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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.

Bill could ease open-carry penalties

The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee filed a bill Tuesday that would reduce penalties for people who have concealed-weapons licenses and openly carry guns.

The bill (SB 148), filed by Sarasota Republican Greg Steube for the 2018 legislative session, stems from a law that bars people from openly carrying guns in Florida. The bill would keep a second-degree misdemeanor penalty for people who do not have concealed-weapons licenses and openly carry guns. But it would lead to reduced penalties for people who have the licenses and openly carry.

In such cases, license-holders could be cited for noncriminal violations that would include a $25 fine for a first violation and a $500 fine on a second violation. They would face second-degree misdemeanor charges on third or subsequent violations.

Under the bill, people with concealed-weapons licenses also could not be arrested or charged if firearms are “temporarily and openly displayed.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Money flows in special election to replace Eric Eisnaugle

Nearly $250,000 has been spent since the end of May by three of four Republicans running in a special election in a state House district that includes major Orlando-area tourist attractions.

And while the District 44 contest won’t be decided until a special general election on Oct. 10, the winner of Tuesday’s Republican primary will be the favorite to finish the term of former Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando.

GOP candidate John Newstreet, president of the Kissimmee/Osceola Chamber of Commerce, is tops in raising money and spending, according to newly filed finance reports, followed by Robert Olszewski, Bruno Portigliatti and Usha Jain.

The district, which leans heavily Republican, goes from Winter Garden south to Lake Buena Vista and is home to Walt Disney World, Universal Florida and SeaWorld Orlando.

Newstreet, 40, of Orlando, raised $59,175 between July 7 and Thursday, according to reports posted on the state Division of Elections website.

In all, Newstreet has raised $124,554 for the special election, of which more than $111,000 had been spent as of Thursday.

More than half of Newstreet’s spending has gone to the Orlando-based consulting firms The Red Envelope and Millennium Consulting.

Olszewski, 39, a business consultant and former Winter Garden commissioner, reported $23,050 in contributions from July 7 through Thursday.

In all, Olszewski had raised $75,980 and loaned $1,750 the campaign, with all of that money spent. Most of the spending — $65,771— went to Tampa-based Strategic Image Management for campaign consulting and direct mail.

Portigliatti, 29, the CEO of Excellence Senior Living and executive vice president of Florida Christian University, reported raising $14,760 during the most-recent period, bringing his overall total to $65,581. More than one-third of the money, $26,500, had come from the candidate.

He had spent $54,761, with much of the money going to Spencerville, Maryland-based SRH Media for advertising and to Tallahassee-based EM Campaigns for consulting, direct and online marketing.

Jain did not report raising any cash but has spent $3,400 on campaign signs and other advertising. Jain, 66, is a doctor and medical director at Emergi Care Medical Center in Windermere.

Awaiting the winner is Democrat Paul Chandler, whose eligibility for the race is the subject of a lawsuit filed last week in Leon County. He had raised $3,508, including $2,168 during the most recent filing period.

Chandler has also put up $21,792 of his own money and the Florida Democratic Party has chipped in $250.

The complaint by Charles Hart of Windermere claims Chandler is an active registered voter in Missouri and has voted in that state as recently as Nov. 8, 2016. Florida law requires candidates to be a resident of Florida for the two years prior to the election.

Republicans make up 36.1 percent of the registered voters in House District 44, while Democrats make up 32.4 percent. But the district has gone heavily in the past to Eisnaugle, who left the House this spring after being appointed by Gov. Rick Scott as a judge on the 5th District Court of Appeal.

Eisnaugle, who went unopposed in the 2016 general election, received 64.6 percent of the vote in 2014 November general election when challenged by independent Matthew Falconer.

Eisnaugle got 74.2 percent of the vote in a March 11, 2014, special election over Democrat Shaun Raja.

Republish with permission of the News Service of Florida.

GOP gathering gives preview of governor’s race

Florida’s next governor won’t be elected for more than a year, but Republican leaders from across the state got a taste of what’s in store — literally — during a gathering in Orlando this weekend.

Over ice cream and petit fours Friday night, party faithful heard from state Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who filed paperwork to run for governor hours before appearing at the popular desserts event and is expected to formally announce his entree into the race Wednesday.

On Saturday morning, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — who has been running for months to replace Gov. Rick Scott — delivered a classic campaign speech over eggs, bacon and orange juice, winding up the “Up & Adam” breakfast by giving away a bag full of swag.

Later Saturday, Congressman Ron DeSantis addressed a local caucus, sharing his frustration about the GOP’s inability to follow through on President Donald Trump‘s pledge to “drain the swamp,” something DeSantis blamed on Republicans in the U.S. Senate. The Palm Coast Republican is mulling a bid for governor but said he won’t make a decision until sometime this fall at the earliest.

Just one of the Republicans thus far considering joining the race — House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes — did not attend the Republican Party of Florida’s quarterly meeting at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort, which drew local party leaders who will play a critical role in what will almost certainly be a contentious GOP primary.

All four GOP candidates in the race to replace Putnam as agriculture commissioner — state Sen. Denise Grimsley, state Rep. Matt Caldwell, former state Rep. Baxter Troutman and Orlando businessman Paul Paulson — also made the rounds at the weekend event, which included about 250 state committeemen and committeewomen and county party chairs.

Putnam — who mentioned “the American dream” at last a half-dozen times — delivered a 30-minute speech that was a mix of folksy charm and retail politics, with a splash of disdain for liberals like the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.

Putnam complained about receiving “hate mail from those freakin’ dudes at PETA,” prompted by his and his daughter’s participation in the Wausau Possum Festival, an annual Panhandle event where candidates hold a live possum by the tail. He then handed out red “Possums for Putnam” T-shirts, along with elephant-themed ties and scarves, as well as baseball caps and cell phone chargers emblazoned with his campaign logo.

“I know our state. I’ve been down every dirt road. … I know all the best barbecue restaurants,” Putnam, who won races for agriculture commissioner in 2010 and 2014, told about 200 breakfast goers Saturday.

Putnam, a former congressman who’s also made a pivot to the right over the past few months, urged Republicans to join forces and issued a warning that “the left is coming for us” in Florida, pointing to “sanctuary cities” as “the kind of foolishness” Democrats support regarding immigration policy.

And Putnam, 43, bragged about the expansion of the state’s concealed-weapons licenses under his watch, saying Florida’s crime rate is at its lowest point in decades.

“I think there’s a connection,” said Putnam, whose agency oversees the licenses.

Putnam’s fiery speech was a contrast to Latvala’s brief remarks at the dessert event Friday night.

The Clearwater lawmaker highlighted his longtime participation in Florida GOP politics, dating back to 1975 when Republicans were vastly outnumbered in the Legislature by Democrats.

Latvala, a moderate, also painted himself as a mature businessman who has the life experience other candidates may not share.

“When I look at some of the other people who are thinking about running, or who are running, I see people who have been in government their entire life, that have never made a payroll, that have never written a workers’ comp premium check, that have never had the challenges that those of us that have businesses have,” Latvala, 65, said. “I just think that’s an important dimension for the party that nominated Donald Trump, as a businessman, to be different in government. It’s important for us to continue with that kind of approach, someone who has both some business experience and some government experience.”

The quarterly meeting came at a critical juncture for Republicans throughout the country, with many of the party’s most loyal members fuming after the U.S. Senate failed to adopt a measure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, one of Trump’s top priorities.

Many of the party leaders gathered in Orlando expressed concern that the lack of movement by Republicans in Washington could have a negative impact on the GOP’s chances in Florida next year.

“If they don’t get the health-care law changed and put through tax reform PDQ, I think we’re in serious trouble in the next elections,” Walton County Committeeman Bill Fletcher told The News Service of Florida on Saturday.

Speaking to a caucus meeting Saturday morning, DeSantis was asked if the Republican Party is at a “tipping point,” given voters’ dissatisfaction with Washington.

Voters need to be convinced “that things are changing for the better,” DeSantis said in an interview later.

“And that requires you to actually accomplish some things. So I think the danger for us is, if we’re not successful on doing some of these items we promise, that the average voter is like, it doesn’t matter who you elect, nothing’s going to change,” he said. “I think the party right now, we’re teetering on, is this really going to be a big disappointment or are you going to be able to rack up a couple of victories.”

In the meantime, Florida GOP leaders are struggling to capture voters who overwhelmingly backed Trump but may have been registered as independents or Democrats.

“We need to meld the Trump supporters with being Republican,” national Committeeman Peter Feaman told a meeting of state committeemen and committeewomen Friday.

Feaman offered some talking points to convince voters to join the GOP, saying if they believe in “peace through strength,” “putting American workers first,” for example, “then you’re a Trump supporter but you are also a Republican.”

Florida Republicans “haven’t recovered from the presidential election, as a party,” said Scott Hopes, a Manatee County School Board member.

Hopes pointed out that Scott hasn’t attended an RPOF meeting “in years,” and that, aside from Putnam, none of the state’s Republican Cabinet members had bothered to show up, either.

Next year’s elections “are going to be a challenge,” Hopes said. “The Democrats are on the same page, at least. Unfortunately, I think we’re not”

‘Small business Saturday’ pitched for 2018

Small businesses would be able to sell items costing less than $1,000 without charging sales taxes the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2018, under a proposal filed this week by Hialeah Republican Sen. Rene Garcia.

The measure (SB 76) calls for a “Small Business Saturday” during the start of the traditional end-of-year holiday shopping season. It would be akin to the state’s familiar back-to-school sales tax “holiday.”

The bill was filed for the 2018 legislative session, which starts in January.

Garcia backed similar measures in 2015 and 2016 that drew unanimous support in two Senate committees but failed to advance through the Appropriations Committee.

House proposals those years also died.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Ron DeSantis committee piles up cash

A political committee tied to U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis raised $320,000 in July, bringing the committee’s total to $1.26 million, as the Palm Coast Republican contemplates entering the 2018 governor’s race.

The biggest contribution to the “Fund for Florida’s Future” was a July 31 donation of $300,000 from the “Fighting for Florida Fund,” a super PAC that supported DeSantis’ 2016 U.S. Senate campaign, which ended when incumbent Marco Rubio announced his decision to seek re-election. Through the end of July, the Fund for Florida’s Future had only spent $40,222 of the $1.26 million raised, according to the state Division of Elections.

In addition to the fund-raising by the committee, DeSantis continues to raise his profile outside of his congressional district, which includes Flagler, Volusia and parts of St. Johns and Lake counties. He has a scheduled appearance on Aug. 17 at the “Lobsterfest” dinner hosted by Palm Beach County Republicans. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, an announced candidate for governor, is also appearing at the Palm Beach GOP event.

On Aug. 24, DeSantis will be in Miami talking about federal tax-reform proposals in a forum hosted by Americans for Prosperity-Florida. DeSantis is scheduled to appear in additional Americans for Prosperity events in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando in September.

Justices reject resentencing in 1976 murder

In a case stemming from the 1976 strangulation of a 13-year-old girl, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected arguments that a Death Row inmate should receive a new sentencing hearing.

The arguments by attorneys for inmate James Ernest Hitchcock were rooted in a major 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling and subsequent Florida decisions that have led to requiring unanimous jury recommendations before defendants can be sentenced to death.

With Hitchcock sent to Death Row after a 10-2 jury recommendation, his attorneys argued that the new unanimity standard should retroactively apply to his case and lead to a new sentencing hearing.

But justices, as they have done recently in other cases, rejected the idea that the unanimity requirement should be applied to such old cases. The opinion was fully shared by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Peggy Quince, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson, while justices R. Fred Lewis and Charles Canady concurred without signing on to the majority opinion.

Justice Barbara Pariente dissented and pointed, in part, to the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.

“Reliability is the linchpin of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, and a death sentence imposed without a unanimous jury verdict for death is inherently unreliable,” Pariente wrote.

Hitchcock, now 61, was convicted in the murder of his brother’s 13-year-old stepdaughter in Orange County, according to court documents. He was accused of going into the girl’s bedroom in the middle of the night, having sexual intercourse with her and then killing her when she said she was going to tell her mother.

Hitchcock had to be resentenced three times because of a series of U.S. Supreme Court and Florida Supreme Court rulings in his case. In his final sentencing proceeding, the jury voted 10-2 to recommend the death penalty, and the Florida Supreme Court upheld that sentence in 2000.

Thursday’s ruling stemmed, in part, from a January 2016 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that found Florida’s death-penalty sentencing system unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries. That ruling, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, has spawned extensive litigation about death-penalty cases and legislation to change the sentencing system.

As part of that litigation, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that juries are required to make unanimous recommendations before judges can sentence defendants to death. Florida long allowed majorities of juries to recommend death sentences.

Also, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the unanimity standard should apply to cases dating back to 2002. That is when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case known as Ring v. Arizona, which was a key underpinning of the Hurst v. Florida decision.

Hitchcock and other longtime Death Row inmates have argued that the unanimity standard also should apply to cases decided before 2002. But the decision Thursday appeared to make clear that the Supreme Court will not go along with such arguments.

“Hitchcock is among those defendants whose death sentences were final before Ring, and his arguments do not compel departing from our precedent,” the majority opinion said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Greg Steube back with gun bills for 2018 Session

Senate Judiciary Chairman Greg Steube, who filed a string of firearm-related bills that died during the 2017 legislative session, has reintroduced two — focused on courthouses and private businesses — as lawmakers begin submitting bills for the 2018 Session.

The Sarasota Republican filed one measure (SB 134) on Thursday that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to store firearms with security officers at courthouses. A similar proposal was approved during the 2017 Session by the Senate in a 19-15 vote. But the House never brought it up on the floor as other bills backed by Second Amendment advocates failed to advance out of the Senate.

Steube’s second proposal (SB 120), filed Wednesday, would allow private businesses to be held liable if they bar concealed-weapons license holders from carrying guns on their property and the license holders get injured by other people or animals.

Similar legislation filed for the 2017 Session was not heard in committees.

Higher pay sought for FHP troopers

Short about 200 troopers and seeking higher salaries to be more competitive with other law-enforcement agencies, the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is backing Gov. Rick Scott‘s call to boost pay as part of an election-year budget plan.

The department, which includes the Florida Highway Patrol, is proposing a more-than 10 percent increase in starting pay for troopers as part of a legislative budget request.

Susan Carey, the department’s chief financial officer, told state Cabinet aides on Wednesday that recruitment and retention have been an issue for years. State law-enforcement officers received a 5 percent pay raise in the budget that took effect July 1, and the new proposal would provide an additional increase in the fiscal year that starts in July 2018.

“With the Legislature, Cabinet and governor’s support we were fortunate to have a salary increase for our law enforcement officers in the current fiscal year,” Carey said. “We would like to go further with the new fiscal year.”

Under the proposal, which doesn’t have an overall total amount attached, the annual starting pay would go from about $38,000 to $42,000.

Under the plan, a trooper would earn $60,000, based on an “experienced-based incremental pay plan,” after 20 years.

The department is budgeted for 1,974 full-time troopers but lost 203 troopers in 2016.

Part of the failure to retain officers has been linked to other law-enforcement agencies offering higher pay.

“The FHP continues to have difficulty hiring and retaining qualified candidates due to the inability to pay a comparable rate with local and federal law-enforcement agencies,” said the department’s budget request, which goes before Scott and the Cabinet next Wednesday. “Consequently, all trained and experienced staff will look for competitive salaries elsewhere. Funds invested in training, uniforms, physicals and other costs associated with these positions is lost.”

Scott, who is expected to run for U.S. Senate next year, said last month he will ask for $30 million to cover pay raises for state law-enforcement officers for the fiscal year that begins July 2018. Law-enforcement officers are spread across different state agencies.

The raise that took effect last month came as Florida’s rookie trooper pay had been deemed the lowest among the 49 states with patrols.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average police officer pay in Florida is $55,050 a year, with the low end of starting salaries at $36,000.

Entry level pay with the Miami-Dade police is $45,074. Jupiter police offer a $49,268 starting salary to officers who are state certified. In Tallahassee, pay starts at $45,192. For Jacksonville Beach, pay starts at $39,395.

The proposal by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which has a $472.2 million budget for the current fiscal year, was included with $35.5 million in additional requests the agency intends to put before lawmakers during the 2018 legislative session. The session starts in January.

Among the other requests:

— FHP Academy dorm renovation: $3.4 million.

— FHP active shooter training building: $2.9 million.

— DUI centralized database: $1.75 million.

— FHP dispatch relocation in Orlando: $1.32 million.

— Hand-held narcotic analyzers: $885,272.

— Security in driver’s license offices: $740,000.

— Increased operating costs for driver’s license offices: $675,910.

— FHP safety equipment, electric flares: $450,000.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Lawmakers take aim at opioid crisis

Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala held a roundtable discussion Tuesday in Palm Beach County with lawmakers, local leaders and public-safety officials to address Florida’s opioid crisis.

Palm Beach County is one of the epicenters of the epidemic. From January through May of this year, the county had 311 opioid overdoses, compared to 258 over the same period in 2016, according to numbers from Latvala’s office. The county totaled 592 opioid-related deaths in 2016.

“This is obviously an issue that is on all of our minds,” Latvala, R-Clearwater, said during the discussion at Palm Beach State College’s Lake Worth Campus. “Everybody can make proclamations and declarations, but it’s when rubber hits road, that’s when things get going. I am here to listen and learn about this crisis.”

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the country, with 52,404 fatal overdoses reported in 2015, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Opioid addiction drove the epidemic with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers and 12,990 deaths related to heroin.

Palm Beach County has taken $1 million out of reserves to address the epidemic on a local level. During this spring’s legislative session, state lawmakers passed bills to address what are known as “sober homes” — a major issue in Palm Beach County — and to crack down on people who traffic in fentanyl, a deadly painkiller sometimes mixed with heroin.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Melissa McKinlay presented statistics about the opioid crisis and said the county had spent more than $200,000 on Narcan, an opiate antidote used in emergency situations.

“The epidemic is impacting the manufacturing industry and business communities,” McKinlay said. “People cannot pass drug tests because of this. The bigger picture is that addiction is a disease. We want to break the stigma of addicts because nobody wakes up one day and chooses to become an addict.”

Gabrielle Finley-Hazle, CEO of St. Mary’s Medical Center, described newborns being treated in hospitals for drug withdrawal. The newborns experience the same symptoms that an addict would experience, including tremors, fever, seizures and pain.

“This is concerning for our community,” Finley-Hazle said. “What will happen when these babies are older? We need prevention programs to help addictive moms, treat patients for detox and for educating children.”

Emilio Benitez, president and CEO of ChildNet, a community-based care agency that contracts with the state, said the opioid crisis also is having an impact on the child-welfare system. Benitez said 45 percent of Palm Beach County children removed from their homes since January were a result of parents abusing opioids. The number was 31 percent in Broward County.

Solutions proposed during Tuesday’s discussion included more beds and centers for treatment and recovery, funding for medical and emergency personnel, education programs and counseling programs to assist families of addicts.

Among the participants in the meeting was Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican whose district includes part of Palm Beach County. Negron and Latvala, the Senate’s chief budget writer who is widely expected to run for governor in 2018, are two of the most influential political figures in the state.

“The purpose of this discussion was for President Negron and Senator Latvala to provide resources to use,” McKinlay said. “It’s for them to hear the problem to create ideas and projects for local action plans.”

Republish with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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