Jim Rosica, Author at Florida Politics - Page 2 of 195

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.
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Lizbeth Benacquisto sees ‘concerns’ over minor marriage ban

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto says she’s hopeful but “still sees concerns” over eventual passage of legislation aimed at preventing minors from getting married.

Benacquisto, the Senate’s Rules chair, told Florida Politics Thursday she “looks forward to passing as strong a ban on child marriage as we can” this session. The Fort Myers Republican sponsored her chamber’s bill (SB 140), which was OK’d 37-0 on Jan. 31.

But that version was a blanket ban on marriages for those under 18. The House amended the bill this week and sent it back to the Senate with language that would still allow some minors to get married.

Specifically, the House would make it illegal for marriage licenses to be issued to those under 16, but 16- and 17-year-olds would be permitted to wed if the girl is pregnant and the father is no more than two years older.


“The House would allow a girl who is 16 to marry. And I understand there is a condition on the age of the person she might want to marry,” Benacquisto said.

“But if she appears in a courthouse on the advent of her 16th birthday and she’s five months pregnant, that young lady has been in a relationship that would otherwise be seen as criminal.

“To move forward and allow that, I find is troubling,” she added. “We don’t allow that under current law … I don’t feel right to be consenting to that.”

Legislation was filed after reports on a Tampa Bay-area woman who was forced to marry her rapist at age 11.

In Florida, 16,417 children—one as young as 13—were married in the period of 2000-15, state Vital Statistics data shows. In one extreme example, a 17-year-old female married an 83-year-old man in 2004.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has said he is in support of permitting some minors to be married because it would give “high school sweethearts” the option to tie the knot if they want.

Adam Putnam asks for delay on gun license-background check bill

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam on Thursday said he was asking lawmakers to postpone a measure including language that would allow his department to issue concealed weapon licenses without complete criminal background information.

But Putnam, also a Republican candidate for governor, did not say whether he asked for the provision to be withdrawn from the bills.

The announcement came the same day a 19-year-old man was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder after he opened fire at his former high school in Broward County, according to law enforcement. Fourteen others were wounded Wednesday afternoon at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

“I mourn, along with the rest of the country, for those who lost their lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and their loved ones, and out of respect for their families and those suffering as a result of this tragedy, I’m working with bill sponsors to postpone consideration of the legislative proposal related to the licensing process,” Putnam said in a statement.

The language (HB 553, SB 740) was tucked into the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ annual legislative package. Putnam’s department grants permission for concealed carry in the state.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Lakeland Republican Kelli Stargel, was scheduled to be heard in the Appropriations Committee Thursday; the House version, carried by Lithia Republican Jake Raburn, is cleared for the floor.

Under current law, if the Department’s Division of Licensing has to “issue or deny” a concealed-carry permit within 90 days of application, according to a bill analysis. If it does not have an applicant’s complete criminal background check, it can “suspend” the time limitation until it gets a full report.

The new language would “require” the division to issue a concealed weapon license within 90 days, even with incomplete background information, “in the absence of disqualifying information,” the analysis says. “However, such license must be immediately suspended and revoked upon receipt of disqualifying information.”

Putnam added that the “shooter would not have even been eligible for a concealed weapon license and clearly had a troubled past that indicated serious mental health issues.”

“The focus now should be on mental health and how we protect our children,” he said. “All of us have an obligation to notify authorities when we see the behavior that this killer exhibited online and in school.”

Senate President Joe Negron, in a Thursday press conference, said he was not sure whether the background check provision will be removed from the Senate bill.

“That will be a decision that will be made” by the sponsors, he told reporters.

Andrew Fay nomination clears Senate panel

Andrew Fay easily and quickly won a Senate panel’s confirmation vote on Tuesday to the Public Service Commission (PSC).

The Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee unanimously cleared Fay for full Senate consideration.


The 34-year-old lawyer and Tampa native had been Special Counsel to Attorney General Pam Bondi and served as her Director of Legislative Affairs, Cabinet Affairs and Public Policy.

Gov. Rick Scott named him to the PSC, which regulates investor-owned utilities.

During the hearing, Fay alluded to his youth — “We must be representative of all bodies and generations. I am hopeful that the vision I can bring is different and beneficial” — and to his relative inexperience on energy issues.

He compared himself to a high school football player who carries around a play binder: “Mine hasn’t left my hands yet,” he said, adding, “The more I learn, the more I realize there is to learn.”

Fay also acknowledged he had a “nerdy, techy viewpoint” and said his immediate concerns will be power restoration and electric grid security.

State, voting rights group disagree on how to handle clemency process

In response to a federal judge saying that the Florida’s voting rights restoration process is unconstitutional, the state’s legal team said Monday the state’s clemency board should fix its flaws — not the courts.

State Solicitor General Amit Agarwal argued that U.S. District Judge Mark Walker should not issue any corrective orders, saying “there is no reason to upend the state’s constitutional and statutory framework.”

Rather, the Board of Executive Clemency itself should come up with a system that meets constitutional muster.

Fair Election Legal Network, the group that sued the state for running a system that “hinders former felons from truly reentering society,” disagreed.

The national voting rights group said the court should order the state to restore the voting rights of former felons after “any waiting period of a specific duration of time” set forth by the state or the board.

Currently, that waiting period is five years after completing their sentences. Except for those convicted of murder or a sex offenses; they must wait seven years.

The legal teams of both groups filed their briefs with Walker, who had ordered them to submit briefs to find a remedy for the system’s deficiencies.

“An injunction requiring (the state) to affirmatively act to create a new vote-restoration procedure would be inappropriate,” the state argued.

Federal courts, it added, “cannot issue an order that is tantamount to saying ‘act right.’ ”

Scott has helped shape the current voter-restoration system which requires all felons to wait at least five years after they serve their sentences to apply to have their voting rights restored.

The clemency board that oversees a felon’s case consists of Scott and the three members of the Florida Cabinet—Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi and state CFO Jimmy Patronis. The governor, however, does have sole power to reject an application.

It can take years for the board to hear a case and currently the state has a backlog of more than 10,000 cases, which could cost taxpayers $500,000 to fix next year if the Legislature approves it.

The state of Florida is home to about 1.5 million citizens who cannot cast a vote.

As the legal fight continues in court, Floridians will be able to cast their own ballot in November to decide whether ex-felons should have their voting rights automatically restored.

A citizen initiative to add a “Voting Restoration Amendment” to the state constitution needs 60 percent approval. If it passes, the amendment could have wide-ranging political implications in the nation’s largest swing state.

Double or nothing? Senate gambling bill clears latest panel

Sen. Travis Hutson says he believes “there’s a way for us to get there” when asked about gambling legislation finally passing the Legislature this year.

The Appropriations Subcommittee on Finance and Tax on Monday unanimously approved his 90-page rewrite of the Senate’s gaming bill (SB 840) for 2018.

It now includes a House provision: A renewed 20-year deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida for $3 billion in revenue over seven years in return for exclusive rights to blackjack and slot machines outside South Florida.

But the Senate also allows the Seminoles to add craps and roulette, expressly authorizes designated player games, which the House opposes; and exempts fantasy sports from gambling regulation, a move opposed by the Tribe.

Overlaying all of that is Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s position that any bill the House agrees to must be “an absolute contraction” of gambling in the state—though he hasn’t specifically defined that term.

“I would argue this is a contraction all day long,” Hutson, chair of the Regulated Industries Committee, told reporters after the hearing.

Hutson’s bill, which next heads to the full Appropriations Committee, also now exempts thoroughbred horse tracks and jai alai frontons from decoupling, which allows a pari-mutuel to stop live racing but keep offering other gambling, such as slots. The bill does still allow for greyhound-racing decoupling, however.

“In terms of decoupling, there’ll be less bets,” Hutson said. “As far as designated player games and fantasy sports, they’re already being played today. To me, all that is not an expansion, that is a break-even or a contraction.”

Asked how comfortable the Tribe is with the latest Senate product, the St. Augustine Republican added: “We’re close. A couple tweaks here and there.” A spokesman for the Tribe declined comment Monday.

Likely off the table is a provision favored by Senate President Joe Negron that would grant slot machines to pari-mutuels in counties where voters OK’d them in local referendums. That’s opposed by the House and the Tribe.

Before the committee, he also alluded to the specter of a “Voter Control of Gambling” constitutional amendment on the November ballot, requiring a statewide OK for any new or added gaming in the state. If it gets 60 percent approval, the Legislature will be indefinitely shut out from influencing gambling.

“This could be our last possible chance to regulate gaming as a legislative body and I need not remind anybody of the fiscal implications, in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year,” he told lawmakers.

The Seminoles’ current deal with the state allows it to reduce or cut off payments to the state, now over $200 million annually, if other games are played that it believes impinges on any of its exclusive gambling rights.

The Senate bill also follows the House in outlawing pre-reveal games, slot machine-style video entertainment devices, most often placed in bars. A Tallahassee judge’s ruling that they’re illegal slots is under appeal.

Hialeah Republican Rene Garcia, who suggested leaving out that language while the issue is still with the courts, asked an industry lobbyist why people spend money on such games, which “preview” certain outcomes as to their winning or losing status.

“There is no answer to that,” said Christine Davis-Graves, lobbyist for Pace-O-Matic. “We can’t delve into the subjective mindset” of those who play, adding that one reason might just be “time wasting.”

In legal filings, Tribe outside counsel Barry Richard previously countered that pre-reveal players are “not wagering for the already revealed outcome, but rather on the next outcome, which is unknown.”

Players “are not … merely spending money to see spinning reels and flashing lights,” Richard wrote. “Rather, it is a slot machine, with which players are wagering on an unknown, unpredictable outcome” that they may or may not win. Other states, including Indiana and North Carolina, have found pre-reveal games to be illegal gambling.

Hutson earlier said he wouldn’t be able to please all of the gambling interests all of the time.

“Everybody wants a piece of the pie,” he said to the panel. “I wish I had two pies.”

casino table

Ante up: Senate files new 90-page gambling bill

The Senate made some big moves Friday in the annual legislative dance that is the negotiation for an omnibus gambling bill.

The biggest move: The chamber now includes a renewed 20-year deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida for $3 billion in revenue over seven years in return for exclusive rights to blackjack and slot machines outside South Florida. That was in the House bill, but not the Senate’s first bill filed for this year.

Moreover, the Senate would OK adding roulette and craps to the Seminoles’ offerings at its casinos in the state.

Regulated Industries Committee chair Travis Hutson filed the 90-page strike-all amendment on the pending Senate measure (SB 840). The Compact language takes up 54 of the 90 pages.

Lawmakers know time’s a-wasting: A proposed “Voter Control of Gambling” constitutional amendment will be on the November ballot, requiring an electoral OK for any new or added gaming in the state. If it gets 60 percent approval, the Legislature will be indefinitely shut out from influencing gambling.

“It’s important to note that we took a step closer to some House positions: Compact, dormant permits, pre-reveal machines,” the St. Augustine Republican tweeted on Friday in response to a Florida Politics reporter.

Added Senate President-designate Bill Galvano in a text message: “The bill remains a work in progress until we ultimately know where we are with the Seminoles. Chair Hutson is managing well to keep the bill moving forward.”

Galvano, a Bradenton Republican is the Senate’s lead negotiator of gambling this year; his House counterpart is House Speaker-designate Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican. A request for comment was sent to Oliva’s spokesman.

Also through a text message, Seminole Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner said “the Tribe just received the information, and needs time to review it.”

To be sure, the House, Senate and Tribe are not quite in lock step.

The House would prohibit designated player games; the Senate allows them. They’re a hybrid of poker and blackjack, but some versions of the game resulted in the Tribe suing the state in federal court, saying the games played too much like blackjack, violating the Tribe’s exclusivity.

The Seminoles won, the state appealed, and the two sides settled their differences on appeal. That includes a “forbearance period” that ends March 31, during which the state has promised to “aggressively enforce” the exclusivity terms.

Other highlights of the Senate bill are:

— It exempts fantasy sports from gambling regulation. That has been a “non-starter” for the Tribe, however, according to outside counsel Barry Richard. But both chambers filed standalone bills this year to expressly allow fantasy sports play.

— The bill would allow dog tracks to “decouple,” meaning to allow a pari-mutuel to stop live greyhound racing but keep offering slots. Greyhound owners and breeders have staunchly opposed such language.

— It clamps down severely on the ability to relocate or convert gambling licenses, and would repeal summer jai alai permit conversions. Pari-mutuels, particularly in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, covet such permits because at a minimum they also allow a facility to open a cardroom and offer simulcast betting.

— The bill outlaws what are known as pre-reveal games, also a thorn in the side of the Seminoles. They’re slot machine-style video entertainment devices, most often placed in bars. A Tallahassee judge’s ruling that they’re illegal slots is under appeal.

The amendment will be up for discussion Monday when the Senate next considers the gambling legislation during a meeting of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Finance and Tax.

Florida’s biggest spending plan ever ready for final negotiations

The Florida House and Senate on Thursday passed their spending plans differing by only about $100 million — a tenth of a percent of the roughly $87 billion proposed by each chamber.

The starting point for final budget negotiations on what is the largest proposed budget in state history is more than a week ahead of schedule, Senate President Joe Negron said. And though he says money differences are not that big, clashes over the environment, health and education remain.

A plan by House GOP leadership to “link” the education sub-section to a “conforming” bill laden with new policy has roiled the chamber’s budget. That includes a proposal to create a new scholarship for students who are bullied in public schools to go to private school.

The two are so intertwined that Hialeah Republican Manny Diaz, chair of the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, admitted that if that bill (HB 7055) failed, legislators would have to start from scratch to craft a new lower education sub-budget.

Negron told reporters on Thursday that he would prefer the House move its education bill — a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran — “through the traditional process” and not through the budget as a conforming bill.

“It would be preferable to refer it to the appropriate committees,” Negron said, “but the larger picture is that many proposals in the bill enjoy the support of the Senate … the majority of the Senate is promoting school choice.”

House Democrats have complained that the education bill would violate the state constitution’s “single subject” rule, which requires that “every law shall embrace but one subject and matter properly connected therewith, and the subject shall be briefly expressed in the title.”

For example, Democratic Leader-designate Kionne McGhee and others rapped the bill for having a 12-page title.

He actually spent about 10 minutes just listing off all the headings of the provisions in the bill. “We’re laying down a record for the (state) Supreme Court to review this bill,” said McGhee, an attorney.

Miami Beach Democratic Rep. David Richardson, a forensic auditor known for his detailed budget analysis, tried to amend the budget to cut the link to HB 7055, calling it “a bad precedent.”

No surprise: That move was eventually shot down on a party-line vote. But the bill passed on a 66-43 vote.

Over in the Senate, the budget debate sailed through the chamber with a 33-1 vote.

The proposal sets aside $3.4 billion in total reserves and appropriates $21.1 billion for the state’s K-12 and higher education systems.

Next week, the process to schedule budget conference meetings will begin to reach a final agreement on the 2018-19 budget.

“We are close in amount, so that makes life a lot easier,” Negron said.

Down and down it goes: Florida’s orange crop plummets

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the feds this week announced “yet another decrease in the size of the Florida orange crop this season due to Hurricane Irma.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s latest report pegs orange production for 2017-18 at 45 million boxes—”a 35 percent decrease over last season and the lowest crop size in more than 75 years,” according to a Thursday statement from the Florida Department of Citrus.

The USDA’s initial crop forecast in October guessed 54 million boxes of oranges, and grapefruit production was 4.65 million boxes, a drop of 40 percent over last season.

“While this is certainly lower than initial estimates, it was not unexpected,” said Shannon Shepp, the department’s executive director. “We are still hopeful the remainder of the season holds stable.

“Should disaster recovery funding pass today, it would give growers the confidence they need to continue making investments to keep this season’s crop stable and produce more Florida Citrus in the years to come.”

USA Today reported that a “bipartisan spending agreement” was pending, that includes “nearly $90 billion in long-sought disaster relief to help rebuild communities destroyed by wildfires in the West and hurricanes in the Southeast and U.S. territories.”

It also “would set aside more than $2.3 billion for agricultural assistance, much of it expected to help rescue Florida’s battered citrus industry which provides most of the orange juice consumed in the United States,” the paper reported. Last year’s Hurricane Irma devastated the state’s crops, including citrus.

“Florida growers reported 30-70 percent crop loss after Irma’s landfall on Sept. 10, with the southwest region of the state receiving the most damage,” the department said. “The hurricane uprooted trees and left many groves sitting in standing water for up to three weeks, potentially damaging the root systems and impacting future seasons’ growth.”

The usual disclosure: The monthly forecasts are best guesses; the real numbers come after the growing season ends. It’s those figures that tell the story of citrus in Florida.

The state’s citrus industry also has been hit by the citrus greening epidemic. The so-far incurable disease attacks the fruit, causing it to turn green and bitter, and eventually killing the tree.

On Richard Corcoran, gambling and third-graders

As owners of the state’s dog and horse tracks fret over a legislative deal this year, House Speaker Richard Corcoran on Thursday didn’t back down from his position that there be “an absolute contraction” of gambling in the state.

But he also didn’t make clear what a “contraction” actually looks like, and whether that could still include any concessions for the pari-mutuels.

A handful of reporters caught up with the Land O’ Lakes Republican after a photo op with home-schooled children on the 22nd floor of the Capitol.

He was asked if he was considering a deal with the pari-mutuels, many of which offer lucrative “designated player” card games that the House opposes. Those facilities also wouldn’t turn away a chance to offer slot machines.

The Legislature is again working on an omnibus bill this year to guide gambling in the state, with legislators mindful that a proposed state constitutional amendment—if approved—will tie their hands indefinitely.

The Voter Control of Gambling amendment, now polling at 76 percent approval, would require future voter approval to authorize further casino gambling in the state. Amendments need 60 percent to pass.

“I’ll say it util I’m blue in the face: Florida has a brand and that brand is special. That brand needs to be protected. And that brand is that we’re a family-friendly state,” Corcoran said.

“If we can achieve legislation that is an absolute contraction, recognizable by a third-grader, not in dispute, and have long-term certainty so that there isn’t this constant (stream of) special interests seeking favors for an expansion of gaming, if that’s ended, then certainly we’ll pass that legislation,” he added.

“At that point, you’ve done something absolutely great for the people of this state.”

But would he, to get a grand bargain, back down on some of the demands in the pending House bill? They include outlawing designated player games and forbidding added slots.

Notably, the House proposal also includes a renewed deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida guaranteeing the state $3 billion over seven years from the Tribe’s gambling revenue. That’s in return for exclusive rights to offer blackjack and slot machines outside of South Florida. The Senate’s bill does not include such a renewal.

Moreover, the Tribe hates designated player games, a hybrid of poker and blackjack, because they can play too much like blackjack.

“I work for the people of the state,” the Speaker said. “My job is to do whatever I can, the best way possible, to protect them and make their lives better.”

Right, but could that mean easing back on the card-game ban or opposition to slots where voters have approved them?

“I don’t work for the special interests,” Corcoran said, smiling. Then he walked into the chamber for the Thursday floor session, in which the House was slated to pass its proposed budget for next year.

DEP head formally opposes offshore drilling in Florida

Noah Valenstein, Florida’s Secretary of Environmental Protection (DEP), on Thursday sent a letter to the feds in opposition of any exploratory drilling for gas or oil off the state’s coasts.

The move comes after Gov. Rick Scottsecured a commitment from (U.S.) Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to take Florida off the table for future consideration for offshore oil drilling,” a DEP press release said.

No other state got such treatment, leading “environmental groups who oppose the administration’s oil-drilling plan (to) denounce the decision as a political move meant to bolster Gov. Scott’s intention to run for Senate next year,” according to National Public Radio.

Moreover, since then “a senior Interior Department official said Florida’s coastal waters had not been excluded after all,” the New York Times reported.

But Scott just this week told the Tampa Bay Times “the right thing happened. There’s not going to be offshore drilling.” Scott, a Navy veteran, called Zinke “a man of his word. He’s a Navy Seal and I believe they’re going to do exactly what they committed.”

Just in case, Valenstein wrote to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management‘s Kelly Hammerle that the state “oppose(s) the inclusion of any lease sales in Florida’s coastal and offshore areas.

“Florida’s coastal and offshore areas have high environmental, economic and military value not only for Florida, but also for the nation,” he said. “These areas provide great economic impact for our citizens and provide each resident with recreational opportunities that are unique to Florida.

“(W)e’ve remained concerned by the potential impacts of oil and gas activities on marine and coastal environments and the biological resources and critical habitats associated with them, as well as the military activities critical to our nation’s security,” Valenstein added.

The full letter is below:

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