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Republican lawmakers tackle ‘dark money’

Two Sarasota Republicans are attempting to pass legislation that would prevent political committees and electioneering communications organizations from donating to each other, touting it as a proposal that would end dark money in state politics.

While state Rep. Joe Gruters’ HB 43 and Sen. Greg Steube’s SB 122 do not address dark money in issue advocacy spending, the two bills would have a major impact on hard-to-track spending from PACs and ECOs in state politics.

“Dark money is money spent in Florida’s elections both at the local and the statewide level because of how campaign finance laws exist,” Gruters said. “Dark money is everything that is wrong with politics today.”

Gruters said the issue is bipartisan and that most of the dark money ads are “manipulative” and “negative” attacks. He said Florida voters are left in the dark when they cannot see how funds have been shuffled between PACs and ECOs.

A CPA, Gruters said he personally can’t determine where some money originates.

“If I am an expert, how can the public possibly understand how to find out who is behind the ads that are used with dark money,” Gruters said.

Steube also voiced his concern over tracking ads during political races.

“The biggest thing for me is the voters having transparency in knowing where — when they get that flashy little mailer in the mail — where that mailer came from,” Steube said.

He said that, if the legislation passed, campaigns would spend a lot less in total because there would be fewer attack ads.

“If you had to put your name associated with any negative campaign that you were going to do, I think you’d be much more reluctant and make sure that your facts were right before you do things,” Steube said. “Today you have people who basically launder money through a litany of different political committees, attack candidates and races, and the public has no idea where that money is coming from.”

Gruters said he attempted to push the same bill last year, but had “limited success.”

When asked why it wasn’t favored by legislative colleagues, he said it could be due to change.

“Anytime you have a major change in the system it can be difficult,” Gruters said.

Liberty First Network President Alex Snitker hinted that campaign finance issues could be the powerhouse behind other problems in Tallahassee.

“This issue permeates around all of the other issues,” Snitker said. “If you’re not getting a fair shake as to who is buying off who, then how do you know what the motivation is for whoever is voting for whatever piece of legislation?”

The dark money described by the legislators is a nuanced use of the descriptor, as the legislation circumvents the issue of what’s normally considered dark money.

Dark money was coined to describe dollars used by issue advocacy groups — nonprofits falling under 501c(3), 501(c)(4), 501(c)(5) and (501(c)(6) tax classifications. It was spotlighted in the recent nonfiction book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” which examines the libertarian network funded largely by Charles Koch and David Koch.

An illustration at the press conference introducing the legislation read, “STOP DARK MONEY! Support HB 43!”

Newberry Republican Chuck Clemons co-introduced the measure with Gruters.

Seminole Tribe criticism of fantasy sports is ‘off point,’ Dana Young says

State Sen. Dana Young is defending her fantasy sports bill for 2018, saying the Seminole Tribe’s criticism of her measure and related legislation is “off point.”

On Wednesday, the Tampa Republican referred to a February legal opinion by former Florida Supreme Court Justice Ken Bell for DraftKings, a leading fantasy sports website.

The day before, the Tribe sent a letter warning lawmakers that fantasy sports bills filed for the 2018 Legislative Session, if approved, would violate the Seminole Compact. (An earlier story is here.)

In sum, Bell said “the passage of legislation authorizing online fantasy sports should have no effect on the payments due to the State of Florida under the Compact.”

That’s the gambling agreement struck by the state and the Seminoles that, among other things, promises them exclusive rights to certain games. In return, the Tribe pays the state over $200 million a year.

But any violation of the exclusivity deal “would allow the Tribe to cease all revenue sharing payments to the State,” the Tribe’s letter said. The implication is that the bills would impinge on that exclusivity by allowing an expansion of gambling.

In an interview, Young was incredulous when told of the Tribe’s concerns. Her bill (SB 374) exempts fantasy sports play from state gambling regulation. Similar measures (SB 840, HB 223) have been filed for the upcoming Legislative Session.

“This issue has been around since 2015 and this is the first time the Tribe has raised the Compact as it relates to fantasy sports,” she said.

Fantasy sports fans have argued their hobby is a game of skill and not of chance, and shouldn’t be considered gambling—a position with which Young said she agrees.

Such contests “are games of skill in which prizes are offered, and are not gambling,” Young said. “The Tribe’s letter is therefore off point and not relevant to this legislation.”

In the opinion letter, Bell—now with the Gunster law firm—says “fantasy sports should not be considered internet/online gaming or casino-style gaming.”

“Fantasy sports competitions, such as those sponsored by DraftKings, should not be classified as internet gambling (because) they do not constitute an online bet or gamble,” he wrote.

“It can be reasonably argued that … fantasy sports are themselves a form of sport, requiring skill to be played, and do not constitute wagering on an athletic competition.”

The Tribe’s objections happened to come one day after 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.

Updated 2:15 p.m. — Young has filed a strike-all amendment on her bill, which can be read here.

It defines a “fantasy contest operator” as a “natural person who is a participant in the fantasy contest, serves as the commissioner of not more than 10 fantasy contests in a calendar year, and distributes all entry fees for the fantasy contest as prizes or awards to the participants in that fantasy contest.”

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Lawmakers question increased tourism funding

Gov. Rick Scott‘s request for lawmakers to boost tourism marketing by $24 million next year might be a tough sell in the House.

Members of the House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee said Wednesday that Visit Florida would have to justify the proposed increase by showing how many of the 112.3 million visitors last year, and 88.2 million so far this year, came to Florida because of the agency’s marketing efforts.

“Throwing out $75 million and 112 million visitors is just not compelling,” Rep. Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican, said after the meeting. “If you can show the incrementality (of marketing to tourism growth), it’s easier to justify the money.”

Other members of the panel questioned if the state has the money available to spend. Lawmakers provided $76 million to Visit Florida during the current fiscal year, and Scott has requested $100 million for the fiscal year that will start July 1.

“The pie is only so big, and we may actually have a budget shortfall,” Naples Republican Rep. Bob Rommel said. “So if you’d like an additional 32 percent of the money, I don’t know where we’re going to get it.”

Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson told the panel the money should be viewed as an investment, saying state economists have projected that spending by tourists accounted for $11.3 billion in state tax revenues the past fiscal year.

“By increasing the investment in us, we’re able to reach out more to show the diversity of Florida, which brings more tourists here, who spend money,” Lawson said.

Lawson said Florida competes against states such as California, which has $120 million for marketing. Also, while Visit Florida’s spending plan for 2018 is still begin drawn, the additional money would help Florida expand its digital media reach west of the Mississippi River and further into international markets, Lawson said after the meeting.

The agency has seen it annual visitor counts grow from 87.3 million in 2011 to more than 112 million last year, an increase that Lawson attributed to lawmakers boosting Visit Florida’s funding from $35 million in 2011 to $76 million.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, has argued in the past that people are driven to travel more by their personal finances than by state marketing.

But in seeking the increase for next year, Scott has pointed to the effects of Hurricane Irma. Lawmakers will consider the funding request during the Legislative Session that starts Jan. 9.

“You’ve got to let people know our beaches are open, our restaurants are open, our hotels are open, our amusement parks are open, so we keep our tourists coming because 1.4 million jobs are tied to tourism,” Scott said last month.

Visit Florida put together $5 million for a post-storm marketing campaign, which the agency has credited for helping the state draw a record 27.9 million tourists between July 1 through Sept. 30, even with Irma closing the Florida Keys for most of September.

In C-SPAN interview, Richard Corcoran says Jack Latvala is ‘heading toward expulsion’

In a brief interview with C-SPAN Wednesday morning, House Speaker Richard Corcoran said Sen. Jack Latvala is “heading toward expulsion” and that he likely has not resigned amid the sex scandal because of an “entitlement mentality.”

During the 12-minute interview, Corcoran was asked about the month-long Senate sexual harassment investigation against the Clearwater Republican. One that has intensified in the past week as his defense team tries to build a defense in the public eye.

“I think there’s clearly probably cause, and honestly, it looks at this point that they’re heading toward expulsion,” Corcoran told a national audience.

Corcoran, who will likely announce his bid for governor after the 2018 Session, was one of the first Republicans to call on Latvala to resign when the sexual misconduct allegations were first raised in a POLITICO Florida report.

In the interview, conducted inside a big C-SPAN bus in the Capitol Courtyard, Corcoran said elected officials should be held to a “higher standard” and stripped from titles when accused of sexual harassment, rather than remain fighting in office.

“We have elected officials that you would think would be held to a higher standard,” Corcoran said.

“There’s an entitlement mentality.”

Seminole Tribe fires warning letter to Legislature over fantasy sports

The Seminole Tribe of Florida‘s top in-house lawyer told lawmakers this week that their fantasy sports bills are a dealbreaker.

A $200 million dealbreaker.

The Tribe now says fantasy sports bills filed for the 2018 Legislative Session, if passed, would violate the Seminole Compact. That’s the gambling agreement struck by the state and the Seminoles that, among other things, promises them exclusive rights to certain games. In return, the Tribe pays the state hundreds of millions per year.

Break that deal, the Tribe says, and it’s entitled to pay not one more dime. Around 3 million Floridians say they play some sort of fantasy sports.

Jim Shore, the Tribe’s general counsel, sent a warning letter dated Tuesday to Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican, and Rep. Mike La Rosa, a St. Cloud Republican. Hutson chairs the Senate’s Regulated Industries Committee, which oversees gambling issues; La Rosa chairs the House’s Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee.

While Tribal leaders “remain willing” to talk about the legislation, Shore said any violation of their exclusivity deal “would allow the Tribe to cease all revenue sharing payments to the State.” That amounts to over $200 million yearly.

But that’s only if the state “expands” gambling. Fantasy sports fans have long argued their hobby – such as played on websites like FanDuel and DraftKings – is a game of skill and not of chance, and thus shouldn’t be considered gambling.

A bill (HB 223) by Republican Rep. Jason Brodeur of Sanford would exempt fantasy sports play from state gambling regulation. Another bill (SB 374) by GOP Sen. Dana Young of Tampa would do the same.

Past measures in the Legislature would have gone further by explicitly declaring that fantasy play is not gambling.

Hutson’s own omnibus gambling bill for 2018 (SB 840) includes a section on fantasy sports, defining it as being driven by player performance rather than team performance, and as long as someone isn’t “commissioner” of more than ten leagues, he is exempt from regulation.

A proposed omnibus gambling bill failed this past session, getting caught up in a late-session meltdown over a renewed blackjack agreement with the Seminoles and related measures that would have expanded gambling in the state.

Requests for comment on the letter are pending with lawmakers.

Jacksonville correspondent A.G. Gancarski contributed to this report. 

House Speaker backs stricter texting-while-driving proposal

The push to make texting while driving a primary offense under state law has gained a powerful advocate: House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

“The data is overwhelming and the need to act is equally compelling,” Corcoran said in a statement.

State Rep. Jackie Toledo on Wednesday filed legislation that would strengthen the ban on texting and emailing while driving by bolstering citation fees. Under the proposal, a first violation would carry a fine plus court fees that cost up to $108. If a second offense is committed within five years, a driver would face a $60 fine plus court expenses that could total up to $158.

Toledo, a Tampa Republican who works as an engineer, backs the tougher penalties with “crystal clear data” that she says show thousands of people were injured and hundreds were killed on the road in 2015 because of distracted driving.

“As the mother of five children these numbers are frightening as they are compelling,” Toledo said.

State Rep. Emily Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat cosponsoring the bill, said the effort would save lives.

Under the bill, law enforcement officers who stop a driver on suspicion of texting and driving would have to have a warrant to access a driver’s phone. They would also be required to inform the driver of their rights to decline a search of the phone.

“This bill establishes a proper balance between safety and law enforcement and our cherished liberties,” Corcoran said.

Florida is a minority when it comes to making texting while driving a secondary offense. Under current law, officers need to have another reason before they can pull a driver over.

Cord Byrd bill addresses ‘broken system’ of civil rights restoration

A new bill proposed in the Florida House would offer people with “legal disabilities” a road to restoration of civil rights.

HB 903, filed by Jacksonville Beach state Rep. Cord Byrd, would offer remedies for those whose civil rights were suspended after felony convictions.

Currently, a pardon or a restoration of civil rights is possible. Byrd’s bill offers a judicial option.

“Currently,” Byrd wrote on Facebook, “the average wait time for Restoration of Rights is over 9 years, with some as long as 11 years. Over 22,000 applications are pending, with only a few hundred being processed each year. Clearly the system is broken.”

The Byrd bill allows those seeking restoration of rights to petition their county’s circuit court; exceptions to this rule would be registered sexual predators or sexual offenders.

Petitioners are obliged to demonstrate that they have fulfilled all court-imposed sanctions. And a state attorney, should one so choose, can present objections.

If there is such objection, witnesses for and against the petition would present their cases at a hearing.

The order would be granted for people not expected to commit future crimes, nor present a threat to public safety.

Appeals are possible, and those petitioners who find their bids rejected have the right to file anew a year after said rejection.

Some people wait decades to get their rights back, long after they have proven that the threat they once posed to society has been removed.

Byrd’s bill would be a potential corrective to these onerous delays.

A Periscope video of Byrd’s Wednesday morning press conference in the Capitol, announcing the legislation with state Rep. Kim Daniels of Jacksonville, is below:

Audrey Gibson stops short of calling for Jack Latvala resignation

On Tuesday, the Florida Democratic Party broke its conspicuous silence on whether Sen. Jack Latvala should resign in light of sexual harassment charges and his moves to discredit the one accuser who has been made public, Rachel Perrin Rogers.

However, Democratic Senate colleagues of the former Appropriations Chair are somewhat more cautious.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, the Leader-designate of Senate Democrats, offered a statement Tuesday evening.

“First,” Gibson said, “I have continually maintained my sensitivity and support of women who believe they have been harassed in any way by anyone, being able to come forward and file a complaint. Secondly, Senator Latvala and/or Republican Leadership are the determinants on resignation matters.”

Gibson’s relative reticence on this matter is a marked contrast to the increasingly pitched rhetoric about Latvala from the other side of the aisle.

Sen. Travis Hutson — a colleague of Gibson’s in the regional First Coast Legislative Delegation — made waves with a pyrotechnic quote to POLITICO.

“This highly respected and regarded establishment is being burnt to the ground and I feel Senator Latvala is running around with the Napalm and the matches … This is only going to get worse. And the best thing for everyone — every senator, every staffer, every accuser and/or accused — would be a resignation so that we do not have to deal with this problem anymore,” Hutson said Monday evening.

Another Northeast Florida Republican Senator, Aaron Bean, has thus far withheld public comment.

And South Florida Republican Sen. Lauren Book filed a Rules complaint against Latvala for essentially outing Perrin Rogers, violating the expected confidentiality afforded her by the investigation.

“It is not ever OK to make attempts to ‘out’ a complainant, or to publicly attack or shame them with character assassination – things Senator Latvala has unfortunately and clearly done through various media outlets,” Book said.

Book’s complaint is the third filed against Latvala thus far; Perrin Rogers filed two already.

Florida House aims to roll out slimmer version of budget than Rick Scott

As Florida House members work to roll out their budget, the chairman of that chamber’s budget committee said Tuesday they are aiming for a simpler version of the massive $87 billion budget Gov. Rick Scott has proposed.

“Our goal is to pass a balanced budget — I don’t want to say one that is more conservative than the governor’s, but one that is more simplified,” state Rep. Carlos Trujillo said.

The governor’s proposed budget this year is the largest in state history — and more than $1 billion additional spending than the current year’s plan. A large chunk of Scott’s proposal is tied to Hurricane Irma expenses and Medicaid.

When Trujillo was asked by reporters what he meant by a simpler budget, he implied that it would cover the state’s basic functions, but his chamber would likely not pack their budget with as many member projects sought by specific members.

The Miami Republican said his chamber is likely to craft a slimmed down version of Scott’s spending plan. That proposal is expected to be unveiled in roughly two months.

The governor’s proposal is often seen as a recommendation for lawmakers, who ultimately write the state budget. Scott exerts his influence on the process on the back end with his line-item veto power.

Senator files complaint against Jack Latvala for hindering Senate probe

Embattled Sen. Jack Latvala is facing yet another complaint, this time by one of his allies accusing him of interfering in a Senate investigation by using defense tactics that aim to publicly attack and shame the woman who is accusing him of sexual harassment.

Sen. Lauren Book field the formal complaint late on Tuesday with the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto. In it, she alleges that Latvala — the man who she has “admired and respected” for many years — is discouraging “other women who may have wished to come forward” with their own sexual harassment stories.

“It is not ever OK to make attempts to ‘out’ a complainant, or to publicly attack or shame them with character assassination – things Senator Latvala has unfortunately and clearly done through various media outlets,” Book said.

Rachel Perrin Rogers, a top aide to Republican Sen. Wilton Simpson, accused the 66-year-old veteran lawmaker of sexually harassing her over the course of four years, with misconduct that ranged from unwelcome comments about her breasts and legs to touching her in a Tallahassee bar that prompted her to cry. Since then, Latvala’s legal team has released information that aims to poke holes in her credibility.

As part of his defense, which was aired in various media outlets, including Florida Politics, Latvala’s attorneys have released sworn statements that raise questions about Rogers character. That includes an affidavit by a former Senate Majority Office colleague of hers, 22-year-old Lily Tysinger, who claims Rogers boasted about sabotaging people’s careers.

Tysinger also claims she was demoted the day Rogers filed the sexual harassment complaint against Latvala, And that she was never given a reason why.

As of Monday, she is being represented by Tallahassee-based attorney Marie Mattox — who is known for filing workplace harassment and discrimination lawsuits, particularly those involving state workers. Mattox, who once worked with Perrin Rogers’ attorney, Tiffany Cruz, has also been behind a good portion of the sexual harassment cases brought against the state.

Mattox told Florida Politics on Monday that Tysinger is considering suing Rogers for making false accusations against, including claims that the 22-year-old was “mentally ill” and “suicidal” which could have had a direct effect on her demotion that came with a $11,000 pay cut, she said.

“What Rogers had done to her is just wrong,” Mattox said.

The defense tactics used by Latvala have also prompted Gov. Rick Scott to call him a “distraction” in the Senate — and POLITICO Florida reported that Republican Sen. Travis Hutson has called on Latvala to resign.

“This behavior is unbecoming of a sitting Senator, unfair to Ms. Perrin Rogers, and discouraging to others who may have wished to come forward and may not now for fear that “they too” will be publicly shamed, or even jeopardize their employment,” Book said in a statement.

The month-long Senate investigation is currently in the hands of a special master’s findings. The Senate hired retired Judge Ronald V. Swanson to lead the investigation and if Benacquisto finds probable cause in his findings, the report would go to the Senate Rules Committee and later to the Senate floor for debate, followed by a vote on the appropriate punishment, which could include an expulsion from the Senate.

Book’s complaint on Tuesday came hours after Democratic gubernatorial candidates and the Florida Democratic Party as a whole called for Latvala’s resignation.

Gwen Graham, a Democrat running for governor, said “it’s insulting” that the Clearwater Republican, who is vying for the seat, hasn’t stepped down.

“It’s equally infuriating that he has been allowed to abuse his political power to cowardly intimidate his victims,” she added.

Book’s formal complaint with the Senate Rules Committee could spark a separate Senate investigation into how Latvala has fought the sexual harassment claims. This is the third complaint filed in that committee in the course of a month against the former budget chairman.

“The investigation will yield truth in the matter at hand, but in the meantime, we must hold ourselves, and the process, to the highest ethical standard and refuse to allow the kind of behavior and mistreatment we have seen in the wake of the allegations,” Book said.

In her statement, Book did not call for Latvala to resign, but did say his behavior was “unbecoming of a sitting Senator.”

Early on Tuesday, though, before the recent wave of backlash, Latvala wrote on Facebook that even with reports slamming his defense, he would keep on fighting.

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