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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.

Court urged to reject state rights restoration process

With arguments at a federal appeals court little more than a month away, attorneys for nine felons filed a 72-page brief Thursday urging the judges to find that Florida’s system of restoring felons’ voting rights is unconstitutional.

The brief asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a ruling by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker that struck down the system.

Arguments are scheduled July 25 at the appeals court in Atlanta.

The restoration of felon rights has long been a controversial legal and political issue in Florida, and Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi changed the system after they took office in 2011 to effectively make restoration harder.

Scott, Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis serve as the state’s clemency board and make decisions about restoration.

Under the current process, felons must wait five or seven years after their sentences are complete to apply to have rights restored. After applications are filed, the process can take years to complete.

In the brief filed Thursday, attorneys for the felons said the case is primarily a First Amendment challenge to an “arbitrary process” for restoring the right to vote.

“Florida’s laws have long subjected felons to an arbitrary scheme in which government officials exercise limitless power to decide if and when individual felons may vote,” the brief said. “These laws violate the Constitution by arbitrarily licensing or allocating First Amendment-protected rights and leaving restoration applicants in limbo for years. Plaintiffs challenge the lack of any rules, standards, criteria, or reasonable time limits for this voting rights restoration scheme.”

But in a brief last month, attorneys for the state urged the appeals court to overturn Walker’s ruling.

The brief said case law gives the clemency board discretion in restoring rights.

“Florida’s 150-year-old system for offering executive clemency to convicted felons is not facially unconstitutional insofar as it gives the Executive Clemency Board discretion to make clemency decisions implicating restoration of voting rights without resort to specific standards,” the state brief said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Official Florida House photo

Late GOP candidates emerge for Frank White, Jake Raburn seats

With Republican state Rep. Frank White of Pensacola and Lithia Republican Rep. Jake Raburn deciding against seeking re-election to their House seats, two Republican candidates are making late bids to replace them.

Pensacola Republican Greg Merk qualified Thursday to try to succeed White in House District 2 in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, according to the state Division of Elections website.

Merk will square off in a primary against Gulf Breeze Republican Alex Andrade, who qualified for the race Monday.

White decided to run for Attorney General instead of seeking another term in the House.

Meanwhile, with Raburn announcing Monday that he would not run for another term, Lithia Republican Michael Paul Beltran opened a campaign account Thursday to run in Hillsborough County’s House District 57.

Beltran is the fourth candidate in the race, joining Republican Sean McCoy and Democrats Layla Hartz and Debbie Katt.

As of Thursday night, the Division of Elections website showed that McCoy and Katt had qualified for the race.

This year’s qualifying period for state and local races started Monday and will end at noon Friday.

In other House campaign developments, Milton Democrat Kenneth Bansah opened a campaign account Thursday to run against Rep. Jayer Williamson, a Pace Republican, in House District 3 in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties. Also in the race is unaffiliated candidate Bobbi Sue Osborne.

In Central Florida, Democrat Lou Forges has opened a campaign account to run for a seat being vacated by Rep. Mike Miller, a Winter Park Republican who is running for Congress. Forges joined Democrat Anna Eskamani and Republicans Mikaela Nix and Stockton Reeves in running in Orange County’s House District 47, according to the Division of Elections website.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

State continues records battle with nursing home

After being ordered to quickly turn over copies of thousands of death certificates from across the state, the Florida Department of Health has gone to an appeals court in a months-long records battle with a Broward County nursing home where residents died after Hurricane Irma.

Attorneys for the department filed a notice of appeal Wednesday, a day after Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis issued a formal order requiring the agency to turn over the records to The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.

The nursing home and the state have been locked in a series of legal fights since September, including a fight about a state attempt to revoke the facility’s license. The nursing home filed a public-records lawsuit Jan. 31, alleging that the department had improperly refused to provide copies of death certificates for people across the state from Sept. 9 through Sept. 16 — a period that included Hurricane Irma and its immediate aftermath.

An attorney for the nursing home indicated during a hearing last week that the facility is seeking the addresses of locations where other people died during and after the massive storm. Lewis on April 20 had ordered the Department of Health to hand over the documents, but lawyers for the nursing home accused the state of dragging its feet in producing the records. The nursing home also challenged costs that the department wanted to impose for the public documents.

But the Department of Health has pointed, in part, to a need to review and redact information from the records — an argument that Lewis rejected from the bench during the hearing last week and in the formal order issued Tuesday.

Lewis wrote that the Department of Health is “specifically ordered to immediately (within 24 hours of receipt of this order) produce to petitioner electronic copies (e.g. via email, drop box, a flash drive, or other appropriate medium) all of the approximate 5,907 death certificate records that petitioner has requested (and which were previously ordered to be produced by this court’s April 20 final judgment), all without review or redaction of any information or fields on the death certificates, except the ‘cause of death’ field information, which should not be included in any of the death certificate records produced to petitioner.”

But the Department of Health filed notice Wednesday that it was taking the case to the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal, a move that places an automatic stay on Lewis’ ruling. As is common, the notice did not provide detailed legal arguments, but it pointed to the issue of reviewing and redacting information from the records.

“The order directs the Florida Department of Health to release approximately 5,907 death certificate records to the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, LLC, without any review or redaction of any information or fields on the death certificates, except the ‘cause of death,’” said the notice, posted on the Leon County clerk of courts website.

The notice was filed just hours after the same appeals court backed the state Agency for Health Care Administration in other legal disputes with The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. A three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld agency decisions last year to suspend the nursing home’s license to operate, suspend its participation in the Medicaid program and place a moratorium on Medicaid admissions.

The state also has moved to revoke the facility’s license — a decision that is being litigated in the Division of Administrative Hearings.

The legal fights are rooted in the nursing home’s loss of its air-conditioning system Sept. 10 as Hurricane Irma pounded the state. The outage created sweltering conditions that resulted in the facility being evacuated Sept. 13. Authorities have attributed 12 deaths to problems at the nursing home after the storm.

Ten candidates qualify for Cabinet races

With a noon Friday deadline to qualify for this year’s elections, 10 candidates for state Cabinet seats had qualified as of Thursday morning, according to the Florida Division of Elections website.

Republicans Ashley Moody and Frank White and Democrat Sean Shaw had qualified to run for Attorney General, while Democrat Ryan Torrens was expected to appear Thursday afternoon in Tallahassee to submit his paperwork. The candidates are seeking to succeed term-limited Attorney General Pam Bondi.

In the race to replace term-limited Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Republicans Matt Caldwell and Mike McCalister and Democrats Nikki Fried and David Walker had qualified as of Thursday morning.

Also, incumbent Republican Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis had qualified to defend his seat. Democrat Jeremy Ring and write-in candidate Richard Dembinsky had qualified to try to topple Patronis.

Senate incumbents ready for re-election campaigns

All but one of the Florida Senate incumbents running for re-election this year had qualified for the ballot as of Thursday morning — with two continuing to run unopposed. Candidates face a noon Friday deadline to qualify.

The state Division of Elections website Thursday showed 16 incumbent senators had qualified, while Sen. Daphne Campbell, a Miami Democrat running in District 38, had not.

Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican, remained unopposed in District 10. Also unopposed was Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, in District 32, while Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, had drawn only a write-in opponent in District 34.

In all, 22 Senate seats are up for election this year, with five not having incumbent candidates.

State considers options for Confederate statue

A state panel has scheduled a meeting next week to discuss where to display a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith after the statue is removed from the U.S. Capitol.

The Statue Location Selection Committee will meet June 28 in Tallahassee, according to a notice published Thursday in the Florida Administrative Register.

The issue stems, in part, from a law approved during this year’s Legislative Session to place a likeness of civil-rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune in National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. Bethune’s statue is expected to replace the statue of Smith, who has long been one of two representatives of Florida in the hall. Florida’s other representative in the hall is John Gorrie, widely considered the father of air conditioning. Each state is allowed two representatives.

The Legislature voted in 2016 to replace the Smith statue during a nationwide backlash against Confederate symbols in the wake of the 2015 shooting deaths of nine African-American worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. Lawmakers followed up this year with the decision to honor Bethune.

This year’s law, however, also included a requirement that state Division of Cultural Affairs take possession of the returned Smith statue and “make the statue available for public display.”

The law, which takes effect July 1, will serve as a formal request to the federal Joint Committee on the Library of Congress to switch the statues.

Lobbyist registration to start at Citizens Insurance

Lobbyists who represent clients at Citizens Property Insurance Corp. will have to register with the insurer beginning Sept. 1 under a policy unanimously approved Wednesday by the Citizens Board of Governors.

Although lobbyists seeking to influence decisions in the executive branch of state government must already register, the state-backed Citizens has not had a similar requirement.

In early May, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis asked the insurer to close that disclosure gap and to create a process in which lobbyists must register and disclose their clients.

Under the new policy, lobbyists will have to file a one-year registration form “before communicating or contacting a member of the Citizens Board of Governors or an employee of Citizens, outside of a presentation on the record at a publicly noticed meeting.”

Nancy Staff, Citizens director of ethics and compliance officer, said the registration, which can begin on Aug. 1, will be done online and that registration information will be available to the public on the internet. She said the process is similar to what lobbyists do now when they register to lobby executive agencies, like the governor’s office or the Office of Insurance Regulation.

“It will have the look and feel of the online registration that they are already doing for the executive branch,” Staff told the board.

Lobbyists who “knowingly” violate the registration policy could be barred from the Citizens procurement process and lobbyist registration for up to a year.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Daphne Campbell, Chris Latvala draw new opponents

Two Republicans have opened campaign accounts to try to unseat state Sen. Daphne Campbell, a Miami Democrat, while Rep. Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, has picked up a second Democratic challenger.

North Bay Village Republican Allen Markelson and Miami Beach Republican Alexia Van Orden opened accounts Wednesday to run in Miami-Dade County’s Senate District 38, according to the state Division of Elections website.

The winner of the Republican primary will square off in November with Campbell or her Democratic primary challenger, Jason Pizzo, who formally qualified for the race Tuesday.

Campbell had raised $92,389 for her re-election bid as of May 31, while Pizzo had raised $93,366 and loaned $100,000 to his campaign, finance reports show.

Meanwhile, Largo Democrat Dawn Douglas opened a campaign account Wednesday to try to unseat Latvala in Pinellas County’s House District 67. Douglas joined Clearwater Democrat Tom Ryan who entered the race this month and formally qualified Wednesday.

Latvala, who qualified Monday, had raised $104,425 for his campaign as of May 31, a finance report shows.

The election qualifying period started Monday and will end at noon Friday.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Brad Drake’s opponent shifts to Miami-Dade race

Maybe state Rep. Brad Drake won’t face an opponent in November after all.

A day after Miami-Dade County Democrat Heath Rassner filed paperwork indicating he would run in Drake’s Panhandle district, Rassner switched races Wednesday to run for a seat that is being vacated by term-limited Rep. Jeanette Nunez according to documents posted on the state Division of Elections website.

With election qualifying ending at noon Friday, that left Drake as the only candidate who had submitted paperwork to run in House District 5, which includes Holmes, Jackson, Walton, Washington and part of Bay counties.

In making the switch, Rassner joined a crowded field in Miami-Dade County’s House District 119.

That race also got another new candidate Wednesday, when Democrat Diana Marcel

a Ahmed qualified, according to the Division of Elections website.

Other candidates who have qualified for the race are Republicans Jose Barquin-Fernandez, Enrique Lopez and Annie Martinez and unaffiliated candidate Daniel Sotelo. Republican Bibi Potestad has an open campaign account for the race but had not qualified as of Wednesday evening, according to the Division of Elections website.

UF gets designation for work on mental health

With suicide a growing concern, the University of Florida is touting the designation of its Mood Disorders Program as a center for excellence by the National Network of Depression Centers.

University of Florida Health is the first academic health center in the state to earn the distinction. It joins 21 other centers that work on issues such as educating people, speeding up research and improving treatment options for patients suffering from depression, bipolar disorder and other mood disorders.

Physician Regina Bussing, chair of UF’s department of psychiatry, said the designation will help accelerate efforts to improve and expand care for people with depression and mood disorders.

The nation’s suicide rate went up by nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2016, according to a report issued this month by the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Florida’s suicide rate increased by 10.6 percent during the same period, the report said. But the latest state report issued by the Department of Children and Families Suicide Prevention Coordinating Council shows that there were 3,122 suicides in 2016, down from 3,152 suicides in 2015. But both numbers were an increase from the 2,961 suicides reported by the state in 2014.

The University of Florida received the center of excellence designation in April but sent out a release following the high-profile suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef, author and television personality Anthony Bourdain.

The CDC suicide report is here. The latest Florida report is here.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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