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March 26, 2018

Gov. Rick Scott quickly running out of veto threats

With a final stack of 39 bills on his desk from the Florida Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott is quickly running out of veto threats in his final year in office.

The least productive lawmaking session in years has resulted in 156 bills signed so far, including the new $88.7 billion budget, which included $64 million in line item vetoes.

The Republican governor signed two bills Monday that enact requirements for generators at nursing homes and adult living facilities as a result of the deaths of 12 residents at a Hollywood nursing home that lost power after Hurricane Irma.

Scott has not yet vetoed any legislation from the 2018 session.

He has until April 10 to act on the final bills that reached his desk Monday.

He signed 70 bills into law last Friday, including one that had produced several hundred calls for his first veto of this year.

That bill, HB 631, dealt with access to Florida's beaches.

It bans cities and counties from adopting ordinances to regulate what's known as customary use, or public access to the beach above the mean high-water line, after Jan. 1, 2016. Three counties have passed those ordinances.

Under the bill, only a court can determine customary use, which is generally defined as the traditional use of dry beach sand for recreation by the public.

Walton County in the Panhandle, home to some of Florida's most popular beaches, is one of three counties with customary use ordinances. The two others are St. Johns and Volusia counties.

Some property owners filed suit against Walton County, but the county prevailed in court. The case is now on appeal.

Citing the economic need for a strong tourism industry, local residents, Realtors and others urged Scott to veto the bill, but he signed it.

"Our very livelihood depends on everyone having access to our greatest natural resource," Destin real estate agent Alice Duncan wrote to Scott. "Please, please veto this. Not everyone can own a beachfront mansion."

Attached to Duncan's email to Scott was a sign that said "private beach" and the caption: "The beach is not a gated community. Tell Gov. Scott to protect customary use laws. The coastline belongs to the public."

Scott's office reported last week that opponents outnumbered supporters by an 8-1 margin, with 327 calls and messages against the bill and 40 in favor.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, who sponsored the Senate version, said she found it "appalling" that a city or county can pass an ordinance jeopardizing private property rights.

"If you're going to take away somebody's property, you have to do it through the courts," Passidomo said. "To me, it's just appalling that a local government could do this."

Passidomo said the steady erosion of Florida's coastline and a lack of local beach renourishment will keep the controversy alive in future years.


"This problem is not going to go away," she said, "and it's going to happen up and down the coast."

Passidomo said a similar proposal in the 2017 session, which did not pass, was referred to informally as the "Huckabee amendment," after TV pundit and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who owns a beachfront home in Santa Rosa County in the Panhandle.


"We're not talking about privatizing beaches," the House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, D-Plantation, said when she presented it to the House Judiciary Committee during the session. "We're talking about private land and protecting the public's right to use that private land under the customary use doctrine."

Scott created a stir last year when he vetoed a bill that would have removed the so-called liquor wall that prevents grocery stores and big-box retailers from selling hard liquor.

Earlier, Scott vetoed an intensely-lobbied overhaul of Florida alimony laws and a higher speed limit on certain interstate highways in Florida.

Two years ago, Scott vetoed a bill that would have provided new financial incentives for dentists to care for patients in underserved areas.

He said the bill duplicated other programs and lacked sufficient safeguards to protect Florida taxpayers.

In his seven years in office, Scott has vetoed 55 bills passed by the Legislature. He vetoed 11 bills last year.

The highest number of bills vetoed was 12 in 2012, and the lowest was one in 2014.

Rick Scott signs bills requiring generators in nursing homes, assisted living facilities

SCOTT KEELER | Times Gov. Rick Scott describes what can be done further in Florida to avoid more shootings like the one in Parkland at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation today requiring nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have backup generators, following the deaths of a dozen people at a Broward County nursing home that lost power during Hurricane Irma last year.

The bills require the facilities to keep backup generators capable of running air conditioners when the power goes out. They must provide at least 30 square feet of cool space for each resident - at a temperature of no more than 81 degrees - and keep several days worth of fuel on hand.

The bills made permanent emergency orders Scott put in place after the deaths at a Hollywood nursing home, where a dozen elders overheated and died.

"As we near the 2018 hurricane season, families can now know the facilities responsible for caring for their loved ones will have the resources needed to be fully prepared ahead of any potential storms," Scott said in a statement Monday.

Wasserman Schultz wants background checks for purchasers of ammunition



South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced Monday that she has introduced a bill requiring background checks for the purchase of ammunition.

Just as with firearms, federal law currently bans criminals, domestic abusers and people with mental illnesses from buying bullets. But the law does not require federally licensed retailers to background those customers. Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, says she wants to “close this loophole” through the Ammunition Background Check Act.

She said Monday that the law would require retailers to use the same FBI National Instance Background Check System (NICS) used to background people buying firearms at retail. The same legislation is sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

“This common-sense legislation simply enforces existing federal law, and will make it harder for criminals to amass hundreds of rounds of ammunition without so much as sharing their first name with a gun store clerk,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “Closing this absurd loophole will not by itself stop the next mass shooting tragedy. But this popular approach must be part of our larger strategy for ending gun violence.”

Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey currently require background checks on ammunition purchases, and California and New York have recently passed legslation. Florida has no such law.

The bill is one of several targeting federal gun laws filed in recent weeks. On Thursday, Florida Reps. Ted Deutch, Charlie Crist, Carlos Curbelo and Thomas Rooney filed bi-partisan legislation to raise the minimum age requirement from 18 to 21 to purchase a rifle or shotgun from a federally licensed dealer. Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson announced last week the filing of a "red flag" law that would allow courts to issue gun violence restraining orders.

Major school voucher expansion proposals won't be on November ballot

Commissioner Erika Donalds speaks during a CRC meeting last week on the floor of the Florida Senate. | Florida Channel

When the members of the Constitution Revision Commission were appointed by Florida's top political leaders, the list was full of prominent school choice advocates. It seemed the CRC was gearing up to amend Florida's constitution to finally allow for the major expansion of school vouchers the Legislature has long sought.

Instead, the 37-member commission dropped its two major voucher expansion proposals last week — and the CRC only meets every 20 years to determine constitutional amendments to put on the ballot.

"There is somewhat of a consensus this is going to be resolved by the courts," said CRC member Erika Donalds, a Collier County School Board member who helped found a charter school there. Her husband is state Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican member from Naples.

"In both cases, I think there is great support for both of those ideas on the CRC which is what makes it even harder not to move forward with it ... (but) I try to step back and look at the big picture at what can only be fixed through the constitution."

Proposal 4 would have struck the Blaine Amendment from the state constitution — which prohibits public money from going to any religious institution, and thus any religiously affiliated private school.

After a short but robust debate on Wednesday, that proposal was "temporarily postponed."

Donalds said they will not bring it up again.

She also withdrew proposal 45, which would have added language to the constitution saying "nothing herein may be construed to limit the Legislature from making provision for other educational services ... that are in addition to the system of free public schools."

Both proposals would have paved the way for a major expansion of vouchers by the Legislature, which have so far been limited to students with particular needs, such as being low-income, a victim of bullying or having a disability.

Donalds said several recent actions by the U.S. Supreme Court — including the a decision last year allowing public money to go toward a playground at a church — have made school choice advocates confident that the justices will eventually undo the 2007 Florida Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Holmes, that declared the state's voucher program unconstitutional.

For that to happen, someone must again challenge Florida's voucher programs.

But any proposals that make it to the ballot in the general election must receive at least 60 percent support to make it into the constitution, and recent polling done by Clearview Research found that Proposal 4 fell far below that threshold. Clearview often does work for Democratic causes but this poll was not done for any particular client, according to president Steven Vancore.

Only 41 percent of respondents said they would vote "yes" on the proposal and 51 percent of respondents declared they would vote "no." The research firm did not conduct polling on proposal 45.

The Florida Education Association opined that the polling was more likely the reason for the proposals' removal from consideration by the CRC. A similar amendment was also on the ballot in 2012 and it was defeated.

"There was no reason to submit the same proposal to the voters again especially after  polling was released that shows the voters really haven’t changed their minds on funding religious programs," said FEA president Joanne McCall.

Whatever the reason, Floridians won't be voting on voucher expansion on November's ballot. Instead, the remaining education proposals include term limits for school board members and a program for high-performing districts to have charter-like flexibility on certain regulations for hiring and facilities.

Rick Scott's chief of staff resigns, stirring new Senate speculation

Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that his chief of staff, Jackie Schutz Zeckman, resigned Sunday "to pursue other opportunities."

Her replacement is Brad Piepenbrink, 32, who has served as a deputy chief of staff and earlier ran Scott's external affairs operation and worked on his 2014 re-election campaign. The change is effective immediately.

The departure of Schutz Zeckman is sure to intensify speculation that Scott is nearing an announcement that he will seek the U.S. Senate seat held since 2001 by Democrat Bill Nelson.

Schutz Zeckman, 32, a St. Petersburg native, worked in Scott's press office and was his communications director before she was appointed as chief of staff last May.

In a statement, Scott called her a "trusted and loyal advisor," and said: "She has been dedicated to implementing my agenda throughout my time as governor and I know she will continue to do great things for our state."

Piepenbrink will be the eighth person to serve as Scott's chief of staff during his seven-plus years as governor.

Scott, 65, a Republican, must leave office next January due to term limits. He's the second GOP governor in Florida history, along with Jeb Bush, who was elected to back-to-back terms.

The qualifying period for federal candidates begins at noon Monday, April 30, and ends at noon Friday, May 4.

March 23, 2018

Gov. Rick Scott signs child marriage bill, daylight saving time into law

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, shown here at the end of the legislative session on March 11, signed a $88.7 billion budget, just days after receiving it, on Friday, March 16, 2018. Mark Wallheiser AP

Gov. Rick Scott signed more than 70 bills into law on Friday, including one that would limit child marriages and another asking Congress to make Daylight Saving Time year-round.

If approved by Congress, Floridians would see darker mornings and brighter evenings year-round. The state would become the third, after Hawaii and most of Arizona, to exempt themselves from a 1996 law that set a uniform time for all time zones across the country.

Sen. Marco Rubio has already introduced a bill in Congress a bill to make the time change permanent in Florida - and the rest of the country.

Scott also approved on Friday new law stripping Pinellas County's embattled construction licensing board of its independence, following a series of Tampa Bay Times stories detailing how the licensing board's leaders and staff operated without oversight or accountability, disregarding agency rules and state law.

The law puts county commissioners in charge of the board.

"We're glad he signed it," Pinellas County Commission Chair Ken Welch said. "We can start to move forward and offer better services to residents."

Scott also approved the nation's strictest ban on child marriages, limiting them to people 17 or older.

Previously, 16- and 17-year-olds could marry with their parents' consent, and county judges could approve marriages with even younger minors if there is a pregnancy involved.

Scott also signed off on allowing the City of Tampa to pay Ramiro Campanioni, Jr. $5 million for injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident caused by a City of Tampa Water Department truck 22 years ago.

Miami Republican lawmaker confirmed as U.S. ambassador to OAS

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Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Trujillo was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States by the U.S. Senate on Thursday. 

The White House announced Trujillo’s appointment in October, just two months after President Donald Trump named him one of four U.S. representatives to the United Nations General Assembly. That job made Trujillo, an early Trump campaign supporter who attended the president’s inauguration, one of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s four deputies.

Trujillo was ultimately approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, though he did face questioning from Democrats over a 2015 bill in the Florida Legislature that would have made it a felony for an undocumented immigrant who was previously deported, or facing a deportation order, to be in the state. 

"As someone with a strong understanding of U.S.-Latin American relations, Carlos Trujillo is an outstanding choice to serve as U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States," Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement. "Carlos has served his constituents diligently in the Florida House of Representatives over the last eight years, and I know he will do the same while representing the American people at the OAS."

Rubio, an ally of Trujillo's also serves as chairman of the Latin America subcommittee in the U.S. Senate. 

March 22, 2018

Proposal encouraging district-charter school competition moves closer to ballot

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The proposal to amend Florida's constitution has been championed by Miami leaders, including Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. C.M. GUERRERO

A proposal to loosen requirements on the state's highest-performing school districts so they can better compete with charter schools moved forward Wednesday, putting it one step closer to being on the ballot in November.

The measure, Proposal 93, was approved by the obscure yet powerful Constitution Revision Commission, the 37-member body that meets every 20 years in Florida to put constitutional amendments on the ballot. All proposals that have made it this far still have to be officially passed in another vote in April to be on the ballot.

This proposal would allow high-performing districts, graded an "A" or "B" for example, to become designated as an "innovation school district" (changed from its previous name of "charter districts"). Those districts would have more autonomy over their curriculum, facilities and hiring practices, for example, that charter schools already enjoy.

"I believe in choice ... it's also a choice to go to a public school," said Roberto Martinez, an influential Miami attorney and a Republican, who sponsored Proposal 93. "What this proposal seeks to do is to provide public school systems that are high-performing the same flexibility we are giving charter schools ... to give them the flexibility and innovation to allow them to excel."

This proposal nearly died in committee in January, as some members of the CRC expressed concern that this was too radical a step to put directly into the constitution. But on Wednesday it moved forward with a 24-9 vote, signifying enough support to possibly bring it to the finish line.

Previously, the Florida Education Association — the statewide teachers' union — said they agreed with the concept but were cautious about the wording and interpretation. One of the proposal's biggest supporters is Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

Martinez said he has not heard from any district in opposition.

Two bills supported by Parkland families included in massive spending package

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The House and Senate are scheduled to vote on a massive $1.3 trillion spending package on Thursday and Friday, and the spending bill includes two bills that were a priority for the families of victims of the nation's deadliest high school shooting in Parkland. 

The STOP School Violence Act and Fix NICS Act are both in the package. Both bills received widespread support from both parties though a few Republicans were opposed to the Fix NICS Act, which aims to improve the background check system for guns by penalizing federal agencies that fail to report records, and increases federal funding for reporting domestic violence records.

"Today, we’re moving a little closer to turning the voices of the students marching across the country into action. While we still have so much work to do, I am happy to see some movement on bipartisan legislation I’ve worked on with Senator Rubio to help address gun violence in our country, including the Fix NICS Act and the STOP School Violence Act, which funds programs to help keep our schools safe," Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said in a statement. 

The spending bill also stipulates that the Centers for Disease Controls can conduct research on gun violence, a measure pushed by Orlando Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy after the Parkland shooting. A number of Republicans, including Miami Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, have backed the idea. Previously, the CDC was not allowed to spend money to research gun violence due to an amendment passed in 1996. 

"We are very happy that by the end of this week there should be close to a billion dollars over the next ten years available so that states can set up these systems to identify potential shooters and stop them before they kill anybody," Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement. 

March 21, 2018

Who’s going and who’s skipping? Where pols stand on Saturday’s March for Our Lives



On Saturday, young people around the world will participate in the March for Our Lives, urging lawmakers to find solutions that stop gun violence and mass shootings just over a month after the nation’s deadliest high school shooting in Broward County.

But South Florida’s Republican lawmakers in Congress either have no plans to attend, or won’t say what they’re doing on Saturday.

The March for Our Lives was organized by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students after a former classmate killed 17 people on Valentine’s Day. The students have also been coordinating with gun-control advocacy groups who generally do not support Republican officeholders. As of Wednesday, the organizers announced that 837 marches will take place around the world, including the main event in Washington, D.C.

Every Democratic officeholder from South Florida who responded to the Miami Herald has plans to participate, either in Washington or marches in South Florida.

Read more here.