« March 23, 2014 | Main | March 25, 2014 »

11 posts from March 24, 2014

March 24, 2014

Senate advances bill to provide for dispensaries for limited strains of marijuana

While the Florida House of Representatives moves to decriminalize a non-euphoric strain of marijuana, the Senate advanced an alternative approach on Monday — create up to four highly regulated dispensaries to distribute the strain for medical purposes.

It is an approach that states that have legalized medical marijuana are increasingly turning to, after gaps in those laws led to legal confusion and needless prosecution.

Florida legislative leaders say they are not prepared to legalize marijuana for a broader range of maladies than the non-euphoric strain intended to benefit children with intractable epilepsy.

But if the Senate proposal passes, the framework could serve as the vehicle for the Legislature and regulators to control the development of the medical marijuana industry if voters approve, as expected, the constitutional amendment in November. 

“This isn’t being approached as setting up a a regulatory framework if the constitutional amendment were to pass,’’ said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, one of the Senate sponsors of the bill. “But it would be naïve to say what we’re doing does not set a precedent.’’

A February poll of voters in Republican Senate districts by the Republican Party of Florida found that 78 percent favor legalizing “the medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases” while only 18 percent oppose it.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted 5-1 in favor of CS SB 1030, which will allow patients to use low-THC marijuana — containing no more than .5 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and at least 15 percent of cannabidiol (CBD). Story here. 

Sen. Denise Grimsley files bill to curb trauma center response fee


What started as a legislative effort to protect the Hospital Corporation of America from lawsuits over its trauma centers could also clamp down on the for-profit company's outsized trauma response fees, and slow down its plans to open still more facilities.

A yearlong investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that trauma centers across the state are exploiting a little-known fee that is meant to offset some expenses of high-priced care. But HCA's average $28,000 trauma response fee is by far the highest in the state. The for-profit company now has five Florida trauma centers. If it can win state approval, the company has ambitions to open more.

Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said she read the Times report and concluded the fees were "outrageous." She has proposed an amendment to Senate Bill 1276, intended to protect HCA from legal challenges against three of its trauma centers. Grimley's proposal would cap the trauma response fee for one-year at $15,000, a level that would affect only HCA and one other for-profit trauma center.

Her amendment, which the Senate Health Policy Committee will consider Tuesday, also creates a one-year moratorium on opening new trauma centers and convenes an advisory committee to help revise the application and approval process.

Read more here.

To protect Confederate heritage, Baxley's bill adds layer of government

A bill that adds a layer of government and takes away local control passed a House panel controlled by Republicans on Monday.

Yes, Republicans on the House's Agriculture and Natural Resources committee seemed to contradict their own principles by narrowly passing HB 493 7-6 that would require Florida’s Cabinet to approve any changes to historic sites in the state park system if anyone objects. Currently, all changes are made by administrators working in the parks system or the Florida Department of Environmental Protection after considering local input.

It wasn’t a RINO who sponsored the bill, but Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the House’s ultra-conservative behind the 2005 “stand your ground” law, among others. He filed the bill in reaction to a request by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War to erect a obelisk honoring the fallen Union soldiers in the Feb. 20, 1864 Battle of Olustee.

Though the actual battle itself lasted five hours, the fight over it rages on.

In 2011, the Sons of Union Vets group decided it was time to better honor the Union soldiers who perished in the battle, which itself is commemorated at Olustee Battlefield Historic Park, about 45 miles north of Jacksonville along U.S. Highway 90. It’s the site of annual reenactments. This year’s 150th anniversary attracted 3,000.

Yet while three Confederate memorials salute the 946 Southern casualties, there’s no obvious marker for the 1,861 men from the North who died, were injured or vanished. About a third of those casualties were African-American soldiers.

A granite cross honoring one of the mass graves of soldiers can be seen from the road. But Harvey Linscott, 74, of Ocala, who is a member of the Sons of Union Veterans, said the memorial can’t be seen from the battlefield during the reenactments.

“It’s hidden by trees, the Port-o-Potties and the food shacks,” Linscott said. “Our organization just wants to honor our ancestors. The war is over. We thought this wasn’t going to be a problem.”

They were wrong. Despite getting early support from state staff, a December hearing in Lake City turned ugly. Linscott said he and five other members were shouted down by a group of about 75.

“They were waving the Confederate flag and singing ‘Dixie.’,” Linscott said. “Baxley was at the meeting. He said told the parks staff at the meeting that if they don’t deny it, he would get the state Legislature to put an end to this. That got a big cheer. All of it was shocking.”

Baxley’s bill would no longer allow parks staff from making final decisions about historical sites on state land.

“The citizens of Florida should not have to go beg a team of bureaucrats not to do something,” Baxley said. “They should be able to address elected officials.”

But he contradicted the work of Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City, who spent time with the groups to come up with a solution everyone was happy with. Baxley’s bill was a “knee-jerk reaction to one incident,” Porter said.

“There is a process for this situation and I have seen it first hand and I helped facilitate it first hand,” Porter said. “The process worked in my district. We had meetings. We discussed it. And everyone had their side heard. It’s funny how people will say, ‘local control, local control, local control,’ until they don’t get things happening the way they want, and then they want the state to come in and mandate that it be otherwise.”

Parks staff are better qualified to make these type of decisions, Porter said. By handing them to statewide elected officials like the attorney general, the chief financial officer and the agriculture commissioner, Baxley’s bill will only complicate matters.

“I’ve just heard too many concerns from some park service personnel and Department of Environmental Protection personnel and I shall name no names, that this is just not the correct approach to take,” Porter said. “This is their job, this is why they’re hired, because they can address these concerns from a professional perspective without political influence.”

Porter, who was joined by the five Democrats on the committee, couldn’t convince any Republicans to join her and Baxley’s bill passed by one vote. Although they voted for it, not one Republican spoke in support of it. Nobody spoke from the state’s DEP about it either.

So far, much of it seems for show. It has two more committee stops in the House and its companion bill in the senate has three. It has yet to be scheduled at its first Senate stop, however.

Baxley didn’t sound discouraged.

“I’m not known for doing anything the easy way,” he said.

The important thing, Baxley said, is for the people to be heard.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy gave that land to Florida with the sole intention that it honor only their ancestors, he said.

“I think it’s appropriate for someone to come in and question if a competing monument will detract from that historical significance,” Baxley said.  “There’s an expectation in historical monuments of permanency. If you’re going to change things, that’s a policy decision.

“It’s not Southern as much as it’s descendants and individuals who their families died there to avoid the strafing and burning of their state,” Baxley said. “They were defending Florida.”

Tallahassee on selfie alert for Beckham's Tuesday visit


Who will get the best Beckham selfie in Tallahassee?

The world's most famous soccer star plans to swoop into the state capital Tuesday, and you can bet a herd of cellphone cameras will follow. Beckham hopes to win state aid for a stadium he wants to build at Miami-Dade's PortMiami, and he needs a change in state law to secure the dollars. 

When Beckham hosted a reception with the Miami establishment in early February, Facebook and Twitter lit up with familiar faces posed along the retired athlete's dashing mug. 

Beckham and suarez

Example: Miami City Commissioner Francis Suarez with a well-framed Beckham selfie at the Feb. 4 party at the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center. 

Who can do better? 

Craft beer breweries fight back against Big Beer

Small breweries may be not as mighty as Anheuser-Busch distributors, but they showed a little muscle on Monday by helping to dramatically alter a House bill that could have put some out of business.

“Some folks recognized that there were problems that needed to be addressed,” said Josh Aubuchon, a Holland & Knight lobbyist who represents the Florida Brewers Guild, a consortium that includes 90 local breweries in Florida, including 28 in the Tampa Bay region.

HB 1329, sponsored by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers, would have legalized half-gallon containers, known as growlers, to sell craft beer. That size is legal in 47 other states, but not Florida. That frustrated breweries like Tampa’s Cigar City, Tampa Bay Brewing Co. and St. Petersburg’s Green Bench Brewing Co., who want the ability to sell their beer in those quantities.

But while Rodrigues’ bill would make that size legal, it also came with many restrictions that those breweries didn’t like, so that only those with certain licenses were eligible. Aubuchon said additional restrictions would have made it difficult for many of his 90 breweries to operate.

So they cheered an amendment that eliminated most of those restrictions that was filed last week by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota. and adopted by the House’s Business & Professional Regulation committee on Monday. Under the revised bill, which has two more committees to go, breweries can more easily open tasting rooms and avoid many of the restrictions proposed in Rodrigues’ original bill.

Continue reading "Craft beer breweries fight back against Big Beer" »

House panel approves red light camera limitations, not repeal


Local governments would have limits on where they can put new red light cameras and how they can use money from ensuing violations under a measure approved by a House committee today. House Bill 7005 is a wide-ranging transporation bill, but among its provisions are updates to the state's red light camera laws that reflect findings from a recent state report.

The House's Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee unanimously approved an amended HB 7005 today. Part of the reason the bill, sponsored by Miami Republican Rep. Frank Artiles, received universal support is that some of the more controversial provisions in the original version were deleted.

For example, HB 7005 originally slashed the fine for red-light camera violations from $158 to $83 by removing the $75 that usually goes to local government agencies. Now, the fine remains the same but local governments have to use at least 70 percent of their proceeds, or $52.50, for traffic safety projects. That can include LED lights, reflective stripes, calibrating the timing of lights at the intersection or paying to have more officers on patrol.

Earlier this year, the state's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability published a study on red-light cameras commissioned by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. He and Artiles both filed proposals to repeal local governments' authority to install red light cameras -- SB 144 and HB 4009 -- but those have not been heard in committee.

Instead, Artiles incorporated recommendations from the OPPAGA report into HB 7005. The bill now requires local governments to complete an engineering study before they install red light cameras in an intersection. And they must report data to the state twice a year outlining intersection safety and the number of citations issued.

Continue reading "House panel approves red light camera limitations, not repeal" »

Gov. Scott's latest TV ad slams Crist on Obamacare

Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign launched a new TV spot Monday that takes aim at Democrat Charlie Crist for referring to Obamacare as "great" in a recent CNN interview. The 30-second spot also shows a St. Augustine Record newspaper masthead and the headline: "300,000 health plans in Florida cancelled," an assertion that has been disputed by the state's largest health care provider, Florida Blue.
Scott's campaign said it will spend $2 million in a statewide TV ad buy set to begin Thursday, March 27. In a statement, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera said: "Obamacare seems to only be ‘great’ for Charlie Crist and his political career.” The Crist campaign's response: "When after four years, you have no record and no vision, you spend millions attacking your opponent. It's the Rick Scott playbook and Floridians have had enough."

Lopez-Cantera: 'No validity' to Mexican-accent story

Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera said Monday there's "no validity that we can find" to a report that Gov. Rick Scott's co-finance chair, Coral Gables health care executive Mike Fernandez, resigned a high-level campaign post in part over an incident in which two campaign aides joked in a Mexican accent.

In a conference call with Florida reporters to unveil the campaign's new TV ad, Lopez-Cantera discounted a report in The Miami Herald that Fernandez raised concern over the matter in an email last month, amid other behind-the-scenes disagreements with the direction of Scott's campaign.

Following three straight questions to Lopez-Cantera on the subject, a Republican Party spokeswoman ended the call.

"Mr. Fernandez left to spend more time with his family and concentrate more on his business," Lopez-Cantera said. "This is a diverse organization that we have here and I'm confident that there's probably no basis for any of that."

Asked to elaborate on his comment -- was he saying the incident never happened? -- Lopez-Cantera said: "Like I said, this is a diverse organization. We don't tolerate inappropriate comments and I don't believe they even happened."

To another question as to whether he personally looked into the matter, Lopez-Cantera said: "The campaign has, and there's no validity that we can find to any of those comments, or what was written."

Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Susan Hepworth ended the conference call after a third question about the matter. "Today, I'm here to talk about the ad," Lopez-Cantera said of a new TV spot that criticizes Charlie Crist for calling Obamacare "great" in a recent CNN appearance. "Okay, operator, I think that's all the time that we have," Hepworth said, ending the call.

Feds investigate Florida’s Bright Futures scholarships

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has quietly revived an investigation of Florida’s Bright Futures scholarships, a move that could reignite long-simmering complaints about the fairness of the popular program.

Since the program’s inception, an outsized share of more than $4 billion in scholarships has gone to white or affluent families, at least some of whom were wealthy enough to afford college without any help.

In recent years, state lawmakers — concerned about rising costs of the program — changed the standards to make the scholarships even harder to get, raising the minimum SAT and ACT test scores to levels critics charge will only further exclude poor and minority students.

State Rep. Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who chairs the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said the program is unbiased and based only on the merit of individual students.

“Bright Futures, from its inception, has always been race, gender and creed blind,” he said. “Whoever reaches the highest GPA and SAT scores receives the scholarship.”

But the recent changes appear to have jump-started a dormant probe many thought defunct, including the testing expert who helped launch it 12 years ago. The Office for Civil Rights would discuss few details of its ongoing investigation but acknowledged that it requested information about Bright Futures last year from some Florida school districts, including Miami-Dade.

A spokesman, via email, said the office was “investigating allegations that the state of Florida utilizes criteria for determining eligibility for college scholarships that have the effect of discriminating against Latino and African-American students on the basis of national origin and race.”

Similar allegations resurfaced in a public way last spring after a University of South Florida analysis predicted that the new Bright Futures standards would benefit far fewer students — the total number of college freshmen getting scholarships at state universities would drop by about half, from 30,954 to 15,711. The analysis predicted Hispanic students would see a 60 percent drop in scholarships, and black scholarship recipients would plummet by more than 75 percent.

Read more here.

Plenty of ‘turkey’ projects in state’s $75 billion budget

.@mikevansickler @kmcgrory

The drawings of a gleaming 1,000-foot-tall observation tower planned for downtown Miami are eye-catching.

Resembling a badly bent nail clipper, SkyRise Miami would be part event space, part amusement park with a flight-simulation ride and bungee jump.

Also eye-catching: $10 million.

That is what the Florida House is proposing to spend on the project next year, according to a budget proposal released last week.

Other big ticket items in the proposed budgets of either the Senate or the House: $15 million for the 200-mile Coast-to-Coast Connector, a bicycle and pedestrian path that links St. Petersburg and Titusville; $4 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; and $1 million for infrastructure in the Miami Design District.

During the Great Recession, budget deficits and tea party protests meant pork barrel spending gave way to austerity. But now it’s an election year and legislators are looking at a projected $1.2 billion surplus in what is expected to be a total budget of around $75 billion. So lawmakers are scrambling to haul in projects to benefit their districts.

“I must have 30 pounds of member requests, stacks and stacks of them, in my office,” said Ed Hooper, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the House appropriations committee on transportation and economic development. “It was easier to do budgets when we had no money. Now that there’s this perceived surplus, there’s four to five years of pent-up demand.”

Read more here.