Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics - Page 3 of 51

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

Judge strikes victims’ rights amendment — Marsy’s Law — from ballot

A Tallahassee judge on Monday ordered the Constitution Revision Commission’s proposed Amendment 6, which would guarantee crime victims’ rights and raise judges’ retirement age, stripped from the November ballot.

“Because the title and summary do not meet the requirements of Florida laws … in fully, fairly, and accurately telling the voters the chief purpose of the proposed amendment, and because the title and summary are, in addition, misleading, the CRC’s proposal … does not meet ‘truth in packaging’ requirements for submission to the voters and must be removed from the ballot,” Circuit Judge Karen Gievers wrote.

This makes the second amendment that Gievers has ruled against: She already struck down a measure aimed at ending live greyhound racing in the state. That decision is now being appealed at the state Supreme Court, as this latest ruling will no doubt be.

During a bench trial last week, Gievers had warned litigants she would hold the CRC to a high standard for straightforwardness in ruling in two separate challenges to the proposed revision.

In her ruling, the judge conceded that “courts should use extreme care, caution, and restraint before removing a proposal from the voters’ consideration.” They should do so, she continued, only when the laws have been “clearly and conclusively violated.”

In this case, “the problem lies not in what is said but what was not said,” Gievers wrote. “Here, the CRC has not mentioned crucial language in the title and summary.”

Specifically, it does not make clear that the revision would eliminate some rights for criminal defendants. “Neither the title nor summary mentions that the victims’ rights … were qualified and subject to the constitutional rights of the accused,” she wrote, or that it would include delinquency proceedings.

The measure “does not tell voters that years of settled law and provisions that comprise the criminal justice system and the juvenile justice system will be significantly changed,” Gievers wrote.

In addition, the amendment would raise judges’ retirement age from 70 to 75, and limit the deference courts give to government agencies’ interpretations of laws and regulations.

Defending the law last week were Greenberg Traurig legal legend Barry Richard, representing Marsy’s Law for Florida, a victims’ rights group, and Karen Borden of the Office of the Attorney General. Richard had no immediate comment Monday evening.

Mark Herron, one of the attorneys challenging the proposal, had no comment: “I will let it speak for itself,” he said via email.

Judge to decide whether Amendment 6 goes on ballot

A Tallahassee judge made clear Friday that she’ll hold the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) to a high standard for straightforwardness when deciding whether its victims-rights proposal deserves a place on the fall ballot.

CRC members understand their responsibility to give voters “full, accurate information, letting the voters know if the Constitution is being significantly affected by proposals,” Circuit Judge Karen Gievers said during a bench trial over the proposed Amendment 6.

“So that the ball isn’t being hidden, and there won’t be ambiguities that can be clarified in later court proceedings,” she said.

“It’s about letting the voters know from the title and the summary that the voters will see when they go into the voting place, or vote by mail in the general election, that we’re giving them truth in packaging of the changes to our state Constitution.”

Gievers heard two separate legal challenges to the title and ballot summary for Amendment 6, which would boost victims’ right to be notified of developments in criminal proceedings and to be heard, among other things.

It also is referred to as “Marsy’s Law,” after a murdered California college student.

In addition, the amendment would also raise judges’ retirement age from 70 to 75, and limit the deference courts give to government agencies’ interpretations of laws and regulations.

Gievers didn’t say when she would rule, but acknowledged time is limited, given that general election ballot language is supposed to go to the printer no later than Sept. 4.

The plaintiffs, including Lee Hollander, a southwest Florida attorney, and Amy Knowles, described by lawyer Harvey Sepler as a private citizen, argue that the title and summary fail to meet the test of clarity.

For example, their attorneys said the language doesn’t convey the extent of the proposed restrictions on defendants’ rights; is ambiguous as to how victims would exert their new rights; and is unclear as to corporations’ standing as crime victims.

The effect, said Mark Herron, Hollander’s attorney, is to “affirmatively hide the ball.”

Defending the language were Karen Borden of the Office of the Attorney General and Greenberg Traurig legal legend Barry Richard, representing Marsy’s Law for Florida, a victims’ rights group supporting the proposal.

They said the language is clear enough to be understood by voters.

“It’s supposed to make a voter want to vote for it if it accurately states what’s in the amendment and the voter believes in it. And is it accurate,” Richard said.

He cited “pretty tough language” from the Florida Supreme Court that such ballot titles and summaries may be rejected only if “clearly and conclusively defective.”

That goes especially for measures proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission, which meets only every 20 years, he said: “If the public is denied the right to vote on a proposal that this group makes, then there is no opportunity to fix it again” for another two decades.

Gievers broke in.

“Of course there is, Mr. Richard. Every year the Legislature can propose new constitutional amendments, put them on the ballot at the next general election. Citizens can step forward,” she said.

“The Constitution Revision Commission knows it meets once every 20 years. They are aware, because they’re very bright people, very educated. And they understand what the rules are that the courts must use to interpret, to make sure that there’s truth in packaging.

“And bundling things together in ways that leave questions and arguably are not accurate or complete raises questions.”

She continued that there have been multiple challenges to CRC-proposed amendments based on grouping, or title and summary challenges. And she acknowledged the question won’t be settled in her courtroom, but rather by the Supreme Court.

“That’s why everyone is working so hard, to make sure we get our parts of this right,” Gievers said.

Chris Gardner out as chair of Citizens Insurance board

Chris Gardner is out as chairman of Citizens Property Insurance Corp., Florida’s state-sponsored insurer of last resort, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis announced Wednesday.

Board member Gary Aubuchon will serve as interim chairman until Patronis names a permanent replacement.

In a statement, Patronis referred to Gardner’s “resignation,” although Gardner had made it known he was interested in remaining in the job. Citizens’ chairs serve at the pleasure of the chief financial officer.

The move comes at the peak of the hurricane season, which runs June 1-Nov. 30.

However, in a letter dated Aug. 13, Gardner told Patronis “I feel like the time has come to pass the gavel on to someone else, and bring by time as chairman to a close.”

Gardner is chief executive of HUB International Insurance in Orlando. Former CFO Jeff Atwater named him chairman in 2013.

Patronis had publicly asked Barry Gilway, Citizens’ chief operating officer, to find out which board members might be interested in stepping up. Among those interested in the job is lawyer and gambling lobbyist Marc Dunbar, who joined the board recently.

Patronis called Gardner “a tremendous asset to Citizens Property Insurance and Florida insurance consumers.”

“The work he and the board have done over the last several years helped change Citizens for the better. His skills and expertise, including understanding the concerns and bringing the perspective of insurance agents to the table, were invaluable. On behalf of all Floridians, I want to thank Chris for his service to our state, and leadership as chairman.”

Patronis said of Aubuchon: “Gary’s time on the board, and deep experience with insurance issues, makes him a great choice to take the helm.”

Additional candidates for the chair, according to Patronis’ office, include James Holton, president of The Holton Co.s; and Freddie Schinz, founder of the TIFORP Development Corp.

Gardner spent about two years on Citizens’ board before his elevation to chairman, and helped usher in profound changes at the company, including Gilway’s hiring in 2012. The chief executive brought many years’ experience running large insurance organizations.

In 2011, the company carried 1.4 million residential and commercial policies worth nearly $510.7 billion, according to company records. As of the end of June this year, that number was down to 443,000, valued at $112.7 billion.

Under state law, Citizens is required to pass along any losses incurred in exceeds of its reserves through assessments — above and beyond their premiums — first against its own policyholders and then to customers of private insurance companies.

To avoid that, Citizens undertook to reduce its exposure through a “depopulation” program, encouraging policyholders to seek coverage on the private market. Some 5,000 customers have switched thus far during 2018 alone, according to Office of Insurance Regulation data.

Additionally, Citizens has taken advantage of the reinsurance market to lessen its risk, turning to the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, traditional reinsurance providers, and the capital markets. In May, the board voted to shift another $1.42 billion to such third parties.

Garner noted in his letter that, when he joined, “Citizens was a very different company,” with 1.5 million policyholders and a one-in-100-year assessment risk of more than $11 billion, plus “high employee turnover, and total exposure of $500 billion.”

The company carried 23 percent of the residential market and 56 percent of the condominium and multi-family market. Today, its residential share is 5 percent and the commercial residential share is 11 percent. Additionally, Citizens has transferred more than $2.4 billion in premiums to the private market, Gardner wrote.

Nikki Fried proposes new bank to serve medical cannabis providers

Freshly fired as a Wells Fargo bank customer for taking campaign cash from the medical marijuana industry, Agriculture Commissioner candidate Nikki Fried on Monday envisioned a state-sponsored bank to work with cannabis providers.

During a news conference outside the Capitol office she would occupy if she secures the Democratic nomination and wins in November, Fried supported federal legislation that would ease providers’ access to financial services.

“I have also brought up the opportunity for the state of Florida to actually open up its own bank for this industry,” Fried told reporters.

She said she would discuss that prospect with whoever gets elected chief financial officer and “see if we can’t start moving that policy forward.”

The bank’s move in no way compromised her standing as a candidate, she said. But she did not rule out legal action.

“It is a private company. They are allowed to make their own policies. However, we are definitely looking into what legal options may be available to us,” Fried told reporters. A request for comment is pending with the company.

The bank first raised questions in July about whether Fried was “advocating for expanded patient access to medical marijuana.”

A representative asked the campaign, “Can you confirm the types of transactions expected for this customer & if any of the transactions will include funds received from lobbyists from the medical marijuana industry in any capacity?”

On Aug. 3, Wells Fargo notified the campaign it would need to close all accounts.

Fried is a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and lobbyist who has represented industry players and has made access to medical marijuana a central campaign plank.

At first, “I thought this was a joke,” she said of the bank’s action.

Fried complained that she was “kicked out of the bank for voicing support” for a provision “that is literally in the Florida Constitution.” Meanwhile, marijuana providers across the country have trouble opening bank accounts because of “outdated federal laws,” she said.

“This is much bigger than my campaign. I’m happy to tell Wells Fargo, ‘Good riddance.’ And finding a bank to take my campaign contributions without making a value judgment on my platform was not difficult. But when this happens to medical marijuana business, as it does every day all over the country, it has a much more devastating impact,” Fried said.

“Small business owners — families, veterans, hard working Americans — every day live in perpetual financial instability. Will I be able to pay my mortgage? Will I be able to pay for day care? Can I keep my lights on at home? What if I get kicked out of another bank tomorrow? Will I be held up at gunpoint, or worse, when I’m on my way to work because I’m forced to run an all-cash business?”

Fried said she has moved her campaign account to BBT, the Branch Banking and Trust Co. She also moved the account for Florida Consumers First, her PAC.

“I would like to urge Floridians, Americans, to re-evaluate their relationship with a financial institution that would refuse a checking account to a candidate for office abiding by every federal and state campaign law,” she said.

“We need to re-evaluate our approach to medical marijuana on the public policy level, and to re-evaluate the laws that are on the books — and the politicians who obstruct them, and ignore the life-changing impacts of medical marijuana by keeping these laws in place.”

She stressed that she is not directly involved in the medical marijuana industry.

“I am a candidate. I have the right to be heard,” Fried said. “I am not touching the plants; I am not selling the plants; I am not producing the plants. I’m simply advocating for the expansion of medical marijuana, and that was the reason for closing me down.”

Fried was asked why no bank has gone after other medical marijuana advocates but singled her out for taking money not even from the industry directly, but from its lobbyists.

“I am the first candidate, to my knowledge, across the country that is coming from the industry. So I think that my campaign, in particular, was targeted,” she said. “The rest of the state knows I have a real shot at winning in November,” and that this was an opportunity “to slow me down or stop my voice.”

“It is too coincidental that it’s my campaign on these issues, that I do believe that somebody along the way — and I don’t know who — but that somebody tipped them off to this.”

She advised other candidate across the county who hold similar views and bank with Wells Fargo to “rethink their banking relationship and pull their account.”

To that end, Seattle-based GRN Funds has come to Florida to offer banking services to the state’s medical marijuana providers. It already handles about $500 million in deposits for clients in the cannabis industry on the West Coast.

Moreover, Florida’s agriculture commissioner oversees a number of aspects of the industry, including regulation of pesticides and food safety, Fried said: “Once we start getting edibles out, they would oversee all of the food safety aspects.”

The bank’s move might turn out to be a blessing, she said.

“If it gets my message out there for expansion of medical marijuana, that’s the whole point of this — is to make sure the will of the people is heard,” Fried said. “If this is how this has to be done, then this is how it has to be done.”

Judge promises quick ruling in dispute over education amendment

A Leon County judge indicated Friday that he hopes to rule by Monday on whether to strip from the November ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that could deprive county school boards of oversight of charter schools.

“I hesitate to overpromise and under deliver, but my goal is to have this decided by Monday morning,” Circuit Judge John Cooper said following oral arguments in a challenge to the proposal.

Monday, at 5 p.m., also happens to be the deadline the Florida Supreme Court has given the state to respond to a separate lawsuit challenging six of the eight amendments proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission.

That challenge argues the commission improperly “bundled” more than a single proposal within each of the challenged amendments.

The Florida League of Women Voters filed the case argued Friday. Lawyers representing the league and the state spent nearly two hours arguing its merits and demerits before Cooper.

Veteran Tallahassee education policy litigator Ron Meyer argued for the league (backed by co-counsel from the Southern Poverty Law Center) that the ballot summary attempts to misrepresent what it would do, misleading voters. Blaine Winship, special counsel in the Office of the Attorney General, argued the state’s case.

The amendment contains three provisions: establishing term limits for school board members, requiring a “civics literacy” curriculum and the main bone of contention.

The contested ballot language reads:

“The amendment maintains a school board’s duties to public schools it establishes, but permits the state to operate, control, and supervise public schools not established by the school board.”

The packaging — combining potentially popular items with one that involving controversial charter schools — amounts to “putting sparkly things around a pile of mud,” Meyer said. “I submit to you that’s what this whole proposal does.”

Winship defended the language as clear enough. “There’s nothing misleading about it,” he said.

He argued the amendment would free the state to create “even other kinds of public schools in the future,” which it could operate directly or by delegating that authority.

“The classification of public schools should not be ossified,” he said. “In another five years, who knows what the nomenclature will be. We could have an entirely new idea — maybe a better, cleverer idea — about how to handle public education.”

Later, Winship discussed the case with reporters.

“This is simply giving the voters the opportunity to make this kind of decision,” he said.

“The question of who is establishing these schools, and therefore who has the right to control them, this would be something that presumably would be up to the legislation that’s turned out by our elected legislators, and subject to judicial decisions. In this state, almost everything in this area tends to get litigated, and that’s another safeguard.”

Florida’s courts have struggled for years to resolve tensions over whether local boards control schools, or the Legislature does. In 2008, the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee rejected a state law establishing a Florida Schools of Excellence Commission intended to oversee charter schools, on the grounds it trod on school board’s constitutional authority.

The amendment at issue now would settle the question, Winship said.

“This is something for the voters to sort out,” he said. “Depending on whether they give the state the kind of authorization that the CRC is looking to give the state, then the question would be how is the state going to exercise its authority. That’s really for them to decide.”

Meyer also spoke with reporters following the arguments.

“The reason charters aren’t mentioned (in the ballot language) is the CRC said they didn’t feel that would poll well — this would probably not pass if this was about further giveaways to charter schools,” he said. “It’s not surprising to me that they don’t mention charters in the ballot summary that the voters are going to see. But that’s what this is about.”

State law defines charter schools as public schools, but it’s not clear that’s widely understood. Even a judge like Cooper, who has spent years sorting out spats over education, can get confused.

“I’m going to make a confession to you,” he told the parties. “I didn’t know charter schools were public schools until this year.”

With the November election looming, the litigants and courts feel under the gun, Winship said.

“We’re all under enormous pressure — our judges, our justices of the Supreme Court,” he said. “Because we want to get this job done. We want to get it done right, so that the voters of this state, when they go to cast their ballots, will have the benefit of having these proposals before them.”

Calm waters ahead for revenues, state budget outlook

Florida’s revenues appear steady for the immediate future, state economists concluded on Thursday.

That means lawmakers can expect to have slightly more than $32 billion to spend when they write the state budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year.

“It’s going to be a very stable picture for the Legislature, with no big changes,” said Amy Baker, coordinator for the Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

“No surprises, up or down,” she added. “We made a lot of changes, but the cumulative effect of them keeps them (legislators) right on the same forecast path they were on.”

That extends to the ‘out-years’ for the budget forecast.

“We have a couple of years at 3.6 percent growth, and then taper down a little bit as you go further out,” Baker said.

Forecasters with Baker’s office, the Governor’s Office, and the House and Senate make up the conference, which was closing out more than a month spent recalculating the state’s economic and budgetary situation.

Thursday, they plowed through the particulars of the state sales, documentary stamp, beverage, pari-mutuel, insurance premium, severance, and corporate income taxes, among other contributors to the state’s General Revenue Fund.

Sales tax receipts had declined following last year’s encounter with Hurricane Irma, but rebounded somewhat as rebuilding began, Baker said.

“We also look at how much the state had to spend on ‘matches’ — providing assistance to local governments — and things that aren’t covered by the federal government at all, and what investments the Legislature made during Session,” she said.

Historically, “usually the state is the loser on that going forward.”


Ed. Note: Baker’s staff plans to post final numbers here. Check back later.

Economists find good news for schools, bad news for Medicaid

State economists on Monday found millions of extra dollars for the state’s public schools, but also a $29 million shortfall in takings from tobacco taxes and a landmark legal settlement with the tobacco companies.

The Revenue Estimating Conference projected that $128.4 million would remain unspent at the end of this fiscal year within the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund and the State School Trust Fund, financed primarily through Florida Lottery proceeds, slot machine taxes in South Florida, and proceeds from the sale of unclaimed property.

That means the Legislature will start out in the black when setting school spending priorities for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, said Amy Baker, coordinator for the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

“It’s nonrecurring, but it’s a boost for schools,” Baker said. “It’s more than they expected, right from the get-go.”

On the other hand, the outlook for Medicaid — the primary recipient of the tobacco money — “is not good news,” she added. “It’s showing that they actually have a projected hard deficit.”

Medicaid is the joint state-federal health care program for the poor. “So, good news for education, not good news for Medicaid,” Baker said.

The economists warned of the problem last week, blaming it on a decline in tobacco use and a shift to vaping products that remain untaxed in Florida.

Moreover, R.J. Reynolds is in court contesting its obligation to continue payments under a 1998 legal settlement in light of its sale of cigarette brands to Imperial Tobacco Group.

The group has spent most of August reviewing its revenue forecasts, and planned to huddle again on Thursday to sign off on a projection for the General Revenue Fund, the main source of money to build a state budget besides trust funds.

Judicial candidate filed campaign paperwork too late, appeals court says

A state appeals court has blocked Clay County judicial candidate Lucy Ann Hoover from appearing on the ballot because she filed her paperwork too late.

“We recognize that the public policy of Florida generally favors letting the people decide the ultimate qualifications of candidates,” the 1st District Court of Appeal concluded Wednesday, in an opinion by Judge T. Kent Wetherell II. Judges Ross L. Bilbrey and M. Kemmerly Thomas concurred.

“However, absent special circumstances, public policy considerations cannot override the clear and unambiguous statutory requirement that all of the candidate’s qualifying paperwork must be received by the filing officer by the end of the qualifying period.”

The court upheld a trial judge in the 7th Judicial Circuit, who heard the case because it originated with a motion filed by incumbent Clay County Judge Kristina Mobley. Gov. Rick Scott placed her on the bench in 2015.

Record show Hoover arrived at the county supervisor of elections office at 11:55 a.m. on May 4, just shy of the noon deadline. She filed her qualifying check at 11:57, but her candidate oath came in at 12:01 and her financial disclosure form at 12:12.

The office accepted the late documents, and certified Hoover as a candidate, under a policy of requiring only that prospective candidates be physically present and filling out their paperwork before the deadline falls.

Mobley then went to court to have Hoover’s name stripped from the ballot.

Hoover, a visiting professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of North Florida, cited a 1st DCA precedent allowing a legislative candidate to appear on the ballot under a similar policy maintained by Florida’s secretary of state.

But that was because an aide to the candidate was misdirected inside a crowded and confused elections office, Wetherell wrote, and had the paperwork completed and ready to file. By contrast, Hoover was the only candidate inside the local supervisor’s office.

“Here, there were no special circumstances that would excuse Hoover’s failure to meet the qualifying deadline, but rather … this is simply a case of a prospective candidate missing the qualifying deadline because she waited until too late to complete the necessary paperwork,” the opinion says.

Crystal river Duke

Duke Energy’s plan to pay off nuke upgrade costs OK’d

The Public Service Commission signed off Tuesday on Duke Energy Florida’s plan to collect the last $43 million it needs from ratepayers to recoup upgrade costs for its now-closed Crystal River 3 nuclear power plant.

The commission voted 3-2 to attach to the plan a copy of a settlement agreement between Duke and the Office of Public Counsel.

Duke will still have to participate in “true-up” proceedings, meaning the company must account for the way it spends the money and return any unspent funds to ratepayers.

PSC staff members argued that attaching the agreement might lend it the commission’s imprimatur, staff members said. It includes a run-down of the decommissioning process for the plant, which some commissioners felt was outside the scope of a proceeding involving the upgrade money.

Chairman Art Graham and Commissioner Donald Polman sided with the staff. Commissioner Julie I. Brown, Gary Clark, and Andrew Fay sided with the public counsel’s office, which represents ratepayers.

The attachment provides a clear statement of Duke’s costs, Public Counsel J.R. Kelly said following the hearing.

“All the parties, including Duke Energy, thought it would be prudent to have a final accounting so that we would be very transparent to the public as to the amounts recovered,” Kelly said.

The proceedings involve the Nuclear Cost Recovery Clause, approved by the Legislature in 2006 in hopes of reducing the state’s dependence on overseas energy resources.

The measure allowed utilities to charge ratepayers to develop nuke plants, even before they began producing energy. But most of the eventual $6 billion invested has come to naught.

Duke was to spend more than $49 million during 2018. The $43 million represents Duke’s costs during 2019.

The money will come out of ratepayer’s pockets. But “after Dec. 31, 2019, the customers of Duke Energy will no longer see any nuclear cost recovery surcharge as part of the rates they pay,” Kelly said.

Additionally, Duke has floated $1.8 billion in bonds to cover separate decommissioning costs, and customers will pay surcharges to retire that debt through 2036 at the latest.


Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article conflated the decommissioning process for the nuclear power plant at issue and the Nuclear Cost Recovery Clause process.

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