Jim Rosica, Author at Florida Politics - Page 7 of 158

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.

Interests for and against ‘liquor wall’ legislation react to passage

The reaction to the Florida Legislature’s repeal of the state’s “booze wall” law continued long after Wednesday’s vote.

The House, on a close vote of 58-57, passed the Senate’s bill (SB 106) to allow retailers to remove the ‘wall of separation’ between hard liquor and other goods. (Full story here.)

The legislation now heads to Gov. Rick Scott. If signed into law, the state will end 82 years of mandating that retailers sell distilled spirits in a separate store from other items.

Floridians for Fair Business Practices, a business coalition that included Wal-Mart, Target, Whole Foods Markets and others who favored the measure, issued a statement saying “the legislation finally removes an archaic regulation which has no basis in today’s modern society.”

“We are pleased both chambers recognized the importance of free market principles, increased consumer choice and healthy competition,” the group said. “We encourage Gov. Scott to sign this common sense, pro-business bill into law.”

The Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association, praised lawmakers for “taking down the wall.” 

“Florida consumers want a modern marketplace where they can purchase spirits, wine and beer at the same time and same place – like in most states,” Distilled Spirits Council Vice President Jay Hibbard said in a statement. “We applaud the Florida legislature for listening to its constituents and urge Gov. Scott to sign this pro-consumer legislation.”

Skylar Zander, deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity-Florida, the state’s pro-free market organization, called the separation requirement “outdated.”

“Small businesses and consumers should have the ability to choose what products go on the shelves and what products come off of them,” Zander said. “Rep. Bryan Avila and Sen. Anitere Flores did a great job managing this contentious issue.”

But ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, which has long opposed the legislation, said the Prohibition-era law still “prevent(ed) minors from unlawful access to liquor.”

“The protection of minors and small businesses lost by a single vote in the House today because of members who bowed to enormous political pressure and financial influence from Wal-Mart and Target,” said Charles Bailes III, chairman and CEO of the Orlando-based chain.

“The wall, which has separated minors from hard liquor for decades, has never hurt competition in Florida but it has kept young people from stealing bottles or drinking them in stores,” he said. “We are grateful for the 57 members who voted to fight for that protection and respect their political courage to do the right thing.”

House votes to shield college official searches from sunshine

Job searches for the top officials of the state’s public universities would be shrouded in secrecy under a bill passed Wednesday by the Florida House.

House members OK’d the measure (HB 351) 103-11.

But its reception in the Senate is unclear: With less than two weeks left in session, a companion bill (SB 478) has not had a hearing.

The legislation would maintain the privacy of candidates who apply for positions of “president, vice president, provost, or dean of a state university or Florida College System institution.”

The bill makes their identifying information “confidential and exempt,” the highest level of secrecy under the state’s public records law.

It also would close meetings for “identifying or vetting” of candidates. Lists of finalists, however, would be public.

“Many, if not most, applicants for such a position are currently employed at another job at the time they apply and could jeopardize their current positions if it were to become known that they were seeking employment elsewhere,” the bill’s legislative intent section says.

Craft distillery bill put on hold, then passed

A bill to allow craft distillers to sell more product directly to customers was set for a final vote Wednesday, was instead “temporarily postponed,” then finally voted out later in the day.

The House eventually passed the measure (HB 141) by a 114-2 vote.

Its sponsor, state Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, a St. Johns Republican, was one of five House members earlier in the floor session who did not vote on a contentious bill allowing Florida retailers to sell distilled spirits with other goods instead of in a separate store. 

The “whiskey and Wheaties” bill passed by a razor-thin 58-57 margin.

Her measure would let distillers sell up to six bottles of spirits per customer in a given year.

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.

Distributors and liquor stores have opposed similar measures, saying it would cut into their business.

The legislation allows distillers to bypass the three-tier system of separate alcoholic beverage manufacturers, distributors and retailers set in place after Prohibition.

A Senate companion (SB 166) has cleared all its committees and is ready for the floor.

tax cuts

House passes increased homestead exemption measure

Voters next year could decide whether to approve a measure that would amount to a reduction in their property tax.

The House on Wednesday passed a measure (HJR 7105) on a 81-35 vote to increase the current $25,000 homestead exemption.

The language “increas(es) the homestead exemption by exempting the assessed valuation of homestead property greater than $75,000 and up to $100,000,” it says.

Democrats, however, warned that cutting taxes meant less money to fund critical local services like police and fire. It wouldn’t affect taxes to fund local public schools.

“If you vote for this, you vote for digging your own hole,” said Rep. John Cortes, a Kissimmee Democrat.

But Rep. Al Jacquet, a Lantana Democrat, a co-sponsor, mentioned all it does is pose the question to voters in the form of a ballot question.

The “Increased Homestead Property Tax Exemption” would require a constitutional amendment, which requires 60 percent of statewide voters to approve.

“This is to allow our constituents to make their own decision,” Jacquet said. “Do we trust our constituents enough to make their own decisions; that’s all we’re doing here today.

“If you don’t believe they’re smart enough, vote ‘no’ today,” he added. “… The folks on whose backs we balance our books deserve a break. But let’s put it on the ballot (and) let them decide.”

Bill sponsor Mike La Rosa, a St. Cloud Republican, told House members he recognized it was “a tough decision.”

But, he added, “not one constituent has said to me this is a bad idea.” A similar Senate measure (SJR 1774) was last acted on last month.


whiskey Wheaties

Legislature votes to tear down the ‘liquor wall’

The Florida Legislature has voted to tear down the booze ‘wall.’

The House, on a by-a-nose vote of 58-57, Wednesday passed the Senate’s bill (SB 106) to allow retailers, at least those who choose to do so, to remove the ‘wall of separation’ between hard liquor and other goods.

The legislation now heads to Gov. Rick Scott. If signed into law, the state will end 82 years of mandating that retailers sell distilled spirits in a separate store from other items. Beer and wine now can be sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

But opponents said their veto campaign has already begun, starting with an argument that the bill will be a “job killer”—a term sure to catch in the jobs governor’s ear. Dozens of independent owner-operators sat in the gallery for the debate, wearing T-shirts saying, “Save Jobs & Small Businesses: Vote No.”

“I’m devastated,” said Amit Dashondi, who owns three liquor stores in Brevard County. “I invested eight years of my life into my business … The governor needs to stand up for us. We’re job creators too.”

The bill also requires miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and allows for a 5-year phase-in. It further calls for employees over 18 to check customers’ ID and approve sales of spirits by cashiers under 18.

The issue, which was filed for the last four years, has broken down the usual party-line divisions. Republicans joined with Democrats Wednesday to support and to oppose what’s called the “whiskey and Wheaties” measure.

Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, told colleagues in debate he never thought he’d be offering a defense of liquor stores.

“Yes members, we have now entered the Twilight Zone,” he joked, adding he wanted to be “honest about the genesis of this bill,” calling out Wal-Mart and Target by name.

“The big box stores wanted more money; who wouldn’t?” Plakon said. “Are we going to give it to them? I say we don’t.”

Those chains and others have said that tearing down the wall separating liquor is a “pro-consumer” move toward added convenience. But Rep. Julio Gonzalez, a Sarasota Republican and orthopedic surgeon, warned of making alcohol even more accessible.

He told of a patient who died in her forties after years of alcohol abuse, leaving a young son. “Kill this bill before this bill kills your neighbor,” Gonzalez said.

Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat, warned that if the bill becomes law, “more alcohol will get in the hands of minors and no good will come of that.”

And Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, said the change will “steamroll small business owners.”

Alcoholic beverage retailers, such as ABC Fine Wines & Spirits and small, independently-owned liquor stores, have said the measure will be a death knell to pure-play retailers who sell booze.

Publix, the Florida supermarket chain, also opposes the measure because of its investment in its many separate liquor stores.

“This is an industry fight,” Smith said. “This is about Wal-Mart coming to the Legislature, and saying, ‘can you please help us get more market dominance in liquor.’ … Well, I’m not here to make life easier for Wal-Mart.”

Rep. Wengay Newton, a St. Petersburg Democrat, compared the debate to the restaurant scene from Brian DePalma‘s “Scarface,” in which a drunken Tony Montana tells fellow diners, “You need people like me so you can point your fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ “

“Wal-Mart’s the bad guy,” said Newton, who supports the measure.

Rep. Bryan Avila, the Hialeah Republican who sponsored the House measure, said he expected a “tense and contentious” debate on the bill.

“The only thing it does is repeal a law created in the 1930s that has outlived its time,” he said in debate. “It just gives a business an option … (but) I understand that any topic related to alcohol is very difficult.”

House takes giant steps in gambling negotiation

The Florida House made several major offers Wednesday to get a gambling deal done this session, including authorizing decoupling for dog and horse tracks if county voters OK it in a local referendum.

House and Senate negotiators met in the morning in their ongoing effort to agree on an omnibus gambling bill for 2017, including an agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to continue blackjack exclusivity in exchange for $3 billion over seven years.

State law requires dog and horse tracks to run live races if they wish to offer other gambling such as cardrooms. Getting rid of that requirement is known as decoupling.

Pari-mutuel owners want decoupling because the audience for dog and horse races – and thus the money bet on them – continues to decline every year, they say. Horse and dog interests say it will kill their industry.

As the House moves toward the Senate—conference chair and Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, called the House offer “serious” and “substantial”—gambling expansion opponents railed against the latest moves.

“This conference committee process is a prime example why gambling expansion should not be subject to legislative ‘sausage making’ (because) it results in gambling creep,” said John Sowinski, president of No Casinos.  “It is clear that there needs to be a bright line in the Florida Constitution that gives Florida voters the exclusive right to authorize gambling in our state.”

Sowinski also chairs a political committee aiming to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2018 to give voters control over future casino gambling.

In other proposals, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, the conference’s vice chair and a Miami-Dade Republican, offered:

— Authorizing blackjack, craps and roulette at all seven Seminole Tribe gambling facilities. Now, they offer blackjack at five casinos, including Tampa’s Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, and do not offer craps and roulette.

— Allowing a cut in the slot machine tax that the Seminoles and pari-mutuels pay if they agree to reduce the number of slot machines they have on the floor. For instance, a casino that agree to go down to 1,500 slots would pay 25 percent instead of 35 percent in tax on slots revenue.

— OK’ing certain designated-player games “if approved in a countywide referendum.” Designated-player games are a hybrid between blackjack and poker, where the bank is supposed to revolve among the players. But regulators have said card rooms were flouting state law by allowing third-party companies to buy their way into the games, using a worker to act as a virtual bank that rarely or never rotated, amounting to a sham, one judge determined.

— Allowing the Seminoles to offer daily fantasy sports play if the state legalizes it, but the Seminoles would have to agree it doesn’t violate any exclusive rights to gambling they enjoy.

This story will be updated later. A copy of the offer is below:

Jose Felix Diaz: House will ‘take giant step’ in gambling conference

The House will make its offer Wednesday morning in the Legislature’s negotiation on a gambling bill this year, state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz told reporters Tuesday night.

“I expect to make significant progress in the conversation,” he said, without offering many details and saying the House’s offer was still in flux. “The earlier we get it out, the better.”

The House and Senate are far apart on their respective gambling bills this session, with the House holding the line on gambling expansion, and the Senate pushing for new games.

But, Diaz added, “considering that the House took a very conservative approach in its bill, most people who look at our offer will think that we took a giant step forward toward the Senate’s position on certain issues.”

“I feel very confident the Senate will be happy we’re moving and continuing the conversation,” he said.

Sen. Bill Galvano on Monday tendered the first offer, which largely maintains what’s in the Senate’s bill. It would, however, classify contentious “pre-reveal” games as slot machines, and would limit two new slots facilities to either Broward or Miami-Dade counties.

The Senate also would give the state more time, up to two years, to address any future violation of blackjack exclusivity brought by the Seminole Tribe of Florida with a legislative fix. That also was addressed to court rulings that create such “violations.”

Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner has declined to comment on the talks.

Part of this year’s package is a deal to grant continued blackjack exclusivity to the tribe in return for $3 billion over seven years, though that money isn’t part of ongoing budget talks between the House and Senate.

“I will say I’m ready to propose counters on some of the Senate’s positions—and agree to some of the Senate’s positions,” Diaz said.


Liquor ‘wall of separation’ could fall in Florida

A bill to allow retailers to sell hard liquor in the same store as other goods is one step closer to passing the Legislature.

On Tuesday, the House decided to take up the Senate’s version of the “whiskey & Wheaties” legislation (SB 106) out of a “spirit of compromise,” said bill sponsor Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican.

After two and a half hours of questions and a string of amendments that were defeated or withdrawn, the House could take a final vote on the bill as early as Wednesday. Its version has been struggling out of committees on one- and two-vote margins.

The Senate bill would repeal a 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.

The bill also requires miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and allows for a 5-year phase-in. It calls for employees over 18 to check customers’ ID and approve sales of spirits by cashiers under 18.

It still faces strong opposition, with Avila having to defend against a parade of horribles brought up in questions.

Rep. Tom Goodson, for example, brought up that the 955 pure-play liquor stores in the state employ about 1,200 workers, and he worried whether the big box chains would put them out of business.

Wal-Mart, Target and others have said that tearing down the wall of separation between liquor and other goods is a “pro-consumer” move toward added convenience, but independently-owned liquor stores counter they’ll suffer.

Other alcoholic beverage retailers, such as ABC Fine Wines & Spirits, say the measure is a naked play to expand the big-boxes’ market reach.

Last month, Kiran Patel, who owns liquor stores in Melbourne and Palm Bay, told lawmakers that he and other small-business store owners will be “finished.”

“There’s no way we can even compete with” big box chains, he said, which will “put pallets and pallets” of booze out in the open.

Avila didn’t give in Tuesday.

In the 29 other states that sell hard liquor in main stores, “there hasn’t been a rash of underage drinking, there hasn’t been a rash of alcohol-related incidents, there hasn’t been a rash of cases of DUIs, (and) the small businesses there have continued to compete, with no decrease in the number of independent liquor stores,” he said.

Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, tried to amend the bill with a provision that no one under 21 could work in a store where hard liquor was sold.

Publix, the Florida supermarket chain that opposes the measure, has said their reading of state law suggested teenage employees would no longer be allowed to work in stores if hard booze was sold there. Publix’s opposition has been rooted in its investment in separate stores.

It’s about choices, Plakon said, mentioning Wal-Mart and saying its choice was to employ teens, sell hard liquor, or keep separate stores. His amendment failed.

Beer advertising bill cleared for House floor

A House bill that would have allowed “advertising” by beer companies in the state’s theme parks on Monday morphed into a measure that specifically allows “brand naming agreements.”

What “brand naming agreements” are, however, isn’t defined in the bill (HB 423).

“I’ll bet you your definition and my definition are two different things,” sponsor Mike La Rosa told the Commerce Committee, which eventually cleared the bill for the full House on a 17-9 vote after no debate.

“My intent is that it’s for marketing purposes,” he added. “So if a manufacturer wanted to name an event, or sponsor an event, they can do both” under the bill.  

But another amendment failed that would have allowed such agreements with all businesses that serve booze on premises, not just theme parks.

Josh Aubuchon, executive director of the Florida Brewers Guild, the state’s craft beer lobby, referred to the proposal as “little more than a cash grab by the theme parks from beer manufacturers.”

A similar measure (SB 388) already passed the Senate but contains provisions not in the House, including opening up the state to the sale of wine bottles of all sizes.

Updated 10:30 p.m. — As of Monday night, both bills were placed on the House’s special order calendar for Thursday.

Rick Scott says he will sign ‘Uber bill’

Gov. Rick Scott tweeted on Monday that he will sign into law a bill creating statewide regulations for ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft.

“I look forward to signing the @Uber/ @lyft bill,” Scott tweeted from his official account, @FLGovScott. The governor is in Argentina on a trade mission.

Colin Tooze, Uber’s director of public affairs, tweeted back, “Many thanks for your leadership, @FLGovScott ! All of us at @Uber are excited to have a permanent home in the Sunshine State.”

Lawmakers had considered legislation for four years before passing a bill this year.

The Senate finally approved a House measure (HB 221) on a 36-1 vote, with Sen. Jack Latvala the only ‘no’ vote.

The legislation, among other things, requires Uber, Lyft and similar “transportation network companies” to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged into the app, but hasn’t yet secured a passenger.

When a driver gets a ride, they need to have $1 million in coverage.

The bill also requires companies to have third parties run criminal background checks on drivers. It also pre-empts local ordinances and other rules on transportation network companies, or TNCs.

“On behalf of thousands of Uber driver partners and millions of Florida residents and visitors who rely on ride-sharing, we thank Gov. Scott for his commitment to ensuring our state remains at the forefront of innovation and job creation,” said Javi Correoso, Public Affairs Manager for Uber Florida, in a statement.

“Upon the governor’s signature, Floridians and tourists will have access to a safe, reliable and affordable transportation option,” Correoso added. “We look forward to his official signature on this landmark legislation.”

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