses are on ice.

That helped FWC nail the crustacean cutpurses, who now face multiple felony and misdemeanor charges, including grand theft, dealing in stolen property, not delivering to a certified oyster house, and harvesting oysters in a closed season.

“These suspects were involved in an illegal oyster operation. These violations are serious and posed public safety and economic consequences,” said Major Craig Duval, commander of the FWC’s Northwest Region. “I am incredibly proud of our law enforcement officers for their work in this investigation and for their dedication to conserving our precious natural resources.”

Tourism going green

Florida may be better known for its beaches and theme parks, but the state’s tourism marketing arm is looking to catch the attention of eco-friendly travelers.

“VISIT FLORIDA is dedicated to providing our visitors with extraordinary vacation experiences while promoting sustainable solutions that help maintain our destination’s beauty and vitality,” said VISIT FLORIDA President and CEO Dana Young.

Dana Young and VISIT FLORIDA are making a push to boost the state’s appeal to eco-tourists.

“From catch-and-release fishing to visiting our many pristine natural areas, VISIT FLORIDA’s eco-friendly travel hub will introduce potential travelers to the many ways they can explore the Sunshine State in a manner that protects what makes Florida such a special place to visit.”

The publicity push brings about the launch of a new VISIT FLORIDA eco-friendly travel hub to provides visitors with info and tips for going green while traveling through the state.

Among resources highlighted are the nearly 400 properties in the Florida Green Lodging Program, a compilation of hotels that are committed to conserving and protecting the state’s natural resources.

Visitors can also scope out attractions that offer less impactful ways to get a real-deal Sunshine State experience.

Know your dealer

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Food and Drug Administration have a warning: steer clear of “Dr. Seltzer.”

The blue pills are labeled as an all-natural herbal substance containing shiitake mushroom extract, but that’s a ruse — the pills are actually Sildenafil, better known as Viagra.

Dr. Seltzer is not fooling anyone.

Law enforcement got wind of the disguised drugs after Customs and Border Protection intercepted tens of thousands of them en route from China to Ponte Vedra. They cost $11 a pop. All told, the value of the capsule cache was more than $800,000.

Agents say the drugs were on store shelves in St. Johns County and were also sold and shipped off to eBay customers, so double-check those bottles before taking a dose, as “Dr. Seltzer’s” prescription could land unsuspecting users in the hospital — or even the morgue.

While that batch is off the streets, FDLE St. Augustine Field Office is still tracking down the illicit importers and is seeking tips from the public.

Justice for Ocoee victims

It’s been nearly a century since 50 black Floridians were killed in “The Ocoee Massacre,” and Sen. Randolph Bracy says justice for the victims is long overdue.

The Democratic lawmaker, himself an Ocoee resident, filed a bill this week to launch an FDLE investigation into massacre, which began with the lynching of prominent black Ocoee resident Julius “July” Perry and continued with shootings, arson and dozens of murders.

More than a century later — victims of the Ocoee Massacre will finally get justice.

Shortly after the riot, a committee of white residents, with the cooperation of the local court, distributed the illegally seized property to other white residents.

“I am humbled to play a small role in seeking redress for the families who lost their lives, civil rights, homes, and property in this horrific tragedy,” Bracy said. “Given that Nov. 2, 2020, will mark the centennial of this incident, I think it’s an appropriate time for our legislature to offer healing and closure to the individuals marred by this painful legacy.”

Bracy’s bill would also set aside $10 million in funds to compensate the descendants of those killed and those left their homes and property behind to escape the assailants.

Pace Center honors lawmakers

Senate President Galvano and state Rep. Will Robinson “believe in girls.”

That’s according to the Pace Center for Girls Manatee, which honored the Republican lawmakers with 2019 “Believing in Girls” awards.

The PACE Center for Girls Manatee is honoring Senate President Bill Galvano and state Rep. Will Robinson for ‘Believing in Girls.’

The recognition came during an Aug. 1 ceremony celebrating the center’s summer 2019 graduating class. The center said Galvano and Robinson earned the awards for “their continuous support of Pace in the State of Florida.”

Pace Manatee cited Galvano’s successful effort to increase per-student education funding and mental health funding in 2019 Legislative Session. Robinson, currently in his first term, was recognized for his juvenile justice reform advocacy.

The first Pace Center opened in Jacksonville in 1985. Since then the organization has expanded to include 21 centers throughout the state. The organization helps girls involved in the juvenile justice system.

Florida TaxWatch praises productivity

Florida TaxWatch this week lauded loads of state agencies, programs and staff for their hard work.

For the 30th year, the nonpartisan watchdog group handed out its 2019 TaxWatch Productivity Awards (TPA) recognizing employees who find ways to improve services, increase efficiencies, and save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Jimmy Patronis and the Department of Financial Services were among the winners of the 2019 TaxWatch Productivity Awards.

Among the dozens of winners were CFO Patronis and Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, Jimmy Cox and the team at People First, and the Florida Department of Health’s HIV/AIDS Section. Some of the 500-plus honorees even walked away with cash prizes.

“We are thrilled to be celebrating 30 years of the TaxWatch Productivity Awards program, recognizing the incredible public servants who work together to build a better Florida ensuring that state government can direct taxpayers’ hard-earned money to the vital services that make the Sunshine State a great place to live, work and raise a family,” said Dominic Calabro, Florida TaxWatch’s President and CEO.

This year’s awards were presented by Kyra Solutions, an IT company aimed at boosting government efficiency.

“Kyra Solutions is proud to be the lead sponsor of the TaxWatch Productivity Awards recognizing state employees, who often go unrecognized, for their efforts in making our state more efficient and effective,” company President Piyush Patel said.

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