News Service Of Florida, Author at Florida Politics

News Service Of Florida

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

Regulators urged to approve FPL utility purchase

The state Public Service Commission should give key approvals next week to a long-discussed plan by Florida Power & Light to purchase the city of Vero Beach’s utility system, according to recommendations issued Friday by commission staff members. The commission is slated to take up the $185 million purchase on Nov. 27.

The staff, in a 26-page document, recommended approval of a series of issues, including FPL’s request to charge its rates to Vero Beach customers after the deal is completed.

Among other issues is approval of ending what is known as a “territorial agreement” that has divided up customers between the Vero Beach utility and FPL.

Vero Beach has provided service for decades in some unincorporated areas of the county, with FPL serving surrounding areas. But with the planned deal, FPL would provide electricity to all of the areas through elimination of the territorial agreement.

FPL says the deal will lead to lower electric bills for customers of the Vero Beach utility. The Public Service Commission in June gave approvals for the deal, but challenges were later filed. That led to the commission holding a hearing in October.

Prosecutor blocked from ‘Stand Your Ground’ case

Siding with Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday rejected an attempt by Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to get involved in a case about a controversial 2017 change to the “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law.

Without explanation, justices denied a request from Fernandez Rundle to take a “friend of the court” position in the case, which is before the Supreme Court.

Fernandez Rundle asked the court for permission to “adopt” the position of the League of Prosecutors-Florida, which argues the 2017 change is unconstitutional.

But Bondi’s office objected to Fernandez Rundle becoming involved, saying the Attorney General — and not the State Attorney — has “the authority to speak for the state in its appellate courts.”

The clash stemmed from a Miami-Dade County case in which defendant Tashara Love sought to use the “Stand Your Ground” law to be shielded from prosecution in a November 2015 shooting incident outside a nightclub.

The 2017 change shifted a burden of proof from defendants to prosecutors in determining whether self-defense claims are justified. By placing the burden on prosecutors during pre-trial hearings, the change could help at least some defendants.

Love’s case has focused primarily on whether the 2017 change should apply retroactively to older cases, such as Love’s self-defense claim. But along with the retroactivity issue, the case has drawn arguments about whether the underlying 2017 change was constitutional.

The League of Prosecutors-Florida, which includes current and former prosecutors, contends, in part, that changing the burden of proof in pretrial hearings is unconstitutional because it infringes on the Supreme Court’s right to regulate “practice and procedures in Florida’s courts.”

Bondi’s office argues that the retroactivity issue could be resolved without addressing the broader constitutionality of the 2017 change. Nevertheless, Bondi’s office disputes that the overall change is unconstitutional.

Galvano

Bill Galvano says lawmakers won’t ‘slow walk’ amendments

Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano is promising that lawmakers won’t do anything to block the nearly dozen constitutional amendments that voters passed this month.

The Legislature has come under fire in the past for allegations that it ignored amendments or approved laws limiting their scope. But Galvano said during a media availability Friday that the “people have spoken,” and “I want to make sure we are being true to the intent of the voters.”

He added that legislators are not going to “slow walk” implementation of the amendments.

Voters on Nov. 6 passed 11 measures dealing with topics ranging from taxes to vaping indoors and casino gambling.

The gambling measure, known as Amendment 3, requires voter approval for proposals that would expand casino gambling in the state. Galvano said he would like Florida to follow other states and permit betting on sports events such as football games.

But he said the Senate is still looking at whether the newly passed amendment would require lawmakers to put a sports-betting referendum on the ballot.

Voters approved 11 of the 12 amendments that appeared before them on the ballot. Only Amendment 1 — which would have increased the homestead property-tax exemption — failed to get the required 60 percent approval from voters to pass.

Voters also gave the nod to Amendment 4, which restores voting rights to most felons who have served their sentences. The amendment is estimated to impact 1.4 million people. Galvano said he didn’t support the amendment, but he said it comes to the Legislature with “greater weight” because it was passed by voters.

“We have to do it right, we’re not going to slow walk it, but we have to make sure it’s done right and implemented correctly,” said Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who will formally become Senate president during an organization session Tuesday.

While it received relatively little campaign attention, a measure that called for new lobbying restrictions was the most popular of the amendments. The lobbying proposal, known as Amendment 12, received support from 78.9 percent of voters, far exceeding the 60 percent threshold needed to pass constitutional amendments. The measure, in part, will ban state and local elected officials from lobbying for six years after they leave office.

The constitutional amendments were put on the ballot by the Constitution Revision Commission, the Legislature and through petition drives.

Others that passed included Amendment 5, which will make it harder for the Legislature to authorize or raise taxes; Amendment 9, which bars offshore oil drilling and vaping and the use of electronic cigarettes in indoor workplaces; and Amendment 13, which will ban greyhound racing at pari-mutuel facilities.

Lawmakers have clashed with backers of some constitutional amendments in the past. As an example, the Legislature has been embroiled in a series of lawsuits about whether it has properly carried out a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

Matching funds gave boost to statewide winners

With candidates setting a record this year for pulling in matching funds, Florida taxpayers contributed $4.2 million to the winning campaigns for Governor and three Cabinet seats, according to the final totals for the 2018 elections.

Another $5.65 million in tax dollars went to the campaigns of six unsuccessful statewide candidates, according to numbers posted Friday by the Florida Division of Elections.

Overall matching funds totaled $9,852,606, more than double the $4.34 million from the last midterm election in 2014 and easily topping the nearly $6.07 million in 2010.

Disparaged by critics as welfare for politicians, the program was approved by voters in 1998 as part of a constitutional amendment proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission. It provides matches for individual contributions of $250 or less to statewide candidates’ campaigns.

Republican Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis was the biggest recipient of the funds this year, receiving nearly $3.23 million, including $557,554 that rolled in after voters cast their ballots but as campaign finance reports continued to be submitted and individual contributions verified.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum received $2.62 million from the program, including $254,381 after the Nov. 6 election.

DeSantis and Gillum, whose campaigns and political committees collectively spent more than $99 million, each received more matching funds than any other candidate during a single election cycle in the program’s history.

Florida’s next Attorney General, Republican Ashley Moody, drew $478,903 from the matching-funds program, including $29,266 after the election.

In her victory over Tampa Democrat Sean Shaw, Moody spent $8.8 million through her personal account and the political committee Friends of Ashley Moody.

Shaw, who spent an overall total of $4.2 million through his campaign account and political committee, received $365,591 from the matching-funds program.

Republican Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who won a four-year term Nov. 6 after being appointed to the Cabinet post last year, received $334,604 from the matching-funds program. Patronis got a pair of checks after the election worth a combined $6,225.

Overall during the campaign, Patronis spent $6.8 million through his personal account and the political committee Treasure Florida in defeating Democrat Jeremy Ring. Ring, who didn’t participate in the matching-funds program, spent a total of $1.6 million through his campaign account and a political committee.

Agriculture Commissioner-elect Nikki Fried, the only Democrat in line to win a statewide post, got $158,507 from the matching-funds program. That included $40,880 after the ballots were cast.

Fried, through her campaign account and the political committee Florida Consumers First, spent a little more than $2 million in narrowly defeating Republican Matt Caldwell.

Caldwell, a critic of the program who didn’t take matching funds, spent nearly $5.5 million through his campaign and a political committee in this year’s election.

Investigation points to errors in FIU bridge design

Errors were made in the design of a 174-foot pedestrian bridge at Florida International University that collapsed in March and killed six people, the National Transportation Safety Board said in an investigative update Thursday.

The report said cracking seen before the collapse “is consistent with those errors.”

The bridge collapsed March 15 and crushed eight vehicles, including seven that were occupied. In addition to the six people killed, eight others were injured.

In part, the report said errors were made in the design of a portion of the span where two trusses were connected to the bridge deck.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the investigation is continuing.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Cabinet meeting reset for end of November

Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet will meet by phone on Nov. 30 to consider issues such as Florida Power & Light power-plant projects in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, according to an agenda posted online.

Scott and the Cabinet initially scheduled the meeting for Tuesday but canceled that meeting.

The agenda for the Nov. 30 meeting was posted on the Cabinet website Thursday.

No explanation was given for the change of dates.

Among other things, Scott and the Cabinet could sign off on a plan by FPL to build a power plant in Broward County and revisit a dispute about a nuclear project in Miami-Dade.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Supreme Court signs off on reprimand for judge

A Miami-Dade County judge will face a public reprimand for writing a letter of reference for a criminal defendant who was awaiting sentencing in federal court, the Florida Supreme Court said Thursday.

The Supreme Court approved a settlement agreement reached by Judge Deborah White-Labora and the state Judicial Qualifications Commission in which she acknowledged violating a judicial code of conduct.

Justices also approved part of the agreement that said she should face a public reprimand.

The investigation centered on a letter that White-Labora wrote on her judicial letterhead for the defendant.

“Although we recognize that Judge White-Labora’s conduct was well-intentioned, as Judge White-Labora understands by her agreement to the violations and discipline, her conduct is prohibited by the Code of Judicial Conduct,” the unanimous Supreme Court decision said. “Under our precedent, Judge White-Labora’s conduct warrants a public reprimand.”

The Judicial Qualifications Commission investigates alleged misconduct by judges, with the Supreme Court having ultimate authority to impose discipline.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Image via Miami Herald.

Pam Bondi denies meeting on becoming U.S. Attorney General

Attorney General Pam Bondi disputed a report Friday she will meet with President Donald Trump next week to discuss becoming U.S. attorney general.

“The attorney general says that is fake news,” Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray said in an email Friday.

The McClatchy news organization reported that it had contacted three sources who said Trump was seriously considering Bondi for the job and that she would travel to his Palm Beach estate Mar-A-Lago while the president was in town for the Thanksgiving holiday.

McClatchy reported that Trump and Bondi have been in regular contact since the Nov. 6 election, as the races for governor and U.S. Senate, which Trump waded into, went into recounts.

Bondi’s name has frequently circulated as becoming part of Trump’s administration since the president was elected in 2016.

A staunch Trump backer, Bondi has been coy about her future as her term gets ready to expire in January.

Lately, she has been appearing on Fox News, where speculation also has her landing. The U.S. attorney general job opened when Jeff Sessions left under pressure this month.

Supreme Court signs off on process to pick justices

The Florida Supreme Court on Friday declined to order the reopening of an application process for three upcoming vacancies on the court.

In a 4-3 decision, the court held that the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission was acting within its authority to conduct a process that resulted in 59 judges and lawyers applying to replace justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince. The justices are leaving the court in early January because they have reached a mandatory retirement age.

The Judicial Nominating Commission is scheduled to meet Nov. 27 in Orlando to select nominees for the vacancies. The retiring justices’ six-year terms end on Jan. 8, the day the new governor will take office.

The court majority rejected petitions from the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida that had sought to extend the application deadline and halt the current application process.

The petitions were filed after an Oct. 15 court order that said the next governor, now almost certain to be Republican Ron DeSantis, has the authority to appoint the new justices rather than outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Scott.

The majority opinion Friday said the state Constitution “requires the JNC to make its nominations no later than 30 days after the occurrence of a vacancy and does not prohibit the JNC from acting before a vacancy occurs.”

“Petitioners have requested that the JNC reopen its application period for the vacancies at issue in this case,” the opinion said. “We recognize that there is no impediment to the JNC reopening its application period.”

Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Ricky Polston, Jorge Labarga and Alan Lawson supported the majority opinion.

In a concurring opinion, Lawson rejected an argument that the nominating process should not start until the actual vacancies occur — which would be Jan. 8, in this case.

“Since their inception, Florida’s judicial nominating commissions have read this language as creating a deadline by which they must make nominations — and thereby allowing them to make their nominations prior to the date of a vacancy,” Lawson wrote. “That is the most reasonable reading of the language and is consistent with this court’s precedent analyzing similar language.”

In a strongly worded dissent, which was supported by Pariente and Quince, Lewis wrote that the Judicial Nominating Commission should not act until the vacancies occur.

“Instead of faithfully interpreting the language set forth in our Constitution, the majority presents flawed reasoning to support its desired result. Simply put, the Judicial Nominating Commission has no power to act without the occurrence of an actual vacancy, according to the plain language of the Florida Constitution and the JNC’s own rules of procedure,” Lewis wrote.

“I will not sit silently while the majority muddles — or disregards — our Constitution and related rules.”

In another dissenting opinion, which was supported by Pariente and Lewis, Quince said that while “the majority’s solution may be a pragmatic one, it is not a constitutional one.”

Quince said the JNC set an original application deadline of Oct. 8 in response to a request from Scott, who has no authority to make the appointments. As a result, she said she would support requiring the nominating commission to reopen the application process through at least Dec. 8.

One of the arguments made by the petitioners for reopening the process was that the current pool of applicants is “woefully thin” on minority and women candidates. The applicants include 11 women, six African-Americans and six Hispanics.

The Supreme Court appointments are attracting extra attention because they could shift the judicial direction of the state’s highest court for decades to come.

Pariente, Lewis and Quince are part of a liberal bloc that sometimes includes Labarga. The four justices have repeatedly thwarted Scott and the Republican-dominated Legislature since Scott took office in 2011.

Federal judge rejects two election lawsuits

With a machine recount in the rearview mirror and a manual recount underway, the legal challenges over Florida’s elections are piled up.

In two rulings late Thursday, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker shot down an attempt to keep Republican Gov. Rick Scott from interfering in the recount process and nixed another challenge focused on the way county canvassing boards decide which ballots should be tossed.

The rulings, issued hours after Walker held hearings in a mash-up of cases, followed machine recounts in which Scott maintained a narrow lead of fewer than 13,000 votes over Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson in their race for the U.S. Senate. That lead was well within the 0.25 percent margin requiring a manual recount. Results of the manual recount are due to the state by noon Sunday.

In the days after the Nov. 6 election, Scott and his supporters repeatedly castigated elections chiefs in Broward and Palm Beach counties as ballots in the heavily Democratic regions continued to be tallied and Scott’s advantage over Nelson shrank.

Standing outside the Governor’s Mansion two days after the election, Scott held a news conference accusing Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes and her Palm Beach County counterpart, Susan Bucher, of ineptitude and fraud. The Governor also said he was asking the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate. His campaign Twitter account later urged Florida sheriffs to be on guard for election irregularities.

Scott’s comments prompted the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida to ask the federal court to remove the Republican Governor and U.S. Senate candidate from the elections process.

One of Scott’s attorneys told Walker the Governor intends to recuse himself from the state Elections Canvassing Commission, which is set to certify election results at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

But during a Thursday hearing, Larry Robbins, an attorney for the voting-rights groups, told Walker that Scott should also be stripped of his authority to remove members of county canvassing boards, comprised of elections supervisors, county commissioners, and judges.

By urging “the cops to go out and see what these unethical liberals are doing,” Scott has showed a bias against Palm Beach, Broward and possibly other counties, Robbins argued.

But, in a ruling later Thursday, Walker said there’s a difference between “typical campaign-trail puffery” — which he called “increasingly bombastic, imprudent, and not necessarily rooted in objective facts” — and what a public official says and does in his official capacity.

“Here, Scott has toed the line between imprudent campaign-trail rhetoric and problematic state action. But he has not crossed the line,” Walker wrote.

Scott, as a candidate, has the right to make speeches outside the mansion. But the Governor can’t “undercut the count and mandatory recounts from his perch of public official,” the judge wrote, noting that Scott’s most “questionable conduct” occurred in his capacity as a candidate, not as governor.

In a separate lawsuit, Walker also refused to block state elections rules that outline the way ballots should be counted during manual recounts.

In a manual recount, county canvassing boards examine ballots with “undervotes” and “overvotes” that could not be tallied during a machine recount and determine which ones should be counted.

A rule from Secretary of State Ken Detzner requires a voter to have marked all contests in the same manner for a ballot flagged as an undervote or overvote to be counted. That means that, if a voter circles a candidate in one race but uses an “x” to indicate her preference in another race, her ballot wouldn’t be counted, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Another rule provides that a voter who fills in a selection for a candidate, crosses it out and indicates with “magic words” that he or she made a mistake will have the ballot counted. But ballots in which voters did not give any written instructions indicating how they intended to vote will be rejected, under the rule.

“Without relief from this court, these voters will be deprived of their right to vote, and to have their vote counted, in the November election,” Democrats argued in the case.

But, siding with the Scott administration, Walker found that the “reasonable and neutral rules” are constitutional.

“Indeed, without such rules, it would be impossible to determine the result of an election,” Walker wrote. “If a voter fails to follow reasonable rules — and having to fill in an oval is reasonable — the state has not burdened the right to vote.”

Similarly, a “neutral, reasonable, standard practice,” such as the consistency and “magic words” rule, is not a burden, the judge decided, noting that the manual recount is already underway.

“Canvassing boards have been trained and used these procedures in prior manual recounts. The rules are clear and provide examples. To enjoin the use of the rules at this point would likely create a bigger problem,” Walker wrote.

The two cases that resulted in Walker’s Thursday orders are among at least eight election-related federal lawsuits.

Siding with Nelson’s campaign and national Democrats in one case, Walker early Thursday gave voters until 5 p.m. Saturday to fix ballots that were rejected because of mismatched signatures.

During a lengthy hearing Wednesday, Florida Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews testified that 45 counties tossed a total of 3,668 mail-in ballots and 93 provisional ballots due to mismatched signatures. Two large counties — Duval and Miami-Dade — had not reported their results, and Walker estimated about 5,000 ballots statewide would have been rejected.

Walker’s ruling Thursday requires county supervisors to allow voters who were “belatedly notified that they had a mismatched-signature ballot to cure their ballots” by 5 p.m. Saturday. It is unclear how many of the estimated 5,000 voters whose ballots were rejected would be affected.

Scott’s campaign, through the National Republican Senatorial Committee, quickly appealed Walker’s ruling, but the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal, meaning Walker’s ruling continues to be in force.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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