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Senate committee unanimously approves bill to ban fracking

The Senate Environmental Preservation & Conservation Committee unanimously approved a bill to ban fracking Tuesday, marking a reversal from previous legislative actions on the issue.

“Florida has such a unique geological make up and one-of-a-kind environment that we should not be putting it at risk by allowing fracking in the State of Florida,” said Sen. Dana Young, the bill’s sponsor. “This is the same sentiment that I’ve heard echoed from concerned Floridians from the panhandle all the way to the Florida Keys – we should not be jeopardizing our drinking water supply or our beautiful natural environment.”

The bill (SB 442) passed with little public comment, with most of the public speakers waiving in support or opposition of the bill. Four of the seven members of the committee are co-sponsoring the legislation, including Sen. Lauren Book, the committee’s chairwoman, and Sen. Jack Latvala, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

“As the old and wise voice of the Senate here, as was announced earlier all four people sitting here are co-sponsors of this bill,” said Latvala at the beginning of the public comment period, before encouraging speakers to waive their time. “I feel pretty confident of the success of this bill. You’ve got the votes here.”

Industry officials did not waive their time, using their time to speak out against the measure. And on Tuesday, an attorney for one landowner said the proposal indicated the proposal could lead to litigation.

Jake Cremer, an attorney with Stearns Weaver Miller, said his firm represents Collier Resources, which manages and develops more than 800,000 mineral acres in Collier, Lee and Hendry counties.

“No matter whether good policy or bad policy, this bill will be a lightning rod for litigation in the state,” he said.

But Sen. Gary Farmer, a trial attorney who spent years representing consumers, pointed out more than 30 cities and counties have already passed bans. Farmer asked Cremer how many of those bans have resulted in successful litigation; Cremer said he didn’t know of any.

Young seemed unfazed by the threat of litigation, saying the bill doesn’t prohibit traditional oil and gas drilling.

2017 Legislative Session preview: Showdown over gambling—again

With competing legislation now set up in both chambers, the question remains whether lawmakers finally will pass a gambling overhaul or whether the effort will founder as it has in years past.

Hanging in the balance is a new blackjack exclusivity deal for the Seminole Tribe of Florida that promises a cut to the state worth $3 billion over seven years.

Negotiated by Gov. Rick Scott in late 2015, it failed to gain approval from lawmakers last session as it got bogged down by a fight over expanding games for the state’s pari-mutuel facilities, such as horse and dog tracks.

Indeed, the battle has usually been between pari-mutuels, who want to offer more gambling and be free of the state’s requirement that they run live races in order to offer cards or slots, and “family-friendly” tourism proponents, chiefly Disney. 

Younger audiences don’t want to bet on horses or dogs, the pari-mutuels say, and are more taken with diversions like fantasy sports, which would be made expressly legal in Florida in other legislation filed for this year.

Valery Bollier, CEO and co-Founder of Oulala Games, which offers fantasy soccer games in the U.K., told an International Casino Conference audience this month that the gambling industry “will fall off a cliff if they do not adapt to a millennial audience.”

“Young generations are not playing the same games as their parents,” Bollier said. “…They have access to such amazing skill games on their consoles and constant social interactions on their mobile phones.”

The two bills this year (SB 8, HB 7037) come at the issue from different directions, with the House seeking to “freeze” gambling in the state, and the Senate generally allowing expansion of gambling opportunities.

For example, the House outlaws designated-player card games, but the Senate would let “all cardroom operators … offer designated-player games,” which are similar to poker in that people play against each other.   

Moreover, the House would prohibit the expansion of slot machines, while the Senate generally expands the availability of slot machines, including to counties that passed a slots referendum. 

The House also would direct Seminole gambling money to education, including for “K-12 teacher recruitment and retention bonuses,” and funding “schools that serve students from persistently failing schools” and “higher education institutions to recruit and retain distinguished faculty.”

But Florida has a history of failure when it comes to addressing gambling. In 2012, former state Sen. Ellyn Setnor Bogdanoff pushed a measure to permit three destination hotel-casinos in South Florida. That effort died.

The next year, realizing they had likely bungled it, lawmakers hastily moved to ban Internet gambling cafés – only after a multistate investigation that netted dozens of arrests threw egg on the Legislature’s collective face.

Two years after that, then-House Republican Leader Dana Young of Tampa sponsored her own sweeping legislation to permit two destination resort casinos in South Florida and allow dog tracks to stop live racing but continue to offer slot machines, among many other provisions.

It, too, died during the Legislative Session.

And this year, neither bill addresses an idea proposed by Young, now a state senator, and others: Establishing an independent gambling commission, as in Nevada and New Jersey. Now, the state regulates gambling through the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Izzy Havenick, who with his family owns Naples Fort Myers Greyhound Racing in Bonita Springs, says he’s once again “cautiously optimistic” something will pass this year. Lee County is one of those that passed a slots referendum; his facility, which offers poker, competes with the Seminoles’ Immokalee casino, that has slots, about a 45-minute drive to the east.

“It’s hard to be in an industry where you never know what your rules and regulations are going to be,” Havenick said. “We hope they pass legislation that allows us to compete with the gambling that is all around us.”

Legislation would help Florida craft distilleries, breweries

Philip McDaniel is like most craft distillers in Florida – he is frustrated that he can sell only two bottles per label a year to each visitor of his distillery in St. Augustine when breweries and wineries can sell as much as they want.

McDaniel, who makes rum, gin and vodka, wants that bottle limit lifted. Meanwhile, small craft beer breweries in the state want to be able to expand their businesses by selling to retailers without going through distributors.

Those proposals are part of bills moving through the Florida Legislature. As in past years, the changes are being opposed by liquor stores and distributors who see it as cutting into their business. Florida’s three-tier system of suppliers, distributors and retailers, which has been in place since the end of prohibition, is considered more restrictive than other states.

“If you summarize the bill in one sentence, it puts us on the same playing field as breweries and wineries,” McDaniel said.

Gabe Grass of GrassLands Brewing in Tallahassee said most breweries and distillers do not want to have their own large-scale distribution system, but that the bills do offer a way for emerging businesses to get their brands into the marketplace sooner.

Grass supports Senator Dana Young‘s craft breweries bill (SB 554) because it would allow brewers to directly sell up to 7,000 kegs to bars and restaurants before needing a distributor. In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill allowing craft breweries to sell unlimited products at their breweries.

Eric Criss, who represents Miller/Coors Distributors, says the current system is fine and that Florida brewers already have some of the more generous retail privileges in the country. He cites consumers being able to buy unlimited quantities of beer at tap houses compared to Alabama, where the limit is 128 ounces a day per person.

“Brewers say that they only want to distribute in small areas close to them but in many cases, those are the best accounts in the areas,” Criss said.

Sen. Greg Steube‘s bill (SB 166) would allow customers to purchase as many bottles of craft liquor that they want. The current law, which was approved in 2013, allows customers to buy only two bottles per label per year. It also allows distillers to sell liquor at one other salesroom located in the same county.

Florida is 10th in the nation in number of craft distilleries. McDaniel said he worries out-of-state craft distillers will be able to come into Florida and sell their product.

Scott Ashley, president of Wine and Spirits Distributors of Florida, said high-end wines are harder to put on their shelves because wineries can directly sell them and that he sees the same thing happening with craft liquors.

Richard deMontollin, owner of Tallahassee’s Liberty Bar and Grille, said he welcomes more products from Florida distilleries.

“It grows agriculture and makes me feel as a bar owner I can do something cool for my customers,” he said.

Florida Competitive Workforce Act now has 36 co-sponsors

Although it may be difficult to believe now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land, the fact is that it’s still legal in most states to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in employment, housing and public accommodations.

It’s legal to discriminate against the LGBT community in Florida, which is why for the past several years there has been an attempt to include sexual orientation and gender identity to the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992. The effort failed each time.

But now a coalition advocating for the Florida Competitive Workforce Act (FCWA) says that they have 36 co-sponsors of the legislation going into the 2017 regular Florida Legislative Session beginning next week. That’s the highest number of legislators co-sponsoring the bill precedent the start of Session in the history of the proposed legislation.

The FCWA is being sponsored in the Senate by Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens (Senate Bill 666) and in the House (Bill 623) by St. Petersburg Democrat Ben Diamond and Titusville Republican Rene Plasencia.

The announcement was made Friday by Florida Competes, a coalition of 10 Fortune 500 companies, 30 large corporations, and more than 450 small businesses.

“As we continue to grow and diversify our Florida economy, we need to use every tool in our toolbox to ensure that we attract and retain the best and brightest workforce,” said Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young. “These common sense anti-discrimination measures position Florida to effectively compete on the national and global stage.”  

“Discrimination of any kind must not be tolerated, which is why I am proud to co-sponsor the Florida Competitive Workforce Act,” said Sen. Bobby Powell, a West Palm Beach Democrat. “Our state must be a welcoming place for all who choose to work, live and visit. This is common sense legislation that not only small business owners and major Fortune 500 companies support, but all Floridians who believe that no one should be fired from a job or denied housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”

“The strong bipartisan support of the Florida Competitive Workforce Act shows that the issue is simply good public policy,” said Sarasota Republican Rep. Joe Gruters. “It sends a strong message to businesses who are looking to expand in, or relocate to Florida, that their employees will be afforded the same basic rights.”

The following members of the Florida Legislature have joined the FCWA legislation:

Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation)

Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Ocoee)

Sen. Gary Farmer (D-Ft. Lauderdale)

Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami)

Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah)

Sen. Travis Hutson (R-Palm Coast)

Sen. Bobby Powell (D-West Palm Beach)

Sen. Kevin Rader (D-Boca Raton)

Sen. José Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami)

Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg)

Sen. Linda Stewart (D-Orlando)

Sen. Victor Torres (D-Orlando)

Sen. Dana Young (R-Tampa)

Rep. Bruce Antone (D-Orlando)

Rep. Daisy J. Baez (D-Coral Gables)

Rep. Lori Berman (D-Lantana)

Rep. John Cortes (D-Kissimmee)

Rep. Nicholas Duran (D-Miami)

Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R-Ft. Myers)

Rep. Joseph Geller (D-Dania Beach)

Rep. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota)

Rep. Bill Hager (R-Boca Raton)

Rep. Kristin Jacobs (D-Coconut Creek)

Rep. Evan Jenne (D- Hollywood)

Rep. Chris Latvala (R- Clearwater)

Rep. Amy Mercado (D-Orlando)

Rep. Alex Miller (R-Sarasota)

Rep. Mike Miller (R-Orlando)

Rep. Kathleen M. Peters (R-St. Petersburg)

Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo)

Rep. Sean Shaw (D-Tampa)

Rep. Emily Slosberg (D-Delray Beach)

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando)

Rep. Richard Stark (D-Weston)

Rep. Clovis Watson, Jr. (D- Gainesville)

 

It’s official: John Legg not running in 2018

It’s time for the Leggs to enjoy it being “Quiet Uptown.”

Former state Sen. John Legg said Monday he will not run for Senate in 2018, quashing rumors he might considering a comeback in the coming years.

“After 12 years my family and I need a break,” he said.  “Also, I am enjoying working on education issues and innovation both national and statewide. I feel like I can make a bigger difference in education right now outside of the Florida Legislature. However, that may change in time.”

Legg was first elected to the Florida House in 2004, serving there eight years. He was elected to the Florida Senate in 2012, but a court order redistricting forced him make a difficult decision in 2016: Run for re-election and challenge Sen. Wilton Simpson, who is in line for the Senate presidency, or step down at the end of his term.

The father of five decided not to run for re-election, telling the Tampa Bay Times at the time he was “not worried” about his future.

Many pondered whether Legg was considering in 2018 in Senate District 16, the seat currently held by Sen. Jack Latvala. Legg backed during the contentious leadership battle, and Legg indicated in the past the the north Pinellas seat was one of several options he had been considering.

But Legg said there is no state race in his immediate future, saying Monday “we are not running in 2018.”

Ed Hooper, a former Republican state representative and and Clearwater City Commissioner, filed to run for the seat last year. A fundraiser is scheduled for March 6 in Tallahassee, and Latvala, Bill GalvanoWilton SimpsonDana Young and Jeff Brandes are among those listed on the host committee.

CHANCE THE RAPPER

Craft beer debate includes … Chance the Rapper?

Craft brewers can thank Chance the Rapper for getting this year’s beer bill over its first legislative hurdle.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee on Wednesday cleared the measure (SB 554) on a 6-3 vote. Democrats Perry Thurston and Randolph Bracy joined Republican Lizbeth Benacquisto in opposing the bill.  

But Oscar Braynon, the chamber’s Democratic Leader, said he would support the legislation because of the example of the 23-year-old Chicago-based rap star.

The measure would allow smaller craft brewers to distribute their own beer. It would create an exception to Florida’s “three-tier system” born after Prohibition, which requires separation of alcoholic beverage manufacturers, distributors and retailers to avoid price-fixing.

Braynon explained that Chance, who won three Grammy Awards this year, first independently distributed his own music before getting “multimillion-dollar offers for distribution deals.”

The bill “would allow small brewers to do just what Chance the Rapper did,” Braynon said. “So I’m going to give this (bill) a chance—thanks to Chance the Rapper.”

(Chance, however, may be staying independent, according to The New York Post; he’s allegedly turning down $5 million-$10 million offers from record labels.)

The measure, sponsored by Tampa Republican and craft beer advocate Dana Young, only applies to those who produce 7,000 kegs or less a year, which she called the “smallest of the small” craft beermakers who are “not on the radar of distributors.”

Still, 7,000 kegs—at 15.5 gallons each—equals 868,000 pints of beer.

Lobbyists for “Big Beer” concerns rejected arguments there is a shortage of distributors for small brewers and added that the bill would further chip away at the state’s three-tier system.

Thurston agreed: “We are looking at a dismantling” of that, adding Chance “gave his music away … for free” at first to gain a following.

But Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, looked confused. “I’ve never heard of Chance the Rapper,” he said before voting for the bill.

Impressive roster of GOP leaders line up for Ed Hooper fundraiser

Clearwater Republican Ed Hooper is assembling an impressive number of high-profile state lawmakers for a Tallahassee reception next month. Hooper, a former state representative, is seeking the open Senate District 16 seat currently held by Jack Latvala.

Hooper’s campaign fundraiser will be Monday, March 6, from 2:30 p.m. – 4 p.m. at the Governors Club, 202 South Adams Street.

The host committee reads like a Who’s Who of GOP state leaders, including Senate President Joe Negron and nearly all the Pinellas County/Hillsborough delegation: Sens. Latvala, Bill GalvanoWilton SimpsonDana Young and Jeff Brandes.

Republican senators from beyond the Tampa Bay area will be there, too: Lizbeth BenacquistoGeorge GainerDenise GrimsleyFrank ArtilesDennis BaxleyAaron BeanTravis HutsonDebbie MayfieldKathleen PassidomoKeith PerryRobert BradleyDoug BroxsonDavid SimmonsKelli Stargel and Greg Steube.

The House will also be well represented, with Larry AhernBen AlbrittonChris Latvala and Kathleen Peters.

A former Clearwater firefighter who served four terms in the House before term limits forced him out, Hooper ran for Pinellas County Commission in 2014, losing to Democrat Pat Gerard after a contentious campaign.

At Tampa rally for Enterprise Florida funding, Rick Scott repeatedly calls out Shawn Harrison

Saying that he is “shocked” that a committee in the Florida House voted to kill funding for Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida last week, Governor Rick Scott came to Tampa on Monday to urge the public to urge their state legislators to maintain the funding for those two besieged  agencies.

“This is an important issue to me personally,” Scott said in his comments to reporters after concluding the second of three scheduled appearances around the state in what his staff is calling a “Fighting for Florida Jobs Roundtable.”

Now in his sixth year as chief executive, the “jobs governor” has taken it as a personal rebuke that lawmakers aren’t on the same page with him when it comes to fully funding the public-private agencies. His arguments for maintaining the funding are wide and varied, including his statement on Monday that a flourishing economy could enable the state to put more money into education and the developmentally disabled, but only if the Legislature comes through to support the agencies.

“Our economy is on a roll. This is crazy to stop this!” he said after hosting the roundtable at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in North Tampa.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Visit Hillsborough CEO Santiago Corrada, Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson, Plant City Mayor Rick Lott and dozens of other members from the business community sat in chairs three rows deep in a semi-circle in what was a virtual half-hour informercial for the two programs, under fire in the House as being an example of “corporate welfare” in a campaign led by Speaker Richard Corcoran.

“I am shocked that members of the Florida House of Representatives, politicians in Tallahassee, are turning their back on job creation,” Scott said, specifically calling out New Tampa House District 63 Republican Shawn Harrison for his vote in the House Career and Competition Subcommittee last week that would eliminate the Enterprise Florida economic development organization, and VISIT Florida, the tourism marketing agency, as well as a host of economic incentive programs.

Harrison narrowly won re-election last November over Democrat Lisa Montelione in HD 63, considered one of the most extreme “swing” districts in the state. The former Tampa City Council initially won the seat in 2010 but lost it in 2012 before returning back to the House in 2014.

“I’m still shocked that Shawn Harrison voted the way he did,” Scott repeated several times during the half-hour roundtable, and later when speaking with reporters afterwards. He repeatedly issued out positive statistics about the state’s economy, saying Florida’s job growth was double the national average, and that there was $771 million that came from tourists last year. Time and again, he went after the critics of the two agencies.

“What Shawn Harrison and other House members are saying – ‘oh we’re not worried about jobs anymore’ – that’s wrong!” he exclaimed. “That’s somebody’s life!”

During his presentation, he mocked anybody who voted against the programs. “How could anybody? I can’t imagine anybody who runs for office saying, ‘I’m for getting rid of jobs.’ Absolutely not.”

Scott’s pleas to maintain full funding for EF and VF sometimes reached new lengths.

“I’ve watched my mom cry because she couldn’t pay for health care. I don’t want that ever to happen to a family in our state,” he said. The sentiment might surprise the majority of Floridians who are still upset about the fact that Scott rejected expanding Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act four years ago, denying health coverage to an estimated 850,000 people.

Scott did repeatedly shower his affection for Jack Latvala and Dana Young, two GOP state Senators from the Tampa Bay area who support continued funding of the agencies.

Buckhorn, a Democrat who has on occasion blasted Scott, emphasized the bipartisan nature of support for funding EF and VF. And he oozed contempt for lawmakers who want to kill the agencies. “What is happening in Tallahassee is ideology is getting in the way of the practical application of what these incentives are all about,” he said, denying that it’s a “giveaway program.”

“This would be patently absurd to cut off our nose, to spite our face, just because somebody is reading off a playbook provided to them by the Koch Brothers,” Buckhorn said.

Americans for Prosperity Florida, which receives funding from the Koch Family Foundation, is a leading state agency fighting against what they describe as corporate welfare run amok. The organization tweeted out on Monday, “Rep Harrison voted against rigged system! Why should taxpayers pay to pad special interest pockets.”

Craig Richard, the new CEO of the TampaHillsborough Economic Development Corporation, has worked in economic development for the past 20 years in six different states. “I’ve never heard anyone interested in doing away with the goose laying the golden egg,” he said.

“It’s kind of silly that we’re having this type of conversation,” Bobby Harris ,the founder and CEO of freight and logistics provider Blue Grace Logistics. He said that the incentives that helped him hire more than 100 employees in his Tampa offices would have gone to Chicago instead.  He said the House vote is “not a good vote of confidence for business leaders.”

Harrison did not return a call for comment.

Carlos Smith, Alexandra Miller, Dana Young push new greyhound bill, banning steroids

Decrying that racing dog owners are “doping greyhounds,” state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith joined state Rep. Alexandra Miller and Dana Young Friday in another effort to tighten regulation of dog racing in Florida, with a bill explicitly banning the use of steroids.

Smith, the Orlando Democrat, and Miller, the Sarasota Republican, introduced House Bill 743 Thursday, replacing an earlier version Miller had introduced. Young, the Tampa Republican introduced Senate Bill 512 last month. On Thursday, it was referred to the Senate Committees on Regulated Industries, Rules, and Appropriations.

The two bills were unveiled Friday as a bipartisan effort banning anabolic steroids on greyhound racing dogs.

The trio asserted that female racing greyhounds are routinely given injections of anabolic steroids, or testosterone, to prevent the loss of race days and push their bodies beyond natural limits.

“We know they are using steroids,” Smith said. “They are doping greyhounds. It’s inhumane.”

A release issued by Smith’s office contended that the practice is outlawed in several countries but allowed in Florida. It sites the industry handbook Care of the Racing and Retired Greyhound as a warning of serious side effects including virilization and aggression, and that steroid use has been shown to have a negative effect on dogs’ heart function, and is linked to liver, kidney and cartilage damage, gastrointestinal problems and shock.

It’s not the first time for the effort. It and other greyhound reform bills have stalled in recent sessions as the Legislature has struggled with issues of “decoupling” greyhound racing from other forms of gambling allowed at tracks, notably card games.

Smith predicted this would be the year lawmakers seriously address decoupling, freeing track owners from having to offer dog racing if they want to offer more lucrative forms of gaming.

He said there are 19 racetracks in the United States and 12 are in Florida, and described wider abuses he’d like to see addressed, ultimately including the end of greyhound racing.

“Most track owners don’t want to race greyhounds anymore. The only reason they are doing it is because they are required to by law in order to run their card tables,” Smith said.

Drivers license suspension bill sponsored by St. Pete’s Darryl Rouson and Jeff Brandes advances in state Senate

On Tuesday, the Senate Transportation Committee unanimously passed legislation to reduce the number of driver’s licenses suspended annually in Florida.

The bipartisan bill (SB 302), sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes and Democrat Darryl Rouson, would end the suspension of licenses for non-driving-related offenses.

If passed, it could dramatically reduce a large number of suspensions taking place statewide each year.

Right now, one can lose driving privileges in Florida over a number of nondriving offenses: truancy, writing graffiti, theft, vandalism, writing worthless checks and a minor’s possession of tobacco.

“It has a huge impact on public safety,” Rouson told his colleagues on the committee. “It’s costly and we know that three-fourths of the suspended, revoked drivers still drive. So it’s a public safety matter.”

“We don’t want to continue the self-perpetuating cycles of financial hardship that lead to revocations and other things,” he added.

The bill also modifies current law relating to debt collection for unpaid fees or fines, and clearly establishes the right of a defendant in financial hardship to use community service as an alternative method of payment. It also eliminates the felony criminal charge for a third or subsequent offense for driving on a license suspended because of a defendant’s financial hardship.

Brandes sponsored a similar bill in the Senate last year, as did Rouson in the House, along with Tampa’s Dana Young and Sarasota’s Greg Steube.

Like Rouson, Young and Steube each advanced to the Senate after last November’s election.

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