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Don Gaetz, Chris Smith among Joe Negron’s constitutional review panel picks

Former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and former Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith are among those tapped by current Senate President Joe Negron to sit on the state’s Constitution Revision Commission.

Negron, a Stuart Republican, announced his list Wednesday in a press release.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican in the Senate 2006-16, and Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who served 2008-16, were selected along with seven others. Under the constitution, Negron gets nine picks as the president of the state Senate.

“Florida is fortunate to have so many private citizens willing to take time away from their families and careers to serve the public in this important capacity,” Negron said in a statement.

“My goal in selecting the nine Senate appointees was to choose individuals who represent a diverse cross-section of our state in terms of their personal, professional, and political life experiences,” he added. “The most serious and important issue for me, and a common thread among our Senate appointees, is a fervent commitment to individual liberty and personal freedom guaranteed by our state and federal constitutions.

“The Senate appointees are all women and men of good judgment.” Besides Gaetz and Smith, they are:

Anna Marie Hernandez Gamez, a Miami lawyer who practices real estate and commercial litigation, and a past president of the Cuban American Bar Association.

 Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), the school choice organization founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

 Sherry Plymale, a past chair of the State Board of Community Colleges, chief of staff to state Education Commissioner Frank Brogan, a trustee of Florida Atlantic University and St. Leo University.

 William “Bill” Schifino Jr., the 2016-17 president of The Florida Bar.

— Bob Solari, an Indian River County Commissioner, former Vero Beach City Council member and retired businessman.

— Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, a former teacher “with years of classroom experience instructing middle and high school students” who also was mayor of Sewall’s Point.

— Carolyn Timmann, the Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller for Martin County. She also has been a legislative assistant to former state Rep. Tom Warner, worked in the Governor’s Office, and was a judicial assistant.

They now join former Florida Bar president Hank Coxe of Jacksonville; former state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat; and former federal prosecutor Roberto Martinez of Miami, who are Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga‘s three picks to the commission.

The commission is supposed to hold its first meeting in the 30-day period before the start of the 2017 Legislative Session on March 7.

Representatives for Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran have not yet announced their decisions.

As governor, Scott will choose 15 of the 37 commissioners, and he also selects its chairperson. Corcoran also gets nine picks. Republican Pam Bondi is automatically a member as the state’s Attorney General.

The commission has met twice before, in 1977-78 and 1997-98, but this will be the first to be selected by a majority of Republicans, virtually ensuring it will propose more conservative changes to the state’s governing document than previous panels.

Any changes the commission proposes would be in the form of constitutional amendments, which would have to be approved by 60 percent of voters on a statewide ballot.

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Hurdles to school choice remain despite Florida’s open enrollment law

Florida’s new open enrollment policies are still leaving students behind.

Florida has one of the most robust school choice programs nationwide, with 45 percent of pre-K-12 students in the state having exercised some type of choice option in the 2015-16 school year.

A new law seems poised to amplify that even more. HB 7029, signed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2016, will be effective for the 2017-18 school year. Under HB 7029, public schools are required to allow students to transfer in from anywhere else in the state, as long as they have the capacity to take them.

Still, parents in counties across the state are finding out that getting children into a school that suits them is more complicated than one would expect of an open enrollment policy.

In Seminole County, 1,000 elementary school students are being rezoned in August due to growing enrollment.

Don Fox, a parent of two children attending Keeth Elementary in Winter Springs, is facing the prospect that his children will now be shuffled a far distance across town. He says parents who want to use the new statewide open enrollment policies to keep their children in their current schools are being denied that option.

Fox and other parents in Seminole County have been told that district schools are at capacity next year and that no intra-district transfers will be allowed, except for diversity reasons. Next year the capacity at Keeth could shrink by 100 spots, leaving little availability to parents who want to stay put.

Fox said he thinks district leaders are taking advantage of the discretion HB 7029 affords individual school districts.

“They’re using this opportunity to help try to balance the school grades, and trying to move students from schools with higher grades (and) higher participation rates to these other schools,” Fox said.

Like many parents, the Foxes bought their home so their children could attend a specific school — originally Lawton Elementary. But they found themselves rezoned to nearby Keeth Elementary, which Fox said made sense.

Now the school zone boundaries have been redrawn yet again, and Fox’s two sons are being sent to Layer Elementary across town. His two boys will even pass Keeth Elementary on their way to Layer. Fox simply wants to keep his kids at Keeth where they have developed a sense of community.

“What upsets me so much is, that earlier this year when we heard ‘school choice,’ I thought that was a great thing,” Fox told Watchdog. “I had no idea that I would be needing that, and that I would be denied that.”

Up to the districts

Michael Lawrence, communications officer for Seminole County Public Schools, told Watchdog that Seminole County is still in the process of figuring out how it will adapt to the new open enrollment policies. Administrators are currently working on their definitions of capacity for the schools in the district.

According to the Florida Department of Education, individual districts formulate policies for how they enact open enrollment and determine capacity caps.

Curtis Jenkins, a consultant with the FLDOE, said that “schools have an obligation under this law to implement the law in the school district and make decisions about which schools are at capacity.”

“Rezoning and schools changing and getting ready for this open enrollment is not an easy task,” Jenkins said.

Other school districts besides Seminole County are finding the adaptation to open enrollment tricky. In the Tampa Bay area, officials from the Hillsborough and Pinellas districts have experience accommodating transfers across county lines. Now, however, they will be slower to give away seats to out-of-district students. High population growth and the need to reconsider school capacities complicate the issue further.

“Districts that have a little bit higher growth are worried about when they give a seat away to a non-zoned student and that student is now going to remain there,” Bill Lawrence, associate superintendent for Pinellas, told the Tampa Bay Times. “They know there are going to be new homes and they’re getting new kids. So I think they’re being a little more conservative.”

In St. Johns County, Superintendent Joseph Joyner told the Florida Times-Union that the open enrollment policies would make it harder for the district to plan for its own students, especially since St. Johns is a high-performing school district and likely to be attractive to out-of-district students.

“Any seat we give up is ultimately going to be hurtful,” Joyner said. “We will build schools purposely because we know the houses are coming in that zone. Part of this bill makes it difficult to plan.”

Hold the pickles

“I don’t think it’s fair to assume the worst about how administrators are going to go about doing their work, because I am confident that there are many who will be very accommodating for parents and students who want some form of public school choice, and I’ve seen evidence of that in school districts,” Bill Mattox, director of the Center for Education Options at the James Madison Institute, told Watchdog.

Mattox added that, best intentions aside, normal economic factors invariably come into play, meaning that there are times when parents and students in one situation get better treatment than those in another. Moreover, there is a “gravitational pull towards status quo” that makes school administrators slow to adapt.

Mattox compared it to ordering at a restaurant. It’s a lot easier for a school system — or a restaurant — to establish uniform, systematic practices. But, he argues, education is first and foremost about children, not schools.

“If you’re running an institution, a restaurant, you’d rather have every single person come in and say, ‘I’ll just have the burger the way you prepared it’ instead of saying, ‘Hold the cheese on this one and I’ll take the pickle on this one.’”

The tricky part for the school system is that a lot of kids don’t like pickles.

“When it comes to education, kids ought to come first instead of asking the student to accommodate to the institution,” Mattox said.

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Mark Wilson calls House push to eliminate Enterprise Florida ‘a political conversation about ideology’

Addressing what he called the “obvious elephant in the room,” Florida Chamber President Mark Wilson criticized Florida House members who backed an effort to end economic incentive programs, calling the move political.

“I want to be blunt for a few minutes,” said Wilson. “This is not a Legislature trying to seek how to diversify the economy and how to grow trade. This is a political conversation about an ideology that frankly is silly.”

Wilson made his comments during the 2017 International Days hosted by the Florida Chamber of Commerce. The annual event brings together policy experts and business leaders to talk about economic diversification and foreign investment, and comes as the Florida House is in the midst of discussions about whether to eliminate a slew of other economic incentive programs.

The House Careers & Competition Subcommittee last week voted 10-5 to approve a bill that would eliminate Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development organization; Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency, and a slew of economic incentive programs.

The proposal was backed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has been a vocal opponent of incentives, equating them to corporate welfare and vowing they would not be in the House budget.

The Florida Chamber opposed the plan, and Wilson used introductory remarks to criticize members, many of whom the Chamber endorsed during the 2016 election cycle, for their decision. Wilson noted some of the members who said they “thought targeted incentives were important” during endorsements discussions, are now writing op-eds calling them immoral.

“The Florida Chamber scores votes by legislators,” he said. “We are scoring every one of the votes in the Legislature and it will be factored into endorsements. That doesn’t make a lot of friends, but (we’re) fighting for free enterprise.”

The Chamber endorsed Reps. Halsey Beshears, Randy Fine, Julio Gonzalez, Mike La Rosa, Alex Miller, Paul Renner, and Jay Trumbull in 2016. All seven voted in favor of the House bill. They were joined by Reps. Dane Eagle, Roy Hardemon, and Shawn Harrison.

Wilson encouraged members to be in “constant contact” with their legislators back home, saying that’s where the calls and emails might make more of an impact.

“You have to share what you learn today to all the elected representatives you know. They need to hear from you,” he said. “Enterprise Florida deserves all the resources to survive.”

Wilson wasn’t the only one making a pitch for Enterprise Florida and incentives during 2017 International Days. The morning session also featured a discussion with Chris Hart IV, the president and CEO of Enterprise Florida, and Cissy Proctor, the executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, both of whom encouraged the business community to speak out in support of incentive programs.

“We can’t personalize it the way you can when you tell stories,” said Hart, before launching into his own story about starting and growing a company.

Hart said he and his partners were looking to expand elsewhere in North America, and were approached with the opportunity to expand into Canada. Hart said he didn’t know much about the process, but reached out to Manny Mencia, the current senior vice president for international trade & business development at Enterprise Florida, who walked them through it.

“I can’t tell that story in the Legislature with the same effect,” said Hart, citing his ties to the agency.

Proctor, who has spent much of the week touring the state with Gov. Rick Scott talking about economic development, said Enterprise Florida helps connect Florida businesses to international partners.

“The assistance Enterprise Florida provides is extremely important to their business, (because of) the ability to work with their businesses to find new markets and what services to provide,” she said. “They understand how to make connections.”

The Florida Chamber’s 2017 International Days continues through today.

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Official sides with Georgia over Florida in water lawsuit

A judicial official sided with Georgia in a decades-long dispute over water rights with Florida on Tuesday, recommending that the U.S. Supreme Court refuse Florida’s high-stakes request to cap water use by its neighboring state.

The dispute focuses on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, covering nearly 20,000 square miles in western Georgia, eastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers meet at the Georgia-Florida border to form the Apalachicola, which flows into the bay and the Gulf of Mexico beyond.

The recommendation from Special Master Ralph Lancaster, who was appointed by the court to oversee Florida’s suit against Georgia, isn’t a final decision. The court’s review of Lancaster’s report and responses from each state could take months. The states’ battle over water use dates back to 1990, and includes drawn-out negotiations and several lawsuits.

The initial decision was a big blow for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who had decided to take Florida’s case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court and announced the lawsuit in the town of Apalachicola with great fanfare. Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Scott, said the governor’s office was reviewing the report by the special master but did not offer any comments beyond that.

In the past few weeks Scott has been forced to defend the lawsuit because the state’s legal fees in the complicated case have been rapidly mounting. The state has spent more than $41 million in the past 18 months alone, an amount that Republicans in charge of the Florida House say is too much.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said he was “incredibly pleased” by Lancaster’s conclusion.

“Georgia remains committed to the conservation efforts that make us amicable stewards of our water,” he said in a statement. “We are encouraged by this outcome which puts us closer to finding a resolution to a decades-long dispute over the use and management of the waters of the basin.”

Others hailed Lancaster’s recommendation as a victory for Georgia following months of worry that the outcome would hurt industries that contribute millions to the state’s economy. The Georgia Agribusiness Council called it “great news” for the state’s agriculture industry, while the Metro Atlanta Chamber thanked Deal and others “for vigorously and successfully defending the state’s water rights.”

Florida’s 2013 lawsuit sought a cap on Georgia’s water use, blaming farmers and booming metro Atlanta for low river flows that harmed the environment and fisheries dependent on fresh water entering the area. Alabama isn’t directly involved in the case but supported Florida in court filings.

Georgia, though, warned that a cap would damage the state’s economy and argued that Florida didn’t prove its use of water caused low river flows. The state’s attorneys also said there was little proof that capping Georgia’s use would substantially help Floridians.

Lancaster agreed, writing that Florida provided “no evidence” that a cap would help the state outside of drought periods and that any benefits “are likely rare and unpredictable.” He also questioned Florida’s decision not to include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages dams that affect the river basin, in its lawsuit.

“Without the ability to bind the Corps, I am not persuaded that the court can assure Florida the relief it seeks,” Lancaster wrote.

Lancaster repeatedly urged the states’ attorneys to settle during the case, to no avail.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Personnel note: Public strategy firm Mercury hires Brian Swensen as senior VP

Global public strategy firm Mercury is adding noted Republican political adviser Brian Swensen to its Florida public affairs team as a senior vice president.

Swensen comes to the firm following his role as deputy campaign manager for the successful re-election of Sen. Marco Rubio, the latest in a series of key political victories in Florida and Louisiana. He his tenure with Mercury began Jan. 19, 2017.

In his new role, Swensen will bring extensive experience in the political arena to provide solutions and winning strategies for the firm’s clients. He will be based in Mercury’s Miami office.

Mercury Florida, now in its fourth year of operation, is led by partner Ashley Walker.

“We are thrilled to welcome Brian, who is one of the leading political operatives in the Southeast region,” Walker said in a statement Tuesday. “Mercury continues to assemble the state’s most talented team of public affairs professionals, and the addition of Brian underscores our commitment to building Mercury into the strongest bipartisan consultancy in the nation.”

“I am excited to work with the incredibly talented team of strategists at Mercury to help address some of the most pressing policy issues facing many organizations and corporations today,” Swensen said. “The Mercury Florida team brings together the state’s top political advisers across party lines.  Nowhere else can you find such deep, diverse skills and experience, and a winning track record to boot.”

“As someone who prides himself on having a great work ethic and outside the box thinking,” he added, “I look forward to unleashing my unique skill set to shape strategy, solve problems, and create wins for our clients.”

Before joining Mercury, Swensen served as deputy campaign manager for Rubio’s re-election campaign, during which he built a political operation that benefited numerous campaigns up and down the ballot, while training and empowering the next generation of political leaders.

Previously, Swensen managed the successful campaign of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, which helped set the tone for Florida Republicans in the 2016 cycle.

Additionally, Swensen was a part of the Bill Cassidy for U.S. Senate campaign, where he led the political and grassroots operation. He served as political director for the Republican Party of Florida, and was victory director for Gov. Rick Scott’s winning campaign in 2010.

Swensen got his start in the political process at The Leadership Institute, a conservative nonprofit based in Virginia, after graduating from Florida International University in Miami.

Mercury provides a suite of services including federal government relations, international affairs, digital influence, public opinion research, media strategy and a bipartisan grassroots mobilization network in all 50 states. With a global presence, Mercury has U.S. offices in Washington, DC, New York, California, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Tennessee, as well as international offices in London and Mexico City.

Mercury is a part of the Omnicom Public Relations Group.

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Florida’s drug laws are giving me a pain in the ass

No one disputes that opiate addiction is a national problem. Statistics show that over 52,000 Americans died because of drug abuse, or about 142 people a day. One-third of those deaths are from opioids prescribed by doctors.

Although a national problem, Florida led the nation in opioid abuse until recently. Individuals from all over the southeastern United States flooded into Florida to visit our “pill mills.” I-75 was known as the gateway to easy drugs. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration referred to I-75 as the “Oxy Express.”

A single pill mill in Tampa wrote scripts for over 1 million oxycodone pills in a six-month period in 2010. Of the top 100 doctors in the nation prescribing oxycodone, 98 resided in Florida.

The situation was so bad in Florida that Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi created the Florida Regulatory Drug Enforcement Task Force to combat drug abuse in Florida and crack down on the pill mills.

The Task Force had great success in reducing the abuse by pill mills. The number of oxycodone pills prescribed dropped from 650 million in 2010 to 300 million in 2013. Almost 4,000 individuals were arrested including 67 doctors. Over 848,000 pills were seized, as well as $10 million in cash. 254 pill mills were shut down.

Changes in the Florida drug laws now require patients to see a certified pain specialist monthly in order to receive prescriptions for pain meds. Where 98 out of the top 100 doctors prescribing oxycodone resided in Florida in 2010, that number was zero in 2013.

Florida had great success in closing the pill mills and eliminating much of the drug abuse that existed. So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that individuals with chronic pain have a very difficult time getting their pain meds in a timely fashion. Pain specialists can write a prescription for a 30-day supply of pain meds. You can’t have your next prescription filled before you use your 30-day supply. The problem is that pharmacies, at least 25 percent of the time, do not have pain meds in stock.

I visited my pain specialist last week and received my script for a 30-day supply to be filled Feb. 13. I went to five different pharmacies before finding one that would fill my prescription. It took almost two hours and driving over 25 miles in order to get the meds I was entitled to receive. There is enough stress with chronic pain; I do not need the additional stress of trying to find a pharmacy that will fill my prescription.

My pain started at age 12 and was related to disc and nerve problems in my back. At age 20 I had my first back surgery. It helped, but never ended the pain problems. For the past 30 years my left leg has been numb and the muscles have atrophied. At the present time, I have had seven surgeries, including three back operations and a total knee replacement.

Because of chronic pain, I often can’t stand for more than a few minutes and have problems walking more than a short distance. The pain meds help me to function. I would much prefer no pain and no pain meds, but that option is out of my control. The best I can hope for is to have my pain meds available.

About 25 percent of the time the pharmacy I use does not have the pain meds available. I am forced to make the trek to pharmacies hoping to find one that has the meds available. The problem with that, in addition to wasting my time, is that the state of Florida may look at this pharmacy hopping as an attempt to game the system. It is merely an attempt to get the drugs I need.

Many pharmacies won’t carry pain meds for fear of being robbed or because they are frustrated with the record-keeping involved with pain meds. Other pharmacies have told me that they will only fill orders for regular customers; one pharmacy told me they will fill my order, but only if I transfer all my prescriptions to them. That would cost me a great deal more because my insurance provides lower prices for medicines through their supplier.

Those who have never experienced chronic pain, which is most of the population, have little sympathy for those suffering from chronic pain. Those suffering from chronic pain don’t want sympathy, but they do want your empathy. They want you to understand that chronic pain is real and we want to receive the medicines that will help us function.

Florida had an opioid epidemic and dealt with it. That is a good thing. But, Florida also has an obligation to make sure its citizens receive the medical care they need. Those with high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and other debilitating ailments expect to get the meds they need to live a healthy and productive life. Those suffering from chronic pain expect the same thing.

___

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

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At Tampa rally for Enterprise Florida funding, Rick Scott repeatedly calls out Shawn Harrison

Saying that he is “shocked” that a committee in the Florida House voted to kill funding for Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida last week, Governor Rick Scott came to Tampa on Monday to urge the public to urge their state legislators to maintain the funding for those two besieged  agencies.

“This is an important issue to me personally,” Scott said in his comments to reporters after concluding the second of three scheduled appearances around the state in what his staff is calling a “Fighting for Florida Jobs Roundtable.”

Now in his sixth year as chief executive, the “jobs governor” has taken it as a personal rebuke that lawmakers aren’t on the same page with him when it comes to fully funding the public-private agencies. His arguments for maintaining the funding are wide and varied, including his statement on Monday that a flourishing economy could enable the state to put more money into education and the developmentally disabled, but only if the Legislature comes through to support the agencies.

“Our economy is on a roll. This is crazy to stop this!” he said after hosting the roundtable at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in North Tampa.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Visit Hillsborough CEO Santiago Corrada, Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson, Plant City Mayor Rick Lott and dozens of other members from the business community sat in chairs three rows deep in a semi-circle in what was a virtual half-hour informercial for the two programs, under fire in the House as being an example of “corporate welfare” in a campaign led by Speaker Richard Corcoran.

“I am shocked that members of the Florida House of Representatives, politicians in Tallahassee, are turning their back on job creation,” Scott said, specifically calling out New Tampa House District 63 Republican Shawn Harrison for his vote in the House Career and Competition Subcommittee last week that would eliminate the Enterprise Florida economic development organization, and VISIT Florida, the tourism marketing agency, as well as a host of economic incentive programs.

Harrison narrowly won re-election last November over Democrat Lisa Montelione in HD 63, considered one of the most extreme “swing” districts in the state. The former Tampa City Council initially won the seat in 2010 but lost it in 2012 before returning back to the House in 2014.

“I’m still shocked that Shawn Harrison voted the way he did,” Scott repeated several times during the half-hour roundtable, and later when speaking with reporters afterwards. He repeatedly issued out positive statistics about the state’s economy, saying Florida’s job growth was double the national average, and that there was $771 million that came from tourists last year. Time and again, he went after the critics of the two agencies.

“What Shawn Harrison and other House members are saying – ‘oh we’re not worried about jobs anymore’ – that’s wrong!” he exclaimed. “That’s somebody’s life!”

During his presentation, he mocked anybody who voted against the programs. “How could anybody? I can’t imagine anybody who runs for office saying, ‘I’m for getting rid of jobs.’ Absolutely not.”

Scott’s pleas to maintain full funding for EF and VF sometimes reached new lengths.

“I’ve watched my mom cry because she couldn’t pay for health care. I don’t want that ever to happen to a family in our state,” he said. The sentiment might surprise the majority of Floridians who are still upset about the fact that Scott rejected expanding Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act four years ago, denying health coverage to an estimated 850,000 people.

Scott did repeatedly shower his affection for Jack Latvala and Dana Young, two GOP state Senators from the Tampa Bay area who support continued funding of the agencies.

Buckhorn, a Democrat who has on occasion blasted Scott, emphasized the bipartisan nature of support for funding EF and VF. And he oozed contempt for lawmakers who want to kill the agencies. “What is happening in Tallahassee is ideology is getting in the way of the practical application of what these incentives are all about,” he said, denying that it’s a “giveaway program.”

“This would be patently absurd to cut off our nose, to spite our face, just because somebody is reading off a playbook provided to them by the Koch Brothers,” Buckhorn said.

Americans for Prosperity Florida, which receives funding from the Koch Family Foundation, is a leading state agency fighting against what they describe as corporate welfare run amok. The organization tweeted out on Monday, “Rep Harrison voted against rigged system! Why should taxpayers pay to pad special interest pockets.”

Craig Richard, the new CEO of the TampaHillsborough Economic Development Corporation, has worked in economic development for the past 20 years in six different states. “I’ve never heard anyone interested in doing away with the goose laying the golden egg,” he said.

“It’s kind of silly that we’re having this type of conversation,” Bobby Harris ,the founder and CEO of freight and logistics provider Blue Grace Logistics. He said that the incentives that helped him hire more than 100 employees in his Tampa offices would have gone to Chicago instead.  He said the House vote is “not a good vote of confidence for business leaders.”

Harrison did not return a call for comment.

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Rick Scott inauguration party cost more than $600,000

Florida Gov. Rick Scott‘s big party in Washington D.C. to celebrate the inauguration of President Donald Trump cost at least $600,000, according to campaign finance records.

Scott and First Lady Ann Scott in January hosted the Florida Sunshine Ball at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium two days before Trump’s inauguration. Free tickets to the ball went to hundreds of people invited by the governor and first lady.

Records show that Scott’s political committee Let’s Get to Work paid a company more than $609,000 to rent the auditorium, hire caterers and stage the event featuring The Beach Boys.

Let’s Get to Work regularly receives donations from some of the state’s main corporate interests. In the last few weeks Duke Energy donated $100,000 as did private prison provider The Geo Group.Republish

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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Winning elections best way to achieve favorable judiciary

If you are one of those who are sick and tired of judges ruling against your policy preferences, the Florida House of Representatives is offering an elixir for what ails you.

Judges are in the news a lot lately. From the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, to the drama in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, many Americans are paying attention to black robes.

Florida is now adding to the conversation on the judicial branch. If HJR 1 is enacted, Florida Supreme Court and appeals court judges could serve no more than 12 years. While several states have term limits on the executive and legislative branches, Florida would become the first state to impose limits on the judicial branch

If approved, the measure would go before voters in 2018 with 60 percent needed to amend the Florida Constitution. While there is a chance it could pass the House, there is no companion measure in the Florida Senate.

Clearing the House is not a slam dunk. The measure barely emerged from the House Civil Justice and Claims subcommittee. Republicans George Moraitis and committee vice-chair Jay Fant voted with the five Democrats to provide a razor-thin 8-7 vote to move the bill forward.

Judicial accountability is said to be a priority of Speaker Richard Corcoran. Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, a Republican from Mount Dora, makes the case for her bill and for Corcoran.

“An accountability system that does not hold people accountable is not truly accountable,” she told the subcommittee. “This bill seeks to correct that and give the people of Florida another opportunity to implement the accountability they originally intended to place upon our judicial branch of government.”

All of that is well and good, but perhaps it is time to pause and reflect on a couple of important facts.

First, haven’t the Republicans been in charge of judicial appointments for the past two decades? Governors have appointed the members of the Judicial Nomination Commissions, who have forwarded candidates generally palatable to the governor.

With the appointment of Judge C. Alan Lawson to the Supreme Court by Gov. Rick Scott, Florida is now only one justice away from a conservative majority. That will come to a head near the end of Scott’s term.

Second, perhaps the remedy is worse than the “disease.” Term limiting judges creates more problems than it solves. On this some conservatives are in agreement with liberals.

There are reasons judges and justices have lifetime appointments, or at least until the mandatory retirement age of 70. One of the best arguments against the bill comes from former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who also served with distinction in the Florida House.

“Our founding fathers believed deeply in the independence of the judiciary, making sure that we protected our judges from the winds of change, from politics and from worrying about making an unpopular decision,” he told the subcommittee.

The Florida Justice Reform Institute, who advocates conservative, originalist judicial thinking, has a sound argument against the measure. He believes fewer lawyers will want to become judges.

“We want judges that are knowledgeable, experienced, diligent, and who are texturalists and originalists,” said the institute’s director, William Large. “And judges who can say what the law is, not what it should be.”

The bill now heads to the full House Judiciary Committee.

It is true that no Florida judge or justice has been removed under the current system of merit retention. Instead of changing the constitution, conservatives should ensure they elect another conservative in 2018 to continue making judicial appointments.

That will primarily achieve the results conservatives seek from the judiciary.

 

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Federal judges’ lifetime tenure for good reason; Tallahassee should take note

There is a profound reason why the Founders gave life tenure to federal judges, subject only to impeachment for bad behavior. As Alexander Hamilton explained it in The Federalist No. 78:

“In a monarchy, it is an excellent barrier to the despotism of the prince; in a Republic, it is a no less excellent barrier to the encroachments and oppressions of the representative body…”

Judges subject to the whims of a president or the Congress to keep their jobs would be worthless. So would the Constitution.

The founding wisdom has been confirmed time and again, most famously when the Supreme Court ruled that Richard Nixon was not above the law, and most recently Thursday, when the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that Donald Trump is not above it either.

Although the effect is only that Trump’s immigration decree remains on hold while the court fully considers his appeal of the District Judge’s order suspending it, the three-judge appellate panel made an enormously important point.

Trump’s lawyers had argued, as the court put it, that his “decisions about immigration policy, particularly when motivated by national security concerns, are unreviewable, even if those actions potentially contravene constitutional rights and protections.” The regime had also claimed, the court said, that “it violates separation of powers for the judiciary to entertain a constitutional challenge to executive actions such as this one.” (Emphasis supplied)

A president in office less than three weeks was asserting the powers of a dictator.

“There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy,” the court said.

I hope they’re paying attention in Tallahassee, where some legislators seem to think they too are above the constitution and are trying to take down the state courts that sometimes disagree.

The current attack is led by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes. A constitutional amendment (HJR 1), sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, would prohibit Supreme Court justices and justices of the five district courts of appeal from qualifying in retention elections after serving more than 12 years in the same office.

Why term-limit only those judges? Circuit and county court judges have vastly more power over the lives and property of citizens. But it’s the appellate courts that rule on the laws that legislators enact and the decisions governors make.

Corcoran, whose ambition to be governor is no secret, has declared that his nine appointees to the new Constitution Revision Commission must be committed to neutering the judiciary.

This concerns conservatives no less than liberals. Both sides warned a House subcommittee Thursday that, as one speaker put it, the first-in-the nation term limit would “insure that the best and bright rarely, if ever, apply” for appellate court appointments.

The subcommittee approved the measure 8-7, with only Republicans voting for it. However, the two Republicans voting no portend the lack of a supermajority to pass it on the House floor.

Although there’s no precise Senate companion, term-limit legislation assigned to three committees there is in several ways worse. No one could be appointed to an appellate bench who is under 50 and it would restrict Supreme Court appointees to candidates who had been judges for at least one year.

That would have ruled out such widely-esteemed lawyers as Justice Raoul G. Cantero III (2002-2008) who was 41 when Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him in 2002 and, Justice Charles T. Wells (1994-2009). None of three significant justices in the 1950s, Steven C. O’Connell, B. Campbell Thornal, and E. Harris Drew, had previously been a judge. Nor had Attorney General Richard Ervin when Gov. Farris Bryant appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1964.

Conceptually, there is a form of term limit that would make sense: A single, nonrenewable term of 20 years, with the judge no longer having to face retention elections, and the judicial nominating commissions restored to the independence they had before Republican governors got total control over them. But what the legislators are proposing does nothing good.

As the subcommittee was told but apparently chose not to hear, there is already significant turnover in the judiciary, where judges must retire upon or soon after becoming 70. The Judicial Qualifications Commission has not been idle in getting bad ones kicked off the bench. (I’ll write more about that in a subsequent column.)

The Legislature’s attacks on the judiciary may not succeed, but the greater danger is that Constitution Revision commission, which can send amendments directly to the 2018 ballot. With the House speaker and Senate president each appointing nine members, Governor Rick Scott, another court-hater, naming 15 including the chairman; and the attorney general, Pam Bondi, as an automatic member, it will be the first of the three commissions since 1978 to be dominated by one party’s appointees and, likely, hostile to the courts at the outset. The three members whom Chief Justice Jorge Labarga named next week will have the fight of their lives to protect the courts from becoming subverted by the governor and legislature.

Labarga’s three are well suited for their mission.

Hank Coxe of Jacksonville is a former Florida Bar president and has served on the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The CRC will need to listen to him on that subject.

Robert Martinez, of Miami, is highly regarded as the former U.S. attorney there. “In addition to being a good person and excellent lawyer, with thoughtful and humane values, Bob is one of the most courtly and well-mannered people I know,” a former assistant told me.

Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa lawyer who served in both houses of the Legislature, can tell the CRC firsthand what happens when the courts and law don’t respect people’s rights. As a student in the 1950s, she took part in lunch counter sit-ins at Tallahassee and was jailed for trying to desegregate movie theaters there.

Scott, Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron have yet to make their CRC appointments. Let them follow Labarga’s examples of integrity, experience and wisdom. One can always hope.

___

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

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