March 23, 2017

Bill promoting religious expression in school passes Florida Senate

Stand Your Ground (3)@ByKristenMClark

Florida’s public schools would have to let students lead religious prayers during the school day and at school-sanctioned events, under a controversial proposal that the state Senate approved Thursday, mostly along party lines.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, heralded his bill (SB 436) as a way for lawmakers to “take a stand for liberty,” because it makes explicitly clear the rights to religious expression that students and teachers have in public schools, regardless of their faith.

But Democrats worry the measure goes beyond existing protections of religious freedom and violates the constitutional separation between church and state. They also fear it could lead to students and teachers being ostracized or discriminated against if they’re of non-Christian faiths or non-religious.

“It’s religiously coercive, divisive and unconstitutional,” said Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach.

The bill passed on a 23-13 vote, with Miami Shores Democratic Sen. Daphne Campbell voting with Republicans to support the bill. Campbell told the Herald/Times: “I don’t see anything wrong. The bill is not discriminatory. ... I just don’t see how anyone could be against prayer.”

Baxley’s proposal — which has large support from Christian and conservative-leaning groups — is more controversial and more far-reaching than a companion measure that’s moved through the House with, so far, unanimous support. The full House could vote on its bill (HB 303) as early as next week.

Full story here..

Photo credit: Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. Steve Cannon / AP

Black caucus demands Rick Scott rescind order taking Orlando prosecutor off cop-killer case

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@MichaelAuslen

Members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus on Thursday called for Gov. Rick Scott to change his mind and rescind an executive order that transfered the case of a man accused of killing a police officer in Orlando away from the local state attorney after she declared she would not seek the death penalty.

The order, signed by Scott last Thursday after State attorney Aramis Ayala publicly said she would not seek death for Markeith Loyd or any other accused murderer while she is in office, gives the Loyd case to Ocala-based State Attorney Brad King.

Since the order, Scott has faced pressure from all sides. Some, including lawmakers, have demanded he suspend Ayala from office. Others, among them a group of lawyers and former state Supreme Court justices, call Scott's decision an overreach.

"Gov. Scott's hasty response to State Attorney Ayala's announcement set a dangerous precedent and is a slap in the face of the voters who carried her into office," said Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Lauderhill, the chairman of the black caucus. "In this way, the order operated as little more than an unfettered and uninformed power grab by the governor's office over a difference of opinion."

Removing Ayala from the Loyd case was unprecedented, Thurston said. He contends that the state attorney is using her prosecutorial discretion in choosing not to seek the death penalty and that Scott has gone beyond what the Constitution and state law intend by removing her from the case for this reason.

Thurston noted that Scott did not intervene -- nor were there widespread calls for him to do so -- when Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle decided last week not to prosecute guards at Dade Correctional Institution who locked a schizophrenic inmate in a hot shower for two hours until he ultimately died.

But, he said, Scott should not have stepped into either case, allowing prosecutors to make the decision for themselves.

The governor has broad authority in the Constitution to move cases away from state attorneys if he believes justice would best be served by doing so, though it is most often used to avoid conflicts of interest. Ayala asked a judge to intervene in a court filing earlier this week.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Scott said he stands by his decision to reassign the case against Loyd.

"Markeith Loyd is accused of executing Lt. Debra Clayton, a brave law enforcement hero who was on the ground fighting for her life, and murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend Sade Dixon. Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Norman Lewis was also killed while actively searching for Loyd," spokeswoman Kerri Wyland said. "As Governor Scott has continued to say, these families deserve a state attorney who will aggressively prosecute Loyd to the fullest extent of the law and justice must be served."

State Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa, said there is another element of concern here: The long racially-tied history of Florida's death penalty.

No white person has been executed in Florida for killing a black person.

And research has shown that race of the defendent and race of the victim both play critical roles in the outcome of a death penalty case here.

Ayala, who was elected in November, is the first African-American state attorney elected in the state's history.

"Clearly all the data and all the studies show that the death penalty is applied with racial bias, particularly in Florida," Shaw said. "This is still the case and has always been the case, and by standing against the death penalty, State Attorney Ayala is standing with communities of color."

Photo: Members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, led by Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Lauderhill, call on Gov. Rick Scott to rescind an executive order removing the Orange-Osceola state attorney from a case after she said she would not seek the death penalty. (Michael Auslen, Times/Herald)

City officials urge legislators to halt the FPL transmission bill being 'bulldozed' through

FPL transmission linesOfficials from several Miami-Dade communities impacted by an 88-mile transmission line sought by Florida Power & Light through the county’s most affluent and environmentally sensitive areas pleaded with a Senate committee Wednesday not to approve legislation to allow the company to build the line without considering local development rules.

The bill, SB 1048 by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, would overturn an April 2016 ruling by a three-judge panel of the Third District Court of Appeal that said the governor and Cabinet failed to consider Miami-Dade County’s environmental rules when they signed off on allowing FPL to string a transmission line through Everglades marshes and fragile wetlands.

Despite their appeals, the Senate Community Affairs Committee passed the bill with only one no vote — that of Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, whose district includes the entire corridor of the transmission line along U.S. 1 from Cutler Bay, through Pinecrest, South Miami and Coral Gables to a substation in Coconut Grove.

“For constituents and local elected leaders who have been very involved in trying to make sure our community is protected from environmental impacts, economic impacts, public safety concerns, this bill confirms our worst fears about how laws are made in Tallahassee,” Rodriguez said. “The sense is that the bigger the checkbook, the easier it is to get laws written.” Story here. 

March 22, 2017

Miami-Dade-backed legislation cracking down on 'rogue' condo associations advances

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@ByKristenMClark

A plan from Miami-Dade lawmakers to penalize fraud and abuse in condominium associations earned unanimous initial approval in House and Senate committees this week.

The bills, most notably, impose new criminal penalties for falsifying association documents, committing fraud in association elections and refusing to turn over administrative records, among other reforms.

"A lot of these reforms are a long time coming," said Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, who is sponsoring the Senate bill (SB 1682) with Sen. René García, R-Hialeah. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-0 to advance their bill Wednesday.

More here.

Photo credit: Hundreds of Miami-Dade County condominium owners marched in protest in the city of Doral on April 16, 2016. Roberto Koltun / el Nuevo Herald

Republicans accused of advancing 'union-busting' proposal with little chance at becoming law

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@ByKristenMClark

Florida’s public-sector labor unions — which represent thousands of workers ranging from school teachers to public utility linemen — would have to convince their members to pay up or else risk being shut down, under a controversial plan by House Republicans that is now headed to the floor despite little chance at becoming law.

HB 11 is a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, but it drew resounding backlash from Democrats and labor leaders who say the measure is nothing more than a politically motivated attempt to bust up unions.

It passed the Government Accountability Committee on a 14-8, party-line vote Wednesday, its second of only two committee stops.

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, argues his proposal is about “transparency and democracy” because it would ensure labor unions serving government workers are accountable to and financially supported by at least a majority of the workers the union is supposed to represent.

“I think that’s a good thing to be responsive,” Plakon said, adding: “Public-sector unions should have to operate in a transparent fashion, under democratic majority-rule. ... This empowers members of the bargaining unit and it also pushes the unions to have to respect their members by asking for dues.”

But Florida is a right-to-work state, so employees cannot be forced to join or pay dues to a union. Union leaders say Plakon’s proposal contradicts that state law, and it would essentially force labor organizations to continuously “campaign” for enough dues-paying members — or risk being shut down.

“I think it’s very clear that this bill is about politics, not about policy,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said. “This bill is about union-busting, plain and simple.”

More here.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

Latvala: Corcoran 'just wrong' for House vote on Enterprise Florida

One by one, Republican lawmakers delivered dreary news at the Florida Chamber of Commerce's "Capitol Days" Tuesday in Tallahassee. On issue after issue, pro-business bills are stalled, from curbing growing abuses in property insurance claims to changing the workers' comp system. Business is battling a lawyer-friendly bill to require courts to add interest payments in cases won by plaintiffs.

"Trial lawyers are on the march," Steve Knopik, CEO of the Bealls clothing retailer, told Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, who didn't argue. "It feels like we're just getting trampled on."

The news didn't improve when Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, described a legislative response to court-ordered workers' comp rate hikes as "a reasonably okay bill."

Interest groups like the Chamber sometimes create doom-and-gloom scenarios to rally members or raise money, but this session looks bleak for business. Despite overwhelming Republican majorities in both chambers, key Senate committees include trial bar-friendly Republicans. Senate President Joe Negron wants to abolish a decades-old tax break for the insurance industry. Some Republicans want to repeal no-fault auto insurance that could drive up accident lawsuits and legal costs. Under Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who like Negron is a lawyer, the House has dismantled most statewide economic development programs.

That brought denunciations from Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who said it's "just wrong" for Corcoran to force House members to go on record on such a controversial issue when it has no chance of passage because a similar JL bill isn't teed up in the Senate.

"We made all those House members, including my son (Rep. Chris Latvala), who I love very much, take a very tough vote because the speaker made them, even though he knew there was not a bill to match up to in the Senate, and that's just wrong," Latvala told Chamber members. "That's putting personal ambition before the body that you are the presiding officer of."

Latvala said it's the first time in his 15-year Senate career that business has to "play defense." He blamed term limits -- championed by Republicans three decades ago -- for a system in which most lawmakers want to be career politicians and have no business experience. "We have a constant stream of people who get elected who were aides in the legislative process," Latvala said. "They've never run a business. They've never had those responsibilities."

"Capitol Days" continues Wednesday in the capital with a panel discussion that asks: "Is Florida closed for business?"

Senators poised for first major medical marijuana hearing

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@MichaelAuslen

Florida's new medical marijuana market will start to take shape today as a panel of senators workshops five proposals to put the voter-approved constitutional amendment legalizing the drug into place.

The Senate Health Policy committee, chaired by Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young, will consider issues related to the five proposed bills and hear public comment, the first step toward passing legislation and the first time members of the public will hear what key senators think about how medical marijuana should be implemented.

Voters approved Amendment 2, which opened up the state to medical cannabis, with 71 percent support. By the end of their regular session, the House and Senate are expected to pass a more detailed plan.

But they're dissatisfied with how the Legislature has progressed, according to a Fabrizio, Lee & Associates poll first reported by Politico on Tuesday. It showed that more than half of Amendment 2 supporters though the Legislature was moving too slowly and 40 percent of all voters disapproved of the job they are doing to implement the voters' will.

When the Health Policy Committee convenes this afternoon, here are the proposals they will discuss. They will likely be consolidated into a new bill, which the panel is expected to consider at a later date.

* SB 406 by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island: Maintains the current system of requiring businesses to both grow and sell cannabis but expands the number of businesses by five when the state has 250,000 patients, 350,000 patients, 400,000 patients and every 100,000 thereafter. It allows edibles but not smoking and lets people buy a 90-day supply. 

* SB 614 by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg: A largely open market of growers, dispensaries, labs and delivery companies with no cap on the number of businesses involved, though it limits retail shops to no more than 1 per 25,000 residents. It allows smoking and edibles and lets people buy a 90-day supply of cannabis.

* SB 1388 by Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami: Largely modeled after SB 406, this proposal requires independent labs do testing, allows smoking and lets people buy a 45-day supply.

* SB 1666 by Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens: This plan would maintain the current system but would require 10 new licenses be awarded by October and allow four more for every 25,000 patients. It maintains a provision of existing law allowing only nurseries that have been in business for 30 years to become growers. It allows edibles but not smoking and lets people buy 90-day supplies, including some non-residents of Florida.

* SB 1758 by Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring: This maintains the existing market, including the 30-year requirement for nurseries, and allows three new licenses be awarded for every 250,000 patients. It allows edibles but not smoking and lets patients have a 45-day supply, including non-residents.

There are lots of questions on the table as the Senate committee meets. Want to follow along? Stream online at the Florida Channel at 1 p.m., or follow @MichaelAuslen and @SunBizGriffin.

Photo: Associated Press

March 21, 2017

Rick Scott's spokeswoman calls Richard Corcoran 'hypocritical'

Gov. Rick Scott's chief spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, called out House Speaker Richard Corcoran Tuesday for being "very hypocritical" in his efforts to abolish Enterprise Florida as the state's taxpayer-funded program to attract jobs to the state.

JackieSchutz (at left in photo) asked the Times/Herald if she could comment in response to a story about an unusual coincidence in which Corcoran's law firm, Broad & Cassel, has earned more than $235,000 doing legal work for Enterprise Florida and two related corporations over the past three years. Corcoran, who has called Enterprise Florida an "absolute cesspool," had no role in any of the legal work and said he was not aware that his firm did work for Enterprise Florida. (The previous reporting is here).

Said Schutz: "It's hypocritical for him to attack EFI when they're helping out small businesses, but in turn it's OK for his company to help EFI. It just seems very hypocritical."

UPDATE: Corcoran's spokesman, Fred Piccolo, said: "Pay to play is exactly the kind of corruption Speaker Corcoran is leading the charge to fight. It is clear she didn't read the article because what it said was that Speaker Corcoran is a principled leader who can clearly never be bought politically or professionally."

Scott's fight with Corcoran will continue Wednesday when he travels to Pinellas County for another jobs roundtable with local business owners to rally support for Enterprise Florida.

The county's six House members were evenly split when the House voted on March 10 to abolish Enterprise Florida. Joining Corcoran in voting to kill the agency were Republisans Larry Ahern, Chris Latvala and Chris Sprowls. Voting to keep Enterprise Florida were Republican Kathleen Peters and Democrats Ben Diamond and Wengay Newton. 

Lawmakers continue to target immigrant 'sanctuary' policies as House bill advances

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@MichaelAuslen

The Florida House has put a target on cities and counties that have “sanctuary” policies protecting undocumented immigrants picked up by police.

Legislation (HB 697) requiring local officials do away with those policies or risk fines and removal from office is moving fast in the chamber. The bill would require police detain people for 48 hours — at local taxpayer expense — if they receive a request to do so from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And it would let victims or their families sue elected officials if a crime is committed by an undocumented immigrant in a community where sanctuary laws are in effect.

“With porous borders and a lack of internal enforcement, if we simply say that if you can get here you can stay here and we don’t care about the legal distinctions, we’re going to have more and more people coming here illegally and fewer and fewer coming here through the legal immigration system,” bill sponsor Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, said.

The House subcommittee on local, federal and veterans affairs passed his bill on a party line vote Tuesday with nine Republicans in favor, five Democrats opposed. Rep. Mike Miller, R-Winter Park, was not in the room to vote.

The bill must still clear the House Judiciary Committee, and its Senate companion has not yet been put on the agenda for its first hearing.

Not one Republican debated in favor of the bill Tuesday, other than its sponsor, and none of the 27 members of the public and lobbyists who spoke at the meeting expressed support.

Democrats raised concerns that the bill is unconstitutional, immoral and said it was a policy indicative of “Donald Trump’s America” that targets immigrants. What’s more, they said, it advances a stereotype that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes, when studies show the opposite is true.

Rep. Daisy Baez, D-Coral Gables, an Army veteran and hospital executive who immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic at age 12 urged her House colleagues to vote against the bill because immigrants are “the spine of this nation.”

“I achieved the American Dream, I suppose, and if you think this story is unique and beautiful and one of achievement, I have to tell you it’s not. It’s every immigrant’s story,” she said, adding that, “I have never felt as vilified as I have now.”

But Democrats also rebuked one member of the public, Gail Marie Perry of Plantation, who told the subcommittee that “This is one step toward Nazism in the United States.”

Republicans beat down a series of amendments offered by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, to gut components of the bill.

Smith's amendments would have: 
* Required a warrant from a judge before police have to detain someone at ICE’s request.
* Exempted state colleges and universities, where undocumented “DREAMers” are afforded in-state tuition, from the bill.
* Given witnesses and victims of crimes additional protection.
* Funded the detention requirements.
* Cut language allowing the governor to remove local officials from office if they vote against ending sanctuary policies.

Photo: Protester Joan Wynne, center, chants anti-Trump and anti-Gimenez slogans in downtown Miami on Jan. 31 during a protest over Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez's controversial order assuring the Trump administration that Miami-Dade is not functioning as a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants. (AP)

Would tax cut bill result in insurance premium hike? Insurance industry says yes

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Undeterred by threats that everyone in Florida would face premium hikes, a key Florida Senate committee pressed on and voted unanimously to strip the insurance industry of a tax credit in exchange for a broader tax cut to help more businesses.

“Baloney,” Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said after more than a half dozen insurance industry lobbyists warned that cutting their tax break would end up getting passed on to consumers everywhere.

Under Flores plan, the state would get rid of a tax credit created in the 1980s aimed at attracting insurance companies to Florida. In exchange for hiring Florida workers, they would get a tax credit from the state to offset other taxes. Getting rid of that tax cut would mean redirecting almost $300 million in tax cuts into the state’s budget.

Flores initially wanted the saved money to become a tax break on communications service taxes that people pay on their mobile devices and cable television services. But Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, amended the bill to take the savings from the insurance tax credits and repurpose them to cut sales taxes businesses in Florida pay when they lease commercial space. Stargel’s idea is to cut the sales tax from 6 percent to 5 percent. Florida is the only state in the nation that charges a commercial lease tax.

Stargel said since the credit was created as an incentive to one industry, she wanted to make sure it was used for another kind of incentive - reducing commercial lease taxes.

Cutting the commercial lease tax has been a big priority for Gov. Rick Scott, who has made it the centerpiece of his tax cutting plan this year.

But the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, both supporters of Scott’s tax cut plan, strongly opposed Flores proposal. Brewster Bevis with AIF said they want commercial leases lower, but “not on the backs of another industry.”

Paul Sanford, another insurance industry lobbyist, warned that under this bill “everyone’s insurance in the state of Florida is going up to accommodate the $300 million in new premium taxes.”

Flores told the committee that the sky-is-falling approach from the industry doesn't work anymore, because even when the Legislature helps the insurance industry they promise rate cuts, but the never come.

"Let me tell you, your insurance rates are going to go up no matter what," Flores said.

The tax cut still has a ways to go. Tuesday’s 4-0 vote was the first committee stop for the bill. It still must clear at least one other committee before it can go to the full Senate for debate.