Influence Archives - Florida Politics

Bill seeks to prevent driver’s license suspensions in non-driving offenses

No one should lose their driver’s license over an infraction that isn’t related to driving.

That’s the premise of a bill (SB 1270) filed Friday by St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes.

“It is time to address the growing problem of non-driving related license suspensions,” Brandes said in a press release announcing the bill. “Stop the madness and quit taking away people’s driver’s licenses for unrelated offenses, especially failing to pay fines and fees.”

The bill would prohibit suspending someone’s driver’s license for various offenses unrelated to driving – except for failing to pay child support.

The legislation also helps solidify the right of a defendant in financial hardship to instead use community service as a form of payment for fees and fines. Individuals who have their licenses suspended due to financial reasons would instead be issued a “hardship license.”

Currently, someone who has been caught driving on a suspended license three or more times is given a felony. Brandes’ bill would prevent such action in instances when the driver had their license suspended for financial hardship.

“A relatively minor offense puts someone into the system where they may spiral downward and lose their job or end up serving prison time because they have to choose between driving to work and driving with a suspended license,” Brandes said.

The 2018 Session, which starts Jan. 9, marks the third time Brandes has tried to limit non-driving related license suspensions. Brandes’ bill last year died in Senate Appropriations.

Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson, also of St. Petersburg, co-sponsored the legislation last year. Brandes notes that Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube and Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young have also been supportive of previous measures.

Richard Corcoran comes out on top in Lottery dispute

After House Speaker Richard Corcoran successfully sued the Florida Lottery, the agency has agreed to tweak its multi-year deal for new equipment and other items to require legislative oversight and approval.

It seems Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican and possible candidate for governor, got exactly what he wanted: Control.

“For avoidance of doubt: The State of Florida’s performance and obligation to pay under this contract is contingent upon an annual appropriation by the Legislature,” the new agreement says. A request for comment is pending with Corcoran’s spokesman.

The Lottery, which reports to Gov. Rick Scott, on Friday released redacted documents detailing changes in what was originally a contract worth $700 million over an initial 10-year period, with three available 3-year renewal options.

Among others, the changes include reducing the number of “full-service vending machines” and requiring the  vendor, International Game Technology (IGT), to “support the Lottery’s marketing efforts” by kicking back $30,000 a month. 

Corcoran sued in February, saying the Lottery was guilty of “wasteful and improper spending” and “signing a contract that spends beyond existing budget limitations.”

The contract was for new retailer terminals, in-store signage, self-service lottery vending machines, self-service ticket checkers and an upgraded communications network.

Corcoran’s lawsuit said the Lottery “cannot enter into a contract that obligates the agency to pay more in subsequent fiscal years than its current budget authority allows….”

Tallahassee-based Circuit Judge Karen Gievers invalidated the deal in March, and the Lottery appealed. The sides asked the appellate court to put a hold on the case while they tried to work on a resolution. 

Last month, lawyers filed a status report with the 1st District Court, which telegraphed the “memorandum of agreement.”

It said they had “reached an understanding” but the “resolution may involve some final budget action by the Legislature and Governor for the next fiscal year.”

Lottery proceeds go into the state’s Educational Enhancement Trust Fund, which helps pay for public education.

The documents, provided to Florida Politics after a public records request to the Lottery, are below:

A not-so-fun hypothetical for Joe Negron

So, let’s imagine an imaginary senator—we’ll call him Mack Trackvalla—who gets into a bit of a pickle for some allegedly inappropriate behavior.

There’s an outcry, followed by calls for his resignation, which he laughs at. “I’ll see the place burn first!” this imaginary lawmaker tells news media.

A complaint to the Rules Committee soon follows, then an investigation, which some call a witch hunt, others say isn’t in-depth enough.

No matter. The unthinkable, at least for Trackvalla, happens: The Rules Committee recommends expulsion. Reporters go wild.

The question goes to the floor, and after impassioned debate, Trackvalla is ousted as more than two-thirds of his colleagues vote to boot him out of the chamber.

With a vacant seat, a special election is called.

Then Trackvalla comes up with an ingenious solution and an “F” you to his now-former colleagues: He’s going to qualify to run for his old seat in that special election.

Here’s the thing: There’s no legal bar preventing him from doing so (and I looked).

Trackvalla could tap into his still-loyal contributor network and raise the funds he needs, or he could just spend the MILLIONS he already has in the bank.

Fast forward, and miracle of miracles, he wins. Now what?

Turn to Article III, section 2 of the state Constitution: “Each house shall be the sole judge of the qualifications, elections, and returns of its members….”

What’s a Senate President to do? Say, “We expelled you before, and we’re not letting you back in”? He certainly could. And there’s nowhere to go to appeal.

But this is all just the musings of a distracted mind. Still, food for thought.

Jeanette Nunez proposes year-round daylight-saving time

With the measure dubbed the “Sunshine Protection Act,” a House Republican on Friday proposed a bill that calls for Florida to observe daylight-saving time throughout the year.

The bill (HB 1013), filed by Miami Republican Rep. Jeanette Nunez, indicates it would depend on Congress changing a law to authorize states to stay on daylight-saving time year-round.

But the Nunez proposal, which says Florida “should be kept sunny year-round,” could clash with a bill (SB 858), filed by Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, that would lead to the state exempting itself from daylight-saving time and observing standard time.

The bills are filed for consideration during the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts Jan. 9.

Daylight-saving time this year started March 12 and ended Nov. 5.

University leaders back dropping grad student tax

The presidents of the University of Florida and Florida State University said a last-minute decision by congressional leaders to scuttle a proposal to tax tuition waivers for graduate students would be a major victory for higher education.

A U.S. House tax-overhaul plan would have made graduate students pay federal income taxes on tuition charges that get waived in exchange for duties like research and teaching. The U.S. Senate did not include the provision in its tax legislation.

As the final negotiations unfolded this week on the tax bill, which is primarily aimed at cutting corporate and personal income taxes, federal lawmakers said the tax on graduate tuition waivers is not expected to be part of the legislation, according to The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets.

However, the exact details of the bill will not be known until Friday when a conference report is released.

Presidents from all 12 of Florida’s state universities had joined a national campaign by higher-education leaders urging Congress not to tax the tuition waivers.

“All the presidents in our system have raised their concerns,” Florida State President John Thrasher said. “We’ve met with congressmen. We have written letters. We have done everything we can to make sure that they understand the significance and impact it would have on higher education.”

Thrasher and University of Florida President Kent Fuchs, who met with Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday, said the proposal to tax graduate tuition waivers was a top concern with the federal legislation.

“It’s important because our nation needs more students that get advanced degrees at the master’s and Ph.D. level,” Fuchs said.

“Many of these students come in and need a stipend to survive on,” Fuchs said. “Many have families. They are living on $20,000. If you start taxing income they aren’t getting, it’s critical.”

In the 2011-2012 academic year, more than half – 55 percent – of graduate students nationally earned less than $20,000 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

At the same time, master’s degree students received tuition waivers that averaged $10,949 nationally, while doctoral students had a $13,609 average waiver, according to the federal data.

About 57 percent of the waivers in 2011-2012 were for students enrolled in advanced-degree programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“A repeal of (the waiver) would lead to an unaffordable increase in taxable income and make the pursuit of a graduate degree much more challenging, if not impossible, for many of these students,” according to the Association of Public & Land Grant Universities, a national group that includes Florida’s top public research schools. “In turn, this would greatly damage our nation’s scientific research enterprise.”

Thrasher said financially supporting graduate students is important because of the role they play at each school.

“These are people who really do make a difference in the university,” Thrasher said. “They teach. They do research. They provide so many great services.”

If the tuition waiver is taxed, Thrasher said schools would have to look at other ways to keep graduate education affordable.

“We would have to subsidize it from the Legislature or other programs,” he said. “It would be a burden on everybody.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

FMA using new software to boost healthcare cost transparency for patients

The Florida Medical Association is teaming up with a Sunrise-based tech company to help patients better understand the cost of medical care by swiping a card after an appointment.

The deal, announced Thursday, gives FMA doctors access to “ezVerify,” a software platform from Automated HealthCare Solutions that promises to identify patient-specific health insurance information in real-time to provide patients a fixed dollar amount to expect when their healthcare bills arrive.

FMA, a professional group that represents Florida’s medical and osteopathic doctors, said the partnership would be a “game changer” for its 22,000 members and the millions of Floridians who get their care from FMA providers.

“We are excited to work with AHCS and be at the forefront of bringing transparency to our valued physician members and their patients. We believe this technology and partnership will set the standard for transparency in patient/physician relationships,” said FMA CEO Tim Stapleton.

AHCS added that ezVerify takes the “unknown” out of the equation when it comes to out-of-pocket costs and is a surefire way to keep patients from being “unpleasantly surprised” when they receive a bill.

Dr. Gerald Glass, the CEO and Co-Founder of AHCS, said his company’s solution would “in a matter of seconds” allow patients to “fully and completely understand their insurance coverage and their direct financial responsibility.”

“In an age where insurance is complex, our transparency tool streamlines the process and removes the guesswork for patients and physicians.”

FMA and AHCS said the ezVerify partnership is just one of what they expect to be multiple joint projects to “improve the patient/physician experience and expand transparency across Florida’s healthcare system.”

Dana Young, Jamie Grant seeks to provide cash for ‘innovative’ Tampa Bay transit

It’s no secret that one of the most significant problems dragging down the Tampa Bay-area economy is a lack of sufficient transportation options, as well as the lack of money to fund potential solutions.

Attempting to provide a partial solution are Tampa-area state legislators Dana Young and Jamie Grant, who publicly discussed their bill that would provide $25 million for the recently revamped Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA) in what is being called “innovative” transportation options.

“We think it makes a lot of sense to see how quickly we can put innovative solutions out on our roads at a cost-efficient way to our taxpayer,” said Grant, who is sponsoring the bill (HB 535) in the House. He hopes that the funding would “leverage the innovation” that is occurring when it comes to developments like Automatic Vehicles (A/V), ride-sharing, ferries and Bus Rapid Transit.

Young says the proposal (SB 1200) would repurpose $60 million annually out of a $240 million existing rail fund and would be labeled the Statewide Alternative Transportation Authority. Of that $60 million, $25 million would go to the Tampa Bay area (and be administered by TBARTA), $25 million would go to Miami-Dade County, and the remaining $10 million would be allocated to projects throughout the state that are ranked by the state Dept. of Transportation. There would have to be local funding to match the state grant, though the specifics of how that will work out is still being considered, Grant said.

One thing officials gathered at the news conference that was held outside the Tampa Convention Center were adamant about is the money would not go toward funding any light-rail projects.

“What we don’t want to be is SunRail,” Grant said, referring to the commuter rail system started up in Orlando three years ago. “What we don’t want to be is a local community having a train that costs us more money to print a ticket than it would to give away the ride for free.”

In fact, the bill takes funding currently going toward SunRail and redirects it to the Tampa Bay and Miami regions.

“I think we have to look at a whole constellation of different ideas in Tampa Bay, and not just locked into the old idea that rail is the only way. Because rail is not the only way,” said James W. Holton, the president of Holton Companies. Holton is Gov. Rick Scott’s hand-picked choice to head TBARTA.

“There are numerous other ways to do it,” Holton added. “And potentially the combination of a lot of different modalities is where we want to go.”

Created a decade ago under former Gov. Charlie Crist, TBARTA is a regional transportation agency through the seven counties of the Greater Tampa Bay area. But TBARTA always struggled due to a lack of significant funding from the Legislature.

Reconfigured in the 2017 Legislative Session as a smaller agency (though not much smaller; now consisting of five counties — Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee, and Hernando) with an emphasis on transit, TBARTA still did not get additional funding.

Legislation sponsored by Sarasota Republican Rep. Joe Gruters (HB 2451) to fund the agency with $1 million has been introduced for the 2018 Session.

“I’m thrilled to hear about this legislation,” gushed St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. “As a member of TBARTA, it’s one thing to come up with a plan, but if we don’t have the resources to see that plan implemented, then we’ve all spent a lot of time and energy not really moved the ball at all.”

While additional funding would not go toward light rail, an ongoing project studying transit options for the Tampa Bay region paid for by FDOT released their top five recommendations back in SeptemberThe number one ranked option was a light-rail system from Wesley Chapel to the University of South Florida Tampa campus and on to St. Petersburg.

Young said the proposal would not interfere with other transit studies.

“We’re not taking anything off the table for traditional projects that would be funded in a traditional way through the FDOT five-year plan,” she said. “What we are doing is providing an additional fund that we are going to dedicate to innovative, alternative transportation projects.”

Even if the bill passed the Legislature in the 2018 Session, nobody would see those funds for years.

According to a news release issued after the news conference (but not mentioned during it), “funding for TBARTA and other statewide projects through the authority will not be available until the 2021-2022 fiscal year.”

The bill has already passed through one committee in the House.

(Photo credit: Kim DeFalco).

School board term-limit proposal heads to full CRC

A proposal that would establish term limits on county school board members cleared a panel of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission on Thursday, pushing it closer to potentially making an appearance on the November ballot.

The proposed change to the state constitution would limit school board members to eight consecutive years in office — the same as Florida legislators. Commissioner Erika Donalds, who is sponsoring the proposal, said the change to the state constitution would better represent the “will of the people.”

“We all know that the easiest way to be elected is to already be elected,” Donalds told commissioners in the Local Government Committee.

Those opposing the change, however, called it an unnecessary and unfair proposal that would “deploy a tool to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Ruth Melton, the director for the Florida School Board Association, said the measure is not necessary because school board elections are “nonpartisan” and only have “real people with real ideas” running for a seat.

“The voters elected these people with a certain expectation of service, they too are being deprived from an important voice and an important choice,” Melton said.

Bob Solari, an Indian River County Commissioner appointed to the CRC by Senate President Joe Negron, said he would not support it because he wanted to put “significant issues” on the 2018 November ballot.

“This proposal to me seems to remove the ability for local communities to make important decisions locally,” Solari said.

With Thursday’s favorable vote, the measure now heads to the full CRC for consideration, where the 37-member body will have the power to put it before voters in November.

Jeff Brandes wants privacy protection for Echo, Google Home

It’s time to deal with privacy in the age of Alexa, Sen. Jeff Brandes says.

The St. Petersburg Republican has filed legislation (SB 1256) to protect the expectation of privacy in the use of cell phones and other microphone-enabled household devices.

The surge in sales of “smart speakers” like Amazon’s Echo, with its “Alexa” cloud-based voice service, and Google Home has caused some civil libertarians to express privacy concerns.

Brandes’ measure requires law enforcement to get a warrant before searching communications and location data contained in such devices.

“As technology continues to become more integrated in our daily lives, it is critical that the law recognize that electronic devices are the modern day equivalent of papers and effects, falling under the protections of the 4th Amendment of the Constitution,” Brandes said in a statement.

“It is my hope that this collaborative effort will accomplish my goal of bringing us into this day and age technologically without compromising law enforcement’s ability to provide public safety.”

Dan Olds, an analyst with technology analysis firm OrionX, told last year that “there are plenty of privacy issues with this type of always-listening technology.”

“It’s obvious that any device that is always listening could also be always storing and always analyzing anything that is within earshot of the receiver,” he said.

“It could give Google a hell of a lot more personal data about users than they get now,” Olds said referring to Google Home, which was introduced a little over a year ago.

Google’s support page for the device, however, says it isn’t recording all of its owners’ conversations. 

“When Google Home detects that you’ve said ‘OK Google’ or that you’ve physically long-pressed the top of your Google Home device, the LEDs on top of the device light up to tell you that recording is happening, Google Home records what you say, and sends that recording … to Google in order to fulfill your request,” it says. “You can delete those recordings anytime.”

Brandes says he sought advice from industry experts and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement prior to filing the bill to ensure that privacy is maintained and to provide clarity as to how law enforcement may access these devices.

He says his legislation makes clear that collection by law enforcement of an individual’s location, a cell phone, or a home enabled device, without the consent of the person or owner of the devices, should be allowed only when authorized by a warrant, unless certain exigent circumstances exist.

Joe Redner’s Florigrown files mammoth medical marijuana lawsuit

An epic 238-page lawsuit filed by Joe Redner‘s Florigrown company—replete with references to Encyclopedia Britannica, ancient Roman medical texts and the Nixon White House tapes—alleges that the state is failing its responsibility to carry out the people’s will when it comes to medical marijuana.

The complaint was filed Wednesday in Leon County Circuit Civil court against the Department of Health, its Office of Medical Marijuana Use and director Christian Bax, state Surgeon General Celeste Philip and Gov. Rick Scott.

The latest action adds to the growing amount of litigation over medical marijuana, which has state lawmakers concerned it’s interfering with the department’s ability to process vendor licenses and patient ID cards, among other things.

Chief among the many suits is another constitutional challenge from attorney John Morgan over lawmakers’ ban on smoking medicinal cannabis. Morgan was the main backer of the state constitutional amendment authorizing marijuana as medicine and approved by voters last year.

Florigrown, which had been denied the ability to be a medical marijuana treatment center, says the state is shirking its duties under the constitutional amendment passed last year that authorizes medical marijuana, and in regulating the drug under state law.

Redner is a Tampa icon, who built an adult entertainment empire after acquiring the legendary Mons Venus club, then became a free speech advocate and frequent political candidate.

He also has been diagnosed with lung cancer and separately sued to be allowed to grow his own marijuana.

Redner’s business partner in Florigrown, Adam Elend, said the company is qualified and ready to supply medicinal cannabis.

“The department is confusing licensing with registering, which is a ministerial function,” he said. The Department of Health, like other agencies under Scott, does not comment on pending litigation. 

Elend added that caps on the number of licenses the state gives to vendors are unconstitutional “because the (state) is charged with creating regulations that guarantee access and the safe use of marijuana by qualifying patients.”

The state also carved out some special categories, such as preferences for black farmers and former citrus producers, which are the subject of other suits.

“There’s no process in place to open up the market,” Elend said.

The complaint and exhibits are below:

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