February 19, 2016

Jack Latvala says Don Gaetz is hypocritical for attacking Miguel Diaz de la Portilla

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@ByKristenMClark

So much for peace among Republicans in the Florida Senate this session.

After Sen. Don Gaetz issued a statement last night blasting fellow Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla for killing his open-carry bill, another Republican senator today is accusing Gaetz of being a hypocrite.

"When Don Gaetz was Senate president and throughout my time serving with him, he has never hesitated to use whatever procedural options were open to stifle the will of anyone else in the Senate," Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said today.

He cited a couple of instances during Gaetz's presidency from 2012-2014 when he said he felt the Niceville Republican used his power as president to halt the progress of Latvala's own priorities.

"For him to be talking about one senator stifling the will of the Senate, he needs to make sure he has clean hands," Latvala said.

Latvala and Gaetz are not ones to mince words about each other and they have a history of showing publicly their dislike for one another. During the special session on Senate redistricting last fall, Gaetz rose for a 17-minute tirade on the Senate floor in which he called Latvala a "bully" and criticized him for being critical of Senate leadership.

Latvala retorted to Gaetz shortly after, but those wounds clearly haven't healed.

"This is a perfect example of him doing the same thing to somebody else, and I’m just tired of it," Latvala said today. "Senator Gaetz is used to having his way, and he didn’t get his way this time. It’s unfortunate for him to put out a statement about another senator like that, and I’m just sick of it."

Gaetz today declined to respond to Latvala's comments.

His controversial legislation would have allowed 1.5 million people with concealed-weapons permits in Florida to openly carry handguns.

Earlier this month, the Republican-heavy House easily passed its version -- sponsored by Gaetz's son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- but Don Gaetz's companion bill stalled in the Senate in front of Diaz de la Portilla's Judiciary Committee.

The Miami Republican announced Tuesday he won't take up the bill, which prompted Don Gaetz's statement Thursday evening. Gaetz accused Diaz de la Portilla of "fearing the debate" over open carry, "stretching" his authority as a committee chairman and of "promising and then reneging" on plans to find a compromise on the legislation.

Diaz de la Portilla stands by his decision. He said Thursday he couldn't see a workable solution for something he called "such lousy public policy and so dangerous for the state of Florida." He also said Gaetz was "disingenuous" to criticize him for exercising his authority as a committee chairman. (Gaetz himself is currently in charge of the education budget committee.)

Latvala also said today that he doesn't think Gaetz really had the votes to pass his open-carry bill, which Gaetz maintains he does.

The Republican majority isn't as large in the Senate, where there are 26 Republicans and 14 Democrats. Twenty-one votes are needed to pass a bill.

Latvala said he's among the senators who had reservations about open carry and "probably would've voted against it" if it came to the floor.

He said open carry isn't a constitutional issue, as the Gaetzes have proclaimed. Latvala said he sees the motive as more political and described it as something to help the National Rifle Association "gin up their numbers and to keep their members involved."

"Nobody’s trying to take anybody’s rights away from them," Latvala said.

Photo credit: Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, speaks on the Senate floor in 2014. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

February 18, 2016

Gaetz: Diaz de la Portilla 'stifled will of Senate' on open carry, 'promised and then reneged' on compromise

Florida Legislature(2)

@ByKristenMClark

State Sen. Don Gaetz said in a lengthy statement this evening that Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla "stretched" his authority as Judiciary Committee chairman and "stifled the will of the Senate to cast an up or down vote" on Gaetz's proposal to let people openly carry handguns in Florida.

Gaetz, a conservative Republican from Niceville, also accused Diaz de la Portilla of lying about his intentions to find a compromise on the highly controversial measure.

"I’m deeply disappointed," Gaetz said. "It is perfectly proper to vote against a bill. It reflects poorly on any chairman to fear the debate.

"The Judiciary Committee chairman promised and then reneged on a commitment to meet with me and other pro-Second Amendment legislators to try to negotiate differences in good faith," Gaetz added.

The more-moderate Diaz de la Portilla made it official Tuesday that he would not hear Gaetz's bill this session -- killing it as he has two other gun bills this year that sought to expand how and where more than 1.5 million people with concealed-weapons licenses in Florida can carry handguns.

Diaz de la Portilla said this evening that Gaetz was "disingenuous" with his criticism, because Gaetz himself is a committee chairman and former Senate president who understands the prerogative chairmen have.

"Senator Gaetz knows that committees chairs can’t possibly agenda every bill that is referred to their committee," Diaz de la Portilla said.

Gaetz acknowledged that Diaz de la Portilla is "technically within his rights as a chairman not to hear the bill."

Gaetz added: "I have faced the same question as Senator Diaz de la Portilla: Should I kill a bill that a majority of legislators want to debate, and perhaps pass, just because of my own personal preferences? In fact, I have faced that question on matters important to Senator Diaz de la Portilla and his constituents. The difference is I did not stretch my authority to stifle the will of the Senate to cast an up or down vote.

"Put simply, Senator Diaz de la Portilla used his power as a committee chairman to deny senators and the public the opportunity even to discuss the issue of open carry and vote for or against the bill," Gaetz said.

Current Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, has supported Diaz de la Portilla's decision, though. Gardiner left it to Diaz de la Portilla to decide whether the open-carry bill and other contentious gun proposals would be heard, and he has been consistent in empowering other committee chairmen with that discretion, also.

Diaz de la Portilla said he and Gaetz "spoke briefly on the floor once" about open carry "and maybe on another occasion before that." He said Gaetz did not address his frustrations with him directly.

Gaetz said he believes his open-carry bill could have passed the full Senate "with the constructive amendments recommended by The Florida Police Chiefs Association."

But that's another point of disagreement between the senators.

The police chiefs' provisions -- which included requiring openly carried weapons to be holstered -- were added to the House version, which was sponsored by Gaetz's son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. (That bill passed the Republican-heavy House earlier this month.)

However, the Florida Sheriffs Association offered amendments of their own, which were rejected in the House and which Don Gaetz said he would have not wanted considered in the Senate.

The sheriffs' proposal would have gutted the bill. It wouldn't have allowed open carry but would have solely addressed a problem that the National Rifle Association said was its motive for seeking an open-carry law: the prosecution of people who inadvertently display concealed weapons.

Diaz de la Portilla said Thursday the sheriffs' proposal was "the only solution or compromise that I felt was workable."

"I did rack my brain trying to find a workable solution on the issue of open carry, but at the end of the day, it’s such lousy public policy and so dangerous for the state of Florida," he said. "You can’t fix something that is such terrible public policy."

Emphasizing Floridians' Second Amendment rights, Gaetz said his bill "would have allowed only those persons lawfully able to carry handguns to do so without concealment, without brandishing them, without violating private property rights and without allowing weapons in any place where they are now prohibited."

Diaz de la Portilla has said previously, though, he worried about "unintended consequences" of the legislation.

"Some things are such bad ideas that there’s no fixing them," he said Thursday. "Unfortunately, that’s the case with Senator Gaetz’s bad bill."

Photo credit: AP

February 17, 2016

Proposed reforms to Florida's 'stand your ground' law revived with House referral

@ByKristenMClark

Potential changes to the state's "stand your ground" law were resuscitated in the Florida House this past week, despite the original measure stalling in a subcommittee last fall.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, referred the Senate-approved bill to the House Judiciary Committee, which gives the chamber a second chance at considering the policy this session.

"It's a fair discussion to have," Crisafulli told reporters after Wednesday's session. "If they pass it, they pass it. If they don't, they don't."

Jacksonville Republican Rep. Charles McBurney, the House judiciary chairman, has the prerogative to hear the bill -- SB 344, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

McBurney told the Herald/Times Wednesday evening that "no decision has been made" on which bills might be taken up after the committee's hearing Thursday morning.

Bradley's bill is not on that agenda. The committee has at least one more hearing scheduled (for next week), but McBurney said the agenda hasn't been set.

Judiciary is the only committee Bradley's bill was referred to in the House, so if it's heard and passes, the bill would go straight to the House floor for a final vote.

House Democrats are annoyed that the "stand your ground" reforms are back in play, because their success at killing the House bill -- by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala -- was a rare victory for them in the Republican-led Legislature. It was also an unusual defeat for a priority of the National Rifle Association.

"When I learned of it, I went to the chairman of judiciary, and I said, 'Even when I win, I lose,' " said Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, who led the opposition that led to a deadlocked vote on Baxley's bill.

Because it failed to advance out of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, the House members on that panel effectively killed Baxley's version.

"It's now back from the Senate. I think there's some procedural pitfalls in doing that," Kerner said. "We have a process and the bill died by a bipartisan vote, and the fact that it's back is very unfortunate and we're working to kill it again."

In order for proposals to become law, identical bills have to pass out of the House and Senate. Traditionally, in the Florida Legislature, separate bills are filed and advanced separately through each chamber.

After Baxley's bill died, Bradley's version continued progressing through legislative committees in the Senate, and senators passed it by a 24-12 vote in late January.

Crisafulli noted that the House judiciary panel was among the committees that Baxley's bill "would have gone to, had it not died over here."

Both bills shift the burden of proof in self-defense cases, requiring prosecutors to prove why a defendant could not claim the state's "stand your ground" law as a defense for their actions. The law, adopted in 2005, allows residents to use deadly force in defense of their lives or property in certain circumstances, with no obligation to retreat or flee.

Republican lawmakers offered bills this session in response to a Florida Supreme Court ruling last summer that stated defendants who claim a stand-your-ground defense have to prove before trial why they’re entitled to that immunity. Bradley contended the justices “misinterpreted legislative intent” of the decade-old law.

Bradley's bill was amended in the Senate, so prosecutors would be subject to a lesser burden of proof than what the original bills proposed.

Prior to the Senate vote, Democrats in that chamber railed against Bradley's bill, arguing it would “stack the deck against justice for the dead,” especially for victims who are minorities.

February 16, 2016

'Open carry is not going to happen,' Sen. Diaz de la Portilla says

@ByKristenMClark

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said Tuesday evening a proposal allowing 1.5 million people with concealed weapons permits in Florida to openly carry handguns is officially dead for the 2016 session.

"Open carry is not going to happen; it's done," the Miami Republican senator told reporters.

Diaz de la Portilla had expressed growing reluctance for weeks about holding a hearing on SB 300, saying last week it was "on life support."

It's among three gun bills he's killing this session by not granting them hearings in his committee, a powerful prerogative that committee chairman have.

Last month, Diaz de la Portilla said he wouldn't hear a similarly controversial bill that would allow concealed-weapons permit-holders to carry concealed on public college and university campuses. Also Tuesday, he said he won't hear a bill that would allow concealed weapons to be carried in Florida airport terminals. (It passed its first committee earlier in the day but it won't be heard in the House, so it was essentially dead anyway.)

“On all of these gun bills, I don’t believe any of them are necessary,” Diaz de la Portilla said. “They could result in unintended consequences. I think we need to prioritize in our committee, as far as what we hear. We can’t hear every bill that’s referred to us.”

Both the campus-carry and open-carry bills passed the Republican-heavy House earlier this month. Diaz de la Portilla's decision to halt both of them has made him the target of praise from gun-control supporters and of anger from gun-rights advocates, including the National Rifle Association. (More here.)

UPDATE: (8:45 p.m.)

The Florida League of Women Voters -- one of the vocal opponents to open carry -- issued a statement this evening applauding Diaz de la Portilla's decision.

"This bill was an assault on public safety and yet another case of the gun lobby trying to force their way into the legislative agenda," league President Pamela Goodman said. "The League of Women Voters of Florida cannot praise Senator Diaz de la Portilla enough for listening to his constituents, listening to law enforcement, and listening to the vast majority of Floridians in opposing open carry."

Proposal to allow concealed guns in Florida airport terminals faces dim prospects

@ByKristenMClark

A plan to let some gun-owners carry concealed weapons in Florida airport terminals was approved by its first Senate committee on Tuesday, but its chances at becoming law this year are nearly impossible because its House companion has yet to be considered.

SB 1500 by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, is among several gun bills under consideration by lawmakers this year that aim to expand gun-owners' rights and specifically those of the 1.5 million people with concealed weapons permits in Florida.

Simpson said the legislation is needed because airport terminals "could become more of a target" for terrorists and criminals, since they are among 15 areas codified in state law where even concealed-weapons permit-holders can't carry weapons. "Sterile" areas of airports -- those past security checkpoints and controlled by the federal Transportation Security Administration -- would remain a prohibited area for weapons.

The bill received initial approval from the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday along party-lines, with Democrats in opposition.

But the House companion to Simpson's proposal -- HB 4051 by Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia -- is all-but-dead because it has not been heard by any of the three committees it's been assigned to. It awaits a hearing before the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, but that panel held its final meeting of the 2016 session two weeks ago.

"We’re continuing to work to try to get the bill heard and to try to pass what we believe is a good policy," Raburn told the Herald/Times.

Simpson said the legislation is intended to let "law-abiding citizens" carry concealed when they visit airports, such as when dropping off or picking up family and friends or when dining or shopping in commercial areas that are outside security checkpoints.

As well, "the bill is needed to make sure our citizens have the right to protect themselves in the event that we have someone try to murder a lot of folks in an airport," Simpson told reporters after the hearing.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, questioned why lawmakers would want to "introduce more weaponry into airport terminals."

"They need to be carrying their concealed weapons to walk their person to the gate because of terrorists?" Gibson asked.

The Florida Airports Council -- which represents 19 commercial airports and more than 75 general aviation airports, including those in Tampa, Miami and Fort Lauderdale -- has similar concerns and opposes the proposal.

Also, council representative Michael Stewart said, "if there’s incidents, law enforcement officers would have concerns about who’s carrying weapons and who’s not."

Simpson's bill has two more committee stops in the Senate. It next goes to the Judiciary Committee, where chairman and Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, has declined to hear two of the most high-profile gun bills this session: ones that would allow some gun-owners to carry openly in most places and to carry concealed on public college and university campuses.

"We just keep moving in the process and we'll see how this works out," Simpson said.

February 10, 2016

Love and hate for Miami Sen. Diaz de la Portilla who hasn't taken up gun bills

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@ByKristenMClark

Senate Judiciary Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla has received a lot of praise and a lot of fury, ever since the Miami Republican announced his decision last month that he wouldn't hear a bill allowing concealed weapons on the state's public college and university campuses.

It was the second-straight year that Diaz de la Portilla made that decision, so it wasn't an unforeseen outcome for the legislation, which is now all-but-dead despite easily passing the House last week.

Diaz de la Portilla has grown increasingly reluctant to take up a similar bill that would allow concealed-weapons permit-holders to openly carry -- which the senator said this week is "on life support."

He told the Herald/Times today that it won't be on next week's judiciary agenda, and the committee might hold only one more meeting after that.

He acknowledged he's been getting "hate mail" for not hearing either the open-carry or campus-carry bills, but he shrugs off the criticism.

"I don't feel any pressure at all," he said. "I'm going to make what I think is a good decision based on sound policy reasons and it's no different than any other issue."

That's not stopping gun-rights advocates -- who are livid -- from trying to turn up the heat and persuade him to change his mind, particularly on campus-carry.

"Senator Diaz de la Portilla has taken it upon himself to unilaterally decide the future of a bipartisan bill that the vast majority of legislative members support," Florida Students for Concealed Carry state director Bekah Hargrove said in a statement this week. "He has made a mockery of the American legislative branch and turned Florida’s legislative process into a one-man show, without respect for the safety of college students."

She added: "He should be removed from his office for ignoring his duty to put bills up for a vote." Download Open Letter

Both the student group and Florida Carry have accused Diaz de la Portilla of refusing to meet with Shayna Lopez-Rivas, a rape victim who has testified at every legislative hearing that was held. She has said that if she had had the ability as a student to carry a gun, she feels she wouldn't have been raped.

"He has refused repeated requests to meet with supporters of Pro-Second Amendment bills," Florida Carry said in an email blast today urging its 37,000 members to call on Diaz de la Portilla to take up both campus-carry and open-carry.

Meanwhile, groups that support gun-control regulations and keeping guns off college campuses are thanking Diaz de la Portilla for his "courage" in choosing not to take up the bills, which are priorities for the powerful National Rifle Association.

"I write to commend you for your courage and steadfast commitment to student safety," Dana Bolger, executive director for Know Your IX (a national campus sexual assault prevention organization), wrote in a letter to Diaz de la Portilla that was given to the Herald/Times. Download Know Your IX Letter to Senator Diaz de la Portilla (The same letter was also sent to Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.)

"I can say with confidence that allowing students to carry concealed weapons on campuses would have dangerous and potentially fatal consequences for Florida students, particularly for women and other marginalized students," Bolger wrote. "Some proponents of HB 4001 and SB 68 have suggested that allowing students to carry guns will protect them from becoming victims of sexual assault. This could not be further from the truth."

February 08, 2016

Open-carry bill 'on life support' in Florida Senate, judiciary chairman says

Miguel dlp 020816

@ByKristenMClark

Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, says a proposal allowing some gun-owners to openly carry handguns in Florida is "on life support" and he will decide this week whether to grant a hearing on it.

"I have some serious concerns about open carry in light of what happened in the House last week," Diaz de la Portilla told reporters this afternoon. "I am concerned that it may become a vehicle for some very, very bad amendments. I think that's what we learned last week. ... Because of those concerns, I'm very, very seriously considering not hearing it at all."

Legislation allowing more than 1.5 million concealed-weapons permit-holders in Florida to openly carry easily passed the state House last week, mostly along party-lines. An amendment was added to it during floor debate, which would allow lawmakers to carry concealed on the chamber floors and in official committee meetings. Those locations are among several so-called "gun-free" zones designated in state law, where even concealed weapons are prohibited.

When asked if lawmakers should be able to pack heat on the chamber floors, Diaz de la Portilla said: "I don't think that's necessary. I think FDLE does a terrific job in protecting us."

He has been deliberating for months on whether to hear the Senate's version of the open-carry bill (SB 300), which has been at a standstill before his committee since it passed its first Senate panel in October.

If Diaz de la Portilla doesn't grant it another hearing, it effectively kills the Senate bill -- all-but-guaranteeing it won't become law this session.

Drawing the ire of the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups, Diaz de la Portilla already made the call against hearing another controversial gun bill that also passed the House last week. That one would allow concealed weapons on public college and university campuses.

Photo credit: Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times

February 04, 2016

Florida House member from Aventura 'mortified' by 'mistake' on campus-carry vote

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@ByKristenMClark

CaptureRep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, says he's "mortified" and "very embarrassed" today by what he calls an honest mistake Wednesday night.

As the House was called to vote on a controversial measure to allow concealed handguns on Florida's public college and university campuses, Geller said he pressed the wrong button -- not only for himself, but for his seatmate, Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando.

That's why the two Democrats came in as "yes" votes in the 80-37 result, which passed the bill out of the chamber. (The only Democrat to intentionally vote for it was Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, who co-sponsored the bill.)

"It was absolutely a mistake. I just hit the wrong button and they locked the machine too quickly for me to fix it," Geller told the Herald/Times.

The voting board was open for nine seconds, during which time members could cast their votes.

During House floor speeches earlier in the night -- and the night before when amendments were considered -- Geller had railed against allowing guns on campuses, so his "yes" vote raised a few eyebrows.

He and Bracy changed their votes to "no" within about five minutes of the vote, which is reflected in the House record but not in the vote tally itself.

Geller said that Bracy was on the other side of the House chamber -- talking to another representative about a different bill -- when the voting happened, so Geller pushed Bracy's button for him, as they had agreed to.

The practice, though frowned upon, is allowed under House rules, so long as the member is in the chamber when another votes for him and as long as that other member does so on the member's "specific request and direction."

Geller said he normally double-checks the board, but was briefly distracted by someone who came up to speak with him.

And then it was too late.

He said he's gotten calls from constituents today about his recorded vote, and he's kicking himself for what happened.

"I own it; I own the mistake," he said. "I'm sorry for it. I regret it. I'm mortified by it."

Photo credit: Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, speaks on the House floor during the 2015 session. (Florida House) // The Florida Channel

February 03, 2016

Bill addressing backyard gun ranges heads to Gov. Rick Scott

@ByKristenMClark

Perhaps the least controversial gun-related measure before the Legislature this session is on its way to Republican Gov. Rick Scott's desk for his signature.

SB 130 would make it a misdemeanor crime to fire a gun outdoors recreationally, including for target shooting, in a primarily residential area.

It's aimed at protecting public safety by prohibiting backyard gun ranges in densely populated areas. Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, said the bill was prompted by the growing prominence of such ranges, which he said are set up "sometimes in a haphazard fashion."

The Senate passed it unanimously last week, and the House did the same Wednesday evening.

16 Florida House members broke party-lines on open-carry amendment

@ByKristenMClark

Last night's debate over allowing concealed-weapons licensees to carry handguns openly went much as excepted, with questions-and-answers and votes on amendments generally falling along partylines.

But on the night's biggest vote -- an amendment to allow lawmakers to carry concealed in official meetings of the Florida Legislature (full details here) -- some Republicans and Democrats broke party lines, several from more moderate districts.

The 120-person chamber has 81 Republicans and 39 Democrats.

The 72-43 vote on the controversial amendment by Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, included support from five Democrats and opposition by 11 Republicans.

Continue reading "16 Florida House members broke party-lines on open-carry amendment" »