Florida Legislature Archives - Florida Politics

Payday lending bill moves ahead in House

A House panel on Wednesday adopted a “strike-all” amendment to a bill that would change regulatory requirements governing the payday-lending industry, which consumer advocates criticize for creating “debt traps” for poor Floridians.

The proposal would comply with new federal rules set last year by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year meant to ensure lenders determine if a borrower can afford to repay the full amount with interest.

State Rep. Jamie Grant, a Tampa Republican, said his bill would move to a “product that does not require the underwriting that makes the economics of the transaction unsustainable.”

Under his bill, a consumer may not borrow or have an outstanding balance that exceeds $1,000. And the maximum fees that a lender may charge cannot be more than 8 percent of the borrower’s outstanding balance on a biweekly basis.

It is expected, however, that the bill will raise the fees consumers must pay in some instances.

In Florida, there are 923 licensed short-term lenders. Between July 2016 and June 2017, these non-bank cash advance services approved $3 billion in loans to consumers with fees totaling $306 million.

Consumer and civil rights groups — including the NAACP, the Florida Alliance of Consumer Protection, the Florida Credit Union Association and Florida Legal Services — have long opposed these services, which they argue are a trap for poor Floridians.

State Rep. Janet Cruz, a Democrat co-sponsoring the bill, defended the effort, saying she grew up with a family that didn’t have access to credit cards. She shared that her mother, Gracie, used short-term loans to provide for her family.

“Being poor or financially challenged doesn’t mean that you are dumb,” Cruz said.

Following an hour-long debate on the bill, Grant admitted he is “conflicted” by the bill and that it is not a bill he would pass if “he was king.”

“The reason why this bill is striking a chord with all of us in this body is because we simultaneously understand that there are people in this state who don’t have access to traditional capital who have legitimate needs — urgent needs,” Grant said.

Rep. Sean Shaw voted in favor of the measure, saying he has constituents in “the most economically depressed part of Tampa” that rely on these short-term loans.

“If they were to go away, I would tell you that cable bills would not be paid, electricity would be turned off, cellphone and water bills (would go unpaid) — and that’s not something I am prepared to do,” Shaw said.

Former Congressman Kendrick Meek and former House Speaker Tom Feeney, who in 2001 helped pass the payday loan law to include protections intended to help cash-strapped Floridians, both spoke out in favor of the proposed legislation.

Feeney said the new federal rules will result in a significant reduction in credit availability and that Florida “needs to avoid this problem.”

“The Florida model for short-term, small-dollar loans has worked for our citizens, and I encourage state lawmakers to consider protecting this important credit option to keep it available for years to come,” Feeney said.

HB 857 now heads to its last committee stop and an identical version of bill, SB 920, is moving ahead in the Senate.

With four Brightline pedestrian deaths, Debbie Mayfield imploring need for state safety regulation

Now that four people have been killed after somehow walking or bicycling into Brightline railroad trains’ paths, the state senator who has been pushing for Florida to regulate safety for the state’s new high-speed, private passenger rail service decried whether there have been enough tragedies for the state to start considering train safety.

“How many more people have to die in order for us to really take a look at safety measures?” implored state Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Melbourne Republican who has been pushing bills for two years trying to get Florida to regulate train safety before Brightline trains start coming through her Senate District 17 communities in Brevard and Indian River counties, as well as others up and down Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Mayfield actually made that declaration Wednesday afternoon before the fourth fatal accident happened.

Brightline, formerly known as All Aboard Florida, hasn’t been commercially operating a full week yet, and for a few months before its only runs had been occasional test, training or promotional exercises, or just efforts to move train sets from one place to another. Yet now the company is dealing with four fatal accidents involving its trains. The most recent reportedly occurred Wednesday afternoon when a man riding a bicycle was struck by a train in Boynton Beach.

The third fatality, the one that brought Mayfield’s declaration, came last Friday evening when a 32-year-old woman  reportedly ducked under a down crossing gate at a street crossing, also in Boynton Beach, and then was struck by the Brightline train on its final promotional run before it was to start commercial service the following morning.

Brightline officials offered thoughts and prayers and full cooperation with all investigating agencies. But with law enforcement investigations underway, they could say little beyond that, other than to provide assurances that the company is doing all it can to assure safety.

The second pedestrian had been killed on that track in November when a 35-year-old woman was hit by a test run of a Brightline train in Deerfield Beach. The first was killed in July when a woman was hit in Boca Raton, a death ruled a suicide in front of another Brightline train on a test run.

The fatalities demonstrate both the warnings that Mayfield and her allies in the Florida Legislature have been trying to put forward for two years now, and the challenges that Brightline or any railroad faces, recognizing that, no matter what the train companies might do, there’s an almost random potential for tragedies if someone wanders onto a track in front of an oncoming train, just as there is if someone wanders onto a highway in front of oncoming street traffic. In fact, also on Wednesday a pedestrian was killed by the much slower SunRail commuter train in Winter Park.

This session Mayfield introduced Senate Bill 572, the proposed High-Speed Rail Passenger Safety Act, while her counterparts in the House of Representatives, Erin Grall of Vero Beach and MaryLynn Magar of Tequesta, offered House Bill 525.

Last month Mayfield decried the need for state safety oversight after a high-speed Amtrak train on its maiden run derailed in Washington state, killing three. And then Friday night came news that a third person had been killed after being struck by Brightline trains.

“This is a tragedy. You don’t want anything like this to happen,” Mayfield said. “But how many more people, whether it’s suicides, whether its accidents, or whether they just happen, before we really take a look at putting safety first when it comes to high-speed rail coming through our communities?” Mayfield implored, shortly before the fourth death occurred.

Her comments were similar to those from Brent Hanlon, chairman of Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida, which has long been leading the community fight against Brightline’s plans to extend high-speed rail service up much of Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

“First and foremost, we express our deepest condolences to the family members of all three victims,” Hanlon said in a news release issued by CARE-FL before the fourth death was announced. “This is exactly why we are fighting for our communities. Enough is enough. We need safety measures in place that will protect our pedestrians, our school children who may walk or bike along the tracks to school, our first responders and members of our community. AAF continues to tout its commitment to safety, but three deaths during test runs indicate something is seriously wrong.”

Right now Brightline is running only through Palm Beach and Broward counties, from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale. Later this year train service will be extended to Miami. The company intends to develop high-speed tracks from West Palm Beach to Orlando to one day provide service from Miami all the way to Orlando. For now, the maximum speed is about 79 mph for the South Florida segment. From West Palm Beach to Cocoa, through the districts of Mayfield, Grall and Magar, the train could reach 110 mph. From Cocoa to Orlando it could reach 120 mph. The company also has talked about extending lines to Jacksonville and Tampa, though nothing formal has been announced.

Specifically Mayfield’s bill and the House counterpart seek to have the Florida Department of Transportation impose, inspect for, administer, and enforce safety regulations on any high-speed passenger trains in Florida, of which Brightline would be the first, and so far the only known. There also are some fiscal issues in the bill, as well as reporting and transparency requirements for rail accidents and rail safety. She also wrote to Gov. Rick Scott last month urging him to back her bill after the Washington rail disaster.

Brightline officials insist they are building their system with the highest safety standards offered by the Federal Railroad Administration. That includes pursuing additional measures that would not necessarily be required by federal rules, including upgrading all public at-grade railroad crossings to include gates, warning time systems, bells, flashing lights and signs; implementing “positive train control” high-tech train braking systems; and upgrading crossings to meet highest federal safety standards, whether federal rules would require them at those specific crossings or not.

The company also cited public safety education efforts that include a tri-language [English, Spanish and Creole] rail safety public service announcement campaign; partnerships with school districts to distribute safety information; 40 Brightline employees trained to give safety presentations throughout the communities; and outreach efforts throughout the rail corridor.

Mayfield insisted that safety assurances need to be in law, tailored for Florida, inspected, and enforced, and that the company’s agreements with the local authorities and the Federal Railroad Administration  do not provide the level of requirement that her bill would impose.

She acknowledged that proposals in her legislation might not stop pedestrians from ignoring gates, horns, and other warnings and wandering in front of oncoming trains, as appeared to happen in each of the four Brightline fatalities. But she argued that the Florida Department of Transportation could and should take responsibility for identifying risks and seeking safety measures to address them.

“The things we’re trying to address in this bill is to make somebody accountable for the oversight and regulation of any high-speed rail that comes through the state of Florida. It’s pretty clear that the bill says, establish safety recommendations, reporting requirements and training to assure the safest environment for impacted communities as well as passengers.”

Dr. Nicole Fanarjian, Sarah Lipton-Lubet: Florida lawmakers are subsidizing anti-abortion lies

Wouldn’t you want to know if your taxpayer dollars were being used to lie to women about their health?

That’s exactly what is happening here in Florida. Each year, the Florida Legislature funnels taxpayer dollars to “crisis pregnancy centers,” (CPCs) anti-abortion organizations posing as legitimate health care clinics. Under the guise of providing reproductive health services and pregnancy-related information, these fake clinics shame women and lie to them to prevent them from accessing the care they want and need.

Often camouflaged as health care facilities and purposely located near real clinics that provide the full range of reproductive health services, CPCs try to lure women away from facilities that can actually meet their reproductive health care needs.

When a woman enters a CPC for any type of service, she is given biased counseling, misinformation and, at many “clinics,” religious seminars. Often, she hears false claims about fetal development and the health effects and safety of abortion care (in reality, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures in the United States).

To be clear, CPCs peddle falsehoods that have been repeatedly discredited by extensive scientific research and the country’s most prominent medical associations.

Florida women describe being harassed, bullied and given blatantly false information at CPCs. Janessa from the Tampa Bay area had been so ill from her high-risk pregnancy that she was hospitalized, unable to work and struggling to make ends meet.

Given her compromised health, she decided an abortion was her best option. Hoping to save money on the ultrasound she needed before her appointment, Janessa went to a nearby clinic that advertised free ultrasound services.

Unfortunately, the clinic was an anti-abortion CPC, and instead of providing Janessa with a reliable ultrasound, they shamed her for deciding to have an abortion.

Staff repeatedly forced her to view ultrasound images and told her they would call her after she left to discuss her pregnancy. Janessa was sure of her decision to obtain abortion care, but she was shaken by her experience at the CPC and intimidated by the staff’s threats to repeatedly contact her against her wishes.

Unfortunately, there are many similar stories of deception and harassment directed toward Florida women by CPCs.

CPCs are deceptive. They undermine a woman’s right to access abortion care. They undermine the trust at the foundation of the patient-provider relationship by posing as health care providers and peddling inaccurate medical information. And they undermine a woman’s dignity by attempting to shame and pressure her and take away her ability to make her own decisions.

Yet none of this has slowed the push by extremists in the Florida legislature to legitimize and fund CPCs with taxpayer dollars.

Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville) has introduced SB 444, which would permanently fund CPCs with taxpayer dollars. His bill intentionally restricts women’s access to the full range of health care services by funneling public funds to entities that exclusively “promote and support childbirth,” while cutting out qualified medical providers who offer the full range of reproductive health services including birth control and abortion care.

By sending tax dollars to CPCs, anti-abortion lawmakers in Florida are demonstrating a total disregard for the truth, undermining a woman’s right to make her own informed medical decisions and denying her the respect and dignity she deserves.

Florida lawmakers need to know that taxpayers are watching. We will not stand idly by as hard-earned tax dollars in the form of public funding go to fake clinics that harm Florida women.

___

Dr. Nicole Fanarjian is a Florida obstetrician and gynecologist. Sarah Lipton-Lubet is V.P. for Reproductive Health and Rights with the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Campaign finance reforms advance with bipartisan support

A pair of measures that would reform the state campaign finance system, including barring Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members from raising money during Session, cleared a House panel on Wednesday with bipartisan support.

State Rep. Evan Jenne said his proposal, HB 707, is a “common sense rule” and not “an indictment or finger pointing” at the governor, who is widely expected to run for U.S. Senate, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who is running for a another term, or Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican gubernatorial candidate.

“This is no indication of those four individuals, it is simply a matter of what is good for the goose is good for the gander,” Jenne said.

Both the Florida House and Senate prohibit members from accepting contributions during a regular, extended, or special Legislative Session. The proposal would add the same restrictions to statewide elected officials.

The proposal would make it a misdemeanor to accept a single political contribution and a felony if an individual solicits or accepts two contributions during Session.

In the vein of reforming the campaign finance system, state Rep. Frank White, who is running for Attorney General, championed a proposal that would repeal a 30-year-old state public campaign financing system.

“Most of you know that I am running for statewide elected office and if this does go on the ballot it would not affect my campaign whatsoever,” White said.

That measure cleared the House Oversight, Transparency & Administration Subcommittee. It would eliminate a system that gives statewide candidates taxpayer-funding matching dollars if they agree to limit their expenditures. Under the current system, outside contributions of up to $250 are matched and contributions above that amount are matched to $250.

“Our system dolls our millions of tax dollars to incumbents and other experienced politicians,” White said.

Speaker Richard Corcoran has pushed to abolish the system with the Constitution Revision Commission, which meets once every 20 years to propose changes to the constitution. Corcoran has called the public campaign financing system a “gross waste of taxpayer money” and “welfare for politicians.”

“You really have to be clueless or just plain selfish to accept money from our state coffers that could go to our school children, first responders, or be put back in the pockets of our taxpayers,” Corcoran has said.

Both measures have one more committee stop before they head to a full House vote.

If the measures are passed by the Legislature, they would be put on the 2018 ballot and would need 60 percent voter approval to go into effect.

10 issues to watch during Session

Florida lawmakers will start the 2018 Legislative Session Tuesday, with Gov. Rick Scott giving his annual State of the State address.

During the subsequent two months, the House and Senate will negotiate a state budget and consider hundreds of bills. Here are 10 big issues to watch as the Session moves forward:

Budget

Scott has proposed an $87.4 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The proposal includes politically popular ideas such as boosting education funding and providing tax cuts. But the proposal is only a starting point for lawmakers, who are expected to face a tight budget. A September analysis estimated a slim $52 million surplus for the coming year — and that did not account for the state’s costs from Hurricane Irma.

Environment

Eyeing money from a 2014 constitutional amendment about land and water conservation, lawmakers will consider a series of proposals that could shield property from development and restore waterways. For example, Senate budget chief Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, has proposed spending $100 million a year on the Florida Forever program and wants to set aside $50 million a year for the restoration of the St. Johns River, its tributaries and the Keystone Heights lake region in North Florida.

Health Care

House Republican leaders likely will renew a push to ease health-care regulations, an effort they say would help increase access to care and lower costs. Examples include eliminating the “certificate of need” approval process for hospital building projects and ending a restriction on patients staying overnight at ambulatory surgical centers. Such proposals, however, have died in recent years in the Senate amid opposition from parts of the hospital industry.

Higher Education

Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, has made a top priority of revamping the higher-education system and will continue seeking changes during his final term. Senators are expected to quickly approve a bill that would make permanent an expansion of Bright Futures scholarships and take steps to further bolster need-based aid. Negron also wants changes such as holding universities to a four-year graduation standard in performance funding.

Hurricane Irma

When Hurricane Irma smashed into Florida on Sept. 10, it reset priorities for the 2018 Legislative Session. Lawmakers are considering dozens of ideas for responding to Irma and preparing for future storms. For instance, they are looking at possibly providing financial help to the agriculture industry, which took at least a $2.5 billion hit in Irma. They also will grapple with Scott’s push to require long-term care facilities to have generators and fuel to keep buildings cool when electricity goes out.

Insurance

Insurance lobbyists will try to persuade lawmakers to revamp laws dealing with a controversial practice known as “assignment of benefits,” which the industry blames for increased property-insurance costs. The practice involves policyholders signing over benefits to contractors, who then pursue payment from insurers — often leading to disputes and lawsuits. Lawmakers also will consider renewed proposals to eliminate the state’s no-fault auto insurance system.

K-12 Education

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, has made clear he wants to continue expanding school-choice programs, which draw opposition from Democrats and many public-school officials. The House has started moving forward with a bill that would offer voucher-like scholarships to students who are bullied in public schools. Meanwhile, the House and Senate face a key budget disagreement on the use of increased property-tax revenues in funding public schools.

Opioid Epidemic

With overdoses skyrocketing and families being torn apart, lawmakers will look for ways to address the state’s opioid epidemic. Scott wants to spend $53 million to address the issue, with much of the money going to substance-abuse treatment. Scott and lawmakers also could place limits on initial opioid prescriptions that doctors write for patients. The idea is to prevent patients from getting hooked on prescription painkillers and then moving onto potentially deadly street drugs.

Tax Cuts

Since taking office in 2011, Scott has made cutting taxes a hallmark of his administration. As he enters his final Legislative Session, Scott has proposed $180 million in tax and fee cuts. The proposal, however, does not include major changes in the tax system. Instead, it includes a 10-day sales tax “holiday” for back-to-school shoppers and reductions in motorist-related fees, including fees for obtaining and renewing driver’s licenses.

Texting While Driving

Lawmakers in recent years have repeatedly rejected efforts to toughen the state’s ban on texting while driving. But the issue has a better chance of passing during the 2018 Session after Corcoran announced that he supports making texting while driving a “primary” offense. Currently, it is a “secondary” offense, meaning motorists can only be cited if they are pulled over for other reasons. But if it is a primary offense, police would be able to stop motorists for texting behind the wheel.

Marleny Olivo: Palm Beach School Board should stop attacking charter school students

This week I asked to join litigation against the Palm Beach County School Board. As a working mother of two young sons, this is not a battle I wanted to fight.

But I have little choice. The school board is mistreating charter school students, including my younger son.

Board members have filed a lawsuit against House Bill 7069, which the Florida Legislature adopted last Session. This bill requires all education dollars to be spent on public school students equally, including charter students. But the board doesn’t want to comply.

It is ridiculous for the board to think district school students deserve more money than those in charter schools.

Charter schools, after all, are public schools. They are funded by public dollars, though managed privately. They must meet strict standards, and they’re closed if they receive failing grades or don’t meet parents’ expectations.

Yet the school board wants to disregard its obligation to the county’s charter students.

This is why I have joined the Academy for Positive Learning, which my 10-year-old son attends, in filing a motion to intervene in the school board’s lawsuit.

The board’s opposition to equalizing education funding is only the latest of its efforts to undermine charter schools. It consistently has rejected charter school applications, denying all the applications it received in 2014-2015.

When its rejection of one charter was overturned on appeal by the Florida Department of Education, the school board litigated all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, where it lost in September.

This animosity toward charter schools hurts children. Tens of thousands of charter school parents in Palm Beach County, like me, know first-hand what the charter option can mean to a child.

My 13-year-old attends a district school and has always done well. But my younger son had trouble at a district school, particularly with bullying. The state’s charter school option allowed me to enroll him in the Academy for Positive Learning, where he is safe and knows any bullying will be addressed immediately.

At the district school, he was distracted and his grades were inconsistent. With fewer students per class at the Academy, he now makes mostly A’s.

Opponents sometimes characterize charter schools as “cherry-picking” the “best” students. But more than 85 percent of Academy students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and a quarter of its students are English-language learners. Yet the Academy is an “A” school.

Like school board members, I want strong district schools, which do a fine job for most students, such as my older son. But not all students learn in the same manner or at the same pace. Charter schools can offer programs designed for students who struggle in the typical classroom setting.

A study released by the state Department of Education this year found charter students, particularly minority students, are making significant academic gains and frequently outperform their peers in district schools.

So why would the school board oppose these alternatives?

The school board has argued the state’s charter policies take education decisions “out of the hands of local voters.” But in fighting charter schools, the board is taking education decisions out of the hands of parents.

As a parent, I love school choice, but fair funding for charters is necessary to make that choice meaningful.

The Palm Beach County School Board should stop pitting district students against charter students and focus on giving all our children the best education possible.

___

Marleny Olivo lives in West Palm Beach.

Handful of new laws go into effect Jan. 1

Four bills passed during the 2017 Legislative Session go into effect on the first day of the new year.

HB 435: This bill updates the Office of Financial Regulation’s regulatory procedures and requirements for international financial institutions.

SB 590: This bill authorizes the Florida Department of Revenue to establish parenting time plans agreed to by both parents.

SB 800: This bill requires health insurers and health maintenance organizations to offer medication synchronization to align refill dates for certain drugs at least once a year.

HB 911: This bill amends various statutes relating to insurance adjusters, including eliminating licensure for public adjuster apprentices.

But another bill OK’d by lawmakers that would have taken effect Jan. 1, 2018 was rejected by Gov. Rick Scott.

That measure (HB 937) would have required one of six rotating warnings to be printed on lottery tickets and advertisements. One was “WARNING: YOUR ODDS OF WINNING THE TOP PRIZE ARE EXTREMELY LOW.”

Scott vetoed the bill, saying it would have imposed “burdensome regulations on the Lottery and its retail partners,” and could have cost the state $31.5 million for education.

Lottery proceeds go into the state’s Educational Enhancement Trust Fund, which helps pay for public education.

2017 Roundup: Turbulent times in Tallahassee

Scandal, storms and sniping were the hallmarks of 2017 in Florida, where political squalls and natural disasters created havoc in the Capitol and sent tremors through the Sunshine State.

The resignations of not one, not two, but three state senators, the impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria and infighting among Republican lawmakers were just some of the highlights of a year to which many are eager to bid adieu and perhaps even more wish never happened at all.

Sexual harassment, parts I and II

The political drama that gripped the Senate and rocked the Capitol this fall is atypical of an election off-year.

But the scandal that eventually forced out one of the Legislature’s most powerful members mirrored the ignominies that brought down powerful men in the media, in the movies and in boardrooms across the country.

The toppling of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexually assaulting or harassing dozens of women, and the ensuing #MeToo social-media campaign emboldened women to tell stories of abuse or inappropriate treatment that remained under wraps in state capitols like Florida’s — among other work environs populated by powerful men — in some cases for decades.

In Florida, the focus on sexual conduct began in late October with the resignation of former state Sen. Jeff Clemens, who left the Legislature after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat who resigned after a report in Politico Florida about the dalliance, was slated to take over as leader of the Senate Democrats following the 2018 elections.

Instead, constituents in his District 31 will remain without a senator until after the Legislative Session ends in March.

Before Capitol insiders even caught their breath following Clemens’s resignation, an even-more prominent senator — Jack Latvala — was in the spotlight.

For years, Latvala flexed his muscle as a power broker, often putting the brakes on right-wing priorities of his fellow Republicans and championing legislation that benefited teachers, firefighters, cops and prison guards.

But the Clearwater Republican likely will go down in history as a villain accused of engaging in a pattern of sexual harassment and possibly breaking ethics rules and laws.

To the end, Latvala steadfastly maintained his innocence, pointing the finger for his downfall at political foes and even a special master brought in to investigate the senator’s alleged wrongdoing.

Latvala, 66, announced his resignation Dec. 20, less than a day after Special Master Ronald Swanson, a former judge, recommended a criminal probe into allegations that the longtime lawmaker had promised legislative favors for sex.

Latvala quit amid increasing pressure — including from Gov. Rick Scott — to step down after Swanson found probable cause to support allegations that the senator had repeatedly groped Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers and engaged in a pattern of making unwelcome remarks about women’s bodies.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is handling a preliminary inquiry into allegations of possible public corruption.

The inquiry is based on Swanson’s findings related to an unidentified former lobbyist. Swanson found that the testimony of the former lobbyist and text-message exchanges between the senator and the woman indicated that Latvala may have violated ethics rules as well as “laws prohibiting public corruption” by agreeing to support the lobbyist’s legislative priorities if she would have sex with him or “allowed him to touch her body in a sexual manner.”

Latvala — a churlish and sometimes crass curmudgeon — has been a political player for four decades. He returned to the Senate in 2010 after an earlier stint that ended because of term limits.

But his political fortunes quickly plummeted in the aftermath of the revelations. Less than two months ago, he held the powerful title of Senate appropriations chairman, a post he lost after the allegations were made public.

In his resignation letter to Senate President Joe Negron, Latvala condemned the process that resulted in Swanson’s damning report. The resignation is effective Jan. 5, four days before the start of the 2018 Legislative Session.

An unyielding Latvala — painted as a vindictive bully by witnesses — took some parting shots at Negron in what might have been his final words to the Senate, saying he hated to leave his constituents in the lurch.

Latvala’s woes may not be over, due to the criminal investigation and a possible civil lawsuit by Perrin Rogers, who took to social media following the senator’s resignation announcement.

Perrin Rogers, whose Twitter avatar is Wonder Woman, said she came forward “as the mother of a son.”

“I could no longer look myself in the mirror; I could no longer in good faith encourage him to have courage and be kind,” she tweeted on Dec. 21. “Because having courage means standing up against wrongdoing. Especially when others are in harm’s way. To the women who have been harmed, I offer support, love and strength.”

Sexual harassment, part III

In the midst of the Latvala inquiry, allegations of sexual harassment ended the career of a utility regulator before it even began.

Ritch Workman, a former state representative picked by Scott for a spot on the Public Service Commission, withdrew from the job after Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, said he manhandled her at a charity event last year.

Workman’s appointment to the Public Service Commission was slated to take effect in January and would have been subject to later Senate confirmation. Benacquisto said she wouldn’t put his appointment on her committee’s agenda because of his “abhorrent” behavior more than a year ago.

Workman, a Melbourne Republican, “approached me from behind, pushed his body up against me and made vulgar and inappropriate gestures,” Benacquisto said in a statement, describing the incident.

Benacquisto, who has said publicly that she was raped as a teenager, said she immediately asked Workman to stop, but he continued to make the comments and gestures until others intervened.

An emotional Workman told The News Service of Florida he did not recall the incident, but that “the right thing to do is to get out of the way.”

“I have absolutely no recollection of being inappropriate with Sen. Benacquisto. I have nothing but respect and admiration for her. It breaks my heart that this has come out like this because it’s not the kind of person that I am,” he said.

A different kind of harassment

Long before the #MeToo cultural revolution began, another state senator was forced to resign after a profanity-tinged and racially charged outburst at a private club near the Capitol.

Miami Republican Frank Artiles left the Senate after the 2017 Legislative Session began and less than six months after he defeated incumbent Democrat Dwight Bullard in a brutal contest for the newly redrawn District 40 seat.

The former House member — a tough-talking, U.S. Marine veteran who earned the moniker “Frank the Tank” from fellow lawmakers — stepped down amid a Senate investigation into reports that he had insulted two black colleagues and others at the members-only club.

Artiles faced widespread condemnation for a rant that reportedly included calling Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, “girl,” a “bitch,” and a “f—ing ass—-.” Artiles also reportedly used the word “niggers” or “niggas,” though he contended that he did not direct the word at anyone in particular.

“It is clear to me my recent actions and words that I spoke fell far short of what I expect for myself, and for this I am very sorry. I apologize to my friends and I apologize to all of my fellow senators and lawmakers. To the people of my district and all of Miami-Dade, I am sorry I have let you down and ask for your forgiveness,” Artiles wrote in a resignation letter to Negron, a Stuart Republican.

‘Cardiac Kids’ make peace

Lawmakers were forced to return to the Capitol for a June special Session after Scott — who could be gearing up for a U.S. Senate run next year — vetoed the state’s public-education funding formula that had been included in a budget passed a month earlier.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran spent much of this year’s 60-day regular session on a legislative jihad against the economic-development agency Enterprise Florida and tourism-marketer Visit Florida. Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican, clashed frequently with Scott about the agencies.

Among the speaker’s more prominent complaints about Visit Florida was a $1 million deal with Miami rapper Pitbull, along with sponsorships of Fulham Football Club in England and the Visit Florida racing team.

After months of bickering between Scott and Corcoran, the June special Session focused on funding for public schools and economic development.

But the special Session quickly devolved into another opportunity for an intra-party boxing match, with Democrats gleefully painting a narrative of dysfunctional Republican leadership and rumors of a special Session collapse.

Hours after the Session seemed on the verge of falling apart, legislative leaders and Scott struck an agreement salvaging their priorities but setting off renewed criticism over backroom dealing. Among other things, lawmakers pumped more dollars into public schools, agreed on money for Visit Florida and set up a new economic-development fund.

Lawmakers also approved legislation setting the framework for the state’s growing medical-marijuana industry after a voter-approved constitutional amendment broadly legalized the product.

The deal emerged after a 30-minute harangue on the penultimate day of the week-long Session by Negron, who told reporters that the Senate would need more concessions from Scott and the House for the Session to end successfully.

That led many observers to predict that lawmakers might miss a deadline to end the special Session, much as they needed overtime to finish the state budget in May following a similarly chaotic process during the regular Session.

But on the final day of the special Session, out of the backrooms came a compromise that Scott, Corcoran and Negron supported.

“We call ourselves the cardiac kids,” Corcoran told reporters. “We get you guys all worked up, and then we come to a nice smooth landing and we accomplish a tremendous amount of policy.”

Celebration, then scandals

State Senate Democrats had some celebrating to do, at least for a while, after a closely watched victory in the race to replace Artiles.

In a campaign viewed as a litmus test of President Donald Trump and Florida Democrats’ ability to make gains in local and statewide elections next year, Miami businesswoman Annette Taddeo coasted to victory, defeating former state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Republican who stepped down from his House seat to run for the Senate.

Taddeo’s victory in Senate District 40 bolstered the hopes of Democrats, who have been outnumbered in the Senate for more than two decades, as they prepare to combat Republicans in local and statewide races in 2018.

But fallout from sexual harassment scandals quickly put the damper on Florida Democrats’ revelry.

Clemens, who was in charge of fundraising for Senate Democrats and took some of the credit for Taddeo’s win, walked away from the Legislature in late October.

Less than a month later, then-Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel abruptly resigned. The hurried exit of Bittel, a veteran fundraiser chosen to head the state party in January after a fractious leadership contest, came hours after a news report accused him of creating an uncomfortable work environment by leering at women and making suggestive remarks.

Blowing in the wind

State officials have yet to put an overall price tag on Florida’s costs from Irma, which left destruction from the Keys to Jacksonville.

But the historic storm caused an estimated $2.5 billion hit on crops and agriculture facilities, $6.55 billion in insured losses and a more-than $1 billion price tag for utility customers to cover the costs of power restoration.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam‘s department estimated in October that the state’s already-reeling citrus industry took a $761 million hit from Hurricane Irma. Since then, a number of lawmakers and Putnam said the damage estimate has grown to possibly more than $1 billion, as fruit continued to fall early from trees that were flooded by the September storm.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Maria — which battered Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — also had a major impact on Florida, as evacuees from the territories continue to flood into the state.

According to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, more than 269,000 people have traveled from Puerto Rico to Florida in the past three months, but it is unknown how many are considered to have relocated from the island. More than 10,000 Puerto Rican children have enrolled in Florida schools since the storm.

Nearly one-third of the island remains without power, and water supplies are getting worse, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Hospitals also remain in disrepair, according to a report by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who visited the island Thursday.

“The people of Puerto Rico are our fellow American citizens. They should not be treated like they’re being treated. It’s just not right,” Nelson tweeted.

Story of the year: Allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct roiled the Capitol, resulting in Clearwater Republican Latvala and Lake Worth Democrat Clemens resigning from the Senate and former Rep. Workman withdrawing from an appointment to the Public Service Commission.

Quote of the year: “But I have had enough. If this is the process our party and Senate leadership desires, then I have no interest in continuing to serve with you. I, therefore, will resign my seat in the Florida Senate at midnight, January 5, 2018.” Clearwater Republican Latvala, in a Dec. 20 letter to Senate President Negron.

Deborah Franklin: Protect Florida elders by keeping nursing home certificate-of-need process

Deborah Franklin

Throughout my professional career, I have been dedicated to the continued growth and enhancement of quality long-term care in Florida. A key element of quality care is maintaining a sense of independence among the elders we serve, a priority that is fostered by Florida’s long-standing commitment to helping them remain in the least restrictive setting possible.

However, I believe a proposal now before the Constitution Revision Commission would undermine that goal and threaten the continued independence of countless older Floridians.

The proposed amendment to our State Constitution would eliminate the Certificate of Need (CON) process for nursing homes, among others, and change that would disrupt the mission of continuing quality care in skilled nursing care centers. The CON process requires Florida’s Health Planning Councils to identify areas which have a need for additional beds.

Facilities must document how they will meet those needs, either through new development or adding on to an existing center. Beds are awarded based on several factors, including a center’s quality outcomes and financial stability.

The intent is to prevent an oversaturation of care facilities, so the taxpayers don’t end up subsidizing unused beds.

Florida has the nation’s highest share of seniors, and elimination of the nursing home CON requirement would fly in the face of the state’s ongoing support of home and community-based care — a policy that allows elders to remain in their own homes as long as possible.

If additional nursing center beds are allowed without the careful scrutiny of the CON process, the new facilities will need residents to fill their beds — and the first place they will look is the ranks of those currently enjoying the benefits of home and community-based care.

It’s no secret that Florida is experiencing a nursing shortage, with more than 12,000 vacant nursing positions around our state. The problem is particularly challenging for skilled nursing centers.

Elimination of CON would lead to additional facilities competing for the same limited pool of Registered Nurses and Certified Nursing Assistants, thus spreading already limited resources even thinner.

If the CON repeal is enacted, it seems unavoidable that more seniors will be moved from home settings and into skilled nursing centers — a setting that is necessary for our most frail elders, but certainly not for everyone currently living in the less restrictive environment offered by home and community-based care. If it was your mother or grandmother, would you want her living in even the best nursing home before it was really necessary?

The Legislature has seen the value in allowing the nursing home CON process to remain in place, so why does the Constitution Revision Commission want to circumvent their authority by using our State Constitution to repeal CON?  Because of today’s CON laws, nursing care centers are able to continue to provide quality care at a level that is among the best in the nation.

Existing centers are able to focus on recruiting dedicated more health care professionals to the field, to serve residents who truly need the care they offer.

Every Florida resident should take a significant interest in this issue, for the sake of their elderly relatives — and, someday, for themselves.

I hope every member of the Constitution Revision Commission recognizes the need to protect our senior citizens by leaving the nursing home CON process in place.

___

Deborah Franklin is Senior Director of Quality Affairs for Florida Health Care Association. She has more than 20 years’ experience working as a nursing home administrator, most recently overseeing renovations and expansions for the not-for-profit Florida Living Options, which operates the Hawthorne Village continuing care retirement communities in Florida. She can be reached at dfranklin@fhca.org.

The coming nuclear war in the Florida Senate

If you want to blame someone, blame Charlie Justice.

Or, for that matter, you can blame the late C.W. “Bill” Young.

Because when the Florida Senate is reduced to proverbial ashes in early 2018, those still standing will be left to wonder where everything went wrong.

And that’s why you should start blaming Justice. Or maybe his then-political consultant, Mitch Kates.

Going into the 2010 election cycle, it was more than a rumor that Young, first elected in 1970, might not seek re-election. It was thought that all he wanted was to set the tone for a graceful exit.

Like several other Pinellas Democrats, Justice could read the handwriting on the wall, even if it didn’t tell the whole story about Congressman Young. A former legislative aide turned lawmaker, Justice was an affable first-term state Senator whose term would end in 2010.

Justice could have easily won re-election. He was damn near a unicorn: a scandal-free, white male Democrat with deep connections to the education community and the kind of legislative record that did not raise the ire of the business community.

But Justice was weary of the tone emanating from Tallahassee. He could see which direction state politics was turning and he was less and less interested in being part of it. He’d rather be in D.C., where Barack Obama was president, than Tallahassee, which has been dominated by Republicans for two decades. So, in April of 2009, Justice decided to challenge Young for the congressional seat the Republican held for nearly forty years.

Political observers speculated at the time that Justice wasn’t really interested in challenging Young as much as building up his name recognition for the inevitable day when Young really did retire, which Justice and local Democrats hoped would be in 2010. But somewhere along the way – probably in between the time Justice criticized his opponent for using campaign funds to purchase a car or produced an online video which attempted to link the veteran lawmaker with jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff – Young decided he would not be muscled out of his congressional seat. He would end up handily defeating Justice.

Unfortunately for Justice, he burnt his Senate seat at the shore of his congressional run. By announcing so early in the election cycle that he would not run for re-election, he essentially created an opening in the heart of Pinellas County. However, this battleground seat, which had flipped from Charlie Crist and Jim Sebesta to Justice, would not really be contested. Almost from the moment Justice announced he would not run again for the Legislature, it was clear who would succeed him in the seat.

Jack Latvala.

Latvala had been termed out of the Senate in 2008 after a forceful career that saw him serve as a chief lieutenant to Senate President Toni Jennings and as a powerbroker who ended a bitter stalemate for the Senate presidency. He used his influence to dominate Pinellas politics in a manner not seen since the days when Charles Rainey held sway. His political consulting and mailhouse was a national powerhouse, aiding presidential candidate and dozens of state parties. Other than Young himself, no other Pinellas politician was as powerful.

Latvala dispatched his Democratic opponent in 2010 with ease and quickly pivoted to rebuilding his power base in Tallahassee. Although many former allies and seasoned lobbyists and staffers were content with Latvala back in the capital, there were more than a handful of insiders who had worked with Latvala during his first stint in the Senate who were not exactly excited to see him return. However, Don Gaetz, the incoming Senate President who would grow to become one of Latvala’s many enemies, made it clear that Latvala would be welcomed back by the Republican caucus.

‘He’s changed,’ hopeful staffers would say to one another.

But like the Pearl Jam song says, Latvala changed by not changing.

In an era of hyper partisanship, the Republican hailing from the county which gave birth to Florida’s modern GOP prided himself on being a moderate. He championed legislation benefiting police and firefighter unions; he torpedoed bills designed to privatize the state’s education and prison systems.

Yet, he was still a good Republican. He wholeheartedly backed Gov. Rick Scott‘s re-election in 2014, while donating to dozens of GOP candidates throughout the state.

Part of that donating was linked to Latvala’s effort to realize his dream of becoming Pinellas County’s first Senate President in more than a century.

It was a dream that would never come to fruition.

Latvala’s never-ending ambition to be Senate President has dominated the politics of the upper chamber for this past decade. It’s really part of what has led that body to where it is today.

Initially, it was Andy Gardiner who Latvala was competing against to be Senate President. But after a failed coup by John Thrasher – stymied in part by Latvala and his allies – Gardiner would win that race, while Latvala would live to fight another day against Joe Negron. That bitter intraparty scrum took years — and millions of dollars — to decide, with Negron eventually prevailing because, well, Latvala was his own worst enemy.

He backed a series of candidates running in Republican primaries and general elections who were defeated by, in most cases, younger, more tech-savvy candidates. Jeff Brandes defeated Jim Frishe. Aaron Bean defeated Mike Weinstein. Etc.

Make no mistake: Latvala had a band of colleagues who wanted to see him become Senate President, but, collectively, they were neither as numerous or as determined as the forces opposed to him leading the Chamber.

And so Latvala became the Dark Star of the Florida Senate, occasionally plunging it into a parliamentarian abyss, as he did when he helped obliterate the top priorities of President Mike Haridopolos and his conservative allies.

Yet, it cannot go unsaid that these past seven years have been one of the worst periods in the history of the Florida Senate. With the exception of one year of Don Gaetz’ tenure and the final days of Gardiner’s term, the Senate has been a dark, dark place. From the losses it suffered during the redistricting process and trial to the resignations of Frank Artiles and Jeff Clemens, it has been one catastrophe after another in the so-called upper chamber. Meanwhile, a line of House Speakers – Dean Cannon, Will Weatherford, Steve Crisafulli and Richard Corcoran – have essentially had their way with their colleagues across the hall, who end up sounding like they play for the Chicago Cubs: “Wait until next year!”

There have been very few constants during the Senate’s decline, but one of them has been the presence of the senior Senator from Pinellas County.

Jack Latvala.

For all of his legislative successes … for all of the projects he’s secured funding for … for all of what’s he’s done for Tampa Bay … the situation for Latvala is almost a reverse “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Instead of George Bailey having never been born, what if Latvala had not served a second stint in the Florida Senate?

What if Justice had just run for re-election?

Instead, the Senate faces a nuclear scenario. On one side is the increasing level of forces arrayed against Latvala because of a singular public accusation of sexual harassment. On the other side is Latvala himself, the Kim Jong-un of the Florida Senate. The opponents of Latvala are powerful enough that they could easily destroy him if that’s what they wanted. Scott and Senate President Negron could release a joint statement calling on Latvala to resign and that would pretty much be game over. Enough of Latvala’s Republican colleagues could sign on to a petition seeking his resignation and that would tell Latvala it’s time to go.

And the United States could easily destroy North Korea in any exchange of weapons, conventional or nuclear.

The supreme danger in that scenario is the collateral damage. What missiles can North Korea fire off, preemptively or retaliatory, if it is about to be attacked or is attacked?

What missiles can Latvala fire off, preemptively or retaliatory, if he is attacked?

If the special master in the sexual harassment case finds probable cause (and how can he not as that threshold is so easy to reach) and L’Affaire Latvala heads to a “trial” on the Senate floor, what kind of damage will be done to an institution already reeling from a decade of losses?

Because Latvala has said, both publicly and more forcefully in private, that his colleagues will have to vote him off the Senate floor if he is to be expelled from the body. He won’t make a deal. He won’t resign.

Instead, he and his lawyers will conduct a full-throated defense that will involve the public questioning not only of his accuser but many members of the Senate. No one has more institutional knowledge about the Florida Senate than Latvala. No one knows where more bodies are buried.

God only knows what will come from that spectacle.

On Tuesday, Sen. Travis Hutson said that the Senate “is being burnt to the ground and I feel Senator Latvala is running around with the Napalm and the matches.” He’s now calling on Latvala to resign “so that we do not have to deal with this problem anymore.”

Hutson is wrong. Not about Latvala needing or not needing to resign, but of the incendiaries he thinks Latvala has at his disposal.

A nuclear war is coming and I don’t know if anyone knows how to stop it.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons