December 01, 2014

Richardson the first openly gay representative to hold House leadership post

State Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, has been selected as the Democratic Floor Leader by House Democratic leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, and Democratic Leader pro tempore, Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville. Richardson will be the first openly gay representative in Florida history to serve in a leadership position in the Florida legislature, according to House Democrats. 

Here's the Democrats' press statement:

Richardson, D-Miami Beach, was the first openly gay member ever elected to the Florida Legislature when he was elected on August 14, 2012. Richardson has been a licensed CPA in Florida for 30 years and began his career as a Pentagon auditor identifying fraud, waste and abuse in government contracts. He was re-elected earlier this year to represent House District 113 for his second two-year term and is the only openly gay member of the Florida Legislature. Richardson joins the leadership team that will guide policy and action for House Democrats. As Floor Leader, he will serve as the chief liaison between the Democratic Leader and the Office of the Speaker. Richardson will also serve as ranking member on the House Rules, Calendar & Ethics Committee. In that role, Richardson will work on daily schedules of action for the House. Richardson will also manage, in conjunction with Republican leaders, floor debate on bills and amendments.

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November 10, 2014

Simmons named new Senate Rules Committee chair

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamone Springs, has been named by Senate President-Designate Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, as the new chair of the Senate Committee on Rules. 

"David is a loyal advisor, a trusted confidante and good friend," Gardiner said in a press release. "With over three decades of experience practicing law and ten years of service in the state legislature, he is well-qualified to assume this critical leadership position. Throughout his years of public service, David has exhibited sound judgment and a fair-minded, reasonable and thoughtful approach to decision making that, I am confident, will be a great benefit to the Senate over the next two years."

Simmons represents State Senate District 10, which includes all of Seminole County and portions of Volusia County. He served in the Florida House of Representatives from 2000-2008 and was elected to the Senate in 2010 and re-elected subsequently. Simmons, who earned his law degree at Vanderbilt University, practiced law in Florida for more than 30 years.


November 04, 2014

Ken Detzner: So far, no hitches at the polls on Election Day


Voting is going "very smoothly" this morning, with all polls opening on time in the state's 6,222 precincts, Secretary of State Ken Detzner said at an elections briefing in Tallahassee.

While millions are expected to vote today, the number of early votes cast could be a record, he said. As of last night, 1.7 million Floridians voted by absentee ballot and 1.3 million voted in-person at the polls. By party, 655,020 Democrats and 791,324 Republicans voted by absentee ballot and 555,473 Democrats and 518,476 Republicans voted early in-person at the polls.

"Voters are very pleased to get out early and vote absentee," he said. "I think we might actually see some records in regards to the number of absentee ballots that were mailed and that we're seeing returned.

"By the time the polls close this evening, we should have a sizeable number of votes already counted because of legislative changes made in 2013," Detzner said, referring to fixes restoring more early voting after Florida's flawed 2012 election process.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division is monitoring polling locations in four Florida counties -- Duval, Hillsborough, Lee and Orange -- to ensure federal voting laws are followed. Detzner said these "observers" are present in 17 states, but stressed his confidence that the voting process has improved.

Given a governor's race too tight to predict, the state is ready for a recount, Detzner said. But the contest between Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Cristisn't the only challenge supervisors face this evening.

Several other tight races could require a recount, including the 2nd Congressional District race between Republican Steve Southerland and Democrat Gwen Grahamand the District 26 race where Miami Democrat Joe Garcia is battling Republican challenger Carlos Curbelo.

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October 12, 2014

What's one thing neither side is talking about in the marijuana/Amend 2 debate?

MarijuanaHere’s the little secret that neither side of the Amendment 2 debate over medical marijuana is talking about: The Florida Legislature controls its fate.

You don’t hear it from opposition groups, who warn that legalizing medical marijuana will endanger children, spawn pot shops on every street corner and become the state’s next pill mill fiasco. That will happen only if the conservative Florida Legislature decides not to impose strict rules on who obtains the marijuana, who distributes it and under what conditions.

You don’t hear it from proponents, as the United for Care campaign rolls into college campuses, riding on the hopes of medically needy Floridians, and wishful recreational pot smokers.

Access to medical cannabis for those groups wouldn’t be easy, either, if the Legislature put in place a tightly controlled cultivation and dispensing system similar to one it adopted earlier this year when it legalized low-THC, high CBD strains of cannabis.

And what’s to stop lawmakers from doing any of this and more?

“Nothing,” said Jon Mills, former Democratic House speaker and a constitutional lawyer who wrote the amendment on the ballot before voters on Nov.4. “The Legislature can do anything that is not inconsistent with the Constitution.”

The proposed constitutional amendment, he said, prevents the Legislature from creating a barrier to access for patients diagnosed with nine particular debilitating ailments, or others who meet the requirements of the law. But he noted that it does allow lawmakers to establish a protocol for determining what diseases are eligible for treatment and to put in place rules that keep the public safe.

Story here. 


October 11, 2014

For unlucky, legislative fix for sinkhole insurance means no damages fixed, no payout and lost property value

By Jeff Harrington and Dan DeWitt of the Tampa Bay Times

In the heyday of the Great Florida Sinkhole Lottery, Iris and Harry Irizarry would have had all the ingredients for a big cash payout: A sinkhole policy from state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp.; visible cracking in the walls and floors of the Spring Hill home they bought new in 2003; and a sinkhole confirmed by both an engineer and the Hernando County Property Appraiser's Office.

But the era of easy sinkhole claims is over, slammed shut by a 2011 overhaul of the state insurance law. Based on the new law, the same engineering firm that found the Irizarrys' sinkhole — and recommended that it be filled with grout — deemed that it wouldn't qualify for an insurance claim.

"We pay our insurance but (Citizens) doesn't want to pay to fix the house, and I can't sell my house because (it) has no value," said Iris Irizarry, 64, a retired Head Start director from Brooklyn. "What kind of a law is that?"

In short, it's a law that has done what it was supposed to do: stem a flood of claims that by 2011 were driving up insurance rates and driving down property values in the "sinkhole alley" of Hernando and Pasco counties.

But concerns are surfacing that the sinkhole fix has gone too far: It has limited the availability of sinkhole insurance and allowed insurers to charge prices rivaling the cost of a standard homeowners policy. It has made it far more difficult for homeowners to qualify for a claim. And by leaving homeowners stuck with sinkhole homes they cannot repair, it has created a potential new drag on property values. Story here. 

October 10, 2014

Report: The untold jobs story -- as state workforce shrank, so did services

Workforce reportFrom the Center for Investigative Reporting:

Over the last decade, Florida has shed thousands of state jobs, the consequence of a poor economy and a political philosophy at work. The result has affected how well agencies that protect everything from children to the environment can do their jobs.

According to a workforce report compiled by the state, while the nationwide average number of state workers per 10,000 in population was 211 in 2012, Florida had just 111 that year. That’s almost half the national average.

The state’s population has grown by 4 million since 1998. Its budget has increased by $25 billion since 2000. Yet Florida has almost 10,000 fewer established positions in the State’s Personnel System, State University System, State Legislature, Courts System and Justice Administration combined, than it did 15 years ago.

This means Florida’s government has been operating at its lowest staffing levels in almost two decades.

Even as the economy rebounds, state government isn’t growing with it.

This has largely been the result of a predominately Republican Legislature, and three Republican governors since the late 1990s – all of whom campaigned on promises to shrink government.

As a result, public agencies tasked with protecting vulnerable children, monitoring waterways and providing benefits to Floridians who have fallen on hard times, are struggling to fulfill their mandates. More here. 

September 26, 2014

Legislator asks prison secretary Michael Crews to turn over files on cover-up

Darren SotoA state senator is asking the Department of Corrections to turn over documents regarding the cover-up and investigation of suspicious inmate deaths at Florida prisons, warning that the use excessive force may have violated the constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."

Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, sent the letter to DOC Secretary Michael Crews in response to a Miami Herald report that chief investigators for both Gov. Rick Scott and the agency were told of the suspicious inmate deaths by an anonymous letter writer more than a year before news reports about the deaths prompted the agency to crackdown on abusive guards.  

"If they did receive information and nobody did anything about it, we may have to replace some of the auditors,'' said Soto, a member of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee which oversees prisons. "I'm worried about the potential liability to the state and the potential of a federal takeover if we are violating the constitution." 

Soto asked for all documents relating to the September 2010 death of Randall Jordan-Aparo at Franklin Correctional Institution and Darren Rainey at Dade Correctional in 2012.

"Regardless of the crimes committee by these individuals, we have a constitutional obligation under the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution to refrain from cruel and unusual punishment and to treat them humanely,'' he wrote to Crews. "These allegations may implicate a direct violation of these rights." Download 9.26.14 Soto Letter to Secretary Crews

Crews responded that a web site he has developed to post details about inmate deaths already provides much of what he is seeking.

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February 10, 2014

Legislators propose medical marijuana legislation as a "framework" for constitutional amendment

For the fourth year, Democratic legislators and advocates for medical marijuana are pushing for a measure to legalize the drug. What makes all of them more hopeful about success this session is the Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative amendment, which will be on the ballot Nov. 4.

“We’ve seen a seismic shift in how the legislature is beginning to look at these issues,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, at a press conference Monday to announce his 157-page bill, the "Cathy Jordan Medical Cannabis Act" (SB 962), with House sponsor Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando.

Clemens pointed to efforts by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, and Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, to decriminalize the strain of non-psychoactive marijuana known as “Charlotte’s Web” to help children with seizures, as a sign of bipartisan progress.

The medical marijuana measure proposed by Clemens and Saunders would be broader than the Charlotte’s Web effort, instead focusing on 24 specific “qualifying medical conditions,” including Alzheimer's Disease, cancer and chronic debilitating pain, plus treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Clemens called it a “tightly regulated framework of oversight” providing guidelines for both the licensing and permitting of dispensaries and medical cannabis farms, requiring registration identification cards, protections for doctors and protections to fight abuse, among other provisions.

"A blanket ban on access to medical marijuana is hurting Floridians," said Saunders. "We believe this bill represents the best course for implementing the constitutional amendment on this November's ballot but also gets help to those patients who simply can't wait."

Saunders and Clemens were flanked by families and patients who use medical marijuana to get relief from pain and disease, including Robert Jordan, whose wife Cathy has been helped by medical marijuana for decades while living with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Saunders was flanked by patients and family members, including Robert Jordan, a Vietnam vet whose wife Cathy has been helped by medical marijuana for decades while living with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. The bill is named for Cathy, who has been fighting to legalize marijuana from her wheelchair and was by her husband's side at Monday’s press conference.

This bill, said Robert Jordan, "puts patients before politics.” 

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February 07, 2014

Court affirms ruling that barrel racing is not a legit parimutuel sport in Florida

The First District Court of Appeal agreed with a lower court and on Tuesday ruled that the decision by Florida regulators to license barrel racing as a parimutuel sport was a misuse of the rulemaking powers of the state. Download 13-2660

“ . . . the narrow issue in this case is whether the (Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering’s) policy of treating barrel match racing as an authorized form of quarter horse racing is an unadopted rule,” the court said. 

Here are the statements from the United Florida Horsemen and the group representing the barrel racers: 

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January 13, 2014

Bill shielding taxpayer email addresses raises concerns

Pointing to a potential "slippery slope," an open-government group Monday requested that a Pinellas lawmaker withdraw a bill that would create a new public records exemption for email addresses used by tax collectors to send notices to taxpayers.

From The News Service of Florida: The Senate version of the bill, SB 538 by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is scheduled to be heard Tuesday in the Senate Community Affairs Committee. A similar measure, HB 421 by Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, has been filed in the House. The Senate bill says, in part, that email addresses submitted to tax collectors are currently public records "and, when combined with other personal identifying information, can be used for identity theft, taxpayer scams, and other invasive contacts."

But the First Amendment Foundation, in a letter Monday to Latvala, said there is "no factual evidence to support" the assertion that a public-records exemption is needed to prevent identity theft and warned that the bill could have broader long-term implications.

"This particular legislation protects only those email addresses obtained by tax collectors," foundation President Barbara Petersen wrote. "If passed, it would create the proverbial slippery slope of Mt. Everest proportions, Senator, provoking similar unnecessary and unsubstantiated exemptions, affecting all government business conducted electronically, creating major problems with efficiency, and increasing costs associated with obtaining public records."

A separate, unrelated proposal to be considered by the 2014 Legislature would allow tax collectors to accept applications for concealed weapons permits.

-- Steve Bousquet