Influence – Florida Politics

Lawmakers grudgingly OK more money for marijuana regulators

The Legislature opened the state’s wallet again Thursday, granting a request from the state’s medical marijuana regulators for another $13 million in operating costs.

The approval from the Joint Legislative Budget Commission didn’t come without some grousing, however. The Department of Health, under Gov. Rick Scott, regulates the drug through its Office of Medical Marijuana Use (OMMU).

House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa told department officials she had “lost some sleep over this,” mentioning her and other lawmakers’ frustration over the slow-going of the office, including delays in issuing medicinal cannabis patient identification cards. 

Legislators had pushed back earlier this year when they included a provision from House Republican Jason Brodeur in the 2018-19 budget to withhold more than $1.9 million in Department of Health salaries and benefits until regulators fully implement medical marijuana.

Moreover, $1.5 million of the extra money requested Thursday will go to outside lawyers hired by the office to represent it in ongoing litigation.

For example, the state is appealing two high-profile cases: Tampa strip club mogul Joe Redner’s circuit court win to grow and juice his own medicinal cannabis, and plaintiffs backed by Orlando attorney John Morgan who won a decision allowing them to smoke medical marijuana.

“Let’s stop wasting taxpayer dollars” on suits the state shouldn’t be appealing, Cruz said. “Please start taking this seriously,” she added, calling the office’s actions part “intentional ineptitude” and part “simple sabotage.”

Other OMMU needs include covering the cost to review applications for four new provider licenses now that the number of medical marijuana patients is over 100,000, and to procure “a computer software tracking system that traces marijuana from seed-to-sale,” according to the request. (Details from the request are here.)

The Commission, which acts as a joint committee of the Legislature, is charged with reviewing and approving the equivalent of mid-course corrections to the current year’s state spending plan. The budget went into effect July 1. 

But Sen. Rob Bradley, the Fleming Island Republican who chaired Thursday’s meeting, said lawmakers “should have dealt with these issues” during the 2018 Legislative Session “while the budget was being prepared.”

“I’m disappointed that we are dealing with this now,” added Bradley, the Senate’s Appropriations Committee chair. “But we’re dealing with it. And we need to get these things done.”

In other action, lawmakers:

— Approved a request from Secretary of State Ken Detzner for authority to distribute $19.2 million from the feds for heightened elections security. All 67 counties have applied for funds, he said. The money may be spent on “cybersecurity” needs, among other things.

— OK’d a request from the Department of Emergency Management to dole out $340 million from a federal grant to farmers and grove owners to aid the citrus industry’s recovery from recent hurricanes. The money will go toward “purchasing and planting replacement trees,” ” repair of damages to irrigation systems,” and to repay growers for “economic losses.”

— Agreed to nearly $3.2 million more for the state Office on Homelessness to “support local homeless agencies in their efforts to reduce homelessness throughout Florida.”

Judge slated to hear House qualifying dispute

A Leon County circuit judge will hear arguments July 30 in a dispute about whether a candidate for a Central Florida House seat properly qualified to run.

Judge John Cooper on Wednesday issued an order scheduling the hearing in the lawsuit filed July 6 by Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat running in state House District 47. Eskamani contends that her Democratic primary opponent, Lou Forges, did not properly qualify because his wife notarized paperwork submitted to the state Division of Elections. She argues that state law bars such notarization by spouses and that Forges should be decertified as a candidate — arguments that Forges disputes.

Democrats are seeking to capture the seat, which is open because state Rep. Mike Miller, a Winter Park Republican, is running for Congress.

Second group forms to fight gambling amendment

A second political committee has registered to oppose a proposed state constitutional amendment requiring voter approval of new gambling.

Citizens for the Truth About Amendment 3 registered on Wednesday, Division of Elections records show.

It’s chaired by Dan Adkinslongtime head of Hallandale Beach’s former Mardi Gras Casino and Race Track. The group’s formation paperwork and initial campaign finance information were not available online; Adkins could not be immediately reached. 

Amendment 3, backed by Disney and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, aims at limiting gambling’s expansion in the state. The amendment would “ensure that Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling,” the ballot summary says.

Last week, the “Vote NO on 3” committee registered, chaired by South Florida’s Isadore “Izzy” Havenick, whose family operates Magic City Casino in Miami and Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Racing & Poker in Bonita Springs.

“It shows how everybody is concerned that someone is trying to put us all out of business,” said Havenick, who added he did not know who else was behind the new committee.

Adkins and Hartman & Tyner, the property management firm that owned the Mardi Gras for over 40 years, recently settled dueling lawsuits against each other.

As Florida Politics reported in March, Adkins accused H&T of lying to him that he’d be paid “millions of dollars” upon sale of the company’s gambling businesses in Florida, West Virginia and Michigan.

H&T countered that the 60-year-old Adkins “engag(ed) in self-dealing, corporate waste, and gross mismanagement.”

The facility now is owned by billionaire real estate investor Jeffrey Soffer and was rebranded as “The Big Easy Casino.”

Gambling regulators last month granted Soffer’s request for a slot machine license. That license was approved May 2 – one day after news that Soffer had closed on a $12.5 million deal to buy the property.

Rick Scott pressures lawmakers to OK citrus grant

Ahead of Thursday’s state Legislative Budget Commission meeting, Gov. Rick Scott is making it clear that he wants the panel to approve a $340 million federal block grant designed to help Florida citrus growers get back on their feet.

“I look forward to the legislature approving these important funds tomorrow so we can get this money to our growers,” Scott said in a statement released Wednesday. 

Sonny Perdue, U.S Secretary of Agriculture, announced the grant in May. Unlike other federal remedies made available to farmers across the country this year, the grant is exclusive to Florida growers. The money will be used to cover damages caused by Hurricane Irma, including the buying and replanting of trees, grove rehabilitation, and repairs to irrigation systems. 

While the state tentatively accepted the federal grant, the dollars require approval from the Legislative Budget Commission before dispersal.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam also expressed his support for the grant’s approval.

“Thanks to the hard work of so many, this much-needed piece of disaster assistance is finally on the way and will go a long way to help Florida’s citrus industry rebuild,” Putnam said. 

The sizeable grant, if approved on Thursday, will be a victory for Scott’s administration. The term-limited Republican governor cited a December meeting with Perdue on Thursday, during which he discussed “Florida’s iconic citrus industry.” The grant also appears to stem from Scott’s relationship with President Donald Trump. In announcing the grant in May, Perdue said he was instructed by Trump to work with Scott and Putnam to “put a process in place that will ensure the Florida citrus industry maintains its infrastructure and can continue to be the signature crop for the state.”

If approved, the news will be favorable to Florida growers, who this year experienced one of the worst citrus seasons in decades. They also await $2.36 billion worth of federal disaster-relief funding. The USDA plans to distribute that money through the 2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program. The program’s signup period began Monday and expires November 16.

Greyhound racing-ban group releases another round of endorsements

The Protect Dogs-Yes on 13 campaign Wednesday announced it had received endorsements from more current and former lawmakers, civic organizations, animal welfare organizations, and others.

Among them: state Sen. Dana Young, a Tampa Republican. “It’s time for Florida to move beyond mandated greyhound racing,” Young said.

Usually, pari-mutuels in Florida are required to continue running live dog or horse races to have slots and card games. Attempts at “decoupling,” removing the live racing requirement, has failed in the Legislature in recent years.

The campaign is promoting passage of Amendment 13, put on the November ballot by the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC).

The proposal, which needs at least 60 percent approval to be added to the state constitution, aims at ending commercial dog racing in the state. In Florida, live dog racing is still conducted at 11 tracks.

According to the campaign, Wednesday’s endorsements include:

— CRC member and state Sen. Tom Lee, the Thonotosassa Republican and former Senate President (2004-06) who sponsored the measure that became Amendment 13.

— Other CRC members: former Senate President (2012-14) Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican; former state Sen. Lisa Carlton, a Sarasota Republican; current Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat; Tallahassee-based political consultant Brecht Heuchan; former Sewall’s Point mayor Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch.

— Two former state senators, Democrats Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood and Maria Sachs of Delray Beach.

— The Greater Tarpon Springs Democratic Club, the OurRev305 progressive group in Miami, First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ocala, Animal Welfare League of Charlotte County, Edgewater Animal Shelter, Southeast Volusia Humane Society, The Animal Legal Defense Fund, Pets Ad Litem, Imagine Our Florida Inc.

Panel sends Rick Scott six finalists for PSC vacancies

A state panel declined Tuesday to choose among six candidates for the Public Service Commission, and instead voted unanimously to send all six names to Gov. Rick Scott.

The candidates include Julie I. Brown and Gary Clark, incumbent commissioners whose terms expire at the end of the year. The Florida Constitution forbids commissioners from serving more than three four-year terms.

“I would like to suggest, for efficiency, that we can just submit them as a slate, with one vote,” said Sen. Kelli Stargel, chairwoman of the PSC Nominating Council, during a televised hearing in Orlando.

First, the candidates had opportunities to pitch their qualifications during a joint job interview. The job pays more than $130,000 per year.

Brown is a former PSC chairwoman first appointed to the commission by Charlie Crist and reappointed by Rick Scott. She emphasized the PSC’s efforts during her tenure to adjust to technical advances in the energy sector, including the rise of electric vehicles and energy storage technology.

During her time as chairwoman, she said, the panel emphasized grid resiliency and engagement with utility customers. Florida is a leader in the regulatory sector, she said.

“States are modeling it after Florida,” Brown said.

One major challenge in the future is protecting the “smart grid” against cyber incursions and natural disasters, she continued. “Storm hardening” has been a priority for the PSC for 10 years.

“The challenge is for utilities to continue to stay vigilant and continue to develop technologies that can prohibit penetration of the grid,” Brown said. 

Clark has served since September 15, 2017, appointed by Scott to the vacancy left when Jimmy Patronis departed to become the state’s chief financial officer. He has served as administrator of Florida’s state parks system and as an executive with West Florida Electric.

His continued service would bring continuity and predictability to the commission, he said.

Asked about the commission’s workforce, Clark suggested expansion to might be in order to cope with increasingly sophisticated utilities networks. “We’re probably going to have a larger amount of technical staff at some point,” he said.

Anibal Taboas is an executive consultant with Strategic Leadership and Risk Management, a consultancy in the Chicago area, where he has advised corporations and educational and governmental institutions, including the U.S. Department of Energy, on best practices.

The Puerto Rico native serves as president and CEO of Aspira Inc. of Illinois, which operates charter schools and a youth development center.

Taboas emphasized the opportunity to pursue social responsibility, including encouragement of autonomous vehicles as a way to solve traffic congestion, and preparedness for cyber attacks and natural disasters.

Although he lives out of state, Taboas said, he has family ties to Florida and understands its regulatory challenges. Including, he said, the threat from climate change and rising sea levels to utilities infrastructure.

“I intend to be ready,” Taboas said. ”There’s value to having another set of eyes, another way of thinking.”

Amir Liberman, of West Palm Beach, operates Consulting.Net and has provided software consulting services for Florida Power & Light Co. The native Israeli conceded his lack of background in regulatory affairs, but highlighted his experience in the energy sector.

As a rural resident — Liberman operates a honeybee farm — he called for better cellular and internet service to areas like his own.

Regarding his ties to FPL, “all of my obligations are either expiring or will expire” by the time be would take office, Liberman said.

Monica Rutkowski is a regulatory and compliance consultant in Tallahassee specializing in health care and insurance, and has served at a high level in the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation. She is president of MER/Risk and Regulatory Compliance Solutions.

She has found that the same regulatory considerations she has dealt with during her career apply to the PSC, Rutkowski said, including balancing the needs of consumers with utilities and other stakeholders.

“There’s never a downtime,” she said. Regulator and regulated industries alike are always adjusting to risk. “You have to stay on top.”

Gregory Hill is a senior attorney for the Florida Department of Corrections. Previously, he served in the military, as a police officer in Tampa, as a public defender, and as counsel for children’s legal services in the Office of Attorney General.

Hill, a member of the Six Nations of Indians in New York state, never has worked for the utilities industry of any consumer group, he said, and would bring impartiality to the job. At the same time, he appreciates that “Florida has a very diverse utility climate.”

He is up to the steep learning curve he will face, Hill said. He’s adapted quickly on his feet before, mastering DNA and digital evidence standards as a criminal-law attorney.

What’s a slot machine? Florida court will decide

If a video game looks like a slot machine, plays like a slot machine, and pays out like a slot machine, is it still a slot machine if you know whether you’re going to win or lose?

No, said an attorney for a Jacksonville company that distributes what are called “pre-reveal” games, which can be found across the state in bars and taverns. A three-judge panel for Tallahassee’s 1st District Court of Appeal heard argument in the case Tuesday. 

The games “preview” outcomes as to their winning or losing nature. Judge James R. Wolf said the case wasn’t really about knowing the outcome of any individual play, but whether there was unpredictability in the “entire course of play.”

“I understand you don’t have to keep going, but come on, don’t make the argument they made in the trial court that people put money in just to see the fancy lights glow; that’s not why people put money in this machine,” he told Bryan DeMaggio, the attorney for Gator Coin II.

“They’re putting money in this machine because of an unpredictable outcome that’s going to come up,” Wolf added. Other states, including Indiana and North Carolina, have found pre-reveal games to be illegal gambling.

But, DeMaggio said, “if the player knows each outcome, then he knows” the entire course of play. “There are multiple levels you can click on … you can click around for 30 or 45 minutes looking at outcomes.”

The case began when Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) agents found one of the games in a Jacksonville sports bar and told the proprietor the machine was an “illegal gambling device.”

After first deciding “pre-reveal” games aren’t slots, Circuit Judge John Cooper of Tallahassee reversed himself last year, saying he had “(gotten) it wrong the first time.”

Cooper changed his mind after a hearing in which Barry Richard, a lawyer for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, told him the machines violate the Tribe’s exclusive right to offer slot machines outside of South Florida, imperiling the state’s future cut of its gambling revenue by “multibillions of dollars.”

The judge, however, said his reversal was based on further evidence on how the pre-reveal, or “no chance,” games — as its software maker prefers to call them — actually play.

His new order said that “to have a chance to receive an outcome other than what is currently displayed by the preview feature, the player must commit money to the machine to be privy to the next preview.” That “play pattern” is an “illegal gaming scheme designed to circumvent gambling prohibitions,” Cooper wrote.

Wolf too noted that players have to put money in to “preview” an outcome, asking at one point, “are we required to throw away our common sense?”

Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, filed legislation this past Session to outlaw the games; that bill passed the House and died in the Senate.

“Our entire case rises and falls on what the player knows,” DeMaggio told Wolf. “Chance is considered from the player’s point of view; what the machine ‘knows’ doesn’t matter.”

Daniel McGinn, an attorney for DBPR, countered that the machines have one job: To pay out or not. “A slot machine is a slot machine no matter the bells or whistles,” he told the court. His bosses, DBPR general counsel Jason Maine and Secretary Jonathan Zachem, attended the hearing.

Joseph Lewis Jr. and Stephanie W. Ray are the other two judges on the panel. As usual, they did not indicate when they would rule.

Gator Coin II’s Kathey Bright Fanning, daughter of founder Bud Bright, also attended Tuesday’s argument. She told reporters the number of pre-reveal machines in use continues to decrease as state regulators tell bar owners the games “may be illegal.”

When asked how profitable the machines are, she said, “It varies. Sometimes, it’s not very good for us. It really depends on the location.”

Personnel note: Jim Boxold named Capital City Consulting’s managing partner

Former Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold, who’s been with the governmental affairs firm Capital City Consulting since January 2017, now is the firm’s managing partner.

He now oversees human resources, administrative employment, firm efficiencies and processes, and work load management, the lobbying concern said in a press release.

“Our firm is growing rapidly and growth requires better organization, processes and human resource management,” said Nick Iarossi, co-founder. “We are fortunate to utilize Jim’s past experience managing one of the state’s largest agencies at Capital City Consulting.”

Added co-founder Ron LaFace: “With Jim’s executive experience, he is the natural person to serve as Capital City Consulting’s first managing partner. We are grateful he agreed to take on this responsibility and guide Capital City Consulting as we continue to expand operations in Tallahassee and other Florida cities.”

“I joined Capital City Consulting because I wanted to be a part of a dynamic team that provides its clients unparalleled government relations services,” Boxold said. “I am honored to have this leadership opportunity and look forward to continued success at a time of significant growth for the firm.”

Boxold, a former DOT chief of staff, was appointed to lead the agency in December 2014 to succeed Ananth Prasad. Prior to his time at the agency, Boxold served a decade as Director of Cabinet Affairs for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Before that, Boxold was Deputy Director of Cabinet Affairs for Gov. Jeb Bush. He also served as legislative affairs director for U.S. Rep. Porter J. Goss in 1995-2001.

The 1995 graduate of The George Washington University lives in Tallahassee.

Florida Retailers back Mel Ponder for re-election

The Florida Retail Federation announced Friday that it was backing Destin Republican Rep. Mel Ponder’s re-election bid in Okaloosa County’s House District 4.

“Representative Ponder is a successful small business owner and fought on behalf of the thousands of other small business owners throughout Florida during his first term in the House,” said FRF President/CEO R. Scott Shalley. “His efforts to protect Floridians and fellow small business owners by supporting pro-business legislation are issues we look forward to him continuing to work on in his return to the Florida House.”

Ponder runs a business that trains local business leaders and individuals, as well as ministers and others of faith to make a difference in their communities. He also works as a real estate agent.

The FRF endorsement comes the same week that Ponder made the Florida Realtor’s list of lawmakers it’s backing in the 2018 cycle.

Ponder is currently in his first term representing HD 4, which covers all but the northern reaches of Okaloosa County. He faces Valparaiso Democrat Rebecca Koelzer in the Nov. 6 general election.

As of July 6, Ponder was far ahead in fundraising, with more than $105,000 raised and nearly $65,000 in the bank for his re-election campaign. Koelzer, who filed in just ahead of the qualifying deadline, has raised $70 and kicked in another $2,000 via candidate loans.

HD 4 is a safe Republican seat. Ponder’s only opponent in 2016 was write-in candidate Christopher Eugene Schwantz, who holds the distinction of being the only candidate to compete against the Republican nominee in the district since it was redrawn ahead of the 2012 elections.

The seat also voted plus-44 for President Donald Trump two years ago.

Rick Scott announces court, college trustee appointments

Gov. Rick Scott filled a vacancy on the bench in Union County and appointed a number of college trustee positions this week.

On Thursday, Scott named Mitchell D. Bishop to the Union County Court to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Judge Robert Bo Bayer.

Bishop, 36, of St. Augustine, is an Assistant State Attorney for the 7th Judicial Circuit and a Judge Advocate for the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. A graduate of Union County High School, he received his bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and his law degree from Florida Coastal School of Law.

He also filled positions on multiple community college trustee boards.

Scott also announced the appointment of SmartScript Pharmacy owner Dan Leben to the Florida Keys Community College District Board of Trustees. Leben, 46, of Key Largo, received his bachelor’s degree from Marquette University. He succeeds Robert Stoky and is appointed for a term ending May 31, 2022.

Scott announced the appointment of Daniel O’Keefe to the Seminole State College District Board of Trustees. O’Keefe, 62, of Longwood, is the managing partner for the Orlando office of Moore, Stephens Lovelace. He received his bachelor’s degree from Canisius College and his master’s degree from Florida State University. O’Keefe succeeds Wendy Brandon.

Leben and O’Keefe both were appointed to terms beginning immediately and running through May 31, 2022. The appointments are subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

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