Jim Rosica - 3/105 - 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.
Satellite TV

Supreme Court OKs taxing satellite TV higher than cable

Satellite-television service can be taxed at a higher rate than cable TV, the Florida Supreme Court decided Thursday.

Satellite companies had challenged the state’s 16-year-old Communications Services Tax (CST), which now taxes cable service at 4.92 percent and satellite at 9.07 percent.

Those concerns, led by DirecTV, said that difference was unconstitutional and asked for a refund.

But the high court reversed the 1st District Court of Appeal’s 2-1 decision, which said that taxing the two services differently is unconstitutional.

Then-1st DCA Judge Simone Marstiller, in her dissent, had said there is no discriminatory purpose in the CST because satellite and cable providers are not “similarly situated entities.”

“There is no evidence from the text of the statute that it was enacted with a discriminatory purpose,” said Thursday’s opinion by Justice Peggy A. Quince and joined by the other justices. New Justice C. Alan Lawson didn’t participate in the decision.

“Consequently, the (satellite TV companies) are not entitled to a refund of the taxes paid,” it added.

During oral argument last year, Justice Barbara Pariente had noted that “in the end, we’re really talking about the customer that either gets screwed or helped … It all gets passed on.”

A spokesman for AT&T, which now owns DirecTV, declined comment.

The case is Florida Department of Revenue, et al. vs. DirecTV Inc., et al., no. SC15-1249.

Constitution Revision Commission

On display in Tallahassee: What people want – and don’t want – from constitutional rewrite panel

For as many people who asked the Constitution Revision Commission to do something, there were others who wanted the panel to do nothing at all.

And that’s not counting the fringe speakers Wednesday night who told the commission they were “imposters” and “impersonating delegates of the people.”

The 37-member panel, which convenes every 20 years to consider changes to the state’s governing document, held its latest public hearing on Florida A&M University’s campus in Tallahassee.

Kirk Bailey, political director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, asked the panel to refrain from proposing amendments that would restrict the state’s judges.

The Republican majority in the House of Representatives is now pushing legislation to place term limits on appellate judges and Supreme Court justices and to require the Supreme Court to produce an annual case handling report.

“We’ve all heard a lot lately about ‘activist judges’ and we’re anticipating that’s going to be part of a larger narrative about how they ‘overturn the will of the people,’ ” he said later. “Our message is not to succumb to that belief by proposing amendments that will limit the (independence of the) judiciary.”

Matt Jordan, who handles government relations for Tobacco Free Florida, similarly asked commissioners not to change the constitutional provision that provides for funding of the organization’s work.

“We want to make sure they know tobacco prevention is working,” he said in an interview. “Mainly, we just don’t want them to do anything.”

But still others used their two minutes to ask the panel to consider a range of additions to the constitution, some of which were mentioned at previous hearings:

— Opening primary elections to independent voters.

— Allowing ex-cons to automatically regain their voting rights.

— Creating a “bill of rights for children.”

— Requiring employers to verify the citizenship of their workers.

— Creating an independent redistricting commission.

Many speakers held up green cards to show they agreed with an idea; red cards were waved angrily when they disapproved.

Any amendments proposed still have to be approved by 60 percent of voters on the 2018 general election ballot, chair Carlos Beruff reminded the audience.

Several anti-abortion speakers, as had others at previous hearings, also asked the commission to consider a fix to a 1989 state Supreme Court decision that interpreted abortion rights in the constitution’s right-to-privacy provision.

That had longtime Florida National Organization for Women lobbyist Barbara DeVane taking to the microphone. She sat with a group of young women who wore pink “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” T-shirts.

No matter what the commission decided to do, DeVane said, she’d fight for “reproductive rights”—even though she no longer has “any reproductive parts.”

Revision Commission

Constitution Revision Commission chairman outlines rule-making plans

The chair of the Constitution Revision Commission has told commissioners an internal “working group” will finalize the body’s operating rules by early June.

Carlos Beruff, who leads the panel charged with reviewing and suggesting rewrites to the state’s governing document, said in a Wednesday memo that several members will form a committee and “hold noticed and open meetings to deliberate the proposed rules.”

The commission held another public hearing Wednesday night on the Florida A&M University campus in Tallahassee.

Critics, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, have complained that the commission is holding hearings without having adopted final rules since its March 20 organization meeting.

“None of us can have confidence in the work of the CRC without having rules to guide the Commission’s work and assure the public that this will be an effort worthy of respect,” LWVF President Pamela Goodman said in a recent letter to Beruff.

Beruff said that the rules working group will include Tim Cerio and Brecht Heuchan, selected by Gov. Rick Scott; Don Gaetz and Carolyn Timmann, selected by Senate President Joe Negron; state Sen. Tom Lee and Rich Newsome, selected by House Speaker Richard Corcoran; and Arthenia Joyner and Roberto Martinez, selected by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga.

“We will vote on the proposed rules, and on all amendments, at a full commission meeting to be held in early June,” Beruff wrote.

The draft rules raised hackles among good government groups because they allow any two commissioners to meet out of the “sunshine.”

Legislature still hasn’t begun conferencing on gambling legislation

A proposed conference to resolve differences between the House and Senate gambling bills, originally planned for this week, was postponed till next week.

That’s because, as of Wednesday, lawmakers continued to talk with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which has six casinos in the state.

One lobbyist suggested an end game: Passing only a new agreement on exclusive blackjack rights for the Tribe, promising $3 billion to the state over seven years.

Otherwise, the two chambers are at odds, with the House holding the line on gambling expansion and the Senate open to some expansion, including allowing slot machines at pari-mutuels in counties that approved a referendum.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran called a compromise “a heavy, heavy lift” and state Sen. Bill Galvano has said he “couldn’t guarantee we’ll ultimately have a final resolution” this year.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate announced its conference members: Galvano, Lizbeth Benacquisto, Oscar Braynon II, Anitere Flores, Travis Hutson and Perry Thurston.

Andrew Gillum, Shevrin Jones lambaste charter school funding plan

Tallahassee Mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum on Wednesday called proposed House funding for charter schools “a giveaway to (House Republicans’) friends and family.”

But Gillum at first wouldn’t answer whether he would veto such funding if he were governor, saying instead he would put a “premium” on fully funding the state’s public school system.

A spokesman later said he would veto that kind of funding if elected, explaining Gillum “fundamentally believes the bill’s approach is wrong.”

The mayor appeared with Democratic state Rep. Shevrin Jones of West Park at a news conference in the Capitol.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has proposed a “Schools of Hope” program, starting with $200 million in financial help for nonprofit companies to open charter schools in the Sunshine State. But it’s been reported that those concerns aren’t interested in coming.

Nonetheless, Gillum bemoaned the proposal, which he said would put millions of dollars “in the hands of friends (of Republicans) who are well-heeled and well-connected.”

He also criticized the state’s “sharp turn toward a culture of testing that doesn’t tell (parents and teachers) what they need to know about a child.”

Democrats “need to speak truth to power and call it what it is—a giveaway to friends and family” of the House Republican leadership, Gillum said.

Jones went a step further, saying earmarking money for charter schools means “we’re creating a segregated system … that will not fix the issues.”

He added that though he believes in school choice, “if they close a (charter) school down” because it reaches capacity, “where do the kids go? I still haven’t gotten an answer.” The implicit answer was students go back to the same D- and F-rated schools they tried to escape.

The news conference can be viewed in a Periscope video below:

Hundreds of concerns automatically signed up to lobby constitutional review board

The list of companies, nonprofits and others who were registered to lobby the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) now stretches to 55 pages, according to the state’s Lobbyist Registration Office.

But many, if not most, of those may be from the state automatically adding names to that lobbying registry—and from lobbyists who haven’t yet “unchecked” their box for the CRC.

The commission, which convenes every 20 years to review and rewrite the state’s governing document, holds its next public hearing 5 p.m. Wednesday on the campus of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.

If you believe the state, the roll call of interests who want to lobby for a constitutional amendment runs from Wall Street (JPMorgan Chase) to Main Street (Killearn Home Association, a neighborhood group in Tallahassee).

Nearly all who have already addressed commissioners at public hearings appears to be “civilians”: Concerned citizens, especially those with an interest in one issue, such as abortion.

Lobbying revision commissioners is covered by the state law that also governs lobbying executive-branch agencies.

It defines lobbying to include “influencing or attempting to influence, on behalf of another, the Constitution Revision Commission’s action or nonaction through oral or written communication or an attempt to obtain the goodwill of a member or employee of the Constitution Revision Commission.”

For now, the official CRC lobbying list includes hospitals (Tampa General), institutions of higher learning (Barry University), a slew of individual cities, media organizations (Courthouse News Service), utilities (Duke Energy), and even individuals.

Jennifer Wohlgemuth is being represented by Hayden Dempsey and Gus Corbella, lobbyists from Greenberg Traurig. She was seriously injured when a Pasco County sheriff’s deputy slammed into her car during a pursuit in 2005.

Wohlgemuth still is seeking a $2.6 million claim bill from the Legislature to fully compensate her for her injuries, which include “behavior and impulse control similar to those of a 10-year-old child,” “severe memory loss (and) partial loss of vision.”

On Tuesday, however, Dempsey said his lobbying registration for the CRC was one of the automatic additions. “I don’t think we’ll be asking for a constitutional amendment for a claim bill,” he said.

Carlos Beruff, the commission’s chairman, also on Tuesday announced more dates and locations for public hearings:

— Wednesday, April 26 in Gainesville (Alachua County).

— Thursday, April 27 in Jacksonville (Duval County).

— Wednesday, May 3 in Bay County.

— Wednesday, May 10 in Lee County.

— Wednesday, May 17 in Hillsborough County.

“This historic process gives Florida voters an opportunity to change the framework of our government,” Beruff said in a statement. “You don’t need to be a policy expert to have a good idea.”

The schedule also means that the five sitting lawmakers on the commission will have to choose between attending those hearings or being at the ongoing Legislative Session, which doesn’t end till May 5.

Pam Bondi loses first round in unregistered charities lawsuit

Attorney General Pam Bondi has lost a preliminary round in a lawsuit claiming she forces businesses to pony up millions of dollars to unregistered charities as part of settlements in consumer protection cases.

Circuit Judge Charles Dodson of Tallahassee on Monday ordered Bondi to show why he shouldn’t find for the plaintiff, Orlando entrepreneur John D. Smith. In that order, docketed Tuesday, Dodson gave Bondi 40 days to respond.

A list of the unregistered charities alleged in Smith’s suit was disclosed late Tuesday to FloridaPolitics.com, showing that those included Bondi’s own “Law Enforcement Officer of the Year” award and “scholarship funds designated by the Attorney General.”

Also on Tuesday, Bondi released a lengthy statement, saying Smith had harassed her staff and that his suit is “completely unfounded” and “meritless.”

In 2015, her office had launched an investigation against Smith, who invented Storm Stoppers plastic panels as a “plywood alternative” to protect windows during storms. 

Smith filed a petition for a “writ of quo warranto” against Bondi last week in Leon County Circuit Civil court. Such actions are filed against government officials to demand they prove their authority to perform a certain action.

The petition says Bondi “exceeded (her) authority” under a state law aimed at protecting consumers and businesses from abuse.

It was “verified,” meaning Smith declared under penalty of perjury that the allegations are true. He wants a judge to prohibit Bondi from ordering payments to any more unregistered charities. 

Between 2011 and 2016, Bondi’s office settled enforcement actions with 14 businesses in which they wound up paying more than $5.5 million to 35 unregistered charities, the petition says. Bondi was first elected in 2010.

That’s out of 55 businesses who paid $20.2 million “in forced contributions to charitable organizations” to settle cases in the same timeframe. Other groups receiving contributions were registered as charities in Florida.

In her statement, Bondi defended the way she settles consumer cases and railed against Smith.

“For two years, my attorneys have been dealing with harassment from the petitioner in this case for looking into his ‘business’ of selling hurricane-resistant plastic panels that (attach) to windows,” she said. “Throughout that process, Mr. Smith has heaped abuse on my attorneys and continues to target my office. His attacks are completely unfounded.

“What my attorneys are doing is designed to benefit Florida’s citizens while conserving taxpayer resources,” Bondi said. “When my office investigates consumer protection cases, it is often in the public interest to settle when we can protect the public without having to go to court.

“In addition to obtaining promises that the targets of investigation will stop unlawful conduct, we are often able to secure promises to make contributions that promote the public good,” she said. “These contributions, among other things, support legal services for the poor, scholarship funds, governmental entities and educational institutions.”

Smith also said Bondi was wrongly directing contributions to her office’s own nonprofit, Seniors vs. Crime, which is a “conflict of interest,” the suit says. Two of its directors work for Bondi.

“My office has signed agreements providing for contributions to Seniors vs. Crime, a nonprofit organization started in 1989 under Attorney General (Bob) Butterworth to help seniors when they are the victims of consumer fraud and to help educate them on how to avoid becoming victims in the first place,” Bondi said in the statement.

“Mr. Smith’s lawsuit to stop these efforts is meritless, and I will continue my fight to protect Florida’s citizens from abusive business practices, regardless of the harassment Mr. Smith directs at my office and my attorneys.”

Smith, who is in Hawaii on business, was asked to respond to Bondi’s statement via email; he had not yet responded as of late Tuesday.


Citrus forecast generally holds steady, USDA says

The bad news in citrus: “Grapefruit production declined.” The good news: “Florida orange production remained steady.”

That’s the upshot of the latest forecast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, according to the Florida Department of Citrus (FDOC).

“The April report projects the state’s orange crop to stay at 67 million boxes for the 2016-17 season,” a Tuesday news release said. “The grapefruit crop was reduced by 800,000 boxes to 8.1 million.”

The industry has been savaged by a 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.

“It’s a tough hit for Florida’s grapefruit growers who have been so committed to fighting pest and disease to maintain this staple of Florida’s economy,” said Shannon Shepp, FDOC’s executive director.

The department, funded mainly through box taxes paid by the state’s citrus growers, serves as the chief marketing, regulation and promotional arm of the industry.

“Florida grapefruit is, by far, what world consumers seek out for its unique flavor profile, sweetness and juiciness,” Shepp added.

In a separate statement, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said the latest forecast “represents a more than 70 percent collapse in production of our state’s signature crop” since the 1997-98 season.

“Until a long-term solution is discovered, which some of our state’s brightest minds are working on, we must support Florida’s multi-billion dollar citrus industry and the more than 60,000 jobs it supports,” he said.

Greening 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.

Florida’s growers and industry groups have sought approval from the federal government to use antimicrobial treatments to fight greening.

Putnam “issued a crisis declaration in 2016 regarding their application to the Environmental Protection Agency, which allowed the immediate use of these treatments,” his release said.

Rick Scott won’t end fight for economic development, tourism funding

With the House seemingly intent on gutting VISIT FLORIDA and eliminating Enterprise Florida, Gov. Rick Scott suggested he won’t stop counterpunching.

The governor, who spoke to reporters after Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, has been openly warring with House Speaker Richard Corcoran. He’s been out to kill state government’s business incentives programs.

Corcoran counts Enterprise Florida (EFI), the state’s economic development organization, and VISIT FLORIDA, its tourism marketing arm, as dispensers of “corporate welfare.”

Scott says they help create jobs. Though both are public-private partnerships, both take in far more public money than private.

The governor has been going to the home districts of Republican House members and hosting “roundtables” with the aim of “encourag(ing) members of the community to voice their support for EFI and VISIT FLORIDA,” spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said.

At these roundtables, however, Scott has pointedly criticized House Republicans who had voted to kill incentive programs and the two organizations.

“I’m traveling the state to make sure everybody knows the importance of what our Legislature does,” Scott said Tuesday. “We’re at record tourism numbers,” with close to 113 million tourists visiting the state last year.

With thousands of jobs tied to tourism, “it’s important to me that we fully fund VISIT FLORIDA,” he said. “I know it’s a lot of jobs … If you look at the fact we added all these jobs, it’s because we got a good return for taxpayers. We’ve also recruited companies to expand and to move here. It’s really had a very positive impact.”

But many of those jobs were created without the use of subsidies, leading to a question of whether that worked against the governor’s position. Scott’s proposed $250 million Florida Enterprise Fund was zeroed out by lawmakers in the current year’s budget.

“We haven’t seen a lot of big deals; we haven’t seen a lot of corporate offices moving here,” Scott said. “There aren’t a lot of manufacturing plants moving here. We’ve got to compete … this is about somebody’s job.”

Lawsuit: Pam Bondi forcing contributions to unregistered charities

Attorney General Pam Bondi is forcing businesses who settle unfair trade actions with her office to pony up millions of dollars to unregistered charities, according to a lawsuit filed last week.

She also is directing contributions to her Office’s own nonprofit, Seniors vs. Crime, which is a “conflict of interest,” the suit says. Two of its directors work for Bondi.

Orlando entrepreneur John D. Smith filed a petition for a “writ of quo warranto” against Bondi in Leon County Circuit Civil court. Such actions are filed against government officials to demand they prove their authority to perform a certain action.

The petition says Bondi “exceeded (her) authority” under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA), aimed at protecting consumers and businesses from abuse.

“Our office has not been served at this point; however, after a preliminary review of the information you provided us, we believe these claims to be without merit,” Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray said in an email.

Specifically, between 2011 and 2016, Bondi’s office settled enforcement actions with 14 businesses in which they wound up paying more than $5.5 million to 35 unregistered charities, the petition says. Bondi was first elected in 2010.

That’s out of 55 businesses who paid $20.2 million “in forced contributions to charitable organizations” to settle cases in the same timeframe. An exhibit that included the names of the charities in question was marked “confidential” and unavailable for public view Monday.

One of the settlement conditions was contributing to a charity “as part of a resolution to end the (Attorney General’s office) investigation,” it says. Overall, there were 278 “Assurance of Voluntary Compliance” agreements.

In Florida, charities have to register with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Ironically, a charity failing to register is deemed to have violated the FDUTPA,” the petition says.

Bondi’s office had taken action against Smith, who invented Storm Stoppers plastic panels as a “plywood alternative” to protect windows during storms, said attorney Scott Siverson of Orlando.

Smith filed a verified petition, meaning he declared under penalty of perjury that the allegations in his complaint are true. He wants a judge to prohibit Bondi from ordering payments to any more unregistered charities and to Seniors vs. Crime.

Siverson said his client was in Hawaii on business and unavailable.

Seniors vs. Crime, which is registered as a charity, is a “non-profit organization that operates as a Special Project of the Attorney General’s Office.” It aims to “reduce the victimization of senior citizens who are often targeted for specific crimes or scams based on their age,” according to its website.

Between 2011 and 2015, the organization received $485,500 in contributions resulting from settlements, the petition says. In the same time, “no other Florida charity received an amount close to (that).”

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