Gov. DeSantis sends planes of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, bonuses for first responders, Tropical Storm Fiona develops, and more…

September 15, 2022 — This Week’s Top Stories in Florida

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Gov. DeSantis sends 2 planes of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard

Martha’s Vineyard is a small island off Massachusetts, just south of Cape Cod, and is a popular summer vacation destination for the rich and famous, including stars like David Letterman, Reese Witherspoon, and Oprah Winfrey. During their time in the White House, the Obama family frequently visited the island for weekend getaways and in 2020, Barack and Michelle Obama purchased a 29-acre estate, complete with a 7-bedroom, 8.5-bath home. But now the affluent community is getting attention after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sent planes full of mostly Venezuelan migrants to the island. Two chartered planes arrived unannounced to Martha’s Vineyard Airport on Wednesday, carrying 50 migrants as part of Florida’s “relocation program,” confirmed the governor’s office. The relocation is part of the Gov. DeSantis’ commitment to transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary cities in progressive states.The Florida Legislature appropriated $12 million during the past legislative session to establish a program that allows for the relocation of illegal immigrants under the direction of the Florida Department of Transportation. The arrival of the migrants came unannounced and as a surprise to local officials and the office of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. Locals quickly scrambled to accommodate the sudden influx of migrants; however, reports indicated short-term housing, meals, and even medical care were provided as the community was said to have embraced and supported them. Help in the community was still needed to assist with the unannounced arrival was still needed as the local emergency management association in Massachusetts called for volunteers. The state-sponsored charter flights originated from San Antonio, Texas, and is part of DeSantis’ effort to send these people to sanctuary cities to reduce the likelihood of illegal immigrants eventually making their way to the Sunshine State. But critics of the Republican governor’s actions call it a protest of President Biden’s immigration policies and a political stunt designed to further boost his national profile as rumors of a DeSantis presidential bid circulate. Florida’s governor joins Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott, who has been sending busloads of illegal immigrants to New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., sanctuary cities that have celebrated their pro-immigrant stance and announced they would protect the undocumented from deportation or prosecution.

Gov. DeSantis announces bonuses for first responders

Florida’s first responders are set to receive $1,000 bonus checks as a show of appreciation, Gov. DeSantis announced on social media. “The $1,000 bonus checks are in the mail for Florida’s first responders. These checks are a token of our appreciation for all they do to keep our communities safe and secure.” This is the second consecutive year that the state has recognized fire rescue and law enforcement personnel with bonus checks for their public service. This year’s payments were part of Florida’s Freedom First Budget signed by the governor several months ago and is the latest effort by DeSantis to support first responders. Those eligible for the first responder recognition bonus payments include police officers, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) employed by local municipalities and counties across the state. The Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) will administer the one-time checks of up to $1,000, after taxes, for first responders employed by a local government as of May 1, 2022. The Florida Legislature appropriated $125 million for the Essential First Responders Recognition Program as part of the 2022–2023 General Appropriations Act.

Tropical Storm Fiona develops in the Atlantic

With two-and-a-half months left in the hurricane season, Floridians have seen a quiet summer thus far, with little storm activity in the Atlantic Ocean. However, since late August, storms have been churning further east of Florida and in the North Atlantic, dissipating before becoming any serious threat to land. Now, Tropical Storm Fiona has formed in the southern Atlantic Ocean as the National Hurricane Center upgraded the status of the system from a tropical depression as of Wednesday night. Fiona is the 6th named storm of the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season and sits east of The Leeward Islands with west-northwest movement at 16 mph. The center of the storm is forecast to hit the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico this weekend, according to the latest track, bringing heavy rain and moderate winds to the area. As of now, the system is not expected to impact Florida, with computer models predicting the system will turn sharply north before reaching the state.

DeSantis, Crist agree to gubernatorial debate

With less than two months until the November mid-term elections, Floridians will get to see Republican incumbent Governor Ron DeSantis debate Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist. Following prior refusals by the DeSantis campaign to debate his Democratic challenger, the Republican candidate has agreed to a single debate in West Palm Beach on October 12. DeSantis’ team confirmed the candidate will participate in the debate that will take place on local TV station WPEC CBS 12 owned by the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group. Crist had previously agreed to participate in three gubernatorial debates, including a larger debate that would be broadcast statewide on October 20, but DeSantis turned down that request. “I look forward to debating Ron DeSantis and holding him accountable for his extremist, anti-choice, billionaire donor agenda,” Crist said in a statement announcing the event. “If Ron DeSantis wants to take away more of our freedoms and rights, the least he can do is show up and tell Florida voters why.” The Crist campaign went further on the offensive against DeSantis’ refusal to participate on a larger debate stage that would be broadcast to millions of voters saying, “Ron DeSantis is refusing to go up against Charlie Crist on the largest debate stage with the most viewers because he’s scared to answer one of the biggest questions on voters’ minds — reproductive freedom.” “Ron doesn’t want millions of Floridians watching as he is forced to defend his anti-choice, anti-freedom agenda,” added Crist’s communications director.

Floridians will also see U.S. Senate candidates go toe-to-toe in a separate televised debate on October 18. Republican incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic nominee Val Demings are both confirmed to participate in the debate that will be hosted at Palm Beach State College in South Florida. The debate will be broadcast statewide.

National Guard to assist understaffed Florida prisons

In an update to last week’s story, the Joint Legislative Budget Commission voted on Friday to approve activating the Florida National Guard to aid the understaffed Department of Corrections (FDC). The approval by the Commission sets aside $31 million to send members of the National Guard to state prisons to address a significant correctional staff shortage issue affecting FDC and the prison system. The plan is a temporary solution that allows guardsmen to “assist the FDC at facilities for nine months or until the FDC determines it no longer needs National Guard assistance. Some lawmakers, including House Democrats, have criticized the short-term solution to the issue that was created by underfunding the agency and ignoring correctional officer retention and recruitment. Up to 300 National Guard members are expected to be deployed and they would not directly supervise inmates “except where such supervision occurs as a normal part of manning control stations or when required in an emergency situation pertaining to safety and security.”

Pasco County teachers arrested in testing scandal

Three high school teachers with Pasco County Schools have been arrested following a year-long testing scam investigation. The three teachers from Hudson High School have been charged after it was alleged that they helped students pass industry certification exams, or in some instances, took the test themselves on behalf of their students. The industry exams were part of the Agriculture Education Services & Technology (AEST) testing that allows students to obtain credentials for careers in agriculture. When students successfully pass the tests, school districts get bonus dollars that are used to fund agriculture classes. Teachers also earn bonuses, generally $25 or $50, depending on the exam. The arrested Hudson High School teachers, Robert Herrington, Harold Martin III, and Kathleen Troutman, are accused of taking the industry certification tests hundreds of times for students over several years. While the tests are to be administered by independent proctors and without written materials, the teachers improperly gave students answers or provided them with copies of the test containing answers during examination. The teachers are estimated to have earned $36,000 combined, with the total damages estimated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement at $700,000. All were charged with a second-degree felony of scheming to defraud, and either resigned or were placed on unpaid leave.

DeSantis expected to oust Miami-Dade Commissioner facing corruption charges

On August 30, Miami-Dade Commissioner Joe Martinez was arrested on felony corruption charges for accepting payment in exchange for helping a local business owner with fees and fines accrued for violating a county ordinance. According to the arrest warrant, Martinez was paid $15,000 in 2017 by the owner of Extra Supermarket who had been fined tens of thousands of dollars for having cargo storage containers on his property. It is a violation of county ordinance for any property under 10 acres to have cargo containers stored on-site. Commission Martinez was solicited by the supermarket owner to assist with waiving the levied fines and to amend the county rule by introducing legislation before the Miami-Dade County Commission for consideration. The charges were brought following a five-year investigation by the State Attorney’s Office and the Miami-Dade Inspector General, amounting to third-degree felonies of unlawful compensation and conspiracy to commit unlawful compensation. When asked about the matter last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “there is going to be a new commissioner,” implying that a suspension for Martinez was forthcoming by the governor. DeSantis confirmed that he has received names for proposed replacement candidates of District 11 but needed time to be “briefed” on the individuals. “We’ll probably have a decision in the not too distant future,” Gov. DeSantis said. Commissioner Martinez denies any wrongdoing and asserts that the case is “politically motivated.”

Meanwhile, following his arrest on August 30, Commissioner Joe Martinez appeared during the Miami-Dade commission meeting held on September 8th and took his seat behind the dais in the chambers. “I’ve got to do my job,” Martinez said to a Miami Herald reporter. “I’m here to do my job.” The Republican county commissioner was released on a $12,500 bond hours following his arrest.

Rankings: Florida’s “Best Colleges”; UF tops list again

U.S. News and World Report released its annual ranking of the “Best Colleges,” evaluating universities and colleges from across the nation. The list has long served as an authoritative ranking of schools that will undoubtedly guide the decisions of countless college applicants next year, and many will look to schools in the Sunshine State to continue their academic career. According to U.S. News and World Report’s 2023 rankings, the University of Florida topped the list as Florida’s best school, tying with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill as the nation’s 5th highest-ranked public university or №29 overall. UF was also ranked №5 in last year’s rankings. The rankings examine 17 metrics, including graduation and retention rates, class sizes, degree value following graduation, admissions selectivity, and faculty pay. UF celebrated its ranking as an “academic powerhouse” and emphasized their continual focus on investing in research, learning enhancements, and “smaller class sizes.” Florida State University and the University of Miami were tied as the second-best universities in the state at №55 on the list. Meanwhile, USF and UCF saw improvements, climbing to the highest-ranking in the school’s history. USF rose four spots to №92 while UCF climbed three slots higher to №137 overall among all public and private universities.

Tampa grapples with public pressure over affordable housing budget

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor is facing push-back from the City Council and public over the City’s proposed budget amount allocated for affordable housing at $26.4 million, which critics say isn’t enough. The outcry came as the City Council weighs Mayor Castor’s proposed $1.9 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Tampa ranks among the nation’s cities with the fastest rising housing costs and activists are unhappy with the small amount set aside to address the housing crisis, relative to the total budget. As City Council members expressed their concerns, they examined areas of the budget where cuts could be made to bolster funds for affordable housing — namely, water and solid waste. $5.5 million in federal relief dollars within solid waste’s budget was zeroed in on, but Castor’s staff said further evaluation would be needed to determine how much of those funds could be spent elsewhere. Councilmember’s Lynn Hurtak, Orlando Gudes, and Bill Carlson shared that they likely wouldn’t approve Mayor Castor’s nearly $2 billion budget unless more money could be allocated for housing-related services. Per state law, local governments must have a balanced budget approved by September 30. Tampa’s final vote is slated for September 20.

Democracy Scorecard: Where do Florida’s lawmakers rank?

Nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause has released its 2022 Democracy Scorecard, evaluating the actions of all 535 federal lawmakers on “democracy-related legislation.” Common Cause tracked lawmaker’s votes and co-sponsorships on 15 bills and three resolutions over the last year on “campaign finance reform, ethics and transparency, and voting rights legislation.” The criteria helps constituents determine what lawmakers are responsible for “passing common-sense legislation that preserves and strengthens our democracy.” As part of the scorecard, Florida’s 27 Representatives of the U.S. House were evaluated as well as Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Rick Scott. Congressman Charlie Crist, who is also running for governor to unseat Gov. DeSantis, was the only member of the Florida delegation to score a perfect 100%, supporting all legislation tracked by Common Cause that is geared toward campaign finance reform, voting rights expansion, and ensuring government accountability. Eight additional House Democrats in Florida, including Congresswoman Val Demings, scored 88% — supporting 16 of 18 proposals aimed at strengthening democracy. Meanwhile, Sen. Rubio and Sen. Scott did not support any of Common Cause’s endorsed bills and resolutions. All of Florida’s 14 GOP House members voted for two or fewer pro-democracy pieces of legislation, scoring 11% or less. Overall, across the country, Common Cause recorded 70% more lawmakers scoring 100% and supporting a democracy-aligned agenda than last year.

After fallout in Florida, Disney CEO wants company to be “everything to everyone”

Disney has had a trying year in Florida with Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers penalizing the company after opposing the so-called “don’t say gay” bill. The legislation, signed into law by DeSantis in March, prohibits discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in pubic school classrooms for students in kindergarten through third grade public schools. Yielding significant political influence in Florida, The Walt Disney Company faced criticism for not speaking out against the bill sooner and standing up for its LGBTQ workers and families. Disney CEO Bob Chapek issued an apology by telling employees, “We need to use our influence to promote that good by telling inclusive stories, but also by standing up for the rights of all.” Disney then issued a statement criticizing lawmakers’ actions and DeSantis’ signing of the legislation saying, the bill “should never have passed and should never have been signed into law.” The entertainment company then ceased political donations in Florida and vowed to increase support for organizations opposing legislation that curtails tolerance for LGBTQ+ rights across the country. At the urging of Gov. DeSantis, the Florida Legislature convened in a special session to revoke Disney’s tax and special district status that takes effect next year. But Chapek isn’t backing down by reiterating the company’s stance and saying, “What we try to do is be everything to everybody. That tends to be very difficult because we’re the Walt Disney Company.”

Space schedule: Upcoming rocket launches from Florida

This week was filled with anticipation over the scheduled launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 that was supposed to take flight. The company’s second scheduled blast-off from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station was delayed for a variety of issues, including weather. SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet mission attempt follows the twice-delayed Artemis I rocket SLS that has been pushed back to launch later in September. But Florida’s space enthusiasts will have other opportunities to look toward the skies with additional launches slated for September and October. Here’s the latest rocket launch schedule along the Space Coast:

  • September 27: NASA’s Artemis I, Space Launch System
  • Launch Time: 11:37 AM EDT
  • Location: Kennedy Space Center, Pad 39B
  • Mission: The first launch of the anticipated Space Launch System (SLS), the unmanned Orion capsule will orbit the moon several times before returning to Earth. This mission will eventually lead to a lunar surface landing for Artemis III in subsequent years.
  • September 30: United Launch Alliance SES 20+21, Atlas V
  • Launch Time: 5:36 PM EDT
  • Location: Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Launch Complex 41
  • Mission: ULA’s Atlas V rocket will send two commercial communications satellites, SES-20 and SES-21, on behalf of Luxembourg-based satellite telecommunications network provider SES.
  • October 3: SpaceX Crew-5, Falcon 9
  • Launch Time: 12:45 PM EDT
  • Location: Kennedy Space Center, Pad 39A
  • Mission: This contract mission with NASA will send four astronauts to the ISS for six months. The crew will include Astronauts Nicole Mann, Josh Cassada, Japan’s Koichi Wakata, and Russia’s Anna Kikina.

Florida gas prices fall to lowest price since winter

This week, Floridians saw the lowest gas prices in seven months as the state average fell to $3.45 per gallon on Sunday, down nine cents from last week. The price at the pump is at its lowest level since February and fuel is expected to continue its drop further. The most expensive metropolitan markets in Florida include West Palm Beach and Boca Raton at $3.66 per gallon, Tallahassee at $3.58, and Naples at $3.53. The least expensive Florida markets for fuel are located in the Panhandle with Crestview/Fort Walton Beach at an average of $3.25 per gallon, Pensacola at $3.27, and Panama City at $3.33, as of Sunday.

39 acres of waterfront in St. Petersburg to be developed

Key International, a Miami real estate investment firm, has purchased 39 acres of waterfront in St. Petersburg, off Gandy Boulevard, with plans of developing hundreds of homes, along with a marina and restaurant. The adjacent properties were recently closed for a price of $19 million and are expected to break ground in 2023. The real estate firm hopes to create a “waterfront lifestyle” by developing 324 waterfront apartments, 52 rental townhomes, and a proposed 8,000-square-foot dockside restaurant that will sit next to a marina and boat slips. Other amenities proposed in the waterfront residential community include a public boardwalk, kayak launch, and recreational features such as a playground, swimming pools, pickleball, and basketball courts.

Pinellas County awarded $2.5M to save a 14-acre nature preserve

A $2.5 million state grant was awarded to Pinellas County to purchase 14 acres of forest and undeveloped land in Tarpon Springs. The site has been subject to debate and dedicated efforts by groups such as the West Klosterman Preservation Group and the Pinellas Community Foundation to preserve the 14-acre parcel that is among the last remaining natural forest in the county. Pinellas County Schools acquired the property in 1990 for educational purposes, but in 2020, the school board backed the idea of selling the land to a developer. Following the school board’s proposal, a coalition of neighbors and community members rallied together to raise $544,000 in funds with the hope of purchasing the property. The $2.5 million state grant approved by the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, in addition to the amount raised by the West Klosterman Preservation Group, meets the $3 million asking price for the property by Pinellas County Schools. According to the preservation group, the land contains more than 60 threatened or endangered plant and animal species. The land will be combined with the neighboring 76-acre Mariner’s Point Management Area that is conserved by Pinellas County.

NBA star Shaq expands his Big Chicken restaurant to Florida

via Big Chicken

Former basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal is rapidly expanding his restaurant empire to Florida. The NBA hall-of-famer is planning to open 45 locations of his Big Chicken quick-service franchise in the state after establishing a development rights agreement with DMD Ventures to bring the restaurants to South and Central Florida. Big Chicken stores are planned for Orlando, Tampa, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. The first locations are set to open in 2023. The restaurants promise to bring “Big Flavor. Big Food. Big Fun.” to Florida with its variety of signature chicken sandwiches, tenders, sliders, salads, and milkshakes. Big Chicken currently has two locations — Las Vegas and Glendale, California, but its menu offerings can be found at Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena, New York’s UBS Arena, and on two Carnival cruise ships. The chain first launched in 2018 with a variety of founding partner groups, including basketball star Shaquille O’Neal who serves as the face of the brand.

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Floridian Today

A newsletter about Florida. Covering politics, business, real estate, and climate.