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February 18, 2015

Who's who in the tobacco wars? Chapter One

StarsThe lobbying team suited up to do battle this year to pass a single sentence into law to save the embattled tobacco industry millions of dollars is a virtual constellation of both new and old stars. All were selected for their unique ability to "enlighten" certain members. 

Consider Ellyn Bogdanoff, the former Fort Lauderdale state senator who tried and failed to return to Tallahassee this year in a second hard-fought campaign. She is returning after all -- as a lobbyist for R.J. Reynolds' parent company, RAI Services.

Bogdanoff, a Republican, was recruited to challenge Democrat Sen. Maria Sachs  by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, so he could secure enough votes to overtake Sen. Joe Negron for the 2016 Senate presidency. Latvala has a reputation for siding with the trial lawyers in tort reform battles of the past. After losing his ally, and accepting $50k from RAI for his political committee in October, is he still so aligned?

Then there is Chris Dorworth, the Lake Mary Republican and one-time House choice for speaker of the House. He lost his re-election bid in a bitter brawl to Democrat Mike Clelland in 2012. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli owes his accidental speakership to Dorworth's demise. But Dorworth has made a comeback too -- as lobbyist with the growing list of heavy weights for RAI Services. 

Veteran mega lobbyist Ron Book says he is going to be the team leader for what appears to be the stable of 95 lobbyists for Big Tobacco -- more than one for every two legislators. Keith Teel, the Covington Burling partner and tobacco litagator, will be the main D.C. anchor.

Teel is known for having helped orchestrate the tobacco industry's push for tort reform across the country starting in 1995 -- a year after the landmark Engle class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of smokers. (A sidenote: Florida imposed the cap on punitive damages in 1999 as part of the tort reforms ushered in by the GOP-led legislature under Jeb Bush and the year the Engle verdict came down. Why has it taken this long to try to apply it to Engle? Is this the first year they have the votes?) 

Then there are the lobbying counterweights hired by the trial bar. They are no lightweights, although considerably smaller in size. Michael Corcoran, the brother of powerful House Appropriations chair Rep. Richard Corcoran, and his partner, Jeff Johnston, have been hired by Citizens Against Tobacco, a 401c3 formed by a group of Engle plaintiffs, whose claims would be stifled by the proposed legislation. 

It promises to be a stellar Tallahassee turf battle. "If we get this done, it's going to be a big fight,'' said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, sponsor of the Senate bill. "I don't think it's going to be a breeze though. Nothing I do that affects lawyers ever is." 

Here's the lobbying line-up as of Wednesday:

Continue reading "Who's who in the tobacco wars? Chapter One" »

Tobacco industry re-ignites litigation fight with Florida's trial lawyers

C.R. Wilcox and familyThe powerful cigarette industry re-ignited Florida’s tobacco wars Wednesday with a one-sentence bill that would strip away the right of thousands of Florida victims from collecting millions in damages.

The proposal by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, would retroactively apply a 1999 cap on punitive damages to “all civil actions in which judgment has not been entered.” It is aimed at snubbing 4,500 smokers and their families who have sued cigarette makers but are still awaiting trial over claims that the industry deceived them about the dangerous and addictive properties of cigarettes.

The industry has already lined up its troops, hiring 95 lobbyists including a who’s who of players close to Gov. Rick Scott and key Republican legislative leaders, and distributing $217,000 in campaign contributions in the last election cycle.

Opposing the bill are trial lawyers, who were top contributors to Democrat Charlie Crist’s failed gubernatorial campaign. They have staffed up for the fight and created a website to court public opinion

The issue stems from the 1994 landmark class-action lawsuit known as the Engle case. It was brought by Miami lawyers Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt on behalf of Howard A. Engle, a Miami pediatrician. He had been addicted to cigarettes since college, when tobacco companies handed out free cigarettes to students.

The Engle case was the first smokers’ class action to come to trial in a U.S. court. A Miami-Dade jury, after hearing 157 witnesses in two years, decided that the industry had intentionally misled smokers about cigarettes’ dangers and awarded a record-breaking $145 billion in damages in 2000. Read more here.

Photo: Bob Wilcox, center, of the Miami Dade Police Department, with his father, Cleston Roy “Red” Wilcox at his graduation from the police academy. C.R. Wilcom died of lung cancer in 1994. His wife and Bob's mother, sued R.J. Reynolds tobacco in 2007 for intentionally misleading smokers about the health effects of cigarettes. After years of delays, the family won a $15.5 million judgment in September. She is now 91. 

Putnam pushes for more control of state waters

In another sign of frayed relations between the state's top Republican leaders, a tug of war is unfolding between Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam over arguably the state's most valuable commodity: water.

Putnam is lobbying for a bill that would overhaul the state's water management, loosening rules on pollution in the northern part of Lake Okeechobee in favor of more lenient standards.

The bill under consideration Thursday in the House Appropriations Committee would take enforcement powers away from what Scott controls: the state's Department of Environmental Protection and water management districts. Putnam's Department of Agriculture would fill the void, overseeing a far-less regulated two-million-acre area north of Lake Okeechobee. 

"We're all in this together," Putnam said in a statement on the proposed changes that his office released last month. "Our core values and our identity as a state is attached to water. We have an opportunity to think big and act boldly, and I'm excited about the opportunity."

Under HB 7003, which is sponsored by Rep. Matthew Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, the permitting process used by the South Florida Water Management District to limit discharge into northern Lake Okeechobee, would be eliminated. It would be replaced by an industry standard of "best management practices", which refers to land use techniques designed to limit stormwater runoff.

Crop lands carry more phosphorous waste that leads to algae blooms, giving Lake Okeechobee its pea soup color that can choke off marine life during periods of heavy rainfall. Under the proposed system, land owners are presumed to be in compliance with pollution limits as long as they employ the recommended land management techniques, such as planting vegetation between the crops and waterway to trap more of the waste.

But Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, said using best management practices isn't as effective as permits, which regulate contamination limits for companies.

If permit limits aren't followed, the water management district can impose fines or revoke a permit. There's no comparable way to enforce conditions with best management practices.

"It's a weaker system," Draper said. "The water management district can now limit pollution. It wouldn't be allowed to with this bill."

Read the story here.

Youth Fair won't move to Tropical Park, Miami-Dade mayor says


Tropical Park is not an option for relocating the Miami-Dade Youth Fair in order to clear the way for an expansion of Florida International University onto the current fairgrounds, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced Wednesday.

In an unusual evening statement, Gimenez declared Tropical Park "unsuitable" for the fair, which currently occupies county land at Tamiami Park that FIU wants for an expansion. Park activists have long warned that Tropical Park could be endangered as Miami-Dade looks for another Youth Fair site to accommodate FIU's growth plan, which won support from voters in a November referendum

FIU has won support from county commissioners and Gimenez to expand, but Miami-Dade's lease with the Youth Fair requires the county to pay for a new, equivalent home for the expo. The ballot item barred using county dollars on the move, and FIU said it will cover the relocation costs as part of its expansion plan. One estimate put the cost at $230 million, and an alternative site has yet to be identified. 

Recent weeks saw activists ramp up their warnings about Tropical Park, with at least one town hall held on the subject. In his statement issued shortly before 7:30 p.m., Gimenez said Tropical Park "is not under consideration as a potential relocation site." 

The full statement follows. 

“My Administration and I have determined that Tropical Park is unsuitable for the relocation of The Miami-Dade County Youth Fair & Exposition and is not under consideration as a potential relocation site. On November 4, 2014, Miami-Dade County voters supported a County charter amendment by a margin of 65 percent to allow Florida International University (FIU) to expand onto up to 64 acres of land in Tamiami Park, the current home of The Fair. 

The amendment approved by the County electorate also provides that FIU's expansion could only occur after the relocation of The Fair and that no County funds could be used for FIU's expansion or The Fair's relocation. Tropical Park, which is located at 7900 S.W. 40 Street in unincorporated Miami-Dade County, is a heavily trafficked and highly used regional park that hosts multiple events, activities, sports leagues, and programs throughout the year which continue to be community priorities, and, by necessity, would preclude activities on the scale of The Fair being staged there."

UPDATED In Vegas, Rubio says Senate should fund Homeland Security


Republicans in Congress want to strip funding for President Obama's contested executive immigration actions before passing a budget for the Department of Homeland Security. But U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said Wednesday that the Senate shouldn't shut down the department just to pass the anti-immigration provisions. The funding deadline is Feb. 27.

Rubio said the GOP-controlled Senate doesn't have the votes to override a certain Obama veto of any legislation tying Homeland Security funding to the immigration actions, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The Florida Republican was in Nevada promoting his new policy book, American Dreams.

"We have to fund Homeland Security," Rubio said in a news conference, according to CNN. "Look, I'm in favor of any measure that has a chance of succeeding that could stop the new order, but the truth of the matter is the president's not going to sign that and we don't have the votes to pass it in the Senate. We can't let Homeland Security shut down."

Like in a prior book-tour stop in Iowa, he faced immigration activists who challenged him on his position. Rubio shepherded a comprehensive immigration-overhaul bill that passed in the Senate in 2013 but has since said only a piecemeal approach would pass Congress. He has also opposed the president's unilateral actions, saying the system should be changed by lawmakers.

UPDATE: After the Las Vegas report about Rubio's remarks, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant clarified that Rubio does not support stripping Republican senators' legislation of the anti-immigration provisions.

Senator Rubio does not support shutting down DHS. But he does support stopping the new executive order on immigration and is willing to support any approach we could get passed to stop it. But the President had made clear he will veto any effort to stop his unconstitutional order. And Senate Democrats have made clear they will not even end there filibuster on the DHS funding bill. The result will be a DHS shutdown which would be harmful to our national security. The answer is not for Republicans to surrender and pass a clean funding bill. The answer is for the President and Senate Democrats to abandon the executive order and cooperate in passing a series of immigration bills beginning with real border security.

The headline of this post was updated in light of Conant's statement.

Scott's jobs czar Panuccio is in Latvala's doghouse

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, has criticized Gov. Rick Scott's administration, saying officials are not complying with a 2014 law that requires the Department of Economic Opportunity to evaluate and rank applications for highly-sought sports stadium grants.

It was the Senate's turn to join this legislative brawl Wednesday. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, took DEO Secretary Jesse Panuccio to the woodshed at a meeting of his Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development.

At issue was a bill Latvala sponsored last year (SB 1216) that set up a mechanism for competing sports stadiums to be ranked when they apply for a limited pot of money for stadium improvements. Panuccio defended DEO's legal interpretation of the law, which was that DEO was not required to rank applications filed between March 2013 and July 2014, and that lawyered-up explanation did not appease Latvala.

"I think you punted on this, and I think you're potentially creating a lot of problems for the House and the Senate as we go into this session," Latvala said. "We've created an untenable situation because you punted on this. Now, what's your response?"

"We gave a good faith interpretation of the statute," Panuccio said. 

"That's just not what my intention was when I sponsored that bill," said Latvala, who complained that DEO never reached out to him for an explanation of what his intent was. "Nobody reached out to me," Latvala said. "I'm still being asked about intent about stuff I did back in 1998 and 1999."

The Joint Legislative Budget Commission on Thursday is expected to approve four applications for stadium money for a pro soccer stadium in Orlando, EverBank Field in Jacksonville, South Florida Stadium in Miami and Daytona International Speedway.


Despite bill's passage, lawmakers target liquor in grocery stores

One of three bills that would allow Floridians to buy hard liquor inside grocery stores and drug stores passed its first committee Wednesday. But that very provision is already drawing criticism from lawmakers who otherwise support the bill’s craft brewery and distillery proposals.

The bill (H.B. 107) by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, would change a slew of regulations, including those that limit craft distilleries to selling just two bottles directly to each customer and those that ban brewers from distributing their beer without involving a wholesaler. It passed 9-4.

It would also specifically allow tasting rooms at breweries, which currently sell beer on-site because of an exemption for tourism in existing law.

Continue reading "Despite bill's passage, lawmakers target liquor in grocery stores" »

Sponsor of bill to lift Cuban trade embargo: Passage ‘just a question of when’


U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, predicted that recent bills expanding the U.S. relationship with Cuba would pass “eventually” –- but said she didn’t know when eventually would come.

Klobuchar has a hand in two recent high-profile bills, one that would open travel between the U.S. and Cuba and the other that would lift the trade embargo that has existed with the country for decades.

“I’d say that eventually these bills will pass. It’s just a question of when,” she said in an interview Wednesday with the Miami Herald.

And what does “eventually” mean?

“That’s for some of our colleagues to decide,” she said. The travel bill, she added, is the easier one to get done first.

Klobuchar’s legislation, introduced last week with cosponsors from both parties, came two months after the White House announced its plans to normalize relations with Cuba, and two weeks after she joined a group of lawmakers to introduce legislation relaxing travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba.

The opening to Cuba is being led by the Obama administration, which has the authority to ease some restrictions on its own. But the major controls on travel and trade are much stronger and reversing them would require congressional action.

Klobuchar comes from an agricultural state, and Cuba experts believe that farm-state lawmakers from both parties could join with a mostly unified Democratic Party to possibly overturn the embargo. But it’s far from certain, and opposition to the opening is intense, led by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

For Klobuchar, the issue is one of markets for Minnesota farmers, as well as avenues for U.S. companies to assist Cuban farmers expanding their own production. She just returned from a trip to the island with other senators and said the “people there just seemed very eager to move forward.”

“There are 11 million people 90 miles off our shores who could buy our goods,” she said.

Asked her thoughts on the view of Rubio and other opponents that human rights – not economics – should drive the debate, Klobuchar said it wasn’t an either-or situation.

Both issues are important, she said.

“But I believe that when you have 50 years of a certain policy that hasn't worked to bring change, then it’s time to try something new,” she said.

Badass Teachers Association faces Truth-O-Meter on claim about days spent on standardized tests

Facing a backlash from teachers and parents over standardized tests, state legislators are discussing whether to pare down the hours students spend on testing.

The latest batch of criticism about Florida’s tests coincides with a national discussion about Common Core state standards. One of the potential GOP presidential contenders, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has long defended the need to use tests to make schools accountable -- a position increasingly at odds with other GOP presidential contenders.

The Florida Badass Teachers Association, which is part of a national association that formed in recent years in an effort to fight back against testing, raised concerns about the tests as they planned to protest Bush’s Feb. 10 speech in Tallahassee.

Thomas James, an association spokesman and Miami-Dade history teacher, leveled many criticisms of Florida schools, including this one in a statement provided to theMiami Herald before Bush’s speech.

"Florida public school students have become little more than ‘test drones’ being bombarded with an array of standardized high stakes tests which eat up as much as 45 school days per year," James said.

James’ claim about the amount of days eaten up by tests caught our eye because it was more than double the number we heard from state legislative leaders in 2013 -- though Florida has made changes to tests since that time.

How many days a year do students actually take standardized tests?

Turn to PolitiFact Florida to see what we found.

Marco Rubio tops list of missed Senate votes


No U.S. senator has missed more votes than Florida Republican Marco Rubio, according to a new analysis.

The analysis, by Vocativ using data from, found Rubio has missed 99 of 1,198 votes -- an absentee rate of about 8.3 percent. For some context, the second-place finisher was Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, who missed 96 votes -- about 8 percent. 

A similar analysis for House members did not include any members of the Florida delegation among the top 10 representatives who have missed votes.

Rubio, who has a wife and four children in West Miami, and whose mother has been ill, notably missed a vote last month to pass the Keystone XL pipeline because he was fundraising in California. He was the only GOP senator to miss that vote (though it ultimately didn't affect the bill's passage). His spokesman said at the time that it was not unusual for senators to miss votes. Unsaid: particularly when they're mulling a presidential run.

His office released this statement Wednesday:

Senator Rubio takes his responsibilities as both a senator and a father seriously. The vast majority of missed votes are when the latter duties take precedent, and he needs to be in Miami for family commitments. He is one of the only senators with young children who has not moved his family to D.C., and tries to spend as much time in Florida with them as possible. In addition to his parental responsibilities, in recent years he's also had to return to Florida and miss votes due to his mother's health and civic responsibilities like jury duty. Normally when he misses votes, his vote would not have been decisive, but in those instances he tries to submit statements for the record or write a blog post explaining how he would have voted.