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33 posts from December 2018

December 28, 2018

DeSantis taps Seminole County SOE for Secretary of State

Michael Ertel, courtesy of Seminole County


Governor-elect Ron DeSantis' transition team announced the appointment of Seminole County Supervisor of Elections, Michael Ertel, as Secretary of State Friday. 

"As Supervisor of Elections in Seminole County — where he has been elected by the voters four times — Mike has proven that he is vastly qualified to lead the state’s elections efforts as Secretary of State, and will strive to ensure that Florida voters are confident that elections continue to be fair and accurate,” DeSantis wrote in a statement. 

Ertel, who uses inspirational quotes from Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt in his email signature, was appointed to his current role by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005. He was re-elected as the Seminole County SOE in 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2016.

His name will come to the foreground in 2019, as the 2018 midterm recounts and calls to investigate claims of voter fraud will likely spur election-related discussion and legislation this legislative session. 

Before Ertel became an elections supervisor, he served as his home county's first public information officer and worked for the state's tourism marketing agency, Visit Florida.

He will replace Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who was appointed to the role first by Bush in 2003 and then again by Gov. Rick Scott in 2012.  

December 21, 2018

DeSantis pledges water quality accountability, more voucher funding in magazine interview


While Ron DeSantis has significantly changed his tone since the election, there's one aspect of his campaign that has so far remained constant: his promise to prioritize environmental issues and water quality.

That theme emerged again in a Florida Trend business magazine piece published this week, in which DeSantis repeated that the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee should be fully built "as soon as possible." (The piece is only available in print)

Florida Trend is owned by Times Publishing, the same company as the Tampa Bay Times.

DeSantis also talked about water management districts, which hastily renewed a land lease with sugar growers in November in an area targeted for the new reservoir. Environmental activists have railed against Gov. Rick Scott on the issues of these districts, saying he replaced experienced regulators with people who had previously worked for industry.

"We're going to have people on the water management boards that understand the issues and are going to be problem-solvers," DeSantis said in the interview.

When it comes to health care policy, incoming state House Speaker José Oliva told the magazine he fully expects DeSantis to support his proposed hospital reforms — chiefly, to roll back certificate-of-need regulations that limit when and where hospitals can be built. Oliva has said these rules give hospitals "monopolies" and jack up health care prices.

"I think you will see a great deal of action in trying to extricate government from the free market," Oliva said.

READ MOREFlorida's new House Speaker wants to reduce government, health care spending

The magazine also touched on DeSantis' sketch for education, which is to expand vocational and career-specific training and continue to push for more funding for vouchers through the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships. His ultimate goal would be for every family to get a set amount of money for their student's education and so they could use it in a myriad of ways, he said.

On the economy, DeSantis plans to continue to use public incentives and Enterprise Florida to attract business to the state and wants to reduce the sales tax on commercial leases.

As far as who's helping DeSantis call the shots, his "inner circle" includes well-known advisers such as his transition executive director, Susie Wiles, as well as transition chairs U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and former House speaker Richard Corcoran. The magazine also named a few others very close to the incoming governor: state Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples; Kent Stermon, the COO of a military moving company that previously rented out a condo to DeSantis; and of course, his wife, Casey.

Fried says Florida jobs, revenue will benefit from Farm Bill's hemp provision


President Donald Trump signed into law Thursday an $867 billion farm bill which, among other things, classifies hemp as an agricultural commodity and takes it off the federal controlled substances list.

Nicole "Nikki" Fried, agriculture commissioner-elect, said she was “elated” when she heard the bill passed.

Hemp, a form of the cannabis plant, contains only trace amounts of THC — the naturally occurring component in marijuana that produces a high — and uses less water and fertilizer to grow. States like Kentucky have embraced hemp as a way to replace failing tobacco farms and falling crop prices.

“Lifting the needless ban on hemp presents an incredible opportunity for our farmers and Florida as a whole," said Fried,  a marijuana lobbyist and South Florida attorney who made a name for herself on a weed-heavy campaign platform. "I look forward to ensuring we take the necessary steps so Florida is ready to become a national leader on hemp.

Hemp growing is already being studied in Florida, thanks to legislation that authorized the Department of Agriculture to issue hemp field study permits through Florida A&M and the University of Florida. 

UF’s two-year program is housed on three sites across the state, where researchers are studying the risk of hemp plants becoming invasive threats as well as identifying hemp varieties suitable for Florida’s various environments. Right now, researchers are preparing the land and necessary approvals for planting at the research locations in the spring. They are still hiring research personnel, ordering seed, applying for planting permits and working to get additional sponsorship.

Since the new farm bill will allow hemp production beyond the university setting, Fried’s campaign promise to expand industrial hemp can hold true

"This is an alternative crop which will give Florida’s agriculture community the tools they need to be competitive and successful," Fried said. "It has the potential to become a multi-billion dollar industry for our state, which could drive job growth with an open market and account for a strong new source of revenue." 

DeSantis announces pick to head Department of Elder Affairs

Elder affairs
Douglas Clifford | Times

As the transition team continues to build up the new state government, Governor-elect Ron DeSantis announced his pick to lead the Department of Elder Affairs on Thursday evening.

Richard Prudom previously served as deputy secretary of the department, as well as chief of staff. Before 2011, he worked as the director of financial management and chief of staff to the Department of Corrections.

"Richard Prudom is a proven and dedicated public servant with extensive leadership experience within Florida's government," DeSantis said in a press release.

Prudom is the ninth agency head to be announced by the DeSantis team since he was elected.

DeSantis panelists rejects criminal justice reforms, urge strict prison sentences

[CARL JUSTE/MIAMI HERALD STAFF, SOUTH BAY, FLORIDA ---- Inmates in 2003 take a lunch break during their work shift. Imates manufacture a wide variety of goods, most used to be sold to the State, but now the non-profits are partnering with the private sector, and is seeking partners in order to install more businesses in prisons. 4 OF 10 PHOTOS

During a week that Congress passed historic criminal justice reforms, members of a committee advising Florida’s next governor strongly advised taking the opposite approach on Thursday.

Florida's falling crime rate — down more than 60 percent in the last two decades — is because of the tough-on-crime laws of the 1990s and should not be repealed, sheriffs and officials said.

"Please, as we move forward, do not retract the things that got us this low crime rate,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

Judd called the idea of a broken criminal justice system, which was the talk in Washington this week, a "myth," and the sentiment was echoed by others.

Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey said that being soft on crime will lead to "an immediate escalation of the crime rate."

And Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez agreed: "The correlation between the crime rate and the tougher sentencing is definitely there," he said.

The rhetoric was in sharp contrast to the events in Washington Thursday, where the House of Representatives overwhelming passed, with bipartisan support and the backing of President Donald Trump, sweeping criminal justice reforms that roll back some of the tough-on-crime laws of the 1990s.

The Senate passed the bill on Wednesday, and Trump is now set to sign a bill that will reduce "three strikes" penalties for some drug felonies and gives some federal prisoners a way to finish their sentences early.

But those were the kind of changes that members of the panel advising Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis warned about Thursday, in a room at Florida State University in Tallahassee. The committee will meet a few more times, then issue a list of recommendations to DeSantis, who takes office Jan. 8.

DeSantis, who was endorsed by Trump, has been quiet about his positions on criminal justice issues, and the committee's recommendations could be hugely influential on the former congressman.

If the committee recommends a hardline stance on crime, and DeSantis agrees, it could doom bipartisan efforts in Tallahassee over the past few years to pass criminal justice reforms similar to what passed in Washington this week.

Judd, who met with Trump earlier this year and is president of the Major County Sheriffs of America, lamented Thursday that he wasn't able to change the minds of federal lawmakers.

"I just finished a vicious fight to no avail," he said.

Judd started by talking about why he believes the crime rate has fallen in Florida, like it has nationwide. In the 1970s and 80s "the criminals and felons owned Florida," he said.

But lawmakers in Tallahassee didn't act until criminals started targeting tourists, he said.

Judd recounted that 17 tourists were murdered one year, that Europeans received travel warnings about visiting Florida and how Gov. Lawton Chiles sent police to protect tourists at rest stops. It wasn't until crime became an economic issue that lawmakers in Tallahassee decided to adopt tough minimum mandatory sentences, and the crime rate started to fall, Judd said.


Judd said that legislators have since forgotten that.

"There is no one in government there now that was participating and on the ground … when mandatory minimums took over Florida," he said.

No one refuted the narrative, and the conversation shifted to how to deal with the opioid crisis, crime-fighting technology and terrorism.

But it kept coming back to prisons and jails, and particularly how to treat children who commit crimes.

Former Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton and former Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Brodeur encouraged focusing on children who are a high risk to reoffend, pointing to recent programs that have been successful. (Benton noted that none of the more than 40 members on the panel, none were from the Department of Children and Families.)

But it was countered by people who said that children should be locked up more often, not less.

Former Pasco County Sheriff Bob White said jail time could be "a real deterrent" to prevent kids from committing more crimes.

"We might even stop a school shooting based on what we hear on that jail telephone," he said.

And the parents of two children who were killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre this year had similar suggestions. The shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was disciplined in school but never arrested, despite being visited by police multiple times and having warnings about Cruz sent to the FBI.

Max Schachter, whose son, Alex, died in the shooting, said he hopes the committee will recommend undoing disciplinary guidance policies, like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission report will do.

"I think we can all agree if we don’t give these children consequences, we’ll be giving them a much bigger problem when they grow up," Schachter said. "Our leniency policies and the culture to not arrest in our schools ... is leading to a very, very bad situation as we saw here."

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was killed, said for some kids, it would be good to "introduce them to the judicial system at an early age."

"They put these diversionary programs to prevent the school to prison pipeline," Pollack said, "but at the end of the day, they ended up creating the school to prison pipeline."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd is president of the National Sheriffs Association. He is president of the Major County Sheriffs of America.

December 20, 2018

Amendment 4 could invalidate rights restoration lawsuit


A longstanding legal fight about Florida's clemency process could be wrapping up soon.

Attorneys filed a brief Wednesday explaining how the Nov. 6 passage of Amendment 4, which requires the state to restore the voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences, will likely nullify the federal lawsuit. 

The lawsuit, initially filed in March 2017, claims Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet made it harder than necessary for felons to get their rights restored. 

“There is no longer any live controversy as to claims … attacking the arbitrariness of Florida’s soon-to-be-former restoration scheme,” the brief said.  “Other federal constitutional issues may later develop depending on how the courts interpret Amendment 4 and how Florida officials implement it, but those are not raised by the claims in this appeal.”

For the past seven years, felons have had to wait five years after completing their sentence to even apply to have their voting rights restored. Felons must then appeal to the state clemency board for a hearing, which only happens four times a year. The current process can take more than 10 years to complete and because of the restrictive laws, Florida barred more former felons than any other state.

The current process came out of a vote in 2011, which took down a system of voting rights restoration brought about by Charlie Christ, Scott's predecessor.

The movement to reform the state’s notoriously strict restoration process was championed by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a bipartisan group led by convicted felons. The group collected more than 800,000 signatures to qualify Amendment 4 for the 2018 ballot.

Approval of the amendment ends Florida’s outlier status as the state with the most people permanently barred from voting — only two other states ban felons from the polls for life.

About 1.5 million Floridians have been permanently disenfranchised because of felony convictions.

While Amendment 4's language was written in a way that advocates say is self-implementing, it's still unclear whether the Legislature should do anything.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton told reporters that he has turned the question over to Sen. Dennis Baxley, a conservative Republican from Ocala who leads the Senate's committee on ethics and elections.

Galvano also said he's tasked his criminal justice committee chair with considering whether the Legislature needs to take action.

"It may be there is nothing we need to do, and it just moves forward," Galvano told the Herald/Times last week. 

Baxley, whose elections committee is likely to consider an Amendment 4-related bill, also said he doesn't know whether any legislation would be necessary, adding that if it is, it shouldn't hold back any felons from registering to vote.

In an interview with the Palm Beach Post, Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis said he expects lawmakers to implement the law in a bill that he could then sign. 

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

December 19, 2018

DeSantis' education committee talks challenges of K-12 spending campaign promise, teacher pay

Bus1 fleet lnew cmg (1)

Governor-elect Ron DeSantis' transition committee on education met Wednesday to discuss how the state could begin to implement his campaign proposal that 80 percent of all education funding be directed "into the classroom." The short answer: it's not going to be simple.

Many committee members said the first step is to define what "classroom spending" would actually include.

"While we've made great progress in the state and much of our intent has been very noble, we've missed the mark oftentimes in the execution phase in how we define, and I'm using air quotes, 'instruction' and 'classroom' ... to make sure we don’t devalue things like school security, the arts, etc.," said Desmond Blackburn, the CEO of a national nonprofit called New Teacher Center and a former Brevard County superintendent.

"It seems to me we could have much more productive conversation about ...  how to improve instructional efforts in our schools if we had a more uniform way of evaluating the way that money is being spent," added Rick Stevens, managing director of the Florida Citizens Alliance, an educational advocacy group.

READ MORE: Ron DeSantis says Florida public schools are wasting money. Are they?

Andy Tuck, who is the vice chairman of the State Board of Education and hails from Highlands County in Central Florida, suggested that rural counties could combine administrative resources to eliminate the need for some positions, since the total student population of six rural districts might equal one urban district anyway.

"We've got to have bus drivers, food service people — I'm not saying we're totally top heavy — but there are some thing we could look at privatizing to save some money or cooperating to achieve that number," Tuck said.

He said he was "thrilled" with DeSantis' proposal of 80 percent of expenditures going to the classroom, "but that being said ... it's going to be a pretty tough goal to meet."

The 44-member committee, which met by phone and was open to the public via a dial-in number, also discussed the issue of teacher pay, and how it can be changed to mitigate Florida's teacher shortage.

Many on the committee were on board with the current system of performance-based bonuses for teachers, though several members wrangled with the many different factors that should be included in measuring how effective a teacher truly is. Others said teachers should be rewarded with more professional development, like getting help to go back to school and earn a master's degree.

"With the VAM scores (model for teacher evaluations), you’ll see across the board that some teachers that think it's unfair and doesn't work and others who think it's critical to assessing them fairly but I think it's worth looking at again," said Connie Milito, a lobbyist for Hillsborough County Public Schools.

She also said Florida should reconsider returning to national board certification as an incentive. The state used to subsidize teachers' applications to the national board as well as give them bonuses for having that certification, but that was eliminated in recent years.

But a few members also advocated for a general rise in the base pay, saying it was crucial to keeping Florida competitive with other states — perhaps a signal that the familiar debate over teacher bonuses vs. raises may continue this year.

"We just have to figure out a way so the masses of educators feel they start every day out with fair and appropriate compensation before we figure out what a bonus structure looks like linked to performance," Blackburn said.

The final issue of the meeting was the revelations earlier this year that the University of Central Florida misused state funds that were supposed to be spent on operating expenses, instead directing them to constructing a new $38 million building.

"It's imperative we look at what UCF did ... to make sure they rectify it, obviously it is an embarrassment that it did happen but he need to move forward without affecting students or the educational experience at UCF," said state Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs.

There is an ongoing review of university spending on construction, according to staff on the call.

DeSantis hires lawyer with major role in Obamacare suit to counsel administration

The U.S. Supreme Court | Ricky Carioti, Washington Post

Governor-elect Ron DeSantis' transition team announced their latest hire to the new administration on Wednesday: Joe Jacquot, a former Florida chief deputy attorney general, who will be working as chief legal advisor to the office of the general counsel. That means he'll be providing DeSantis and the cabinet with legal advice and likely representing him if DeSantis is sued in his official capacity.

Jacquot played a major role in Florida's first suit (along with 25 other states) against the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare," and is listed high-up as a special counsel to Attorney General Pam Bondi on legal documents from 2011.

According to a 2012 story by the New York Times, Jacquot helped then-state Attorney General Bill McCollum complete the crucial, early research in 2011 to initiate the lawsuit — deciding that it would be based on a challenge to the individual mandate, and that it should be filed through the Federal District Court in Pensacola. That suit was eventually heard by the the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012, which upheld Obamacare for the time being.

Just Friday, a federal judge in Texas struck down the entire Affordable Care Act, saying the law's mandate requiring people to buy health insurance is unconstitutional. That was a different lawsuit, filed by 20 states earlier this year.

During his career, Jacquot has also served as the Deputy Chief Counsel of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, including managing two Supreme Court confirmations, according to the transition team's announcement.

RELATEDObamacare critics Rubio, DeSantis and Scott mum on what can replace imperiled health care law

Times Tallahassee bureau reporter Lawrence Mower contributed.

CFO warns insurance companies not to drag feet on hurricane claims

Hurricane_Michael_Damage_MJO_46 (1)

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and David Altmaier, commissioner for the state's Office of Insurance Regulation, warned insurers not to slow-walk claims made in the wake of Hurricane Michael. 

A written notice, sent to insurers Wednesday afternoon, reminded companies that they must pay undisputed benefits owed under property insurance policies within 90 days after a claim is made.

The hurricane, which slammed into Florida's Panhandle in early October, caused about $4.5 billion in insured losses and generated more than 133,000 claims. According to the state, more than 42,000 of those claims remain open.

“I expect insurers will keep their promise and obligation to Floridians and pay undisputed claims quickly," said Patronis, who is from Panama City. "Insurance companies must do everything possible to ensure those impacted by Hurricane Michael are made whole. If they don’t fulfill these expectations, Florida insurance consumers will be more vulnerable to fraud.”

In the notice, the two offices remind insurers that in order to make claim or customer service resources available, they may need to set up mobile offices in the Panhandle and go on calls to policyholders. The goal is not only to follow Florida statue, the offices wrote, but to "restore a sense of normalcy and facilitate restoration and recovery." 

“Hurricane Michael caused catastrophic damage, rendered thousands of our citizens homeless, and destroyed critical infrastructure," said Altmaier. "Countless first responders, crews, officials and volunteers continue to work around the clock to support and rebuild communities that have been forever changed — we expect nothing less from insurance companies.”


Sen. Marco Rubio, on Senate floor, calls for pardons of the Groveland Four

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in January. He called President Donald Trump's absence from the Summit of the Americas on Friday understandable but a nonetheless disappointing example of how Latin America often takes a backseat to more pressing national security challenges. [Associated Press]

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio took to the Senate floor on Tuesday to urge Florida's new governor and Cabinet to pardon the Groveland Four, calling their plight "a horrifying injustice."

"This is what I come here to the Senate today, to urge the new Florida Cabinet to do as soon as possible after they take office next month," Rubio said. "Because after 70 years, it is time for Florida to do the right thing for the Groveland Four."

Rubio chose to give his speech just before a Tuesday night vote in the Senate overhauling the criminal justice system. Rubio was one of just 12 senators who voted against the reforms.

"While there is nothing we can do to give Mr. Thomas or Mr. Shepherd back their lives, there's nothing we can do to give Mr. Irvin or Mr. Greenlee back the years they spent in jail for a crime they did not commit, we can give these men back their good name," Rubio said.

The speech was also an uncomfortable welcome for Gov. Rick Scott, who will become Rubio's counterpart in the Senate next month.

Scott has chosen not to speed up the pardon process for the Groveland Four, despite an extraordinary request by the Legislature last year asking him to do just that.

None of the other three Cabinet members — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — have tried to speed up the pardon process, either.

With Scott, Bondi and Putnam set to leave office next month, calls have grown for the Cabinet members to make good on the pardons.

Incoming Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the first Democrat to win a seat on the Cabinet in 12 years, has already vowed to speed up the process at the first Cabinet meeting.

Rubio used the roughly five-minute speech to summarize why the case of the Groveland Four was so horrifying. Wrongly accused of raping a white woman, the four were either murdered, tortured or wrongly imprisoned at the hands of a Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall.

"What we can do now, as a state in Florida, is seek the forgiveness of their families and of them for the grave injustice that was committed against them," Rubio said.

You can watch Rubio's remarks here: