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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

A chilling case of child marriage in Florida

From the NYT's Nicholas Kristof:

When she was a scrawny 11-year-old, Sherry Johnson found out one day that she was about to be married to a 20-year-old member of her church who had raped her.

“It was forced on me,” she recalls. She had become pregnant, she says, and child welfare authorities were investigating — so her family and church officials decided the simplest way to avoid a messy criminal case was to organize a wedding.

“My mom asked me if I wanted to get married, and I said, ‘I don’t know, what is marriage, how do I act like a wife?’” Johnson remembers today, many years later. “She said, ‘Well, I guess you’re just going to get married.’”

So she was. A government clerk in Tampa, Fla., refused to marry an 11-year-old, even though this was legal in the state, so the wedding party went to nearby Pinellas County, where the clerk issued a marriage license. The license (which I’ve examined) lists her birth date, so officials were aware of her age. …

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After hard charging on health care in 2016, Marco Rubio is slow, careful

Times file

As a presidential candidate, Marco Rubio pitched an Obamacare replacement and tore into Donald Trump for not having one. "What is your plan? What is your plan on health care? You don't have a plan," the Florida senator aggressively challenged in a February 2016 debate.

But now as Trump pushes Congress to execute the GOP's defining objective, Rubio's voice is diminished.

He's been slow and careful to react to the House-passed overhaul, and he's not part of the Senate's working group that includes fellow 2016 presidential contender Ted Cruz.

In a video Rubio published Tuesday on Facebook, he underscored the lack of enthusiasm for the House product, which a Congressional Budget Office report said would result in 23 million more uninsured Americans over a decade and increase costs for the poor and elderly. "I know they worked hard on it — that is not the Senate bill," Rubio said. "The Senate is going to do its own bill."

He sought to play down the issue, noting that most Americans get coverage through their employers. …

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Winner and loser of the week in Florida politics

Winner of the week 1: 'Liquor wall’ proponents. Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of a bill to allow Walmart, Target and other big box stores to sell liquor was a victory for an array of groups, from smaller merchants and Publix (which has stand-alone booze shops near its stores) to those who feel the hard stuff should be harder to access. Bonus: Scott got to stick it to Speaker Corcoran, who supported breaking down the wall and whose brother is a lobbyist for Walmart. Winner II: Florida women. Say goodbye to sales tax on tampons and sanitary napkins, among the package of tax cuts Gov. Scott signed last week. …

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Kellyanne Conway to headline Miami GOP dinner

Kellyanne Conway

Miami-Dade GOP

Kellyanne Conway

Senior Donald Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway is scheduled to headline the Miami-Dade Republican Party's June 27 Lincoln Day Dinner at the DoubleTree by Hilton Miami Airport. Miami-Dade is among Trump's worst-performing counties, and, thanks largely to Trump, where Democrats see a prime opportunity to pick off two GOP-held U.S. House seats that Trump lost home to one of the the most vulnerable Republican U.S last year, one held by Carlos Curbelo and another by retiring Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

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Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen dies

Sergio Bendixen.

C.M. Guerrero | El Nuevo Herald file

Sergio Bendixen.

Sergio Bendixen, the first Hispanic to run a U.S. presidential campaign who later pioneered public-opinion polling among Latinos and other immigrant populations, died late Friday in Miami. He was 68.

No cause of death was immediately available. Bendixen had been suffering from a bad cold in recent days, according to his friend and business partner, Fernand Amandi. The two ran the Coconut Grove-based Bendixen & Amandi International polling firm, though Bendixen was semi-retired.

“Sergio led the way in capturing the opinions of and understanding how Hispanics in America thought and felt about the most important issues in our time,” Amandi said. “He was largely responsible for giving Hispanic America a voice.”

Bendixen not only focused on polling Hispanics: He also chose to survey them in Spanish, if they were more comfortable in that language, an industry innovation now considered standard in multilingual polling. He later expanded his work to other ethnic groups and worked for political candidates internationally, especially in Latin America. …

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As FHP struggles to recruit, speeding tickets plummet

The number of speeding tickets written by Florida state troopers has plunged three straight years as the agency grapples with a personnel shortage and high turnover.

While that might be good news for highway travelers who want to speed this holiday weekend, it's a concerning trend for the head of the Florida Highway Patrol.

Since 2010, the agency has lost 993 troopers to retirement or resignation, or about half of its current workforce of 1,946 troopers, said FHP Director Colonel Gene Spaulding.

"That's a big turnover," said Spaulding, a 24-year highway patrol veteran himself. "That's really tough."

Spaulding had 240 vacancies in the department this spring. Reinforcements aren't filling the void. The state's trooper academy typically has 80 recruits per class three times a year. Spaulding said the current class doesn't even have half of that.

"This is crisis," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who for the last two years has been advocating for across the board pay raises for all state government workers.

While Spaulding said the agency is doing what it can to provide public safety, he acknowledged response times are getting longer. …

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Constitution commission to vote on rules June 6

Constitution Revision Commission met in Miami for a public hearing April 6

Miami Herald

Constitution Revision Commission met in Miami for a public hearing April 6

fter a divisive, day-long meeting over how to write the rules for the powerful Constitution Revision Commission, the panel's chair, Carlos Beruff, on Friday called a meeting for the entire 37-member commission for June 6 in Orlando to vote on rules.

"Although consensus was achieved in some areas, there were many other areas where consensus was not reached,'' Beruff wrote in letter to commissioners. "In light of the extensive time required by the working group to continue its work and the likelihood that much of their discussion will need to be reiterated with the full Commission, I think you will agree that consensus on Rules must be achieved on an expedited timeline to ensure we can continue our very important commitment to Floridians."  Download 05-26-2017 Schedule Rules

He also set a new schedule for the commission, promising to have its work done by May 10, 2018:

 

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Valenstein cell phone is primary contact for business he says he doesn't run

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein

Courtesy of Florida Office of the Governor

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein

Florida’s new Department of Environmental Protection secretary, Noah Valenstein, flatly denied this week he had any role in the political consulting and polling businesses he turned over to his wife when he came to work for the governor in 2012.

But the company web site on Thursday still listed his personal phone number as the contact. It was the same phone number Valenstein used on his application for the DEP job.

“Thank you for raising this issue to my attention,” Valenstein said in an email to the Herald/Times. “I have asked my wife to immediately remove my cell phone number from her company’s website. Upon entering public service in 2012, I removed myself from the business and my wife has owned and operated it since.I was not aware my cellphone number remained on her website and neither was she.”

The companies, Voter Opinions, LLC, and Campaign Facts, LLC, (with website Facts2Win.com) are income-producing businesses for Jennifer Valenstein. Started by Noah Valenstein in 2010 out of their Tallahassee home, the companies have been paid nearly $1 million by candidates and political committees. …

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Florida GOP consultant asked for hacked Democratic documents from 'Guccifer 2.0'

Florida Republican political operative Aaron Nevins was sent 2.5 gigabytes of Democratic campaign documents by the same hacker alleged to be behind the release of Democratic National Committee documents and Clinton campaign emails, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

The Journal report, which you can read in full here (though it is behind a paywall), is a reminder that every story really does have a Florida connection.

Nevins was also outed in the story as the man behind HelloFLA.com, a political gossip blog where he apparently published some of the documents from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

A brief excerpt of the Journal's reporting:

The hacking spree that upended the presidential election wasn’t limited to Democratic National Committee memos and Clinton-aide emails posted on websites. The hacker also privately sent Democratic voter-turnout analyses to a Republican political operative in Florida named Aaron Nevins.

Learning that hacker “Guccifer 2.0” had tapped into a Democratic committee that helps House candidates, Mr. Nevins wrote to the hacker to say: “Feel free to send any Florida based information.” …

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Florida TaxWatch calls out $180 million of questionable spending in state budget

Kurt Wenner, Florida TaxWatch's vice president for research, presents the organization's 2017 turkey list.

MICHAEL AUSLEN | Times/Herald

Kurt Wenner, Florida TaxWatch's vice president for research, presents the organization's 2017 turkey list.

Florida TaxWatch, a Tallahassee thinktank, has released its annual "budget turkey" list that calls on Gov. Rick Scott to veto nearly $180 million in special projects tucked into the budget, mostly in transportation.

The upshot of TaxWatch's analysis -- which calls out line items that are slipped into the budget behind closed doors or circumvent beaurocratic structures meant to prioritize what projects are funded first -- is that while some parts of the budget process were more transparent than usual this year, the bulk of it was not.

"Although member projects were more transparent and accountable, I think it's certainly hard to say the budget process as a whole was more transparent and accountable than it has been," said Kurt Wenner, TaxWatch's vice president for research. "We had huge portions of the budget including the entire health and human services budget that the differences were negotiated by the speaker and the president behind closed doors."

He also said TaxWatch didn't like that the unusually long bills on subjects like education and Visit Florida pushed through the budget process and negotiated behind closed doors by legislative leaders. …

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Starting the veto clock? Rick Scott likely to get budget Tuesday

A breakdown of the proposed new state budget by the Florida Association of Counties.

Florida Association of Counties

A breakdown of the proposed new state budget by the Florida Association of Counties.

As a long Memorial Day weekend gets underway, the biggest and most controversial piece of legislation to emerge from the 2017 session, the budget, was still in the Senate's hands on Friday -- a safe distance from Gov. Rick Scott's veto pen.

A knowledgeable Capitol source says the Senate plans to deliver the $82.4 billion budget to Scott next Tuesday, May 30 (Senate President Joe Negron's office did not confirm that timetable). If that happens, a 15-day clock begins ticking and Scott would have until June 14 to act, but what are expected to be extensive line-item vetoes, along with a possible veto of the K-12 public education funding formula, won't take the governor nearly that long. Last year, Scott issued $256 million in promised vetoes even before he received the budget.

Staffers in the governor's budget office have been poring over the nearly 500-page budget line-by-line since it was approved May 8, and lawmakers and their staffs report being asked about specific projects. …

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Please clap: Twitter loses it over Jeb Bush sighting

Jeb!

Twitter, @bdetrick

Jeb!

Twitter had some fun with a photo of what looked to be Jeb Bush getting his shoes shined at an unnamed airport.

Ben Detrick (@bdetrick), whose Twitter bio describes him as a New York Times contributor, first tweeted the photo on Thursday. "My friend just took this photo at the airport," Detrick tweeted.

Then Twitter lost its mind. Detrick's photo was retweeted 3,000 times and 14,000 liked it. Nearly 600 replied to it.

Here's a sample:

 

 

 

 

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More than half of Senate signs onto bill to end Cuba travel restrictions

WASHINGTON - Fifty-five members of the Senate, including Bill Nelson, have endorsed legislation to fully lift restrictions on travel to Cuba.

Introduced by Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017 "ends restrictions under laws enacted in 1996 and 2000 that prevent American citizens and legal residents from travelling to Cuba – restrictions that do not exist for travel by Americans to any other country in the world," reads a release.

The bill would also end legal prohibitions on travel-related transactions, including banking.

“Recognizing the inherent right of Americans to travel to Cuba isn’t a concession to dictators, it is an expression of freedom. It is Americans who are penalized by our travel ban, not the Cuban government,” Flake said. “Lifting the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba can pave the way to meaningful change by increasing contact between Cubans and everyday Americans, and it is certain to have positive benefits for the island’s burgeoning entrepreneurial and private sector.” …

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John Tupps is Gov. Rick Scott's new communications director

John Tupps (upper left) is Gov. Rick Scott's new director of communications.

Scott Keeler - Times

John Tupps (upper left) is Gov. Rick Scott's new director of communications.

Gov. Rick Scott has named John Tupps as his new communications director, replacing Jackie Schutz Zeckman, who was promoted to chief of staff. The appointment takes effect June 5.

Tupps, 33, is currently vice president of government relations at VISIT Florida and is a former deputy chief of staff at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. His new job is a homecoming of sorts as he previously worked in Scott's press office from 2011 to 2016 in various roles, including deputy communications director.

Tupps is a former radio producer for the South Central Radio Group in Knoxville, Tenn., and is a graduate of the University of Tennessee.

"John has demonstrated an incredible commitment to supporting our mission of making Florida the top destination for businesses, families and visitors," Scott said in a statement.

Scott's past two communications chiefs, Schutz Zeckman and Melissa Stone, both became chiefs of staff to the governor, so the job is a proven launching pad to bigger things.

 

 

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Jeb money trickles into Putnam's bid for governor

Money from a Jeb Bush super PAC has made its way into Florida’s 2018 governors race.
 
A year ago, Bush’s Right to Rise PAC put $1,171 in money left over from his failed presidential run into a fund called SSLP Political Committee, which Adam Putnam used for his 2014 re-election campaign for Florida Agriculture Commissioner. After the Right to Rise donation, SSLP was up to just over $221,000 and has not spent any money since, according to records with the Florida Division of Elections.
 
But on Tuesday, Putnam moved all of SSLP’s unused money over into Florida Grown, a new committee he runs that has already raised $11 million since the start of 2015.
 
Since Putnam kicked off his campaign with a rally in Bartow on May 10, the Polk County Republican has now brought in at least $370,000 - including the SSLP transfer - into Florida Grown, according to a website maintained by the political committee.
 
It’s no surprise Jeb Bush money would end up in Putnam’s campaign. For years, Bush has been encouraging Putnam to run for governor. Even in 2014 while Putnam was still seeking re-election as agriculture commissioner, Bush used an event in Charlotte County to hint that Putnam should run for governor in the future. …

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