As part of his commitment to advocate on behalf of Florida’s environment and water quality, Governor Ron DeSantis today joined Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott asking President Donald Trump to include in the federal budget a sustained annual commitment of $200 million in construction funding for South Florida Ecosystem Restoration (SFER). [Read more…] about Governor Ron DeSantis, Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Rick Scott ask President Trump to Include $200 Million in Construction Funding for Everglades Restoration
Senator Marco Rubio
U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) are pushing to increase business at Florida ports by urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to restructure the way the agency charges ships to fumigate produce imported into the U.S.
Before a cargo ship offloads any imported produce arriving at a U.S. port, the shipment must first be inspected and fumigated. The fee that a ship pays to have their produce fumigated is set by USDA and is currently charged on a “per-enclosure basis” – meaning, a ship pays the same fee to fumigate a warehouse full of goods in the Northeast as they do to fumigate one shipping container in Florida.
U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced legislation today to improve and protect a joint U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program designed to help homeless veterans find permanent housing.
The so-called HUD-VASH program provides homeless veterans with a voucher to help them offset the cost of renting a home or apartment in the private market. To help protect the program from any potential future budget cuts, Nelson and Rubio’s bill would, among other things, prevent the administration from using any funds specifically-designated for the program on anything other than helping to provide housing to homeless veterans.
“The brave men and women who have served in our armed forces have made incredible sacrifices to protect our freedoms,” Nelson said. “We have a responsibility to provide them with the very best care that we can.”
“We must continue to provide our nation’s veterans the quality care they were promised and deserve,” said Rubio. “This legislation would make much needed improvements to the HUD-VASH program so that it can more effectively assist homeless veterans and their families.”
Veterans who receive a HUD-VASH voucher are able to rent a privately owned home or apartment while contributing no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent. The homelessness program made headlines last year when the VA announced plans to shift more than $460 million that had been specifically designated for such programs into the agency’s general purpose account – essentially, defunding the program altogether.
The move infuriated veterans and veterans organizations across the country who spoke out against the administration’s plan. Facing a growing backlash, the VA eventually reversed its decision and announced on Dec. 7 that it will keep the program funded through Oct. 2018. If approved, Nelson and Rubio’s bill would require the agency to keep the HUD-VASH program funded permanently.
The VA’s sudden about-face over funding created more than just a firestorm from veterans groups, it also created confusion within the agency itself – and led, at least, one local VA facility in South Florida to begin rejecting applications for assistance. The sudden spike in rejections caught the attention of Florida lawmakers, including Nelson, who, in turn, immediately demanded answers from the VA about its overall management of the program.
The VA’s responses to lawmakers’ inquiries exposed a need for drastic reforms to the program, including the hiring of additional case managers to improve the program’s overall responsiveness to veterans and ensure that all available vouchers are being made available to the those who need them.
To improve and protect the program, Nelson and Rubio’s legislation would, among other things:
- Prohibit the VA from moving HUD-VASH funds to a general purpose account. The administration announced last year its plans to shift more than $460 million that had been specifically designated for veterans homelessness programs to the agency’s general purpose account. The move would, in essence, defund the program altogether. Facing a growing backlash from veterans groups, the VA reversed course and later announced it would keep the program funded through Fiscal Year 2018. Nelson and Rubio’s legislation would require the agency to keep the HUD-VASH program funded permanently.
- Require the VA to hire one case manager for every 35 veterans. In some regions, case managers are assigned up to 70-100 veterans at once, making it nearly impossible to effectively manage them all.
- Require the VA to expedite the hiring of new case managers. If a case manager position is vacant for 180 days or more, the VA will be required to contract out to a local service provider.
- Require case managers to be located within a reasonable distance from the veterans they are assigned to help. Some case managers are located as far as two hours away from their assigned veterans.
The legislation now heads to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee for consideration.
A copy of the bill is available here.
U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Carlos Curbelo (FL-26) today sent a letter to FEMA Administrator Brock Long urging the agency to expedite the reimbursement of disaster-related expenses owed to local governments in Florida and elsewhere.
“Local governments are cash-strapped with little to no funding in their budgets to repair damaged communities,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is critical that FEMA responsibly provide local governments with the assistance Congress appropriated to address current damages and the ability to prepare communities for the upcoming hurricane season.”
Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, addressed the issue at hearing the panel held earlier today on hurricane preparedness. “There are some areas where we can and must do better,” Nelson said. “Puerto Rico is an example, Florida is an example. That local governments are still not being compensated for the debris pickup that they have advanced – that is unacceptable.”
Here is a link to video of Nelson’s comments at today’s Commerce committee hearing:
A .pdf copy of the lawmakers’ letter is available here.
U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced legislation today aimed at improving the quality of care provided to newborn babies suffering from opioid withdrawal.
Opioid use during pregnancy can cause a newborn baby to experience the painful effects of a drug-withdrawal syndrome known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS. Babies suffering from NAS often experience painful withdrawal symptoms such as high-pitched cries, convulsions, fever and vomiting; and often require extended time in the hospital as they recover from prenatal exposure to opioids.
To better treat and care for the thousands of babies born in America each year with NAS, researchers first need to better understand the cause and effects of this heart-breaking syndrome. To help researchers collect the data they need, Nelson and Rubio’s legislation will provide states additional funding to track, analyze and research babies born with NAS.
“When you see an opioid-dependent baby, your heart just cries out,” Nelson said. “This bill will help us better understand this heart-breaking syndrome and what needs to be done to provide these innocent children with the best care possible.”
“The opioid crisis is wreaking havoc, destroying families and taking lives across our state and nation. Congress must fulfill its commitment to those dealing with opioid addiction, especially innocent babies born with an addiction,” said Rubio. “Our bill will help do that by ensuring we have the necessary tools to care for newborns facing opioid addiction. I’m pleased that the HELP committee has included language from our bill in its larger opioid effort, the Opioid Crisis Response Act, and look forward to getting our bill signed into law.”
Every 25 minutes, a baby is born suffering from opioid withdrawal, according to the National Institutes of Health. In 2016 alone, more than 4,200 babies in Florida were born with an opioid dependency.
A copy of the bill is available here. It now heads to the Senate HELP committee for consideration.
The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture announced today that it will provide more than $2.3 billion in disaster assistance to help Florida farmers and citrus growers recover from last year’s hurricanes.
The announcement comes just days after U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and others sent a letter to Sec. Sonny Perdue urging him to provide the much-needed assistance to Florida’s farmers. Congress approved the funding as part of the disaster supplemental bill it passed in February.
“Florida’s farmers and citrus growers are a vital part of our state’s economy and we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help them recover from last year’s storms,” Nelson said today following the announcement.
A copy of the letter Nelson and Rubio sent to Perdue is here.
And here’s a copy of USDA’s announcement:
USDA Implements up to $2.36 Billion to Help Agricultural
Producers Recover after 2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires
2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program’ to Aid Recovery in Rural Communities
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will make disaster payments of up to $2.36 billion, as provided by Congress, to help America’s farmers and ranchers recover from hurricanes and wildfires. The funds are available as part of the new 2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program (2017 WHIP). Sign-up for the new program, authorized by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, will begin no later than July 16.
USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) will make these disaster payments to agricultural producers to offset losses from hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and devastating wildfires. The 2017 calendar year was a historic year for natural disasters, and this investment is part of a broader suite of programs that USDA is delivering to rural America to aid recovery. In total, the Act provided more than $3 billion in disaster relief by creating new programs, and expediting or enhancing payments for producers.
“America’s farmers feed our nation and much of the world, and throughout history they have known good years and bad years. But when significant disasters strike, we are ready to step in and provide the assistance they need,” Secretary Perdue said. “USDA is working as quickly as possible to develop procedures and a system by which affected producers can access disaster assistance. For producers new to FSA programs, we encourage you to visit your local USDA service center now to establish farm records.”
About 2017 WHIP Disaster Payments
The new 2017 WHIP will provide significant disaster assistance and be guided by the following principles:
- Eligibility will be limited to producers in counties that experienced hurricanes or wildfires designated as presidentially-declared disasters in 2017;
- Compensation determined by a producer’s individual losses rather than an average of losses for a particular area (where data is available);
- Producers who purchased higher levels of risk protection, such as crop insurance and noninsured crop disaster assistance program, will receive higher payments;
- Advance payments up to 50 percent; and
- A requirement that payment recipients obtain future risk protection.
Other USDA Disaster Assistance
WHIP disaster payments are being issued in addition to payments through our traditional programs, some of which obtained increased funding or had amendments made by the Act to make the programs more responsive, including the Emergency Conservation Program, Emergency Watershed Protection Program, Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-raised Fish Program, Tree Assistance Program and Livestock Indemnity Program.
During 2017, the U.S. experienced a historic year of weather-related disasters, with an economic impact totaling more than $300 billion. In total, the United States was impacted by 16 separate billion-dollar disaster events including: three tropical cyclones, eight severe storms, two inland floods, a crop freeze, drought and wildfire. More than 25 million people – almost eight percent of the population – were affected by major disasters.
FSA will distribute more information on how producers can file claims for WHIP disaster payments at a later date. For questions on how to establish farm records to be prepared when WHIP disaster signup begins, or to learn about other disaster assistance programs, producers are asked to contact their local USDA service center.
More than a half-dozen U.S. Senators today called on leaders of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee to investigate Puerto Rico’s ongoing power outages and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to begin reducing the number of utility repair workers on the island while thousands of residents still do not have power.
The request for an oversight hearing on the Corps’ actions was made in a letter led by U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL and sent today to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA).
“The Army Corps of Engineers is reportedly drawing down the number of utility repair workers on the island,” the senators wrote. “We would welcome an opportunity to discuss the Corps’ decision to begin reducing this workforce on the island while our fellow Americans in Vieques, Caguas, and elsewhere continue to struggle.”
In addition to Nelson and Rubio, the letter was signed by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Tom Carper (D-DE), Bob Casey (D-PA), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Nelson, who has been an outspoken leader in pushing the federal government to do more to help the people of Puerto Rico recover in the wake of Hurricane Maria, was in Kissimmee, Florida earlier today to meet with local Puerto Rican community leaders and discuss the island’s ongoing recovery efforts.
Yesterday, Nelson and Rep. Darren Soto (FL-09) sent a letter to President Trump urging his administration to do more to help the island. Nelson and Soto called the federal government’s response in Puerto Rico “slow, tepid and completely inadequate.”
Copy of the letter Nelson and Soto sent to the president yesterday is here.
A .PDF copy of the lawmakers’ letter today requesting a Senate Committee investigation is available here.
Background article on the issue can be found below.
Contractors Are Leaving Puerto Rico, Where Many Still Lack Power
By FRANCES ROBLES
Published: Feb. 26, 2018
SAN JUAN, P.R. — Though hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans remain in the dark five months after a devastating hurricane trampled the island’s power grid, the federal government has begun to scale back the number of contractors it has working to get the lights back on.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the federal effort to repair the power grid on the island, where a Category 4 storm last fall knocked out electricity to every home and business. The corps gave major contracts to two companies, Fluor Corporation and PowerSecure, and coordinates their work with the efforts of the island’s government-run power utility, which has also hired contractors and brought in crews from mainland utilities.
At one point, there were a total of 6,200 workers repairing transmission and distribution lines across the island, about half of them working for the corps. Now that power has been restored to more than 1.1 million people, by the utility’s count — about 86 percent of the island’s customers — the corps said it would begin a “responsible drawdown” of its work force.
Nearly 1,000 power workers have left the island in the past two weeks, according to Twitter messages posted by the corps. Fluor still had 1,600 people in Puerto Rico as of Sunday, but its contract period is “nearing the end,” and PowerSecure is scheduled to wrap up work by April 7, the corps said.
The decision to scale back was met with “indignation” across the island, said Jorge L. González Otero, the mayor of Jayuya, a town in the central part of the island, where about half the residents still lack power.
Fluor has already billed the maximum amount allowed under its $750 million contract, and its subcontractors were told last week to pack up.
“Fluor was among the first companies to get here, about a month and a half ago,” Mr. González Otero said, referring to Jayuya. “They said the contract was over, and they left everything half-done.”
“Imagine, I have people here without power for five months who are 80 years old, disabled, bedridden,” he added, “and they were just beginning to see people 50 meters away get their electricity back. They are growing desperate.”
Fluor’s crews would not be the first contractors to leave abruptly. After a scandal erupted over the Puerto Rico government’s award of its first power restoration contract, worth $300 million, to a small Montana firm, Whitefish Energy, the government canceled the deal.
Many people involved in power restoration said that officials overseeing the work were disappointed with the Army Corps of Engineers contractors. Fluor in particular was criticized for working sluggishly and using up the money available under its contract without accomplishing as much as expected.
Fluor is a Texas-based construction giant that has done more than $30 billion in government work over the past four decades, much of it for the Defense Department, federal records show.
“I understand that they were slow — super slow,” Mr. González Otero said. “Now we don’t have anyone, slow or at all. We have no one.”
Justo González, the interim executive director of the island’s government-owned utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, also was critical of Fluor’s performance.
“We compared, and saw better work from other companies,” Mr. González said in an interview.
Even so, he said, the corps’s decision to let the Fluor workers leave was worrisome.
“It concerns me,” he said. “It can affect our ability to energize. We wanted them to continue. What do I want? To energize as quickly as possible.”
A spokesman for Fluor denied that there had been any questions about its work.
“To date, we have restored power to 250,000 customers by fixing 7,500 poles, installing 462 miles of wire, more than 20,000 conductors, and repaired 170 transmission lines,” the company said. Under the limits set by the contract on the time and money to be expended, the company said, “we are reaching the end of both, and have been directed by the corps to begin transitioning people and equipment off of the island.”
The corps said that restoring power to some of the hardest-hit areas of Puerto Rico, including Arecibo and Caguas, would take a few more months. The “right number of restoration workers” were “actively engaged” in completing the job, the corps said in a statement.
“We will not rest until we have the lights back on for all of our fellow American citizens in Puerto Rico,” Col. Jason Kirk said in the statement.
Ahsha Tribble, who oversees power efforts for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Puerto Rico, said it was unfair to single out Fluor for leaving before restoration was complete, because other private companies that came to the island from New York and other states under mutual assistance agreements were also considering scaling back soon.
“At 86 percent restoration, we are starting to shave off people,” Ms. Tribble said. “In any normal course of restoration, you ramp up until you start getting your successes, and then you begin to start ramping down.”
Many of the remaining areas without power are in mountainous regions where it is not possible to squeeze in thousands of workers at once, she said.
Island residents, many of them still struggling to get basic services, were surprised by the corps’s announcement.
“We are so appreciative of everything these people have done — these workers risked their lives coming here, working in dangerous helicopters and all of that,” said Nydia Guzmán, 72, who spent Friday at one of the utility’s customer service offices, along with dozens of other customers who were disputing their bills.
“But they can’t leave now,” Ms. Guzmán said. “There’s too much left to be done.”
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis today announced that, in partnership with Senator Marco Rubio, insurance villages and disaster recovery centers will be opening next week in areas heavily impacted by Hurricane Irma. Local, state and federal partners will be in attendance to offer Floridians a wide array of relief assistance in one centralized location.
CFO Patronis said, “Getting Floridians back on their feet and back to normalcy is our top priority, and these recovery centers will provide access to the tools and resources needed to help our residents navigate the post-storm recovery and claims-filing process. I am amazed by the strength and sense of community that our state has exhibited in the wake of Irma’s destruction. To my fellow Floridians recovering from Irma’s wrath, help is on the way.”
Insurance experts from CFO Patronis’ Department of Financial Services will be on hand to answer Floridians’ insurance-related questions and concerns. CFO Patronis has also arranged for several insurance companies with policies in the impacted areas to be on-site to help Floridians file post-storm claims. Consumers are encouraged to bring copies of all insurance policies with them to these events. A list of participating insurance companies is available here.
The confirmed schedule of days and locations is as follows:
St. Augustine – Monday, September 18
8:00am to 6:00pm EST
St. Johns County Administration Building
500 San Sebastian View
St. Augustine, FL 32804
Jacksonville – Tuesday, September 19
8:00am to 6:00pm EST
Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center
1000 Water Street
Jacksonville, FL 32204
Naples – Wednesday, September 20
8:00am to 6:00pm EST
New Hope Ministries
7675 Davis Blvd
Naples, FL 34104
Ft. Myers – Thursday, September 21
8:00am to 6:00pm EST
Lee County Veterans Park Recreation Center
55 Homestead Road South
Lehigh Acres, FL 33936
In addition to Senator Marco Rubio’s staff and those participating from the Department of Financial Services, the following companies, non-profit organizations, and federal and state agencies have confirmed:
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
- American Red Cross
- Florida SBDC Network
- U.S. Small Business Administration
- Florida Departments of Children and Families and Economic Opportunity
- First Data Corporation
- Anheuser-Busch Companies
- CareerSource Florida
- United Way of Florida
- The Salvation Army
Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio today asked the head of FEMA to assist in restoring the state’s wireless communication networks.
Following is the text of the letter sent to FEMA:
September 12, 2017
The Honorable William B. Long
Federal Emergency Management Agency
500 C St., SW
Washington, DC 20472
Dear Administrator Long:
As we begin to address the considerable damage caused by Hurricane Irma to the state of Florida, we write to request assistance in restoring our state’s communications networks.
According to a FCC Communications Status Report issued today, 24 percent of Florida’s wireless communications systems are inoperable, with many more operating on generators or battery power. This includes 29 “911” call centers either lacking service or operating at reduced capacity. Overall, more than 7.1 million cable and/or telephone subscribers in Florida, Georgia and Alabama have been impacted.
At a time when many residents of Florida have relocated from their homes, access to wireless communications is particularly important. Wireless phones provide displaced residents with a critical lifeline to first responders, family and friends, important information about the state’s recovery from the storm, and government assistance.
The ability to contact emergency services in the days following a natural disaster is vital to the safety and security of communities. We request that FEMA coordinate with relevant federal, state and local officials to facilitate the ability of communications companies to access affected areas, assess damage to their networks and restore service.
We appreciate your prompt attention to this request.
U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio today sent the following letter to Dept. of Transportation Secretary Chao.
Following is the text of the letter sent to the Dept. of Transportation:
September 11, 2017
The Honorable Elaine Chao
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave., SE
Washington, DC 20590
Dear Secretary Chao:
As you are aware, Hurricane Irma made landfall in the state of the Florida as a category four hurricane early Sunday morning. Local officials have reported substantial damage to the bridges, roadways, and airports across the entire state. We thank the Department of Transportation for its swift release of emergency relief funding to begin addressing the immediate recovery needs.
While the infrastructure has yet to be fully surveyed, the need for assistance is expected to be significant. Florida Highway Patrol has already reported that portions of Interstate four in Central Florida have been washed out, and early indications are that northeast Florida roads are inundated with water. We are also hearing that bridges in the lower keys have sustained damage and are covered with debris. These roads, highways, and bridges may serve as critical routes, necessary for emergency response efforts, or vital to the delivery of much-needed fuel, food, water and other necessities post-storm. In addition, airports serve as a key hub for recovery as well, and are in the process of assessing damage. Without full functionality of these transportation pathways, Floridians are unable to resume their normal day-to-day lives.
The Department of Transportation plays a critical role in ensuring the safety and operability of our transportation network. While the level of damage to our state in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma is unclear, it is essential that all federal resources are provided to aid in restoring our state’s infrastructure to its optimal function and usability for our constituents. As state and local officials continue to assess the infrastructure damage incurred by this natural disaster, we ask the Department of Transportation to continue to coordinate with relevant federal agencies to provide all possible aid, staff and resources to address any deficiencies.
Thank you for your prompt consideration of this matter.