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February 09, 2016

Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio almost cross paths in New Hampshire

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@PatriciaMazzei

BEDFORD, N.H. -- For a moment, it almost seemed like a scene out of Miami.

Jeb Bush headed out of a high school polling place Tuesday. A few minutes earlier, in strolled Marco Rubio.

Except it was Bedford High School in New Hampshire. Snow piled on the ground. And Rubio and Bush were not just near-neighbors coinciding at a popular voting site. They were candidates rolling around in name-branded buses, chased by an entourage of reporters, trying to get a word in edgewise with voters.

"I feel good!" declared the former Florida governor, who was accompanied by his wife, Columba, son Jeb Jr. and longtime friend and Miami developer Sergio Pino. "But as you know, this is a volatile year."

Rubio hadn't advertised his appearance at the school. But by arriving after Bush, who had, he found himself surrounded by a phalanx of cameras anyway. That made it difficult to spend much quality time with locals. Rubio was also trailed by a man dressed up as a robot, holding a sign that read "#RobotRubio," referring to Rubio's tendency to sound scripted.

The Florida senator ignored him.

"We've got great energy!" asserted Rubio. "We're looking forward to Florida -- there won't be snow there."

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Open-enrollment bill goes to Florida House floor with amendments

House education committee 0209

@ByKristenMClark

A bill that would allow open enrollment in Florida public schools is headed to the House floor, after the House Education Committee on Tuesday afternoon made two significant changes.

HB 669 -- from Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor -- would allow parents to request classroom transfers for their kids or put them in any school in the state that has capacity.

After stalling last year, the measure moved swiftly through three committees since passing its first panel three weeks ago, and it's one of several bills being debated in both the House and Senate this session that call for open enrollment. The concept is supported by "school choice" advocates and the charter school industry -- which gave Florida lawmakers' campaign and political committees at least $182,500 between July and early January, before the 2016 session started.

After more than an hour of debate Tuesday, Sprowls' bill passed the House Education Committee on a 13-5 vote, with Tallahassee Democratic Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda joining Republicans in support.

Republicans said the bill promotes choice and the freedom for all students to go to a quality school that suits their needs. But Democrats said key questions still remain unanswered, such as how it would affect school funding across district lines and whether it would hurt neighborhood schools or have other unintended consequences.

The most controversial change adopted by the committee had critics worrying that developers in wealthy areas would be able to designate which students could attend schools built in blossoming communities. The amendment by Sprowls would give primary enrollment preference based on land donations "or funding agreements" in place with school districts before July 2016.

"We’re cherry-picking and saying only in those wealthy communities, where a developer is going to give the land, are we protecting that right to neighborhood schools," Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, said.

Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, called it "bad public policy" because the proposal was so broad, and he was among those who said it would enable developers to "buy a seat" in preferred schools.

Supporters on the education committee said such fears were "unfounded" because the bill would only affect existing agreements in place by this summer, not future ones.

"A lot of what is being discussed here is current practice and it can happen today," Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said. "This is simply just memorializing an existing development and mitigation tool that exists."

Sprowls' amendment was added on a voice vote, which sounded close.

Meanwhile, lawmakers also added an unrelated provision that would require middle- and high school teachers to provide a class syllabus to parents and highlight "any material containing mature or adult content" that they intend to teach.

Teachers would have sole discretion to decide what is potentially controversial material, and parents would be given the opportunity to object, under the provision brought forth by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach.

Adkins and Reps. Marlene O'Toole, R-The Villages, and Michael Bileca, R-Miami, spoke vaguely of "pornographic" and "sexually explicit" material that students have been suggested or required to read in some Florida public schools.

"The content that some of our kids are exposed to under the responsibility of the school district … would shock a lot of members on this committee," Bileca said. He told the Herald/Times after the meeting that the questionable material he'd seen was brought to him by concerned Collier County parents.

Adkins' amendment was also added on a voice vote, which sounded unanimous.

Also Tuesday, the Education Committee sent three other high-profile bills to the House floor for consideration. They would:

-- propose to voters a constitutional amendment creating a statewide authorizer that could authorize, operate and control Florida's 650 charter schools;

-- require elementary schools to offer daily recess;

-- and target the Florida School Boards Association and eliminate its ability to sue the state using taxpayer dollars.

Both the charter school authorizer measure and the FSBA bill are moving through Senate committees also. The recess bill hasn't been heard at all in the Senate.

Photo credit: Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, presents HB 669 to the House Education Committee on Feb. 9, 2016. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

House committee rejects attempts to force compact to come to a statewide vote

Gaming crowdThe House Regulatory Affairs Committee meeting is off and running, as they take up three high-profile bills aimed at rewriting the state's gaming laws and ratifying the compact negotiated between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe. 

First up, Rep. Mike Miller, R-Orlando, offered a rewrite of the compact, putting a cap on the number of slots the tribe can offer,  giving blackjack to them for the next 15 years -- but not including craps and roulette and clarifying that they may not relocated their existing gambling facilities.

"I feel the legislative perogative for the members of this committee and the body fo thewhole is ot particcipate in the agreement with the Seminole Tribe,'' he said.

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, sponsor of the bill to ratify the compact, said he will work on need for clarification about what happens within the reservations but the rest of it could interfere with the amount of money that the state gets. "You can't negotiate more money for the same deal,'' he said. "I understand these are all three important isseus that continue to be discussed with the fundamental parts of this bill."

Paul Seago of No Casinos, argued that the gambling compact "allows for a major expansion of gambling on tribal property and off." He notes it allows the tribe to "the most slot machines in the world" so that it can have more slot machines than any Las Vegas operator and in places never intended by voters when they authorized slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward in 2004. 

Miller then withdrew the amendment. 

Rep. John Wood, R-Lakeland, offered an amendment to require the public the ratify the compact.

"The spirit of gaming expansion in our state, over the last 20 or 30 years, has been very very cautious, with the full approval of the voters or constituents,'' he said, nothing that many attempts at expansion has been defeated at the ballot box. "This goes to the central focus here of gaming. What do we want for our state. I'm convinced Florida doesn't need gaming and the people who advocate for gaming need us, but we don't need them."

The amendment was defeated. 

Senate taking dead aim at Gov. Scott's 'property tax increase'

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Senate have been on a collision course for months over how to pay for a big increase in public school spending, and a showdown is looming on Thursday in a budget subcommittee.

Under Scott's budget proposal, nearly 90 percent of the boost in K-12 funding would come from higher property tax bills charged to businesses and homeowners through a budget provision known as RLE, or required local effort -- an annual funding decision that the governor and Legislature set for all 67 county school districts. Growth in Florida property values means higher property taxes locally, even if the tax rate doesn't go up.

Scott has called this trend "a good thing," but a growing number of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature call it a tax increase.

The Senate budget subcommittee for education on Thursday will vote on a proposal by its chairman, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, to decrease the amount of property taxes to a level that evenly matches the state's contribution 50-50. A draft of Gaetz's proposal shows that would require increasing the state's share of K-12 support by $254 million. Gaetz said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, has been generally supportive of his proposal to reduce what he calls Scott's "$500 million property tax increase."

Scott's office pushed back hard on Gaetz, calling him "flat wrong" Tuesday. "Gov. Scott maintained the millage rate at the current levels," spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said. "When home values rise, that is a good thing for families in our state, and to call that a tax increase is flat wrong."

The news for Scott could get even worse. Asked what would have to be cut to find that new $254 million in general revenue, Gaetz said: "Maybe this is a better way to provide economic stimulus and tax relief than to give a tax break to large corporations."

Under Scott's proposal, public school spending would increase by $507 million next year, and $427 million of that, or 84 percent of the total, would come from property taxes. The Senate has calculated the effect of Scott's budget on property tax bills on non-homestead property, generally defined as businesses and vacation homes, in selected counties. Those taxpayers would pay $120 more next year in Miami-Dade, $92 more in Broward and $73 more in Hillsborough.

Wealthy Manatee County land developer with Miami roots now likely to get in U.S. Senate race

@JeremySWallace

A Miami native who has made millions as a homebuilder in Manatee County is likely to get into Florida's U.S. Senate race.

Republican Carlos Beruff has gone from considering entering the race last month, to now likely to get into to the crowded Republican primary, Joanna Burgos, a media consultant that has spoken to Beruff about the race, told the Associated Press.

Beruff, 58, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Last month, Beruff said in an interview with the Times/Herald that friends and allies were encouraging him to look at the Senate, though Beruff has never before run for office before.

Beruff would be joining a crowded GOP primary field that already has U.S. Reps. Ron DeSantis and David Jolly, Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and Todd Wilcox. But while some of those candidates have been in the race for more than 8 months, all have little statewide name recognition.

Beruff has been a trusted voice for Gov. Rick Scott, particularly on health care issues and served on Scott's transition team after he was elected governor in 2010. The governor also picked Beruff to lead his hospital commission last year. That commission was charged with looking at how taxpayer-supported hospitals spend their money and other costs and outcomes related to health care services. 

Beruff said in an interview last month that if he runs, it will be because he thinks he can really get something done in Washington. Beruff said just like his time volunteering on the Scott's hospital commission, he is looking for other ways to give back to the state and the country. 

If Beruff gets in, the AP reported that Matt Parker would serve as his campaign manager. Parker was Scott's 2010 field director and served as a consultant on Scott's 2014 re-election. Also coming over from Scott's campaigns would be Curt Anderson, who would help with polling, media and strategy, and fundraiser Debbie Alexander.

Beruff, who grew up poor in Miami, is a multi-millionaire who in 1984 started Medallion Homes, which is now one of the biggest residential land development companies in Manatee County. He has never held elective office, but over the last six years has been increasing his political stock on local and state government boards. He’s been a member of the Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority, the Southwest Florida Water Management District Board and the State College of Florida Board of Trustees, where his questioning led to dramatic changes in the Manatee County school’s leadership team.

Hillary Clinton's Pompano Beach office opens Wednesday night

Hillary Clinton's Pompano Beach office will open Wednesday at 7 p.m. -- her first in left-leaning Broward County.

Former U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, will kickoff the event at 50 NE 26th Ave., Suite 204. Klein represented parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties in Congress until he was ousted by Allen West in a tea party wave in 2010. 

Broward County has about 550,000 registered Democrats making it the county with the highest number of Democrats in Florida. Clinton's next public event in South Florida is on Feb. 15th when she will appear in Palm Beach County -- no details have been provided yet.

So far, Clinton's Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders hasn't announced any public events in South Florida leading up to the March 15 primary.

Gambling bill showdown begins today

Casino picTwo legislative committees today will try to do what has been an impossible for the last five years: pass a gambling bill that expands casino gambling, starts to remove the life support for the dying parimutuel industry and does it in a way that doesn't cut revenues to the state.

The two packages of gambling bills, up today in the House Regulatory Affairs Committee and the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, are being done in tandem with bills that ratify the bulk of the governor's compact with the Seminole Tribe, guaranteeing the state $3 billion in revenue over 7 years.

The proposals have been months in the making, with Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, taking the lead in the House and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the point person in the Senate. Each as spent enormous chunks of time in the past six months invested in trying to appease the loud and disparate factions who fight with gladiator-like ferocity in Florida’s gaming arena.

The result is a series of proposals that satiate many but satisfy no one -- except the Seminole Tribe. The nation’s most profitable tribe gets its compact ratified and a seven-year license to have a monopoly on casino games of craps, roulette and black jack at its seven casinos while it builds an entertainment empire, in time to attract a new generation of hipsters who have little interest in slot machines.

Both proposals allow for some expansion, some contraction and some outright novelties that the sponsors hopes will serve as a middle ground for everyone.

The pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward pari-mutuels would get their long-shot tax reduction on their slots operations. The Senate would allow for a 10 percent drop from the current 35 percent tax rate while the House would allow a 5 percent tax reduction at first with up to another 5 percent for pari-mutuels that agree to reduce the number of slot machines at their facilities.

But the problem with they way the state has assembled its gaming laws, with every concession to one part of the industry, another sees doom. Like a House of Cards, the removal of one piece could topple the whole arrangement.

Continue reading "Gambling bill showdown begins today " »

Judges hear sides in 24-hour abortion waiting period case

@MichaelAuslen

Florida’s constitution sets a high bar for abortion restrictions, lawyers for a Gainesville clinic told judges with the 1st District Court of Appeals Tuesday, arguing against a 24-hour waiting period law passed and signed last year.

But lawyers with the state attorney general’s office said that the voters didn’t intend to prevent all restrictions on abortion when they passed a constitutional amendment giving some of the nation’s strongest privacy protections.

“The people of Florida did not intend to prevent the Legislature from passing a reasonable law, one that ensures that pregnant women have a reasonable amount of time to make the decision whether to have an abortion,” said Denise Harle, deputy attorney general.

After Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law last June, Bread and Roses Women’s Health Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed a lawsuit and asked for an injunction to stop the law from going into effect. On July 2, the day after the waiting period went into effect, Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson issued a temporary injunction.

“What we have is the Florida Supreme Court’s consistent interpretation in the context of restrictions on abortion,” Julia Kaye, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said.

Now, the appeals court judges Bradford Thomas, Susan Kelsey and William Stone will have to decide whether to keep it in effect.

Computer coding proposal keeps moving through Florida Legislature

@ByKristenMClark

Plans to require public high schools to provide computer-coding courses and let students count them toward foreign language credits continue to easily advance through the Florida Legislature.

The Senate version -- led by former Yahoo executive and current state Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate -- is ready for consideration on the chamber's floor, and the House version passed its second of three committees on Tuesday.

The bill by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, was amended by the House education budget committee to include a $79,000-paid position at the Department of Education to "fund the bill."

Her version includes a provision directing the Higher Education Coordinating Council to develop recommendations for student success in post-secondary education and careers in computer science, information technology and related fields. A staff analysis of the bill recommended appropriating funds for a "program specialist" to support that directive.

Ring's version includes no such appropriation, as his bill is more narrowly tailored.

He's previously said the proposal would impose no costs, despite concerns raised by other lawmakers that it would require schools to hire teachers with specialty expertise, as well as provide enough computers to meet students' demand when many schools are already strapped for technology resources.

The bill's supporters include tech businesses, the Florida PTA, the Miami-Dade County Council of PTA/PTSA and Charter Schools USA.

Florida's public colleges and universities would be required to recognize students' computer-coding credits toward foreign language requirements.

Ring's version was changed last week to take effect in the 2018-19 school year and to include a provision requiring students and parents to sign a statement "acknowledging and accepting that taking a computer coding course as a foreign language may not meet out-of-state college and university foreign language requirements."

Adkins' bill requires districts to provide an advisory to students and parents, but there's no requirement of a signed statement. Her bill also requires Florida Virtual School to offer coding courses and for districts to give students access to the virtual school if local schools can't provide the course.

Florida Strong launches ad attacking lawmakers' special interests

@ByKristenMClark

The independent advocacy organization Florida Strong is going after state lawmakers for receiving campaign money from special interests before the 2016 session.

The group debuted a new web ad, called "Agenda," which it said it plans to run on social media and on state news websites. The ad cites data reported by the Herald/Times last month in an article that found special interests gave Florida legislative campaigns more than $28 million in the six months leading up to the start of session.

Florida Strong said the 60-second spot is the first in a campaign, which will later target individual lawmakers receiving special interest money.

The group declined to say how much it was spending on the ad.

 

Broad changes to school construction funding to go before Florida House budget committee

@ByKristenMClark

The House Appropriations Committee will take up legislation this afternoon that could significantly change how public schools use taxpayer money to fund construction projects, while making it easier for charter schools to get capital dollars.

The topic of school districts' construction spending has been a flash-point between education budget committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and the state's superintendents' association during the past couple of weeks.

A proposed committee substitute version of HB 873 brings to fruition Fresen's promise to rein in what he and other House leaders have argued is a “disturbing pattern” of districts' “glaringly and grossly” exceeding a state-imposed cap on how much in state dollars they can spend on capital projects. About 30 percent of projects statewide during the last 10 years or so went over the cap, according to Fresen.

The substitute bill goes even farther, too, by addressing charter schools' capital needs and forcing districts to assist with funding them in addition to traditional schools.

Continue reading "Broad changes to school construction funding to go before Florida House budget committee" »

It's been 84 years since the U.S. has elected a bilingual president

@VeraMBergen

WASHINGTON -- The United States has not elected a president fluent in a language other than English in 84 years.

And in a field of 11 remaining presidential candidates, only two are likely to change that: Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

The last commander in chief who spoke a foreign language fluently was Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected to his first term in 1932, who had been taught French and German since he was a child.

Four of the nation’s earliest presidents were multilingual, educated in classical languages such as Latin and ancient Greek, as well as German, Italian and most importantly French.

In more recent history, the ability to easily communicate in another language has gone from asset to liability. Presidential candidates John Kerry in 2004 and Mitt Romney in 2012 found that speaking fluent French was turned against them by opponents who painted them as elitist – and even worse, European-style – politicians.

More here.

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Abortion, transgender discrimination and gambling will all be part of packed agenda on Tuesday in Tallahassee. Here are five things we will be watching:

* A law passed last year that would require women to wait 24 hours before having an abortion heads to the 1st District Court of Appeals for oral arguments at 9 a.m. The hearing comes after a pair of rulings last summer in which county judges blocked the law from going into effect.

* For the second day in a row, a Senate committee will try again to take up a nondiscrimination bill for LGBT Floridians. The Senate Judiciary Committee killed the bill on Monday on a 5-5 vote, but then through a procedural move brought it back to life to reconsider it again later today. That meeting begins at 4 p.m.

* Both the House and Senate hold hearings looking into a new state gaming agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Gov. Rick Scott has been pushing the Legislature to approve the $3 billion deal he struck with the Seminoles in December, but lawmakers have so far proceeded cautiously on a deal that would expand gambling in the state. The House Regulatory Affairs Committee meets at 11:30 a.m. The Senate Regulated Industries Committee takes the same issue up at 1:30 p.m.

* School construction funding will be debated before the House Appropriations Committee. Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen has said he will propose limits on how school districts can use construction money because of his concerns of how districts are using the money. That panel meets at 3 p.m.

* A bill that would try to prevent clergy from having to perform same-sex marriages gets its second hearing in the Senate. The legislation is in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that ruled same-sex couples had the right to marry. The Senate Community Affairs Committee takes up the bill (SB 110) at 10 a.m.

 

February 08, 2016

Dave Barry investigates the lack of beer at Marco Rubio Super Bowl party

From Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry:

MANCHESTER, N.H. And so, at last, the time has come for the people of New Hampshire to make their voices heard, and then shut up because frankly we are getting tired of them.

If the polls are right — and when have the polls ever been wrong? — the winners in the New Hampshire primary will be Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, indicating that a major factor influencing voters this year is populism, by which I mean narcotics in the water supply.

Trump, taking his front-runner status seriously, is starting to focus, laser-like, on the issues, as evidenced by the statement he tweeted out at 9:03 p.m. Sunday (really): “So far the Super Bowl is very boring.”

I have to agree: The game was dismal. Also I was deeply disturbed by the commercial for a drug called Xifaxan that featured a cartoon depiction of a human intestine running around a stadium looking for a place to poop. This comes on the heels of those commercials for a drug called Myrbetriq featuring a cartoon depiction of a human bladder that keeps dragging some poor woman to the bathroom. If this trend continues it is only a matter of time before we see a Viagra commercial featuring a cartoon depiction of a male anatomical unit doing God knows what and I DON’T WANT MY GRANDCHILDREN TO GROW UP IN A WORLD LIKE THAT.

I apologize for shouting, but waterboarding is too good for the people who make drug ads. Also they need to learn to spell.

Getting back to the New Hampshire primary: I attended a “Super Bowl watch party” in Manchester hosted by the Marco Rubio campaign. They had pizza, sodas, big projection screens and a large crowd, including a massive media corps that was gang-interviewing New Hampshire voters to within an inch of their lives.

Rubio, who is battling for second place here, has been under fire from his opponents for allegedly being robotic and repeating the same programmed speech modules over and over. But he did pretty well in his remarks at the watch party, once his handlers installed fresh batteries.

More here.

Republicans fight for second place in New Hampshire snow

Jeb

@PatriciaMazzei

NASHUA, N.H. -- All the clichés about the New Hampshire presidential primary are true.

It snows.

Candidates face real people in historic town-hall buildings, just like they did hundreds of years ago.

And rebellious voters don’t care how the race looked after the Iowa caucuses. They will make up their own minds, thank you very much, and preferably at the last possible minute, just in case anything changes.

That offers hope to the contenders, who seem to organize their frenzied schedules thinking maybe one more TV interview aboard a campaign bus, one more rally, one more casual stop at a diner or a pub or a factory will help clinch a victory.

The candidates did their best Monday to finish on a strong note. But here’s is what clear about Tuesday’s election — the first real election in the 2016 race: not much.

Bernie Sanders is way up on Hillary Clinton, polls in the Democratic race show, though Clinton eked out a victory in Iowa. But New Hampshire was good to her in 2008 — she won here after losing Iowa to Barack Obama — and she brought in her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to blast Sanders in the two days before the primary.

Donald Trump appears to hold an ample lead on the Republican side. But he was ahead last week in Iowa, too — though not nearly as comfortably — and, with a limited ground operation, wound up second. In New Hampshire, it took him until Monday to participate in voter question-and-answer sessions in intimate settings, the kinds of events that are a staple here.

And some polls show a fierce battle for second place: And most polls show a fierce battle for second place: A Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush within three percentage points (14.4-11.3 percent).

More here.

Photo credit: Steven Senne, Associated Press

Gay man asks Marco Rubio, 'Why do you want to put me back in the closet?'

 via @learyreports

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- A gay man confronted Marco Rubio on Monday over his opposition to same-sex marriage, an unscripted moment in a day of stagecraft from the Florida presidential candidate.

"So Marco, being a gay man, why do you want to put me back in the closet," Timothy Kierstead asked the candidate at The Puritan Backroom.

"I don't," Rubio said. "You can live any way you want. I just believe marriage is between one man and one woman."

"By God," Kierstead replied. "You want separate church and state." He told Rubio he had been married for a long time and you want to say we don't matter."

Rubio: "No. I just believe marriage is between one man and one woman."

Kierstead: "But that's your belief."

Rubio: "I think that's what the law should be. And if you disagree, you should have the law changed by a legislature."

The New Hampshire legislature legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.

Kierstead told Rubio that gay marriage is legal, to which Rubio said, "I respect your view."

"Typical politician," Kierstead said as Rubio walked away.

The exchange came as Rubio spent money on a charm offensive Monday, popping into restaurants and shops to win over New Hampshire's famous last-minute deciders.

The Puritan Backroom, according to pool reporting by theWashington Post's Sean Sullivan, is "a restaurant founded by Greek immigrants almost a hundred years ago and known for its 'world-famous' chicken tenders, which Rubio’s youngest son Dominick sampled straight from the kitchen."

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

The 'playful' reason why two lawmakers had shotguns on the Florida House floor last week

Pigman_grimsley_Original

@ByKristenMClark

About an hour before the Florida House was due to meet for daily session on Wednesday and vote on two controversial gun bills -- including one over open carry -- Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, and Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, walked onto the chamber floor so they could have their photo taken together.

The scene wouldn't have been so unusual had it not been for the props each carried: Longarm shotguns.

Pigman told the Herald/Times on Monday about the "very innocuous, homespun, country backstory" of why they had the shotguns. And both he and House spokesman Michael Williams said the lawmakers had permission to have them in the House chamber.

It was simply a "playful" way to highlight Grimsley's and Pigman's competition in an upcoming clay-shooting competition where they're raising money for a local hospital in their rural, central Florida districts, Pigman said.

Williams noted the photo shoot happened before the start of the daily session and that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement -- which oversees Capitol Police -- "was involved with inspecting and securing the firearms. They were not loaded."

Pigman, an emergency room doctor, and Grimsley, an emergency room nurse, have been friends for many years after working in the same hospital, Pigman said. They've had an ongoing rivalry in clay-shooting, which Pigman said is a common way to raise funds for charitable causes where they live.

Pigman said his niece, a hospital foundation director, suggested the idea of a photo demonstrating the lawmakers' throw-down to benefit the Florida Hospital Heartland Division Foundation. He said he and Grimsley had intended to take the photo outdoors, but it was overcast on Wednesday in Tallahassee so they asked and received the House sergeant-at-arms' approval to do it in the House chamber.

Open carrying of firearms isn't allowed in Florida (although a bill the House voted on later Wednesday afternoon seeks to change that). Only gun-owners with concealed-weapons permits can carry concealed weapons in the Florida Capitol. Official legislative meetings are one of about a dozen locations in state law where even concealed weapons are prohibited.

Gretl Plessinger, spokeswoman for FDLE, would not comment definitively on whether Pigman's and Grimsley's carrying of shotguns in the state House chamber is allowed under Florida law. She said that "firearms are permitted in the Capitol for citizens with a concealed weapons permit."

Pigman said it was "ironic" and "entirely accidental" that their photo shoot came the day of the chamber's votes on the open-carry and campus-carry bills.

The brief photo shoot was observed by a few reporters working in the press gallery above the chamber. A chosen photo from it was published Friday on the Senate Republicans' Instagram account and the chamber's main homepage at flsenate.gov.

However, the image was removed from both sites late Monday afternoon, shortly after the Herald/Times inquired about it.

Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said she took down the photo out of concerns it "could cause confusion for other Senate constituents who visit the website and follow social media accounts associated with our Senate offices."

Here's how the photo previously appeared on the Senate homepage, when clicked on under the "recent posts" header.

Pigman_grimsley

Photo credit: flsenate.gov

Senate panel OKs death penalty fix with historic decision on juries

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee Monday passed a rewrite of Florida's death penalty sentencing law in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the law and found that a jury, not a judge, must find each fact necessary to impose a death sentence.

The Senate bill goes beyond its House counterpart by requiring that all 12 jurors in future cases must unanimously agree on the death penalty. Florida is one of three states in which a simple majority of seven jurors is sufficient to recommend a death sentence.

The bill (SPB 7068) has four elements that address the Supreme Court ruling in Hurst vs. Florida. Prosecutors must notify defendants within 45 days of an arraignment that they will seek the death penalty. Juries must unanimously agree on every aggravating factor to warrant a death sentence -- and if they don't, death can't be imposed. The jury recommendation of death must be unanimous; otherwise the sentence is life without parole. Judges will no longer be able to override a jury's recommendation of a life sentence and impose a death sentence.

The bill is supported by public defenders who represent defendants and is opposed by state attorneys who prosecute cases. State attorneys strongly oppose a requirement for unanimous juries, and at their urging, the House bill currently requires no more than nine jurors to be in agreement.     

If Florida requires all 12 jurors to agree on death, "You allow an individual juror to hijack the whole process," said State Attorney Brad King of Ocala. "In the sentencing part, there is no do-over."

The bill now goes to the full Senate. The Legislature must agree on a new sentencing law by the time the session ends on March 11 in order for executions to resume in Florida, where 389 inmates are on death row.

Senators heard support for unanimous jury recommendations from Juan Melendez, who spent nearly 18 years on Florida death row for a crime he did not commit and could have been executed, but he was exonerated. "You can never release an innocent man from the grave," Melendez told senators. "I see all of you going in the right direction."

House committee revives bill to legalize full-strength marijuana for terminally ill patients

Cathy Jordan cannabis

After months of being sidelined, a bill to legalize full-strength medical marijuana for terminally ill patients resurfaced in the Florida House Monday with a rewrite that restores the number of eligible growers to five.

The bill, HB 307, was approved by the House Appropriations Subcommittee by a 9-2 vote, leaving it one more stop before getting to the full House. If approved, it will allow terminally ill Floridians who have been diagnosed with less than one year to live to have legal access to marijuana grown by the five authorized distributors.

The bill, and its companion SB 460, is an expansion of the "Right to Try" law passed last year which allows terminally ill patients to have access to experimental drugs not approved for general use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Senate bill is ready for a vote of the full Senate.

Under the state's Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014, the Department of Health in November awarded licenses to five nurseries that have been in business for at least 30 years and have grow a minimum of 400,000 plants. They will be allowed to grow, process and dispense marijuana low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabidiol, or CBD. Authorized patients who suffer from seizures, severe muscle spasms or cancer are eligible to receive low-THC cannabis, commonly known as "Charlotte's Web."

The House bill to allow the growers to also cultivate full-strength cannabis is sponsored by Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach and Katie Edwards, D-Plantation.

The measure is driven by both compassion and economics. It allows the existing five growers to expand their market -- and profitability -- by allowing them to sell all strains of marijuana to patients whom two doctors have determined have only a year to live. It also gives patients legal access to marijuana in all forms for palliative use.

"If you have a year left to live you're going to try whatever you think may be helpful,'' said Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, who supported the bill. "Frankly, you're not going to care whether it's legal or not."

Photo: Cathy Jordon, who suffers from ALS, urges the committee Monday to keep the number of medical marijuana dispensaries at 20. 

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Attorney General Loretta Lynch to visit Miami for policing tour

Attorney General Loretta Lynch will visit Miami as part of her national community policing tour.

Lynch will visit six jurisdictions around the country that have excelled in each of the six pillars discussed in the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing final report: (1) Building Trust and Legitimacy; (2) Policy and Oversight; (3) Technology and Social Media; (4) Community Policing and Crime Reduction; (5) Officer Training and Education; and (6) Officer Safety and Wellness.  The trip to Miami Dade County will highlight Pillar 1 – Building Trust and Legitimacy.  Lynch will also visit Portland, Oregon; Indianapolis; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Phoenix; and Los Angeles; in the coming months.  

While in Miami-Dade County, Lynch will be joined by U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer.

Lynch will hold an event at the Doral Police Department on Thursday and Booker T. Washington High School  and Miami-Dade College on Friday morning. 

“One of my top priorities as Attorney General is strengthening relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities we serve and protect,” Lynch said. “During the second phase of my community policing tour, I will be highlighting some of the innovative efforts underway around the country to build trust, foster cooperation, and enhance public safety.  I look forward to meeting with law enforcement officers, local leaders, and residents in the weeks and months ahead to discuss how we can ensure that every American benefits from neighborhoods that are supportive, safe, and strong.” 

Ferrer said: “We in South Florida are proud of the work we have done to implement the recommendations outlined in the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Through active engagement and meaningful dialogue, members of law enforcement work hard to build trust with the communities they serve.  As an example of this approach, the City of Doral Police Department has adopted the Blue Courage initiative, a training and leadership development course which focuses on how to enhance their officers' effectiveness and relationships with the citizens they serve.  Many other local departments have also developed robust community policing initiatives.  During Attorney General Loretta Lynch's visit this week, we will share strategies and continue to identify and cultivate the best practices for creating stronger and safer communities.”