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Delegation for 7.7.20: Wear a mask — BUS bill — food relief — sewage spill — abortion battle

Democrats are still wondering why there is no statewide mask requirement.

Wear the damn mask

There is an agreement (by most) that the recent surge of COVID-19 positive tests is something worthy of concern, but no consensus exists on a statewide order to wear masks. When those infected grow by 10,000 per day, some proclaim a spike in deaths and an uncontrollable surge are soon to come if such an order does not come.

“How many Floridians sickened with #coronavirus will it take for @GovRonDeSantis to #requiremasks?” tweeted Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, repeating a common message from delegation Democrats. “A record 11,458 cases today. We have millions of vulnerable elderly. Sickness and death will be your legacy if you continue to ignore this crisis!”

Delegation Democrats are still asking why Ron DeSantis is not issuing a statewide mask order. Image via AP.

Others, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, point to a median age of 35-38 among the most recent cases as a reason to not roll back Florida’s economic reopening. The Governor is also touting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations to sanitize hands regularly, socially distance, and wear a mask when among a group of people.

DeSantis, as well as Sen. Rick Scott, are opposed to ordering the entire state to wear a mask. In an op-ed for FoxNews.com, Scott wrote that Americans should not be ordered to wear masks, instead saying they will make the right decision if they have all of the information.

He wrote that “our elected leaders cannot sugarcoat where we are,” perhaps a subtle criticism of the strategy to point to increased testing as a cause for the spike and highlighting the median age of those most recently infected.

While Scott called for providing more information to help make informed choices, some question the information currently provided. Republican Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota said conversations with hospital CEOs in his district sometimes revealed conflicting numbers between the hospitals and what is being reported publicly.

“You’re seeing an increase in numbers,” Steube said. “But those numbers, I don’t think, are entirely accurate,” he said.

Rebekah Jones was part of the Florida Department of Health (DOH) team running the state’s official coronavirus dashboard but was fired for, in her words, refusing to manipulate data, while DeSantis said she was terminated for insubordination. Jones has since set up her own dashboard, which reflects slightly higher numbers of positive tests because she includes those testing positive from antibody tests, while DOH does not.

Sen. Marco Rubio is calling for more information as well. In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Rubio is asking for detailed information on COVID-19 hospitalizations, those in ICUs, and those with COVID who were admitted for other reasons. He also calls for more testing.

“I believe we also must reassess our approach to testing individuals for COVID-19 to maximize time and resources,” he wrote. “Adopting pool testing, which was previously carried out during the AIDS epidemic, could allow us to test up to 5 million people per day, according to Dr. Deborah Birx,” the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator.

Florida Politics often publishes information in addition to positive tests. Hot spots, hospitalizations — including ICU data — and daily testing figures are routinely provided, information that can help individuals make more informed choices governing their behavior.

Recently, Rubio had advice on which all could agree: “Wear the damn mask.”

Wednesday night massacre

The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) is a little-known agency responsible for getting the message of the United States before countries of the world. Its flagship entity, the Voice of America (VOA) is more well-known and thanks to a controversy surrounding its recently-appointed head, it is in the news.

Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker, was Trump’s choice to head the USAGM and was recently confirmed by the Senate after spending months in limbo. Making up for lost time, Pack quickly fired board members and the heads of other affiliated organizations, prompting bipartisan concern.

Rubio led a letter to Pack, signed by three other Republicans and Democrats, asking him to explain himself.

Donald Trump’s pick to head Voice of America wasted little time in firing the previous staff.

“We write to express our deep concern regarding your recent actions to terminate the heads of the three private grantee networks — Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network — and the Open Technology Fund (OTF),” the Senators wrote.

“The termination of qualified, expert staff and network heads for no specific reason, as well as the removal of their boards, raises questions about the preservation of these entities and their ability to implement their statutory missions now and in the future.”

A former agency official used the term “Wednesday night massacre” to describe the firings. The Senators promised a “thorough review” of the agency’s funding “to ensure that United States international broadcasting is not politicized” and able to “carry out its core mission.”

Those joining Rubio in signing the letter are members of the subcommittee overseeing USAGM funding. They included GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham, Jerry Moran and Susan Collins, along with Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy and Chris Van Hollen.

Reef funds coming

This year the communities along the Gulf Coast marked the 10th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The RESTORE Act, passed in 2012, called for substantial sums collected from punitive penalties be directed toward a fund dedicated to restoring and protecting natural resources.

Rep. Matt Gaetz recently announced Okaloosa County will soon benefit from a $1.23 million grant from that fund to help construct artificial reefs, part of a broader restoration project.

Matt Gaetz is touting money for Okaloosa County to develop coral reefs. Image via AP.

“I am excited that Okaloosa County has received a grant through the RESTORE Act for the Snorkel and Dive Reef construction project, which will build four new artificial reefs offshore,” the Fort Walton Beach Republican said in a news release.

“Not only will this benefit and preserve Northwest Florida’s precious reef fish population, it will increase fishing and diving tourism for the Emerald Coast — undoubtedly the most beautiful beaches in America,” he added.

According to the Department of the Treasury, the activities funded by the grant can reasonably be identified with the RESTORE Act as eligible activity of tourism promotion in the Gulf Coast Region, including recreational fishing. The project is included in Okaloosa County’s multiyear plan that was accepted by the department June 30, 2017,

USMCA begins

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is officially part of history, replaced by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The new agreement went into effect last week with the goal of implementing an agreement that works for all sides, with Trump claiming it is a much better deal for the U.S. than the “nightmare NAFTA.”

Many in the U.S. will agree it is a better deal for the U.S., but some say Americans are still being shortchanged. Leading Florida Democrats are among them, complaining the deal helps Mexico at the expense of Americans.

Stephanie Murphy is for fair trade, not necessarily free trade.

“I’m proud to call myself a pro-trade member of Congress,” said Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park. “But pro-trade doesn’t mean free trade. We need a rules-based system so everybody plays on an even playing field.”

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state’s highest-ranking elected Democrat, released a study showing NAFTA allowed Mexico to gain a huge advantage over Florida and American farmers over the last two decades. She said: “The clock is ticking for the (Trump) administration to help Florida’s farmers.”

The study shows that over the last 20 years, Mexico has increased their market share in the U.S. by 217% as Florida’s share of the market has dropped 40%, resulting in the loss of over 37,000 jobs and an indirect revenue loss of $205 million. The Florida industry also lost a collective $2.2 billion in cash receipts across multiple sectors.

U.S. Trade Rep. Robert Lighthizer pledged to address many of the shortcomings outlined by Fried and other Democrats within the first 60 days of the USMCA.

Republicans speaking publicly are mostly supportive of the new agreement. Among those are Rep. Vern Buchanan, who was a leading proponent of its passage, as well as Rep. John Rutherford, who said the new agreement gives American producers a better ability to compete.

“This bipartisan trade agreement is a major win for American workers, farmers, & job creators,” the Jacksonville Republican tweeted. “It levels the playing field & supports fair trade with our neighbors, making key improvements to the outdated NAFTA.”

Buchanan also said the agreement succeeds in “leveling the playing field.”

Fighting algal blooms

Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) have shown to have a devastating impact on Florida communities. Their presence has led to the killing of marine wildlife, caused illness and hurt Florida’s economy.

In response, Rep. Charlie Crist introduced the Prevent Harmful Algal Blooms Act, a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Bill Posey. This legislation directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to designate new Centers of Excellence to bolster existing work on HABs.

“Floridians know well the devastating impacts of harmful algae blooms — the toll they take on our beaches, waterways and wildlife; the stench that fills our air, burns our eyes and makes it hard to breath; and the damage they cause to our hotels, businesses, and economy,” Crist, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said in a news release.

Charlie Crist is helping in Florida’s battle against red tide. Image via AP.

“With my friend Congressman Posey, we’ve come up with a proposal that would bolster efforts to combat this environmental threat, protecting coastal communities not only in Pinellas but across the state and nation.”

The bill also seeks to formalize the partnership between local, state and federal stakeholders. It follows a grant from NOAA to the University of South Florida (USF) to conduct research into fighting red tide.

“Harmful algal blooms have caused considerable damage to our environment and local economies, and pose a threat to public health,” Posey, a Rockledge Republican, added. “This important legislation will lead to the development of better science that we can then apply to local initiatives to protect our estuaries and other natural treasures.”

Crist previously secured $10 million in funding to address these issues in the Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill for the fiscal year 2020.

Bus bill advances

A yearslong issue close to Crist took an additional step forward last week, but its long-term future is still in doubt. The Best to Use Belts (BUS) Act, introduced by the St. Petersburg Democrat to require safety belts in school buses, was added to the Moving Forward Act, which passed last week by a 233-188 vote.

“On behalf of the millions of families and students who depend on the school bus to get to and from class, I’m grateful that this landmark legislation brings us one step closer to making my nationwide seat belt policy the law of the land,” Crist said in a news release.

Charlie Crist is sponsoring a requirement for schoolchildren to wear seat belts while riding the bus.

“While the Moving Forward Act is about bringing our roads, schools, and overall communities into the 21st century, it’s also about doing so safely. With this provision, the People’s House puts the lives and safety of children first.”

While the effort took a big leap forward, it’s future is not bright for the current Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated the Senate is not inclined to act on the Moving Forward Act.

Crist guided a similar bill through the Florida Legislature while he served in the state Senate.

Food relief debated

Food security has been a significant concern during the COVID-19 crisis. With tens of millions of Americans losing their jobs, putting enough food on the table has been a bipartisan topic of discussion throughout Congress, which now focuses on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Food banks have been a godsend for some, but many of those food banks are adding their voices to the call for increased SNAP benefits. The Heroes Act, passed by the House and is pending in the Senate, would increase SNAP benefits, but the bill is going nowhere.

Gus Bilirakis is seeking to boost the CARES Act to cover more SNAP benefits.

On April 22, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expanded SNAP benefits by 40%, prompting Rep. Gus Bilirakis to add that the CARES Act increased SNAP benefits by an additional $15.3 billion that also included funds for food banks. He did not rule out more increases but called for more analysis before calling for additional spending.

“As this pandemic continues to negatively impact constituents’ finances, we must continually evaluate where unmet needs exist and the most effective ways to address those issues,” Bilirakis said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

His Tampa Bay area colleague, Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor, praised the extra help provided by the CARES Act, but said more help is needed.

“Expanding SNAP helps ensure that children and families have healthy, nutritious meals in a time of economic stress,” Castor said in an email to the Times. “I know that CARES Act aid from Congress made a difference to families by boosting Feeding Tampa Bay, but more must be done right away to ensure our neighbors have healthy meals.”

With the Heroes Act languishing and no agreement on additional relief in sight, the issue will not see a solution in the immediate future.

Massive sewage spill

Members of Congress deal with national issues that include budgets, infrastructure, national defense, the environment and in 2020, pandemics. There are always local issues that may cause serious concern, something discovered by Buchanan, whose district faced a massive environmental problem recently.

A broken sewage line in Longboat Key dumped more than 26 million gallons of raw sewage into Sarasota Bay due to a broken pipeline that went undetected for two weeks. Buchanan visited the site and decried the failure that has created a health concern, noting its pristine nature.

Vern Buchanan inspects a significant sewage spill off Longboat Key. Image via Twitter.

“Just inspected Sarasota Bay with a congressional aide after reports of a massive sewage leak,” he tweeted. “The bay is one of only 28 ecosystems in the entire country formally designated by Congress as an estuary of ‘national significance.’ We have to do a better job protecting it!”

The ruptured sewage pipe is 50 years old and is the only one on Longboat Key. It has since been repaired, but Harmful Algal Blooms have already appeared.

While the federal government is not directly involved, a federal grant application is not out of the question in the future.

Appropriations and abortions

With the exception of anti-abortion and pro-abortion groups, few outside of the beltway know the facts and the mandates of what is called the Hyde amendment, but it could be an issue in determining the next chair of the House Appropriations Committee. Wasserman Schultz is one of three running for the committee’s top spot.

The Hyde amendment, named after former Illinois Republican Rep. Henry Hyde, prohibits federal funding for abortions with the exceptions of saving the life of the mother, or a woman victimized by incest or rape. Last week House Democrats decided not to seek a repeal of the Hyde amendment in the coming appropriations process but Wasserman Schultz and her rivals for the post were largely silent.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz is one of three in the running to chair the House Appropriations Committee.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus explained to fellow Democrats the decision to wait until after the election before seeking a repeal. That prompted media questions to Wasserman Schultz and the other two Democrat women hoping to become chair in the next Congress.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat and the most senior member of the committee running for chair, said Democrats “were talking about what we think the best course of action is.” Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur said previously she was in favor of repeal, while Wasserman Schultz declined to be quoted in a POLITICO article.

Once the article was published, Wasserman Schultz decided to take a position contrary to that of the speaker and House leadership. Perhaps hoping to gain an advantage among her two rivals, an aide later told POLITICO the Weston Democrat supports repealing the Hyde amendment this year.

Latino panel named

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden continues to build outreach efforts as his campaign announced the Latino Leadership Committee last week. Among the 42 Democratic leaders named are two from within the ranks of delegation Democrats.

Among those joining Biden in his efforts to shape the message to American Latinos is Rep. Darren Soto of Kissimmee and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami. The team co-chairs are former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Both served in the administration of President Barack Obama.

Darren Soto is among 42 Hispanic leaders on Joe Biden’s Latino outreach committee.

“I am running to build an America that works for everyone, and giving Latinos a shot at the American dream is a core part of my vision for this nation,” Biden said in a statement.

Soto represents a Central Florida District heavily populated by Puerto Rican Americans, while Mucarsel-Powell was the first native-born South American to be elected to Congress. Both endorsed Biden in March before the Florida primary.

Another delegation Democrat was previously named to a policy position. In May, Castor was appointed to Biden’s Climate Change Task Force co-chaired by former Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

On this day

July 7, 1981 — President Ronald Reagan broke with two centuries of U.S. history and nominated a woman, Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Sandra Day O’Connor, to become a justice on the United States Supreme Court. Reagan made the announcement during a rare appearance in the White House press room.

Conservatives expressed concern that she may not hold a strict anti-abortion view, but Reagan said he is “completely satisfied on her right-to-life position.” If confirmed, O’Connor will take the seat held by retiring Justice Potter Stewart.

July 7, 2004 — One day after Kerry chose North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his running mate in his challenge to President George W. Bush, the new Democratic ticket spent the day campaigning, including a stop in St. Petersburg. Accompanied by their wives at the event at the St. Petersburg Coliseum, the two men vowed to win Florida and oust Bush from the White House.

The selection of Edwards carries the hope he can help carry southern states like Florida, which went to Bush by 537 votes in 2000. When asked about the selection, Bush said Vice President Dick Cheney is “ready to be President,” while Edwards is not.

Fauci adopted

A stray dog recently wandered into an Italian restaurant near the home of Coral Gables Democrat Donna Shalala. After some careful consideration, Shalala decided to adopt the homeless canine.

The next consideration was figuring out what to name the newest member of the household.

“Because of where he was found & the times we’re in, I’ve named him …. Fauci,” Shalala tweeted.

The video clip provided by Shalala revealed this Fauci was not wearing a mask, but instead appeared to be reading The New York Times.

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