February 04, 2016

Ban red-light cameras? Florida Senate panel advances proposal

@ByKristenMClark

Above objections from local police chiefs and city and county officials, Florida lawmakers are advancing legislation to outlaw red-light cameras statewide.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, argues the devices -- which capture infractions and later result in sometimes costly tickets for motorists -- have "essentially no safety benefit" and he said they serve to do little more than line local governments' pockets with extra revenue.

"It’s a backdoor tax increase on citizens who often can't afford to pay it, and you’re making intersections less safe," Brandes said.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, agreed: "I don’t like the cash-register they’ve become either."

Brandes' bill (SB 168) to ban red-light cameras and prohibit local governments from using them got its first approval by a Senate committee Thursday morning, with Democrats opposed.

In the House, the effort is a little more bipartisan, with Reps. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, and Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, pushing HB 4027 together. They have a press conference scheduled for this afternoon to discuss their proposal. It received its first favorable vote two weeks ago, also with some Democratic opposition.

The state legalized red-light cameras in 2010.

But a growing number of municipalities -- including North Miami Beach and, recently, Gulfport near Tampa -- have voted to turn off their cameras or have stopped using the devices altogether in the face of public backlash, lawsuits and court rulings that found the devices could violate constitutional rights.

Last year, the Florida Supreme Court declined to take up an appeals court's ruling on a lawsuit challenging how the city of Hollywood used red-light tickets to enforce traffic laws in Broward County. The court said the city's outside private vendor had, "for all practical purposes," the power to decide which motorists were ticketed, when the city bears that responsibility.

Responding to Brandes' desire to outlaw the devices statewide, Democrats on the Senate Transportation Committee objected Thursday to what they called "an expansion of pre-emption" by the state and they questioned the validity of state data that Brandes presented to demonstrate proven increases in accidents because of the devices.

"It’s working in Orange County. We’ve seen people alter their behavior once they get a citation for running a red light," Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said "I personally think they work," citing his own experience getting a ticket, which he said deterred future infractions.

But he said cities should have the power to decide for themselves. That is what cities want, too.

The Florida League of Cities isn't weighing in on whether using the cameras is good or bad. The group does "support the ability of cities to use that tool" as a public-safety measure, said Scott Dudley, the league's legislative director.

In regards to Brandes calling it a hidden tax, Dudley countered: "It’s a hidden tax that can be easily avoided by not running a red light."

He said the larger traffic safety problem is cellphones and distracted driving.

"That’s really what the Legislature should be looking at," Dudley said.

Brandes ended the hearing with an emotional appeal, blasting the "cold-hearted" devices that don't have the capacity for leeway in doling out punishment, as police officers and sheriff's deputies have.

"It’s the cold, calculated nature of this I find most objectionable," Brandes said. "They don’t offer us the human side of law enforcement. They’re completely and utterly machine-driven."

His bill has two more committee stops before it could reach the Senate floor. Artiles and Jacobs' bill has one more committee to clear in the House.

The proposed law wouldn’t take effect until 2019 to allow time for municipalities’ contracts with vendors to expire, Brandes said.

 

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Legislative committees continue meeting in Tallahassee, while the state's top officials go to the fair. Here's what we're watching:

* They won't have an official cabinet meeting, but Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi will still be at the Florida State Fair in Tampa to help kick off the festivities. The governor will host a luncheon there at noon.

* At 9 a.m., the House Judiciary Committee will again take up the proposed "Pastor Protection Act," which allows clergy to turn away gay couples seeking to marry. The committee's vote was postponed last week.

* The House State Affairs Committee could vote to send to the House floor a proposal that changes the legal language of Florida's absentee voting to "vote-by-mail." That panel also meets at 9 a.m.

* The Senate Transportation Committee, also gathering at 9 a.m., will give a first hearing to a bill by Republican Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, and Anitere Flores of Miami, which aims to outlaw the use of red-light camera devices in Florida.

* A bill dealing with cremation fees that counties charge is set for its final committee hearing in the House. The Regulatory Affairs Committee meets at 1 p.m.

February 03, 2016

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" »

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. endorses Alan Grayson in U.S. Senate race

Rfk jr

@ByKristenMClark

The son of former U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Sen. Bobby Kennedy is backing U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, in Florida's contentious Democratic primary in the race to replace Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate next year.

The endorsement of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. marks one of the few but most high-profile names yet to pick Grayson over U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, who's drawn considerable support among the party establishment.

Grayson, in contrast, has earned most of his favor in progressive circles.

Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and progressive radio host, touted Grayson's strength in standing up against special interests, particularly on energy and environmental issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline.

He heralded Grayson as "the lone, true environmental defender in this Senate race."

“It’s a comfort to know Democrats like Alan Grayson still exist in Washington,” Kennedy said in a statement provided by Grayson's campaign. “He’s one of those who will not compromise in what they believe and fight for. We need Alan in the Senate.”

Photo credit: AP

February 02, 2016

Former NFL, FSU players lobby for payment in Devaughn Darling's death

From the News Service of Florida:

Family members and former teammates of a Florida State University football player who died while working out nearly 15 years ago gathered Tuesday at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to approve a bill that would compensate his family.

Devaughn Darling was a freshman for the Seminoles in 2001, when he collapsed and died during a training session. His family later agreed to a $2 million settlement with the university.

But under the state's sovereign immunity laws, the family could not collect more than $200,000 without legislative approval of what is known as a "claim" bill. Such bills have been filed repeatedly to compensate the Darling family but have not passed.

Devaughn Darling's twin brother, Devard, said it is difficult for his family to have to lobby lawmakers year after year.

"Nothing can bring him back, no amount of money,'' Devard Darling said. "$1.8 million isn't worth Devaughn's life, but like everyone has said, it is just the closure that we are looking for. We have to relive this every year."

Several former NFL players and FSU teammates joined the Darling family at the Capitol. Bills (SB 16 and HB 3513) that call for paying the Darling family have yet to be heard by legislative committees this session.

"I'm going to be here to support them (family members), and I hope that those that will vote on this issue and will bring this issue to the table will just think of the family,'' said Corey Simon, a former Florida State and NFL player.

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Both the House and Senate are in session today, and they'll have plenty of old and familiar faces on hand as their special guests for the morning. Here's what we're watching:

* Current and former lawmakers will come together in each chamber, as part of a weeklong legislative reunion in Tallahassee. The House is set to honor former members during a special "reunion" session from 9:15-10 a.m., and then the Senate plans to do the same from 11 a.m. to noon, after an hour of regular floor work.
 
* The House convenes again for its regular session at 4 p.m. Daily business is set to include debate on sanctuary cities, revisions to the state's 10-20-Life law and two high-profile guns bills -- open carry and campus carry.
 
* The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee will consider a proposal to address Florida's death penalty procedures in the wake of the Hurst v. Florida U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this month. A Senate panel held a similar hearing last week. Along that same vein, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this morning on whether Hurst applies to the case of death-row inmate Michael Lambrix, who has been denied a stay for his execution set for Feb. 11.
 
* The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee will debate two controversial ideas: Making both the commissioner of education and the secretary of state elected positions.
 
* A contingent of current and former NFL players will join Democratic lawmakers for a press conference urging the Legislature to sign off on a settlement deal reached in the wrongful death suit of Florida State University freshman linebacker Devaughn Darling. Darling collapsed and died in 2001 while participating in a series of intense conditioning drills at FSU.

January 29, 2016

Keystone XL grassroots opponent endorses Alan Grayson

@ByKristenMClark

U.S. Rep. and U.S. Senate candidate Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, announced today that he's picked up the endorsement of Jane Kleeb, a grassroots organizer who helped kill the Keystone XL Pipeline project.

Kleeb heralded Grayson for his strength in opposing the project despite facing political pressure.

"No other candidate in this race will protect our environment and fight for clean energy jobs with the same guts as Alan Grayson," Kleeb said in a statement provided by Grayson's campaign.

The endorsement is another example of divergent support for Grayson and his primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter.

Earlier today, Murphy announced he's gotten the backing of the Laborers' International Union of North America, adding to his cache of party establishment support in contrast to Grayson's progressive, more grassroots base.

LIUNA, like Murphy, supported the Keystone XL project.

Murphy and Grayson are competing in the Democratic party primary in August for the race to replace Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate.

January 28, 2016

Vehicle-rescue legislation headed to Gov. Rick Scott's desk

From the News Service of Florida:

Florida senators Thursday gave final approval to a bill that would provide legal protections to good Samaritans who break into locked cars to rescue animals and vulnerable people.

The Senate voted 38-0 to pass the bill (HB 131), a day after it also received unanimous approval in the House.

Sponsored by House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, and Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, the measure stems from situations such as pets, senior citizens and children being trapped in hot cars.

It would provide legal immunity for damage that rescuers might cause to vehicles while trying to help the animals or vulnerable people.

Rescuers also would have to call 911 before or immediately after breaking into vehicles and would have to stay until authorities arrive.

Scott: Don't count Jeb out

@jamesmartinrose

Gov. Rick Scott hasn't written off one of his famous predecessor's chances of becoming president.

Scott, in Washington to deliver an address on reforming hospital pricing practices at the American Enterprise Institute, put on his politics hat after the talk.

Scott, governor since 2011, said it's too soon to give up on former Gov. Jeb Bush despite his failure to gain traction in polls.

 "I still think it's early," Scott told the Miami Herald. "I mean, we haven't even done the first primary yet."

Scott said that Bush "was a very successful governor" when he headed the state from 1999 to 2007, noting in particular his education reforms.

"We're at a 12-year high in our K-12 graduation rate," Scott said.

Adding that "Jeb is working hard," Scott said, "The person that works the hardest generally wins."

Despite praising Bush's record in Florida, Scott declined to endorse him. Neither is he endorsing -- yet -- fellow Floridian Marco Rubio, the first-term U.S. senator, nor any of the other Republican presidential hopefuls.

"Like a lot of voters in Florida, I'm watching the candidates," the governor said.

Four days before the Feb.1 Iowa caucuses, Bush tallied just 4 percent in a NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll of that state's Republican voters released Thursday. He was far behind businessman Donald Trump and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio of Florida, while also trailing neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Bush is faring better in New Hampshire, which will hold its primary Feb. 9, according to a poll released Thursday by Suffolk University. Bush broke out of the single digits with 11 percent, putting him in a second-place tie with Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Rubio, with all four men well behind Trump's 27 percent standing.

In addition to Bush, Scott said he has personal relationships with Rubio, along with Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie through the Republican Governors Association.

Scott criticized the Republican National Committee for having scheduled just nine presidential debates this year.

"I wish the national party hadn't limited the number of debates and limited the locations," he said.

The RNC is weighing three additional possible Republican presidential debates.

The March 10 GOP debate will be at the University of Miami, nine days after Super Tuesday, when 14 states will hold Republican primaries or caucuses. Florida will hold its primary on March 15.

Scott declined to comment directly on Trump's decision to skip Thursday night's Fox News debate because of his ongoing feud with Megyn Kelly, one of its moderators.

"Every candidate's got to think about what's the best forum for them to get their message out, whether it's debates, whether it's town halls," Scott said.

 

Florida Senate approves changes to "stand your ground" law

@ByKristenMClark

By a 24-12 vote, the Florida Senate on Thursday approved changes to the state's "stand your ground" law -- which are endorsed by the National Rifle Association but which opponents argue would "stack the deck against justice for the dead," especially if the victim is a racial minority.

The legislation shifts the burden of proof in a pre-trial hearing from defendants to prosecutors, requiring state attorneys to prove "by clear and convincing evidence" why a defendant could not claim "stand your ground" in self-defense cases.

Its prospects at becoming law are unknown, because a House version -- which required the demonstration of a higher burden of proof from prosecutors -- unexpectedly stalled in November in committee, a rare defeat for a priority of the NRA.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island -- sponsor of SB 344 -- said again Thursday he wants for House leadership to take up his bill directly on the House floor. It's unclear whether House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, intends to exercise that option.

Crisafulli spokesman Michael Williams told the Herald/Times that “the House will take up the bill for consideration when it comes over from the Senate,” but it hasn’t been decided whether it will be brought immediately to the floor for a vote or referred to committees.

Bradley said he “anticipates” a floor vote in the House.

"I've gotten general indications that's where it's headed," he said. "I'm confident there's a majority of House members who would agree with the majority of the Senate that this is the right public policy for the state of Florida."

Bradley sought the changes to "stand your ground" in light of a Florida Supreme Court ruling last summer that he has argued "overreached" the court's powers.

In the case known as Bretherick v. Florida, five of seven justices ruled defendants who claim a stand-your-ground defense have to prove before trial why they’re entitled to that immunity, but Bradley contends the justices "misinterpreted legislative intent" of the decade-old law.

Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ 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.

"We're getting it right today," Bradley said on the Senate floor, adding that "the state should have the burden of proof in criminal prosecution from beginning to end."

Sen. Gwen Margolis, of Miami, was the only Democrat to join the chamber's Republican majority in passing the bill. She changed her vote afterward, but the official record reflects the result as 24-12 with her as a “yes” vote.

Prior to the floor vote, several Democratic senators invoked the names of high-profile victims -- including Trayvon Martin -- in expressing their opposition to "stand your ground" and Bradley's proposed changes, but Republicans said Trayvon's case had nothing to do with the law.

Trayvon, a 17-year-old from Miami Gardens, was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford four years ago. Zimmerman was later acquitted.

Shifting the burden of proof in self-defense cases would require prosecutors to "somehow prove a negative; that there was no threat, no reason to be fearful," Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said.

"In these cases, you only have one person’s side of the story; it's the last man standing," Thompson said. "Trayvon couldn’t tell his side of the story because he was dead. So we only have the version that was presented by the individual who hunted him down, who tracked him, who engaged him in an altercation."

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, said the enforcement of “stand your ground” has already proven to have wide disparities depending on the race of the victim, and this legislation could further hurt the chances for minority victims to get justice.

She cited statistics from the American Bar Association that she said show a white shooter of a black victim is 350 percent more likely to be found justified in use of deadly force than if the victim was white.

Bradley said, "it's simply incorrect to suggest this bill would result in otherwise guilty individuals going free."

He described his measure as "procedural" and said if prosecutors have sufficient evidence to prove a case before a jury at trial, they should have no problem convincing a judge in a preliminary hearing.

But Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the hearing happens when "the case is still ripe; they haven't even got all the evidence in."

"You’re getting the immunity, the least you can do is put on some evidence of it," he said.

He also criticized Bradley for citing the dissent of Justices Charles T. Canady and Ricky Polston as part of his rationale for seeking to change the law.

"When I was in law school, the dissent was what we called: 'What the law is not,' " Smith said.