Jim Rosica - 2/105 - 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.

Supreme Court OKs gambling control, felon voting rights amendments

The state’s highest court on Thursday gave its approval for proposed state constitutional amendments on voter approval of new gambling and restoring voting rights to ex-cons.

But there’s a big ‘if’ before either can be placed on the 2018 statewide ballot—both amendments still need hundreds of thousands of signatures.

Moreover, Justices Ricky Polston and R. Fred Lewis dissented on the gambling amendment, saying “the ballot title and summary do not clearly inform the public that the proposed amendment may substantially affect slot machines approved by county-wide (referendums).”

The Florida Supreme Court does not pass judgment on subject matter, but reviews proposed amendments only to make sure they cover only one subject and that their ballot title and summary aren’t misleading.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has approved the language of this amendment,” said John Sowinski, chair of Voters In Charge, the group behind the “Voter Control of Gambling in Florida” amendment.

“(W)e can move forward with our efforts to ensure that Florida voters – not gambling industry influence and deal making – are the ultimate authority when it comes to deciding whether or not to expand gambling in our state,” he added in a statement.

Voters in Charge wants to “ensure that Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling,” the ballot summary says.

The court, however, has not yet ruled in a case on Gretna Racing, the Gadsden County track seeking to add slot machines. Pari-mutuel interests have said Gretna and other facilities in counties where voters approved slots should be allowed to offer them.

If the court rules in favor, that could result in the single biggest gambling expansion in the state. The case has been pending since last June, when lawyers gave oral argument.

As of Thursday, state records showed the gambling amendment had 74,626 of the 766,200 valid signatures required for ballot placement.

“We will continue to collect the remaining petitions required to achieve ballot placement in 2018,” Sowinski said. “The expansion of gambling in Florida carries with it such significant consequences for our state that any decision to do so should rest with the people of Florida.’’

The “Voting Restoration Amendment,” backed by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, has 71,209 valid signatures. The court approved that amendment unanimously.

It aims to restore “the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation,” its summary says.

“The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis,” it adds.

“Today is a momentous day,” said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and chairman of Floridians for a Fair Democracy. “The Supreme Court’s decision to allow the Voting Restoration Amendment to move forward marks a key milestone on our path to a stronger democracy and a fairer Florida … Those who have paid their debt to society deserve a second chance.”

ACLU of Florida Political Director Kirk Bailey said in a statement his organization was the “language approved today reflects the belief that those who have committed crimes should be punished, but once they have fulfilled the terms of that punishment, they should be restored to full citizenship.’

Florida is one of only three states with a lifetime ban on voting, he added: “This amendment modernizes Florida’s criminal justice rules by bringing our state in line with others nationwide.”

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet ended the automatic restoration of voting and other civil rights to nonviolent felons after their sentences are up, requiring at least a five-year waiting period before ex-convicts can apply to get their rights back.

Senate sets tight timeline on Frank Artiles investigation

Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto has appointed the chamber’s top lawyer to investigate a complaint by next Tuesday seeking to remove Sen. Frank Artiles from office.

Senate President Joe Negron announced the move Wednesday in a memo to senators.

Benacquisto “found that the complaint states facts supporting a finding of probable cause,” meaning it’s more likely than not that Artiles violated a Senate rule governing its members’ conduct.

Negron appointed Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts to be a special master, a quasi-judicial officer who hears cases and makes recommendations.

Roberts, a lawyer since 1993, served as a legislative staff director before her appointment as chief attorney to the Senate last year. She also was interim Secretary of State in 2010-11, appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist when Kurt Browning suddenly quit.

Her “report and recommendation to the Committee on Rules (is due) by the close of business on Tuesday, April 25, 2017,” Negron said. 

“All parties involved in this incident are entitled to a fair, impartial and unbiased examination of the facts and a recommendation consistent with the current rules and historical precedent of this body,” he added.

“I encourage all Senators to be respectful of this important process and to refrain from participating in any activities that would jeopardize the impartiality of the ongoing investigation.”

Sen. Perry Thurston on Wednesday filed the complaint to remove Artiles.

The Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County made national news after he accosted Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee. Thurston and Gibson are black.

He also used a variation of the “N-word,” referring to her and to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President.

Senate votes to allow beer ads in theme parks, ‘merlot to go’

Florida senators passed a bill Wednesday that would allow advertising by beer companies in the state’s theme parks.

The measure (SB 388), sponsored by Republican Sen. Travis Hutson of Elkton, received only one ‘no’ vote from Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican.

It eases the state’s “tied house evil” law by allowing ads, which could include a beer company sponsoring a concert or festival within a park. Universal Orlando has supported the bill.

Some beer industry representatives had privately complained. However, they “fear being extorted by the theme parks.”

“We do a lot of business (with them), and we kind of see a situation where they say, ‘We do such-and-such theme night, but now we’d like you to pay for it,’ by sponsoring it,” said one. “(W)e all feel like we’ll be put over a barrel.”

The bill also repeals a state law to permit wine bottles of all sizes to be sold.

That includes the “Nebuchadnezzar,” which hold 15 liters, or the volume of 20 standard wine bottles.

Further, it would repeal another state law that requires diners to order and consume a full meal — “consisting of a salad or vegetable, entree, a beverage, and bread” — before they can take home an opened bottle of wine.

It extends the “merlot to go” legacy of the late Senate President Jim King‘s 2005 measure that first legalized carryout wine.

The bill now heads to the House. Its version (HB 423) still has not been heard by the Commerce Committee, its last panel of reference.

beer glasses

Cheers: House ‘beer glass’ bill clears last committee

Florida bars and restaurants could be gifted with free branded beer glasses under a bill that’s now ready for the House floor.

The legislation (HB 853) was OK’d Wednesday morning with no debate by the Commerce Committee, its last panel of reference, on a largely party-line vote.

It would allow distributors to give to bars and restaurants up to three cases per year of glasses from brewers that are imprinted with beer names and logos. Now, glasses have to be sold.

The measure has stoked controversy, however. Smaller craft brewers have said they can’t afford to keep up with what will likely be a flood of free glasses from Anheuser-Busch InBev, which makes Budweiser and Bud Light.

Eric Criss, president of the Beer Industry of Florida, which represents MillerCoors distributors, told lawmakers he was still concerned of a linkage between beer glasses and which beers would be available.

“It’s going to hurt (smaller) brewers in favor of the largest brewer in the world,” he said, referring to Anheuser-Busch. Its lobbyist had previously referred to the bill as “brewer-agnostic.”

Mitch Rubin, head of the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, which represents Anheuser-Busch distributors, also remained opposed.

He said the idea of “glasses for taps” is still “inextricably bound” even though the bill now says free glasses can’t be used “as an inducement to (a) retailer to purchase or use” specific brands.

The Senate version (SB 1040) has only one more committee to clear before it can be heard on the floor.

House PR machine turns to its version of state budget

The House of Representatives has released a new “explainer” video to explain its proposed 2017-18 state budget.

And—fun!—it’s a cartoon.

“Don’t have time to read hundreds of pages?” it starts. “That’s OK, because we’ve got the Florida House budget in under a few minutes.”

The nearly three-minute video explains that the House, led by Speaker Richard Corcoran, proposes no new taxes and adds another $25,000 on top of the state’s homestead exemption for property tax.

The House also “cuts pork barrel spending,” it says.

The House and Senate, having passed their respective spending plans, soon will go into conference to work out a compromise budget for 2017-18.

There are even suggested messages for members to tweet and create Facebook posts to promote the video.

“While cutting waste, the Florida House budget funds: kid care, schools of hope, Everglades cleanup and more,” reads one sample tweet.

And a suggested Facebook post says, “The Florida House budget slashes earmarks and member projects by hundreds of millions of dollars; all while spending LESS than we did last year. I believe cutting government waste and abuse is essential, and I’m proud to have voted for it. Learn more about how we’re eliminating waste and funding Florida’s priorities by watching this quick video.”

The House also will release a series of graphics that feature “nearly every aspect of the budget,” according to an email.

“The graphics are intended for you to use on social media to highlight whatever aspect of the budget is most important to your constituents.”

—–

Rick Scott pushes ahead for VISIT FLORIDA funding

Gov. Rick Scott went once more unto the breach Tuesday, pressing his case for full funding of the state’s VISIT FLORIDA tourism marketing agency.

The Republican governor—surrounded by VISIT FLORIDA’s CEO Ken Lawson, board chairman William Talbert, and others—spoke with reporters outside his Capitol office.

The GOP-majority House of Representatives, which at first wanted to eliminate the agency, instead reduced its budget to $25 million for next year.

Scott wants $100 million to market the state to visitors, saying every dollar spent brings back $3.20 in tourism-related revenue, including from gasoline and sales taxes.

Scott mentioned that Florida is getting shellacked by ads—”…and they’re nice,” he said—from Utah, Michigan, California, Texas, and Georgia trying to divert tourists.

With Florida getting roughly 113 million tourists last year, “if we want even more tourists, we’re going to have to spend more money,” Scott said. “We have plenty of money in the budget … but the House has really limited our ability to market the state.”

The Senate supported the work of VISIT FLORIDA with about $76 million in its budget. Senators soon will go into conference with the House to work out a compromise budget for 2017-18.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has criticized both VISIT FLORIDA and economic development organization Enterprise Florida as needless dispensers of “corporate welfare.” Though both are public-private partnerships, both take in far more public money than private.

But Scott says they help create jobs, adding that 1.4 million jobs are tied to tourism alone.

Scott has gone around the state, including the home districts of Republican House members who voted against VISIT FLORIDA, to host “roundtables.” There, he has pointedly criticized lawmakers who went against him.

The people have his back, Scott added: They are “just shocked that the House would even think” about cutting money to promote tourism. “…I don’t want to lose any jobs.”

And he has enlisted them to the cause.

“I tell people, ‘look, this is your Legislature,’ ” Scott said. ” ‘You need to reach out to them.’ “

beer

Booze bill ready for vote in Senate

A bill that would allow advertising by beer companies in the state’s theme parks is ready for a final vote in the Senate.

The measure (SB 388), carried by Republican Sen. Travis Hutson of Elkton, was heard on the floor Tuesday and placed on the third reading calendar.

It eases the state’s “tied house evil” law by allowing ads, which could include a beer company sponsoring a concert or festival within a park. Universal Orlando has supported the bill.

Some beer industry representatives had privately complained, however, they “fear being extorted by the theme parks.”

“We do a lot of business (with them), and we kind of see a situation where they say, ‘We do such-and-such theme night but now we’d like you to pay for it,’ by sponsoring it,” said one. “(W)e all feel like we’ll be put over a barrel.”

The bill also repeals a state law to permit wine bottles of all sizes to be sold.

That includes the “Nebuchadnezzar,” which hold 15 liters, or the volume of 20 standard wine bottles.

Further, it would repeal another state law that requires diners to order and consume a full meal — “consisting of a salad or vegetable, entree, a beverage, and bread” — before they can take home an opened bottle of wine.

It continues the legacy of the late Senate President Jim King‘s 2005 measure that first legalized carryout wine.

trauma centers

Bill to remove limit on number of trauma centers moves in House

A bill that would do away with a cap on how many trauma centers can open in Florida cleared its latest committee Monday.

The bill (HB 1077), sponsored by GOP state Rep. Jay Trumbull of Panama City, was OK’d on a 10-5 party-line vote in the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Health Care.

He said the motivation for the bill was to end the flow of litigation against the state’s Department of Health, which now is charged with reviewing the need for new centers and approving them.

Almost every time a new application is filed, the department is hit with some kind of litigation, usually from neighboring hospitals that already operate a trauma center.

Records show 31 cases have been filed since 2014, most at the administrative hearing level, and the state has spent over $900,000 on outside attorneys in the last year and a half.

Trumbull instead wants the American College of Surgeons to certify new centers, even though the group is not mentioned by name in the bill, but is mentioned in the staff analysis.

Those in favor of the measure, including hospitals that want to open new centers, say the growing number of Florida’s residents and visitors justifies the need for more centers.

Opponents, generally those already operating trauma centers, said opening more centers would put a strain on the availability of trauma surgeons and would dilute the pool of patients.

Medical specialists have said they need 500-1,000 patients a year per center to remain profitable and maintain expertise.

For instance, the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, which represents facilities that provide care to a high proportion of low-income patients, opposes the measure.

Mark Delegal, its lobbyist, told committee members the “mere adding of trauma centers is not going to enhance access.”

Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, a St. Johns Republican, mentioned that her son soon will become a physician and brought up concerns over patient volume.

“What we’re saying is, allow the free market to (decide how many) centers open across the state,” Trumbull said. “A trauma center will not pop up on every corner and will not dilute the number of patients coming in.”

In 2004, the Legislature divided the state into trauma service areas, currently 19, and the statewide total of trauma centers is now capped at 44. There were 33 centers, including for pediatric care, as of mid-2016. The legislation also does away with the system of trauma service areas and regions.

Trumbull’s bill still has to clear the Health and Human Services Committee before it can be heard on the House floor. A Senate companion (SB 746) carried by Sen. Travis Hutson has yet to be heard.

Bigger wine bottles could be coming to Florida

Thanks to state Sen. Jeff Brandes, Nebuchadnezzar may come to Florida—the wine bottle size, not the king of ancient Babylon.

Current law generally makes it illegal to sell wine “in an individual container holding more than 1 gallon.” A typical bottle is 750 milliliters, roughly a fifth of a gallon.

Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, last week offered an amendment to a booze-advertising bill (SB 388). The amendment, adopted without objection, repeals the bottle-size law.

It would allow wine bottles of all sizes, including the “Nebuchadnezzar,” which hold 15 liters, or the volume of 20 standard wine bottles.

The bill would even allow the mammoth 50-liter “Sovereign”—the equivalent of a whopping 67 standard wine bottles.

“This bottle is quite probably only produced by Taittinger, who in 1988 created (it) for the baptism of the largest cruise ship in the world, named the ‘Sovereign of the Seas,’ ” according to the BigBottles website.

“This is about individual liberty,” Brandes said in a text message. And 50 liters is a lot of liberty.

His language also would place “the regulation of cider-bottle size on equal footing with beer,” he said.

And it would repeal a state law that requires diners to order and consume a full meal—”consisting of a salad or vegetable, entree, a beverage, and bread”—before they can take home an opened bottle of wine.

Call that one the “Pinot to go” provision. (“Merlot to go”? “Take-away Chardonnay”?) It’s the continuing legacy of the late Senate President Jim King‘s 2005 measure that first legalized carry-out wine.

“Ultimately, in Florida, we trust adults to be adults and we don’t need laws that force us to eat our vegetables before enjoying a glass of wine,” Brandes said.

The Senate bill is now ready for the floor. A House companion (HB 423) doesn’t have provisions similar to Brandes’.

House passes ‘Schools of Hope’ charter school plan

Despite bitter opposition from Democrats, the Republican-controlled House Thursday passed its proposal to create privately-run “Schools of Hope” to combat failing public schools in the state. 

The measure (HB 5105) was approved by a vote of 77-40 after more than three hours of debate. It now heads to the Senate, where leaders have said they’re open to any idea that seeks to help students at low-performing schools.

By mid-afternoon, House members had yet to debate the 2017-18 budget, the one measure they are constitutionally required to pass each year.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran proposed $200 million in financial help for nonprofit companies to open charter schools in the Sunshine State.

The idea was to provide alternatives to chronically failing schools, often in poor areas, though it’s been reported that many of the charter-school concerns the bill to tailored to aren’t interested in coming.

The schools would be within five miles of, or in the zones of, existing traditional public schools that have repeatedly earned low grades under the state’s school grading system. More than 100 schools statewide have been consistently ranked as low performing for more than three years.

A line of Democrats inveighed against the proposal, including Port St. Lucie’s state Rep. Larry Lee, who gave a long and personal speech in which he said he had asked God whether he was “doing any good” in Tallahassee.  

“I played football … it’s a team sport” like legislating, he said in debate. “Bipartisanship is not ‘I wrote it and you vote for it’ … we’re not here to rubber-stamp.” He later added that lawmakers “never give any spotlight to the public schools that are doing (it) right.”

Charter schools are considered public, but they are run by private organizations that sometimes pay other privately run companies to manage them.

“This bill is not about education—it’s about a cash cow for somebody else,” said Rep. Roy Hardemon, a Miami-Dade Democrat.

The “Schools of Hope” proposal is coming at the same time that the Legislature is considering a contentious idea to force school districts to share part of their local property taxes with charter school operators.

Patrick Henry, a Daytona Beach Democrat, brought up the specter of racial discrimination, asking whether Florida was “returning to the days of separate and not equal.”

“Do schools of hope have some secret formula?” he asked. “We can’t test our way out of (educational problems), we have to teach our way out of it.”

But Jason Fischer, a Jacksonville Republican, said students in persistently failing schools “need hope and we need to stand by them … This bill helps kids who are trapped in ‘failure factories.’ “

The House proposal would create both a grant program that would pay for expenses such as teacher training and other startup costs, and a loan program that would pay up to 25 percent of any school construction costs.

It would also extend the money only to school operators that are already either nationally recognized or have a record of successfully serving students with a high percentage of students from low-income families.

Background material from The Associated Press, reprinted with permission. 

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