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Appropriations committee votes to OK gambling bill, now cleared for Senate floor

A wide-sweeping gambling bill is now ready to be heard by the full Senate when the 2017 Legislative Session kicks off next month, after it cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee this morning.

The bill (SB 8), sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, ratifies the 2015 Seminole Compact, subject to the approval of amendments to conform the agreement to provisions outlined in the bill and other actions to be taken by the Seminole Tribe and the state of Florida, and would expand the number of facilities where slot machines can be operated.

“Florida is a diverse state and our constituents have many different opinions, beliefs and convictions regarding gaming. This legislation does not attempt to make value judgments about the private activities of free, taxpaying Floridians, instead it presents a comprehensive approach to regulating a voter-approved industry that has contributed billions of dollars to our economy for education, health care and infrastructure, while providing hundreds of thousands of jobs to Floridians over the course of nearly 100 years,” said Galvano in a statement after the vote.

The bill passed 14-2, with Sens. Aaron Bean and Kelli Stargel voting against it.

“I don’t feel like we need to go down this path,” said Bean, who commended Galvano for his effort. “I see us going on the continued road of a slippery slope.”

The measure was amended Thursday to add a bingo provision for charitable organizations. Under the new section, veterans’ organizations may conduct instant bingo using electronic tickets instead of paper tickets.

The amended bill also appears to outlaw advance deposit wagering, a form of gambling in which the bettor must fund his account being allowed to place betters. The amendment makes it a third degree felony to accept those wagers on horse races, but not on dog races.

It also toughens standards for race animal doping; changes the name of the Office of Amusements, which would regulate fantasy sports, to the Office of Contest Amusements; and gives regulators no more than 45 days to approve “rules for a new authorized game submitted by a licensed cardroom or provide the cardroom with a list of deficiencies as to those rules.”

Several members expressed hesitation about what the bill could mean for the state’s future, before voting for it. Sens. Anitere Flores and Rob Bradley were among those who said they faced a difficult decision, but felt inaction was no longer an option.

“This is a difficult issue for me,” said Bradley. “If I could do one thing to wave a magic wand in our state government, I would get rid of the lottery and move on in a different direction on gaming, because I think Florida is about something different. We’re about beaches and sunshine. Not gaming. But ladies and gentlemen, I don’t have a magic wand, none of us do.”

Sen. Jack Latvala, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, called the measure a jobs bill and said he hoped it will be “one more place where the Senate comes down strong for jobs.”

The House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee OK’d its own gambling bill Thursday.

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Lottery fight between Gov. Scott and House could be costly

Florida could spend up to $100,000 in the skirmish between House Speaker Richard Corcoran and the administration of Gov. Rick Scott.

Corcoran last week asked a court to block a contract the Florida Lottery approved last fall. The contract with IGT Global Solutions is worth more than $700 million.

Corcoran’s lawsuit maintains lottery officials broke the law because they approved a contract that exceeds the department’s authorized budget.

The Florida Lottery this week hired attorney Barry Richard with the Greenberg Traurig firm to represent them in the legal battle. Richard represented President George W. Bush during the presidential election recount battle in 2000.

Richard’s contract calls for him to be paid up to $60,000 for a trial and an additional $40,000 for any appeal. The Florida House is using lawyers who work for the state on the case.

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Rick Scott says fellow Republicans — he’s looking at you, Mr. Speaker — are spreading fake news

Gov. Rick Scott is now saying that his fellow Republicans in the Florida House are using “fake news” to justify their plan to scrap the state’s economic development agency.

Scott used his campaign Twitter account on Wednesday to distribute a video critical of House Speaker Richard Corcoran and House Republicans. The video labels Corcoran a “career politician” who wasted money by having the House produce a video that trashed programs championed by Scott.

The House video released last week blasted Visit Florida, the agency that promotes tourism, and Enterprise Florida, the organization that uses taxpayer money to lure companies to the state. The House is considering a bill that would eliminate Enterprise Florida.

Scott’s video points out that the House criticized incentives handed out before Scott was governor.

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DCF files: Tony Dungy, adoption, false reports and a new trend – falling asleep in cars, high and with kids

It’s another interesting day in the Florida child welfare business and not a bit has anything to do with a Department of Children and Families (DCF) child protection investigator being arrested. That’s good news.

Starting with the positive, the Tallahassee Democrat reported Tony Dungy was in the state capital to speak at a DCF Black History Month Celebration, giving a 15-minute talk to those in attendance. He serves as a spokesman for the Tampa-based nonprofit, All-Pro Dad.

“I think that’s what this month is all about,” he said, the Democrat wrote. “Black history month, celebrating children and families. One child at a time. One family at a time. One step at a time. You never know what that step is going to be, where it can go, what it’s going to lead to.”

Moving on, we have another positive story out of Tallahassee by ABC affiliate WTXL, which reported Tuesday that two foster children are going through the adoption process out of 32 foster children they reported in a special series.

Three-year-old Tenley and her sister 5-year-old Taylyn are set to be adopted by Greg and Nancy Brannen, says WTXL. Though the process is taking time, the children are in their care right now.

“Every day I come home, I open the door and they’re like, ‘Daddy, daddy,’” the prospective father told the station. “They’re such a joy.”

Next, things get weird.

A woman – Jessica Elizabeth Combee, from Westville, near the border with Alabama – appeared in court last week on a violation of probation charge in connection to a 2014 arrest in which she filed a whopping 28 false reports to the state’s abuse registry website, according to the Chipley Paper.

At the time, the newspaper reported Tuesday, Combee told investigators she did it to “create havoc.”

Filing of a false report of abuse is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison with DCF reserving the right to impose a fine not exceeding $10,000 for each violation.

Getting worse …

In Sarasota County, a woman pulled up to a Venice gas station with a one-year-old child in the backseat and fell asleep, reported the Bradenton Herald Wednesday. Kathryn Miller, 30, then woke up, went into the store – leaving the child in the car, which was parked at pump No. 16, and it was around that time someone had called law enforcement.

When the cops showed up on the scene, she was asked to show them where the child was and they looked in the car, finding a Mason jar in the back with a marijuana bud in it. When later searched, Miller was found to have another three small baggies of pot in her purse, too.

The child was taken into custody by DCF authorities.

She was arrested by sheriff’s deputies on charges of child neglect, possession of marijuana under 20 grams and possession of drug paraphernalia, writes the Herald. She was released Sunday on a $6,000 bond.

And last, but not least, we bring you the case of Matthew McRee, 36, and Christina Mattessino, 30, were sleeping in a silver Cadillac with a child in a soaked diaper in the backseat of the car, according to the Spanish version of the Bradenton Herald (hit translate at the top right of your computer screen when the option box appears).

Typically, as is the case in these situations, McRee seemed disoriented and didn’t have a driver’s license, the newspaper reported Tuesday. But that wasn’t the end of it for McRee, who has a lengthy arrest history, per public records.

According to the Herald, “McRee was taken to Sarasota County jail on several counts, including child negligence, drunken driving, possession of heroin and marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and driving under suspended license. Mattessino, meanwhile, was taken to jail on $ 17,000 bond, facing child malpractice charges and possessing drug paraphernalia.”

The toddler was handed over to close relatives and the incident was reported to DCF, the Herald said.

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Higher education budget chair favors vocational training as voting begins

The House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee OK’d eight member requests for state funds Wednesday, including programs boosting technical training for people not headed to college and a veterinary lab at the University of Florida.

As did chairmen of other budget panels reviewing member projects (see here and here), Larry Ahern of the higher ed panel warned members that their votes merely rendered the projects eligible for inclusion in the House version of the appropriations act.

It did not guarantee them a place in that bill.

“Let me be clear that a vote for a project today does not mean that project will ultimately be funded at that level or even in the House bill. This is just the next step in the process of developing our budget,” the Seminole Republican said.

Which bills have the best chance of making the cut?

“A compelling state interest is one of the big ones. Is it something that’s already being done somewhere else?” he said. “Ultimately, is this even the right place in the budget for some of these projects?”

Ahern is particularly interested in vocational projects — apprenticeships, internships, other forms of nonacademic training.

“I find those very attractive because of their ability for those not going to college or a university to have a career path that pays a better-than-average wage,” Ahern said.

For example, the panel approved $200,000 for a partnership with car dealers to train young people for relatively high-paying jobs in auto shops. The bill is HB 2235.

(Here’s the background on the bills debated.)

“There is a demand for those jobs, but they’re not able to train enough young adults to fill these jobs,” Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., said.

HB 2237 would provide $300,000 to buy a 3D printer for Daytona State College, to train young people for associate of science degrees in “additive manufacturing” — an emerging field.

HB 2273, meanwhile, contains $265,000 for IT and advanced manufacturing training in Baker County.

HB 2225 would authorize $375,000 to organize academic mentoring programs for African American high schoolers in the Big Bend area through Tallahassee Community College. Rep. Ramon Alexander said their graduation rate in the area is 68 percent.

Academic projects included HB 2131, $3 million to establish an Institute for Comparative Veterinary Diagnostics at the University of Florida — essentially, a diagnostic lab. At present there isn’t one in Florida, so tests have to be sent out of state.

HB 2019 would provide $1.5 million for a pediatric research and education program at UF. HB 2057 would allocate $2 million for a neurodegenerative disease program at UF, conducting research into Alzheimer’s disease and related maladies.

The committee approved $1.6 million to expand an honors program at Florida Gulf Coast University (HB 2211).

Ahern is not pre-selecting projects for votes by his subcommittee, as some other chairman are doing. He’s letting his members decide.

“That’s the beauty of this process,” he said.

“A lot of these (projects) previous to this were just put into the budget during a conference committee at the end of the session. There now is the transparency, that the public can view and see and hear” the process.

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Firms randomly picked for lobbying compensation audits

Even as some lawmakers have questioned its necessity, legislative and executive branch lobbying firms were again randomly selected Wednesday for audits of their compensation reports.

The firms picked for legislative lobbying audits are:

— Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney

— Buigas & Associates

— David R. Custin & Associates

— Ericks Consultants

— Hopping Green & Sams

— Lewis Longman & Walker

— Lisa Aaron Consulting

— Luis E. Rojas

— McGee & Mason

— Redfish Consulting

— Ronald R. Richmond

— Shumaker Loop & Kendrick

— Smith & Smith

— The Labrador Co.

The alternates are:

— Barlow Consulting

— Butler Weihmuller Katz Craig

— Capitol Hill Group

— Damon Smith Consulting

— Dixie Sansom Consulting

— Littlejohn Mann & Associates

— Pruitt & Associates

— Quintairos Prieto Wood & Boyer

— R. Dale Patchett Managemen

— Shutts & Bowen

— Southern Campaign Resources

— Strategos Public Affairs

— Sunrise Consulting Group

— Uhlfelder and Associates

The firms picked for executive-branch lobbying audits are:

— Andrew J. Liles

— Calhoun Management & Consulting

— Capitol Insight

— Carr Allison

— Champion Consultants

— Janet Llewellyn

— Lester Abberger

— Lindstrom Consulting

— Pruitt & Associates

— T.B. Consultants

— TC Wolfe

— Wilson & Associates

The alternates are:

— Capitol Energy Florida

— Foley & Lardner

— Horton & Associates

— Impact GR

— Jordan Connors Group

— Law Office of Cynthia G. Angelos

— Cusick and Associates

— Punyko Associates

— R. Bruce Kershner Co.

— Rachael Ondrus

— Richard S. Kip

— The Peeples Group

The last round of audits, required under a 2005 state law and released in September 2015, found discrepancies big and small after staff randomly picked 26 lobbying firms to be audited.

Auditors discovered a number of firms either underreporting or overreporting the money they made in 2014. In another case, auditors couldn’t tell who had paid a particular bill.

But generally, lobbying firms were annoyed at having to undergo auditing and lawmakers were underwhelmed.

“I don’t understand how the public’s interest is advanced by this exercise,” said state Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who formerly sat on the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee.

“I just don’t see how this information is relevant” other than being a “marketing tool for big lobbying firms,” Bradley said in late 2015.

Legislation was actually filed for the 2016 Legislative Session that would have repealed the audit requirement, but it died in both chambers.

The latest audits are scheduled to begin May.

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House won’t change nursing home reimbursement formula this year

The House won’t pursue a proposal to change the way the state reimburses nursing homes caring for Medicaid patients — at least, not this year.

They think the program is not quite cooked yet.

“Although we like the idea of a prospective payment system … perhaps the calculations that were done in that study don’t meet all the needs,” Jason Brodeur, chairman of the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee, told members Wednesday.

He referred to a plan by Navigant Consulting Inc., under which the state would pay nursing homes using a per diem rate calculated based on four components, of which patient care would account for the largest portion, 80 percent, of total reimbursement.

“One of the things I think we could probably do as a committee is maybe commit ourselves to a more intellectually disciplined approach,” Brodeur said. “I think the data exist to get us much tighter and a little bit better.”

Ranking committee Democrat David Richardson agreed.

“It needs more work,” he said.

Brodeur said following his committee’s meeting that the Navigant plan uses cost of living indices only for Broward and Miami-Dade counties and the entire rest of the state.

“Everybody who’s been to Naples and Liberty County knows they probably shouldn’t be in the same payment matrix,” he said.

Navigant proposed a two-year “glide path,” or transition to the new system.

“What you could potentially have is somebody losing millions of dollars and only having two years to absorb that. The committee would probably like more time to look at whether a five-year or six-year glide path would be more reasonable.”

LeadingAge Florida, representing some 400 senior communities, issued a written statement saying the move. The decision would “prevent unnecessary disruptions in nursing home care,” president and CEO Steve Bahmer said.

”High-quality care for Florida’s seniors was at stake, and the committee recognized the complexities of the system and the careful balance needed,” he said.

Bahmer looked forward to working with the Legislature, the state Agency for Health Care Administration and other players “to develop a fair and equitable reimbursement system focused on quality care.”

Emmett Reed, executive director of the Florida Health Care Association, which represents most state nursing homes, also issued a statement.

“We appreciate chairman Brodeur’s thoughtfulness on how best to move forward with a payment system for Florida’s nursing centers, and agree that any changes this significant require careful consideration of how resident care and center operations will be impacted,” Reed said.

“We still believe a prospective payment system makes sense for Florida’s nursing centers and the state of Florida and look forward to working with both chambers on the best way to proceed,” Reed said.

The subcommittee was one of several that began voting on member projects Wednesday. Among the measure it approved were:

HB 2021, providing around $250,000 for a jobs training center for disabled people serving Orange and Seminole counties.

HB 2067, worth more than $1 million, to provide alternative living arrangements to state mental hospitals for people in eight North Florida counties.

And HB 2075, authorizing $2.9 million for job training, after-school, mental health, and family services for people in six counties clustered around Palm Beach County.

Brodeur cautioned members that yes votes did not guarantee inclusion in the House budget.

“Really, what we did today is make their projects eligible to be in the budget,” he said. “We didn’t pass anything today, as much as make it eligible for future budget consideration.”

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chance the rapper

Craft beer debate includes … Chance the Rapper?

Craft brewers can thank Chance the Rapper for getting this year’s beer bill over its first legislative hurdle.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee on Wednesday cleared the measure (SB 554) on a 6-3 vote. Democrats Perry Thurston and Randolph Bracy joined Republican Lizbeth Benacquisto in opposing the bill.  

But Oscar Braynon, the chamber’s Democratic Leader, said he would support the legislation because of the example of the 23-year-old Chicago-based rap star.

The measure would allow smaller craft brewers to distribute their own beer. It would create an exception to Florida’s “three-tier system” born after Prohibition, which requires separation of alcoholic beverage manufacturers, distributors and retailers to avoid price-fixing.

Braynon explained that Chance, who won three Grammy Awards this year, first independently distributed his own music before getting “multimillion-dollar offers for distribution deals.”

The bill “would allow small brewers to do just what Chance the Rapper did,” Braynon said. “So I’m going to give this (bill) a chance—thanks to Chance the Rapper.”

(Chance, however, may be staying independent, according to The New York Post; he’s allegedly turning down $5 million-$10 million offers from record labels.)

The measure, sponsored by Tampa Republican and craft beer advocate Dana Young, only applies to those who produce 7,000 kegs or less a year, which she called the “smallest of the small” craft beermakers who are “not on the radar of distributors.”

Still, 7,000 kegs—at 15.5 gallons each—equals 868,000 pints of beer.

Lobbyists for “Big Beer” concerns rejected arguments there is a shortage of distributors for small brewers and added that the bill would further chip away at the state’s three-tier system.

Thurston agreed: “We are looking at a dismantling” of that, adding Chance “gave his music away … for free” at first to gain a following.

But Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, looked confused. “I’ve never heard of Chance the Rapper,” he said before voting for the bill.

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House committee passes controversial changes to ‘Stand Your Ground’

Members of the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice passed a highly-contested bill Tuesday, potentially changing the state’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense laws.

If passed, it would place the burden of proof on the prosecution (or state) in cases of those who claim self-defense immunity in acts of violence when brought before judiciary proceedings.

HB 245 was co-sponsored by 41 legislators, led by Rep. Bobby Payne, who was present at the subcommittee.

The bill gives procedural clarification in those cases of self-defense by shifting the language in the original 2005 law from an affirmative defense to an automatic defense, Payne said.

“The state’s attorney office would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they can prosecute this case in a pretrial hearing,” Payne added. “Then, if they do have enough proof, they would move to a jury trial.”

Several members of the committee expressed concern about aspects of the bill, notably over scenarios in which only two people were present in the situation, where no one else was a witness and in cases of domestic violence.

Reps. Sharon Pritchett and Ramon Alexander both expressed trepidation as to whether or not the bill – in addition to the original 2005 law – would be used to disguise or deflect guilt, or would be used frivolously by those charged with domestic violence.

Advocates of the bill said it was about improving the due process in legal actions, something that had been lost through the years as the courts primarily viewed defendants as guilty until proven innocent, rather than the other way around.

“I think this bill places that burden of proof back on the government where it’s supposed to be,” Rep. Gayle Harrell said at the meeting. “I think we need to remind the courts of that.”

Greg Newburn, state policy director for the Florida chapter of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, asked committee members to put aside their personal feelings about ‘Stand Your Ground’ and to think of today’s discussion as getting language into the law that should have been there in the first place.

“Even if you think ‘Stand Your Ground’ is not a good law, this is still a good bill here,” Newburn told the committee. “This is not the vehicle here today to oppose ‘Stand Your Ground.’ This is about fixing and protecting peoples’ fundamental constitutional rights. That’s what this bill is about. If you support those things, you should support this bill.”

For those who can’t afford tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees in what can often be a lengthy legal process, the current Stand Your Ground law – without the amendment – gives an advantage to defendants who are wealthy, represented by lawyers pro bono, or in contingency cases.

Detractors of the bill said the amendment would backlog the court dockets, prosecutor caseloads and keep law enforcement in court, rather than out doing their jobs on the street.

Phil Archer, the elected state attorney for the 18th Judicial District, spoke to committee members on behalf of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

Archer said precedent had always dictated a defendant prove beyond the preponderance of doubt their innocence, but it has never been up to the prosecution to bear the sole responsibility of proof.

“That’s never been done before in this state,” Archer said. “It’s never been done anywhere in this country. … And it’s not a high standard. It’s going to be used every single time by defendants.”

He also said the fiscal impact of the bill could instantly raise expenditures by as much as $8 million across the state, citing an average of $1,000 prosecuting each case, with 104,000 currently active cases.

Nevertheless, after a spirited debate on the pros and cons of the bill, the bill passed.

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Bill allowing women to sue doctors who perform abortions advances in Florida House

Women could sue doctors who performed an abortion on them without “informed consent” under a bill advanced by a House subcommittee Wednesday.

Sponsored by Vero Beach Republican Erin Grall, HB 19 would allow women to seek damages from doctors who failed to adequately inform of the physical and psychological harms of abortion for up to 10 years.

Currently, the primary recourse women have on an injury during an abortion procedure is to file a medical malpractice claim.

Grall told the House Quality Subcommittee that it was “time-consuming process” that placed an “unnecessary obstacle” to a judicial remedy.

West Park Democrat Shevrin Jones, the ranking member of the committee, asked Grall about the evidence of women suffering from psychological problems because of an abortion.

Although she didn’t provide statistics to back it up, Grall said that there had been “many women and many organizations” who came to her saying they had emotional distress after such a procedure.

“There is no hard research or data that I’m able to bring to you today,” she acknowledged, adding that she believed that, in any case, it was underreported.

Doctors and insurance companies strongly oppose the bill.

Mark Delegal, with the Doctors Company, a medical malpractice insurance business, said passage of HB 19 could knock out all medical malpractice reforms passed by the Florida Legislature in 2003.

“There’s nothing to suggest that current law is insufficient to address the harm suffered by women who have had abortions — certainly nothing that justifies vastly expanding physician liability and treating those injured by abortions differently from all other medical malpractice claimants,” said William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute.

Abortion rights advocates crowded the hearing room, and while most “waived in opposition” to the bill, several people did speak out against the bill.

Psychologist Rachel Roberts cited a 2008 study by the American Psychological Association Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion that concluded that among adult women who have an unplanned pregnancy the relative risk of mental health problems is “no greater if they have a single elective first-trimester abortion than if they deliver that pregnancy.”

“Most of you in this room would not have an audacity if she regretted having a baby, so I don’t know why you deem it acceptable to ask the one in three women like myself why we regret our abortions, “said Erin Foster, a Planned Parenthood volunteer from Tampa.

Douglas Murphy, with the Florida Medical Association, is a practicing OBGYN in Ocala. While he does not personally perform abortions, Murphy said if he did, and were just coming out of training, he would not want to practice in Florida if HB were to become the law of the land.

With the same committee hearing testimony last week about a doctor shortage in Florida, Democrats picked up on that cue in questioning Grall.

“This is just bad policy,” said Jones, “and if we’re trying to bring doctors into the state, we’re moving in the wrong direction.”

“I do believe what this is an attempt to eliminate abortions,” added St. Petersburg Democrat Wengay Newton.

Fort Myers Republican Ray Wesley Rodrigues pointed out that the only doctors liable under the bill would be those who failed to give informed consent, which is part of current law.

“I don’t see anything wrong with it,” he said. “This is a good bill.”

Grall said she was speaking for the women not in the room who choose not to talk about the emotional pain suffered from an abortion, comparing it to legislation regarding children, who also rarely have a voice in the halls of the Legislature.

“So, there are plenty of times that we will be asked to speak on behalf of people who have no voice, ” she said. “And that is who this bill addresses.”

The bill has one more committee stop before reaching the floor of the entire House. There is no companion bill filed yet in the Senate.

If it were to pass in the Legislature, HB 19 would become the first such law in the country, though similar legislation is moving through the Iowa Legislature.

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