Updated: Florida Dem chair urges Scott to ‘immediately’ set election to replace Clemens

Former Democratic state Sen. Jeff Clemens’ abrupt resignation leaves Senate District 31 without representation — possibly through the entire 2018 legislative session.

Hinting that Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott might try to slow-walk a special election in a heavily Democratic Senate district in Palm Beach County, Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel today urged the governor to “immediately” set a date for voters to choose a replacement for hastily departed Sen. Jeff Clemens.

Clemens, who had been in line to become Senate Democratic leader next year, abruptly resigned last week after admitting to an affair with a lobbyist.

Scott’s office responded late today that an announcement is coming soon.

“Gov. Scott plans to call for a special election in accordance with Florida law. Our office will work with the Secretary of State and local officials, and we will have an announcement soon,” Scott spokesman John Tupps said.

In addition to Clemens’ Palm Beach County Senate seat, Bittel is urging Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner to quickly schedule a special election for the Miami state House seat that became vacant this week when Democrat Daisy Baez resigned.

Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher — a former Democratic state House member — has suggested a Jan. 30 primary and April 10 general election to replace Clemens in Senate District 31. Under that scenario, constituents in the heavily Democratic district would likely go through the entire 2018 legislative session without representation in the Senate.

The legislative session runs Jan. 9 to March 9.

Bucher said her suggestion accommodates state laws — such as a required 45-day period to mail ballots to military personnel and overseas voters — and gives her office breathing room to handle Palm Beach County’s March 13 municipal elections.

Bittel’s letter argues that “the administrative convenience of a local supervisor of elections cannot serve as the basis for denying the residents of Senate District 31 and House District 114 of their elected voice in the state legislature. Delay for partisan advantage is not an option. Postponement until after a legislative session is not an option.”

Bittel’s letter does not suggest a specific date for elections.

But, the Democratic chairman says: “Failure to act immediately denies these Florida citizens the vital representation that is fundamental to their rights as citizens. Leaving these seats open is an obvious suppression of voter rights that cannot stand.”

Detzner spokeswoman Sarah Revell said the secretary of state’s office “is working closely with the Governor’s office on the special election for Senate District 31 and more details will be forthcoming.”


Mystery mailers from Illinois target Joe Negron as special session begins

Mailer from an Illinois address hits state Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, over an education bill.

As Florida lawmakers begin a special session in Tallahassee today to address a budget agreement between Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders, voters in state Senate President Joe Negron‘s Treasure Coast-Palm Beach district are getting mailers from a newly formed Illinois-based PAC criticizing Negron’s role in an education bill that’s closely identified with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land-O’Lakes.

HB 7069 promotes charter schools and has drawn the wrath of teacher unions and others who say it will weaken traditional public schools. After passage by the House and Senate, it’s up to Scott to sign or veto the bill, which was a top priority of Corcoran.

Corcoran softened his hard-line opposition to funding business and tourism incentives and agreed to increase public school funding in the budget deal with Scott. Many Tallahassee watchers believe Corcoran moved toward Scott’s position on the budget in exchange for a pledge from the governor to sign HB 7069. Scott, however, said he’s still reviewing Corcoran’s bill.

Negron, a Republican from Stuart, also supports HB 7069.

The mailer from a group called SunshinePac from Evanston, Illinois, criticizes HB 7069 and focuses on Negron rather than Corcoran.

SunshinePac was formed May 25 as a federal committee, according to Federal Election Committee records. It is headed by John Hennelly, a former Florida director for the Service Employees International Union who’s now a consultant with the liberal Chicago-based firm Democracy Partners.

Donors to SunshinePac won’t be revealed until the organization files its first FEC report in July.

“What has politician Joe Negron been up to in Tallahassee this Session? Making backroom deals and our schools are paying the price,” says one side of the mailer, which shows a picture of Negron and Corcoran but doesn’t identify the House speaker.

“Behind closed doors, Joe Negron and his friends in Tallahassee passed HB 7069 which takes away much needed funding to our public schools,” the other side of the mailer says. It urges recipients to “Call Governor Rick Scott…and tell him to VETO Negron’s Deal (HB 7069) and stand up for our students!”

Negron is Senate president through 2018. He’s been mentioned as a potential candidate for attorney general (a position he briefly sought in 2006), but said Tuesday: “I’m completely focused on being Senate president right now.”


Gov. Rick Scott: ‘I have the option of vetoing the entire budget’

The Florida Legislature’s $83 billion budget has Gov. Rick Scott feeling blue and mentioning the possibility of a veto.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, whose priorities were largely ignored by the Florida Legislature in passing an $83 billion budget Monday night, accused lawmakers today of acting “largely behind closed doors” and held out the possibility he’ll veto the entire thing.

Florida governors regularly exercise line-item veto authority, but a governor hasn’t vetoed an entire budget since Lawton Chiles did in 1992.

The late Lawton Chiles was the last Florida governor to veto an entire budget back in 1992.

Chiles was a Democrat and Democrats controlled the House and Senate in 1992. Scott is a Republican and the GOP controls both chambers now.

Lawmakers stung Scott by not approving business and tourism incentive money he wanted and not granting his request for $200 million for repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.

“Once again, the Florida Legislature has turned their back on Florida’s ability to fund economic incentive deals that help our state outcompete our top competitors for important jobs,” Scott said in a statement released this afternoon. “This is very concerning to me and is an action that each member will have to defend as their local communities lose out on new manufacturing facilities, headquarter relocations and thousands of high wage jobs for families.”

The failure to fund tourism marketing at the level Scott wanted could lead to a “drastic reduction in visitor spending” in the Sunshine State, said Scott. The governor also said he was “shocked” by the legislature’s decision not to fund dike repairs.

Scott said the budget was “done without important input from the public and many members of the legislature who were elected by Floridians to serve them. That’s unfortunate. I ran for Governor to fight career politicians and it’s backroom deals like this that make families think politics is nothing more than a game.”

He added: “I am beginning to review the budget and I have the option of vetoing the entire budget or vetoing the items that circumvented the transparent process and do not have an acceptable return on investment for hardworking taxpayers.”

Below is the text of Scott’s full statement:

“Just like I have done throughout my entire time as Governor, I fought for priorities this session that I believe will help the families and job creators in our state prosper. I committed to Florida families that I would fight for jobs everyday and that is why I have continued to fight for policies that will grow our economy. I am pleased the Legislature cut taxes by more than $700 million, but cutting taxes alone is not enough to diversify our economy for our future generations. Today, I celebrated the beginning of GKN Aerospace’s plans to build a new manufacturing facility in Panama City which will be the company’s first location in our state. If it was not for the work of Enterprise Florida, this company would not be in our state. GKN Aerospace was the last company to receive Quick Action Closing Funds and Florida has not had another win like this since these funds were eliminated by the Florida Legislature last year. Once again, the Florida Legislature has turned their back on Florida’s ability to fund economic incentive deals that help our state outcompete our top competitors for important jobs. This is very concerning to me and is an action that each member will have to defend as their local communities lose out on new manufacturing facilities, headquarter relocations and thousands of high wage jobs for families.

“Furthermore, the legislature’s decision to cut tourism marketing could lead to a drastic reduction in visitor spending to our local businesses and revenue to our state. I am also shocked that despite their commitment to protecting the environment, the Florida Legislature failed to jump start the process of fixing the Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee. For years, I urged President Obama to fix the dike, and now when President Trump has committed funding for this project, the Legislature irresponsibly ignored it.

“Last night, the Florida Legislature passed a budget that was done largely behind closed doors. It was done without important input from the public and many members of the legislature who were elected by Floridians to serve them. That’s unfortunate. I ran for Governor to fight career politicians and it’s backroom deals like this that make families think politics is nothing more than a game. I am beginning to review the budget and I have the option of vetoing the entire budget or vetoing the items that circumvented the transparent process and do not have an acceptable return on investment for hardworking taxpayers. Just like I do every year, I will make my decisions based on what’s best for our families because my job is to wake up every day and fight for Floridians.”

Today: Amid Tallahassee dysfunction, Gov. Rick Scott to visit Riviera Beach on 3-day tour

Stymied by fellow Republicans in the Florida Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott plans to take his case to 10 cities in three days. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

TALLAHASSEE — With the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature set to miss a Friday deadline for passing a budget and resisting Republican Gov. Rick Scott‘s top priorities, Scott isn’t hanging around the Capitol to try to twist arms during the final days of the legislative session.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, tells reporters Tuesday that a budget won’t be complete by Friday’s deadline.

Instead, Scott plans to visit Riviera Beach and three other cities today as he begins a three-day “Fighting For Florida’s Future” tour that aims “to encourage Floridians to contact members of the Florida Legislature and urge them to invest in key priorities for Florida’s future.”

Scott, expected to run for the seat of Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson next year, wants lawmakers to approve $100 million for the Visit Florida tourist marketing program rather than the $25 million House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, wants. Scott wants $85 million for the Enterprise Florida business-incentive program that lawmakers are poised to kill. And the governor wants lawmakers to add $200 million to the budget for repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.

Scott’s tour — which includes a 2:30 p.m. stop today at RGF Environmental Group in Riviera Beach — was timed to coincide with the final three days of the legislative session.

But lawmakers conceded Tuesday they won’t complete work on the state budget by Friday’s deadline. State law requires a budget document to be finished 72 hours before a final vote. By late Tuesday, it was clear lawmakers hadn’t reached agreement on some issues, including how to distribute $651 million in Medicaid cuts to hospitals.

Scott today plans to stop in Lake Mary and Tampa before visiting Riviera Beach. After his Palm Beach County appearance, he’s scheduled  to go on to an event in Sunrise.

On Thursday and Friday, the governor plans to hit Pensacola, Panama City, Naples, Sarasota, Jacksonville and the Space Coast.


NEW: President Trump tells Scott feds will help pay to fix Herbert Hoover Dike

Just two days after Gov. Rick Scott asked state lawmakers to dedicate $200 million to repair the aging Herbert Hoover Dike over the next five years, Scott says President Donald Trump has pledged federal support for the work.

While visiting the White House today for the president’s signing of a veterans health care bill, Scott spoke to Trump about the dike and the president committed to “provide the resources” to make needed repairs, Scott said in a news release.

Gov. Rick Scott (center) delivers brief remarks after President Donald Trump signed the Veterans Choice Program And Improvement Act with representatives of veterans’ organizations, politicians and members of his administration, including Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Wednesday in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

» Scott offers surprise solution to Lake Okeechobee pollution fight

The federally operated dike was built in the 1960s as an expanded form of levees and dams that had been put in place over the previous decades to protect nearby residents from devastating flooding that ensued each time a hurricane hit the lake. It has undergone many rounds of repairs ranging from minor to more intensive.

Speaking to members of the Florida Legislature in a news conference on Monday, Scott said he was “tired of waiting” for a solution to issues stemming from Lake Okeechobee’s nutrient-rich waters, including algae blooms that have plagued the St. Lucie River in Martin County and the Caloosahatchee River to the lake’s west. Scott also noted Monday that he had spoken to members of Trump’s administration about the dike and needed repairs.

Crews work to repair the aging Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee in 2012. (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: President Donald Trump in Palm Beach

Lawmakers, including state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, have expressed reservations about Scott’s proposal, saying the state should not have to foot the bill for something the federal government should cover.

“I want to make sure we do not spend hundreds of millions of dollars of (state) general revenue funds on what is unquestionably a federal responsibility,” Negron said in a statement issued Monday.

Here are Scott’s comments on his conversation with Trump, via today’s news release:

“Today, I spoke with President Trump on the importance of fixing the federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike and he committed that his administration would help provide the resources to do that. President Trump is clearly focused on protecting Florida’s environment and investing in our infrastructure, and I want to thank him for partnering with us to solve the water issues around Lake Okeechobee by fixing the dike.

“While I called on President Obama multiple times throughout his administration to step up and fulfill the federal government’s funding commitment to fixing the dike, it never happened. Today, President Trump is fighting for Florida’s families and this news is a big win for our state. My goal is for the dike to be completely repaired by 2022, and I look forward to continuing to work with the Trump Administration to complete this important project. With this commitment from the president, I hope that the Florida Legislature will immediately allocate $200 million in the budget they send me to help fix the dike.”





Scott backs Trump, tourism and business groups in State of State

Gov. Rick Scott

Florida Gov. Rick Scott expressed his happiness that Donald Trump was elected president and backed a pair of controversial tourism and business agencies in his State of the State address Tuesday.

Speaking to a joint meeting of the state House of Representatives and Senate at the opening of this year’s legislative session, Scott made no mention of the opioid and heroin epidemic that has ravaged families in Palm Beach County and throughout the state.

Palm Beach County officials said they were pleased by aspects of the governor’s speech but were disappointed he did not mention the opioid epidemic.

The governor’s support for Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida puts him on a collision course with some state legislators, who have criticized those agencies as havens of waste and corporate welfare.

Check with http://www.mypalmbeachpost.com later today for more on this story.

All motorcycle riders in Florida would have to wear helmets if this bill passes

If you enjoy riding your motorcycle with the breeze blowing through your hair, you might have to put a lid on those locks under a bill proposed in Florida’s House that would require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

The measure, HB 6009, would strip from state law an exemption added in 2000 that allows motorcycle drivers and riders to go helmet-less as long as they are over the age of 21 and have “at least $10,000 in medical benefits for injuries incurred as a result of a crash while operating or riding on a motorcycle.”

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

State Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, R-The Villages, filed the bill in December for the upcoming legislative session, which kicks off March 7 in Tallahassee. If the bill passes, it would make riding a motorcycle without a helmet a noncriminal infraction.

While proponents of the state’s exemption say it should be up to each rider to decide if they want to wear a helmet, Florida saw an increase in motorcycle crashes in 2015 — the most recent data available — according to a report from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

There were more than 10,200 motorcycle crashes in the state in 2015, up 3.5 percent from 2014, the state report said. Deaths of motorcycle drivers in 2015 saw an even larger jump with 546 killed, up nearly 28 percent from the year before. And motorcycle passenger deaths spiked even higher, up almost 73 percent to 38 deaths in 2015. Nearly half of all people killed in motorcycle crashes in Florida in 2015 were not wearing helmets, according to state data.

Palm Beach County bucked the state trend, with a slight decrease in the number of motorcycle crashes from 2014 to 2015, dropping from 525 to 520.

But the number of people who died in motorcycle crashes in Palm Beach County doubled from 17 in 2014 to 34 in 2015.

Read the proposed bill here.




Florida’s tide of red ink recedes again — hitting nine-year low

Florida's debt level in 2016 at a nine-year low.
Florida’s debt level in 2016 at a nine-year low.

Florida’s debt dropped $1.6 billion last year to its lowest overall level since 2007, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet were told Tuesday.

The state’s Bond Finance Division Director Ben Watkins pointed out the decline returned Florida to its more recent course of reducing the level of red ink, after a one-year increase spawned by major borrowing for road work on Interstate 4.

The $24.1 billion owed by Florida is its lowest level since 2007. Lawmakers were forced to include $2.1 billion in taxpayer money in the state’s $82 billion budget just to service the debt.

The decline has been helped by favorable interest rates, which have prodded the state to refinance some of what it owes over the past six years, saving about $2.5 billion, Watkins told the Cabinet.

About half of the state’s debt stems from bond financing to for school and university construction, with another 40 percent attributed to transportation work.

Stemming the tide of red ink comes even as Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has outlined plans for the state to bond $1.2 billion over 20 years to buy 60,000 acres to ease the impact of water discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

The land, mostly in western Palm Beach County, would be turned into a reservoir that would help cleanse farm-polluted water from the lake, which he said has “poisoned” the waterways of surrounding communities.

Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, haven’t said much about Negron’s initiative, which totals $2.4 billion, including an anticipated federal match.

Scott, though, has been intent on reducing Florida’s debt. Since he took office in 2011, debt has dropped $3.6 billion, from $27.7 billion.

Scott also effectively reversed a long period of borrowing that spiked when Gov. Jeb Bush took office in 1999 and state borrowing climbed about $10 billion over the next decade.

Scott and new House speaker poised for battle over state’s welcome mat

Gov. Rick Scott after talking up tourism at Associated Industries of Florida.
Gov. Rick Scott after talking up tourism at Associated Industries of Florida.

With House Speaker Richard Corcoran already talking about cutting money for tourism marketing, Gov. Rick Scott began Monday working on his sales pitch for more.

Scott has been a big fan of Visit Florida, the public-private promotions agency that is drawing almost $80 million in taxpayer money, up 169 percent since 2009.

Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, killed Scott’s pitch for $250 million in business incentives last year and still opposes the state offering such handouts to companies. Now, he’s set his sights on Visit Florida as another agency poised for trimming.

Scott on Monday spoke to Associated Industries of Florida, touting the state’s tourism numbers. Afterwards, Scott told reporters he was still optimistic that Visit Florida money would be maintained.

“I’m comfortable the Legislature is going to continue to be supportive of Visit Florida,” Scott said. “Let’s look at the numbers. We have increased funding for Visit Florida since I’ve been elected. And look what’s happened: tourism has skyrocketed.”

Scott said Florida was drawing 82 million tourists annually before he took office in 2011. This year, he’s hoping that figure tops 110 million visitors.

“You’ve got to market yourself,” Scott said.


Former Sachs aide accused of running up credit card charges, sues claiming sexual harassment

Former state Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach
Former state Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach

An ex-aide to former state Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, sued the Florida Senate this week, claiming he was subject to sexual harassment by her on the job.

Mathew Damsky, who resigned after acknowledging that he ran up more than $50,000 in charges on office credit cards, is seeking more than $15,000 in damages, according to the lawsuit filed in Leon County Circuit Court.

Sachs has denied Damsky’s accusations. She earlier told the Palm Beach Post they were “ludicrous and scurrilous, groundless accusations.”

Sachs served four years in the House before elected to the Senate in 2010. She didn’t seek re-election this year.

Damsky filed a complaint in June with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that was later dismissed when the panel found no reasonable cause to pursue the action.

In his lawsuit, Damsky said that Sachs would undress in front of him in the office. He also was ordered to do grocery shopping, dog-walking and also traveled cross-country to assist Sachs’ family under fear that he would lose his job if he complained.

The state Senate is accused because it “knew or should have known of these actions and inactions,” the lawsuit states. Katie Betta, a state Senate spokeswoman, said Friday she had no comment on the lawsuit.