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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.

OFR Commissioner pick pushed back

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet are moving back a decision on hiring a new top financial regulator.

Scott and the Cabinet had been expected to make a pick during a meeting next week, but Kristin Olson, Scott’s Cabinet aide, said Wednesday the governor’s office continues to review applicants for the job of commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation and another position as inspector general of the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

“Our office needed more time to review those candidates, so they’ll be on the next Cabinet agenda,” Olson said.

The Cabinet meets only two more times this year after next Tuesday’s meeting: Sept. 11 and Dec. 4. Scott and the Cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — in June agreed to name Pam Epting as acting commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation and to reopen the application process after interviewing five applicants.

An additional 20 applications were submitted following the June meeting.

Epting was the deputy commissioner of the office — her pay was raised by $10,000 to $135,000 with the acting title — and is not among the applicants to replace former Commissioner Drew Breakspear, who resigned under pressure from Patronis. Patronis claimed there was a “lack of cooperation, responsiveness and communication” from the office.

Scott, Bondi and Putnam will leave their current offices in January, while Patronis is running in the November election to remain as CFO. Putnam is running for governor, while Scott is running for U.S. Senate.  Bondi can’t seek re-election due to term limits and isn’t seeking another office.

New ‘Stand Your Ground’ hearing rejected in shooting case

Adding to divisions about the effect of a 2017 legislative change, a South Florida appeals court Wednesday rejected arguments that a man convicted of manslaughter should receive a new hearing under the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law.

The 2017 legislation shifted a key burden of proof in “stand your ground” cases from defendants to prosecutors. But Wednesday’s ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal and rulings by at least two other appellate courts have split on whether the change should apply retroactively to defendants whose cases were pending at the time the legislation took effect. The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to take up the retroactivity issue in a Miami-Dade County case from the 3rd District Court of Appeal, though justices have not scheduled arguments.

Wednesday’s ruling from the 4th District Court of Appeal in a Palm Beach County case agreed with the conclusion from the 3rd District Court of Appeal that the 2017 change should not apply retroactively. The 2nd District Court of Appeal, however, took the opposite stance in a Hillsborough County case.

The “stand your ground” law says people are justified in using deadly force and do not have a “duty to retreat” if they believe it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. When the defense is successfully raised in pre-trial hearings, defendants are granted immunity from prosecution.

Before the 2017 change, the Supreme Court had ruled that defendants had the burden of proof in pre-trial hearings to show they should be shielded from prosecution. But the legislation shifted the burden from defendants to prosecutors to prove whether self-defense claims are justified — a shift that could help at least some defendants.

Wednesday’s appeals-court ruling stemmed from the manslaughter conviction of Ronald Hight Jr., who fatally shot Craig Rivera during an altercation at a party. Hight argued that he should be shielded from prosecution because of the “stand your ground” law, but a circuit judge rejected the argument after a pre-trial hearing. Hight appealed his conviction, and the Legislature approved the 2017 burden-of-proof change during the appeal. He argued that the change should be applied to his case, but a three-judge panel of the appeals court rejected the argument.

“In conclusion, we find that the amendment to the Stand Your Ground law, which occurred during the pending appeal and contained an effective date of June 9, 2017, created a new legal burden by changing both the burdens of persuasion and proof and therefore was substantive in nature and did not apply retroactively,” said the ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Spencer Levine and joined by judges Dorian Damoorgian and Jeffrey Kuntz.

Lessons from Columbine offered in wake of Parkland

Guy Grace, a school-security official whose Colorado community was rocked by the 1999 murders at Columbine High School, shared school-hardening solutions Wednesday with a commission formed after this year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

“There is never a day, never a day of school safety or never a day in our community where you’re not reminded of that tragedy,” said Grace, director of security and emergency planning for the Littleton, Colo., public schools, referring to the incident when two students shot and killed 12 students and one teacher at Columbine. “Days when I go by the cemetery that is by Peabody Elementary School — that is a school where I patrol everyday — I go by there, and there’s the crosses that are up in that cemetery to honor the victims of that tragedy.”

Grace spoke to members of the state-created Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission during a meeting in Sunrise and said he sees “eerily” similar issues between Littleton and Parkland related to concerns such as mental health and school security.

Grace explained security measures that have been implemented for schools in his district, including unified command centers, which are modeled after law-enforcement dispatch centers, with trained security personnel monitoring video and other technology.

Other solutions included installing card readers; making changes in the way visitors are managed, such as using video/intercom “buzz-in” systems; coordinating active-shooter plans with students and teachers; updating exterior and interior locks for school doors; and adding security systems and cameras.

“If your security cameras were installed in the 1990s, then it’s time to install new cameras,” Grace said.

“The main message I would like to say is empowering our students and our staff to not live in fear,” he said during a break. “And utilizing technology, practices and procedures and procedural things to enhance our ability for our teachers to teach and our students to learn and our community to not worry about our schools.”

Nearly six months after 14 students and three faculty members were killed in Parkland, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will update its security measures for the upcoming academic year.

Changes include additional school resource officers and security personnel, a buzz-in system for the front office, 52 new cameras, new fencing and locks on doors and a new fire-alarm tone. After the Feb. 14 shooting, students became traumatized by the old fire-alarm tone. The gunman pulled a fire alarm once he entered the school and started shooting.

Students and staff will wear identification badges at all times on campus. Clear backpacks, which were implemented after spring break, will no longer be required.

Throughout the Broward County district, security enhancements include more active-shooter drills, upgraded cameras with a central monitoring system and single-point entries for visitors.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas Principal Ty Thompson said in a July 19 tweet the school would install metal detectors by the start of classes on Aug. 15. However, Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie reversed the plans.

Runcie said the school district will use a pilot trial of metal detectors until it considers possible issues such as privacy concerns and screening over 3,000 students in a timely manner every morning.

“As we continue our due diligence to implement the program — consulting with vendors and experts and reviewing turnkey solutions — many issues have been raised that require the district to pause and have a more thoughtful discussion on policy and procedural aspects of this pilot,” Runcie said in a letter to the school community.

But Max Schachter, a commission member and parent of Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting victim Alex Schachter, expressed frustration with the Broward district.

“I thank Guy for coming here today and bringing all his knowledge, but it really upsets me because there is no one in this district that has his knowledge, and I don’t understand why the School Board has not hired somebody that can bring his knowledge — someone that has made the school district safe in the past,” he told reporters during a break. “It pains me because I don’t have any children going to Marjory Stoneman Douglas, but if I did, I would not feel safe based on the decisions that the School Board is making. They’re flip-flopping. They’re saying they’re going to put things in place and then they cancel it. They’re going to do things — then they’re not going to do it. The leadership is abysmal, and something needs to change.”

Cabinet decision on top financial regulator postponed

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet are moving back a decision on hiring a new top financial regulator.

Scott and the Cabinet had been expected to make a pick during a meeting next week, but Kristin Olson, Scott’s Cabinet aide, said Wednesday that the Governor’s Office continues to review applicants for the job of commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation — and another position as inspector general of the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

“Our office needed more time to review those candidates, so they’ll be on the next Cabinet agenda,” Olson said.

The Cabinet meets only two more times this year after next Tuesday’s meeting: Sept. 11 and Dec. 4.

Scott and the Cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — in June agreed to name Pam Epting as acting commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation and to reopen the application process after interviewing five applicants.

An additional 20 applications were submitted following the June meeting. Epting, who was deputy commissioner of the office, had her pay raised by $10,000 to $135,000 with the acting title.

She is not among the applicants to replace former Commissioner Drew Breakspear, who resigned under pressure from Patronis. He claimed there was a “lack of cooperation, responsiveness and communication” from the office under Breakspear.

Scott, Bondi and Putnam will leave their current offices in January, while Patronis is running in the November election to remain as CFO.

Putnam is running for governor, while Scott is running for U.S. Senate.  Bondi can’t seek re-election due to term limits and isn’t seeking another office.

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Republished with permission of The News Service of Florida

Supreme Court to take up greyhound racing ban

Just a day after receiving the case, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously agreed to take up a battle about whether a proposed ban on greyhound racing should go on the November ballot.

Justices scheduled arguments in the case on Aug. 29 and set a rapid-fire series of deadlines for the parties to file briefs, according to an order issued by the court. The court is moving quickly, at least in part, because ballots for the Nov. 6 general election will start going out in September.

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission this spring approved placing the proposed racing ban on the ballot. The measure, one of eight proposed constitutional amendments approved by the commission, would ban commercial greyhound racing in the state after Dec. 31, 2020.

But the Florida Greyhound Association, which represents breeders, owners and trainers, filed a lawsuit arguing that the proposal, known as Amendment 13, should be kept off the ballot because it would be misleading to voters. Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers last week agreed with the greyhound association, prompting the state to appeal.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal agreed to “certify” the case to the Supreme Court, a somewhat unusual move that effectively means the case will bypass the appellate court.

In the decision, appeals-court judges Joseph Lewis, Scott Makar and M. Kemmerly Thomas said it was proper to certify the case to the Supreme Court, in part, because “the issues presented are of great public importance, arising from a proposal of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission to amend the state Constitution … (and because) a need for immediate resolution exists due to time constraints related to the pending election and ballot preparation timelines.”

Arguments at the Supreme Court will focus on the wording of the proposed ballot title and summary, which is what voters would see when they go to the polls. The title and summary are supposed to accurately reflect the meaning of the amendment.

But Gievers’ ruled the proposed racing ban “is misleading and inaccurate and incomplete” and described it as “trickeration.”

As an example, Gievers agreed with an argument by the Florida Greyhound Association that the ballot proposal would be misleading because it would not actually ban dog-race wagering. That is because betting would still be allowed at Florida tracks on races broadcast from outside the state.

“The ballot title and summary are misleading because they imply that passage of proposed Amendment 13 ‘ends dog racing’ and ends wagering on the outcome of dog races, neither of which would be accomplished by proposed Amendment 13,” Gievers wrote.

But in a document filed last month in circuit court, attorneys for the state disputed arguments that the phrase “ends dog racing” in the ballot title would mislead voters.

“Plaintiffs’ isolated focus on a phrase excerpted from the ballot title wrongly ignores the rest of the ballot language and wrongly assumes an ignorant electorate,’’ the state’s attorneys wrote.

Rick Scott, Cabinet eye protecting ranch land

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet will be asked next week to spend $5.5 million to help limit future development on nearly 2,500 acres of ranch land in Highlands County.

The proposal, which will go to the Cabinet on Aug. 14, seeks to add the Sandy Gully property to the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, which through the use of “conservation easements” restricts future development but allows owners to continue using land for such things as agricultural operations.

The program, favored by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, has been used 38 times in the past eight years, accounting for more than 47,000 acres across the state being put into conservation easements.

The family-owned Sandy Gully land, originally a dairy operation, transitioned to a cattle operation in 2002. The purchase could help protect wetlands and surface waters that flow toward the Peace River.

The state anticipates that the federal government will eventually cover $3.3 million of the cost through an Agricultural Conservation Easement Program grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Former Wrigley Co. CEO helps Surterra land $65M for expansion efforts

Medical marijuana company Surterra Wellness closed another successful round of equity fundraising that will allow it to start some substantial construction projects in the Sunshine State.

The company, founded in 2014, said it closed a $65 million “Series C” equity fundraising round in July. Series C funding is when investors put cash into companies that have shown viability in order to help them expand and grow at a more rapid clip.

Surterra, which runs 10 dispensaries in Florida, said some of that cash would be used to construct “substantial cultivation space in Florida” and double the number of its employees to 750 by the end of the year. Also in the cards: Building partnerships with other consumer brands, accelerating product development and conducting clinical research trials that test the effectiveness of medical marijuana in treating maladies such as anxiety, pain and PTSD. Surterra also has a license to sell medical marijuana in Texas and has an application pending in Virginia, CEO Jake Bergmann said Tuesday.

While Florida will get plenty of love as Surterra expands, the company said the funding will also help them establish roots in new state markets across the country.

The new round of funding was led by Wychwood Asset Management, the direct investment arm of William “Beau” Wrigley, Jr. As his name suggests, Wrigley was the one-time head of the Wrigley Company, the chewing gum empire founded by his family in the late 19th Century.

Wrigley’s role in securing the new round of funding for Surterra landed him the chairmanship on the company’s board of directors. Prior to the Wrigley Company’s acquisition by fellow confectionary giant Mars, Beau Wrigley was at the helm through a period of growth and navigated numerous acquisitions, including those of Altoids and LifeSavers.

“I am thrilled to join the Surterra team and help drive their mission to build a best-in-class cannabis healthcare business,” Wrigley said. “After extensive diligence, we determined that Surterra has the highest quality standards, best products, and most professional management team in the industry.

“We believe in the ability of cannabis to improve quality of life for patients across the country, and we are excited to build a global industry leader for the long term,” he concluded.

Surterra CEO Jake Bergmann said the company was “proud to welcome Beau, a business leader who brings decades of world class experience and expertise in brand building, to Surterra Wellness. Having a seasoned industry veteran like Beau intimately involved in building Surterra’s business is exciting for the future of Surterra, our patients and the entire medical cannabis industry.”

The Wrigley funding, which took place last month, is the latest in a number of recent transactions in the state’s budding medical-marijuana industry.

In an agreement announced last month, the Canadian firm Scythian Biosciences Inc. said it intends to spend $93 million to purchase a majority of 3 Boys Farms — a Florida medical-marijuana operator that has yet to begin selling products to patients — and an unnamed “health care organization.” In June, California-based MedMen announced it was paying $53 million to acquire Eustis-based Treadwell Nursery, another of the state-licensed “medical marijuana treatment centers.”

Since lawmakers in Florida first legalized non-euphoric medical marijuana in 2014, the state’s cannabis industry has been plagued by legal and administrative challenges, delays in implementing the constitutional amendment and drawn-out rulemaking processes that have created frustration for legislators, patients, operators and investors.

A Tallahassee judge last week ruled that a state law capping the number of medical marijuana operators “directly contradicts” the 2016 constitutional amendment, which was approved by more than 71 percent of voters. But it’s unclear what, if any, impact Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson’s decision will have since he did not stop health officials from continuing their current processes.

Still, marrying Wrigley — whose namesake brands have been found in checkout lanes around the world for more than a century — with one of the state’s leading marijuana purveyors can be seen as another step toward putting cannabis, which requires a doctor’s approval, in a category with other household-name products.

“This is about helping people. It can give people a normal life, let them go to school and be a normal member of society. It is incredible to craft that opportunity in an industry that is starting from scratch,” Wrigley said in the statement.

The candy heir pointed out that three-dozen states have some sort of authorization for cannabis.

“Once people can get over the perception curve, they see the many benefits of this,” Wrigley said.

Appeals court rules against embattled cab companies

The emergence of businesses such as Uber and Lyft has “threatened the viability of traditional taxicab companies worldwide,” a federal appeals court said this week.

But that doesn’t mean cab companies in Miami-Dade County should receive compensation after a 2016 ordinance cleared the way for Uber and Lyft drivers to hit the streets.

A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday rejected a class-action lawsuit filed by cab companies that contended the Miami-Dade ordinance amounted to an unconstitutional taking of property because of its effect on “medallions,” which have long served as a valuable license for cabs to operate.

The limited number of medallions, which have been issued over the years by the county, traded for about $340,000 by 2014. But the 2016 ordinance did not require app-based services such as Uber and Lyft to obtain medallions, which also were tied to regulations imposed on cab companies.

The lawsuit against the county, in part, alleged that the cab companies should receive compensation because the ordinance allowing competitors such as Uber and Lyft reduced the value of the medallions.

But a federal district judge rejected the arguments, and the panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court agreed in a 32-page ruling Monday. The appeals court said the medallions did not give cab companies a right to “exclusivity” in the local transportation market.

“If the (ordinance) code did not convey to the medallion holders the right to block competition in the for-hire transportation market, then the county could not have ‘taken’ that right and the medallion holders’ takings claims must fail,” said Monday’s ruling, written by Judge Stanley Marcus and joined by judges Charles Wilson and Marcia Morales Howard. “Even the most cursory examination of the code reveals that the county did not give the medallion holders the right to enjoin competition. None of the code’s provisions ever explicitly or implicitly conferred that right. Instead, the code reflects the carefully cabined scope of the medallion holders’ intangible property interest. Moreover, the right to property does not ordinarily encompass the power to exclude competition, and nothing in the code signaled a contrary intent.”

The lawsuit is part of legal and political battles that have played out across the country in recent years as companies such as

Uber and Lyft have upended the traditional taxi industry. Numerous communities in Florida, including Miami-Dade County, grappled with how — and whether — to regulate the new companies.

After Miami-Dade County passed its ordinance, the Legislature in 2017 approved a law that created a statewide regulatory framework for the new companies. That state law trumped local ordinances, but the federal appeals court said the Miami-Dade cab companies were still able to pursue the class-action lawsuit against the county because of the 2016 ordinance.

But the appeals court said the county had a rational basis for the ordinance, including differences in regulation between taxis and the new transportation services, which the court called “transportation network entities,” or “TNEs.”

“The long and short of it is that the medallion holders’ constitutional claims fail,” the ruling said. “Their takings claims falter because they cannot lay claim to a property interest that includes the power to block competitors from the for-hire transportation market. And their equal protection claims fail because any disparate regulatory treatment that the county afforded taxicabs and TNEs was amply supported by legitimate government interests.”

Delay in federal approval trims Medicaid savings

Nearly $100 million the state assumed would be saved by changing a policy about patient eligibility for Medicaid won’t come to fruition this year.

Tom Wallace, assistant deputy secretary for Medicaid finance and analytics at the Agency for Health Care Administration, told members of the Social Services Estimating Conference on Monday that Florida hasn’t gotten necessary approval from the federal government to move ahead with the change.

Instead of a July 1 start date, the change in policy will likely go into effect Jan. 1. A projected $98 million reduction was included in the new state budget, which took effect last month. Now, the Scott administration says the savings should be about half that amount.

But Wallace said the state isn’t deterred.

“We are confident that we will get federal approval, we just don’t know when that would be,” Wallace told the Social Services Estimating Conference, comprised of House and Senate staff members as well as staff from the governor’s office and the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

Wallace said Florida Medicaid officials have been in correspondence with the federal government about how the policy change would be implemented.

Federal law requires states to cover the costs of medical bills incurred by people for up to three months before they apply for Medicaid. So long as people qualify for Medicaid and the services are covered, hospital, doctor and nursing-home bills that accrue during that period will be absorbed.

The longstanding policy, officially known as “retroactive eligibility,” protects poor people from unpaid medical bills that they cannot afford and helps ensure that hospitals and nursing homes are paid for services they offer to Medicaid-eligible people.

The policy change would eliminate the requirement that people have three months to apply for Medicaid and make them apply the same month as they need care.

AHCA projects that 39,000 people would be impacted by the change, which does not apply to pregnant women and children. That means the policy change would heavily impact seniors and people with disabilities, and the move has come under fire from critics, including Democrats.

Meanwhile, this is not the first time the Scott administration has revised the estimated savings from the change.

In a March 2017 letter to former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, AHCA Secretary Justin Senior said Florida could save $500 million if the policy were eliminated. Months later, the Scott administration floated the proposal to the Legislature for consideration during the 2018 session. Ultimately, the $98 reduction was included in the state budget that began July 1.

While the full savings lawmakers anticipated won’t be realized, Wallace told budget conferees that overall costs for the Medicaid program this year should be nearly $732 million less than what was appropriated in the budget. Nearly $228 million of that surplus is general revenue. The lower cost is due in part to a continued dip in Medicaid enrollment.

State seeks to uphold ban on smoking medical cannabis

Pointing in part to smoking-related health effects, Attorney General Pam Bondis office on Friday filed a 57-page brief arguing that an appeals court should uphold a decision by the Legislature to ban smoking medical marijuana.

The brief, filed at the 1st District Court of Appeal, came as the state challenges a May ruling by Tallahassee Circuit Judge Karen Gievers, who said the smoking ban violates a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

The Legislature in 2017 passed a law to carry out the constitutional amendment and included the smoking ban.

Prominent Orlando lawyer John Morgan, who heavily bankrolled the constitutional amendment, filed a lawsuit last year challenging the smoking ban. Bondi’s office Friday filed an initial brief in its attempt to overturn Gievers’ ruling.

The brief raised a series of issues, including arguing that the Legislature “considered important health and safety factors” when deciding to ban smoking.

“Notably, the Legislature considered evidence of the health hazards of smoking and concluded that smoking marijuana constitutes a harmful delivery method,” the brief said. “Time and again during debate, elected members of Florida’s Legislature emphasized that the amendment is exclusively about medicine, and that smoking is antithetical to good medicine.

“In considering these health-related factors, the Legislature reasonably determined that the harms caused by smoking — including harms to patients and those exposed to secondhand smoke — were ample reason to exclude smoking from the statutory definition of ‘medical use.’

“The Legislature therefore acted under its general authority to regulate public health, safety, and welfare when it drew a reasonable line between the smoking of medical marijuana, and other delivery methods.”

But in her May ruling, Gievers found that language in the amendment “recognizes there is no right to smoke in public places, thereby implicitly recognizing the appropriateness of using smokable medical marijuana in private places consistent with the amendment.”

The “ability to smoke medical marijuana was implied” in the constitutional language “and is therefore a protected right,” Gievers wrote.

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Republished with permission of The News Service of Florida. 

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