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Congressman says Jack Latvala Senate investigation is a ‘sham’

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz thinks the Senate sexual harassment investigation into Sen. Jack Latvala is a “sham” and refused to speak to the attorney leading the investigation, according to a POLITICO Florida report.

“The Florida Senate’s ‘investigation’ into Senator Latvala is a sham. I will not validate it by participating,” Gaetz wrote in a letter to Gail Holtzman, the third-party investigator hired by Senate President Joe Negron.

Gaetz said the Senate probe, which has been going on for about a month and has already prompted Sen. Lauren Book to file a complaint against Latvala for interfering with it, is not “serious” because it has not protected “those (Latvala) has harmed.”

“Accusers know it. Senators I’ve spoken know it. And so do I. Sad!” Gaetz wrote in the Nov. 30 letter.

Gaetz, who was the only Republican to go on record with POLITICO in early November when it reported six unnamed women were accusing Latvala of sexual harassment and groping, called the Clearwater Republican an “absolute hound.”

Obscure Florida law prompts need for fantasy sports legislation

Fantasy sports advocates have said their hobby is a game of skill and shouldn’t be considered gambling.

There’s one sticking point with that position in Florida: A state law prohibits betting on games of skill, making it a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail. 

But a state Senator backing a bill to exempt fantasy sports from state gambling regulation says “the ambiguity and breadth of that statute is the whole reason we need a bill in the first place.”

Three fantasy sports bills so far have been filed for the 2018 Legislative Session.

The law in question, first put on the books in 1909, makes it “unlawful to bet on (the) result of (a) trial or contest of skill.”

It applies to any “contest of skill, speed or power or endurance of human or beast,” and includes those who place bets and anyone who “aids, assists, or abets … such acts.”

In the online games known as fantasy sports, players pick teams of real-life athletes and vie for cash and other prizes based on how those athletes do in actual games.  

Sen. Dana Young, the Tampa Republican behind one of the upcoming Session’s bills (SB 374) says the law “was not intended to criminalize social games that federal law does not consider to be gambling.”

Young and others have filed similar legislation for several years, to no avail. Her latest bill cleared the Regulated Industries Committee on an 8-1 vote last week.

“What (my) bill says in its most simple form is that players of fantasy contests should not be treated any differently than players in golf tournaments or participants in fishing tournaments,” she said. “The outcomes of all of these recreational activities (or) contests are predominantly determined by the skill of the participants.”

On the other hand, the law banning betting on games of skill “contemplates traditional Vegas-style sports betting,” Young said. 

Even so, both the tide of public opinion and the law may be turning when it comes to sports wagering.

Last Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in the state of New Jersey’s challenge to a 1992 federal law that prohibits states from allowing gambling on sports. Some court watchers think the high court will eventually rule for the states.

Another 2006 federal law banned online gambling but specifically exempted fantasy sports, paving the way for the creation of the niche industry that’s since exploded in popularity.

But opponents have pointed to a 26-year-old opinion by then-Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

It says “operation of a fantasy sports league” violates state gambling law. Such opinions don’t have the force of law, but can be used to persuade judges.

The Legislature opens the next Session on Jan. 9.

Joe Negron: Senate likely to consider tax amendment

Senate President Joe Negron said Friday he is open to the concept of a constitutional amendment that would make it harder for the Legislature to raise taxes.

In an interview with The News Service of Florida, The Stuart Republican said the Senate is working on a measure “that will be similar in goal” to Gov. Rick Scott‘s proposal to amend the state Constitution to require two-thirds votes by the Legislature before raising taxes or fees or creating new ones.

Negron said the measure is being developed by Senate Finance and Tax Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican.

In August, Scott called for a constitutional amendment that would require a “supermajority” vote before raising taxes and fees, which now can be created or raised by majority votes in the state House and Senate.

Scott said increasing the voting requirement “would make it harder for politicians in the future” to raise taxes or fees.

In November, the House unveiled a proposal (HJR 7001), sponsored by Rep. Tom Leek, an Ormond Beach Republican, that would require two-thirds votes by the Legislature to raise taxes or fees. That would translate to support from 80 members of the 120-member House and 27 members of the 40-member Senate.

The House proposal also would require each tax or fee increase to be passed as a single-subject bill.

The House proposal is pending in the Appropriations Committee, where if it gets a favorable vote, it would be ready for a debate on the House floor.

As the former chairman of budget committees in the House and Senate, Negron was asked about the impact of raising the threshold for passing taxes or fees.

“It’s highly unlikely that the Legislature would raise taxes,” Negron said. “I think the real issue is going to be, what should the percentage of the vote be? Should it also include fees?”

Kurt Wenner, vice president for research at Florida TaxWatch, testified at a House Ways & Means Committee in November in favor of an approval threshold of three-fifths votes by the House and Senate.

“It doesn’t get to where, basically, a third of the members could defeat something,” Wenner told the committee.

The Florida Constitution already contains a provision requiring a three-fifths vote by the Legislature to raise the state corporate income tax.

Negron expressed some doubt about including fees in the amendment. He recalled his time as the House budget chairman looking at agriculture-related fees that had not been raised in decades.

“If you’re making a fee actually reflect the current cost of something and it’s a fee, I think that’s a different issue than raising taxes,” Negron said.

But Negron said he expects the Senate to consider some version of an amendment increasing the voting threshold.

“I do think the Senate will take up a proposed constitutional amendment, which Sen. Stargel is working on, that addresses that issue and I am open to that,” Negron said.

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years and has the power to place constitutional amendments on the November 2018 ballot, will take up a measure (Proposal 72) next week that is similar to the House proposal, requiring two-thirds votes to raise taxes or fees.

The proposal, sponsored by Commissioner Fred Karlinsky, is scheduled to be heard by the commission’s Finance and Taxation Committee on Tuesday.

All of the proposals, if they are passed by the Legislature or the Constitution Revision Commission, would require approval by at least 60 percent of voters during the November 2018 election.

At least 14 other states require extraordinary votes by their legislatures when raising taxes, according to House analysts.

The vote thresholds range from a three-fifths vote to three-fourths votes in Arkansas, Michigan and Oklahoma. The Michigan threshold is limited to property taxes. Seven states have a two-thirds threshold, similar to the House proposal.

The Florida Legislature last voted for a major tax increase in 2009, raising taxes on packs of cigarettes by $1.

Joe Negron backs aid for agriculture industry

Florida lawmakers should provide financial help to the agriculture industry to aid its recovery from Hurricane Irma, the Senate president said Friday.

Without putting a price tag on the state’s contribution, Senate President Joe Negron appeared to favor tax cuts and mitigation measures rather than loans. He pointed to major damage sustained by citrus growers but also said assistance should go to other parts of the agriculture industry.

“I do think the effect of the hurricane was so catastrophic to the citrus industry that it merits the government, the state government, partnering with the industry to make sure that they can continue to thrive,” Negron said during an interview with The News Service of Florida.

Negron said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is slated to become the next Senate president, and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican, are expected to work on the issue.

Some lawmakers have already started to advance their own hurricane-recovery proposals for the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts in January.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in early October released an estimate that the agriculture industry had sustained $2.5 billion in damage from Hurricane Irma, with $761 million in citrus-industry losses.

But many lawmakers think the losses will be much higher than the October projection.

Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who is a citrus grower, has outlined several proposed tax exemptions for the industry as part of recommendations submitted to the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.

Albritton’s proposals include tax exemptions for material used to repair or replace damaged fences and structures and for fuel used to transport crops during an emergency. He also called for a reduction in the tangible personal property tax for farm equipment affected by the storm.

Meanwhile, Port Charlotte Republican Rep. Michael Grant has suggested a tax exemption for the purchase of generators used on farms.

Negron said he doesn’t anticipate that hurricane-relief spending will displace other legislative priorities in the upcoming 60-day Session.

“I still think there will be room for environmental priorities, educational priorities,” Negron said. “I don’t think the hurricane spending will necessarily mean that there are other things that simply can’t be done.”

Gov. Rick Scott has asked for $21 million to help citrus growers as part of his budget requests for the 2018 Legislative Session.

Scott wants the money to include $10 million for citrus research, $4 million for marketing and $7 million for post-storm relief.

Irma made landfall Sept. 10 in the Keys and in Collier County before plowing up the state, including causing extensive damage in agricultural areas.

Along with the projected $761 million in citrus-industry losses, the October report from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated nursery-industry losses from Irma at almost $624 million. The cattle industry damage assessment was $237.5 million, while the dairy industry was estimated to have $11.8 million in losses.

The sugar industry appeared to have $383 million in damage, with an estimated 534,324 acres affected. Vegetable and fruit growers — excluding citrus — were projected to have $180 million in damage, with an estimated 163,679 acres impacted by the storm.

The storm damages compounded misery for the citrus industry, which has struggled for a decade with citrus greening, an incurable bacterial disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has projected that Florida’s citrus industry is on pace to grow 27 percent fewer oranges and 40 percent fewer grapefruit than in the past growing season.

State leaders, such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, have been disappointed that Florida’s farmers and ranchers haven’t been addressed in a series of congressional disaster-relief package put together in response to Irma, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and California wildfires.

Ethics panel approves settlement in Doug Holder case

The Florida Commission on Ethics has approved a settlement with former state Rep. Doug Holder to resolve an ethics complaint that he filed “inaccurate” financial disclosures in 2010-14.

A spokeswoman said the panel OK’d the agreement unanimously at its Friday meeting. Holder, a Sarasota County Republican, will pay $6,500 in civil penalties.

The 50-year-old Holder, now a lobbyist, served in the House 2006-14. He ran unsuccessfully in 2016 to succeed GOP state Sen. Nancy Detert, losing to fellow Republican Greg Steube.

Holder had admitted to filing inaccurate financial disclosures and later filed corrected disclosures, according to documents filed with the commission.

He also “acknowledged a $20,000 loan” he had failed to report as a liability.

The complaint was filed last year after the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and others raised questions about Holder’s disclosure forms.

In part, “during his 2015 divorce, Holder listed among his debts five ‘unsecured promissory’ notes totaling $212,000 owed to his father that never were included on his financial disclosures,” the paper reported.

Joe Negron: Sexual misconduct inquiry not slowing down process

Senate President Joe Negron covered a vast array of topics —including nursing homes, tax breaks, gambling and the state’s $85 billion budget — during a nearly hour-long pre-Session interview with The News Service of Florida this morning.

The news team was warned beforehand that questions about the investigation into allegations of sexual harassment levied against Sen. Jack Latvala by a high-ranking aide to Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson were off limits.

The News Service of Florida tried to tap-dance around the restriction, but Negron, a lawyer, stuck closely to comments he’s already made about the investigation and the charges, which have rocked the Capitol and caused what one Republican senator called “paralysis” in the upper chamber.

Even Gov. Rick Scott called Latvala — a Clearwater Republican who insists he is innocent and that he is a victim of a political smear campaign — a “distraction” and said that “it seems that everyone in Tallahassee is talking about this and not how to make Florida better.”

The governor’s critique came more than a week ago; since then, there’s been almost a daily development in the increasingly toxic battle.

But Negron, a Stuart Republican headed into his second and final Legislative Session as the man with the gavel in the Senate, disagreed that the drama has eclipsed all other business in the Senate.

“That’s not what I see. I’m visiting with senators constantly and talking about projects. There are bills being referenced,” he said. “A lot of bills have been filed. Committee meetings are moving forward. Some bills have been voted down. Some bills have been voted up. So, I think that the people’s business is being done. And we’re going to let the process that’s set forth in our rules move forward and then there will be a resolution.”

Negron relied on talking points from memos distributed in the early days of the investigation, launched after a POLITICO Florida story early last month detailed the allegations against Latvala, when asked if the revelations exposed activity in the Capitol that had been kept under wraps for years.

“In the Senate we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. We have zero tolerance for any mistreatment of any senator, of staff, of guests and citizens who visit us in their Capitol. That has always been our policy and will continue to be our policy. I believe that the vast majority of individuals who work in the Capitol treat people fairly, treat people appropriately, and show respect to everyone in the process,” the president said.

Negron reiterated that he wants individuals who’ve been the victim of sexual harassment to come forward.

Rachel Perrin Rogers has accused Latvala and his supporters of retaliating against her and her husband, GOP political consultant Brian Hughes. The Senate aide hired an armed guard to protect her in the Capitol, and Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, this week filed a complaint against Latvala, accusing him of “outing” Perrin Rogers.

“With regard to the specific instance where there’s been a complaint filed that’s being investigated, the process will move forward,” Negron said, referring to the sexual harassment complaint Perrin Rogers lodged against Latvala. “There will be an outcome to that. And I’m committed personally, in my own role as the Senate president, that we’re going to respect the rights of everyone in the building and that any person who feels that they’ve been a victim of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct should feel free to confidentially come forward and report that and it will be dealt with appropriately.”

When pressed about whether the Florida Legislature was caught up in the #MeToo wave that’s gripped Congress and statehouses around the country, Negron demurred.

“In the culture generally, there’s enhanced attention to this issue. That’s a good thing. In terms of what happens in the Senate and in the Capitol, I’ll stand by my assessment that the vast majority of elected officials conduct themselves appropriately and treat people in this process with respect and in a business-like manner,” he said.

House bill says train conductors, passengers cannot be auto accident witnesses

A new Florida House bill says that train conductors and passengers are not, for the purposes of crash reports, auto accident witnesses.

While that may seem obvious, current statute leaves that concept open for interpretation.

HB 959, filed by Jacksonville Republican Jason Fischer, revises current law to make explicit that people on trains are not considered passengers for purpose of making crash reports.

To that end, a conductor of a train is not a driver of a motor vehicle. A passenger of a train is not a passenger of a motor vehicle. And a train is not a motor vehicle.

Florida Politics asked Fischer what drove the need for the change.

“Currently,” Fischer said, “when an accident happens within a rail corridor, law enforcement may board the train and interview every passenger as a potential witness even though Chapter 316.003 exempts trains. Due to the linear, fixed-route nature of trains, passengers do not witness striking incidents when they occur on the corridor. This can act to hold the train at the scene for unnecessary hours in often hot weather or in areas of the corridor not close to a station or grade crossing.”

This omission of language leads to unintended consequences.

“As a result,” Fischer added, “trains can lose air conditioning causing potentially hazardous conditions, riders miss flights they cannot have reimbursed and employees lose valuable work time and pay. This can lead to riders attempting to egress the train in an unsafe manner rather than allowing the railroad moving the train to a location where passengers can disembark and be transported by other means.”

“HB 959, an act relating to Motor Vehicles and Railroad Trains, simply makes more clear to investigators responding to an incident involving a train that the vehicle is not a ‘motor vehicle’ and its occupants and operators are not considered ‘passengers’ for the purposes of the chapter,” Fischer added, “allowing law enforcement to release the train or its passengers from the scene quickly and safely.”

House projects might get chilly reception

Heading into the 2018 legislative session, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley says the House and Senate are not as far apart as casual observers, lobbyists and the media might believe.

“We agree on so much more than we disagree on,” the Fleming Island Republican told reporters after an Appropriations Committee meeting Wednesday that featured an overview of Gov. Rick Scott‘s proposed $87.4 billion budget. “We’re all committed to having a fiscally conservative budget. We’re all committed to tax cuts. We’re all committed to the environment being pristine and education world class.”

But that “we’re all” doesn’t apparently extend to a plethora of budget projects proposed by House members. In the House, unlike the Senate, members are required to file individual bills for their spending proposals.

“I did notice that there is a high amount, the House members want to spend a lot on local member projects,” Bradley said. “I think we need to be very careful in this budget year to … be very judicious in these House requests for local projects, because they have requested a bunch.”

As of Thursday morning, House members had filed 1,099 different proposals – collectively worth just under $1.8 billion – since Sept. 29.

Included in those totals are 90 projects, worth $161.1 million, that were posted on Wednesday, including $450,000 for the Clermont South Lake Wi-Fi Trail (HB 4099), $1 million for the Land O’ Lakes Boulevard Beautification plan (HB 4033) and $50 million for the Data Science and Information Technology program at the University of Florida (HB 4063).

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, has said priority for funding projects will go to proposals related to hurricane relief.

The House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness also has received 141 recommendations to deal with storm-related issues, included extending north the Suncoast Parkway toll road as a new evacuation route, leasing a cruise ship to carry evacuees from the lower Keys or requiring utility lines to be placed underground.

The member budget proposals are separate from most of the recommendations before the select committee.

Asked during an appearance Wednesday on C-SPAN about how much Hurricane Irma will cost the state, Corcoran made the big-ticket items seem possible as he touted the state’s fiscal health.

“The simple answer to that is we have the reserves. We’ve been fiscally prudent. We’ve been great protectors of the taxpayer money,” Corcoran said. “And so, because we have those reserves, what’s more important is the lives of our citizens are protected.”

“The underground hardening of our infrastructure for power lines, that could cost some money,” he continued. “Extending our Suncoast Parkway all the way to Georgia and having that fourth arterial road, that will cost money but we have a transportation trust fund. It will just be more of a redirect, potentially.

“Obviously, putting the (proposed generator) regulations on the nursing homes and having them come into compliance, that will cost some money. But all of these things, including, we’re even talking of having a gas reserve. There were issues of getting gas during the hurricane, so if we had a huge gas reserve that we could keep in the middle of the state in a protected area, that could cost some money.

“But all of these things will make it so the next storm we have we’ll be better prepared, and our citizens will be able to get back to their lives as quickly as possible.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Forever Florida, St. Johns proposals get Senate backing

Measures that would double Gov. Rick Scott‘s spending request for the Florida Forever conservation program and earmark money to improve the St. Johns River continued to move easily through the Senate on Thursday.

The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee unanimously backed a proposal (SB 370) to designate $100 million a year for Florida Forever. Also, it approved a bill (SB 204) that would increase annual funding for springs projects from $50 million to $75 million and set aside $50 million a year for the restoration of the St. Johns River, its tributaries and the Keystone Heights lake region in North Florida.

Both proposals are sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will hear the bills next.

“Our state is known for a lot of things, but the character of the state, the true character of the state is defined by its rivers, it’s beaches, it’s springs,” Bradley said. “We have an obligation to make sure future generations enjoy those wonderful gifts we get to enjoy.”

Neither proposal has a companion bill in the House. Scott requested spending $50 million on Florida Forever as part of his proposed 2018-2019 budget released last month.

Money for both Senate bills would come from the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Voters in 2014 approved a constitutional amendment that requires a portion of real-estate “documentary stamp” tax revenues to go toward land and water conservation, with the money funneled through the trust fund.

That portion of the documentary-stamp tax is expected to generate $862.2 million next fiscal year, according to an August estimate by state economists.

Lawmakers in the past have carved up part of the annual funding so at least $200 million goes for Everglades projects, another $64 million goes for a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee and $5 million goes to the St. Johns River Water Management District for projects dedicated to the restoration of Lake Apopka.

But they have also used the money to cover agency expenses, which backers of the 2014 constitutional amendment contend is not allowed.

Bradley has said a review needs to be done to determine how much of the trust fund goes into agency overhead.

Orlando Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart said she was “proud” to be able to vote for Florida Forever bill, which would use the money “the way the voters had hoped to see it funded.”

The Florida Forever program was created in 1999 as a successor to an earlier version known as Preservation 2000.

Since 2001, Florida Forever has been used to purchase more than 718,000 acres for $2.9 billion. But the program has languished since the recession and as some key legislators have questioned the need for Florida to buy more land while struggling to manage the acres it already owns.

Lawmakers didn’t direct any money to Florida Forever for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. Bradley’s bills are filed for the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts next month.

Jimmy Patronis visits Tampa to fight for first responder workers comp bill

Ever since the 9/11 attacks, the nation hails firefighters and other first responders as heroes for entering burning buildings while others run away.

However, in Florida, workers’ compensation does not cover mental stress injuries of first responders dealing with intense experiences. In some circumstances, PTSD is covered, but only if accompanied by a physical injury.

Megan Vila is seeking to change that.

The Tampa resident has been laser-focused on revising the evidentiary standards for demonstrating mental and nervous injuries of first responders ever since her brother, Stephen “Stevie” LaDue,  killed himself on September 5.

For 29 years, LaDue served as a firefighter with the city of Tampa.

LaDue had witnessed numerous traumatic calls, involving suicides and children’s deaths, which stayed with him over the decades. While attending a funeral for a retired firefighter, another firefighter went into cardiac arrest during the eulogy, an event that ultimately triggered Stevie’s PTSD.

Vila says Stevie struggled with work after that incident and filed a workers compensation claim. However, he was back at work two months later because state law says the claim isn’t covered.

Having to pay back the time missed, “put my brother into a deeper depression,” Vila told an audience of fellow firefighters and media Thursday afternoon at the Tampa Firefighters Museum.

Vila is pushing the state Legislature to pass a bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation (SB 376) and Orange County Republican Rene Plasencia and Palm Beach Democrat Matt Willhite (HB 227) in the House that would provide for workers comp for first responders without an accompanying physical injury.

“Mental health is an important part of this conversation. It’s a complex issue,” said Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis, who is traveling up and down the state to advocate for the bill’s passage. “We have to ensure that our firefighters and first responders are having the necessary resources in order to deal with this.”

Patronis is still relatively new on the job, having succeeded Jeff Atwater earlier this year after he stepped down. Part of the CFO’s job is to serve as the state’s fire marshal.

A survey of more than 4,000 first responders found that 6.6 percent had attempted suicide, which is more than 10 times the rate in the general population, according to a 2015 article published in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services.

“This is unacceptable,” Patronis said.

Historically, cities and counties have objected to similar legislation in the past, as Patronis acknowledged.

“Our municipal and county governments, they have a budget to balance.  They sometimes have anxiety they see what they could perceive to be an unfunded mandate,” the CFO said.

Florida Politics reached out to the Florida League of Cities and League of Counties for a response to the proposed legislation. Neither group immediately responded.

Minnesota passed a similar bill in 2013, and Vila says she’s been told by a League of Cities official there that since the bill’s passage, 62 claims have come forward at a total cost of $1.2 million.

“That’s it,” she said.”How much is a firefighter’s life worth?”

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