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Regulators shoot down medical marijuana payment proposal

State regulators have rejected a California bank’s proposal to operate in Florida as a financial middleman for medical marijuana-related transactions.

The Office of Financial Regulation turned down a request from PayQwick for a declaratory statement so it could operate here.

Christian Bax, director of the Department of Health’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use, gave a presentation Wednesday to the House Health Quality Subcommittee on the state’s regulation of medicinal cannabis.

Though he did not mention the PayQwick case, decided in late August, Bax did say there has been “reticence” on the part of the banking industry to get involved with marijuana sales.

Florida has more or less legalized medical marijuana, through statute and constitutional amendment, but selling marijuana still is a federal crime. And banking, by its nature as “interstate commerce,” falls under federal law.

Under President Barack Obama, however, federal prosecutors did not criminally pursue those, such as “the seriously ill and their caregivers,” who distribute and use the drug “in compliance with an existing state law.”

Still, “life would be a lot easier for us and for patients if there were online payments,” Bax told the panel.

PayQwick’s “description of its contemplated business model is expansive,” OFR’s order says.

“For example, (it) describes its (potential) clients as not only registered medical marijuana patients, but also members of the public purchasing marijuana from a licensed retailer/dispensary.”

Florida’s current system is “vertically-integrated,” meaning businesses grow, process and sell their own marijuana, with each licensed as a medical marijuana treatment center, or MMTC.

But PayQwick based its request “on the erroneous assumption that the … distribution of marijuana is legal,” the order says. Because of that, “a declaratory statement is not available.”

PayQwick’s system, an “electronic payment hub,” was also aimed at making it easier for “ancillary” concerns, such as security alarm companies, to do “legal business” with the MMTCs.

Users would download an app to transfer money from a “settlement account” to a “sub-account,” then to a “bank or credit union.”

PayQwick would have made money “by charging a percentage-based service fee for each re-allocation of funds from one client to another,” the OFR order says.

Hurricane impacted fundraising efforts of top-tier legislative candidates

Election Day is 13 months away but a handful of rock star candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, have already started to break away from the pack in crowded races for open House seats.

Most of them saw a dip in September – blame it on the rain – but each remains the leader in their quest to join the Florida House’s 2018 freshman class.

Ardian Zika made headlines with big endorsements and by posting more than $100,000 in his first report after filing to run in HD 37 as a Republican at the beginning of August.

The Land O’Lakes businessman and banker raised $3,600 in September, including $1,000 a piece from the Law Offices of Lucas Magazine, Templar Contracting and Webco Dental and Medical Supplies. Lobbyist and former FDOT Secretary Jim Boxold pitched in $500, with three small-dollar donors making up the other $100.

Zika refunded a $1,000 August contribution from Victor Young, however, which combined with $800 in spending saw his campaign account grow by just $1,800 to $102,684.

Still, that leaves him with nearly 10 times more than the second place Republican, Elle Rudisill. The other two candidates, Bill Gunter and George Agovino, posted more goose eggs, so keep Zika down as the favorite to replace House Speaker Richard Corcoran in the Pasco County district.

Over in Orlando-based HD 47, Democrat Anna Eskamani has been on fire since stepping into the race after current Republican Rep. Mike Miller said he would runn for Congress rather than seek re-election.

Month three saw the Planned Parenthood exec post a respectable $14,000. Her to-date total is just shy of $110,000 and she has about $90,000 of that on hand.

In addition to hitting the six-figure milestone, the Orlando Democrat racked up endorsements over the past month. Among the most recent crop backing the Planned Parenthood executive are longtime Orlando civic fixture Dick Batchelor, former Colorado U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder and  Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

Republican opponent Stockton Reeves may be able to boast a cash on hand advantage, though his hair-width lead comes solely from a $90,000 loan and a complete lack of campaign spending. His fundraising remained flat, too, with just $1,400 raised last month and $4,420 total from those not named Stockton.

The race to take over for termed-out Republican Rep. George Moraitis Broward-based HD 93 heated up a bit after Democrat Emma Collum entered in June.

Her first month saw her bring in $24,000, but she’s yet to match that number even when combining her July, August and September reports, the most recent of which saw $5,050 trickle into her campaign account and $6,700 head out the door.

With $25,700 on hand, the JL Audio in-house counsel leads Democratic Primary rivals Johnathon May, who has $335 in bank, and Stephanie Myers, who has $6,841 on hand after blowing through most of the $15,000 in loans she made to her campaign.

Collum also picked up an endorsement from South Florida Democrat and House Minority Leader designate Kionne McGhee last week, cementing her status as the frontrunner in the tossup seat that voted plus-1 for President Donald Trump last year.

That could change pretty soon, however, as one of the few local Republicans that knows how to win an election set his sights on the seat. Chip LaMarca, Broward’s lone GOP county commissioner, filed for the seat on Oct. 3 and won’t put out his inaugural report until this month’s numbers are due Nov. 13.

Finally, September saw Vance Aloupis, arguably the biggest luminary among the current crop of would-be lawmakers, tack on just $3,000, though he still holds a firm lead in the four-way Republican Primary for Miami-Dade’s HD 115 with $182,500 in total fundraising and $165,500 on hand.

The tireless advocate for early childhood education and mentee of legendary former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence Jr. brought in six-figures his first month and he holds a better than 2-to-1 lead over his closest opponent, Rhonda Rebman-Lopez, who is only keeping it somewhat close due to kicking in $35,000 worth of loans.

Carlos Daniel Gobel comes third with about $5,000 on hand, while Carmen Sotomayor rounds out the GOP cadre and her campaign is going about as well as her unsuccessful 2014 run in HD 117. Her newest report shoes her campaign account holding a pair of Jacksons.

Aloupis also picked up an endorsement termed-out HD 115 Rep. Michael Bileca since his last report, putting him another couple rungs above the competition.

A pair of Democrats have also entered the race, but through September neither have gained traction. James Linwood and Jeffrey Solomon have about $5,000 and $3,500 on hand, respectively.

Rebekah Bydlak adds $14K for HD 1 bid, as Mike Hill struggles out of the gate

Don’t call it a comeback, because it isn’t yet.

Former Rep. Mike Hill opened a campaign account to return to the House last month, but his first three weeks on the trail haven’t put much of a dent into Rebekah Bydlak’s lead in Escambia County-based HD 1, where current Rep. Clay Ingram faces term limits in 2018.

Hill’s effort brought in just $5,900, including $1,000 from a committee tied to Clearwater Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, $1,000 a piece from Pensacola flight instructor Mark Freymiller and his wife, Mia, and another $1,000 from Gulf Breeze chiropractor John Newlin.

Bydlak, for her part, piled on another $14,272 for her campaign account in September, a respectable follow up to her banner opening month, which saw her pull in $50,000 for her campaign and another $10,000 for her political committee.

Heading into October, she had about $57,000 on hand in her campaign account.

After 24 days in the race, Hill’s total puts him just a few bucks ahead of the Democratic candidate in the race, Vikki Garrett, who was able to scrounge up $5,700 for her campaign last month despite running in one of the most hopelessly unfavorable districts for Democrats statewide.

Hill made a valiant effort in the SD 1 primary last year, but his decision to jump ship in HD 2 and race for pink slips against Doug Broxson is probably starting to sting again.

A year after that 13-point loss in the primary, HD 2 has moved on with freshman Rep. Frank White and HD 1 is flirting with an up-and-comer in the next generation Republicans in Bydlak. There’s plenty of time before primary season rolls around, but Hill’s in for a competition if he wants his old job back.

Senators sound skeptical of new state jobs fund

Lawmakers asked lots of questions but didn’t get the answers they wanted Wednesday as a Senate panel tried to get a handle on the state’s new $85 million jobs fund.

The Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee heard from Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) head Cissy Proctor on the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund.

In a Special Legislative Session earlier this year for economic development, tourism and education funding, Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders agreed to create the fund.

It’s aimed at creating employment by enticing businesses to relocate to the state. The fund promotes job training and public infrastructure projects.

Proctor said her department already has received 179 proposals, which include 96 infrastructure projects from local governments and 83 workforce projects, worth a combined $642 million in requested funding.

Senators soon started peppering Proctor with questions: “It’s a lot of money … we want to understand what the parameters are,” explained subcommittee chair Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, wanted to know if any preference would be given to “depressed or deprived” areas.

All proposals “stand on their own,” Proctor said: “Almost all represent incredible needs of the communities. We want the proposals to shine, to show us how deep the need is.”

When will Gov. Scott make a decision on what gets money? Bradley asked.

“I can’t tell you a timeline,” Proctor said. “We are reviewing them as they come in.”

Bradley pressed on, asking if there were any “objective standards” that the governor and staff will judge by?

“We are looking at each proposal on its own,” Proctor said. 

What about the process of how the governor will be presented with, say, staff picks of top proposals?

“We are working right now on what that will look like,” Proctor said.

Gibson later said she didn’t like what she heard: “I’m really concerned what could be done won’t reach the people who really need it.”

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, added that because demand exceeds supply, “it sets the stage for so many projects to get left behind.”

And she worried that there was no way to make sure money gets spread equally across the state.

In a statement, DEO called the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund “a critical tool for economic development in Florida,” adding it was “committed to accountability and transparency in this process.”

The department “has posted every proposal on a dedicated website, along with frequently asked questions and direct contact information for entities to call or email with any questions. Strong contracts with entities that receive these funds will ensure that each project has a strong, verifiable return on investment and taxpayer dollars are protected.”

DEO, “along with our partners at Enterprise Florida, the Florida Department of Transportation and CareerSource Florida, are working diligently to review more than 170 proposals from communities across the state,” the statement said.

“As outlined in legislation overwhelmingly passed during a special session earlier this year, projects will be approved that meet statutory criteria and promote economic opportunity in these local communities.”

By the meeting’s end, Bradley told colleagues that DEO was “asking for $85 million (next year for the fund) and they haven’t spent the first $85 million. This is the new world we’re working in.”

Bill to establish slavery memorial at Capitol advances in House committee

Legislation to establish a slavery memorial at the state Capitol in Tallahassee passed its first committee Wednesday.

The bill (HB 67) would authorize the Department of Management and Services, upon a recommendation from the Florida Historical Commission, to create and establish a Florida Slavery Memorial on the Capitol Complex.

It would “honor the nameless and forgotten men, women and children who have gone unrecognized for their undeniable contributions to our great state and great country,” explained Miami Democrat Kionne McGhee to the House Oversight, Transparency & Administration Subcommittee.

McGhee’s proposal is supported by House Speaker Richard Corcoran. A similar measure  passed the House during the 2017 Legislative Session, but failed to advance in the Senate, after initially being blocked by Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley.

Baxley told a reporter that he had a “discomfort about memorializing slavery” and that it would be too negative.

“I would rather celebrate overcoming the heartbreak of slavery. I wouldn’t want to build a memorial to child abuse; I wouldn’t want to build a memorial to sexual abuse,” Baxley told the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times. “I have a discomfort about memorializing slavery. … I would like to take it in a more positive direction than a memorial to slavery.”

The comments rankled McGhee, who called them “borderline racist.” The two later met for dinner and cleared up their differences.

Well-known legislative gadfly Brian Pitts praised the bill during public comment, but said that legislators should consider a similar memorial for Native Americans.

The Capitol complex currently includes monuments honoring veterans, law enforcement officers and women and one recognizing the Holocaust.


Sentencing bill a ‘win-win’, says Rob Bradley

Florida’s prison industry has endured scrutiny in recent years, and a new bill from Sen. Rob Bradley may offer some relief for the sector.

SB 484 would authorize a court to sentence prisoners to county jail for up to 24 months, if said county has a DOC contract.

The bill would also require prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. Those prisoners will have sentences that don’t run longer than 24 months, and most felony convictions are exempt from this proposal.

On Wednesday morning, Bradley told Florida Politics that this is not a new idea.

“This is an idea that I’ve discussed with Senate and House colleagues for a couple of years now,” Bradley asserted.

“We’ve come close to including language in budget conforming bills in the past but we haven’t been able to cross the finish line,” Bradley added, saying that he’s “starting the conversation early this year.”

Part of the problem is that the state has more prisoners than its facilities can handle, Bradley said.

“Right now,” Bradley said, “the state incarcerates 100,000 inmates. After dealing with this issue for years, I’ve come to the conclusion that our infrastructure and personnel is simply not equipped to handle that number. We need to reduce the state population. This is a strategy to accomplish this goal.”

The bill, Bradley added, will benefit “certain local jails with excess capacity. The bill will help relieve budget pressures for those jurisdictions.”

Personnel note: Joe Garcia to join global strategy firm Mercury

Mercury, a leading global, bipartisan public strategy firm, is adding former U.S. Congressman Joe Garcia to expand its Miami team and capabilities both in Florida and across the firm’s national offices.

Garcia, who served Florida’s 26th Congressional District, joins the team at Mercury as co-chairman based in the Miami office.

“We are excited to welcome Joe Garcia to the Mercury family. His extensive policy experience will be invaluable as we expand our footprint in Miami, and across the Sunshine State,” said Mercury Partner Ashley Walker.

“I am thrilled to join Mercury, known across the country for their exceptional work across the public affairs, policy and political arenas,” Garcia said. “I look forward to growing the Mercury brand in Miami, and bringing my expertise to help clients achieve success.”

During his time in Congress, Garcia served on the Committee on the Judiciary, including the Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Border Security, and the Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law. Garcia was also an integral member of the Committee on Natural Resources, including its Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources; Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs; and Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.

Before his time on Capitol Hill, Garcia served in the executive branch. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed – and the United States Senate unanimously confirmed – Garcia to the Department of Energy as Director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity. Garcia is also former Chairman and member of the Florida Public Service Commission, where he served on the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC,) and vice chair of the Southeastern Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (SEARUC.)

Throughout his career, Garcia held positions on a wide variety of state and federal projects, including: an adviser on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Joint Board. Garcia also served as board member and executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, an advocacy voice for human rights issues, and as director of the Cuban Exodus Relief Fund, a refugee resettlement group organization.

Garcia is a member of the Florida Bar, and holds both his BA and JD from the University of Miami.

“We are pleased to welcome Congressman Garcia to the Mercury team. His extensive policy experience in the energy and utility sectors, as well as his deep relationships in Washington, will be a tremendous asset to our clients,” said Mercury co-founder and CEO, Kieran Mahoney.

FDLE seeking $29M for new Pensacola regional office

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) is asking for an additional $29.3 million in the 2018-19 state budget to build a local office in Pensacola.

An FDLE representative told a meeting of the Florida Cabinet Aides on Wednesday that the budget request was being moved from the Department of Management Services (DMS), the state’s real estate manager.

“The total estimated cost is $32.3 million for design and construction,” according to a Cabinet meeting agenda item. “An additional $4.8 million will be required for fixtures, furniture and equipment in (fiscal year 2019-20).”

If the agency doesn’t get the building money, it says it “will be forced to re-sign a new lease agreement with the same owner despite the building condition,” the agenda says. The agency’s “growth in operations” in northwest Florida “has outgrown the current leased space which is in need of costly renovations.”

Based on market research, “there are no suitable leases in the area to accommodate the agency’s unique business needs of investigative and crime lab services,” the agency said.

“The department is anticipating growth in domestic security functions and biology services and the current location is unable to accommodate expansion and suitable renovations to meet future workloads.”

The request will be considered by Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet – Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and CFO Jimmy Patronis – at next Tuesday’s meeting.

Rick Scott wants generators required at nursing homes

Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday directed state agencies to “immediately begin the formal rulemaking process to permanently enact a rule requiring emergency generators at assisted living facilities (ALFs) and nursing homes.”

His edict went to the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) and the Department of Elder Affairs.

“An emergency rule adopted Sept. 16 requires all ALFs and nursing homes to obtain ample resources, including a generator and the appropriate amount of fuel, to sustain operations and maintain comfortable temperatures for at least 96 hours following a power outage,” according to a press release. “The formal rulemaking process will permanently codify these life-saving measures and allow for extensive public comment through workshops and public meetings.”

“After the heartbreaking tragedy at the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills following Hurricane Irma, I implemented emergency rules to ensure nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state would take immediate action to keep their patients safe,” he said in a statement.

“Today, I am directing the state to begin the formal rulemaking process to make these protections permanent,” he added. “Families rely on assisted living facilities and nursing homes to be fully prepared to care for their loved ones, and it is the responsibility of these facilities to provide a safe environment for their elderly and vulnerable residents.

“I will also be working closely with the Legislature to put this into law and I asked the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) to consider proposals that would also help protect the residents of these facilities. We will continue to explore every possible avenue in our fight to keep all residents safe.”

To view the Notices of Rule Development, click here and here.

Senators eagerly waiting hard facts on how the power grid stood up to Irma

Will Hurricane Irma inspire the Legislature to light a fire under the Public Service Commission’s (PSC) efforts to buttress the electric grid against powerful storms?

Likely. But it’s too soon to know what changes might help.

That picture emerged during hearings before Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities: Regulators won’t have digested the data situation in time for opening day in January.

Chairman Aaron Bean put the question directly to Cayce Hinton, the PSC’s director for industry development and market analysis, during a presentation on that agency’s 10-year infrastructure “hardening” efforts.

“How did we do? Cut to the chase. Did it turn out? Did we get our money’s worth?”

The PSC has opened a docket to look into that very question, Hinton replied. This year marked the first time the improvements were really put to the test, he said.

“So we don’t know yet?” Bean said.

“We don’t know yet.”

“From what I’ve seen, there appears to have been some improvement as far as restoration times,” Hinton said. “The utilities, right now they’re the ones who have the stats.”

Representatives of three investor-owned utilities were on hand to brief the committee — Duke Energy Florida, Florida Power & Light, and Tampa Electric Co. Each reported that his company’s response was vigorous, considering the extent of the damage.

Bryan Olnick, VP for distribution operations for Florida Power, for example, said it took 18 days to restore power to all customers following Wilma, but only 10 after Irma. Half the company’s customers saw power restored within one day post-Irma; it took five following Wilma.

More information here.

Following the hearing, Bean said some senators are eager to improve the grid.

“Session’s just around the corner. If we need to move or act, we need to do it sooner than later,” he said.

And if the PSC can’t make recommendations in time?

“I’m going to gently nudge them.”

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