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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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horse racing

Senate adds bingo, doping, ADW to its 2017 gambling bill

The sponsor of the Senate’s 2017 gambling bill has filed a 134-page strike-all amendment, a day before the bill is scheduled to be heard by the Appropriations Committee and a House version to be heard by its first panel.

Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican expected to be Senate President in 2018-20, filed the amendment early Wednesday.

On a first read, the strike-all’s most significant changes are:

— A new bingo provision for charitable organizations. The new section would allow certain “veterans’ organizations” to offer “instant bingo … using electronic tickets in lieu of or together with instant bingo paper tickets.”

— A provision that appears to outlaw a form of gambling called advance-deposit wagering (ADW), “in which the bettor must fund his account before being allowed to place bets,” according to Investopedia, adding “racetrack owners, horse trainers and state governments sometimes receive a cut of ADW revenues.” The amendment makes a third-degree felony out of accepting such a wager, but only “on horseraces,” not dog races.

— Toughening testing standards for race animal “doping,” the giving of performance-enhancing drugs to a racehorse or greyhound.

In other sections, the strike-all also changes the proposed “Office of Amusements” that would regulate fantasy sports to an “Office of Contest Amusements.”

For counties that pass a slots referendum, the amendment would allow state gambling regulators to “fix annually the time, place, and number of days during which operations may be conducted (as) ratified in the election.”

And it would give gambling 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.”

The underlying bill (SB 8) was cleared by the Regulated Industries committee, which oversees gambling policy. If cleared by the Appropriations panel, it can be taken up by the full Senate.

Meantime, the House measure is slated to be first considered by the Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee, also on Thursday morning. The 2017 Legislative Session begins March 7.

The bills are at odds in several ways: For example, the House bill outlaws designated-player card games, but the Senate would let “all cardroom operators … offer designated player games,” and the House would prohibit the expansion of slot machines, while the Senate generally expands the availability of slot machines.

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House Transportation and Tourism panel begins vetting member projects

The House Transportation and Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee began voting on nearly $500 million in member project bills Wednesday, as its chairman warned that the panel’s approval does not guaratee a project will make it into the final House budget bill.

“Our point here is to try to vet these to the extent we can in the time that we have,” Rep. Clay Ingram told committee members.

“As we pass or don’t pass them, it doesn’t mean they are going to be in the House bill, but it makes them eligible,” he said. “I think we’ve had in the neighborhood of 300 bills filed, and a whole lot more in the queue ready to be filed before session starts.”

Actually, House members had requested 319 projects worth $708 million by the House’s Feb. 7 deadline. The various appropriations subcommittees began culling the herd Wednesday.

Ingram said he had sidelined some projects that he knew just wouldn’t fly.

“My first paring down was looking at the bills. There are a whole lot that we just didn’t even consider to be brought up. The bills that were presented today are bills that I thought had merit and had already been vetted to some extent,” Ingram said.

He deep-sixed projects if he thought “the amounts were just absurdly too high, or it was not something I felt the House as a body would be comfortable funding,” he said.

“I tried to make it clear that this was one more step in vetting a project. It doesn’t guarantee it’s going to be in the House bill, but it’s one more step in the process.”

Among the bills that will move along are measures that would designate a portion of State Road 408 in Orange County the Arnold Palmer Expressway, for about $1,000 from the Department of Transportation budget; spend $2 million for Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, bike lanes, and other road improvements in Venice; and spend $200,000 to erect solar lighting on a road in western Broward County to help prevent cars running into a canal.

Another $3 million would support “community catalyst” projects statewide to help neighborhoods recover from the foreclosure crisis. Some $3 million would finance repairs and restoration of the St. Marks Lighthouse, in Walkulla County. A restoration project at an historic school in Hernando, in Citrus County, would get $396,400.

Additionally, the Taylor House African American museum in Tallahassee’s Frenchtown neighborhood would get around $200,000.

Ingram said House leaders have not yet told him how much money he will have to spend.

“Those decisions are made by the presiding officers before they present the allotted amounts to each subcommittee,” he said.

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Joe Negron’s land buy plan a non-starter with likely Republican voters, poll shows

Likely Republican voters are against the Florida Senate proposal to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee, according to a new poll released by the Associated Industries of Florida obtained by FloridaPolitics.com.

The survey asked Republican voters about a variety of issues on the table for the 2017 Legislative Session and no matter the wording, the South Florida land buy was a loser.

When asked whether the Legislature should use eminent domain to purchase the farmland for environmental purposes, a whopping 65 percent of those polled said they disagreed, with just 21 percent approving.

Voter opinion was just as harsh when the poll asked if the “state should continue to buy private farmland for environmental purposes and take it out of production, even if that means the state must borrow the money to purchase bonds.”

Voters said by a 64-23 margin that they disagreed with the proposition, with Panhandle Republicans supporting the idea slightly more than those living in the Jacksonville media market.

Senate President Joe Negron has made buying land south of Lake Okeechobee a key priority during his time in office, and a bill moving through the Senate would allow the state to do just that. Under the proposal (SB 10), the South Florida Water Management District would have until the end of 2017 to find a willing seller of 60,000 acres of land, upon which the state could build one or more water storage reservoirs.

If the water management district can’t find a willing center, the state choose to buy 153,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar, under an existing option in a contract signed by the state and company in 2010. The bill, however, does not propose use eminent domain to acquire land.

AIF also asked voters about the ongoing debate over whether to dismantle economic incentive programs and tourism marketing arm Visit Florida, but concluded the issue was too complicated for voters to comprehend.

“Overall awareness on these debates is low in this survey, regardless of how the question is tested,” said Ryan Tyson, AIF’s Vice President of Political Operations. “Furthermore, the nuances of the policy points used to better describe ‘incentives for job growth’ vs. ‘corporate welfare’ are far too complex for decisive support for either position in this survey.”

AIF said no matter the phrasing, the results for the incentives debate were contradictory “and talking points can easily get a voter to one side of the argument or the other.”

The survey did find that 55 percent of those polled said the Legislature is spending tax dollars wisely, though most of that support is soft, with 44 percent saying they only somewhat agree with that sentiment.

AIF surveyed 800 likely Republican voters who had voted in at least one of the last three Republican Primaries, but not the presidential preference in 2016. The group said 81 percent of those polled were over 50 years old and 90 percent were white.

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Judicial ethics watchdog could suffer in fight for independent Florida courts

Is Florida’s judicial ethics commission about to become collateral damage in a battle over the independence of the courts?

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the Land O’Lakes Republican, appears to have targeted the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) along with the courts themselves in his campaign to curb the independence of the judiciary.

The JQC and the Supreme Court had not concluded an ethics case against Circuit Judge Mark Hulsey III of Jacksonville when Corcoran scheduled an impeachment hearing a month ago. The judge resigned.

Such intervention in an ongoing JQC matter was an event with scant precedent. Since the agency was established in 1966, there have been only three instances among more than 200 known cases, and none was exactly comparable.

— In 1975, the House held impeachment hearings on three justices after the Supreme Court had rejected the JQC’s recommendation to remove two of them for ethical violations. Two of the three, Hal P. Dekle and David L. McCain, resigned.

— In 1978, the House impeached and the Senate removed Circuit Judge Samuel S. Smith of Lake City despite his attempt to resign after his federal conviction for conspiracy to sell 1,500 pounds of seized marijuana. Gov. Reubin Askew called for the impeachment to make sure that Smith could never hold office again or collect a pension.

— In 2003, legislators dissatisfied with the Supreme Court’s reprimand of a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge, as recommended by the JQC, threatened to impeach him and he resigned. The judge, Charles W. Cope, was accused of conduct unbecoming a judge for drunken behavior at an out-of-state conference.

The case against Hulsey, who was accused of racist and sexist comments from the bench, had not progressed nearly as far.

Asked for comment on that point, Corcoran’s spokesman, Fred Piccolo, said in an email:

“In this case, the JQC had all the information we had and still delayed. The Speaker believed taxpayers should not be paying a judge like Mr. Hulsey at all, let alone to not hear cases. The Speaker had every confidence that the Judge’s conduct warranted impeachment

” I can say with confidence that this Speaker will not hesitate to use impeachment to remove officers of the government who abuse their office.”

At that point, however, the JQC’s formal case against Hulsey was only five months old. According to the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), the average JQC proceeding takes 13 months from the receipt of a complaint to the filing of a disciplinary recommendation with the Supreme Court.

Last week, one of Corcoran’s House committees took on the court itself with criticism for a JQC case that has been awaiting the court’s decision for more than a year, an uncommonly long time. It consists primarily of alleged ethical violations as a lawyer and judicial candidate on the part of Circuit Judge Andrew Decker of Live Oak.

The Public Integrity and Ethics Committee gave no warning to Decker or his attorney, who knew nothing about the meeting until it had been held. The agenda noted only that there would be a report on an unspecified JQC case.

That was a far cry from fair. The chairman, Yahala Republican Larry Metz, was quoted as saying the judge wasn’t invited because “we’re not voting on anything.”

The JQC was created in 1966 to provide a more efficient alternative to impeachment for judges accused of misconduct. Two legislative impeachment efforts had failed.

Though the agency got off to a slow start, it turned aggressive under the chairmanship of Richard T. Earle Jr., a St. Petersburg attorney, who fearlessly pursued corruption on the Supreme Court itself.

Since inception, the JQC has now filed formal charges against more than 200 judges.

When it gets to that point, it rarely ends well for the judge. Of the 206 known cases, by my count, 77 — more than a third — ended with the judge off the bench: 19 removed for violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct, 25 resignations, 4 election defeats, 4 forsaken re-election campaigns, 21 enforced retirements for various disabilities, and 4 under threatened or actual impeachment.

Most of the rest were publicly reprimanded by the court, some also with fines and suspensions. The reprimands, almost always administered in person in public sessions of the court, are meant to be humbling, even humiliating, and the cases become everlasting records. Only seven cases have ever been formally dismissed. Four, including Decker’s, are pending.

So, from what we know, the JQC has been doing a good job — to hear some judges, too good a job.

It’s what we don’t know that may be a problem. The Constitution makes all JQC proceedings confidential until the agency files formal charges. That means no acknowledgment, much less an explanation, for any of the many complaints it dismisses.

According to its most recent report, the JQC received nearly 800 complaints in fiscal 2015 and summarily dismissed about 570 of them. Only 10 proceeded to formal charges.

“A great majority of complaints,” the report said, are about nothing more than dissatisfaction with the outcomes of cases and “that is the province of the appellate courts.” The JQC’s constitutional jurisdiction is limited to conduct that “demonstrates a present unfitness to hold office.”

But as OPPAGA remarked in a January 2015 report, the confidentiality rule left it unable “to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of Commission processes, as well as the consistency of its decisions and actions.

“The Commission documents we were unable to review included complaints screened out by staff, cases dismissed by the commission either summarily or after investigation, and letters of private admonishment. In addition … we were not permitted to attend investigative panel meetings,” the report said.

The case for confidentiality is this: Judges don’t deserve to be embarrassed by publicity about unfounded complaints.

But I don’t buy that. The facts should be allowed to speak for themselves. Judges should accept that as a consequence of public office.

When the Constitution Revision Commission meets, it should provide for eventual disclosure of every complaint to the JQC — not necessarily at the outset, but once it has been either dismissed or moved further along. That’s something that Corcoran’s nine appointees could insist upon without harming the courts.

The public’s trust is something to be earned, not assumed.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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