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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.

Democratic candidates push for expanded health care coverage

Reflecting the same fault lines that have emerged nationally, Florida’s Democratic and Republican candidates for governor are deeply split over whether the state should take a more direct role in providing health care.

And that split is resonating in a campaign where health care has become one of the touchstone issues for the five Democrats running in the Aug. 28 primary.

Democrats Andrew Gillum, Gwen Graham, Jeff Greene, Chris King and Philip Levine are united in their support for expanding Medicaid to the 700,000 Floridians who would qualify for the program if Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-dominated Legislature had agreed to expand coverage to uninsured working adults.

But the five Democrats have not taken identical stances on health-care issues, including whether the state should allow the recreational use of marijuana instead of just limiting it to patients with chronic medical conditions.

And none of the Democratic candidates appears to have cornered support from Florida’s vast health-care industry. An analysis of contribution data to campaigns and political committees shows Levine, a former Miami Beach mayor, has collected more than $210,444 from the industry, while King, a Winter Park businessman, has gotten nearly $181,000. Graham a former congresswoman, has received nearly $171,000, and Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor, reported taking in contributions of nearly $160,000. Greene, a Palm Beach billionaire, has virtually self-funded his campaign.

Democrats are making sure voters are aware of health-care issues during the campaign. Florida’s uninsured rate in 2013, the year before federal Affordable Care Act plans became available, was 20 percent and one of the highest in the nation. In 2016, the rate was 12.5 percent.

The Florida Democratic Party has pointed to polls, such as one done this year by AARP and Politico, that showed health care is a top issue among voters 50 and older.

But Kevin McCarty, the state’s former long-time insurance commissioner, said he doesn’t think it will be a marquee issue this election.

A Republican, McCarty said that as Floridians prepare to go to the polls in coming weeks a mandate that insurance companies sell policies to people regardless of pre-existing conditions remains in effect. Also remaining in effect are subsidies that flow to people who are purchasing policies on the federal health-care exchange. The subsidies, McCarty said, keep people protected from having to pay the full costs of the policies.

“I don’t think it’s front and center of the mind,” McCarty said.

“But I don’t think there’s any question those issues will be front and center of the political arena for the next four years,” McCarty said, referring to, among other things, a multi-state legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act filed in federal court in Texas.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said he won’t defend the law against the challenge, which Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi joined. The challenge could ensure that the pre-existing condition protections will be eliminated. Seventeen other states have intervened to defend the Affordable Care Act.

More than 1.7 million Florida residents enrolled in the federal exchange to buy health policies this year. Ninety percent of them are receiving some sort of discounts to help offset the costs of the coverage, according to federal data.

King and Graham said they aren’t afraid to use the power of the governor’s office to bolster the insurance exchange.

Both candidates’ platforms would require managed-care plans participating in Medicaid to offer health plans on the federal exchange. King said he also would use incentives — carrots and sticks — to require Medicare health plans to participate in the marketplace. He called the policy “universal participation.”

Gillum supports the Affordable Care Act and has said that he would change Florida’s insurance laws to make sure they have the same pre-existing condition protections that are in the federal law.

But Gillum also said he also supports U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan. Sanders, a Vermont independent who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, has endorsed Gillum’s campaign.

While McCarty maintains that health care isn’t foremost on people’s minds this year, residents have enough concerns to keep the advocacy group Florida Voices for Health busy, said Louisa McQueeney, the group’s communications director.

She said the organization has been hosting town-hall meetings and talking with people who could be impacted if protections in the federal law are eliminated.

People who come to Florida Voices for Health for assistance, though, generally aren’t pressing for information about the gubernatorial candidates and the candidates’ health-care and insurance agendas.

“They want information on health care,” she said. “What we’re being asked for is to help us to understand the potential changes to the Affordable Care Act, the Medicaid expansion and now, the short-term plans.”

The Democratic candidates part ways when it comes to other health-care issues that may resonate with voters, including their positions on whether to expand marijuana legalization in Florida beyond current medical-only uses.

Gillum was the first to support allowing recreational use of the drug. King and Levine also support it.

Graham and Greene support legal marijuana only for medical uses. Graham said, though, that she would decriminalize the use of marijuana, a step short of full legalization.

Justices block execution in Miami-Dade murder

The Florida Supreme Court has indefinitely put on hold Tuesday’s scheduled execution of Death Row inmate Jose Antonio Jimenez, convicted of killing a 63-year-old woman nearly 26 years ago in Miami-Dade County.

A unanimous order by the court, issued Friday evening, did not give a reason for granting the stay of execution requested by Jimenez’s lawyer, Marty McClain.

Gov. Rick Scott in July ordered Jimenez, now 54, to be put to death by lethal injection and scheduled the execution for Tuesday. The convicted murderer’s execution would have been the first since the February lethal injection of Eric Branch, who reportedly screamed after being injected with the anesthetic etomidate, the first of the state’s triple-drug lethal injection protocol.

In a motion for a stay of execution filed this week, McClain raised several issues, including the fact that he discovered 80 pages of records related to the investigation into the Oct. 2, 1992, death of Phyllis Minas that the North Miami Police Department had not previously provided to Jimenez’s lawyers.

McClain was first given access to all of the records — more than 1,000 pages — on July 30, just two weeks before his client, who maintains his innocence, was scheduled to be executed.

The newly discovered records include pages of handwritten notes made by investigators identified as detectives Ojeda and Diecidue, who interviewed Jimenez following his arrest three days after Minas was murdered, according to court documents filed this week. The records contradict the detectives’ testimony in Jimenez’s case, according to McClain.

“Mr. Jimenez has found, to his mind, surprising and downright shocking information contained in the previously unseen notes,” McClain wrote in a five-page motion filed in Miami-Dade County circuit court Friday. “It appears that the notes of Detective Ojeda, the lead investigator, and Detective Diecidue if not lied, endeavored to deceive when they were deposed by Mr. Jimenez’s trial counsel.”

McClain wrote that he made the discovery within the past 10 days.

“And counsel is frnatical (sic) trying to piece these notes together and understand what occurred while the clock ticks down on Mr. Jimenez’s life,” McClain wrote.

The notes “show that Ojeda and Diecidue were willing (to) give false and/or misleading deposition testimony in order to facilitate Mr. Jimenez’s conviction,” McClain wrote in an eight-page amendment to a motion seeking to vacate his client’s judgment and sentence filed with the Supreme Court this week.

“The new documents show dishonest cops, and the conviction is premised on Ojeda telling the truth,” McClain told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Friday evening.

In the motion seeking a stay, McClain also raised the issue of a pending U.S. Supreme Court case, known as Bucklew v. Precythe, which could have an impact on arguments about whether Florida’s lethal-injection protocol is unconstitutional.

The Missouri case deals with a previous U.S. Supreme Court decision, in a case known as Glossip v. Gross, that focused on lethal injection protocols.

That ruling requires prisoners challenging lethal injection procedures to establish that “any risk of harm was substantial when compared to a known and viable alternative method of execution.”

“… (I)t is clear that the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to revisit and clarify the analysis to be used in a challenge to a method of execution. For that reason, a stay of execution would be more than appropriate in this case just as it was in Correll,” McClain wrote, referring to Jerry Correll, who was put to death by lethal injection in 2015 in the first execution after the Supreme Court signed off on the use of the drug midazolam, which has now been replaced by etomidate in Florida.

The Florida Supreme Court’s order Friday halting Jimenez’s execution set a schedule for briefs to be filed by McClain and the state, ending with an Aug. 28 deadline for reply brief to be filed. “Oral argument, if necessary, will be scheduled at a later date,” the order said.

McClain said he did not know the basis of court’s indefinite stay.

“But the fact that it’s until further order of the court, and it was unanimous, there’s something up, but I don’t know what it is,” he said.

McClain said that an expert in a separate lethal-injection case had testified that the use of the drug etomidate could result in screams about 25 percent of the time. The state has used the drug four times as part of a new lethal injection protocol, and Branch was the only inmate who screamed, lending credence to the expert’s testimony, according to McClain.

“Is it OK to have your condemned people scream 25 percent of the time? Are we comfortable with that? And what about the torture to those who are next, who know that 25 percent of the time people are in pain and screaming? Are they going to be the one? And even if they’re not, is it going to be torture for them to be aware of that?” he said.

Mail-in ballots continue pouring in

More than a half-million people have already voted in the Aug. 28 primary elections, with Republicans maintaining an edge over Democrats in returning vote-by-mail ballots, according to figures updated Friday morning by the Florida Division of Elections.

Nearly 2.5 million ballots have been mailed out to voters. Republicans had returned 238,051 ballots, compared to 198,631 by Democrats, according to the new figures. Another 71,507 had been completed by people without party affiliation and another 1,966 by people registered with third parties.

The Division of Elections reported that Pinellas, Broward and Miami-Dade counties have each had more than 40,000 ballots returned, with Republicans holding slight leads in each county.

The last day for voters to request vote-by-mail ballots is Aug. 22, and the last day for supervisors to send out the ballots is Aug. 24. Voters can also pick up vote-by-mail ballots from election supervisors up to the day before the election.

Judge upholds ballot measure on county offices

Florida voters have the right to decide whether all local constitutional officers, including sheriffs and tax collectors, should be elected, a Leon County judge ruled.

Circuit Judge James Shelfer on Thursday rejected a challenge from Volusia and Broward counties that sought to have what is known as Amendment 10 removed from the Nov. 6 general-election ballot. The challenge argued the ballot language and summary were misleading.

The amendment, which was placed on the ballot by the Constitution Revision Commission, would make the five constitutional offices — sheriff, tax collector, supervisor of elections, clerk of the court and property appraiser — mandatory and require elections for the offices in all 67 counties. It would also prohibit charter counties from abolishing or modifying those offices.

In his ruling, Shelfer said “an average Florida voter should easily understand” the chief purpose of the amendment. He also rejected an argument from the challengers that the constitutional-officer provisions were unfairly sandwiched between “feel good” proposals in the ballot measure related to military veterans and counter-terrorism.

He acknowledged the amendment was unclear on whether its impact would be “prospective or retrospective.” But he said “that is a question for another case and another day.”

Shelfer also noted his order was “the first stop in a journey to the Florida Supreme Court whose decision will determine if the amendment makes it onto the ballot.”

Volusia, Broward and other charter counties have opposed the amendment, arguing that local voters through the charter process should have the power to decide how constitutional offices are structured and whether they should be elected positions.

Carolyn Timmann, the Martin County clerk of court who helped craft the amendment while serving on the Constitution Revision Commission, said the ballot measure “protects the people’s right to vote” for constitutional officers. She said she was “happy that the people of Florida will have the opportunity to vote on this, along with other measures important to protecting our veterans, families and tax dollars.”

In addition to the constitutional-officer provisions, Amendment 10 would allow the Legislature to begin its annual session in January in even-numbered years. It would create an Office of Domestic Security and Counterterrorism in the Department of Law Enforcement. And it would revise the constitutional authority for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

The Constitution Revision Commission meets every 20 years and has unique power to place proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. Amendment 10 is one of four ballot measures approved by the commission that are being challenged in court.

Other measures under litigation include ballot proposals to ban greyhound racing (Amendment 13), to expand the use of charter schools and impose school-board term limits (Amendment 8) and to establish victims’ rights in the state Constitution (Amendment 6).

In total, 13 constitutional amendments have been slated for the November ballot, including eight measures passed by the commission. To be enacted, each amendment must be approved by at least 60 percent of the voters.

Supreme Court to hear Rick Scott judicial appointment fight in October

The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to take up a dispute about whether Gov. Rick Scott has the authority to appoint a Northeast Florida circuit judge.

Justices issued an order Thursday accepting the case and scheduled arguments on Oct. 2. But the order showed a divided court, with justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Jorge Labarga backing the decision to take up the case and Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson opposed.

The case stems from the upcoming retirement of Judge Robert Foster in the 4th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Duval, Clay and Nassau counties. Foster was expected to leave office Jan. 7, 2019, which would be the end of his term, because of a mandatory retirement age.

But on April 2, Foster sent a letter to Scott making the retirement effective Dec. 31, four business days ahead of schedule.

The Scott administration argues — and the 1st District Court of Appeal agreed — that the governor’s acceptance of a judicial resignation before the start of an election-qualifying period creates a vacancy that should be filled by appointment, rather than election.

If Foster retired on Jan. 7, the post would be filled by election. Jacksonville attorney David Trotti filed the legal challenge arguing that the opening should be filled in this year’s elections. Trotti tried this spring to qualify to run for the judicial spot but was denied. The Supreme Court arguments will come about a month before the Nov. 6 general election but after ballots are printed.

New special master named in ‘water war’

The U.S. Supreme Court has appointed a new special master to handle the long-running legal battle between Florida and Georgia over water in the Apalachicola River system.

The court on Thursday named Paul J. Kelly Jr., a federal appellate judge from Santa Fe, N.M., to replace Maine lawyer Ralph Lancaster as special master.

A one-paragraph order from the court did not explain the reasons for the move.

The Supreme Court in June overturned a 2017 recommendation by Lancaster that found Florida had not proven its case “by clear and convincing evidence” that imposing a cap on Georgia’s water use would benefit Florida water systems, including oyster-rich Apalachicola Bay in Franklin County.

The 5-4 decision found that Lancaster had “applied too strict a standard” in rejecting Florida’s claim that overconsumption of water in Georgia is damaging the Apalachicola River system. The ruling sent the case back to the special master, though it did not mean that the Supreme Court was siding with Florida on the underlying issues in the case.

Florida filed the lawsuit in 2013, although the case is only the latest chapter of a decades-old battle about the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which starts in Georgia and flows south to Florida.

The order about Kelly’s appointment gave him authority to “fix the time and conditions for the filing of additional pleadings, to direct subsequent proceedings, to summon witnesses, to issue subpoenas, and to take such evidence as may be introduced and such as he may deem it necessary to call for.”

State moves forward on marijuana licenses

State health officials will hold a workshop Aug. 17 to take input on the application process for new medical marijuana licenses.

The workshop, announced Thursday, will deal with one license earmarked for a black farmer who was a member of litigation dealing with federal discriminatory lending practices and four other licenses for applicants seeking entry into the state’s highly restricted medical marijuana market.

The Legislature ordered the new licenses following the passage of a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana in Florida. The Legislature passed a law last year that required health officials to issue 10 new licenses, including to applicants who had legal challenges pending as of January 2017 or who had scored within one point of the highest-ranked applicants in five regions.

Last month, the health department issued a license to Nature’s Way Nursery of Miami, Inc., shrinking the number of available licenses, because six of the 10 licenses authorized under the 2017 law have already been doled out.

The law also required health officials to give preference for two licenses to applicants who own facilities that were used to process citrus, the subject of at least one lawsuit. Because of litigation regarding the citrus preference, the department is holding off on accepting applications for the remaining two licenses.

But the state is moving forward with a process for the black farmer’s license and with an application process for four licenses ordered under a different part of the law. The measure requires health officials to grant four licenses after at least 100,000 eligible patients have enrolled in a statewide database, a benchmark that was recently surpassed. Office of Medical Marijuana Use interim director Courtney Coppola told a state legislative panel last month her office expects at least 400 applications for the four slots.

The upcoming application process will be the first opportunity for new operators to try to gain entry to Florida’s booming medical marijuana market, which is projected to generate $2.5 billion in revenue in less than a decade.

Cities, counties look to prevent bear-human conflicts

Six counties and two cities have applied for state money to reduce bear-human conflicts, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced Thursday.

Collier, Lake, Marion, Seminole, Volusia and Walton counties and the cities of Apopka and Mount Dora have collectively applied for $935,181 from the “BearWise” funding program, which has $500,000 available for grants.

“This funding will help residents secure their trash and eliminate the primary reason why bears spend time in neighborhoods,” David Telesco, who leads the commission’s Bear Management Program, said in a prepared statement.

The grants are expected to be awarded in October. A preference in the selection process is that a community enact a “BearWise” ordinance, which requires residents and businesses to bear-proof trash containers.

Lake, Orange, Santa Rosa and Seminole counties have enacted such ordinances, while Apopka is in the process of enacting an ordinance. If enacted, Apopka would join Fort Walton Beach as the only municipalities in the state with such an ordinance.

With roughly 4,000 black bears estimated to live in Florida, the Legislature designated the money for the fiscal year that began July 1. Money for the program, generated in part through the sale of “Conserve Wildlife” license plates, has in the past two years been used to buy more than 10,000 bear-resistant trash cans, 9,700 sets of hardware to secure regular trash cans and 160 dumpsters modified to keep bears out.

Last year, the commission had $515,283 available, which went to seven counties, a parks department, a homeowners’ association and a community for surviving spouses of retired military members. In 2016, the agency was able to spread $825,00 to 11 counties, three cities and two homeowners’ associations, with the grant money including fees raised from a 2015 bear hunt, the only one the state has held in more than two decades.

Floridians continue to pull plug on landlines

Continuing a steady trend of consumers using mobile phones and internet technology, the number of telephone landlines dropped 17 percent in 2017 — with the drop even more dramatic in residential landlines, according to report released this week by the Florida Public Service Commission.

Residential landlines plummeted 23 percent from 2016 to 2017 as homeowners continued to pull the plug and rely on mobile phones. Business landlines were down 12 percent, in part because of increasing used of internet-based calling technology known as Voice over Internet Protocol.

The Public Service Commission releases an annual report that shows trends and evaluates competition in the telecommunications industry. The new report showed, in part, the total number of landlines in the state going from nearly 3.82 million in 2014 to about 2.49 million in 2017.

“Consumers in Florida continue to migrate from traditional wireline service to wireless and cable/Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services,” the report said. “The data indicates that residential migration may be increasing slightly. Business customers continue to migrate to internet protocol technology in large numbers.”

Bill Nelson too old for office, GOP super PAC suggests

A Washington-based super PAC backing Republican Senate candidates dispensed this week with what had been more subtle campaign hints aimed at U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s age.

In a news release titled “Bill Nelson Tragically Forced to Admit His Memory Is Failing,” the Senate Leadership Fund pointed to Nelson saying a day earlier that he couldn’t recall a 2010 letter he wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about delaying the implementation of water-quality standards for Florida lakes, springs and other waterways.

“It’s time for Bill Nelson’s caretakers to keep better tabs on the Senator’s whereabouts and public statements so that he is not embarrassed into admitting he’s no longer dealing from a full deck,” Senate Leadership Fund spokesman Chris Pack said in the release.

The news release came amid an increasingly nasty race between Nelson, a Democrat, and Republican Gov. Rick Scott for Nelson’s Senate seat.

The eight-year-old letter by Nelson, along with one written around the same time by Scott, also added to a fierce political blame game over water-quality problems across South Florida.

Nelson’s campaign called the super PAC’s news release “a desperate attempt to distract from Rick Scott’s record of cuts and deregulation that helped create this toxic algae crisis.”

Nelson is 75; Scott is 65.

Susan MacManus, a distinguished professor of government and international affairs at the University of South Florida, said such age-based attacks are becoming less effective.

“Look at younger voters’ support for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and longer life expectancies among older voters,” MacManus said. “What polls are showing is more effective in an era of voter disgruntlement is candidates’ longevity in office rather than their sheer age.”

Scott, a two-term governor, has worked to make Nelson’s lengthy political career, which started in the Florida House in 1972, an issue in the contest.

Asked Tuesday — the day before the super PAC news release — about Scott’s campaign making “subtle hints” about his age, Nelson responded with some indignation.

“Any time he wants to have a contest about push-ups or pull-ups, and we’ll see who is not up to it,” Nelson told reporters before a dedication ceremony at a Tallahassee veterans’ health-care center.

When asked Tuesday about his 2010 letter to the EPA, Nelson said he would need to look up the issue.

“Not only do I not recall that, that simply could not be true,” Nelson said. “There must be a nuance there. So, I’ll have to look at it and see.”

In the letter to the EPA, Nelson wrote: “Clean water is a goal we all share,” adding that he was sharing the concerns of residents, businesses, farmers and local governments about the “potential cost of compliance with these standards and the validity of the science.”

“That is why it is imperative that this regulation is finalized in a deliberative manner, utilizing sound science and considering the effects of implementation,” Nelson wrote in the letter. “Rushing to finalize the rule could result in further uncertainty and unnecessary economic hardship for municipal governments and Florida industry.”

His campaign noted that Nelson annually has hundreds of pieces of correspondence.

Nelson’s letter was similar to a lobbying effort by Scott against the proposed changes after he was elected governor in a November 2010. In a letter, Scott called the changes in water-quality standards “onerous” and requested a delay “so that we have time to fully analyze the rule” and its effect on Florida.

And after Nelson’s claim this week that Russian agents “penetrated” at least some U.S. voter registration systems before the 2018 election, the Department of Homeland Security all but said it didn’t know what Nelson was talking about.

“While we are aware of Sen. Nelson’s recent statements, we have not seen any new compromises by Russian actors of election infrastructure,” said Sara Sendek, a spokesperson for the department. “That said, we don’t need to wait for a specific threat to be ready.”

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Senior Editor Jim Rosica contributed to this post from The News Service of Florida, republished with permission.

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