September 13, 2014

Fred Grimm: State overlooks abuse and props up 'anachronistic...moribund' dog racing industry

Fred GrimmFlorida allows convicted criminals to meddle in dog racing. Known animal abusers can own or train greyhounds. The state abides cheaters who pump performance-enhancing drugs and pain killers into their animals.

Not even the ghastly, now infamous discovery back in 2002 that Florida greyhound trainers were paying a farmer in Baldwin County, Alabama, $10 a head to “dispose” of aging, slow or gimpy dogs had much affect on their ability to operate in Florida.

Baldwin County authorities reported that the old farmer had admitted killing between 2,000 and 3,000 greyhounds over the years, shooting them in the head with a .22 caliber rifle, then tossing their remains into a long ditch cut across his property. “This case shows what was going on in the greyhound-racing industry in Florida,” Baldwin District Attorney David Whetstone had said. “It opens up the eyes to how sinister it was.”

But sinister didn’t seem to matter all that much to the bureaucrats running the Florida Division of Parimutuel Wagering. Ursula O’Donnell, one of the Florida trainers implicated in the mass extermination deal, managed to keep her license even after investigators found her signature on a check made out to the dog killer.

My colleague Mary Ellen Klas found that a long list of rogue operators have been allowed to train and own racing dogs by Florida parimutuel regulators — though the term “regulators” in that particular state agency seems to be a wild embellishment. “Abettors” might be more accurate. Fred Grimm's column here.

September 11, 2014

Scott seeks to make his 'un-slickness' an asset

Gov. Rick Scott's two-week campaign bus tour rolled through the Panhandle Thursday, where he cast himself as an economic problem-solver in contrast to the opportunism of his opponent and predecessor, Democrat Charlie Crist.

Riding in a giant blue bus adorned with white "Let's Keep Working" signs, Scott mingled with customers at The Donut Hole in Destin and rallied Republicans, who chanted "Four more years!" at a sparsely-attended event at a Crestview Buick dealer. On Friday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, president of the Republican Governors Association, will help Scott rally the GOP faithful in Panama City.

"Charlie Crist is a slick politician. A smooth talker. I'm not," Scott said at the dealership. "Charlie Crist is all talk and no action."

Traveling with the governor, Attorney General Pam Bondi picked up on the theme, opening her speech with this: "Rick Scott is not a slick politician, nor a slick talker. What he is is an honest, ethical, hard-working governor."

It's an obvious attempt to turn Scott's weakness into an asset by making his stiffness appear more real than Crist's "slick" style.

Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera both ripped into Crist as an opportunist who was more interested in the vice presidency or a U.S. Senate seat who as governor neglected jobs and raised state debt. "The four years he was governor, he didn't even want to be governor,"  Lopez-Cantera said.

Scott appeared more relaxed on the trail and he spent more time fielding reporters' questions. He knows his audience too. In the deeply-red Panhandle, he repeatedly tied Crist to President Barack Obama, but there was no mention of Republican priorities that do not play well there, such as his support for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students.

 

September 09, 2014

Seven former Supreme Court Justices say they oppose medical marijuana amendment

An anti-drug group fighting Amendment 2 has elicited the backing of seven former state Supreme Court justices to oppose the effort to legalize medical marijuana. But a spokesman for a pro-amendment group countered that's "what's relevant is the majority opinion" of the current court.

A divided Florida Supreme Court ruled in January that ballot language for the proposed constitutional amendment meets all legal requirements.

“It strikes us as disrespectful to the sitting justices on the bench that these former members of the highest court in our state would publicly question the decisions of the court in such a manner,” Ben Pollara, spokesman for United for Care, the prime group fighting for Amendment 2, wrote in an email.

In a press statement billed as a  “paid political advertisement paid for by Drug Free Florida Committee,” former Justice Kenneth B. Bell said that “Once an Amendment is in the constitution, it is extremely difficult to change.  A subject such as this should be addressed by general law … The Legislature has already legalized a strain of low-THC marijuana for medical use that is not smoked. Any expansion of marijuana use should reflect further development in medical knowledge and have a carefully limited scope, which Amendment 2 does not do.”    

 

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September 04, 2014

New law drastically reduces cost of Florida Prepaid College Plans

@tbtia

A new law that drastically limits tuition increases at state universities will result in $900 million in savings for families enrolled in Florida Prepaid College Plans.

About 18,000 families will receive $197 million in refunds because their paid-in-full accounts now exceed expected tuition costs. Another 22,000 families will see their bills reduced by more than $700 million over the remainder of their contracts.

There are 7,265 families in the Tampa Bay area, and 14,009 families in the Miami area that will receive refunds or price reductions.

These savings are the result of House Bill 851, approved during the 2014 session. The bill got the most attention for a provision allowing undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition, but it also froze tuition at current rates and repealed a state law that allowed public universities to ask the Board of Governors to increase tuition up to a maximum of 15 percent.

Read more here.

August 29, 2014

Senate education chairman declines award from school boards association

Senate Education Commitee Chairman John Legg declined an award from the Florida School Boards Association on Friday -- one day after the organization announced plans to challenge the school voucher program in court.

"It is now apparent to me that the association's stance on educating low income students and access to choice in education is too conflicting with my own," Legg wrote in a letter to FSBA Executive Director Wayne Blanton. "It saddens me that the FSBA would take a position that looks to eliminate customization in education, an approach which is widely viewed to be essential to improving student learning."

The FSBA named Legg its Legislator of the Year on July 1.

His notification letter included a hand-written message from Blanton: "Thanks for all you have done for us. Your support of technology is greatly appreciated by all of the school districts."

Legg, a Trinity Republican and longtime supporter of school choice, declined the honor Friday.

"It is my sincere hope that the FSBA will abandon this hostile view toward low income students and customization," he wrote. "While in the past, we may not have agreed on every issue, we nevertheless maintained a healthy respect while working to resolve our differences for the betterment of all students. I hope the FSBA will redirect its efforts for the advancement of all our students and I look forward to working with you to that end."

The FSBA lawsuit takes aim at the tax credit scholarship program, which provides private-school scholarships to children from low-income families. The association's attorney claims the program conflicts with the state's Constitutionally mandated duty to provide a free and uniform system of public schools. 

The state teachers union, PTA and the League of Women voters of Florida are also participating. 

Read the letters from the FSBA and Legg below.

Download Legg  Download FSBA

Voter groups appeal newly drawn congressional map in latest redistricting challenge

@tbtia

The coalition of voter groups that originally challenged maps draw during redistricting efforts in 2012 said they will also apeal newly draw maps approved earlier this month by a Leon County circuit court.

Last week, Judge Terry Lewis upheld the revised congressional map that the Legislature approved during a three-day special session. Lewis said the new map corrected what he had determined were violations of the state's Fair District rules against gerrymandering. The new map updated boundaries for congressional seats currently held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, along with adjoining districts.

Lewis ruled that the new map would go into effect for the 2016 election. Both Brown and Webster are running for re-election now under the old boundary lines.

The coalition that originally challenged that map said the new one doesn't fix the issues they've raised and have criticized Lewis' ruling. They said the changes the Legislature approved to districts 5 and 10 didn't go far enough to fix the political gerrymandering.

The voter groups have now asked the state's First District Court of Appeal to look into Lewis's rulings. The coalition, which includes the League of Women Voters of Florida, the NAACP and Common Cause, makes it clear their fight is focused on changing the maps again in time for the 2016 election.

The First DCA has twice ruled against the voters groups on redistricting appeals but the Florida Supreme Court has twice overturned those rulings.

August 22, 2014

Judge approves legislature's fix for congressional maps, calls no special election

RedistrictOldNew

Florida’s flawed congressional districts may remain in place for two more years and newly drawn boundaries for seven north and central districts don’t have to take effect until 2016, a Tallahassee circuit court judge ruled late Friday.

Judge Terry Lewis upheld the revisions to the state’s congressional map approved by the Florida Legislature during a three-day special session earlier this month. But he said the current configuration, which he ruled unconstitutional a month ago, could stand for the 2014 election.

“An election in 2015 is not a viable option,’’ Lewis wrote in his four-page order. “The 2014 elections will have to be held under the map as enacted in 2012.

That will come as a relief to U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, whose congressional districts were the target of the court’s criticism. Brown and Webster feared being elected to a new term in November only to have to face a special election possibly next year under the newly configured boundaries.

Lewis ruled on July 10 that congressional districts 5 and 10 violated the state’s Fair District rules against political gerrymandering. He then gave legislators until Aug. 15 to modify the map and fix two districts in particular. Lawmakers responded by calling a rare summer-time special session and modified seven of the state’s 27 districts, then appealed to the court to approve it.

Although the judge validated the legislature’s map, the fight is not over.

David King, lawyer for the League of Women Voters, one of the voters groups that challenged the districts drawn by the GOP-led Legislature, said they were disappointed in the ruling and will appeal.

Anticipatingn a protracted dispute, Webster recently set up a legal defense fund to help him finance any court fights that may emerge over his district.

Lewis wrote that he disagreed with the voters coaltion that argued the changes made to the original map were superficial and did not cure the flaws to Districts 5 and 10 and concluded that the Legislature’s “remedial plan adequately addresses the constitutional deficiences I found in the Final Judgment.”

He also rejected calls from the plaintiffs to create an east-west minority district that would stretch across North Florida from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. They argued it would allow minority voters to elect two blacks to Congress instead of one but, under the plan, Brown’s districtg would be dismantled and a new Orlando-based minority district would emerge as a coalition district for both Hispanics and African American voters.

“The Legislature is not required, however, to produce a map that the Plaintiffs, or I , or anyone else might prefer,’’ Lewis wrote. “The Legislature is only required to produce a map that meets the requirements of the Constitution.”

He noted that the plaintiffs “have not offered convincing evidence that an East-West configuration is necessary in order to comply” with the terms of the Fair Districts amendment approved by voters in 2010.

Lewis also rejected calls for a special session to implement the new map. He said that the plaintiffs “offered absolutely no evidence” to support their arguments that a special election could reasonably be held in time for the 2014 elections and thereby allowed the invalidated districts to remain in place until 2016.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was thrilled with the ruling and even sounded happy the Legislature got a do-over.

“I am pleased with Judge Lewis’ speedy, thoughtful and conscientious decision,’’ he said in a statement. “I am especially relieved that our overseas military voters and those Floridians who cast their ballots early will have their votes counted this election. You know, sometimes life affords you second chances; I am glad we got it right on the second round.”

Here's the opinion:  Download Romo.Order Approving Remedial Redistricting Plan

 

 

August 20, 2014

Racial divisions emerge as judge decides fate of congressional redistricting plan

Terry LewisThe racial tensions that coursed for years beneath the surface in Florida’s redistricting battle came into sharp focus Wednesday as lawyers for each side blasted each other for attempting to use black voters for partisan gain.

The arguments emerged at a hearing Wednesday called by Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis to decide whether the Florida Legislature’s redrawn congressional map meets the constitutional standards imposed by voters in 2010.

Lewis said he will decide "as quickly as I can’’ whether to accept the new map drawn by legislators last week in a three-day special session. Legislators had until Aug. 15 to revise two congressional districts he ruled invalid – one held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Democrat, and the other held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.

At the center of the controversy is Congressional District 5, which has been held by Brown for 22 years since the Legislature linked together African American communities from North and Central Florida so they could elect the first black to Congress since Reconstruction.

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August 18, 2014

Council aims to fight human trafficking

Human trafficking is a crime that reaches a broad spectrum of victims -- teenage runaways, the homeless, undocumented workers and even "kids who hang out at the mall every day,"  Mike Carroll, interim secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families said Monday at the first meeting of the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking.

Many victims are also foster care kids who are under state care or have aged out of the state system and have no where to go, Carroll, the council's vice chair, said.

Florida has been ranked third in the number of calls received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which estimates there are 27 million people enslaved worldwide.

"Four years ago, no one wanted to believe this existed," said Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has reached out to truckers, emergency medical workers, business owners, law enforcement and recently Mexican authorities to fight human trafficking. "It has to be stopped."

Now, Bondi, is also counting on a new panel with law enforcement, health care officials, educators, advocates and experts to fight the crime. The 15-member trafficking council, which Bondi chairs, was created during the 2014 legislative session to tackle specific goals in the human trafficking realm, including recommending programs and services to help victims; certifying safe houses and safe foster care homes; recommending ways to better apprehend and prosecute traffickers; and organizing a statewide summit.

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August 14, 2014

Secretary says he's on track to meet noon deadline for congressional elections plan

Florida’s top elections official said Thursday he is prepared to meet the noon deadline Friday to present a proposed special election schedule for the new congressional districts passed by the Florida Legislature this week. 

Secretary of State Ken Detzner told supervisors of elections on a conference call Thursday that he was preparing “to give the court our definition of what it would take to run an election with regard the new maps.”

Legislators hope the judge rejects the options, and they expect Detzner to show how costly it will be to hold special elections in seven counties for seven slightly-modified congressional districts.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis invalidated the first map and ordered Detzner to propose a new elections schedule. He concluded that two districts, District 5, represented by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and District 10, represented by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, were improperly drawn with the intent to benefit Republicans.

The legislature concluded its three-day special session on Monday, revising seven of the state’s 27 congressional districts in response after its original map was declared an improper partisan gerrymander. Gov. Rick Scott signed the plan into law on Wednesday.

Although legislators remain confident that the new map will be approved by Lewis, two voting-rights groups that brought the lawsuit challenging the original districts said they will fight to have the new map rejected.

"We are disappointed to see that the remedial map approved this week by the Florida Legislature looks suspiciously like the map that Judge Lewis ruled unconstitutional and the fact that it was drawn behind closed doors only adds to the suspicion," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida in a statement.

"The Legislature has a duty to abide by the Constitution, which they swore to uphold and enforce," said Peter Butzin, chairman of Common Cause Florida. "We believe they have once again fallen fall short of their sworn duty, and we will continue to urge Judge Lewis to adopt a constitutionally compliant map for the 2014 elections." 

-- Staff Writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report