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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Orlando prosecutor Aramis Ayala's allies rally at the Capitol

Supporters of State Attorney Aramis Ayala gather at the state Capitol on Thursday.

MICHAEL AUSLEN | Times/Herald

Supporters of State Attorney Aramis Ayala gather at the state Capitol on Thursday.

Outside the Florida Capitol, more than 100 people bussed in from around the state gathered Thursday to show support for State Attorney Aramis Ayala.

Ayala, elected the top prosecutor in Orange and Osceola counties last November,  is playing the starring role in the latest controversy over Florida's death penalty. On March 16, she said she would not seek the death penalty while in office.

That prompted a firestorm of criticism: Gov. Rick Scott reassigned a high-profile case to another state attorney; House Speaker Richard Corcoran called for Ayala to be suspended from office; House and Senate budget proposals call for more than $1 million to be cut from her budget.

But her supporters at Thursday's rally say she was acting within her rights.

"She wasn't afraid to speak the truth about how broken the death penalty is," said Christine Henderson, national organizer for Equal Justice USA. "And what does she get in return, y'all? Florida's governor overstepping his authority, trying to put her in her place, trying to take away the power that the people gave to her to fulfill." …

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The Rick Scott/Enterprise Florida road tour continues

Florida Gov. Rick Scott exchanges words with Michael Johnson, left, of Tampa firm Parsons during a roundtable discussion with Tampa community leaders and business owners about the state of Enterprise Florida and its relation to Florida's military and defense communities on Thursday, March 30, 2017, in Tampa.

[ANDRES LEIVA | Times]

Florida Gov. Rick Scott exchanges words with Michael Johnson, left, of Tampa firm Parsons during a roundtable discussion with Tampa community leaders and business owners about the state of Enterprise Florida and its relation to Florida's military and defense communities on Thursday, March 30, 2017, in Tampa.

Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday continued his campaign to save the state's business incentive program, Enterprise Florida, this time touting its impact on Tampa Bay's defense community.

Meeting with local defense contractors and veteran small business owners at Tampa's VFW, Scott chastised House Republicans for voting to kill off Enterprise Florida and called out by name local lawmakers who joined House Speaker Richard Corcoran's crusade against taxpayer-funded economic incentives.

Scott said those actions threaten MacDill Air Force Base and the jobs that support it and the families of the men and women who work on the base. Enterprise Florida helps pay for the Florida Defense Alliance, an organization that advocates for the state's military bases in the face of potential federal cuts.

"It's important to our country to help our military meet their mission," Scott said, "But it's also important for creating jobs in the state."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, joined the Republican governor in encouraging local defense contractors, veterans and businesses that hire and support veterans and military spouses to contact lawmakers in support of Enterprise Florida. …

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Rick Scott says failed GOP bill was 'way better than Obamacare'

Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday the failed GOP health care bill was “way better than Obamacare” and that he remains optimistic President Trump and Congress can get it done.

“I’m going to do everything I can,” Scott told Tampa Bay Times reporter Steve Contorno after an event in Tampa . “I talked to Secretary Price at HHS. I’ve been working with HHS to get more flexibility in our Medicaid program so we can provide care that our taxpayers can afford. I'm going to keep working with the president and vice president and I’m optimistic something will happen.”

“The House bill was way better than Obamacare,” said Scott, whose support had been less than full-throated. “I was encouraged by it but I think there’s a lot of things we can improve. We’ve got to create more competition. We’ve got to give people the opportunity to buy the insurance they want. Sell insurance across state lines, reward people for taking care of themselves, if you do all those things you drive down the cost.”

Though Republicans in Washington say they will try health care again, prospects are cloudy and Trump’s war with the Freedom Caucus adds another layer.

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Proposed 'sanctuary cities' law would set state apart, PolitiFact Florida finds

Attorney General Jeff Sessions warns 'sanctuary cities' that they could lose grants from the Department of Justice during a news conference in Washington on Monday.

STEPHEN CROWLEY | New York Times

Attorney General Jeff Sessions warns 'sanctuary cities' that they could lose grants from the Department of Justice during a news conference in Washington on Monday.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, has raised strong objections to the proposed crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities pushed by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha.

After six of his attempts to weaken the bill failed in committee last week, Smith argued that the enforcement penalties in HB 697 are uniquely harsh.

"It will be the only law of its kind in the nation," Smith said.

PolitiFact Florida's ruling: Mostly True. 

"I can say that I haven’t seen anything like this bill," said Monica Varsanyi, an associate professor at political science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, whose research explores the explosion of state- and local-level "immigration" policy-making.

Three other immigration law experts from around the country gave a similar assessment to reporter Allison Graves.

The only other state considering a bill anywhere close to Florida’s bill is Texas, which is considering a piece of legislation that would prohibit sanctuary city policies and apply some of the same penalties included in HB 697, including withholding grant money and civil fines. …

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Still without office space, Marco Rubio's Tampa staff take meetings in libraries, coffee shops

Demonstrators gather in front of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's office on West Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa to protest the recent actions of Donald Trump on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017.

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Demonstrators gather in front of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's office on West Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa to protest the recent actions of Donald Trump on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017.

It's been two months since a landlord notified Sen. Marco Rubio that the lease on his Tampa office would not be renewed because of weekly demonstrations staged there.

The Miami Republican is still looking for a Tampa Bay home base.

The search has been hindered, in part, by a tight rental market and Rubio's newfound reputation as a lightning rod for activists galvanized in opposition to the agenda of President Donald Trump.

Meantime, Rubio's two-person local staff is improvising, meeting with constituents at coffee shops and libraries.

David Higgins, a member of progressive activist group Indivisible Fl-13, met with a Rubio staff assistant Tuesday at the main St. Petersburg Library branch to deliver a letter urging Rubio to investigate Trump's ties to Russia. During the meeting, Higgins asked about the office search.

The staffer, Shauna Johnson, said the biggest obstacle arises when would-be landlords find out why Rubio's staff had to leave its former office, according to Higgins.

"I said, 'Just to clarify, what's the issue?'" Higgins said. "She said, 'Protests.' "

Keep reading.

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Winners, losers under new House rules for hometown projects

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami: 'You have to work your stuff.'

Steve Bousquet - Times

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami: 'You have to work your stuff.'

When it comes to hometown porkbarrel spending in Florida's next budget, this should be a good year for Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties for two reasons: Key members of House Speaker Richard Corcoran's inner circle are from Miami, and the Senate's lead budget-writer is Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

But projects must clear new hurdles this session, and some clear winners and losers are emerging. Corcoran and the House instituted new rules for projects that require that each one must be filed as a standalone bill, must be heard by a House committee and must be paid for with one-time, nonrecurring money.

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, is the runaway winner with 23 projects eligible to be in the House budget. Diaz is chairman of the Miami-Dade delegation and chairman of the House Commerce Committee that handles most business-related legislation. 

"I take a lot of the county's priorities on my shoulders," Diaz said. "I believe in every House project that I file, and I pester people until they hear my bills. You have to work your stuff." …

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Trump still fuming at Freedom Caucus: 'We must fight them'

ATTN: U.S. Reps. Ron DeSantis, Ted Yoho and Bill Posey

President Trump is still furious at the Freedom Caucus' role in killing the Obamacare replacement bill last week. In a tweet this morning, Trump writes: "The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018."

Yoho isn't too worried. "I don't work for Donald Trump. I work with him. I work for the people who sent me up here," the Gainesville Republican told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this week. "He ran on repealing and replacing Obamacare. Those people that put him and me in office expect us to repeal and replace Obamacare."

The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!

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Rubio condemns 'tyrant' Putin

A mock-up of the proposed “Boris Nemtsov Plaza" outside the Russian embassy in Washington

Sen. Marco Rubio's office

A mock-up of the proposed “Boris Nemtsov Plaza" outside the Russian embassy in Washington

WASHINGTON - Sen. Marco Rubio this morning participated in a panel on human rights abuses under Vladimir Putin and pitched a bill to designate the street in front of the Russian embassy as “Boris Nemtsov Plaza” in honor of the opposition leader gunned down near the Kremlin two years ago.

“Some may ask, ‘What impact is this going to have?' " Rubio said at the Atlantic Council. “As Vladimir (Kara-Murza) eloquently put it in the Washington Post recently, it will remind Putin’s regime that they are on the wrong side of history. And I believe it will stand as symbol to the Russian people that these dissident voices live on.”

Kara-Murza is an activist who has survived two poisoning attempts and he and Rubio embraced on stage. In brief remarks, Rubio said Russia has a proud history and should be optimistic about the future. “It does not need a tyrant in order to achieve these things.”

Rubio's staff used a photo editing program to create a mock-up of the street sign.

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House education chairman: I’ve been clear where I stand on school recess

Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, the House education policy chairman.

Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, the House education policy chairman.

The only lawmaker on record still opposing state-required daily recess in Florida’s elementary schools wields a lot of power over education policy this session.

But Miami Republican and House education chairman Michael Bileca won’t say whether he intervened to water down this year’s recess bill to eliminate the daily requirement and cut off guaranteed recess from more than 430,000 fourth- and fifth-graders in Florida.

“I think I’ve made the thoughts that I’ve had on recess clear, so how they chose to change it is how they chose to change it to move things through,” Bileca told the Herald/Times.

MORE: “Parents want daily school recess. The Florida House won’t give them that.”

Although nearly half of House members co-sponsored this year’s bill (HB 67) that sought daily recess — indicating it had the support to pass the full House as-is — Orlando Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia said the scaled-back version that a House subcommittee approved Tuesday was necessary to “make sure we have a bill that we know will travel successfully through the House.” …

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Florida lawmakers consider new auto insurance system. Here's who wins, loses with changes.

Most Florida drivers would see small savings with their auto insurance, but those who carry just the minimum amount of coverage, either by choice or because they can't afford more, would pay much higher rates under two proposals gaining traction in the Legislature.

Under a House plan, the vast majority of drivers who already pay for bodily injury coverage would see their bills drop by an average of $81 a year, or $6.67 a month.

That same plan, however, would drive up costs by an average of $250 a year for those who carry only the bare minimum of insurance required by law. Under a Senate plan, these drivers would pay nearly $323 more a year.

The costs would rise higher in Tampa Bay. In Hillsborough County, getting car insurance would cost $308 more on average for those who have the bare minimum now, according to a statewide report commissioned by the state's Office of Insurance Regulation. In Pinellas, that would become a $385 annual increase.

Rates vary depending on a county's traffic density, percentage of uninsured drivers and accident rates. …

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What's a 'tax increase'? House, Senate at odds over increases to education spending

Senators want to spend almost $540 million more than the House next year to increase funding for K-12 public education by using extra property tax dollars gleaned from rising property values. The House calls that a ‘tax increase.’

Senators want to spend almost $540 million more than the House next year to increase funding for K-12 public education by using extra property tax dollars gleaned from rising property values. The House calls that a ‘tax increase.’

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Ros-Lehtinen says she would have broken GOP ranks in Internet privacy vote

Two Miami Republicans, Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, voted this week to lift restrictions on internet providers from tracking and sharing personal data without consent, joining a Republican majority that sent the legislation to President Donald Trump's desk.

Diaz-Balart's office said he supported the bill because it "eliminates confusing regulations" that allow both the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission to regulate the internet. The FCC rules that would be repealed by the law apply only to major providers like Verizon but not to giant websites like Google.

"This evens the playing field for the entire internet," Diaz-Balart spokeswoman Katrina Valdés said in a statement. "At the end of the day, the bill doesn't strip consumer privacy, but rather, strengthens the power of the one agency that had already been enforcing it."

Curbelo made a similar argument. …

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Florida water agency says it's OK to cut river flow 5%

Despite strong public opposition, the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District voted unanimously Tuesday to allow so much pumping from the aquifer that it could lower the flow of the Rainbow River by 5 percent.

The vote, taken after four hours of testimony, sets a "minimum flow" for the river, which is popular with tubers, rafters, canoeists and kayakers.  (See video.)

The Ocala Star Banner quoted the head of the Rainbow River Conservation Inc., Burt Eno, as saying after the vote, "Their mission is to find water (to allow continued development. I think the staff knows very well they're practicing junk science." He predicted a lawsuit.

This is not the first time the agency known as "Swiftmud" has enountered opposition to its setting of lower flow amounts for the region's rivers, an effort that other water districts are also undertaking around the state.

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Iowa senator wants answers on Florida ALF sex tape

The case of a Florida assisted living facility employee who was charged with shooting video of two residents having sex and posting it on Snapchat has caught the attention of Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.

Grassley fired off a letter Wednesday to the Bristol Court Assisted Living Facility 3479 54th Ave N in St. Petersburg, the ALF that formerly employed Alexis Gloria Rebecca Williams, 20. Williams, who was arrested last week,, told detectives that she recorded the video of the two ALF residents engaging in consensual sex and posted it on the social media site "for her own amusement," a Pinellas County sheriff's spokesman said. 

“This reported behavior, perpetrated against one of the most vulnerable populations in our country, is absolutely abhorrent,” Grassley wrote to the administrator of the Bristol Court ALF.

Grassley took up the cause of what he called "humiliating social media posts involving nursing home or assisted living residents" last year, and has called on social media companies such as Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook to "prevent their platforms from being used in the commission of crimes and abuse, especially against vulnerable populations."

 

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House targets judiciary with new redistricting rules

Versions of draft legislative maps from 2012

Miami Herald

Versions of draft legislative maps from 2012

In an aggressive attempt to weaken the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution, a House committee on Wednesday passed legislation to create new hurdles to legal challenges to the maps lawmakers draw. 

The House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee voted along party lines to change the implementation of the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the constitution, which subjected the Republican-led Legislature to years of litigation and an embarrassing admission that they intentionally drew districts that favored incumbents and parties in violation of the law. 

Under the amendment added to HB 953 by Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, any challenges to a redistricting map would have to occur within 60 days after the maps are passed, effectively short-circuiting the time challengers can obtain records and documents to prepare a case. 

The bill also suspends any litigation that occurs 71 days before candidates qualify for election and freezes the districts in place until after the election. And, in an attempt to turn the tables on the judiciary if it must resolve a dispute over the maps, the bill subjects judges to cross-examination. Story here. 

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