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Scott mum on what changed his mind on campaign finance

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott did not say what made him reverse his opposition to a campaign finance measure he signed into law last night that increases contributions from the current $500 cap to $3,000 for statewide candidates like himself and $1,000 for legislative and local candidates.

Scott announced he had signed the measure into law half an hour after lawmakers delivered a modified version of one of the governor’s top priorities, eliminating the sales tax on manufacturing equipment.

As late as this week, Scott said lawmakers hadn’t made their case for lifting the caps.

When asked what changed his mind, Scott responded: “Like everything, you listen to a lot of people and try to make the best decision I can for every citizen in the state. So I made the decision to sign the bill last night.”

When asked if his approval was linked to the manufacturing tax break, Scott still gave no insight.

“Look, I look at everything. But I made the right decision for all Floridians with regard to that individual bill,’ Scott said. Asked again, he reiterated: “Look, I review every bill. And I reviewed the bill and decided it was in the best interest for the citizens of the state.”

The manufacturing exemption House with a 68-48 vote, smaller than the two-thirds margin required by the constitution for tax breaks, prompting confusion over whether the tax break can be implemented or not. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and his staff insisted the tax break did not require the 2/3 majority. House Democrats contend it is invalid and does.

When asked if Scott was concerned about the kerfuffle over one of his top two priorities, the governor again gave nothing away.

“I’m excited. I’m excited for our jobs. this is a reduction in our taxes so we get more manufacturing jobs. as I travel the state, people are excited about it. I’ve been traveling the state for the last two or so months just talking about this,” he said.

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.

Former secretary of state calls Senate elections proposal ‘bad public policy’

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Former Secretary of State Kurt Browning called a provision included in the Senate’s election package yesterday allowing the secretary of state to dock election supervisors pay and essentially put them on probation “bad public policy.”

Browning served more than two decades as the Pasco County supervisor of elections before going to work for Gov. Charlie Crist as secretary of state in 2006. Browning stepped down from the post for the second time last year and was elected Pasco County schools superintendent in November.

Browning was in the Capitol on Wednesday for school superintendents’ meeting with his one-time boss, Gov. Rick Scott.

The provision included in the Senate plan on the floor Wednesday would allow Browning’s successor, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, to put supervisors on a minimum one-year “non-compliant status” if they don’t meet certain standards. And he could make them ineligible for yearly $2,000 bonuses available to all constitutional officers who meet certain annual training requirements.

“Show me another constitutional officer that has that kind of penalty. Granted, supervisors need to do their jobs just like superintendents, sheriffs, clerks, tax collectors, property appraisers. But (the state department) need to deal with individuals. They don’t need to be putting sanctions on an entire group. That’s my opinion,” Browning said.

Supervisors had supported the bill (HB 7013) but were livid over the amendment sponsored by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami. He said he came up with the plan in response to problems in five counties, including Palm Beach and St. Lucie, deemed “low-performing” by Detzner after the November elections.

Progressive groups decried another provision in the bill limiting voter assistance. Under the measure, someone could only give assistance to voters they know personally before Election Day and caps the number of people they can assist at 10. Advancement Project and other voting rights groups believe the provision is a violation of the Voting Rights Act. The restriction would keep ministers and civil rights volunteers from helping out at the polls, Advancement Project spokeswoman Jennifer Farmer said. The left-leaning Florida New Majority scrambled to find Creole interpreters to fill a shortage in Miami-Dade County in November.

“There is no rationale, moral or legitimate argument for this amendment. This amendment hurts some our most vulnerable citizens – the elderly, people with disabilities, people who don’t speak English, and voters who are unable to read or fully understand ballot language,” Farmer said in an e-mail.

Slot machine-like games outlawed after Scott signs Internet cafe ban

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Slot-like machines in storefront gaming centers became illegal today after Gov. Rick Scott quietly signed into law aimed at shutting down Internet cafes.

Scott signed the bill less than a month after state and federal authorities arrested 57 people in connection with Allied Veterans of the World, a St. Augustine-based non-profit accused of posing as a charity while running a $300 million illegal gambling ring.

The investigation also prompted Jennifer Carroll, Scott’s hand-picked running mate, to resign as lieutenant governor. Carroll had consulted for Allied Veterans while she was a member of the House.

Scott signed the bill (HB 155) without any fanfare and spoke with reporters shortly afterward, quickly shifting the conversation to a plug for his two legislative priorities.

“The House and the Senate did the right thing to crack down illegal gaming especially in light of the Allied Veterans multi-state criminal conspiracy. They did the right thing and now they can get back to working on my two priorities for the session, the $2,500 pay raise across the board for classroom teachers and eliminating the sales tax on manufacturing equipment so we have more jobs,” Scott said.

Lawmakers have not yet signed off on either of Scott’s legislative goals.

The new law could disrupt gambling at the senior arcades popular with the elderly in Palm Beach County because many of the machines at the centers would be outlawed.

Internet café and arcade operators say the ban could put up to 16,000 people out of work.

Scott, who campaigned on creating 700,000 jobs in seven years, called the ban “the right thing” and turned a question about the new law’s impact on workers into another plug for his priorities.

“I have a jobs agenda. Right now what the House and Senate need to be focused on is getting rid of the sales tax on manufacturing equipment. It will create more manufacturing jobs. We have less than half the number of manufacturing jobs per capita than the rest of the country,” Scott said. The tax break would eliminate sales tax on manufacturing equipment and is expected to eliminate nearly $60 million from the state treasury the first year it goes into effect and $115 million the following year. There is no estimate on how many jobs, if any, the tax break would create.

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.”

NRA-backed bill closes loophole allowing mentally ill to buy guns

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Lawmakers are trying to close a loophole that allows individuals who have been declared an imminent danger to themselves or others to purchase firearms.

The measure – the only one of a slew of proposals sponsored by Democrats that has the blessing of the National Rifle Association – addresses a “huge gap in the law,” Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman told the House Criminal Justice Committee this morning before its unanimous passage.

Under current Florida law, only mentally ill individuals who have been deemed an imminent danger and who have been involuntarily committed to treatment after being Baker Acted are added to a national database prohibiting them from purchasing guns.

But just a fraction – about one percent – of the 115,000 Baker Acts in Florida last year resulted in involuntary commitment. The other 99 percent of mentally ill individuals voluntarily submitted to treatment, meaning they could purchase guns as soon as they are out of the hospital.

“It makes no sense now that if you’ve been declared by two doctors that you are an imminent danger to yourself or others, why should you be able to go out and purchase a gun? If you’re suicidal, it’s an insanity. It’s just a horror waiting to happen,” Judge Leifman, who served as the Florida Supreme Court’s advisor on Criminal Justice and Mental Health.

Closing the loophole may prevent tragedies such as yesterday’s suicide at the University of Central Florida this week, Leifman said. Police say UCF dropout James Oliver Seevakumaran, who was found dead in his room, planned an attack before killing himself.

“These things don’t just happen. People have histories of depression. They have histories of mental illnesses. And when they get to the point where they’re imminently a danger to themselves or others, I think it behooves all of us to prohibit people at that point from purchasing the gun,” Leifman said.

NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said the bill was necessary.

“People with mental illnesses who are determined to be a danger to self or others are scamming the system. Many of them have been Baker Acted five, 10, 20 times. They never get into the system to prevent them from purchasing a firearm,” Hammer said.

‘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.”

State Department issues elections recommendations

Monday, February 4th, 2013 by Dara Kam

A possibly longer early voting period, more kinds of early voting sites and limiting the length of constitutional questions placed on the ballot by the Legislature are among Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s recommendations to lawmakers released today.

Detzner’s suggestions, based on conversations with supervisors of elections in what he called “under-performing” counties including Palm Beach, dovetail with what the supervisors are requesting.

The supervisors for years have asked lawmakers to expand the types of early voting sites now restricted to elections offices, county libraries and city halls. Detzner’s recommendations would add other government-operated facilities including civic centers, county commission buildings, courthouses, fairgrounds and stadiums.

Detzner recommends limiting the number of words for legislators’ proposed constitutional amendments. Lawmakers in 2000 exempted themselves from the 15-word title and 75-word ballot summary imposed on citizens’ initiatives. Detzner also recommends repealing the statute that allows lawmakers to place the full text of the constitutional amendment, including stricken or underlined text, on the ballot.

Detzner also made several secondary recommendations:
_ Lengthen the deadline for mailing absentee ballots to voters, now 10 days before the election, and allow canvassing boards to start processing absentee ballots earlier than 15 days before the election now in state law.
_ Restrict “in-person” absentee voting at the counter. Elections supervisors complained that they were inundated by in-person absentee voters, including on Election Day, and blamed President Obama’s campaign for using the in-person absentee voting as a way around early voting restrictions.
“‘In-person absentee’ voting, as currently implemented, has created a de facto early voting extension that can interfere with Election Day preparations and delay election results until after Election Day,” Detzner wrote in his report.
_ Allow chief judges to appoint alternates to canvassing commissions, now comprised of a county judge, the chairman of the county board of commissioners and the elections supervisor.
_ Impose fines for underperforming elections vendors. St. Lucie County’s elections results were delayed because memory cards failed, and Palm Beach County elections staff were forced to hand-copy nearly 20,000 flawed ballots because of the printer’s errors.
_ Require elections supervisors to upload results earlier. St. Lucie County could not meet the deadline for certification of elections results because, in part, staff uploaded results later due to the memory card failures.

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Clemens files resolution that would create full-time legislature

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013 by Dara Kam

For many Capitol insiders, the 60-day legislative sessions are more than long enough.

But state Sen. Jeff Clemens, a freshman who won a bitter primary against former state Rep. Mack Bernard, filed a resolution that would make the sessions last two years.

Under Clemens’s proposed constitutional amendment (SJR 512), the session would begin two weeks after the general election and last two years.

Clemens said lawmakers don’t have enough time to fully vet issues during the two-month session.

“The compressed nature of the legislature as we have it right now forces us to rush bills through without thinking them through and doesn’t allow enough time for us to delve into the budgetary process,” the Lake Worth Democrat said. “I think the voters suffer because of that.”

And the 160 members of the House and Senate, whose annual legislative salaries is around $30,000, have full-time, outside jobs that may create conflicts when voting on legislation, Clemens said.

“It’s really a case of not being able to serve two masters at once,” he said. “The idea of a full-time legislature is really rooted in allowing legislators to make decisions based on what they think is best for the state and not have to have their individual employment or individual financial situations compromised by that.”

No word yet on what Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, thinks of Clemens’s proposal. But, after the GOP-controlled legislature was blamed for long voting lines during the 2012 presidential election because they put 11 lengthy constitutional questions on the ballot, Gaetz has said instructed his members to use restraint regarding constitutional changes.

“If you have a proposed constitutional amendment, it’d better solve a constitutional problem, not an issue du jour,” Gaetz said in November.

Lake Worth freshman Democrat sponsors first bill passed by committee in 2013 session

Thursday, January 17th, 2013 by Dara Kam

State Rep. Dave Kerner, a Democrat in a GOP-controlled legislature, was spared the typical freshman hazing and instead tapped to sponsor a bill aimed at cracking down on human trafficking, one of Attorney General Pam Bondi’s top priorities.

Kerner’s measure (PCB CRJS13-01) would bar massage parlors from operating between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and prohibit them from being used as a principle domicile, with some exceptions. Law enforcement officials have targeted massage parlors in some regions because they say some unscrupulous operators are using the storefronts as a cover for human trafficking or other illegal acts.

The House Criminal Justice Committee gave the measure a unanimous thumbs-up and forewent the typical freshman drubbing of first voting against the bill and then taking it back up for reconsideration and passing it. It’s the first bill passed by a legislative committee so far this year.

“It’s very, very personal to me,” Kerner said. A native of Lake Worth, Kerner said that more than 50 percent of the residents of District 87 which he represents are Hispanic and many of them are in the country illegally.

“They don’t vote. They don’t speak the language. It’s fertile ground for the human trafficking trade. They don’t reach out to law enforcement. They don’t have any contacts here. This is a big issue in my district. They ought to be protected by the state and it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I ma passionate about it. Because it goes on right her ein my district.”

Kerner, a Lake Worth lawyer and one-time Alachua police officer, said he was approached about sponsoring the bill by committee chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and also personally got the blessing of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. It’s unusual for a freshman Democrat to have the opportunity to sponsor a high-profile measure, Kerner quickly learned.

“The Speaker was more than willing to have that bipartisan effort. And I think that’s awesome,” Kerner said.

New House, Senate leaders take over

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, officially took the gavels in their respective chambers this morning, launching their two-year terms as presiding officers and welcoming a slew of newly elected lawmakers.

Weatherford’s ceremony had the added bonus of being led by former House Speaker Allan Bense, Weatherford’s father-in-law.

Both Weatherford and Gaetz gave speeches outlining their plans for the next two years.

Fifteen of the 40 senators are new to the chamber. Several of them – including Palm Beach County Democratic Sens. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Joseph Abruzzo of Wellington – previously served in the state House.

Gaetz praised Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, and emphasized that the two parties have to work together, unlike lawmakers in Washington.

“You want to know who lost the 2012 election. Congress. Congress, both parties, has an approval rating of 11 percent. Muammar Gaddafi had an approval rating of 14 percent and his people killed him,” Gaetz said.

Gaetz said he and Weatherford agreed to make ethics reform a top priority.

“In my medium-sized north Florida county, a commissioner was just removed for official misconduct, the tourism director committed suicide after he stole bed tax and BP money, the Speaker of the House was forced to resign, the tax collector was run out of office, our college president was fired and our sheriff is in federal prison. That’s just my county,” said Gaetz, who lives in Okaloosa County.

And Gaetz also pledged to do something about the state’s prolonged election, certified this morning by Gov. Rick Scott and two other members of the Election Canvassing Commission, saying Florida is not a “third world country.”

“Floridians should never again have to stand in lines for six and seven hours to vote. Floridians should never again have to wonder if their ballots were miscoded or misprinted or miscounted. Floridians shouldn’t be embarrassed that while most counties in our state run flawless elections, some counties keep running flawed elections,” Gaetz said. “This isn’t a third world country. America shouldn’t have to wait for five days after the polls close to find out how Florida voted.”

Feds propose voting changes

Monday, November 19th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Justice Department is eyeing changes to the country’s voting processes to address a myriad of problems including long lines and other voting woes that again shined a spotlight on Florida.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who oversees the agency’s civil rights division, some proposed fixes during a speech at a George Washington Law School symposium last week.

While he didn’t single out Florida by name, many of Perez’s observations reflected problems encountered by voters, including those in Palm Beach County, during early voting and on Election Day. The Justice Department monitored elections in 23 states, including Florida, this year.

Perez said DOJ is still reviewing the federal monitors’ observations.

“But there is at least one obvious takeaway, which the country has spent much of the last week discussing: there were widespread breakdowns in election administration in state after state, which forced voters in many states to wait in line for hours at a time – in some states and counties, up to six hours or more,” Perez said.

Among the changes proposed by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who oversees DOJ’s civil rights division, are:
- Automatic registration of all eligible citizens;
- Same-day registration;
- Allowing voters who move to cast regular ballots, instead of provisional ballots that have a greater chance of being discarded, on Election Day.

But Perez went even farther, saying reform is needed regarding “deceptive election practices,” which he called “dishonest efforts to prevent certain voters from casting their ballots.

Florida was one of more than a dozen states that passed elections laws critics say were aimed at making it harder for Democrats and minorities, who helped boost Obama into the White House in 2008, to cast their ballots.

“Over the years, we’ve seen all sorts of attempts to gain partisan advantage by keeping people away from the polls – from literacy tests and poll taxes, to misinformation campaigns telling people that Election Day has been moved, or that only one adult per household can cast a ballot,” Perez said.

Perez also addressed the issue of voter fraud, which GOP sponsors and supporters of Florida’s election law (HB 1355) said was the reason behind the changes.

“Let’s work to prevent fraud, but let’s not erect new, unnecessary requirements that have a discriminatory impact. Let’s have a debate on the merits without trying to make it harder for our perceived opponents to vote,” he said.

Provisional ballots are also a concern, Perez said. DOJ is considering whether Congress should impose national standards for counting provisional ballots in federal elections, he said.

And Perez also targeted what he called “partisan mischief” in state and local elections administration.

“We risk leaving our election processes open to partisan mischief – or to the perception of such mischief. We should have a serious conversation about solutions to this risk, including developing an entirely professionalized and non-partisan system for administering our elections,” he said.

New Senate prez poses ethics reforms

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Don Gaetz is exploring a sweeping ethics proposal that could do away with political committees used by legislative leaders, bar elected officials from getting second jobs outside their fields of expertise and strengthen conflict of interest disclosure for state senators.

The Niceville Republican said Tuesday he’s considering changes to campaign finance laws that might eliminate “committees of continuous existence” while increasing the amount of money individuals can contribute to political campaigns, now capped at $500.

Gaetz, who officially takes over his chamber after the November election, told reporters he hasn’t drafted a bill yet for the 2013 legislative session but wants to strengthen ethics laws not only for the legislature but for other elected officials, including school board members. Gaetz formerly served as the superintendent of schools in Okaloosa County.

Gaetz said he’s also considering putting public officials’ financial disclosures online in a way that’s easy for the public to find.

Read about Gaetz’s preliminary ideas about an ethics package after the jump.
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ALEC quits gun policy, lefties want more

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012 by Dara Kam

It isn’t enough that the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has backed down from Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law after spreading it around the country, some left-leaning groups say.

Now they want lawmakers to quit the group as well. Progress Florida has launched a statewide campaign urging its supporters to tell legislators to “disavow the group’s extremist and secretive influence on Florida law making.” Other national groups are urging state lawmakers and more businesses to do the same.

ALEC – the business-backed organization that provides prepackaged bills for lawmakers, many of which have been used by the GOP-dominated Florida legislature – yesterday announced it was discontinuing its “Public Safety” and “Elections” task forces that promoted controversial measures including “Stand Your Ground” and voter ID laws that critics say make it harder for minorities to cast their ballots.

The move came after at least 10 corporations refused to renew their memberships in ALEC, a decades-old organization relatively unknown until the Trayvon Martin shooting thrust ALEC into the national spotlight.

Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman claimed he shot the unarmed teenager in self-defense. Florida’s first-in-the-nation, 2005 law allows people to use deadly force when they feel threatened. ALEC pushed Florida’s NRA-backed bill, and about two dozen states have adopted similar laws.

Progress Florida as well as national groups, including Common Cause, complain that the corporations behind ALEC are crafting the model bills then sponsored by state lawmakers.

For example, state Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, earlier this year sponsored a memorial urging Congress to cut the federal corporate tax rate.

But the proposal’s first “whereas” clause mistakenly revealed the source of the bill language.

“WHEREAS, it is the mission of the American Legislative Exchange Council to advance Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty,” Burgin’s memorial reads.

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House approves alimony law rewrite

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012 by Dara Kam

The House approved a watered-down version of what began as a rewrite of the state’s alimony laws but still contains provisions critics say are biased in favor of the bread-winning spouse.

The measure (HB 549) originally would have completely done away with adultery as a consideration for alimony payments and reduced the amount and length of time divorced spouses could receive the support.

The version approved Thursday does away with permanent alimony and allows a judge to take adultery into accounty when determining payments but only to the extent the cheating “significantly depletes” material assets or caused a significant reduction in one spouse’s salary.

Rep. Ritch Workman, who sponsored the bill, said the changes make Florida law more fair.

“It’s there to assist one spouse after a divorce,” Workman, a Melbourne Republican who is divorced, said during floor debate. “Alimony should be gender-neutral…All this bill does is ensure that alimony is blind to the sex of the ex-spouse and is non-punitive.”

The bill creates a presumption that both parties will have a lower standard of living after the break-up and it would allow changing or ending alimony payments to be retroactive, meaning the person receiving alimony could end up owing their former spouse.

Delray Beach Democratic Rep. Lori Berman, a lawyer, called the bill “unfairly biased” in favor of the bread-winner in a divorce.

The House approved the measure, opposed by the Florida Bar Family Law Section, with an 83-30 vote. A similar Senate measure (SB 748) supported by the Bar still has at least one more committee stop before heading to the floor.

‘Wage-theft’ bill moving in House

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Counties like Palm Beach won’t be able to craft non-judicial ways to handle disputes over whether workers have been cheated out of their pay under a measure moving in the Florida House.

The House Judiciary Committee passed a revised “wage theft” proposal (HB 609) this morning with a party-line, 12-6 vote. The GOP-dominated committee thwarted an attempt to grandfather in Miami-Dade, the only county in the state thus far to pass a wage theft ordinance creating an alternate wage dispute system. Palm Beach County commissioners are considering a similar proposal.

The Florida Retail Federation and other business lobbies are pushing the ban on local wage theft ordinances, which they say make it too easy for worker challenges. But labor unions and immigrant advocates oppose the measure. They say undocumented workers are more vulnerable to being cheated out of their wages but are afraid to report their employers and don’t want to end up in court.

The House proposal would allow counties or municipalities to create a system to help workers file the complaints in court that would also include mediation. The measure also limits any wage theft complaints to workers making less than $500,000 and requires that the complaints be filed within a year.

A Senate version stalled this week, but Republican senators are trying to work out their differences as the March 9 end of the legislative session approaches.

Constitutional amendment doing away with separation of church and state back on the ballot…for now

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011 by Dara Kam

A measure doing away with a century-old prohibition on using state funds for religious purposes is back on the November 2012 ballot, for now, after Attorney General Pam Bondi rewrote the proposal using a Tallahassee judge’s guidance.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis last week tossed the proposed “Religious Freedom” constitutional amendment, placed on next year’s November ballot by lawmakers, saying it was misleading because it left the impression that it would “make it a lot harder for the state to deny funding or program benefits to a sectarian institution.”

Under a new election law signed by Gov. Rick Scott this spring, Bondi had 10 days to rewrite the ballot summary. She crafted the revised measure as Lewis suggested in his Dec. 13 ruling by deleting the phrase “consistent with the United States Constitution” and inserting “except as required by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Critics say the amendment makes it easier for the GOP-dominated legislature and executive branch to steer taxpayer money to religious entities, including schools. The amendment’s ballot summary would change Florida’s constitution to ensure that “no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding, or other support.” At least 60 percent of voters must approve the measure for it to pass.

The plaintiffs in the case, including religious leaders and the Florida teachers’ union, also tried but failed to get Lewis to strike down the law allowing the attorney general to revise the summary if a court strikes it down as misleading. Bondi’s rewrite Tuesday is the first time the new law giving her that ability has been used.

Delray Beach’s Maria Sachs named Senate minority whip

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 by Dara Kam

Senate Democrats tapped Delray Beach’s Maria Sachs today to serve on Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich’s leadership team. Sachs, a lawyer, will serve along with Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, as one of the caucus’ two minority whips. Sachs replaces Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, who yesterday completed his last day in the Senate after serving for 17 years as a legislator.

“I am honored to serve as the new Senate Democratic Whip,” Sachs said in a press release. “I will bring energy and a strong voice in fighting for Democratic principles for our state.”

Sachs, a lawyer and former prosecutor, was elected to the Senate in 2010 after serving four years in the state House.

“Senator Sachs has distinguished herself as a passionate voice on behalf of Floridians from all walks of life,” Rich, D-Weston, said. “She’ll bring that same dedication to her new leadership position as an advocate for Democratic priorities.”

Session ends with hard feelings after major meltdown

Saturday, May 7th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Lawmakers approved a $69.7 billion spending plan and quietly ended the 2011 legislative session at 3:35 a.m. without any pomp and circumstance.

Instead, the 60-day session ended with Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon publicly rebuking each other over with Haridopolos accusing Cannon of playing “silly games” and Cannon claiming to “take the high road” by rejecting a controversial Senate tax break.

Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, called his members back after 2 a.m. this morning to take up a tax-break proposal that includes a three-day sales tax holiday for back-to-school shoppers after the House stripped out a tax break for at least one greyhound dog track in Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher’s district.

Haridopolos apologized for asking them to return about an hour after he sent them home and instructed them the session would reconvene at 10 a.m.

Shortly before Haridopolos recalled the Senate, Cannon gaveled down the House without passing two claims bills that were Haridopolos priorities. Eric Brody was set to get $12 million from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office for an accident more than a decade ago that left him severely disabled, and William Dillon was slated to get less than $1 million after being wrongfully imprisoned for nearly three decades for a crime he didn’t commit.

“They should have been served today by this legislature. Politics got in the way today and I’m embarrassed,” he said.
Gov. Rick Scott left the building around midnight as the legislative session devolved into chaos. Scott had been scheduled to participate in the ceremonial white hanky drop but instead went home to bed because he had a busy schedule this weekend, his spokesman Brian Burgess said.

The House approved the budget shortly before 2 a.m., about two-and-a-half hours after the Senate and following some very hard feelings between the two chambers.

The House then took up the disputed tax break bill (CS/SB 7203).

But the House remained angered by the Senate’s killing a pair of professional deregulation bills earlier in the night — with House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, saying that move broke an agreement between the two chambers.

“In light of the Senate’s inability to meet that obligation, I’ve decided that our chamber would take the high road…and send it all to the Senate tonight, and leave no ambiguity,” Cannon said.

The House took up the tax-break bill, voted to remove the Jacksonville track provision, repackaged the measure as HB 143 and sent it back to the Senate. With the budget behind them, and the tax-break package structured to their liking, Cannon and House members adjourned at 2:07 a.m., Saturday.

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Bill making it harder for minors to get judicial waivers for abortions headed to governor

Thursday, May 5th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Florida Senate approved a measure that would make it harder for young women to get a judge to sign off on an abortion without her parents or guardians’ knowledge.

The Senate approved the measure (HB 1247) with a 26-12 vote with just one Republican, Sen. Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach, voting against it. The measure now goes to Gov. Rick Scott, who is likely to sign it.

Democrats argued that the many young women seeking the judicial waivers are afraid to tell their parents because they have been raped or abused by a family member and that the current parental notification law requiring a minor to go to a judge anywhere in the appellate district in which she lives is working. Last year, about judges issued about 300 orders allowing the procedure.

Sen. Gwen Margolis, a former Senate president, said she was around before the historic Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing a woman’s right to an abortion. Margolis spoke of a young friend who bled to death after trying to give herself an abortion because she was too scared to tell her parents.

“That’s what happens with a lot of these young women. They’re afraid to tell their families…This is the real world. In the olden days, we had lots of deaths because of this kind of action,” said Margolis, D-Miami.

But Sen. Alan Hays, the bill sponsor, said that abortion counselors are taking children across the state to judges who would be more likely to grant the waiver.

“I find it totally and completely repulsive that we would allow an adult to take one of these 13 or 14-year-old young ladies and drive her from Crestview to Fernandina Beach to get an abortion,” Hays, R-Umatilla, argued.

Stay tuned for the vote on a second abortion bill requiring women to have ultrasounds before they get abortions. The Senate is now debating the measure, similar to one vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist last year.

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