Influence Archives - Florida Politics

Joe Negron named ‘Champion of the Everglades’

Environmental group Audubon Florida presented Senate President Joe Negron with an award Tuesday recognizing his “steadfast leadership” in Everglades restoration.

Negron earned the “Champion of the Everglades” award for a bill he ushered through the legislature earlier this past session that mandated the construction of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and prevent a repeat of the historic and harmful algal blooms that wreaked havoc on Florida waters in 2016.

Audubon Florida’s deputy director, Julie Hill-Gabriel, described the legislation as “an incredible victory” for the Everglades.

“President Negron helped secure a much-needed restoration project for America’s Everglades. His tireless efforts responded to an ecological crisis by garnering support for one of the most important wins for Florida’s environment in a decade,” she said. “We applaud President Negron for his commitment to protecting Florida’s environment for generations to come. It is with great excitement we name President Negron as a Champion of the Everglades.”

Audubon Florida said the award is reserved for “individuals who have gone above and beyond their call of duty to protect Florida’s water and wildlife in the River of Grass.” Past winners of the award include Nathaniel Reed and former Gov. Jeb Bush.

“Audubon Florida has been a strong partner in the ongoing effort to reduce and one day eliminate harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee that destroy our environment and harm our economy,” Negron said. “I am honored to receive this award and look forward to working with Audubon in the future as we continue to closely monitor the implementation of Senate Bill 10 and other legislative efforts to restore and protect Florida’s environment and natural resources.”

Constitution panel criticized again for procedural hiccups, announces second tour

A friendly scheduling meeting of the Constitution Revision Commission Rules and Administration Committee Tuesday evening took a sharp turn when someone testified that members of a different committee had violated two of the Commission’s rules.

Stephanie Owens, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters, said the CRC’s Education Committee last month did not follow a rule guiding vote reconsideration and a rule stipulating that all meetings be public.

Owens said both violations occurred when the education body took a vote on Commissioner Erika Donalds’ Proposal 32, which seeks to end salaries for all school board members.

The sloppiness of the vote was documented. The Tampa Bay Times noted that the committee had failed the proposal by vote, then postponed it after “staff forgot to ask Donalds for her vote.” A recording of the meeting shows Donalds standing at the podium before the committee rather than seated with the other commissioners during the vote.

But Owens argued Tuesday that the postponement was technically an improper revote, violating CRC Rule 6.5, which allows only commissioners of the prevailing side to propose reconsideration.

Because Donalds asked to postpone the vote, the rule was violated, Owens contended. But the CRC said that the vote was invalid because of the procedural error. In other words, the vote failing the measure hadn’t technically occurred.

Owens’ criticisms came on two fronts. She also questioned the brief recess held by the committee members once staff realized they did not include Donalds in the roll call. The lobbyist claimed that violated Rule 1.23: “All proceedings and records of the Commission shall be open to the public.”

The brief recess to discuss the error outside of public view, Owens said, was a “blatant violation.”

Tim Cerio, rules chair, is not on the Education Committee but was familiar with the incident. He told Owens that the rule did not apply to the recess because it was a meeting of just the committee, not the Commission as a whole. He said the committee can revert to “Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure,” which provides for such breaks.

Cerio assured Owens that the recess was not a move to evade the public.

“There was a genuine dispute,” Cerio explained. “Staff had to do some homework on the motion to reconsider.”

Commissioners are not required to serve on outside legislative bodies and many hold private careers. Cerio stressed that it’s important to educate those involved in any part of the Commission.

“We need to make sure we educate not only members, but also staff,” Cerio said.

Though it isn’t the first time concerns have been raised over the Commission’s transparency.

Commissioner Bob Solari questioned earlier this year whether private meetings between two commissioners could occur. Solari had difficulty obtaining an answer and ultimately criticized the body to which he belongs.

“One of the things we need to do, as we make proposals and transfer them onto the ballot, is to build the public trust,” Solari told the Miami Herald. “The best way to build the public trust is to operate in a open and transparent manner. If the public was watching our public meetings, the takeaway would not be something that builds that trust.” 

Beginning February, the CRC will begin its second statewide tour to gather input from the public on proposals.

There are six meetings peppered across the state on schedule:

 Feb. 6, 2018 at Nova Southeastern University

— Feb. 19, 2018 at Eastern Florida State College

— Feb. 20, 2018 at University of North Florida

— Feb. 27, 2018 at University of West Florida

— Mar. 13, 2018 at University of South Florida – St. Petersburg

— TBD: Southwest Florida hearing

Proposal allowing retroactive criminal law changes heads to full CRC

A Constitutional Revision Commission panel on Tuesday cleared a proposal that would give lawmakers the power to adjust criminal sentencing guidelines retroactively.

Commissioner Darryl Rouson, appointed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, is sponsoring the measure (P 20), which he says would “remove an archaic provision” added to the state constitution in 1885.

“This clause was a response to fear and maintaining it has proven over time to be an overreach,” Rouson told the members in the Judicial Committee.

The proposed change to the state constitution would allow lawmakers to use their judgement to apply reduced or increased sentencing requirements to people who commit crimes before new rules have gone into effect.

Now that the proposal cleared its last committee stop, it heads to the full 37-member commission. If approved, it will go directly on the November ballot, where it would need 60-percent voter approval to become part of the state constitution.

While Commissioner Tom Lee, a Republican senator, supported the proposal, he expressed concerned that a constitutional amendment could also give the Legislature power to potentially alter “what a state attorney can charge somebody with or what a judge is required to hand down as punishment.”

“Just keep one eye on it if you would,” Lee said.

The measure has been pushed by a coalition of mostly conservative organizations and former state Rep. Neil Combee, who recently resigned his post in the Legislature for a job in the Trump administration.

If passed, reduced sentences would not be automatically retroactive, the Legislature would have to stipulate retroactivity in the bills passed.

Regulators back FPL on controversial plume costs

State regulators Tuesday approved a controversial proposal by Florida Power & Light to collect at least $176.4 million from customers for a project dealing with a saltwater plume that moved from an FPL plant into nearby groundwater.

Representatives of consumers and business and environmental groups fought the proposal, contending that customers should not have to pay for the cleanup project in Miami-Dade County.

But the state Public Service Commission Tuesday unanimously agreed that FPL can collect the money through part of customers’ bills that goes toward a variety of types of environmental expenses.

Commissioner Gary Clark described the issue as a “tough one” but indicated he didn’t think the problem, which stems from a cooling-canal system at FPL’s Turkey Point complex, could have been foreseen.

“I listened to the testimony and re-read the testimony over the last week, and it’s really hard for me to say that anyone could have actually seen this coming,” Clark said.

State Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, whose office represents consumers in utility issues and fought the FPL proposal, said he and his staff will wait to see a final written order from the Public Service Commission before deciding whether to appeal the decision. The proposal was also opposed by the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, which represents large business customers, and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The South Florida Water Management District in 2013 determined that “hypersaline” water from the Turkey Point cooling-canal system had moved off-site, and FPL later entered into agreements with Miami-Dade County and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to fix the problem.

In a brief filed last month with the Public Service Commission, FPL said it had complied with regulatory requirements in operating the decades-old canal system.

“FPL operated the CCS (cooling canal system) and the related interceptor ditch in full compliance with all applicable regulations, and nonetheless an unintended consequence occurred,” the brief said. “It is not uncommon for an owner/operator to operate a facility in compliance with all applicable permits, etc., and nonetheless a conditional violation … occurs.”

But opponents said the saltwater has contaminated the Biscayne aquifer and that the utility’s shareholders – not customers – should pay for remediation.

“Whether the acts were overtly intentional, or a matter of uncaring neglect, is irrelevant, and any notion that the consequence of a massive hypersaline plume was unintended by FPL is misplaced,” the Office of Public Counsel said in a brief last month. “The overwhelming evidence demonstrates that the decadeslong harmful buildup of salt from the CCS outside the system was entirely foreseeable and would occur absent close attention and intervention by FPL.”

The remediation project is expected to take about 10 years and cost an estimated $176.4 million, according to FPL numbers. Interest costs could push the tab to about $200 million.

With Tuesday’s approval by the Public Service Commission, FPL plans to recoup $82.3 million for the project next year, with that amount covering expenses from 2016, 2017 and 2018. The utility’s customers, however, might not notice a change in their monthly bills because of reductions in other environmental costs.

A residential customer who uses 1,000-kilowatt hours of electricity a month will pay $1.59 for the environmental costs in 2018, down from $2.44 this year, according to the utility. The Public Service Commission each year reviews and approves those costs, which are collected through what is technically known as the “environmental cost recovery clause.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Proposal to expand grandparents visitation rights temporarily postponed

Placing a constitutional amendment up for a vote can be problematic when the proposal itself might be unconstitutional.

That’s what Lisa Carlton, the chair of the Constitutional Revision Commission’s Declaration of Rights Committee, concluded on Tuesday, when she said she could not support expanding the rights of grandparents to visit their grandchildren.

“I think that the basic flaw of the proposal is that it is changing the constitution,” said Carlton, a former state legislator.

The measure was proposed by St. Petersburg state Sen. Darryl Rouson, one of three Democrats on the 37-member CRC panel. It would have changed the Constitution to specify that the right of privacy may not be construed to limit a grandparent’s right to seek visitation of his or her grandchildren under certain circumstances, but was temporarily postponed when it didn’t appear to have support from the committee.

Florida rulings have consistently upheld that parents have the right to control who has access to their children.

But the Legislature passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill in 2015 that allowed grandparents to tell family courts that they should be able to see their grandkids if both parents were dead, missing or in a persistent vegetative state. It also applied if one parent met any of the previous requirements and the other parent has been convicted of a felony.

In retrospect, however, Rouson said the bill was too narrow in scope, and still prohibited the majority of grandparents for having their visiting legal petitions considered in court.

“It’s narrowness has almost been limited to a nullity that it doesn’t even apply to a situation where it was the impetus for us to begin to work to pass it,” Rouson told the committee, before deciding that it didn’t have the votes to move forward.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also traditionally and continuously upheld the principle that parents have the fundamental right to direct the education and upbringing of their children. CRC board member John Stemberger said that knowing he couldn’t support the proposal.

“The problem with the proposal in my view is that the state puts itself the gatekeeper for parental decisions in determining what is in the best interests of the child versus not,” said Stemberger.

There were three members of the public who passionately called for the proposal to be accepted.

“We want the right to visit them” said Amanda Simon, the founder of Alienated Grandparents Anonymous International. “We want to be proactive. We don’t want just to be the victims.”

“Eight hundred thousand families of children are led by grandparents in this state. We give them nothing. No standing. No ability. That’s not what the federal right of privacy is all about,” said Marco Island-based attorney James Karl.

Karl called it “tragic” that the state stands alone when it comes to the rights of grandparents’ visitation rights.

“We give them nothing. No standing. No ability. That’s not what the federal right of privacy is all about,” Karl claimed.

Orlando grandmother Yvonne Stewart told the committee about how her daughter disappeared years ago and remains missing, while her daughter’s fiancé – the only suspect named by police in the case – has refused to let Steward see the couple’s twin children since the incident five years ago.

“How can a primary and only suspect for murder who takes the Fifth get the upper hand?” she asked the committee. “I need your help so that we don’t run in the stop sign, the Constitution as it’s written now.”

Tallahassee family attorney Shannon Novey provided expert testimony to the committee on previous legal rulings on the issue. She said there was a serious problem with giving standing to grandparents, but not other “third-parties” with established relationships with children, which she said was involution with the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

“The amendment says that solely that grandparents have this carve out and not other relatives or third-parties,” Novey said, adding that other relatives, as well as non-biological parents would be excluded under the same rationale.

Carlton said the way to change the law was through the Legislature, not the Constitution. “You are talking about enshrining something in the Constitution that is very, very dangerous to do in this situation.”

Ultimately, the proposal was temporarily postponed, with Rouson vowing to fight for it on a later day.

Denise Grimsley proposes generator tax reform

A Senate Republican on Tuesday proposed creating a tax exemption for generators installed at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

The proposal (SB 1246), filed by Sebring Republican Sen. Denise Grimsley is similar to a measure (HB 803) filed last month by Rep. Rick Roth, a Loxahatchee Republican.

The bills, which will be considered during the 2018 Legislative Session, come as nursing homes and assisted-living facilities look at carrying out generator requirements pushed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Both bills would create a sales-tax exemption for emergency-electrical equipment at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, with the exemption capped at $30,000.

Scott’s administration moved forward with the regulations after eight residents of a sweltering Broward County nursing home died Sept. 13, three days after Hurricane Irma knocked out the facility’s air-conditioning system.

Nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, however, have repeatedly raised concerns about the costs of installing generators and adding fuel supplies to meet the requirements.

‘Marsy’s Law’ push seeks equal rights for crime victims

Crime victims and family members are not given the same rights as those of the accused and convicted criminals.

A member of a group charged with amending Florida’s constitution is trying to change that.

Tim Cerio, a commissioner on Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission, is pushing a proposal that would equate rights of victims and their family members with those of defendants and convicted criminals — provisions commonly know as Marsy’s Law.

“The United States Constitution enumerates 20 distinct rights that are afforded to those accused or convicted of crimes,” Cerio said at a press conference on the proposal. “The victims themselves, family members they leave behind when a tragic loss occurs have absolutely no rights in our great document.

“Those who are thrust into the criminal justice system by the actions of others have (no rights).”

Cerio said that most states — all but 15, including Florida — have taken steps to amend their constitutions to enumerate victims’ rights. 

Marys’s Law takes its namesake from Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas of California, who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Marsy’s brother and mother were confronted by the accused murderer in a grocery store. The two family members were not aware the ex-boyfriend was released on bail because they were not notified.

Part of Marsy’s Law stipulates the welfare of a victim’s family and the victim must be considered when setting bail for the accused.

There are other unique provisions in Cerio’s proposal, including protection of the victim’s dignity.

Michael Liles, executive director of the Jacksonville-based Justice Coalition, spoke in support of Marsy’s Law provisions. Liles’ wife was murdered in March, and he shared how victims’ rights provisions could have helped him throughout the process.

“I’d have had the ability to say ‘let’s not have a hearing on the day I’d rather be spending time thinking about my wife,’” Liles said. “They’ve scheduled hearings on anniversaries, birthdays — things that are difficult.”

Cerio’s proposal also includes provisions for victims to be free of harassment, abuse and intimidation, and a right for reasonable protection from the accused — so long as the rights do not interfere with the those of the accused.

Though Plantation Democratic Sen. Lauren Book does not have a vote on the proposal, she made a point of expressing her early support of the measure in a statement. A survivor of sexual violence, she said victims and their families “should not fear that they will go unheard or that the criminal justice process will cause them additional trauma or revictimization… That’s why we need Marsy’s Law for Florida.”

Cerio, an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott, repeatedly explained that his proposal does not seek to limit rights of the accused.

“There should be no takeaway from the important constitutional rights both granted by our federal government and our state constitution to the accused,” Cerio said. “That’s a really important point and its a point that we need to keep stressing.”

Enumerating victims’ rights has polled well in Florida, with one survey finding 85 percent of 700 likely voters agreed with the idea for Marsy’s Law protections.

Still, there is some pushback.

The Florida Public Defender Association provided comments on the proposal at its CRC workshop Tuesday morning, criticizing it on many fronts.

The advocacy arm for public defenders said that a portion of the proposal conflicts with the U.S. Constitution, which provides for a defendant to have a right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him, to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have assistance of counsel for his defence.”

Public comments from the association said, “The longstanding federal rights of defendants and the proposed state constitutional rights for victims are largely incompatible.” It said that’s because Cerio’s proposal would allow witnesses to refuse interviews, depositions and other discovery requests of the defense. The association also is concerned over changes to defendant payments and speedy trial provisions.

The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also provided public criticism. The group said some of the provisions would prevent “meaningful discovery,” which could lead to more trials and an in turn an increased burden on taxpayers.

The group also argued that more trials would lead to more exposure of the victim and that some of the provisions in Marsy’s Law would interfere with the rights of the accused.

A letter from Amy Mercer, executive director of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, to the Commission raised concerns over how some of the provisions would be enforced, should Cerio’s proposal pass. Among them: how to “reasonably protect” a victim. Mercer questioned whether that requires effort from law enforcement.

If cleared by the CRC, Marsy’s Law would move to the 2018 ballot, where it must receive 60 percent approval from Florida voters to become a part of the constitution.

House bill would ban Governor, Cabinet from in-Session fundraising

A loophole in state law that allows the governor and cabinet to fundraise during the Legislative Session could close if a House bill passes.

Dania Beach Democratic Rep. Evan Jenne filed HB 707 Tuesday, which would put the kibosh on executive branch members soliciting or accepting contributions during Session, either for one’s own campaign, one’s own political party, a political committee, or an aligned candidate.

Violations would come with penalties, as they do in the Legislature. The first offense would be a misdemeanor; repeated offenses would be felonies.

The goal, asserted Jenne, is to remove special interest money from having impacts on the process.

“The Governor and members of the cabinet all have their own legislative agendas each session and it’s time they abide by the same rules as legislators,” Jenne said

“It’s in complete conflict with commonsense and fairness that those with influence on the legislative process can raise money from special interests and pad their campaign war chests during session while being bills are being vetted, voted on, and making their way toward becoming law,” Jenne added.

Two members of the Florida Cabinet — Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam and CFO Jimmy Patronis — are running active campaigns. Putnam is the leading fundraiser in the Governor’s race; Patronis, an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott, is the only serious Republican candidate for the position in 2018.

Scott is all-but-certain to run for Senate, but he has no need to launch a campaign until Session ends.

Public Integrity & Ethics and the Oversight, Transparency, & Administration will mull the bill, which doesn’t have a Senate equivalent yet.

Supermajority for tax hikes proposal clears sole CRC committee

A committee of Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission approved a proposal Tuesday to require House and Senate supermajorities before increasing state taxes or fees.

The Finance and Taxation Committee was the only committee stop for the measure, presented by Chair Fred Karlinsky.

Karlinsky, the co-chair of Greenberg Traurig’s Insurance Regulatory and Transactions Practice Group, was a Rick Scott CRC pick — and his remarks were straight out of the governor’s hymnal.

Karlinsky cited “seven years of unprecedented growth” concomitant with tax cuts, before cautioning that a governor and legislature in the future may be less inclined to tax cuts.

With that in mind, the supermajority proposal — as a bulwark against tax hikes.

Karlinsky noted that 14 other states already require a two-thirds mandate in the Legislature to approve tax and fee hikes.

“This proposal does nothing more than [asking] the Legislature to be very circumspect in making that decision,” Karlinsky said.

Terry Golden, the policy director of the Florida Policy Institute, spoke in opposition, saying it would make it more difficult to raise revenues when needed, especially considering the state’s “lack of investment” in social services and affordable housing.

The state, Golden said, would be particularly vulnerable to an economic recession if this supermajority were to become part of the Florida Constitution.

Despite that pushback, committee members — including Vice-Chair Tom Grady — lauded the measure as the type of thing that should be sent to the full CRC.

The entire CRC must approve the measure.

If that happens, any 60 percent of voters on a 2018 statewide ballot must approve any proposal to change the state constitution.

‘Alternative transportation’ authority proposed

House and Senate Republicans are proposing the creation of a “Statewide Alternative Transportation Authority” that would oversee developing transportation systems for such things as autonomous vehicles.

The authority would be within the state Department of Transportation and would receive $60 million beginning in the 2021-2022 fiscal year, according to the House and Senate proposals.

The House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee last week approved the House version (HB 535), sponsored by Rep. Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, and Rep. James Grant, a Tampa Republican.

Meanwhile, Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young filed the Senate version (SB 1200) on Friday. The bills will be considered during the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts Jan. 9.

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