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Florida House approves election package – again – sends back to Senate

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 by Dara Kam

The secretary of state won’t be able to punish elections supervisors under a modified elections package approved by the Florida House and sent to the Senate for final passage.

The Senate is expected to finalize the measure, which requires supervisors instead to post online a report of their preparations three months prior to the election, in one of the last actions before the 2013 session ends later this afternoon.

The Senate had wanted to give the secretary of state, appointed by the governor, the authority to put the locally elected officials on probation and force them to pass a test before being able to be removed from “noncompliant status.”

But House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, sided with the supervisors, who objected that Detzner already has the authority to review the local officials’ preparedness, give them written directions and take them to court if he believes they aren’t complying with the law.

Before the session began, Gov. Rick Scott, Weatherford, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, pledged to do something to fix the long lines and up to eight-hour waits encountered by many voters last fall.

Under the plan expected to go to Scott for signature, supervisors can choose from between eight and 14 days of early voting and stay open from eight to 12 hours per day. The 2011 law, HB 1355, shrank early voting from 14 to 8 days. GOP insiders said the 2011 law was designed to cut back on Democratic turnout in the 2012 election, a reaction to Florida Democrats’ support for President Obama in 2008 that helped him into the White House.

This year’s proposal also gives supervisors more options for early voting sites, and would allow add civic centers, fairgrounds, courthouses and government-run senior centers to the city halls, public libraries and elections offices they can now use.

“Reform is never final…We should be ready always to come here and make adjustments if we can make things better,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the sponsor of HB 1355.

Democrats applauded the effort but said it didn’t go far enough to reverse a 2011 elections package they blame for many of the problems.

Rep. Janet Cruz, who was the lead Democrat on the elections bill, called the effort “a very, very good big, big first step in solving the difficulties that our voters have faced.”

But, she added, “I want our citizens to know that we are not finished.”

Democrats contend that voters should still be allowed to change their addresses at the polls on election day. Current law, changed in 2011, requires voters who move outside of the county to cast provisional ballots – which have a greater likelihood of being tossed – if they don’t update their address before Election Day. Democrats contend that kept many college students from casting regular ballots in the fall.

The bill takes “solid steps” to “reform the deform that had happened” with HB 1355, incoming House Democratic Leader Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said. The bill isn’t “where we want to be but it’s better than where we are,” he said.

“Some of us feel like the bill hasn’t gone far enough. We want to go back to pre-1355,” Rouson said.

Watered-down ban on texting and driving on its way to Gov. Scott

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013 by Dara Kam

It could soon be against the law to text and drive under a diluted ban on its way to Gov. Rick Scott.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, asked her colleagues to support the House version of the bill (SB 52) despite a provision that prohibits a motorist’s cell phone records being used by prosecutors except in cases involving a crash resulting in death or personal injury. The Senate passed the measure with a 39-1 vote, with Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, casting the only “no” vote.

For three years, the Florida House has refused to sign off on the texting and driving ban.
“For the first time ever they have a speaker over there that allowed them to speak on this bill. That was the good news. The bad news was I didn’t like what they said,” Detert said this afternoon.

Critics of the modified bill say it will make it harder for law enforcement to prove drivers were texting. The measure makes texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning drivers would have to be pulled over for something else in order to get a ticket for texting.

Drivers who do get ticketed for texting can voluntarily bring their own records to court to prove they weren’t breaking the law, Detert said.

“And frankly they probably won’t do that over a $30 ticket,” she said.

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, asked if the amendment regarding the phone records “doesn’t take all the meat and potatoes” out of the bill, approved unanimously in its original version by the Senate earlier in the session.

But Detert said it was better to pass the ban instead of changing it and sending it back to the House where it could risk languishing before the session ends tomorrow.

“Basically this bill is still a good bill. It still will allow parents today to say to their kids don’t text while driving it’s against the law,” Detert said. “It really will save lives and it boils down to it’s either against the law or not.”

DNC Chair Wasserman Schultz: Scott, Weatherford legacy will be ‘sickness, illness and death’

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013 by Dara Kam

Sen. Maria Sachs, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Florida Senate Democratic Leader Chris SmithDemocratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz blasted Gov. Rick Scott for failing to use his clout to push the House to approve a Medicaid expansion that could cover 1 million uninsured Floridians.

The U.S. congresswoman from Weston also accused House Speaker Will Weatherford and the GOP-dominated House of “slavishness ideological dogma” behind their rejection of the Senate plan crafted by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

“Sickness, illness and death…will be their legacy,” Wasserman Schultz told the Senate Democratic Caucus this morning.

Wasserman Schultz, a one-time Florida legislator who served in both the state House and Senate, also blamed Scott for “having a deathbed conversion” about the Medicaid expansion and failing to use his bully pulpit to push the House to pass it.

With three work days left until the legislative ends on Friday, Scott has focused primarily on his two priorities – $2,500 across-the-board pay raises for teachers and a manufacturing equipment tax break – and is scheduled to work from 8 a.m until 2:30 p.m. today, including photo opportunity for the last half hour of the day.

The final week is “the most frenzied, intense time of the entire legislative session,” Wasserman Schultz said.

“The governor and his staff should be in the trenches working the phones, working the halls, doing everything they can to pass their priorities,” she said. “It’s just demonstrative repeatedly of his utter lack of leadership.”

Scott, who is running for reelection, is “trying to have his cake and eat it, too” by publicly supporting the proposal to provide health insurance for the poor, which has broad support from voters, but doing nothing to force the House to act, Wasserman Schultz said.

“Leaders take the initiative. They don’t wait to be asked. We’ll need to elect somebody else.”

She sidestepped a question about whether former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, would be a better replacement.

“I have no idea and I’m not here to talk about that,” she said.

Wasserman Schultz also praised Florida House Democrats for “rightfully” slowing down the session with a procedural maneuver forcing all legislation to be read in full in retaliation for the GOP’s refusal to support the Senate Medicaid plan.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who also served as governor, also appeared at the Senate Dems meeting this morning.

He congratulated them for joining with several GOP lawmakers to defeat a controversial “parent trigger” bill and a pension overhaul for state workers.

Expedited death penalty process on its way to Gov. Scott

Monday, April 29th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Death Row inmates would get executed faster under a measure on its way to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

The Senate approved the bill (HB 7083) with a 28-10 vote this afternoon despite the objections of some Democrats who said the fast-tracked process is risky.

The “Timely Justice Act,” approved by the House last week, creates shorter time frames for death penalty appeals and take away the governor’s discretion about when to order an execution.

If Scott signs the bill or allows it to become law without his approval, 13 Death Row inmates would fit its criteria, meaning the governor who has signed nine death warrants in the 29 months since he took office would have to order 13 executions within six months.

Sen. Joe Negron, the bill’s sponsor, said the changes are necessary to bring justice to victims. The average length of time between arrest and execution in Florida is 20 years, and 10 Death Row inmates have been awaiting execution for more than three decades, Negron said before the vote.

The delay makes “a mockery of the court system,” Negron, R-Stuart, said. Court and jury decisions “at some point…needs to be carried out.”

But Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, argued that speeding up the process could result in the execution of innocent people.

Twenty-four Florida Death Row inmates have been exonerated, the most of any state in the nation.

“Once the execution is completed, it’s over. There’s no going back,” Sachs, a former prosecutor, argued. “I don’t see the reason for the swiftness especially with DNA evidence that can exonerate.”

Florida is the only state in the nation that allows a simple majority of the jury on capital cases. Critics of the bill had tried to change it to require a 10-2 majority of the jury as Alabama requires. All other states with the death penalty require unanimous jury decisions.

Sheriff Bradshaw gets $1 million for violence prevention unit

Monday, April 29th, 2013 by Dara Kam

House and Senate budget leaders have awarded Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw $1 million for a new violence prevention unit aimed at preventing tragedies like Sandy Hook from occurring on his turf.

It’s just one-third of what Bradshaw had sought from the Legislature, but it’s a ten-fold bump from what was originally in the budget before House and Senate budget leaders finalized the state’s $74 billion budget this weekend.

Bradshaw wants to use the money for a 15-person “prevention intervention” unit made up of five deputies, five mental health professionals, five caseworkers and a 24-hour hotline where citizens can report neighbors, friends or family members they fear may harm themselves or others.

Bradshaw told lawmakers last month he hopes the hotline and the unit can stop potentially dangerous people before they act out.

Bradshaw’s proposal is a first-of-its-kind in the nation, and he hopes it will become a model for the rest of the state like his gang prevention and pill mill units.

It’s part of the magical budget conference process where House and Senate budget negotiators hash out their differences that items can get increased. In Bradshaw’s case, both the House and Senate had included $100,000 in the criminal justice budget. But over the weekend, Senate budget chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, added another $450,000 in the Senate’s “supplemental budget” list and his House counterpart Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, added the same amount.

The proposal still needs the blessing of Gov. Rick Scott, who has a line-item veto authority.

Slosberg gets sweet on the House floor

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Rep. Irv Slosberg sweetened his trademark slogan for a traditional gift exchange with his fellow state reps on the House floor this morning.

Inside clear plastic baggies imprinted with white stars Slosberg dropped on members’ desks were red, white and blue M & M’s stamped with “Let Irv Serve,” “District 91,” “2013,” or a flag.

The Boca Raton Democrat told Post on Politics last week that he’s known throughout the Capitol and back home for two things – his “Let Irv Serve” campaign motto and his dogged pursuit of seat belt laws. Slosberg’s daughter Dori was killed in a traffic accident in 1996.

As part of his campaign schtick, Slosberg also gave away “schlepper bags” and corned beef sandwiches. Slosberg was elected to the House in 2000, lost a bid for the state Senate in 2006 and returned to the House in 2010.

He called the customized M & M’s a “neat idea” he got from his girlfriend, who ordered the sweets online. It’s a tradition for members to give each other small gifts during floor sessions, Slosberg said.

“Rep. Rooney gave a bottle of beer. Some gave chocolate. Some gave a bottle of rum. This is my gift,” Slosberg said. “Let Irv serve.”

Senate approves ‘Unborn Victims of Violence’ act

Monday, April 8th, 2013 by Dara Kam

After weeks of avoiding right-to-life issues, a Florida Senate committee signed off on a measure that would create separate crimes people who beat up or kill a pregnant woman and who also injure or kill the fetus regardless of whether they knew she was pregnant or not.

The “Unborn Victims of Violence Act,” overwhelmingly approved by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee over the objections of the two Democrats on the panel, also changes all current statutory terms regarding fetuses from “unborn quick child” and “viable fetus” to “unborn child.”

Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, a lawyer, said he was concerned that bill (SB 876) creates new penalties even if the perpetrator – or the woman herself – had no idea she was pregnant.

“That’s a dangerous step…to now charge people with things they couldn’t possibly have known,” Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said.”This is murky waters…where we could possibly be charging a person with a crime that they could have no idea or reason or knowledge of…I would ask that we tread lightly.”

Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Florida, which also opposes the bill, spokeswoman Judith Selzer said the organization would support the measure if the intent provision is removed.

But supporters of the bill say that similar Florida laws already make it a crime to be a party to a murder even if the accused did not actually participate in the killing.

And Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, the bill’s sponsor, said that the new crimes would make women safer.

“My argument would be I suggest you don’t do violence against a woman,” she said.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said the measure is too vague regarding “bodily injury” to a fetus.

“Certainly, as a mother I understand or can empathize or sympathize with anyone who is expecting and something happens to their baby. What I can’t support, however, is the notion that bodily injury is listed as an offense on an unborn that there’s no definition of what bodily injury is to an unborn. There’s no indication in the bill as to what point an unborn has a body,” Gibson said.

Stargel said that would be up to courts and juries to decide.

And Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the proposal reflects society’s values.

“Our criminal laws are replete with situations whereby if you decide to engage in criminal activity, then you’re responsible for what happens in that criminal activity. This law rightfully reflects our values as a society…in which we respect life and this is life. If as a result of criminal activity life is taken away then there should be consequences,” Bradley, a former prosecutor, said.

A House version (HB 759) is ready for a floor vote. Both versions do not create any penalties for abortions or against women who attempt to self-abort.

Earlier in the day, more than 100 Planned Parenthood staff, supporters and students – in town for the group’s annual advocacy day – held a rally on the steps of the old Capitol to encourage lawmakers to expand Medicaid, a move that would provide health coverage for about $1 million uninsured Floridians.

“What our legislators should be focusing on is how to expand health care coverage to men and women and young people throughout this state,” said Planned Parenthood of South Florida and the Treasure Coast President Lillian Tamayo. “And what we’re seeing is the usual pivot to divisive issues that really ought to be more between a woman and her doctor and her family.”

Senate Dems put brakes on Internet cafe ban…almost

Thursday, April 4th, 2013 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Senate Democrats won’t block the Internet cafe ban from rolling over, after all. The caucus never took a formal vote and several members were absent during a discussion.

Senate Democrats had intended to put the brakes on an Internet café ban that would also shut down “senior arcades” popular with elderly residents in Palm Beach County.

Sen. John Thrasher had hoped to get a floor vote on his bill (SB 1030) today. But the Democratic caucus, with the support of two Palm Beach County senators, balked at rushing the measure through instead of allowing the normal procedure to take place. “Rolling over” a bill to third reading for passage requires a two-thirds majority, or 27 votes, meaning that Republicans need the support of at least one of the 14 Senate Democrats. Despite concerns about the measure, the Democrats aren’t expected to block it from moving forward.

The House last month passed a similar version just 10 days after authorities accused Allied Veterans of the World of running a $300 million illegal gambling ring posing as a veterans’ charity.

The multi-state sting also prompted Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who was a consultant for Allied Veterans during her time in the Florida House, to resign on March 12.

Sen. Oscar Braynon called Legislature’s rush to pass the bills “a knee-jerk reaction to a federal investigation.”

A delay would have given the senior arcades, who have launched an all-out assault in an effort to get lawmakers to exempt their industry from the all-out ban, until next week to try to drum up more support. On Tuesday, the Florida Arcade and Bingo Association bused around 80 seniors, some in wheelchairs and using canes, from Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties to the Capitol to attend a committee meeting. The elderly patrons made impassioned pleas save the centers that cater to the elderly and where the customers play electronic games that resemble slot machines.

“There’s great concerns in the senior community in Palm Beach County. Quite frankly, if the adult arcades are not taken out of it, I may not be supporting the bill whatsoever,” Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, said during a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting this afternoon shortly before the session began at 2 p.m.

Supporters of the Internet cafes contend that shuttering the storefront gaming centers will put 13,000 people out of work. Two committees took testimony on the measure before it reached the floor today.

“There’s statistics being floated around. I’d like to found out if they’re true, that in one fell swoop 13,000 people, minimum, are going to be out of a job. This has reaching implications for this legislation. I may support it. I may not. But when that many jobs are at stake, that big of an economic impact, allegations being made all different which ways, we need to have this aired out in the open,” Abruzzo said.

Second abortion-related measure headed to House floor

Thursday, April 4th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Abortion providers would be required to provide emergency care to infants born alive or face criminal penalties under a measure unanimously approved by the House Health and Human Services Committee this morning.

It’s the second abortion-related measure sent to the House floor in as many days. But, unlike a proposal that would make it a crime to perform an abortion based on the gender or race of the fetus, the “Infants Born Alive” provision unanimously passed today has the blessing of Planned Parenthood.

The measure would require that an infant born alive after a botched abortion would have to be transported to a hospital and be resuscitated and mirrors a federal law.

Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, an emergency room doctor and the bill’s sponsor, said regulators have no idea if there is a problem with the issue in Florida now. But his bill (HB 1129) would require abortion providers to report the number of any infants born alive in other monthly reports.

“This bill is intended solely to guarantee all respect and humanity to infants born alive regardless of how they enter this world,” Pigman said.

Infants born alive after an abortion and which could survive would only occur in rare circumstances, Pigman said. The first is in partial-birth, or third-trimester abortions outlawed in Florida except when the mother’s life is in danger and ordered by two physicians. The second would be if an abortion is performed on a fetus whose gestation was erroneously dated by an ultrasound or other means, Pigman said.

The committee heard testimony from two Christian Family Coalition members who said they survived their biological mother’s attempts to abort them.

And Lillian Tamayo of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said her group withdrew its opposition to the measure after the sponsor struck a provision that would have automatically stripped the biological mother of her parental rights.

A similar bill is pending in a Senate committee.

Claims bill reform off the table this year

Thursday, March 28th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida cities, counties, public hospitals and other “sovereign” entities have put the brakes on an overhaul of the state’s claims bill process that allows people who have been harmed or injured by local governments to get paid more than $200,000 without the Legislature’s approval.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said a House plan to revamp the system is too contentious to tackle this year.

“It’s very, very controversial. It’s a total change of direction,” Lee said. “That’s going to take a lot of time and energy.”

As a result, the Senate won’t hear any claims bills this year at the direction of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who has said he won’t allow any of the bills to come up without a reform.

The House Select Committee on Claims Bills last week approved a plan that would raise the current $200,000 caps on individual payments to $1 million and $300,000 per-incident cap to $1.5 million to encourage local governments to purchase insurance or self-insure. The proposal would also impose a “hard cap” on payments for those with insurance by barring individuals who get those payments from being able to seek additional money.

No action on claims bills this year means that the family of Carl Abbott, a North Palm Beach man who was badly injured when a Palm Beach County school bus ran him over 2008, will have to wait at least another year for a $1.9 million settlement reached with the school board in 2009.

Abbott’s son, David, wants to use the money to move his father, now living in a nursing home and unable to eat on his own, into a facility where he can get rehabilitative care.

Lee said the claims bill process is troubled and inconsistent.

“My perspective has always been if we’re going to have sovereign immunity, then let’s have sovereign immunity. Why are we up here waiving it all the time just because there’s a difficult political situation?
I’ve never really understood the subjectiveness of the claims bill process and why somebody with the right lobbyist and the right lawyer and the right legislator behind it all of a sudden gets a huge payout for somebody when somebody else doesn’t,” he said. “It’s an imperfect process. We’re going to try to make it better. But it’s a heavy lift to try to reform that system. And until we do, we’re not going to be hearing any claims bills.”

Ban on storefront ‘casinos’ now awaits Senate action

Friday, March 22nd, 2013 by Dara Kam

The Florida House overwhelmingly approved a ban on storefront gaming centers less than 10 days after authorities accused Allied Veterans of the World of running a $300 million illegal gambling ring posing as a veterans’ charity.

The multi-state sting also prompted Jennifer Carroll to resign and put the House proposal to ban Internet cafes on a meteoric track to its 108-7 passage Friday morning. A similar measure is also on the fast track in the Senate, which previously had balked at the flat-out ban and instead preferred regulation of the “casinos on the corner” that operate under the state’s “sweepstakes” law.

The main dispute over the ban centers around adult or “senior” arcades authorized under a separate statute but which lawmakers and some law enforcement officials believe also operate illegal gambling houses.

But lawmakers have said they want to shut down any storefront businesses operating electronic games that look or play like slot machines, and both the House and Senate proposals would impact both the Internet cafes and the arcades although the types of machines are different.

Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, argued that the senior arcades have been operating in the state for three decades and that a Broward County judge dismissed charges against one adult arcade owner accused of running an illegal gambling site.

“So here we are today going to outlaw something that has been legal for the past 30 years has been legal in the state of Florida. If we’re going to do that, what’s next? Because some people have an aversion to alcohol, do we then go back to the days of prohibition and we say you know what, alcohol’s no longer legal in the state of Florida?” Waldman said during a brief floor debate.

Rep. Elaine Schwartz, an elder family law attorney, said the arcades are a harmless way for seniors to spend time.

“I don’t see why we have to jump to making it a crime. It’s something that’s very pleasurable, something that can be enjoyed,” Schwartz, D-Hollywood, said.

But Rep. Carlos Trujillo, the bill sponsor, argued that both types of strip mall gaming centers need to go. Shutting down the estimated 1,000 Internet cafes and possibly hundreds more arcades is possibly “the largest contraction of gaming” in a century, Trujillo, R-Miami, said.

“It sends a message to all the people who are out there stealing from seniors and exploiting the good names of veterans. We don’t want you here in Florida. You weren’t welcome before. You won’t be welcome in the future,” he said.

Rep. Berman uses poll showing overwhelming support for background checks to help her gun bill

Thursday, March 21st, 2013 by Dara Kam

Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, is hoping a new Quinnipiac University poll showing that 91 percent of Floridians support universal background checks for gun purchases will help her gun bill (HB 1343).

Berman and Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, have filed proposals that would require universal background checks for all gun sales or transfers in Florida. But it’s unlikely that either bill will even get a hearing despite what appears to be overwhelming support by Florida voters.

Berman sent a letter to House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and the rest of the 120 members of the Florida House asking them to co-sponsor her measure.

The poll “clearly shows that our constituents want us to address this issue,” Berman, a lawyer, wrote.
“With session in full swing, we need to act swiftly. In light of the recent tragedies, it is important that the Legislature acknowledges that Floridians are counting on us.”

House committee passes contentious claims bill overhaul

Thursday, March 21st, 2013 by Dara Kam

A Florida House committee took the first step toward revamping the state’s claims bills over the objections of cities, counties, public hospitals and other “sovereign” entities.

But House Select Committee on Claims Bills Chairman James Grant, R-Tampa, called Florida’s claims bill process a broken system that encourages local governments not to settle with victims because of the time, expense and uncertainty of getting a settlement passed even if the local governments agree to pay it.

The committee grudgingly approved the proposal with a 5-3 vote after a contentious debate in which no one from the audience spoke in favor of the plan. Both Republicans and Democrats who supported the measure said they had serious reservations about its impact on local governments.

The measure would raise the current $200,000 per individual cap to $1 million and $300,000 per incident cap to $1.5 million to encourage local governments to purchase insurance or self-insure. The proposal also places a “hard cap” on payments for those with insurance by barring individuals who get those payments from being able to seek additional money. Claims against governments without insurance would have to be paid out of state coffers. It would also require lawyers representing claimants to register as lobbyists and require a majority of the local delegation to approve the claim at a public meeting.

Palm Beach County lobbyist Todd Bonlarron argued against raising the caps because claimants often settle as close to the current caps as possible. He said that raising the caps will likely cause future claimants to seek more money than they might have otherwise.

And, he said, the higher caps may have a negative impact on county vendors that are required to carry the same level of insurance that the county, which is self-insured, has.

Lobbyist Bob Harris, who represents a consortium of Panhandle school districts, called the claims bills “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” that will increase the number of claims people make against local governments.

“If you increase the size of that pot of gold, more people are going to go after that pot of gold,” Harris told the committee.

Grant agreed that the new caps may encourage lawsuits.

“I also believe that the current caps discourage legitimate claims. If a child in your district is sexually abused at a school, should a cap prevent legitimate litigation and accountability of that school district?” Grant said.

The proposal “takes a very bad situation and makes it even worse,” argued former state Rep. Keith Arnold, a lobbyist for Lee Memorial Healthcare System.

The Legislature last year approved the payment for Aaron Edwards, who suffers from cerebral palsy after a problematic delivery at the Fort Myers Hospital. The hospital denied responsibility for his injuries but was is now responsible for paying the claim after Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law. A Lee County jury had awarded Edwards’s family $31 million.

The Senate does not have a similar proposal and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has said he would not approve any claims bills without reforms to the system.

Grant said his intention is to “try and fix a broken process.”

“Everybody in this rooms has problems (with the bill),” he said. “That let’s me know we’re doing a good job.”

Bipartisan lovefest comes to an end over Senate elections reform

Monday, March 18th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala had hoped for a unanimous thumbs-up on a measure designed to fix Florida’s elections woes highlighted by long lines in November.

Instead, St. Petersburg Republican stormed out of the committee meeting room after a strict party-line vote, with all Democrats – including Vice Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood – voting “no.”

Democrats said their objections to the bill shouldn’t come as a surprise. They filed numerous amendments late last week and held a press conference two weeks ago highlighting their wish-list for the bill (SB 600).

The House passed its version of the bill (HB 7013) on the first day of the legislative session, with just one Republican voting against the measure.

Like the House plan, the Senate bill allows elections supervisors to choose from eight to 14 days of early voting, offer early voting from eight to 12 hours each day and expands the types of early voting sites.

In 2011, the Republican-dominated Legislature passed an elections package (HB 1355) that shrank the number of early voting days from 14 to 8 and imposed new requirements along with stiff penalties for third-party registration groups. A federal court overturned the third-party voter registration portion of the law.

But Democrats said the early voting changes don’t go far enough to undo the damage created by HB 1355. Republican consultants and former GOP officials said that bill, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, was designed to suppress Democratic turnout in reaction to the 2008 election when minorities helped President Obama’s victory in Florida.

This year’s measure does not require that supervisors offer early voting on the Sunday before the election, a day national organizers have made “Souls to the Polls” to encourage minority voters to cast their ballots after church.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, also wanted to do away with a new provision in the law requiring voters who move from one county to another to cast provisional ballots if they don’t update their address before Election Day.

Other Democratic-backed amendments would have required at least one early voting site for every 47,000 residents, required supervisors to open an early voting site nearby one that has a wait time of more than an hour and required all counties to have the full 14 days of early voting.

All of the Democrats’ amendments either failed or were withdrawn, as Latvala grew increasingly more impatient.

Latvala said he would consider some of their changes at another time “in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation on this committee if we can get to that point on this bill.”

But they did not.

The provisional ballot changes were designed to “keep college students from voting,” Clemens, who served in the Florida House in 2011, said. College students helped boost Obama to victory in 2008.

“The genesis of this language was discriminatory. It remains discriminatory,” Clemens said.

That drew a rebuke from Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who implied that the Democrats’ amendments were contrary to the Senate’s protocol.

“Your comments takes away from deliberative body that we are. We tend to do things a bit different,” Gardiner said.

Later, Latvala said the Democrats blind-sided him with their amendments, filed Friday, and should have reached out to him last week.

“There were a couple of those that were in there today that i’d seen them and we could have worked on them, we could have probably put them in,” he said.

He called the Democratic opposition to the bill a political ploy.

“It’s hard for me to understand how every Democrat in the House could vote for the bill. We improved a couple of areas in the Senate bill in the issues they’re concerned about and the Democrats voted against it. It’s just politics pure and simple,” Latvala said.

But Clemens said it was “naive” to expect the Democrats to support the measure without the changes they held a press conference demanding just two weeks ago.

HB 1355 “took us from Point A to Point Z and now they want to go back to Point M and say that it’s enough,” Clemens said. “It’s just simply not. We’ve been very clear about the things we want to see in the bill. So it should be no surprise to anybody. For members of that committee to somehow believe that we were going to roll over when they didn’t meet any of the requests, it seems somewhat naïve to me.”

House committee passes Internet cafe ban

Friday, March 15th, 2013 by Dara Kam

The Florida House Select Committee on Gaming quickly passed an Internet cafe ban even though lawmakers insisted the “casinos on the corner” are already illegal under state law.

But a multi-state sting that led to the nearly 60 arrests and prompted the resignation of former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll has suddenly breathed new life into a ban the Senate just days ago would never have endorsed.

A new version of the ban would also shut down adult arcades, prompting concerns that the bill is too broad and is moving too quickly because of this week’s events.

“This is a knee-jerk reaction to something that took place,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, who cast the sole vote against the measure.

The House is expected to vote on the measure on Tuesday, and the Senate could vote on its version within two weeks.

‘Dream Defenders’ kick off 2013 session with protest

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013 by Dara Kam

A coalition of students carrying signs and chanting “The state is ours” protested Tuesday morning laying out their agenda and creating a disruption in the historically celebratory advent of the 60-day legislative session highlighted by Gov. Rick Scott’s State of the State speech.

The “Dream Defenders,” made up of students from several Florida universities and backed by the SEIU, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, are demanding that lawmakers repeal or reform of the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law and the elimination of “zero tolerance” policies in public schools.

The group chanted and sang on the fourth floor rotunda as the opening day ceremonies began in advance of Scott’s joint address.

The group organized in response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, last year. Zimmerman said he shot Martin in self-defense, but a judge has not yet decided if the law allowing people to use deadly force when they feel threatened applies in Zimmerman’s case. The law allows provides immunity from prosecution or arrest.

“Even today the life of a black boy or brown boy in this state is worth less than the bullet lodged in his chest,” Dream Defenders executive director Phillip Agnew, a Florida A&M University graduate who lives in Miami, said at a press conference surrounded by dozens of supporters wearing black T-shirts imprinted with “Can We Dream Together?” in white.

Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Will Weatherford, Senate President Don Gaetz, all Republicans, have said they support the Stand Your Ground law, but Democratic lawmakers have filed a slew of bills that would amend or repeal it.

But Agnew said he thinks the national attitude towards guns has changed in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings.

“We want a repeal. We’ll settle for a reform. The confines of that law are loose. If you create any bit of fear in me, I’m sorry ma’am, I can take you out,” Agnew said. “I don’t believe anybody any person in here believes that was the law was supposed to be and certainly not lack and brown people.”

The group will maintain a presence in the Capitol throughout the session, Agnew said.

“This is just a starting point for us. We’ll be here throughout the session…to ensure that some of these things pass.”

Senate Democrats unleash elections wish-list

Monday, March 4th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida Senate Democrats released a 7-point plan to fix the state’s elections, going much farther than what GOP leaders in both chambers appear to be prepared to accept.

The Democrats’ plan would not only repeal HB 1355, the 2011 law that shrank early voting from 14 to eight days, which critics say was a major factor in long lines and waits up to eight hours encountered by some voters last fall.

The Democrats’ plan would require 14 days of early voting in statewide or presidential elections, including the last Sunday before Election Day, known as “Souls to the Polls”; one early voting site for each 47,000 registered voters; more flexibility in early voting sites; and allowing voters who move to cast regular ballots instead of provisional ballots at the polls. They also want voters to be able to cast their absentee ballots in person at elections offices as soon as they receive the ballots in the mail.

The Florida House is moving a bill that would give elections supervisors flexibility to choose between eight and 14 days of early voting and expand the types of facilities they could use for early voting.

Elections supervisors want to be able to choose the number of days because some, especially those in smaller counties, say that voters wait until closer to the election to cast their ballots and it is too expensive to keep the early voting sites operating for the full two weeks.

“I can’t put a price on democracy. Having the polls open for 14 days, whatever the cost, is important for democracy,” Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said at a press conference. “If it’s 14 days in Broward, it should be 14 days in Dixie, 14 days in Flagler, 14 days in Hillsborough.”

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee meets this afternoon to discuss its proposal but is not expected to vote on the measure yet.

New Florida House smart phone app coming soon

Thursday, February 28th, 2013 by Dara Kam

House Speaker Will Weatherford gave reporters a sneak peek at a new House app that he said he hopes will “set a national standard” for citizens to interact with their government.

“I did not wear my black turtleneck to roll this out,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, joked, referring to the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ signature attire.

The mobile app, available for iPhones and iPads as well as android devices, was developed by Orlando-based Echo. Twelve companies bid on the project, which was supposed to cost about $130,000 but has run a bit over, Weatherford said.

“This is the way that people are communicating. It’s the way they want to learn. It’s the way they access information,” Weatherford, 33, said. “As a young Speaker and a person who uses apps every day, all the time, this is a way that people are accessing information today. It’s just another example of government entering the 21st century. We’re happy to be on the front edge of that.”

The app will be available to users on Tuesday, the opening day of the 2013 legislative session, and will allow users to live stream House committee meetings and floor sessions as well as view archived meetings and track bills.

But the app doesn’t include any information about the Florida Senate. Weatherford said he didn’t ask the “upper chamber” whether they wanted to participate in the project. That means that tech-hungry Senate snoops will have to continue to use their computers to follow what’s going on.

Coy Speaker Weatherford doesn’t rule out run for guv

Thursday, February 28th, 2013 by Dara Kam

House Speaker Will Weatherford did not rule out a possible run against Gov. Rick Scott in a primary next year but laughed when asked about the rumors of a primary against the incumbent.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, fueled the rumors when he criticized Scott’s announcement last week that he supports the expansion of Medicaid, part of the federal health care law pushed by President Obama. Conservative Republicans have lined up against the expansion, saying they fear it will ultimately cost the state much more than the 10 percent the federal government promises to pay after picking up 100 percent of the tab for three years.

“I think people who are saying those things must not know me very well. I’m busy enough trying to be the speaker of the House. And I think the governor’s doing a good job. The state of Florida is moving in a positive direction. We’re working closely with him to solve the problems of the state of Florida. I’m not thinking about any of that stuff right now. I’m thinking about the agenda we have for the next 60 days and trying to pass some significant policy out of the Florida House,” Weatherford told reporters in the Capitol today after announcing a new House smartphone app.

But Weatherford did not commit to not running against Scott when pressed about ruling it out.

“I just said I don’t have any plans to do anything like that. I think it’s funny that I’m being asked it. The governor’s a friend. I think he’s doing a good job. We’re working very closely with him. Like I said, we agree on a whole lot more than we disagree on. The Medicaid expansion is a very small example of something we haven’t been on the same page on. But I think we’re moving forward. I think there’s some exciting times for the Florida House,” he said.

Darryl Rouson victor in tight Florida House Dems leadership battle

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida House Democrats selected Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg lawyer, as their next leader with a 23-21 victory over Mia Jones of Jacksonville.

The 44-member caucus handed the 2014-2016 leadership post to Rouson after a first vote ended in a 22-22 tie.

“The best interest of this caucus is at stake. And the honor and integrity of this caucus today was at stake. The world was watching,” a tearful Rouson told the caucus.

Perhaps anticipating a tie-breaker, current House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, warned the caucus to stick with the promise of a cake and ice cream celebration.

Rouson served on former Gov. Charlie Crist’s transition team (back when Crist was a Republican) and comes from Crist’s hometown of St. Petersburg.

“I care about what we get when we go home and how we can brag to our constituents…we affected policy and we brought something home,” Rouson, who said he fasted prior to tonight’s vote, told the caucus after his win was announced.

House Democrats picked up six seats in November, and Rouson’s supporters lauded his efforts to help incumbents and freshmen on the campaign trail.

West Palm Beach Democrat Mark Pafford nominated Jones, calling her a champion of the middle class and progressives and “a leader whose time has come.”

Sen. Dwight Bullard, a former state representative from Miami who was elected to the Senate in November, cautioned the caucus about moving forward as the minority party in the GOP-dominated legislature.

“Don’t get into the back-biting. Don’t get into the deal cutting. Don’t get into the knee-capping…Do not sell your votes short,” Bullard advised.

Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Arcenaux, filling in while the second vote was being counted, congratulated the caucus for shrinking the GOP advantage in November.

“It’s now time for all of us to stop thinking in the mindset of the minority and start getting into the mindset of the majority,” Arcenaux said. “What we learned this cycle – hard work. None of our people got outworked. We got outspent…but we never got outworked.”

But nominating Rouson, Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda of Tallahassee said that Rouson would help boost the caucus’s numbers in the upcoming elections.

“It is integrity. It’s how you handle pressure,” that will ensure the Democrats keep gaining, she said.

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