In a legal battle whose social and political shadings have drawn an all-star cast of combatants, the Florida Supreme Court this week will consider a measure asking voters to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for a range of illnesses.
Much of Florida’s Republican leadership is being joined by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the state’s medical association and law enforcement organizations in fighting the proposed 2014 ballot measure.
On the opposite side, leading Democratic donor John Morgan, an Orlando trial lawyer close to former Gov. Charlie Crist, is bankrolling the campaign. Crist, previously a Republican while governor, is now running for the office as a Democrat.
A former Democratic House Speaker, Jon Mills of Gainesville, will make the campaign’s case before justices on Thursday.
While the politics of the fight are viewed as closely entwined in next year’s governor’s race, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said his opposition stems only from concerns about how the ballot proposal is constructed.
“It’s misleading to voters, flawed and doesn’t really tell you just how pervasive marijuana would be in this state,” Weatherford told The Palm Beach Post. “If this were approved, it would be a nightmare for the Legislature to implement.”
Gov. Rick Scott’s administration drew fire Tuesday over a directive from the state’s elections chief which limits how absentee ballots can be turned in by voters.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner has ordered county elections supervisors not to allow the return of absentee ballots to any place other than a supervisor’s office.
Pinellas County, home to a contested congressional race featuring former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, is a county that extensively uses drop-off boxes for absentee ballots.
Detzner defended the move as an attempt to assure uniformity in the state’s election system.
“The directive issued does not change anything in the law, but is a clarification of existing law that was initiated by questions from supervisors of elections that prompted us to address this on a statewide level,” Detzner said Tuesday.
Democrats and voter groups, however, cried foul.
“Given Gov. Scott’s track record of voter suppression, I am disappointed but not surprised,” said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, a member of the House Ethics & Elections Subcommittee.
House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, traded jabs with a leading Republican Wednesday on the eve of a House hearing on the state’s controversial “stand your ground” self-defense law.
Thurston said House Democrats “strongly believe there must be major changes and fixes” to the 2005 law, which has drawn national attention since shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin.
Although the law was not part of the defense used by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, it did figure into instructions given Seminole County jurors who acquitted Zimmerman last summer.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee chaired by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, has scheduled a five-hour meeting Thursday to review the law. The Senate is considering modest changes to stand your ground. But House leaders reject the need for any modifications.
Democratic-sponsored legislation (HB 4003) going before the committee would repeal the law, but is almost certain to fail. While Thurston spoke only about fixing the law — and not repealing it — Gaetz said that showed signs of a split among Democrats.
“The House Democratic caucus is taking on the personality of Charlie Crist more and more,” Gaetz said, citing the freshly minted Democratic candidate for governor, who is a former Republican governor. “First they wanted a repeal of stand your ground, now they apparently want changes to stand your ground. Who knows what they’re going to want tomorrow?”
Florida was the first of two dozen states to approve stand your ground laws, which allow people to use deadly force to protect themselves. Before these new laws emerged, people who felt threatened outside their homes were required to flee an attacker if they could before using force to defend themselves.
Florida Democrats attempting to gain a seat on the state Cabinet face a possible slugfest for one — the race for Attorney General.
George Sheldon, an ex-deputy to former longtime Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth, delivered his campaign speech Sunday morning to party activists gathered at Disney World, a day after new rival, Perry Thurston, introduced himself to the crowd. Sheldon directed his fire at Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Sheldon said she was “not just right-wing, she’s wrongheaded.”
He went on to blister Bondi over leading the legal challenge by two dozen states opposing the Affordable Care Act. But his harshest assessment came of Bondi’s push last month to reschedule an execution because it conflicted with her planned campaign kick-off fundraiser.
“She should’ve resigned,” Sheldon said, drawing cheers from those gathered at the Democratic conference.
Thurston announced his candidacy Saturday. His speech later to conference delegates was mostly pegged to his role as state House Democratic leader, although he, too, managed to plug his new candidacy.
Florida’s three Cabinet posts are held by Republicans who, with Gov. Rick Scott, give the GOP command of the state’s executive branch. The Legislature also is led by Republicans, with Thurston topping the outnumbered ranks of House Democrats.
Bondi has already raised more than $400,000 for her campaign and has received another $220,000 from the Florida Republican Party for rent, staff, travel and other costs, state records show. And the prospect of a Democratic primary for attorney general is not something party leaders are seeking.
Christian Ulvert, the Florida Democratic Party’s political director, said Sunday that “something might be worked out.” Sheldon also told the Post that talks may soon be underway that look intended to get Thurston to drop his candidacy to avoid a costly intraparty clash.
“I hate that this comes down to money,” Sheldon said. “But it’s expensive to run these Cabinet races.”
A Florida Senate panel agreed Tuesday to modest changes to the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law, while not ruling out more sweeping steps in the wake of last summer’s George Zimmerman verdict.
The Judiciary Committee voted 7-2 to endorse a measure (CS/SB 130) that requires law enforcement agencies to develop guidelines for neighborhood watch groups and also would demand that they fully investigate any claims made using the self-defense law enacted in 2005.
Proposals to revisit stand your ground went nowhere earlier this year in the Legislature. But last summer’s acquittal of Zimmerman in the shooting 2012 shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin has renewed focus on the legislation and Tuesday’s hearing marked the first time lawmakers took a second look at how the law has been applied.
“This has truly been an effort where we have taken this issue…and reached a consensus so far,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. “If there’s more we can do later, we will do it.”
The House has shown little interest in reworking the law. But Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he still will work toward finding agreement with supporters of the legislation on a provision more strictly defining who an aggressor is when two people meet in a violent confrontation.
Like many things in life – but especially events taking place inside the Florida Capitol — tonight’s contest for House Democratic leader comes down to money.
Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, who was positioned as the likely successor to deposed incoming leader, Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, is spending Wednesday afternoon huddling with fellow Democrats, providing assurances that fund-raising will be his priority.
Pafford has never been a potent fund-raiser. And concerns about his ability to fulfill that side of the leadership post has paved the way for Rep. Alan Williams’ rival candidacy.
House Democrats don’t want to talk on the record. But Williams, D-Tallahassee, is seen by many as a bridge-builder with the state’s lobbying corps, giving him more access to campaign cash. Pafford, in some views, is more of a partisan bomb-thrower, who could alienate those with dough.
House Democrats, eager to raise a few million dollars from lobbyists, corporations and business associations, still have a few hours to make up their minds before tonight’s caucus vote, which is slated to begin at 7:30 p.m..
But as part of his one-on-one sales-pitch to lawmakers, Pafford is hinting that he’ll bring in a second-in-command who is committed to pulling in big bucks. Speculation is that even Rouson may be on the shortlist for Pafford’s leadership team.
While he’s helped by representing a solidly Democratic Palm Beach County district, state records show Pafford has raised a total of just slighly more than $225,000 for his own races over the last four election cycles. While hardly a scientific analysis, Williams has collected more than double that total during those elections.
Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, joined the contest Tuesday for incoming House Democratic Leader, adding his name to that of West Palm Beach Rep. Mark Pafford in seeking the 2014-16 post.
The 44-member Democratic caucus is set to meet beginning at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Williams, like Pafford, were both elected in 2008 and are positioned to replace Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who was tossed out as incoming leader on a 24-17 vote Monday night.
Rouson had run afoul of party leaders and most of the caucus for establishing a fund-raising committee outside the Florida Democratic Party.
Pafford initially looked like he might be the only contender. The Democrat who lost earlier this year to Rouson, Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, said Tuesday that she would not run and endorsed Pafford saying, “he will right this ship.”
Williams entry, however, is seen as a sign that some in the caucus are wary about Pafford, seeing him as too far to the political left. The leader’s job involves candidate recruiting and fund-raising, and some Democrats view Williams as having a stronger bond with the Capitol’s lobbying corps.
Florida’s prescription-drug database, seen by supporters as a key front in the state’s battle against drug abuse, is being used by less than 17 percent of the state’s health care professionals, Health Department officials acknowledged Tuesday.
The drug-monitoring database is already under scrutiny following the wrongful release of the drug histories of more than 3,000 people to attorneys earlier this year.
But several lawmakers Tuesday said they were surprised by how little it is relied on by medical professionals issuing prescriptions.
“I’m surprised it’s not higher given how much we talk about this,” said Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando.
The database was once fought by Gov. Rick Scott, who became a supporter after Attorney General Pam Bondi and others convinced him that having an effective monitoring program was crucial to stop doctor-shopping by those seeking prescription drugs.
It was also designed to help law enforcement crack down on medical professionals suspected of profiting from over-issuing prescriptions.
The ACLU told a House Health Quality Subcommittee on Tuesday that it wants stricter standards for law enforcement reviewing Floridians’ drug histories. The database’s program manager, Rebecca Poston, assured lawmakers that efforts remain underway to tighten security.
But Poston conceded that there is no law requiring doctors and others to use the database before they issue prescriptions.
Professionals had earlier complained about long delays accessing the data. But now, Poston said it appears doctors, dentists and pharmacists just prefer not to take time to review prescription histories.
“There’s nothing that requires the practitioner to utilize the system,” Poston told lawmakers.
West Palm Beach Democrat Mark Pafford looks certain to be elected incoming leader of Florida’s House Democrats after a one-time contender for the post announced Tuesday that she was no longer a candidate.
Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, said in a statement that, “I believe it is in the best interest of the caucus,” that Pafford be chosen when Democrats reconvene Wednesday to select a leader for the 2014-16 term.
Rouson defeated Jones by two votes in February for the leadership post, after the first round of balloting ended in a tie. Rouson, however, ran afoul of a majority of his colleagues and state party officials by establishing a fund-raising committee without the knowledge of Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant, a move many viewed as deceptive.
Pafford submitted a letter to the House Clerk’s Office early Wednesday declaring his candidacy for the top post. With Jones throwing her support his way, Pafford has risen as a consensus candidate.
With some advocates pushing the Republican-led Legislature to revisit expanding Medicaid, the House’s health care budget chairman testified Wednesday before Congress that the idea represents a “flawed approach.”
Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, was among officials from several states who spoke on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and concerns it is raising.
Hudson also defended the Florida House’s rejection earlier this year of expanding Medicaid to cover those who may not be able to afford health insurance even under so-called ObamaCare.
“Fundamentally, I believe the Medicaid expansion is a flawed approach to reduce the number of uninsured residents in Florida,” Hudson told a joint meeting of two U.S. House committees.
“Rather than temporary assistance targeted to our most vulnerable residents, the optional Medicaid expansion would have created a new entitlement for able-bodied, working age adults without children,” he added.
Florida has about 4 million uninsured, one of the largest populations in the nation. About 1.1 million were expected to be able to gain coverage — financed totally by the federal government for the first three years — under the Medicaid expansion allowed under the Affordable Care Act.
“Expanding Medicaid to more than a million new individuals would undoubtedly make access problems worse,” Hudson testified. “And those who would suffer most would be our most vulnerable residents, including our elderly population and those with disabilities. They would be forced to compete with able-bodied adults for a limited number of appointments.”
Even as Gov. Rick Scott is setting up what critics call obstacles in the path of the Affordable Care Act, some advocates Tuesday began a push for Florida lawmakers to revisit the idea of expanding Medicaid coverage for the state’s poorest residents.
The League of Women Voters of Florida joined with Tampa-area companies and business associations to urge legislators to consider the economic benefits of providing health insurance to the hundreds of thousands of Floridians who still may not qualify or be able to pay for coverage when the federal plan takes effect Jan. 1.
“This makes good business sense for our hospitals by reducing the amount of emergency care they would need to provide for the unisured and it would also help stabilize business health insurance premiums by reducing the need to pass along those costs,” said Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
Scott, who earlier this year endorsed the Medicaid expansion, but stood by as the Florida House rejected the approach, has lately raised alarms about the work by “navigators” informing Floridians of their health care options when online marketplaces begin offering insurance Oct. 1.
But Deirdre Macnab, president of the league, said her organization is looking to push more business supporters forward in coming months. She wants the Legislature to revisit expansion next spring.
“No doubt, there will be many bumps on the road,” when it comes to implementing the Affordable Care Act, Mcnab said. “But hopefully, the Florida Legislature will pay attention to the business community and the citizens of this state.”
The House sponsor of Florida’s controversial stand your ground law said Wednesday that he is frustrated that President Obama and others are using the measure and the Trayvon Martin case to rally opposition against Republicans.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, condemned what he called the “manipulation” of a tragic situation. Baxley spoke at a Republican club in Tallahassee where later this month, lawmakers plan to hold a public hearing on the self-defense law.
“He went from a position of saying ‘this young man could be my son’ to ‘this could be me,’” Baxley said of Obama. “When he merged those images, I couldn’t help but feel some political implications to that.”
Baxley said others like the Rev. Al Sharpton have been more explict, saying the Martin case and calls for repeal of stand your ground are aimed at the 2014 and 2016 elections. But Baxley said Republicans are not going to be pressured into overturning a law that he said has heightened public safety.
“Let’s face it. In a political environment, people are going to use whatever they have,” Baxley told reporters after speaking to the Capital City Republican Club. “But let’s don’t let them misuse it.”
The law, approved in 2005 unanimously by the Florida Senate and in an overwhelming, 94-20 vote in the House, was not used by lawyers defending George Zimmerman in the shooting death of the unarmed teen-ager. But it did shape the jury instructions given to the six-woman jury which acquitted Zimmerman.
Florida is among two-dozen states with stand your ground laws, allowing residents to use deadly force to protect themselves.
Before these new laws emerged, people who felt threatened outside their homes were required to flee an attacker if they could before using force to defend themselves.
Like Baxley, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, sees little need to change the stand your ground law. But Weatherford has said the House Criminal Justice Committee will hold a hearing this month on the law, mostly to hear testimony from law enforcement authorities about any difficulties they’ve faced with implementing the measure.
Legislation, however, also has been filed to repeal the law — or modify its use.
Leaders of the activist group, Dream Defenders, which staged a 31-day sit-in at the Florida Capitol ending last month, said they plan to attend the House hearing. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement released a report Wednesday that said providing Capitol Police security at the sit-in cost taxpayers more than $172,500 in overtime expenses.
Mitch Needelman, a former Brevard County Clerk of the Courts and a longtime state legislator, was arrested Thursday on bribery charges, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Needelman, 60, is a former Florida Marine Patrol officer, who served a decade as a Republican in the state House, representing the Melbourne area. The FDLE said that while clerk, Needelman entered into a $8.53 million contract with a company, BlueWare with the agreement that a portion of that money would be funneled back into his reelection campaign.
BlueWare won the lucrative contract to digitize Brevard County court records even though the company didn’t have the equipment to scan the documents, FDLE said. Needelman’s one-time business partner, William Matthew Dupree, a lobbyist, also was charged in the scheme.
An arrest warrant has been issued for Rose Harr, BlueWare’s chief executive officer.
“The investigation shows Needelman, Dupree and Harr swindled Brevard County taxpayers out of millions of dollars,” said FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey. “Although not the final chapter, today’s arrests should present a degree of satisfaction to Brevard County taxpayers.”
Needelman lost his re-election bid in last summer’s primary for court clerk. Before leaving office, Needelman obtained a $5.6 million loan through the clerk’s office that was steered to BlueWare — cash Brevard taxpayers are now obligated to repay, FDLE said.
While the alleged bribery was underway, BlueWare also was poised to rake in more cash from the state, according to the watchdog group Integrity Florida.
Enterprise Florida, the state’s development arm, offered BlueWare $760,000 tax refund last year and a separate $550,000 from the state’s Quick Action Closing Fund on the promise the company would create 190 new jobs.
Enterprise Florida, however, said Thursday that no state money has gone to BlueWare because the job-creating milestones had not been met.
Gov. Rick Scott appointed longtime lawmaker Mike Fasano as Pasco County Tax Collector, filling a vacancy created by the death of Tax Collector Mike Olson — a move the takes a Republican maverick and frequent Scott critic out of the Legislature.
Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican, was elected to the House last fall — beginning his second run in the chamber. He earlier served in the House from 1994-2002, when he was elected to the Senate, where he served the next decade.
Fasano clashed last spring with House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, over Medicaid expansion. Fasano sided with the Senate and Democrats in the drive to accept billions of dollars in federal aid to expand health coverage to 1.1 million poor Floridians. Weatherford refused, warning that the state would likely be stuck with a larger part of the tab from a federal government he said was unreliable.
Fasano also criticized the governor for failing to do more to sell the expansion to lawmakers.
Fasano had earned a reputation as a party loyalist under former Gov. Jeb Bush, being a leading advocate of the governor’s insistence on fazing out the state’s intangibles tax on investments, which he decried as a tax on “seniors and savers.”
He also was an advocate for customers of Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-run insurer which is steadily under fire from business associations backing insurance companies which want a bigger slice of the Florida market.
The Pasco job will pay Fasano $136,000 annually, about five times what he earns as a legislator. The job also makes Fasano eligible for a massive spike in his pension benefits.
“He’s passionate. He cares about our state and he cares about his constituents,” Scott said. “He’s going to be very customer oriented.”
The Obama administration’s decision to delay for a year the requirement that large employers provide health insurance to their workers likely ended any hopes Florida Democrats had of expanding Medicaid coverage in the near future to low-income residents.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, who rallied House Republicans behind rejecting the expansion allowed under the Affordable Care Act, said that postponing the employer mandate until 2015 affirmed his fear that the federal government was unreliable in the health care expansion.
“Count on more reversals, changes & unraveling of ObamaCare,” Weatherford posted on Twitter following the announcement. “ There is no way the Feds can make good on their promises.”
By Wednesday, Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was joining in a Republican chorus calling for the repeal of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. “ObamaCare should not simply be delayed, but repealed,” Weatherford tweeted.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also was among state Republicans ready to reverse course.
The stance was more of a departure for Negron. The Senate budget chief spearheaded an effort this spring that would have expanded health coverage to 1.1 million more low-income residents and been fully financed by federal dollars its first three years.
Negron’s plan also would have positioned Florida for $51 billion in federal aid over the next decade.
With the federal mandate lifted for a year, Negron said told The Palm Beach Post, “Businesses in Florida now have one more year to understand and try to implement the law and maybe persuade Congress to revisit the entire law.”
He added, “Maybe this is time to start making a persuasive argument to start over from scratch.”
The Palm Beach County Legislative Delegation is going ahead with a planned July 15 town hall meeting at the county Governmental Center on the Affordable Care Act and rallying support for expanding Medicaid.
But delegation chairman, Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, acknowledged Wednesday that the one-year delay, “definitely slows things down.”
“The positive thing is that the administration took to heart the concerns the business community was having,” Pafford said. “There always will be changes in a big plan like this and there still will be questions.
“But you have to remember, people would have been in much better shape if we had already gone ahead with the Medicaid expansion,” Pafford said.
He called Weatherford’s lashing out at the Affordable Care Act “amateurish.”
Like the Palm Beach delegation, Broward County lawmakers held a town hall last month to emphasize the positives of having more of the state’s almost 4 million uninsured gain health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
The effort also was aimed at fanning the hopes of supporters disappointed by the Florida Legislature’s failure to approve some version of Medicaid expansion to cover Floridians expected to fall through the cracks of the federal health care overhaul.
Many advocates for the poor have joined with hospitals and some business associations in urging lawmakers to revisit the issue as early as this fall in a special session.
Some expected business groups to step-up their demand for the state and federal governments to cover more low-income residents as the employer mandate neared. Employers, advocates said, would welcome the state and federal government providing more coverage options to low-income workers with jobs, saving companies some expense.
The Medicaid expansion also was seen as drawing business support because it was seen as reducing the overall cost of providing insurance.
But that strategy now looks out the window.
“At this point, we would hope that businesses would still want to do the right thing and make sure they offer insurance to their workers,” said Laura Goodhue, executive director of Florida CHAIN, a statewide health advocacy organization based in Jupiter.
“Businesses also have to remember that 2015 isn’t that far away. They can’t put these actions off forever,” she said.
Attorneys representing Death Row inmates have filed a challenge to a law aimed at speeding up executions, saying the “Timely Justice Act” unconstitutionally usurps the Supreme Court’s powers and violates convicts’ constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.
The lawsuit is led by two lawyers – Capital Collateral Regional Counsel South Neal Dupree and Capital Collateral Regional Counsel Middle Bill Jennings – who head the state agencies that represent Death Row inmates in post-conviction proceedings. Dozens of other lawyers and more than 150 inmates awaiting execution joined the lawsuit against Attorney General Pam Bondi and the state of Florida filed with the Supreme Court Wednesday afternoon.
The lawyers filed the lawsuit less than two weeks after Gov. Rick Scott signed the measure into law.
The new law, which goes into effect on July 1, requires the Florida Supreme Court to certify to the governor when a Death Row inmate’s appeals have been exhausted. Under the new law, the governor will have 30 days to sign a death warrant once the capital clemency process is complete.
The lawyers have asked the Court to issue an emergency injunction blocking the law from going into effect.
“The Act creates a rushed process for issuance of a flood of death warrants that will inundate the courts and abruptly cut off this Court’s exercise of judicial review in capital cases. If not addressed prior to its operation in practice, the process will have the unconstitutional and irreversible result of individuals being executed under a legislatively-determined judicial procedure in which violations of their constitutional rights go unresolved. Further, Florida history shows that diminished process can have tragic and irreversible consequences,” the lawyers wrote in the 89-page filing.
The court filing includes a lengthy examination of both the Court’s and the legislature’s efforts over the past 30 years to come up with a more expedited but fair death penalty process “to balance the concerns of fairness and justice with the need for finality” in death penalty cases.
That process “cannot and should not be displaced by a lawmaking process based on political, rather than constitutional and equitable, concerns,” wrote Dupree and Jennings, joined by Martin McClain, who has represented numerous Death Row inmates, included some who have been exonerated.
Since signing the bill, Scott’s office has launched a public relations campaign disputing reports that the new law speeds up executions and insisting instead that the law “makes technical amendments to current law and provides clarity and transparency to legal proceedings.”
According to Scott’s office, 13 Death Row inmates would fit the criteria under the new law to have a death warrant signed.
But in the court filings, lawyers for the condemned argued that the Legislature’s new scheme to limit post-conviction appeals lacks an understanding of the complexities of the process and imposes restrictions on federal appeals.
The Legislature “has made profoundly critical decisions determining what judicial vehicles are available to capital defendants prior to the State taking the ultimate punitive act of terminating their lives, yet it seems the Legislature does not have an understanding of those vehicles and their names. Unless, that is, we must presume that the Legislature intended to cut off U.S. Supreme Court review of Florida death cases, which would present concerns of federalism, constitutionality, and fairness beyond those addressed herein,” the lawyers wrote.
The lawsuit also accuses the law of violating the separation of powers between the branches of government because it gives the governor the authority to oversee whether the Clerk of the Supreme Court complies with the 30-day requirement to notify the governor once appeals have been completed and because it takes away some of the court’s rulemaking authority by imposing time limits on the production of public records in post-conviction cases.
And the new law also fails to take into account that some appeals, including whether an inmate is insane cannot be made until after a warrant is issued, the Death Row lawyers argued.
The law would also give unequal treatment to convicts whose cases were processed before the new act went into effect, the lawyers wrote.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings Wednesday expanding gay rights brought a swift reaction in Florida, with some saying the decisions now turn the focus on Tallahassee and the state’s own 2008 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
“As Democrats, we are committed to full equality for every American,” said Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant. “Today, the Supreme Court moved us further toward that goal. All married couples will now enjoy the federal benefits and protections they have been wrongfully denied for years.”
She added, “There is still a long road ahead before we achieve full equality for GLBT Americans, and here in Florida we stand committed to continue this fight.”
A gay rights advocacy organization, Equality Florida, last week unveiled a statewide campaign called “Get Engaged,” ultimately aimed at ending the state’s constitutional prohibition against same-sex marriage.
Advocates said a ballot proposal to repeal Florida’s constitutional amendment is not planned for next year. But eliminating the ban enacted by 62 percent of Florida voters in 2008 would be a goal of the education campaign.
“Today’s rulings are a major step forward for the country, but for Floridians they fall far short of justice and are more than anything a call to action,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida.
“For those of us who live in state’s like Florida where our marriages are still not recognized, today’s rulings are a reminder that we cannot wait for justice to be handed to us, we are going to have to get engaged and fight,” she added.
Getting a voter-backed repeal effort on the ballot in Florida would not be easy, with more than 600,000 signatures needed for a proposed constitutional amendment.
Although it was only in 2008 that Floridians endorsed the ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions, polls indicate the state and the nation’s views on the issue are changing rapidly.
A survey by liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling in March found that 75 percent of Floridians support letting same-sex couples marry or have civil unions. Only 23 percent of those surveyed in Florida opposed any legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship.
PPP found the numbers, pro- and con-, varied little between registered Democrats and Republicans. Minnesota, Rhode Island and Delaware this spring brought to 12 the number of states where same-sex marriage is legal.
Florida is among 30 states that have adopted bans, similar to the one justices allowed to remain struck down in California.
“It’s a great day for Americans, and for Floridians,” Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said Wednesday, following the high court rulings.
Sobel proposed legislation last spring allowing for a statewide domestic partnership registry. The measure was noteworthy in that it cleared a Senate committee before failing to advance further.
This spring in Tallahassee saw the state’s first two openly gay legislators take seats in the House, Reps. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, and Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach. But the Republican-controlled House and Senate traditionally has resisted issues endorsed by Florida’s gay and lesbian community.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott supports the same-sex ban. But former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat seen as a likely Scott opponent in next year’s governor’s race, last month endorsed gay marriage – despite signing the 2006 petition for a constitutional ban and reaffirming his opposition in 2008.
“I think for anything to change in Florida, it’s going to have to be a grassroots effort,” Sobel said
Rep. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat whose district contains a large gay population, said she was “in solidarity” with the community.
“The past has shown that equality does not always come quickly, and never cheaply; the forces of justice have often
fought those of prejudice and misunderstanding, and lost,” Stewart said Wednesday. ”But today’s ruling proves that while it is not always a steady or even march toward basic civil rights for millions of Americans, it is surely an inevitable one.”
Broward County legislators Tuesday will gather health care providers, business groups and a few Democrats still stinging from the Legislature’s rejection of a push to expand Medicaid to 1.1 million low-income Floridians under the Affordable Care Act.
A town hall meeting is scheduled from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Broward County Governmental Center’s county commission chambers. A similar event is planned for July 15 in West Palm Beach at the county governmental center and hosted by the Palm Beach County Legislative Delegation.
The Florida Senate advanced a plan aimed at drawing billions of federal dollars to expand Medicaid, but the House endorsed a sharply scaled back version that relied solely on state taxpayer funding.
“Hardworking Floridians who cannot afford basic health insurance will continue to be denied the care they deserve,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, chair of the Broward delegation. Meanwhile, the town halls are designed to rally support for an eventual state embrace of the Medicaid expansion, along with readying Floridians for when the full Affordable Care Act kicks in next January.
The scorecard is a counterpoint to business-backed Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce ratings in which, as expected, the Democrats received mostly failing marks.
Florida Watch Action, Progress Florida and America Votes identified 18 Florida lawmakers members – all Democrats – who voted with the left 100 percent of the time, according to a press released issues by the groups today.
The 18 include Palm Beach County Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Reps. Lori Berman, D-Lantana; Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth; Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach; and Irv Slosberg, D-Delray Beach.
“These eighteen lawmakers deserve Floridians’ thanks for their unwavering support and leadership on the issues that matter most to middle class families,” said Progress Florida Executive Director Mark Ferrulo.
House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, also made the progressives’ top 18 list; his Senate counterpart Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, did not.