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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.

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More judges needed in Orlando and Tampa, Florida Supreme Court says

The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday said four additional judges are needed in the Orlando area and Hillsborough County.

It added, however, that judgeships in some counties could be eliminated.

The Supreme Court is required each year to “certify” to the Legislature its analysis of the need for judges, though lawmakers often have not followed the court’s recommendations.

In Wednesday’s opinion, the Supreme Court certified a need for two additional circuit judges in the 9th Judicial Circuit, made up of Orange and Osceola counties, and a need for two more Hillsborough County judges.

But it “decertified” the need for 13 county judges across the state.

That included three county judges in Brevard County, two in Pasco County and one each in Escambia, Leon, Putnam, Alachua, Polk, Monroe, Charlotte and Collier counties.

The Supreme Court’s analysis takes into account factors such as trends in the types of cases filed and judicial workloads.

For example, the analysis found increases in civil filings in circuit and county courts but decreases in traffic-related filings.

Proposal would make it harder to change constitution

A Senate Republican proposed a measure Monday that, if approved by voters, would make it harder to amend the Florida Constitution.

The proposal (SJR 978), filed by Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley would increase the threshold for voter approval of constitutional amendments.

Currently, 60 percent of voters need to approve amendments. Baxley’s proposal would increase that required number to two-thirds.

Baxley’s proposal itself would require a change to the Constitution.

If approved during the upcoming legislative session, it would go on the November 2018 ballot.

Rep. Rick Roth, a Loxahatchee Republican, has filed an identical proposal (HJR 65) in the House.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Gambling ballot initiative tops 400,000 signatures

A proposed constitutional amendment that would make it harder to expand gambling in Florida has topped 400,000 petition signatures, while another proposal about felons’ rights is nearing that mark.

The political committee Voters In Charge, which is trying to get the gambling initiative on the November 2018 ballot, had submitted 415,596 valid petition signatures as of Tuesday morning, according to the state Division of Elections website.

The proposal, which needs to reach 766,200 signatures to get on the ballot, would change the state Constitution and give voters the “exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling” in the state. It would require voter approval of casino-style games in the future.

Meanwhile, a political committee known as Floridians for a Fair Democracy had submitted 388,566 valid signatures as of Tuesday morning, according to the Division of Elections.

The committee’s proposed constitutional amendment, if approved next year, would automatically restore voting rights for all nonviolent felons who have served their sentences, completed parole or probation and paid restitution. Felons convicted of violent crimes, such as murder, would not be eligible.

State moves forward with disputed pot ID contract

After hearing a litany of complaints from lawmakers, state health officials are moving forward with a contested contract to process medical-marijuana patient identification cards.

State Surgeon General Celeste Philip signed a contract with Jacksonville-based Veritec LLC, citing emergency powers “to avoid an immediate and serious danger to public health.”

Patients have complained about months-long delays in getting the cards, which are required before they can purchase marijuana products from state-sanctioned dispensaries after doctors order the treatment.

Lawmakers have publicly questioned state pot czar Christian Bax about the hold-ups, which he blamed on his office’s inability to move forward with the outsourcing of the ID cards.

After the Department of Health announced its intent to grant the $7.4 million contract to Veritec, losing bidder Automated Health Solutions – which bid about $9.3 million – immediately said it would protest the decision.

The protest threatened to delay for months the outsourcing of the ID cards – ordered by lawmakers in a sweeping bill passed in June. That bill was intended to carry out a voter-approved constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana.

Under Philip’s order, the outsourcing will begin while the administrative challenge moves forward. Along with serving as surgeon general, Philip is secretary of the Florida Department of Health, which is in charge of carrying out medical-marijuana laws.

“We have heard the concerns of patients, caregivers and the Legislature and have determined that expediting the OMMU (Office of Medical Marijuana Use) identification card program is necessary to ensure timely access for patients. The rate of growth of this program has proven that we cannot wait for an ITN (Invitation to Negotiate) protest without impacting patients currently suffering from qualifying medical conditions,” Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said in an email.

In a memo Wednesday about the signing of the contract with Veritec, Philip said the Office of Medical Marijuana Use has printed more than 29,000 patient and caregiver cards. But the health department expects an exponential rise in the number of patients – to between 300,000 and 500,000 – over the next two years.

The number of new patients added daily has nearly tripled since March, from 90 to 264, according to Philip.

And because lawmakers ordered the outsourcing of the ID cards, Bax’s office lacks the staff to address the task, Philip said.

“The card application program is extremely resource-intensive, and further continued diversion of OMMU personnel to serve the needs of the card program will negatively impact OMMU’s core regulatory functions,” she wrote.

Nearly all of the 17 full-time employees and 18 temporary workers hired by Bax are devoted to dealing with the cards either full-time or part time, according to Philip.

She said the office won’t be able to process applications and print cards in a timely manner once the number of patients added to a state registry reaches 350 per day, which Philip said will occur within the next two months. The work overload will result in delays of up to three months before patients get their cards, she said.

“Moving forward with a vendor for the card program and call center will benefit patients, caregivers, and the department,” she wrote.

The outsourcing of the ID cards will allow Bax’s staff “to concentrate on their core functions,” such as regulating medical marijuana treatment centers, working with physicians and facilitating patient access, Philips wrote in the memo.

The ID cards are just one of a series of challenges in Florida’s medical marijuana arena.

The state is also dealing with several lawsuits. One challenge focuses on a law banning medical marijuana from being smoked. Another challenges a ban on “home grows.” A separate lawsuit is challenging portions of the June law that set aside a medical marijuana license for a black farmer who meets certain requirements. And a fourth is centered on a preference in the law for up to two applicants from the citrus industry.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

State seeks end to satellite TV tax fight

Attorney General Pam Bondi‘s office has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reject a challenge to the constitutionality of a state law that sets different tax rates for satellite and cable-television services.

Bondi’s office, representing the Florida Department of Revenue, filed a brief last week arguing that the Supreme Court should not take up the challenge filed by Dish Network.

The satellite TV industry has long argued that a law setting a lower state tax rate for cable services discriminates against satellite companies and violates what is known as the “dormant” Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

But in the brief last week, attorneys for the state argued that a federal telecommunications law prevents local governments from taxing satellite services. As a result, the brief said, the state set a higher tax rate for satellite services and shares part of the money with local governments. Meanwhile, local governments can tax cable services.

“If a state taxes communications services at the state and local levels, as Florida does, the only way to ensure that the state receives the same revenue from satellite as other communications services while ensuring that local governments may also receive revenue is to tax satellite at a higher rate and share the revenue with local governments,” the 49-page brief said.

The case has high stakes for the state, along with the cable and satellite industries. A 2015 ruling in favor of the satellite industry by the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal raised the possibility of Florida having to pay refunds to satellite companies.

The Florida Supreme Court, however, overturned the 1st District Court of Appeal ruling in April and sided with the Department of Revenue. That prompted Dish Network to take the dispute to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state’s communications-services tax is s 4.92 percent on the sale of cable services and 9.07 percent on the sale of satellite-TV services. Local governments also can impose communications-services taxes on cable, with rates varying.

Dish Network contends the different state tax rates on satellite and cable are a form of protectionism that violates the “dormant” Commerce Clause, which bars states from discriminating against interstate commerce.

“In particular, it forbids a state from taxing or regulating differently on the basis of where a good is produced or a service is performed,” Dish Network said in a September petition posted on the SCOTUSblog website, which closely tracks the U.S. Supreme Court. “That’s exactly what the unequal Florida tax does. It puts a heavier duty on pay-TV programming that is assembled and delivered without using massive infrastructure within the state.”

But in the brief filed last week, Bondi’s office said the combination of state and local taxes can lead to cable services being taxed at a higher rate than satellite services.

“Because local governments set their own local CST (communications-services tax) rates, the statewide satellite CST cannot perfectly match the combined CST rates for other communications services,” the brief said. “But in all nine years examined, the average satellite subscriber paid a lower CST rate than the average cable subscriber, giving satellite a tax advantage every year.”

It is unclear when the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to take up the case.

(Disclosure: The News Service of Florida has a partnership with Florida Internet & Television, a cable-industry group, for a periodic news program about state government and politics.)

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Tax break proposed for standby generators

A Senate Republican on Monday proposed providing a property-tax exemption for permanently installed generators used to provide power when electricity goes out.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, of St. Petersburg, filed a proposed constitutional amendment (SJR 974) that would ask voters next year to approve the tax exemption.

He also proposed a bill (SB 976) that would carry out the constitutional amendment. Both measures are filed for the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts in January.

Under the proposals, the value of permanent generators would not be considered in determining the taxable values of properties.

The proposals come amid heavy attention on efforts by Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration to require nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have generators that could keep buildings cool.

The issue stems from the deaths of residents of a Broward County nursing home whose air conditioning was knocked out by Hurricane Irma.

State divvies up bear-proofing money

Bear-proofing money from the state is going to seven counties, a parks department, a homeowners’ association and a community for surviving spouses of retired U.S. Air Force enlistees.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced Friday how it will spread $515,283 available this year in the “BearWise” program, which is intended to help purchase bear-resistant trash cans and strengthen existing containers.

The largest award will go to Seminole County, which is receiving $189,000 to purchase bear-resistant trash cans for residents in the western portion of the county.

Other counties getting money are Lake, Volusia, Highlands, Orange, Walton and Franklin.

Collier County Parks and Recreation is getting $3,675 to put bear-resistant trash cans in three county parks.

Holley by the Sea Improvement Association in Santa Rosa County will get $65,000 to modify 3,700 trash cans against bears. And the Air Force Enlisted Village will receive $7,700 to strengthen dumpsters in the Shalimar community near Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field.

Lawmakers approved $415,000 for the “BearWise” project this fiscal year, with an additional $100,000 coming from the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida through the sale of “Conserve Wildlife” license plates.

A majority of the BearWise money requires communities to have ordinances aimed at residents and businesses keeping garbage secured from bears looking for food. The issue stems from bears going into neighborhoods in some areas of the state, creating the possibility of dangerous interactions with humans.

For the second consecutive year, the money is coming after the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted against holding a controversial bear hunt.

As part of a decision in April against holding a hunt, the commission wanted staff members to conclude work on 10-year bear management plan, which at the time was at least two years from completion.

The state held a hunt in 2015 that resulted in 304 bears being killed. With money available from permits sold for that hunt, the BearWise program awarded $825,000 in 2016 to 11 counties, three cities and two homeowners’ associations.

Three Central Florida counties — Seminole, Lake and Orange — each received $200,000 in 2016.

Overall, the money was used to purchase 4,000 bear-resistant trash cans, 2,500 sets of hardware to secure regular trash cans and 40 dumpsters that were modified to keep bears out.

Roughly 4,000 black bears are estimated to live in Florida, from the forests of Southwest Florida through the Panhandle.

The current population is considered a success story, as the numbers had fallen to as low as 300 to 500 in the 1970s when bears were put on the state’s list of threatened species. Bears were removed from the list in 2012.

But as the bear population has rebounded and more homes and businesses have been built in the animals’ native habitats, incidents of human-bear interactions have grown.

Adam Putnam, Dennis Ross say relief effort leaves out citrus

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Congressman Dennis Ross on Friday criticized a lack of funding for the state’s storm-ravaged citrus industry in the latest disaster-relief package proposed by the White House.

Putnam said a $44 billion request sent to Congress by the White House Office of Management and Budget “puts government reimbursement in front of real taxpayers and completely leaves out the citrus industry.”

“I am confident our delegation will modify this relief package into something meaningful for Florida farmers and ranchers,” Putnam said.

The state has estimated agricultural losses from Hurricane Irma at $2.5 billion. The storm made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and caused widespread damage as it moved up the state.

Ross, a Lakeland Republican, urged members of the Florida congressional delegation to oppose the new proposal without relief for citrus growers.

“Floridians have been kicked to the curb in this proposed disaster supplemental, which lacks relief for Florida’s citrus growers who suffered immensely from this storm,” Ross said in a prepared statement. “The Florida delegation specifically requested this relief because there isn’t a citrus grove that wasn’t affected, with some experiencing 100 percent losses — worse than anything the industry has experienced in over 20 years.”

In a post-Hurricane Irma estimate of damages on Oct. 4, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services projected citrus losses at $761 million from Irma, followed by the nursery industry at almost $624 million in losses.

The cattle industry damage assessment was $237.5 million, while the dairy industry was estimated to have $11.8 million in losses.

Members of the state House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness said Thursday those damage estimates are too low.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz estimated that the damages to just the citrus industry could exceed $1 billion.

Putnam and Gov. Rick Scott have pushed to include aid for Florida farmers and ranchers in the current package after failing to secure money in two prior relief packages approved since hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria slammed Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Scott sent a letter Wednesday to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan that outlined a need for disaster relief for Florida as well as Puerto Rico. The letter also expressed a need for money to speed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee and for Congress to reform the National Flood Insurance Program.

Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in a letter Friday to the U.S. House that the latest package isn’t the final request as damage assessments are still underway for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

“Accordingly, the administration will continue to identify, refine, and articulate additional emergency funding requirements working with the governments of Puerto Rico and USVI,” Mulvaney wrote.

The funding request — to be spread across the Gulf Coast and Caribbean — includes $1 billion for agriculture. However, the largest part of the overall package, $25.2 billion, would replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration’s disaster relief accounts. Another $12 billion would go to create a grant program for flood mitigation projects.

The proposal also seeks $4.6 billion to help repair federal property damaged by the storms.

Statehouses rocked by sexual harassment allegations

Throughout the nation, lawmakers are being forced to confront revelations about dirty little secrets once kept hidden behind the statehouse doors.

The toppling of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexually assaulting or harassing dozens of women, and the ensuing #MeToo social media campaign have emboldened women to tell stories of abuse or inappropriate treatment that remained under wraps in state capitols — among other work environs populated by powerful men — in some cases for decades.

In Florida, the state Senate is embroiled in the investigation of Sen. Jack Latvala, who until recently served as the influential chairman of the Appropriations Committee but who was removed from the post amid allegations by several unidentified women that he groped them and made unwelcome comments about their bodies. Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, has vehemently denied he inappropriately touched lobbyists and staff, as described in a POLITICO Florida report this month.

The Sunshine State’s Capitol has plenty of bedfellows when it comes to allegations of sexual misconduct.

Florida is one of three states where legislative leaders have ordered outside investigations into such allegations.

It’s one of a dozen states where allegations have sparked internal probes, removal of leaders or the ouster from office of lawmakers whose responses have ranged from mea culpas to flat-out denials of wrongdoing.

A common thread in the allegations is that the behavior had been going on for years, but, in most cases, was dealt with quietly, hushed up, or never spoken about at all.

“I would be shocked if there were a legislature in the country where there wasn’t something like this going on, where there weren’t men who use their power over people who don’t have as much power, or people who are beholden to them, whether it’s interns or staff or lobbyists,” Debbie Walsh, director of the National Center for Women and American Politics at Rutgers University, said in a telephone interview.

California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Washington — along with Florida — are among the states where women say a toxic environment permeates workaday life in state capitols.

In California, more than 200 women involved in the political process — including lobbyists and lawmakers — signed a letter exposing what they called a “pervasive” culture of sexual harassment. The head of the California Senate has called for two independent investigations into the issue.

In Kentucky, the House speaker resigned from his leadership post after it was revealed he had recently settled a sexual harassment case. The resignation came two years after another Kentucky lawmaker resigned from his seat amid sexual harassment allegations.

In Illinois, a Democratic Senate caucus leader stepped down from his position last month after he was accused of sending late-night messages to, and asking personal questions of, a woman who was working with him on legislation.

In Minnesota, the governor last week called on a state senator to step down amid allegations of making unwelcome sexual advances toward women.

In Missouri, revelations about sexual misconduct related to interns in the statehouse led to the resignations of the House speaker and a state senator.

In Tennessee, a state representative was expelled from his seat last year following a series of sexual harassment allegations. Another Tennessee lawmaker resigned this year after being accused of inappropriately touching a woman.

Here in Florida, Senate President Joe Negron has put a Tampa lawyer in charge of the probe into the allegations about Latvala, a veteran lawmaker who is running for governor. Sworn complaints have been filed with both Negron’s office and the Senate Rules Committee, responsible for making recommendations to the full chamber regarding the misconduct of members. At least one of the complaints was made by a Senate staffer.

The potential penalties for Latvala include being expelled from a chamber he professes to hold in high regard.

Like Latvala, many of the men who were forced to resign or relinquish leadership positions have maintained their innocence.

Public scrutiny of sexual harassment accusations against sitting lawmakers has been a rarity in the past. For example, the Florida House and Senate both contend they have no records of any such complaints against legislators for the past 20 years.

But many experts predict that, now that the floodgates have opened, more statehouses will be rocked by reports of sexual misconduct and more legislators will be “outed” by the women who claim they’ve been mistreated.

“I’m guessing there are men all over America who are terrified right now,” Walsh said. “Because somewhere in their heart they know they’ve done something and, because women just sort of say, `I’m not going to be in the room with so-and-so,’ they’ve gotten away with it somehow.”

Days before the Latvala allegations became public, Florida Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers and Sen. Lauren Book, of Plantation issued a strongly worded statement urging victims of sexual harassment and misconduct to come forward. That statement came after Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens resigned from the Senate amid disclosures about an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.

“Victims are made to feel ashamed, afraid, and uncertain of how this may impact their careers. They are made to bear a piece of this burden and the weight of the misconduct somehow becomes the responsibility of the victim,” Benacquisto and Book said in the statement. “That ends here. That ends today. We are here to say that you are not to blame. If you have been hurt or exploited, let your voice be heard. Come forward.”

It’s too early to say whether the shift toward telling will continue, and what the fallout might be.

Walsh pointed out that it’s been more than 25 years since Anita Hill testified on Capitol Hill that she was sexually harassed by then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Thomas was approved for the position, which he still holds.

But things have changed rapidly this year, when men like Weinstein and comedian Louis C.K. have become pariahs almost overnight in the wake of accusations.

Part of the shift can be attributed to numbers: There are more women in state legislatures — and boardrooms — than there were in the past.

“There is a shift, post-Harvey Weinstein to believe the women, which clearly was not the case during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings,” Walsh said. “I think you just have more women in these institutions who are responding to this and that’s changing the culture, and now it’s coming out. … I think this idea that women are just frankly, they’re starting to be believed, and that changes the equation for them.”

But changing the culture of sexual harassment is a complicated chore.

“Will it result in more men losing their positions of authority? Will it result in some kind of tighter regulations, or even a place to report it? Most legislatures don’t have a human resources department, where you can go to make a complaint,” Walsh said. “The perpetrators have to really be afraid. They have to be afraid that there is a price to pay.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Even after scandal, Florida Democrats remain optimistic about 2018

Even after the latest scandal, Democratic insiders remained optimistic that Stephen Bittel‘s departure would have a minimal impact on next year’s elections, which include a crucial battle for the governor’s mansion and the possibility of a brutal race for the U.S. Senate. Republican Gov. Rick Scott is leaving office next year due to term limits and is widely expected to challenge Bill Nelson.

“I don’t know that (Bittel’s resignation) hurts going forward,” Steve Schale told The News Service of Florida. “You’ve got the four candidates for governor are all working and raising money. The Senate Democrats and House Democrats are organizing and raising money and recruiting candidates as they should.”

State Democrats are “going to address these immediate issues and heal the wounds,” Mount said in a lengthy text message.

But the battle earlier this year about who would be chairman, continued friction between progressive and moderate Democrats and the potential for another heated leadership race could leave Democrats limping.

“This is obviously a setback, but we’ve got a lot of good people who care deeply about the party who I know will come together at a time like this and make sure the party keeps moving forward,” said Scott Arceneaux, a consultant who served as executive director of the state party for more than seven years and who was ousted after Bittel took over as chairman in January.

Judy Mount could face off against at least one contender for the leadership post. Alan Clendenin, who has twice lost out in leadership races, said he’s considering making another attempt.

“I think there’s a lot of folks, including myself, that are talking to folks about this. That will flesh out in the next week or so. People will look at the lay of the land and see where folks’ support is,” Clendenin, chairman of the Democratic National Committee Southern Caucus, said in a telephone interview Friday. “I’ve always felt that with my background and experience that I’ve brought a skill set and a vision to change the Democratic Party of Florida to be a more effective organization.”

But the election of Mount, who is black, could send a “powerful message,” Schale predicted.

Mount agreed.

“The focus is not on me. But it’s very important to say a black woman leading the Florida Democratic Party for the first time is perfect for this time,” Mount wrote in the text message.

The party’s executive committee, which elects the chairman, will meet Dec. 9, the party announced late Friday.

Mount appears poised for a fight.

“Don’t be fooled. There are a lot of people in times past who have underestimated Judy Mount and the Florida Democratic Party. I’m here to tell you that’s a mistake. We’re going big and we intend to win,” she wrote.

Some insiders have questioned whether Mount, a veteran party activist, will be effective as a fundraiser, with a slew of pricey races on the horizon and given Republicans’ history of outdistancing their opponents in collecting contributions.

“Money is always key, but I think rather than depending on one individual it will take a village of folks coming together to make sure the party has the money it needs next year in what should be and what I believe will be a good year for Democrats,” Arceneaux said.

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