Florida Legislature Archives - Page 2 of 44 - Florida Politics

Airbnb takes to Tallahassee TV to promote vacation rentals

Airbnb is launching a television commercial this week in Tallahassee to convince Florida Legislators of the back-home support for vacation rentals, which again are facing the prospect of legislation over whether and how local governments can regulate them.

The new commercial running this week in the Tallahassee market, “Airbnb citizen,” features Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward talking about how vacation rental homes give visitors the “authentic experience” of tourism in Florida.

The ad is also being heavily promoted on social media throughout Florida.

As video shows some of the more quaint of Pensacola neighborhoods, screen text notes the average Airbnb host makes $6,700 a year in rentals, and that Airbnb vacation rental homes hosted 2.5 million visitors this year. “Our visitors have stayed in these neighborhoods and it makes the experience far more unique,” Hayward says.

Below the surface the legislative debate playing out in committee meetings may be between the vacation rental industry and its marketing giants including Airbnb and HomeAway, versus traditional hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts. But it’s also a debate between state government and county and local governments, with the county and local governments preparing again to defend counties’ and cities’ abilities to regulate vacation rental homes.

Where are the Groveland Four pardons? Their story continues in silence

There is no pardon for the Groveland Four.

At least not yet, and possibly not in the foreseeable future, despite much celebration last spring that they deserved and should receive posthumous pardons.

The Groveland Four are the young, black men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in rural Lake County in 1949. It was an infamous case that unraveled into a pile of racial hatred, apparent lies and reportedly manufactured evidence, all coming to light largely through the efforts of legendary NAACP attorney and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. But the truth began to emerge too late to save any of them from the fates suffered by so many black men in the Jim Crow era. Two were killed in custody, and the other two were wrongly [the record now shows] convicted and imprisoned.

Their story, largely unknown or forgotten even in Florida, was spread internationally by Gilbert King’s best-selling book, Devil in the Grove, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and awakened Florida’s conscience about the matter.

Last spring, in a passionate flurry that rivaled any call anywhere for belated justice, the Florida Legislature approved a resolution apologizing to the families of Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas and urging full pardons for Irvin and Greenlee, the only two who lived long enough to be convicted and imprisoned.

The resolution declared the quartet, “were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history.”

“This is Florida’s version of the Scotsboro Boys. This is our To Kill a Mockingbird,” state Sen. Gary Farmer declared after the resolution’s adoption. “We cannot change the hands of time. We cannot go back to this terrible event and undo it. But we can acknowledge our wrongs. And we can bring peace, and healing, and closure to the families who have suffered so long.”

Yet seven months after the Florida Legislature passed CS/HCR 631 by votes of 117-0 in the Florida House of Representatives and 36-0 in the Florida Senate, the request it contained for pardons has vanished into bureaucracy.

And no one wants to talk about it.

Several communications by Florida Politics to the office of Gov. Rick Scott last week resulted in no response, except a referral to the Florida Commission on Offender Review, which declined to comment on Greenlee or Irvin. Neither Farmer nor state Rep. Bobby DuBose, the Broward County Democrats who sponsored the resolutions in the Senate and House respectively, responded to requests to talk about the pardons either.

“I’m not aware of anything going on,” said former state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, the Orlando Democrat who first brought the Groveland Four to the Legislature’s attention in 2016, in a resolution that failed that Session, shortly before she left the Senate herself.

Also not aware of anything going on is Josh Venkataraman, the young activist who carried the matter back to the Florida Legislature this year, and who, as it turned out, wound up being the one who actually filed the request for pardons.

“They [Farmer, DuBose and others including House Speaker Richard Corcoran] did an incredible job of making this happen, and really bringing the passion to it. I just don’t know that they knew how to get this next step,” said Venkataraman, who now lives and works in New York City. “I think the passion is still there. I just don’t know if they have the answers. And, frankly, nobody does. As of this moment, the only thing I’ve been told is it’s a waiting process.”

Technically, it turned out, the Legislature demanding pardons was not the same thing as someone formally requesting pardons. That may have gone unrealized until weeks later. When he discovered there were no pardon requests on file from anyone, Venkataraman took it upon himself to write and file one in June.

At the suggestion of the office of Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who as a member of the Florida Cabinet will have a final vote on the pardons, Venkataraman also wrote what is called a “Request for Review” application and submitted it to Scott’s office. That’s the legal document that could get the case expedited, if Scott pursues the request. Venkataraman also submitted that in June.

And that, apparently, was the last anyone on the outside has heard of the pardons requested for Greenlee and Irvin.

Kelly Corder, director of communications for the Florida Commission on Offender Review, said law mandates that any specific pardon request remain confidential. She could not discuss it.

“Investigations are processed in the order in which they are received by the Office of Executive Clemency, and maintained in chronological order based upon the original application date,” Corder explained.

Think of the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the crate is wheeled into a stadium-sized warehouse and shoved into its appointed spot.

“As of November 1, 2017, there were 22,376 pending clemency cases,” Corder added.

The Florida Legislature didn’t just call for their full pardons last spring. In CS/HCR 631, lawmakers unanimously urged the “Governor and Cabinet to expedite review of the cases” toward those pardons.

Corder noted that “The [Florida] Commission [of Offender Review] cannot consider an application out of order without direction from a member of the Clemency Board,” which is the cabinet: Scott, Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

Venkataraman filed his request for review with Scott, and said he has not heard back. Scott’s office did not respond to Florida Politics inquiry on whether he had accepted the request, or was considering it, or had any statement at all on the Groveland Four.

Irvin and Greenlee were released from prison in the 1960s. Irvin returned to Lake County in 1969 to attend a relative’s funeral, but never showed up. Eventually he was found dead in his car. Greenlee died in 2012.

Joe Henderson: Teachers deserve raise, but where is the money?

The dirty secret for public school teachers in Hillsborough County, or basically anywhere in Florida, is that the amount they are paid doesn’t cover all the work they do.

Many teachers just shrug at that reality and spend part of their “free time” grading papers, preparing lesson plans, or volunteering at school events because they think it’s the right thing to do for their students.

Well, it looks like that will stop. No more freebie time. We’re about to find out what happens now that Hillsborough teachers say they will do only the work specified in their contract. That means grades could be late, lesson plans could be disjointed, and they’ll be out the door and gone as soon as the final bell rings. See you in the morning.

This is happening because the county school board said it doesn’t have the money to pay a $4,000 raise it promised years ago to about one-third of the estimated 14,000 teachers employed by the nation’s eighth-largest district.

About 600 angry, fed-up teachers showed up at a school board meeting Tuesday to deliver that message. They call it “working the contract” and if they follow through, it could cause chaos in the system.

Teachers are given planning time during the day, but it’s frequently inadequate to accomplish all the requirements of the job. That means taking work home, and hundreds of teachers have shared stories about finishing their job tasks at the expense of family time.

Their reward for this has been a kick in the teeth from the Legislature, which has been focused on expanding private charter schools. Lawmakers allow charters to use tax money for their buildings and they can take federal dollars targeted to help low-income students. That cuts into public school budgets.

That doesn’t account for all the fiscal problems, though.

Student population is expanding as Florida grows. Hillsborough has more than 300 public schools, and the maintenance problems at many of them have been well documented. The district also accumulated about $1 billion in debt for new-school construction between 1994 and 2014.

Add to that the expectation that voters will approve a $25,000 increase in the homestead exemption in 2018, and that will cut into school budgets even more.

And, yes, decisions like the one years ago to partner with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation proved to be a financial disaster. That’s on the school board.

Guess who got caught in the middle?

Those teachers wore blue shirts in solidarity and chanted slogans at the contentious board meeting Tuesday, but that was never going to get them the money they deserve. They see “working the contract” as the only viable way to get the attention of the people in charge.

As much as I hate to see it come to this, this is only leverage they have. The Legislature’s answer to all the school problems has been for officials to manage their money better, but what’s happening in Hillsborough is way beyond that simplistic solution.

The teachers deserve the raise they were promised, and for that to happen Hillsborough needs to find about $17 million somewhere, somehow. Good luck with that.

This problem is about to get real.

Civil rights, law enforcement groups urge lawmaker to hear hate crimes bill

A coalition of law enforcement and civil rights groups are determined to have the Florida Legislature approve (or at least consider) a bill next year to expand and strengthen Florida’s current hate-crime laws.

Calling themselves the Florida Hate Crime Coalition, the group penned a letter and launched an online petition drive to compel Ocoee Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy, the Chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, to add to the agenda a bill (SB 55), sponsored by Palm Beach Democratic state Sen. Kevin Radar.

In urging the chair to give the bill a hearing, the letter explains:

“ … [i]n our State, a hate crime cannot be charged if a victim is targeted for their physical disability, gender or gender identity. Furthermore, the hate crime law does not cover “mixed-motive” hate crimes …. SB 588 would fix these critical gaps in the hate crime law by:

“(1) expanding its definition of disability to cover physical disabilities;

“(2) adding the categories of gender and gender identity; and

“(3) covering mixed-motive hate crimes.”

Bracy’s office did not return a call for comment.

In addition to the Criminal Justice Committee, the bill has also been referred to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, Appropriations, and Rules committees.

The Florida Hate Crime Coalition includes Jewish and LGBT rights organizations, headed by the Anti-Defamation League, and includes the police departments of Miami-Dade and St. Petersburg.

The complete list of groups in the FHCC:

Anti-Defamation League
Alpert Jewish Family & Children’s Service
American Jewish Committee
Dave Aronberg, Palm Beach County State Attorney
Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office
Chief John Brooks, Sunrise Police Department
Broward County Chiefs of Police Association (BCCPA)
COSMOS (Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations)
Disability Independence Group, Inc.
Disability Solutions for Independent Living
EMGage USA
Equality Florida
Katherine Fernandez-Rundle, Miami-Dade County State Attorney
Florida Armenians
Florida Association for the Deaf
Florida Atlantic University — Center for Holocaust and Human Rights Education
Florida Council for the Blind
Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of FL
Interfaith Council of Central Florida (ICCF)
Sheriff Scott Israel, Broward County Sheriff’s Office
Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County
Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County
Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation
Jewish Family Services of Orlando
Jewish Women’s Foundation of the Greater Palm Beaches (JWF)
JFCS of Southwest Florida
MCCJ
Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD)
John W. Mina, Chief of Police, Orlando Police Department
National Council of Jewish Women Florida
Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis
PFLAG Gainesville
The Pride Center at Equality Park
Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami
Chief Vincent C. Robinson, Jennings Police Department, Jennings, Florida
Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services, Inc.
SALDEF — Sikh American Legal Defense Fund
Satellite Beach Police Department
Sikh Society of Central Florida
St. Petersburg Police Department
United Sikhs
Unity Coalition|Coalición Unida
Women’s Foundation of Palm Beach County

Pixabay (free download)

In child marriage debate, some want flexibility with older teens

As lawmakers in both the House and the Senate push for a strict ban on minors getting married, some legislators in the House said Wednesday they would like to keep judicial discretion when older teenagers want to legally wed.

“I do not support the part where someone who is pregnant can’t get married just because they are under 18,” said Rep. George Moraitis, a Fort Lauderdale Republican.

Republican Reps. Jeanette Nuñez and Frank White filed HB 335 hoping to outlaw marriages for anyone under the age 18 to protect children who are forced into marrying their perpetrators. The bill cleared the House Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee on Wednesday.

“Just to simply say no one under 18 can get married – there’s a lot of things you can do when you’re under 18, such as drive – so I just don’t agree with that,” Moraitis said.

Moraitis, however, does support banning marriages between minors who are 16 and 17 if the only thing a judge is going by is parental consent.

Republican Rep. Erin Grall agreed with Moraitis, saying she would not want to eliminate judicial discretion in certain cases.

“Especially under certain circumstances, maybe where you have two 17-year-olds who may want to get married,” Grall said. “I would hope there would be some conversations about the older teenagers as the bill moves forward.”

Rep. John Cortes, a Kissimmee Democrat, said he was voting in favor of the ban to “hopefully put a stop to human trafficking” and pedophilia.

Nuñez said the case of a 10-year-old girl who was raped, became pregnant and then the following year was forced to marry her rapist, inspired her to fight for this effort.

She said that in Florida, there have been 1,800 marriage licenses issued in the last five years in which at least one individuals was a minor.

“Florida is estimated to be No. 2 for child marriages in the country,” Nuñez said. “That is unacceptable.”

Under current state law, judges can issue a marriage license to minors of any age if they have a child or are expecting a child. The law also allows a judge to allow a minor female to marry an adult man if she is pregnant.

The law now also allows minors ages 16 and 17 to get married with their parents’ approval.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, has filed a bill banning minor marriages in the Senate.

Bill mandating financial-literacy class for students advances

A years-long battle in the Legislature to pass a bill requiring high school students take a course teaching them how to manage money is back again.

Sen. Dorothy Hukill‘s bill, though, had a small victory on Wednesday. SB 88 advanced the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on pre-K-12 Education, leaving one more committee stop before it can head to the Senate floor for consideration.

Hukill, a Port Orange Republican, has introduced the proposal since 2013, but it keeps dying.

“This is the most popular bill — I get stopped in the supermarket for this bill, and I don’t get stopped for many bills,” Hukill said. “So why doesn’t it pass? People think it is going to take away their musical, or take away their art (electives).”

Under the bill, the class would teach students how to manage debt, understand credit scores, apply for loans, compute interest rates and analyze simple contracts. They would need to take the course before they can graduate high school.

Although the bill would reduce the number of elective credits from eight to seven and a half, Hukill said that still leaves students enough time to take elective courses. The one-half credit would be set aside for the financial literacy course.

If the bill becomes law, the state would become the sixth in the nation to require the stand-alone course in personal finance literacy.

According to staff analysis, school districts may incur costs ranging from $131,000 to $8.8 million in the first year of implementing the requirements. Those costs calculates teacher training and new textbook requirements.

Joe Henderson: Got whiplash? Absurdity rules in Tally

Stay with me. This one gets a little weird. While you were distracted by the latest the latest episode of “Florida’s Got Dirt,” your First Amendment rights were put in the crosshairs again.

Confused? It’s just another day in the state’s center of power.

On the front page of Wednesday’s Tampa Bay Times was a headline that read “Spying part of life in Capitol.” It was a follow-up to news first reported by Politico Florida, and didn’t we all just have to read a story with that kind of tease?

It told about a spy camera planted by a private eye to capture legislators in compromising acts (or in something that could be made to look that way).

The mentioned “grainy photos” taken of gubernatorial candidate Jack Latvala kissing a female lobbyist on the cheek, then on the mouth. Imagine what an opposing consultant could do with that.

But in a plot twist that’s, well, twisted, this story broke at the same time we learned your state Constitutional Revision Commission might place an amendment proposal on the 2018 ballot that would greatly expand what the government doesn’t have to tell you.

The proposal – I can’t believe I’m writing this, given the context of events – is being considered to expand the “privacy of information and the disclosure thereof.”

Take a minute if you need to grab some aspirin for that strange pain you may be feeling in your neck just now. It’s probably just another a case of Tallahassee-induced whiplash.

Parading under the banner of privacy in one corner while the other corner is doing everything possible to invade it is a bar-raising level of phoniness. You can say the two aren’t connected, but everything is connected in Tallahassee. Thus, we note the bizarre timing of these two developments.

It’s unclear who came up with the spy camera idea, but apparently it’s perfectly legal – not to mention its great potential for political blackmail.

The camera belongs to investigator Derek Uman, whose company, Clear Capture Investigations, offers services that include “infidelity surveillance.”

Latvala, a tough ol’ cuss who would spit into the mouth of an active volcano, shot back that any suggestion he was acting inappropriately is “an outright lie.”

In a statement he also noted, “are we working against the Democrats? No, we are doing it against each other! Why? Because of personal ambition, a greed for power that overwhelms any consideration for fellow human beings.”

“Consideration” is rarely a serious part of any Tallahassee conversation, but Latvala has a point about the start of human hunting season up there. Just last week, now-former state Sen. Jeff Clemens, who was to be the incoming Democratic leader, abruptly resigned after it came out that he was having an affair.

Even while all the covert spy-versus-thy is going on though, the Constitutional Review Commission wants to make sure you, the public, have less access to information about what your leaders are doing – although they won’t phrase it that way. Nope. It’s about privacy.

Committee vice chairman John Stemberger, in a commentary for Florida Politics, noted the measure would “… protect the people from the government’s collection and more importantly, disclosure, of personal and private information.”

Well, we’ve heard that tired argument before – the government must protect us from knowing too much stuff. It starts off sounding benign and then gets twisted into something that somehow chokes off the flow of other information that should be public.

First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen noted as much when she wrote to the committee, saying she was “most alarmed by the dramatic impact this proposal would have on the constitutional right of access to public records.”

Stemberger said he was “somewhat bewildered” by Petersen’s concerns.

I’m bewildered why any politician would want to chip away at the public’s right to know. We all should be, and this is exactly the kind of stuff that gets lost while we focus on things like spy cameras.

Actually, if you overlook the fact lawmakers in Tallahassee have control over much of your life, not to mention an $83 billion state budget, that place can be darned entertaining in a swamp-thing sort of way. Stay tuned for the next episode straight from the Theater of the Absurd.

Brightline February train car derailment comes to light; critics call it ‘disturbing’

A Brightline train derailed in February and opponents of the planned, east-coast, high-speed passenger rail service expressed frustration Monday that they only recently learned about the accident and criticized the company for not mentioning it during Florida Legislature testimony about rail safety.

Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida and the counties of Indian River and Martin said Monday that it took them months to confirm the Feb. 11 accident, and only after they hired a Washington, D.C. law firm to pursue it. They criticized All Aboard Florida (AAF) for not disclosing the incident to the Florida Legislature while company officials offered opposition to bills that had sought to set state safety regulations on the railroad.

“Soon after this incident, officials attended not one but two state legislative hearings about rail safety and never once disclosed facts about the derailment, while they sought to table the safety legislation under consideration,” Brent Hanlon, chairman of CARE FL, stated in a news release issued Monday by that group and the two counties.

The critics said records show the accident caused $408,000 in damage.

“The disconnect between the derailment and AAF’s failure to make it public is disturbing,” Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold stated in the release. “The safety and well- being of our communities require greater transparency.”

A letter from the Federal Railroad Administration indicated that one car derailed, at low speed, at an All Aboard Florida rail yard.

A Brightline spokesperson called the incident minor, on private property, and fully and properly reported, and then dismissed the critics’ concern raised Monday as a “baseless fear tactic.”

“As confirmed by the Federal Railroad Administration, Brightline followed all applicable rules by providing prompt notification about the minor incident that occurred on its private property. This is another baseless fear tactic by Treasure Coast consultants,” the statement read.

Brightline is planning to open a private passenger train service from West Palm Beach to Miami later this year. Eventually the company intends to extend the line through Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Brevard counties, and then into Orange County to connect the Orlando International Airport by high-speed train to West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Some residents and public officials of those ride-through counties have arisen in opposition, arguing safety, environmental, and other concerns regarding a train that would be traveling through their communities at up to 110 mph. Last February the two sides battled in Florida House and Senate committee meetings over House Bill 269 and Senate Bill 386. Those bills, which failed, would have imposed additional, state-mandated safety requirements. Company officials insisted the train already would be governed by the highest-possible federal standards, meeting all the strict requirements for high-speed rail service.

All Aboard Florida also has had a couple major victories in court against opponents who contended more environmental requirements were needed. One as recently as Sept. 29, from a Florida administrative law judge denied a challenge brought by Martin and St. Lucie counties and the Town of St. Lucie Village on the South Florida Water Management District’s decision to issue an environmental resource permit. That court victory for All Aboard Florida essentially cleared away all pending litigation, allowing the company to go forward.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, on Feb. 11, “a Brightline locomotive derailed its trailing truck while negotiating a switch at four miles per hour within the Brightline yard facility.

“The derailed Brightline locomotive was the second locomotive in a consist led by an FEC [Florida East Coast Railroad] locomotive into the Brightline yard and maintenance facility,” reads an Aug. 21 Federal Railroad Administration letter to a law firm hired by CARE FL and Martin County. “Brightline and FEC promptly notified FRA of the incident.”

That letter came after the law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery had inquired to the FRA, on May 30, about unconfirmed reports of the incident.

“It is unfortunate that Martin County is forced to spend taxpayer money to make sure our safety concerns are addressed at the state and federal levels. A simple confirmation of a derailment took three months to get from DOT, but six months after the derailment itself. We would have never known about this significant public safety issue had we not demanded to know the facts,” Ruth Holmes, senior assistant Martin County attorney, stated in the news release.

Florida Democrats in Congress call for Florida special session to replace statue

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz now has gotten the other ten Florida Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives to join her call for a one-day Florida Legislature special session to replace Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith‘s statue in the U.S. Capitol.

“We must denounce symbols of what supremacy and stand up for love and compassion – not just with words, but with our deeds,” state letters from the 11 Florida Democratic members of Congress to Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran. “As the third largest state, and easily one of the most diverse in our nation, Florida has an opportunity to send a defining message.”

Wasserman Schultz first called for such a special session on her own, on Aug. 15.

The issue involves one of Florida’s two state representation statues in the U.S. Capitol. In 2016 the Florida Legislature voted to replace the Smith statute, but in 2017 was unable to agree on a replacement, so the statue remains.

The new congressional letter calls for Scott, Negron and Corcoran to act immediately, “in the shadow of Charlottesville,” to “stand at a crucial moment when leaders and institutions must confront hate and violence without ambiguity.”

A spokesman for Scott’s office expressed confidence that the legislature would take care of the matter as soon as possible. In January. When the regular 2018 Legislative Session convenes.

“In 2016, Governor Scott signed a bill that replaced this statue at the U.S. Capitol. A committee was quickly convened, public input was gathered and three names were submitted to the Legislature for consideration for a replacement. It is now up to the Legislature to decide how to resolve this issue and Governor Scott hopes they do so when they convene in January,” McKinley Lewis said in a statement.

The offices of Negron and Corcoran did not immediately respond to an inquiry about the letter.

When Wasserman Schultz first made her call two weeks ago, Corcoran responded by accusing her of being out of touch and grandstanding, noting that the Florida Legislature already had voted to replace Smith’s statue and was working on picking a replacement.

The latest letter was signed by the 11 Democrats Florida has elected to the U.S. House, Wasserman Schultz of Weston, Kathy Castor of Tampa, Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, Alcee Hastings of Miramar, Darren Soto of Orlando, Frederica Wilson Miami Gardens, Val Demings of Orlando, Al Lawson of Tallahassee, Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, and Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park.

“The legislature’s inaction leaves in place of honor, a symbol that represents a painful and horrific period in American history for so many Floridians and Americans,” the letter states.

“No family visiting our nation’s Capital should have to explain to their child that the statue representing our state honors someone who fought for a philosophy built on hatred, inequality and oppression.

“We urge you to take immediate action by calling a one-day special session during the Florida House and Senate’s upcoming interim committee meetings that already are scheduled in Tallahassee and finish this important and historic work.”

Florida’s cost for losing lawsuits keeps growing

Florida’s price tag for losing legal battles – which has included courtroom fights over drug testing, voting rights and gay marriage – continues to grow under Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott recently agreed to pay $1.1 million to cover the legal bills of physicians and medical organizations in their successful challenge of a law that restricted doctors’ ability to talk to patients about guns. The law had been pushed through the Florida Legislature at the urging of the National Rifle Association.

In early July, the state also agreed to a $2 million payment that will go to lawyers who sued on behalf of disabled inmates.

A review of records by The Associated Press shows that since Scott took office in 2011 the state has paid at least $19 million to cover expenses and fees for lawyers who have sued the state. Many of those lawsuits took aim at policies put in place by Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The Scott administration has defended the legal expenses in the past, saying the governor will “vigorously defend” Florida’s laws.

In February a federal appeals court ruled that Florida doctors can talk to patients about gun safety, declaring a law aimed at restricting such discussions a violation of the First Amendment’s right to free speech. The state did not appeal the decision and in late June reached a settlement to pay $1.1 million for attorney fees and costs.

One of the firms involved in the lawsuit – Ropes & Gray – announced it would donate $100,000 of its fee award to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

“This award is a message to states to think twice before enacting or defending laws that put lives at risk just to boost the gun industry’s bottom line,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, in a statement.

John Tupps, a spokesman for Scott, defended the state’s fight over the law. He said the governor was a “strong supporter” of the 2nd Amendment and that he signed the bill “after it was approved by a large, bipartisan majority in the Florida Legislature.”

Earlier this month, the state agreed to pay $2 million to cover the fees and costs for groups that sued the state in 2016 over its treatment of inmates with hearing, vision and mobility disabilities.

Randall Berg with the Florida Justice Institute said the money will go to reimbursing the institute, Disability Rights Florida, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid and the well-known personal injury law firm Morgan & Morgan. John Morgan is a frequent Democratic donor and has been speculating about running for governor next year.

In the last six years, the state has agreed to pay attorney fees of lawyers who have sued the state over everything from employee discrimination to drug testing of welfare recipients.

The total includes $12 million paid to attorneys who represented pediatricians in a more than 10-year legal battle over whether Florida violated federal mandates by failing to deliver critical health services to 2 million children on Medicaid.

The state also paid more than $800,000 to lawyers working for the American Civil Liberties Union and nearly $513,000 to lawyers who defeated a state law targeting businesses doing business in Cuba.

An AP review found that between 2011 and early 2017 that Florida had spent more than $237 million on outside lawyers hired to defend the state.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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