Jim Rosica - SaintPetersBlog

Jim Rosica

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.
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Rick Scott orders flags at half-staff for Central Florida officers

Gov. Rick Scott has ordered flags at half-staff to honor two first responders killed in Central Florida.

The governor issued the directive Thursday.

“My wife Ann and I join Floridians across the state in praying for these officers and their families during this unimaginable time,” he said. “We ask that God provide them with much needed healing, comfort and hope.”

The U.S. and Florida flags will be flown at half-staff at the County Courthouse in Orange County, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Orlando, and at Orlando City Hall from sunrise to sunset this Friday and Saturday.

Authorities said Master Sergeant Debra Clayton of the Orlando Police Department died Monday in a shootout with Markeith Loyd, who is wanted on a murder charge related to the death of his pregnant girlfriend in December.

An Orange County sheriff’s deputy, Norman Lewis, later died from a car crash while he was traveling to the scene on a motorcycle.

“Any act of violence against our heroes is cowardly and shameful and our state will not stand for it,” Scott said. “I know the entire Orlando Police Department, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are working diligently to bring justice and ensure the Orlando community is safe and secure.”

In the past year, “our officers have faced challenges like never before,” he added. “But even after the terrorist attack at Pulse nightclub last summer and the attack at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport last week, our law enforcement officers still wake up each day and choose to put their lives on the line in order to protect our state.”

The deaths of Clayton and Lewis serve “as a sobering reminder of how important it is for each one of us to take every opportunity to thank these heroes for their service and sacrifice,” Scott said.

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Bill Galvano files 112-page gambling bill for 2017

This year’s first big gambling bill has something for everyone: Lottery ticket sales at gas pumps, fantasy sports, more slot machines, and a provision to finally OK the long-delayed gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

As he promised, state Sen. Bill Galvano filed this year’s bill (SB 8) on Thursday afternoon, coming in at 112 pages – with a 16-page summary separately provided.

One notable highlight: It would expand blackjack from just the state’s Seminole casinos to South Florida’s pari-mutuels, including Pompano Park.

Coincidentally, the legislation came the same day that Atlantic City’s casinos posted “their first revenue increase in a decade,” according to The Associated Press, helped largely by internet gambling. New Jersey casinos “won $2.6 billion from gamblers in 2016, an increase of 1.5 percent from a year earlier.”

No Casinos, the state’s anti-gambling expansion organization, tweeted its opposition Thursday night.

“This bill massively expands gambling throughout Florida by legalizing new forms of gambling at tribal facilities, and legalizing slot machines outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties, allowing for two new casinos in South Florida and expanding blackjack,” the group said. “…We will vigorously oppose this bill and urge legislators to stop Florida from becoming the next Atlantic City.”

Galvano, a Bradenton Republican expected to be Senate President in 2018-20, called his bill “an important step in the development of a comprehensive, statewide approach to reforming current gaming laws.”

“This legislation in large part builds upon Senate work that has taken place over the last several years,” he said in a statement.

“My goal has been to address all aspects of gaming in a comprehensive manner that balances the interests of an industry that has contributed to Florida’s economy for nearly a hundred years, our ongoing revenue-sharing agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and the authority of local voters, while maximizing revenues to the state.”

To avoid complaints that the measure represents an expansion of gambling, Galvano – an attorney – included provisions to pare down the number of state gambling licenses, for instance.

The changes to gambling law “represent a myriad of ideas advocated by various Senators and address industry concerns regarding antiquated and ambiguous provisions of current law,” he added. “The bill balances the will of the voters who have authorized additional games and locations with a retraction of gaming permits across the state.”

State Rep. Mike La Rosa, the St. Cloud Republican who chairs the House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee, earlier Thursday had told reporters he hadn’t seen Galvano’s bill.

But he hoped “it would be the best deal for the citizens of the state of Florida, and we’ll see what happens,” La Rosa said.

In an email, spokesman Gary Bitner said “the Seminole Tribe prefers to carefully review the bill before commenting.” Expanded gambling is a condition for the tribe to stop sharing revenue from its casinos.

Galvano admitted “further negotiations to reach a new agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida are necessary … While this legislation represents an important step, there is still a great deal of work to be done.”

A great deal of work is already in the bill, however. In order, the bill would:

Allow lottery tickets at “point-of sale” terminals – This could include customers could buying lottery tickets at the gas pump, an idea proposed before.

Critics had worried about minors, lower-income Floridians and compulsive gamblers having easier access to tickets. Galvano’s measure restricts sales to minors and wouldn’t allow games to use “slot machine or casino game themes.”

Approve a new Seminole Compact – Gov. Rick Scott and tribal representatives agreed on a new deal for continued rights to blackjack in exchange for $3 billion over seven years. But that agreement couldn’t get to either floor for a vote last Legislative Session.

This year’s bill would ratify the new agreement – with conditions. The tribe must agree that all ongoing legal actions over the agreement will be dropped, and accept “revised exceptions from exclusivity” on slot machines and certain card games now being offered at pari-mutuel facilities with card rooms.

But the tribe would get craps, roulette, and could offer blackjack at all its casinos in the state.

Make clear that fantasy sports play is legal in Florida – The bill would “find that fantasy contests … involve the skill of contest participants,” and thus aren’t games of chance, i.e. gambling.

It sets up an “Office of Amusements” to regulate fantasy contests in the state, similar to Senate President Joe Negron‘s measure last year.

That means sites like DraftKings and FanDuel, now seeking federal approval of a merger, would have to have a state license and contract for independent audits.

Provide for ‘decoupling’ at horse and dog tracks – Under the bill, the state would no longer require dog and horse tracks to run live races if they wish to offer other gambling, such as slots or cards. The move is known as decoupling.

Pari-mutuels say they want decoupling because the audience for dog and horse races – and thus the money bet on them – continues to decline. But horse and dog interests say it will kill their industry.

The bill “would change Brand Florida to Brand Mississippi, would cost over 3,000 Florida families their small businesses and put over 8,000 beautiful greyhounds at risk,” said Jack Cory, spokesman for the Florida Greyhound Association.

Establish a pari-mutuel permit reduction program – It would authorize the state to buy back “and cancel active pari-mutuel permits.” The money would come out of the revenue share payments from the Seminoles, up to $20 million.

A pre-condition of a sale could be something “most likely to reduce gaming in Florida.”

Expand the availability of slot machines – The legislation amends the definition of “eligible facility” so that “any licensed pari-mutuel facility” could get slots.

But the tracks must be in a county where voters OK’d slots by referendum, such as Brevard, Duval and Palm Beach, and have “conducted a full schedule of live racing for two consecutive years.”

The bill could also allow for one extra slot machine license each in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Expands blackjack beyond Seminole casinos – It OKs blackjack in South Florida pari-mutuels, but at no more than 25 tables per facility.

Wagers may not exceed $100 for each initial two card wager,” the summary says. “Each pari-mutuel permitholder offering banked blackjack must pay a tax to the state of 25 percent of the blackjack operator’s monthly gross receipts.”

Among other provisions, the legislation reduces the state slot machine tax from 35 percent to 25 percent, would allow slots and cards to be played 24 hours a day, and let “all cardroom operators … offer designated player games.”

In banked card games, players bet against the “house,” or the casino, and not each other. In traditional poker, people play against each other for a pot of money. Designated-player games are a hybrid, where the bank is supposed to revolve among the players.

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Citrus crop production trending down again slightly

The latest estimates show “a slight decrease” in Florida orange production to 71 million boxes for the 2016-17 season, according to the Florida Department of Citrus.

The department on Thursday shared the results of the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast, the first in 2017.

The state’s citrus industry has been hurt by the citrus greening epidemic. The so-far incurable disease is attacking fruit, causing it to turn green and bitter, and eventually killing the tree.

Florida’s famous oranges are most at risk.

“Despite the decrease, (the) crop size projection remains above the 70 million boxes the USDA initially estimated in October,” its press release says. “The report also projects a slight decrease in the state’s grapefruit production to 9 million boxes.”

Shannon Shepp, the department’s executive director, attributed the changes to “the slight fluctuations this industry is accustomed to historically in a season.”

“We see this as a positive sign that we are gaining ground on (citrus greening) and getting closer to a stabilized industry,” Shepp said in a statement. “We continue to see growers invest in the future of Florida Citrus by putting new trees in the ground.”

The FDOC, funded in part by taxes paid by the state’s citrus growers, “serves as the chief marketing and promotion arm for the industry,” it says.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam was more guarded about the updated forecast.

“Because of citrus greening, production of our state’s signature crop is down 70 percent from 20 years ago,” he said in a statement. “The future of Florida citrus, and the tens of thousands of jobs it supports, depends on a long-term solution in the fight against greening.

“Our brightest minds are working to find a solution, but until then, we must support our growers and provide them every tool available to combat this devastating disease.”

Putnam has asked the federal government to consider approving antimicrobial treatments to fight greening, which is caused by a  jumping plant louse and the bacteria it hosts.

The tiny bugs feed on citrus leaves and infect the trees with the bacteria as they go. Researchers have been looking into ways to cure the disease or to grow a strain of citrus resistant to the bacteria.

Putnam “has requested more than $17 million in state funding to continue critical research and support Florida’s citrus industry,” his office said.

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Florida Chamber head still bullish on incentives (with an explanation)

The head of the Florida Chamber of Commerce Thursday defended the state’s handout of economic incentives, but said they were only ever meant to stoke job creation in a targeted way.

“In very, very limited cases, incentives are in play,” said Mark Wilson, the organization’s president and CEO. “We shouldn’t be using incentives for every job we create. In fact, they should rarely be used.”

Wilson and others, including dozens of former and current lawmakers, spoke at a press conference in the Capitol.

The organization rolled out its 2017 Competitiveness Agenda, “a blueprint of legislative priorities built on jobs, growth and opportunity for Florida families and small businesses.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Americans for Prosperity-Florida, a free market advocacy organization, have inveighed against them as “corporate welfare.”

In questions and answers after the press conference, Wilson explained incentives are best used for targeted industries, such as advanced manufacturing and life sciences.

“When we can compete for those kinds of high-skill, high-wage jobs … in those very limited cases, incentives make sense,” he said. “Incentives and marketing dollars are incredibly important and when they’re used, they’re the difference maker.”

Corcoran has said, however, he expects requests for taxpayer-financed economic incentives to move through his chamber despite his personal objections to them.

This year, Gov. Rick Scott is requesting $85 million in incentives for a broad range of business deals to attract businesses to Florida.

The governor had last year proposed a “Florida Enterprise Fund” of $250 million for business incentives, a proposal that didn’t get funded in the 2016-17 state budget.

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Lawmakers get ready for Seminole Compact, gambling debate

The chair of the House’s gambling policy panel Thursday made clear what the elephant in the committee room would be this legislative session.

“Everything we do is connected to this gaming compact,” said state Rep. Mike La Rosa, referring to the pending renewal of an agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. 

Indeed, the Legislature’s real work on gambling won’t start till the Senate files its gambling legislation for 2017, expected later today (Thursday).

La Rosa, a St. Cloud Republican, and Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee members heard from legislative economist Amy Baker and Department of Business and Professional Regulation Deputy Secretary Jonathan Zachem, the state’s top gambling regulator, and Jason Maine, its general counsel.

Maine mentioned that the state’s deadline to appeal a federal court ruling on Indian gambling is next week, but didn’t say what the state would do. 

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in November that the tribe can continue to offer blackjack and other “banked card games” to its Hard Rock Casino customers in the state.

Hinkle had said the state had broken an exclusivity deal with the tribe, part of what’s called the 2010 Seminole Compact, allowing it to keep its blackjack tables until 2030 even though the blackjack provision expired in 2015.

Also in the mix is a Supreme Court case over whether a Gadsden County race track can offer slot machines because voters previously approved them there.

If the court rules in Gretna Racing’s favor, it could open the door for slots to be added in other counties where voters OK’d a local slots referendum.

But if slots are expanded, it would allow the Seminoles to reduce the gambling revenue they’re required to share with the state.

State Rep. Tom Goodson, a Rockledge Republican, asked Zachem whether the state’s tax on slots might make up any lost revenue from the tribe. Zachem answered – essentially – that he didn’t know.

“It’s not a clear-cut, thumbs up or thumbs down,” he said.

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Dan Raulerson

Case dismissed: Dan Raulerson to remain in House

A Tallahassee judge has tossed out a lawsuit over the use of “Wite Out” on state Rep. Dan Raulerson‘s re-election filing paperwork.

In an order issued Wednesday, Circuit Judge Charles W. Dodson dropped the case brought by Jose N. Vazquez Figueroa, the Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Raulerson last year for the House District 58 seat.

Dodson ruled he did not have jurisdiction to decide the matter and threw out the suit “with prejudice,” meaning Vazquez can’t refile it.

Raulerson’s lawyer, Emmett Mitchell, had argued in a Tuesday court hearing that the judge couldn’t decide the case because the House of Representatives is the sole judge of its membership under the state constitution.

Dodson dismissed the case against Raulerson, a Plant City Republican, as well as the other defendants: Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer; Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the state’s chief elections officer; and Kristi Reid Bronson, records bureau chief for the Division of Elections.

Vazquez had faulted them for allowing Raulerson to run in the first place. He said Raulerson never should have qualified because his notary had incorrectly used “correction fluid” on his filing paperwork.

The state’s notary manual says no correction fluid of any kind is allowed on notarized documents.

Vazquez had argued the notary “improperly completed” Raulerson’s paperwork by whiting out the date on her notarization of his financial disclosure, changing it from an April to a June date.

In a brief phone interview Wednesday night, Vazquez – who had represented himself – said he will appeal the decision and is considering filing a separate election fraud case against the notary.

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Legislation covering Uber, Lyft filed for 2017

Online car services such as Uber and Lyft got a preliminary win in Florida after favorable legislation was filed Wednesday in the Legislature.

The bills (SB 340 and HB 221), which would apply to ridebooking companies like Uber and Lyft, combine parts of previous measures that have been introduced but not passed over the last few years.

Still, “transportation network companies,” or TNCs, pretty much got what they wanted, including a provision for driver background checks that don’t require fingerprints, which are more expensive for the companies.

Senate sponsor Jeff Brandes, however, says the checks provided for in the bills are still rigorous and comprehensive. He and state Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Pinellas County Republican who filed the House bill, spoke with reporters Wednesday.

Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who advocates for ridebooking and other “disruptive technologies,” mentioned running potential drivers through a national sex offender database and searching their driving history records.

Importantly, the bills also prohibit local governments from trying to regulate TNCs, another bugaboo of the companies.

Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Harrison called the bills “fair and comprehensive.”

The legislation “establishes common-sense guidelines throughout the state, and allows people in Florida to continue benefitting from Lyft’s affordable, reliable rides,” said Harrison, Lyft’s senior policy communications manager.

“More than two-thirds of states across the country have embraced modern transportation options like Lyft and we are hopeful Florida will soon join them in creating a framework that benefits drivers and passengers,” she added.

Such legislation has been opposed by taxicab and limo interests, and the head of the Florida Taxicab Association called this year’s bills “another attempt by Uber to have legislation written to codify their exact business practice.”

“The goal for policymakers should be what is in the best interest of the public, including drivers, passengers and third parties,” said Roger Chapin, also the executive vice president of Mears Transportation, Central Florida’s largest taxi and hired-car provider.

“A good start,” he added, “would be an appropriate level of insurance for any and all ‘for hire’ drivers that covers the additional risk associated with the more intensive use of the vehicle,” such as “24/7 commercial insurance.”

But the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America came out in support of the bills.

“Many drivers believe their personal auto insurance policy will cover them; this is almost never the case, as the majority of personal auto insurance policies exclude coverage when a vehicle is being used for hire,” association spokeswoman Logan McFaddin said.

“This legislative solution helps to ensure there are safe transportation options that protect drivers, passengers and the public.”

Among other things, the bills require the companies to insure drivers for at least $1 million when they’re giving a ride.

While drivers are on duty but waiting for a ride, they must insure them for death and bodily injury of $50,000 per person, $100,000 for death and bodily injury per incident, and $25,000 for property damage.

Chris Hudson, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Florida, a free market advocacy group, also came out in favor of the bills. He said TNCs “offer economic benefits to the economy by stirring market activity through new good paying jobs consistent with the American Dream.”

Lawmakers “need to strip away the red tape that is crushing innovation and opportunity for Floridians to thrive,” he added. “We will hold elected officials accountable that stand against common sense reforms to expand available services to entrepreneurs and consumers.”

Colin Tooze, an Uber representative, called the legislation “sound and consistent with the emerging national consensus” on regulating ridebooking.

“The bills have very robust safety, insurance, and consumer protection standards,” said Tooze, Uber’s public affairs director. “That’s what our drivers and riders are looking for.”

He also said the pre-emption language, reserving TNC regulation to the state, also was important to save drivers and riders from a “patchwork of regulations that’s very confusing.”

“We think people ought to have certainty and uniformity so that wherever in Florida you are, you can count on a good experience,” Tooze said.

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card games

Senate to set marathon 4-hour hearing on gambling bill

The Senate’s gambling legislation for 2017 will be filed Thursday, according to state Sen. Bill Galvano.

Bet on a lot of talk about it: The Regulated Industries Committee has set aside four hours to discuss it at its next meeting.

A tentative schedule posted Wednesday on the Senate’s website shows its Jan. 25 meeting beginning at 2 p.m. and ending at 6 p.m. The committee oversees gambling policy.

Committee chair Travis Hutson, said his members will begin going over the bill being handled by Galvano, one of the lawmakers who helped draft the 2010 Seminole Compact,

The Miami Herald reported late Monday that lawmakers were close to a deal to get approval of a new agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida granting them continued exclusivity to offer blackjack and “banked card games.”

Part of that deal involved “allow(ing) owners of declining pari-mutuels to sell their permits to others who want to install slot machines at newer facilities outside of South Florida,” the paper reported.

Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, has been working on legislation with state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami-Dade Republican and the House’s point man on gambling.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has said “we’re a very conservative chamber, and if something is going to pass … it’s going to have to be a reduction in gambling.”

The deal satisfies that condition, the Herald reported, because it “lead(s) to a net reduction of live, active (dog and horse track) permits throughout the state.”

But gambling opponents are skeptical, saying any new slots outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties would be unconstitutional.

Voters statewide approved an 2004 amendment to the state constitution legalizing slots at existing jai-alai frontons and horse and dog racetracks, but only in South Florida.

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Greg Steube files fireworks legalization bill

Sis-boom-bah: state Sen. Greg Steube has filed legislation to legalize consumer fireworks in Florida.

Steube, the Sarasota Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, filed his bill (SB 324) Tuesday.

The legislation appears to be identical to a bill (HB 4005) filed for the 2014 Legislative Session by then-state Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican. That bill died in committee, records show.

Similar to Gaetz’s effort, Steube’s bill would repeal the prohibition on selling fireworks to the general public.

It also would remove requirements for testing and approval of sparklers and relieve those who make and sell sparklers from having to register with the state.

Although you can buy fireworks in the state, they’re not actually legal here. 

Retail sales are allowed only because of a 60-year-old loophole in the law, the only known one of its kind in the country. It allows “fireworks … to be used solely and exclusively in frightening birds from agricultural works and fish hatcheries.”

Anyone who has bought fireworks from a roadside tent over the years may remember signing a form acknowledging the buyer falls under an agricultural, fisheries or other exemption.

Fireworks can also be used for “signal purposes or illumination” of a railroad or quarry, “for signal or ceremonial purposes in athletics or sports, or for use by military organizations.”

Enforcement is up to local police and fire agencies, and case law says fireworks vendors aren’t responsible for verifying buyers actually intend to chase off egrets or light up a track meet.

As recently as 2016, only three states have outright bans on consumer fireworks: Delaware, Maine, and New Jersey, according to the American Pyrotechnic Association.

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accounting

Audit uncovers flaws in state’s accounting system

When you try to manage a multi-billion-dollar state budget with three-decade-old software, problems are bound to happen.

An audit has found security flaws in the Department of Financial Services‘ antiquated FLAIR accounting system, according to a report released Friday. (FLAIR stands for “Florida Accounting Information Resource Subsystem.”)

The department is run by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

Among those, “access privileges for some FLAIR and network users did not … restrict users to only those functions necessary for assigned job duties,” it said.

Also, the department’s “procedures and processes for conducting periodic reviews of user access privileges need improvement,” and other “security controls … need improvement to ensure the confidentiality, integrity and availability of Department data and IT resources,” the audit report said.

Atwater spokeswoman Ashley Carr has previously said the department must process nearly $90 billion in payments every year, and FLAIR is no longer meeting that need.

That’s why DFS continues to ask lawmakers for money to replace it with PALM, the Florida “Planning, Accounting and Ledger Management” system.

“Data security is imperative,” Carr said. “As noted within the report itself, we’ve addressed the few recommendations specific to FLAIR that were made, and we look forward to the continued progress of the FLAIR to Florida PALM transition project.”

Though FLAIR “has been repaired time and time again, findings will continue to arise that simply cannot be corrected on this more than 30-year-old system, reiterating the importance of the Florida PALM replacement project,” she added.

“As of May 2016, the Pre-Design, Development, Implementation (Pre-DDI) phase (of PALM) was in progress and expected to be completed in February 2018,” the audit report said.

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