Takeaways from Tallahassee — A ‘travesty’ in Tallahassee?
Historic Capital Building in Tallahassee Florida with the new Capital building in the background.

Historic Tallahassee Florida Capital Building

A coalition of progressive and open government organizations is again taking the state’s Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) to task, this time for “glaring examples of rule violations” and calling the panel’s conduct “a travesty.”

Leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Florida First Amendment Foundation, the League of Women Voters Florida and others wrote a letter to CRC Chairman Carlos Beruff, an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott, this week.

“Commissioners seem to be working to advance proposals that impact their own interests or those of paying clients,” it said. “Also, open meeting rules are simply being ignored. And basic meeting procedures established by the CRC have been violated.”

Commissioner Brecht Heuchan faces criticism over the CRC process.

For example, the letter says “one commissioner who is a paid lobbyist for a law firm has filed a proposal that — while highly beneficial for the people of Florida — could create an economic benefit for that law firm.”

Commissioner Brecht Heuchan has lobbied for Wilkes & McHugh, “a law firm that makes its living suing nursing homes,” as the Florida Health Care Association, a nursing-home advocacy group, put it. Heuchan filed a proposed amendment creating a “bill of rights” for nursing home and assisted living facility residents.

The groups also took issue with apparent wheeling and dealing to save a proposal in the commission’s Education Committee, saying “discussions behind the scenes … outside of public view” violated the commission’s openness rules.

“The message the CRC is sending to the citizens of Florida is coming through loud and clear,” the letter says. “If rules of procedures and codes of conduct get in the way of proposals that are part of a preordained outcome of this commission — they will be ignored.

“Floridians deserve better,” it added. The full letter is here.

“Commissioners are hard at work holding open and transparent public meetings to consider proposals, the majority of which represent ideas submitted by the public,” said CRC spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice in an email. “Commissioners hold themselves to a high standard and are following the same rules as the previous commission in 1997-1998.”

The commission will meet again in committees next week in the Capitol.

Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Ana Ceballos, Jim Rosica, Danny McAuliffe, Andrew Wilson and Peter Schorsch.

But first, the “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:

Democrats in the red — Ahead of what is expected to be a busy 2018 election year, the account Florida Democrats use to fund federal campaigns is out of money, according to Federal Elections Commission records. At the beginning of the year, the Florida Democratic Party’s federal account had $383,439 in the bank. By late October, it was more than $18,490 in the red. The federal account started hemorrhaging money during the brief tenure of now ousted Stephen Bittel, a millionaire Democratic donor selected under the promise of boosting the Party’s fundraising efforts and finances.

Down goes Ritch Workman — After Republican state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto publicly accused Ritch Workman, a Gov. Rick Scott appointee to the Public Service Commission, of making vulgar and inappropriate comments to her at a charity event last year, he said he is no longer pursuing the post. “I found his conduct to be abhorrent. As such, I will not agenda his appointment to the Public Service Commission for a hearing in the Senate Committee on Rules,” Benacquisto said. Workman told POLITICO he does not remember the incident, but offered his resignation and an apology to Scott. The governor said he supports his decision to resign, adding that “any misconduct cannot be tolerated.”

Book files Latvala complaint Lauren Book, a Democratic state senator and child sexual abuse survivor who founded “Lauren’s Kids,”  filed a formal complaint against Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican facing a sexual harassment probe in the Senate. She alleged that Latvala violated Senate rules by aggressively going after one of his accuser who went public, Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers. She has accused Latvala of groping her and using degrading language to describe her body over a four-year period.

Florida top ‘judicial hellhole’ — Florida takes the top spot among the states in more than a few lists, but it earned a “distinction” from the American Tort Reform Association which said the Sunshine State was the No. 1 “Judicial Hellhole” in the country. Florida was one of eight states or judicial districts getting a write up in 2017-2018 Judicial Hellholes, earning the top spot in the ring of dishonor alongside courts in California, St. Louis, New York City, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Illinois and Louisiana.

Holiday display season starts — An “educational display of the astronomy causing the winter solstice” is the first holiday display to gain approval this year for the Florida Capitol rotunda. A poster sponsored by the First Coast Freethought Society of Jacksonville, is approved for display Dec. 15-22. Nina Ashley, spokeswoman for the Department of Management Services, the state’s real estate manager, said it was the only request for a display received thus far for the 2017 holiday season. Every year, groups have sought to place various exhibits in the plaza-level rotunda of the Capitol during the holiday season.

House Democrats keeping track

The House Democratic Caucus gave a rundown of bills making committee agendas during the committee weeks ahead of the 2018 Legislative Session and found, unsurprisingly, Republican-sponsored bills have been booked more often than bipartisan or Democrat-sponsored bills.

The data, complete with an infogram-made doughnut chart, shows that of the 85 bills placed on House committee agendas by Dec. 4, 58 were sponsored by Republicans, 14 have bipartisan co-sponsors and 13 were sponsored by Democrats.

The committee week starting Nov. 6 was the least successful for Dems, with just 2 bills making committee agendas. The second and fourth committee weeks were the minority party’s most successful, with 4 measures making schedules each week.

House Democrats kept count last year and said they will continue updating the data as more bills are heard — or not heard — during the 60-day session, which starts Jan. 9.

Joe Abruzzo, Kevin Rader want drug czar

Boca Raton Sen. Rader and Boynton Beach Rep. Abruzzo filed bills this week — SB 1068 and HB 865 — to re-establish the Jeb Bush-era Office of Drug Control under the governor as a way to curb substance abuse and combat the opioid crisis.

“We’ve made strides in the fight, but with nearly 6,000 Floridians losing their lives last year due to opioid overdoses, it is clear that more must be done,” Abruzzo said. “If this epidemic is going to end, we must continue to take strong and decisive action to battle the harmful effects these drugs are having on neighborhoods throughout our state.”

Boca Raton Sen. Kevin Rader and Boynton Beach Rep. Joe Abruzzo.

Rader added that “opioid abuse is crippling Florida’s communities. Reinstating a Drug czar to lead the charge in creating better drug oversight is a step toward what our state needs to battle this ongoing epidemic.”

Before it got the ax due to budget cuts in 2011, ODC cost the state about $500,000 a year. The office was responsible for setting drug control policies, compiling and reporting statistics and providing the public with information on substance abuse and services.

Instagram of the Week 

It’s the holiday season in the #FloridaHouse and the #FloridaSenate.

A post shared by kevin sweeny (@djmia00) on

Nick Duran on ‘road to ruin’

Florida Department of Transportation construction projects can wreak havoc on small businesses, and Miami Democratic Rep. Duran filed a bill that would help them get on the road to recovery.

“While upgrading our state’s infrastructure and roadways would have a positive economical long-term impact, these construction projects can take months and years, and can dramatically hurt businesses who see access blocked, reduced parking, increased car traffic, reduced foot traffic and generally negative aesthetic impacts,” Duran said.

Nick Duran takes on the ‘road to ruin’ for Florida small businesses.

“Ensuring our small businesses are not negatively impacted by the work of their state government is common-sense and a sound way to continue to grow Florida’s economy in the future.”

Duran’s bill, HB 561, would set up the “Small Business Roadway Construction Mitigation Grant Program” under FDOT which would, on a case-by-case basis, give businesses a cash infusion to help with construction-related losses. The bill also would require the FDOT to study best practices to reduce damages to businesses’ bottom lines.

Kathleen Peters, water groups demand fracking ban

Treasure Island Republican Rep. Peters is crossing into Tampa Saturday to join a gathering of clean water groups pushing for House Speaker Richard Corcoran to prioritize bans on fracking and offshore drilling.

The meeting at Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park will mark the “largest group of clean water organizations to date” meeting up to support a ban on the controversial drilling practices. Among the expected crowd of 100 will be representatives of Floridians Against Fracking, National Nurses United, the Sierra Club and others.

Kathleen Peters again is seeking a Florida fracking ban.

“Fracking is a dangerous practice that threatens public health on a massive scale and would be an environmental catastrophe for Florida,” Food and Water Watch said in an email. “The practice is a particularly severe threat to Florida, where karst geology, paired with risky drilling practices, would put water at an even greater risk of contamination, leaving over 10 million people without access to water.”

The group poked at Corcoran by equating fracking to corporate welfare.

“Big Oil and Gas has benefited from subsidies paid for by tax paying citizens for decades. It’s time for Speaker Corcoran to truly end corporate welfare by joining Peters in supporting a fracking ban,” the email said.

Bob Rommel praised for bill to squash free speech zones

Republican Rep. Bob Rommel got some praise this week from right-leaning group Generation Opportunity over a bill that would put an end to “free speech zones” on Florida’s public college and university campuses.

The group pointed to a report that found a sixth of American universities relegate demonstrations and protests to specific zones of campus and another report contending one out of five said using violence against a speaker known for making offensive statements was acceptable.

Bob Rommel is getting praise for a plan to squelch ‘free speech zones.’

“So-called free speech zones actually harm free speech and free expression on college campuses by restricting where students can exercise their First Amendment rights. Instead of limiting free speech, colleges and universities should be encouraging students to speak freely, exchange different ideas and learn from each other,” said Generation Opportunity Director Carrie Sheffield. “We applaud Rep. Rommel for introducing this important legislation and urge his colleagues to follow in support.”

The group is pointing college students to a website where they can fill out an email form to thank Rommell for filing the bill and derides public campuses that “restrict the free speech rights of students in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘diversity’” — a practice it equates to censorship.

Carlos Guillermo Smith nabs Victory Institute award

Orlando Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith won an award this week named after Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin to recognize “an up-and-coming LGBTQ elected official who is driving equality forward.”

Smith beat out five other nominees in online voting to win the inaugural Tammy Baldwin Breakthrough Award, which he accepted in Washington D.C. before getting a one-on-one meeting with Baldwin, the first openly LGBTQ member of the United States Senate.

Carlos Guillermo Smith is being honored as “an up-and-coming LGBTQ elected official who is driving equality forward.”

“I am incredibly grateful to the Victory Institute for recognizing my work to advance equality for all Floridians. Senator Baldwin is an incredible inspiration to LGBTQ leaders and activists around the world, and I am humbled to have been able to receive this award named after her,” Smith said.

Smith dedicated his award to the Pulse nightclub shooting survivors and first responders, explicitly naming Eatonville Police Corporal Omar Delgado, who is set to be dismissed effective Dec. 31 due to Pulse-related PTSD.

Smith and other state lawmakers, many from the Orlando area, are pushing bills in the 2018 Legislative Session that would expand workers’ compensation benefits to cover first responder PTSD cases.

The week in appointments

Sutton promoted at FWCEric Sutton, assistant executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), moved up to executive director of the agency, effective Friday.

Nick Wiley, the current executive director, retires later this month. Sutton has been an assistant executive director since May 2013.

He received both his bachelor’s and master’s degree in zoology from the University of South Florida. The emphasis of his work was on endangered species population biology.

His appointment will now go to the Florida Senate for confirmation.

FWC chooses new leadership — The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Thursday selected Bo Rivard, of Panama City, to serve as its chairman, effective immediately. He replaces Chairman Brian Yablonski of Tallahassee. The term is one year.

Rivard, who has served on the Commission since March 2013, is a partner with Harrison, Rivard, Duncan & Buzzett in Panama City.

Robert Spottswood of Key West was elected vice chair. Spottswood, who has served on the Commission since 2015, is chief executive officer of Spottswood Companies. He takes over for Aliese P. “Liesa” Priddy of Immokalee.

Contractors on skilled worker shortage

Florida construction firms have a grim outlook on filling open jobs, and Associated Builders and Contractors said it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

According to the third quarter Construction Confidence Index, produced by ABC, nearly 69 percent of contractors expect to make new hires over the next six months to be either “slightly more difficult” or “significantly more difficult,” and about 75 percent of companies added that they are pumping more money into workforce development now than they did a year ago.

Skilled construction labor shortages in Florida are likely to become even more dramatic in late 2017 and into early 2018.

“Given the onset of rebuilding after summer storms, skilled labor shortages are likely to become even more dramatic in late 2017 and into early 2018,” ABC said in the report.

Still, nearly three-quarters of companies polled say they’ll have more employees six months from now than they do today, while 24 percent expect no change and 2 percent expect a slight staffing cut.

The index wasn’t all bad news, however, as nearly four-fifths of firms believe sales will jump over the next six months, including about a quarter of companies which said they expected a better than 5 percent boost in gross revenue. Only one in 10 firms polled expected sales to drop in the near term.

UnitedHealthcare ‘stepping up’ for students

Health insurer UnitedHealthcare kicked off the giving season with a record-setting $15 million contribution to Step Up For Students, one of two nonprofit that administer the needs-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

“Step Up provides hope for Florida’s children to access a quality education that best fits their needs, and we are glad to support such a worthy initiative,” said Nicholas Zaffiris, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of South Florida.

Step Up celebrated its partnership with UnitedHealthcare by helping disadvantaged students receive the education they deserve. Since 2009, the Minnetonka, MN-based company has chipped in more than $88 million for Step Up, providing the nonprofit with the resources to support scholarships for nearly 17,000 Sunshine State students so they can attend a private school or secure transportation to attend an out-of-district public school.

“None of this would be possible without the support of the community and contributions of organizations like UnitedHealthcare,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill.

The typical pupil served by Step Up comes from a single-parent household where the average income is $25,353. A recent study shows that Step Up scholarship recipients are 40 percent more likely to attend college than their public-school counterparts, and 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree.

Seat filled on Tallahassee ethics panel

Tallahassee city commissioners appointed Bill Hollimon to fill an opening on the city’s Independent Ethics Board.

He’s the husband of state Rep. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat elected to the House last year and who previously served 2000-08.

Bill Hollimon with state Rep. Loranne Ausley and their son Will.

Hollimon’s 3-year term in Seat 1, the only position filled by the City Commission, begins Jan. 1.

The mission of the Independent Ethics Board “is to promote the actual and perceived integrity of City government and to prevent unethical conduct before it occurs,” a city news release says.

“Hollimon has been a practicing lawyer for more than 20 years, focusing on patent, trademark, and copyright prosecution and litigation; mediation of complex litigation; strategic planning and guidance for technology-related businesses,” it adds.

He joins Ethics Board members Cecil Davis, the State Attorney appointee; Richard Herring, the Florida State University appointee; Bryan Smith, the Florida A&M University appointee; Bruce D. Grant, the board’s own appointee; and Renee McNeill, another board appointee.

The next meeting is 4 p.m. Dec. 19 in the City Commission Chambers, City Hall, 300 S. Adams St., Tallahassee.

Latest statistics show crime is down

Tallahassee Police Chief Michael DeLeo this week told city commissioners that crime continues to go down, according to the latest statistics.

In October, Tallahassee experienced an 8.6 percent decrease in violent crime and a 6.7 percent decrease in property crime. Year to date, overall crime in Tallahassee/Leon County is down by 13 percent over last year.

Crime is down in Tallahassee, says Police Chief Michael DeLeo.

To further support the efforts of TPD, the Commission voted to approve more than $315,000 for equipment upgrades and enhanced technology, including purchasing safety cameras. A list of camera locations can be found at Talgov.com/TPD.

Currently, TPD is reviewing citizen complaint data and crime statistics to determine where 10 additional cameras may prove beneficial and will continue discussions related to potential locations with neighborhood residents.

To stay informed about public safety initiatives and to get information on incidents, visit Talgov.com/TPD.

Bike share comes to Tallahassee

A new “dockless” bike share service called Pace has come to the capital.

“Tallahassee is the first in a wave of cities to embrace smarter, dockless bike sharing,” a city news release said. “Albuquerque, New Mexico, Rochester, New York, Knoxville, Tennessee and Huntsville, Alabama are also committed to join Pace, with each launch scheduled before April 1, 2018.”

Pace bike share is coming to Tallahassee.

With its inaugural launch, Pace will make 300 shared bikes available in Tallahassee. Riders can rent and return bikes from any of Pace’s 50 dedicated bike parking racks, or from any of the hundreds of public bike racks available throughout the city.

“We are very proud that the City of Tallahassee has become a true multi-modal community, including being named one of the most bike-friendly cities in the nation,” Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum said. “The new bike share service is another step toward ensuring that all of our residents have easy access to bicycles for commuting, exercising and touring our great city.”

Riders download a free Pace Bike Share app, available in the Apple App Store or Google Play. Available bikes and parking locations are in the app, and users can unlock bikes at the touch of a button to get rolling in seconds. There is no membership fee to join Pace, and rides start at just $1 per half-hour.

Fire safety tips for the holiday season

It’s just a couple of weeks before Christmas, and many Florida families already went through the process of dragging their holiday décor from the attic and trekking down to the local tree lot in search of the perfect Fraser Fir.

Still, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and the men and women of the Florida Forest Service want to make sure Floridians get a refresher on the dos and don’ts of when it comes to holiday fire safety.

First and foremost, keep that tree away from the fireplace and the space heater. Christmas trees, especially water-starved ones, would love nothing more than to be a 6-foot fire starter.

Also be sure to take a look at those holiday lights to make sure they were tested at facilities, such as UL or ETL. If they were, they’d bear the mark given lab-tested electronics. While you look under a microscope for the safety mark, make sure to double-check for frayed wires, cracked sockets or crushed bulbs. It’s easier to do it before you staple them to your house or drape them over the shrubbery anyway.

If you’re getting out in the yard or on the roof to get those lights up, it’s a perfect time to check for debris. According to the Florida Forest Service, even a small amount dried up yard waste on a roof could be the catalyst for a wildfire turning into a home fire.

Putnam and Co.’s final tip is one that’s good year-round: Blow out the candles and turn off the string lights before you go to bed. A good balsam and cedar candle can put anyone in the holiday spirit, but there are few things worse than waking up to a burning home.

Now for this week’s edition of Capitol Directions:

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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