Florida Senate Archives - Page 2 of 27 - Florida Politics

Personnel note: Former Sen. Chris Smith joins Tripp Scott

Former Sen. Chris Smith is returning to his legal roots.

Smith has joined Tripp Scott, the Fort Lauderdale-based law firm announced this week.

“We’re so excited to have you here,” said Edward J. Pozzuoli, the president of Tripp Scott, in a video interview with Smith.

The 46-year-old Fort Lauderdale Democrat got his start at Tripp Scott, working as a law clerk at the firm for two summers. He later joined the firm, working in the contract department writing leases and doing other contract work.

In a video announcing his hire, Smith said his decision to join Tripp Scott brings him “back to where I started, back to where I got my roots, my legal roots especially.”

Smith served in the Florida Legislature for nearly two decades. He was first elected to the Florida House in 1998, where he served until 2006. He was elected to the Florida Senate in 2008. He served in the upper chamber until 2016, but was forced out because of term limits.

He served as the Democratic Leader in both the House and the Senate.

Smith said his years of government experience will allow him to provide clients with insight into “how government works.”

“Being a former legislator helps me be a better lawyer,” he said.

More than a dozen lawmakers file for re-election in 2018

The number of lawmakers prepping for another run keeps on growing.

State elections records show dozens of members of the state House and Senate have filed to run for re-election in 2018. Many of those are incumbents who faced little-to-no opposition in 2016, while others ran hard fought battles to win their spot in the Florida Legislature.

Sen. Tom Lee filed to run for re-election in Senate District 20 on Dec. 29. The Brandon Republican was re-elected in June 2016, after no one else qualified to run in his district.

Lee was first elected to the Florida Senate in 1996. He served in the upper chamber until 2006, serving as Senate President during the 2004-06 term. Voters sent Lee back to the Florida Senate in 2012.

Lee is set to serve as chairman of the Senate Community Affairs Committee during the 2016-18 term.

Sen. Kelli Stargel also appears to be vying for another term in the Florida Senate, filing the initial paperwork to run in 2018 on Dec. 16. First elected to the Florida Senate in 2012, Stargel was re-elected in Senate District 22 in November. Stargel will serve as the chairwoman of the Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee.

Over in the Florida House, Reps. Loranne Ausley, Paul Renner, Neil Combee, Bob Cortes, Mike La Rosa, Erin Grall, Sean Michael Shaw, Alexandra Miller, Julio Gonzalez, Michael Grant, Rick Roth, Bob Rommel, and Jose Oliva have filed to run for re-election in 2018.

The election in 2018 isn’t the only one on the minds of Florida lawmakers. Several state legislators have already filed to run for re-election in 2020, including Sens. Travis Hutson, Debbie Mayfield and Kevin Rader.

Ben Newman New Year’s prank: leaving GrayRobinson for possible political run, not love of burritos

Orlando lawyer and Republican fundraiser Ben Newman also is known — sadly not to all — as a merry prankster and over the weekend had many believing he was leaving the powerful GrayRobinson law firm to run a burrito truck.

Me among them. Sorry about that.

Newman has left GrayRobinson, where he’s been a shareholder for seven years, but not to feed the hungry masses yearning for queso, he said Monday morning. Instead, he’s moving on to a national law firm, Wilson Elser, and thinking about running for office.

“Sorry about that,” he told FloridaPolitics.com, politely but not entirely suppressing a well-deserved laugh.

FloridaPolitics and OrlandoRising — I — bought Newman’s trail of posts on Facebook declaring he was quitting law to pursue his lifelong dream of running a food truck. Among other things (Photoshopping a picture of a food truck with his name on it), he changed his status to CBO (Chief Burrito Officer) at El Queso Loco Burrito Company.

My texts and calls to Newman before I wrote went unanswered early Monday, apparently because the numbers I had were old and out of date (his GrayRobinson numbers;) and while they still recorded messages they did so for someone who wasn’t around anymore to retrieve them. I also Facebook messaged him, but that was too late. Turned out I also had a private, valid email address available for him. But in a full disclosure of incompetence, I didn’t come across that until too late, and went ahead and wrote before I had his or anyone else’s confirmation.

Full mud bath for my face, please.

After being alerted that I fell for his prank, Newman called to set the record straight, pointing out that he loves pranks, and a lot of people know that, though he’d left no clues this time. He was leaving GrayRobinson and decided to “goof,” he said.

“Rather than be serious all the time, I thought I’d have a little bit of fun. I’m just leaving it out there and letting people draw their own conclusions. Some people know it’s a joke and others fell for it,” Newman said. “I’m a serial prankster.”

But now for the serious news — we hope. Newman said one of the reasons he left GrayRobinson was because he’s positioning himself to possibly run for public office someday. He didn’t think it would be appropriate to do from that firm, which has one of the biggest lobbying operations in the state. With Wilson Elser he’ll feel freer to do so, he said.

Generally, he said he’s positioning for possibly for a run for the Florida House or the Florida Senate. Those seats are both filled by solid Republicans where he lives — state Rep. Bob Cortes and state Sen. David Simmons. Newman said he’s looking ahead to possible shuffling of positions this year, particularly if Attorney General Pam Bondi leaves.

The New York City-based Wilson Elser also gives him more of a national platform for his practice, which focuses principally on health care law and medical malpractice defense. Wilson Elser already has an Orlando office, and he said he’d be helping the firm develop more of a statewide presence.

 

Infamous dates: The moments that shaped Florida politics in 2016

Everyone expected Florida to play an important role in politics this year.

And why wouldn’t they? Presidential hopefuls hailed from here; the state’s electoral votes were coveted; and its Senate race could have determined control of the U.S. Senate.

But just like many predictions in 2016, some of the prophecies for Florida’s outsized role on the national stage fell flat. Many believed a Sunshine state politico would be a presidential nominee (not quite right) or that the election would hinge on its 29 electoral votes (close but no cigar). And that much anticipated battle for the U.S. Senate? It fizzled out before the first vote was even cast.

Here are the dates that really mattered in Florida politics this year. And some of them might just surprise you.

Jan. 20Florida Senate says it won’t appeal redistricting decision — A years-long battle over the state’s political lines came to an end in January, when Senate leadership announced it planned to let the court-ordered maps go into effect. The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald reported the four-year legal battle cost Florida taxpayers more than $11 million. The new maps threw a wrench in the 2016 election cycle, with all 40 of Florida’s state Senate seats on the ballots. While many believed the new maps could boost Democrats chances in 2016, that didn’t quite pan out.

Feb. 20 — Jeb Bush ends 2016 presidential bid —  All signs pointed to Jeb Bush being the front-runner for the GOP nomination. The son and brother of two presidents, the former Florida governor racked up a massive war chest and plenty of big-name endorsements. But Bush couldn’t make headway in a crowded field of Republican hopefuls and was often on the receiving end of then-candidate Donald Trump’s attacks. After a sixth place finish in Iowa and a fourth place finish in New Hampshire, Bush hung his hopes on South Carolina. He spent days on end campaigning in the Palmetto state, but it was just too late. He came in third, and ended his campaign that night.

March 15Donald Trump triumphs in Florida primary — Was it the turning point for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign? Maybe. The New York Republican was already on a winning streak by the time the March 15 primary rolled around, but the Sunshine State contest was the biggest one to date. And Trump was up Sen. Marco Rubio, who was believed to be a hometown favorite. Turns out, Florida voters weren’t keen on sending Rubio to the White House. Trump trounced Rubio, winning every county except for Miami-Dade County. Rubio ended his presidential campaign that night, saying America was in “the middle of a real political storm, a real tsunami. And we should have seen this coming.”

April 21Gwen Graham hints at 2018 plans — When the dust settled on new congressional districts, one thing was clear: Florida’s 2nd Congressional District was solidly Republican. What wasn’t entirely clear was whether Rep. Gwen Graham would run for re-election or follow in her father’s footsteps and run for governor in 2018. She put the rumors to rest in April, announcing she was dropping her re-election bid and was “seriously considering running for governor in 2018.” In the months since, Graham has continued to fuel speculation about her plans for 2018, most recently telling reporters every part of her “wants to run for governor,” but that her husband’s battle with cancer will play a significant role in her decision.

April 28Workers’ compensation decision rocks business community — A Florida Supreme Court decision striking down the state law limiting attorney’s fees in workers’ compensation cases might have been a victory for injured workers, but it also set the wheels in motion for what would become significant workers’ compensation rate hikes. The 5-2 ruling in Castellanos v. Next Door Company was just one of the decisions striking down workers’ compensation laws this year. Those rulings prompted the National Council on Compensation to ask state regulators to approve a nearly 20 percent rate hike. That rate, which was eventually lowed to 14.5 percent, went into effect Dec. 1. The state’s business community has said the rate hikes could have a dramatic impact on business, and are pushing lawmakers to tackle workers’ compensation reform in 2017.

June 1249 killed in an attack on Pulse nightclub — In the wee hours of the morning on June 12, a gunman entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and injuring more than 50. It was the deadliest mass shooting in recent history, and sent shockwaves through the state and country. Gov. Rick Scott spent several weeks in Orlando, visiting with the victims and their families, attending funeral services, and meeting with members of the community. In the weeks and months that followed, the community came together to support the victims and their families. Spearheaded by Mayor Buddy Dyer, the city set up the OneOrlando Fund to assist victims of the attack. As of Dec. 2, the fund distributed $27.4 million for 299 claims, or 98 percent of all eligible claims filed.

June 17David Jolly drops out of U.S. Senate race, announces re-election bid — When Rep. David Jolly announced he was forgoing a re-election bid to run for the U.S. Senate, all signs indicated former Gov. Charlie Crist would sail to an easy victory. But after more and more politicos pushed encouraged Sen. Rubio to run for re-election, Jolly ended his U.S. Senate bid and announced a re-election bid, challenging Crist in an effort to keep his seat in a newly drawn district that favored Democrats. He had the support of many local Republicans, but Jolly’s push to end the practice of lawmakers dialing for dollars soured many congressional Republicans. When Election Day rolled around, Crist defeated Jolly, 52 percent to 48 percent.

June 22 — Marco Rubio reverses course, decides to run for re-election — After a devastating loss in his home state’s presidential primary, Sen. Rubio swore he wouldn’t run for re-election. The Miami Republican said multiple times that was going to serve out the remainder of his term and then go back to being a private citizen. And, as he mentioned on more than one occasion, a close friend — Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera – was already running for his seat. But in the days after the Pulse shooting, Lopez-Cantera encouraged his friend to run for re-election. Rubio ultimately announced his re-election bid just days before the qualifying deadline, effectively clearing the Republican field. He walloped Carlos Beruff in the Republican primary, and led in nearly every poll between him and Democrat Patrick Murphy. Rubio sailed to victory, winning a second term with 52 percent of the vote.

June 29 — Gov. Rick Scott declares state of emergency after algae clogs waterways — The Army Corps of Engineers began releasing Lake Okeechobee discharges down the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers after record rainfalls earlier in the year. While those discharges sparked outrage in both communities, the appearance of algae blooms on the state’s east coast prompted action from the governor. Scott declared a state of emergency in Martin, St. Lucie, Lee and Palm Beach counties in June, and called on the federal government to quickly approve permits for dispersed water management projects. The declaration helped push the issue of water quality to the forefront of many campaigns.

July 8Corrine Brown indicted — It was a no good, very bad year for former Rep. Corrine Brown. Florida’s 5th Congressional District, which she represented since 1993, was redrawn as part of the state’s ongoing redistricting case. She and several other political operatives were served with subpoenas at a BBQ joint in Jacksonville. And in July, Brown and her chief of staff were indicted on federal corruption and fraud charges. The charges stem from her involvement in an allegedly fraudulent charity scheme. Brown was defiant, saying “just because someone accuses you, doesn’t mean they have the facts.” To add insult to injury, Brown was lost her primary in the newly drawn district.

July 29 — Zika comes to Florida — The first reported cases Zika virus in the Sunshine State began popping up in February, when state health officials confirmed there were nine travel-related cases of the mosquito-borne virus. Gov. Scott declared a public health emergency in four Florida counties, a number which would grow as the months wore on. As concerns about the illness spread, officials called on the federal government to assist Florida in combatting the disease and minimize the chances of homegrown cases. But in July, health officials announced the first cases of locally acquired Zika had been reported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quickly issued a travel warning for the Wynwood neighborhood, where the first cases were found. The state eventually identified several Miami-Dade communities, including a portion of Miami Beach, where local people had contracted the illness. The state cleared the final Miami-Dade Zika zone in early December. According to the Department of Health, there were more than 250 cases of locally acquired infections reported this year.

Aug. 30The Grayson era comes to an end — Rep. Alan Grayson was known throughout Florida — and beyond — as a bombastic, no holds bar congressman. And he lived up to that reputation when he ran for U.S. Senate. Grayson made headlines after his ex-wife claimed domestic abuse over two decades, a claim he refuted (but not before getting physical with a reporter). Grayson gave up seat in Florida’s 9th Congressional District to run for office, but convinced his second wife to run. That pitted Dena Grayson against Susannah Randolph, a former aide to the congressman, both of whom tried to carry the banner for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. And there was no party at the Grayson house when primary night rolled around. Rep. Murphy crushed Rep. Grayson in the U.S. Senate primary; while former state Sen. Darren Soto defeated both Dena Grayson and Randolph (Dena Grayson came in third). The hits kept coming for the Grayson political dynasty. In November, Star Grayson, the former congressman’s daughter, finished a distant third in a three-person race for the Orange County Soil & Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors.

Sept. 2Hurricane Hermine ends Florida’s hurricane-free streak — The Category 1 hurricane was the first storm to make landfall in Florida since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. And boy, did it leave an impression. The storm smacked the Panhandle, knocking out power to thousands upon thousands of customers. While power was restored in some communities relatively quickly, Tallahassee struggled to get up and running. That led to a tussle between Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum and Gov. Scott. In a testy press release, the governor said the city was declining help from other utility companies and expressed frustration over how long it was taking to get the power back on. Gillum shot back, saying Scott was just trying to undermine a cooperative process. But politicos across the state noted the way Gillum, a rising star in the Democratic Party, handled the situation might come back to haunt him in future political runs.

Sept. 26 Water contamination concerns prompt rule changes — Days of rain leading up to, and following, Hurricane Hermine overwhelmed St. Petersburg’s sewer system. City officials opted to release millions of gallons of partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay, marking the first time in about a year the city did that. Combine that with news that a Mosaic Fertilizer sinkhole released 215 million gallons of toxic, radioactive water into the water supplies, and it’s no wonder concerns about Florida’s water supply ran rampant this fall. After many people raised questions about when the spills were reported, Gov. Scott ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to establish new reporting requirements. Those requirements are meant to guarantee local governments and the DEP are notified within 24 hours of a pollution incident. The state in October reached a deal with Mosaic over the sinkhole, which held the company accountable for fixing the sinkhole and rehabilitating the impacts of the spill.

Oct. 7 — Deadly storm threatens Florida’s east coast — One month after Hurricane Hermine made landfall near Tallahassee, Floridians were faced with another hurricane barreling toward their shores. What started as destructive tropical cyclone morphed into Hurricane Matthew, the first Category 5 Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Felix in 2007. Gov. Scott and other officials throughout the state encouraged Floridians to evacuate and warned of days without power. The storm sideswiped the entirety of the East Coast, causing damage up and down the coast. The storm tore apart A1A in Flagler Beach, forcing it closed and requiring significant restoration.

Nov. 8Medical pot becomes legal — The second time was the charm for a medical marijuana ballot initiative. The constitutional amendment which allows people with debilitating medical conditions to use medical marijuana, easily passed with 71 percent of the vote. Supporters of the amendment, led by Orlando attorney John Morgan, were able to fend off opposition attacks. Florida was one of six states that legalized marijuana for either medicinal or recreational purposes on Election Day, marking one of the biggest electoral victories for marijuana reforms in years.

Nov. 10Richard Corcoran era brings new rules to Florida House — Calling for a new culture of transparency in the Florida House, House Speaker Richard Corcoran announced new rules aimed at getting tough with with the capital’s lobby corps. The rules prohibit representatives from flying on planes owned, leased or paid for by lobbyists; require lobbyists to filed individual disclosures for each bill, amendment and appropriation they’re working on; and increased the lobbying ban on former members from two to six years. Corcoran also created the Committee on Integrity and Ethics, an oversight committee.

Dec. 22Will Weatherford rules out 2018 gubernatorial bid — Considered a likely 2018 gubernatorial contender since he left office in 2014, former House Speaker Will Weatherford ended the year (and helped officially kick off the 2018 election cycle) by saying he would not run for governor in two years. “I have decided that my role in the 2018 gubernatorial election should be as a private citizen and not as a candidate,” he said in a statement. “My focus right now is on raising my family, living out my faith, and growing my family’s business.” Weatherford was the first candidate to formally say whether they were running. But even without Weatherford in the race, Floridians can expect a crowded field. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is expected to run, and Speaker Corcoran has been mentioned as a possible candidate. On the Democratic side, Rep. Graham has already expressed her interest, as has trial attorney Morgan. And Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer are all believed to be pondering a run.

Doug Holder registers to lobby Legislature

Doug Holder has entered the government affairs sector.

Holder recently registered as a lobbyist, representing the Martin County Sheriff’s Office and Sarasota Memorial Healthcare System on behalf of The Legis Group. Holder founded the firm with former Rep. Robert Schenck.

A former state representative, Holder served in the Florida House from 2006 until 2014. During his time in office, the 50-year-old Venice Republican served as chairman of the House economic development subcommittee.

He was forced to leave office in 2014 because of term limits, but had hoped to make a political comeback earlier this year when he ran for the Florida Senate in District 23. Holder was one of several Republicans vying to fill the vacant state Senate seat and was backed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Holder came in second behind Greg Steube, who later went on to win the general election in November.

Schenck, a 41-year-old Spring Hill Republican, served in the Florida House from 2006 to 2014. Schneck served as chairman of the House health and human services committee during the 2010-12 term. During the 2012-14 term, he served as the chairman of both the House rules and calendar committee and the select committee on gaming.

That healthcare experience will go a long way in his new role as a lobbyist. Schenck recently registered as a lobbyist representing MCNA Dental Plans and Ultimate Health Plans. He’ll also represent the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.

Legislation would allow lawmakers to override judges’ rulings

Lawmakers could override court decisions they don’t like under bills filed Tuesday.

State Rep. Julio Gonzalez, a Venice Republican, filed two pieces of legislation, one aimed at state judges and another at federal judges who interpret state laws.

The first measure (HJR 121) would allow the Legislature to review judicial rulings that declare legislative acts void. If approved in the 2017 Legislative Session, it would allow lawmakers to put the issue on the ballot and amend the state Constitution.

That means that if “the Supreme Court, (any) district court of appeal, circuit court, or county court” overturns a law, the Legislature could salvage it with a two-thirds vote within five years of the ruling.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has made judicial reform a top priority during the next two years.

He has called for the state to impose a term limit for judges; in a November speech on the House floor, Corcoran said the state needs “judges who respect the Constitution and separation of powers; who will reject the temptation to turn themselves into some unelected, super-legislature.”

Gonzalez, an orthopedic surgeon by trade, also is taking aim at the feds, filing what’s known as a House memorial (HM 125).

“It is my concerted view that such provisions, if enacted by the people would curtail the tendency of activist judges to manipulate the law to suit their political views and agendas,” said Gonzalez in a statement on his website explaining his decision to file the measures. “Equally as importantly, this would force the people to engage the legislature in enacting rectifications to current laws that they see as objectionable or flawed, restoring the natural relationship between the people and their legislative bodies. This would also force the electorate to more carefully look at their candidates and their actions during times of reelection.”

It urges Congress to propose a constitutional amendment to “deem a law that has been declared void by certain federal courts active and operational.” Such measures, if passed, are non-binding.

It says the judicial branch has taken “an increasingly activist role aimed at molding legislation according to the political beliefs of its members.”

The U.S. Supreme Court “currently possesses ultimate and unchecked authority on matters of the constitutionality of the United States’ laws such that its opinion on such matters has the same effect as amending the United States Constitution,” the measure says.

“Thomas Jefferson foresaw the dangers of ‘allowing judges to be the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions,’ calling this ‘a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of oligarchy,’ ” it continues.

“And … the presence of such unchecked and plenary authority on determining the constitutionality validity of a law of the United States must be dismantled for the sake of our republic and for the continued empowerment of its people.”

__Tallahassee-based reporter Jim Rosica contributed to this report.

 

Anitere Flores files bill aimed at decriminalizing youth

Sen. Anitere Flores has filed a bill to decriminalize youthful transgressions, a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron.

Flores, a Miami Republican and the Senate President Pro Tempore, filed Senate Bill 196 on Tuesday. The measure allows law enforcement officers to issue juveniles who admit to committing a first-time misdemeanor a civil citation or require the child to participate in a diversion program.

Under the proposal, law enforcement officers could issue civil citations or require a juvenile to participate in a diversion program for several misdemeanor offenses, including possession of alcohol, criminal mischief, and disorderly conduct.

According to a draft of the bill, juveniles who participate in civil citation or similar diversion programs would have to spend a “minimum of 5 hours per week completing” a community service assignment.

Flores’ proposal doesn’t apply to juveniles currently charged with a crime or those who have entered a plea or have been found guilty of an offense that would be a felony if committed by an adult.

The push to decriminalize adolescence is a top priority for Negron. The Stuart Republican mentioned the issue during his designation speech last year and again in November when he formally took over as Senate President.

During his designation speech, Negron said he and his brothers threw water balloons at cars passing by. He celebrated when a balloon hit one of the cars, but said the moment of fun turned somber when his target stopped in the middle of the road.

The man, he told his colleagues, looked him in the eye, flipped down his badge and told him he “hit the wrong car.”

“He marched us up to my father, told him what happened and suffice it to say, that never happened again,” he said during his designation speech.

“Now, take that same factual circumstance in fact pattern and transport it to today. It’s a virtual certainty that we would have been arrested and charged with throwing a deadly missile of conveyance, which I’m sure the Legislature’s turned into a second-degree felony with enhanced penalties,” he continued, only partially joking. “We would have been thrown into the juvenile justice system, our family would have been declared dysfunctional. … I would still be explaining this on my Florida Bar application, trying to get a license to practice law from the Board of Bar Examiners.”

Negron said there is “a delicate balance” and the state will not tolerate serious wrongdoing by young people. But, he said the state should not criminalize adolescence.

Flores’ bill also calls on counties to establish diversion programs, with the concurrence of the chief judge of the circuit court, the state attorney, public defender, and the head of each local law enforcement agency.

A House companion has not yet been filed.

Helmets would be required for motorcyclists under proposed bill

A Villages Republican has filed legislation that would require motorcyclists to wear helmets.

Rep. Don Hahnfeldt filed a bill (HB 6009) Monday to require all riders to wear helmets when operating a motorcycle. The bill strikes the section of the law that current allows riders to operate a motorcycle without a helmet.

Under current law, a “person over 21 … may operate or ride upon a motorcycle without wearing protective headgear” as long as the person is covered by an insurance policy that provides at least $10,000 in medical benefits for “injuries incurred as result of a crash while operating or riding a motorcycle.”

Florida Today reported in May that 450 motorcycle drivers or passengers died in accidents. The newspaper reported that 210 of those were confirmed to not be wearing a helmet.

According to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, 19 states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books requiring motorcyclists to wear a helmet. Twenty-eight states have laws that require some motorcyclists to wear a helmet, while three states — Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire — have no laws mandating helmet use.

States were required to put helmet use laws in place in the 1960s in order to qualify for some federal safety programs and highway construction funds. According to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, the requirement worked and by the early 1970s nearly all of the states had universal helmet laws. In 1976, states lobbied Congress to stop the transportation department from assessing fines on states without helmet laws.

Under Hahnfeldt’s proposal, riding without a helmet would be a “noncriminal traffic infraction, punishable as a nonmoving violation.”

A Senate companion has not yet been filed.

 

Julie Jones says prisons need higher pay to stop ‘churn in the hiring’

Turnover of staff at Florida’s prisons is so high that a substantial majority of guards in some prisons have less than two years experience, Corrections Secretary Julie Jones said Wednesday before the Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

Jones was at the subcommittee’s introductory meeting to push hers’ and Gov. Rick Scott administration’s priorities. They start with pay increases to attempt to boost recruitment and retention in prisons where guards can make less than $30,000 a year right now.

Jones outlined her top priority as a safety and security issue, arguing the inexperienced staff can lack the savvy needed to keep the system stable.

“So that experience working with inmates, knowing how to talk to an inmate, and… there’s smarts [that] corrections officers and police officers have to de-escalate; they don’t have enough experience on the job to be able to do that,” Jones said. “So contraband is up. Inmate violence is up. Inmate violence on inmates and officers is up. And it’s a churn in the hiring that has to stop in order to stabilize the system.”

The churn, she said, is 29.3 percent annually, about 3,000 prison guard jobs a year in the Florida Department of Corrections System. That doesn’t include another 1,000 floating job openings she maintains. “I’ve got facilities now that are 60, 70 percent [staff who have] less than two years.”

Though several members of the subcommittee had already stated that their highest priorities this year would be to address recidivism among parolees, Jones found support for her argument, particularly from Chairman Aaron Bean, a Jacksonville Republican.

“I looked at the numbers. A starting correction officer’s salary is $29,000 and change. They become certified, they go to $30,000,” Bean said. “But yet they can still go down the street to work at a distribution center where they start at $39-40,000, and not have anybody want to beat them up at the warehouse.”

“Mr. Chairman you’re absolutely correct. I’m losing … good, solid, five- to ten-year tenured higher pay,” Jones said.

Her presentation followed a discussion in which subcommittee members talked in earnest about making the prisons more efficient and reducing other costs by reducing their populations, releasing non-violent offenders.

Bean and the subcommittee’s legislative analyst Marti Harkness discussed the prospects of certain drug offenders being released. Vice Chair Randolph Bracy, the Democratic senator from Oakland, suggested non-violent elderly prisoners might be released. Sen. Jeff Clemens, the Democrat from Lake Worth, suggested Texas and Georgia be looked at, after those states released large numbers of non-violent offenders.

“No one is talking about letting out bad men and women. They will be remaining behind bars,” Bean clarified. “But they cost money. And we want them working. We want them working. So if there is something we can explore, I think our committee has the jurisdiction to explore.”

Senate bill would strengthen fentanyl trafficking penalties

With the opioid epidemic unceasing in the Sunshine State, a bill in the Florida Senate would tighten penalties against trafficking in fentanyl and synthetic drugs.

Senate Bill 150, introduced by GOP Sen. Greg Steube from Sarasota, would also impose penalties related to selling, manufacturing, or delivering fentanyl and synthetic drugs “performed within a dwelling.”

This would be a felony charge, with a mandatory minimum of three years in prison.

Those who possess and deal fentanyl and similar synthetic drugs that lead to death in a user will be guilty of a felony in the third degree.

Fentanyl “trafficking” is broadly defined in this legislation, ranging from amounts from four grams to 30 kilograms.

While all infractions would be classified as felonies in the first degree,  there is a sliding scale of infraction.

Someone trafficking in 4 to 14 grams would incur a $50,000 fine and a mandatory minimum term of three years in prison.

Those with anywhere from 28 grams to 30 kilograms of fentanyl would incur a $500,000 fine and a mandatory minimum prison term of 15 years.

Those who have brought over 30 kilograms of fentanyl will be subject to life in prison.

Synthetic drugs receive a similar graduated structure of penalties, with those traffickers with between 250 and 500 grams getting the mandatory minimum of three years and a $25,000 fine, and those with 30 or more kilograms getting 25 years and a $750,000 fine.

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