Jim Rosica, Author at Florida Politics

Jim Rosica

Jim Rosica covers state government from Tallahassee for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

Jon Steverson resigns as DEP secretary

Jon Steverson, the Secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Rick Scott, has resigned.

His departure was confirmed Friday night by McKinley Lewis, Scott’s deputy communications director, who provided a copy of the resignation letter.

Steverson is set to join the legal-lobbying firm Foley & Lardner, sources tell FloridaPolitics.com. Herschel Vineyard, who also served as a DEP Secretary, is a part of Foley’s governmental relations team.

Steverson, whose last day will be Feb. 3, did not mention reasons for his leaving in the letter.

“I want to thank Jon Steverson for his hard work,” Scott said in a statement. “Jon has devoted his career to protecting Florida’s pristine environment and I am proud of the tremendous and historic strides we have made toward safeguarding Florida’s natural resources during his time at DEP.

“Under his leadership, we have invested in Florida’s natural lands and completed projects which will ensure protection of our springs, restoration of the Everglades and the continued enhancement of our award-winning state parks for years to come.”

Lewis said the Governor’s Office will have “further announcements on this next week.”

Among the leading candidates to replace Steverson are Karl Rasmussen, a Deputy Chief of Staff in the Governor’s Office, and Ryan Matthews, the Deputy Secretary of Regulatory Programs at DEP.

Steverson raised hackles for, among other things, suggesting that the state allow timber harvesting and cattle grazing to help state parks boost their income.

More recently, his department did not immediately notify the public that a huge sinkhole formed under a fertilizer plant and sent contaminated water and fertilizer into Florida’s main drinking water aquifer.

He began as interim DEP Secretary in December 2014. The Florida Senate declined to confirm him and other agency heads in 2015, though he finally won confirmation January of last year.

Steverson was previously executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District. Before that, he was DEP’s Special Counsel on Policy and Legislative Affairs and an acting Deputy Secretary for Water Policy and Ecosystem Restoration, according to his bio.

Steverson also served in the Executive Office of the Governor in 2005-09 in several positions, including Environmental Policy Coordinator.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this post.

Alimony reform bill filed for 2017

Update: State Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican, on Friday filed the Senate companion to the House bill, which she says is identical save for  “a few punctuation differences.”


State Rep. Colleen Burton will try again to overhaul the state’s alimony law, filing a bill on Wednesday.

The Lakeland Republican still aims to toughen the standards by which alimony is granted and changed, after last year’s measure was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.

“I believe it is the right thing to do,” Burton said in a phone interview. “It costs families a lot of money to go through a process that has no starting point. This gives judges a starting point, the same in Miami as in Pensacola, and gives predictability to former spouses who are trying to determine alimony.

“I have nothing personal invested in this,” she added. “This is just worth trying again.”

The latest bill (HB 283), however, does not contain child custody provisions that garnered Scott’s disfavor in 2016.

He disapproved of that legislation because it had the potential to put the “wants of a parent before the child’s best interest by creating a premise of equal time-sharing,” his veto letter said.

Family-law related bills have had trouble getting Scott’s signature even as lawmakers have tried for years to change the way Florida’s courts award alimony.

In 2013, Scott vetoed a previous attempt to modify alimony law because, he said, “it applies retroactively and thus tampers with the settled economic expectations of many Floridians who have experienced divorce.”

He added that the “retroactive adjustment of alimony could result in unfair, unanticipated results.”

On one side, former spouses who wrote the checks have said permanent alimony in particular, or “forever alimony,” wasn’t fair to them.

Their exes shot back that they shouldn’t be penalized, for example, after staying home to raise the children and then having trouble re-entering the workplace.

But Burton’s 26-page bill, among other things, contains a guideline that says judges should consider an ex-spouse’s “services rendered in homemaking, child care, education, and career building of the other party” when calculating an award.

A judge can go outside the suggested alimony amount under the bill “only if the court considers all of the factors … and makes specific written findings concerning the relevant factors that justify” the deviation.

A message for Burton seeking comment was left at her Lakeland district office.

But her Senate counterpart last year, Republican Kelli Stargel also of Lakeland, said in a text message she will not file a companion measure.

“I don’t know that I’m willing to take this on again next year,” she told FloridaPolitics.com in April. “Then again, a lot can happen between now and the next legislative session. But we need to discuss the merits of a bill and not get into heated rhetoric.”

The legislation eventually caused “a hollering battle” between about 100 advocates and opponents of the bill outside Scott’s office days before the veto.

Bill would force case reporting requirements on Supreme Court

A bill filed Thursday in the Florida House would force the state Supreme Court to produce a yearly report on how many cases it’s finishing with opinions.

It seems to go against the court’s official Latin motto, “Sat Cito Si Recte,” translated as “Soon enough if done correctly,” or even “Justice takes time.”

“The phrase indicates the importance of taking the time necessary to achieve true justice,” the court’s website says. Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters declined comment on the bill.

The legislation (HB 301), filed by new Republican state Rep. Frank White of Pensacola, would require the court to tally in detail “each case on the court’s docket … for which a decision or disposition has not been rendered within 180 days.” 

It then requires a “detailed explanation of the court’s failure to render a decision or disposition” in pending cases older than six months.

The bill also instructs the court to tally cases it decided in the previous year but took longer than six months.

The report “shall be submitted in an electronic spreadsheet format capable of being sorted” and sent to “the Governor, the Attorney General, the President of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.”

In a phone interview Friday, White – an attorney – said he started hearing from constituents soon after his election about “painfully long wait times for appellate opinions.”

“I thought, let’s just simply ask the court, starting with the Supreme Court, for a modest report,” he said. “A little sunshine and some data will all help us do a better job.”

To those who bring up the court’s motto, he counters with another expression: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Waters did say the court currently has 785 pending cases. “By comparison, the court disposed of 2,432 cases in calendar year 2016,” he said, adding that number “is subject to correction as we routinely audit the final results.”

Coincidentally, the bill is the latest legislation from a Republican-controlled House that’s long been antagonized by rulings its leaders have characterized as “judicial overreach.”

In October, for example, House Speaker Richard Corcoran lambasted a decision invalidating part of the state’s death penalty.

The ruling, requiring a unanimous jury recommendation for a death sentence, “is just the latest example of the Florida Supreme Court’s ongoing effort to subvert the will of the people as expressed by their elected representatives,” Corcoran said.

The House also is considering a measure for the 2017 Legislative Session that would impose term limits on judges. At its last hearing, the panel reviewing the legislation also discussed how quickly courts are clearing their caseloads.

Earlier this month, Heather Fitzenhagen – chairwoman of the Civil Justice and Claims Subcommittee – rejected a suggestion that House Republicans want to publish the court for rulings striking down the GOP’s priorities. White also sits on that committee. 

“Absolutely not,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is … (make) sure that all of our branches of government are functioning at the best possible efficiency, and that we’re getting things done in the best manner possible. That justice is served in a timely manner.”

State appeals federal ruling on Seminole Tribe blackjack

The state of Florida has filed an appeal to a federal judge’s ruling allowing the Seminole Tribe to keep offering blackjack at its casinos.

The 7-page “notice of appeal” to the 11th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals was filed Thursday by Jason Maine, general counsel to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates gambling.

The filing did not preview any arguments the state intends to make to get the decision reversed.

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in November had ruled that regulators working under Gov. Rick Scott allowed select Florida dog and horse tracks to offer card games that were too similar to ones that were supposed to be exclusive to Tribe-owned casinos for a five-year period.

The judge decided the Tribe could keep its blackjack tables till 2030. The state wanted Hinkle to instead order the tribe to remove the games because a blackjack provision in an agreement between the state and tribe expired in 2015.

Scott’s office did not immediately comment on the appeal.

Barry Richard, the Tribe’s Tallahassee-based attorney, suggested that the state was working against its own financial interest: Without blackjack, there’s no money from it to share with the state.

The previous agreement generated well over $1 billion in blackjack revenue share. The Seminoles offer blackjack at five of their seven casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa.

“As I told the lawyer for the state, I don’t recall in my career an opposing party working so hard to keep my client from paying it hundreds of million of dollars – and it still is,” Richard said.

But the tribe is still paying, most recently putting nearly $20 million into state coffers as a show of good faith. A state economist last week said that money is being held effectively in reserve in the General Revenue fund.

And the tribe still wants a new blackjack deal worth $3 billion over seven years in revenue share to the state, but it failed to gain approval from lawmakers last year.

Also this year, lawmakers will begin considering an omnibus gambling bill that includes that deal but also would allow for more slot machines across the state, legalize fantasy sports and even open up lottery ticket sales at gas pumps.

In addition, the bill would expand blackjack from just the state’s Seminole casinos to South Florida’s pari-mutuels, including Pompano Park.

“In a sense, the Tribe has been fighting to pay the state and the state has been fighting to stop it,” said Richard, with the Greenberg Traurig law firm. “As far as the issue of whether the Tribe still has to pay, it’s not an issue because the Tribe has chosen not to make it an issue.”

planned parenthood

State won’t have to pay Planned Parenthood’s legal tab

The state won’t end up on the hook for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida‘s legal fees, according to an appellate court decision released Thursday.

The health care organization had sought to punish the Agency for Health Care Administration by making it pay the group’s attorney fees after filing “administrative complaints … alleging violations of (its) license to perform abortions.”

The state eventually “voluntarily dismissed the complaints,” according to the opinion. But an administrative law judge still ordered an evidentiary hearing on the fees question.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal said that judge overstepped his bounds, “depart(ing) from the essential requirements of the law.”

Citing case law, Judges Brad ThomasT. Kent Wetherell II and M. Kemmerly Thomas said he didn’t have authority to order a hearing “because the case was voluntarily dismissed” and thus Planned Parenthood can’t be considered a “prevailing party.”

The case began last year after the agency, under Gov. Rick Scott, said Planned Parenthood clinics in St. Petersburg, Naples and Fort Myers were wrongfully providing second-trimester abortions.

Planned Parenthood lawyers had argued AHCA was incorrectly defining the beginning and end of trimesters and that the organization was innocent of any wrongdoing.

cigarette

Pam Bondi moves against tobacco companies for missed payments

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is going after two tobacco companies for holding back money she says is owed to the state under an historic tobacco settlement.

Bondi filed an enforcement motion in Palm Beach County circuit court Wednesday against ITG Brands and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (RJR). 

The attorney general said in a statement that R.J. Reynolds “recently sold three of its most iconic cigarette brands – Winston, Kool and Salem – along with a legacy Lorillard Tobacco Company brand, Maverick, to ITG for $7 billion.”

But neither company included the sale into consideration when making their payments to the state under the settlement, she said.

Bondi says they’re now “liable for millions of dollars of missed payments to Florida,” and her motion seeks a court order “requiring payment to Florida for the past and future sales of these cigarettes.”

“The sale of major, pre-existing tobacco brands to another company for billions of dollars does not cause the payment obligations to vanish like a puff of smoke,” Bondi said.

Florida and other states settled lawsuits in the 1990s against the major cigarette makers, including RJR, for “past, present, and future public health care expenses from citizens’ consumption of … cigarettes,” according to the motion.

A final master agreement was “the largest civil litigation settlement in U.S. history,” according to the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium.

“RJR and the other major tobacco companies agreed to make annual payments to Florida of several hundred million dollars, in perpetuity,” Bondi’s office said.

ITG did not respond to a request for comment.

Reynolds spokesman Bryan Hatchell, in an email, said the company “believe(s) we have strong legal and factual defenses to the motions filed today in this case and will vigorously defend against them. However, as this is ongoing litigation, we decline any further comment at this time.”

Officials, others respond to school vouchers case

The Florida Supreme Court’s decision not to take up a contentious school vouchers lawsuit continued to garner reaction throughout Wednesday.

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump‘s nominee for U.S. Education Secretary, tweeted, “Congrats to the Florida families who have a clear path toward more opportunity due to #SchoolChoice w/ today’s FL Supreme Court decision!”

Florida House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa, in a statement, called the move “a blow to our state’s Constitutional promise of  ‘a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.’ ”

“We can all agree that the zip code of a child’s birth should not be a determining factor in their access to a high quality public education,” she said. “However, for almost 20 years now, since the passage of Gov. Jeb Bush’s original unconstitutional voucher system, Florida has diverted billions of taxpayer dollars away from our public schools in a misguided attempt at outsourcing our children’s education to for-profit corporations and fly-by-night profiteers.

“Instead, these resources should have been spent improving our neighborhood schools, focusing on options that we know have a proven success rate and a genuine benefit to the public they are meant to serve, such as the community schools model,” she added. “Unfortunately, some continue to view our children as a commodity from which every ounce of profit should be squeezed.

“Even with today’s setback, House Democrats will continue to fight on behalf of the thousands of parents and students who have been failed by legislative leaders more intent on serving an ideology of boundless privatization rather than a commitment to the educational well-being of our children.”

Bush, the president and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), the school reform group he founded, said the decision is “a powerful reminder to entrenched special interests that when policymakers work hand-in-hand with Florida’s families, students win.”

“It is my hope that opponents of Florida’s efforts to help our most vulnerable students will stop impeding successful reforms and join us in ensuring all students have access to excellent educational options,” he said.

Cruz’s counterpart, Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran, called the court’s order “a great victory for school children, parents, and classroom teachers who want the best for their students.”

“I thank the many organizations, pastors, parents, and children who advocated for fairness and justice in our education system and wish them all a great school year,” he said.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said she was “pleased that the lower court’s decision will stand, and that this important program will continue to provide educational opportunities for children of families that have limited financial resources.

“Today is a great victory for our children,” she said in a statement.

Americans for Prosperity-Florida (AFP-FL), the state’s pro-free market organization, called Wednesday “a day to celebrate.”

“Our childrens’ future looks brighter than ever,” AFP-FL state director Chris Hudson said in an email. “Last year, the legislature enacted several common sense reforms to improve access to a quality education. Today’s ruling furthers the initiative to ensure that parents can make the best decisions for their children.”

Florida TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic M. Calabro said the program “provide(s) lower income families, most of whom are minorities, the opportunities to receive a high quality education and are funded through donations from businesses across the state.”

“Educating our children, particularly those who do not have the same opportunities as others, is crucial in ensuring that they can go on to college, earn a degree and begin a career that offers them prosperity and success,” Calabro said in a statement. “…With the lawsuit officially over, the state does not have to continue to spend taxpayer dollars on what could have been an expensive battle at the Supreme Court.”

Cesar Grajales, Florida Coalitions Director of The LIBRE Initiative, a project of Americans for Prosperity focused on the Hispanic community, said the court “was right to defend the needs of Florida students by dismissing the attacks from unions.”

“School choice is a powerful tool to ensure that our community has the best access to education possible,” Grajales said. “…I am looking forward to working with the Florida legislature to continue expanding reforms that ensure parents and students can achieve their educational goals.”

U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court turns down Scott Batterson’s bribery appeal

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected a request from a former Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority board member asking to review his 2014 state bribery conviction.

Without comment, the court denied the petition from Scott Batterson on Tuesday, court dockets show.

His request, filed in December, came after a three-judge panel of the state’s 5th District Court of Appeal split in upholding the conviction.

Judge Richard Orfinger had dissented in favor of overturning, saying a bribery charge requires the defendant to receive something in return and Batterson had not.

The appeal went to the U.S. Supreme Court because Batterson was relying on that court’s unanimous decision in June overturning ex-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell‘s federal corruption convictions.

“To qualify as an ‘official act,’ the public official must make a decision to take an action … or agree to do so,” that opinion says. “Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event – without more – does not fit that definition of ‘official act.’ “

Batterson was convicted in a 2014 scandal in which he was seen as the linchpin of a pay-to-play deal at the expressway authority. The body has since been reorganized as the Central Florida Expressway Authority.

Prosecutors argued he tried to cut a deal with a contractor in exchange for that person hiring friends of his. In October 2014, Batterson was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison by Circuit Judge Jenifer M. Harris.

Batterson made it clear to the contractor, according to the state’s case, that he and a newly appointed member of the authority’s board, Marco Pena, with help from lobbyist and former Florida House Speaker-designate Chris Dorworth, would be able to gain control of the board and steer a $5 million contract to the contractor.

Batterson and Pena resigned from the board after previously pleading guilty to charges of violating the state’s open-meeting laws.

classroom school vouchers

Teachers’ union: “Who can challenge the Legislature on voucher program?”

The Florida Education Association (FEA) vented its “frustration” Wednesday after the Florida Supreme Court declined to take up a suit challenging the constitutionality of what’s been called “the nation’s largest private school choice program.”

The court decided not to hear a challenge to the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, created in 2001, though – as one former judge noted – its order “doesn’t say (it) lacks jurisdiction.” (Main story here.)

That had Joanne McCall, the statewide teachers’ union’s president and the lead plaintiff in the case, asking, Who can pursue a case? A trial court and the 1st District Court of Appeal had previously ruled the matter could not go forward.

“This ruling, and the decisions by the lower court, doesn’t answer that question,” she said in a statement. “We still believe that the tax credit vouchers are unconstitutional, but we haven’t had the opportunity to argue our case in court.”

Though the Supreme Court put an end to this case, first filed in 2014, the challenge now for voucher opponents is to find one or more plaintiffs who do have the legal standing to successfully press a complaint.

At issue was money going toward religious schools, and whether “taxpayers,” like McCall, could challenge “indirect state subsidies” paying for parochial school tuitions.

“We’re baffled that the courts would deny taxpayers the right to question state expenditures,” McCall added. “This decision has ramifications beyond this challenge to a voucher program.”

It “relies on private, voluntary donations—not public dollars,” the state’s brief on the jurisdictional question said. “And the program provides tax credits to donors—not schools or students.”

“At bottom, petitioners’ assertion of taxpayer standing is predicated on the assumption that this case involves the unlawful ‘use of public funds,’ ” the state’s brief said. “As the trial court and the (appellate court) correctly concluded, that position is flatly at odds with the how the Scholarship Program actually operates, and misconstrues the plain language of Florida’s Constitution.”

In other words, “the Legislature’s carefully crafted policy choice does not suffice to establish a concrete, particularized injury” to those that sued, including the FEA, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP’s Florida State Conference.

On the other hand, the FEA’s brief said the vouchers scheme “diverts funds from the public (treasury) to subsidize the costs for certain Florida children to attend private schools, the overwhelming majority of which are sectarian.”

“(N)othing in the law prohibits these schools from engaging in religious discrimination or mandating that their students participate in religious instruction and religious exercise,” according to the brief.

It said the high court should “accept jurisdiction … because the decision not only undermines the law of taxpayer standing, but it effectively holds the Scholarship Program – and any other government program similarly funded by a targeted tax credit rather than direct appropriations – to be immune from challenge.”

Simone Marstiller, a retired judge of the 1st District and now a lawyer in private practice, said appellate Judge Lori S. Rowe‘s decision “beautifully lays out exactly why” the high court turned the case down.

“Bottom line: The union and others simply cannot show any ‘injury’ from the Legislature’s use of tax credits to fund the scholarship program,” said Marstiller, who also held many positions under Gov. Jeb Bush, including secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

“This is not a situation in which tax revenues are being diverted away from the public school system in favor of private schools, including religious schools,” she said. “So, not only is there no exercise of the Legislature’s spending power at issue, no constitutional provisions are implicated.”

The FEA did not immediately say what further legal plans it had regarding the vouchers program.

Supreme Court throws out school vouchers case

The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday said it will not take up an appeal on a high-profile school vouchers case.

The decision comes as a major setback to vouchers opponents, including the Florida Education Association (FEA), the statewide teachers’ union, but was applauded by school choice advocates. (Separate story on the FEA’s reaction here.)

The court denied a request to review the case, but did not comment on its merits. “No motion for rehearing will be entertained by the Court,” its 2-paragraph order said.

“Who is allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the tax credit vouchers?” FEA President Joanne McCall said in a statement. “This ruling, and the decisions by the lower court, don’t answer that question.” McCall is the lead plaintiff in the case.

Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy A. Quince, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston concurred in the decision. Justice R. Fred Lewis dissented, saying he would have granted oral argument.

The nonprofit organization that administers legal battle over the nation’s largest private school choice program is over,” in a blog post.

Doug Tuthill, president of the nonprofit Step Up For Students organizationhe court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children.”

His organization and other supporters had put on a pro-vouchers rally last year featuring Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The FEA held its own “Enough is Enough!” rally days before.

“We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck,” Tuthill added in a statement.

The program “provides for state tax credits for contributions to nonprofit scholarship funding organizations (SFOs). The SFOs then award scholarships to eligible children of low-income families,” its website says.

The tax credit cap for the current year is $559 million, according to the state. That cap will increase to $698,8 million for the 2017-2018 state fiscal year.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran also issued a statement, calling the move “a great victory for school children, parents, and classroom teachers who want the best for their students.” The program is a favorite of legislative Republicans.

“I thank the many organizations, pastors, parents, and children who advocated for fairness and justice in our education system and wish them all a great school year,” said Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican.

The Supreme Court’s inaction leaves in place a 1st District Court of Appeal decision, siding with a lower court’s decision to throw out the lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association and others.

They had argued that the state’s method of funding private-school educations for more than 90,000 schoolchildren this year is unconstitutional.

The appeals court said the plaintiffs haven’t been harmed by the program, and denied that it violates state law. The vouchers are funded by corporations, which in turn receive tax credits on money they owe to the state.

Florida has several voucher programs in place; the one being challenged extends vouchers to low-income families, most of them black or Hispanic, who send their children to religious schools.

It began in 2001 under Gov. Jeb Bush, and legislators later approved expanding it to middle-income families.

The teacher union argued that it violates the state’s constitution by creating a parallel education system and directing tax money to religious institutions.

But Judge Lori Rowe, who wrote the 1st DCA opinion, said the plaintiffs lack legal standing to sue because they had not shown that other school funding had declined because of the program, or provided other proof of “concrete harm.”

Rowe added that the tax credit scholarship program doesn’t violate a constitutional ban on state aid to religious institutions because it involves the taxing, and not the spending power, of the Florida Legislature.

The Florida Coalition of School Board Members (FCSBM) weighed in later Wednesday morning, saying “Florida is on the right side of history.”

“I am proud to live in a state where educational choices for families are embraced and upheld,” said Shawn Frost, FCSBM president. “… “Let’s return Florida’s focus to where it belongs: on our students.

“We must commit to meeting each child’s unique needs, and improving academic outcomes for all,” Frost said. “When choices work for a child, we should celebrate that success not be threatened by it.”

Background for this post from The Associated Press, reprinted with permission. 

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