News Service Of Florida, Author at Florida Politics

News Service Of Florida

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

Rick Scott appeals major marijuana ruling

Less than three hours before a 5 p.m. deadline, Gov. Rick Scott’s administration Friday filed a notice to appeal a Tallahassee judge’s order that struck down a 2017 medical marijuana law as unconstitutional.

The notice, filed at 2:36 p.m. Friday, came after Scott sought support from Republican legislators and the state’s marijuana operators to appeal Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson’s decision that the 2017 law ran afoul of a voter-approved constitutional amendment.

“The governor has directed the Department of Health to appeal this ruling after hearing from the Legislature, which is responsible for creating laws, not the judiciary,” Scott spokesman John Tupps said in an email Friday afternoon.

Most industry insiders had remained skeptical that Scott would allow the deadline to lapse without notifying the court he intended to appeal. But a delay by the Governor’s office in filing the notice sparked a frenzy of activity throughout the week.

The appeal comes amid a heated campaign in which Scott, a Republican finishing out his final few months as governor, is attempting to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

Dodson had given state health officials until Friday to begin registering new medical-marijuana operators after deciding the law, passed during a special legislative session last year, failed to properly carry out a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

The circuit judge found fault with parts of the law that, among other things, capped the number of marijuana licenses and created a “vertical integration” system that requires marijuana operators to grow, and process cannabis and distribute related products. Already-licensed operators worried that the ruling could create uncertainty in the fast-growing industry — while also allowing more companies to receive licenses.

Dodson’s decision came in a challenge filed by Tampa-based Florigrown LLC, which was denied a license by the state and is owned in part by strip-club owner Joe Redner.

Redner, who also got a victory against the state health department in a separate medical-marijuana case now under appeal, called Scott’s decision to appeal Friday “a travesty of justice.”

Numerous sources close to key legislators and the Scott administration told The News Service of Florida this week that the governor’s office requested that the House and Senate formally ask Scott to appeal the judge’s decision in the Florigrown case.

State lawmakers scurried to urge the governor to get Dodson’s decision reviewed by the 1st District Court of Appeal, a venue with a history of being friendlier than the circuit court toward the Scott administration and the Republican-dominated Legislature. Two of the state’s 14 licensed medical-marijuana operators also responded to support Scott in the appeal, as they sought to protect investments in an industry where licenses have been involved in transactions worth more than $60 million.

But those efforts, and Scott’s appeal, elicited Redner’s contempt.

“I believe the statute is unconstitutional, and all this does is keep free enterprise from operating in the state of Florida. It helps give cartels and monopolies the marijuana business. It’s a calculated plan. I believe also that the reason the governor waited so long in order to appeal was that they were shaking down the present holders of licenses for campaign contributions,” Redner said in a telephone interview.

Florigrown CEO Adam Eland said he wasn’t surprised by Scott’s appeal, “but it infuriates me.”

“Our position has always been that Gov. Scott and the Legislature created a cartel here in Florida rather than a medical marijuana program for the patients. This is what a cartel looks like,” Eland told The News Service of Florida.

Dodson’s Oct. 5 ruling scolded state officials for treating the Constitution “like a recommendation” and gave the Department of Health two weeks to register Florigrown and to begin registering other medical-marijuana operators, or risk being found in contempt.

The Scott administration has faced harsh criticism, including from state legislators, for the rollout of the medical-marijuana industry during the past few years. Much of the blame has been placed on the Office of Medical Marijuana Use, a division of the health department.

The push for outside support for an appeal was viewed by many insiders as an attempt by Scott’s advisers to mitigate further criticism for what could be construed as yet another delay in carrying out the 2016 constitutional amendment. Health officials have been accused of a wide range of lapses, such as protracted delays in licensing marijuana operators and months-long waiting periods for eligible patients to receive ID cards required for access to treatment.

More than 71 percent of Florida voters approved the medical marijuana amendment in 2016, and polls have demonstrated widespread and bipartisan support for medical marijuana among all demographics throughout the state.

Florigrown is one of several companies that have gone to administrative or circuit courts to try to get licenses.

But if Dodson’s order is allowed to stand, it “will cause great uncertainty for Florida’s medical marijuana program and potentially undermine the industry’s ability to provide access to safe and effective medical marijuana to qualifying patients,” Ryan LaRocca, vice-president of current operator Surterra Therapeutics, wrote to Office of Medical Marijuana Use Director Courtney Coppola.

Similarly, Knox Medical CEO Jose Hidalgo warned health officials that Dodson’s order not only could have a negative impact on the quality of products available to patients, but could also result in an unregulated market that could “result in an oversupply of this unregulated medication that will clearly outpace the needs and demands of the qualified patients in Florida.”

Ben Pollara, the chairman of a political committee behind the 2016 constitutional amendment, acknowledged that allowing Dodson’s ruling to stand would have thrown the state’s medical marijuana industry — and the nearly 200,000 patients it serves — “into chaos.”

“Despite running for the cover of the Legislature before filing, there was never any real question Rick Scott would file this appeal,” Pollara said in a text.

But the appeal “doesn’t change the fact that the next governor is going to have to address Dodson’s valid concerns, and clean up the mess that the Scott administration has made of Florida’s medical marijuana system,” he added.

State CFO race goes ‘very negative’

Acrimony, rather than ideas, has taken the stage in the contest for Florida chief financial officer.

The race between Republican incumbent Jimmy Patronis and former state Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Broward County Democrat, is an undercard to the November battles for Governor and U.S. Senator and has been marked by attacks.

Recently, Patronis also has needed to shift attention to his wife undergoing surgery for breast cancer and to his hometown of Panama City taking a devastating hit from Hurricane Michael.

Often, the Chief Financial Officer job draws less attention than the other Cabinet positions of attorney general and agriculture commissioner. But the job has a wide range of duties, including overseeing the state’s purse strings, serving as the state fire marshal and voting on Cabinet issues.

Ring admits the position is “extraordinarily important but the lowest profile.”

But attention in the campaign has focused on issues that have relatively little to do with the job’s duties and instead has involved such things as Ring’s resume at the internet company Yahoo, Patronis’ crash of a state-issued car while driving to a meeting with a political consultant and Patronis’ ties to Gov. Rick Scott.

“This race has gone very negative very quickly with each creating a website attacking the other — and especially supporters of the other — for all sorts of questionable behavior, unethical and/or illegal,” University of Central Florida political-science professor Aubrey Jewett said.

Ring, noting that former state CFO Alex Sink helped guide the state through the recession a decade ago, painted Patronis as a “nice guy” who is only in his current job due to Scott’s patronage. Scott appointed Patronis to the Cabinet post after former CFO Jeff Atwater resigned last year.

“If Rick Scott was CEO of HCA today, he wouldn’t hire (Patronis) in a junior finance position in his accounting department,” Ring said, referring to Scott’s background as a hospital executive. “He’d hire him as a community relations person for his hospital, because that’s what he’s good at.”

Patronis campaign, meanwhile, has applied the tag “Risky Ring” to its opponent, characterizing the Parkland Democrat’s entrepreneurial track record as “flops and failures.”

“Ring talks up his experience at Yahoo, but his business record in Florida tells a different story, with multiple business ventures flopping or failing just years after Ring started them or took control,” Katie Strickland, a spokeswoman for the Patronis campaign, said.

Kathryn DePalo, who teaches in Florida International University’s Department of Politics and International Relations, expects heavy party-line voting in the contest. It will be on the Nov. 6 ballot along with the gubernatorial race between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis and the U.S. Senate race between Scott and incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson.

“This is probably the least-known race, so it will come down to which party voters pick at the top of the ticket,” DePalo said. “The one wrench in all of that could be ticket splitting, particularly among NPAs (no-party affiliation voters). If they, say, vote for Gillum for governor and Scott for Senate, then it will be which party they tend to lean toward anyway for these Cabinet races.”

Patronis, 46, is part of a family that operates the half-century-old Capt. Anderson’s Restaurant in Panama City.

An early supporter of Scott’s first gubernatorial run in 2010, Patronis served eight years in the Florida House and was chairman of the House Economic Affairs Committee. Scott appointed Patronis to the Florida Public Service Commission before choosing him to succeed Atwater as CFO.

Last week, Patronis publicly disclosed that his wife, Katie, was being treated for breast cancer. Meanwhile, he rushed to Panama City to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.

In his campaign ads, Patronis has highlighted his support during this year’s Legislative Session for a new workers’ compensation insurance law designed to assist first responders who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Patronis said he’d like to work with lawmakers to bring down the state corporate income-tax rate as a response to a federal tax package approved in December.

“Because of what happened at the federal level, we’re seeing gasoline being poured on the fire and this rush of folks to move from the Northeast, the Michigans, the New Yorks, the Bostons, the Connecticuts, to a less-tax environment like we have in Florida,” Patronis said. “They’re bringing their wealth, they’re bringing their money. They’re bringing their jobs.”

Ring, 48, spent five years with Yahoo, coming aboard in 1996 as the company’s first sales chief, four years after he graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in advertising.

Patronis’ political committee Treasure Florida accused Ring in an ad of falsely claiming to be a founder of Yahoo, but the sources for the claim were three media reports in which the writers affixed the “founder” label.

Ring served in the state Senate from 2006 to 2016, where he was focused on issues involving venture capital, insurance and pensions. Widely viewed as a moderate Democrat, he pushed to create the State Office of Technology and helped establish the Florida Growth Fund through a bill that encouraged the State Board of Administration to invest a portion of state retirement money in “high-growth” homegrown tech companies.

Ring, a Massachusetts native, said if elected CFO,  his priorities would be such things as protecting the state retirement system and expanding an “innovation economy” in the state.

Ring is also critical of how the Cabinet has operated under Scott, meeting infrequently and spending most of the time it does meet on ceremonial activities, such as handing out awards and highlighting dogs in need of adoption.

“This is the state board of directors of Florida. It has to start acting that way. It has to start meeting once or twice every month and act the way the board is supposed to act,” Ring said. “If this was a publicly traded company, the shareholders would revolt.”

State marshals support to rebuild Air Force base

Political efforts are increasing to support the quick rebuilding of hurricane-damaged Tyndall Air Force Base and to keep the federal government from abandoning the economic engine in Northwest Florida.

Members of the Florida Defense Support Task Force, a legislatively mandated panel within the economic-development agency Enterprise Florida, expressed a need Thursday to expand support from the state’s congressional and legislative delegations.

Despite Pentagon officials on Monday saying they intend to rebuild the base, where pilots train to fly the F-22 stealth fighter, concerns linger that the 29,000-acre facility in southeastern Bay County could face downsizing or closure. The base employs about 11,000 military and civilian personnel.

Tom Neubauer, task force vice chairman, said during a conference-call meeting that efforts are underway to add to a show of support that was sent last week to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Pentagon Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein by Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, along with U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, a Panama City Republican whose district includes the base.

“We’re just trying to get that put together now in the form of a formal declaration from all of our delegation across the state,” Neubauer said.

Neubauer noted that President Donald Trump flew over the base Monday as he toured damage from Hurricane Michael, which made landfall Oct. 10 in nearby Mexico Beach with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph. Tyndall evacuated all but 93 airmen assigned to survey the damage and help reopen the base.

“(Trump) did not specifically say, ‘Hey, we’re going to rebuild the base,’ ” Neubauer said. “But we’d sure like to hear that.”

State Sen. Doug Broxson, a Gulf Breeze Republican and member of the Defense Support Task Force, said he’s given a tour of the base to incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, and has invited the rest of the Senate for similar visits.

Broxson also suggested the task force quickly hold an emergency meeting to tour the damage at Tyndall.

“We need to show that we’re proactive here in preventing any disruption of our military commitment,” Broxson said. “I don’t think we need to be staying overnight, because there is no place to stay. But we certainly need to let people understand the significance of what we’re going through.”

The concern for state officials is Tyndall could follow the path of Homestead Air Force Base, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and subsequently became an Air Force Reserve base.

The New York Times reported Thursday that the wreckage at Tyndall “shows how climate change may be putting billions of dollars worth of sophisticated aircraft at risk during storms like Hurricane Michael.”

Structural engineers from Lockheed Martin were sent to inspect an undisclosed number of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters — each valued up to $339 million — that were left at Tyndall during the storm, according to a tweet from the contractor. The planes had been left at the base for maintenance and safety reasons.

The Air Force announced Wednesday that it is committed to returning critical personnel to Tyndall. The gates were first opened Wednesday to military members, civilian employees and dependents for the first of five days of limited access to evaluate personal property.

The task force meeting was held Thursday as Gov. Rick Scott toured the damage at the base and tweeted his support to “assist them with anything needed to recover.”

Neubauer said the advisories he’s gotten is that restoration of the base “could be double digits in terms of months.”

A year ago, the Pentagon put a $3.4 billion value on the facilities at Tyndall and projected its annual economic impact — combining payroll, expenditures and jobs created — at $596 million.

Duke seeks pause in sending bills in hard-hit areas

Duke Energy Florida is seeking state approval to suspend sending bills to customers in counties that sustained heavy damage in Hurricane Michael until the utility finishes restoration work in the counties.

Duke, which provides service in hard-hit Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla counties, said in a filing Tuesday at the state Public Service Commission that hurricane damage has made delivering mail difficult.

“Roads are impassible due to residual flooding and the large quantity of debris that remains on the roads,” the filing said. “As a consequence, the U.S. Postal Service does not have safe physical access to the residences of these customers. Due to this reason, the U.S. Postal Service cannot deliver bills to these customers. Even assuming residences in the affected areas are accessible by normal means, many of the mailboxes for these residences are themselves not serviceable because they were either destroyed or made non-functional by Hurricane Michael.”

Under the proposal, Duke would suspend sending monthly bills to customers in each county until it has finished utility restoration for all customers in that particular county. It said the proposal is estimated to affect 28,523 customers and that given “the varying extent of damage in these four counties, the time period during which DEF does not render bills is likely to vary.”

Customers would not face penalties or interest, and Duke said it would provide payment-arrangement plans for customers who need additional time to pay bills. Duke needs approval from the Public Service Commission because of a state rule that requires utilities to bill customers monthly.

Rick Scott seeks backing on medical marijuana appeal

With a 5 p.m. Friday deadline looming, Gov. Rick Scott has sought support from legislative leaders before appealing a Tallahassee judge’s order that critics say would create pandemonium in the state’s medical-marijuana industry if allowed to stand.

Responding to Scott’s request, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, incoming Speaker Jose Oliva and other Republican House leaders on Wednesday urged the Governor to seek “immediate review by a higher court” of an order by Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, who ruled this month that a 2017 medical marijuana law was unconstitutional.

The impending court deadline — and the Scott administration’s failure to file an appeal thus far — has sparked a buzz within the state’s lucrative and highly restricted medical-cannabis industry, where licenses have sold for upwards of $60 million in recent months.

Dodson gave state health officials until Friday to begin registering new medical-marijuana operators after deciding a state law, passed during a special legislative session last year, failed to properly carry out a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

Siding with Tampa-based Florigrown LLC, Dodson rebuked the Governor, the state Department of Health and the Republican-dominated Legislature for what he said was an unconstitutional law aimed at implementing the voter-approved ballot initiative.

Dodson’s harshly worded Oct. 5 order scolded state officials for treating the Constitution “like a recommendation” and gave the Department of Health two weeks to register Florigrown and to begin registering other medical-marijuana operators, or risk being found in contempt.

But, in Wednesday’s letter to Scott urging him to ask for a temporary injunction, House leaders wrote that Dodson’s order is “rife with substantive and procedural errors.”

Dodson’s order requiring health officials to move forward with new licenses “poses a serious risk of hardship to businesses that invest in the court’s temporary licensure scheme,” should his ruling be overturned, the House Republicans argued.

“The order also creates practical impossibilities and substantive dangers” by appearing to initiate “a different model regulatory system for which it has no rules, procedures, or infrastructure,” they wrote.

“Such an unpredictable regulatory environment is ripe for litigation, which will prevent, rather than ensure, access to this medical treatment,” the House Republicans said.

Industry insiders had expected Scott’s administration to appeal Dodson’s order as it has with nearly every other ruling it considered contrary to state policy, but politics may be playing a role in the delay.

Scott, a Republican who is finishing out the final months of his eight years as governor, is in a heated battle to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who’s held his post for nearly two decades.

More than 71 percent of Florida voters approved the medical marijuana amendment in 2016, and polls have demonstrated widespread and bipartisan support for medical marijuana among all demographics throughout the state.

Numerous sources close to key legislators and the Scott administration told The News Service of Florida on Thursday that the Governor’s office requested that the House and Senate formally ask Scott to appeal the judge’s decision in the Florigrown case.

“Some people may call it ‘cover,’ but really what we have is we’re litigating an exceptionally complex and high-profile issue,” lawyer John Lockwood, who represents licensed medical- marijuana operators as well as those seeking entry into the state. “I don’t find it unusual that the administration may be looking to all the different stakeholders to seek feedback on the issue and the importance of the appeal.”

The Scott administration has faced harsh criticism, including from state legislators, for the roll-out of the medical-marijuana industry. Much of the blame has been placed on the Office of Medical Marijuana Use, a division of the health department.

Health officials have been accused of a wide range of lapses, such as protracted delays in licensing marijuana operators and months-long waiting periods for eligible patients to receive ID cards required for access to treatment.

Dodson found fault with parts of the 2017 law that, among other things, capped the number of marijuana licenses; created a “vertical integration” system that requires marijuana operators to grow, and process cannabis and distribute related products; and improperly restricted who could get licenses.

The law ordered health officials to grant licenses to operators who were already up and running in Florida or who were involved in litigation as of Jan. 1, 2017. The law also required a license for a black farmer who meets certain conditions and set aside a preference for applicants with certain ties to the citrus industry.

A spokesman for the health department said Wednesday agency officials are reviewing the judge’s ruling.

When asked whether the Governor has sought support from key lawmakers to boost support for an appeal, Scott spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said the health department “has worked nonstop to implement the law the Legislature wrote.”

“They are taking the appropriate time to review the best path forward,” she said in an email.

Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who has been instrumental in medical-marijuana legislation, called Dodson’s ruling “classic judicial overreach.”

“The irony of the trial court’s decision is that, if it were to stand, it would negatively affect the suffering patients that the court purports to protect. Patient access and safety would be undermined if the decision were to stand. For the sake of the welfare of Florida patients, I certainly encourage the DOH to appeal,” Bradley, an attorney, said in a text message.

Dodson’s decision striking down the 2017 law could also negate regulations associated with carrying out the constitutional amendment and result in what some predict would leave the industry in turmoil.

“The trial court’s order requires the issuance of an unlimited number of separate, independent licenses to any entity that either buys, grows, processes, transports, sells or administers medical marijuana. Presumably, one of these license holders could open an unlimited number of locations, anywhere in Florida, and perform any or all of those functions at those locations. If the trial court order stands, it will be the wild, wild West,” Bradley told the News Service.

Medical marijuana lobbyists, lawyers, operators and others spent Tuesday and Wednesday calling and texting each other and Scott’s representatives as the clock wound down toward Friday’s deadline.

But some of the Governor’s harshest critics questioned whether the crisis was genuine.

“This whole thing just frankly seems so silly. The notion that the Governor would treat this lawsuit differently than he has every other one on appeal is just ludicrous,” said Ben Pollara, the campaign manager of the political committee behind the 2016 constitutional amendment.

“It looks like he is just either seeking some political cover for a decision he’s already made, because it’s the same decision he’s made in every other circumstance in the past. Or he’s setting up a shake down of the MMTCs (medical marijuana treatment centers) for his super PAC. Or it’s both,” Pollara told the News Service.

Supreme Court details clash over education measure

After saying last month that it was blocking a controversial education measure from the November ballot, the Florida Supreme Court has released details of the ruling that show sharp differences about a proposal that one justice said would have brought a “monumental” change to the state Constitution.

Justices, in a 4-3 decision, said the proposed constitutional amendment had “defective” ballot wording that would not inform voters of the measure’s “true meaning and ramifications.” The ruling centered on how the proposal would have affected the creation of charter schools — a hot-button issue in Florida’s education system.

The state Constitution Revision Commission, which was largely appointed by Gov. Rick Scott and Republican legislative leaders, approved the proposal this spring to go before voters Nov. 6. The proposal linked three issues: imposing term limits for school boards, requiring the promotion of civic literacy in schools and changing part of the Constitution that gives school boards the power to operate and control schools in their districts.

The proposed ballot summary, in part, said, “Currently, district school boards have a constitutional duty to operate, control, and supervise all public schools. The amendment maintains a school board’s duties to public schools it establishes, but permits the state to operate, control, and supervise public schools not established by the school board.”

Charter-school supporters have repeatedly battled in recent years with county school boards, which have authority to approve new charter schools. The proposed constitutional amendment could have opened a new avenue for the establishment of charter schools outside the control of county school boards.

The Supreme Court majority, made up of justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Jorge Labarga, said the proposal would not explain key ramifications of the amendment to voters.

“By limiting a district school board’s authority to operate, control, and supervise to only those public schools it establishes, a somewhat indirect — but significant — limitation is also placed on the authority of district school boards to establish, or approve the creation of, public schools within their districts. It is this significant but undisclosed effect of the amendment that had the fervent support of charter school advocates,” Pariente wrote in a concurring opinion joined by Lewis.

“Rather than advise voters of this critical change — which would have allowed a debate on the merits of centralized, uniform control of the establishment of charter schools — the ballot summary fails to explain the true effect of the amendment,” Pariente added. “In fact, the ballot summary disguises this monumental change to our state Constitution by vaguely referring to school board ‘duties’ and using terms that voters would not easily understand, such as ‘established by’ and ‘not established by’ — terms not previously used in the Florida Constitution.”

But Chief Justice Charles Canady, in a dissent joined by justices Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson, wrote that the ballot summary — the wording voters see when they cast ballots — “correctly identifies the chief purpose of the proposed amendment.”

In reviewing proposed constitutional amendments, the Supreme Court is supposed to look at the wording of the ballot title and summary and not delve into the merits of proposals. Canady, who wrote that he “strongly” dissented, contended that the court majority improperly made its decision by going into the detailed text of the proposed constitutional change.

“Here, as in the case of many constitutional provisions, space is established for the Legislature — which promulgates state policy through laws consistent with the Constitution — to make various policy choices related to implementation of the amendment,” Canady wrote. “As the summary discloses, the amendment clearly affects schools not established by a school board. The policy choices related to such schools are properly left by the amendment to the Legislature. To conclude otherwise — as the majority does — is to attack the substance of the amendment itself.”

The 37-member Constitution Revision Commission meets every 20 years and has unusual power to place proposals directly on the ballot. The commission this spring approved eight amendments for the Nov. 6 ballot, but several drew legal challenges, including a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters of Florida seeking to block the education measure.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper in August ruled that the amendment should not go on the ballot, prompting the state to take the dispute to Supreme Court. Justices last month said they were blocking the amendment but did not issue the full opinions until Monday.

FSU College of Medicine sets up relief fund

A fund has been established to help medical students, faculty members and staff of the Florida State University College of Medicine who have been left reeling after Hurricane Michael.

John P. Fogarty and Alma Littles — the dean and the assistant dean of the college, respectively — sent a memo Tuesday announcing the creation of the fund.

“In the past week, some at the College of Medicine have seen trees slice buildings in two. Some have lost family homes to ferocious winds. Some have gone days without air conditioning or news from the outside world. Some have lost a refrigerator full of food and can’t afford to replace it. More than one person experienced a death in the family,” the memo said.

The FSU College of Medicine established a “rural medical education program” in Marianna in 2005. It offers students the opportunity to spend their third year of medical school in a rural community. Marianna was one of several rural Northwest Florida communities in the path of the deadly storm, which made landfall last week in Mexico Beach with 155 mph sustained winds, making it just shy of a Category 5 storm.

“This somber occasion provides an opportunity to also give thanks that we are part of a College of Medicine centered on a mission of togetherness and service. We thank you for being a part of our family,” the memo about the fund said.

University performance funding set for changes

Florida university leaders want to revise the system’s performance-funding model, looking to eliminate a dreaded “bottom three” that annually denies state money to the lowest-performing schools.

In this academic year, Florida A&M University, the University of North Florida and New College of Florida missed out on shares of $265 million in state performance funding because they were ranked in the bottom three on a 100-point scale.

The three schools lost out despite the fact that two of them, Florida A&M and the University of North Florida, improved their performances on an evaluation in June, while New College maintained its performance level from the prior year.

But that penalty would be eliminated under a plan discussed Tuesday by the Budget and Finance Committee of the university system’s Board of Governors during a meeting in Tampa.

The plan is a response to a new state law directing the university system to develop a “performance-based continuous improvement model focused on outcomes that provides for the equitable distribution of performance funds.”

Basically, the new model would allow any state universities that improve their performances on a series of measures, including graduation rates, salaries of recent graduates, retention of students and student costs, to receive full shares of the state performance funds.

If any school’s performance declined on the 100-point scale over two consecutive years, it would have to develop a “student success plan” to improve performance. The plan would be presented to the Board of Governors, and if approved, the school would receive 50 percent of its state performance funding.

A second evaluation would occur in March and, if approved by the Board of Governors, the second 50 percent of the funding would be released.

Beginning in the 2021-2022 academic year, all the schools would have to score at least a 70 on the performance scale to qualify for the state performance funds.

If a school fell below that level, it would only receive 50 percent of its allocation, divided into two 25 percent amounts subject to a performance-improvement plan and approval by the Board of Governors.

In the last evaluation, the 11 participating schools averaged 81 points on the performance scale, with only UNF falling slightly below the proposed 70 percent measure. Florida Polytechnic University, the state’s newest school, does not yet participate in the program.

Syd Kitson, chairman of the Board of Governors budget panel, said the new performance model retains a focus on student success as well as recognizing “continuous” improvement by the schools.

“We’re trying to be fair to the universities because this is a fairly significant change, but one that we think addresses the concerns that the Legislature had,” Kitson said.

He said, at the same time, it is designed to keep “everybody on their toes and there is a consequence to not performing.”

Kitson also noted the performance-funding system, which has been in use since 2014-2015, has resulted in significant improvements at the universities, including more than a 5 percent increase in four-year graduation rates and a 9.9 percent decrease in the number of undergraduates taking “excess” classes to earn degrees.

“There’s real data that shows that it is working. It’s really contributing to student success. And I think that’s exciting for all of us,” Kitson said.

Another aspect of the new performance model is that it would eliminate the use of a tie-breaking mechanism if more than three schools tied for the “top three” level, which guarantees 100 percent of schools’ shares of the state performance funds.

That formula proved costly this year to the University of South Florida and the University of West Florida, which both statistically ranked among the top three scores, but were eliminated based on the tie-breaker.

The full Board of Governors is expected to review the new performance-funding proposal at a meeting in November.

Election changes in storm-ravaged areas

Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux, who serves as president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, wants the state to consider changes for the general election — from emailed vote-by-mail ballots to combining precincts — to help people directly affected by Hurricane Michael.

Noting polling places may not be available and that some poll workers might not have returned to their homes, Lux in an email Sunday to Secretary of State Ken Detzner urged the creation of “mega-precincts” for election day.

Detzner, the state’s chief elections official, advised Lux he wanted to hear firsthand from county supervisors of election before making decisions. Detzner made a similar comment to the media on Monday.

In a separate email, Lux noted that Madison County Supervisor of Elections Tommy Hardee has delivered gas and other supplies to election officials in Calhoun and Liberty counties, which are running on generators. He also noted that the supervisor’s office in Gulf County “miraculously, survived basically unscathed,” while in Bay County, which has been offline, the voting equipment “is okay and their early voting equipment and supplies are still ready to deploy.”

“It sounds as if most of the hardest-hit counties fared pretty well considering the utter devastation around them,” Lux wrote. “Many are without power and are likely to remain so for weeks to come; but most have generators filling that gap. Connectivity continues to be the biggest problem.”

Among his suggestions, Lux said the state should consider emailed vote-by-mail ballots for non-military evacuees and deployed power workers. For people who have lost forms of identification, Lux would like voters to get regular ballots rather than provisional ballots if provisional ballot materials are in short supply in impacted counties.

Also, Lux asked if there is a way the counties that have taken in nursing-home residents can deliver the correct ballots in local facilities.

Early voting statewide runs from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3, though county supervisors can add some extra days.

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 453,000 people statewide had cast vote-by-mail ballots for the election, including 166,409 ballots cast by Democrats and 205,297 by Republicans. Hard-hit Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties haven’t updated their vote-by-mail numbers since before Michael came ashore.

The deadline to register to vote in the November election was Oct. 9 — the day before Michael made landfall in Mexico Beach and tore through parts of Northwest Florida.

Detzner has granted a partial extension of the voter-registration deadline in counties where elections offices were closed Oct. 9. Those counties will be able to accept paper voter-registration applications on the day they reopen. Detzner did not extend an Oct. 9 deadline for registering to vote online.

Verizon gives customer credits in Bay, Gulf counties

Under scrutiny for outages after Hurricane Michael, Verizon said Tuesday its customers in hard-hit Bay and Gulf counties will be automatically credited for three months of mobile service.

In recent days, officials including Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — who are competing in the November election for Nelson’s Senate seat — have taken aim at Verizon’s storm response.

Nelson, for example, sent a letter to the company’s chairman and chief executive officer Tuesday that said too many Verizon customers in the Panhandle “are still not able to use your network. This is not acceptable, especially when your competitors have been restoring service much faster.”

Along with announcing the credits for customers, Verizon said in a news release Tuesday that it is using portable cells in the region to help first responders and other agencies communicate.

“Verizon is 100 percent focused on repairing our network in the Florida Panhandle,” the company said in the news release. “We are making progress every hour, and we expect that trend to continue at a rapid pace. We won’t rest until service is completely restored.”

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