Dana Young dubious about prisoner program shutdown

A top House Republican now is questioning the shutdown of a South Florida prisoner re-entry program.

Dana Young, the leader of the Florida House of Representatives’ controlling Republican caucus, wrote a letter to Corrections Secretary Julie Jones on Wednesday.

The letter, released to reporters on Thursday, comes on the tails of the department’s decision to discontinue a Broward County partnership with the Orlando-based Bridges of America nonprofit.

The organization provided “transitional counseling” and drug treatment in Lauderdale Lakes to prisoners on work release who needed help returning to society.

Last week, the Department of Corrections announced it was letting the Broward contract with Bridges of America end on the May 16 expiration date and not renewing it. The department said it needed the program’s space for more DOC employee offices.

“We are troubled by this decision as we understand the Department solicited proposals through a standard procurement process only a few months ago with the intention of finding a provider to run (or to continue running) this very facility as a Work Release and Re-Entry program for our outgoing prison population,” Young wrote.

“The very abrupt change-of-course on the Broward facility seems rushed and not well thought out,” she added. “If indeed such a crisis existed in terms of office space, as your recent public statement suggests, why was the legislature not notified?”

Young went on: “(W)e hope you will agree that a decision as drastic as to close down such a facility is one worth discussing and vetting with key stakeholders before abruptly doing so.”

Jones, in a statement earlier this week, said current enrollees would not be “negatively affect(ed)” and “opportunities will be made available for these individuals to continue in their journey to rehabilitation and successful transition into Florida’s communities.” She did not offer details.

Young, a Tampa Republican now running for a state Senate seat, was unmoved.

“Florida needs more transitional and treatment beds for our inmates, not less,” she said. “Even if the Department is able to find a place in similar programs around the state for the inmates being removed from the Broward program, this move still constitutes a reduction in overall beds ….”

“The decision to shut down a proven reentry facility appears premature and in direct opposition to your stated priorities by effectively choosing office space over direct services that have a proven track record of enhancing public safety and reducing recidivism,” Young added.

McKinley P. Lewis, communications director for the Department of Corrections, said Secretary Jones has not yet received the letter and will comment when she does.

At least four other lawmakers wrote similar letters of concern, with identical language in each: State Reps. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican; Rene “Coach P” Plascencia, an Orlando Republican; Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat; and Vic Torres, another Orlando Democrat.

Fla. Supreme Court punts on workers’ comp case

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday decided not to consider a case that challenged the constitutionality of the state’s workers’ compensation system.

The move leaves a contentious 2003 overhaul untouched – for now.

After hearing arguments in Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital earlier this month, all seven justices agreed to “exercise our discretion and discharge jurisdiction,” the court’s one-paragraph opinion said. “Accordingly, we dismiss review.”

The court did, however, in a separate case – Castellanos v. Next Door Company – strike down Florida’s workers’ compensation law’s legal fee schedule as unconstitutional, saying it was a violation of due process.

But its inaction in the Stahl case leaves intact a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling that “declared certain provisions of state workers’ compensation law) to be valid.”

Still pending, though, is another case that could affect the state system.

That case, Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, involves a dispute over disability benefits for an injured firefighter. Arguments were held nearly two years ago, court dockets show.

“Workers’ comp,” as its commonly called, is “a state-mandated insurance program that provides compensation to employees who suffer job-related injuries and illnesses,” according to the Nolo legal website.

Opponents of Florida’s workers’ comp regime have long hammered the changes put in place by Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature in 2003, saying they were draconian and favored employers at the cost of injured employees.

Stahl hurt his back as a nurse in the South Florida hospital that same year, with his injury limiting his physical activities so much it effectively ended his career. He sued, saying his worker’s compensation benefits were “inadequate” under the 2003 overhaul.

But the cost to employers of workers’ compensation insurance in Florida has gone down by more than 50 percent since those changes took effect.

A raft of opposing interests filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the case, including the Florida Insurance Council, American Insurance Association, and National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies for the hospital, and police and firefighter unions, Florida Workers Advocates, and Florida Justice Association supporting Stahl.

As to the Castellanos case, business interests and others took to social media Thursday to decry the court’s ruling on the legal fee schedule.

The schedule basically amounted to caps on how much lawyers could make: Twenty percent of the first $5,000; 15 percent of the next $5,000 and 10 percent of the remaining amount of benefits they helped secure.

Those benefits had to be provided during the first 10 years after filing a claim. Lawyers could get 5 percent of benefits secured thereafter.

Tamela Perdue, general counsel of the Associated Industries of Florida business lobby, tweeted Tuesday that workers’ compensation “rates will be significantly impacted by this ruling.” This month, Gov. Rick Scott appointed her to the state’s Workers’ Compensation Panel.

In a separate statement, Perdue said the decision “will certainly trigger a substantial and hefty rate increase for which employers have not prepared or budgeted.”

“We also know from history that this will spark an avalanche of increased and unbridled litigation that will continue to be a leading cost driver to the system in the future, and a major disruption to the economic success we have worked so many years to achieve,” she added.

Added Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce: “As Florida’s leading advocate fighting to keep workers’ comp working, the potential impact of the high court’s ruling could threaten Florida’s improving business climate.”

And state Rep. Bill Hager, a Delray Beach Republican vying to become the next insurance commissioner, tweeted that he was “committed to ensuring Florida’s business-friendly climate is not jeopardized by this ruling.”

Marco Rubio falls in Morning Consult Senate approval rankings

Marco Rubio’s presidential bid may have had an impact on his standings in the U.S. Senate.

On Thursday, Morning Consult, a media and survey technology company, released its latest senator approval rankings. The newest rankings grouped Rubio in the bottom 10 senators.

According to the report, Rubio’s approval rating dropped five points since November, down to 5 percent. His disapproval rating increased eight points in the same time span, to 41 percent.

The senator approval rankings were calculated from interviews with 62,288 registered voters across the country in Morning Consult’s weekly online national polling. The survey took place from Jan. 8 through April 17, and their ZIP codes identified voters. Each state’s sample, according to the report, was weighted on gender, age and race using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent population survey.

Rubio was ranked as one of the 10 senators with the highest disapproval ratings, joining Harry ReidOrrin HatchJohn McCain and Pat Roberts. Sen. Mitch McConnell was the least-popular senator, with a 49 percent disapproval rating.

The most popular senator, according to Morning Consult’s rankings, was Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders had an 80 percent approval rating. That’s down slightly from a similar ranking in November, where Sanders held the top spot with an 83 percent approval ranking.

Other senators who were among the most popular in the Morning Consult rankings were Susan CollinsJohn Hoeven, Angus KingPatrick Leahy and Thomas Carper.

The survey found that Sen. Bill Nelson had a 52 percent approval rating and a 24 percent disapproval rating.

Gwen Graham-backed MacDill AFB amendment added to NDAA

U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham is among the Armed Services panel members currently slogging through a marathon session to craft a national defense budget for FY 2017.

The infamously complex and time-intensive process of producing the annual National Defense Authorization Act began early Wednesday morning and as of press time clocked in at around six hours long, with about 30 member-sponsored amendments considered and some 70 left to go.

The upside for Graham, besides bringing Chief of Staff Julia Gill Woodward‘s infant son along for the legislative odyssey?

Graham managed to shepherd an amendment of her own into the bill.

Her amendment to the mammoth H.R. 4909 proposal is intended to support MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, the massive military installation where the U.S. Central Command, better known as CENTCOM, is located.

The Graham-sponsored language provides that, should the appropriations process for the base go forward as laid out elsewhere in the bill — which calls for construction of a new Army Reserve Center/Aviation Support Facility at the site — “the Secretary of the Army may relocate and construct replacement skeet and grenade launcher ranges necessary to clear the site for new Army Reserve facilities.”

Graham scored a coveted spot on the House Armed Services Committee in 2015, an unusual coup for a freshman Democrat in a GOP-controlled Congress.

MacDill AFB lies in the district of fellow Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, though Graham is better positioned to secure the amendment’s passage from her perch on the defense panel.

Some senior Democrats on the committee have criticized a budget gambit Chairman Mac Thornberry is making in the bill this year. The move predicates funding for existing operations on funds to be appropriated next spring, a mechanism Washington U.S. Rep. Adam Smith called a “very high-stakes game.”

Graham announced last week she is actively exploring a run for governor in 2018 after a judge in a landmark redistricting case upheld new maps that radically alter her moderate-leaning 2nd Congressional District.

New report says Florida still has issues with political corruption

Florida continues to have some issues with political corruption.

That, according to the new survey from the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics Corruption in America.

The report is based on responses from hundreds of journalists covering state politics, along with issues related to corruption across all 50 states. Both legal and illegal corruption is measured, with illegal corruption defined as private gains such as cash or gifts by a government official in exchange for specific benefits.

Legal corruption, meanwhile, is defined as political gains such as campaign contributions or endorsements by an official in exchange for providing specific benefits to individuals or groups.

So how does Florida rank? Respondents claim illegal corruption in the Sunshine State is only “slightly common.”

However, LEGAL corruption in Florida is described as “very common,” in both the executive and legislative branches of government.

As to best and worst states overall, “With respect to illegal corruption, Georgia and West Virginia are perceived to be the most corrupt states, followed by Hawaii, and a third group of states that includes New Jersey, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Oregon is perceived to be the least corrupt state, followed by Vermont, and a third group of states that includes Iowa, Maine, and Wyoming,” say the report’s authors.

State refuses to divulge new plan to help ex-prisoners

The state’s Department of Corrections has slapped a ‘top secret’ label on its plan to help ex-cons in Broward County.

The department on Monday turned down a request by POLITICO Florida to release a “transition plan,” now that the state has ended its partnership with the Orlando-based Bridges of America nonprofit.

Bridges of America had a contract to run a transitional and substance abuse program for former prisoners in Broward County. The arrangement ends May 16, and the department told the organization it’s not renewing the deal.

What happens next? The department won’t say, explaining that the document requested by the news outlet is “attorney work product” and thus exempt from the state’s public records law.

It was prepared in connection with a bid protest filed by the nonprofit for a similar program in Manatee County, a department spokesman said.

But he also told the website that “the actual transition plan itself is not on paper” and has only been informally discussed.

Department officials say they’re shutting the program down to use its space to expand offices for probation and other workers.

The program ending is the “Substance Abuse Transition Re-Entry Center (SATREC).” It “provides intensive substance abuse treatment and services to men,” according to a news release.


2 p.m. update: Department of Corrections spokesman McKinley P. Lewis wrote in an email to FloridaPolitics.com: “The Department’s transition strategy is not something that has ‘only been informally talked about.’

“The strategy was requested at the express direction of the department’s legal team. Per standard procedure, documents which are classified as part of the Department’s active litigation strategy are exempt from disclosure pursuant to 119.071(1)(d), F.S.

“Once the litigation is concluded, these documents will be made available to the public.”

Also, Bridges of America released copies of letters from former inmates enrolled in Bridges’ Broward program. Those letters can be read in a PDF file posted here.

Economists puzzle over proposed gambling amendment

If it’s approved, would a proposed constitutional amendment outlaw currently legal kinds of gambling?

A panel of state economic analysts debated the question on Tuesday.

The Financial Impact Estimating Conference, a slate of economists for the Legislature and executive branches, held a public workshop in Tallahassee on the Voter Control of Gambling amendment.

It would “ensure that Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling,” the ballot summary says. It’s aiming to get on the 2018 statewide ballot.

The panel’s goal is to predict what effect the constitutional change might have on state and local government revenue.

But first, members wanted to suss out whether it would be “retroactive.”

That is, would the amendment prevent expanded gambling after it’s approved, or would it knock out some games now being played in Florida.

The state earns revenue by taxing gambling proceeds, including $150 million-$200 million yearly from slot machines.

Both panelists and the amendment’s sponsor weren’t entirely clear.

“It doesn’t leap out at me that this is retroactive,” said Amy Baker, the Florida Legislature’s chief economist. “I’m trying to see the signal that it is.”

The chair of Voters In Charge, the group sponsoring the initiative, told the group the amendment was both forward- and backward-looking.

We didn’t want some things set out to beat the clock,” said John Sowinski, who also heads the No Casinos anti-gambling expansion organization. 

He explained he didn’t want gambling concerns trying to roll out new games before the amendment takes effect. 

But he also said he wanted to “preserve the status quo as much as possible.” In fact, another panelist had asked whether some gambling would be grandfathered in.

Finally, Sowinski said that he would consult with his attorneys and report back. 

A case pending before the Florida Supreme Court also weighs on the amendment’s effect. Oral arguments are set for June 7.

The court is being asked to decide whether slot machines are allowed outside South Florida if local voters in a particular county approve of them.

Moreover, lawmakers this past session failed to approve a renewed agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

It would have allowed them continued exclusivity to offer blackjack in return for $3 billion over seven years in revenue share to the state.

But it also would have effectively expanded gambling, including letting the tribe add roulette and craps at their casinos.

The Legislature also let die a raft of other gambling-related legislation, including a measure that would have explicitly legalized online fantasy sports play.


Jim Rosica (jim@floridapolitics.com) covers the Florida Legislature, state agencies and courts from Tallahassee. 

Darryl Paulson: It’s time to let more felons vote in Florida

Few things divide voters more than giving criminals the right to vote, even if they are former criminals.

The issue will likely receive additional attention with the decision by Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe to use his executive power to extend voting rights to all 206,000 felons in his state. Even murderers, rapists and other violent felons will have their voting rights restored.

Critics raise several objections. First, they say the governor, acting alone, does not have the authority to institute such a significant change. Second, even if he does have the authority, he erred in granting voting rights to violent felons.

A final objection is that McAuliffe’s action was nothing more than a partisan political act to enroll Democratic voters to help his friend Hillary Clinton carry Virginia in the November presidential election.

Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have no restrictions on felon voting. Even those in prison may vote. Fourteen states reinstate the right to vote once prisoners have served their sentences, while 20 states restore voting rights after felons complete the sentence and probation and parole.

Three states, including Florida, impose a lifetime ban on felon voting unless the person appeals to the governor and cabinet and they agree to reinstate the right to vote.

Six states — Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia — exclude over 7 percent of voting-age adults from voting due to a felony conviction.

Florida excludes more people from voting than any other state, banning 10.4 percent of the state’s voting-age population from casting a ballot because of a felony. For Florida’s African-American population, 23.3 percent are disqualified. As The Sentencing Project noted in a 2010 report, “more people were disenfranchised in Florida than in any other state.”

All of the six states with the most disenfranchised felons are southern states with large black populations. There is a distinct relationship between race and voter disenfranchisement.

Most of the southern states instituted laws or constitutional amendments, such as the felon vote, after the Civil War to suppress black voting.

In Virginia, it was evident why these policies were instituted. In 1906, Virginia state Sen. Carter Glass explained why the Legislature passed the felon vote and other discriminatory barriers. The reforms will “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in the state in less than five years.” The end result, said Carter, will be the “complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”

Republicans, who control the Virginia Legislature, contend that the governor’s action was political. Based on many studies, the felons are likely to register as a Democrat over Republican by a margin of six to one.

Studies indicate that the felon vote will have little impact on election results because few felons bother to vote. At most, they might add one-half of 1 percent. In a competitive state like Virginia, however, those few votes could be the difference between victory and defeat.

Republicans, who generally oppose making it easy to restore voting rights to felons, point out that George W. Bush won Florida in 2000 by 537 votes. If felons were completely granted the right to vote, Al Gore would have won Florida and the presidency by 80,000 votes.

In 2007, then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, with the support of the Cabinet, revised the felon-vote appeal process to make it easier for felons to get their voting rights restored.

Crist said that felons who have their voting rights restored are less likely to return to prison. Also, he argued that only 25 percent of felons go to prison. In other words, most felons have not committed violent acts. From April 2007 until March 2011, 154,178 Floridians had their voting rights restored.

But Gov. Rick Scott reversed the easing in the restoration of voting rights. Over the next two years, only 370 felons had their right to vote restored.

Under current Florida rules, felons must wait seven years after completing their sentences to apply for reinstitution of their voting rights. In addition, the system is so backlogged with appeals that it takes an average of nine years to complete the review.

A felon who leaves a Florida prison in 2016 cannot apply for restoration until 2023. After a nine-year review, it will be 2032 before the governor and cabinet hear the appeal. Any minor infraction, even a parking ticket, could derail the process.

Democrats like McAuliffe can be criticized for pushing for felon vote restoration only months before a national election in which Democrats would gain an advantage.

Republicans like Scott can be criticized for impeding the restoration of voting rights for felons even thought studies show it reduces recidivism.

Unlike McAuliffe, I have no sympathy for restoring voting rights to violent felons. Unlike Scott, I have no problem restoring voting rights to felons who have not committed acts of violence and, many of whom, never spend a day in prison.

Democrats cannot support restoration of felon rights simply because their party will benefit, nor can Republicans oppose restoration because they will suffer political harm.

There is plenty of shame for both parties. Wouldn’t it be novel if both parties jointly supported legislation that restored restoration for non-violent felons who have served their time? Such a program would reduce recidivism, which should be the goal.

OK! Wake me up. I had this weird dream about both parties cooperating to achieve a sound public policy.

***

Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg.

Diane Roberts: Moving Andrew Jackson to the back of the bill was a no-brainer

That Barack Obama. He’s at it again, dividing the country, fostering racial strife.

What is it this time, you ask? Why, only the most sacred of things, our best beloved, our central obsession — money.

The double sawbuck, to be precise, the one currently sporting Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States. Obama’s Treasury Secretary is sending him to the back of the $20 bill, while ex-slave Harriet Tubman gets to go on the front.

Planet Fox (that lightless but loud satellite orbiting the vast Murdoch Spatial Anomaly) is puffing and squawking. Greta Van Susteren used her April 21 “Off the Record” segment (which, since it’s broadcast to a lot of people, is actually ON the record) to get emphatic, if not coherent, about keeping Old Hickory right where God intended: “We could put a woman on a bill! Tubman — acknowledge her courage, and not stir up the country. But give Tubman her own bill! Like a $25 bill! We could use a $25 bill! Put her picture on that and we could all celebrate!”

The Brain Trust that is “Fox and Friends” also came out strong for leaving Andrew Jackson alone. He’s an American hero. Brian Kilmeade called him “one of the best generals we ever had.”

Kilmeade might want to ask the Cherokee, the Creeks, the Choctaw and the Seminoles about that.

Co-host Heather Nauer fussed that Alexander Hamilton got to remain on the $10 bill just because he’s the subject of a hit Broadway musical: “If that is the standard, next thing you know, folks, we’re going to have cats on money!”

Ben Carson (how soon we forget!) and Donald Trump (how we wish we could forget!) decided that Harriet Tubman deserved maybe the $2 bill. Trump allowed as how Tubman was “fantastic,” but dismissed the Jackson-Tubman switch as “political correctness,” adding that Jackson had “been on the bill for many, many years and really represented — somebody that was really very important to this country.”

A cynical person might wonder if Herr Drumpf had actually ever heard of Harriet Tubman. Or Andrew Jackson.

For Herr Drumpf’s information, Jackson wasn’t merely a plantation master, a proslavery Southerner. He was a government terrorist.

In 1816, he orchestrated the destruction of what was called the “Negro Fort” in Spanish Florida. More than 300 Choctaw, Seminole and African Americans were killed, many of them women and children.

Hundreds more refugees who lived around the Apalachicola River settlement were rounded up and sent back into slavery in Georgia and the Carolinas.

He violated international borders raiding Seminole villages in Spanish Florida, burning and murdering. The Seminoles harbored runaway slaves.

As president in 1830, he pushed the Indian Removal Act, setting in motion the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of native people from their lands east of the Mississippi so that white people could establish plantations worked by black people.

I guess you could say that was “really very important to this country.” You could also say it was genocide: 10,000 died of typhus, cholera, dysentery and starvation before they ever made it to “Indian Territory.”

Compare Jackson’s career with that of Araminta Ross (she later called herself “Harriet,” and “Tubman” was her husband’s last name), born a slave on a Maryland plantation c. 1822, escaped to freedom in Pennsylvania in 1849.

She became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad — a very successful one — returning South again and again to help free people.

The white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison nicknamed her “Moses.” During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman spied for the Union, and in the decades after (she died in 1913), advocated for women having the right to vote.

Yes, Andrew Jackson was elected President of the United States. But a number of dodgy people have held that office: Millard Fillmore. Richard Nixon. George W. Bush. Doesn’t mean we have to celebrate them.

No, history is not being buried: Jackson’s simply getting parked in a less prominent place on the money. He’s still there, so all you white men who feel threatened by the elevation of a bad-ass brave little black woman who believed that the words of the Declaration of Independence — the part about everyone being created equal — should govern America, need to get over it.

It’s not “political correctness.” It’s not pandering. It’s righting an old wrong.

Come join America, white guys. You might learn something.

***

Diane Roberts is the author of “Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America.” She teaches at Florida State University.

School Board blocks transgender kids from choosing restroom

A north Florida school board approved a measure on Tuesday that will limit restrooms to students based on their birth sex, not their gender identity.

The Marion County School Board approved the ban which took effect Wednesday morning.

The decision came despite a warning from the American Civil Liberties Union that the ban is unlawful, and could jeopardize federal funding for the district.

Board member Carol Ely says transgender students shouldn’t get to choose which restroom to use.

“I thought about it and that’s reverse discrimination,” she said.

Board Chairman Bobby James urged the board to hold off on creating an official resolution until further study could be done over the summer. His motion to delay the decision was not seconded, and died.

The district started allowing transgender students to choose their restroom two months ago. But a parent claimed his son’s privacy rights were being violated because he’s not comfortable sharing a restroom with a student who was born female but now identifies as male.

Roger Gannam, an attorney for the conservative legal group Liberty Counsel, is representing the parent of the student who complained. He argued that there is no legal mandate requiring the district to permit transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.

“No school district has ever lost federal funding for maintaining gender-appropriate facilities, despite the claims of activists” he wrote to the board.

ACLU attorney Daniel Tilley tells The Ocala Star-Banner the group will represent any student needing assistance.

“When transgender students are required to use separate facilities, it does not go unnoticed by other students,” Tilley wrote in a letter to the board.