Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics - Page 5 of 42

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.

State will exhaust budget for agriculture conservation easements by year’s end

The state would run out of money to buy agricultural conservation land easements by the end of 2017 under the budget approved by the Legislature, the head of the Florida Forest Service said Wednesday.

The service asked for $50 million and got $10 for the Rural & Family Lands Protection Program, land program administrator John Browne told aides to Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet. Combined with about $11 million for the current fiscal year, that would leave around $21 million for easement acquisition, Browne said.

“So you’ll see easements at least until the end of this calendar year. After that, it’s kind of questionable,” Browne said.

That would mean placing “one or two” acquisitions per month before the governor and Cabinet though the year’s end, he added.

Last year, the Legislature gave the service $35 for easements under the program. The new budget would take effect on July 1.

Scott and the Cabinet have two acquisitions on their May 23 agenda — $7 million on 4,177 acres of the Triple S Ranch in Okeechobee County, and $1.5 million in state and federal money for 1,034 acres of the S.Y. Hartt Ranch in Highland County.

Both are Tier One targets for the Forest Service, and both are deemed critical to recharge zones for the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, and other state waterways.

The $11 million would be left following those acquisitions. Surveys, site assessments, and related costs take up between 5 percent and 7 percent of the cost of acquisitions, Browne told reporters following the meeting.

Being ranked Tier One means “we want them bad,” he said.

Both Triple S and Harrt support extensive natural habitat and represent important water recharge areas. “These ranches are impeccable,” Browne said.

Moreover, the Harrt Ranch easements would protect the military’s Avon Park bombing range from encroaching development — helping to keep the facility and its payroll in Florida.

The program keeps valuable agricultural lands free from intensive development — and also to protect historical and environmental treasures.

The Legislature did pass SB 10, a $1.5 billion plan to restore Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. That commitment absorbed many of the state’s resources for environmental conservation.

Does Browne worry about the program’s future?

“I’m not really worried about it, because the constituency that we support, they’re very vocal about it. They love the program. They’ll continue to lobby. We’ll continue to push for it. We’re doing a lot of good things. This just happened to be a year where there were other things that were determined to be more important,” he said.

Without money to spend on new acquisitions, the service will continue to scout prospects for the future and keep an eye on existing easements, Browne said.

“We’ve got a really small group of people who do this. Actually, there’s only three or four of us. So we’ve got plenty of work to do.”

Still, without new money, the program will leave “a lot — thousands” of acres on the table, Browne said.

“This is a real problem,” Audubon Florida executive director Eric Draper said.

“Florida is developing very quickly and these landowners have a choice — ‘Do I develop the land, or do I try and hold onto it in difficult economic circumstances, or to I try to wait until the state can come up with some money to provide an easement,” Draper said.

“These landowners are stepping forward and being willing for essentially a fraction of the price of the land commit to protecting it perpetually,” he said. “Fifteen hundred dollars an acre is a huge bargain for the state of Florida.”

Thousands of acres of conservation easement on Cabinet aides’ agenda

The Triple S Ranch lies 15 miles north of Lake Okeechobee — a 7,000-acre cattle operation, relatively untouched by development, within the recharge zone for the Kissimmee River.

Rare and endangered species, including a Florida panther, wander its streams and cypress swamps.

On Wednesday morning, aides to Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet will peruse a proposal to buy a conservation easement on 4,177 acres of the Okeechobee County property, for close to $7 million.

The deal is scheduled to go before Scott and the Cabinet on May 23.

“The property has been in the Scott Family since 1948 and is primarily improved pasture,” according to a summary prepared for the governor and Cabinet.

“About one-fifth of the property supports natural upland vegetation, including scrub and mesic flatwoods, which are considered underrepresented communities on public lands in Florida. With the exception of the improved pasture, the property has remained in its natural state as acquired in 1948,” the summary says.

The Florida Forest Service has rated the property Tier One for easement acquisition under the Rural & Family Lands Protection Program, intended to keep valuable agricultural lands free from intensive development — and also to protect historical and environmental treasures.

The state holds easements on close to 36,000 acres under the program.

Streams including Cow Creek, Gomez Creek, Quail Creek, and Telegraph Branch, which feed into the St. Lucie Estuary, run through the ranch.

“Other species that occur are bald eagles, gopher tortoise, Florida scrub Jay, indigo snakes, burrowing owls, and fox squirrel,” the summary says.

The Smiths would retain title, but would be barred from developing the land, or exploiting any mineral wealth.

“Activities that affect the hydrology of the land or that detrimentally affect water conservation, erosion control, soil conservation, or fish and wildlife habitat,” would be banned.

Also on the agenda is the $1.5 million state-federal purchase of an easement on 1,034 acres of the S.Y. Hartt Ranch in Highland County — another Tier One project. That deal would bring total state and federal easements on the property to 6,622 acres.

“S.Y. Hartt Ranch drains to Arbuckle Creek, which eventually flows into Lake Okeechobee. It is located within the Northern Everglades Watershed and the recharge range for the Kissimmee River Basin and contains freshwater marshes, oak hammocks, swamps, wet and dry prairies, cypress domes, improved pasture, and citrus,” the summary says.

Watchdogs decry Constitution Revision Commission’s proposed rules

Proposed rules for the Constitution Revision Commission could let members deliberate in secret, limit public participation, bottle up ideas in committee, or bog down debating proposals with little support, government watchdog groups warned Monday.

Sixteen organizations, including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Florida Consumer Action Network, and unions, including Florida AFL-CIO, critiqued the proposed rules in a letter to the commission’s rules committee.

“Transparency and a clear set of ground rules are essential to the credibility of the CRC. As members of the Rules Working Group, you have an opportunity to enhance public confidence in the work of the CRC,” the organizations wrote.

They warned of “the potential for leverage and influence over commission members” and an “unclear track for approval of proposals.”

For example, they said, draft rules appear to allow chairman Carlos Beruff to limit distribution of literature outside commission meetings. Furthermore, committee chairs would decide whether to recognize members of the public to speak during meetings.

“This discretion should be removed and committee chairs should be required to permit the public to he heard on all issues taken up at each committee meeting,” subject to reasonable time limits, the organizations wrote.

“The only reason to exclude members of the pubic should be for public disturbance or disorderly conduct,” they said.

The commission has begun hearing public testimony about proposed revisions without benefit of formal rules. Beruff has promised them by the end of June.

“The letter was received by commissioners and we are reviewing it,” commission spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said.

“The CRC encourages all interested Floridians to attend the Rules Working Group meeting on Wednesday, May 17 in Tampa from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. at Hillsborough Community College’s Dale Mabry Campus. There will be opportunity for public comment before the working group,” Beatrice said.

Rules governing the last commission, which deliberated in 1997-98, placed greater emphasis on openness and transparency, the organizations said.

Another example: “The draft rules limit transparency by changing the requirement that records be ‘open’ to requiring that the commission’s records be ‘accessible.’ What does ‘accessible’ mean? The word ‘open” is the word that is used in the open records laws.”

Furthermore, the draft rules would allow private meetings between members to discuss business, in violation of the spirit of Florida’s open-government laws. Committee meetings could be scheduled to conflict with each other, the organizations said.

The chairman would be empowered to shunt proposals into hostile committees, and limit the full committee’s power to override committees.

The draft rules would remove a 1997-98 requirement that 10 commissioners vote to consider proposals; instead, a single commissioner could move to take up ideas.

“This new rule has the potential to burden the commission with many more proposals than might be otherwise necessary, taking time away from other more widely approved proposals,” the organizations wrote.

The proposed rules ban commissioners from accepting gifts from lobbyists, except for campaign contributions.

“That means legislators and other elected officials might be influenced to vote on issues based on whether their votes will yield campaign contributions,” the organizations said.

Here is the full list of suggestions.

Future Senate leaders’ political committees went quiet during Legislative Session

Innovate Florida, state Sen. Bill Galvano’s political committee, spent a quiet April on the fundraising front while the Legislative Session concluded. It collected exactly $0.

This after amassing $494,200 during the first three months of the year and $6.2 million since 2013, according to state records.

Sen. Wilton Simpson’s Jobs for Florida committee’s fundraising took a breather, too, but spent $45,203 on consultants.

Legislators must cease fundraising during session, but the restriction doesn’t apply to their political committees, a Department of State spokeswoman said.

Galvano, a Republican from Bradenton, is in line to become Senate president following the 2018 elections. Simpson, a Trilby Republican, is next in line.

Galvano’s committee spent $278,256, including an $80,000 contribution to GOP consultant Randy Nielsen’s Free Speech PAC. The committee gave $75,000 to the Citizens First PAC and $50,000 to Taxpayers in Action PAC.

In the past, Galvano’s committee’ contributors have included the Florida Medical Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Power and Light, the Florida Hospital Association and Altria Client Services.

The committee has around $1.2 million cash in hand.

Of Simpson’s committee’s expensese, all but $2,000 went to Tallahassee’s Capitol Finance Consulting. His committee has raised nearly $238,000 thus far this year.

Rick Scott’s Let’s Get to Work committee raised $495,000 during April

Gov. Rick Scott’s Let’s Get to Work political committee raised $485,100 during April, with United Health Group Inc. kicking in the largest single donation of $100,000.

Fundraising was down from March, when the PAC raised nearly $610,000. The committee has raised more than $56.8 million since 2014. Its best month thus far this year was January, when it raised nearly $1.7 million.

The committee collected $50,000 each from Meadowbrook Inc., a communications company; and the Florida Chamber of Commerce PAC.

Contributions of $25,000 came from Anheuser Busch; Intervest Construction Inc. of Daytona Beach; Jacksonville construction contractor Heath McCall; and Mary McCall, a “homemaker.”

The committee spent nearly $136,000, with the largest check, for $74,000, going to fundraising consultant Deborah Aleksander. It paid $5,000 to Tallahassee political consultant Josh Cooper.

Scott is precluded by term limits from running for a third term, but is widely considered to be weighing a run for U.S. Senate next year.

State appeals court upholds 14.5 percent workers’ comp premium increase

A state appeals court has upheld a 14.5 percent increase in workers’ compensation insurance premiums, rejecting legal arguments that it was approved in violation of Florida’s open-government laws.

“This argument ignores the plain language of the statute and the ordinary meaning of the terms within it,” a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee ruled Tuesday.

“Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s final order, and remand for reinstatement of OIR’s final order issued on Oct. 5, 2016, approving a 14.5 percent increase in the workers’ compensation insurance rates,” the court said.

The ruling followed adjournment of a Legislative Session that failed to address attorney involvement and other factors driving increases in insurance premiums.

Miami workers’ compensation attorney James Fee challenged the increase, which the court allowed to begin taking effect in December pending its ruling on the merits of the case.

A Leon County trial judge agreed with Fee that the Office of Insurance Regulation and ratings agency the National Council on Compensation Insurance, or NCCI, had violated open-government laws by restricting access to internal meetings and documents behind the increase.

“NCCI is pleased with this outcome, as the court validated that our rate filing process is in full compliance with the law,” the Boca Raton company said in a written statement.

Business groups that pressed the Legislature hard to fix problems they attributed largely to Florida Supreme Court rulings striking down limits on cost-drivers including attorney involvement,were unhappy that the high premiums would continue.

“The Florida Legislature missed opportunities to fix Florida’s broken workers’ comp system, and today’s ruling only solidifies the financial impact on job creators and the realization that those higher rates have nothing to do with stronger protections for workers,” Florida Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Edie Ousley said in a written statement.

“After months of pointless litigation, Florida’s small business owners are still paying higher workers compensation rates.  Those that pursued this now discredited litigation are not and never have been the friend of the small business rate payer,” said Bill Herrle, Florida director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Trial lawyers expressed a different flavor of dismay.

“While we respect the court’s decision regarding workers’ compensation premiums, we are extremely disappointed in this result, which will have a substantial negative impact on Florida businesses and the workers they employ,” said Mark Touby, president of Florida Workers’ Advocates.”

“This decision underscores how important it is for the Legislature to stand up to the greedy insurance industry and establish a fair and transparent ratemaking process that fosters competition,” Touby said. “With the next legislative session just eight months away, we look forward to working with the Senate and House to achieve this goal, which is so important to Florida’s economic future.”

The meat of Fee’s case was that the law required open meetings by any “committee” working on a rate case. NCCI and the insurance office argued that the ratings agency no longer had a committee to do that work, relying instead on actuary Jay Rosen — although in consultation with colleagues.

The appeals court, in a unanimous ruling, rejected Fee’s argument entirely.

“The statute applies only to meetings of a rating organization committee where workers’ compensations insurance rates are discussed and determined. A ‘committee’ has been defined as a ‘subordinate group,’ not a single person,” Judge Lori Rowe wrote.

“Moreover, the use of the term ‘meets’ indicates that the statute is designed to apply to a group of people, not a single individual. The multi-person concept of the term ‘committee’ further finds support in well-established precedent construing the Sunshine Law,” she continued.

“Thus, under the plain and ordinary meaning of the terms ‘committee’ and ‘meet,’ Rosen, in his individual capacity, does not act or ‘meet’ as the statutory rate-determination committee contemplated by (the law.)”

Judges Harvey Jay and Susan Kelsey joined the opinion.

NCCI calculates rates for workers’ compensation coverage in Florida. Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Geivers ruled on Nov. 23 that the organization should have opened its deliberations and documentation to the public.

“The trial court concluded that NCCI’s disbanding of its classification and rate committee in 1991 and its delegation of the responsibility for rate proposals to one person was an attempt to evade the sunshine,” Rowe said in a footnote.

“But the application of the Sunshine Law does not depend on a party’s ‘intentions, sincerity of purpose or noble motives.’ Further, it is unclear on this record how the trial court reached the conclusion that NCCI restructured its rate-proposal process in over 40 states to avoid compliance with Florida’s Sunshine Law.”

(Although NCCI operates in many states, it proposes rates for large numbers of insurers in only a few, including Florida.)

The court found no evidence that the insurance office had delegated its rate-approval authority to NCCI in a way that justified coverage by the open-government laws.

“OIR approves and disapproves rate filings; it does not make rate filings. Conversely, NCCI and individual insurers have no authority to approve or disapprove rate filings; rather, they are under a statutory mandate to file such proposals,” the court said.

The court also rejected Fee’s public-records claims.

Jax House member Jay Fant launches campaign for Attorney General

Jacksonville House member Jay Fant announced for state Attorney General Tuesday, promising to fight for the Constitution — especially the First and Second amendments — and against “big government.”

Fant said during a kickoff news conference in the state Capitol that “fighting big government, fighting for the Constitution, and fighting for free enterprise” were what drove him to seek his House seat in 2014.

“My zeal for protecting property and people has not abated. Today, because if this, I am announcing my candidacy for attorney general of the state of Florida,” he said.

“I highlight the First and Second amendments because they are the bellwether for our freedoms. And when you attack those freedoms, you attack America, itself.”

The legislator, little known outside his Jacksonville hometown, planned to travel the state extensively to build name recognition. Following his Tallahassee opener, he scheduled campaign events in Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.

“I will be on the road. I will be in great cities across the state, starting today, through the Panhandle and down south,” Fant said. “This will be a grassroots campaign. This will be a campaign where people know who Jay Fant is because they have met him.”

Fant is a graduate of Washington & Lee University and holds a law degree from the University of Florida. He and wife Lauren have four children, whom they home-school.

Fant was chairman and CEO of First Guaranty Bank & Trust Co. of Jacksonville when it failed in 2012. Now he’s chairman of Caroline Family Office, a financial services company.

The bank failure inspired him to seek office, he said.

“The federal government bailed out big banks and left little, small, community, mainstream banks like mine out in the cold. Our company couldn’t make it. Big government is not about Main Street. And I vowed to never let that happen to anybody else.”

As A.G., Fant would “root out corporate scams that prey on the elderly and vulnerable.”

“There are bad guys out there, but I will find them,” he said.

He praised Florida Supreme Court justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston as non-activist jurists. C. Alan Lawson, elevated by Gov. Rick Scott to the state high court, and Eric Eisnaugle, a House member named this week as Lawson’s replacement on the 5th DCA, also meet that test, Fant said.

“The way to fight judicial activism is to appoint good judges,” he said. “So a note to all the rogue judges and rogue agencies who promulgate rules and make rulings outside the bounds of the separation of powers — your future attorney general will have a cadre of lawyers watching you. I am running because I believe so strongly in defending our constitutional rights and protecting Floridians from the excesses of the federal government. But that can only happen if we make sure government is on the side of the people.

“We will fight to keep our business climate free and fair so entrepreneurs can pursue their dreams and create jobs. We will stand by our law enforcement community that works so hard to keep us safe.”

He promised to follow through with sitting Attorney General Pam Bondi’s programs.

“I will continue Attorney General Bondi’s fight against prescription drug abuse, human trafficking, and predators who target seniors and children. I will keep pushing back against the federal overreach that chokes our small businesses,” Fant said. “And the most vulnerable members of our society can count on me.”

Asked about Bondi’s decision not to pursue her political ally Donald Trump over alleged fraud at Trump University, Fant declined to second-guess the incumbent.

“Whether that rose to the level of warranting their investigation in that office, I’m not privy to those discussions, and I’ll have to honor her decision on that.”

He praised Bondi’s legal challenges to Obama administration programs.

“As attorney general, I’ll defend our states’ rights every step of the way,” he said.

Rob Bradley reflects on his big win, and big loss, during the Legislative Session

The Senate manager for two of the most ambitious bills debated during the Legislative Session was a little wistful following sine die.

Sen. Rob Bradley, who carried SB 10 for Senate President Joe Negron, called the bill “one of the real legislative achievements of the last decade or so, that we can all be very proud of.”

The bill is Negron’s $1.5 billion Lake Okeechobee plan, and it will make a difference, he said.

“The Everglades needs more water. And we’re going to end those toxic discharges into our coastal communities. That is one part of Session that I think will be in history books,” the Orange Park Republican said.

Moreover, Amendment 1 money approved for the St. Johns River and Keystone Heights lakes area “was really important to the people I represent in North Florida. We really did not feel that we were getting our fair share of those dollars up until this year. Now we are.”

Another Bradley bill, implementing the medical marijuana constitutional amendment, failed when negotiations with the House broke down last week.

“Sometimes, bills don’t pass. That’s part of it. But that’s one that’s a real regret of session for me, personally, that we were not able to get that across the finish line,” Bradley said.

He was open to a Special Session on the topic, noting that decision is up to the governor or the Legislature’s presiding officers.

“I hope that we address that issue sooner rather than later. At the latest, next session. And if we addressed it before then, that wouldn’t hurt my feelings, either.”

The Legislature’s inaction leaves implementation up to Department of Health rulemaking.

“We ultimately, though, as Legislature need to implement Amendment 2, and we will.”

House, Senate leaders claim historic accomplishments during 2017 session

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron took the opportunity to crow a little upon the conclusion of the 2017 Legislative Session.

Even if it did run over a little.

The two held a joint news conference in the Capitol Rotunda following sine die to brag on what the Legislature had accomplished.

“For 20 years, people talked about, studied, went to meetings, had consortiums and collaborations about doing something for southern storage with Lake Okeechobee to stop the billions of gallons of discharges that destroyed the coasts both east and west of Lake Okeechobee,” Negron said.

“History will record that this Legislature not only acted, but we funded, to have southern storage so that we can stop and then ultimately completely get rid of all the discharges that some from Lake Okeechobee.”

He also praised approval of his call to invest almost $600 million in additional funding for the state universities, including scholarships and assistance with textbook costs.

For his part, Corcoran had set out to shake up the way Tallahassee does business. He felt he’d succeeded.

“We set out to have a very bold, transformative agenda,” Corcoran said. “There’s no question that what we accomplished was bold, transformative, and life-changing for Floridians.”

The House and Senate had just sent an $82.4 billion state budget to Gov. Rick Scott. Negron reckoned it contained much for the governor to love — including the higher education and public school spending — even though it largely stiffs Scott on his treasured economic incentive programs.

“I see the budget as sharing principles with the governor. I think it’s our job over the next couple of weeks to make our case,” Negron said.

“I agree,” Corcoran added.

The Senate debate Monday occasioned predictions that one Corcoran priority — the Schools of Hope plan to recruit out-of-state charter operators to serve struggling communities — was so flawed technically that it would require almost immediate revision.

Corcoran took the criticism in stride.

“Anytime you do that kind of transformative legislation … there’s always going to be things that you might want to come back and tweak and make better. We’d always be open to that,” he said.

Of the budget, Corcoran said: “My encouragement to the governor is go veto all the pork he possibly can.”

The House K-12 package he called “the greatest … in the history of the state.”

It “does more to transform kids’ lives, free up teachers, free up the administration, to go out there and educate our youth,” Corcoran said.

Jack Latvala gets into it with Jeff Brandes over economics incentives bill

The Senate sent the VISIT Florida and Enterprise Florida budget cuts to the Governor Monday on a 29-8 vote, but not before Sen. Jack Latvala, who has supported Gov. Rick Scott on economic incentives, took the opportunity to nitpick.

The House approved the measure earlier in the day.

Latvala started with HB 5501’s formal name: Displaced Homemakers. Among its many provisions, the bill would fold a jobs program for them into standard programs within the Department of Economic Opportunity.

“You know we have a single-subject rule in the Constitution. Could you explain the nexus between displaced homemakers and Visit Florida?” Latvala demanded.

“It’s a good question,” conceded Sen. Jeff Brandes, who presented the bill.

“You’re darned right it’s a good question,” Latvala said.

Brandes: “I’m not here to argue titles with you. I didn’t select the title for this.”

Latvala: “But it’s still titled that.”

Brandes: “That’s correct.”

Latvala: “What do you think the possibility that would have made it into conference … if it had been titled Visit Florida or Enterprise Florida?

Brandes: “Sen. Latvala, I’m not here to have that debate with you. I’m here to present HB 5501 — which we brought up, we stripped everything out of, we put into conference, and that conference committee decided to place these provisions before this body.”

Latvala: “But you cannot make a nexus between displaced homemakers and Visit Florida. You can’t even try.”

Brandes: “Oh, I can try. But I’m not here to make a rational nexus, nor am I here to argue that point.”

Later, Latvala noted that the bill doesn’t allow anyone at Enterprise Florida or Visit Florida to earn more than the salary and benefits paid to the governor.

“It doesn’t say ‘authorized,’ it says ‘paid.’ In the situation where we now have a governor who has not taken a salary, how are we going to determine the compensation for the chief executive of Visit Florida?” Latvala asked.

“Well, they would be the benefits and salary paid to the governor,” Brandes said.

“I don’t know all of his benefits, and I don’t know all of his salary situation. But, evidently, the conference committee believed that was the appropriate dollar amount to use,” he said.

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