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Documents show more map exchanges between GOP and consultants

Thursday, June 20th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Documents released Thursday in a wide-ranging lawsuit over last year’s redistricting effort raise more questions about communication between Florida Republicans and party consultants over proposed maps, possibly in violation of the state constitution.

In a deposition given last month, campaign consultant Marc Reichelderfer acknowledged having received draft versions of proposed congressional redistricting plans from Kirk Pepper, a top aide to then-House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.

Reichelderfer received seven proposed maps in a Dropbox account, two weeks before they were made public.

In his deposition, Reichelderfer was asked, “You got them for a reason, isn’t that right?”

The consultant responded, “I assume it was for a reason.”

Asked if it was to determine how the maps performed, politically, Reichelderfer said, “I could have done that, yes, sir.”

Democratic-allied voter groups want congressional and legislative maps thrown out because Republican leaders shared data and
maps with political consultants. The voter-approved Fair District amendments to the state constitution prohibit districts from being drawn to help or hurt incumbents.

The Florida League of Women Voters, Common Cause and individual voters organizations suing say such communication has become evident in the first rounds of data already provided by the Legislature and various consultants subpoenaed in the lawsuit.

Court documents filed earlier with Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis show that emails were exchanged between aides to Senate President Don Gaetz, House Speaker Will Weatherford and consultants who analyzed proposed maps.

The emails also show that in 2010, Rich Heffley, a Florida Republican Party consultant advising Gaetz, then the Senate’s
redistricting chairman, organized a “brainstorming” meeting at the state  party headquarters in Tallahassee.

Other documents in the case show that Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who are both angling for Senate presidency in coming years, emailed district information to consultants for review.


Ex-Speaker Cannon joins online reputation firm

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013 by John Kennedy

In a move that may sound a little like rain on your wedding day, a leading online reputation-building company announced Wednesday that former Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon has joined its board of advisors., whose website says it is dedicated to “protecting and advocating for our clients’ online images,” is part of a growing industry of digital message-shapers.

Cannon, R-Winter Park, ended his two-year stint as House Speaker last fall and since has opened a Tallahassee lobbying firm, Capitol Insight, with another Republican ex-speaker, Larry Cretul, among his employees.

Cannon’s path from being on the receiving end of lobbying to actually doing lobbying himself isn’t uncommon at the Capitol. But the trajectory became harshly condemned by senators this spring as they crafted a new state ethics law.

The measure approved by lawmakers and signed into law earlier this month by Gov. Rick Scott extends a current, two-year ban on former legislators lobbying the Legislature to include a new, two-year restriction on ex-lawmakers lobbying the executive branch and state agencies.

In a statement, president Michael Zammuto said there was a ”natural synergy” between and Capitol Insight.

“Online reputation management is critical across the political process, and indeed, political campaigns worldwide are won and lost on the basis of online reputation and the effectiveness of their online strategies,” Zammuto said.  “As such, has been busily gearing up for the
next election cycle, and expanding our services in the political realm.”

In the company statement, Cannon said, “The usefulness of online reputation management in the political campaign process is difficult to overstate.”

“Just imagine,” he added, “If an unflattering news headline or erroneous accusation come to light, a company like can help political campaigns get the facts of their message out aggressively, and even push those unwanted headlines off the first page of an online search results page. This can be a huge potential advantage for any political campaign.”



Senate committee gives green light to texting ban

Monday, April 8th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Legislation that would make Florida the 40th state in the nation to ban texting while driving was approved Monday by a Senate committee, with the full House expected to follow suit later this week.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, sponsor of the measure (CS/SB 52) that cleared the Judiciary Committee on an 8-0 vote, said it’s taken lawmakers years to come around to restrictions long supported by the public.

“The public is ahead of the politicians,” said Detert. “The big change in the politicians is every time they go home people say, ‘how come we never pass that texting-while-driving bill?’ It’s gone from public support to public frustration. They’re as frustrated as I am.”

Detert, R-Venice, and Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, have proposed identical measures (SB 52, HB 13) that would make texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning motorists could be ticketed only if law-enforcement officials had stopped them for another reason.

A ticket could cost first-time offenders $30, plus court costs. But the bills also include exemptions allowing people to use phones to check maps, use voice-commands or listen to the radio through the phone. Drivers also could text while stopped at a light, under the legislation.

“It’s pretty clear this will save lives if we pass it,” said Sen. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee.

The Senate has advanced Detert’s bill in earlier years. But the proposed ban has been rejected by Florida’s more conservative House. The past two years, then-House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, refused to let the measure be heard in committees.

Current House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has torn down the roadblock.

“New leadership in the House has been very important,” Detert said. “They’ve been held mute all these years, and now they’re allowed to express their opinion.”

AAA Auto Club South says a survey it commissioned shows 87 percent of motorists support laws prohibiting texting or emailing while driving.

Still, the same survey showed that 69 percent of Americans acknowledge talking on their cellphones while driving within the past 30 days, while 24 percent say they have sent texts or emails.

Without speaker’s opposition, House panel considers text ban

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013 by John Kennedy

A House committee heard experts Tuesday warn about the dangers of distracted driving — with tales of motorists changing CDs, putting on makeup, or grabbing a Smartphone to send a text message, the target for Florida legislation.


But two hours worth of testimony, which included statistical support showing that texting takes drivers’ eyes off the road — leading to inadvertent lane changes and collisions — left Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, feeling pretty good. After 10 years of inaction, Holder said this could be the year lawmakers approve a ban.

“We had really different priorities,” Holder said, looking back on at least part of the past decade, where dozens of bill limiting cell-phone use or texting while driving were introduced each year and failed.

“I think this year is certainly the year,” he added. “We’ve always recognized it’s common sense legislation. It’s a no-brainer to have a law.”

Holder concluded, “Making texting illegal while driving will save lives in Florida.”

Then-House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, blocked attempts last year to have a texting ban heard, after the measure was OK’d by the state Senate.

But Cannon left the House in November due to term limits. Supporters say his departure may help clear the way for Florida to become the nation’s 40th state to prohibit drivers from texting.

Last year,  Holder’s legislation didn’t get a hearing in the House. But Tuesday, the House Transportation and Highway Safety Subcommittee took testimony from law enforcement, traffic safety advocates, AARP, a high school student leader, and even a University of West Florida psychologist.

Each concluded that banning texting behind the wheel was worthwhile.

Chicagoan Jennifer Smith, who became a nationwide advocate for a texting ban after her mother was killed in 2008 by a distracted driver, said merely trying to warn people against the dangers of a ban was useless. Motorists will continue the practice, unless it’s made illegal, she said.

“I don’t know how much more education we can give people – and it’s still a problem,” Smith told the panel.

Steven Kass, the UWF psychologist, said texting leads people to weave into other lanes, take longer to brake, and drive more slowly than surrounding traffic. He said statistics show cell-phone use and even hands-free phoning also impair driving, although most lawmakers seem wary to extend a proposed ban that far.

“Anytime you add more than one task, performance degrades on one or more of the tasks,” Kass said.

Holder and Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, have proposed identical measures (SB 52, HB 13) that would make texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning motorists could be ticketed only if law-enforcement officials had stopped them for another reason.

A ticket could cost first-time offenders $30, plus court costs. But the bills also include exemptions allowing people to use phones to check maps, use voice-commands or listen to the radio through the phone.

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, is sponsoring legislation (SB 74) that would make texting or using a cellphone without a hands-free device a primary offense for motorists.

Detert’s bill has already been modified to allow for texting if a motorist is stopped at a light or stuck in traffic. Holder said Tuesday he’s open to similar changes if it gets a text-ban through the full Legislature this spring.


Florida Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ panel to meet Thursday

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Frustrated by Gov. Rick Scott’s delay in assembling a task force to look into Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, state Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, has put together a panel that will meet Thursday to look into the first-in-the-nation law.

The Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin has intensified scrutiny of Florida’s first-in-the nation law, which allows individuals to use deadly force when they feel threatened. Sanford neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman claimed he shot the unarmed 17-year-old in self-defense.

Smith, a critic of the law since it was proposed in 2005 and who voted against it while in the Florida House, said the nation’s attention on the law prompted by Martin’s death has the potential to have a devastating impact on the Sunshine State’s upcoming tourist season.

“Florida is in crisis mode. We have a big problem and it’s time for leaders to lead,” Smith, the incoming Senate Democratic Leader, told reporters at a press conference this morning.

The panel, dominated by Democrats, includes prosecutors and public defenders from South Florida, including Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout, law professors and lawyers. Area judges and Nikki Grossman, head of the Fort Lauderdale tourism bureau, will appear before the group Thursday afternoon.

Smith said he wants to make recommendations for possible changes to the law to Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and wants a special session to address the law.

Under pressure from black lawyers and public outrage over Martin’s shooting, Scott last month announced he was convening a task force after a special prosecutor he appointed to investigate the shooting completes her work. Haridopolos and Cannon have said they support the task force and want to wait for its recommendations before considering a special session. Smith twice asked Scott to speed up the task force but Scott insisted he wants to wait until the Martin investigation is finished.

But that could take more than a year, Smith complained. Smith, a black lawyer who has discussed the law on national news programs since the Feb. 26 shooting, said vacationers are expressing fears about coming to Florida because of the law.

“We will not sit around and wait for action,” Smith said. “The Florida brand is being portrayed in a negative light each and every day.”

Smith has also launched a web site – – and is eliciting public comments.

Smith’s group will take public testimony from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Fort Lauderdale library main branch and meet later that evening to decide what their next step should be, he said.

Gov. Scott appoints special prosecutor in Trayvon Martin case

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi have appointed a special prosecutor to take over the investigation of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, responding to increased pressure from national civil rights leaders outraged over the killing of the unarmed black 17-year-old by a neighborhood watch volunteer whom local authorities have not charged with any crime.

Scott and Bondi asked State Attorney Angela Corey of Jacksonville to take over for Seminole County State Attorney Norman Wolfinger. The appointment came the same day Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee temporarily stepped down amid outrage over his failure to charge George Zimmerman with any crime in the Feb. 26 shooting. Wolfinger said in a letter to Scotthe was stepping aside “in the interest of public safety” and to “avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.” The U.S. Justice Department is also investigating the case.

Scott also announced the formation of a task force headed by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who is black, to look into the use of the state’s first-in-the-nation “stand your ground” law, which allows individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves when they feel threatened. Zimmerman said he shot Martin in self-defense, and Lee said he lacked evidence to arrest him.

Several black lawmakers, including Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens who represents the district where Martin lived with his mother, had asked Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, to appoint special legislative committees to look into the law. Yesterday, both leaders said they did not believe the committees were yesterday. But today, Scott said they have agreed to suggest appointees to the task force.

Scott’s announcement of the task force comes two days after Scott held an impromptu meeting with about 50 black lawyers and civil rights leaders who marched to his office demanding he create such a panel to look into racial profiling.

Read Scott’s statement regarding the “Citizen Safety and Protection” task force after the jump.

Sen. Siplin calls on Scott to appoint special prosecutor in Trayvon Martin case

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Senate President Mike Haridopolos also says “no” to a special committee on the use of the “stand your ground” law.

“The Senate President feels that Governor Scott is currently taking all of the appropriate steps to address the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin. Additionally, the Senate President is confident that the circumstances surrounding this shooting will be closely examined by lawmakers, and if the Senate concludes that laws need to be revised they will be addressed in the future,” Haridopolos’s spokeswoman Lyndsey Cruley said in an e-mail.

State Sen. Gary Siplin and a coalition of other black lawmakers are asking Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate last month’s shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a neighborhood watch volunteer near Orlando.

Trayvon Martin was killed last month by George Zimmerman, whom police identified as white but whose family says is Hispanic, in a gated community in Sanford on Feb. 26. Zimmerman, who has not been charged with any crime, has said he shot the high school student in self-defense after a confrontation.

The shooting, now being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and local authorities, has sparked an international furor with civil rights leaders demanding Zimmerman’s arrest and a probe into selective prosecution of white-on-black crime.

Siplin, an Orlando attorney whose district neighbors Sanford, said the community is plagued by a “plantation” mentality and asked Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to quell racial tension.

“In my community today, they’re very upset. They’re very excited. They’re ready to ignite,” Siplin, a Democrat and a laywer, said at a press conference in the Capitol Wednesday afternoon.

Florida political committees among nation’s top spenders, report shows

Thursday, March 15th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Political committees that helped drive the election of Florida Gov. Rick Scott two years ago were among the biggest independent spenders in the nation, according to a report Thursday by the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Scott’s own Let’s Get to Work committee, heavily financed by his wife, Ann‘s, cash, spent $17.5 million in 2010, second only to the Republican Governors’ Association’s $26.5 million that cycle. While Let’s Get to Work confined its spending to Florida, the RGA cash was scattered across key battlegrounds.

Two other Florida committees also were included in the institute’s national top 10 of spenders.

Both formerly opposed Scott with fierce television spots and mailers.  But once Scott defeated rival Bill McCollum in state’s GOP primary that year, the cash and attack ads from these committees were aimed at Democratic rival Alex Sink.

The Florida First Initiative spent $6 million in 2010. The committee, led by Alachua County Republican Chairman Stafford Jones, ran television spots accusing Scott of profiting from the “largest Medicare fraud in American history,” before becoming friendly toward the GOP nominee.

During the free-swinging Republican primary, the Florida First Initiative had received $1.1 million from the Florida Liberty Fund, a committee associated with House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. That money helped sustain the scorched-earth campaign against Scott — who ultimately spent more than $70 million of his own cash to win the governor’s race.

Like the Florida First Initiative, the Cannon-allied Liberty Fund adjusted its aim after the primary, raising money from Florida corporations now intent on defeating Sink.

The third Florida big-spending committee cited in the institute’s findings, the Freedom First Committee, was tied to Senate President Mike Haridopolos and raised $3.6 million in 2010.  It, too, was a Scott enemy, turned ally.

These kinds of shadowy committees have mushroomed in recent years and their spending has climbed double that of conventional campaign donations, the institute reported. Independent spending on candidates increased 69 percent from 2006 through 2010, while the amount of campaign contributions rose by 25 percent, the study found..

In Florida, the spate of spending by these committees prompted one, short-term candidate for governor in 2010, to decry it as “legal money laundering.”

Lawton “Bud” Chiles, III, son of the late Democratic governor, who ran briefly as an no-party candidate, wanted political spending committees dubbed 527s to be required to disclose their $500-plus donors on every television ad or mailer they distribute, or when they give money to another group to use for or against a candidate.

Florida law currently requires 527s, named for the IRS code section that governs them, to report their contributions and spending on a website within five days of the activity.

But Chiles and many elections experts say most voters are unlikely to spend time tracking donations to groups with such names as Floridians for a Better Tomorrow, Floridians for Strong Leadership, or even Citizens for Transparency in Government – all 527s that he cited in his condemnation of the spending.

Florida House keeps it brief, shines spotlight on FSU b-ballers

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Florida House members straggled back to Tallahassee after just four days off for a brief kick-off to an “extraordinary” special session followed by an update from their lawyer about the Senate’s faulty legislative maps.

The Florida Supreme Court signed off on the House’s newly drawn maps but rejected eight of the Senate’s proposed 40 districts, meaning the upper chamber will have to do the heavy lifting for the next 10 days.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, told happy House members they won’t have to return to the Capitol next week but to be prepared to come back on March 26-28 to finalize the Senate’s new plan.

The House’s redistricting lawyer George Meros will give the redistricting committee an update on what the court found wrong with the Senate maps this afternoon.

House Redistricting Committee Chairman Will Weatherford said he’s working with his Senate counterpart Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and trusts the Senate to abide by the court’s directions on how to fix the maps.

“I am confident in the Senate’s ability,” incoming House Speaker Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said. “We’re working with them. We have a good conversation going with them. We’re showing deference to them but certainly we have opinions about how the Senate maps should look…. But I think the court gave some pretty specific recommendations. It’s my understanding that they’re taking those recommendations seriously.”

A visit from Florida State University basketball coach Leonard Hamilton provided the highlight of the 11-minute floor session. Hamilton stuck around for photos with members after being introduced by Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, the “Seminole Caucus” cheerleader-in-chief.

The Seminoles won the ACC championship this week, and Hamilton, in his tenth year as head coach at FSU, was recently named the ACC coach of the year.

“Today we proudly send our Seminoles to Nashville for the first rounds of the NCAA tournament and wish them the best against St. Bonaventure, wherever that is,” Patronis said.

Rep. Mack Bernard, D-West Palm Beach, also took a moment on the floor to give his legislative aide Jacquet a shout-out. Jacquet yesterday defeated three other candidates to win a seat on the Delray Beach City Commission.

Cannon says goodbye as “luckiest man alive”

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by John Kennedy

While some term-limited House and Senate members have taken to the floor for lengthy goodbyes this spring, House Speaker Dean Cannon took a modest, six minutes Thursday to look back on his two years at the House helm.

Cannon recalled arriving in the Legislature when the state treasury was flush with cash. But over his time in office, the recession drained tax receipts and reserves. That, Cannon said, caused some people to question whether he ever felt he had lost the “speaker lottery.” 

Instead, Cannon called himself, “the luckiest man alive.” He also offered colleagues some parting advice.

“Please don’t let fear or controversy or anxiety about re-election keep you from attacking the status quo,” Cannon said. “If you spend your entire time in the Legislature without upsetting an editorial board or two, or making people angry, then you need to question whether your time was well spent.

“And lastly, don’t be afraid of the future. Because for me, what was once my future, is now my past,” concluded Cannon, who has no immediate plans to continue in elected office. “As I look back on my time…I feel I did win the ‘speaker lottery.”



After getting a shotgun as gift, Cannon fires political shot at Crist

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012 by John Kennedy

House Speaker Dean Cannon reflected on his two years leading the chamber Tuesday, as his official portrait was unveiled and fellow House members chipped in for a gift — a new shotgun for the outd00rs-loving lawmaker.

Cannon thanked his wife, Ellen, and three children for hanging with him through the demands of leadership and the turmoil of politics. His parents were credited for guiding him, and a host of fellow lawmakers for inspiring and motivating him toward policy decisions during two years of challenging budgets.

Cannon, who will leave office in November with no clear plans for future political office, praised governors he served under, Republicans Jeb Bush and Rick Scott. But he singled out another, Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist for a special shot.

Cannon thanked, “Jeb Bush for showing me what a leader could be, Charlie Crist for showing me what a politician should not be, and Rick Scott for showing me that sometimes against the odds, the right person ends up exactly where he was meant to be.”


Special session on PIP?

Monday, March 5th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott, insurers, chiropractors, masseuses, acupuncturists and consumer advocates are just some of the “special interests” trying to have a say in a personal injury protection overhaul.

And with the House and Senate still far apart in their proposed solutions and just four days left until the legislative session wraps up, Senate President Mike Haridopolos would not rule out the possibility of a special session on the issue.

The Florida House passed a bill to loosen the grip of massage therapists, chiropractors and acupuncturists last week, keeping alive one of Scott’s top legislative priorities. The Senate version, among other differences, puts fewer time restrictions on treatment but also largely shuts the door on massage therapy and acupuncture.

Stuart Republican Sen. Joe Negron, leading the charge on PIP reform in his chamber, called the differences reconcilable.

But Haridopolos said he’s not sure he’s got the votes to get the proposal out of his chamber at all.

“All I can do right now is try to figure out how it can pass in the Senate. I know the House has been on a little bit different glide path,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said, calling Negron’s bill “outstanding.”

“Overall, the fraud component has been handled in a thoughtful manner,” Haridopolos said. “I do support where he stands on massage and acupuncture but I’ve got to get it off this floor.”

Haridopolos said he’d be willing to come back in a special session on the matter, especially because he’s expecting lawmakers will have to come back to Tallahassee anyway to redraw legislative maps. The Senate President is expecting the Supreme Court to reject at least in part the new legislative districts. House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he does not want to hold a special session on PIP.

“I’m willing to come back. I think it’s an important issue. It’s not just the justice issue of eradicating fraud. It’s also a financial issue to a lot of families because they’re paying too much for auto insurance. So if we needed to have a special session, you won’t see me object at all,” Haridopolos said.

PIP overhaul looks like a longshot

Friday, February 24th, 2012 by John Kennedy

The Legislature’s latest bid to revamp personal injury protection (PIP) auto insurance looks like it could collapse amid the same intra-industry squabbles that killed previous efforts over much of the past decade.

Gov. Rick Scott is an ardent advocate for reform — tucking the demand for action into his State of the State address in January.

Now, Capitol hall talk is swirling about the idea of a special session on the subject –that amounts to a rhetorical surrender on the idea of any deal being reached before the Legislature’s scheduled March 9 finish.

But House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said Friday that a special session isn’t part of his plans. Prospects for consensus also looks tough, he conceded.

“I don’t know whether we’ll be able to bring the House and Senate positions together before the end of session,” Cannon said. “But I’m not contemplating a special session on the issue.”

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose district includes parts of northern Palm Beach County, is sponsoring a bill (SB 1860) that would  enact a series of  reforms, including implementing medical fee schedules, licensing medical clinics that provide personal injury protection (PIP) benefits, and requiring insurers to promptly pay claims.

Negron says his approach is closest to that pitched by Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who are pushing hard to rid the system of fraudulent claims and shady clinics who operate to draw on the $10,000 insurance coverage every Florida motorist is supposed to carry.

The House proposal (CS/HB 119)  by Rep. John Boyd, R-Bradenton, would scrap the state’s PIP law, replacing it with a proposed emergency care insurance that maintains the $10,000 medical coverage, but would require all accident victims to be treated in emergency rooms or by their personal physicians — not clinics — within 72 hours.

Massage therapists, accupuncturists and chiropractors would be from receiving PIP payments for medical treatments, under the House proposal.

The two sides are also split over attorneys fees.


Immunity bill for lawmakers abruptly dropped

Monday, February 20th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Legislation that would have shielded lawmakers from having to testify or turn over public documents in court hearings was abruptly dropped Monday, after drawing criticism from a top senator.

The legislation (HB 7123) cleared the House Judiciary Committee last week under fire from Democrats who charged it was intended to serve as an obstacle in emerging lawsuits over redistricting.

Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, sent a memo to fellow senators Monday saying he didn’t think the measure was necessary.  But he also indicated he was worried how the legislation might appear to a court reviewing the Legislature’s work redrawing House, Senate and congressional boundaries.

“Florida’s newly enacted congressional and legislative districts have been subjected to prolonged public scrutiny like never before,” Gaetz wrote. “They likely will be subject to more litigation than ever before…I do not want to chance even an appearance that the Legislature is not fully willing and able to explain our plans to any court of competent jurisdiction.”

Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, whose civil justice subcommittee advanced the proposal (HB 7123), said the immunity bill has nothing to do with redistricting. Instead, Metz said legal protections now granted legislators by courts on a case-by-case basis should be broadened.

He also said it was wrong that legislators could be forced to testify about their “legislative functions and duties.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, went even further, saying immunity is a “defense against gamesmanship and bullying.”

Labor unions have sued legislators over new teacher standards, retirement system payroll contributions and election law changes in the past year. In an attempt to sway a judge or jury, union legal strategy could include making lawmakers testify about their “intent” in approving these laws.

In redistricting, the motives of lawmakers crafting new maps also could prove pivotal.  But Metz’ proposal would have kept lawmakers off the witness stand.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and Rules Chairman Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, said Monday — soon after Gaetz’s memo was released — that the House was dropping the immunity proposal this year. Cannon, however, added some criticism to those who had derided the legislation.

“The hysterical reaction we’ve witnessed over the last few days  has been ill-informed and politically-motivated,” Cannon said. “Unfortunately, a debate this year on this subject will never be free of partisan rancor, blatant political opportunism, and unrestrained hypocrisy on the part of those who wish to discredit the most open and transparent redistricting process in Florida’s history.”


Cannon voted for Perry — oops

Thursday, January 26th, 2012 by John Kennedy

House Speaker Dean Cannon was an early supporter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, and apparently remains one of his most faithful.

With a laugh Thursday, Cannon acknowledged that he had cast his absentee ballot for Perry in next week’s Florida primary. Perry quit the race last week – before the most recent primary in South Carolina.

Cannon, R-Winter Park, didn’t want to talk much about it.

“The presidential race is something I am staying way away from,” Cannon said. “I’m just going to let that one stand.

“But I will say this. I think the real winner in this is Florida. By moving this primary date, no one can argue that that has not concentrated extraordinary attention, focus and emphasis and potentially decisiveness…on Florida,” he added.

Cannon helped pushed a state commission last September to change Florida’s primary date to Jan. 31 from its original March 6, to heighten the role Sunshine State voters would play in choosing a Republican nominee.

Cannon had already endorsed Perry, but the Texas governor’s campaign started teetering soon after with a faltering performance in a nationally televised debate at the Florida GOP’s Presidency 5 convention.


Senate advances text-while-driving ban — on road to dead end in House

Thursday, January 26th, 2012 by John Kennedy

A push to ban texting-while-driving cleared a Senate budget panel Thursday, but it’s looking likely headed toward a dead end in the Florida House.

The measure (CS/SB 416) would make texting a secondary offense, allowing law enforcement to issue citations only if drivers were pulled over for another offense.

“I’m certainly not on infringing on anyone’s personal freedom, as long as it’s not affecting the person next to you,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who is sponsoring the legislation. “I’d like to get this done before there’s a tragedy where someone takes out all the kids at a bus stop and then the public is screaming, ‘Why didn’t you do something about it.’

“This is the opportunity to do something about it,” she said.

The proposal would impose a $30 fine for a first violation. A second offense within five years would force a $60 fine and 3 points added to a motorist’s license. Six points would be tacked on if using the device contributed to a crash.

Detert’s bill was approved 14-1 by the Senate’s budget subcommittee on transportation, tourism and economic development. The lone opponent was Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, whose district includes part of Palm Beach County, who killed a similar texting proposal two years ago, while a House committee chair.

The House this year again looks poised to end talk of text bans. House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, told the Post last month that he was wary of adding “one more layer of prohibitive behavior,” in Florida.

At the time, Cannon said, “I’ve heard evidence that eating fast food, or men fixing their ties, or women fixing their makeup, or talking to screaming kids in the back of the van — as I’ve done from time to time — is just as distracting, perhaps more so, than sending someone a text message.”

The National Transportation Safety Board last month called for states to enact a ban on non-emergency phone calls and texting by all drivers.  About 35 states ban text messaging while driving, 30 states ban cell-phone use by novice drivers, and 10 ban all use of hand-held phones, according to the NTSB.

But Cannon said he and many in Florida’s conservative, Republican-dominated Legislature are wary of steps aimed at “government-regulating private behavior.”

Some kind of ban on hand-held devices behind the wheel — usually aimed at minors — has been proposed in every regular session of the Florida Legislature since 2002. The bills have been filed by both Democrats and Republicans.

Last session, more than a dozen such bills were filed in Tallahassee — but none cleared the Legislature.

Detert said there are plenty of alternatives to texting behind the wheel. She uses a voice-to-text system for sending messages when driving. And her bill does nothing to restrict cell phone use, she added.

“I’ve tried to draw this bill as narrowly as we possibly can,” Detert said.

Cannon embraces Scott’s school money, rejects his hospital cuts

Thursday, January 19th, 2012 by John Kennedy

House Speaker Dean Cannon and budget-writers revealed some broad brush strokes Thursday for how the House will craft next year’s state spending plan — embracing Gov. Rick Scott’s call for a $1 billion boost in public school funding, but rejecting his call for deep cuts in Medicaid payments to hospitals.

Cannon’s release of spending allocations for budget subcommittees also may heighten pressure on the state Senate, where Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, and budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, have talked about possibly delaying final action on a budget until later this spring.

Cannon, though, also seemed to try to find a middle ground — assuring lawmakers in his budget memo that “contingencies” could be included in a final spending plan that made changes if the economy brightens, or worsens.

 ”These contingencies will provide self-executing direction on how to enact reductions or provide additional spending authority, without accessing reserves, should circumstances change,” wrote Cannon, R-Winter Park, who is a lawyer, by profession.

Alexander, who declined to say much about the House approach, said the Senate did plan to move ahead with its budget work. But he said leaders there were still concerned about economic shifts that might effect the spending plan, which takes effect July 1.

Still, Alexander said the House’s idea about building in proposed cuts as contingencies, “is another option to deal with this concern.”

While Scott built his $1 billion public school increase by cutting almost $2 billion in Medicaid spending, the biggest share coming in cuts to hospitals, Cannon outlines a different course.

He said the House wouldn’t go along with Scott’s plan to overhaul immediately the way hospitals get reimbursed for treating poor, elderly and disabled Floridians. But Cannon hinted that deep reductions in general government, transportation and environmental programs would be deployed, instead, by the House to find school dollars.

The House also pulls close to $300 million from state trust funds for use elsewhere in the budget – double what Scott proposed diverting from these accounts. But the House has to set aside as much as $100 million for tax breaks in the coming year, topping the roughly $35 million the governor has proposed. 

The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union and a powerful ally of the Legislature’s outnumbered Democrats, were cool to the House’s proposal. Andy Ford, the FEA president, said the proposed school increase doesn’t come close to offsetting the $1.3 billion in cuts imposed by Scott and lawmakers last year.

Scott’s proposal would boost average per-pupil spending by $142, to $6,372, which is still well below the record $7,126 reached in 2008, before the recession forced deep cutbacks. Classroom spending currently is at its lowest level in six year.

“Every child in Florida deserves a high-quality neighborhood school – and it’s within our means to provide one,” Ford said. “But we must understand that investing in our children pays the highest dividends…This proposal puts a small bandage on the gashes inflicted with last year’s budget. We need to do better.”


Cannon puts higher ed on House to-do list

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Dean Cannon covered the tall tasks facing lawmakers in balancing the state’s budget and completing once-a-decade redistricting, but in convening the 2012 House, the speaker moved higher education up on his priority list.

Cannon said he didn’t have a clear direction. But setting the state’s 11 public universities and two dozen colleges on a new course should be one of the session’s goals. Clarifying the role of the State University System’s Board of Governors is one area that needs work, Cannon said.

“Since we have contributed to the muddying of the waters, it is my hope that the Florida House can play a constructive role in clarifying them,” Cannon said. 

 Cannon said the House Higher Education Committee will hear Friday from the presidents of Florida State University and the University of Florida, followed next week by testimony from leaders of the states’ nine other universities.

 In his opening speech to House members, Cannon acknowledged that legislation may not emerge this year — but that a dialogue should begin.

The speaker’s pitch on higher education follows a year in which Gov. Rick Scott made news by saying universities should be producing more graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, ridiculing those who study such subjects as anthropology in the process.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, also played a central — critics called it divisive — role in advocating for the University of South Florida’s Polytechnnic campus in Lakeland to become an independent 12th university. The move was delayed by the Board of Governors, helping prolong a bitter fight between Alexander and USF administrators.

“Our State has reached a moment in our history where we must find new pathways for success,” Cannon said.  “The undeniable fact is that the stability and diversity of our state’s economy are inextricably linked to the maintenance of a strong and dynamic system of higher education.”

Palm Beach County Commission sues state over ‘political bullying’ gun law

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Palm Beach County Commission has filed a lawsuit against Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, the Florida House and the Florida Senate today over a gun law that that went into effect on Oct. 1. Local officials who violate the law could be removed from office and face a $5,000 fine.

The sanctions “are simply a form of political bullying that serves no governmental purpose” and have a “chilling effect,” the lawsuit reads.

The commission’s lawsuit complains that the new law, sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of powers because it gives the governor the ability to remove local officials from office and strips local officials of immunity from lawsuits.

Under current law, the governor is only allowed to suspend local officials and the Florida Senate has the power to remove them or reinstate them.

“Threatened removal of individual commissioners in a matter that is consistent with the terms of the Florida Constitution is political overreaching and political bullying that serves no legitimate governmental purpose,” Amy Taylor Petrick, an attorney for the county, wrote in the lawsuit filed in the Palm Beach County Circuit Court today.

The lawsuit asks the court to find that the law is unconstitutional, stop the governor from being able to remove local officials from office and order that they can’t be fined for breaking the law.

Negron said the penalties are necessary because city and county commissioners have ignored a law that gives the legislature the discretion to regulate gun laws.

After the law went into effect, municipalities, counties and state agencies were forced to scrap hundreds of measures dealing with firearms and could no longer bar people from being guns into government buildings, including the state Capitol.

“Political disputes should be resolved in the elected government arena rather than in courtrooms. So we’ll see where it goes from here,” said Negron, who had not seen the lawsuit Tuesday evening.

Negron, R-Stuart, said he does not intend to file a bill to repeal the law during the legislative session that begins next month.

“I would consider that just as I have to follow federal law and I have to follow county laws and city laws when I’m in their counties and cities, they should follow the preemption of the state law then nobody has anything to worry about,” Negron, R-Stuart, said.

Spokeswomen for Bondi and House Speaker Dean Cannon said their lawyers are reviewing the lawsuit.

National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, who pushed the bill, called the lawsuit un-American.

“They’re using taxpayer dollars to try to keep from being punished for violating the law? That’s exactly the American way, is it?” she said.

Saunders predicts: Budget will be stalled until a special session

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011 by John Kennedy

House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders offered strategic advice Wednesday to ruling Republicans while making a few political predictions, as well.

The Key West lawmaker said he expected that GOP leaders will deliberately slow down budget talks next year – likely leaving the bulk of budget-making for a special session.

 When lawmakers convene in January, Saunders forecast that the Republican-controlled Legislature will move quickly to approve a redistricting plan, submitting it for court approval.

 If rejected by judges, that would give lawmakers time to craft another plan before the scheduled end of the two-month regular session.

The budget, though, will be kept back by leaders, Saunders said, to maintain control over rank-and-file lawmakers.

“It’d be nice to have that budget still sitting out there, to have some leverage over your members,” said Saunders, who a decade ago helped lead redistricting for the then-Democratic majority.

Saunders said that because of declining population in some Republican-heavy areas – including Pinellas County – as many as eight GOP House members may find themselves scrambling for political turf now held by a fellow House Republican.

Those wounded by final decisions are likely to have little loyalty to leaders, Saunders suggested.

“There’s going to be a lot more upset Republican members than Democratic members,” Saunders said.

Democrats? “They’ve pretty much bottomed us out. It’d be hard to draw maps worse than what we have now he said.


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