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Attorney General hopefuls disagree on opioid lawsuit timing

Attorney General Pam Bondi is drawing praise from Republicans seeking to replace her after the term-limited state Cabinet member last week took on opioid manufacturers in court.

However, Democratic candidate Sean Shaw, a state House member from Tampa, questioned a delay in launching a lawsuit to try to crack down on drug companies in the opioid epidemic causing an average of 15 deaths a day in Florida.

And fellow Democratic Attorney-General candidate Ryan Torrens, a Hillsborough County lawyer, said he’d immediately launch a criminal investigation into the actions of pharmaceutical executives if he is elected in November.

“Only when some of these big pharmaceutical executives are hauled off in handcuffs will they learn their lesson and never again prey on our people to maximize their own profits,” Torrens said.

Bondi last week announced her long-expected decision to file lawsuit against five of the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers and four distributors, alleging violations of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and the Florida Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act and for public nuisance.

None of the candidates running to replace Bondi in November disagreed with her decision to sidestep a multi-state lawsuit against drug manufacturers now before a federal judge in Ohio.

Republican candidate Jay Fant, a state House member from Jacksonville, said Bondi is right to take legal action “if malfeasance has occurred” and that he’d use every tool available to go after companies that mislead the public, fuel the opioid crisis and contribute to deaths.

“As attorney general, I will push for legislation to protect the public from harmful pharmaceutical products,” Fant said. “We are at war against this opioid crisis, and that means we don’t just take on one battle. We take on battle after battle until this war is won.”

Fellow Republican candidate Frank White, a state House member from Pensacola, also commended Bondi.

“The epidemic is destroying lives, and we have to explore every option to end the suffering,” White said.

And Republican candidate Ashley Moody, a former Hillsborough County circuit judge, said people responsible must be held accountable regardless if it is “an individual doctor knowingly and wrongfully prescribing drugs or some of the largest companies in the world engaged in the conduct described” in Bondi’s lawsuit.

Moody defended Bondi against criticism about waiting too long to file the lawsuit, saying that such an undertaking “should not be done without proper deliberation of evidence and critical examination of whether claims are justified.”

“It is important that legal theories are sound and potential weaknesses are vetted,” Moody said. “It is important that Florida have the best representation possible to ensure success. Given the losses suffered, criticisms of timing are nothing but partisan sniping that ring hollow and shallow given the crisis this state faces.”

However, Shaw called it “shameful” that action hadn’t been taken earlier, as the state has been fighting the opioid crisis for years.

“This state has waited too long to hold the pharmaceutical companies accountable, and we cannot continue to delay acting while people die each and every day from opioid addiction in our state,” Shaw said.

Meanwhile, the candidates were split, again by party, over a state cap on contingency fees for private lawyers, which critics said was an impediment to securing outside legal help to go after the drug companies.

Shaw said the cap “limits our ability as a state to hire the most talented attorneys for Florida’s families.”

“As was the case in the lawsuit against tobacco companies, we are going up against huge corporations with unlimited resources to defend their deceptive and deadly business practices,” Shaw said. “It makes no sense to hamstring the state with an arbitrary cap on fees.”

The cap, essentially at $50 million, was implemented by the Legislature in 2010, with an eye on the “dream team” of lawyers for Florida that was able to receive $3.4 billion after leading the state’s assault on tobacco companies. That litigation resulted in a more than $11 billion settlement in 1997.

Fant said the fee cap was the right approach, adding some firms go after “high profile cases because they want the publicity.”

“Whatever their motivation, state taxpayers don’t need to be on the hook so fancy law firms can buy more private jets,” Fant said.

Moody said the cap doesn’t appear to have “limited” Bondi in the team she’s assembled for the opioid lawsuit.

“As someone who practiced law and has spent almost two decades dealing with lawyers litigating cases,” Moody said. “I understand that lawyers should be paid reasonably for the services they provide and the risks they take. But the monies recovered represent public monies, and we owe the public a duty to maximize their recovery.”

Bondi recruited five law firms, including two Panhandle firms — Santa Rosa Beach-based Drake Martin Law Firm and Panama City-based Harrison, Rivard, Duncan & Buzzett — that she had worked with on a lawsuit filed in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

School boards continue battle over controversial law

School boards from across the state have gone to the 1st District Court of Appeal as they continue to challenge a controversial 2017 law that includes steps to boost charter schools.

Eleven districts signed on to notices filed last week indicating they will appeal an April 17 ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper that upheld the law. As is common, the notices do not detail the arguments the school boards will make at the Tallahassee-based appeals court.

The legal battle centers on a measure, commonly known as HB 7069, that was a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, and became one of most-controversial issues of the 2017 Legislative Session. The wide-ranging law included changes such as requiring county school boards to share local property-tax revenues with charter schools for building-related expenses. It also set the stage for adding new charter schools — dubbed “schools of hope” — that will serve students whose traditional public schools have been considered low-performing.

School boards filed the lawsuit last year arguing, at least in part, that HB 7069 infringed on their constitutional authority to operate public schools within their districts.

 But Cooper rejected the school boards’ arguments.

One notice of appeal was filed last week by the school boards in Alachua, Bay, Broward, Hamilton, Lee, Orange, Pinellas, Polk, St. Lucie and Volusia counties, according to documents posted on the Leon County clerk of courts website. Another notice was filed by the Collier County School Board, which intervened in the case after it was originally filed in circuit court.

Philip Levine adds campaign directors in Miami, North Florida

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine has added two more area directors to his campaign with the additions of Megan Sirjane-Samples as north Florida area director and Chris Hudtwalcker as Miami-Dade area director.

Sirjane-Samples previously served as a legislative advocate for the Florida League of Cities, helping to craft the League’s legislative policy statements and assisting on research and analysis of legislative and policy issues to provide league management and local government officials with information on state and municipal policies, laws, budgets, and operations.

Hudtwalcker worked as a legislative assistant to Democratic state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, managing the senator’s legislative and political affairs. Hudtwalcker also worked as Rodriguez’s campaign manager during the 2016 election, working with staff to implement a successful strategy to secure Florida’s 37th Senate District in one of the most competitive races of the cycle.

Levine is battling with Gwen Graham, Chis King, and Andrew Gillum for the August 28 Democratic primary nomination to run for governor. The leading Republicans are Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis.

“With the addition of Megan and Chris to Team Levine, we are continuing to build the campaign infrastructure best equipped to achieve success in the primary and general elections and flip the Florida Governor’s Office blue,” Levine’s Campaign Manager Matthew Van Name, stated in a news release. “The presence of our area directors throughout the state’s regions allows our team to have roots in communities across Florida and enables us to reach voters in all 67 counties.”

Is insurrection erupting within statewide teachers union?

In a seeming act of civil war, the second-in-command of the state’s teachers union says he’s now vying to take over leadership of the Florida Education Association (FEA).

FEA vice president Fedrick Ingram, the first African American elected president of United Teachers of Dade, on Friday posted an announcement on Facebook that he was running for union president against incumbent Joanne McCall.

The issue: The union needs to be “better, more powerful and proactive,” he said. Teachers have long been upset about the Legislature encroaching on public education, saying it’s boosting private schools at their expense and starving county schools systems of needed funding.

Ingram (via Facebook).

His “team,” he added, includes Andrew Spar for Vice President and Carole Gauronskas for Secretary-Treasurer.

“It has always been my way to work out differences from the inside,” he wrote, never mentioning McCall by name.

“However, there comes a moment in one’s life when matters become so serious and challenges so steep that hard decisions must be made. The circumstances at FEA are just that serious.”

A request for comment was left Friday with a FEA spokesman.

In a story published by POLITICO Florida Monday, McCall said she was “surprised, shocked and saddened” by Ingram’s decision to challenge her. Referring to her work with Ingram and FEA Secretary-Treasurer Luke Flynt, McCall said “the three of us have done much great work together as a team.”

“We have been working with a hostile legislature for two decades,” she wrote in the email. “The only way to make the necessary changes to current statutes is to elect true public education champions — people that actually care about our students, teachers, education staff professionals and our public schools.”

“This process didn’t get this way overnight and it won’t be fixed overnight,” she said. “However, staying laser focused on the strategy and mission that we have begun since my tenure (which is working) will make the difference.”

She added that she is looking forward to Election Day, when she expects “to elect more pro public education Senators and House members along with a pro public education governor so that our students have the best quality educators and the resources they deserve to do their jobs.”

The rest of Ingram’s letter follows:

“In 2015, I ran for FEA Vice President because I thought I could make a difference and help build FEA into a more powerful organization that would be a leader in the fight for our public schools. That’s still my intent. But time is an enemy.

“The unprecedented attack on our members from the passage of HB 7069 and HB 7055 in two consecutive years should cause us all to reevaluate and rethink our strategy, tactics and our goals.

“We are in the fight of our lives. Make no mistake about it. Our anti-union opponents are not coming after us because of who we are; they are coming after us because of who we can become. We simply can’t continue to conduct business as usual.

“We can win – for teachers, educational support professionals, higher ed, for those who will come after us and for those who have paved the way, and most of all for our students.

“But we cannot win with the reactive approach that has held our state organization back. That is why I’m announcing my candidacy today for President of the Florida Education Association.

“Two outstanding leaders join me. Andrew Spar, President of the Volusia United Educators, who also serves as the Florida AFL-CIO’s Secretary/Treasurer, is running for FEA Vice President; and Carole Gauronskas, the President of the St. Johns Educational Support Professional Association, is seeking the position of FEA Secretary-Treasurer.

“Together we launch this campaign, not because it’s easy but because it’s hard and because it’s necessary. The easy route for all of us would be to go with the flow and to pretend everything will work itself out – business as usual. We can’t do that …

“With your help and guidance we can build a better statewide union. This year we have seen an unprecedented organizing effort from our locals. You deserve the credit for giving us a foundation on which to build.

“Now we must shift to a long-range plan that includes strong support for locals under 50-percent membership and moving members to activists, and activists to leaders. We need to ensure that all of our locals, including those representing education support professionals and higher education faculty, are valued members in this team effort.

“In the coming weeks, we will continue this conversation about what FEA can become and how we can play offense instead of defense.

“These are challenging times, but challenges can be overcome. I give speeches all the time these days, but early in my life I had a stutter that was so severe that I couldn’t speak clearly until I was seven-years-old.

“A music teacher made a difference in my life. She told me to think about what to say (or sing), focus, take a deep breath and go for it. I overcame the stutter and went on after college to become a teacher, a school bandleader, and eventually Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year and a Florida Finalist for Teacher of the Year, UTD President, and today FEA Vice President.

“What kind of union do you want? If you believe, as we do, that it’s time for a vision, a new strategy and tactics in order to survive and thrive, then focus, take a deep breath and go for it. Join us. Together we can build a better, more powerful and proactive FEA.

“In solidarity, Fed.”

Philip Levine

Poll: Philip Levine maintains lead among Tampa Bay Democrats

Another month, another poll, another win trumpeted by Philip Levine’s gubernatorial campaign.

A Public Policy Polling survey, released first to Florida Politics, again shows the former mayor of Miami Beach  atop the primary field among Tampa Bay Democrats. The poll was commissioned by Levine’s senior adviser, Christian Ulvert.

He’s the pick for a full third of voters, while his three rivals combine to 32 percent support. Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham accounts for most of that at 19 percent, followed by Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum at 8 percent and Orlando-area businessman Chris King at 5 percent.

At 35 percent, “unsure” reign as the top choice for likely voters remains unbroken, though the share has shrunk by a few points since the last Tampa Bay poll, which showed Levine polling at 32 percent followed by Graham at 18 percent.

The survey showed the South Florida Democrat firmly in the No. 1 spot among men and women, young and old, and in each of the five counties surveyed – Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota and Pasco. Graham, was the No. 2 pick in all categories and Gillum was firmly in third. Despite a few ties with King in the crosstabs, he never slipped to the back of the pack.

Though the top-of-page results are nearly identical to last month’s edition, there were some gains that’ll be met with glee at Levine’s headquarters, none more so than name recognition.

As of mid-May, 54 percent of Tampa Bay Democrats have now heard enough about Levine to form an opinion – a 6-point gain from the last poll – and he’s seen in a favorable light by a margin of 45-8. That puts him 17 points ahead of Graham in name recognition and in another league from Gillum and King.

The same number of respondents indicated they’d see one of Levine’s TV commercials, an 8-point gain. Among those who had, he scored plus-53 in favorability, 61-8. That’s certain to be seen as a good return on Levine’s “investments,” which have shown no sign of slowing down, and have little reason to with the Aug. 28 primary fast approaching.

Graham polled 30-7 in the favorability measure, with 63 percent unsure about the North Florida Democrat. Gillum followed at 16-7 and King continued to be the least-known of the four major Democrats, earning a neutral favorability score with 86 percent of Tampa Bay Democrats unsure of their opinion or unaware of his candidacy.

Hillsborough County and Pinellas County were each home to a third of those polled, while the remaining 33 percent was split between Manatee, Pasco and Sarasota.

The age breakdown showed 49 percent of respondents in the 65-and-up bracket, 40 percent between 45 and 65, and 12 percent aged 18 to 45. The race breakdown showed 69 percent of those polled were white, 16 percent were black and 10 percent were Hispanic or Latino. The gender split was 57-43, with women in the majority.

Levine’s support peaked among young voters and men. Graham’s No. 2 showing put her behind Levine by 17 points among women, 11 points among men, 20 points among younger voters, and 13 points among middle-aged and older voters.

Levine’s results breached 40 percent in Manatee and came in only a point lower in Sarasota. He beat his 33 percent overall score by a point in Pasco, too. Still, those counties combined have 50,000 fewer registered Democrats than Hillsborough, which produced his weakest (though still leading) showing in the five-county area.

Pinellas was by far the best county for Graham. The 25 percent share she earned there was 8 points ahead of her results in Hillsborough, her next-best county.

Gillum broke double digits in Hillsborough and Pasco, while only 5 percent of Pinellas voters backed him; King hovered around 5 percent in all but Manatee, where his support came in at 1 percent. Gillum and King supporters tended to be middle-aged, with Gillum polling a few points higher with men than women. King’s backers were twice as likely to be women.

The PPP poll contacted 581 likely Democratic voters by phone on May 15 and 16.

Flags at half-staff for Texas school shooting victims

Gov. Rick Scott ordered flags at half-staff in Florida, in solidarity with Texas as it mourns 10 dead there after another high school shooting spree.

“My wife, Ann, and I are devastated to learn of the tragic school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas,” he said in a statement.

“I spoke to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and offered any assistance or support they may need in response to this horrific act of violence against innocent students, teachers, and law enforcement,” he added.

“As we continue to mourn the loss we experienced in Florida on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we unfortunately know the enormity of the grief they are experiencing and our hearts are broken over this senseless tragedy.”

To “honor and remember” the victims at the Santa Fe High School on May 18, he directed the U.S. and state flags “to be flown at half-staff at all local and state buildings, installations, and grounds throughout the State of Florida.”

“The flags shall be lowered immediately and remain at half-staff until the expiration of President Donald J. Trump’s national directive, until sunset on Tuesday, May 22,” he said. 

President Trump’s proclamation is here.

Amendment supporters fear voter fatigue

Anticipated “voter fatigue” is already a concern of backers of a proposed constitutional amendment that would extend a property-tax cap, particularly because approval of the measure will require support from 60 percent of voters.

When they cast ballots in November, Floridians will decide the fate of the 13 proposed constitutional amendments, including the measure, known as Amendment 2, that would extend the tax cap on non-homesteaded properties.

The long list of ballot proposals worries supporters of Amendment 2, though the measure does not have announced opposition.

“We are in a non-presidential election cycle, so there’s going to be some voter fatigue and endurance issues, and we want to make sure when they get to Amendment 2 they’re going to vote ‘yes,’ ” Patrick Slevin, a spokesman for the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said this week.

The amendment, which also has backing from groups such as Florida Realtors, would extend and make permanent a 10 percent cap on annual increases in assessed values of non-homesteaded properties. Unless an extension is approved in November, the cap otherwise will expire at the end of the year.

Florida TaxWatch said Tuesday that eliminating the cap would raise property taxes by more than $700 million on non-homesteaded properties like businesses, apartments and second homes. Lawmakers used a similar figure when they voted last year to put the measure on the 2018 ballot.

The Legislature also put two other proposals on the November ballot that could limit taxes. One measure, which will appear as Amendment 1, would expand the homestead property-tax exemption. The other, which will appear as Amendment 5, would require two-thirds votes by future legislators to raise taxes.

The ballot also will include two measures that are a result of petition drives. One of the measures, Amendment 3, would allow voters to decide on future expansions of gambling. Another measure, Amendment 4, would restore voting rights for felons who have served their sentences.

The Constitution Revision Commission added eight other amendments, with six of the measures featuring two or more topics.

Amendment 6 focuses on victims’ rights. Amendment 7 includes death benefits for first responders. Amendment 8 involves term limits for school-board members and other educational changes. Amendment 9 combines a proposed ban on offshore oil drilling with a proposed ban on vaping in the workplace. Amendment 10 deals with issues including the start date of legislative sessions in even-numbered years. Amendment 11 involves issues related to property rights and high-speed rail. Amendment 12 would impose a six-year lobbying ban on former state elected officials. And Amendment 13 would ban greyhound racing.

Now imagine reading the longer, more defined version of each of those while in the voting booth.

Kate MacFall, the Humane Society’s Florida state director, believes the greyhound-racing ban, which she supports, can avoid problems with voter fatigue.

“We think Amendment 13 is going to stand out and bring a lot of voter support,” MacFall said.

However, she understands other issues “about tax policy that could be more confusing” might become buried in the muddle.

Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, said he “generally” doesn’t agree with “log rolling,” putting multiple topics into single amendments, but he understands the need to condense the ballot.

Along with the length of the ballot, a concern for backers of Amendment 2 is that voters commonly will vote “no” if they don’t want things to change. But a “no” vote on Amendment 2 would do away with the tax cap that property owners already enjoy.

Parkland students on Texas: They’re part of this now

Survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, are expressing outrage and heartbreak after authorities said a student killed 10 people Friday at a high school in Texas.

The attack at Santa Fe High School is the deadliest school shooting since a former student was arrested in the killing of 17 people at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day, a massacre that mobilized a nationwide movement for gun reform. It also came on the last day of school for Stoneman Douglas seniors, who finish classes earlier than other grades.

She also directed her frustration at President Donald Trump, writing “Our children are being MURDERED and you’re treating this like a game. This is the 22nd school shooting just this year. DO SOMETHING.”

Classmate David Hogg, who helped start the #NeverAgain movement with Corin, predicted that politicians would descend on the Texas campus acting like they care to boost their approval ratings.

Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School react as more details emerge from the school shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas (May 18).

Cameron Kasky echoed their sentiments on Twitter: “Prepare to watch the NRA boast about getting higher donations. Prepare to see students rise up and be called ‘civil terrorists’ and crisis actors. Prepare for the right-wing media to attack the survivors.”

A handful of Twitter users did began to question the facts of the Texas shooting Friday, at least one accusing a Santa Fe student of being a #CrisisActor after she told a local television station she’d always felt like a shooting would eventually happen at her school.

Most of the victims of Friday’s shooting at a Houston-area high school were students, authorities said.

“Santa Fe High, you didn’t deserve this. You deserve peace all your lives, not just after a tombstone saying that is put over you. You deserve more than Thoughts and Prayers, and after supporting us by walking out we will be there to support you by raising up your voices,” tweeted Emma Gonzalez, one of the movement’s leading voices.

Monday marked three months since a former student with an AR-15 was charged in the attack in Parkland, Florida. The movement that resulted led to gun reform legislation being passed in Florida, and a continuing national debate over guns and school safety.

“I want to talk to them,” he added. “I’d like to say it gets better, but it actually gets a lot worse before it gets better.”

March For Our Lives released a statement urging Americans not to simply let this latest shooting pass without action. The group said some Parkland students had already reached out to the Texas survivors.

“This is not the price of our freedom. This is the most fatal shooting since the one at our school and tragedies like this will continue to happen unless action is taken,” the statement said.

Stoneman Douglas student Kayla Renert recalled how she traveled to Washington for the massive gun reform rally in March.

“On the bus in D.C., I said we continue to say never again but it keeps happening again. This was again. We worked hard to make Douglas the last mass school shooting and unfortunately three months later there was another,” said the 15-year-old sophomore.

Delaney Tarr tweeted: “I should be celebrating my last day of high school, but instead my heart is broken to hear of the tragedy at Santa Fe. We cannot let this continue to be the norm. We cannot.”

Material from the Associated Press and other sources was used in this post.

Gwen Graham vows to get housing money into communities

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham accused the Republican-led Florida government of neglecting the needs of affordable housing and vowed to change that with full funding of the state’s Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund and efforts to get housing money quickly into communities.

“When I get into office I am going to take a hard look at where we are spending our resources, and what we need to do. I’m not naive. I know it’s going to be tough. There are going to be a lot of challenges Florida has not faced in a very long time, and housing is one of them,” she said. “We’re going to have to be creative about how we get resources into communities to begin to immediately address these shortages.”

As part of her ongoing “WorkDays” program that has her work in someone else’s job for a day, Graham spent Friday installing windows, calking floor baseboards and painting for a Habitat for Humanity of Greater Orlando housing construction project in Apopka. The Arbor Bend subdivision will include 34 new affordable homes when it is complete. Many already are finished and occupied.

While praising Habitat for Humanity, she conceded “It is a drop in the bucket” as a response to the state’s affordable housing needs.

Graham stressed the affordable housing crisis in the greater Orlando area, saying it ranked third worst in the nation behind Los Angeles and Las Vegas, adding, “and it’s only getting worse.”

It’s a topic that her rival Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King, an Orlando entrepreneur whose projects include affordable housing, has pushed from the first day of his campaign last year. Like King, Graham expressed frustration that the state’s fund for affordable housing has been raided annually for other budgetary purposes, rather than spent on affordable housing.

They also face Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine in the August 28 Democratic primary. The leading Republicans are Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis.

“The Republicans who control Tallahassee have stolen more than $2 billion of Floridians’ tax dollars from the affordable housing trust to pay for their own special projects,” Graham stated in a news release. “If more of the politicians in Tallahassee spent a day working to construct affordable housing, they’d see just how much more we could accomplish working together on progressive solutions to help Florida families. They’d quit stealing from the trust fund and invest in Florida.”

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