Jim Rosica, Author at Florida Politics - Page 5 of 146

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.

Jay Fant is down on bill that would end Enterprise Florida

State Rep. Jay Fant says he will not vote for a bill, backed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, that seeks to abolish the Enterprise Florida economic development organization.

After Thursday’s floor session, he told FloridaPolitics.com he doesn’t “like going against leadership on a vote, and I stick with them on just about everything, but this just isn’t one of those things.”

The Jacksonville Republican had asked critical questions of bill sponsor Paul Renner, a former political rival, in the floor session.

Fant, first elected in 2014, said killing Enterprise Florida “will hinder our ability to bring businesses to Florida.” He instead favors heightened scrutiny of the agency, which is funded mainly with public dollars.

The entity is “the right thing at the right time,” he said.

The bill (HB 7005) gets rid of the organization and many business incentive programs favored by Gov. Rick Scott. Corcoran regards them as “corporate welfare.”

“I’m not passing judgment on particular projects,” Fant added. “I would just love to see us back off from where we are on the bill now.”

The bill could go to a final vote as early as Friday; as a Corcoran priority, it’s virtually ensured to pass.

But it faces an uphill slog in the Senate, where Republican leaders—including Appropriations Committee chair Jack Latvala—back Scott on keeping Enterprise Florida and incentives in general.

House looks at bill to kill Enterprise Florida

The Florida House Thursday began its consideration of a bill to obliterate the Enterprise Florida economic development organization, castigated by Speaker Richard Corcoran as a dispenser of “corporate welfare.”

The bill (HB 7005) also gets rid of a swarm of business incentive programs that sponsor Paul Renner said fail the return-on-investment test. (They are listed in the bill analysis.)

Several Democrats peppered Renner with skepticism, but the bill also was questioned by Jay Fant, a Jacksonville Republican.

“Do we have to throw away everything,” Fant asked, with Renner answering, “In fact, we do not,” explaining that some incentives will be kept.

The effort to abolish the organization, a favorite of Gov. Rick Scott, has fueled a feud between him and Corcoran. The governor says incentives ultimately help create jobs for Floridians.

Scott recently traveled to the home districts of House members supporting the bill to publicly shame them under the guise of promoting his 2017-18 budget recommendations.

Renner also was questioned over the elimination of television and film incentives that take the form of tax breaks for producers.

Because of the state’s climate and scenery, “Florida (itself) is a permanent incentive,” Renner said.

That stoked a comeback from Rep. Matt Willhite, a Wellington Democrat. He noted the “Ballers” TV series relocated to California from Florida, and the “Bloodline” series, which was shot in the Keys, ended after it was clear those shows wouldn’t get incentives.

“Is the beach and the sun really enough to bring the entertainment industry to Florida?” Willhite mused.

Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat, later tried to amend the bill to put those incentives back in the overhaul bill; the attempt failed on a voice vote.

“We get enormous free publicity out of the films shot in the state,” he said, mentioning “Moonlight,” which recently won the Oscar for best picture and was shot in Miami.

The movie “got no incentives, by the way,” Richardson added. Renner’s bill is now ready for debate and a final vote.

House begins looking at VISIT FLORIDA overhaul

House Democrats on Thursday grilled the sponsor of a bill that would overhaul and clamp down on VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing agency.

The full House began its consideration of the measure (HB 9) with questions to bill sponsor Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican.

“It is simply a bill about accountability,” he said. The agency is a public-private endeavor, but is overwhelmingly funded through taxpayers’ dollars.

Public money that goes to VISIT FLORIDA, he said, should be spent on promoting tourism—”not on bonuses, free trips and the like that embarrass this agency.”

The legislation has caused a war between House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Gov. Rick Scott, who oversees the agency. The speaker also is after the Enterprise Florida economic development organization, another Scott favorite. A bill to kill it and a slew of state business incentives will also be discussed today.

Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, had been gunning for the agency, threatening to sue after it refused to reveal a secret deal with Miami rap superstar Pitbull to promote Florida tourism.

The rapper later disclosed the terms, including his pay of up to $1 million. The ensuing controversy cost former agency CEO Will Seccombe his job.

Former Secretary of Business and Professional Regulation Ken Lawson now leads VISIT FLORIDA. He has opposed the legislation.

Meantime, Corcoran changed course, deciding to salvage the organization with stricter oversight, rather than eliminate it.

Among other things, the legislation limits employees’ travel expenses and would cap annual pay at $130,000.

The bill requires VISIT FLORIDA contracts “to contain performance standards, operating budgets and salaries of employees of the contracting entity,” and those deals would have to be posted online.

Stemming from the Pitbull deal, Renner’s proposal would delete a public records exemption for “marketing projects and research.” It would ban any promotional project from “benefit(ing) only one company.” And it would force the agency to be funded with more private dollars. 

State Rep. Katie Edwards, a Plantation Democrat, asked why Renner seemingly wanted to change VISIT FLORIDA back into a state agency.  

“If someone misuses a credit card, you don’t give it back to them without some pretty specific guardrails,” Renner said. 

The House later voted to accept Renner’s own amendment to impose reporting requirements only when VISIT FLORIDA funds a project slated to get more than 50 percent of its budget from tax dollars. The bill could be teed up for debate and a final vote as early as Friday.

The oranges

Orange, grapefruit crop forecasts take another hit

The forecast for Florida orange production has dropped again, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, down a whopping three million boxes.

The March report, released Thursday, projects a reduction in the state’s orange crop to 67 million boxes.

“Two million of that comes from the early and mid-season varieties, which are now fully harvested,” it said.

In more bad news, grapefruit crop expectations were “reduced by 100,000 to 8.9 million boxes.”

“While news of a decrease is never welcome, the sweet scent of citrus blossoms floating on the breeze brings back fond memories and reminds us that spring is a time of renewal,” said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus.

The department, funded mostly by box taxes paid by the state’s citrus growers, serves as the chief marketing and promotion arm for the industry.

“Growers are optimistic that the strategies they are implementing now will pay off in the future and that, as an industry, we will overcome,” Shepp added.

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.

Later Thursday, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said the “historically low forecast is the latest example of citrus greening’s continued devastation of Florida’s citrus industry.”

“Until a long-term solution is discovered, which some of our state’s brightest minds are working on, we must support Florida’s multi-billion dollar citrus industry and the more than 60,000 jobs it supports,” he said in a statement.

The forecast “represents a decline of more than 70 percent since the peak of citrus production at 244 million boxes during the 1997-98 season,” his office said. The state is seeking permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use antimicrobial treatments to combat greening.

Sponsor proposes changes to VISIT FLORIDA bill

As the House gets ready to start considering a bill to overhaul VISIT FLORIDA, its sponsor filed an amendment to dilute some of its strict requirements.

The measure (HB 9) will be on the House floor today (Thursday) for questions. Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, filed the amendment Tuesday, records show.

It would impose new reporting requirements on the state’s tourism marketing agency only when a project it funds is slated to get over 50 percent of its budget “from funds derived from a tax.” The bill now applies to deals that involve any amount of public dollars.  

But the proposal still mandates disclosures such as “specific performance standards,” “the value of any services provided,” and “salaries of all employees and board members … and (their) projected travel and entertainment expenses.”

Originally, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, aimed to abolish both Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development organization and dispenser of many of the state’s business incentives, and VISIT FLORIDA.

Both are officially public-private endeavors, but both are overwhelmingly funded through taxpayers’ dollars. House leadership later decided to split the legislation, still eliminating Enterprise Florida but saving and overhauling VISIT FLORIDA.

The speaker had threatened to sue VISIT FLORIDA after it refused to reveal a secret deal with Miami rap superstar Pitbull to promote Florida tourism, later revealed to be worth up to $1 million. The ensuing controversy cost former agency CEO Will Seccombe his job.

courthouse in b&w

Senate Rules panel temporarily postpones prejudgment interest bill

A Senate bill that would allow plaintiffs to recover prejudgment interest on noneconomic claims, including pain and suffering, was suddenly postponed during its final review panel Thursday.

Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, moved to yank the bill (SB 334) from consideration during its public comment period before the Rules Committee.

When done during a hearing, such a move suggests a lawmaker has counted votes and determined a measure isn’t going to pass.

The bill is being pushed by Sarasota Republican Greg Steube. A companion bill is in the House.

Business interests largely oppose the proposal because they fear it will increase the cost of doing business; the state’s trial lawyers are in favor.

“Prejudgment interest is the interest on a judgment which is calculated from the date of the injury or loss until a final judgment is entered for the plaintiff,” a bill analysis says.

Current law provides for prejudgment interest only on economic claims, or tangible financial losses, or when both sides bargained for it in a contract.

Senate redistricting bill clears last review panel

A bill aimed at streamlining the handling of political redistricting court cases cleared its last committee Thursday.

The legislation (SB 352) was OK’d by the Senate Rules Committee on a 7-3 party-line vote. It’s now ready for the full Senate.

It also “encourages” courts “to follow certain procedures to maintain public oversight when drafting a remedial redistricting plan,” the bill’s analysis says.

That’s because bill sponsor Travis Hutson, an Elkton Republican, was concerned that previous redistricting cases were decided “behind closed doors, outside of the public eye” by judges, he said.

“We need more transparency,” Hutson told the committee.

To that end, according to the analysis, his bill asks judges—but does not require them—to:

— Conduct public hearings involving proposed district configurations.

— Record and maintain minutes of meetings on the plan if the meetings are closed to the public.

— Provide a method for the public to submit and comment on additional maps.

— Offer the public an opportunity to review and comment on any map before a plan is finalized.

— Maintain all e-mails and documents related to the creation of the remedial plan.

But opponents, including The League of Women Voters of Florida, raised concerns about separation of powers. Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, a Tallahassee-based ethics watchdog, called the bill a “solution in search of a problem.”

The bill is a response to court challenges over the state’s redrawn districts after the 2010 Census.

“The Florida Supreme Court issued eight separate apportionment opinions, the trial court issued additional opinions, and litigation spanned nearly 4 years in the state courts,” the analysis said.

“The litigation often proved confusing to candidates hoping to qualify and run for office because the candidates were uncertain where the district boundaries were located,” it added.

Vote-by-mail ballots fix clears last committee

A bill that would let voters fix mismatching signatures on their vote-by-mail ballots so they can be counted has cleared its second committee.

The House Government Accountability Committee OK’d the bill (HB 105), carried by House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa, by a unanimous vote 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.

The legislation is now ready for consideration by the full House. 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 told the committee.

The League of Women Voters of Florida and the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections support the bill. Rep. Neil Combee, a Polk City Republican, called it “long overdue.”

The measure is a statutory fix in response to a federal case last year. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ordered the state to give thousands of voters a chance to make sure their vote-by-mail ballots count.

The Florida Democratic Party challenged the state law governing mismatched signatures. The judge said county election offices should notify voters if their signature on a vote-by-mail ballot and their voter registration forms don’t match.

Otherwise, voters whose signatures don’t match aren’t told about the problem until after the election is over, Cruz said.

Background from The Associated Press, reprinted with permission.

Senate considers Joe Negron’s higher education legislation

The Excellence in Higher Education Act, a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron, has been set up for a vote by the full Senate.

The bill (SB 2), carried by Bradenton Republican Bill Galvano, was discussed Wednesday on the floor.

Achieving many of the bill’s goals, which could cost up to $161 million, depend on funding getting approved in the 2017-18 state budget.

The legislation, among other things, increases certain scholarship benefits, overhauls how colleges and universities measure progress and attract top professors, and mandates block tuition—a flat rate per semester—rather than by credit hour.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, unsuccessfully suggested adding a financial impact study to the bill for schools to see how block tuition would affect their bottom line. Florida State University had claimed a $40 million hit if block tuition was enacted, he said.

In his December 2015 speech accepting the nomination for the chamber’s presidency, Negron laid out a legislative plan that included boosting the state’s higher ed institutions, which he called “special, exceptional places.”

Last April, he went on a “state university listening tour,” barnstorming the state with fellow senators and other state officials, hitting 12 institutions of higher learning in four days.

One aim is to get more students to graduate college in four years.

Critics of the legislation, including Republican Sen. Tom Lee, earlier had raised concerns over “non-traditional students,” many of whom are lower-income and must work while they go to school, which can extend the time they take to graduate.

But Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon offered an amendment Wednesday, which was adopted, to help schools like Florida A&M University, rewarding them for “access rates at or above 50 percent.”

Smoker’s widow fights for multimillion-dollar jury award

A lawyer for the widow of a Florida man “addict(ed) to cigarettes” asked the state Supreme Court Monday to reinstate her $30 million jury award for punitive damages.

Tallahassee attorney John S. Mills, who represents Joan Schoeff, told the court the conduct of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.(RJR)—in selling a product they knew was killing 500,000 people a year—stopped just short of “intentional genocide.”

Mills called RJR “the worst of the worst,” saying the cigarette maker was aware their customers “were going to die and continued (selling cigarettes) to make money.”

The suit is one of many Engle progeny cases in which the court, after a monumental 1994 class action, allowed individual smokers with claims against tobacco companies to each sue for their own damages.

The case is being closely watched by the state’s trial attorneys.

State Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat and longtime civil-trial lawyer, had filed a friend-of-the-court brief for the Florida Justice Association, formerly known as the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers.

At trial, a jury found smoker James E. Schoeff 25 percent at fault in his death, “from lung cancer caused by his addiction to cigarettes,” according to court documents.

Jurors awarded his wife, Joan Schoeff, $10.5 million in compensatory damages and $30 million in punitive damages, even after her lawyer asked jurors not to go above $25 million.

The trial judge later reduced the compensatory damages award to almost $7.9 million but let stand the punitive damages amount. R.J. Reynolds appealed, calling the punitive damages “unconstitutionally excessive.”

The 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach agreed with RJR that the award “falls on the excessive side of the spectrum,” according to its opinion. One judge in the three-judge panel dissented. Schoeff then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Justice Peggy A. Quince noted that the lawyer at trial asked for Schoeff’s fault in his death to be factored into damages. Mills explained that was because “we didn’t know if we were going to win.”

Donald B. Ayer, representing RJR, faulted jury instructions that he said confused jurors about how to decide the harm caused to Schoeff. 

“Why would we, as a matter of law, decide that the core of the action is negligence versus … the intentional wrongdoing of the tobacco industry over decades?” Justice Barbara Pariente asked.

“There’s no question that it’s harm from a product,” Ayer said. Product liability claims generally are founded in negligence, which is about carelessness, not intent.

The court, as usual, did not indicate when it would rule.

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