Note: This blog's templates will be updated this afternoon to a responsive design bringing it in line with MiamiHerald.com.

At that time, we will also change to the Facebook commenting system. You will need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment.

January 28, 2016

Open-carry bill up for final hearing in Florida House this morning

@ByKristenMClark

A controversial proposal -- backed by the National Rifle Association and gun-rights advocates -- that would allow more than 1.4 million people in Florida to openly carry guns goes before its third and final House committee this morning.

Expect lively debate by the House Judiciary Committee over the proposal from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. At least two divergent amendments have been proposed; others might have been filed since last night, but are not publicly available yet.

Gaetz is offering a compromise to his bill, in line with what the Florida Police Chiefs Association has requested. His amendment would allow openly carried guns to be loaded or unloaded, but they'd have to be holstered.

Also, the language removes restrictions on judges and law enforcement that his original bill included, which would have limited how police investigated people openly carrying and how judges decided cases. Gone is the "strict scrutiny" mandate on judges and inserted is a clarification that the proposed law "is not intended to restrict a law enforcement officer’s ability or authority to conduct investigations."

However, police officers would remain vulnerable to lawsuits if someone accuses the officer of violating their right to bear arms, a penalty that Gaetz's bill still includes.

Meanwhile, Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, has filed an amendment that would gut the bill and replace it with provisions sought by the Florida Sheriffs Association. General open carry wouldn't be allowed. The changes aim to target only what the NRA has said is its primary concern: the prosecution of people who accidentally display concealed weapons.

But NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said this morning that solution is off the table. She said lawmakers aimed to resolve that issue in 2011 but it didn't work. She said NRA attorneys believe the only fix is to allow open carry in general.

She added: "We're ready to fight."

The proposed law would still only apply to people who have concealed weapons permits in Florida.

The committee hearing starts at 9. Stay tuned to see what happens.

January 27, 2016

Developer of Miami Innovation Tower holds mediation session with city of Miami

@NewsbySmiley

Remember the developer that wanted to build a 63-story billboard tower on the outskirts of downtown Miami?

The last we saw Michael Simkins, he was leaving Miami City Hall in a rush. City commissioners had just made clear they would repeal the law that allowed him to build a "media tower" in Park West even though he'd already signed a deal with a city redevelopment agency and applied for special sign permits.

When city officials declined to process his permit applications, Simkins' Miami Big Block LLC filed a claim under Florida’s Land Use and Environmental Dispute Resolution Act in order to force mediation and get Miami planners to consider his project. Since then, silence.

Until Tuesday, when Simkins' attorney, John Shubin, met with lawyers for the city of Miami for the first mediation session. Shubin said Wednesday that no agreement was reached, but a future session is in the works.

"Miami Big Block remains hopeful that a satisfactory resolution can be reached with the city," he said.

Simkins' three-sided, 633-foot tower is the center piece of larger plans for a 10-acre technology district in Park West. 

Feds: DeVry University used phony job placement numbers to woo students

@MrMikeVasquez

In today’s economy, college graduates can struggle to get jobs, but DeVry University wooed thousands of students with a bold promise: 90 percent job placement among those who sought work.

Recruiters at the for-profit college emphasized the 90 percent figure during sit-down sessions with prospective students. DeVry’s TV commercials announced 90 percent. The company’s Twitter account proclaimed “90% of #DeVry grads active in the job market find employment in their field of study within 6 months.”

But it wasn’t true, the federal government now says.

On Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission sued DeVry, which operates three Florida campuses, including one in Miramar, for “deceptive” recruiting practices. The company is one of the nation’s largest for-profit colleges, with 50-plus U.S. campuses, and more than 41,000 students. In addition to the disputed 90 percent number, the FTC alleges DeVry also falsely advertised that its graduates “earn 15% more than graduates from other colleges and universities.”

“We allege that DeVy made this claim even though its own internal data showed no meaningful difference between the salaries of DeVry graduates and those of all other schools combined,” said FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez in a conference call with reporters.

DeVry denies wrongdoing. Its parent company, DeVry Education Group, released a statement Wednesday that “the FTC’s complaint contains anecdotal examples that exaggerate the allegations but do not prove them. DeVry University measures the employment and earnings results of its graduates on a sound, rational and transparent basis, and has published these results in a consistent manner over the years to provide students meaningful information.”

Devry, like most for-profit colleges, relies on taxpayer-funded federal Pell grants and student loans for most of its revenue. Between 2008 and mid-2015, the college had revenues of more than $8.6 billion, according to the FTC.

Read more here

Outside Florida, ad war rages between Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio camps

GOP 2016 Rubio (5)

@PatriciaMazzei

WEST DES MOINES -- Spend a few quality hours glued to cable news in Iowa, and you might forget Donald Trump is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

To be sure, there’s commercial or two tut-tutting Trump as unserious and ominously featuring clips of his younger, longer-maned self sounding like a Democrat. But he’s not the king of the airwaves.

That distinction goes to one man — or rather the political committee supporting him: Jeb Bush.

Bush campaigns — hard — as the anti-Trump. His super PAC, however, has a different target: Marco Rubio.

In one spot, the Right to Rise PAC darkly casts Rubio as a proponent of immigration “amnesty.” Another portrays Rubio — literally — as a weather vane who flips positions depending on the prevailing political wind. Other ads have painted Rubio as absent from work, untrustworthy and overly ambitious.

They are not the only attacks on the airwaves. A spot by Conservative Solutions PAC, which is supporting Rubio, dismisses Bush and Democrat Hillary Clinton as vestiges of a forgettable past.

A couple of ads hit Trump’s nearest competitor, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

But Bush and Rubio are impossible to ignore because their campaigns and super PACs have spent so much cash on TV.

More here.

Dave Barry does the Iowa caucuses

From Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry:

DES MOINES -- Why do we care about the Iowa caucuses?

To answer that question, let’s look back exactly four years, to a time when a man named Rick Santorum was a semi-obscure former senator from Pennsylvania who was given little chance to become president. Then, out of the blue, he won the Iowa Republican caucus, and today he. …

OK, to be honest, I don’t know what Rick is doing today. For all I know he’s an Amway representative. Let’s pick another example: Exactly eight years ago, Mike Huckabee was. …

OK, never mind. No need to get all technical about why we care about the Iowa caucuses. We just DO. And that is why the eyeballs of the world will be focused on the voters of Iowa Monday night as they go into their caucus places and, after thoroughly discussing the candidates and the issues with their fellow Iowans, sacrifice a live owl.

No, they don’t do that, probably. We don’t actually know what they do in there. All we know is that eventually, somehow, they will, as a state, give their blessing to a pair of presidential hopefuls who will both, based on past caucus outcomes, have a solid chance of not being elected president.

More here.

Medical marijuana amendment qualifies for November ballot

@MichaelAuslen

Floridians will decide this November whether to allow medical marijuana in the state.

On Wednesday, a constitutional amendment to legalize the drug gained enough signed petitions to qualify for the ballot next November. If passed, the amendment would allow doctors to describe marijuana for people with “debilitating conditions” such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy or multiple sclerosis.

“This November, Florida will pass this law and hundreds of thousands of sick and suffering people will see relief,” Orlando lawyer John Morgan said in a written statement. “What Tallahassee politicians refused to do, the people will do together in this election.”

Morgan is the chairman of United for Care, the group behind the amendment and has bankrolled it to this point, contributing nearly all of its $3.3 million in donations.

Legalizing medical marijuana has been a contentious issue for years in Florida politics as 23 states and Washington, D.C. have approved the drug for medical use and voters in four have legalized it for recreation.

A similar amendment gained the support of 58 percent of voters in 2014, falling just shy of the required 60-percent threshold to amend the state constitution.

But Morgan said he’s convinced this year will be different.

“Our language is stronger than in 2014 and it shows,” he said. “The people of Florida are compassionate. We will win this election for the really sick people in our state.”

As of Wednesday night, county supervisors of elections had submitted 692,981 signed petitions on behalf of the medical marijuana initiative, more than enough to qualify for the ballot. The Florida Supreme Court approved the proposed language for the amendment last year without any opposition from Attorney General Pam Bondi, who tried to stop the 2014 attempt.

In Tallahassee, state lawmakers are considering legislation that would expand existing, limited medical cannabis laws. A 2014 law allows certain patients to use strains of cannabis low in the euphoric chemical THC. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, want that expanded to allow people with terminal illnesses to use full-fledged medical marijuana.

Only one other constitutional amendment has gotten enough petition support: an initiative backed by utility companies that reiterates existing state regulations. That ballot question has not yet been cleared by the Supreme Court.

With a Jan. 31 deadline for petitions, it is unlikely any others will cross the 683,149 threshold required to appear on the ballot.

With HIV cases climbing, Florida Democrats push for responsible sex education in public schools

@ByKristenMClark

With Florida leading the nation in new HIV infections, Democratic lawmakers say now more than ever the Legislature should do away with what's commonly referred to as "abstinence-only" sex education in the state's 4,300 public schools.

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, and Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, are the leading sponsors of what they've dubbed the "Florida Healthy Adolescence Act" (SB 1056/HB 859).

The bill makes comprehensive sex education an option for districts -- which "doesn't force anything on school districts, on schools, on parents," Fullwood said. Those districts that do choose to offer it would have to provide medically accurate, factual and age-appropriate information to students.

Information covered by the umbrella of "human sexuality" education would include: family planning, pregnancy and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV and AIDS.

Bullard, a teacher for the past 16 years, said "students are going to do what students do," and adults need to give them the tools to make smart decisions, rather than promoting what he described as an outdated and naive policy.

"Let's just be honest with ourselves," he said. "We can no longer assume by saying the word 'abstinence' that people will automatically abstain. It doesn't happen in real life; it doesn't happen with adults. Why would we even assume it happens with teenagers?"

"A teen that understands the ramifications and the totality of what they're doing is going to be a better prepared adult," he said.

Both Bullard's and Fullwood's bills have been referred to the Senate and House education policy committees. But neither are expected to get a hearing in the Republican-led Legislature this session.

During their press conference Wednesday at the Capitol, Bullard and Fullwood referenced increasing HIV cases in Florida -- data which was detailed in a Herald/Times analysis this week.

Continue reading "With HIV cases climbing, Florida Democrats push for responsible sex education in public schools" »

New charter school alliance poll shows support for ... charter schools

@ByKristenMClark

A new statewide poll commissioned by the Florida Charter School Alliance finds significant support for charter schools -- including support for a statewide authorizer, one of the alliance's top legislative priorities this year that school districts fear would take away local authority over public education.

The Herald/Times was given a copy of the poll results ahead of their official release, expected later this evening.

The alliance spent nearly $11,000 for National Victory Strategies to conduct the poll not knowing what the results would be, said Ralph Arza, a lobbyist for the alliance and a former Republican state lawmaker from Miami.

It's the first statewide poll Arza said he is aware of that focuses solely on education policies for charter schools -- which are publicly funded but privately managed. The alliance wants to use the results to inform and influence lawmakers in Tallahassee and school officials across the state, he said.

"It’s important for the members to see how the folks back home feel about charter schools and school choice," Arza said. "It's exciting to know you're on the right track and on the right side of these issues. Floridians want more choice not less, no matter where in the state."

But the poll isn't exactly unbiased. Some of the questions in the poll appear to lean in favor of charter schools -- Arza acknowledged writing them -- and the small sample size for community-level results could call into question the reliability of those specific findings.

Continue reading "New charter school alliance poll shows support for ... charter schools" »

With no debate, House okays 'Uber bill' stopping local ridesharing bans

@MichaelAuslen

For the second year in a row, the Florida House wants to stop local governments from blocking or regulating companies like Uber and Lyft.

Lawmakers passed a bill (HB 509) by a 108-10 vote Wednesday that does just that. It also sets minimum insurance requirements for drivers who find and give rides to passengers using ridesharing apps on their smartphones.

The bill, by Rep. Matt Gaetz passed without any debate from supporters or opponents.

But obstacles remain, as Senate leaders resist attempts to block local bans and rules on ridesharing companies. Instead, Sen. David Simmons is pushing a proposal (SB 1118) that sets insurance requirements but allows local governments to continue regulating Uber and Lyft as transportation companies.

State and local officials have the power to regulate taxicab companies, including approving rates and issuing permits. And many, including in Hillsborough and Broward counties, have tried to do the same for ridesharing companies.

If Gaetz’s proposal becomes law, they won’t be able to do that anymore.

Ken Lawson, DBPR secretary, won't answer why and how the agency decided to crack down on card games

A day after issuing complaints at only seven of the 18 pari-mutuels that have been authorized to operate player banked poker games, Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Ken Lawson refused to elaborate on why and how he came to the conclusion that the games that his agency had previously approved had all of a sudden been ruled in violation of state law.

“After reviewing operations and obtaining additional information at pari-mutuel facilities throughout the state, the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering discovered violations of Florida law resulting in administrative complaints,''  Lawson said in a statement to the Herald/Times. "We will continue to administer the law and maintain our opposition to unauthorized activity conducted at any facility licensed by the state.”

The card games -- which include three-card poker, two-card poker, Casino War and Pai Gow poker -- were brought to Florida by Palm Beach Kennel Club in 2012 and soon were copied by other card rooms. They are popular because they have the feel of a casino game as players bank against each other. By 2014, Lawson's agency proposed rules to place limits on the games but that was challenged in court. The challenge led to a settlement and DBPR adopted a new rule approving and regulating the games in 2014.

As part of the approval process, regulators visited cardrooms, sought modifications in the game and clarifications in an attempt to make sure they were in compliance with state gaming laws, those involved in the activity told the Herald/Times.

As the Seminole Tribe was working to reach agreement with the state to continue operating its black jack and other table games, it filed a lawsuit alleging that the player-banked card games were an expansion of gambling and a violation of the existing compact. The state continued to allowed the games to operate after the lawsuit was filed, but after Gov. Rick Scott signed a new compact in December, the agency also moved to repeal the rule it had previously approved on player-banked games. The repeal is also being challenged.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, told reporters he had questions about DBPR's action after it was raised by Jacksonville Racing CEO Howard Korman before the committee on Wednesday. Korman said that he was surprised by the action because the agency had not only approved the operation of the card games, but observed how they were operated before they gave the approval. 

"We had our internal controls approved and it wasn't until just recently that all of a sudden they said no,'' he said.

Bradley said he wanted to know "what is it that precipitated them moving in this direction at this point in time? Is it a philosophy that what they are doing before was inconsistent with the current state law and, if so, which law and what do they see happening from a factual standpoint that would draw that conclusion?"

The Herald/Times presented those questions to Lawson today, as well as our own questions. He chose to answer none of them. Our questions: 

* There are other parimutuels that operate player banked games in Florida other than the ones that were served with your complaint. Will these all be served? If not, how did you decide which to choose and which not? Why the timing difference?
 
* Please provide me with a rationale for why the department chose to reverse its position on this issue? 
 
* Will the department be using taxpayer money to defend these complaints in court?