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February 02, 2016

Miami-Dade commissioners express fear of greater PAC disclosure rules


Daniella Levine Cava joined the Miami-Dade County Commission a year and a half ago — unseating an incumbent commissioner with promises to restore the public’s trust and bring greater transparency to County Hall.

On Tuesday, Levine Cava found out just how hard it can be to put those promises into practice. At the final vote for Levine Cava’s proposed new political action committee law, which would require greater disclosures from local elected officials, Miami-Dade’s newest commissioner had almost no support from her colleagues.

Levine Cava’s proposal is relatively modest, and built to mirror existing regulations that apply to state politicians, who must file a disclosure for certain types of political action committees they are raising money for. If approved, Levine Cava’s ordinance would apply to county and municipal elected posts in Miami-Dade.

But county commissioners expressed all sorts of fears, and delayed any action for now. Commissioner Barbara Jordan said not everyone who’s asked to donate actually does so, and keeping track of it all isn’t easy.

“I may make a phone call, but there may not be a contribution,” she said. “I’m so forgetful, I don’t want to go to jail.”

Read more here

House continues fast pace of bill removing requirement that public records violators pay attorneys fees

In a dispute that could reshape how the state handles its Sunshine laws, another House committee gave approval to a bill that proponents say will crack down on "economic terrorists" that are abusing the state's public records laws by extorting money out of government with frivolous and misleading public records requests.

But opponents say the solution is an overreaction that will "gut" the state's open records laws and permanently cloud its Sunshine Law tradition. They warn that the bill removes the only tool the public has to seek redress when government officials violate the state's public records laws and have offered a compromise that is being rejected.

The House Governmental Operations Appropriations Subcommittee voted 11-1 for the bill on Tuesday, although two Republicans and two Democrats on the committee indicated they would like to see modifications before it reaches a floor vote.

The measure, HB 1021 sponsored by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, and SB 1220, by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, removes the requirement that judges award attorneys fees when state or local government violates the state's public records law.

"I think this bill really gets at the crux because I don't think people are going to be inhibited from access to public records" or being awarded attorneys fees "if its egregious and the public entity is not acting in good faith,'' Steube told the committee.

He cited the example of the small Palm Beach County Town of Gulfstream, which has received 2500 records requests and 46 lawsuits -- almost all from a single law firm -- requiring it to hire one additional staff member to comply with the law.

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House prepared to vote on sanctuary cities ban


The Florida House on Wednesday will vote on legislation to ban so-called sanctuary cities, in which local governments don’t cooperate with federal orders to detain undocumented migrants.

The bill (HB 675) by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, would fine local governments that don’t repeal the policies. And it would allow the governor to remove officials from office if they are named in a successful wrongful death suit related to an undocumented immigrant.

As Metz has explained it, the bill targets a handful of counties — most notably Miami-Dade — which may not detain people who are or who they believe to be undocumented immigrants in some cases.

Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said Miami-Dade County sometimes doesn’t detain non-violent offenders because federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement often doesn’t issue deportation orders. He tried to require the state to pay for any additional detainees, although lawmakers voted that down.

“If it’s a low-level thing, Miami-Dade will in some cases not spend those tax dollars in the hope that ICE might come by,” Rodriguez said.

But while Metz points to just a few counties or sheriff’s departments with sanctuary policies, a study released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida says at least 30 of Florida’s 67 counties could be impacted, including the entire Tampa Bay and South Florida regions.

The chamber will vote Wednesday afternoon in its 3 p.m. session on the Metz proposal.

Other legislation targeting undocumented immigrants continues to move through the Florida House. On Tuesday, the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee approved a bill by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, that would include wages earned by undocumented immigrants in determining state welfare benefits for their family members.

And Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, is pushing legislation giving state criminal penalties to previously deported people who re-enter the state.

Similar proposals are not moving in the Senate.

Former NFL, FSU players lobby for payment in Devaughn Darling's death

From the News Service of Florida:

Family members and former teammates of a Florida State University football player who died while working out nearly 15 years ago gathered Tuesday at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to approve a bill that would compensate his family.

Devaughn Darling was a freshman for the Seminoles in 2001, when he collapsed and died during a training session. His family later agreed to a $2 million settlement with the university.

But under the state's sovereign immunity laws, the family could not collect more than $200,000 without legislative approval of what is known as a "claim" bill. Such bills have been filed repeatedly to compensate the Darling family but have not passed.

Devaughn Darling's twin brother, Devard, said it is difficult for his family to have to lobby lawmakers year after year.

"Nothing can bring him back, no amount of money,'' Devard Darling said. "$1.8 million isn't worth Devaughn's life, but like everyone has said, it is just the closure that we are looking for. We have to relive this every year."

Several former NFL players and FSU teammates joined the Darling family at the Capitol. Bills (SB 16 and HB 3513) that call for paying the Darling family have yet to be heard by legislative committees this session.

"I'm going to be here to support them (family members), and I hope that those that will vote on this issue and will bring this issue to the table will just think of the family,'' said Corey Simon, a former Florida State and NFL player.

Florida Supreme Court grants indefinite stay of execution

The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday granted a stay of execution to a death row inmate, adding new uncertainty to the future of capital punishment in the nation's third-largest state.

Without explanation, six justices issued a brief statement blocking the scheduled Feb. 11 execution of Michael Lambrix "pending further order of this court." The justices denied a motion by Lambrix's attorney to move the case back to the trial court for a full evidentiary hearing.

Lambrix has spent more than half his life on death row for the murders of two people in Glades County more than three decades ago. But the state's highest court agreed to review his case because of the possible impact of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 12 that struck down Florida's death penalty sentencing law as unconstitutional. In an 8-1 decision, the nation's highest court said Florida's sentencing system violates a defendant's right to a trial by jury because the jury's role is advisory and the trial judge makes the key fact-finding decisions.

A legal question is whether the Hurst decision can now be applied retroactively to Lambrix's case -- and possibly to hundreds more people, some of them inmates on death row and others in the legal pipeline.

"To execute people in Florida on the basis of a statute that has been declared unconstitutional is just wrong," Lambrix's lawyer, Martin McClain, told justices as he urged them to reduce Lambrix's sentence to life without parole.

Tuesday's stay of execution was a legal setback for Attorney General Pam Bondi, who on behalf of the state urged that Lambrix's petition be denied and that executions continue in Florida.

Clinton campaign to declare opposition to Florida abortion legislation


The Hillary Clinton campaign is weighing in on legislation in the Florida Captiol to restrict abortion clinics, with her senior policy advisor calling the bills “dangerous and extreme.”

In a post to be published Tuesday evening on the website Medium, senior policy adviser Maya Harris will write that “Hillary Clinton opposes these measures advancing through the Florida legislature – and is the candidate with the strongest history of standing up for women's health care and rights.”

The post comes the day after a very close win for Clinton in Iowa and days after the first mail-in ballots for Florida’s March 15 presidential primary were mailed.

Earlier Tuesday, the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee approved one such bill (HB 1411), by Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, that would set a number of new regulations for abortion clinics in the state, including requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and cutting funding for non-abortion services performed at clinics. Another proposal (HB 865) by Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, would ban all abortions in Florida.

Harris will write in the Medium post:

"The bills are a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, which has protected a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions for decades. One of these bills would make performing an abortion a first-degree felony. Other proposed restrictions would erect unnecessary hurdles with the purpose of closing down health clinics.

"The true intention behind these bills is to prevent women from having access to safe and legal abortion. Let's be clear: Access to women's health care is a fundamental right, not a first-degree felony. These measures put women’s health and rights at risk and undermine the role of medical professionals in health care decisions."

Three nurseries that didn't get low-THC cannabis licenses sue health department


Three nurseries that were not granted licenses to grow low-THC medical marijuana are suing the Department of Health and asking a judge for an injunction to stop growers in three of five regions in the state from moving forward.

The suit, filed Tuesday in the state circuit court in Tallahassee, alleges that DOH forced nurseries to move forward with growing the drug ahead of schedule before legal challenges to the licenses issued last November had been cleared.

What’s more, the nurseries — McCrory’s Sunny Hill Nursery, San Felasco Nurseries and Tornello Landscape 3 Boys Farm — say some of those licensed to grow the drug don’t meet minimum standards set by DOH.

“We believe the Department has approved applications of applicants which fail to meet even basic qualifications,” Jim McKee, an attorney with Foley & Lardner LLP, said in a statement.

The nurseries filing the suit were beat out for the five available licenses to grow cannabis low in high-inducing compound THC. It’s a useful drug for children suffering from severe epilepsy, among others, and the Legislature authorized DOH to move forward with licensing growers to produce and sell it in 2014.

Just last year, the licenses were issued, but the plaintiff nurseries say DOH did not follow through with investigating the nurseries it had selected, including three they want a judge to order to stop production: Chestnut Hill Tree Farm, Alpha Foliage and Knox Nursery. The drug is still not available.

The plaintiffs filed administrative challenges with the department, and they’re asking the judge to order the department to stop moving forward with its role in licensing and regulating the nurseries while those challenges continue.

DOH declined comment. "The department does not comment on active litigation," spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said.

House advances abortion restrictions


Abortion continues to be a hot issue in the Florida Legislature as a long list of proposals on Tuesday cleared its second House hearing.

Supporters are billing HB 1411 as “an effort to protect the health and welfare of Floridians,” said Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, the sponsor.

But it’s viewed by opponents as an all-out attack on abortion rights in Florida and clinics like Planned Parenthood.

The bill would institute new regulations over abortion providers and state licensing. Among them:

* Requiring doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges or a transfer agreement at a hospital within a “reasonable distance,” or about 30 minutes.
* Blocking state funding for any services to clinics that provide abortions, except cases of rape, incest or when the health of the woman is in jeopardy.
* Defining when each trimester of a pregnancy begins and ends, part of a licensing dispute between the Agency for Health Care Administration and Planned Parenthood this summer, in which the agency claimed said trimesters ended two weeks earlier than the clinics’ doctors did.
* Requires half of the records at all abortion clinics to be inspected every year by AHCA.

After more than an hour of debate and emotional testimony, the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee approved the legislation in a party-line vote: nine Republicans in favor and four Democrats opposed.

“This bill protects the health of Floridians,” Burton said. “We regulate procedures all across the board here in Florida, and while this particular procedure has an emotional component that many others don’t, it is still a medical procedure.”

Amber Kelly of the anti-abortion group Florida Family Action said that it “would give more options for women to receive health care in the state of Florida.”

But House Democrats said that’s not the case. Burton’s bill would stop funding non-abortion services at abortion clinics, which Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said would make things even more difficult for women who cannot afford health care.

Cruz said that she understands the predicament young women face when they need contraception and family planning services and cannot afford it. Cutting public funding, she argued, would make their situations more difficult.

“I was one of those women a long time ago,” Cruz said. “If it weren’t for the care of a center, I don’t know — I’m not sure what my situation would be today. But they were there for me when I needed them.”

Over the last five years, the state has cut positions in county health departments. Meanwhile, HIV infection is on the rise, with more new cases in Florida than anywhere else.

Meanwhile, other groups like the American Civil Liberties Union say the bill could be unconstitutional. It includes provisions similar to a Texas law currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Since a decision is expected in June, the Florida Legislature should wait for that Supreme Court ruling before moving forward," said Michelle Richardson, ACLU of Florida's director of public policy.

Next, the bill goes before the House Health and Human Services Committee, where chairman Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, promises more heated debate. For him, the issue is about cutting down the number of abortions that take place in Florida. It’s also personal, he said.

“Over 40 years ago, right after Roe vs. Wade, I was adopted,” Brodeur said. “So those who say that we as men have no idea or no stake in this issue are completely false because there are people who never had an opportunity to come up to this podium to defend themselves and their life because they are gone.

Under GOP pressure, Broward lawmaker drops rental car fee cap

Motorists angry over being hit with extra fees to cover unpaid highway tolls when they rent cars in Florida won't be getting any help from the Legislature.

A bill that would have capped the fees at $10 a day moved ahead in the House Tuesday, but only after it was amended to eliminate the fee cap. The amended bill was supported by lobbyists for rental car companies.

The bill (HB 1119) is sponsored by Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, who said she filed it to help unsuspecting consumers who rent cars in Florida and are charged from $4 to $15 a day by rental car companies, in addition to the tolls themselves, to cover cases in which renters pass through electronic toll booths where there are no humans to accept money.

Jacobs' bill was likely doomed in the House Transportation & Ports Subcommittee unless she removed the fee limit, so she took it out. "Up here, you know how far that went," Jacobs said. "So I'll take a baby step -- can they just tell us what the fees are?"

Jacobs' amended bill now says that "a rental car company which imposes a fee in additional to the toll charge incurred by the renter ... must post the applicable terms and conditions in a conspicuous location on the business premises" in addition to including the conditions in a rental agreement.

The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who initially filed his own proposed regulations, but he declared it dead last week.

As a state employee, Jacobs is required to rent from Enterprise and its affiliates, Alamo and National, which hold a multi-year contract with the state. Those firms charge a fee of $3.95 a day for every day a toll is unpaid to cover the costs of unpaid tolls.

Jacobs said she was surprised that the Department of Management Services, which negotiated the contract with Enterprise, did not negotiate a removal of the fees, which will be passed on to Florida taxpayers. "So even on ourselves, we're paying more as a state," Jacobs said. "We could have negotiated that clause away."

Enterprise Holdings and related firms have donated $1.2 million in campaign contributions to legislators and candidates since 1996, most of it to Republicans. Enterprise has given $100,000 to the Republican Party of Florida since 2014.

Florida closer to allowing concealed weapons permits as forms of ID to vote

Florida’s 1.4 million concealed weapons permit holders are closer to being able to use their identification cards to vote.

The Florida Senate voted 36-0 this morning to allow concealed weapons permit cards and veteran health cards as part of a list of acceptable forms of ID to be able to vote.

Besides a state-issued driver’s licenses, voters currently can show a list of other photo IDs including U.S. passports, military ID cards, neighborhood association cards, retirement center IDs and public assistance ID cards.

The bill, (SB 666) is sponsored by Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity.

A nearly identical bill has already passed three committees in the House and is headed to the floor for a final vote.