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Rick Scott’s office: Governor is aware of Groveland Four case, reviewing all options

Hours after Gov. Rick Scott declined to talk specifically about the posthumous pardons requested for the Groveland Four — 1940s victims of racial injustice that led to two being killed and two going to prison — the governor’s office said Wednesday he is aware of the case and reviewing options.

“Governor Scott is aware of the Groveland Four case and is strongly against any form of racial injustice or discrimination,” McKinley Lewis, Scott’s deputy communications director said in a written statement responding to a request to clarify the governor’s statements earlier Wednesday.

“Currently, the families of Walter Irvin and Charles Greenlee have applications pending with the Commission on Offender Review which conducts clemency investigations per standard procedure and the Florida Constitution,” Lewis continued. “After the commission concludes clemency investigation, their findings are presented to the four-member Board of Executive Clemency. We will continue to review all of our options.“

Lewis did not indicate whether the governor had sought to have the commission expedite those requests, or another request from Josh Venkataraman, who is seeking pardons for both Irvin and Greenlee. There are more than 22,000 applications pending at the Commission on Offender Review, which takes them up in the order they were filed, unless a member of the Florida Cabinet requests a case be expedited.

It typically takes many years to reach the Board of Executive Clemency.

Lewis also did not specify what options were being reviewed.

In April, the Florida Legislature unanimously approved CS/HCR 631, which requested one option: that clemency requests for Irvin and Greenlee be expedited and the pair be granted full pardons.

The Groveland Four were young, black men who were accused of raping a white woman in Lake County in 1949. Two of them, Sam Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, were killed in custody. Irvin and Greenlee were convicted and sent to prison in a trial that NAACP attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall later exposed as a notorious example of Jim Crow-era injustice. Irvin and Greenlee have since died.

In 2013 Gilbert King‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Devil in the Grove brought worldwide attention to the case. Last Spring the Florida Legislature approved CS/HCR 631 acknowledging injustice, apologizing to the families, and requesting the pardons.

Wednesday morning, when asked about the pardons in Jacksonville, the governor said nothing to indicate he knew about the case. He responded that he does what he can for citizens around the state, and that pardons go through a process.

Rick Scott non-committal about Groveland Four pardons request

If the Groveland Four need an advocate within the Florida Cabinet in order to get posthumously pardoned for false convictions that occurred more than 60 years ago, it doesn’t appear to be Gov. Rick Scott at this time.

When asked about the Groveland Four pardon request case Wednesday morning in Jacksonville, Scott offered no indication that he knew about it, or about the Florida Legislature’s impassioned call last spring to bring belated justice to four young, black men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949. Two of them were killed in custody, and the other two went to prison after a trial in Lake County that has since been discredited as a Jim Crow-era injustice.

Last spring, the Florida Legislature approved  CS/HCR 631 formally apologizing to the families of Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas and urging posthumous, full pardons for Irvin and Greenlee, the only two who lived long enough to be convicted and imprisoned. The measure passed the House 117-0 and the Senate 36-0 in April.

In June, Josh Venkataraman filed a formal pardon request for Irvin and Greenlee, and a request for review, with Scott.

Wednesday, during a press availability following Scott’s discussion of his education budget, a reporter reminded the governor that the Legislature wants the Groveland Four pardons and that they have not yet come. The reporter then asked Scott about his plans, and whether the pardons might occur before Christmas.

Scott replied, “Say it again?”

“The Groveland Four case.”

“Yes. So, what I look at every year, my opportunities, what I can do for citizens around the state. And on issues like that, I always look at, you know, all year long, really, not just at the holidays,” the governor said.

“Is that a priority for you, to pardon these people?”

“Always making sure, first off, let me make sure, the clemency process. There is the clemency process, basically goes through the Cabinet. So it comes up through a process through the Commission on Offender Review,” Scott responded.

The governor then ended the press availability, said goodbye, and left.

The Commission on Offender Review has more than 22,000 requests for pardons and other forms of clemency on its docket, and takes them up in chronological-order based on their filing dates, unless a member of the Florida Cabinet intervenes and requests that any particular case be expedited.

In CS/HCR 631, the Florida Legislature explicitly asked for expedited pardons. And that was what Venkataraman formally sought from Scott with his request for review.

Without a Cabinet intervention, typically, it takes many years for any pardon request to reach the top of the pile.

A.G. Gancarski contributed to this story.

Questions remain about math behind Rick Scott’s ‘record’ K-12 spending

Wednesday saw Gov. Rick Scott visit Jacksonville, contending that he proposes spending “record” amounts of money on K-12 education in his latest budget.

“We’re going to have historic funding, for the sixth year in a row,” Scott said, of a “record investment” that will “make sure we fully fund our education system.”

Scott trumpets historic funding each year. This year was no exception; as we reported, Scott is touting the highest per-pupil expenditure ($7,497 per student, which comes out to $21.4 billion total) for K-12 funding.

And dignitaries on hand took the claim at face value.

Education Secretary Pam Stewart remarked that the “budget demonstrates that he has prioritized education.”

And Duval County School Board Chair Paula Wright said that the “$200 per-student increase is a call-to-action for legislators.”

Despite such affirmations, questions have been raised as to whether it’s a record spend or not.

A Folio Weekly article questions whether per-pupil allocations really amount to record spending when adjusted for inflation: “In 2007, former Governor Charlie Crist‘s education budget allotted $7,126 per pupil. According to the CPI calculator, it would cost $8,377.89 today to buy the same value that $7,126 bought in 2007.”

That would come out, in total, to $23.911 billion — $2.5 billion more than the proposed allocation.

The $7,497 number falls far short of the $8,377.89 of real dollars needed to match the pre-recession spending by Crist.

In that context, is Scott actually spending more on education?

Florida Politics — and other outlets — pressed Scott, but got no clear answers regarding the shortfall in real dollars.

Scott noted that when he was elected, he “walked into an unbelievable recession” with a “$4 billion budget deficit.”

With over 1.4 million jobs added, Scott continued, it was possible to “invest more money in education.”

“What we’re seeing is every year, we’ve been able to increase it. This year will be a $200 increase,” Scott added.

“We’ve got to keep growing the economy,” Scott said.

Website blasts Rick Scott’s policies for working Floridians

UPDATE

A progressive group is attacking Gov. Rick Scott with a new website — Rick’s Recession — for what they claim is the state’s unequal recovery from the Great Recession and the detrimental cost of his policies for Florida families.

The site, published by progressive group “For Florida’s Future,” highlights what it contends are the majority of Florida counties still mired in a recession.

“Not a single thing Scott has focused on — slashing funding for public schools, refusing to expand Medicaid for millions of low-income Floridians or giving taxpayer funding to corporations who donate to his campaigns — has helped everyday Floridians,” says the group’s communication director, Blake Williams.

“To think that almost half of households qualify as working poor is galling,” Williams continued. “To think that over half of Florida’s counties are still living in a recession that should have ended years ago is unconscionable. If we’re going to dig our way out of Rick’s recession, the first thing we need to do is start prioritizing working and middle-class families, something Scott clearly hasn’t done.”

Citing data from the Florida Chamber Foundation, the website claims that a majority of Florida’s counties, especially those in rural areas, are actually worse off today than they were before the recession hit in 2008

Nearly half of Florida households (45 percent) qualify as working poor and struggle to afford even basic necessities like health care, transportation and housing despite being employed,” the site claims.

There is a petition calling on the governor to “stop prioritizing policies that help wealthy campaign donors and corporations, and start prioritizing policies that help working and middle-class Floridians.”

Williams says the site will be backed by a “significant” digital ad buy on social media.

A spokesman for the governor blasted the website later Wednesday.

“This political website is chock-full of out-dated and misleading information,” said John Tupps, the communications director for Scott. “Florida has been a national leader in job creation since Governor Scott took office and the state has gone from losing 800,000 jobs in the four years before he took office to adding more than 1.4 million in less than seven years.”

Scott’s office also said that since he took office seven years ago, “he has worked to cut taxes 75 times saving Floridians more than $7.5 billion, paid down $9 billion in state debt and made government more efficient to save even more taxpayer money.”

Scott’s office also cited Florida’s unemployment rate of 3.6 percent, the lowest in more than a decade, and that Florida’s annual job growth rate of 2.6 percent is exceeding the national rate of 1.6 percent.

Scott is beginning his final year as governor. He is strongly expected to challenge Democrat Bill Nelson for his Senate seat next year.

Hurricane season ends — but issues will linger

Thursday is the last day of the highly active, deadly and destructive 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, but Floridians will feel its impact for years.

Politicians are still scrambling to determine how much of the next state budget will be dedicated to covering losses that may or may not be paid by the federal government.

The massive hit from Hurricane Irma caused direct physical and emotional impacts in Florida, and ripples continue to come ashore as thousands of people flee Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Lawmakers are also looking at regulatory changes for nursing homes and debris-removal companies, as well as changes dealing with issues such as evacuation lanes, shelters and a potential state fuel reserve.

Gov. Rick Scott, who was a constantly visible face before and after Irma struck, said Monday while in Tampa that he’d like to boost the availability of propane for generators before the 2018 storm season.

“You always learn something,” Scott said. “Everybody had generators. This last time we started running low on propane. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. But everyone did a good job. Highway safety, we kept the fuel going.”

Visit Florida spent $5 million to tell potential tourists that the state quickly reopened after Hurricane Irma, even as scars from the September storm remain etched across agricultural fields and the Florida Keys.

Meanwhile, 72 deaths in Florida are currently attributed to the Irma, according to reports supplied by county medical examiners to the state Division of Emergency Management.

The fatalities include 14 cases involving carbon monoxide, eight drownings, four electrocutions and 14 incidents involving blunt-force injuries. Deaths occurred statewide, with six in the Florida Keys, five in Duval County and even two in Leon County, which sustained relatively little damage from Irma compared to other parts of the state.

The numbers don’t include 14 deaths of residents of a Broward County nursing home — 12 were recently ruled homicides — that have caused Scott to push for new rules requiring nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to have emergency generators.

Members of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness will meet Monday and discuss potential storm-related recommendations for the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts in January. Among the possibilities are legislation about housing, agriculture tax relief, hardening for emergency-operations centers and management of shelters.

“Obviously, there will be short-term things that need to be taken care of in the immediate, upcoming Session,” committee Chairwoman Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican, said. “And then, as we saw back in (Hurricane) Andrew, or during the ’04-’05 season, Legislatures will deal with this issue for years to come.”

Hurricane Hermine in 2016 was Florida’s first direct hit from a hurricane in more than a decade. But Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and traveled up the state, was far more destructive.

Mark Wool, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Tallahassee office, called 2017 the busiest for the Atlantic since 2005.

“We didn’t have any things working against tropical cyclone development like in recent years,” Wool said. “There was no El Nino in effect, which tends to suppress things. Didn’t see a lot of dust coming off Africa. We had a very warm ocean and the depth of the warm water was quite large. And all of those things tend to fuel development of a lot of storms.”

Emergency-management officials each year stress preparing for hurricanes. But Wool said the flatness of Florida requires additional vigilance by coastal communities against flooding, as the state is also experiencing a period of rising sea levels.

“Parts of South Beach are flooding now without any storms. Blue skies, tidal flooding, the king tides,” Wool said. “We’ve seen times in the historic record where we’ve had large fluctuations in sea level, and we’re certainly on the upswing.”

As of Nov. 13, more than 830,000 property owners across the state had filed claims for $5.88 billion in insured losses from Irma, which was one of four storms — Tropical Storm Emily, Irma, Hurricane Nate and Tropical Storm Philippe — that had a direct impact on the state during the six-month hurricane season that closes Thursday.

Emily in early August made landfall on Anna Maria Island and quickly was downgraded to a tropical depression. Nate brushed the western Panhandle on Oct. 8 as the center of the storm came ashore near Biloxi, Miss. Philippe brought rain and couple of tornadoes to the Southern part of the state as it made landfall Oct. 29 with 45 mph winds in Southwest Florida.

Overall, there were 17 named storms this year. The most devastation came from Harvey’s Aug. 26 landfall in Texas, Irma’s double landfall and run-up of Florida starting Sept. 10, and Maria’s destruction of utilities and other infrastructure across Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.

While spinning in the Atlantic, Irma reached maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, a pace it held for a record 37 consecutive-hours. Nate also set a record in October for the fastest forward motion recorded for a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We certainly did establish some records,” Wool said. “Harvey’s rainfall established a new rainfall record for one system in the United States. I think some areas had 60 inches of rains, which was phenomenal.”

Irma also set new benchmarks for evacuees — an estimated 6.5 million people left their homes in advance of the storm — and power outages and restoration crews. Florida Power & Light, for example, reported 90 percent of its customers — about 10 million people — were without power on average 2.3 days.

The agriculture industry has put a preliminary estimate of $2.5 billion on its losses from the storm.

However, Florida leaders have yet to convince the White House and Congress to include an estimated $761 million in losses to the citrus industry in a series of disaster-relief packages this year.

State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam again implored Florida’s congressional delegation on Tuesday to support U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney‘s proposal to add $1.5 billion for Florida’s agricultural industry to a $44 billion disaster-relief request sent to Congress on Nov. 17 by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

While awaiting federal assistance, Scott authorized a $25 million interest-free loan program for citrus farmers.

Visit Florida, meanwhile, directed $5 million from its tourism budget for a special post-Irma marketing campaign, and Scott has requested lawmakers boost Visit Florida’s marketing dollars from $75 million in the current year to $100 million because of the need to have post-disaster marketing money readily available.

Despite the state saying tourism numbers continue to climb, hotels remain closed in parts of the Keys, where housing issues have grown for workers after Irma devastated a number of areas outside of Key West.

The Islamorada Resort Company, which hired more than 500 construction workers to repair storm damage at four locations on the islands, is reopening the first of the four on Dec. 15 and the second a month later.

“We are thrilled to welcome guests back to our slice of paradise,” said Eddie Sipple, the company’s area general manager.

Rick Scott visits Tampa Police following arrest of Seminole Heights killer

Updated

Gov. Rick Scott came to Tampa early Wednesday to thank the officers involved in the arrest of 24-year-old Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, the man suspected of killing four people in Seminole Heights over the past six weeks.

“To the families of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton, my heart goes out to you,” Scott said addressing reporters who gathered outside the Tampa Police Department headquarters shortly after 8 a.m.

“Because of the hard work of law enforcement, justice will be served.”

TPD Chief Brad Dugan and Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced that Donaldson was the suspect in the killings late Tuesday night, approximately eight hours after they arrested him at an Ybor City McDonald’s.

An employee at the fast food establishment said that Donaldson, who worked at the restaurant, came up and had given her a food bag with a .40 caliber Glock inside. The witness also told a TPD officer that Donaldson said he wanted to leave the state. Donaldson had since left the restaurant, but returned and was detained by officers.

Scott, Buckhorn, Dugan and other law enforcement officials were effusive in celebrating the collaborative effort between law enforcement agencies to help bring Donaldson into custody — just fifty-one days after he allegedly killed Mitchell, the first of the four people slain in the neighborhood.

Scott directed the Florida Highway Patrol to deploy additional troopers to Seminole Heights last week. Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents had also been involved in the manhunt, as well as sheriff deputies from Hillsborough County and officers from the St. Petersburg Police Department.

“We would not be here today having apprehending this individual had it not been for the team effort that’s been taking place for the last fifty-one days,” Buckhorn said.

Chief Dugan said at a press conference later on Wednesday that his investigators still have work to do on the case, though he said definitively that Donaldson is the culprit in the murders. He added that he had spoken briefly with Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren on Wednesday, but said it was too early to determine what penalty to seek.

Buckhorn surprised some residents a month ago when he asked Tampa Police officers who were working on finding the killer to “bring me his head on a platter.”

His rhetoric was toned down Wednesday, though he couldn’t resist offering his opinion about Donaldson’s fate.

“Today we begin the healing process, and today the judicial process starts,” the mayor said. “And it will end, and I will promise you that when it does end, that this community will be a better place because I know where this guy is going to spend his eternity.”

When asked what should happen to Donaldson, Buckhorn said he wanted the process to take its place. And once it does?

“If he is found to be guilty, he should die. It’s that simple,” the mayor said.

Dugan said the arrest of Donaldson gave him a feeling of relief. The longtime Tampa policeman was named interim chief earlier this year, and then was officially given the title of chief just a few weeks ago. He said it was hardly an ideal way to start off his career.

“To start off as chief of police and to have four unsolved homicides on your watch? That’s a tough pill to swallow. That is something that I’ll carry the rest of my life,” Dugan said.

Scott said he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to murder someone in cold blood.

“Why somebody would have it in their mind to go take four individuals lives? I don’t get it, and I don’t know if we’ll ever understand it,” he said.

Dugan said there is no apparent motive for the murders at this time. He said Donaldson was cooperative with officers once he was taken into custody, but has only admitted that the gun he was found with on Tuesday was his. He has not admitted to the murders.

Floridians back business incentives, split on how state should tackle 2018 budget

A new poll released Tuesday found a majority of Floridians support the use of state money to lure jobs to the Sunshine State and also showed significant shifts in attitudes about the Florida budget, taxation and the quality of government services.

The USF-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey found 58 percent of Floridians support business incentives while just over a quarter see them as corporate welfare and 13 percent said they had no opinion.

The optics on incentives have seen a significant drop-off from the height of the Great Recession in 2010, when a record 69 percent of Floridians supported the policy, and are a slight decrease from 2015, when 60 percent backed them.

White and Hispanic Floridians were most likely to support the use of incentives, with just better than three-fifths backing them in the survey, while more than two-thirds of Floridians aged 55 to 64 were in favor alongside 63 percent of high-income households.

The survey also keyed into Floridians’ perception of how the state handles its budget, with a full 63 percent having a negative view of state money management. Sussed out into four categories, 4 percent said the state was doing an “excellent” job with taxpayer money, while 29 percent selected “good,” 38 percent chose “fair” and 25 percent said the state was a “poor” financial steward.

Sunshine State residents were split when it came to what they expected from the state on marquee issues, such as tourism funding.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Gov. Rick Scott waged a public battle over funding for the state tourism marketing Visit Florida during the 2017 Legislative Session, and just slightly more respondents, 38-34, side with Scott by agreeing that slashing funds for the public-private partnership would be heading “in the wrong direction.”

When it comes to whether the state should cut services or increase taxes in the belt-tightening 2018 budget, voters were split 47-47, though the share that said it would support “raising taxes to improve critical services and infrastructure” spiked from 19 percent in 2015 to 27 percent in the new poll.

The issue of which tax was the “most unfair” was less murky: Floridians hate the communications services tax with a passion. A full 46 percent said fees tacked onto cell phone and internet bills were the least fair. In 2015, just 32 percent felt the same way.

Property taxes followed in a distant second place with 20 percent, tolls came in third with 13 percent followed by 8 percent who pegged the sales tax as the most unfair.

The survey gathered responses from 1,215 Floridians between July 24 and Aug. 14. It has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

Rick Scott sets spring special election to replace Neil Combee in House

Gov. Rick Scott has set a special election for 2018 to fill the seat vacated by former state Rep. Neil Combee in House District 39, serving parts of Polk and Osceola counties.

Scott set a primary election for Feb. 20, 2018, and a general election for May 1. That would keep the seat open until after the 2018 Legislative Session, which runs from Jan. 9 through March 9.

Combee left his seat last week to take a federal appointment as Florida’s State Director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

One candidate has filed, 22-year-old University of Florida political science student Josie Tomkow, a Republican, who actually filed for the regularly-scheduled 2018 election but is expected to refile for the special election. Combee is backing Tomkow, even over another potential Republican candidate, Polk County Commissioner John Hall, who expressed interest in running. No Democratic candidates have emerged yet.

Mandating E-Verify in state constitution eyed by commissioners

A review panel is flirting with the idea of implementing a vexed employment verification system into the state constitution to weed out undocumented immigrants before they enter the workforce.

The proposal (P29) cleared the Constitution Revision Commission’s General Provisions Committee on Tuesday, following a long stretch of public comment with clashing viewpoints on the federal system, called E-Verify.

Commissioner Rich Newsome, an appointee of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, dubbed himself an “accidental sponsor” of the proposal that aims to make sure businesses are hiring legal workers. Newsome said he also took it on to protect “the greatest, most hard-working undocumented immigrants” from labor exploitation.

“When you have a black market, when you go to an illegal industry that is in the business of hiring folks who are not documented, the folks who are in that process have no recourse under the law,” Newsome said.

Adam Blalock, an attorney with the Florida Farm Bureau, however, said such a proposal would significantly harm the agriculture business, adding that crops would go unpicked and rot because the domestic supply of workers is not enough.

“The ag community is not opposed to E-Verify or immigration reform, but the reality is that if it is put in place, there will be a labor shortage in the ag industry in the state,” Blalock said. “We’ve seen in other states, that after implementing it they saw an exodus of labor in ag.”

To counter that point, a group of five men bombarded panel members with arguments on how much good the federal employment system would do for the state’s public safety.

But unsubstantiated claims about the crimes undocumented immigrants commit were sprinkled into those arguments, including one that said undocumented immigrants have committed 40 percent of all murders in the state. There is no conclusive data to support that claim.

Following testimony, panel members voted in support of the system, but expressed concern about the impact it would have on agriculture.

The American Civil Liberties Union has publicly said for some years that the system could present “enormous privacy and security risks” for immigrants currently cleared to work because it is riddled with inaccuracies.

“I don’t believe we are burdening anyone for making them do this,” Commissioner Sherry Plymale said.

Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order six years ago which mandated employers use the system. The economic impact of that order was not discussed before the panel.

The proposal now heads to the Executive Committee, but a date has not yet been set. If it does pass, the measure would go before all commissioners, who will then decide whether it should go on the November ballot. It would then need 60 percent of the votes to be amended into the state constitution.

“At the end of the day, voters don’t vote on statistics,” Newsome said. “What people think about when they vote is if they see a problem, how we need to address it.”

House, Senate gear up for Session with budget, hurricane scrutiny

In their final series of meetings before the start of the 2018 Legislative Session, lawmakers will focus heavily on hurricane recommendations and Gov. Rick Scott‘s proposed record-breaking $87.4 billion budget.

On Dec. 6, Senate Appropriations Committee will receive a presentation about Scott’s proposal for the fiscal year that will start July 1.

Seven appropriations subcommittees – dealing with budget issues such as education, health and human services and criminal justice – will meet Dec. 7 to look at Scott’s recommendations for their spending areas. Scott’s proposal is a starting point for lawmakers, who will negotiate a final budget during the Legislative Session that starts Jan. 9. Lawmakers will hold four days of committee meetings next week, the final round of committee meetings before the Session.

In the House, receiving a series of presentations recently, a committee next week will discuss potential recommendations for responding to Hurricane Irma and preparing for future storms.

The House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness is slated to meet Monday. Its recommendations likely will be considered during the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts in January.

Senate committees also have been looking at hurricane-related issues, though the Senate has not formed a special committee on the topic.

Among other issues going before legislative committees next week, the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee is scheduled Dec. 5 to take up a proposal (SB 150), filed by Republican Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, that would end the state’s no-fault auto insurance system.

A similar House bill (HB 19), filed by Vero Beach Republican Rep. Erin Grall is ready to go to the full House after the Session starts in January.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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