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Pam Bondi’s office says PTC can decide whether to hire lobbyists

(UPDATED)

The Florida Attorney General’s office has decided it’s up to the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission to decide whether it wants to hire lobbyists. The decision came at the request from St. Petersburg GOP state Sen. Jeff Brandes for an opinion on the issue.

In a letter to Brandes on Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Ellen B. Gwynne wrote, “This is not a matter that the Attorney General may presently comment on.” She went on to quote the AG’s website, which says that questions related to the powers and duties of a public board or commission should be requested by a majority of the members of that body.

In other words, the PTC board, which voted this year to pay $120,000 to Tallahassee lobbyists Corcoran and Johnston to represent them, is being asked to vote whether they should retain them.

Brandes said he wants to see the PTC take that vote again, with the eyes of the Tampa Bay area watching.

I call upon the Commission to promptly approve such a request to the Office of the Attorney General so that this lingering question of impropriety may be settled,” he said in a prepared statement. “The public deserves answers, and now the Public Transportation Commission needs to act.”

Earlier in the day Hillsborough County Attorney Chip Fletcher  told Attorney General Pam Bondi that the county’s Public Transportation Commission does have the authority to hire lobbyists.

His response was prompted last month by Brandes‘ request for Bondi’s legal opinion about whether the agency could hire lobbyists, after learning about it from a TV news report.

“I was shocked to learn that the PTC was spending $120,000 per year of public funds on lobbyists without the legal authority to do so,” Brandes said last month. “The PTC already has a reputation tarnished by scandal. Once again, the PTC finds itself mired in controversy over questionable practices. These circumstances deserve a full review by the Attorney General.”

Noting that Brandes has made it clear that he’d like the PTC to be eliminated (and in fact will proposing such legislation at the Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation next week), Fletcher says it would be inappropriate for the AG’s office to offer any opinion.

“Based upon information provided in the Attorney General’s website, Attorney General Opinions should not be sought to ‘arbitrate a political dispute between agencies or between factions within an agency … Nor should an opinion be sought as a weapon by only one side in a dispute between agencies,'” Fletcher said in letter to Bondi. “Therefore, it would effectively place your Office in a political dispute, at a time when it is being debate in the Legislature.”

As Fletcher notes, the PTC pays the lobbyists Corcoran & Johnston $120,000 annually, but is not with  taxpayer dollars. The PTC is funded exclusively by regulatory fees assessed for the certificates and permits paid by the taxi cab industry it regulates.

Fletcher also notes that Brandes’ request for an opinion “cannot be considered in a vacuum,” since there about 1,026 so-called “special districts” created by the Legislature throughout the state. In the Tampa Bay area, those would include the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, the Port Authority and the Sports Authority, just to name a few. All utilize lobbyists.

The PTC has used lobbyists since at least 2007, when Victor DiMaio was hired by then PTC Chairman Kevin White to lobby in Tallahassee. White was later indicted on federal charges that he abused his position as chairman of the county’s Public Transportation Commission, taking bribes in return for favors to a towing company.

WTVT Fox 13 reported last moth that three different attorney general opinions showed that entities created by the state cannot spend money on state lobbyists without specific authorization. One of those opinions was written by Bondi to Hillsborough County Attorney Chip Fletcher in February 2014. The case was whether the Hillsborough County Civil Service Board was allowed to lobby. Bondi’s office ruled it was not.

However, Fletcher writes that such an opinion was based on the “very limited purpose” of the Civil Service Board. He contrasts that with the “much broader purpose” that the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission has.

Brandes and other Tampa Bay area state legislators have been at war with the PTC for the past two years, much of that enmity having to do with the PTC’s regulations of ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft.

The Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation meets next Tuesday to go over a variety of bills, including Brandes’ bill that would effectively kill the PTC as an agency.

Stand Your Ground revisions pass thru Florida Senate committee

Earlier this summer, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that defendants who use the controversial “Stand Your Ground” controversial legal defense — rather than the government — have the burden of proving it should shield them from prosecution. The ruling upset the National Rifle Association, and prompted GOP lawmakers to say they would address the issue in the upcoming session.

That time is now, though whether it clears the Legislature in 2016 is still unclear at this juncture.

A House version to address the issue was quashed  last month, when the bill filed by Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley, failed to advance after the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee deadlocked at 6-6.

Not so in the Legislature’s upper chamber, where the Senate Rules Committee passed a measure sponsored by Fleming Island Republican Rob Bradley (SB 344) on Thursday that would make it make it easier legally for people to claim self-defense in shooting incidents.

An amendment sponsored by Altamonte Springs Republican Dave Simmons would change the language of the 2005 law. No longer would defendants have to show at a pre-trial hearing “beyond a reasonable doubt” that they should be immune from prosecution. Instead, it would put the onus on the government to show that there is “clear and convincing” evidence that the defense could not use that defense.

If a judge granted a motion to dismiss at that point, defendants may be due up to $200,000 from the state attorney to cover their attorney fees, court costs and other expenses.

That change is welcomed by Florida NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer.

“This bill is about restoring constitutional rights of citizens who act in lawful self defense,” she said. “Nothing in current law creates this special stand your ground hearing. And nothing in current law reverses the burden of proof from the state to the victim.”

However, another Simmons amendment that would “clean up” the language to allow someone who was involved in criminal behavior to still be able to use stand your ground received some pushback from Miami Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. He wondered if someone was working in a meth lab at their home and an uninvited person showed up at their house, could that person then go ahead and shoot that intruder because they felt threatened? Diaz de la Portilla and Brandon Senator Tom Lee asked if there couldn’t be some middle ground given there?

Simmons said he would work on that provision.

The legislation will next come up before the entire Senate when the Legislature convenes next month.

The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association opposes the legislation.

Florida was the first state in the nation to adopt a Stand Your Ground law back in 2005. Now there are 20 states with their versions of the law.

 

Yolie Capin kicks off Tampa City Council meeting by saying “we are in a gun out of control state”

Wednesday’s mass gun shooting in San Bernadino is just the latest such incident in America, and Yolie Capin has had enough.

The Tampa City Councilwoman was given the opportunity to address the audience who gathered at City Hall on Thursday for the council’s weekly meeting, and she used it to denounce the lack of gun control legislation locally, in Florida and across the nation.

Capin began by remembering the thoughts and feelings that she shared with her daughter after the Newtown killings at Sandy Hook Elementary back on December 14 of 2012, considered one of the worst of these mass assaults, when 26 people, including 20 young children, were slain.

“This is it,” she recounted about that day. “We’re going to stop this. And almost three years to the date, we’re witnessing another slaughter. In this country, this state, this county, this city, we are in a gun out of control state. What is happening to us? And how very sad and sorry state of affairs it is.”

Capin then got political.

“Thanks to our Congress, what we have in this country is the gun out of control legislation.” she said, before calling for a moment of silence for the victims in San Bernadino.

“And please, don’t let it be our last silence. Speak out loud,often, repeal all the gun out of control legislation. Assault weapons are intended to maim and kill humans. We don’t want this to be our new normal, or part of our existence. We want to live, we do not want to exist.”

Law enforcement officials in San Bernadino say that the suspects in Wednesday’s massacre used two .223-caliber assault rifles, and two semi-automatic handguns.

The Florida Legislature is currently discussing several controversial bills that would loosen current gun regulations, including allowing for the open carry of handguns and a ‘campus carry’ bill that would allow for the possession of guns by adults 21 and over on college campuses.

Florida law also prevents local communities from passing their own laws regarding guns, an issue that came to the fore when Mayor Bob Buckhorn attempted to ban guns within a specific area of downtown Tampa during the Republican National Convention in 2012.

Mitch Perry Report for 12.3.15 – Rahm Emanuel and Chicago are stuck with each other

While the news is all about the latest gun shooting in San Bernardino on Wednesday, let’s focus here on another death that’s been in the news a lot in the past couple of weeks: that being of Laquan McDonald, the black teenager killed by a white Chicago police officer a year ago.

In between her campaign and fundraising efforts here in Florida Wednesday, Hillary Clinton said she wants a federal investigation about McDonald’s death, putting her directly at odds with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former senior adviser to Bill Clinton.

The recently released video of McDonald being shot 16 times by a police officer in October 2014 has sparked outrage and led activists and others to call for the resignations of Emanuel and Garry McCarthy, the Chicago police commissioner. Emanuel canned McCarthy last week, but says he isn’t going anywhere, telling Politico’s Mike Allen Wednesday that “we have a process called the election. The voters spoke. I’ll be held accountable for the decisions and actions that I make.”

The reason why people want Rahm to step down is that there’s a legitimate question regarding whether evidence was suppressed by the Chicago Police Department, specifically that damning videotape, which Chicago police had possessed for most of this year. As Emanuel faced re-election earlier this year, the electorate’s mood had already changed significantly since 2011, when he was initially elected. Rahm had to survive a tough runoff against the previously relatively undistinguished Jesus “Chuy” Garcia this past April. So it’s hardly controversial for Hillary Clinton to call on the feds to investigate, since Chicago has shown itself utterly incapable of being direct and honest with its citizenry.

By the way, did you see the interview that Allen and Emanuel had Wednesday? To say it was “tense” would be an understatement. You can watch here Rahm freaking out when Allen blurted out that Emanuel plans on taking the family to Cuba for Christmas vacation.

Forget about impeaching or recalling him. Like Florida, Illinois has no such laws that would allow that to happen.

Rahm still has 3 1/2 years to run Chicago, the nation’s third largest city. Good luck to him, and more importantly, the citizens of Chicago.

In other news …

Kathy Castor has become the latest Democrat to call on Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan to call off upcoming hearings investigating Planned Parenthood, days after the shootings at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facility.

• • •

Legislation that would regulate fracking in Florida advanced in the state House of Representatives yesterday, despite the fact that nearly every public speaker denounced the idea of it.

• • •

Pinellas County voters may remember the name of retired brigadier general Mark Bircher, who ran finished third in the Republican primary for the CD 13 seat in the winter of 2014, behind David Jolly and Kathleen Peters. Bircher becomes the only Republican to enter the contest to date.

• • •

Hillsborough County Commissioners gave the go-ahead in backing the official effort to try to persuade the NFL owners to choose Tampa as a place to host a Super Bowl in 2019 or 2020.

• • •

Charlie Crist is psyched after hearing the Florida Supreme Court affirm Circuit Judge Terry Lewis selection of a new congressional map, including in CD 13.

• • •

And it was quite a public discussion on Tuesday night in Tampa, as the Hillsborough County Charter Review Board heard LGBT supporters and opponents, as they came together to oppose putting a human rights ordinance including the LGBT community on the 2016 ballot.

After Colorado Springs killings, Kathy Castor calls on Paul Ryan to disband Planned Parenthood probe

Tampa Bay area U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is the latest Democrat to ask House Speaker Paul D. Ryan to disband the select committee investigating Planned Parenthood. She argues in a letter addressed to the speaker that GOP-rhetoric-incited anger toward the group led in part to Friday’s deadly shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.

Citing the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s findings this week that Planned Parenthood clinics in Florida had not broken the law, the fifth-term congresswoman said videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue were “doctored” and “distorted.” She also mentioned last week’s incident in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that left three dead.

“We look no further than the horrific tragedy that occurred in Colorado Springs last week to understand how such provocative speech can lead to great harm,” she wrote. “I respectfully request that you end this unnecessary and harmful attack on women’s health that will surely lead to further incendiary rhetoric and who knows what else.”

This past weekend, California U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer was the first Democrat to demand that Ryan call off the select committee investigation into Planned Parenthood. On Tuesday, six Democrats on the select committee — Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Diana DeGette of Colorado, Suzan K. DelBene of Washington, Jerrold Nadler of New York, Jackie Speier of California, and Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey — also sent a letter to Ryan asking him to disband the panel.

Even before last week’s tragedy, Democrats have been calling the upcoming hearings unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer dollars, pointing out that three standing congressional committees have found no evidence of wrongdoing and maintaining that the undercover videos that sparked the investigations were manipulated.

Authorities in Colorado have not said publicly that the issue of abortion motivated suspect Robert Lewis Dear, but a law enforcement official has been widely quoted as saying the suspect said, “No more baby parts,” after his arrest.

Ryan’s office has said there’s no plan to dismantle the committee.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told the Los Angeles Times that the select committee is necessary to “get to the bottom” of the statements captured on the videos.

“You’ve got a bipartisan [committee], so you can get the truth out and everybody will have the ability to put their ideas in, but at the end you’ll be able to get the truth,” McCarthy said Tuesday.

Mark Bircher becomes the first Republican to enter CD 13 contest

Mark Bircher has filed paperwork to run for the 13th Congressional District seat in 2016, becoming the first Republican to do so. He’s the retired Marine Corps Reserve brigadier general who finished third in the district’s Republican primary in early 2014 to succeed the late Bill Young.

The 62-year-old Seminole resident and commercial airline pilot had never run for political office until he entered the special primary election in late 2013. He lost to David Jolly with about 25 percent of the vote. State Rep. Kathleen Peters finished in second place.

If the odds were formidable against Bircher last year, the challenge will grow after Wednesday’s Florida Supreme Court decision validating new district lines that make it a much more Democratic-friendly seat. That was a major factor for Jolly’s decision this year to skip a re-election bid to instread run for U.S. Senate.

Bircher’s politics are very conservative. He’s passionate to reduce federal spending.

“The states created the federal government for one purpose: to serve the interest of the states,” he said in 2013. “Printing money, common defense, foreign policy, and the post office.”

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has been said to be considering running for the seat on the Republican side. He’s expected to decide by next month.

Any Republican who comes out of the Aug. 30 primary likely will be considered an underdog in the race, based on how much more Democratic-leaning the district is expected be with the new CD 13 map.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist and Eric Lynn, a former adviser in the Pentagon for President Barack Obama, have already declared their candidacies for the Democratic nomination.

Attempts to speak with Bircher on Wednesday were unsuccessful. An official close to him told FloridaPolitics.com that he’s out of town, to return next week.

Charlie Crist hails Florida Supreme Court’s approval of new congressional map

The Florida Supreme Court gave its blessing gave its blessing Wednesday to a congressional districts map that was picked by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis back in October.

The high court had ruled in July that the Legislature gerrymandered eight of the state’s 27 congressional districts in violation of the 2012 Fair District amendments. It ordered lawmakers to come up with a new map within 100 days. However, the Legislature failed to do so, something justices said Wednesday that they “did not anticipate.”

Lewis considered seven different maps that were submitted to him. He ultimately chose the one submitted by the League of Women Voters and other groups whose lawsuit initiated the dispute.

The Fair District amendments passed in 2010 by the Florida electorate mandated that congressional and state legislative districts would be drawn without favor or disfavor to a political party or an incumbent, without  racial or language discrimination, and that districts would consist of contiguous territory.

In its elaborate ruling, the Supreme Court kept the map verified by Lewis.

In the Tampa Bay area, the 13th Congressional District will stay to the Pinellas County side of the Bay and be more Democratic leaning, and Kathy Castor’s CD 14 seat will be a little less.

Charlie Crist, running in the Democratic primary in CD 13 and considered the odds-on favorite, was delighted to hear the news.

“There’s no place like home, especially a home with fair congressional districts like we now have in Pinellas County,” he said in a prepared statement. “The people’s voice will finally be whole, loud, and clear when we fight for fair wages, new jobs, equality, education, and protecting our shorelines.”

The new map redraws the 5th Congressional District, now held by Democrat Corinne Brown, from a north-south district into an east-west one.

That cuts into U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham‘s 2nd District, excising much of Graham’s Democratic base in Gadsden, Jefferson and Leon counties. Her district would keep most of Tallahassee, her hometown. Graham has maintained that she will continue to run for the seat, which will be much more Republican leaning.

The 10th Congressional District held by Republican Dan Webster becomes much more Democratic in composition.

Republican John Mica’s 7th Congressional District seat becomes more Democratic, but analysts don’t expect  it to hurt his re-election chances.

The Supreme Court is limiting the time for filing a motion for rehearing or clarification to five days from Wednesday, and three days for a response from the date the motion is filed.

In separate opinion, Justice James E.C. Perry wrote that with Florida being such a competitive state electorally, it suggests that its member of Congress should be split relatively evenly between the two parties. “Yet, the Republican Party holds a virtual supermajority,” he writes. “The Republican political advantage is, in large part, a result of the party’s influence on the redrawing of boundary lines.”

Justice Charles Canady wrote a fiery dissent.

“Although I do not suggest that the majority intends to act arbitrarily, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the deeply flawed approach adopted here – as in Apportionment VII – does serious harm to the judicial process,” Canady wrote. “The result of the daunting burden placed on the Legislature is that the challengers – whose motivations have been immune from scrutiny – have been virtually guaranteed to prevail in obtaining the approval of a map that suits them. It is highly problematic that the nontransparent process used to produce CP-1 (the map favored by the League of Women Voters) thus has been allowed to trump the process in the Legislature that was implemented after Apportionment VII was handed down.”

Bill that would regulate fracking in Florida advances in state House

A bill that would create a new regulatory framework in Florida for the controversial practice known as fracking  passed a House panel Wednesday, despite overwhelming public testimony against it.

The House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee approved the bill (HB 191), filed by Estero Republican Rep. Ray Rodrigues and Rep. Cary Pigman, an Avon Park Republican, on a 9-3 vote.

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting water, sand and chemicals underground to create fractures in rock formations, allowing natural gas and oil to be released. The bill would set up a state permitting process for fracking and require oil and gas companies to register the chemicals they use on a national website. And it would set aside $1 million for a study on the impact of fracking.

Representative Rodrigues said the study would intend to answer five questions about hydraulic fracturing:

  • What is the effect on the underground structure?
  • What is the impact on ground and surface water
  • What will happen to the use and reuse of recycled water
  • What is an appropriate setback from an abandoned well. How far away do you have to be
  • What to do with well stimulation fluid

The bill would also pre-empt local control, a major factor in why 20 counties and nearly 40 cities in the state have passed regulations banning fracking. “You’re taking away home rule,” complained Deborah Johnson.

The bill would also require the companies to inform the state Department of Environmental Protection of chemicals they inject into the ground — but after the fact, not before, which is a problem, said Madison resident John Dicker.

Despite those concerns, amended language of HB 191 does include a provision for chemicals injected to be listed in the application submitted to the department:

“In addition to providing such information … as part of the permitting process, a service provider, vendor, or well owner or operator shall report, by 670 department rule, to the department, at a minimum …. Each chemical ingredient that is subject to 29 C.F.R. s. 1910.1200(g)(2) and the ingredient concentration in the high-pressure well stimulation fluid by mass for each well on which a high-pressure well stimulation is performed.”

Kim Ross, from Rethink Energy Florida and a former DEP staffer, said that the DEP would not have sufficient time or money to conduct an adequate study. “If the project could be done primarily in-house, DEP would have already begun this task,” she told lawmakers. “So it seems to me that DEP will outsource a good portion of that study, and that is why HB 191 allocates a million dollars.” She added that the agency won’t get the money until mid-March probably, and then will have to go through the process of hiring an independent vendor that will take several months.

Fracking has actually occurred previously in Florida. A well in Collier County was successfully drilled in 2013 by the Dan A. Hughes Company, who was later fined $25,000 for violating its permit.

One Republican on the committee who supported the bill, Vero Beach’s Debbie Mayfield, said she still had a number of concerns about the proposal, and reserved her right to oppose the measure when it comes to the entire House next year.

Republicans Ray Pilon from Sarasota and Neil Combee from Lakeland both said that if needed, they would support giving the DEP more than the $1 million listed in the bill for a study.

Miami Democrat Jose Rodriguez said he was very opposed to the legislation.

“In my view, passing this bill would effectively lay out a welcome mat for the fracking industry, ” he said. “I the effect is 100 percent opposed to what I believe what my constituents, which is no fracking in Florida.”

There is a Senate companion bill being sponsored by Naples Republican Garrett Richter.

 Editor note: The article has been updated to reflect amended wording of HB 191.

Mitch Perry Report for 12.2.15 – Here’s Hillary … and her plan to begin fixing our infrastructure needs

A new national Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday morning shows Hillary Clinton walking away with the Democratic nomination for president, about two months before the Iowa caucuses. Clinton leads Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders by 30 percentage points, 60-30 percent.

No doubt Clinton enthusiasts will be reveling in that new nugget when they gather Wednesday afternoon in Orlando for a speech she’s scheduled to give at 1 p.m. She’s expected to speak in-depth about her plan to fix the country’s infrastructure issues, fleshing out the ideas she unveiled Monday. Her five-year, $275 billion plan intends to build and repair not only roads and bridges but also address the nation’s needs with public transit, freight rail, airports, broadband Internet, and water systems. It’s the most expensive domestic policy proposal she’s made to date, and it comes simultaneously with Congress apparently finally coming together to pass such an infrastructure bill.

Congressional leaders in D.C. said Tuesday that the $300 billion FAST ACT will provide “long-term certainty for states and local governments” as well as “improvements to the programs that sustain our roads bridges and passenger rail system.”

However, The New York Times reports that the bill doesn’t address the shortfall in financing for the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which has been dwindling for years because it relies on the federal gas tax.

Interestingly, Clinton’s program fails to deal with this as well, since nobody wants to talk about raising taxes in an election year – or any year, in this era.

In other news …

Speaking of Clinton’s two-day fundraising swirl in Florida, the Republican National Committee took a shot at the hostess of her first stop in Miami Beach.

• • •

On World AIDS Day, the city of Tampa unveiled its new and improved AIDS Memorial Park.

• • •

Tampa denizens woke up to the news that excited some, and no doubt bored others, but hey, Channelside is getting a Publix!

• • •

Pinellas County U.S. Rep. David Jolly was scheduled to take his delayed honeymoon to Paris — right after the terrorist attacks occurred. He and his new wife went anyway … read his take here.

• • •

And might we get rid of the 140-year-plus law in Florida banning unmarried couples from living together? 

Bill to repeal shacking up ban unanimously passes in committee

Florida is one of only three states that still has a law on the books prohibiting men and women from living together if they are not married. Attempts in 2011 and again in this year’s regular Legislative Session to repeal it failed, but Hollywood Democratic state Sen. Eleanor Sobel hopes it finally will happen in 2016.

On Tuesday the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to support Sobel’s proposal (SB 498).

The law now states that a couple found to be “living in sin” could be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor that could result in a $500 fine or 60 days in a local jail.

The law was written in 1868.

“Times have changed,” Sobel told the committee. “Currently, over half-a-million couples in Florida are breaking this law as we speak. The government should not intrude in the private lives of two consenting adults.”

The bill is moving forward in the House as well, where it’s being sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vaslinda of Tallahassee, HB 4003.

However, there has been opposition there to a repeal. In September, Republican Reps. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, Ross Spano of Riverview, and Charles Van Zant of Palatka were the only members of the 13-member The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee subcommittee who voted against the bill, citing moral reasons.

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