Headlines – Florida Politics

Court urged to reject state rights restoration process

With arguments at a federal appeals court little more than a month away, attorneys for nine felons filed a 72-page brief Thursday urging the judges to find that Florida’s system of restoring felons’ voting rights is unconstitutional.

The brief asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a ruling by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker that struck down the system.

Arguments are scheduled July 25 at the appeals court in Atlanta.

The restoration of felon rights has long been a controversial legal and political issue in Florida, and Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi changed the system after they took office in 2011 to effectively make restoration harder.

Scott, Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis serve as the state’s clemency board and make decisions about restoration.

Under the current process, felons must wait five or seven years after their sentences are complete to apply to have rights restored. After applications are filed, the process can take years to complete.

In the brief filed Thursday, attorneys for the felons said the case is primarily a First Amendment challenge to an “arbitrary process” for restoring the right to vote.

“Florida’s laws have long subjected felons to an arbitrary scheme in which government officials exercise limitless power to decide if and when individual felons may vote,” the brief said. “These laws violate the Constitution by arbitrarily licensing or allocating First Amendment-protected rights and leaving restoration applicants in limbo for years. Plaintiffs challenge the lack of any rules, standards, criteria, or reasonable time limits for this voting rights restoration scheme.”

But in a brief last month, attorneys for the state urged the appeals court to overturn Walker’s ruling.

The brief said case law gives the clemency board discretion in restoring rights.

“Florida’s 150-year-old system for offering executive clemency to convicted felons is not facially unconstitutional insofar as it gives the Executive Clemency Board discretion to make clemency decisions implicating restoration of voting rights without resort to specific standards,” the state brief said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Internet tax ruling could be major for Florida

A U.S. Supreme Court decision expanding the ability of states to pull in tax dollars from online purchases could have a significant impact in Florida.

In a 5-4 ruling Thursday, the nation’s highest court upheld a South Dakota law that allowed the state to apply its sales tax to major online retailers, even if they had no physical presence in the state. The ruling reversed a 1992 court decision that held online retailers could only be required to collect and remit sales taxes if they had stores or some other “nexus” in states.

Brick-and-mortar retailers in Florida and other states have long complained that allowing some online retailers to evade sales taxes creates a competitive advantage for the remote sellers. Consumers were supposed to voluntarily pay sales taxes on remote purchases, although it rarely happened.

In his majority opinion Thursday, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited the expansion of internet commerce since the court’s 1992 decision, noting national mail-order sales totaled $180 billion at that point, compared to $453.5 billion in online sales in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“(The prior decision) puts both local businesses and many interstate businesses with physical presence at a competitive disadvantage relative to remote sellers,” Kennedy wrote. “Remote sellers can avoid the regulatory burdens of tax collection and can offer de facto lower prices caused by the widespread failure of consumers to pay the tax on their own.”

In a dissenting opinion citing the court’s prior ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts said federal lawmakers, not the court, should decide whether to tax remote sales.

“Any alteration to those rules with the potential to disrupt the development of such a critical segment of the economy should be undertaken by Congress,” he wrote.

The court decision was praised by Florida business groups.

“For years, online-only retailers have exploited this loophole that allows them not to collect sales tax, which has given them an unfair competitive advantage over brick-and-mortar stores,” said James Miller, a spokesman for the Florida Retail Federation. “This decision finally levels that playing field, and I think that’s all any business owner wants.”

The court decision could also be important in Florida because of the state’s heavy reliance on sales-tax revenue. Expected to generate more than $24 billion for the state government in the current fiscal year, the sales tax is the single largest source of funding for the state.

Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a business-oriented advocacy group, said the ability to apply the sales tax to more internet sales will keep the state’s tax structure in sync with the evolving economy.

“The taxpayers of Florida really rely heavily on the sales tax. You’ve got to have a modern sales tax, so we don’t have to have any other kind of tax that people don’t want,” Calabro said. “So, by relying on a sales tax, you have to make sure it’s modern and up to date.”

The exact impact of the ruling on Florida’s sales tax collections is unknown but it could be significant.

Last November, the federal Government Accountability Office estimated that states could have collected between $8.5 billion and $13.4 billion in sales taxes in 2017 if they had expanded taxing authority. The estimate represented between 2 and 4 percent of total state and local sales tax collections in 2016, the analysts said.

In testimony before the Florida House Ways & Means Committee in January 2017, analysts gave a rough estimate of $200 million in potential sales tax revenue resulting from applying the tax to more remote sales.

In Florida, the sales tax has been applied to a wider range of internet sales over the last few years. In 2014, Amazon, the largest online retailer, began collecting the tax in Florida after it opened a series of “fulfillment centers” in the state. But the tax is not applied to “third-party” sales through the Amazon network.

And according to the Supreme Court case, some large online retailers do not collect taxes on their remote sales. Wayfair Inc., an online retailer of home goods and furniture that challenged the South Dakota law, had more than $4.7 billion in net revenue in 2017, according to the opinion.

But even with the court’s decision, not all remote sales are likely to be taxed. The South Dakota law only applied the tax to online retailers that had at least $100,000 of annual sales in the state or 200 individual transactions.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Ten candidates qualify for Cabinet races

With a noon Friday deadline to qualify for this year’s elections, 10 candidates for state Cabinet seats had qualified as of Thursday morning, according to the Florida Division of Elections website.

Republicans Ashley Moody and Frank White and Democrat Sean Shaw had qualified to run for Attorney General, while Democrat Ryan Torrens was expected to appear Thursday afternoon in Tallahassee to submit his paperwork. The candidates are seeking to succeed term-limited Attorney General Pam Bondi.

In the race to replace term-limited Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Republicans Matt Caldwell and Mike McCalister and Democrats Nikki Fried and David Walker had qualified as of Thursday morning.

Also, incumbent Republican Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis had qualified to defend his seat. Democrat Jeremy Ring and write-in candidate Richard Dembinsky had qualified to try to topple Patronis.

Poll: Philip Levine and Gwen Graham tight, Chris King in third

A new poll from RABA Research is finding similar results from one disclosed earlier this week that the Florida Democratic primary race for the governor’s election is close to a dead heat between former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham.

The poll, using random digit dialing and excluding cell phones, surveyed of 660 Florida Democrats last Friday and Saturday, found Levine’s support at 27 percent, Graham’s at 26 percent, Winter Park businessman Chris King at 15 percent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum at 8 percent, and Palm Beach businessman Jeff Greene at 3 percent.

Just 21 percent of those surveyed said they did not know, or that they wanted someone else.

“The race is a coming down to the wire. Phillip Levine and Gwen Graham lead the field with Chris King coming in a strong third,” John Davis of RABA Research said in a news release. “The coming weeks will be critical in determining whom Democrats put up as their nominee.”

RABA is a reasonably new polling outfit claiming bipartisan roots, founded in 2016 by Republican media strategist Kim Alfano and Democratic campaign consultant Brad Anderson, among others. Their polls have been cited by FiveThirtyEight, Politico and NBC News, among others, though their record is slim thus far. FiveThirtyEight has assessed just two of their polls, giving them only a C rating, and a very slight Democratic lean.

This survey does not take the usual “likely voters” track for Democrats; instead, it redistributes weight between super voters and new voters, with those who indicated the potential to vote in the August 28 primary. Among those surveyed, 79 percent they were almost certain they would vote, 10 percent said probably, and 11 percent said there was a 50-50 chance.

RABA reported a margin of error of 3.8 percent for overall results.

Two things this poll has in common with one conducted by the Republican-leaning political research organization Let’s Preserve The American Dream earlier this month while differing from many other polls: the overall conclusion that Levine and Graham are in front, in a very tight race; and a survey sample that took in a large percentage of female voters – 59 percent in the RABA survey. That’s reflective of the past two Democratic primaries in Florida, in which women made up 60 percent of the turnout.

Levine’s been running TV commercials almost all year; Graham started hers, only in the I-4 corridor, early this month; and King launched his statewide in April. Greene launched a huge ad buy this week, after the survey.

Among other findings:

— Graham was the only Democrat that had a majority of respondents having formed an opinion about her, but just barely — 52 percent.

— She also had the best favorable/unfavorable ratio in the pack, with 43 percent saying they had a favorable opinion of her, and 9 percent an unfavorable opinion. Levine’s ratio was 36 to 13 percent; King was 29 to 11 percent; Gillum was 26 to 10 percent. Greene, who might have been remembered by respondents at that point last week only for his failed 2010 U.S. Senate campaign in which he found himself fighting off several negative stories, registered 11 percent favorable, 21 percent unfavorable, with a huge 68 percent saying they are not sure.

— Just 29 percent said Florida was heading in the right direction, 48 percent in the wrong direction, and 23 percent said they were not sure.

— The cross-tab breakouts showed standings in all 10 Florida media markets, with Levine doing well in most of South Florida; Graham in Orlando and much of the Panhandle; Levine leading Graham comfortably in Tampa; Gillum holding down Tallahassee; and King with sizable advantages in Jacksonville and Gainesville, while also slightly leading Levine in West Palm Beach, Greene’s home turf.

Family separations bring Tallahassee’s faith community together

Tallahassee faith leaders — in oratory ranging from subdued to fiery — and others on Wednesday prayed for a permanent end to the separation of migrant families crossing the Mexico-U. S. border.

Some, including pediatric cardiologist Louis St. Petery, long outspoken on children’s issues, called it “child abuse.”

But many of the roughly 200 who attended an interfaith prayer vigil at First Presbyterian Church in the city’s downtown were cautiously optimistic about President Donald Trump‘s executive order that for now ends the policy of removing children from their parents.

That order, however, doesn’t change his ‘zero-tolerance’ policy of prosecuting adults caught illegally crossing the border.

“I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” Trump said Wednesday, according to POLITICO. “I think anybody with a heart would feel strongly about it. We don’t like to see families separated.”


First Presbyterian Pastor Brant Copeland applauded the move but said “a great harm has already been done to thousands of families,” calling the separations “heartless cruelty” and “callous mistreatment.”


Added Judith Lyons, a member of Temple Israel: “I don’t trust a momentary executive order. Time will tell … In the meantime, we must do whatever we can to stop this.”

Still others commented on the practice of keeping detained families in chain-link fence cages inside facilities.

Earlier Wednesday, state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, who is Jewish, drew an analogy after he tried to visit the federal Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead.

“I came here today to remind myself that children being separated from their parents and being thrown into cages is a practice my people have experienced before,” the Broward County Democrat told reporters there.

Imam Rashid Mujahid of Masjid Al-Nahl also picked up on that theme at the vigil: “We, as Muslims, feel a great pain with this … As my Jewish brothers and sisters say, ‘never again.’ Well, it’s happening again.”

And Lee Johnson, pastor of Loved by Jesus Family Church, lit up the pulpit, telling vigil-goers, “All of us have been asleep at the wheel. We need to wake up.”

The same immigration system that works for everybody else, he said, “ought to work for them. We are our brother’s keeper.”

In an interview before the vigil, St. Petery — who publicly opposed the now-overturned 2011 “docs vs. Glocks” state law that aimed to stop doctors from asking patients about guns in their homes — said “what is happening will have a permanent effect on these kids.

“There’s already been trauma; it should have never happened in the first place,” he said. “It needs to not happen ever again. It constitutes child abuse.

“If a parent puts a kid in a cage, that’s child abuse. Our government is doing the same thing. That’s crazy.”

Former Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant, who also attended the vigil, later said she had asked Copeland to organize the event. She too said she was cheered by Trump’s about-face on the separations but was concerned about those families already torn apart getting back together.

“I, for one, don’t have a lot of confidence in the people running the show up there”— referring to Washington — “to actually care enough to get it right,” she said. “That’s one of the things to pray the most for.”

Florida retailers cheer Supreme Court online sales tax decision

The head of the trade group for the state’s retailers said Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling opening the door for online sellers to collect sales tax the same as brick-and-mortar stores is “great news.”

That’s even though Floridians already are technically supposed to pay sales tax on online purchases.

“Retailers have been adamant in seeking equity in taxation of bricks and mortar and online sales,” Florida Retail Federation President & CEO R. Scott Shalley said in a statement.

“This decision paves the way for a level playing field throughout the industry. The Florida Retail Federation looks forward to working with Florida’s legislative leaders and the Department of Revenue to ensure fair and equitable application of the law.”

“At this time, the Department is reviewing the ruling and its impact on Florida sales tax,” a Revenue spokeswoman said.

The 5-4 opinion, “threw out a precedent that had blocked online sales taxes,” Axios explained. “Online retailers likely will have to pay billions more in taxes each year. Although some large online retailers like Amazon already collect sales taxes, smaller vendors don’t.”

Floridians, however, already pay tax on streaming services like Netflix, and are supposed to pay state tax whenever they buy “tangible” things like books and DVDs but seldom do, the Tampa Tribune has reported.

“In Florida, it is the buyer’s responsibility to pay tax directly to the state; there’s actually a (form for a) separate 6 percent tax for out-of-state purchases. But almost no one pays that because it’s virtually unenforced,” the paper reported.

Estimates have varied on how much Florida would get if it captured taxes on its residents’ online purchases, from $200 million to more than $750 million.

The nation’s highest court previously had determined that out-of-state retailers who don’t have a physical presence in a state, such as a store or warehouse, couldn’t be forced to collect that state’s sales tax on purchases. That has long meant cheaper online purchases with no sales tax to pay, especially on big-ticket items.

At least six times, former state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda of Tallahassee had filed a bill “aimed at capturing some of the Florida sales tax lost to online retailers,” The Tribune separately reported. Those efforts died.

In a statement, Florida TaxWatch said it “enthusiastically applauds today’s Supreme Court ruling, which will (also) have a positive impact on Florida jobs. All Florida taxpayers will benefit from today’s ruling, which will bring equity and fairness to Florida’s sales and use tax.

“With the appropriate action by the Legislature and Florida Department of Revenue, not only will the state be able to collect the sales and use tax that has always been legally due, but Floridians will no longer be unknowingly breaking the law.

“Florida TaxWatch has championed the collection of sales and use tax from online and remote sellers for more than a decade, and we are proud to be on the right side of this issue. We look forward to working with state leaders as they take the necessary actions to ensure that this tax, which has been required under Florida law for decades, is collected moving forward.”

Regulators plan to keep using emergency rule on race-dog drug testing

Gambling regulators this week said they plan to keep using an emergency rule that allows them to continue testing racing greyhounds for drugs.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates gambling through its Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, posted a “notice of renewal” in Thursday’s Florida Administrative Register.

In Florida, live dog racing is still conducted at 12 tracks.

The emergency rule on “Procedures for Collecting Samples from Racing Greyhounds” was adopted late last December.

That was after an administrative law judge struck down the testing program, saying it was invalid. Thursday’s notice said a rule challenge was still pending in the Division of Administrative Hearings.

Judge Lawrence P. Stevenson barred the state from relying on a 2010 testing manual because it wasn’t properly adopted, though as one of the division’s lawyers said, “There aren’t that many ways to do urine collection.”

The emergency rule, for example, includes using “evidence tape” to seal samples and storing them in “lockable freezers” until they’re sent off for testing.

A cocaine-in-dogs controversy came to light in Jacksonville last summer. That in part spurred a constitutional amendment for the 2018 ballot to ban greyhound racing in the state.

Attorney Jeff Kottkamp, who represents the Florida Greyhound Association, has said it has “a zero-tolerance policy for anyone that would give a racing greyhound any illegal substance.” The organization advocates for the state’s race-dog owners and breeders.

Photo credit: Van Abernethy

Bill Nelson goes after Rick Scott as ‘Oil Slick Rick’ in digital ad

Earlier in the week, the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Gov. Rick Scott launched a new TV commercial accusing Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of going negative, even though Nelson hadn’t actually done that, yet.

Now he has.

Nelson is releasing a one-minute digital ad Thursday called “Oil Slick,” dubbing the governor “Oil Slick Rick” while accusing him of having supported offshore drilling around Florida until he only recently changed his mind as a political stunt as he prepared to run for the Senate.

This is only Nelson’s second digital ad of his re-election campaign and he has yet to launch a television commercial, battling against Scott who has put up a half-dozen statewide television commercials, including the one accusing Nelson of having gone negative.

Rick Scott‘s campaign responded by disputing Nelson’s claims that he sponsored the moratorium on off-shore drilling, or that he was even intimately familiar with it while it was moving. Scott’s campaign Press Secretary Lauren Schenone charged that Nelson distorted the facts, and that it was Scott who got drilling off the table [a status that Nelson’s people have insisted remains uncertain.]

The Nelson campaign did not provide any details about the ad buy behind the video.

Nelson’s first ad was almost entirely biographical, making no mention of Scott.

The new one stars Scott.

In addition to the digital ad, Nelson’s campaign also launched some other internet properties including “Scott Is Not For Florida” accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that feature a logo that mimics Scott’s official U.S. Senate election campaign logo.

In Nelson’s new digital ad, there is almost no audio, other than plucky background music that plays as video provides shots of Scott, offshore drilling, animation of an oil spill, and the Deep Water Horizon/BP disaster of 2010. Meanwhile, text declares:

“Oil companies have Florida in their sights. Scott supported offshore drilling. Even after the BP Oil Spill.”

Then a brief audio-video clip, the only one in the spot, from an undated event, shows Scott saying, “Offshore drilling is an option.”

Return to plucky music. “Now in this election year, ‘Oil Slick’ Rick pretended to be a hero,” the text picks up. “But the media uncovered the real story. It was a political stunt.”

The ad cuts to a photograph of Scott mugging with President Donald Trump, heads together, smiling, and then to a quote from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: “If you think President Trump and Gov. Scott are playing election-year politics with drilling, you’re right.”

The text then states: “Bill Nelson actually wrote the bipartisan law that makes it illegal to drill off of Florida’s coast,” and then goes back to the Sun Sentinel’s statement, “On offshore drilling, only Bill Nelson has earned Floridians’ trust.”

Finally, comes the tagline that might emerge as the slogan for Nelson’s re-election campaign — “Bill Nelson puts Florida first, always has, always will.”

“The only way for Bill Nelson to present himself as a lifelong advocate against offshore oil drilling is to distort the facts, and the fact is that Bill Nelson not only didn’t write the bill that created the moratorium, he was the only Gulf Coast senator to not co-sponsor it,” Schenone responded in a written statement. “It’s also a fact that when Obama needed the support, it was Bill Nelson who was willing to put partisan politics first and change his position to support oil drilling closer to Florida’s shores. Now, because of Gov. Scott’s efforts, offshore drilling is off the table, but Bill Nelson refuses to celebrate, or even accept, this reality. While Bill Nelson continues to grandstand and distract from the truth, Gov. Scott will stay focused on securing real solutions to protect our environment.”

Daphne Campbell, Chris Latvala draw new opponents

Two Republicans have opened campaign accounts to try to unseat state Sen. Daphne Campbell, a Miami Democrat, while Rep. Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, has picked up a second Democratic challenger.

North Bay Village Republican Allen Markelson and Miami Beach Republican Alexia Van Orden opened accounts Wednesday to run in Miami-Dade County’s Senate District 38, according to the state Division of Elections website.

The winner of the Republican primary will square off in November with Campbell or her Democratic primary challenger, Jason Pizzo, who formally qualified for the race Tuesday.

Campbell had raised $92,389 for her re-election bid as of May 31, while Pizzo had raised $93,366 and loaned $100,000 to his campaign, finance reports show.

Meanwhile, Largo Democrat Dawn Douglas opened a campaign account Wednesday to try to unseat Latvala in Pinellas County’s House District 67. Douglas joined Clearwater Democrat Tom Ryan who entered the race this month and formally qualified Wednesday.

Latvala, who qualified Monday, had raised $104,425 for his campaign as of May 31, a finance report shows.

The election qualifying period started Monday and will end at noon Friday.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Florida Family Action backs Adam Putnam

Republican Adam Putnam received the backing of John Stemberger‘s staunchly-Christian-conservative Florida Family Action as a “distinct honor and privilege” and spoke at least generally about supporting the group’s hardline anti-abortion positions.

At a news conference with board leaders of Florida Family Action and others at Stemberger’s office in Orlando Wednesday, Putnam also stressed his support for the group’s efforts to address human trafficking, children “orphaned” by opioid abuse, and caring for children and families. Putnam also spoke strongly about values, saying “Florida has to be strong inside and out,” and the state needs to “envoke the partnership and leverage the power of the faith-based community.”

For that, he repeated a proposal he made in May to create an “Office of Faith-Based and Community-Based Initiatives” within the governor’s office to work with churches and other faith-based groups on matters ranging from caring for the homeless to storm relief efforts.

Putnam’s proposal was one of the cornerstones of the “First Families Agenda” platform he introduced at the time.

Putnam declined to directly answer questions about whether his positions align with Florida Family Action, and it’s parent organization, the Florida Family Policy Council, on gay rights, a topic that has seen the organizations taking staunch opposition stances against what it calls the “homosexual agenda.” He replied by speaking of the need to defend religious rights, but neither offered support nor opposition to gay marriage or other rights earned or sought by the LGBTQ community and opposed by Florida Family Action.

That organization is the political arm of Stemberger’s Florida Family Policy Council, arguably the state’s leading Christian-conservative political organization.

Putnam claims a lifetime 100 percent National Right to Life rating and a 98 percent Family Research Council rating.

“I believe that we do have to defend and protect life in the state of Florida,” he said.

Stemberger, who also announced his personal endorsement of Putnam, said that was his organization’s impression as well, saying, “We believe he will fight to protect human life at every stage.”

Putnam got the endorsement over his Republican rival U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis after both made presentations in May at the group’s annual gala.

“It’s become clear to us that Adam Putnam is the clear choice for Florida’s future,” Stemberger said. “The next Governor of Florida needs to be a proven leader who knows Florida. No one knows Florida backwards and forwards, policy, people, demographics more than Adam Putnam.”

From the two organizations, Stemberger pledged to aid Putnam with broad support, with help from “thousands, hundreds of thousands of our volunteers statewide, from Pensacola to Miami, to educate and mobilize millions of Christian voters.”

Stembeger added: “He shares our faith and he shares our values, but, just as important, he would respect the right of those that don’t share our faith, and don’t share our values.”

A gay rights question followed, asking Putnam to clarify if his values and positions align with those of Florida Family Action.

“We have to build a state with strong families. It begins with defending life, defending marriage, and supporting the very pillars of our community and our society that allow our community to flourish,” Putnam replied. “That means discrimination ought not to be tolerated, and that includes discrimination toward the pulpit, and towards religious freedom, and religious liberty. And we strive to make sure that no one including our churches are discriminated against.”

Next, Putnam asked if he would support the anti-discrimination against gays bills that have been introduced in the Florida Legislature in recent years, and he replied, “I think it’s important to see what that looks like when it hits the desk. But we, I, am focused on making sure that we protect the balance that doesn’t include discrimination including discrimination against religious liberty.”

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