November 12, 2015

AFSCME union endorses Patrick Murphy for U.S. Senate



Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Patrick Murphy has picked up another high-profile endorsement: the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees.

Murphy, a congressman from Jupiter, announced the union's support this afternoon in a conference call with reporters.

AFSCME Florida Executive Director Andy Madtes said the union's 15,000 members "just felt that Murphy was the best choice for us and our members" and that they plan to mobilize to help Murphy's campaign. Murphy will also have the backing of AFSCME International and its 1.6 million members nationwide.

Madtes said the union vetted Murphy and fellow Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Orlando Congressman Alan Grayson over the summer on issues such as workers' rights and income inequality.

Madtes said AFSCME's endorsement of Murphy is "not a reflection on anything negative," in regards to Grayson. He said the members want a candidate who will fight for workers in Washington, D.C., and it was a call of "who could do it best."

It's the latest in a growing list of endorsements Murphy has picked up in his bid for Marco Rubio's U.S. Senate seat. While Murphy has poised himself to be the Democratic establishment's favorite, Grayson is garnering support from grassroots donors and progressives.

Less than two weeks ago, Murphy also heralded the endorsement of the Florida Teamsters and three national Democrats during the state party's annual convention at Walt Disney World.

North Palm Beach attorney Pam Keith is also running in next summer's Democratic primary.

Four candidates are running in the Republican primary: U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, and Orlando businessman Todd Wilcox.

Photo credit: Walter Michot / Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times

November 11, 2015

Cause damage with your drone? You might have to pay up



As unmanned commercial drones continue climbing in popularity, so does the potential for accidents in which wayward devices might physically harm people or damage property.

Under current Florida law, there’s nothing a victim could do about such an accident, so a Republican state senator from Miami said he wants to fill that “void in the law.”

The proposal from state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla would provide a legal recourse for victims of drone accidents to recoup their expenses should a drone — for example — lose control and hit a high-voltage electric line or tumble into a crowd of people.

“They’re very hard to control and they can cause massive damage if they fall,” Diaz de la Portilla said of the devices, which can have a variety of functions and sizes, ranging from personal cameras that can be lofted into the air to armed military aircraft.

Senate Bill 642 would allow people to recover costs from the owner and operator of a drone if the device “was a substantial contributing factor” in causing the damage. The manufacturer and distributor of the device also could be sued if the damage resulted from a defect or design flaw.

Photo credit: AP

November 10, 2015

Miami-Dade legislative delegation announces new leaders for 2016 session

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Reps. Jose Felix Diaz and Jose Javier Rodriguez will lead Miami-Dade County's legislative delegation for the 2016 session that begins in January, the delegation announced today.

Diaz, R-Miami, will serve as chairman, replacing Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami. Diaz spent the past four years as the delegation's vice-chairman.

Rodriguez, D-Miami, will succeed him in that post.

Both were elected unanimously by the 24-member group, which Diaz called "a surreal honor."

"Miami-Dade's delegation is the strongest, largest, and most united delegation in our great state," Diaz said. "We hope this will be indicative of our delegation's willingness to usher in a new era of cooperation and statesmanship."

The delegation has 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats between the county's six Senate and 18 House seats. The chairman and vice-chairman, elected annually, spearhead the delegation's legislative agenda and priorities.

Photo credit: State Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami. Courtesy of

Florida superintendents stand with education commissioner on proposed cut scores


As the state Board of Education explores setting passing scores for the new Florida Standards Assessments that are more in line with "proficiency" grades on a key national assessment, Florida's superintendents say they're sticking by Education Commissioner Pam Stewart on this one.

The Florida Association of District School Superintendents said in a statement today that they support the long-used process to establish "cut scores" for Florida's standardized tests since the exams began in 1998 -- a move that signals superintendents' opposition to the state Board of Education's suggestion that they might take a different path.

The group says they support Stewart's recommended cut scores, which came this fall after input from more than 300 educators and stakeholders. Stewart's proposed cut scores are generally higher than the state’s previous standardized test (the FCAT 2.0); she told Board of Education members last month that that “demonstrates that the trend in Florida has been to increase the rigor” of exams.

But state education board members indicated they felt that Stewart's proposal didn't go far enough. They asked Stewart's office to provide information about how cut scores are defined for the National Assessments of Educational Progress and desired suggested scores that would be within 10 points of NAEP's, in the interest of potentially making FSA's passing marks more competitive with national standards.

But Florida's superintendents said, "to deviate from the established Florida Department of Education (DOE) process negates the process itself and calls into question the need for the process. It also further undermines public confidence in Florida’s already fragile accountability system."

The state board is due to set cut scores for the FSA at its January meeting.

While the superintendents agree with Stewart's position on cut scores, they continue to oppose efforts to use results from the new FSA to issue school grades for the 2014-15. They, like other educator groups, want the initial test results to serve as a baseline from which to judge students' and schools' progress in future years.

November 09, 2015

Joe Negron's Florida Senate presidency designation set for December



With the battle for the next Senate presidency settled last week between Sens. Joe Negron and Jack Latvala, Senate Republican leaders announced today the date for Negron's designation ceremony.

It will be held 2 p.m. Dec. 2, during the middle of the final committee week scheduled in advance of the 2016 legislative session.

The planned vote by the Republican caucus is to designate Negron, R-Stuart, as the next Senate president for a two-year term starting in November 2016.

Praising Negron's legislative experience and leadership, current Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said he is “pleased to see the caucus unite around Senator Negron.”

Up until Thursday, Negron had been engaged in a three-year battle for the chamber's top post with Latvala, a Clearwater Republican. In exchange for Latvala withdrawing from the race, Negron announced he would make Latvala the next chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Photo credit:

November 05, 2015

VIDEO: Florida Senate, House leaders sound off as special session ends


After the Legislature's special Senate redistricting session ended tonight without a redrawn map of Senate district boundaries, Republican leaders addressed the next steps and whether they could have reached a different outcome.

Read our coverage here.

Florida high school athletics back in play for 2016 session

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Members of the Florida House Education committee are again contemplating legislation that could relax eligibility rules for high school student-athletes and add oversight to the private, non-profit governing body that oversees almost all high school sports statewide.

Chairwoman Marlene O'Toole, R-The Villages, said Friday the committee had hoped to have a draft bill presented this week, but it's "not quite ready." It should be available by the panel's Nov. 18 meeting, she said.

The Senate also had a hearing last month about the Florida High School Athletic Association, but no specific legislation for 2016 has been proposed in that chamber yet.

Last spring, a bill that, some said, threatened the very existence of FHSAA cleared the House but died in the Senate.

Rep. Manny Diaz -- a Hialeah Republican who will again spearhead the House legislation for the 2016 session -- said Friday he's planning to pitch similar policy proposals that would (1) make it easier for students to be immediately eligible to participate in sports when they transfer schools, (2) add oversight for FHSAA financing and operations, and (3) improve the appeals process for investigations into athletes' eligibility.

Continue reading "Florida high school athletics back in play for 2016 session" »

Alan Grayson: Patrick Murphy should return donations from Dade Medical College CEO


The controversy of the now-shuttered Dade Medical College and its embattled CEO has seeped into Florida's heated Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, of Orlando, is calling on his opponent -- U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, of Jupiter -- to return campaign contributions he'd received from the school's majority owner, Ernesto Perez and his wife, Sylvia.

Ernesto Perez was arrested this week and is facing charges of bundling illegal campaign contributions. The school abruptly closed Friday, amid heightened federal scrutiny and mounting debts.

"How many students in Patrick Murphy's district are wondering what happened to their tuition and what will become of their future?" Grayson said in a campaign statement. "Patrick Murphy gobbled up dirty money from a corrupt college and he apparently has no concern about the disaster it left behind."

Dade Medical College had six campuses, stretching from Homestead to Jacksonville, including one in West Palm Beach (near Murphy's Palm Beach County and Treasure Coast district).

Murphy's campaign declined to comment on Grayson's remarks or the donations Murphy received from Perez.

Perez developed relationships with politicians at all levels of government, so campaign contributions were not at all an uncommon occurrence for him.

Federal Election Commission records show Perez gave Murphy's 2012 re-election campaign $1,000, and his wife, Sylvia, gave $5,400 -- the maximum -- in 2013 for Murphy's 2014 re-election bid.

Those contributions are among tens of thousands of dollars in donations the couple has given over the years to federal candidates on both sides of the aisle. The list includes hefty donations to several other prominent Florida Democrats, such as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel, of West Palm Beach, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, of Weston, who's also the Democratic National Committee chairwoman.

Florida Supreme Court: Alex Diaz de la Portilla didn't actively flout court in divorce dispute over dogs


The Florida Supreme Court says a former Miami Republican state senator's failure to show up for court hearings related to the custody of family dogs in his bitter divorce four years ago doesn't constitute "direct criminal contempt" of court because there was a lack of evidence that he knowingly failed to attend the hearings.

Rather Alex Diaz de la Portilla's defiance of a court order constituted a more passive act, known as "indirect criminal contempt," the court said in its 18-page ruling, released Thursday.  Download Sc14-1625

During the divorce proceedings, Diaz de la Portilla was ordered to hand over one of two family dogs  -- Elvis and Priscilla -- to his then-wife, lobbyist Claudia Davant, but failed to do so. (Diaz de la Portilla is brother to current Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.)

In 2011, Alex Diaz de la Portilla didn't show up for two court hearings, where Davant asked a judge to hold her husband into contempt of court for not delivering the couple's dog as ordered. After the second time, the trial court judge issued a warrant for Diaz de la Portilla's arrest and sought to hold him in direct criminal contempt, saying he was "thumbing his nose" at the authority of the court.

But the Florida Supreme Court -- agreeing with the First District Court of Appeals -- said people held in contempt have to be given the opportunity for a hearing before such a finding of guilt is made. The court said there was a lack of evidence that Diaz de la Portilla was notified that he was required to attend the hearings in person.

"When an individual fails to appear, the court is not capable of making the necessary inquiries of the absent individual, and likewise is unable to hear evidence of excusing or mitigating circumstances. The rules of criminal contempt must be strictly followed so as to protect the due process rights of the defendant," Justice Fred Lewis wrote in the 6-1 opinion, with Justice Charles Canady dissenting.

Canady said the court shouldn't have even considered the case, because the Supreme Court was only asked for its advisory opinion on when direct-versus-indirect criminal contempt applies. The First District Court of Appeal had deemed the issue "of great public importance" because there had been conflicting precedent set by Florida's trial courts and district courts of appeal.

"This court should not be in the business of issuing advisory opinions except as specifically authorized by the Florida Constitution," Canady wrote in his dissent.

What does this mean for Diaz de la Portilla? His contempt-of-court charge gets kicked back to the trial court.

November 04, 2015

Body-camera bill, back in Florida House for 2016, easily wins initial approval in first committee hearing


As police officer-worn body cameras become a more common accountability tool in Florida and throughout the country, state lawmakers again want to require law enforcement agencies to have standard protocols in place for officer training, use of the device and storage of the footage it captures.

After earning unanimous favor in the House last spring, the proposal stalled in the Senate amid the chaotic end to the 2015 legislative session.

New legislation filed for the upcoming 2016 session unanimously cleared the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee during its first hearing Wednesday.

Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said House Bill 93 is meant to ensure "the citizens and the police are held accountable and kept safe."

"If you look at the news, if you look at a lot of what’s taking place right now, you’ll find there’s a lot of pointing-fingers taking place — whether from the citizens’ standpoint or from the police aspect," said Jones, who's co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee.

Continue reading "Body-camera bill, back in Florida House for 2016, easily wins initial approval in first committee hearing" »