William Patrick - SaintPetersBlog

William Patrick

‘Safety valve’ wanted for mandatory-minimum drug law

In 2008, an Orange County, Florida, judge sentenced William Forrester to 15 years in prison for 15.6 grams of oxycodone, or about 30 pills.

Forrester was on disability insurance and had a lung surgically removed due to cancer not long before his arrest, according to court documents. But possession of the oxycodone, combined with a forged prescription to obtain it, turned him into a narcotics trafficker under Florida’s mandatory minimum drug law.

“If was an option, then certainly we would talk about it. But my hands are tied by the law, and I have to sentence you to 15 years, and there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” said Judge Mark Blechman.

Forrester will be 65 years old upon his scheduled release in 2021.

According to a new policy brief by the James Madison Institute, a conservative Tallahassee-based think tank, there are 2,310 inmates serving mandatory minimum prison terms in Florida for hydrocodone and oxycodone trafficking offenses.

Not all of them are in for selling pills.

The highly-addictive opioids are legal pain medications when prescribed by a doctor, and can leave some people hooked after their prescriptions expire.

Florida’s tough drug laws, passed in 1999, were meant to punish drug dealers. But mandatory sentencing for hydrocodone and oxycodone — ranging from three years to life in prison — can be triggered by as few as 27 hydrocodone pills, or 14 oxycodone pills.

Under the law, illegal possession of small amounts of the pills is considered drug trafficking.

Patients recovering from surgery often receive a one-time prescription of 30 to 60 hydrocodone or oxycodone pills, and in forms containing acetaminophen, or Tylenol, according to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a legislative research office.

An attempt to illegally obtain an equal amount qualifies for an automatic prison sentence.

Author Laura Krisai, a JMI adjunct scholar and director of criminal justice reform at the Reason Foundation, says it’s time for the Legislature to adopt a “safety valve.”

“Public safety is not enhanced when individuals are incarcerated for years longer than necessary,” Krisai says.

A safety valve provision would allow judges to exercise discretion when sentencing individuals in cases where Florida’s mandatory sentences don’t fit the crimes.

“Safety valve legislation neither eliminates the underlying mandatory minimum sentencing law, nor does it require judges to sentence offenders below the minimum term. It is a narrowly tailored exception for certain offenders and under certain circumstances,” the brief says.

An analysis of Florida Department of Corrections data shows that 83 percent of prisoners incarcerated for hydrocodone and oxycodone trafficking have never been to prison before, or had only previously served time for nonviolent offenses.

The Department also considers 435 of the trafficking offenders to be elderly, defined in the state prison system as over 50 years old.

A safety valve measure, the brief says, also would save millions of taxpayer dollars.

In fiscal year 2014-15, the DOC reported an average cost $53.49 per day to house an inmate in a state correctional facility. The 2,310 hydrocodone and oxycodone traffickers cost a combined $123,562 per day, or $45.1 million per year.

If the 83 percent of first-time and nonviolent traffickers had their mandatory prison terms reduced by one-year when they were sentenced, the state would save $33.3 million.

“There’s no evidence from Florida or elsewhere that shows when judges are allowed to determine sentences — or, to judge — public safety is threatened,” Krisai concluded.

___

William Patrick is a Florida reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at wpatrick@watchdog.org and @WmPatFL.

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Lawmakers aim to create jobs by cutting occupational licensing red-tape

Braiding hair without a license could get you in trouble in Florida.

So could cutting and wrapping hair, manicuring fingernails, auctioneering property, landscaping, interior design and timekeeping at a boxing match.

If you want to earn money or start a business in dozens of job categories, Florida requires a state-approved license – and they don’t come cheaply.

Barbers are required to complete 1,200 hours of training – equivalent to 25 hours a week for one year – to be eligible for licensure. Applicants then must pass an exam and pay a $223 fee.

A cosmetology license requires 1,200 training hours at an approved state Board of Cosmetology school, which costs between $5,000 and $20,000, according to BeautySchools.com.

Interior designers need a combined six years of board-approved education and work experience under a licensed designer, then pass a three-part exam costing $1,065 to legally design commercial spaces.

Working without a license has its own costs: up to $500 fines per offense, restraining orders or court ordered injunctions against performing undocumented labor activities.

Critics say such regulations discourage would-be workers, and state lawmakers are considering a bureaucratic downsizing.

bill that would rollback red-tape for nearly two-dozen professions passed an important House appropriations subcommittee Tuesday at the Florida Capitol. The bill was approved with bipartisan support, 12-2.

“We’re trying to lower barriers in order to create jobs,” said Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, the bill’s sponsor.

The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, pegs Florida as the fourth most restrictive state in the country with respect to occupational licensing regulations. In a study called License to Work, it identified 45 of 102 low-and-moderate income jobs as having burdensome licensing requirements.

“Occupational licenses, which are essentially permission slips from the government, routinely stand in the way of honest enterprise,” the nonprofit firm says. “Instead, they are imposed simply to protect established businesses from economic competition.”

‘Protect the public welfare’

About a dozen industry representatives appeared before the legislative committee, and stated independently that Florida’s occupational regulations ensure public safety and create jobs themselves.

“We regulate not to keep people out of business, or to create barriers to business, we regulate to defend the public and protect the public welfare,” said Owen Chad Johnson, secretary and treasurer of the Florida Auctioneers Association.

David Roberts, of the American Society of Interior Designers, told lawmakers that they’ll put people out of business if they deregulate. Stephanie Borras, owner of two Tallahassee salons, said the bill would increase the quantity of workers, but not the quality.

Curtis Austin, executive director of the Florida Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges, said the bill’s proposal to reduce cosmetology training from 1,200 hours to 600 hours would cause a health crisis.

“We are moving in the direction not of red states and blue states, but in the direction of Turkey,” Austin told committee members. “If you look at those places where they deregulate these issues in cosmetology, up to 85 percent of people contract skin diseases.”

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said he thought some of the arguments made sense and some did not.

According to bill’s staff analysis, the state Board of Cosmetology issued 28 disciplinary orders against licensed hair braiders, hair wrappers and body wrappers during the 2012- 2015 fiscal years.

“These actions generally did not involve consumer injury, but were technical scope of practice violations,” such as practicing with an expired license or failing to timely renew a license, the analysis states.

Beshears’ bill would eliminate all Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation restrictions against interior designers, hair braiders, hair and body wrappers, boxing announcers and boxing timekeepers, and would reduce mandatory training hours for barbers, nail specialists and facial specialists.

The Department of Regulation would no longer regulate labor organizations, business agents, talent agencies and auctioneers, but established industry standards and civil and criminal actions would still apply.

Architects, landscapers, geologists and asbestos abatement contractors would no longer be required to obtain certificates of authorization in addition to obtaining their licenses.

Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, an outspoken critic of occupational regulations, said the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“I believe there are 366 occupational licensures in the state Florida,” Grant said. “I’ve yet to be compelled by any argument that any form of license or regulation is in any way as significant to make a consumer whole as an insurance policy.”

Insurance premiums are much less expensive than an entire bureaucratic scheme, he said.

‘A bunch of arbitrary hoops’

Grant also questioned the licensure education industry.

“One of the things aligned with occupational licenses that I have a very keen interest in exploring is the number of tax dollars that we spend subsidizing higher education for curriculums that are a requirement,” he said.

Lisa Waxman, chair of Florida State University’s interior design program, told lawmakers there are 19 design programs in Florida and urged the committee to “keep things as they are.”

“Florida is a model for the rest of the country,” she said.

Justin Pearson, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, offered that Florida is one of only four states in the country that requires a license for interior designers.

Inconsistencies were also noted. Emergency Medical Technicians, or EMTs, need 34 days of training, while massage therapists are required to complete 117 days of training.

“I represent first-generation Americans, minorities and lower-income individuals who want to pursue the American dream,” said Pearson. “But they can’t take a year off of work to jump through a bunch of arbitrary hoops.”

Sal Nuzzo, policy director at the conservative James Madison Institute, called the bill a “good first step,” and said that lowering employment barriers would help released prison inmates find work.

“What are the trades these individuals are learning when they’re incarcerated? They’re learning how to be barbers, cosmetologists and electricians,” Nuzzo said.

In his closing remarks, Beshears said his legislation would help people who can’t afford to pay $5,000 and take 1,200 hours of training before securing a job. “This is about giving that person an opportunity,” he said.

The bill has been referred to the House Commerce Committee. A companion Senate bill passed its first committee stop, and is slated for review in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

 

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Sunshine Week: First Amendment Foundation goes to bat for Florida’s right to know

It’s Sunshine Week in the Sunshine State, and not just because it’s Spring Break.

Since 2005, open government and freedom of information advocates have designated March 13-19 as a time to celebrate public transparency and raise awareness about the critical importance of access to government records.

Sunshine Week is timed to coincide with the birthday of James Madison, author of the First Amendment.

True to form, the First Amendment Foundation has been busy at the Florida Capitol battling to ensure the public’s right to know. The Tallahassee-based nonprofit helped restructure a bill this week that would have severely limited access to information if the government decided not to comply with public records laws.

Florida’s “sunshine” law says that “it is the policy of this state that all state, county, and municipal records shall at all times be open for a personal inspection by any person.” But the only real recourse against a government officer or agency that refuses to hand over public information is to challenge them in court.

That can be expensive. As a safeguard, if a judge rules that the government violated public records laws, then the government must pay the record requester’s attorney’s fees.

The mandatory provision “creates a level playing field for someone who can afford to pay for an attorney and those who cannot,” according to the First Amendment Foundation. 

Putting aside the issue of awarding attorneys’ fees with taxpayer money, a new bill would have made the mandatory fee provision optional. By changing the word “must” to “shall,” a judge could deny fees even if the court rules in favor of the citizen.

The potential consequences are enormous.

“Without a penalty provision when the government is wrong, there is no incentive to be transparent and provide citizens with access to information about governmental decision-making.  The result will be fewer challenges brought by citizens, which will certainly result in less government transparency,” says the First Amendment Foundation.

But Tuesday, a compromise was reached and the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved it.

“Under the bill as amended in committee, the fee provision remains mandatory,” Barbara Petersen, the foundation’s executive director, told Watchdog.org.

Petersen sounded the alarm about the proposal in February, then outlined a fix, and recently worked with Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, the bill’s sponsor, and the Florida League of Cities to amend the bill.

As part of the compromise, the bill also includes a five-day notice requirement that would alert a public records custodian of a pending records request before a lawsuit can be filed, and an additional provision that allows courts to crack down on “improper” records requests – the issue Steube’s bill initially sought to address.

His approach, however, also would have penalized legitimate inquiries and legal challenges.

In recent years, lawmakers have decried a “cottage industry” of records requests that are intended to trigger sunshine violations. Petersen calls them “predatory” requests.

“They’re designed to fail,” she told Watchdog.org. “When the agency doesn’t respond, or doesn’t respond quickly enough, then the requester files suit in civil court. A few days later, they call up the agency and offer to settle for a financial payout with the promise of dropping the lawsuit.”

In 2014, the issue became a statewide concern when a circuit court judge ruled that Jeffrey Gray, a self-described civil rights activist from northeast Florida, was engaged in “a baiting gesture meant to achieve personal financial gain,” rather than a genuine effort to obtain public information.

According to the Florida Bar, the ruling said Gray had been a plaintiff in 18 separate lawsuits involving public records requests in Duval County, and that Gray’s lawyer had paid him when attorneys’ fees were recovered. The judgment said the practice was “nothing more than a scam.”

Knocking out Florida’s mandatory fee provision would halt frivolous, harassing and disingenuous records requests designed to force sunshine violations, but not without collateral damage.

“In doing that, the bill wouldn’t just punish the people who are taking advantage of the system, but the 99 percent of people who make requests because they’re legitimately seeking public records,” Petersen said.

The amendment adopted this week should fix that.

If Steube’s amended bill becomes law, not only will courts continue to award attorneys’ fees when the government wrongfully withholds public information, but courts also would be able to assess attorneys’ fees against anyone who attempts to profit from scamming Florida’s public records system.

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Does splitting bill in two edge Enterprise Florida closer to chopping block?

Democratic lawmaker David Richardson appears to be getting his Enterprise Florida wish from his conservative House colleagues.

The Miami Beach state rep won’t be getting a grant from the taxpayer-supported economic incentive organization; rather he’ll soon have a chance to help abolish it.

House leadership, headed by Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, will be splitting a bill aimed at eliminating Enterprise Florida and reducing Visit Florida’s taxpayer-funded tourism marketing budget by 67 percent into two bills, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

The move incorporates feedback from a House Appropriations Committee last week.

“I have very little good to say about Enterprise Florida and the way it has been conducted in the past,” Richardson said during the committee meeting, echoing sentiments from the organization’s toughest critics.

But after recounting several issues, such as the public-private partnership’s 90-10 taxpayer-to-private funding ratio, poor performance and a cash “slush fund” used to purchase furniture and pay for travel, Richardson voted against cutting Enterprise Florida.

He disagreed with the proposed funding reduction on Visit Florida, so said he had no other choice but to cast a dissenting vote because the two organizations were packaged together.

“But if you pull out Enterprise Florida … I’d be happy to kill it for you,” he said.

Splitting the bill in two also honors Rep. Paul Renner’s, R-Palm Coast, commitment to Democratic Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, to allow for further debate on Visit Florida funding. With that promise, Cruz, the highest-ranking House Democrat, voted to eliminate Enterprise Florida last week.

Richardson, Cruz and other Democrats will have an opportunity to vote with their GOP counterparts, perhaps by late next week.

HB 7005 is scheduled to be split Monday in the House Rules and Policy Committee. All references to Visit Florida will be moved to a new bill, HB 9, and the remaining language would eliminate Enterprise Florida, as well as the Office of Film and Entertainment and 22 other incentive programs.

The formal legislative session begins Tuesday, and House lawmakers could schedule floor votes on both bills before the end of the week.

Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, is vehemently opposed to eliminating Enterprise Florida and reducing funding for Visit Florida. Scott wants $85 million and $76 million for the taxpayer-supported organizations, respectively, this year.

Corcoran and Scott released dueling videos last week in an attempt to build public support for their positions. Corcoran’s message, Session is Coming, focuses on ridding the legislature of “corporate welfare,” while Scott’s Fighting for Florida Jobs features business leaders and economic development officials touting the benefits of public assistance.

___

William Patrick reports for Florida Watchdog. Contact him at wpatrick@watchdog.org and on Twitter.

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Task force would seek to remake Florida’s criminal justice system

Florida’s state lawmakers increasingly are embracing criminal justice reform policies that break with the state’s “tough on crime” past. But a sea change could be in the works.

But a sea change could be in the works.

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, and the GOP-controlled legislature approved one of the most far-reaching civil asset forfeiture reforms in the country, repealed a 10-20-life mandatory minimum sentencing law, and expanded health care delivery for mentally ill inmates. Mental health advocates say as much as 40 percent of Florida’s prison population needs treatment.

Dozens of reform-related bills already have been filed ahead this year’s state legislative session.

Now, it’s time to go big.

Seizing on momentum, Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg wants to remake the entire system.

“If you look around the country, many other states are leading on criminal justice reform. It’s a wave that’s just starting to hit Florida,” Brandes told Watchdog.org.

“It’s time to look at a holistic view about how to transform the system,” he said.

Brandes is seeking legislative approval to form a task force to conduct a comprehensive review of Florida’s criminal justice, court and corrections systems.

Ultimately, the task force would submit a report with findings, conclusions and recommendations to be molded into legislation for the 2018 state session.

Overhauling state prisons may be the first priority.

“We have prisons that are in a kind of crisis mode right now. We’re having a tough time hiring guards. Contraband rates are through the roof. Our education of prisoners is at rock bottom, and recidivism is a struggle for the state,” Brandes said.

Membership must reflect the racial, gender, geographic and economic diversity of the state, as well as the diversity and demographics of the state’s prison population, according to the proposal. The 28-member group would include members of the House and Senate, judges, academics, faith leaders, victims’ advocates, public defenders, law enforcement officials and even prison inmates in good standing.

Brandes said he has been in contact with groups such as the Crime and Justice Institute and Pew Research Center to discuss how to approach the issue and what possible outcomes might look like.

The task force would use a data-driven approach to arrive at sentencing and corrections recommendations for the purpose of:

— Reducing the state prison population.

— Decreasing spending by focusing on serious offenses and violent criminals.

— Holding offenders accountable through research-based supervision and sentencing practices.

— Reinvesting savings into strategies known to decrease recidivism, including reentry outcomes.

“We think states like Texas are thought leaders in criminal justice reform. It’s time for Florida to follow Texas’s lead on the criminal justice issue and to get serious about criminal justice reform,” Brandes said.

Florida is often compared to Texas both economically and demographically. In 2007, Texas instituted a nationally recognized reform package, and has added to it ever since.

When asked to describe possible obstacles, Brandes said, “Most arguments in the Legislature are fortress versus frontier arguments. I’m, almost to a fault, with the frontiers.”

According to the proposal, task force members would receive no taxpayer compensation for their work.

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SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch and ‘over-criminalization’

President Donald Trump’s nomination of  Neil Gorsuch, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, sparked a predictably hostile response from Democrats. But Gorsuch’s record on criminal justice reform offers a rare opportunity for bipartisan agreement.

Gorsuch tipped his hand at a gathering of conservative attorneys in Washington, D.C., three years ago by addressing the issue of “over-criminaliztion.”

NEIL GORSUCH: President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee has publicly addressed the explosion of criminal justice laws, sometimes called “over-criminalization.”

Speaking at the Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention in 2013, Gorsuch said, “we have about 5,000 federal criminal statutes on the books, most of them added in the last few decades, and the spigot keeps pouring, with literally hundreds of new statutory crimes inked every single year.”

“Neither does that begin to count the thousands of additional regulatory crimes buried in the federal register. There are so many crimes cowled in the numbing fine print of those pages that scholars have given up counting and are now debating their number,” he continued.

“What happens to individual freedom and equality when the criminal law comes to cover so many facets of daily life that prosecutors can almost choose their targets with impunity,” he asked.

The question highlights an alarming problem, but one that hasn’t gone unnoticed in some quarters of both the left and right.

“From federal agencies independently attaching jail time to otherwise noncriminal behavior to U.S. lawmakers punishing crimes best dealt with by states, the problem of over-criminalization is growing,” explains the libertarian Cato Institute.

The conservative Heritage Foundation cites the explosion of criminal laws as a major area for reform, and the American Bar Association hosts an over-criminalization task force to educate attorneys on the “urgent problem.”

The left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union has turned its attention to confronting social inequities born from criminalizing broad swaths of everyday life. It launched a Criminal Justice Reform Project to reduce “excessively harsh criminal justice policies” that result in racial disparities and disproportionate sentencing.

One outgrowth of having too many criminal laws is what critics call “mass incarceration.”

“America, land of the free, has earned the disturbing distinction of being the world’s leading jailer. Representing just 5 percent of the world’s population, we now hold 25 percent of its inmates,” the ACLU says.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research organization, says over-criminalization and high rates of incarceration go hand-in-hand to “undermine our communities and national well-being.” The group cites Florida as having one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.

“Historically, ‘crime’ was a term restricted to morally blameworthy actions, but today, many ordinary activities are captured by the term,” says Right on Crime, a project of Texas Public Policy Foundation.

In his Federalist Society remarks,  Gorsuch cited absurd examples of overreach.

“It’s now a federal crime to misuse the likeness of Woodsy the Owl,” Gorsuch said.

“Businessmen who import lobster tails in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes can be brought up on charges. Mattress sellers who remove that little tag? Yes, they’re probably federal criminals too,” he said.

The full speech can be seen here:

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Proposed legislation could break the cycle of debt for many caught in Florida’s legal system

It’s a vicious circle: Poor people who can’t afford their court-related costs and penalties incur escalating costs for not paying, further indebting them to the state.

“It’s a circle that some people get stuck in and they can’t get out,” Christopher Torres, a Tallahassee defense attorney and former Florida assistant attorney general, told Watchdog.org.

Compounding the problem is the state’s practice of suspending drivers’ licenses as both a punishment for delinquent payments and an incentive to get people to pay up. For those who can’t afford their financial obligations, the suspensions only add more obstacles to meeting debts and ultimately moving on.

A new reform bill aims to break the cycle.

Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg is proposing legislation to modify legal-debt payment terms and prohibit drivers’ license suspensions statewide for individuals demonstrating an inability to pay court obligations and other legal penalties.

The St. Petersburg Republican is teaming up with state Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Tampa Bay-area Democrat, to push the reform measure. An identical bill, also sponsored by Brandes, died in an appropriations committee last year despite unanimous support from fellow legislators at two separate committees stops.

Brandes sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and helped pass a landmark civil asset forfeiture bill in 2016. A second attempt at reforming legal system costs and burdens indicates renewed confidence that the reforms could pass this year.

Local clerks of court are required to accept monthly debt payments equal to one-twelfth of 2 percent of a person’s annual net income. It’s a flexible standard meant to accommodate various income backgrounds.

But payments are often arranged inflexibly and at higher rates.

“In Florida, this presumption is often ignored and payment levels are set at fixed amounts,” states a Brennan Center for Justice report on criminal justice debt.

Brandes’ bill would cap annual payments made to local clerks of court at no more than 2 percent of annual net income, unless an applicant agrees to pay more.

In Florida, clerks of court also turn over unpaid accounts after 90 days to private attorneys or debt collection services. State law allows them to tack on 40 percent surcharges to underlying debts.

The proposed legislation wouldn’t abolish the surcharges, but it would limit the amount of time private collectors could pursue legal system debts to no more than 5 years. It would also deny any additional charges beyond what clerks of court contractually negotiate through an open bidding process.

Suspension problems

With respect to drivers’ licenses, prohibiting suspensions for low-income people would help tackle the inherent inefficiency of obstructing good-faith efforts to drive to work and earn an income.

“Most people in Florida are dependent on driving,” Torres said. “If you can’t drive then it’s harder to work or find employment. … Getting caught driving illegally means new problems added to old problems, maybe even an arrest, and the cycle starts over again.”

According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, 1.5 million notices of suspension were issued in 2014, mostly originating from “failure to comply” or “failure to pay” offenses.

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a legislative research office, reports that a large percentage of license suspensions relating to delinquent court costs take more than two years to reinstate.

Reinstatement requires full payment of all financial obligations, enrolling in a payment plan (if not already enrolled), or a court order granting relief.

The amount of time and money involved for many suspension reinstatements leaves the door open for illegal driving. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators estimates that as many as three-fourths of drivers with suspended or revoked licenses continue to drive.

Torres said the penalties for driving with a suspended license hinge on intent. If a law enforcement officer determines that an individual was driving “without knowledge” that their license was suspended, then the penalty is a civil offense punishable by a traffic ticket.

If an officer determines that a driver was “knowingly” driving with a suspended license, then the offense is criminal and warrants arrest.

Under current law, hardship exemptions for business or employment purposes do not apply for failing to pay court obligations and legal penalties, even though they’re available for many driving-related suspensions, such as driving under the influence.

Prohibiting license suspensions for indigents, disabled persons, bankrupt individuals and government assistance recipients could enhance efforts to pay off legal obligations and reduce the cycle of escalating burdens and taxpayer resources required to sustain the merry-go-round process.

The question may be whether the state and local governments are willing to lose the revenue streams.

Revenue vs. debtors

According to a legislative staff analysis, if Brandes’ 2016 bill would’ve passed it would’ve caused significant government revenue losses.

“The bill would likely have a negative impact on local tax collectors and clerks of court who retain a portion of revenues from certain drivers’ license sanctions when issuing reinstatements, in addition to other fees retained by them associated with drivers’ license suspensions and revocations.”

The Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, a statewide association, estimated clerks of court would suffer annual losses ranging from $24.7 million to $82.4 million, depending on the success of the reforms.

If 15 percent of collections were lost because of the new payment plan modifications, licensing reforms, or the bill’s promotion of community service as a way to pay work off debts at minimum wage, then clerks of court could lose an estimated $24.7 million in revenue.

If participation jumped to 50 percent, then $82.4 million in estimated losses could result.

Add on another $7.5 million in annual recurring funds for new full-time employees and IT support for payment plan maintenance, and legislators might balk at the reforms again.

But the issue isn’t going away. Criminal justice reformers are confronting financially burdensome, and sometimes insurmountable, legal system practices across the country.

Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, says the cycle of escalating court obligations and legal penalties is too expensive in both human and taxpayer costs.

“While there is a legitimate role for fines and fees, their use has skyrocketed over the last few decades, with the penalties appearing to be more tied to generating revenue for government rather than legitimate public safety purposes,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union asserts that “state and local courts have increasingly attempted to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision.”

The debate between revenue and reform will be heard at the state Capitol when the annual legislative session convenes on March 7.

Last year, the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers association reported $894 million in total collections for court costs, monetary penalties, fees, service charges and other costs. The collection rate was 73 percent.

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Under Donald Trump, Florida’s premium cigar industry could escape job-killing FDA regulations

On the verge of being snuffed out by Obama administration regulators, Florida’s traditional and culturally distinct premium cigar industry has a chance at new life.

Late last week, U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the incoming chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, met with President-elect Donald Trump and submitted a list of 232 items that could be repealed immediately after Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

“We must undo Obama’s harmful regulatory regime that has hurt hardworking Americans across the nation,” the group said in language akin to Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

One item in the report entitled “First 100 Days: Rules, Regulations and Executive Orders to Examine, Revoke and Issue” recommends stripping the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of its authority to regulate tobacco products.

The move could save at least 2,600 Florida jobs currently at risk and spare many businesses, according to Mark Pursell, CEO of the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association.

Progressive-liberal firebrand U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., who’s no fan of Republicans, urged the executive branch agency to back off premium cigars when it first began targeting the industry through a proposed administrative rule in 2014, but to no avail.

In a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, Grayson said that “the premium cigar industry is responsible for employing an estimated 20,000 Americans, and realizes almost $2 billion in annual revenue.”

The incoming Trump administration could extinguish the economic hardship on Day One, according to Meadows.

Under Obama, the FDA launched an aggressive crackdown on tobacco and began treating cigars the same as cigarettes.

According to the agency, the restrictions are necessary to reduce “death and disease” from tobacco products, and the “dramatic rise in youth and young adult use of tobacco products such as e-cigarettes, waterpipe tobacco, and continued youth and young adult use of cigars (mainly cigarillos).”

Others see it differently.

“Premium cigar retailers already institute a wide range of controls to prevent youth access to these cigars, and all the taxation, labeling and testing requirements that FDA has instituted will accomplish is limit the diversity of products on the market, curtail innovation and raise prices,” Pursell said.

The FDA’s restrictions also ban free tobacco samples, institute new manufacturing equipment standards and abolish the delivery of cigars to American military service members overseas.

Last week’s Freedom Caucus report said: “the threat of FDA restrictions has loomed over the cigar business ever since the FDA took control over cigarettes.”

In 2009, a Democratic-controlled Congress amended the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to include the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, giving the FDA sweeping authority to regulate tobacco. President Obama signed it into law in June 2009.

What started as a harsh focus on cigarettes expanded into a harsh crackdown on all forms of tobacco — something even Grayson, a staunch liberal, considered mission creep.

“Premium cigars should not be subject to FDA regulation,” he said five years after supporting the FDA oversight legislation.

“I urge the FDA to exempt premium cigars from the proposed regulation, consistent with Congress’s intent when passing the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, for which I voted personally,” Grayson said.

Premarket review

“The worst fear of cigar manufacturers and smokers alike has been that the FDA will impose the same onerous premarket review requirements on cigars that it currently places on cigarettes,” the Freedom Caucus report said.

That fear became a reality in August, when the FDA implemented a finalized rule two-years in the making requiring new tobacco products, as well as those made since February 2007, to undergo an expensive premarket review process, or as the administration defines it, “rigorous scientific review.”

Altering the size, shape, packaging and blend of any cigar product also triggers government approval.

“This process requires that manufacturers prove their products meet certain requirements before they can go to market by submitting hundreds if not thousands of hours of paperwork per product,” said Azarias Cordoba, owner of Córdoba and Morales Cigars, near Orlando.

“Since the FDA defines new cigars to include new blends, which can change seasonally for smaller manufacturers, the compliance costs could overwhelm many small-cigar businesses,” he said in an op-ed co-written by Chris Hudson of Americans for Prosperity.

According to Cigar Aficionado, an industry publication, the FDA confirmed in May that new product applications could “cost hundreds of thousands of dollars” per application. As a result, manufacturers effectively would be paying the government to regulate them out of business.

“That’s part of their game,” Eric Newman, president of J.C. Newman’s Cigar Co., a 121-year-old family business, said of the outgoing administration’s enormous new fees.

“Cigars are to Tampa what wine is to Napa Valley and what automobiles are to Michigan,” Newman said when U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., visited his Tampa factory three weeks before the Nov. 8 presidential election.

Newman’s Cigar City Co. is facing $2.5 million in new compliance costs that would have to be, in part, offset by laying off up to half the factory’s workers, he said.

“Anyone that has common sense knows that a premium cigar is simply not consumed the same way a cigarette is,” said Rubio. “It’s not a public health threat.”

Speaking in both English and Spanish, Rubio said he hoped a bipartisan bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to exempt premium cigars would pass Congress before the end of the year. It won’t, just as several other attempts previously failed.

The Obama administration added insult to injury for Florida’s cigar producers and workers in October, when it announced in that Cuban cigars are now allowed in the United States as a result of the administration’s outreach efforts to the communist island government. But the new tobacco requirements won’t apply to Cuban tobacco products.

Cordoba, a Cuban-American, said his family business was once taken when Fidel Castro’s regime shut down factories across Cuba.

“I admit that the FDA’s actions are far less extreme than that of Fidel Castro. But the sting of government control over the economies and lives of people comes at a high price: the possible loss of a thriving business,” he said.

Via FloridaWatchdog.org.

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