Representatives from east and west of Lake Okeechobee came together in a call to limit discharges into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. But that’s pitted delegation members within the same party against one another.
Reps. Brian Mast and Byron Donalds, Republican from Stuart and Naples respectively, co-signed a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers regarding a rewrite of the lake’s regulation schedule.
In a letter to Col. Andrew Kelly, district commander for the Army Corps’ Jacksonville District, the two Congressmen joined seven conservation group leaders to urge “a more equitable operational plan that strives to send the maximum amount of water to the Everglades, Everglades National Park, and Florida Bay during the dry season and eliminate harmful discharges to St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and the Lake Worth Lagoon.”
The stance puts the two in a posture against another member of the delegation concerned about agriculture operations. Rep. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, called out those “politicizing the process.” In his letter, Steube asks the Army Corps “to reject calls to drastically lower the level of water in Lake Okeechobee or to develop a regulation schedule that does not fully implement the authorized purposes of the federal project. I further urge the Corps to emphasize the science-based nature of its decisions that will ensure the Lake is managed to benefit the Lakeside communities and all of South Florida,” Steube wrote.
It boils in many ways to the politics of geography. Steube represents most of Florida’s Heartland, including those living — and farming — in areas closest to Lake Okeechobee that would be at risk of flooding under some discharge schedules.
But Mast represents areas on St. Lucie that have felt the sting of blue-green algal blooms after discharges.
Donalds represents communities along the Caloosahatchee that have felt the same swampy sting.
Getting to the finer points of schedules, Donalds and Mast back Plan CC for the rewrite, which all regulatory releases to St. Lucie and most to the Caloosahatchee except during dry seasons. The plan calls for southern flow. Steube called on the Corps to stick to a “science-based process” that meets agriculture needs. That’s undoubtedly going to produce a different outcome than what Mast wants; the Stuart Republican has for years lamented the influence of Big Sugar on the process.
So, where do Florida’s Senators, who represent the entire state, fall on the matter? Officials in Sen. Rick Scott’s office pointed to a letter the Naples Republican sent President Joe Biden in March calling on funding for Everglades restoration, including funding for a reservoir south of the lake and repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike to prevent flooding. But as far as discharge schedules, staff for the Senator signaled he would wait to review options after the Army Corps releases plans and any recommendations.
Another algae concern has delegation members along Florida’s Southwestern coast working in concert. Both Florida’s Senators and four Congressmen sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo seeking disaster assistance funding for fisheries hurt by red tide blooms between 2015 and 2019. That period includes a particularly devastating fall in 2018 when the toxic algae simultaneously impacted coastal communities along the Gulf of Mexico.
Sen. Marco Rubio led a letter recounting the challenges presented to Florida’s aquaculture communities. “Last week marked two years since the State of Florida requested this desperately needed assistance,” Rubio wrote, referencing a letter from May 24, 2019, from state officials asking for a federal fishery resource disaster to be declared.
“In that time, Florida’s charter fishermen and seafood producers have been impacted by the economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, and although economic conditions have improved, these stakeholders are rightly concerned that impacts by harmful algal blooms could harm Southwest Florida’s fishing industries this year, as current conditions closely reflect those of early 2018.”
Sen. Scott signed onto the letter, as did Reps. Vern Buchanan, Steube, Donalds and Carlos Giménez, Republicans representing districts from Bradenton to Miami.
“It would be devastating to fishing-dependent businesses in Southwest Florida if they were subjected to struggling through harmful algal bloom impacts this year while still awaiting disaster assistance in response to red tide events dating back to 2015,” the letter reads. “As such, we respectfully urge you to expeditiously approve the State of Florida’s request in order to disburse fisheries disaster assistance as soon as possible.”
The Seminole Tribe of Florida could soon have greater ability to invest in commercial property, thanks to legislation filed by Sen. Marco Rubio and passed by the Senate.
Rubio’s bill (S 108) would remove federal restrictions on the nation and allow the Tribe to lease, sell, convey, warrant, and transfer real property not held in the trust of the U.S.
“Removing this paternalist, decades-old restriction on the Seminole Tribe is long overdue,” Rubio said. “I hope the House will quickly pass this bill to provide the autonomy and flexibility the Tribe needs and deserves as it works to secure a strong future for their members.”
The Tribe, of course, praised the move. “This bill is necessary in order to create additional economic opportunities for the Seminole Tribe of Florida and its members,” said Seminole Tribe Chairman Marcellus Osceola, Jr. “Sen. Rubio’s leadership in moving the bill through the Senate is invaluable in our efforts to diversify and provide for future generations of Seminole tribal members.”
It seems no coincidence the legislation moved in the Senate just after Florida negotiated a new compact with the Tribe. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Osceola officially reached a new deal April 23, and the Governor signed state legislation days ahead of the Senate vote. It will allow the expansion of Tribe-owned casinos and facilities. The compact still requires the approval of the federal government.
Vaccine passports won’t fly in the friendly skies if new legislation from Sen. Scott is cleared for takeoff.
The Freedom to Fly Act would ban “the Transportation Security Administration from requiring Americans to show proof of vaccination or produce a vaccine passport for domestic flights and protect the privacy of personal health information,” according to a media release from Scott’s office.
Scott frames the legislation as a way of keeping the federal government out of people’s business.
“Americans are working hard to recover from the devastation of COVID-19, and travel is critical to getting our economy fully reopened. While I continue to encourage everyone who wants one to get the vaccine, the federal government has no business requiring travelers to turn over their personal medical information to catch a flight,” Scott contended. “My Freedom to Fly Act ensures families in Florida and across the country can travel freely and without the ridiculous government bureaucracy created by vaccine passports.”
Knocking at the Gaetz?
Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz’s legal troubles may now include an investigation of obstruction to justice.
Federal prosecutors will explore whether the Congressman tried to influence a witness in a sex trafficking case, POLITICO first reported. Sources close to the investigation have now told multiple outlets Gaetz patched into a call with one of a handful of women connected to an investigation of former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg that may trap the Congressman.
Greenberg last month pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of a child and five counts involving fraud.
Reportedly, the call was with an ex-girlfriend of Gaetz, who may also cooperate with prosecutors. She was the one who patched Gaetz into a phone conversation with the female witness.
Sources have not revealed the content of the phone conversation. But Gaetz, Greenberg and the ex-girlfriend all have been connected to flights both to and from the Bahamas, with some reports suggesting women had sex with both men.
One of the women — who was then a 17-year-old — is believed to central to Greenberg’s charge of sex trafficking. Gaetz has repeatedly denied ever paying for sex or having sex with a 17-year-old as an adult.
In an interview with Newsmax, Gaetz also denied witness tampering. He declined to discuss any phone conversations about the case. “I don’t want to make my friends or anyone I’ve spoken with for any reason subject to that type of harassment, but I can say I know every conversation I’ve been a part of,” he said.
The high-profile Congressman, a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump, has denied any wrongdoing. Still, reports allege he sent electronic cash transfers to Greenberg, who immediately transferred the money to women in an apparent “sugar daddy” relationship.
The plea deal with Greenberg signals the former Tax Collector is now a cooperating witness in ongoing investigations. The Politico report said the woman on the call with Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend and then Gaetz is also cooperating with investigators.
Others connected to the plane trip central to the investigation include former state Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears and medical marijuana entrepreneur Jason Pirozzolo.
No indictments have been handed down in a connected case since Greenberg’s plea.
The three most populous states in the union, including Florida, suffer the lowest ratio of National Guardsmen to residents. St. Augustine Republican Mike Waltz and Winter Park Democrat Stephanie Murphy want to change that.
On Tuesday, Representatives co-led a bipartisan letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed by 59 Florida, California and Texas delegation members demanding a change. California Representatives Ken Calvert and Jimmy Panetta, and Texas Congressmen Ronny Jackson and Marc Veasy co-led the tri-state effort.
The letter made the case that more Guard resources need diverting to the growing states. Events in the last year, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, have meant deploying Guardsmen with greater frequency.
“As elected representatives from the nation’s three most populous states, we have an obligation to ensure that these civilian warriors and our state bureaus have the resources they need to fulfill the full range of missions we task them with, including defense support for civil authorities and domestic missions in support of Governors,” the letter reads.
Besides Murphy and Waltz, Florida co-signatories include Gaetz, Neal Dunn, Kat Cammack, John Rutherford, Al Lawson, Bill Posey, Darren Soto, Val Demings, Gus Bilirakis, Charlie Crist, Kathy Castor, Scott Franklin, Steube, Mast, Lois Frankel, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Mario Diaz-Balart, Giménez and Maria Elvira Salazar.
“Whether it was COVID, civil unrest, natural disasters or overseas deployments, the National Guard was ready and prepared to protect Americans over this past year,” Waltz said. “Oftentimes, these missions mean National Guardsmen and women are deployed for months on end, leaving their day jobs and families to serve and putting an incredible strain on the Guard and their families.”
Added Murphy: “The Florida National Guard is succeeding despite its inadequate crew, but we are doing our guardsmen — and our state — a disservice by not properly resourcing the force. I’m proud to co-lead this bipartisan letter to the Department of Defense seeking to ensure that the Florida National Guard is appropriately sized to conduct its many vital missions on behalf of our country and our state.”
Family time off
In an event spotlighting the importance to ethnic communities of paid family leave, Murphy shared her own story of the economic challenges that once faced her young family.
She spoke at a UnidosUS event, as reported by Al Día, where she described professional options presented to her as a young mother applying to work at a Fortune 500 company.
“They told me I could take any vacation that I had accrued and three months of unpaid leave,” Murphy recalled. “Like so many families faced with a similar predicament, I wondered how I could make this work; how can you go for three months without pay in order to have the family I wanted.”
The job wasn’t a fit for her, and she declined a work offer. But she knows many mothers don’t have the option to say no to a paycheck even when their children are very young. It’s part of why she previously filed the Emergency Paid Leave Act, provisions of which made it into a coronavirus relief bill last year.
When asked what could happen this year with a divided caucus, including the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, which Murphy leads, could hold significant influence, she said they could make further gains.
“We try to find the solution that is as bold as possible, trying to get us to our goal, but that has the votes to actually get passed into law,” Murphy said.
The American Rescue Plan will deliver $6.1 million to a Tampa Bay charity.
Tampa Democrat Castor announced Lutheran Services Florida would receive $6,122,491 through the Department of Health and Human Services. The funding comes from the latest pandemic relief package passed in Congress and signed by Biden. The grant will help with prevention and response to the coronavirus within Head Start programs.
“Here in Tampa, Head Start has equipped countless children with the skills needed to succeed in school and move onto meaningful employment opportunities while providing parents with resources to reach their financial and educational goals. Lutheran Services Florida has been an invaluable partner in helping Florida families reach their full potential through Head Start over the years, and I’m proud to announce this $6M grant through the American Rescue Plan,” Castor said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored the urgent needs of local families, and these funds will allow LSF to expand their services to even more of our neighbors. LSF is a lifeline to so many in Florida, and I’m grateful that these federal funds are available to buoy their critical efforts to get children back in school and support the well-being of parents in the months ahead.”
The organization’s leadership welcomed the funding.
“We are serving (fewer) children because of the pandemic, and these funds will help us reach more families as we focus on enrollment and re-enrollment for the upcoming school year,” said Bob Bialas, LSF executive vice president of Children and Head Start Services. “The funds also allow us to address families’ economic security as we partner with them on employment, education and career goals. Our federal partnerships are critical, and we appreciate the support of Congresswoman Castor in investing in safe and high-quality learning opportunities for children.”
Sarasota Republican Steube sported Army fatigues as he joined a Memorial Day hike on the Suncoast. The Congressman joined with SRQ VETS for the Sixth Annual Memorial Day 5K, where backpack-adorned marchers honored the fail with their footsteps.
“Memorial Day is more than a day off,” Steube said. “It is a time for us to remember that America is the land of the free because it is the home of the brave. Each year, as we reflect on the blessings of our liberty, we must remember to all be faithful stewards of the freedom we have been granted. Let us never forget that we cannot rightfully celebrate the joy of our freedom without remembering the great price paid by our fallen heroes.”
During his own time in the Army, Steube served as airborne infantry and later as a JAG officer; he held the rank of captain in the 25th Infantry Division in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Since his election to Congress in 2018, he’s focused much of his energy on veteran-related legislation and worked as well on the Veterans History Project.
School for soldiers
West Palm Beach Democrat Frankel said universities should make it easier for veterans to transition to higher education environments. She and St. Augustine Republican Waltz joined together to file bipartisan legislation, the Veteran Education Empowerment Act (HR 3586), to create Student Veteran Centers on campuses across America to help individuals shift from uniform into student life.
“Our returning military veterans deserve the opportunity to succeed in civilian life. Student Veteran Centers provide the added support needed for veterans to have successful college experiences on their paths to finding new careers,” Frankel said.
Waltz said he knows firsthand what leaving the military life involves. “Sadly, the dropout rate for student veterans is high due to the many obstacles they face while getting an education,” the St. Augustine Republican said. “Our servicemen and women have sacrificed so much to keep the air we breathe free. We must help them achieve their goals. That’s why I’m proud to support our veterans on their academic journeys by providing access to Student Veteran Centers at universities and colleges across America.”
Sen. Rubio will carry the Senate version of the bill along with Nevada Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen. “We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the men and women who have bravely served our country,” Rubio said. “This legislation would help student veterans with the transition from military to civilian life, ensuring that they have the opportunity to succeed in their education and career goals.”
On this day
June 4, 1919 — “Congress passes the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote” via History.com — The 19th Amendment, which stated that “the rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the states for ratification. Eight days later, the 19th Amendment took effect. Despite the passage of the amendment and the decades-long contributions of Black women to achieve suffrage, poll taxes, local laws, and other restrictions continued to block women of color from voting. It would take another 50 years for all women to achieve voting equality.
June 4, 1939 — “Jewish refugee ship turned away from Florida coast” via Florida History Network” — Carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing the oppression of Nazi Germany, the German ocean liner MS St. Louis was anchored so close to the Florida coast, its passengers could see the lights of Miami. But coming to the United States was out of the question. Thousands of European Jews had applied for visas and were in line ahead of the passengers. The waiting list was several years. Some passengers had cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge, but Roosevelt didn’t respond. Polls showed 83% of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration.
Delegation is published by Peter Schorsch and compiled by Jacob Ogles, with contributions by A.G. Gancarski.