Jim Rosica, Author at Florida Politics - Page 5 of 131

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.

Craft distilleries hire lobbyists for upcoming session

As lawmakers get ready to consider relaxing the state’s booze regulations, craft distillers have started to lobby up for the 2017 Legislative Session.  

According to lobbying registration records reviewed Monday, some craft liquor makers have hired or re-hired representation for the upcoming session:

Ron Book and Kelly Mallette, for Florida Distillers of Lake Alfred.

Foley & Lardner’s Christian Caballero, Paul Lowell, Jon Yapo and Jonathan Kilman, for American Freedom Distillery of Tampa.

GrayRobinson’s Jason Unger and Robert Stuart, for the Florida Distillers Guild, the St. Augustine-based trade group.

Republican state Sen. Greg Steube of Sarasota already has filed a bill (SB 166) that would change state law to craft distillers’ benefit. The House companion (HB 141) was filed by state Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, a St. Johns Republican.

One provision in the measure expands how much booze they can produce and still be considered “craft,” raising the limit from 75,000 gallons per year to 250,000 gallons.

Another repeals limits on how many bottles distillers can sell directly to consumers, though it maintains a limit on bottles being no bigger than 1.75 liters.

Until 2013, distillers couldn’t sell any of their product to customers. That year, lawmakers approved a change to state law allowing two bottles to be sold to an individual customer yearly.

The law was changed again to two bottles annually per customer of each brand of liquor that a distiller makes. If a craft distiller produces only one type of liquor, however, four can be sold.

Ballard Partners will continue repping daily fantasy sports sites

Ballard Partners will continue its representation of daily fantasy sports (DFS) companies into 2017, according to lobbying registration records reviewed Monday.

Brian Ballard and the lobbyists who work for him, including former state Rep. Chris Dorworth, have begun registering their representation for the 2017 Legislative Session, some effective as early as this week.

Chief among those interests are DraftKings and FanDuel, the DFS giants who announced their merger in November. It still requires federal approval.

In the online games, players pick teams of real-life athletes and vie for cash and other prizes based on how those athletes do in actual games.  

Florida struggled with fantasy sports last legislative session, ultimately letting die a measure that would have explicitly legalized online fantasy play.

A 2006 federal law banned online gambling but specifically exempted fantasy sports, paving the way for the creation of the niche industry that’s since exploded in popularity.

But several states continue to grapple with whether the games are mere entertainment or illegal sports betting.

1991 opinion by then-Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth says “operation of a fantasy sports league” violates state gambling law. Such opinions don’t have the force of law, but can be used to persuade judges.

In general, gambling promises to be a hot issue again in 2017, especially as lawmakers are expected to try again to pass some version of a new Seminole Compact.

It’s an agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida to extend exclusive rights to offer “banked card games,” mainly blackjack.

A deal worth $3 billion over seven years died in the 2016 Legislative Session.

It contained provisions that would have allowed the tribe to also offer craps and roulette—that is, more games. And lawmakers tacked on bills that would have expanded gambling offerings for the dog and horse tracks in their districts.

A federal judge recently sided with the tribe, saying the Seminoles can keep dealing cards till 2030 – the end of the original agreement.

But as part of the 2016 legislative tangle, state Sen. Joe Negron, the Stuart Republican who is now Senate President, filed a bill that would have legalized and regulated fantasy sports play in Florida, including a provision to create a new “Office of Amusements.”

Background material from The Associated Press, reprinted with permission. 

Jim Rosica’s review of top state government stories in 2016

From algebra to Zika, 2016 brought a plethora of material to the Capitol Press Corps. Trying to pick the top state government stories is a subjective pursuit, to say the least, but here are the FloridaPolitics.com picks for the passing year. In (kind of) chronological order:

— Kevin McCarty ousted as state Insurance Commissioner, replaced by David Altmaier

McCarty gave himself the ax in early January, saying he was resigning to pursue “other career opportunities.” The then 56-year-old often took the blame for rising insurance rates in the state, especially when homeowners discovered they would have to pay more in premiums. Gov. Rick Scott had had it in for McCarty for a while; he was among a triumvirate of state officials that Scott forced out the door, including FDLE Commissioner Gerry Bailey and Department of Revenue head Marshall Stranburg. Then Scott and CFO Jeff Atwater deadlocked on McCarty’s replacement. (Under state law, Scott and Atwater first have to agree on one candidate.) Scott backed retired insurance executive Jeffrey Bragg, while Atwater was behind Bill Hager, a state representative and former Iowa Insurance Commissioner. The compromise candidate was David Altmaier, then the Office of Insurance Regulation’s deputy commissioner, who once was a high school algebra teacher. Altmaier was appointed in April.

— Pro-school vouchers rally in Tallahassee; school vouchers ruling

Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., led a march and rally in downtown Tallahassee during the Legislative Session in February, in support of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship, attracting several thousand participants and spectators. Capitol Police director Chris Connell even sent an advisory to state workers that “organizers are busing in people from around the state and are planning for approximately 10,000 people to attend the rally.” The timing was apt: It was the day after the federal holiday memorializing his father, the slain civil-rights leader. Then in August, the 1st District Court of Appeal sided with a lower court to throw out the lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association and others over the state’s largest private school voucher program. They had argued its method of funding private-school educations for more than 90,000 schoolchildren is unconstitutional. The vouchers are funded by companies, which in turn receive tax credits on money they owe to the state.

— Rick Scott’s $250 million in incentives nixed by lawmakers

Scott had proposed a “Florida Enterprise Fund,” $250 million for business incentives. “Everyone knows my priorities,” he said close to the end of session. “All of them are tied to getting more jobs in our state. The tax cut is important … along with the $250 million for (the Fund).” But, as Uncle Junior once said of Richie Aprile, “He couldn’t sell it.” An intransigent House, including current House Speaker Richard Corcoran, derided it as corporate welfare. Relentless criticism from groups like Americans for Prosperity-Florida didn’t help either. In the end, Scott’s business recruitment effort got “zero.” And Scott wound up vetoing $256.1 million from the final 2016-17 budget – eerily close to the $250 million he sought for economic development.

— Legislature punts on new Seminole Compact

The history of failure in dealing with gambling continued in the Legislature in 2016. A deal between the state and Seminole Tribe of Florida on exclusive rights to offer blackjack in Florida expired last year, and Scott negotiated a new “compact” guaranteeing blackjack exclusivity in exchange for $3 billion over seven years. The deal died in March when it couldn’t get to either floor for a vote. It contained provisions that would have allowed the tribe to also offer craps and roulette—that is, more games. And lawmakers tacked on bills that would have expanded gambling offerings for the dog and horse tracks in their districts. Legislative leaders say they support bringing the compact back in 2017. But a federal judge recently sided with the tribe in, saying no matter what the Seminoles can keep dealing cards till 2030 – the end of the original agreement – and don’t have to pay the state a dime. Nonetheless, the tribe is still paying to keep a fragile peace, depositing $19.5 million in state coffers this month.

— Rick Scott signs death penalty overhaul into law, which Supreme Court later invalidates 

In March, Scott signed a measure that overhauled Florida’s death penalty by requiring that at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend an execution for it to be ordered. Florida previously only required that a majority of jurors recommend a death sentence but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state’s sentencing law was unconstitutional. In 2013, Scott also signed “The Timely Justice Act,” which requires governors to sign death warrants within 30 days after a Death Row prisoner exhausts all appeals, among other provisions. This year’s fix was short-lived: By October, the Florida Supreme Court shot the law down, saying death sentences require a unanimous jury. The court added the new law can no longer be applied to pending prosecutions in the state. Still another decision opened the door to death-sentenced inmates getting their sentences reduced to life. And the opinions mean lawmakers will once again, in the words of Justice Harry Blackmun, have to “tinker with the machinery of death” in 2017.

— Supreme Court decisions punch holes in workers’ comp system

The state’s business lobby had a conniption after the Florida Supreme Court ruled on two cases this summer affecting the state’s workers’ comp system. One struck down a law that limited payments to injured workers to only two years. Another struck down a law that capped attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases. Soon, the National Council on Compensation Insurance, which submits rate filings on behalf of insurers, asked state regulators to OK a nearly 20 percent rate hike in workers’ comp premiums. That request was whittled down to 14.5 percent, which took effect Dec. 1. Opponents have criticized the 2003 changes put in place by Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature, saying they were draconian and favored employers at the cost of injured employees. Companies said the new system cut costs, which helps businesses grow jobs. And the changes also were intended to reduce lawsuits over benefits. Expect lawmakers to tackle this issue as well in 2017.

— Citrus Department gets smaller budget, staff cuts

The citrus greening epidemic, which is killing the state’s citrus trees, also hit the Department of Citrus this year. Normally, the department’s operations are paid for by a tax paid by growers on each box of citrus. But because the state’s citrus crop is shrinking, so are the department’s finances. The Florida Citrus Commission, which oversees the department, in June approved a $20.7 million spending plan for 2016-17, a 32 percent decrease from the prior budget year. That was after leading growers called for the Department to “be scaled back considerably,” saying they “do not believe current marketing programs are generating an economic return.” One bit of good news came by year’s end: Florida’s orange crop production will hold steady at 72 million boxes for the 2016-17 season, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasted.

— State economists say budget is heading into the red

In September, the state’s economists told lawmakers Florida is likely to basically break even next year in terms of its state budget. The Joint Legislative Budget Commission met in the Capitol to hear the latest financial outlook for 2017-18: Income and outgo estimates left Florida with a relatively scant $7.5 million left over out of about $32.2 billion in available revenue. And deficits were forecast for following years. The current year’s budget is roughly $82 billion, which includes federal dollars. (About two-thirds of the yearly budget goes toward health care and education.) By December, the outlook was a bit more sanguine, with nearly $142 million expected to be available. Within context, however, that amounts to a “very minor adjustment,” said Amy Baker, the Legislature’s chief economist.

— Scott tussles with Tallahassee over Hurricane Hermine response

Welcome to Tallahassee, where politics meets weather. Hurricane Hermine, the first to make landfall in Florida since Wilma in 2005, smacked the Panhandle on Sept. 2. Afterward, Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum of Tallahassee and Republican Gov. Rick Scott had a testy faceoff over the speed of repair to the city’s electric system. Scott said in a press release that the city was declining help from other utilities and the Department of Transportation. He said he was “frustrated” over how long it was taking to get power back on. Gillum shot back that Scott’s “comments and press releases and tweets have been put out, in my opinion, to undermine our cooperative process … We owe it to (the people of Tallahassee) to not be about politics, but to be about getting power to them.” When Hurricane Matthew skimmed Florida’s Atlantic coast the next month, Scott was more solicitous in dealing with Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a former Republican Party of Florida chair.

— Voters pass medical cannabis amendment

The second time was the charm for a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing Floridians a right to medical cannabis. Florida voters approved the initiative by 71 percent, well over the required 60 percent needed. That was two years after it missed passage by roughly 2 ½ percent. The amendment creates a right for people with debilitating medical conditions, as determined by a licensed Florida physician, to use medical marijuana. It defines a debilitating condition as cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other disorders. In Florida, the “non-euphoric” version is already approved for children with severe seizures and muscle spasms. The state later passed a law allowing terminally ill patients to use a stronger form of marijuana during their final days. Lawmakers already have begun dealing with how medical marijuana will work in Florida, holding the first of many workshops this month.

— Dozens begin applying for seats on Constitution Revision Commission

The Florida Constitution allows for a “revision commission” to meet every 20 years to “examine the constitution, hold public hearings and … file its proposal, if any, of a revision of this constitution or any part of it.” The next one is scheduled to convene in the 30 days before the beginning of the 2017 Legislative Session in March. The lead-up started in January. That’s when the LeRoy Collins Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank, released a cartoon featuring an animated Sandy D’Alemberte, the legal legend and former Florida State University president who chaired the commission in 1977-78. Later in the year, scores of constitution-revising aspirants turned in applications to Scott, who gets to pick 15 of the 37 members and will choose its chair. Applications also rolled in to Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, who gets three picks, and Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who get nine choices each. The applicant lists read like a Who’s Who of Florida, old and new, including present and former lawmakers, lawyers and law professors, local officials and lobbyists.

— Richard Corcoran rolls out tough new House rules

The new Speaker, calling for a new culture of transparency in the Florida House, issued new rules in November that get tough with the capital’s lobbying corps. One increases the ban on former members lobbying their colleagues from two years to six years. Another prohibits state representatives from flying in aircraft owned, leased, or otherwise paid for by lobbyists. Still another requires lobbyists to file an individual disclosure for every bill, amendment, and individual appropriation they are trying to influence. And he created a new Committee on Public Integrity and Ethics, which will “consider legislation and exercise oversight on matters relating to the conduct and ethics standards of House members, state and local public officials, public employees, lobbyists, and candidates for public office, the regulation of political fundraising and the constitutional prerogatives of the Legislature.” Lobbyists publicly nodded in agreement – and privately expressed displeasure. “What I take major issue with is trashing ALL lobbyists and accusing us of being the reason legislators are out of control,” one said anonymously.

— Pitbull controversy ends with VISIT FLORIDA head’s ouster

In December, Scott called on CEO Will Seccombe to resign, the last casualty of a kerfuffle over a secret contract with Miami rapper Pitbull to promote Florida tourism. Corcoran filed suit for the agency to reveal how much it promised the rapper after it claimed the deal was a “trade secret.” Pitbull had the last laugh, disclosing his contract via Twitter and showing he stands to make up to $1 million. Scott wrote to agency board chair William Talbert, telling him he wanted an overhaul of how it does business, revealing more on how it spends money, including contracts. “The notion that Visit Florida spending would not be transparent to the taxpayers is just ridiculous,” Scott wrote. By that point, Seccombe already had fired two of his top executives, Chief Operating Officer Vangie McCorvey and Chief Marketing Officer Paul Phipps, but it wasn’t enough. Seccombe had been in charge of the agency since 2012.

— Department of Health beats Zika–for now

Florida declared its crisis with local transmission of Zika over for the season in December, ahead of peak tourism months. But health authorities warned that travelers would continue bringing the disease into the state. Starting in late July, state health officials had identified four zones in the Miami area where the virus was spreading through local mosquitoes – the first such transmissions in the continental U.S. – and launched aggressive efforts to control the insects. One by one, the zones were deemed clear of continuing infections, and Scott announced that the last one – a 1.5-square-mile area in touristy South Beach – also was cleared. About 250 people have contracted Zika in Florida, and over 980 more Zika infections in the state have been linked to travel, according to state health officials. Zika causes mild flu-like symptoms for most people, but it can cause severe brain-related birth defects when pregnant women become infected. “Hopefully, by next summer, we’ll have a federal government that has a vaccine,” said Scott.

Peter Schorsch, Michael Moline and The Associated Press contributed to this post (reprinted with permission). 

High-profile Supreme Court cases still hanging fire at year’s end

With the Florida Supreme Court‘s opinion releases on winter break till Jan. 12, several high-profile cases will remain unresolved in 2016.

Here are a few, starting with the court’s official case summary:

— Debaun v. State of Florida: “This case asks whether laws governing sexually transmissible diseases apply only when the parties involved are a man and a woman.”

Gary Debaun is trying to have a charge dismissed under a 1986 law designed to prevent the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus.

The case, argued in February, involves the definition of sexual intercourse in a case involving a gay man charged with not letting a partner know he was HIV-positive.

Lawyers for Debaun argued the law says it’s illegal not to disclose an HIV infection before “sexual intercourse,” but that definition only appeals to traditional sex between a man and a woman—not two men.

A lower court judge dismissed the charge against Debaun, but an appeals court reinstated it saying the law was clearly intended to include other sexual activity where there is a risk of transmitting the virus.

— Florida Department of Revenue v. DirecTV: “This case challenges a state law that taxes satellite television providers at a higher rate than cable TV.”

The question here is whether satellite-television service be taxed at a higher rate than cable. Oral argument was held in April.

Satellite TV companies, including DirecTV, want the court to uphold the 1st District Court of Appeal’s 2-1 decision last year, which said that taxing the two services differently is unconstitutional. The state’s Revenue Department and Florida’s cable TV industry want it overturned.

At issue is the state’s communications services tax (CST), which charges “direct-to-home satellite service” at a total rate of 11.44 percent. Cable TV, however, is taxed at a total of 7.44 percent. (The state reduced the CST effective last July 1.)

The lower court’s majority ruling held that different tax rates violate the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause because they tend to benefit in-state cable companies over out-of-state satellite companies.

— Gretna Racing v. Department of Business & Professional Regulation: “This case asks whether local voters can authorize the operation of slot machines in counties outside of Dade and Broward.”

A horse track in Gretna, Gadsden County, about 30 miles west of Tallahassee, is asking the court to let it have slot machines because voters approved them in a local referendum in 2012.

If the court rules favorably, it could expand slot machines to counties where voters passed slots referendums: Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, and Washington. That could result in the single biggest gambling expansion in the state.

Marc Dunbar, the track’s attorney told justices that the Legislature intended to allow for an expansion of slot machines in the state, saying counties were empowered under state law to decide whether to allow slots.

— Norman v. State of Florida: “This case challenges the constitutionality of Florida’s statute restricting the ‘open carry’ of firearms.”

Also in June, the court heard the case of Dale Lee Norman, which could uphold or overturn Florida’s ban on openly carrying a firearm. The National Rifle Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief.

Norman was arrested by Fort Pierce police in February 2012 after having gotten his concealed weapon license earlier that day, according to his initial brief.

“A concerned citizen noticed Mr. Norman’s firearm on his right hip and called police,” the brief said. “The State’s sole allegation in this case is that Mr. Norman carried a firearm conspicuously and openly rather than concealed.”

His attorney, gun-rights activist Eric Friday, said the ban should be stricken because it “infringe(s) on the fundamental individual rights of citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves, their families, and the State.”

The Associated Press contributed to this post, reprinted with permission. 

Enterprise Florida economic incentives

Jose Javier Rodriguez files Enterprise Florida reform legislation

Enterprise Florida (EFI) would have to hire outside auditors “to verify compliance” of businesses getting incentive money under legislation filed Tuesday.

Jose Javier Rodriguez
Rodriguez

New state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami-Dade Democrat, filed the bill (SB 216) on the state’s public-private economic development organization.

The legislation, which does not yet have a House companion, would require the organization to then “publish on its website the results of each audit performed by the independent third party within 48 hours after receiving the results,” it says.

The bill could be the first of many times the beleaguered organization stares down a legislative gun this year.

Last session, Gov. Rick Scott‘s attempt to create a $250 million business incentive fund under EFI stalled and died.

His ongoing support of incentives puts him at odds with House leadership, especially Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has derided Enterprise Florida as a dispenser of “corporate welfare.” Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, has said he’ll lead an effort to end taxpayer funding to the organization.

Rodriguez, a former House member, mostly agrees.

“I think the public has largely been fleeced – and I guess ‘fleeced’ is a strong word – but if these public-private partnerships really do work, we deserve to know that they work and how,” he said in a phone interview. “Over the years, hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed from taxpayers into private hands, and that money has been more about corporate welfare than true economic development.”

In September, the Republican Scott announced he would include $85 million in his 2016-17 budget for Enterprise Florida for economic incentives. But he added he plans to push for legislation to restructure the agency.

Last month, Chris Hart IV, a former state lawmaker and president and CEO of CareerSource Florida, was tapped to take over the CEO role at Enterprise Florida. He starts Jan. 3.

Hart replaces Bill Johnson, who left in June after questions over his hiring and expenses.

Scott and the EFI board have since agreed to streamline operations of the 20-year-old agency, including eliminating jobs, closing international offices, and canceling some contracts with outside consultants.

Among other things, Rodriguez’s bill would make EFI’s head “subject to confirmation by the Senate” and pushes it to disclose more information on the “return on investment” from its economic development programs.

The bill would mandate deals to “be approved by a two-thirds vote of the (agency’s) entire board of directors” if the company has business relations with a board member. That member wouldn’t be allowed to vote.

It would ensure that Enterprise Florida’s “state operational funding” isn’t greater than its “private sector support.” And its employee bonuses would have to be based on a “goal or result (that is) quantifiable, measurable, and verifiable.”

EFI spokesman Nathan Edwards said agency officials will review all legislation that affects the organization and “looks forward to working with the Legislature.”

Southwest Florida correspondent Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster contributed to this post. 

Media lawyer Alison Steele leaving Rahdert, going solo

Longtime media attorney Alison Steele is leaving the St. Petersburg law firm she has helped build for the last quarter-century and starting her own solo practice.

Steele
Steele

Steele, a name partner in the firm of Rahdert, Steele, Reynolds & Driscoll, Friday said she was sending announcements out over the past weekend.

She will continue to focus on media and employment law and civil litigation.

According to her online bio, Steele “has concentrated in legal issues affecting journalists, including litigation and appeals in cases involving Florida’s public records and open meetings laws, public access to judicial records and proceedings, the federal Freedom of Information Act, subpoenas to journalists, libel, invasion of privacy, copyright and trademark matters, and labor and employment law.”

Steele has long represented the Tampa Bay Times, recently including a libel suit brought by Palm Beach billionaire developer Jeff Greene.

He claimed the Times and Miami Herald derailed his 2010 U.S. Senate campaign that year with coverage of alleged fraudulent real estate deals and wild parties on his 145-foot yacht. The suit settled earlier this year on confidential terms.

Steele also has represented the Miami Herald, the New York Times, the First Amendment Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union, according to her bio.

Steele said she’s leaving the firm on good terms: “I started out with George (Rahdert) in 1987, then took a year and a half for a federal clerkship, then returned to practice with George in 1990.

“We have coming up on 30 years of friendship, more than 25 practicing law together,” she added. “We built a great firm together. We have a great legacy together. We’re going to continue to be great colleagues and friends.”

Florence Snyder, a First Amendment lawyer and FloridaPolitics.com columnist, called Steele “the best reporter’s lawyer I’ve ever seen—and a gifted corporate counsel as well.”

“It’s hard to operate with integrity in both those quadrants of the galaxy, but Alison sets the bar very, very high and jumps it with ease,” said Snyder, who served as a Poynter Institute trustee before becoming an administrative law judge in 2000. “She’s the lawyer I would most want by my side in a knife fight.”

Steele “is a 1984 graduate of Stetson University in DeLand, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the Stetson Reporter, Florida’s oldest collegiate newspaper,” her bio says.

She received her law degree with honors in 1987 from Stetson University College of Law, where she’s an adjunct professor. Steele also is visiting faculty at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the University of South Florida.

black Festivus pole

No joy: Festivus pole will be absent from Capitol this year

An all-black “Festivus” pole will not be appearing in the Capitol rotunda this holiday season, according to a Department of Management Services spokeswoman.

Maggie Mickler said Friday that South Florida-based activist Chaz Stevens emailed the department Thursday evening. He said “he will not be traveling to Tallahassee” to install the display. The department oversees state property and approves proposed holiday displays in the Capitol.

Stevens said in a statement that unexpected family health issues prevented him from bringing the pole to Tallahassee this year.

“And truthfully, with [Donald] Trump‘s win, we’re not really feeling really festive,” he added. “What we’d like to do with the pole isn’t appropriate for a G-rated audience.”

Stevens runs the Religious Liberty Project, which had received the OK to put a “Shot by Cops” pole in the rotunda this year.

The all black, six-foot-tall pole was to “contain the names of all unarmed black men killed by police in 2016,” according to the application.

“Additionally, a distressed black and white American flag will be flown at half-mast, lowered in protest to this senseless slaughter,” he said on the group’s website.

Stevens previously has been approved to install a pole made of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans, meant to mark Festivus, the fictional holiday from a 1997 episode of “Seinfeld.” Last year, the pole was gay-pride themed, in rainbow colors with a disco ball on top.

The only display now in the rotunda is a “seasonal banner” placed by All Saints Catholic Ministry of Lehigh Acres, Mickler said.

Also, Chabad Lubavitch of the Panhandle and Tallahassee has been approved for a Hanukkah Menorah to be placed Friday.

Steve Auger quits Florida Housing Finance Corp.

Steve Auger, executive director of the Florida Housing Finance Corp., has resigned.

Barney Smith, president of The Smith & Young Company and chair of the agency, confirmed Auger’s resignation Friday. He otherwise declined comment when reached by phone.

Auger sent a resignation letter to Smith and Department of Economic Opportunity director Cissy Proctor Thursday, saying he would exit the agency effective Jan. 5.

“It has been an honor and a blessing to have been a part of an organization of such fine people who work so diligently to provide a range of affordable housing opportunities …. ,” he wrote.

Auger

The move comes the same week that an audit of the organization, the steward of state and federal affordable housing money, disclosed lavish spending on events for lenders and board members.

Auger oversaw expenses for “a $52,000 dinner (for lenders) that featured filet mignon, broiled lobster tails and a bar stocked with deluxe brand liquors,” the audit revealed. 

The agency also put on a board reception, spending “$300 for a bartender, $425 for a pork carving station and $420 for a Spanish charcuterie station.” It also awarded nearly $443,000 in bonuses to its employees.

Auger, in an interview with Tampa Bay Times earlier this week, defended the expenditures as “ordinary and necessary expense(s).”

“Government has a spending and accountability problem,” House Speaker Richard Corcoran said in a statement on Auger’s leaving. “The House hopes that all of these stories – from filet mignon to Pitbull – put government on notice that it’s all being cut.”

(Corcoran had sued for the terms of a secret promotional deal between the state and Miami rapper Pitbull, which the recording artist mooted by disclosing he had been promised up to $1 million.)

Also this year, federal prosecutors OK’d a criminal plea deal to an alleged $36 million housing fraud that involved the FHFC.

Prosecutors had alleged 70-year-old developer Lloyd Boggio of Carlisle Development Group and others defrauded the government out of millions that went through the FHFC.

They did so by padding South Florida affordable-housing projects to get federal tax credits and grants, then keeping the excess, according to case documents.

The audit also noted the agency “did not require sufficient documentation from underwriting agencies to support their denial of mortgage assistance to some applicants” and “did not take adequate steps to ensure that electronic fund transfers were going to authorized recipients.”

Auger was appointed head of the agency in September 2005, according to an online bio. Before that, he was its Deputy Development Officer of Multifamily Programs.

“Auger is considered a documented leader in affordable housing policy, procedures and best practices,” the bio says. “(H)e has been featured in Affordable Housing Finance magazine numerous times and regularly speaks on affordable housing issues on a statewide and national front.”

He received a undergraduate degree in philosophy from Rollins College in Winter Park in 1988, and a master’s in social work from Florida State University in 1993. He was licensed as a clinical social worker in 1996.

“Prior to joining Florida Housing in 2000, he provided clinical services to children and families primarily through private-sector organizations … in Florida’s juvenile dependency and delinquency systems,” the bio says.

After Asay decision, anti-death penalty advocates call for commutations

The state’s leading death penalty opposition group is calling for more than 200 Florida death row inmates to have their sentences reduced to life imprisonment.

Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP) says a Florida Supreme Court decision on convicted killer Mark Asay out Thursday means that many are “entitled to be resentenced.”

The court determined that this year’s U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Hurst v. Florida, requiring Florida juries—not judges—”to (determine) the facts necessary to sentence a defendant to death” does not apply retroactively to Asay and many others.

But the opinion can be retroactive for certain death-sentenced inmates whose “cases were not final” when another related U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Ring v. Arizona, came out in 2002.

That’s when the court first said juries alone must decide on “aggravating factors” for the death penalty. As of Friday, there were 384 convicts facing capital punishment in Florida.

Resentencing efforts could cost Florida taxpayers more than $100 million, said Mark Elliott, FADP’s executive director, in a statement.

“Florida taxpayers could spend more than $500,000 for each complex death sentencing phase that may or may not result in a sentence of death,” he said.

“Commuting these death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole would save many millions of critically needed criminal justice dollars,” Elliott added. “These funds could be reallocated to hire and train more law enforcement officers and better protect those who protect us.

“Now is the time to be both tough on crime and smart with taxpayer dollars.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott said the governor’s lawyers would review the ruling but did not immediately indicate when executions will resume.

The last person put to death in Florida was Oscar Ray Bolin Jr. in January. Scott holds the record for presiding over the most executions as Florida governor – 23 – since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Department of Corrections.

Don Gaetz is ‘saving his Rolodex’ for Will Weatherford

Former Senate President Don Gaetz said he respects Will Weatherford’s decision not to run for governor in 2018, but is “disappointed for Florida.”

“I spoke with Will about his decision,” said Gaetz, who presided over the Senate in 2012-14 when Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, was House Speaker.

“One of the attributes of Will Weatherford is his devotion to his family,” Gaetz said. “I once deferred running for office until my children were older so I understand his decision.”

But, the Niceville Republican added, “I am disappointed for Florida. I still believe he would make a great governor—or senator.”

In late 2014, as both men were leaving their leadership roles, Gaetz told the Tampa Tribune that Weatherford “is the future of Florida.”

“I expect to host a fundraiser for Will Weatherford for governor or U.S. senator sometime in the next five years,” he said then. “He will be, if he wants to be, very significant on the Florida political landscape for the next 30 years.”

Gaetz hasn’t changed his mind, saying Weatherford’s “pragmatic conservatism solves problems.”

He used the example of the state budget under their leadership. In the previous two years under House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos – “both good men,” Gaetz is quick to add – relations between the chambers were strained, at best.

“Will came from his home in the Tampa Bay area all the way to me in northwest Florida, sat down in my living room and asked if we could do a joint work plan,” Gaetz said. “He told me, ‘let that be the building block for a budget.’ ”

The Legislature passed two budgets in a row based on such work plans, he added.

“I give most of the credit to Will Weatherford,” Gaetz said. “He didn’t ‘give in’ to me, but he never wanted to leave the table till we did everything we possibly could to find a solution that was best for the people of Florida.

“We did not always agree but we were always agreeable,” he added. “His principles are rare in politics … I think the world of him.”

But Gaetz said Weatherford also carries the “obligation of such an immensely talented person.”

“I’m still saving my invitation cards and Rolodex for the next Will Weatherford fundraiser. If not for 2018, then maybe for 2020.”

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