Jim Rosica, Author at Florida Politics - Page 4 of 139

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.

Orange County molestation convictions overturned after prosecutorial misconduct

A split appellate court panel has thrown out the molestation convictions of an Orlando-area man, saying he was the victim of “egregious prosecutorial misconduct.”

In a 2-1 opinion, a three-judge panel of the 5th District Court of Appeal last week vacated Marco Antonio Rodriguez’s convictions and remanded the case back to the Orange County Circuit court for retrial. He is now serving an 18-year sentence, records show.

Judges James A. Edwards and Richard B. Orfinger also said Rodriguez’s case was compounded by his defense attorney’s “unexplained failure to object.”

They admitted “the jury may have reached the proper verdict, given the evidence in this case,” but nonetheless found he was “denied a fair trial.”

“Appellant’s retrial is not just a ‘do over,’ ” they wrote. “The alleged victim, a child, will once again have to tell her story of familial sexual molestation to a judge and a second jury, while (Rodriguez) will once again be publicly accused and tried for sexually molesting a five-year-old.

“All of the witnesses’ normal schedules will be interrupted as they stand by to testify and attend court,” they added. “Other parties’ trials will be delayed because this case must be tried twice.

“Confidence in our judicial system suffers when prosecutors are permitted to utilize clearly inappropriate closing arguments to convict. Winning at all costs is too high a price to be paid by too many.”

During the prosecutor’s rebuttal part of his closing argument, he “strayed from acceptable zealous representation, repeatedly crossed far beyond the outer limits of acceptable argument, while venturing deeply into the realm of prosecutorial misconduct,” the opinion said.

As one example, he “referred to (Rodriguez) as a ‘pedophile’ ” seven times.

“Inflammatory labels used by a prosecutor to describe the defendant are improper invitations for the jury to return its verdict based on something other than the evidence and applicable law,” the judges wrote.

“Unfortunately and inexplicably, defense counsel sat silently by, never objecting, during the repeated improper comments made by the prosecutor,” the opinion added.

They also criticized the trial judge, noting he had “a duty, even without hearing any objection, to bring a swift and sure end to prosecutorial misconduct in closing argument, especially when it becomes as frequent and flagrant as in this trial.”

“The flood of improper prosecutorial comments in closing argument in this case was deep, wide, and unrelenting,” they said. “(I)t made a mockery of the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial.”

Edwards and Orfinger further ordered “the clerk of this court to provide the Florida Bar with a copy of this opinion, a copy of the trial transcript, and a letter identifying the attorney who prosecuted this case … so that the Bar or on its referral, the Ninth Judicial Circuit’s Local Professionalism Panel, can decide how best to address this lawyer and the unfortunate conduct.”

A third judge, William D. Palmer, issued a two-line dissent, saying “the unobjected-to statements made by the prosecutor, although improper, do not rise to the level of fundamental error.”

Ken Lawson “will continue to fight” for VISIT FLORIDA

Ken Lawson, the new head of VISIT FLORIDA, is telling supporters he won’t give up the fight for the state’s embattled tourism marketing agency.

Lawson, Ken (DBPR secretary)
Lawson

In an email, Lawson thanked the tourism industry for showing up to a House hearing this week where the Careers and Competition Subcommittee cleared a measure to eliminate the agency, the Enterprise Florida economic development organization and dozens of state incentive programs.

“You showed up to help and your voice was heard,” Lawson said. “… I could not be prouder of the way the industry has rallied to make a difference.

“I want to assure you that VISIT FLORIDA will continue to fight,” Lawson added. “I have already begun meeting with each and every legislator to ensure they know that VISIT FLORIDA serves a vital role in marketing destinations large and small in every community of this great state, and that a reduction in our public funding would mean the loss of tax revenue and jobs that benefit their constituents. Constituents just like you.”

Lawson, who was tapped to lead the agency by Gov. Rick Scott after his time as secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, asked supporters to “call or email your legislators to let them know you support VISIT FLORIDA and oppose the bill.”

“Be sure to tell them how you and your business benefit from working with VISIT FLORIDA – those personal and local examples are what really make the difference,” he said. “We are in this fight together.”

More bad news as Florida orange crop drops again

Florida’s grapefruit crop held steady at nine million boxes, but its orange crop went down slightly, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s February forecast.

Thursday’s report projects a one million box reduction in the state’s orange crop to 70 million boxes. That’s after last month’s forecast also predicted a decrease. 

“Today’s forecast reflects a true utilization of early, mid-season, and Navel varieties,” said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, in a statement.

“We hope for higher numbers of Valencia production as we continue through the second half of the season.”

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

Florida’s famous oranges are most at risk.

Last month, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam noted that “production of our state’s signature crop is down 70 percent from 20 years ago.”

“The future of Florida citrus, and the tens of thousands of jobs it supports, depends on a long-term solution in the fight against greening,” he said in a statement.

 

 

whiskey Wheaties

“Whiskey and Wheaties” bill now cleared for Senate floor

A Senate bill to remove the “wall of separation” between hard liquor and other retail goods won approval from a second committee, clearing it to be considered by the full Senate.

The bill sparked an unexpected objection from National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer after an amendment came up banning liquor from being sold in the same store as guns and ammo.

The Rules Committee on Thursday OK’d the legislation (SB 106) by a 6-4 vote, with Democrats and prominent Republicans in opposition.

“I just don’t see the fervor,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who also chairs the Appropriations Committee. “This is not a problem I have heard anyone urge me to fix.” He also was concerned the bill would allow workers under 18 to be around liquor. 

Trilby Republican Wilton Simpson, expected to be Senate President in 2020-22, also voted no. 

A version of the bill has been filed for four years running, aiming to repeal the Prohibition-era state law requiring 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.

Senate President Pro Tempore Anitere Flores, the Miami Republican carrying the bill this year, admitted it was “not a top 10 or even top 100 issue, but we deal with these things all the time.”

The bill was amended Thursday mainly to allow for the “phasing in” of retail goods-liquor integration over four years, starting in 2018.

Pure-play alcoholic beverage retailers, such as ABC Fine Wines & Spirits and independent operators, have complained the bill is being pushed by big retailers looking to expand their market reach.

But Wal-mart, Target and others say tearing down the wall of separation between liquor and other goods is simply a “pro-consumer” move toward added convenience.

Latvala unsuccessfully tried to modify the bill to grant local control, allowing retailers to sell spirits in the same space as other items if the area in which they’re located OKs it “by a municipal or county ordinance.”

Flores argued against the change, saying that “to take this down to 67 counties means we fail as state lawmakers … this is an issue we should be deciding statewide.”

Simpson, citing crime concerns, offered his own amendment that would have barred retailers who sell firearms from also selling hard liquor.

That caused Hammer, who was in the committee for an unrelated Stand Your Ground-related measure, to stand up and object. She had concerns that some big-box stores in rural areas might give up guns to sell hard booze instead.

“I’m afraid that will be to the detriment of the constitutional right to bear arms,” she told the committee. “These stores will opt for the profit margin.” Simpson then withdrew the amendment. 

House, Senate trying to avoid budget showdown over rules

The Florida Senate and House have agreed to work together on a joint rule to avoid a “who blinks first” approach to this year’s budget negotiations. 

Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who heads the Appropriations Committee, Thursday told the Rules Committee he was “pleased to report” House leaders had agreed to consider what’s known as a “joint rule” to streamline the process.

The Naples Daily News reported Wednesday the Legislature could be headed to “a partial state government shutdown” over a disagreement on how requests to fund hometown projects get into the state budget.

The House now requires each request to be filed separately; those were due Tuesday. But the House’s method also required any senator’s project request to have its companion filed in the House or that chamber would not consider it.

Latvala called that an “unprecedented situation” at the Rules Committee meeting Thursday.

He said he consulted with Senate President Joe Negron, who agreed the Senate “could either pass a budget and see who blinked first, or be proactive and try to resolve the situation.”

The compromise offered to the House would allow, among other things, “funding of projects (to) be included in a conference committee report if the information … is provided to the public at the time the funding is proposed … and the conference committee has provided time for public testimony.”

The rationale behind the House’s system stems from House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s desire for greater transparency in the budget process, particularly on local project funding.

At deadline, 381 House project bills had been filed, worth over $796 million.

“I think this approach will bear fruit,” Latvala told the panel. 

Corcoran previously told the Daily News that the House’s “concerns in regard to member project openness, project accountability and other central issues still remain, (but) we are always willing to work with our Senate counterparts, and we hope we can have a constructive dialogue.”

An existing Senate rule, however, limits what the Senate can consider in conference, when members of both chambers get together to hammer out a final state budget to present to the governor.

“A conference committee, other than a conference committee on a general or special appropriations bill and its related legislation, shall consider and report only on the differences existing between the Senate and the House, and no substance foreign to the bills before the conferees shall be included in the report or considered by the Senate.”

 

Jeff Atwater wins first round of $1 billion bonds fight with feds

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has scored a preliminary win in his fight against the federal government over U.S. savings bonds he holds as unclaimed property.

The U.S. Treasury has agreed to redeem “just over 1,000 bonds, worth a little more than half a million dollars, excluding accrued interest,” Atwater spokeswoman Ashley Carr said Thursday.

The total value of all the bonds in question is more than $1 billion. A Treasury spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In November, Atwater sued the feds for that amount, saying they had refused to make good on matured U.S. savings bonds he holds as unclaimed property. The suit was filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which adjudicates demands for payment from the federal government.

“The bonds they’ve agreed to redeem are those in our physical possession and bonds for which we had records and had previously returned to the U.S. Treasury,” Carr said. Atwater’s office plans to give the proceeds from the bonds “to whom they belong, or their heirs.”

“We’re a long way from the finish line, but it’s a win worth celebrating,” Carr said.

The Department of Financial Services, which Atwater heads, is holding thousands of “unclaimed, matured savings bonds that were originally registered to individuals with last-known addresses in the State of Florida,” his suit sais. Some of the bonds date back to the 1930s.

“However, even though the state of Florida now has title to these bonds, the federal government has refused to redeem their value, preventing Florida’s phenomenally successful team from working to return the funds back into the hands of the rightful owners.”

In 2015, lawmakers passed a measure, signed by Gov. Rick Scott, that allows the state to take ownership of unclaimed saving bonds, though “the original bond owner may still recover the bond proceeds,” according to a bill summary.

The suit says the Treasury “has made little to no effort to affirmatively notify owners when their bonds mature … nor has Treasury undertaken any true or effective effort to locate missing owners.”

That means it falls to Atwater’s department “to take steps to return the proceeds of redeemed savings bonds to the bonds’ original owners who may be found,” his suit says.

Florida’s piece is one small part of the pie: “… over $19 billion in matured, unredeemed U.S. savings bonds remain outstanding nationwide,” Atwater has said.

whiskey Wheaties

Amendment would slow down effect of ‘whiskey and Wheaties’ bill

State Sen. Bill Galvano Wednesday filed an amendment to this year’s “whiskey and Wheaties” legislation to “slow its implementation so it doesn’t come into the marketplace all at once.”

The bill (SB 106), filed for four years running, would repeal the Prohibition-era state law requiring 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.

Galvano, a Bradenton Republican expected to be Senate President in 2018-20, first filed a version of the bill in 2014. His amendment would phase in the integration of booze into general retail space over a couple of years after the bill’s passage.

“It also puts smaller spirits bottles (i.e., ‘miniatures’) behind a counter, and addresses the size of the store,” he said in an interview, so it would not apply to “7-Elevens and things of that nature.”

Critics raised concerns that the bill as filed would allow hard liquor sales at gas station convenience stores, for example.

Pure-play liquor retailers, such as ABC Fine Wines & Spirits and independent operators, have said the bill is being pushed by big retailers looking to expand their market reach.

Wal-mart, Target and others say tearing down the wall of separation between liquor and other goods is simply a “pro-consumer” move toward added convenience.

The measure, carried this year by Senate President Pro Tempore Anitere Flores, cleared its first committee and is next set to be heard by the Rules Committee this Thursday.

If it clears there, it will be ready to be debated on the floor after the Legislature convenes March 7. A House companion has not yet had a hearing.

If passed, Florida would be the 30th state to allows the sale of hard liquor in general retail space, advocates say.

8:30 p.m. update: Two more amendments were filed later Wednesday by state Sens. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, and Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican.

The Latvala strike-all chiefly would grant local control over tearing down the liquor wall of separation, allowing retailers to sell spirits in the same space as other items if the area in which they’re located OKs it “by a municipal or county ordinance.”

The Simpson proposal, also a strike-all, also has a local control provision and adds that a “vendor licensed pursuant to 27 CFR 478.41(b) may not sell liquor on its premises.” That’s the federal rule governing firearms dealers.

House panel votes to kill Enterprise Florida, VISIT FLORIDA

A Florida House panel Wednesday cleared a bill that would eliminate the Enterprise Florida economic development organization, the VISIT FLORIDA tourism marketing agency, and a slew of economic incentive programs.

The Careers and Competition Subcommittee OK’d the proposal (PCB CCS 17-01) by a nearly party-line vote of 10-5.

One Democrat voted for it, Miami’s Roy Hardemon, and one Republican was opposed, Sarasota’s Joe Gruters – an ally of Gov. Rick Scott, who believes in incentives. 

The committee room was packed with bill opponents, including those in the service and tourism industry and many from rural areas, who said economic development and tourism marketing was vital to their livelihood.

Passing the bill as is will “destroy our tourism industry,” said Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, speaking for the thousands of “waitstaff, cooks (and others) worried about losing their jobs.”

The legislation comes in the wake of VISIT FLORIDA CEO Will Seccombe’s December resignation, the last casualty of a kerfuffle over a secret contract – later revealed to be worth up to $1 million – with Miami rap superstar Pitbull to promote Florida tourism.

Moreover, Scott’s continued support of incentives puts him at odds with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has derided Enterprise Florida as a dispenser of corporate welfare.

“Politicians in @MyFLHouse turned their back on jobs today by supporting job killing legislation,” the governor tweeted after the vote.

Chris Hudson, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Florida, lauded the vote as the death knell of “bloated subsidies.”

“Lawmakers were elected to serve the hardworking people of the state, not well-connected special interests that seek lucrative deals to pad their bottom line,” he said.

“… We applaud the members of this committee who today stood up for fairness, for principle, and for Florida taxpayers.”

But dozens more local officials and small business owners came to Tallahassee to oppose the legislation. Dairy owners joined oyster farmers, short-order cooks, and fishing captains to tell lawmakers the bill would harm them financially.  

Kelly Paige is president of Film Florida, but also owns Level Talent Group in Tampa. She said the state’s previous ending of a film incentive caused her to lose 40 percent of her workforce.

“This bill actually represents a tax increase for my industry,” she told the panel. “If you repeal (any more incentives), you are saying we are closed for business.”

Eric Fletcher, manager of airport operations for Allegiant Air, said VISIT FLORIDA helped his airline grow 2,000 jobs in the state, bringing in 3 million visitors.

And Visit Florida board chairman William Talbert told the subcommittee “every single representative here knows … we would have a state income tax if it was not for tourism.”

After the vote, state Rep. Halsey Beshears, the Monticello Republican who chairs the panel, said he was impressed by the many stories he heard during public comment.

“Obviously, there’s a huge demand out there for (both organizations), but I do think we have to start from zero,” he said. “Still, we’ll let the Speaker know all the concerns we heard today.

“… Not everything will be zeroed out,” Beshears added. “We cannot ignore all the people who traveled from all over Florida to be heard on this.

“I appreciate the dairy man who said every little bit (of marketing) helps, but then the server in Orlando (who supports the bill) told us we need to be good stewards of the people’s money,” he said.

Rick Scott’s favorite business incentive is losing money, Senate hears

Gov. Rick Scott’s favored economic incentive program – the Quick Action Closing Fund (QAC) – is now losing money, the Legislature’s chief economist told a Senate panel Wednesday.

The QAC is a pot of cash that Scott can draw up to $2 million from without legislative approval to entice businesses to the state.

But though the state’s “return on investment” from QAC projects was $1.10 per dollar four years ago, it’s now down to 60 cents per dollar, Amy Baker told the Transportation, Tourism & Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

In fact, more state incentive programs are losers than winners, according to Baker’s slides. Incentive programs, including the QAC, as well as Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development organization, and VISIT FLORIDA, the state tourism agency, are slated for elimination under legislation filed in the House. 

Only eight incentives – what Baker called the “strongest of the strong” – make money for state coffers, including the Florida Sports Foundation Grant Program ($5.60 per dollar) and the Qualified Target Industry program (QTI), which now makes $6.40 per dollar invested.

The QTI targets businesses that offer high-wage jobs.

The others either don’t “break even,” though the state may recover some of its costs, such as the Spring Training Baseball Franchise Incentive, Baker’s slides said.

Or the “state loses all of its investment, plus incurs additional costs,” such as Enterprise Zones.

That’s when “we’ve made things worse than it was when we started,” she said, giving the example of no longer taxing something that used to be taxed.

Just breaking even, however, “is a lofty challenge,” Baker said. She noted that a incentive dollar has to “cycle through the economy 16.67 times” to make money for the state.

State Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican, later asked Baker about the merit of tax breaks for films.

She said they target “the most footloose part” of the film industry, being the shooting of a movie or commercial, “and when they’re done, they’re gone.”

“They’re not building, they’re not ‘nesting’ in local communities,” Baker explained, instead referring to companies that build soundstages here, or focus on “production and editing.”

“They’re less transient,” she said.

Subcommittee chair Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, eventually floated an analogy that instead of just fishing for sharks, lawmakers should focus on keeping “the coral reef” healthy, and that will attract small fish, then bigger fish, then sharks.

Multimillion-dollar Florida tax battle heads to court

The current owners of two Kraft Foods companies are going to court over a disputed $25 million in Florida corporate income tax.

Intercontinental Brands LLC, which now owns Kraft Foods Global Brands, and Intercontinental Great Brands LLC, which owns Kraft Foods Holdings, on Tuesday sued the state Department of Revenue in Leon County Circuit Civil court.

The state claims the companies respectively owe $16.3 million for 2008-12 and $8.8 million for 2006-11 in back corporate tax, penalties and interest, according to court documents.

The revenue department says the companies owe because they had “intellectual property … licensees” who did business in Florida and paid them royalties.

But the firms themselves say they “had no offices, employees or operations located in Florida,” had no property, contracts or other agreements here, and generally “did not conduct any business” in the state.

They seek a judicial declaration that the tax owed is “invalid and unlawful.”

Specifically, they want the court to rule that “licensing the use of a trade name, trademark or patent to a business entity in Florida” shouldn’t make them liable for state tax.

The companies are represented by attorney William D. Townsend of the Dean Mead law firm in Tallahassee. Court dockets show the department has not yet been served, and state agencies generally do not comment on pending litigation.

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