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February 10, 2016

Florida House, Senate at odds over fix to state's death penalty law

After hearing emotional and graphic testimony from families of murder victims, Florida House members stood firm Wednesday on a new death penalty law that does not require juries to be unanimous in recommending death sentences.

The House Judiciary Committee passed a bill (HB 7101) that makes several changes to the law to bring the state into compliance with last month's U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated the state's sentencing law because judges, not juries, make the final decisions to warrant the death penalty. That narrowly-crafted decision, Hurst vs. Florida, did not address jury unanimity, but the issue is dominating political debate in Tallahassee.

The 18-member committee, voting along party lines, rejected an amendment by Democratic Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami that would have required future juries in capital cases to be unanimous in recommending death. That requirement is in a Senate death penalty bill (SB 7068), putting the two chambers at odds in the major criminal justice issue of the 2016 session. Both houses must agree on a new law and Gov. Rick Scott must sign it for executions to resume.

Thirty-two states allow capital punishment but Florida is one of only three states that does not require a jury to be unanimous in recommending death. Alabama requires at least 10 jurors to agree and Delaware has a law similar to Florida's, but it's now under review by the Delaware Supreme Court.

Florida prosecutors, led by State Attorney Brad King in Ocala, are lobbying for a law that requires no more than nine of 12 jurors to agree on death sentence recommendation. King's testimony focuses on crime victims, and he cited a case that he personally tried: the rape and murder in 2005 of a nine-year-old Homosassa girl, Jessica Lunsford, by John Couey.

Couey was sentenced to death by a jury in Miami-Dade on a 10 to 2 vote.  

"Now if John Couey is not one of the worst of the worst, I couldn't tell you who is," King testified.

Lawmakers also heard from Emily Cope, who was a teenager in Volusia County in 2009 when her father, Keith Cope, was hog-tied to a bed so tightly that he lost limbs and later died in a hospital. A jury recommended that Cope's roommate be sentenced to death on a 10-2 vote. Emily Cope is now a victim advocate for the Edgewater Police Department.

Polk County Public Defender Rex Dimmig, speaking on behalf of public defenders statewide, predicted a flood of lawsuits by inmates if the Legislature does not act now to require jury recommendations of death to be unanimous.

"Take us out of the situation of being an outlier state," Dimmig pleaded with lawmakers. "Address it now."

The vote was 17-1 with every lawmaker voting for the bill except for Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, who said she opposes capital punishment.

Nine people were sentenced to death in Florida in 2015. The state has 389 inmates on death row, some of whom have languished there for 30 years or more. The Florida Supreme Court has indefinitely postponed the execution of Michael Lambrix, a convicted double murderer who had been scheduled to die on Thursday.

Referring to the compelling words by speakers on both sides, Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, said: "You could hear a pin drop, and that is seldom the case in Tallahassee."

Lawmakers okay proposal clearing way for ridesharing in Tampa

With legislation that would block all local governments from banning ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft apparently stalled in the Florida Senate, lawmakers are pushing forward with a plan to do so in Hillsborough County alone.

HB 1439 by Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, and Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, sets insurance and background check requirements and stops the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission from banning the companies. It cleared the House Economic Affairs Committee on Thursday by a 15-1 vote.

Some lawmakers have urged tougher background check rules, including Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa. But it’s that last point that’s most controversial.

“I do have an issue with this still preempting local control,” said Rep. Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach, “and I know it’s a controversial issue there.”

The PTC has been particularly tough against Uber, trying to regulate the company like it does taxicabs, filing a lawsuit to remove the company from the county and at one point ticketing drivers.

Tampa is one of several regions where flashpoints between regulators and ridesharing companies led Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, to file legislation allowing the companies to exist in all parts of the state, free from local government control.

The Raulerson/Young bill would put similar rules into effect statewide, addressing what Young said is an immediate concern in the county.

“If Rep. Gaetz’ statewide preemption bill would pass both houses and be signed into law by the governor, then this bill would have no impact,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the bill does not have a Senate sponsor. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-Tampa, will shepherd the bill in the Senate if it passes the House, Young said.

University of Miami needle exchange program moves in Florida House


Miami-Dade County is one step closer to a needle exchange program aimed at curbing the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis.

On Wednesday, after being stalled for months, the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation (HB 81) by Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, to authorize the program, a critical vote that was delayed for weeks, even as the legislation moved swiftly through the Senate.

Edwards’ bill allows the University of Miami to start a five-year pilot program through which people can exchange used needles for clean ones. The hope is to cut sharing needles between drug users, thereby reducing rates of infection.

“What we see every day in Miami would be considered a public health emergency anywhere else,” Chanelle Diaz, a fourth-year medical student at UM, told lawmakers.

Florida leads the nation for new cases of HIV with the number of infections rising each year, even as it drops nationwide. The problem is most severe in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which have the highest rates of new infections per 100,000 residents of any area in the country.

Edwards’ bill — sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens — exempts UM from drug paraphernalia laws for the purposes of the pilot program. The program can’t use money from state or local governments.

“We’re working with the researchers and physicians there to make sure we are not further spreading infectious diseases through the use of drugs like heroin,” Edwards said.

This is the fourth year lawmakers have proposed a similar program. Some lawmakers have been reticent to vote for it because it addresses drug users without specifically targeting abuse.

“I’m frankly all about personal responsibility,” said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples.

But Hudson and others voted for the pilot program Wednesday after an amendment supported by the Department of Health added language requiring drug counseling and education to be part of the program. The lone vote opposed was by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami.

Now, it heads to the House Health and Human Services Committee before going to the floor. Braynon’s Senate bill (SB 242) needs to be approved by the full Senate.

House budget panel endorses limits on school construction spending


With resounding opposition from Democrats and school officials, Republican lawmakers in the Florida House are fast-tracking a proposal to significantly change how public school districts use taxpayer money to fund construction projects, while making it easier for charter schools to get capital dollars.

Education budget committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, is spearheading the measure primarily to rein in the state’s 67 county school districts, which he argues have “glaringly and grossly” overspent on construction projects over the past 10 years.

“I don’t think school districts, as a norm, waste money on construction projects, but the numbers bear out … in certain instances, there have been unwise business decisions made on certain projects,” Fresen said.

His substitute version of a bill that deals with facilities dollars (HB 873) would limit districts’ spending on capital costs — even if the district is using local revenue, such as a sales tax approved by county voters. Districts would be punished for going over the state-imposed cap; they’d forfeit the next three years of capital-outlay dollars from the state if they exceed it.

It would also force districts to allocate some of their local property tax to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed and don’t typically enjoy such local aid. Furthermore, charter schools would be eligible for state dollars sooner under revised eligibility criteria.

The Republican-heavy Appropriations Committee approved the revised version of HB 873 mostly along party lines on Tuesday, with Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, joining Republicans in support. Other Democrats and school officials urged Republicans to take a more comprehensive look at capital funding to both charter and traditional public schools.

“We really need to tap the brakes on this, and I don’t know why it’s moving so quickly,” said Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach.“I think we need to take the time to understand the issues and get it right.”

More here.

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

It is the 30th day of the Florida Legislature's annual 60-day session, marking the halfway point. Here's a look at five things we will be watching today.

- The House and Senate both turn their attention to the state budget. Starting at 1 p.m., the full Florida House will convene to debate the proposed $80 billion budget. The full Senate goes into session at 1 p.m. to take up the spending plan.

- A $1 billion tax cut plan goes to the full House for debate. The tax plan includes a reduction in sales taxes on commercial leases and a 10-day sales tax free back to school shopping period. It doesn't include Gov. Rick Scott's top request: elimination of corporate income taxes on manufacturers and retailers. The Senate still has not said how much they will set aside for tax cuts.

- Florida's death penalty procedures will get another review before the House Judiciary Committee starting at 9 a.m. The Legislature is reviewing the state's death penalty procedures following the Hurst vs. Florida U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year.

- Gov. Rick Scott holds a rally in the Florida Capitol at 10 a.m. to drum up support for his plan to invest $20 million into high school technical centers.

- Today is also a key fundraising deadline for state legislators and other state political committees. Candidates and committees must file reports that show how much money they raised and spent through Jan. 31.

February 09, 2016

Jeb Bush 'not dead' in New Hampshire, bests Marco Rubio to keep rivalry going

GOP 2016 Bush (14)


MANCHESTER, N.H. -- They needed two tries, but Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders did Tuesday what traditionalists in their political parties had considered unthinkable just six months ago: They won the New Hampshire primary — both in crushing fashion — turning the once-fantastical candidacies of a celebrity businessman and a democratic socialist into undeniable realities.

So vast was Sanders’ lead that Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, the 2008 New Hampshire victor, conceded shortly after polls closed. Eight days earlier she had barely edged Sanders in the Iowa caucuses.

But the far more compelling story of the night was on the Republican side, over who trailed Trump, and by how much — a saga that continued late into the night in a third-place battle between Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, where just a few hundred votes separated the two as the count continued.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich pulled off a stunning second-place finish, catapulting his long-shot candidacy over six opponents who had bested him in Iowa.

Bush rode a swell of late momentum to top his chief rival, former Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

“It looks like you all have reset the race,” Bush told supporters gathered at Manchester Community College. “This campaign is not dead. We’re going to South Carolina!”

More here.

Photo credit: Steven Senne, Associated Press

Sen. Diaz de la Portilla: Immigration bills won't be heard


Bills targeting illegal immigration in Florida won't be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee this session, Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said Tuesday.

"None of the immigration bills are going to be heard," he said. "So those are off the table as far as the judiciary committee is concerned."

That committment from the Senate judiciary chairman makes the bills essentially dead.

Two pieces of legislation have been put forward to take action against undocumented immigrants to Florida, and both are currently stalled in Diaz de la Portilla's committee.

One (SB 872) by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, would prevent so-called "sanctuary city" policies in Florida, requiring local law enforcement to hold undocumented immigrants if U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement indicates it might be interested in picking them up. Similar legislation passed the House last week.

The other (SB 118) by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, makes it a first-degree felony -- punishable by up to 30 years in prison -- to re-enter the state after being deported.

Miami Beach mayor not running for higher office yet, but getting lots of air time in New Hampshire


MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine wasn't just any other volunteer for Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, in from Florida be an extra pair of hands for the campaign.

He did some of the grunt work dealing with volunteers and voters. But mostly he was deployed as a Clinton surrogate -- someone who could talk to the army of reporters camped out in Manchester about her candidacy.

"I never did so many radio interviews in my life," Levine told the Miami Herald on Tuesday at the lobby of the Radisson Hotel, the center of media attention.

He had been in town since Friday night, but had been so busy, he said, "I feel like I moved to New Hampshire." (Fear not, citizens of Miami Beach: He planned to fly back Tuesday night in time for Wednesday's city commission meeting.)

Levine wasn't talking in the interviews about his own rumored ambitions for higher office, such as a potential run for Florida governor in 2018. He sticks to his line about running for Beach reelection next year.

Instead, he talks about Clinton, whom he has known since her days as First Lady: "I would go anywhere and do anything for my friend Hillary Clinton."

One anecdote: He says he gave her a pair of bowling shoes when he owned the Lucky Strike bowling hall and she campaigned for president in 2008. The gift was intended for bowling in the White House, he explained.

"Maybe she'll use them next year, God willing!" he said.

He downplayed expectations for Clinton this year in New Hampshire, where she is likely to lose, saying rival Bernie Sanders has "home-field advantage" because he's from neighboring Vermont. Winning Iowa, at least, was "a big trophy in the family," he joked, because Bill Clinton lost there in 1992 (as did Hillary Clinton in 2008).

The rest of the primary calendar will be better, he added: "Her message and the demographic composition of those states help her."


House committee passes bills to ratify compact, expand - and contract - gambling, and then shut the door

@Mary Ellen Klas and @JeremySWallace

The House Regulated Affairs Committee on Tuesday accomplished what has been virtually impossible for the conservative House to do in the last decade: pass a bill that expands gambling in Florida.

The committee not only gave the nod to one bill -- ratifying the agreement between  Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe to expand casino games on their reservations -- it also approved an ambitious gambling bill that tightens loopholes in the state's gambling laws but expands casino games at parimutuels in Miami Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Then, to punctuate the message that any future gambling should face very steep hurdles, the committee passed a bill to require that any future attempt at expanding gaming in Florida must receive statewide voter approval -- through a citizen-led initiative.

The House's ambitious suite of proposals were "a work in progress,'' said the sponsor, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, the chairman of the committee. They are designed to find the sweet-spot to appease the viciously factional gambling industry in the face of the newly-inked agreement with the Seminole Tribe. That agreement promises to bring in $3 billion over seven years starting next year and would help the governor win over critics of his hard-fought tax cut plan.

"Doing a gaming bill is like putting a queen-size sheet on a king-size bed,'' Diaz joked at the close of the three-hour meeting He noted that with every shift in one place, you lose traction in another. "It's impossible to accommodate the interests of every single person." 

That became immediately apparent when the traditionally more gaming-friendly Senate put the brakes on its plan. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who had hoped to present his gaming bill in the Senate Regulated Industries Committee on the same day Diaz presented his plan in the House, announced the Senate Regulated Industries Committee would instead take up the issue next week.

A last-minute 40-page amendment by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, added new drama to the deal. Negron's amendment allows the six dog and horse tracks outside of Palm Beach County who have won voter approval to operate slot machines to operate the games, and it also attempts to appease the concerns of the Florida horse breeders and owners by using $50 million proceeds from the compact to increase racing purses for the thoroughbred industry. The House bill, by contrast, offers only $10 million. 

"Basically we wanted to have some time to digest the amendments that were filed over the last several hours," Bradley told reporters after the meeting. He added that while his "full intention" is to have it up next week, budget discussions could consume lawmakers and push any final compact deal to the final week of the legislative session before they can address it. 

"All the same challenges that existed six months ago, one month ago, one week ago, still exist today,'' Bradley said. "So we are still poised and still have plenty of time to complete a compact radification as well as comprehensive gaming legislation. There is plenty of time. "

Both the House and Senate bills not only allow Palm Beach Kennel Club to compete for a slots license, as well as Genting and the Fountainbleau in Miami, they also lower the tax rates for all pari-mutuels that operate slot machines, remove the requirements that greyhound tracks race greyhounds, and they both gives video race terminals to other horse and dog tracks outside of South Florida.

Both plans also remove the requirement that quarter horse tracks like Hialeah Race Course and Pompano Harness track, as well as Calder Race Track, continue horse racing to retain their slots license and the increase the purse pool so that the existing races can become more lucrative. 

That proposal, however, drew vociferous opposition from horse breeders and owners who traveled to Tallahassee to protest. 

Tonya Jurgens, a horse breeder and trainer from Ocala said the provisions that remove the requirement for horse racing at some facilities is a betrayal of the promise the pari-mutual industry made in 2004 when they asked them for their support to win voter support for slot machines.

"The casinos asked us to join them. I feel like the girl with the dowry,'' she said. "Now that they are making big corporate profits they want to kick us to the curb but use our dowry."