Lloyd Dunkelberger, Author at Florida Politics

Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger is a Tallahassee-based political reporter and columnist; he most recently served as Tallahassee bureau chief for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

More money proposed for public schools, colleges

The Florida Board of Education approved a 2018-2019 budget request Wednesday that includes a $200 per-student boost in the K-12 system, increased funding for the 28 state colleges and construction money for public schools, colleges and universities.

The board met in a conference call, with Chairwoman Marva Johnson and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart saying their focus remains on helping Floridians recover from Hurricane Irma.

“It certainly was an unprecedented storm, and those hit hardest will need our ongoing support,” Stewart said, noting many schools served as storm shelters and many districts are in the process of reopening schools.

With the hurricane noted, the board, without debate, approved the budget request, which will be considered when the 2018 legislative session begins in January.

The largest request involves operating funds for the public-school system’s 67 districts.

The $21.4 billion request reflects a $770 million increase in total funding, with the bulk of the increase, $534 million, coming from local property taxes.

The increase would bring funding to $7,497 for each K-12 student, or a $200 increase over the current funding level.

It takes into account a 27,184 increase in the K-12 student population, which would go up less than 1 percent to 2.86 million students next academic year.

The K-12 request also includes $140 million for the new “schools of hope” program, which distributes funding to help students in low-performing public schools and provides financial incentives for the creation of nearby charter schools.

The budget request also includes $1.24 billion in operating funds, a 2.64 percent increase, for the 28 state colleges. The proposal would increase state performance funding for the schools to $60 million, up from the current $30 million.

The board’s budget request also supports the continued expansion of merit- and need-based financial aid for students attending state colleges, universities and other post-secondary programs.

It includes $421 million for the merit-based Bright Futures scholarships, with the program continuing to cover full tuition and fees for about 47,000 students who qualify as “academic scholars,” the top award level. It also would provide them with $300 each for books during the fall and spring semesters and allow the scholarships to be used for summer classes.

The request has $269 million for the state’s largest need-based aid program, known as “student assistance grants,” which would help about 235,000 students from lower-income families. The awards would average $1,147, with a maximum award up to $2,610.

The board is asking for $185 million in facility maintenance and renovation funding. Public schools and charter schools would each receive $50 million, while state colleges would get $38 million and universities $48.6 million under the proposal.

The request includes $49 million for state-college construction projects under the Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, program. Universities would receive $74 million for PECO projects.

The request, which is based on average allocations over the last five years, is substantially less than what the colleges and universities received this year in the PECO program. Colleges had $74 million for PECO projects, while universities had $146 million.

The board’s budget request also includes $31.4 million for “special” K-12 construction projects in Taylor, Liberty and Jackson counties.

Republished with permission the News Service of Florida.

Billionaire blasts Donald Trump ‘dreamer’ decision

A prominent Republican fund-raiser turned critic of President Donald Trump said Thursday it would be a huge economic mistake not to let young undocumented immigrants, called “Dreamers,” remain in the United States.

“There is something wrong in separating families,” Miguel “Mike” Fernandez said, after delivering a speech to students and faculty at Florida A&M University. “That is a universal wrong. We are doing that in DACA.”

DACA is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows children brought to the country by their undocumented-immigrant parents to remain in the U.S. Former President Barack Obama put the program in place by executive order.

But the Trump administration this week rescinded the order, with an effective date of six months, giving Congress time to enact its own version of a DACA plan.

The Cuban-born Fernandez, who is a billionaire Miami businessman, supported Jeb Bush in last year’s presidential primary, but broke with his party over Trump’s anti-immigration stances and spent some $3 million in a campaign against Trump.

“If the president talks about Mexicans, murderers, criminals, rapists and so on, these (the Dreamers) are the very best. These are the opposite,” Fernandez said. “These are the students who are working hard. They are going to be tomorrow’s taxpayers.”

Fernandez, 65, who has created a number of health-care companies and later sold them, said Florida has more than 32,000 immigrants protected under DACA, and he estimates they will pay $6.7 billion in taxes over their lifetimes.

“It’s an economic issue,” he said. “Throw them out?”

Fernandez’s own story as a Cuban exile who came to the U.S. as a 12-year-old with his family was the focus of his speech to the FAMU students. Despite his enormous economic success, Fernandez repeatedly emphasized that he did not believe he had any great talents.

“I’m as average as they come,” he said.

He also talked about the many setbacks in his life, including business failures, three failed marriages, two heart attacks and cancer.

“You have to adjust,” Fernandez said. “There is not a linear path to success. Actually, I guarantee you that failure is a necessary step towards your success. If you haven’t failed, you haven’t pushed yourself hard enough.”

Fernandez distributed 700 copies of his autobiography, “Humbled by the Journey,” and took time after the speech to sign dozens of copies and talk to individual students.

Fernandez’s candor was also on display. Earlier in the day, he sent an email to the Tampa Bay Times calling state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, who supports the elimination of DACA, a “bully” and an “intellectual midget.”

“They are just facts,” Fernandez said when asked about the comments. “That’s my opinion of the guy.”

Fernandez, who said he has given about $30 million to Republican causes over the last 15 years, also expressed “disappointment” in Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, although he had given $100,000 to help Putnam’s Republican gubernatorial campaign.

“I think that we lack in this country people who speak and stand on their backbone,” Fernandez said.

“He’s a guy who was fairly normal in his position until he is faced with an opponent who is more to the right. He feels he has to move to the right,” Fernandez said. “I move to where I am, and that’s who I respect.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Expansion of e-books could equate to student savings

Florida universities are taking the first steps toward expanding the use of electronic textbooks and other material, hoping to bring significant savings to students who spend hundreds of dollars each semester on traditional textbooks.

The Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, approved a 2018-19 budget request this week that includes a $656,000 program to encourage the greater use of so-called “eTexts” and other open educational resources in lieu of the standard textbooks.

It may take some time to replicate the experience of the University of Indiana, a leader in the use of eTexts, with IU reporting last spring that its students saved an estimated $3.5 million in the 2016-17 academic year by using eTexts in place of textbooks.

But Joseph Glover, provost at the University of Florida, who is part of a group coordinating innovation and online programs among the universities, said the expanded use of eTexts and other open-source material “is a great opportunity for really substantial savings for our students.”

Glover said the Indiana experience “demonstrates that with a solid program and a sustained effort promoting the adoption, that over the course of a decade, you are going to end up saving the students literally millions of dollars per year.”

In a survey of 22,000 students at Florida’s 12 universities and 28 state colleges, the Florida Virtual Campus reported 53 percent of the students spent more than $300 in the spring 2016 semester on textbooks, with about 18 percent reporting they spent more than $500.

Faced with those costs, students have found other ways to deal with the financial burden, including buying used textbooks and renting textbooks.

And Jennifer Smith, director of the UF Office of Faculty Development and Teaching Excellence, said individual universities have already embarked on pilot programs aimed at cutting textbook costs.

At UF, she said the school negotiated a 43 percent discount off book publishers’ list prices for textbooks used in 79 freshman-level courses last fall. The discount saved the students an estimated $941,000, Smith said.

At Florida State University, an “alternative textbook” program will save students some $41,000 over the course of this academic year, Smith said.

“When we can populate this across the entire (system) and expand these programs, I think we will see significant savings with actually a relatively low outlay of costs,” Smith told the BOG’s Innovation and Online Committee at a meeting in Gainesville Wednesday.

The budget proposal would set aside $656,000 to create a “catalog” where professors and other instructors, as they are developing their courses, will find open-source material as well as eTexts where lower prices have been negotiated with the publishers, Glover said.

He also said a review process will be set up to assure the materials in the catalog are “high quality” and meet the universities’ educational standards.

“This is important because a problem in the past has been that resources available in the system repository have been of a mixed quality, which the faculty found frustrating and which caused them not to use it as much,” Glover said.

Glover said students will have the option of using the eTexts and other material or sticking with their traditional textbooks. But he said one advantage of the electronic material is that a system will be set up where students will pay for the access and have the eTexts available on the first day of their classes.

He also said the universities were looking a providing some type of “financial incentive” for instructors to use the alternative textbooks, but nothing has been finalized.

Ed Morton, a Board of Governors member, said he supported the efforts to decrease textbooks costs for the students.

“The cost of textbooks is a barrier for our students just like room and board,” Morton said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

FSU seeks dismissal of library shooting lawsuit

Florida State University is asking for a lawsuit filed by a former student paralyzed in a 2014 shooting at the University’s Strozier Library to be dismissed, asserting the school is not liable for the “action of a madman.”

Farhan “Ronny” Ahmed filed a lawsuit in June against FSU in Leon County circuit court, seeking damages in excess of $15,000 for pain and suffering, disability and medical expenses.

The lawsuit alleges Ahmed, who was a 21-year-old biomedical engineering student at the time, was paralyzed from the waist down and has limited use of his right arm following the Nov. 20, 2014, shooting at FSU’s main campus library.

Ahmed was shot outside the library by Myron May, a former FSU student and 31-year-old lawyer who had returned to the campus. After shooting an FSU employee in the leg and wounding another student, May was shot and killed by campus police officers responding to the emergency.

FSU, in a response filed Wednesday to Ahmed’s lawsuit, denied liability for the incident, while asserting Ahmed’s injuries were the result of May’s actions.

“Despite the university’s sympathy for plaintiff and all of the students, employees and other members of the FSU community who were exposed to the shooting, it respectfully denies that it is liable in any sum or manner for the action of a madman,” the court document said.

FSU said campus police officers, aided by local law enforcement, “responded swiftly” to the shooting at Strozier Library “and their decisive actions saved lives.”

“The resources of the university were directed to those affected,” FSU’s response said. “Student safety has always been and remains a top concern of the University.”

May entered the library lobby shortly after midnight but failed to gain access to the main building because he could not get by turnstiles, which required an FSU student identification card to be activated.

May returned to the outside of the library where he began shooting, firing three shots at Ahmed, who had his spinal cord severed by the first shot while another shot embedded a bullet in his body “four centimeters from his heart,” according to the lawsuit.

May re-entered the library and found two FSU employees huddled beneath the security desk. He shot one employee in the leg before his gun jammed.

May returned outside where he continued firing his gun until he was killed by police officers.

Several key points are in dispute in the lawsuit, including Ahmed’s assertion that if May’s “suspicious” behavior, including the failure to get by the library turnstiles, had been reported immediately to campus police, the shooting may been prevented. FSU denied that characterization of the incident.

Ahmed’s lawsuit also raises a series of allegations questioning why there wasn’t stronger security at the library, including armed security officers. FSU used unarmed security guards who were trained to report problems to campus police.

In its response, FSU argued that it was the actions of May and not the university that resulted in the shooting.

“FSU affirmatively asserts that plaintiff’s claim fails because the University cannot be liable for the unknown and unforeseeable violent, intentional and/or criminal acts of a deranged third-party – Myron May,” the response said.

Ahmed and FSU are asking for a jury trial.

In another lawsuit resulting from the Strozier shooting, Paige McPhadden, a former student and FSU employee, refiled a civil-rights claim late last month in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, seeking back pay and medical costs from FSU.

McPhadden was one of the two school employees hiding under the security desk at the library when May shot her co-worker in the leg before his gun jammed.

Although McPhadden wasn’t shot, her lawsuit said the fact that May aimed the gun at her and pulled the trigger multiple times “still caused her great and long-lasting mental and emotional injuries.”

“Plaintiff endured the terror of having a mass shooter standing over her, knowing that his gun was pointing at her, knowing that she was the next target, believing that she was about to die,” the lawsuit said.

Among her allegations, McPhadden, who is an African-American woman, said she did not receive the same level of treatment after the incident as her co-worker, who is a white male.

She said she resigned from her job after she faced “retaliation” after raising discrimination charges about her treatment.

McPhadden’s lawsuit also raises allegations, similar to the Ahmed lawsuit, about the level of security at the Strozier Library on the night of the shooting.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Universities say new money helps with faculty, courses

Florida universities are hiring more faculty, providing more scholarships and expanding course offerings and academic counseling with a $121 million boost in funding provided by the Legislature this year.

In letters to Gov. Rick Scott, the 12 state university presidents outlined plans for using their shares of $71 million in the “world class faculty and scholar” program and $50 million in a new program designed to improve “the quality and excellence” of medical, law and business graduate schools.

Although the funding was included in the $82 billion state budget for 2017-18, a shadow was cast over the new programs when Scott vetoed a policy bill that would have made more permanent the world-class scholar and graduate-school initiatives.

In a letter to each university last month, Scott urged the schools to “spend the funds judiciously and invest this funding in initiatives that will help your students graduate in four years with less debt and the ability to get a great job.”

And he noted that although the programs were designed to be in place for subsequent years, funding for the future was “uncertain” because of the rejection of the policy bill.

Scott gave the schools until this week to explain how they would use the money in the new academic year, which began July 1.

John Kelly, president of Florida Atlantic University, said the $6.6 million his school received, along with $19 million in performance funding, is being used to hire new deans and research directors. He also said the addition of new faculty has helped Florida Atlantic increase its summer course offerings by 10 percent since 2013.

“Students are more likely to graduate in four years if they are able to take courses year-round,” Kelly told the governor.

At the University of Central Florida, president John Hitt said $12 million of the $15.7 million his school received will go toward hiring 75 faculty members in “strategic” programs, including engineering and technology.

Increases in faculty have helped UCF reduce the overall class-size average to less than 30 students for the first time since 2008 and has helped the school lift its four-year graduation rate from 40 to 44 percent in the last year, Hitt said.

Already targeting low-income students, Hitt said $1.5 million of the new funding will go for more undergraduate scholarships and $1 million will be used to improve stipends for doctoral assistantships.

“These initiatives will help improve our retention and graduation rates, as well as reduce student debt,” Hitt told Scott.

Kent Fuchs, president of the University of Florida, said the $27 million that his school received will help with a recently announced long-range plan to add 500 faculty positions. The additional faculty members are expected to help UF reduce its class sizes from 20 students per instructor to around 16, which Fuchs said is the average for top public research universities.

“This will increase our students’ access to outstanding faculty, provide additional classes and improve our four-year graduation rate,” Fuchs said.

At Florida State University, President John Thrasher said the $21 million his school received will help add faculty, expand course offerings and reduce class sizes in “key” undergraduate courses such as chemistry and math.

Thrasher also said the funding will be used to improve the readiness of students for the job market “through expanding career advising in our nationally recognized career center and increasing student engagement in internships, faculty research and other career building experiences.”

Thrasher thanked Scott for supporting a major expansion of Bright Futures merit scholarships and need-based financial aid this year, although the authority for some of those initiatives was also complicated by the veto of the higher-education policy bill.

Mark Rosenberg, president of Florida International University, said his school would use its $16 million in funding for recruiting faculty, offering more “hybrid” courses, which include online as well as classroom teaching, and improving technology to track student progress.

He also said the money would be used for more undergraduate scholarships as well as financial aid for law- and medical-school students.

“These investments are intended to improve four-year graduation rates, timely career counseling and placement and intensified educational opportunities to counsel and advise students on minimizing debt,” Rosenberg said.

Republish with permission of the News Service of Florida.

GOP strategist Rick Wilson tees off on Donald Trump

As the Republican field running for governor grows, a top GOP strategist offered some advice Wednesday to candidates seeking to follow term-limited Gov. Rick Scott.

“Just don’t be Trump’s mini-me, a simple rule,” Rick Wilson told the Capital Tiger Bay Club in a luncheon speech.

Wilson, a Tallahassee-based national Republican strategist who has become one of the most-outspoken critics of President Donald Trump, said most of the Republicans positioning themselves to run for governor next year “are pretty much onboard the Trump train to Trash Fire Mountain.”

Wilson, who has nearly three decades of political experience, said he understands the attraction of trying to appeal to Trump supporters in a Republican primary, but he warned it’s a “sugar high” that could have consequences in the general election.

“Their consultants are looking at that Trump base approval number and encouraging their guys to get an orange wig and rage tweet every morning at 6 a.m.,” Wilson said. “It’s a really bad look on most people. Trying to out-Trump Trump is the biggest sin in politics.”

Wilson said voters will “know you’re faking it.”

“Be real, guys, be yourself, be better than Trumpism,” Wilson said. “You’ll thank me in the general election, I promise you.”

In a nearly hour-long appearance before the political club, Wilson talked about his transition from a “rock-solid party guy,” who got his start with George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential campaign,” to a man who underwent a “political midlife change” in the 2016 election.

Wilson, who ended up supporting Evan McMullin’s independent bid for president, said Trump was not aligned with his political beliefs of limited government, individual liberty, an adherence to the Constitution and support for government restraint.

“I just couldn’t bring myself to pretend that Donald Trump was a conservative or that he was a Republican,” Wilson said. “He doesn’t believe in anything except himself, his celebrity and his brand. That’s not the party I signed up for.”

Wilson said the “real election” last year was “for the heart and soul” of his party.

“Republicans were hypnotized by a celebrity con man with a nationalist message, who was given virtually unlimited media attention,” he said.

With Trump’s recent equivocating on condemning racial violence in Charlottesville, Va., Wilson said “this is a bad time to be a Republican.”

“I have to call out not just Donald Trump right now but leaders of my party who will not call Donald Trump out by name for what he has done and said in the last few days to give aid and comfort to Nazis, Klansmen and racists,” Wilson said.

But he added he was “heartened” by remarks from Republican leaders, who unlike the president, directly condemned the actions by the nationalist groups in Virginia.

“They have recognized finally that this is a man who is off the rails,” Wilson said.

Wilson also warned that neither Republicans nor Democrats are “ready for the future.” He predicted that an accelerated cycle of change politically, socially and economically “will make the last 10 years look like the 1950s.”

He said voters are disengaging from both parties, reflected by the growing number of voters who claim no party affiliation.

“They increasingly sense that politics is disconnected from the things that affect their daily lives,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s outspokenness has drawn the ire of Trump supporters and the president, who has 36 million Twitter followers to Wilson’s 221,000 followers.

“One of the most amazing experiences you can have in your life is when Donald Trump tweets something terrible about you. Wow,” Wilson said. “You learn very quickly who your enemies and your friends are.”

Wilson said impeachment of Trump is not likely.

“Unless they find a note in Cyrillic from Trump, impeachment is a very high hill,” he said, alluding to investigations about alleged ties between Trump’s campaign and supporters to Russia.

But he raised the possibility that Trump might not seek re-election.

“I think Donald Trump is miserable. I think he hates this job,” he said.

Wilson also predicted that Trump, despite his controversies, will not change.

“It’s always the worst week. This is another worst week,” Wilson said. “I have two big theories. It never gets better. And everything Trump touches dies.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

State college enrollment sees uptick

Florida state colleges this year are expected to have their first modest rise in enrollment since 2010.

A new state forecast projects a 1 percent growth rate in enrollment in the 28 colleges during the 2017-18 academic year, representing the equivalent of 324,109 full-time students. Each “full-time equivalent” actually represents about 2.5 students, reflecting the fact that 65 percent of the students in the system attend part-time.

The projected increase of 3,209 students, which will be adjusted through the year as actual headcounts occur, would represent the first positive year-to-year growth since the fall of 2010, when the system peaked with 375,292 “full-time equivalents,” representing nearly 900,000 actual students. The current headcount is around 750,000 students.

But this year’s projected growth is significant in that it is a variation of a pattern of college enrollment increasing when unemployment rises and falling when jobs are plentiful.

When the job market tightened as it did during the recession, Floridians had more incentive and time to return to school to improve their skills or develop new ones. But when jobs are plentiful, people have less time and incentive to attend college.

This year may be different, as there are signs of rising enrollment in the system even with a strong economy and low unemployment rate.

One example is Palm Beach State College, the fourth-largest college in the system. It was projected to have a 3.1 percent enrollment increase this year, although state forecasters have backed off any projections for individual schools as they refine their estimates.

But that number is in line with what has been occurring at the school, where enrollment rose 2.8 percent in the 2016-17 academic year, up from 2015-16.

Ava Parker, president of the school, which serves about 35,000 full- and part-time students, said one of the reasons for the growth is a strategic plan to increase enrollment, knowing the added students will bring in tuition to offset flat or decreased state funding and tuition rates that have been frozen to keep costs affordable.

“We need to go out and be aggressive about getting students into the door and/or keeping them,” Parker said.

She also said local factors influence the enrollment for many schools.

In Palm Beach County, Parker said the passage of a local sales tax to build more schools, roads and other public infrastructure has spurred a need for workers to return to school to develop specific skills for construction projects and related trades.

State college enrollment is also rising because more students are seeking baccalaureate degrees, which are offered at 26 of the 28 colleges.

Enrollment in those programs rose 5.6 percent last academic year, compared to the prior year. But the students enrolled in four-year degree programs only represent 5 percent of the overall enrollment.

At Palm Beach State, baccalaureate enrollment rose by nearly 11 percent last year, with Parker saying the availability of better-paying jobs is providing an incentive for workers to return to school, even if it’s part-time.

“The baccalaureate students that we serve are ones who are sitting at their desks, at their jobs, looking through the HR notices and seeing there are opportunities for growth but you need a BS (bachelor of science) degree to get there,” Parker said.

Enrollment in two-year or associate degree programs, which represents 67 percent of the overall enrollment, declined by 1.8 percent in 2016-17, compared to the prior year.

There was also a 14 percent decline in enrollment for students identified as needing remedial help, constituting 4.3 percent of last year’s enrollment.

The decline in the “developmental education” students became a point of contention during this year’s legislative session, as the Senate pushed for budget cuts based on the decreased enrollment, while colleges argued many students still needed tutoring and other help to handle college-level courses even if they were not identified as “remedial.”

“The biggest misnomer to me is that folks think you must need less resources,” Parker said. “No. You need the same resources and/or more.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Associated Industries of Florida announces bipartisan Senate, House endorsements

The Associated Industries of Florida PAC today announced endorsements in 95 legislative races in 2016, including 23 state Senate seats and 72 House seats.

“Today, we are excited to announce AIFPAC’s endorsements for candidates running for the Florida Senate and House this election cycle,” said Tom Feeney, president and CEO of AIF. “After thorough review of all of the candidates, we believe these candidates are the best and brightest to help propel Florida’s business community forward.”

Feeney said the candidates, including both Republicans and Democrats, were evaluated on their commitment to protecting employers and workers, to broadening the state’s economic base and developing “innovative ways to entice new business to the Sunshine State.”

Here are AIFPAC’s endorsements in the Senate races, where technically there are no incumbents since the Senate map was redrawn in a redistricting process:

— (SD 3) Bill Montford (D); (SD 8) Keith Perry (R); (SD 11) Randolph Bracy (D).

— (SD 12) Dennis Baxley (R); (SD 13) Dean Asher (R); (SD 14) Dorothy Hukill (R); (SD 15) Bob Healy Jr (D).

— (SD 16) Jack Latvala (R); (SD 17) Ritch Workman (R); (SD 18) Dana Young (R); (SD 19) Edwin “Ed” Narain (D).

— (SD 22) Kelli Stargel (R); (SD 23) Doug Holder (R); (SD 24) Jeff Brandes (R); (SD 25) Joe Negron (R).

— (SD 27) Lizbeth Benacquisto (R); (SD 29) Kevin Rader (D); (SD 30) Bobby Powell (D); (SD 36) Rene Garcia (R).

— (SD 37) Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R); (SD 38) Daphne Campbell (D); (SD 39) Anitere Flores (R); (SD 40) Frank Artiles (R).

Here are AIFPAC’s endorsements in the House races, where incumbents are noted by an asterisk:

— (HD 1) Clay Ingram (R)*; (HD 2) Frank White (R); (HD 3) Jayer Williamson (R); (HD 5) Brad Drake (R)*; (HD 6) Jay Trumbull (R)*.

— (HD 8) Ramon Alexander (D); (HD 9) Loranne Ausley (D); (HD 10) Elizabeth Porter (R)*; (HD 15) Jay Fant (R)*; (HD 16) Dick Kravitz (R).

— (HD 18) Travis Cummings (R)*; (HD 22) Charlie Stone (R)*; (HD 23) Stan McClain (R); (HD 24) Paul Renner (R)*; (HD 25) Tom Leek (R).

— (HD 27) David Santiago (R)*; (HD 28) Jason Brodeur (R)*; (HD 29) Scott Plakon (R)*; (HD 30) Bob Cortes (R)*; (HD 31) Jennifer Sullivan (R)*.

— (HD 35) Blaise Ingoglia (R)*; (HD 36) Amanda Murphy (D)*; (HD 39) Neil Combee (R)*; (HD 40) Colleen Burton (R)*.

— (HD 41) Sam Killebrew (R); (HD 42) Mike La Rosa (R)*; (HD 43) John Cortes (D)*; (HD 45) Gregory A. Jackson (D); (HD 46) Bruce Antone (D)*.

— (HD 47) Mike Miller (R)*; (HD 50) Rene “Coach P” Plasencia (R); (HD 51) Tom Goodson (R); (HD 53) Randy Fine (R); (HD 56) Ben Albritton (R)*.

— (HD 58) Daniel Raulerson (R)*; (HD 59) Ross Spano (R)*; (HD 63) Shawn Harrison (R)*; (HD 65) Chris Sprowls (R)*; (HD 66) Larry Ahern (R)*.

— (HD 67) Chris Latvala (R)*; (HD 68) Ben Diamond (D); (HD 69) Kathleen Peters (R)*; (HD 72) Alexandra “Alex” Miller (R); (HD 74) Julio Gonzalez (R)*.

— (HD 76) Ray Rodrigues (R)*; (HD 79) Matt Caldwell (R)*; (HD 80) Byron Donalds (R); (HD 82) Mary Lynn Magar (R)*; (HD 83) Gayle Harrell (R)*.

— (HD 85) Rick Roth (R); (HD 86) Matt Willhite (D); (HD 87) David Silvers (D); (HD 88) Al Jacquet (D); (HD 90) Lori Berman (D)*.

— (HD 91) Kelly Skidmore (D); (HD 92) Whitney Rawls (D); (HD 93) George Moraitis (R)*; (HD 103) Manny Diaz Jr. (R)*.

— (HD 104) Richard “Rick” Stark (D)*; (HD 105) Carlos Trujillo (R)*; (HD 106) Bob Rommel (R); (HD 107) Barbara Watson (D)*.

— (HD 110) Jose Oliva (R)*; (HD 111) Bryan Avila (R)*; (HD 112) Nicholas Duran (D); (HD 113) David Richardson (D)*; (HD 114) John Couriel (R).

— (HD 115) Michael Bileca (R)*; (HD 116) Jose Felix Diaz (R)*; (HD 118) David Rivera (R); (HD 119) Jeanette Nunez (R)*; (HD 120) Holly Raschein (R)*.

 

Santa Rosa Beach no trespassing sign sparks Walton County free speech battle

FortWaltonSign2A First Amendment fight has broken out on the sugar-white sands of Santa Rosa Beach in Walton County.

A retired couple, who own a 2,296-square-foot beachfront home, has filed a federal lawsuit, asserting a new Walton County ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution because it prohibits the couple from posting no-trespassing signs on their privately owned property.

The couple, Edward and DeLanie Goodwin, are represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group that advocates for private property and individual rights. The PLF does not charge its clients for the legal work.

“The Goodwins have a First Amendment right to speak — and to use signs as a means of speech, a way to convey the message that their beach is not public, and that they value and insist on their property rights,” said J. David Breemer, the lead attorney for the PLF. “The county is robbing them of that fundamental right of free speech. Denying them the use of signs denies them the ability to let the public and the county itself know that their land is private and trespassing will not be allowed.”

“The county’s ban on all signs on our property endangers both our freedom of speech and our private property rights,” said Edward Goodwin. “That’s why it is necessary for us to go to court.”

The Goodwins have two 12-by-18-inch “private property” signs on their property as well as a third, smaller signs that says: “If the County Wants My Private Beach for Public Use, It Must Pay Me For It — U.S. Constitution.”

The Goodwins said they posted the private-property signs because the local sheriff, citing state law, said trespassing complaints would not be investigated unless the public is warned about private property.

The couple said they posted the signs because of incidents involving the public wandering onto their private land, which is adjacent to a public beach.

“Some have set up beach tents on the property, allowed pets to defecate on it, and refused to pick up their refuse. On occasion (typically, at least once a year), strangers have crossed the Goodwins’ dry beach without permission and entered the Goodwins’ home,” the complaint says.

Edward Goodwin said he was threatened by a surfer after he took a picture of the surfers on the private land.

The complaint also says county vehicles, including trash trucks, sometimes drive across the property.

In May 2014, a county code officer cited the couple for installing an illegal beach “obstruction,” the two private-property signs which are mounted on PVC pipe and linked by a plastic chain. The citation carried a $100 fine.

The Goodwins went to court and had the citation dismissed.

But throughout this time, there were growing controversies between beachfront property owners in Walton County, like the Goodwins, and members of the public, who were claiming access rights to the beaches.

It resulted in the Walton County Commission last month voting to amend its “Beach Activities Code,” resulting in the sign ban.

“It shall be unlawful for any person to place, construct or maintain an obstruction on the beach. Obstructions include, but are not limited to ropes, chains, signs or fences,” the county ordinance says.

In late June, the Goodwins were cited for violating the revised ordinance and now face a $500 fine per incident.

As a result of that, the PLF filed its constitutional challenge earlier this week in the U.S. District Court in Pensacola. The county has yet to file a legal response to the challenge.

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Citizens Insurance to spend $1.8M for investigating water damage claims

The Citizens Property Insurance Corp. board of governors Tuesday approved a $1.8 million contract with a company that will examine escalating water damage claims from policyholders and determine whether the charges are excessive.

“The goal is to identify inflated or excessive charges on invoices from contractors that have performed water damage restorations for Citizens’ policyholders and to contest or adjust invoices so it comports with industry standards,” said Jay Adams, Citizens’ chief of claims.

Without debate, the board unanimously approved the five-year contract, which includes two one-year extensions, with Lynx Services, LLC.

Rising water claims have been a growing concern for Citizens officials. The property insurer, which is backed by the state, is advancing a 6.8 percent statewide rate hike for its nearly 500,000 policyholders, citing rising water-damage claims as a key reason for the premium increase.

The water-damage claim issue is particularly acute in Southeast Florida, where Citizens’ policyholders could see a rate hike approaching 10 percent. The rate hike is headed to a public hearing next month with a final decision by Citizens’ board of governors set for September.

Citizens officials have blamed the rising number and cost of water claims on Florida’s “assignment of benefits (AOB)” law, where contractors, restoration companies and others can take over the policyholder’s damage claim.

Supporters of AOB argue it allows repair work to be handled more quickly and gives contractors a direct way to be paid for their work. Critics say the AOB system has been abused, with Citizens compiling data that shows AOB claims often end up in costly litigation and even the AOB claims that don’t go to court cost more than non-AOB claims that are resolved outside of court.

Citizens and other groups pushed for limits on the AOB law in the 2016 session, but the bills failed. The issue will likely return to the 2017 legislative agenda.

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