Tampa Bay Archives - Florida Politics

Opponent blasts Gus Bilirakis for bill hamstringing DEA opioid fight

Gus Bilirakis is taking heat from an opponent for pushing a bill that dilutes the Drug Enforcement Agency’s efforts to stem the nation’s opioid crisis.

Mathew Thomas, a Democrat running against the 11-year Republican incumbent in Florida’s 12th Congressional District, blasted Bilirakis Wednesday for co-sponsoring the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act.

The 2016 bill had a (somewhat unintended) result of severely hampering the DEA’s ability go after opioid distributors supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who flood the black market with pain pills.

Bilirakis was one of six co-sponsors for the House version from Rep. Tom Marino, the Pennsylvania Republican who, until recently, was President Donald Trump’s nominee for drug czar.

On Tuesday, Marino backed out of the position, after CBS’ “60 Minutes” and The Washington Post reported that the bill changed a longtime standard required before the DEA could freeze suspicious sales of painkillers, which cuts the flow of opioids into the black market.

Instead of requiring the DEA to first determine shipments pose an “imminent danger” to the community, the agency must now conclude they represent “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat.”

“I’m appalled, but not shocked,” Thomas said Wednesday. “It has become business as usual for bills like this to roll through as lobbyists team up with members of Congress to ensure these bills succeed.”

Thomas noted that his opponent received $79,000 in campaign contributions from “corporations running this multifaceted campaign to undercut law enforcement.”

While Bilirakis did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Florida Politics, his spokesman did offer an elaborate explanation Tuesday to the Tampa Bay Times’ Alex Leary.

“Congressman Bilirakis hoped that this legislation would bring stakeholders at all levels together to discuss ways they could work together to prevent abuse while allowing really sick people like cancer patients, seniors, Veterans, and others with significant pain to get the relief they need with a legitimate prescription,” spokesman Summer Robertson told the Times.

He continued: “Gus had not been made aware by any current DEA official that the agency feels they do not currently have adequate authority to take action against any party that might be contributing to the proliferation of the opioid epidemic.”

Bilirakis “intends to reaffirm this understanding with the agency, as he is committed to ensuring that law enforcement has the tools it needs to go after bad actors, Robertson said. “Sometimes there are unintended consequences to good legislation.”

“Not sure that’s the case here,” he concluded, “but it would be helpful to hear from DEA if its ability to get bad guys is hampered.”

Thomas responds: “At some point, we have to question the priorities of a Representative that sides with drug corporations over law enforcement in the midst of an opioid epidemic.”

He calls it “inexcusable” that Bilirakis claims he thought the bill would “strengthen cooperation” on the issue of drug abuse.

“His statement reveals he either never read the bill or he read it and voted for it despite the consequences,” Thomas said. “Both scenarios are unacceptable.”

Thomas added: “We cannot accept Representatives championing and co-sponsoring bills like this while we are losing people. We cannot accept Representatives stating ignorance to the effects of the bill when Judge John Mulrooney II, the DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge, warned about the bill’s diminishing DEA authority.

“That’s why I am running to be the Representative we deserve,” he continued. “I am someone who champions the American people and fights for their interest not lay down in the face of opposition or roll over for corporate donations. We have serious issues, people are drying, we need strong leaders empowering not diminishing our power. I am that leader.”

Thomas is a Palm Harbor-based software architect. He entered the CD 12 race in late June, and to date has raised $6,137.

The other Democrat in the race, Robert Tager, has raised $13,423.

Bilirakis, on the other hand, has amassed more than a half-million dollars in his re-election bid for the seat he has held since 2006.

Kathy Castor pushes bills to help with student loan debt

While Washington is filled with talk about cutting taxes and possibly health care benefits, Tampa Representative Kathy Castor sat down with current and former students from the University of South Florida (USF) and the University of Tampa (UT) at the Attic in downtown Tampa on Wednesday to ask them about two of her potential proposals regarding student loan debt, which continues drag the economy.

Having attended college in the 1980s, Castor said there are students with a lot more debt in 2017, with Pell Grants not keeping pace with inflation, rising tuition costs, and the attendant costs of paying for textbooks, transportation and a higher cost of living.

The average student for UT grads is approximately $31,000. At USF it’s $22,000.

Castor is co-sponsoring two bills to address the issue. The first and most pressing legislation looks to reestablish funding for the Federal Perkins Loan, after Congress failed to reauthorize the program at the end of September. About 2.7 million students in the U.S. received the Perkins Loan, which was subsidized by the students, who paid for it at a 5 percent interest rate.

She’s also sponsoring The Student Loan Relief Act,  which would lower the cap on federal student loan interest to 4 percent for undergraduate students, 5 percent for graduate students and 6 percent for parents.  It would change the way student loan interest rates are calculated, allow borrowers with loans disbursed before the effective date to refinance their loans at the new rates and eliminate loan origination fees.  U.S. Sen. Nelson unveiled the Senate version earlier this month.

“Just having certainty that you know that (the debt rate) is going to stay there…that would be amazing to me and I’m sure a lot of students will have the confidence in what they’ll be paying,” said UT student Aislinn E. Sroczynsk.

“I think people could breath a sigh of relief knowing it’s going to be capped at something, ” added Troy Schneider, also a UT student. “That would really help a lot of people.”

Moneer Kheireddine, USF student body president, said a problem is that the payment schedule is organized so that students must pay for the entire semester just as it begins. “Instead of having to pay off loans at the beginning of the semester, they can space it out and as they accumulate their finances through the semester, they can pay that off as opposed to having to pay off loans.”

“I’ve lived most of my business career with the wolf at the door,” said Kostas Stoilas, entrepreneur-in-residence with Tampa Bay Wave, referring to the loans he continues to pay back, years after earning his MBA at UT.

“You try to keep that wolf at bay by keeping your expenses down,” he says, referring to the $40,000 in debt he incurred in school, and how that affects his monthly bottom line as heads a commercial real estate company.

Sroczynsk says she aspires to go to a top-tier law school like Georgetown. But she worries that if she can’t afford to payback the loans after graduation, it could diminish her zeal for even pursuing such a career.

“I don’t want to have to compromise my career or my passion…just because I can’t afford my loans, or because the minimal payment is too high.”

Castor jokingly asked the students who gave their thumbs up to her proposals if they were ready to lobby the state Legislature, but Kheireddine said he’s already scheduled to travel to Tallahassee three times next month and would gladly advocate on her behalf.

Castor said debt relief for students is rarely discussed in Congress these days, which is why she’s hoping to build a coalition in the House of Representatives to push for her bills.

“The bulk of the year it’s been a fight over healthcare,” she said. “I hope they’re going to talk to state legislators, business leaders and anyone else.”

About face: Chris Burke endorses Nick DiCeglie for HD 66

In an apparent change of heart, Seminole Vice Mayor Chris Burke has endorsed Nick DiCeglie for the Florida House District 66 seat, the campaign announced Wednesday.

In July, before DiCeglie jumped into the race, Burke had endorsed fellow Republican Berny Jacques, a former prosecutor.

“I have known Nick for many years as an excellent family man, successful small business owner and person genuinely concerned for the success of our community,” Burke said in a statement. “Nick will bring a level of awareness and experience to the House that will be an immediate benefit to Pinellas County.

“His dedication to the Republican Party in Pinellas has been apparent and he has been instrumental in advancing the interests of the Party here at home,” Burke added. “His selection as (a Presidential) Elector for the State of Florida makes his commitment even more evident.”

DiCeglie said he was “honored” to have Burke’s support.

“I’ve known Vice Mayor Burke for 17 years and I can tell you, he is the definition of a decorated public servant – having honorably served our country abroad at war and currently here at home as a Councilman and police officer,” he said.

“He has continually proven his leadership and dedication to serving others and I look forward to working with him to keep our neighborhoods safe and ensure our community remains a great place to live, work and raise a family.”

Burke, a Massachusetts native, moved to Pinellas County in 1979, graduated from Seminole High School in 1982 and later graduated magna cum laude from both St. Petersburg College and the University of South Florida with a history degree, according to a news release.

“He is a decorated U.S. Army and Gulf War Veteran and was nominated for the Bronze Star during the first Gulf War,” it said. “Burke has served on City Council for Seminole since 2012 where he currently serves as Vice Mayor. He has two daughters in college and attends St. Jerome Catholic Church.”

DiCeglie, a Long Island native, has been active with the Pinellas Republican Party since 2009, and its chair since 2014. He’s the co-owner of Solar Sanitation, a solid waste collection company serving Pinellas residents since 1980.

The current seat holder, Republican Larry Ahern, is term-limited.

Sarasota attorney David Shapiro files to run against Vern Buchanan in CD 16

Sarasota attorney David Shapiro has filed to run for Congress against Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan in Florida’s 16th Congressional District.

Shapiro, a Democrat, is a longtime Tampa Bay-area resident who has practiced law in Sarasota for 32 years He previously ran for the Florida House of Representatives in 2006, losing a tight election, 51-49, to Republican Doug Holder in Florida House District 70.

In a news release issued by his new campaign, Shapiro said he was motivated to run for Congress “for our need for representatives in Congress who will stand up for the people, not be afraid to work across the aisle, and do what is in the best interests of the hardworking families they were elected to serve.”

CD 16 covers all or parts of Sarasota, Manatee, and Hillsborough counties. Buchanan, of Longboat Key, is in his sixth term representing the district.

“For 32 years I have been fighting to protect my clients,” Shapiro stated in the release. “And as I’ve watched Washington become more dysfunctional and divisive, it’s become clear no one is looking out for our interests. We can’t afford partisan gridlock driven by career politicians like Vern Buchanan. We need new leaders who will listen to our needs, fight for us, and be willing to work across the aisle to do what is best for our community.”

Shapiro, 58, and his wife of 28 years Robin live on Siesta Key and have three grown children.

“No one who puts in a full day’s work should have to hold a second job just to earn enough money to feed their family and save for retirement,” Shapiro stated. Republicans and Vern Buchanan have spent months trying to rip health care away from millions of Americans and roll back vital protections for people with pre-existing conditions. We need to stop using health care as a potential weapon and make it affordable. Lives are at stake. Finally, we need to protect our children, our grandchildren, and our way of life by making sure climate change does not devastate our Florida coastlines. That takes decisive action. We can no longer ignore the urgency of the problem in order to protect special interests who put their own profits over our safety.”

Tampa streetcar study identifies two new downtown routes

As part of a transit feasibility study on expanding and modernizing Tampa’s streetcar system, city officials have narrowed the choices down to two specific routes going into downtown.

Both routes will be unveiled at a community workshop next week.

Earlier this year, Tampa held three workshops for public input on preferred routes; city officials unveiled the top seven possibilities in May.

Those initial seven routes have now been whittled down to two “alignments.” Both would cost $3.6 million to cover maintenance and operation costs.

Alignment A: Runs north/south on Franklin Street to the downtown core, with a short one-way loop along Palm Avenue, North Highland Street and Henderson Avenue in Tampa Heights. This option would cost $94 million to build (in 2017 dollars).

Alignment B: Runs north/south along Tampa Street and Florida Avenue through the downtown core to Palm Avenue in Tampa Heights. That alignment will cost $97 million to build (in 2017 dollars), .

Compared to the other five alignments, both choices rate highly due to lower capital and operating costs. However, Alignment A rates higher in several areas, as it requires a single CSX railroad crossing and has less impact on local roadways and adjacent land uses due to its path along Franklin Street instead of Tampa Street and Florida Avenue.

Alignment B rates higher in other areas as it would not require a crossing of the Esplanade on Franklin Street and has a larger service area due to its alignment along two parallel roadways.

Currently, the streetcar runs 2.7 miles, going through 11 station stops, starting in Ybor City and going south and west along Channelside Drive, moving north past the Tampa Convention Center to the intersection of Franklin and Whiting streets.

Ever since it began operating in 2002, poor ridership numbers have made the streetcar a disappointment from the get-go; many are calling it a financial boondoggle.

The Preferred Options Report is available here

Citizens will get to see the two proposed routes at a workshop Tuesday, October 24, at the Chester H. Ferguson Law Center, 1610 N. Tampa Street beginning 5:30 p.m.

Hillsborough Young Democrat considers challenging Stacy White

Andrew Davis, a 35-year-old Gibsonton resident who resigned from his position as public relations officer with the Hillsborough County Young Democrats on Tuesday night, says he is exploring a challenge to Stacy White for the District 4 seat onthe Hillsborough County Commission.

“We often talk about our desire to help our county and improve such issues as the area’s job market, transportation, affordable housing, and dealing with the challenges that have come with the area’s population surge. I am feeling more and more that my time to help in an even bigger way may be now,” Davis told his colleagues with the Hillsborough Young Democrats Tuesday night.

Davis works as a salesman and also writes a food blog. Like many other Democrats in Hillsborough, he says that the summer-long battle regarding removing a Confederate monument was an important moment for him personally and for the community, as was the fact that he was listed in the so-called dossier of Confederate monument critics published by Save Southern Heritage, the leading advocacy group to maintain the statue in its place.

“It is my belief that anyone regardless of political ideology or party affiliation should be able to voice their opinions to their elected officials without fear of retribution against either themselves or members of their family,” Davis says about that incident. “This is of course also the same David McCallister who was named in August to our county’s Diversity Advisory Board in what I consider an appalling move.”

If Davis opts to challenge White, it will be a formidable contest in what is generally considered the county’s most conservative district.

White has raised more than $152,000 for his re-election race next year. The only other announced Democrat in the race, Angel D’Angelo, has raised just $355.

Angry Hillsborough Democrats have the opportunity next year to defeat all four Republicans who at one point or another voted to maintain the Confederate statue in front of the county courthouse this summer, but the big political question has been if they will be able to field competitive candidates to do so. The BOCC has leaned Republican for years, and all four incumbents — White, Sandy Murman, Victor Crist and Ken Hagan, have years, in some cases, many years of experience serving on the board, which helps them with name recognition.

An energized anti-Donald Trump Democratic wave could change that dynamic, though whether Democrats will remain as focused and as energized as they are now for another year remains unknown at this time.

Davis says he will make a final decision about whether he will run for the District 4 seat sometime after the holidays.

Orkin says Tampa Bay-area among most rat-infested

Here’s one national survey where it’s preferable not to be in the top 10 — or 20.

Fortunately, in Orkin’s Top 50 “rattiest” cities, Tampa/St. Petersburg only ranks No. 38, with the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area as the top Florida community, coming in at No. 18.

Experts at Orkin, the national pest control company, say the metro regions are ranked by the number of rodent treatments the company performed from September 15, 2016 — September 15, 2017. The ranking includes both residential and commercial treatments.

Chicago tops the list as the city with the most rats during the winter months, followed by New York, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington D.C.

“Rats and mice begin looking for warmer, more insulated places to get through the winter, and these too often happen to be our homes or businesses,” said John Kane, entomologist and Technical Director of Orkin’s Midwest region. “Rodents like to chew on wood and electrical wires, increasing the fire danger behind your walls and potentially damage to your home.”

It’s not hard for rodents to get into a home or business, Kane added.

West Palm Beach is at No. 46, joining Orlando/Daytona Beach as the four Florida communities listed in the Orkin 50.

In July, a social media report of possible rodents in a West Palm Beach AMC movie theater showing the comedy “Girls Trip” went viral.

One of the people who shared the Facebook post told a reporter for WPTV-TV she saw half the people in the theater run out in fear. The woman said rodents had apparently run across the feet of people sitting in the front rows.

Orkin’s full list is here.

St. Pete discussion panel talks Trump tax plan Saturday

President Donald Trump’s tax plan and the effect it could have on the Bay area will the topic of a discussion panel set for Saturday morning in St. Petersburg.

The panel, titled “Trump’s Top-First Tax Plan: A Community Conversation” will be held at the Enoch Davis Recreation Center, 1111 18th Ave. S, and will run from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

According to the event listing put out by organizers, many groups — predominantly left-leaning ones — will have a hand in hosting the discussion, including For Our Future FL, the Service Employees International Union, AFL-CIO, MoveOn and Women’s March Pinellas, among others.

“Come get the facts from experts and community advocates and learn about how this plan could impact you and your family if it passes,” organizers said in the event listing.

In addition to the tax plan discussion, the panel will also talk about “what steps you can take to get more involved.” Organizers also said attendees will have an opportunity to submit questions to the panel.

The event listing does not say who will be on the discussion panel.

Those interested in attending can take a look at the Facebook page, or Eventbrite page for more details on the event.

Ed Hooper lands Wilton Simpson nod on the heels of Bill Galvano endorsement

Former lawmaker Ed Hooper is looking to rejoin the Legislature via Senate District 16 next year, and in the past couple days he’s landed endorsements from the two men who would serve as Senate President during his first term.

“Ed Hooper is a committed public servant dedicated to working for his neighbors. As a firefighter and as an elected official, Ed has demonstrated that we can trust him to get job done,” Majority Leader Wilton Simpson said in a press release. “Common sense and integrity are the hallmarks of a leader, so I give my full support to Ed and ask the people of District 16 to join me to support Ed Hooper for the Florida Senate.”

Simpson, a businessman and farmer, has been in the Florida Senate since 2012 and is set to take over as Senate President after the 2020 elections.

“I appreciate Senator Simpson’s faith in my candidacy and in my ability to get the job done,” Hooper said. “I look forward to working with him in the Senate and getting good things done for Florida.”

Simpson’s public show of support for Hooper comes just days after an endorsement from Bradenton Sen. Bill Galvano, who is a couple weeks away from becoming Senate president designate and would take over for current Senate President Joe Negron following next year’s election.

Hooper has called the Clearwater area home for 45 years, including 24 years working for the city’s fire department. He served in the House from 2006 through 2014, when term limits forced him to retire, and has spent his three years out of the Legislature working as a consultant.

Currently, Hooper is the only Republican candidate in the race running for the seat currently held by Clearwater Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, who is termed out of the senate and running for Florida governor in 2018.

SD 16 covers the northern half of Pinellas County and a strip of coastal Pasco County that includes New Port Richey. It also has a clear GOP lean, with about 20,000 more registered Republicans than registered Democrats. The district voted for Donald Trump last year over Hillary Clinton 56-39.

Since filing in January 2016, Hooper has racked up endorsements from fellow GOP pols – including one from Latvala – and raised about $144,000 for his campaign.

Justin Bean wins backing from firefighters union

Add a firefighters union to the list of those endorsing Justin Bean in the St. Petersburg City Council District 6 race.

On Friday, the 30-year-old businessman received the backing of the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters Local 747.

“We feel Justin Bean best understands the current and future needs of the Firefighters and Paramedics of St. Petersburg to enable us to best serve the citizens of this great city,” said Local President Rick Pauley.

Bean faces Gina Driscoll in the District 6 contest, which will take place in about three weeks. The Suncoast Police Benevolent Association has already given him their endorsement.

“I am extremely proud to receive the support and endorsement of our community’s firefighters and paramedics,” Bean said in a statement. “I appreciate the faith they have placed in me, but, most importantly, I appreciate the job they do every day to keep us safe.”

Bean has also received the backing of the Tampa Bay Times, the Pinellas Realtor Organization and Associated Builders and Contractors.

Driscoll has been endorsed by the Florida National Organization for Women PAC, as well as current council members Karl Nurse, Darden Rice, Charlie Gerdes and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons