Backroom Briefing: A feverish political fight over Zika

(Weekly political notes from The News Service of Florida)


Mosquitoes are an annoying fact of life in Florida. Now, they might also be carrying the next major political issue for the fall campaign.

Amid fears that the mosquito-borne Zika virus could soon make its way to the continental United States — there have already been cases in Florida and elsewhere linked to overseas travel — the disease has rapidly moved up the list of concerns for Florida politicians. The state is close to Latin America, which has been hit hard by cases of Zika contracted from mosquitoes, and is home to a large number of people from Puerto Rico, where the virus also has quickly become a problem.

Gov. Rick Scott jumped into the fray this week, issuing a letter calling on President Barack Obama to do more to combat the virus in Florida after Congress decided to take a recess without coming to agreement on the issue. The House has advanced a $622.1 million funding measure for the fight against Zika, while the Senate has moved forward with $1.1 billion. Obama is pushing a roughly $1.9 billion proposal.

But Scott said the squabbling won’t solve the problem, and he wants Obama to move more aggressively regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill.

“The fact that Congress has not taken immediate action to protect our nation from Zika before hurricane season began and we have entered the heart of summer heat, heavy rainfall and a growing mosquito population, is profoundly disappointing,” Scott wrote. “However, in order to best protect the 20 million people in Florida and our many visitors from the spread of Zika, I cannot waste any time on disappointment.”

Scott also appeared Thursday on “Your World with Neil Cavuto” on Fox News to press his case.

“We’re going to do our part, but the Obama administration needs to be a partner. … They need to fulfill our needs now,” he said.

Scott’s letter called for a variety of resources — including for insecticides and personnel — to help monitor the state’s sizable population of bloodthirsty mosquitoes.

Josh Earnest, the president’s press secretary, told reporters Wednesday that he couldn’t directly answer whether Scott’s requests could be covered from some money that the administration has moved around for Zika-related costs. But he also turned the request back on the GOP-controlled Congress.

“Our message to Governor Scott is that in order to do everything that our public health professionals say we need to do to protect the American people and the people of Florida from the Zika virus, we need Congress to appropriate additional funds,” Earnest said, according to a transcript posted on the White House website.

Scott has frequently used Obama as a foil in the past, but the governor would hardly be the first politician to try to capitalize on the standoff over Zika. The congressional tussle has put Florida House Republicans, in particular, in a bind. Several of them have said that they support full funding for the Obama administration’s request — but voted for the House bill in lieu of doing nothing.

That hasn’t kept the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the House, from lambasting vulnerable Republicans like South Florida Congressman Carlos Curbelo for the vote.

“This is an emerging epidemic that Carlos Curbelo apparently thinks we can deal with for less than a third of what the Centers for Disease Control needs,” Jermaine House, a spokesman for the DCCC, said in a recent statement on the vote.

On Thursday, Annette Taddeo — a Democrat running against Curbelo (and facing a tough primary battle against former Congressman Joe Garcia) — held an event focused on Zika outside Curbelo’s office in Miami.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee blasted Congressman Patrick Murphy — one of the Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Marco Rubio — for voting against a pesticide deregulation bill that the GOP says would help fight the virus.

“It’s hardly a surprise that Murphy was once again a puppet of the Washington Democrat establishment — but it’s inexcusable that he refused to stand up to his party and instead put Floridians at risk,” the committee said in an email blast to reporters.

And Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham, who’s considering a run to replace Scott when he’s term-limited out of office in 2018, did a “workday” with the Bay County Mosquito Control Division this week to draw attention to the fight against the virus.

“Florida’s on the front lines in the fight against Zika,” Graham said. “It’s time for Congress to do their job and pass full funding to fight this deadly virus.”


The conservative-advocacy group Americans for Prosperity has taken its game to the Tampa Bay area this week to try and keep local officials from using tax dollars to find a new home for Major League Baseball’s Rays.

The Tallahassee-based branch of the group, which was a leading critic of a failed $250 million economic-incentives push by Scott and Enterprise Florida during the recent legislative session, is trying to warn residents against efforts to publicly fund a new baseball stadium in Hillsborough or Pinellas counties.

“Local officials need to stand by their citizens and disregard any attempts by MLB teams, like the Rays, that use faulty expectations and more broken promises,” Americans for Prosperity’s state director, Chris Hudson, said in a release Wednesday. “It is unfair to ask taxpayers to help a sports club enrich itself at the expense of real community infrastructure needs.”

The release came as the Tampa Bay Times reported that executives with the Rays — currently playing at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg — spent nearly two hours discussing nine potential sites for a new ballpark with officials from Tampa and Hillsborough County.

A new stadium for regular-season games may cost from $400 million to $700 million, depending on location and features. Funding discussions are expected to include the use of hotel bed-tax dollars, redevelopment tax dollars and a state stadium-funding process created in 2014 that has yet to see any tax dollars awarded.

TWEET OF THE WEEK: “No budget. No plan for Puerto Rico. No Zika funding. But there will be a Congressional panel on MAGIC! #DoYourJob”—Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham (@RepGwenGraham), on an invitation to attend a panel discussion including Congressman Pete Sessions, magician David Copperfield and Wylie, Texas, Mayor Eric Hogue.