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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Florida lawmakers react to Obama's Syria plan

Sen. Bill Nelson: "The president wants to put to rest any doubt the American people may have. I support the president's decision. But as far as I’m concerned, we should strike in Syria today. The use of chemical weapons was inhumane, and those responsible should be forced to suffer the consequences.”  

Sen. Marco Rubio: “I agree with the decision to seek Congressional approval before taking military action in Syria. And I believe Congress should return to Washington immediately and begin to debate this issue. The United States should only engage militarily when it is pursuing a clear and attainable national security goal. Military action taken simply to send a message or save face does not meet that standard.” …

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'Run, Ted, Run'

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz electrified a crowd of conservative activists in Orlando on Saturday, calling for a public uprising to stop the federal health care law as he sounded and acted very much like a presidential candidate.

“Run, Ted, run. Run, Ted, run!” the audience chanted as the blunt-talking Texan concluded a more than 25-minute speech, the call for 2016 growing louder. Basking in the attention, Cruz joked, “I will confess that’s the same thing my wife says when I come home from the gym early.”

Cruz was the final top-name speaker of the two-day Americans for Prosperity “Defending the American Dream” conference and got the most enthusiastic reception, eclipsing other potential presidential candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who both spoke Friday.

When Cruz started to wrap up, saying, “I want to close,” the crowd loudly voiced disapproval, urging him to say more.

His speech before some of the most ardent conservatives hit all the right notes: Obamacare, abolishing the IRS, lack of focus in Washington on job growth and what’s wrong with the Common Core education standards, which drew some of the loudest boos of support. …

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Fraud? What fraud? Another FDLE investigation comes up empty.

The looming potential for fraud in the 2012 Presidential Election was how Republicans justified strict measures in Florida that made it tougher to register voters.

So nine months after the ballots have been counted, where exactly are the culprits of voter registration fraud?

Keep looking because the the Florida Department of Law Enforcement hasn’t found them yet.

On Friday, the agency released the results of two more cases involving allegations of voter registration fraud.

In a probe of the Florida New Majority Education Fund, which aims to increase voter registration among under-represented groups, the FDLE concluded it could make no arrests.

Read report here.

In a second probe, involving Strategic Allied Consulting, a vendor for the Republican Party of Florida, an arrest was made of a man who stole the identity of a former girlfriend’s ex-husband. He admitted to fraudulently filling out two voter registration forms. And that was it.

Read report here.

The rather meager findings of both investigations were in keeping with others that have concluded this year. None have found fraud on a significant scale.   …

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Lawmakers registered to vote in right place, but Latvala says residency issues remain

A review of Florida’s 160 lawmakers by the state’s Secretary of State has determined that all of them are registered to vote in the district for which they were elected to represent.

While that may not sound like news, doubts about where lawmakers live have been raised this summer, prompting Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford to order a review of their voter registrations.

On Friday, Maria Matthews, director of the Division of Elections, sent a letter to Gaetz and Weatherford stating that, as of Aug. 29, 2013, not one lawmaker is registered in the wrong district.

See Report

Gaetz and Weatherford have also asked the general counsels of each chamber to recommend standards that will be used to determine if lawmakers are breaking the law.

Such clarifications are necessary because case law is rather unclear about where a legislator must live. A 1947 Florida Supreme Court ruling says the best proof of where a lawmaker resides is where they say they do. That makes voter registration important. …

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Alex Sink endorses Amanda Murphy in Pasco House race

Former candidate for governor Alex Sink says she’s endorsing Amanda Murphy in the race to replace Mike Fasano in House District 36.

“Her commitment to community service, her financial training, and her strong business background prepare her to well-represent the families of West Pasco,” Sink said in a statement released by the House Democrats.

Sink, the state’s former chief financial officer, ran for governor in 2010.

Murphy, a Raymond James financial advisor, is running in a special election on Oct. 15 to replace Fasano. Fasano resigned when he was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to replace county tax collector Mike Olson who died.

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Boos but mostly cheers for Rubio in Orlando

Sen. Marco Rubio knew it was coming, and it did -- shouts and jeers from conservative activists over his role in immigration reform.

"Build the fence!" a man yelled as Rubio took the stage Friday at the Americans for Prosperity conference in Orlando. "No amnesty!" several people shouted throughout his address.

But the reception from the crowd of 1,500 was mostly enthusiastic for Rubio, who used his speech to denounce big government and Obamacare, the mention of which brought people to their feet. 

Rubio also got loud applause when he criticized the Common Core education standards, which have come under assault form tea party activists who see the standards as a federal takeover.  By extension, Rubio was jabbing at his mentor, former Gov. Jeb Bush, who is a major backer of Common Core and has worked to defend against the critics.

Rubio never mentioned immigration but it was on the mind of many. He was one of eight senators who crafted a wide-ranging bill that would spend tens of billions on border security while also providing a pathway to citizenship for as many as 11 million undocumented residents, provided they pay fines and meet other standards. …

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Rick Scott to invoke 'The hug' and pitch $500M in tax cuts before conservative crowd in Orlando

Times files

The hug is back.

Gov. Rick Scott will surely please the crowd at the Americans for Prosperity conference in Orlando today by invoking Charlie Crist's embrace of President Barack Obama and the federal stimulus.

"I came into office just as President Obama’s stimulus money was on the way out. My predecessor had made a name for himself by hugging president Obama’s non-stop spending – and even hugging the President. When asked about taking all the stimulus, he said he 'needed the money,' " Scott says, according to prepared remarks. "As a result, spending and debt increased at an alarming rate. DC’s spending addiction had spread to Florida.

Scott, citing an improved economy, will announce a proposal to cut taxes and fees by $500 million in the next budget.

The hug proved effective for Marco Rubio in the 2010 Senate battle with Crist, and Scott has used the imagery in a fundraising letter. Today's speech signals he intends to continue down that road. It could also serve to inject some life into Scott's otherwise lackluster public persona. "He is like the zombie candidate," said Edward Lynch, a conservative activist from Wellington.

More from Scott's speech: …

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Casino promoter runs into hot water in Vegas

As the Florida Senate completes plans to embark on a statewide road show to discuss the future of gambling in Florida, one of the most active players in the quest to bring resort casinos to Florida -- Las Vegas Sands -- has withstood some rocky publicity this week. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, and other news sources, the casino giant has agreed to pay more than $47 million and will accept U.S. Department of Justice's assertion that the company failed to report suspcicious financial activity by a customer who dealt only in cash, and who was later identified as a drug kingpin. 

A Sands spokesman told the Wall Street Journal in its Wednesday papers that, "The company cooperated fully in the investigation, and that effort was recognized clearly by the government."

Under the agreement reviewed by the WSJ, Sands has agreed to refrain from using generic names on its customer accounts and must also conduct two years of reviews of its anti-money laundering policies and file periodic reports with the government.  …

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What happened at the Scott/Bush education huddle?

We asked Gov. Rick Scott's office for a report on last night's meeting with former Gov. Jeb Bush, state Sen. John Thrasher and state Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand.

Here's the 10-word response we got back from spokeswoman Jackie Schutz: "They had a very productive conversation about education in Florida."

The private meeting took place at an undisclosed location in Miami at 6 p.m.

No other details have been released.

Parent groups and Democrats were critical of the backroom huddle, particularly because Scott did not attend the three-day education summit he convened in Clearwater earlier in the week.

Update: The meeting was held at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, where Bush keeps an office, according to an email from Schutz.

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State Division of Elections has a new public face

Brittany Lesser is the new spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Elections.

Brittany Lesser is the new spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Elections.

The Florida Division of Elections has a fresh and much younger public face, as spokeswoman Brittany Lesser arrived from Washington this week.

Lesser, 24, is formally the communications director for the Department of State, but most of the agency's public attention is from hot-button voting issues, such as Gov. Rick Scott's plan to resume scrubbing the Florida voter registration database for suspected non-citizens.

Things are relatively quiet in the agency now, but they promise to get a lot busier in 2014, an election year.

Lesser is a Colorado native, journalism graduate of Brigham Young University and former intern at NBC News' Washington bureau, and said she was eager to start a new career in Florida. "It seemed like a good fit," she said. …

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Sun on Political Connections: Bob Buckhorn laments Crist may be Dem nominee

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a man quite a few savvy Democrats have encouraged to run for governor, appears Sunday on Political Connections on Bay News 9 to talk about the impact of the national Republican convention one year later, about the prospect of the Rays moving to Tampa, mass transit, and statewide politics.

Political Connections airs Sunday at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m., but here's a clip of Buckhorn weighing in on the potential Democratic gubernatorial field. He would prefer Alex Sink over Charlie Crist as his party's nominee.

"I'm frustrated that our bench is not deeper than it is, the fact that we could conceivably wind up with a
candidate who one or two years ago was saying something entirely different than where he is today," Buckhorn said. "Clearly Rick Scott is vulnerable. I wish we had a pro-business Democrat, a centrist, because I think that person could win."

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Bill Young not convinced about U.S. need to attack Syria

Rep. C.W. Bill Young said despite the detailed evidence offered on the use of chemical weapons he is not sold on the need for military action.

Getty Images

Rep. C.W. Bill Young said despite the detailed evidence offered on the use of chemical weapons he is not sold on the need for military action.

Rep. C.W. Bill Young says he's unconvinced about the need to take military action against Syria, despite Obama administration officials insisting in a call Thursday night with ranking members of Congress that they have proof chemical weapons were used.

"They did not give any timetable" or specifics on what action could be taken, Young said.

Young, the Pinellas County Republican who chairs the powerful defense appropriations subcommittee, said he quickly asked when the administration would seek funding, either through a supplemental budget request or by "reprogramming" existing funds.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel "turned that off real fast," Young said. "He said. 'We're not at that point yet.' "

"If there's no funding request, there's no real plan to do anything," said Young. "It tells me I'm not sure what they're going to do."

Young said despite the detailed evidence offered on the use of chemical weapons -- there were references on the call to substances found inside projectiles used against the Syrian people -- he is not sold on the need for military action.  …

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After skipping summit, Gov. Rick Scott huddles with Jeb Bush

After failing to show up at the three-day education summit he convened in Clearwater this week, Gov. Rick Scott held a private meeting in Miami Thursday night to discuss the future of Florida’s schools.

The guest list: former Gov. Jeb Bush, state Sen. John Thrasher and state Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand.

The dinnertime meeting was cloaked in extraordinary secrecy. Scott’s schedule did not list a location other than “Miami, FL,” and his chief spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers, couldn’t provide any other details.

That infuriated parent activists, who said Scott shouldn’t have called three dozen education leaders to Clearwater if he intended to make decisions with a small group of advisers out of the public eye.

“This is how education reform gets done in Florida,” said Rita Solnet, founder of the advocacy group Parents Across America. “The summit was a façade. The real decisions have always been made by Jeb Bush.”

Bush, who has played a dominating role in determining Florida’s education policy for nearly two decades, declined comment through a spokeswoman. Chartrand and Thrasher did not return calls from The Herald/Times. …

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DEO aide vows neutrality in deals involving husband's lobbying clients

The communications director at the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Monica Russell, wrote a letter this week to her supervisor that states she will recuse herself from any issue relating to clients of her husband, the lobbyist Daniel Russell.

“Although no matter or issue has come before me to date, in the unlikely event that an issue or decision directly involving one of these clients were to come before me, in an abundance of caution and to avoid the appearance of any impropriety, I will immediately recuse myself from such issue or decision and delegate responsibility to the appropriate DEO staff member,” Monica Russell wrote to Jesse Panuccio, the DEO’s executive director.

Download Letter from Russell to Panuccio

The date of the letter is Aug. 27, the same day the Times/Herald reported that a birthday celebration for Melissa Sellers, Gov. Rick Scott's communications director, was held Saturday at the Tallahassee home of the Russells. Sellers and Adam Hollingsworth, Scott’s chief of staff, were among those who attended. …

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Why is Rick Scott speaking at Americans for Prosperity event?

Let's say you're a sitting governor heading into an election where your only chance of winning a second term is to dramatically improve your standing among independent and swing voters. What would you do?

Well, you might suddenly start talking about the importance of throwing more money at public schools, maybe even start sympathizing with parents and teachers grumbling about too much emphasis on testing. Maybe then reverse course on opposing expanding Medicaid insurance coverage for more than a million Floridians, even if you do nothing to actually make that happen. You might also start touting your commitment to the environment and committ $90-million to help the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee.

Then, of course, you would jump at the opportunity to give the keynote address at an Americans for Prosprity conference. Huh? …

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