Influence Archives - Page 2 of 284 - Florida Politics

‘Safety valve’ wanted for mandatory-minimum drug law

In 2008, an Orange County, Florida, judge sentenced William Forrester to 15 years in prison for 15.6 grams of oxycodone, or about 30 pills.

Forrester was on disability insurance and had a lung surgically removed due to cancer not long before his arrest, according to court documents. But possession of the oxycodone, combined with a forged prescription to obtain it, turned him into a narcotics trafficker under Florida’s mandatory minimum drug law.

“If was an option, then certainly we would talk about it. But my hands are tied by the law, and I have to sentence you to 15 years, and there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” said Judge Mark Blechman.

Forrester will be 65 years old upon his scheduled release in 2021.

According to a new policy brief by the James Madison Institute, a conservative Tallahassee-based think tank, there are 2,310 inmates serving mandatory minimum prison terms in Florida for hydrocodone and oxycodone trafficking offenses.

Not all of them are in for selling pills.

The highly-addictive opioids are legal pain medications when prescribed by a doctor, and can leave some people hooked after their prescriptions expire.

Florida’s tough drug laws, passed in 1999, were meant to punish drug dealers. But mandatory sentencing for hydrocodone and oxycodone — ranging from three years to life in prison — can be triggered by as few as 27 hydrocodone pills, or 14 oxycodone pills.

Under the law, illegal possession of small amounts of the pills is considered drug trafficking.

Patients recovering from surgery often receive a one-time prescription of 30 to 60 hydrocodone or oxycodone pills, and in forms containing acetaminophen, or Tylenol, according to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a legislative research office.

An attempt to illegally obtain an equal amount qualifies for an automatic prison sentence.

Author Laura Krisai, a JMI adjunct scholar and director of criminal justice reform at the Reason Foundation, says it’s time for the Legislature to adopt a “safety valve.”

“Public safety is not enhanced when individuals are incarcerated for years longer than necessary,” Krisai says.

A safety valve provision would allow judges to exercise discretion when sentencing individuals in cases where Florida’s mandatory sentences don’t fit the crimes.

“Safety valve legislation neither eliminates the underlying mandatory minimum sentencing law, nor does it require judges to sentence offenders below the minimum term. It is a narrowly tailored exception for certain offenders and under certain circumstances,” the brief says.

An analysis of Florida Department of Corrections data shows that 83 percent of prisoners incarcerated for hydrocodone and oxycodone trafficking have never been to prison before, or had only previously served time for nonviolent offenses.

The Department also considers 435 of the trafficking offenders to be elderly, defined in the state prison system as over 50 years old.

A safety valve measure, the brief says, also would save millions of taxpayer dollars.

In fiscal year 2014-15, the DOC reported an average cost $53.49 per day to house an inmate in a state correctional facility. The 2,310 hydrocodone and oxycodone traffickers cost a combined $123,562 per day, or $45.1 million per year.

If the 83 percent of first-time and nonviolent traffickers had their mandatory prison terms reduced by one-year when they were sentenced, the state would save $33.3 million.

“There’s no evidence from Florida or elsewhere that shows when judges are allowed to determine sentences — or, to judge — public safety is threatened,” Krisai concluded.


William Patrick is a Florida reporter for Contact him at and @WmPatFL.

Vote-by-mail ballots fix passes House

A bill that would let voters fix mismatching signatures on their vote-by-mail ballots so they can be counted has passed the House of Representatives.

The House approved the bill (HB 105), sponsored by House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa, by a unanimous vote of 113-0 on Thursday.

It would require supervisors of elections and their staff to allow voters to turn in an affidavit to cure any signature discrepancies until 5 p.m. the day before an election. They would need to present a driver’s license or other state ID.

A Senate companion has not yet had a hearing.

It would help older voters who have “arthritis or other physical disabilities” and younger voters who may have signed their voter registration cards “carelessly,” Cruz has said.

House votes to steer most BP oil spill settlement money to the Panhandle

The Florida House voted Thursday unanimously to direct two-thirds of the $400 million the state is due from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster to the worst-affected counties in the Panhandle.

HB 7077 requires 75 percent of all payments that Florida receives from the settlement agreement between the five Gulf states and BP be transferred from the general fund to the Triumph Gulf Coast Trust Fund.

“This disaster took money out of the hands of families and hardworking small businesses in the Panhandle,” said Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican who was one of many Northwest Florida House members who spoke for the legislation.

“I am excited today that we are now enduring this money will be put back in the hands of the people hurt most.

The vote was 112-0.

Under the proposal, the Triumph Gulf Coast corporation can award funding for several things including:

— Public infrastructure projects to enhance economic recovery, diversification, and enhancement in the disproportionately affected counties;

— Grants to local governments in the counties to establish and maintain equipment and trained personnel for local action plans to respond to disasters;

— Early childhood development and educational programs; and

— Grants to support programs to prepare students for future occupations and careers at K-20 institutions that have campuses in the communities.

The proposal requires Triumph Gulf Coast to give 14 days’ notice its intent to make an award and requires the corporation make sure each of the eight disproportionately affected counties directly benefit from the awards.

The committee also approved a bill establishing a trust fund.

Bill would protect religious expression in schools

Students, their parents and school employees would be guaranteed wider rights to publicly pray and express their religious beliefs in public schools under a far-reaching bill approved Thursday by the Florida Senate.

Backers of the legislation, including Senate President Joe Negron, contend that the measure is needed because schools have unnecessarily clamped down on free speech rights, including prohibiting students from wearing crosses as jewelry, or chiding students who want to include religious figures in their academic work.

The school superintendent in Broward County in 2014 apologized after a student was told he couldn’t read the Bible during a free reading period.

The bill (SB 436) says school districts may not discriminate against any student, parent or school employee because they shared their religious viewpoint.

But those opposed to the bill say it could open the door from everything from cracking down on science teachers who teach evolution to allowing Christian students to intimidate those of other faiths.

“Could it be provoking? Could it be concerning? Yeah, that’s healthy thought. That’s what happens in a free world,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican and sponsor of the bill. “This isn’t protecting a faith, it’s protecting all people’s freedom to express their hearts.”

The Senate passed the bill 23-13 following a wide-ranging debate. A similar bill is now moving in the Florida House.

Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale said the bill could lead to students proselytizing in school.

“We don’t need it. It should be sufficient that during the school day, you can pray to yourself,” Farmer said. “We all have our own personal relationship with God or Allah or whoever we believe in, but to force that on other people is just not necessary and it can be harmful and it can be disrespectful.”

The bill, which is backed by several Christian groups, says that students can wear clothing or jewelry that conveys a religious message. Negron has agreed that this would also allow followers of Islam to wear hijabs in schools.

The legislation also says students can express their religious viewpoints in coursework or artwork without being penalized. It also makes clear students can pray and organize religious groups to the same extent as other clubs and groups are allowed to meet on school grounds.

School districts must give religious groups access to school facilities and they must grant students the right to speak on religious topics at public forums.


Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington contributed to this report. Reprinted with permission of the AP.

House votes to bar use of red light cameras to monitor intersections

The Florida House voted Thursday to ban the use of red light cameras to enforce traffic laws in the state.

The vote on final passage went 91-22.

Supporters argued the cameras don’t save lives and have become money-makers for vendors, some of them located out of state.

“It has become less about public safety and more about revenue,” said Bryan Avila, the Hialeah Republican who presented the bill.

The state is sending $35 million to out-of-state vendors, he said. Yet the cameras are not stopping repeat traffic offenders — there were more than 150,000 of those recorded in the state, he said.

HB 6007 repeals state authorization for red light cameras and bans their use by local governments. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.

Infractions linked to the cameras have generated about $18.8 million for the state thus far this budget year, according to a legislative analysis.

Al Jacquet, a Democrat from Lantana, argued that the cameras violate the 6th Amendment right to confront witnesses.

“With the red light camera program, they have no opportunity to confront that camera, because a camera is not a law enforcement officer,” Jacquet said.

“It is a revenue program, not a safety program,” he said.

The cameras had their defenders. Larry Ahern noted a more than 50 percent decrease in accidents at intersections.

“It does change drivers’ behavior. I think red light cameras are saving the lives of Floridians.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed Bryan Avila‘s quote.

Joe Negron would ‘prefer’ to use gambling money in budget

Senate President Joe Negron wants to use gambling money sitting in the state’s treasury for spending next year, but said it won’t spell disaster if lawmakers can’t.

The Stuart Republican, speaking to reporters after Thursday’s floor session, said he was “optimistic” that the Legislature will finally pass an omnibus gambling overhaul that includes a renewed blackjack agreement with the state’s Seminole Tribe.

Despite ongoing litigation over its right to offer blackjack, the Tribe continues to pay gambling revenue share to the state, nearly $40 million for just the first two months of this year.

That money – expected to total $306 million this year – is deposited but not marked for spending into the General Revenue Fund.

Meantime, a new deal that would guarantee exclusive rights to keep offering the card games in exchange for a $3 billion cut to the state over seven years is included in this year’s House and Senate bills.

“We also have money – as I call it, ‘sitting in trust’ – that is available if we need it,” Negron said. “It could be purposed this year for tax cuts, for expenditures. So it’s important for the budget for a gaming bill to pass.”

That said, Negron quickly added, if nothing passes this year, it won’t be “a disaster.”

He favors expanding some gambling, including allowing counties that passed local referendums to have slot machines. The House generally wants gambling opportunities held in check.

“We can pass a budget with a gaming bill or without, but my strong preference … is to be able to use those revenues for good purposes,” he said.

As House Commerce Committee chair Jose Felix Diaz put it Wednesday, “Gaming is one of those bills that’s left for the end.”

“It’s too important to too many people, and it has too many repercussions for the budget,” the Miami-Dade Republican said. “There’s a lot of money at stake.”

Negron said he expects his chamber’s working version of a 2017-18 state budget to come together by next week.

The main stumbling block has been “items and expenditures in the budget that, while defensible, aren’t as much of a priority … I see members juxtaposing one project against another and then having to make tough decisions.”

He also said he wouldn’t unlink his tax swap plan that repeals a subsidy for the state’s insurance companies and applies the funds to a cut in the business rent tax. Business interests and the insurance industry oppose the plan.

House advances bill allowing guns in private religious schools

A bill in the Florida legislature that could arm teachers with guns in private religious schools passed the House Judiciary Committee Thursday.

The legislation, sponsored by Polk City Republican Neil Combee (HB 849), would carve out certain religious private schools from Florida law that prohibits anyone except law enforcement officers from carrying guns in K-12 schools and colleges and universities, regardless of whether those schools are public or private. The decision about whether to allow concealed guns in these schools would be made by the owner of the church/school.

Doug Bankson, an Apopka City Commissioner and a pastor, said that this is very much a “real world issue.”

“Our public institutions are more and more a target, and our churches have become more and more a target,” he said, adding that the majority of his student body are minorities. “We need [an]  opportunity to protect them.”

Others disagreed.

“This bill would leave a gaping hole in the laws that are designed to protect our schools and keep guns out of school, said Gaye Valamont, a volunteer with the gun control group, Moms Demand Action.

“This bill does not solve the problem of protecting our children.”

“This is not a bill about guns on school property,” said Eric Friday with Florida Carry. “This is about private religious organizations having the right to regulate the use of their property, and who has the right to carry on their private property.”

Dania Beach Democrat Joseph Geller agreed with Combee that religious institutions should have the right to decide on their own if they want to allow arms on their campuses. But the bottom line for him was that “guns and schools do not mix.”

Geller said that the current law in place banning guns in schools is a good one, and “the chances of something going wrong are too great.”

Tampa Republican Shawn Harrison said it was critical to “tread very carefully” on such a sensitive issue, but praised Combee as having “threaded the needle” perfectly in how he crafted his bill.

In closing on the bill, Combee blasted gun-free zones which are on many school campuses, calling them “dumb.”

“If someone wants to do harm to our children … or the public, they’d like nothing better than to have a gun free zone, they got no opposition,” he said. “That’s the dumbest thing in the world.”

There is currently no companion bill in the state Senate.

Speaker moves Eyeball Wars closer to House floor; docs say optometrist testimony ‘patently false’

Florida’s “Eyeball Wars” between ophthalmologists and optometrists could soon be spilling onto the House floor.

On Monday, Speaker Richard Corcoran removed HB 1037 — a controversial bill to allow optometrists to perform surgery, among other things — off the agenda of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.

A representative for Corcoran told POLITICO Florida that the measure, which seeks to expand optometry further into the practice of surgery, was one of 12 bills removed from Appropriations under Rule 7.18(c) because they had “no fiscal impact.”

The move has raised the alarm of Adam Katz, president of the Florida Society of Ophthalmology, who felt the appropriations hearing would represent his organization’s best shot at defeating the bill.

“We feel like this is being orchestrated,” Katz, a Vero Beach ophthalmologist, told Christine Sexton of POLITICO Florida.

In the bill’s earlier stop — the House Health Quality Subcommittee — HB 1037 was narrowly passed by an 8-7 vote.

Sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz, the bill is strongly opposed by both the Florida Society of Ophthalmology and the American College of Surgeons. The measure is still on the schedule for the House Health & Human Services Committee.

“We have a responsibility to make sure everyone has access,” Diaz told reporters last week.

Nevertheless, testimony at last week’s subcommittee hearing did not sit well with the American Academy of Ophthalmology, which makes Corcoran’s procedural move even more disturbing. The Florida Optometric Association have strongly pushed HB 1037, employing a team of a more than a dozen lobbyists that include Michael Corcoran, Speaker Corcoran’s brother.

In a letter to House Health Quality chair Cary Pigman, an Avon Park Republican and emergency care physician, Dr. Mark Michels, board member of the Florida Society of Ophthalmology, pointed out several misleading and inaccurate accusation made during testimony from optometrists and their representatives.

“I cannot stay silent when the process is used by others to perpetuate falsehoods, especially when those falsehoods could endanger patients,” Michels writes. “It is for that reason, and out of respect for all of you and the integrity of our legislative process, that I am writing to bring your attention to two patently incorrect statements made by the representative of the Florida Optometric Association (FOA) at the hearing. “

One of the major selling points for HB 1037 is that it would expand access to glaucoma surgery for Medicaid patients, because in some rural regions — Bradenton was the example used in testimony — ophthalmologists do not accept Medicaid.

Michels called that claim “spurious,” pointing out that “information readily accessible in the State’s database–the AHCA Provider Master List — clearly shows that there are at least 24 active individual ophthalmologists that see Medicaid patients in Bradenton.”

He also pushed back on testimony that said “there are “less than 400 ophthalmologists in the entire State that take Medicaid.” In fact, there are nearly 1,200 active, enrolled ophthalmologists in Florida that see Medicaid patients.

A second issue is a contention that the surgery optometrists are asking to perform is not “invasive” and restricted to only lasers to “stimulate tissue in the eye.”

“Those statements are fallacious and exemplify a dangerous ignorance of what laser surgery is and the complications that can arise from the use of lasers,” Michels writes.

Lasers authorized by HB 1037 are powerful enough to cut ocular tissue — in a process called photodisruption — which can lead to several complications which can be adequately understood only by a medical professional with the training and experience of ophthalmologists.

“This knowledge is obtained from years of experience and seeing thousands of patients,” Michels writes, “all while being directly supervised by a board certified ophthalmic surgeon.”

Michels then calls out the FOA representative for holding himself as a “subject matter expert,” pledging to the committee that lasers authorized in the bill “do not cut,” are “noninvasive” and are only “stimulating” lasers similar to those used in “a new product contained in a baseball hat and used to stimulate hair growth.”

This stance is both “inexcusable and dangerous,” Michels said, before calling Pigman to do his part to “stop this dangerous bill from becoming law.”

Next for HB 1037 — the latest battle in Florida’s Eyeball Wars — is the House Health and Human Services Committee, one of only two stops before heading to the House floor.

Bill will help foster children get driver’s licenses

Children in foster care would get help obtaining a driver’s license and auto insurance under a bill unanimously passed by the Senate.

The bill passed Thursday would make permanent a pilot program that began in 2014.

The program reimburses foster parents or children for driver’s education, license fees and insurance.

The idea is to help children in state care become more independent. The cost of the program is $800,000.

A House bill has cleared three committees with unanimous votes and is ready for a vote by the full chamber.

Senate passes ‘whiskey & Wheaties’ bill

Three Legislative Sessions later, the Senate finally passed a bill to allow retailers to sell hard liquor in the same store as other goods.

Senators approved the “whiskey and Wheaties” legislation (SB 106) on a 21-17 vote after a debate in which one senator said it would “kill … kids.”

Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who first filed a one-line repealer in 2014, spoke in favor of what has now become a 5-page bill. Among other things, it requires miniatures to be sold behind a counter and allows for a 5-year phase-in.

Today, the separation of spirits from retail has “no nexus to the reality of everyday life,” said Galvano, in line to become Senate President in 2018-20.

In a speech that started by mentioning famed mobster and bootlegger Al Capone, Galvano said alcohol now has been “mainstreamed.”

A Prohibition-era state law requires businesses, such as grocery chains and big-box retailers, to have separate stores to sell liquor. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

Big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target want the repeal, saying the added convenience is “pro-consumer,” and independently-owned liquor store operators say they will suffer. Publix also has opposed the move, saying it’s invested in the separate liquor store model.

Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami-Dade Republican, asked colleagues, “Why are we doing this?” He called it “the Wal-Mart bill,” and said it would give an “unfair advantage” against small businesses.

The rhetoric eventually gave rise to emotion: Sen. Daphne Campbell attacked the bill, saying it wasn’t even about “politics, it’s poli-tricks.”

The Miami-Dade Democrat said the effect of the legislation would be to “kill your own kids … How can we do this?”

Anitere Flores, the Miami-Dade Republican carrying this year’s bill, was taken aback.

People watching the debate, she said, must be asking “what in the world does this bill do? Does it kill children. No.” She earlier pointed out it’s not a mandate on any business.

The repeal’s fate in the House is unclear: That chamber’s version, recently amended to be more similar to the Senate’s, has been limping through its committees on one- and two-vote margins.
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