December 08, 2016

Debate over revision to Florida's 'stand your ground' law returns

Rob bradley@ByKristenMClark

State Sen. Rob Bradley is renewing his effort to change Florida's "stand your ground" law in a way that prosecutors have said could make it harder for them to try cases.

Bradley's legislation in the 2016 session was the subject of much debate, because critics argued it would force prosecutors to essentially try a case before it actually got to trial.

Bradley, a conservative Republican and attorney from Fleming Island, doesn't see it that way. He's on a mission to correct what he views as the Florida Supreme Court's "misinterpretation" of law when it comes to who has the responsibility in a pretrial hearing to prove whether a defendant can claim self-defense under "stand your ground."

He revived the legislation by filing a bill (SB 128) for the 2017 session on Thursday.

Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law, adopted in 2005, allows residents to use deadly force in defense of their lives or property in certain instances -- but with no obligation to flee.

In July 2015, five of seven Supreme Court justices ruled defendants who claim a stand-your-ground defense have to prove before trial why they’re entitled to that immunity.

Bradley and some other conservative lawmakers complained that the court "overreached" its powers, and they argued the law was intended so that prosecutors -- not defendants -- should bear the burden of proof at the pre-trial hearing. That means, under Bradley's proposed change, prosecutors would have to prove before trial why a defendant could not claim a stand-your-ground defense.

"The government has the burden of proof in a criminal case from the beginning of a case until the end," Bradley said in a statement Thursday. "This fundamental premise is guaranteed in our Constitution and understood intuitively by all Floridians."

In the spring, opponents of the proposal argued it would "stack the deck against justice for the dead."

Bradley's bill easily passed the Senate, but that was mostly a symbolic vote because the House bill abruptly died in committee before session even began.

One of the points of debate in the Senate was over what level of proof prosecutors would be held to at the pre-trial hearing: "beyond a reasonable doubt" or the lesser standard of "by clear and convincing evidence."

The version that passed the Senate included the compromise of "clear and convincing evidence." But Bradley's filed bill for 2017 calls for what he originally proposed: requiring prosecutors to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" -- the standard required at trial -- why a stand-your-ground defense can't be claimed.

"We have an obligation to zealously guard the protections granted us all in the Constitution," Bradley said Thursday. "It was uplifting last session to have the support of fellow conservatives around the state on this important issue."

No House companion has yet been filed for 2017. Last session's sponsor, Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley, is now in the Senate.

Image credit: Florida Channel

December 02, 2016

Latvala bristles at freshman senator's attempt to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants

via @JeffSolochek

Without mentioning any names, or even the issue at hand, Florida Sen. Jack Latvala took a clear swipe Thursday at a newly minted Senate colleague who filed legislation to undo a university tuition measure that Latvala worked hard to broker two years ago.

Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, proposed a bill Wednesday to void a law granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students who graduate from Florida high schools. Latvala initially had little to say about the proposal, which he hadn't yet read.

MORE: "In-state college tuition rates for Florida's undocumented students could be in danger"

A day later, in a room filled with school board members from across the state, Latvala let loose. He made his comments in response to the question of what might be his biggest non-financial challenge in the 2017 session.

That challenge, Latvala said, will be coming to grips with the largest freshman group of senators in memory — 20 in all, 17 of whom came from the Florida House with their own set of protocols and behaviors that differ from the more collegial Senate.

He paused, then continued to speak about "one of" the House transplants who, just a few days into the term decided to file a bill that would repeal all the hard work a longstanding senator — the Appropriations Committee chairman, no less — spent significant effort moving through the Legislature.

Latvala is the Appropriations chair.

"It gets your back up," he said. "The final chapter hasn't been played on that."

FSBA executive director Andrea Messina, who moderated the panel, playfully asked, "It wasn't Sen. (Dana) Young, was it?"

A grinning Young sat three seats away from Latvala, who responded quickly, "She wouldn't dare."

Sen. David Simmons, another Senate long-timer at the table, said he spent eight years in the House before coming to the upper chamber. The operating models of each differs greatly, he said, and it will take time for all to acclimate to one another.

But one thing is certain, Simmons said: Newcomers quickly learn that "the toe or foot you step on is attached to another part of the anatomy you might need to kiss" later on to get what you want.

The room burst into laughter. Steube was not present.

November 30, 2016

In-state college tuition rates for Florida's undocumented students could be in danger

Steube 2014  - keeler

via @clairemcneill

Heralded as a bipartisan victory when it passed, a Florida law granting in-state college tuition rates to undocumented students could now be in danger.

A bill filed Wednesday by conservative Florida Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, seeks to erase that 2014 provision. Colleges no longer would have to waive out-of-state fees for undocumented students who attend Florida high schools.

"It is certainly a big issue in my district among my constituents, who were frustrated and upset that the state would allow undocumented illegal immigrants to receive taxpayer-supported in-state tuition," he said. "So I think it's important to file the bill and have a discussion on it."

Steube said he knocked on thousands of doors in his primary campaign. Unfailingly, voters asked about two things: the Second Amendment, and illegal immigration. He remembers one working-class man in particular, disappointed that after working so hard to put his family through college, the state would give undocumented immigrants a tuition break.

"I just don't think it's good public policy for the state," Steube said. "And with the change in leadership and the change in both of the chambers, I think it's a policy that is worth revisiting."

More than a decade of contention preceded the 2014 tuition bill. When it finally passed in a high-profile 26-13 vote in the Senate, Republican Gov. Rick Scott deemed it "a historic day."

"Just think," Scott said then. "Children that grew up in our state will now get the same tuition as their peers."

The vote felt like victory for Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who sponsored the bill.

"The eyes of America are on us," he said. "I think we're setting an example. I think we're doing the right thing."

On Wednesday, Latvala had little to say about the new Senate Bill 82.

"First I've heard about it," he said. "I'm out of state, so I really don't want to talk about it until I've had a chance to take a look."

Before passing in spring 2014 with significant Republican support, the tuition proposal faced strong opposition within the party.

Then-Senate President Don Gaetz rebuked the bill in an email to his constituents, incensed that it would aid even those from countries rife with "anti-American violence." And incoming Senate president Joe Negron, R-Stuart, then chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said his committee wouldn't hear the bill, deflating its potential of becoming law.

Latvala crafted a strategy in response, adding the language to several other bills going before the panel to keep the effort alive. Student activists also kept the heat on Senate leaders, staging news conferences and pressing for meetings. Scott told reporters he considered the bill a priority.

On Wednesday, his office said it was taking a look at the new proposal.

Steube, who was elected to the Senate in 2016 after six years in the House, said he hasn't talked to Negron or Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran about the legislation yet. But knowing of their previous opposition gave him hope.

Negron and Corcoran have not returned calls for comment.

The benefits of the bill are already being felt by young adults who were brought to the U.S. through no fault of their own, said Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, who sponsored the 2014 bill in the House. 

“This really isn’t an immigration bill, this is access to higher education,” she said. “I for one am focused on empowering families and being able to provide opportunities for students.”

Despite the Senate president’s likely support, she said she’s not too concerned about Steube’s bill just yet. She vowed to fight it tooth and nail.

“Clearly, in my mind, he’s still in campaign mode,” she said. “There’s a lot of football to be played, and we’re in the preseason at this point. Hopefully at the end of the day we’ll prevail.”

Photo credit: State Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, in 2014 when he was in the Florida House. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

November 29, 2016

Florida Senate's committee leaders for 2016-18 announced

Florida Senate-Renovations (2)

@ByKristenMClark

Senate President Joe Negron R-Stuart, announced his leadership team for the 2016-18 term on Tuesday, a list that includes some expected appointments but also some surprises and a few snubs.

Negron put many of his most trusted allies in key positions, such as naming Trilby Republican Sen. Wilton Simpson as majority leader. Simpson is in line to take over as Senate president in four years. Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel was named Simpson's deputy.

President Pro Tempore Anitere Flores, R-Miami -- Negron's No. 2 in the chamber -- will helm two committees: Banking and Insurance and the subcommittee in charge of the Health and Human Services budget. She'll also be vice-chairwoman of the full Appropriations Committee. Meanwhile, Bradenton Republican Sen. Bill Galvano -- last year's majority leader who is likely to succeed Negron as president in 2018 -- will be in charge of the higher education budget, a reflection of the emphasis Negron plans to put on the state's public colleges and universities during his tenure.

Because half of the Senate is new this term, many freshman senators landed key leadership spots -- including several recently former House members and two Democrats, Lauren Book and Randolph Bracy. Veteran Democrats Bill Montford, of Tallahassee, and Audrey Gibson, of Jacksonville, also were given committee chairmanships, affording the minority party's 15 members a level of influence in the chamber.

Of note, as well: The Senate's former steadfast firewall that last spring had halted a couple controversial measures to expand gun rights in Florida is gone, potentially giving such bills an easier route in the 2017 session.

Rather than keep a moderate lawmaker as chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee, Negron named conservative Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, to the leadership post. The committee was previously led by Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who lost his re-election bid to now-Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami.

Steube, an ardent supporter of gun rights who last year was in the Florida House, told the Herald/Times last week that he's drafting comprehensive legislation for 2017 to reduce various types of restrictions on conceal-carry permit holders. Some of those same proposals were considered last year but failed to pass because of Diaz de la Portilla's decision to kill the bills. Diaz de la Portilla had said the proposals lacked support in the 40-member Senate, which is generally more moderate than the House and where Republicans hold a narrower majority.

In the absence of Diaz de la Portilla, though, Bracy could potentially be a different obstacle as head of the Criminal Justice Committee. The Orlando Democrat supported last year's campus-carry bill but opposed a measure to allow the open-carrying of firearms.

Here's the full list of chairmanships for main committees in 2016-18:

Continue reading "Florida Senate's committee leaders for 2016-18 announced" »

Mandatory school recess proposal coming back for 2017 session

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@ByKristenMClark

A popular, parent-backed proposal to require daily recess at all of Florida’s public elementary schools will be back before the Florida Legislature next spring.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, filed a bill on Tuesday that mirrors one that died in the spring — despite fervent support — when one key senator from Pasco County refused to hear it in committee.

The measure, SB 78 for the 2017 session, mandates local school boards offer 20 minutes per day of “supervised, safe and unstructured free-play recess” for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Orlando Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia, who led the effort last year, will again champion it in the House. He said he’s in the process of drafting his bill for 2017 and plans to file it soon.

Last session’s proposal was initiated by passionate parents from all across Florida — primarily self-described “recess moms” in Tampa and Orlando, as well as Miami-Dade — who pleaded and lobbied for their lawmakers’ support in the 2016 session.

Read more here.

Photo credit: Marsha Halper / Miami Herald

*This post has been updated.

November 22, 2016

Negron, Corcoran now officially in charge of Florida Legislature

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@stevebousquet @MaryEllenKlas @ByKristenMClark

Under new leadership, the Florida Legislature entered a strange new world Tuesday as the House speaker condemned the entrenched power of lobbyists and called for major changes in spending sure to be opposed by the Senate and Gov. Rick Scott.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, described a Capitol controlled by lobbyists and politically-wired vendors, with lawmakers doing their bidding at the expense of taxpayers.

“Too many bills filed in session are given to members by lobbyists and special interests,” Corcoran said. “Too many lobbyists see themselves as the true power brokers of this process. Too many appropriations projects are giveaways to vendors and the decision of whether they get in the budget has more to do with their choice of lobbyist than the merits of the project … It all ends, and it all ends today.”

But it won’t all end as easily as it sounds.

Despite Corcoran’s zeal for reforming the process of lawmaking, he controls only one side of the Capitol. The Senate, led by Republican Joe Negron of Stuart, has very different ideas.

More here.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

Florida state Sen. Dorothy Hukill undergoing treatment for cancer

@ByKristenMClark

Newly reelected state Sen. Dorothy Hukill was the only senator not in attendance for Tuesday's organizational session of the 2016-18 term.

But she has a very justifiable reason for her excused absence.

The Port Orange Republican was recently diagnosed with cervical cancer and is undergoing treatment.

In a letter to new Florida Senate President Joe Negron, she said: "I am fortunate that it has been diagnosed in the early stages and my medical team advises that my prognosis for full recovery is good."

During Tuesday's session, Negron acknowledged Hukill's "health challenge." He said Hukill is expected back in Tallahassee in early December for the Legislature's first committee week preceding the 2017 session.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with her," Negron said.

Hukill -- who represents parts of Volusia and Brevard counties -- has been in the Florida Senate since 2012 and, before that, served in the Florida House for eight years.

Joe Negron reaffirms policy goals as he takes over as Florida Senate president

Negron

@ByKristenMClark

As Sen. Joe Negron officially took over control of the Florida Senate on Tuesday, the Republican from Stuart outlined once again his priorities for improving higher education, stopping harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee and reforming juvenile justice.

Negron first detailed those plans in his designation speech almost a year ago, but now he's in a position to personally drive that agenda for the next two years.

The Florida Senate unanimously elected Negron as its chamber president for the 2016-18 term during the Senate's one-day organizational session on Tuesday, which lasted roughly two hours.

Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores was also elected unanimously as Negron's No. 2; she is the first Hispanic woman to hold the position of Senate president pro tempore -- and among several Miami-Dade lawmakers in positions of power for this upcoming term.

MORE: "Oscar Braynon, Lauren Book named Florida Senate Democrats' top leaders"

In his 15-minute acceptance speech, Negron demonstrated some of his most well-known characteristics: thoughtful deliberation and a wonkish knack for public policy.

Continue reading "Joe Negron reaffirms policy goals as he takes over as Florida Senate president" »

November 21, 2016

Oscar Braynon, Lauren Book named Florida Senate Democrats' top leaders

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@ByKristenMClark

A longtime legislator from Miami Gardens will lead the Democrats of the Florida Senate for the next two years.

Sen. Oscar Braynon’s ascension to Senate minority leader was made official Monday evening in advance of Tuesday’s organizational session for the 2016-18 Legislature. He’s now in charge of a 15-member Democratic caucus, of which 11 are newly elected senators.

“I’m happy to be taking on that role,” Braynon said. “We’re going to have a bunch of blank slates when it comes to what happens in the Senate. There’s a lot of potential there.”

One of those newcomers is freshman Broward County Sen. Lauren Book, whom the Democratic caucus also unanimously elected as Braynon’s No. 2 in the role of Senate Democratic leader pro tempore.

Book, of Plantation, is a prominent advocate for victims of childhood sexual abuse and the founder and CEO of Aventura-based Lauren’s Kids. She is also the daughter of powerful Tallahassee lobbyist Ron Book, whom she called “her best friend, rock and mentor.”

Although the Republican majority in the Senate will drive the agenda, Braynon said his goal as minority leader is to continue pushing for Democratic priorities, such as equal pay for women and raising the minimum wage, protecting the environment, improving access to health care and strengthening public education.

Read more.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

New Florida Senate chamber gets its long-awaited debut

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@ByKristenMClark

After eight months and nearly 50,000 hours of construction work, Florida legislative leaders got their first official look at a brand new Senate chamber on Monday.

The $6 million renovation was the first major overhaul to the room since the current Capitol was built in the late 1970s, and the result is a brighter and modernized — yet classically styled — chamber where the Florida Senate will continue to conduct its business.

“They did a phenomenal job, and it’s long overdue,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. “It brings a level of respect to the process to have the chamber looking so stately as it does now.”

Read more.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times