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.

Cary Pigman cleared in state ethics case

State Rep. Cary Pigman did not misuse his official position to retaliate against a school principal in his district, an administrative law judge ruled this week.

In a 22-page order, Judge June C. McKinney recommended that the Florida Commission on Ethics dismiss its case against the Avon Park Republican, first elected in 2012. He still faces a DUI charge from an unrelated incident last week.

Pigman, also a doctor of emergency medicine and Army Reserve physician, had been accused of “linking his efforts to obtain legislative funding for the Okeechobee School District … to retaliate or attempt to retaliate against an employee of the School District.”

That employee was elementary school principal Tracy Maxwell Downing, the ex- sister-in-law of Pigman’s former secretary, Libby Maxwell, with whom he had been having an affair and to whom he is now married.

In October 2015, Downing and Pigman attended a legislative delegation meeting in the county. He said she “used her middle finger in a manner that could be seen as ‘flicking a bird’ at him,” an investigative report said. Downing later said she was only “scratching her head.”

McKinney wasn’t buying it, noting that Downing had admitted “flipping (Pigman) off” to schools superintendent Ken Kenworthy, and “even apologized,” telling him “she did not realize one obscene gesture in the spur of the moment would lead to something like this.”

That December, Pigman and Libby Maxwell met with Kenworthy to “address their concerns” about Downing and the academic performance of her daughter, who attended Downing’s school.

Pigman played jailhouse recordings between Downing and her brother when he was locked up on an unrelated charge. In them, she could be heard telling the brother she was giving Pigman “hell,” because the state representative was spending nights with the secretary at her marital home while her husband, Downing’s brother, was in jail.

Pigman then asked Kenworthy, “Is this the best that the Okeechobee School District has to offer,” adding that “…this would be in the back of (my) mind when thinking about the School District,” according to the investigative report.

“The Okeechobee School District was seeking $63 million from the Florida Department of Education to construct a new high school,” the report noted.

Pigman’s remark, however, was just a “poor choice of words, (and) at most, the statement can only be perceived as nebulous because (it) lacks any specificity,” McKinney wrote.

In fact, the judge added, “the record is void of any evidence to show either Pigman or (his now wife) tried to leverage their status by threatening, asking for, or discussing discipline, suspension, termination or any other punishment for Mrs. Downing … The record only shows that Mrs. Downing’s unprofessional harassing behavior was reported.”

Being in the Legislature “does not strip a legislator’s right to report wrongdoings of a public employee,” the order says.

McKinney also found “no reliable evidence” that Pigman suggested blocking the district’s funding. “Furthermore, the funding issue never went before the Legislature since the request was denied at the agency level stage for not meeting the critical need test,” she wrote.

The order goes to the Ethics Commission for final action. Before that, the parties can submit written objections for consideration.

Seminole Tribe: Judge’s slots ruling could cost state ‘multi-billions of dollars’

If it looks like a slot machine, and plays like a slot machine, it’s a slot machine, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is telling state leaders. 

An order by a Tallahassee judge, first reported by FloridaPolitics.com, declared that certain slot machine-style entertainment devices aren’t slot machines under state law.

The Tribe disagreed. It now says those games violate a deal between the Tribe and the state, known as the Seminole Compact. That could have “massive consequences costing the Tribe and the State to lose multi-billions of dollars,” according to the Tribe’s recent court filing.  

In a letter sent last Wednesday to Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Tribal Chairman Marcellus Osceola said the games were “an expansion of gaming” and a “serious violation” of the compact, which guarantees the Tribe exclusive rights to slots outside of South Florida.

If so, that would entitle the Tribe to stop paying the state a cut of its gambling revenue. So far this year, the Seminoles have paid $40 million for January and February – despite a federal judge’s ruling that the state broke another part of the deal governing blackjack exclusivity. That decision is under appeal.

Negron last week said he wanted to use the Seminoles’ money – expected to total $306 million this year – for the 2017-18 state budget. Moreover, his chamber’s gambling legislation, which includes a renewed blackjack deal, will be on the floor starting this Wednesday.

“The letter is the subject of pending litigation, (and) for that reason, President Negron does not have a comment at this time,” spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an email. A Scott spokeswoman said she would “look into it” and did not immediately comment.

Osceola wrote that the “Tribe is advised that a significant number of these games are being operated in Florida based on this decision, and that thousands of additional games are likely to be added in the near future.” Gary Bitner, Tribe spokesman, said there would be no further comment.

Earlier this month, Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled that a specific kind of game, usually called a “pre-reveal” game, was “not an illegal slot machine or gambling device.” Other states, such as North Carolina, have found pre-reveal games to be illegal gambling, however.

The court action began when agents from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) found one of the games in a Jacksonville sports bar and at least one other location, records show. The games have since been found across the northeast corner of the state.

Players must “press a ‘preview’ button before a play button can be activated,” the judge’s order explained. The outcome of the next game is always known, thus it’s not a game of skill or chance, he said. 

Two days after Osceola’s letter, the Tribe’s lawyer asked the judge to reconsider his decision, court records show. That request piggybacked on one filed by the DBPR, which regulates gambling.

Its filing says “what the player does or does not know about any given outcome is irrelevant … machines which are set to play themselves and record a certain win/loss ratio are inherently infused with chance.”

Attorney Barry Richard, who represents the Tribe, wrote in his filing: “The degree of slot machine exclusivity was an essential element of the Compact in order to obtain federal approval. In the event of an infringement on the Tribe’s exclusivity, the Tribe has the right under the compact to discontinue payments to the State.

“The offering of (pre-reveal games) and any similar gaming system to the public is an infringement on the Tribe’s right to exclusivity under the Compact and threatens to disrupt a contractual relationship between the Tribe and the State that has been highly beneficial to both parties,” he added.

Osceola, in his letter, also said: “The Tribe trusts that the State will take prompt action to remedy this violation.”

trauma centers

House trauma center bill clears first hurdle

A limit on how many trauma centers can open in Florida would be erased under legislation that cleared its first committee Monday.

The bill (HB 1077), sponsored by state Rep. Jay Trumbull, was OK’d on a 10-5 vote.

Among other things, it also does away with the system of trauma service areas and regions, relieves the Florida Department of Health of setting standards for the centers, and would streamline the process for new ones to open.

Trumbull, a Panama City Republican, told the panel a main reason for the bill was to cut down the many lawsuits against the department, which has to OK new centers. Indeed, an attempt to quell fighting between health care providers only led to more internecine warfare in the courts. The latest suit was filed last week.

“We’re just hoping to curb some of that litigation,” Trumbull said, mentioning that the Health Department has spent over $900,000 on outside attorneys in the last year and a half.

In 2004, the Legislature divided the state into trauma service areas, currently 19, and the statewide total of trauma centers is now capped at 44. There were 33 centers, including for pediatric care, as of mid-2016.

Ten years later, an administrative law judge upheld regulations that came after three years of legal and legislative wrangling, much of which related to newly opened trauma centers in Pasco, Manatee and Marion counties.

On Monday, arguments for and against the bill echoed those offered a couple of years ago.

Opponents, generally those already operating trauma centers, said opening more centers would put a strain on the availability of trauma surgeons and would dilute the pool of patients. Medical specialists have said they need 500-1,000 patients a year per center to remain profitable and maintain expertise.

Those in favor, mostly hospitals that want to open new centers, say the growing number of Florida’s residents and visitors justifies the need for more centers.

Rep. Daisy Baez, a Coral Gables Democrat, asked the average cost of opening a new trauma center, to which Trumbull answered around $10 million: “That’s why a trauma center won’t pop up on every corner” under this legislation, he said.

The bill has two more stops before the floor; a Senate companion has yet to be heard.

trauma centers

Battle over trauma centers continues with new lawsuit

Another high-profile court fight over new trauma centers opening in Florida has begun in Tallahassee, even as lawmakers prepare to tinker with state law governing such facilities. 

As a pre-emptive strike, Delray Medical Center in Delray Beach and St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach last week sued the Florida Department of Health in Leon County Circuit Civil court. They both operate Level 1 trauma centers—the higher level of trauma care.

At issue is an application from JFK Medical Center in Atlantis to open a new Level 2 trauma center. Both trauma levels require round-the-clock availability to surgeons, for instance, but a Level 2 doesn’t have to engage in research or offer a medical residency program.

If JFK opens a center, that will “divert patients and revenue away” from the plaintiffs, the complaint said, leaving them “irreparably harmed.” They’re now seeking an injunction against the department, saying it doesn’t have the authority to consider the JFK application.

The opening of new trauma centers has stoked discord for the last few several years, with hospitals lobbing accusations of unfair competition at each other.

In 2014, an administrative law judge upheld regulations that came after three years of legal and legislative wrangling, much of which related to newly opened trauma centers in Pasco, Manatee and Marion counties.

The Legislature divided the state into 19 trauma service areas and capped the statewide total of trauma centers at 44, with each area allowed a certain number. There were 33 centers, including for pediatric care, as of mid-2016

Lawmakers again have introduced trauma center-related legislation for the 2017 Legislative Session. One bill (HB 1077), set to be heard Monday by the House Health Innovation Subcommittee, would do away with the trauma service areas and place no limit on the number of trauma centers.

Delray and St. Mary’s are the only trauma centers in their area, the suit said. All three facilities are within 10-15 miles of each other in Palm Beach County.

Further, the county’s Health Care District trauma plan says the area is “adequately served by the current trauma system,” the complaint said.

Since there’s no need for another center, the plaintiffs want the court to enjoin the Health Department from reviewing JFK’s request. They said they had asked the department to reject the application, but officials there did not respond.

Delray and St. Mary’s are represented by Tallahassee attorney Michael Glazer of the Ausley & McMullen law firm. The case was assigned to Circuit Judge Charles Dodson.

Court records don’t reflect whether the department has yet been served with the suit, and state agencies decline comment on pending litigation. 

Vote-by-mail ballots fix passes House

A bill that would let voters fix mismatching signatures on their vote-by-mail ballots so they can be counted has passed the House of Representatives.

The House approved the bill (HB 105), sponsored by House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa, by a unanimous vote of 113-0 on Thursday.

It would require supervisors of elections and their staff to allow voters to turn in an affidavit to cure any signature discrepancies until 5 p.m. the day before an election. They would need to present a driver’s license or other state ID.

A Senate companion has not yet had a hearing.

It would help older voters who have “arthritis or other physical disabilities” and younger voters who may have signed their voter registration cards “carelessly,” Cruz has said.

Joe Negron would ‘prefer’ to use gambling money in budget

Senate President Joe Negron wants to use gambling money sitting in the state’s treasury for spending next year, but said it won’t spell disaster if lawmakers can’t.

The Stuart Republican, speaking to reporters after Thursday’s floor session, said he was “optimistic” that the Legislature will finally pass an omnibus gambling overhaul that includes a renewed blackjack agreement with the state’s Seminole Tribe.

Despite ongoing litigation over its right to offer blackjack, the Tribe continues to pay gambling revenue share to the state, nearly $40 million for just the first two months of this year.

That money – expected to total $306 million this year – is deposited but not marked for spending into the General Revenue Fund.

Meantime, a new deal that would guarantee exclusive rights to keep offering the card games in exchange for a $3 billion cut to the state over seven years is included in this year’s House and Senate bills.

“We also have money – as I call it, ‘sitting in trust’ – that is available if we need it,” Negron said. “It could be purposed this year for tax cuts, for expenditures. So it’s important for the budget for a gaming bill to pass.”

That said, Negron quickly added, if nothing passes this year, it won’t be “a disaster.”

He favors expanding some gambling, including allowing counties that passed local referendums to have slot machines. The House generally wants gambling opportunities held in check.

“We can pass a budget with a gaming bill or without, but my strong preference … is to be able to use those revenues for good purposes,” he said.

As House Commerce Committee chair Jose Felix Diaz put it Wednesday, “Gaming is one of those bills that’s left for the end.”

“It’s too important to too many people, and it has too many repercussions for the budget,” the Miami-Dade Republican said. “There’s a lot of money at stake.”

Negron said he expects his chamber’s working version of a 2017-18 state budget to come together by next week.

The main stumbling block has been “items and expenditures in the budget that, while defensible, aren’t as much of a priority … I see members juxtaposing one project against another and then having to make tough decisions.”

He also said he wouldn’t unlink his tax swap plan that repeals a subsidy for the state’s insurance companies and applies the funds to a cut in the business rent tax. Business interests and the insurance industry oppose the plan.

Senate passes ‘whiskey & Wheaties’ bill

Three Legislative Sessions later, the Senate finally passed a bill to allow retailers to sell hard liquor in the same store as other goods.

Senators approved the “whiskey and Wheaties” legislation (SB 106) on a 21-17 vote after a debate in which one senator said it would “kill … kids.”

Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who first filed a one-line repealer in 2014, spoke in favor of what has now become a 5-page bill. Among other things, it requires miniatures to be sold behind a counter and allows for a 5-year phase-in.

Today, the separation of spirits from retail has “no nexus to the reality of everyday life,” said Galvano, in line to become Senate President in 2018-20.

In a speech that started by mentioning famed mobster and bootlegger Al Capone, Galvano said alcohol now has been “mainstreamed.”

A Prohibition-era state law requires businesses, such as grocery chains and big-box retailers, to have separate stores to sell liquor. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

Big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target want the repeal, saying the added convenience is “pro-consumer,” and independently-owned liquor store operators say they will suffer. Publix also has opposed the move, saying it’s invested in the separate liquor store model.

Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami-Dade Republican, asked colleagues, “Why are we doing this?” He called it “the Wal-Mart bill,” and said it would give an “unfair advantage” against small businesses.

The rhetoric eventually gave rise to emotion: Sen. Daphne Campbell attacked the bill, saying it wasn’t even about “politics, it’s poli-tricks.”

The Miami-Dade Democrat said the effect of the legislation would be to “kill your own kids … How can we do this?”

Anitere Flores, the Miami-Dade Republican carrying this year’s bill, was taken aback.

People watching the debate, she said, must be asking “what in the world does this bill do? Does it kill children. No.” She earlier pointed out it’s not a mandate on any business.

The repeal’s fate in the House is unclear: That chamber’s version, recently amended to be more similar to the Senate’s, has been limping through its committees on one- and two-vote margins.

Legislative Black Caucus says it supports Aramis Ayala

The leader of Florida’s black lawmakers Thursday said Gov. Rick Scott would not have stripped Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala of the Markeith Loyd murder case had she been a white Republican.

“Absolutely not,” Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, told reporters at a news conference in the Capitol. Ayala, a Democrat, is black.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus decried Scott’s decision to remove Ayala from the case, in which she decided not to pursue the death penalty. Loyd is charged with killing Sade Dixon, his pregnant ex-girlfriend, and Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton.

Lake County State Attorney Brad King has taken over the prosecution, and Ayala – elected to a 4-year term last year – has said she will challenge the governor’s authority to remove her from the case.

Ayala later said she would not seek capital punishment in any cases. A Seminole County Clerk of Court employee was suspended for posting on social media that Ayala should be “tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree.”

“It’s 2017 and the duly elected state attorney is threatened with a lynching,” said Rep. Sean Shaw, a Tampa Democrat. “That’s why we’re here today. The death penalty is a link to the sordid past in Florida where lynching were used to terrorize our communities.”

Scott spokeswoman Kerri Wyland said the governor “stands by his decision to assign State Attorney King to prosecute Markeith Loyd after State Attorney Ayala refused to recuse herself.”

“Loyd is accused of executing Lt. Clayton, a brave law enforcement hero who was on the ground fighting for her life, and murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend,” she said. “Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Norman Lewis was also killed while actively searching for Loyd.

“As Gov. Scott has continued to say, these families deserve a state attorney who will aggressively prosecute Loyd to the fullest extent of the law and justice must be served.”

The caucus’ full press conference can be viewed in a Periscope video below:

whiskey Wheaties

By two votes, House ‘whiskey & Wheaties’ bill cleared for floor

In another squeaker, the House version of a bill to allow retailers to sell liquor in their main stores cleared its last committee by just two votes.

The House Commerce Committee on Wednesday OK’d the legislation (HB 81) on a 15-13 vote. It’s now ready to be considered by the full House.

It previously cleared the Government Operations and Technology Appropriations Subcommittee by a 7-6 vote. And it hobbled out of the Careers and Competition Subcommittee on an 8-7 vote.

“Any time you have an issue that revolves around alcohol, you’re bound to expect it to be somewhat controversial for some of the members,” bill sponsor Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, told reporters after the hearing.

The proposal would repeal a Prohibition-era state law requiring retailers to sell distilled spirits in a separate shop. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

Avila amended the bill to make it nearly identical with the Senate version (SB 106), which goes to a final vote in that chamber Thursday. For example, it too requires miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and would be phased in over several years.

Lawmakers have been weighing the wishes of big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart, who want a repeal of the liquor “wall of separation,” and independently-owned liquor store operators, who say they will suffer.

If the proposal becomes law, “we are finished,” said Kiran Patel, who owns liquor stores in Melbourne and Palm Bay. “There’s no way we can even compete with” big box stores, which will “put pallets and pallets” of booze out in the open.

But state Rep. Tom Goodson questioned that; the Rockledge Republican noted that Patel and other small businesses already compete on selection and price with chains, just with their liquor offerings in a separate store.

Goodson also was skeptical of claims that mixing whiskey and Wheaties would lead to higher rates of theft or teen drinking, including right in the stores: “If you try to open a Jack Daniel’s bottle these days, you need two knives and a screwdriver.”

Target lobbyist Jason Unger of the GrayRobinson firm told lawmakers the bill meets “customers’—and your constituents’—demands” for more convenience, adding that “competition is good.”

Skylar Zander, deputy director for the pro-free market Americans for Prosperity-Florida, said the separation law needs to be “abolished.”

“This is about consumers, allowing businesses to innovate and to make the market more free,” Zander said in an email.

tax cuts

Senate tax cut proposal OK’d — with one big switch

A tax cut that would have helped a broader swath of Floridians, including the middle class and working poor, was changed Tuesday to instead benefit the state’s business owners.

With no debate, the Senate’s Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee cleared the bill (SB 378) by a 4-0 vote. 

As initially proposed by Miami-Dade Republican Anitere Flores, it would have paid for a cut in the state’s communications services tax (CST) on mobile phone, satellite and cable TV service by repealing a tax break to insurers. The move has been a priority of Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican.

But the panel approved an amendment—brought by Kelli Stargel, the Lakeland Republican who chairs the panel—to reduce the tax that businesses pay on their commercial rents, a cut that Gov. Rick Scott has long called for.

“She felt strongly about it,” Flores said later. “It’s her committee.” Stargel wasn’t immediately available after the meeting.

Negron himself seemed to create a loophole when he discussed the bill with reporters last week: Funds from taking back the insurance tax credit “would much be much better spent providing tax relief to Floridians, to businesses, rather than subsidizing the labor cost of one particular industry.”

Meantime, insurance interests jealously guarded their 15 percent tax credit on the salaries that they give their full-time workers here in the state.

After Flores had referred to the 30-year-old state subsidy as “corporate welfare,” a representative of FCCI Insurance Group told the panel to “remember we are a highly taxed industry to begin with.”

Thomas A. Koval, the company’s general counsel, also said they take the gains realized from the tax break and “reinvest it in our company, (to) hire more people.”

But he also warned that if taken away, firms may start leaving the state, a sentiment echoed by banking and insurance lobbyist Gerald Wester.

“People are easier to move than buildings,” and “with today’s technology people can be anywhere,” he told the panel.

Sen. José Javier Rodríguez of Miami-Dade County, one of two Democrats on the 5-member panel, asked Stargel why not apply the money from repealing the subsidy to other causes, such as funding education. (He later was out of the room when the vote was called.)

Stargel said the tax break to insurers was an “incentive to bring businesses to Florida.”

“But I agree, this is a discussion that could be ongoing,” she added. The bill next moves to the full Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Updated 12:30 p.m. — Negron, in comments to reporters after Tuesday’s floor session: “The committee had a choice to make on what relief to provide with the money that would be freed up from the insurance tax break … I thought Sen. Flores did a good job providing examples of dry cleaning businesses, food delivery businesses, and other small businesses. So that’s where we are today. There’s a much better case for the commercial lease tax to be reduced.”

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