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Staff Reports

Sprint hires Ballard Partners amid deal talks

Sprint Corp hired a lobbying firm with close ties to U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration on Sept. 1, adding to Sprint’s stable of federal lobbyists as it nears a deal to merge with wireless rival T-Mobile US Inc, according to disclosures filed with the U.S. Congress this week.

T-Mobile is close to agreeing to tentative terms on a deal with Sprint that would merge the third and fourth largest U.S. wireless carriers, people familiar with the matter said on Friday.

The deal would face multiple regulatory hurdles, needing sign-offs from antitrust regulators and the Federal Communications Commission.

Sprint’s new hire, Ballard Partners, will lobby on “general government policies and regulations,” according to the disclosure, which did not include financial details.

The firm, founded by Brian Ballard, an early Trump supporter, joins a long list of Sprint in-house and contracted lobbyists. In the first six months of 2017, the wireless provider spent $1.2 million on lobbying in Washington, according to disclosure filings earlier this year.

In 2011, the Justice Department and the FCC shot down a deal between AT&T and T-Mobile USA. In 2014, the regulators told Masayoshi Son, founder of SoftBank, which owns a majority stake in Sprint, not to seek approval for a deal with T-Mobile USA, which prompted the companies to drop merger talks.

The lobbying effort would be difficult since the Sprint-T-Mobile deal would potentially result in massive job cuts at the retail level. T-Mobile has said it expects to have 17,000 retail locations by year-end while Sprint has said it has about 4,500 retail locations.

The companies would face serious questions about job cuts from merging retail networks.

“Opponents are going to argue why are we helping a German company and a Japanese company do better by laying off thousands of Americans. If I wanted to shoot this merger in the head, that’s how I would do it,” said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics.

Trump met in December with SoftBank’s Son, who pledged a $50 billion investment and 50,000 new U.S. jobs. Son in February said the Japanese firm should benefit from Trump’s promised deregulation of American business.

But Trump and T Mobile’s chief executive officer, John Legere, have feuded publicly since 2015. Legere complained about a street drummer outside a Trump hotel, which prompted Trump to call T Mobile’s service “terrible” in a tweet.

The companies could also face questions from the Justice Department on the merger’s effect on consumers with pre-paid plans popular with lower-income consumers because they tend to be cheaper and do not require credit checks.

Derek Turner, research director for the advocacy group Free Press, estimated the deal would create a pre-paid giant with well over half of the U.S. market.

“T-Mobile and Sprint have lower prices, place a greater emphasis on credit check-free plans, and are the top suppliers to the more affordable reseller carriers. This merger will harm all wireless customers, but will bring disproportionate harm upon lower-income users, many of whom rely on T-Mobile and Sprint’s more affordable data services as their only home internet connection,” Turner said.

Ballard is a regional vice chair of the Republican National Committee and helps leads the party’s fundraising.

A lobbyist listed as the Ballard Partners contact on the Sprint account did not respond to a request for comment. Sprint declined to comment.

The transaction would significantly consolidate the U.S. telecommunications market and represent the first transformative U.S. merger with significant antitrust risk since Trump’s inauguration in January.

In January, Ballard opened a Washington outpost of his lobbying operation. Susie Wiles, Trump’s Florida campaign manager during the 2016 election, is also a member of the Ballard Partner’s Washington office but is not listed as working for Sprint.

Via Reuters. Republished with permission.

ABC reopens midtown Tallahassee store

Lobbyists, lawmakers and others will “be celebrating”: ABC Fine Wines & Spirits has reopened its midtown Tallahassee store on Thomasville Road.

The location, closed since March 1, opened its doors again Friday after a demolition and new construction that cost the Orlando-based company over $2 million.

It was the first store to go “completely dark” in the company’s 81-year history, said Butch Devlin, ABC’s senior vice president. Now, a lighted sign with the ABC motto, “Always Be Celebrating,” greets customers as they walk in.

It’s been long frequented by players in The Process, mainly for wines: “This is a great wine store for us, and a great community to be in,” Devlin said.

The new store on the same site now boasts a more open, 10,000-square-foot layout, a taller ceiling, bigger cigar humidor and a new walk-in cooler for beer cases.

It has a central “activity center” where customers can buy and fill glass craft-beer “growlers” or the can variety known as “crowlers.” Wine and spirit tastings also will be held there.

ABC, which has 125 stores across the state, plans to renovate 12 more.

The midtown store, at 1930 Thomasville Road, is open seven days a week: 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday.

Flags at half-staff for St. Lucie County sheriff’s captain

Gov. Rick Scott has ordered flags at half-staff in memory of St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Capt. Charles Scavuzzo, the Governor’s Office said Thursday night.

Flags will be flown at half-staff at the St. Lucie County Courthouse, St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office, Port St. Lucie City Hall and the County Administration Building in Fort Pierce from sunrise to sunset on Friday.

Scavuzzo, 49, died suddenly at his Port St. Lucie home last Friday, according to his obituary.

Scavuzzo commanded the Criminal Investigations Division of the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office and was in law enforcement for over 28 years.

He is survived by his wife of 20 years, Tonya; children Sydney, Nicholas, and Lyndsey; his mother Ethel; and siblings Lori and Robert Quist of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“My wife, Ann, and I are saddened by the passing of Capt. Scavuzzo, a father, husband and law enforcement officer with more than two decades of service protecting Florida’s families and communities,” Scott said in a statement. “We honor him and all law enforcement officers for their service.”

The big get: Joe Biden endorses Annette Taddeo

Former Vice President Joe Biden has recorded a call to announce his support of Democrat Annette Taddeo in next Tuesday’s Senate District 40 special election, her campaign announced Wednesday.

“We have a real shot to elect a strong Democrat and proven leader, Annette Taddeo, to the state senate,” the longtime Democrat says in the 50-second recording. “If you believe we need stronger schools, protect access to affordable healthcare and stronger communities then you need to make your plans to vote for Annette Taddeo.”

Taddeo is fighting an tough battle for the Miami-Dade seat against Republican Jose Felix Diaz, a former state representative who so far has out-fundraised her by a roughly 4-1 margin. No-party candidate Christian “He Man” Schlaerth also is vying for the seat.

Taddeo said she was “truly honored to have the support of Vice President Biden.”

“This is a people-powered campaign and I am thrilled that he has joined us as we fight for higher-paying jobs, better public schools and affordable healthcare in Miami-Dade,” she said in a statement.

“Our residents need a state senator who will be a champion for working families, not the special interests who only care about their own bottom-line,” Taddeo added. “We will keep having the important conversations with the people of SD40 as we work to get out the vote and win.”

You can listen to Biden here.

The vacancy was created when former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Cuban-American Republican, stepped down in April after igniting a controversy when he accosted two black lawmakers with racially-charged language at a private club in Tallahassee.


CRC releases committee schedule for next week

The Constitution Revision Commission released its committee schedule for next week. All locations are in the Capitol in Tallahassee:

— Monday, Sept. 25: Rules and Administration Committee meets 2-5 p.m., 401 Senate Office Building.

— Tuesday, Sept. 26: Executive Committee meets 8-11 a.m., 401 Senate Office Building; Bonding and Investments Committee meets 1-3 p.m., 37 Senate Office Building.

— Wednesday, Sept. 27: Declaration of Rights Committee meets 1-5 p.m., 110 Senate Office Building; Finance and Taxation Committee meets 2-5 p.m., 301 Senate Office Building.

— Thursday, Sept. 28: General Provisions Committee meets 8:30 a.m.-noon, 401 Senate Office Building.

— Friday, Sept. 29: No meetings scheduled.

All meetings are open to the public and will be live-streamed by The Florida Channel.

“Members of the public wishing to address committees will be provided an opportunity to speak at the direction of the respective committee chair,” a press release said.

Click here for additional information on the committees, and here for the commission’s calendar page.

The commission is formed every 20 years to review and suggest changes to the state’s governing document. Any amendments put forward by the panel must be approved by at least 60 percent of voters statewide on the 2018 ballot to be added to the constitution.

You can follow the commission on TwitterFacebookInstagram and YouTube.

PSC enters hurricane readiness debate

The chair of the state’s Public Service Commission, which regulates investor-owned utilities, says her board also has started “thinking” about how it can help get power back on quicker after major storms.

Julie I. Brown released a statement Wednesday morning, more than a week after Hurricane Irma knocked out electricity to millions of Florida homes and businesses:

PSC Chair Julie I. Brown

“The power grid is the foundation for Florida’s economy and how all Floridians live, work, and function on a day-to-day basis. Hurricane Irma was an epic and catastrophic storm event that affected almost all of Peninsular Florida. Due to the enormity of this storm event, its statewide impact, and the vast numbers of persons affected, restoration of power statewide is of a historic magnitude not seen before in this state.

“Florida is still in restoration mode. Not all customers have power. Nonetheless, we have already begun to think about what the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) can do to ensure everyone involved in the power restoration process cost-effectively implements lessons learned from the storm.

“Because it is critical that customers receive safe, adequate, and reliable electric service, the PSC already has in place several processes to review utility storm preparedness plans and to evaluate the impact of storms on electric infrastructure. One process is that prior to the start of the hurricane season, we hold annual public meetings with Florida’s electric utilities to hear about new practices and technology to facilitate a discussion between utilities and the PSC.

“In addition, our rules require utilities to develop plans to address the ability of transmission and distribution facilities to withstand extreme weather conditions, and to reduce restoration costs and outage times to customers. We review these plans on a regular basis.

“The public should be aware that the PSC plans to review Hurricane Irma’s impacts on electric utility infrastructure and the utilities’ post-storm restoration performance as soon as reasonably feasible. As part of this proceeding, forensic data will be collected on the transmission and distribution facilities impacted by Hurricane Irma’s winds, and the utilities tree trimming practices and pole inspection cycles will be analyzed.

“After an intensive fact-based review, the PSC will identify opportunities to improve utility practices and procedures.”

Nursery challenges denial of marijuana license

A Homestead-based nursery is challenging a decision by state health officials to deny the grower a medical marijuana license.

The Florida Department of Health last month rejected a request by Keith St. Germain Nursery Farms, which sought a license under a law approved this year.

The new law, passed during a June special legislative session, ordered health officials to issue licenses to applicants who lost out to competitors during a first round of medical marijuana licensing in 2015. Under the law, health officials were required to issue licenses to applicants who had challenges pending as of January or who scored within one point of the highest-ranked applicants in five regions. St. Germain came in second in the Southeast region, scoring 1.1875 points below Costa Farms, which received a license. Health officials said St. Germain is ineligible for a license because the difference between the scores was greater than one point.

But in a petition filed Friday in the state Division of Administrative Hearings, St. Germain’s lawyer argued that the department erroneously calculated the scores by not rounding to the nearest whole number, which would have made the nursery eligible for a license.

The department’s evaluators used whole numbers to score different categories within the original applications, D. Kent Safriet, a Tallahassee lawyer representing St. Germain, wrote.

“Because the underlying data was only precise to a whole number, resulting calculations can similarly only be precise to the nearest whole number; numbers to the right of the decimal point are properly characterized as spurious,” Safriet argued. Safriet is relying in part on a decision by Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham in an unrelated challenge to a license issued in the Southwest region.

In his evaluation of the applications in that challenge, Van Laningham wrote that “numbers to the right of the decimal point are spurious digits introduced by calculations carried out to a greater precision than the original data … which were awarded in whole numbers.” Van Laningham is also the judge in the St. Germain challenge.

Health officials have until Oct. 3 to issue five additional medical marijuana licenses. Lawmakers expanded the number of licenses in response to a constitutional amendment approved by Florida voters last fall that legalized medical marijuana for patients with debilitating medical conditions.

Rick Scott to counties: Prioritize your clean-ups

Gov. Rick Scott is telling counties affected by Hurricane Irma to get their act together, asking them “to submit detailed debris clean-up plans” by Tuesday.

The plans need to go to the Florida Division of Emergency Management (DEM) by noon, the governor said in a statement. 

“Let me be clear – debris removal is a function handled and directed at the local level and following a storm like Irma, it is my expectation that every county immediately and aggressively begins work to clear debris in its communities,” he said. “That is what Florida families and businesses expect.”

Plans turned in “will be posted publicly on the Division’s website,” according to a press release. “All plans must include an estimated date of completion. Any county that plans to request reimbursement for debris removal following Hurricane Irma must submit a plan.”

Scott added: “Every county should already have a debris clean-up plan in place as part of its emergency response plan and it should already be executed. Any county experiencing issues with the vendors involved in debris clean-up should immediately execute an emergency procurement to get a different vendor.

“Today, more than 370,000 homes and businesses in Florida are still without power and while utility companies are working non-stop to turn the lights on, the presence of debris can hinder work and delay restoration which is unacceptable,” he said.

Within seven hours of the storm leaving the state, the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) had cleared all major interstates and turnpikes. DOT has been working around the clock to clear all state and many local roads and assist in recovery efforts. As we all work to recover from Irma, the state stands ready to assist communities in any way possible.”

A copy of Scott’s message was sent to the Florida Association of Counties for comment.

Bill Galvano’s designation ceremony set

Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican set to be the next Senate President, is expected to be officially designated on Oct. 24.

Senate Republican Leader Wilton Simpson, who’s in line to be President after Galvano, made the announcement Monday.

Galvano will succeed Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, as head of the chamber for 2018-20.

The designation will make Galvano, an attorney first elected in 2012, head of the 40-member Senate’s majority of 25 Republicans, meaning for now he’s a shoo-in to be president.

He previously was Senate Republican Leader in 2014-16, and also served in the House 2002-10.

Galvano, who helped draft the Seminole Compact, has long been a point man on gambling issues. He also is president of the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States.

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