Michael Moline - 2/29 - SaintPetersBlog

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

Watchdogs decry Constitution Revision Commission’s proposed rules

Proposed rules for the Constitution Revision Commission could let members deliberate in secret, limit public participation, bottle up ideas in committee, or bog down debating proposals with little support, government watchdog groups warned Monday.

Sixteen organizations, including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Florida Consumer Action Network, and unions, including Florida AFL-CIO, critiqued the proposed rules in a letter to the commission’s rules committee.

“Transparency and a clear set of ground rules are essential to the credibility of the CRC. As members of the Rules Working Group, you have an opportunity to enhance public confidence in the work of the CRC,” the organizations wrote.

They warned of “the potential for leverage and influence over commission members” and an “unclear track for approval of proposals.”

For example, they said, draft rules appear to allow chairman Carlos Beruff to limit distribution of literature outside commission meetings. Furthermore, committee chairs would decide whether to recognize members of the public to speak during meetings.

“This discretion should be removed and committee chairs should be required to permit the public to he heard on all issues taken up at each committee meeting,” subject to reasonable time limits, the organizations wrote.

“The only reason to exclude members of the pubic should be for public disturbance or disorderly conduct,” they said.

The commission has begun hearing public testimony about proposed revisions without benefit of formal rules. Beruff has promised them by the end of June.

“The letter was received by commissioners and we are reviewing it,” commission spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said.

“The CRC encourages all interested Floridians to attend the Rules Working Group meeting on Wednesday, May 17 in Tampa from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. at Hillsborough Community College’s Dale Mabry Campus. There will be opportunity for public comment before the working group,” Beatrice said.

Rules governing the last commission, which deliberated in 1997-98, placed greater emphasis on openness and transparency, the organizations said.

Another example: “The draft rules limit transparency by changing the requirement that records be ‘open’ to requiring that the commission’s records be ‘accessible.’ What does ‘accessible’ mean? The word ‘open” is the word that is used in the open records laws.”

Furthermore, the draft rules would allow private meetings between members to discuss business, in violation of the spirit of Florida’s open-government laws. Committee meetings could be scheduled to conflict with each other, the organizations said.

The chairman would be empowered to shunt proposals into hostile committees, and limit the full committee’s power to override committees.

The draft rules would remove a 1997-98 requirement that 10 commissioners vote to consider proposals; instead, a single commissioner could move to take up ideas.

“This new rule has the potential to burden the commission with many more proposals than might be otherwise necessary, taking time away from other more widely approved proposals,” the organizations wrote.

The proposed rules ban commissioners from accepting gifts from lobbyists, except for campaign contributions.

“That means legislators and other elected officials might be influenced to vote on issues based on whether their votes will yield campaign contributions,” the organizations said.

Here is the full list of suggestions.

Future Senate leaders’ political committees went quiet during Legislative Session

Innovate Florida, state Sen. Bill Galvano’s political committee, spent a quiet April on the fundraising front while the Legislative Session concluded. It collected exactly $0.

This after amassing $494,200 during the first three months of the year and $6.2 million since 2013, according to state records.

Sen. Wilton Simpson’s Jobs for Florida committee’s fundraising took a breather, too, but spent $45,203 on consultants.

Legislators must cease fundraising during session, but the restriction doesn’t apply to their political committees, a Department of State spokeswoman said.

Galvano, a Republican from Bradenton, is in line to become Senate president following the 2018 elections. Simpson, a Trilby Republican, is next in line.

Galvano’s committee spent $278,256, including an $80,000 contribution to GOP consultant Randy Nielsen’s Free Speech PAC. The committee gave $75,000 to the Citizens First PAC and $50,000 to Taxpayers in Action PAC.

In the past, Galvano’s committee’ contributors have included the Florida Medical Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Power and Light, the Florida Hospital Association and Altria Client Services.

The committee has around $1.2 million cash in hand.

Of Simpson’s committee’s expensese, all but $2,000 went to Tallahassee’s Capitol Finance Consulting. His committee has raised nearly $238,000 thus far this year.

Rick Scott’s Let’s Get to Work committee raised $495,000 during April

Gov. Rick Scott’s Let’s Get to Work political committee raised $485,100 during April, with United Health Group Inc. kicking in the largest single donation of $100,000.

Fundraising was down from March, when the PAC raised nearly $610,000. The committee has raised more than $56.8 million since 2014. Its best month thus far this year was January, when it raised nearly $1.7 million.

The committee collected $50,000 each from Meadowbrook Inc., a communications company; and the Florida Chamber of Commerce PAC.

Contributions of $25,000 came from Anheuser Busch; Intervest Construction Inc. of Daytona Beach; Jacksonville construction contractor Heath McCall; and Mary McCall, a “homemaker.”

The committee spent nearly $136,000, with the largest check, for $74,000, going to fundraising consultant Deborah Aleksander. It paid $5,000 to Tallahassee political consultant Josh Cooper.

Scott is precluded by term limits from running for a third term, but is widely considered to be weighing a run for U.S. Senate next year.

Jeff Atwater sticking around as CFO until state budget is nailed down

Jeff Atwater will remain in office as state chief financial officer until the state budget is completely settled, his office confirmed Wednesday.

Atwater has announced plans to leave Tallahassee to become CFO at Florida Atlantic University upon the conclusion of the Legislative Session. That came last Friday, although the Legislature required another three days to pass an $83 billion state budget.

Atwater’s plans were first reported by Brian Burgess of The Capitolist.

That budget — plus conforming bills spelling out some of the spending — is now in Gov. Rick Scott’s hands. He could veto individual line items or the entire spending plan. That latter option would force the Legislature to return to the Capitol to attempt an override or, theoretically, give the Governor more of what he wants.

As for replacing Atwater, Scott seems in no particular hurry. When asked about the transition, the Governor’s press office issued this statement:

“Gov. Scott thanks CFO Atwater for his hard work and service to the state of Florida. There is not a list of candidates for this position or a deadline.”

The names of a number of replacement candidates have been bruited. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry has taken himself out of contention. But state Sen. Aaron Bean, a Republican from Jacksonville, is interested. Joe Gruters, a GOP House member from Sarasota, has been mentioned.

In fact, at various stages, speculation has settled on a number of sitting and former state legislators.

Former state Sen. Jeremy Ring of Broward County is deciding whether to run for the office next year.

Rick Scott signs SB 10, the Lake Okeechobee restoration plan, into law

Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation Tuesday pledging $800 million in bonds toward Senate President Joe Negron’s signature project — a $1.5 billion plan to restore Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades by building a reservoir south of the lake.

Scott had signaled his intention to sign the legislation earlier in the week, calling Everglades restoration “a top priority.”

SB 10 did not include Scott’s call to invest $200 million in the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding the lake.

Still, the governor said President Donald Trump had pledged federal money to the project and that “Florida cannot miss this opportunity to partner with the Trump Administration for a project that will significantly benefit Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and our environment.”

The project is designed to stop discharges of toxic algae-infused overflow into streams and estuaries to the east and west by storing 78 billion gallons of water in a reservoir to the south, with treatment and ultimate discharge into the Everglades and Florida Bay.

Keep Florida Fishing, the advocacy arm of the American Sportfishing Association, issued a written statement praising the governor’s action.

“With today’s signing of SB 10, Gov. Scott has shown his strong commitment to advancing Everglades restoration,” said Kellie Ralston, Florida fishery policy director for the Association.

“Thank you to Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran for their leadership in preserving and protecting Florida’s natural resources,” said Gary Jennings, director of Keep Florida Fishing. “This will ensure that Florida remains the ‘Fishing Capital of the World’ for generations to come.” 

State appeals court upholds 14.5 percent workers’ comp premium increase

A state appeals court has upheld a 14.5 percent increase in workers’ compensation insurance premiums, rejecting legal arguments that it was approved in violation of Florida’s open-government laws.

“This argument ignores the plain language of the statute and the ordinary meaning of the terms within it,” a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee ruled Tuesday.

“Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s final order, and remand for reinstatement of OIR’s final order issued on Oct. 5, 2016, approving a 14.5 percent increase in the workers’ compensation insurance rates,” the court said.

The ruling followed adjournment of a Legislative Session that failed to address attorney involvement and other factors driving increases in insurance premiums.

Miami workers’ compensation attorney James Fee challenged the increase, which the court allowed to begin taking effect in December pending its ruling on the merits of the case.

A Leon County trial judge agreed with Fee that the Office of Insurance Regulation and ratings agency the National Council on Compensation Insurance, or NCCI, had violated open-government laws by restricting access to internal meetings and documents behind the increase.

“NCCI is pleased with this outcome, as the court validated that our rate filing process is in full compliance with the law,” the Boca Raton company said in a written statement.

Business groups that pressed the Legislature hard to fix problems they attributed largely to Florida Supreme Court rulings striking down limits on cost-drivers including attorney involvement,were unhappy that the high premiums would continue.

“The Florida Legislature missed opportunities to fix Florida’s broken workers’ comp system, and today’s ruling only solidifies the financial impact on job creators and the realization that those higher rates have nothing to do with stronger protections for workers,” Florida Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Edie Ousley said in a written statement.

“After months of pointless litigation, Florida’s small business owners are still paying higher workers compensation rates.  Those that pursued this now discredited litigation are not and never have been the friend of the small business rate payer,” said Bill Herrle, Florida director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Trial lawyers expressed a different flavor of dismay.

“While we respect the court’s decision regarding workers’ compensation premiums, we are extremely disappointed in this result, which will have a substantial negative impact on Florida businesses and the workers they employ,” said Mark Touby, president of Florida Workers’ Advocates.”

“This decision underscores how important it is for the Legislature to stand up to the greedy insurance industry and establish a fair and transparent ratemaking process that fosters competition,” Touby said. “With the next legislative session just eight months away, we look forward to working with the Senate and House to achieve this goal, which is so important to Florida’s economic future.”

The meat of Fee’s case was that the law required open meetings by any “committee” working on a rate case. NCCI and the insurance office argued that the ratings agency no longer had a committee to do that work, relying instead on actuary Jay Rosen — although in consultation with colleagues.

The appeals court, in a unanimous ruling, rejected Fee’s argument entirely.

“The statute applies only to meetings of a rating organization committee where workers’ compensations insurance rates are discussed and determined. A ‘committee’ has been defined as a ‘subordinate group,’ not a single person,” Judge Lori Rowe wrote.

“Moreover, the use of the term ‘meets’ indicates that the statute is designed to apply to a group of people, not a single individual. The multi-person concept of the term ‘committee’ further finds support in well-established precedent construing the Sunshine Law,” she continued.

“Thus, under the plain and ordinary meaning of the terms ‘committee’ and ‘meet,’ Rosen, in his individual capacity, does not act or ‘meet’ as the statutory rate-determination committee contemplated by (the law.)”

Judges Harvey Jay and Susan Kelsey joined the opinion.

NCCI calculates rates for workers’ compensation coverage in Florida. Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Geivers ruled on Nov. 23 that the organization should have opened its deliberations and documentation to the public.

“The trial court concluded that NCCI’s disbanding of its classification and rate committee in 1991 and its delegation of the responsibility for rate proposals to one person was an attempt to evade the sunshine,” Rowe said in a footnote.

“But the application of the Sunshine Law does not depend on a party’s ‘intentions, sincerity of purpose or noble motives.’ Further, it is unclear on this record how the trial court reached the conclusion that NCCI restructured its rate-proposal process in over 40 states to avoid compliance with Florida’s Sunshine Law.”

(Although NCCI operates in many states, it proposes rates for large numbers of insurers in only a few, including Florida.)

The court found no evidence that the insurance office had delegated its rate-approval authority to NCCI in a way that justified coverage by the open-government laws.

“OIR approves and disapproves rate filings; it does not make rate filings. Conversely, NCCI and individual insurers have no authority to approve or disapprove rate filings; rather, they are under a statutory mandate to file such proposals,” the court said.

The court also rejected Fee’s public-records claims.

Jax House member Jay Fant launches campaign for Attorney General

Jacksonville House member Jay Fant announced for state Attorney General Tuesday, promising to fight for the Constitution — especially the First and Second amendments — and against “big government.”

Fant said during a kickoff news conference in the state Capitol that “fighting big government, fighting for the Constitution, and fighting for free enterprise” were what drove him to seek his House seat in 2014.

“My zeal for protecting property and people has not abated. Today, because if this, I am announcing my candidacy for attorney general of the state of Florida,” he said.

“I highlight the First and Second amendments because they are the bellwether for our freedoms. And when you attack those freedoms, you attack America, itself.”

The legislator, little known outside his Jacksonville hometown, planned to travel the state extensively to build name recognition. Following his Tallahassee opener, he scheduled campaign events in Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.

“I will be on the road. I will be in great cities across the state, starting today, through the Panhandle and down south,” Fant said. “This will be a grassroots campaign. This will be a campaign where people know who Jay Fant is because they have met him.”

Fant is a graduate of Washington & Lee University and holds a law degree from the University of Florida. He and wife Lauren have four children, whom they home-school.

Fant was chairman and CEO of First Guaranty Bank & Trust Co. of Jacksonville when it failed in 2012. Now he’s chairman of Caroline Family Office, a financial services company.

The bank failure inspired him to seek office, he said.

“The federal government bailed out big banks and left little, small, community, mainstream banks like mine out in the cold. Our company couldn’t make it. Big government is not about Main Street. And I vowed to never let that happen to anybody else.”

As A.G., Fant would “root out corporate scams that prey on the elderly and vulnerable.”

“There are bad guys out there, but I will find them,” he said.

He praised Florida Supreme Court justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston as non-activist jurists. C. Alan Lawson, elevated by Gov. Rick Scott to the state high court, and Eric Eisnaugle, a House member named this week as Lawson’s replacement on the 5th DCA, also meet that test, Fant said.

“The way to fight judicial activism is to appoint good judges,” he said. “So a note to all the rogue judges and rogue agencies who promulgate rules and make rulings outside the bounds of the separation of powers — your future attorney general will have a cadre of lawyers watching you. I am running because I believe so strongly in defending our constitutional rights and protecting Floridians from the excesses of the federal government. But that can only happen if we make sure government is on the side of the people.

“We will fight to keep our business climate free and fair so entrepreneurs can pursue their dreams and create jobs. We will stand by our law enforcement community that works so hard to keep us safe.”

He promised to follow through with sitting Attorney General Pam Bondi’s programs.

“I will continue Attorney General Bondi’s fight against prescription drug abuse, human trafficking, and predators who target seniors and children. I will keep pushing back against the federal overreach that chokes our small businesses,” Fant said. “And the most vulnerable members of our society can count on me.”

Asked about Bondi’s decision not to pursue her political ally Donald Trump over alleged fraud at Trump University, Fant declined to second-guess the incumbent.

“Whether that rose to the level of warranting their investigation in that office, I’m not privy to those discussions, and I’ll have to honor her decision on that.”

He praised Bondi’s legal challenges to Obama administration programs.

“As attorney general, I’ll defend our states’ rights every step of the way,” he said.

Jack Latvala gets into it with Jeff Brandes over economics incentives bill

The Senate sent the VISIT Florida and Enterprise Florida budget cuts to the Governor Monday on a 29-8 vote, but not before Sen. Jack Latvala, who has supported Gov. Rick Scott on economic incentives, took the opportunity to nitpick.

The House approved the measure earlier in the day.

Latvala started with HB 5501’s formal name: Displaced Homemakers. Among its many provisions, the bill would fold a jobs program for them into standard programs within the Department of Economic Opportunity.

“You know we have a single-subject rule in the Constitution. Could you explain the nexus between displaced homemakers and Visit Florida?” Latvala demanded.

“It’s a good question,” conceded Sen. Jeff Brandes, who presented the bill.

“You’re darned right it’s a good question,” Latvala said.

Brandes: “I’m not here to argue titles with you. I didn’t select the title for this.”

Latvala: “But it’s still titled that.”

Brandes: “That’s correct.”

Latvala: “What do you think the possibility that would have made it into conference … if it had been titled Visit Florida or Enterprise Florida?

Brandes: “Sen. Latvala, I’m not here to have that debate with you. I’m here to present HB 5501 — which we brought up, we stripped everything out of, we put into conference, and that conference committee decided to place these provisions before this body.”

Latvala: “But you cannot make a nexus between displaced homemakers and Visit Florida. You can’t even try.”

Brandes: “Oh, I can try. But I’m not here to make a rational nexus, nor am I here to argue that point.”

Later, Latvala noted that the bill doesn’t allow anyone at Enterprise Florida or Visit Florida to earn more than the salary and benefits paid to the governor.

“It doesn’t say ‘authorized,’ it says ‘paid.’ In the situation where we now have a governor who has not taken a salary, how are we going to determine the compensation for the chief executive of Visit Florida?” Latvala asked.

“Well, they would be the benefits and salary paid to the governor,” Brandes said.

“I don’t know all of his benefits, and I don’t know all of his salary situation. But, evidently, the conference committee believed that was the appropriate dollar amount to use,” he said.

Education bill, key to budget deal, clears the Senate by two votes

Only one of the budget conforming bills debated in the Senate Monday drew a point of order — SB 7069, to implement the House’s ideas about charter schools and teacher bonuses.

It didn’t stop the bill from passing, on a vote of 20-18.

House and Senate negotiators have paired the bill with separate legislation carrying the Senate’s higher education agenda.

Sen. Gary Farmer raised the point of order, arguing that the education compromise violated multiple Senate rules. For example, he argued, it contained non-germane amendments; was considered in conference absent a roll call or quorum; and that the language wasn’t settled until hours following the conference committee.

Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benaquisto ruled against Farmer on all grounds, saying conference reports deserve more latitude than ordinary legislation.

“The conference report is a special case because the bill has been through all of its readings in both chambers, and comes to us, not on the part of a single senator, but as a product of a committee appointed to provide a solution to an impasse between the chambers,” she said.

In debate on the merits, Farmer denounced the package as “a piece of junk” and “a monstrosity.”

“The things that are in there and are not in there, combined, will without a doubt hurt our traditional public schools. They will hasten the privatization of public education,” he said.

“We’ve tried privatization in a number of different fields — prisons come to mind. It hasn’t really worked out all that well,” Farmer said.

The deal would provide $140 million for a Schools of Hope program, to lure charter schools to replace failing public schools, and $234 million for the Best and Brightest bonuses for high-achieving teachers and principals.

The Senate would get language requiring state universities to charge students per semester, so they could load up on courses and perhaps graduate sooner. There would be no tuition increases, but there would be increases in aid and scholarships.

In all, the measure changes 20 substantive areas of law.

Senators voiced concern throughout the broader debate Monday about the conference process. In this case, the Senate side saw the final House language around 7 p.m. Thursday, Senate negotiator David Simmons said.

He and staffers pored over it until 12:30 a.m. Friday, before the final conference by House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron.

Sen. Tom Lee wanted to know: Did Simmons doubt the House’s good faith?

“I do not question at all their good faith. As a matter of fact, I applaud their excellent idea. I just think that it’s exceedingly difficult to be able to implement this,” Simmons said.

“There are some good things in this bill. But couldn’t we have hammered out more reasonable solutions that would have been kinder to our public school partners, and maybe not allowed the House to determine this great change in public policy?” Republican Doug Broxon asked.

“Each of us will have to make his or her own decision about this. Even the proponents in the House have acknowledged that there are problems … regarding implementation,” Simmons said.

For example, as many as 25 out of 200 struggling public schools could apply for extra money to run “wrap-around” services intended to help children overcome social problems, but would have two years to show progress. New charter schools would get five years, he said.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo suggested a lot of misinformation is circulating about the bill. “Some of the policy issues you may or may not agree with, but it is not a piece of junk,” she said.

Democrat Lauren Book objected to sharing public school capital investment money and federal Title I money for disadvantaged students with charters.

“Very little of this is new,” Sen. Bill Montford said — rather, it contains a litany of proposals long rejected by the Senate. And charter operators once promised they never would seek capital money, he said.

“There’s a lot of good things in this bill. But there’s a lot of things that will have a detrimental impact on the districts this year,” Montford said.

Area lawmakers, Dozier survivor pitch Pasco forensics lab to Rick Scott

Legislators from Pasco County urged Gov. Rick Scott Monday to approve legislation authorizing construction of a $4.3 million criminal forensics laboratory there that would attack the state’s 16,000-case backlog of unsolved murders.

“This is not about Pasco County. This is about the entire state,” Sen. Wilton Simpson said. The project would “greatly expand law enforcement’s ability as it relates to terrorism and as it relates to cold cases,” he said.

“This project is going to change lives, and it’s going to provide so much closure to those who have been suffering so long without it,” Rep. Danny Burgess said.

Part of the inspiration for the program was the investigation into abuses at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

Erin Kimmerle, whose Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at the University of South Florida helped uncover much of that history, will help run the new center.

The center would be one of seven such facilities in the nation, and would conduct investigations and train law enforcement officers and students. It would be named after Thomas Varnadoe, who died in Dozier at age 13 in 1934.

“What the Dozier example shows is is that time isn’t our greatest challenge — it’s capacity and will,” Kimmerle said.

“Sixteen thousand cases — if you solve 50 of those, that may seem like so little,” said Robert Straley, a Dozier survivor. “But to the families that are going through this … something like this will help immensely.”

Jeff Peake, a major in the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, said the facility would provide research, forensic services and “cutting-edge” training for investigating murders and terrorist attacks.

Beyond that, “this facility will allow answers — long-awaiting answers — for the family members of cold-case victims throughout the state of Florida,” Peake added.

This is probably the biggest thing the Legislature has done for law enforcement in my recollection,” former Pasco Sheriff Bob White said.

“You go to a murder scene, the first people you want to see are your crime scene techs. Well, this facility, Dr. Kimberly and her team, will have the ability to provide premium training — world-wide training — to all of our crime scene techs in the state of Florida,” he said.

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