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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.

Lieutenant governor picks could have little effect in November

Gubernatorial candidates Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum must pick their running mates by a Thursday deadline.

Based on recent political history, you can expect the candidates to bring some demographic and geographic diversity to the general-election tickets with their selections for lieutenant governor.

But while rumors and speculation swirl about who might be tapped by DeSantis and Gillum, history has also shown the lieutenant-governor candidates are not likely to have much impact on the outcome of what will be one of the highest-profile elections in the nation this fall.

The primary duty of the Florida lieutenant governor, a post that was re-established in 1968, is to succeed the governor if he or she is incapacitated or dies.

That transition last happened in December 1998, when Gov. Lawton Chiles died and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay became governor, filling the office for the last month of Chiles’ two-term administration.

Talking to reporters after his primary-election victory, DeSantis, the Republican nominee, said his “first criteria” in selecting a running mate would be to find someone who could step in as governor if necessary.

A secondary consideration would be someone who could help him “advance an agenda” and perhaps have expertise on “certain niche issues,” DeSantis said.

“I don’t really necessarily just want somebody hanging around. I want them to be actively involved,” DeSantis said. “So I’m going to be looking for someone who can be value-added, not just in the election but once you become governor and are working to implement an agenda.”

Gillum, the Democratic nominee, will look at similar criteria, and both campaigns are likely weighing running mates that will broaden or balance the appeal of their tickets.

For instance, in the last gubernatorial election in 2014, both candidates had running mates from Miami-Dade County, which with 1.4 million voters has the largest county electorate in the state.

Both 2014 gubernatorial nominees also had Hispanic running mates, with Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos LopezCantera running as Republicans against Democrat Charlie Crist and his running mate, Annette Taddeo, who is now a state senator.

Another consideration in the process is the long-held mantra from political consultants that the selection of a lieutenant governor should “first do no harm.” That means the potential running mates must be well-vetted to avoid controversies that could damage the general-election ticket.

Missteps by a lieutenant governor have not seriously damaged a gubernatorial candidate in recent elections. But governors and candidates have parted ways with their running mates.

The last time came when Scott forced Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, the first African-American elected to the office, to resign in 2013 after she became embroiled in the investigation of a group linked to internet cafes. She was never charged with any wrongdoing. Scott picked Lopez-Cantera to replace her.

But lieutenant governors can also help governors. MacKay played a key role in the Chiles administration. And Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, a former Senate president, helped Gov. Jeb Bush navigate the legislative process during his second term.

Aside from the two major parties, Darcy Richardson, running for governor as a Reform Party candidate, has picked former state Sen. Nancy Argenziano as his running mate.

Judge to weigh Spanish-language ballot dispute

A federal judge Wednesday will hear arguments in a lawsuit seeking to require 32 Florida counties to provide Spanish-language ballots and other materials to Puerto Ricans who are eligible to vote in the state.

The arguments, which focus heavily on the federal Voting Rights Act, will come almost exactly two months before the Nov. 6 general election. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker will consider a request from plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction that would require Spanish-language ballots and assistance for what are believed to be more than 30,000 Puerto Ricans.

“The counties at issue in this case are home to a class of thousands of Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans — including those who recently arrived after Hurricane Maria — who are eligible to vote but are unable to vote effectively in English,” the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction said. “But despite repeated requests to many of the counties to provide Spanish-language election materials and assistance to protect the rights of these Floridians, the counties continue to conduct English-only elections that effectively deprive those citizens of their right to vote.”

But attorneys for Secretary of State Ken Detzner and Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton, who is named as a defendant representing other county elections supervisors, want Walker to deny the proposed preliminary injunction. They dispute the plaintiffs’ interpretation of part of the Voting Rights Act and contend that it would be difficult to comply with the requested changes before the November elections.

“It is now too late,” a response filed by Detzner’s attorney said. “With the first ballots for the General Election expected to be mailed on or before September 22, 2018, the 32 counties at issue do not have time or ability to provide the relief the plaintiffs seek. The equities and public interest weigh against the preliminary injunction.”

The potential class-action lawsuit was filed in August by a coalition of groups, with Alachua County resident Marta Valentina Rivera Madera as the named plaintiff. In addition to Alachua, it targets Bay, Brevard, Charlotte, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, Duval, Escambia, Flagler, Hernando, Highlands, Indian River, Jackson, Lake, Leon, Levy, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Monroe, Okaloosa, Okeechobee, Pasco, Putnam, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, Sumter, Taylor and Wakulla counties.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys have focused on part of the Voting Rights Act that is aimed at people who were educated in schools where the predominant language was not English and seeks to ensure they are not denied the right to vote. The motion said Congress enacted that part of the law “to protect the rights of Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans to vote stateside.”

As a result, the motion for preliminary injunction contends that the 32 counties are required to provide Spanish-language ballots, election materials and bilingual poll workers. The motion estimates at least 30,000 people would be affected in the 32 counties — and that number doesn’t include people who moved to Florida after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, last year.

The motion said the 32 targeted counties have not provided Spanish-language ballots in recent elections and “provide little to no Spanish-language election materials or assistance.”

“It is well-established that Spanish-language ballots and sample ballots, voting guides and instructions, and bilingual poll workers are necessary to ensure a Spanish-speaking citizen can vote effectively,” the motion for preliminary injunction said. “The counties’ failure to provide those materials in Spanish effectively conditions the right to vote of plaintiff Rivera and the proposed class of thousands of similarly-situated Puerto Ricans on an ability to read and understand English — and, because they cannot fully read and understand English, effectively deprives them of their right to vote.”

But Barton’s attorneys contended in a response filed last week that the Voting Rights Act does not require “specific” Spanish-language materials and assistance. The attorneys also cited a series of steps Barton has taken to help accommodate Spanish-speaking voters, such as providing a number of materials in Spanish, providing bilingual support in her office and planning to have a voters’ guide translated into Spanish.

“The question is, to what extent must Supervisor Barton go in providing supporting materials in Spanish that will allow the plaintiff (Rivera) to meaningfully engage in the electoral process and cast her vote?” the response said. “Supervisor Barton believes that the action she is taking in Alachua County meets the requirements of the VRA (Voting Rights Act), despite Supervisor Barton not currently providing the actual voting ballot in Spanish.”

WellCare finishes $2.5B deal for Meridian plans

Tampa-based WellCare Health Plans has completed a $2.5 billion deal to buy health plans that will expand its business in the Midwest and a firm that is a pharmacy-benefit manager, WellCare said Tuesday.

In the acquisition, which was effective Saturday, WellCare purchased Meridian Health Plan of Michigan, Inc., Meridian Health Plan of Illinois, Inc., and MeridianRx, a pharmacy-benefit manager.

The deal was initially announced in May. WellCare is a major player in Florida’s Medicaid managed-care program.

“We are excited to complete our acquisition of Meridian,” WellCare CEO Ken Burdick said in a prepared statement. “This transaction grows and diversifies our Medicaid membership by nearly 40 percent, increases our Medicare Advantage presence in new markets, adds a proprietary PBM (pharmacy benefit manager) platform, and enhances WellCare’s integrated dual-eligible and marketplace capabilities, positioning us for further growth within government-sponsored programs.”

State, Joe Redner battle over legal cost in pot case

The Florida Department of Health is appealing a ruling that would require it to pay more than $30,000 in legal costs in a fight about whether Tampa businessman Joe Redner should be able to grow his own medical marijuana.

Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers last week said the state should pay $30,299 requested by Redner’s attorneys for costs related to such things as expert witnesses, according to court documents.

The Department of Health quickly filed a notice that it was appealing Gievers’ decision to the 1st District Court of Appeal. The state has argued, in part, that it should not be required to pay costs while an appeal remains pending in the underlying legal fight about growing medical marijuana. Gievers this spring sided in the underlying case with Redner, who contends he should be able to grow his own medical marijuana to try to prevent a recurrence of lung cancer.

Redner’s argument is rooted in a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana in the state. But the Department of Health has appealed the ruling in the underlying case to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Campaign matching funds expected to keep climbing

Florida’s controversial public matching-funds program for statewide candidates remains on a pace to surpass a high of $6.1 million that was handed out in the 2010 elections.

Last week’s primaries eliminated four of the nine gubernatorial and Cabinet candidates who had qualified for the program, which has already topped $4.9 million in distributions during the 2018 election cycle, according to numbers posted Friday by the Florida Division of Elections.

But heading into the November general election, the remaining participants in the program include both major-party gubernatorial candidates, Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum, who have combined to pick up $1.47 million in matching funds. Also, the two major-party candidates for attorney general, Republican Ashley Moody and Democrat Sean Shaw, have received a combined total of $567,302 from the program.

In addition, Republican Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who didn’t have a primary challenger, has already drawn $304,755 from the program as he prepares for a Nov. 6 challenge from Democrat Jeremy Ring, a former state senator from Broward County.

The program matches contributions of $250 or less from individual donors after crossing a set fundraising threshold. It has already exceeded the $4.3 million distributed in the 2014 elections.

The program has long faced criticism, with opponents saying the state shouldn’t help finance campaigns. Repeal efforts have failed in recent legislative sessions, while candidates who made the program a campaign issue had mixed results in the primary.

In the Republican primary for agriculture commissioner, state Rep. Matt Caldwell, who declined to apply for matching funds, topped a primary field of four that included Sen. Denise Grimsley.

Caldwell, who won with 34.6 percent of the vote, decried the use of the matching-funds program as “campaign welfare.” Grimsley, the only candidate in the race who tapped into the program, received $275,183 from the state.

“Public financing of statewide political campaigns is a waste of taxpayer dollars and a disservice to Florida’s hard-working families,” Caldwell said during the campaign.

Meanwhile, the use of the program did not appear to hurt Moody in the Republican primary for attorney general. She has now drawn $344,600 from the program, which was the focus of ads by her primary opponent, state Rep. Frank White of Pensacola.

White, who lost by 13 percentage points in the primary, sent out a flyer that highlighted paperwork filed by Moody seeking matching funds next to a comment attributed to her saying she stands for reducing government waste.

Moody campaign spokeswoman Christina Johnson countered that the program helps people combat self-funded candidates such as White, who poured personal money into the campaign.

Ryan Torrens, who was defeated by Shaw for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, received $88,694 from the program.

Shaw, who received a check for $17,425 from the state on Friday, has drawn $222,701 from the program.

In the governor’s race, DeSantis has drawn $975,836 from the program, while Gillum has received $495,065, according to the numbers posted Friday.

Outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who was defeated by DeSantis in the Republican gubernatorial primary, received $1.08 million from the program. Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, who finished second to Gillum in the Democratic primary, drew $1.22 million from the program.

Rural counties top state in primary turnout

By the time polls closed Tuesday night, 27.46 percent of registered Florida voters had cast primary-election ballots. But turnout in some rural North Florida counties dwarfed the state rate.

The highest turnout rate, 56.46 percent, was in Franklin County, followed by 55.33 percent in neighboring Liberty County, according to numbers posted on the state Division of Elections website. They were followed by Jefferson County at 49.37 percent, Gadsden County at 41.82 percent and Holmes County at 40.69 percent.

The state’s lowest turnout rate, 20.6 percent, came in Central Florida’s Osceola County. That was followed by a 21.35 percent rate in Miami-Dade County, a 23.53 percent rate in Broward County, a 24.01 percent rate in Hendry County and a 24.8 percent rate in Bay County, the state numbers show.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

FPL seeks extension of voluntary solar program

Florida Power & Light asked state regulators Friday to extend a program in which customers can voluntarily pay $9 a month to boost small-scale solar energy projects.

The program was approved as a three-year pilot in 2014 and was extended through 2018. The proposal filed Friday at the Florida Public Service Commission seeks approval to extend the program through December 2019.

The filing said 32,848 customers were enrolled in the program through June 30.

The program has supported the installation of 84 solar structures, with an additional 53 under construction. The solar structures are installed on such things as rooftops and covered walkways and are in locations such as parks, zoos and schools, the filing said.

FPL is limited to spending 20 percent of the customers’ payments on marketing and administrative expenses.

“The VSP (voluntary solar partnership) Program is successfully increasing visibility and awareness of solar energy through customer engagement and the strategic installation of program facilities,” the filing said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

E-ZPass coming to Orlando area

E-ZPass will arrive Saturday in Florida, with users of the toll-collection system in 16 other states being able to use their transponders without facing extra fees on Central Florida Expressway Authority roads.

“The more than 35 million E-ZPass users can now drive in metro Orlando and avoid having to fumble for change at CFX toll gantries,” the Central Florida Expressway Authority said Friday.

For the nearly 400,000 account holders of the Central Florida Expressway Authority’s E-Pass system, the change will be one-way for now.

The authority continues to work on a new transponder to be called E-Pass Extra — expected to be introduced in the fall — that will combine the systems.

Also, E-ZPass customers traveling on roads operated by Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise under the SunPass brand will continue to be invoiced for tolls via Florida’s “toll by plate” program.

E-ZPass is a network of toll agencies operating from Maine to Illinois and south to North Carolina.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Matt Caldwell won 43 counties, key urban areas

State Rep. Matt Caldwell, who topped three opponents in Tuesday’s Republican primary for agriculture commissioner, won 43 of the state’s 67 counties, including his home county of Lee and urban centers of Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Broward and Orange counties.

Caldwell, a real-estate appraiser from North Fort Myers, received 34.6 percent of the 1.5 million votes cast statewide in the primary, enough for a nearly 8 percentage-point victory.

In a review of county-by-county numbers, Caldwell also won in Volusia County, swept the Treasure Coast counties of Indian River, Martin and St. Lucie and carried numerous rural counties across the northern part of the state, according to figures posted by the state Division of Elections. Caldwell also finished second in 18 other counties, including Escambia, Duval and Hillsborough.

State Sen. Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican who finished second Tuesday with 26.63 percent of the vote, was the top vote-getter in nine counties: Glades, Calhoun, DeSoto, Hendry, Gulf, Okeechobee, Hardee, Highlands and Bay.

Former state Rep. Baxter Troutman, who heavily self-financed his campaign and finished just behind Grimsley in the statewide vote with 26 percent, won in 15 counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Duval and Polk.

But Troutman, a businessman from Winter Haven, placed second in just 10 counties, including Lee, Collier and Santa Rosa.

Grimsley took second in 39 counties, including Miami-Dade, Pinellas, Brevard, Orlando, Palm Beach, Broward, Polk, Volusia, Marion, Sarasota and Seminole.

Mike McCalister, a palm-tree farmer and retired Army colonel from Plant City who mustered 12.77 percent of the vote, had his best showings, finishing in third place, in 31 counties, including Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Broward, Sumter and St. Lucie.

In the Democratic primary Tuesday for agriculture commissioner, attorney and medical marijuana lobbyist Nikki Fried won all but one county — Dixie — as she received 58.65 percent of the 1.4 million votes cast in a three-way contest.

Roy David Walker, an environmental scientist from Fort Lauderdale who finished second with 25.5 percent of the vote, topped Fried by 16 votes in Dixie, where 856 votes were cast.

Walker finished second in all but nine counties. Homestead Mayor Jeff Porter, who received 15.85 percent of the vote, took second in Columbia, DeSoto, Duval, Glades, Hamilton, Hardee, Jackson and Suwannee counties.

Ashley Moody, Sean Shaw show strength throughout state

In running up double-digit wins in Tuesday’s primaries for Florida attorney general, Republican Ashley Moody and Democrat Sean Shaw dominated statewide.

Moody, a former Hillsborough County circuit judge, took all but four counties in her battle with state Rep. Frank White — Charlotte, Escambia, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa.

White, a Pensacola Republican who drew 43.2 percent of the 1.55 million votes cast, represents parts of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in the House. White had his best showing in Escambia, where he won by a margin of 21,987 to 12,838.

In the Democratic primary, Shaw defeated Ryan Torrens, a Hillsborough County lawyer, in every county. Shaw, a freshman state House member from Tampa and former state insurance consumer advocate, received 73.76 percent of the nearly 1.4 million votes cast. Shaw received 76 percent of the vote in Hillsborough County.

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