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Halloween is brought you by these Florida lobbyists and political associations

The witching hour is upon us.

Ghosts and ghouls fill the streets. Zombies walk side-by-side with princesses and superheroes. Their mission the same: Spook and scare their neighbors in hopes of scoring enough candy to sustain them for the next year.

Florida Retailers are expecting their tills to be flush thanks to the most frightening of festivals causing Florida consumers flock to stores for everything from candy to costumes. In fact, All Hallows is expected to produce a $9 billion rake for retailers nationwide.

After making the trip to Wal-Mart or Target to grab some garb for the kiddos and something sweet for the strangers sure to come a knocking, there’s the question of what to do with the rest of the night.

With the holiday falling on hump day this year, the answer for most will be enjoying a lazy night on the couch zoning out to a few Halloween classics rolling on cable or, more likely, Netflix.

Sunshine State cinema savants can pocket this piece of trivia: Creature from the Black Lagoon was shot in Florida — more specifically, Silver Springs, Wakulla Springs and Jax. The definitive “deep ones” film went on to be considered a classic, but there’s been few other “Fresh from Florida films” to be so honored in the 64 years since it bowed.

If the Motion Picture Association of America gets its way, that could change. The trade association has been fighting for years to get film incentives back into the Florida budget, and has been making progress toward that end goal thanks to Will McKinley, Van Poole, Angela Dempsey and Fred Dickinson of PooleMcKinley, with an assist from H. French Brown of Dean Mead.

Of course, not everyone is into creature features. For those that want a little Sci-Fi mixed in, all-time greats such as It Came from Outer Space, Alien and The Thing are always good picks for a reliable fright. Space travel is in vogue right now, with no less than two multi-billion-dollar corps shooting rockets from the Sunshine State to the stars.

Both the Elon Musk-backed SpaceX (or “Space Exploration Technologies” for the long winded) and the Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin have a sizable interest in Florida’s Space Coast, but not even a team of rocket scientists could navigate the ins and outs of the Florida Legislature.

To handle their lobbying needs, SpaceX has Taylor Biehl and Jeff Sharkey of Capital Alliance Group on its crew, while Blue Origin has locked in Brian Ballard and Mathew Forrest of Ballard Partners. Here’s hoping the free market keeps those two high-tech corps in competition — Bezos-Musk just doesn’t have the same ring to it as Weyland-Yutani.

Back on terra firma, there’s another tech revolution in its nascent phase: Self-driving cars. And unlike the nightmare-inducing Maximum Overdrive, the new-fangled innovation is apparently safe enough for Sen. Jeff Brandes to hop in the non-driver seat.

Musk’s Tesla Motors is one of the companies making waves in autonomous vehicles, but there’s a truckload more looking to boost their presence in Florida, Starsky Robotics and Google (via Waymo) among them. But until the programming geniuses behind AVs find a way to automate the Legislature, they’ll be in need of some backup in Tallahassee.

For Starsky Robotics, those duties have been farmed out to Jonathan Kilman and Paul Lowell of Converge Government Affairs while Waymo has five members of the Southern Strategy Group lobby corps on retainer — Rachel Cone, Paul Bradshaw, Oscar Anderson, Brian Bautista, and Clark Smith.

If staying local and handing out candy doesn’t sound appealing this All Hallows Eve, maybe a trip to Orlando for Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights is in the cards. As in years past, the theme park purveyor will lean a bit on its film studio cousin to deliver guests a spine-chilling night. Among the IPs in the 2018 edition: Stranger Things, Poltergeist and, fittingly, Halloween.

While the Halloween Horror Nights cast works late into the night to deliver frights, Universal has a trio of firms helping in-house lobbyist Melanie Becker get through the Legislative Session without working into the wee hours. On call for Universal are Paul Hawkes and Tim Stanfield of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Erik Kirk of PooleMcKinley and Missy Timmins of Timmins Consulting.

Those making the trek to the City Beautiful will need to book a place to stay, of course, and Expedia can help out-of-towners make sure their home away from home has a less creepy caretaker than the Bates Motel or the Overlook Hotel.

When the travel booking platform, one of the top-200 most visited sites worldwide, needs to get something done in Tallahassee it turns to Jennifer GreenMelanie Bostick and Tim Parson of Liberty Partners of Tallahassee.

Florida TaxWatch says Halloween treats taxed trickily

It’s that time of year to be frightened — not by ghosts or goblins, but by Florida’s tax rules on candy.

Every year, Florida TaxWatch, the nonpartisan government watchdog, uses Halloween to demonstrate the state’s boggling rules on what gets taxed and what doesn’t.

“Groceries are generally exempt from Florida sales tax, but candy can get confusing,” the group’s 2018 handout (at bottom) says.

Most candy is subject to the 6 percent state sales tax (and any applicable local sales tax), as long as it costs at least 10 cents.

“Seventeen states are like Florida and do not consider candy to be groceries and, therefore, tax it at the full rate,” TaxWatch says.

But “it gets tricky.”

Our favorite: Marshmallow-based candy is taxable, but marshmallows themselves are exempt.

Also, “chocolate and glazed or sugar-coated fruit is taxable, but chocolate chips and glazed fruit are exempt when ‘advertised or normally sold for use in cooking or baking.’ ”

But these are tax-free: “Cookies (even if chocolate-coated), nutrition bars, cracker jacks, fruit rollups, chips, cheese puffs, granola and cereal bars, nuts, and pretzels.”

Moreover, “all these treats can be covered in chocolate, candy, honey, or yogurt and remain tax-free.”

Do you really want to be the house that gives out pretzels, though? Well, maybe chocolate-covered mini-pretzels. Happy Halloween.

Looking ahead: Florida TaxWatch publishes guide for ‘whoever’ wins gubernatorial election

While Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum have fundamental differences in how state government should be shaped for the next four years, each will face the important task of ensuring it continues to operate.

That’s why the nonpartisan research and policy group Florida TaxWatch is again publishing its “Governor’s Transition Decision Handbook,” a cheat-sheet aimed to help the prevailing gubernatorial candidate move seamlessly from the campaign to the official office.

Whoever wins on Nov. 6— whether it’s Gillum, the Mayor of Tallahassee, or DeSantis, the former Congressman from Ponte Vedra Beach — the nonprofit state government watchdog is hoping to provide a helping hand.

“We’re looking forward to helping him and his team get a quick jump from the campaign to government,” TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro said on Tuesday during remarks to media at the organization’s Tallahassee headquarters.

“The important thing is when the election is over, we can put aside those partisan differences and we look first and foremost at how Florida is second to none,” Calabro added.

Former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, who served from 1987-1991, headed the handbook’s steering committee, which also includes other former and current electeds from both major parties.

The handbook, Martinez said, is at the very least a “guide,” for whoever wins to help them “implement their policies and organize their administration.”

Before being elected Governor in 1986, Martinez had served a seven-year stint as Tampa Mayor.

“Not enough can be said about the assistance that is required,” Martinez said, referencing his jump from local to statewide office. DeSantis or Gillum will first be tasked with hiring their immediate staff — like their chief of staff and policy and budget directors, added Martinez. 

“Those are very important,” Martinez continued, noting that the Governor’s budget must be submitted to the Legislature sometime before the 2019 Legislative Session March start date.

Martinez, who was the only Republican officer elected statewide in 1986 and was forced to coordinate with a Democrat-controlled Legislature, inhabited the Governor’s Mansion in a scenario similar to what could happen if Gillum wins next week — should the House and Senate remain Republican-controlled.

“You learn to adapt,” Martinez said.

Former Democratic state Rep. Alan Williams, of Tallahassee, said for the most part, “the philosophy and all the rhetoric on the campaign trail must end,” after the election. Then, a bipartisan and unified approach is required.

Beginning to work with the Legislature, Williams added, is among “the most critical” first steps. And that’s how TaxWatch, where Williams serves as a member of the handbook steering committee, can help.

The handbook, more than 60 pages long, provides a preview of the roles an responsibilities of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, as well as a listing of “prominent issues facing Florida,” ranging from big-ticket items like public education spending to abstract but important policies like gaming and affordable housing.

The handbook was first published in 1998, when Gov. Jeb Bush was elected. It’s been revised and republished in four separate editions since.

House seeks to defend medical marijuana law

The Florida House is seeking to intervene in a potentially far-reaching legal battle about the constitutionality of a 2017 law that set regulations for the state’s medical-marijuana industry.

House lawyers last week requested approval to help defend the law, which was designed to carry out a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana. A Leon County circuit judge this month sided with a Tampa-based firm that contends the 2017 law did not properly follow the constitutional amendment, in part because the law capped the number of medical-marijuana licenses that can be issued.

In a motion filed last week seeking to intervene in the case, House lawyers contended that the 2017 law was carefully crafted to carry out the voter-approved constitutional amendment and to comply with federal guidance about medical- marijuana issues. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, though it has been legalized for medicinal and recreational uses in various states.

“The House seeks to intervene here to defend the Legislature’s prudent effort at striking the necessary, delicate balance between implementation of the voter-adopted MMA policy (the medical marijuana constitutional amendment), on the one hand, and conflicting federal drug policy, on the other,” the motion to intervene said. “Indeed, the House has a direct interest in preserving, from judicial encroachment, the Legislature’s constitutional prerogative to address such a conflict and effectuate the voters’ will to the extent federal law will allow.”

The Tampa-based firm Florigrown, which had unsuccessfully sought a state license to get into the medical-marijuana industry, filed the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 2017 law. Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson agreed that the law was unconstitutional and issued a temporary injunction Oct. 5 that required state health officials to begin registering Florigrown and other medical-marijuana firms to do business.

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration appealed, which had the effect of placing an automatic stay on Dodson’s ruling while the 1st District Court of Appeal considers the issues. Florigrown last week filed a motion in Dodson’s court to vacate the automatic stay, alleging that the Legislature had tried to create an “oligarchy” by limiting the number of licenses in what is expected to be a lucrative industry.

“This oligarchy has resulted in the creation of astronomic and artificial values in ‘licenses,’ contrary to the goal of making medical marijuana ‘safe and available’ and at the expense of qualifying patients and those so woefully in need of compassion, not exploitation by the select few,” Florigrown attorneys wrote.

Dodson has scheduled a Nov. 19 hearing to consider several issues, including the motion to vacate the automatic stay and the House’s request to intervene. While Dodson granted a temporary injunction, the underlying lawsuit also remains in his court.

The 2017 law ordered health officials to grant licenses to operators who were already up and running at the time in Florida or who were involved in litigation as of Jan. 1, 2017. The law also required a license for a black farmer who meets certain conditions and set aside a preference for applicants with certain ties to the citrus industry.

Dodson’s ruling found fault with caps on the number of licenses and issues such as the creation of a “vertical integration” system that requires marijuana operators to grow, process and sell medical marijuana — as opposed to businesses being licensed to play different roles in the industry. More than 71 percent of voters approved the medical-marijuana constitutional amendment in 2016.

In seeking to intervene in the case last week, House lawyers pointed to 2013 guidance from the Obama-era U.S. Justice Department that indicated state and local governments should have tight regulatory systems for medical marijuana. It also said uncertainty has been “amplified” by the Trump administration’s tougher stance on marijuana, which this year included rescinding the 2013 guidance.

“Only the Legislature — made up of the citizens’ representatives — has the constitutional authority to navigate the state through the tempestuous waters caused by the direct conflict between federal policy and a state policy enacted by citizen initiative,” the House lawyers wrote.

‘Pre-reveal’ games dispute could head to Supreme Court

A dispute about the legality of certain electronic games — known as “pre-reveal” and played in bars and other establishments  — could be headed to the Florida Supreme Court.

Blue Sky Games, which developed the games, and Jacksonville-based Gator Coin, which leased the games to businesses, have filed notices that are a first step in asking the court to take up the issue, according to information posted Monday on appeals-court dockets.

The 1st District Court of Appeal in August upheld a circuit judge’s ruling that the so-called “pre-reveal” games are illegal slot machines.

The legal wrangling began when the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco ordered two businesses to remove the machines, prompting challenges from Blue Sky Games and Gator Coin.

Supporters of the games have contended that the machines are legal because they include a “preview” feature that advises players of the outcome of the games.

But regulators and other critics have argued the preview feature doesn’t matter because the “random number generator” used to create the games equates to the definition of slot machines, which are games of “chance,” under state law.

Also, a key issue has been whether the slot-machine law applies to playing a single game or a series of games. While the outcome of the first “pre-reveal” game is known in advance, a player at the outset does not know the results of subsequent games.

The appeals court upheld a ruling last year by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper, who originally sided with Blue Sky Games and Gator Coin but then reversed himself.

The reversal came after the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which became involved in the case, asked Cooper to reconsider his initial decision. The tribe operates casinos that include slot machines.

Joe Biden adviser Jake Sullivan endorses Liv Coleman

National security adviser Jake Sullivan weighed in on a Florida House race, endorsing Liv Coleman in District 73.

“I know what Liv is capable of because I know where she comes from,” Sullivan said in a statement.

“We grew up in the same town and went to the same high school. We both learned the values of fairness, common sense, and service in the Minneapolis public schools. Liv’s own experience is why she is devoted to strong public education for every kid in Florida.

“If you vote for her on November 6, she will make you proud.”

Sullivan served as national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. He also served as an advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton—and not always to the pleasure of progressives.

Vox in 2015 described Sullivan as the man behind “hawkish Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy.”

In that article, Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, said: “On the spectrum of people in our administration, he [Sullivan] tended to favor more assertive US engagement on issues.”

Coleman said family connections made Sullivan aware of her candidacy for state House, then asked to be put in touch with the campaign. Sullivan and Coleman’s husband, Matt Lepinski, were on debate team together in high school.

While national security issues haven’t dominated the state House race, Coleman, a political science professor at the University of Tampa, hopes the endorsement can further bolster his public policy credibility.

She’s running against Republican Tommy Gregory, a Sarasota attorney and a former JAG officer whose military credentials have been a big part of his campaign.

Coleman and Gregory seek to succeed Republican Rep. Joe Gruters, who is running for state Senate. Gruters in 2016 won the district with 65 percent of the vote over Democrat James Golden, so the district historically swings to the right.

‘An important step’: Bernie Sanders backs Amendment 4

On Sunday, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders was the latest in a series of high-profile bipartisan endorsements for  Amendment 4, also known as the “Voting Restoration Amendment,” on the 2018 ballot.

“Amendment 4: In Florida 1.4 million people cannot vote because they have been convicted of a crime, even after they have paid their price to society and completed their sentence. This is a moral abomination that has disenfranchised huge numbers of people — a disproportionate number of those affected are African American — and significant parts of communities,” Sanders said via media release.

“If we want a criminal justice system that rehabilitates people, we need to make sure formerly incarcerated people can fully participate as citizens. Passing this amendment is an important step for both voting rights and criminal justice reform,” Sanders added.

The amendment is seeing backing from the left and right wings of the political spectrum.

The amendment is backed by political committee Floridians for a Fair Democracy, which sponsored the petition and signature verification effort to get the proposal on the 2018 ballot.

In the leadup to the general election, other orgs have pitched in with advertising —  the Alliance for Safety and Justice and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition recently teamed up for a statewide ad buy. The amendment also recently earned an endorsement from the Koch brothers-backed Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce.

Florida is among the nation’s leaders in voter disenfranchisement that critics say is racist in application. The New York Times reported in 2016 that more than 20 percent of African-American men have been divested of suffrage.

Overall, there are about 1.7 million convicted felons in the Sunshine State. Amendment 4 would restore voting rights to the vast majority of those individuals, though the amendment does carve out those who have been convicted of sex offenses or capital crimes, such as murder.

The current voting rights restoration system requires felons to wait up to seven years after their conviction to apply for restoration, which is handled on a case-by-case basis by the Governor and Cabinet.

Polls have been favorable to the Amendment reaching the 60 percent threshold to pass, including a Siena/NY Times live poll that wrapped Saturday, which showed the measure with 60 percent support and nine percent still undecided.

Amendment 3 is one of a dozen measures that will go before voters in the 2018 general election, including seven amendments placed on the ballot by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission and three by the state Legislature.

Only Amendment 4 and Amendment 3, also known as the “Voter Control of Gambling in Florida” amendment, made the ballot through the petition method.

James Buchanan continues to lead Tony Mowry in race for dollars

Republican state House candidate James Buchanan enjoyed a late infusion of cash in his race in District 74, pulling in $14,250 in monetary contributions in a week.

His Democratic opponent Tony Mowry pulled in $6,270 over the same reporting period, which ran from Oct. 13 through 19.

Robert Samuel Kaplan, a no-party affiliation candidate also in the mix, has raised no money over the course of the race.

The successful fundraising on the part of both candidates, makes what could be a sleepy affair in a normally non-competitive district into one politicos in Southwest Florida will watch closely on Election Day.

Buchanan, the son of U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, saw checks come in from the Realtors PAC, the Florida CPA PAC and Bright Future for Florida, a political committee registered under consultant Nick Matthews.

Buchanan earned his shared of arrows slung at him for running in three House districts over the course of two years, something Mowry recently confronted him on at a Sarasota Tiger Bay forum.

Most notably, Buchanan ran—and lost—in a February special election in neighboring District 72 to Democrat Margaret Good.

But the experience also gave Buchanan rapid education on running for office and connections with statewide support networks. In total, he’s raised $143,050 for his run in District 74 since announcing in March.

Mowry, though, also amassed a significant warchest, with $95,312 in contributions over the course of his campaign. That’s come mostly from individual donors.

In the last reporting period, he did pull in a $1,000-donation from Sarasota production company Triforce Pictures, but the bulk of his final funding push primary came in donations of $500 or less.

Of course, Buchanan heads to Election Day with an advantage both in dollars and demographics. Republicans make up almost 44 percent of registered voted in the district, and Democrats make up just 27 percent.

The seat opened up this year following a failed Congressional run by state Rep. Julio Gonzalez, who lost to Greg Steube in the Republican primary in Florida’s 17th Congressional District.

Gonzalez in 2016 won 63 percent of the vote over Democrat Manny Lopez. Democrats didn’t bother fielding a candidate in 2014—or 2012 or 2010.

Caruso Bonfiglio

Jim Bonfiglio laps Mike Caruso in fundraising — thanks to self-loan

Democrat legislative candidate Jim Bonfiglio heavily outraised his Republican opponent, Mike Caruso, in the latest fundraising period — largely thanks to an $80,000 loan made by Bonfiglio to his campaign.

The two are competing for the House District 89 seat, which covers coastal portions of Palm Beach County.

Caruso brought in more outside money than Bonfiglio Oct. 13-19, gathering just over $6,000 to Bonfiglio’s $4,750. But Bonfiglio dropped $80,000 of his own money to fund a big ad buy in the final week of the campaign.

Bonfiglio has trailed Caruso in outside donations in each reporting period throughout the general election. That’s now been rendered null.

Contributions to Bonfilgio mostly came from political committees, such as Floridians for Public Safety and the Florida Nurses Association.

His campaign also ate through nearly $90,000 in Oct. 13-19. That’s thanks to an $86,5000 advertising buy that was listed in this report. However, those ads will run during the final full week of the campaign.

Caruso was also heavily aided by outside groups, earning $1,000 donations from Florida Blue, Committee of Florida Agents, and the Florida Limousine Association.

The Republican spent nearly $44,000 during the period. Like Bonfiglio, almost all of that was spent on an ad buy, with just over $43,000 listed as media advertising with DMG & Associates.

Overall, the candidates retain just about the same amount of cash with just over a week to go. Caruso has a slight lead with just under $24,000, as compared with Bonfilgio at just over $20,000.

The contest should be a tight one. Republican state Rep. Bill Hager, who is term-limited, had some tough battles in past re-election bids.


Joe Gruters shifts into overdrive for himself, fellow Republicans

Republican state Senate candidate Joe Gruters knows his success this year relies on the strength of the GOP ticket as a whole.

“We’re trying to drive turnout for the entire team,” he said.

As the 10-year chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota, Gruters knows the importance of lifting the entire slate more acutely than most politicians. This year, he says, base turnout will make or break certain campaigns.

“You used to be able to identify voters that cared about education. You could send them something about what you would do to increase teacher pay, and maybe you could turn them,” he said.

“In today’s environment, it’s ‘Do you support Trump or not’ ”

Raising all boats

Gruters spent part of Saturday afternoon doing joint phone banking with Republican state House candidate Ray Pilon, who is seeking to unseat Democratic state Rep. Margaret Good in House District 72. That district lies entirely within Senate District 23, so if every Pilon voter backs Gruters and vice versa, both Republicans should get a lift.

Gruters will take it. He feels good about his standing against Democrat Faith Olivia Babis.

His own internal polling shows him ahead by 9 points, but that’s a little close for comfort considering the district went to Republican Greg Steube two years ago by nearly 18 points. Still, he’s on track to win and that’s good enough in a year like this.

As party chairman, Gruters developed a sterling reputation for GOTV. He won the chairmanship in Sarasota County a month after the 2008 presidential election, when Republican nominee John McCain won the county by just 211 votes and lost statewide to Democrat Barack Obama.

But four years into Gruters’ tenure, 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the county by more than 15,000 votes. In 2016, now-President Donald Trump won the county by nearly 27,000 votes and secured Florida’s electoral votes.

Gruters played an outsized role in that last one. Though normally allergic to primary endorsements, he backed Trump early in the campaign cycle, back when most party leaders lined up behind Sen. Marco Rubio or former Gov. Jeb Bush. Trump ended up kicking off his Florida campaign at Robarts Arena in Sarasota.

After Trump won the Republican nomination, Gruters became co-chair of the Florida campaign. Trump’s final rally the day before the election once again took place in Robarts.

A record to run on

That was 2016, and two years later, Democrats bring up Gruters’ ties to the White House as often as he does. But Gruters in 2016 also enjoyed a personal political success, winning House District 73.

In other words, he’s got his own record to run upon.

He likes to note how often he’s bucked House leadership — on business incentives and on VISIT Florida. And he proudly defends his vote in favor of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.

Back home, it’s been a year of ups and downs.

Remember that District 72 race? In February, Good won that seat in a nationally watched special election. Just for fun, Good ran against James Buchanan, the son of sitting U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, who happens to be a personal mentor to Gruters.

But heading into the election in Sarasota, Gruters feels much better than he did in February. As of Saturday morning, 15,492 Republican voters in the county had already voted early or by mail, compared to 13,088 Democrats and 7,868 no-party affiliation voters.

And Sarasota differs from the state as a whole in that Democrats usually perform better in absentee voting while Republicans typically outnumber Democrats on election day two-to-one. Call it a side effect to serving as home to so many wealthy retirees.

“I expect a surge to the finish,” he said. “We’re going to have a phenomenal night as a party and for our candidates locally.”

That’s important to Gruters, who announced this month that this would be his last term as chairman of the party. If he could sweep one more election cycle, it would be a good way to go out, especially considering that would guarantee his ascent to the state Senate.

Regardless, he’s left the party stronger than he found it. In nine of 10 years of his chairmanship, Republicans registered more new voters than Democrats. That includes the last two years even in the face of an increasingly fractious and anti-Trump national dialogue.

“I’ve loved being party chairman,” Gruters said. But it’s also grueling work, and he says it’s time to move on. Assuming he wins the Senate seat, he’s about to triple his constituents as a lawmaker. Not to mention he’s got three small kids at home and his own accounting firm.

For now, he remains focused on electoral success, for the party’s statewide like U.S. Senate candidate Rick Scott and gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, all the way down to Republicans running for the Venice and North Port City Councils.

And oh yeah, also for himself.

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