Takeaways from Tallahassee — the “Hamlet, Magna Carta, and MMA” edition

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Borrowing from the Bard: “To (fill in the blank), or not to (fill in the blank), that is the question.”

The week-that-was was filled with a fair amount of false starts, delays and Hamletian indecision.

To name a handful, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham still hasn’t decided whether to run again for her 2nd Congressional District seat. The Tallahassee Democrat’s district was redrawn into a heavily Republican one, making it nigh impossible for her to retake.

Graham, though, is hanging her hopes on a reversal via a Hail Mary lawsuit from U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown that contends the recent political redistricting is against federal voting law. Good luck with that.

Lawmakers still hadn’t figured out allocations to kick off the annual budget conference process. “There is still a great deal to be worked out,” House Speaker Steve Crisafulli told members Thursday. “Therefore, we will not begin conference this weekend. It is my hope that we will begin conference early next week.”

ahaahaAnd the Seminole Compact is idling because, after the Regulated Industries Committee piled on a plethora of amendments, Senate President Andy Gardiner was unclear – and rightly so – about the financial impact of all the changes. “We probably have to get some revenue estimating numbers to find out,” he said.

Before the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster, Jim Rosica, and Peter Schorsch, here’s the “Takeaway 5” – the top five stories from the week that was:

1. Lawmakers at odds over gambling — The Florida Senate made progress on the gambling issue this week. Lawmakers OK’d the $3 billion Seminole Compact, and signed off on changes that would, among other things, expand slot machines beyond South Florida. Whether the proposal goes anywhere remains up in the air. Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, the Miami Republican who chairs the House Regulatory Affairs Committee, said the Senate proposal would “probably cause a riot” in the House.

2. Budget negotiations on hold — Go home. That’s the message House and Senate leaders sent when they announced budget conferences wouldn’t start this weekend. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli told members in an email he hoped negotiations would begin early next week.

3. Relief is on the way — The state House Health and Human Services Committee voted 17-0 to approve an expansion of medical marijuana. The proposal expands the state’s Right to Try Act, and opens the door for more dispensing organizations in the future. The proposal now heads to the House, and a similar Senate proposal is scheduled for a hearing by the full Senate on Tuesday. The Department of Health also recently gave cultivation approval to the first of five dispensing organizations.

4. Education issues clear House — The state House cleared several bills this week dealing with the state’s education system. Among the proposed bills was one that allows parents to enroll their children in any public school in the state and a proposal that requires public schools to have 20 minutes of recess each day.

5 . Education bills dead in the Senate — If your education bill hasn’t gotten its first hearing in the Senate Education PreK-12 Committee, it’s most likely dead. Sen. John Legg, the committee chairman, said the panel won’t meet again this session. Among the bills stuck in Legg’s education committee: A bill by Sen. Jeff Brandes that allowed school districts to be broken up; a bill guaranteeing teachers a $50,000 minimum salary by Sen. Darren Soto; and the Senate version of the mandatory recess bill.

• • •

While we’re on the subject of Graham, we should mention her Wednesday announcement that her office is returning more than $150,000 in unused office money to reduce the federal deficit.

“I believe members of Congress have a responsibility to set an example for the entire government to cut spending,” Graham said in a statement. “Reducing our office budget and returning $150,000 is just a start.”

More like a drop in the bucket: The deficit for 2016 is estimated at $544 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, meaning Graham’s contribution covers about 0.00002 percent.

“Deficit reduction has been a priority of Rep. Graham’s since taking office,” a news release said, mentioning a bipartisan bill to ban members from flying first class, and legislation requiring members of Congress to return their pay if the government shuts down.”

• • •

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s trip to Martin County this month took a bit of a nasty turn.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 12.57.00 PMPutnam was scheduled to be the feature speaker at an Economic Development Council of Martin County dinner. When he rolled up to the event’s location, he was greeted by dozens of angry protesters demanding the state stop releasing water from the rain-swollen Lake Okeechobee into the Indian River Lagoon.

Putnam is shown trying to talk to the protesters, but can’t be heard over the shouts.

Protesters could be heard chanting and shouting things like “we just want clean water” in a YouTube video uploaded on Feb. 11. They’re also heard shouting “you won’t be governor” and “bullsh*t” as Putnam tries to explain why the releases need to happen.

In the video, Putnam appears to ignore shouts from the people, instead trying to talk to several people who approach him. Putnam spends at least five minutes talking to the crowd before walking away.

• • •

Even during the heady days of Legislative Session, with all-important budget conference negotiations looming, Senate President-designate Joe Negron found time for a moment of levity.

Speaking at an annual Broward County Days event hosted by business law and lobbying firm Gunster, where Negron practices law, the president-to-be brought down the house with a joke about redistricting, until recently a sore subject for the Stuart Republican.

Negron introduced fellow Republican state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, mentioning she represents the Fort Myers area. Benacquisto was quick to add: “I grew up in Broward County!”

“With redistricting, you never know what county you’re going to represent,” was Negron’s riposte. “So I’d like to say hi to all my potential friends in Melbourne.”

• • •

Lawmakers won’t be getting a salary bump this year. The Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee on Tuesday shot down a proposal by Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner that would have bumped up lawmakers’ salaries by nearly 69 percent.

shutterstock_316994183The Tampa Democrat’s proposal would have raised House and Senate members’ salaries from $29,600 to $50,000 a year. Presiding officers would have received a 39 percent bump, from $41,100 to $57,000. Joyner told lawmakers the goal was to diversify the membership.

“We have a lot of intelligent, bright and wealthy people in the Legislature,” she said. “There are a dearth of folks from where the rubber meets the road, the ones who have the inability to get elected because they can’t afford to leave their jobs because this job won’t pay enough.”

The boost, Joyner argued, could mean more everyday people could be in the Legislature, instead of just the wealthy. About a third of lawmakers are millionaires. About half the Senate members are considered millionaires, while about a quarter of the House members are members of the millionaires’ club, according to campaign finance reports filed last year.

By comparison, the median household income in Florida in 2014 was $47,212, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey’s five year estimates. In 2013, a Tampa Tribune report found attorneys, Realtors and developers, and business executives were the top 3 occupations for lawmakers. At the time, 11 members said they were in an education field.

Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Cutler Bay Democrat and a Miami-area teacher, was the only committee member to vote for the pay-raise measure.

“I understand where Sen. Joyner is coming from, but I disagree with the premise that it will create a more diverse Legislature,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican.

• • •

The Seminole Tribe of Florida is keeping the heat on lawmakers to pass the new Seminole Compact with a mailer going out statewide “to over 100,000 customers, vendors, community leaders and supporters,” a spokeswoman said Monday.

The address side of the card reads, “Promises were made to Florida’s students, seniors, and families … Those promises were kept, even during the recession.”

On the flip side, readers are reminded of the tribe’s $1 billion paid to the state since 2010 in return for exclusive rights to offer blackjack at its casinos around the state. That provision expired last year and must be re-negotiated.

“Today, the State Legislature can approve a proposed new Compact (that) guarantees $3 billion in revenues to the state, nearly 20,000 new Florida jobs and a cap on gaming that protects Florida’s family-friendly image,” the tribe postcard says.

With passage of the deal still iffy, the Tribe has waged a PR campaign that also includes a 60-second TV spot, highlighting a group of casino workers who the Tribe is threatening to lay off if lawmakers don’t OK the new deal.

• • •

Making Florida’s Secretary of State a Cabinet level position might actually be a big deal, but you’d hardly know it if you were sitting in the Florida Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability hearing on Tuesday afternoon.

The bill (SJR 1424), proposed by Fernandina Beach Republican Aaron Bean, would put the issue to the voters by making it a constitutional amendment to provide for the election of the Secretary of State.

However, there was absolutely no debate on the issue, and it was passed 3-1 in the committee, with Chairman Jeremy Ring the only dissenter.

The measure, if passed, would go back to the future. In 1998, Florida voters voted to amend the state constitution to shrink the Cabinet from six to its current three members, including the Secretary of State position. Along with the Education Commissioner, it became an appointed position under the governor.

In that same 1998 measure, the Comptroller and the position of Insurance Commissioner/Treasurer/Fire Marshal were combined into the Chief Financial Officer position.

• • •

A new public records exemption passed by lawmakers for mixed martial-arts TV shows is another feather in the cap of lobbyist Jeff Johnston, who reps Ultimate Fighting Championship, the premier MMA promoter.

shutterstock_277418981The relationship between the two goes back several years, to when UFC questioned what it considered an outdated “closed-circuit television” tax the state charged for some of UFC’s pay-per-view programming. “We got it repealed,” Johnston said.

He also worked on a recent rewrite of Florida’s boxing code to accommodate newer forms of fighting like MMA, or “unarmed combat sports.” That rewrite came with a public-records component, but a glitch in the drafting meant the results of competitions in the state’s possession were public records. In other words, someone could discover and leak the results before a fight is aired.

At issue most recently was a reality series called “TUF: The Ultimate Fighter,” in which aspiring MMA fighters compete for a UFC contract. The last season was lensed in Coral Gables, which has some of the most famed MMA training camps, Johnston said.

He wanted the loophole closed to ensure UFC continues to put on fights in the state. A big show is planned for April in Tampa. The company “views Florida as a great state to film its shows,” said Johnston, who’s also an MMA fan. Gov. Rick Scott still must approve the exemption.

• • •

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida made several visits around the Capitol Wednesday, including a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting. The 73-year-old Democrat touched on several issues, including Medicaid expansion and redistricting, that are important to the base.

He even apologized to the group for Congress’ inability to pass meaningful reforms.

Bill Nelson“I have to live with the ridiculousness,” he said, shifting to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. “Take the stunning news of the justice’s death, which had only been out just a few minutes and the Republican majority leader (Mitch McConnell of Kentucky) says, ‘We’re not gonna even consider a president’s nominee.’ You know, these people who drape themselves in the flag and claim they’re constitutionalists. You know what the Constitution says? The president nominates and the Senate confirms or not.”

(What the Constitution actually says is that the president “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls (and) Judges of the Supreme Court.”)

Nelson said President Barack Obama should nominate a successor, and according to The New York Times, the rest of Congress’ Democratic senators agree.

Also, speaking with reporters after meeting with Commissioner Adam Putnam to discuss the state’s legal “water wars” with neighboring Georgia and Alabama, Nelson chided the Legislature’s GOP majority for pursuing an “upside-down” policy agenda on water and the budget.

Florida’s senior senator also waded into the ongoing Democratic presidential primary between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont’s U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

• • •

In the umpteenth strange-political-bedfellow moment of the 2016 Session, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida “congratulated” state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican, “for his courageous stance against using immigrants in political posturing.”

The ACLU issued a statement Wednesday.

“His vow to prevent anti-immigrant legislation from moving through the Florida Senate positions him as a defender of our Constitution and a champion of what makes America great,” said Michelle Richardson, ACLU of Florida’s director of Public Policy.

(For those watching at home, blocking legislation is normally what critics call “obstructionism.” When it’s done for a cause one supports, especially by someone going against their own party, it’s “courageous.”)

“SB 872 and its companion, HB 675, which passed the Florida House, would have wasted precious law enforcement resources on warrantless detentions of immigrants,” the release said, calling them “unconstitutional detainer requests.”

That’s not the first time the Senator known as “DLP” has pushed back against a Republican priority this Session: He also blocked a bill that would allow concealed weapons on public college and university campuses.

• • •

A leading House Democrat on Wednesday called a political compromise to fix Florida’s death penalty regime “a big step forward.”

State Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, spoke with reporters after a House floor session.

The deal between House and Senate GOP leadership would change Florida law to require at least 10 of 12 jurors to agree on a death sentence or the defendant would get life in prison without the possibility of early release. Florida has relied on a seven-juror majority (out of 12) to recommend death, with the judge making the final decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated that procedure in an 8-1 decision last month. It remains to be seen whether Gov. Rick Scott will agree with the proposal.

As Rodriguez said, “Does this fix all the potential problems with our death penalty? It does not.” But, he added, the legislation addresses the biggest legal challenges facing the state’s capital punishment system.

• • •

The state House Health and Human Services Committee cracked the door to allow more medical marijuana dispensing organizations in Florida.

charlottes-web-marijuanaUnder a proposal (HB 307) approved Wednesday, the state Department of Health can approve three additional dispensing organizations once there are at least 250,000 registered patients in the state. But the bill tweaks how the organizations are chosen, in part by eliminating a requirement that nurseries must have been in operation for 30 years.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Fort Walton Beach Republican sponsoring the bill, said he received feedback that there were “predatory lending practices” in place 30 years ago that disadvantaged African-Americans. Removing that requirement may help those farmers who are interested in cultivating medical marijuana.

The bill now heads to the full House for approval.

• • •

The Department of Economic Opportunity will have more tools to fight unemployment fraud under a proposal moving through the Florida Senate.

The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee on Tuesday approved a proposal (SB 1216) that gives the DEO access to a drivers license and photo identification database to check unemployment befits applications. The measure also increases penalties for those people who commit fraud and puts unemployment benefit fraud under the state’s anti-racketeering law.

The Senate panel removed language from the bill that would have allowed DEO to hire law enforcement officers to investigate, enforce and prosecute fraud. According to LobbyTools Legislative IQ, the proposal is now more closely aligned with the House proposal (HB 1017).

The Senate proposal, sponsored by Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel, still has two more committee hearings before it heads to the Senate floor.

• • •

Sen. Aaron Bean told the Senate Health Policy Committee that Florida can have savings and quality, after impassioned pleas from community pharmacy owners, or “mom and pops” in Bean lingo, being pushed out of Medicaid Managed Care Plans, sometimes without notice. 

Pharmacy Choice and Access Now is leading an effort to put an end to hour-long commutes for some patients to get the medication they need. It’s an especially important issue for rural communities and will probably deserve at least a study this year, and real action next year.

Thirty-one states already protect patients, Florida is probably next. Ryan Ray has the full workshop recap.

• • •

The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops held their 41st annual Red Mass of the Holy Spirit on Wednesday evening, the culmination of Catholic Days at the Capitol.

Dozens of bishops, priests and other ecclesiastical officials led a special Mass for “the Courts and the Law,” echoing a tradition of a Mass focused on political and legal institutions that originates from the Holy Roman Empire.

Gov. Rick Scott was in attendance at St. Thomas More Catholic Church near Florida State University in Tallahassee, as were Miami Sens. Anitere Flores and Rene Garcia, and Broward Rep. George Moraitis among others.

Earlier in the day, dozens of red-clad Roman Catholic citizen-lobbyists roamed the halls of the Capitol meeting with lawmakers and testifying in hearings to promote their priorities. Throughout the day, representatives testified in favor of restricting capital punishment, prohibiting state funding to abortion providers, and an effort to strengthen religious exemptions to same-sex marriage laws.

• • •

A bill that would ease eligibility requirements to play in high school athletics breezed through the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday and could be on the floor soon.

It’s one of several bills aimed at the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA), which oversees 32 male and female high-school sports.

The measure (SB 684) OK’d Thursday is sponsored by Republican state Sens. Don Gaetz of Niceville, a former schools superintendent, and Kelli Stargel of Lakeland. Stargel has said her constituents have long complained to her about problems their children have had being eligible, for instance, when they switched schools but didn’t move from their home.

The bill also toughens enforcement against recruiting, which is against state law at the high school level, creating $5,000 pay forfeitures, work suspensions, and even revocations of teaching certificates for those found liable.

This is the fifth year in a row the Legislature has considered various FHSAA reforms, including bills filed last Session that would have done away with the group altogether.

• • •

State lawmakers are taking steps toward establishing a Holocaust memorial at the Capitol. The House State Affairs committee approved a proposal (HB 513) that establishes the Florida Holocaust Memorial.

HolocaustThe measure, sponsored by Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat, directs the Department of Management Services to develop a plan for design, placement and cost of a memorial. It also calls on the department to find an appropriate place for the memorial at the Capitol Complex.

“As soon as there are no witnesses left to what happened, as soon as there are no people left with tattoos on their arms, what’s going to happen is people are going to undermine the story,” Moskowitz said.

“So the only thing we can do is to try to teach what happened, continue to remind people what happened, so history cannot be changed in our textbooks and in the teaching of our children.”

The bill passed the House committee unanimously. A similar Senate proposal (SB 716), sponsored by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, passed the Senate unanimously on Feb. 11.

• • •

The Senate is moving a bill that would allow nurse-practitioners to prescribe controlled substances. SB 676 last passed the Appropriations Committee unanimously.

Also, the bill is named after Barbara Lumpkin, a nurse since 1958 who has represented nursing interests for 35 years before the Florida Legislature. An amendment to the bill provides a short title for the section of the “Nurse Practice Act” as it applies to advanced registered nurse practitioners, or ARNPs, that recognizes Lumpkin’s advocacy.

The bill, a version of which was first filed in 1993, expands what is known as a “scope of practice.” It would not, however, allow the “prescribing of psychotropic medications for children under 18 years of age, unless prescribed by an ARNP who is a psychiatric nurse,” and does not extend to “prescrib(ing) controlled substances in a pain management clinic.”

• • •

Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday announced more judicial appointments, including Michael S. Williams to the Hillsborough County Court and Jennifer Taylor to the 18th Judicial Circuit.

Williams, 43, of Valrico, is special counsel for the Office of Statewide Prosecution. He previously practiced with Bales Weinstein P.A. in 2006, McLean & Cardillo P.A. from 2002-2006, and Rubin, Fortunato & Harbison P.C. from 2000-2002.

Taylor, 57, of Cocoa Beach, is a general magistrate and hearing officer for the 18th Circuit. She previously practiced with the Law Office of Freyberg and Taylor from 2003-2004, the Brevard County Guardian Ad Litem Program from 2000-2002, and the Law Office of Thomas H. Yardley from 1997-2003.

• • •

As the Florida Legislature tinkers with the law during the annual Legislative Session, starting this week the Florida Supreme Court highlighting the granddaddy of them all: the Magna Carta.

Magna_charta_cum_statutis_angliae_p1An exhibit called “Magna Carta: Enduring Legacy 1215-2015” takes viewers through the twists and turns the law has taken since its enactment by King John in 1215 to make peace with rebellious noblemen until today, where it is cherished as central to modern civil liberties.

There’s always a Florida connection – even when it comes to 13th century English law.

The exhibit explores the influence of Sir Edmund Coke and his idiosyncratic interpretation of the law as the sole, shining source of the writ of habeas corpus outstripped the reality of the limited compact made under duress. Some observers, such as T.D. Allman in his book “Finding Florida,” argue Sunshine State real estate and tourism boosters have whitewashed the state’s brutal history into that of a family-friendly vacation and retirement Xanadu which was always inevitable.

Perception of the Magna Carta, you could say, has supplanted reality, a ubiquitous trope in Florida history.

The exhibit is sponsored by the Library of Congress, the Law Library of Congress, and the American Bar Association. It runs until Feb. 26 in the main corridor of the Florida Supreme Court.

• • •

When Lori Berman returns to Tallahassee, she might have a stack of co-sponsor requests waiting for her.

On Thursday, state Rep. Patrick Rooney, a West Palm Beach Republican, asked lawmakers to consider signing on as a co-sponsor of a bill that creates standards for educational interpreters for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. The request came at the end of a moving speech where he praised Berman, who is home in Palm Beach County recovering from a mastectomy.

“For those of you who don’t know Lori too well, she sits back here near Rep. Cruz. She’s probably all of 5 feet tall, but she’s absolutely one of the toughest people I’ve ever met. She will go to the mat on women’s issues, on kids issues and disabled issues. This is the stuff Lori takes pride in,”  Rooney said.

Rooney said he decided to co-sponsor the bill early in the process. He said Berman approached him after he signed on as a co-sponsor saying she may need some help with the bill. When she approached him a few weeks later and told him what was wrong, Rooney said he didn’t “really hear much else” after she said the words “cancer and mastectomy.” But he said Berman grabbed him, asked him if he was OK and then told him she needed him to get it to the finish line.


“If you don’t know her, when she gets back next week, it would absolutely make you a better person if you went over and introduced yourself and talked to her a little bit. She’s a great attribute to this body,” he said. “And as a favor to me, what I’d like to do is if you can … during the next week before Lori comes back, go to your co-sponsor management and ask to co-sponsor this bill. I think the greatest present we can give here when she comes back is to have about 100 co-sponsor approval requests to show we support her.”

BERMAN_1Berman took to Twitter shortly after the House voted 114-0 and thanked Rooney for his “thoughtful words and for presenting HB 70 on my behalf.”

“Grateful for my supportive colleagues and for the bill’s passage,” she tweeted.

 • • •

On Thursday evening, the team at Sachs Media Group surprised founder and CEO with a block party on Adams Street to celebrate the firm’s 20th anniversary. Nick Iarossi helped make it a surprise by inviting Ron Sachs to a fake meeting at his office with a prospective client. That was just a ruse to get Sachs to head from his office down the block to Adams and College, accompanied by Herbie Thiele and Drew Piers, where the street was blocked off for the party, catered by Andrew’s, for which the classic rock band The Bushmen performed. SPOTTED in the crowd were: T.K. and Ginger Wetherell; Fred Baggett of GreenbergTraurig, Dr. Ann McGee, president of Seminole State College; Sue Dick, president, Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce; Dave Coburn, Chief of Staff to FSU President John ThrasherBryan Anderson of HCA Healthcare, Public Service Commissioner Lisa EdgarNeil SkeneBob Asztalos of the Florida Health Care Association; Mike Sittig, Executive Director, Florida League of Cities; John Thomas; Steve Uhlfelder; Allison Aubuchon of the Foundation for Excellence in Education; Greg Black; and Capitol Press Corps members Jessica Bakeman, Steve Bousquet, and Arek Sarkissian.

 • • •

Capitol Directions -2.20.16

Peter Schorsch

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including Florida Politics and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Schorsch is also the publisher of INFLUENCE Magazine. For several years, Peter's blog was ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.


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