July 07, 2014

Tallahassee's next lobbying gold rush: cannabis

Marijuana rule hearing

The Betty Easley Conference Center was packed with a Who's Who of Tallahassee lobbyists Monday. Each of them were scouting out prospects at the Department of Health hearing on the rule that will be the template for Florida's foray into medical marijuana. 

Many of those in attendance Monday had not registered yet as executive branch lobbyists. In fact, there is still no category for the "marijuana" industry in the Legislature's lobbyists registry.

But it's a growing industry, literally, and the lobbyists crowded the room -creating a standing room only scene at what is normally a dull rules hearing.

In the audience was Louis Rotundo and Ron Watson ofthe Florida Medical Cannibis Association. Jeff Sharkey and Taylor Biehl of the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida came with their prospective investors too. Clark Smith attended for the contingent of nine lobbyists hired at Southern Strategies by the perceived giant in the industry, Miami-based Costa Farms.

It's not clear where some lobbyists are affiliated. Jorge Chamizo, Dave Roberts, Ron Greenstein and Doug Mannheimer were working but none seem to be registered yet. Steve Schale and Jon Costello are registered for Sanctuary Cannabis, a Weston-based company seeking to develop the product in the Southeast region. John Lockwood is working for MJardin Management, a cannabis grower. Susan Goldstein is working for another Broward-based company, Innovative industries of Pompano.

Justin Sayfie said he has a few prospects he's working on but nothing firm. Jon Moyle represents the Stanley Brothers, who developed the trademarked "Charlotte's Web" in Colorado, and the family working closely with bringing the strain to Florida, Peyton and Holly Moseley of Pensacola.

Even Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, who is term limited out of office in November, appeared to be scouting out prospects as he roamed in and out of the hearing room Monday with a legal pad of notes. (State law prohibits former legislators from lobbying the legislature for two years but can freely lobby state agencies and other elements of the executive branch.)

Holder said he was in town "just clearing out my office'' but decided to come by. "My constituents have lots of questions,'' he said.

Dems' ad about ed cuts and tax breaks faces Truth-O-Meter

A new Florida Democratic Party TV ad accuses Gov. Rick Scott of siding with big business rather than public education.

"He didn’t side with students and parents when Rick Scott cut education funding by over a billion dollars," the narrator says in the ad, which began airing in the Tampa, West Palm Beach and Orlando markets in early July. "Working and middle-class families? Nope. Not on their side when Scott’s cuts forced tuition increases at 11 Florida universities. Why would he do it? Whose side was Rick Scott on? Scott cut education to pay for even more tax breaks for big, powerful, well-connected corporations. With his education cuts and tuition increases, Rick Scott’s not on your side."

We’ve already fact-checked claims about education cuts and tuition in the gubernatorial battle between Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Democratic frontrunner.

Here we will fact-check the claim that "Scott cut education to pay for even more tax breaks for big, powerful, well-connected corporations."

Crist rolls out first TV ad

Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist rolled out his first television spot Monday, and it is intended to win over working-class voters.

The title of the 30-second ad: Sunshine.

"'Sunshine' reflects who our campaign is about: Florida’s middle-class families and seniors, whose lives have gotten harder under [incumbent Gov.] Rick Scott," Crist campaign manager Omar Khan said.

The ad opens with the sun rising behind the iconic Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

"We’re famous for our sunshine here," Crist says. "But for many, work starts before it comes up and continues long after it goes down."

Crist goes on to say that he cut property taxes for senior citizens and middle-class families while serving as governor from 2006 to 2010.  He also says he saved 20,000 teacher jobs during the economic downturn, a claim PolitiFact Florida rated "half true."

The ad ends with three campaign promises. If elected, Crist says, he will raise the minimum wage, demand equal pay for women and restore school funding.

"I'll fight for you, from sunrise to sunset," he says.

State Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican, issued the response from the Scott campaign. 

"It's fitting that Charlie Crist's first campaign ad is called 'Sunshine' because he only wants to be around during good times," he said in a statement. "When times were tough here, Charlie instituted tax increases and teacher layoffs. Then he ran away."

 

 

Crist gets financial boost from Democratic governors

The Democratic Governors Association has funneled $500,000 to Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor now running as a Democrat against GOP Gov. Rick Scott.

The donation allowed Crist's political committee to raise more cash from June 21 to June 27 than Scott and a Scott's political committee, newly filed reports show. Candidates and their affiliated committees must now provide reports weekly.

The Crist committee -- "Charlie Crist for Florida" -- raised $625,150 during the seven-day period, including the money from the governors association, compared to the $262,000 Scott's committee -- "Let's Get to Work" -- raised during the same period. Crist's committee has raised a total of $9.34 million this election so far, compared to Scott's committee which has raised a total of  $28.85 million. 

Scott continues his fundraising edge over Crist however. Scott raised $253,237 in his campaign account during the June 21 to June 27 period, for a total of $5.5 million, compared to Crist who raised $62,910 for his campaign account during the period, bringing his total to $3.96 million.. Scott's largest contributor during this time was $100,000 to his political committee from The Villages, a Central Florida retirement community.

Former Rep. Gene Hodges of Cedar Key has died

Gene Hodges, a colorful Democratic state representative who represented Cedar Key and surrounding areas in the Florida House for nearly two decades, died Sunday at the age of 77.

A spokeswoman for the town of Cedar Key, where Hodges was a city council member, confirmed the death. A long-time colleague and friend of Hodges', former Rep. Frank Messersmith of Lake Worth, said on his Facebook page: "My old buddy, former Rep. Gene Hodges of Cedar Key, left us today. He really was a legend in his own time. Rest in Peace, buddy."

In an interview, Messersmith said he and Hodges roomed together for years in Tallahassee along with a third lawmaker, Rep. Dick Locke of Inverness. Messersmith said Hodges kept his houseboat docked at Posey's, a popular seafood restaurant and bar on the Wakulla River.

"Every Sunday, Hodges would get himself a bunch of mullet and we'd load up that houseboat and go cruising St. Marks and the Wakulla River and cook all that mullet," Messersmith said. "Hodges had a great sense of entertainment. He was a funny guy. He was a magnet."

In the House, the pace of lawmaking would immediately intensify when Hodges was handed the gavel and summoned to the speaker's rostrum. "When things got really slow on the floor, we'd yell 'HOD-ges! HOD-ges! HOD-ges!'" Messersmith said.

Hodges was a U.S. Air Force veteran and member of a prominent political family with deep roots in Florida. His father, the late Randolph Hodges, was a senator from 1952 to 1962 and served as Senate president before becoming a lobbyist for the parimutuel industry.

Gene Hodges was a House member from 1972 to 1988 and later served as a member of the Florida Parole Commission. Gene Hodges' niece is Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa.

Medical marijuana train begins as regulators hold hearing to develop rules

Joel stanleyThe race to cultivate and distribute marijuana for a limited medical use began Monday when state regulators opened a daylong hearing on the draft rules to allow non-euphoric, non-inhalable cannabis to be developed. 

The standing room only crowd in the Tallahassee hearing room was chock full of some of Tallahassee''s most prominent lobbyists as well as growers from Israel, Colorado and California and farmers from throughout the state as regulators work to enact the law passed last spring by lawmakers.

The plan is to create a statewide lottery, whose eligible participants would include the 41 eligible nurseries. The mother of Charlotte Figi, the Colorado girl whose parents worked to get the low THC strain of marijuana, was also in the crowd, as was Joel Stanley, the marijuana grower who developed the "Charlotte's Web" strain. Representatives of doctors, investors and biotech specialists who also want to get on the cannabis train also crowded the room. 

Photo: Joel Stanley, Colorado grower

The proposed criteria is strict: the plants must adhere to the formula of no more than .8 percent THC or less than 10 percent CBD – or all of the product would be destroyed. Growers must inventory their plants, cuttings and seeds daily or be subject to penalty. Chemical additives must be screened and carefully controlled and the entire operation must be under lock and key.

The potential industry has already spawned a rush of businesses waiting to strike it rich in Florida - as the law passed by legislators allowing for the medical use of marijuana is considered just the first step in bringing the plant legally to Florida. The law is intended to help patients with severe epilepsy and other muscle diseases, such as Parkinson's, as well as patients with cancer, but an amendment pending on the November ballot would allow for medical use of the plant for a much broader array of ailments.  

Regulators hope that the process they put in place this summer for the limited strain could be a blueprint for the wider law if voters approve it. It requires that a license will cost $150,000 and the grower must post a bond of $5 million. The investment also involves immense security and technology, and a requirement that growers fingerprint and screen their employees. 

The law envisions growers becoming store owners, creating a series of dispensaries in each region of the state. The proposed rules suggest their stores be open at least 30 hours a week, and no later than 10 p.m. and the products they sell are limited: no edible cannabis products, like cookies or candy, and no cigarettes. 

But several people testified that room must be made in the rules to allow the growers to get to the product without being subject to federal crimes for possession of the illegal drug. Others warned that the requirement that the growers be able to offer their product in any region of the state so as to allow price competition. 

“Essentially you’re creating not an oligopoly but a monopoly in that region,’’ said Bill Pfeiffer, a former state administrative law judge. He also suggested that one dispensing organization should be allowed to offer its product in multiple locations within a region.

“I think the legislature has made it very clear they can offer it statewide or regionally as determined by the department,” he said. 

Joel Stanley, one of the five brothers who developed the Charlotte’s Web strain in Colorado, said that there are many misconceptions that abound about the special strain. Every plant is unique and it is important to retain that genetic composition to obtain quality control, he said.

 “What makes Charlotte Web particularly special is it does have that track record,’’ he said. “We have eight different phenotypic expressions of the Charlottes Web product…We choose to use the same one over and over again because we have found that others don’t have the same level of efficacy.”

He noted that the agricultural practices are important, as some applicants will be able to produce the strain more quickly and safely than others. 

"If five make it through a lottery process and they all qualify under the applicants qualifications within the rules they are are still going to have extremely different levels of teams that they’ve assembled to prove that they can put this product out in bulk but also safely,'' he said.

Kim Russell, the Orlando woman who started the medical marijuana petition drive five years to help her father with Parkinson's disease, urged regulators to focus on getting the product to patients first. "This is the compassion act, not the green rush act,'' she said. 

Crist, Scott face off on education issues

Rick Scott and Charlie Crist are using a similar weapon in their battle for the governor’s mansion: teachers.

Schoolteachers play a starring role in Scott's latest round of campaign television ads.

"Rick Scott has put a lot of money back into education," a teacher named Vicki says in one ad, standing before her whiteboard.

Crist has also enlisted educators in his gubernatorial bid. The Democratic frontrunner recently hosted a roundtable discussion with educators, and asked one of them to deliver his qualifying documents to the elections department in Tallahassee.

He has since met with teachers in Orlando and Miami.

While the tactics are similar, the strategies are different. Read more here.

July 04, 2014

So long to Crist's NASCAR sponsorship

has been waved on Charlie Crist at the Daytona International Speedway.

A campaign gift of a NASCAR sponsorship for Saturday's nationally televised Coke Zero 400 is now off — not because the rival Republican Party of Florida complained, but because the registered owner of the race car in question, record producer Mike Curb, used to be a Republican lieutenant governor of California and asked the decals not appear.

"I did it out of respect to Mike Curb, who is a staunch Republican and he didn't feel comfortable and he's been a huge supporter and a partner to us from the very start," racing car partner Phil Parsons told the Sporting News at the speedway Friday morning. "In respect to Michael, we decided to take it off."

Parsons told the Sporting News that he had been paid by a supporter of Crist's to put the Democratic gubernatorial candidate stickers on the No. 98 car driven by Josh Wise.

Crist's name was to appear in six places on the car. The sponsorship was reported to be worth between $25,000 and $50,000.

More here

Demand that hospitals repay Medicaid funds latest sign of D.C.-Tallahassee rift

@tbtia

The federal government wants to recover $267 million from Florida hospitals it says were paid too much to care for the poor. And it wants the entire amount this year — a demand that is hitting safety-net hospitals like Jackson Memorial in Miami and Tampa General hard.

"Essentially it wipes out any profit we would have next year, so that's kind of why we're struggling with it," said Jackson Health System chief financial officer Mark Knight, noting the state's largest public hospital had operated in the red for years before turning things around.

Jackson stands to lose $47 million in Medicaid funding with this one issue. Tampa General would be out $13.3 million.

The federal demand is the latest incident highlighting tensions between Washington and Tallahassee over how to provide health care to the poor. Republican legislators rejected President Barack Obama's Medicaid expansion that would have provided health coverage for 764,000 uninsured Floridians.

But Tallahassee leaders wanted to continue receiving $1 billion a year in Medicaid Low Income Pool payments to hospitals. They even asked Washington for more from that program.

Read more here.

July 03, 2014

Nan Rich: Carole Crist doesn't have to release tax returns

@LearyReports

Nan Rich has plenty of disagreements with Charlie Crist, who has refused to debate her and generally acted as if his Democratic rival doesn't exist. But on the question of Crist releasing his wife's tax return Rich agrees: He doesn't have to.

Rich said she hasn't decided about her own tax returns, but that as a state legislator she has long filed financial disclosure reports.

We asked Rich about the Progressive Choice group that is attacking Crist in mailers and on the radio. Rich said she has no idea about the group other than what she has read in the news. "I have nothing to do with them." But she doubts it's a Republican front.

"I like their message. It's a very accurate analysis" of Crist's history as a Republican.

-- Alex Leary