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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.

NRA supporters hot and bothered over YETI coolers

The picture sums up what National Rifle Association supporters think of YETI, the maker of spendy coolers that we’re pretty certain weren’t designed for the repurpose captured above.

It’s all part of the #BoycottYETI movement launched over the Texas-based company said it no longer wanted to be a vendor for the NRA Foundation.

The high-dollar coolers were a huge hit at NRA Foundation banquets and auctions throughout the country, according to an alert sent out by NRA Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer, a onetime president of the national gun-rights group.

The foundation events “raise money to support youth programs and education programs nationwide,” Hammer wrote in the alert.

“The youth of America who benefit from these programs are the future hunters, hikers, fishermen/women, bikers, campers, wildlife photographers, mountain climbers, sportsmen/women and conservationists who will protect our natural resources and recreational lands,” according to Hammer.

Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch defends CRC amendment bundling

Jacqui ThurlowLippisch, an appointee of fellow Martin County resident Senate President Joe Negron to the Constitution Revision Commission, defended the bundling of topics in six of the eight amendments the 37-member panel agreed this week to put before voters in November.

On her blog, the former Sewall’s Point mayor called it “a good thing” to roll some topics — such as oil drilling and vaping, or death benefits for first responders and university student fees — into single-ballot proposals.

“You may have read a plethora of articles on the completed work of the 2018 Constitution Revision Commission and thought to yourself, ‘What!?’” Thurlow-Lippisch wrote.

Six amendments “are grouped and related,” she added.

“Although for many, controversial, in my opinion, this is a good thing, perfectly legal, and we all know this was done by both former CRCs,” she went on.

Thurlow-Lippisch was behind the offshore drilling ban, which was linked with a ban on electric cigarettes, in what is expected to become Amendment 9 on the ballot.

The Florida Petroleum Council has already expressed its opposition to the drilling ban proposal, calling it “bizarre and “surreal” that it was linked to the anti-vaping in the workplace measure.

Thurlow-Lippisch was unable to move some of her more ambitious proposals, including one measure crushed by business and agriculture groups, in which she sought to redefine legal standing for Floridians on environmental issues.

Colleges wary of dual-enrollment change

State colleges could face higher costs after a new law revamped the dual-enrollment program for students at private high schools who take courses at public colleges and universities.

Dual enrollment is an increasingly popular program that allows students from grades six through 12 to take post-secondary courses that help them complete high school as well as get a head start on college degrees.

More than 60,000 students are using the program to attend state and community colleges and state universities.

During the 2015-2016 academic year, 56,245 dual-enrollment students attended Florida’s 28 state and community colleges, an increase of 12.5 percent over the 2011-2012 year, according to the state Department of Education.

In 2015-2016, 5,842 dual-enrollment students attended Florida’s 12 universities, according to the state Board of Governors.

The program is popular, in part, because dual-enrollment students pay no tuition and the costs of textbooks are covered.

The bulk of dual-enrollment students come from public schools, where the cost of tuition is covered by local school districts. The tuition cost, without fees normally paid by regular college students, is $105 per credit hour for university courses, $72 for college courses and $2.33 per contact hour for students enrolled in certificate or technical training programs.

Students attending private high schools can also take dual-enrollment courses, with tuition generally covered, but not necessarily, by the private schools through articulation agreements with public colleges and universities.

But the private-school law was changed as part of a massive education bill (HB 7055) passed during this year’s Legislative Session and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

The new law removed a prior requirement that articulation agreements have “a provision stating whether the private school will compensate the postsecondary institution for the standard tuition rate per credit hour for each dual-enrollment course taken by its students.”

The impact of that change was discussed by college presidents last week in a teleconference. Some of the presidents said the removal of the language would not necessarily prohibit the private schools from continuing to pay dual-enrollment tuition if it was part of existing agreements with the colleges.

But Madeline Pumariega, chancellor for the state college system, urged “caution” in making an immediate interpretation, saying the Department of Education would offer some guidance.

Pumariega said part of the issue is determining exactly how much the impact would be if private schools were no longer responsible for tuition costs.

An analysis by Senate staff members estimated that of more than 56,000 dual-enrollment students attending colleges, more than 3,000 came from private schools in the 2016-2017 academic year.

Analysts at the university system’s Board of Governors said fewer than 300 dual-enrollment students came from private schools in the fall of 2016.

Pumariega said the college system will make its analysis of the fiscal impact of the legal change and then ask lawmakers for a funding adjustment, if warranted.

“We’ll be glad to give you the impact,” Ken Atwater, president of Hillsborough Community College, told Pumariega. “If we have the option to charge, we are going to continue to charge.”

Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who sponsored legislation (SB 1064) aimed at making it easier for private school students to use the dual-enrollment program, said he understands the colleges’ concerns and would support a budget increase if necessary.

“I acknowledge there may be a gap there that we need to take care of,” Baxley said. “I’m ready to address that because my major goal is to make sure all students in Florida have access to dual enrollment.”

Like Pumariega, Baxley said he wants to see more data on how the change may or may not impact colleges. He said he has not heard the same concerns from state universities, which have far fewer dual-enrollment students.

“We’ll get some truer numbers as we see the response, and then let’s address that,” Baxley said. “If there is a deficit for the state colleges, as I believe there will be, we want to cover that.”

Now Marion Hammer’s set her sights on YETI

The National Rifle Association is targeting YETI after the Texas-based maker of high-dollar cups and coolers dropped its sponsorship of the Friends of NRA Foundation Banquet and Auction events around the country, according to an alert issued by NRA Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer.

The YETI coolers “have been a hot item for sportsmen” at the events for years, according to Hammer’s alert.

“Suddenly, without prior notice, YETI has declined to do business with The NRA Foundation saying they no longer wish to be an NRA vendor, and refused to say why. They will only say they will no longer sell products to The NRA Foundation. That certainly isn’t sportsmanlike. In fact, YETI should be ashamed. They have declined to continue helping America’s young people enjoy outdoor recreational activities. These activities enable them to appreciate America and enjoy our natural resources with wholesome and healthy outdoor recreational and educational programs,” the alert reads. “In this day and age, information is power. We thought you needed this information.”

The NRA Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, charitable organization, according to the alert, which also includes a link to YETI’s online contact service.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Judge backs nursing home on death records

Ruling against the Florida Department of Health, a circuit judge Friday said an embattled Broward County nursing home is entitled to receive copies of death certificates for people who died across the state around the time of Hurricane Irma.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled that the death certificates are public records under a state open-government law. In doing so, he sided with arguments made by The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, a Broward County nursing where residents died in sweltering conditions after the September hurricane.

“The records requested by petitioner (the nursing home) are subject to Florida’s Public Record Act … and there is no applicable statutory exemption to permit their withholding from release,” wrote Lewis, who held a hearing in the case this week.

The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills filed the 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 week-long period that included Hurricane Irma and its immediate aftermath. The lawsuit said the Department of Health responded to the public-records request by requiring the nursing home to request each death certificate by the name of the person who had died and to use a department form. Attorneys for the nursing home alleged that such requirements violate the public-records law.

But in a motion to dismiss the case filed last month, the Department of Health contended that the nursing home’s large request fell under part of state law dealing with “vital records or data” and that the nursing home’s request didn’t meet legal standards for releasing such information.

“Whereas anyone may request and receive a redacted death certificate (under part of state law), only certain people and entities may receive the type of general data that would allow research to be conducted,” the motion said. “Such data … is far more broad than simply one or two specifically requested death certificates. The only possible purpose for this subsection (of law) is to regulate who may obtain large swaths of data derived from death certificates and other such records.” The motion said the nursing home is “not the type of entity which may receive this data.”

Lewis wrote that the department could require the nursing home to use a form to request the records, but “it cannot require that petitioner request each death certificate by name. Petitioner, using the prescribed form, may request these records with the information it has, which may only include a date range, and respondent (the Department of Health) must produce the applicable, responsive records.”

The lawsuit and a document filed April 4 by lawyers for the nursing home do not detail why The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills wants the death certificates from across the state.

But the nursing home has been locked in legal battles over the state’s attempt to revoke its license. Hurricane Irma knocked out the home’s air conditioning on Sept. 10, and residents were evacuated from the facility on Sept. 13. Authorities have attributed 12 deaths to the problems at the nursing home.

Department of Corrections backed on substance abuse contracts

An administrative law judge Friday rejected a challenge to decisions by the Florida Department of Corrections to award two contracts for substance-abuse treatment services in state prisons.

Judge Darren Schwartz, in a 41-page recommended order, said a protest by GEO Reentry Services, LLC should be dismissed. The department in January said it planned to award the contracts, totaling about $59 million over five years, to Gateway Foundation, Inc., and The Unlimited Path, Inc.

Gateway would provide services at prisons in the central and southern parts of the state, while The Unlimited Path would provide services across North Florida.

GEO raised numerous issues in the protest, but Schwartz rejected the arguments, pointing, for example, to higher costs proposed by GEO.

He wrote that the department’s “proposed action in awarding the contracts to Gateway and UPI, and not to GEO, is not contrary to the ITN (invitation to negotiate) specifications, clearly erroneous, contrary to competition, arbitrary or capricious.”

Under administrative law, the recommended order will go back to the Department of Corrections for final action.

Nursing home fined after care violations

A Tallahassee nursing home has been ordered to pay $5,000 in fines to the state after allegations that it failed to provide adequate health care for eight residents.

State Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Justin Senior issued a final order this week against Heritage Healthcare after the nursing home did not challenge allegations levied in a March administrative complaint.

The alleged violations were discovered during Agency for Health Care Administration surveys conducted in August and November. One of the violations in the August survey, for example, involved a “clearly septic” resident who was admitted to a hospital after the nursing facility didn’t provide proper care.

The administrative complaint said a peripherally inserted central catheter, also known as a PICC line, was left in the resident longer than what a doctor ordered. According to the administrative complaint, the resident was admitted to the hospital with a 104.8-degree temperature, and there were “foul smelling bandages that are soiled with greenish-black substance.”

Another violation was spotted during the November survey and involved a resident who was developing bed sores. According to the administrative complaint, a physician treating the resident for the wounds noted that the nursing home was sitting the patient up in a “borrowed small wheelchair” and that a special chair and air cushion that had been ordered for the resident appeared to have been lost by the facility.

In all, the agency laid out violations in the administrative complaint involving eight different nursing-home residents.

Multimillion-dollar tobacco verdict upheld

A divided state appeals court this week upheld a nearly $6.4 million verdict in a case filed against cigarette-maker Philip Morris USA by the widow of a Jacksonville man who died of smoking-related illnesses.

A panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal, in a 2-1 decision, ruled Wednesday in favor of Mary Brown, who was awarded $6.375 million in 2015 after a trial in Duval County, according to state and county court records.

The case, which involved the death of Rayfield Brown, is one of thousands that were filed in Florida against tobacco companies in recent years. Those cases stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that established critical findings about issues including the dangers of smoking and misrepresentation by cigarette makers.

In this week’s ruling, appeals court Chief Judge Brad Thomas and Judge Ross Bilbrey upheld the verdict without explanation. But Judge Allen Winsor dissented, arguing that a new trial should be held because of the jury deadlocking on some issues in the case but being instructed by the circuit judge to provide a verdict on issues where it was unanimous.

“The main question in this case is what happens when a deadlocked jury is instructed to reach whatever partial verdict it can — and to do so without any further deliberations.” Winsor wrote in a six-page dissent. “On the unusual facts of this case, I would hold that such an instruction leaves the jury incapable of producing a valid verdict. From the time jury deliberations begin until the time the jury reaches its final decision, jurors must be free to weigh and consider arguments and evidence, to consider other jurors’ points of view, to attempt to persuade fellow jurors, to argue and debate — in other words, the jury must be free to deliberate until the very end. Because this jury did not have that opportunity, we should reverse and remand for a new trial.”

Supreme Court to hear medical malpractice dispute

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday scheduled oral arguments in a medical-malpractice appeal filed by the estate of a woman who died while undergoing surgery for a tumor in her skull.

The court issued an order that set arguments for Aug. 29 in the case involving the 2009 death in Miami-Dade County of 45-year-old Maria Elena Espinosa.

The woman’s estate took the case to the Supreme Court after a divided 3rd District Court of Appeal last year upheld a circuit judge’s directed verdict for anesthesiologist Arturo Lorenzo, who evaluated Espinosa before the surgery.

The woman died on the operating table of what the appeals-court opinion said was exsanguination, which involves blood loss.

The case focused, in part, on whether Lorenzo properly considered an abnormal electrocardiogram in the evaluation. But the majority of the appeals court said Lorenzo had acted properly and that another anesthesiologist also conducted an evaluation before the surgery.

Judge rejects challenge to controversial school law

Rejecting arguments of school boards across the state, a Leon County circuit judge this week formally rejected a challenge to a controversial 2017 law that included a series of moves to boost charter schools.

Circuit Judge John Cooper, who had earlier indicated he would turn down the challenge, issued an 18-page ruling Tuesday siding with the Florida Department of Education and the State Board of Education, the defendants in the case.

The lawsuit centered on a measure, commonly known as HB 7069, that was a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, and became one of most-controversial issues of the 2017 Legislative Session. Debate about the measure highlighted continuing tensions between local school districts and the state about oversight and expansion of charter schools, which are public schools but are often run by private operators.

The mammoth law included changes such as requiring county school boards to share local property-tax revenues with charter schools for building-related expenses. It also set the stage for adding new charter schools — dubbed “schools of hope” — that would serve students whose traditional public schools have been considered low-performing.

Among other issues, the law called for school districts to provide federal Title I funding — which is designed to help schools that serve large numbers of low-income students — to charter schools.

School boards in Alachua, Bay, Broward, Clay, Duval, Hamilton, Lee, Orange Pinellas, Polk, St. Lucie, Volusia and Wakulla counties filed the lawsuit last year arguing, at least in part, that HB 7069 infringed on their constitutional authority to operate public schools within their districts. The Collier County School Board also intervened in the case.

Cooper held a hearing April 4 and, according to Tampa Bay Times and Orlando Sentinel reports, said he would rule in favor of the state. He then issued the 19-page final order and judgment this week rejecting the arguments raised by the school boards.

For example, Cooper dismissed an argument that the law required school boards to share local property-tax revenues with charter schools in an arbitrary way.

“HB 7069’s enrollment-based formula for charter-school capital-outlay funding accounts for the fact that schools with more students need more classrooms, and charter schools are required to spend capital-outlay funding for substantially the same purposes as school districts,” Cooper wrote. “The local boards have not shown that the capital-millage (property tax) provisions are constitutionally different from the numerous other, presumptively constitutional requirements governing the use of local tax dollars in Florida’s public schools — which have included charter schools for more than 20 years.”

As another example, Cooper rejected arguments that school districts have a right to decide how to allocate Title I money.

“HB 7069’s effort to direct more Title I funding toward individual schools is also rationally related to legitimate concerns about ensuring that Title I funds benefit schools with the highest proportion of economically disadvantaged students,” the judge wrote.

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