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Ethics complaint filed against Sachs over residency

Friday, June 28th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Sen. Maria Sachs has been hit with an ethics complaint accusing her of lying about where she lives.

Matthew Feiler, a Tamarac resident, filed the complaintcomplaint on Thursday, accusing Sachs, who was elected to the Broward-Palm Beach District 34 seat in November after a brutal election against Republican former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, of falsifying public documents and violating state law requiring that lawmakers live in the districts they represent.

Sachs, whose district office is in Delray Beach, claims she lives in a Fort Lauderdale condo owned by lobbyist pal Judy Stern. But the complaint alleges she actually lives at a $1.5 million estate in Boca Raton owned by the former prosecutor and her husband Peter.

The complaint was filed after a WPLG Miami “Local 10″ investigation by Bob Norman. Private investigators videotaped Sachs arriving at her Boca home and leaving in the morning. The conservative website “Media Trackers” first questioned Sachs’s living arrangements in April.

The dispute about Sach’s living arrangements came up during hearings on Stern’s daughter Barbra’s appointment by Gov. Rick Scott to the state Elections Commission. Barbra Stern is part-owner of the condo Sachs claims is her home.

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee signed off on Barbra Stern’s appointment, but only after Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, questioned Stern of Fort Lauderdale — about her ownership interest in the unit. Stern at the time said her mother paid the bills on the unit, that she hadn’t visited the condo for years and she had no idea who lived there.

The Sachs-Bogdanoff battle was one of the most expensive – and ugliest- state Senate races last year. Republicans had hoped to keep Bogdanoff in the Senate in the newly-drawn district, but Sachs’s victory helped Democrats gain two seats in the chamber.

Wednesday’s complaint is Sachs’ latest ethics challenge. The commission found probable cause earlier this month that Sachs failed to properly disclose a Tallahassee condo along with her state legislative income on three years’ worth of financial disclosures. The panel decided not to punish her because she amended the forms.

Senate confirms utility regulator after drawn-out debate

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 by Dara Kam

After more than 30 minutes of at times brutal debate, the Florida Senate reconfirmed Public Service Commissioner Lisa Edgar despite concerns that the regulator sides with utilities more often than consumers.

The Senate voted 26-13 to give Edgar, the longest-serving commissioner on the panel another four years on the panel that oversees utilities and approves utility rates.

Edgar was first appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005 and reappointed by Govs. Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.

But Edgar’s votes in favor of utility rate hikes, a personal bankruptcy and her involvement in a PSC dust-up involving Blackberry messages prompted a drawn-out debate on the final day of the legislative session about whether she should be replaced.

“My personal belief on this nominee is that she does not do an adequate job of representing the ratepayers and the consumers of the state of Florida,” said Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg. “My personal belief, based on my observations…is that she is fairly consistently on the side of the regulated entities as opposed to the consumers, especially with regard to electric rates.”

Latvala said he had planned not to submit her name for a vote and instead force Scott to either reappoint her or select someone new.

“I’m grateful to Governor Scott and the Legislature and am excited about working with them for the next four years!” Edgar said in a statement shortly after the vote.

Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, questioned Edgar’s rate-making decisions and their impact on “working class people” and the state’s economy.

“Give her a gold watch and say thank you for your eight years of service…Hit the reset button,” Legg said.

But incoming Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, defended Edgar, pointing out that she had been vetted and appointed by three governors and passed the scrutiny of Latvala’s committee.

“She’s human and fallible and unfortunately she and her husband had to undergo a bankruptcy,” Joyner said. “Nobody’s perfect. Her record is exemplary.”

Edgar weathered a PSC scandal involving BlackBerry messages exposed during a proposed Florida Power & Light rate hike in 2009. Edgar was cleared of wrongdoing by the Florida Commission on Ethics after an investigation into whether she broke state law by communicating through her aide with a Florida Power & Light Co. executive during a hearing. The ethics panel found no probable cause that Edgar violated state ethics laws.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said that the eight-year term limit for lawmakers should apply to Edgar.

“It’s about your constituents who have to pay these rates. I would love to see us put someone a little more consumer friendly on this commission,” he said.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner quietly selected to take over Democratic caucus

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 by Dara Kam

Senate Democrats quietly elected Arthenia Joyner to take over as chairwoman of the caucus next year in a behind-closed-doors meeting on the last day of the legislative session.

Joyner, a Tampa lawyer, will become the first black woman to chair the caucus, now chaired by Sen. Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer.

Joyner was selected without fanfare and during an unannounced meeting, a departure from how House Democrats handled a contested election won by Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg lawyer, in February. The House caucus election, broadcast on The Florida Channel, resulted in a tie vote. Rouson won by a single vote in a second round of balloting.

Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant called Joyner “a tireless advocate for Democratic values and ally to Florida’s middle class families” in a press release announcing her election.

Senate honors Tuskegee airman on final day of session

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 by Dara Kam

Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington; Tuskegee Airman Cornelius Davis; Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach

Tuskegee Airman Cornelius Davis, a 92-year-old Blountstown resident, posed for photos with Florida senators who honored him with a resolution on the final day of the 2013 legislative session.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, praised Davis, part of the group of the U.S. War Department’s experiment to prove blacks were able to serve as military pilots, for his heroism.

“You know the story. Mr. Davis and those with whom he fought broke the color barrier. They broke the records for skill and kills. And then they broke the teeth of the Nazi air fleet of the skies of Europe.
If you want to say that you’ve been in the presence of a hero, you were this morning,” Gaetz said before the chamber gave Davis a standing ovation.

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.

Teachers may not have to wait until 2014 for raises

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Teachers may not have to wait to get performance-based raises included in the state budget, according to Senate President Don Gaetz.

Gov. Rick Scott had wanted $2,500 across-the-board pay raises for teachers. House and Senate budget leaders this weekend agreed to $480 million for raises but with some limitations. Teachers graded “effective” will be eligible for a $2,500 pay raise, beginning in June 2014. Those rated “highly effective” would be eligible for $3,500.

Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Senate budget conforming bills due out later this week will make it clear that pay raises can be based on a “formative” teacher assessment instead of one based on student performance that won’t go into effect until 2014 and that would have held up the raises.

“In my experience as a school superintendent, we were able to evaluate students and evaluate effective teaching based not just on summative assessments at the end of a school year but based on formative assessments as we go along,” Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County superintendent, told reporters late Tuesday afternoon.

“As far as I’m concerned, teachers who earn their increases in pay ought to be able to get them as soon as school districts develop a plan to do so, collectively bargain that plan with their unions, submit the plan to the commissioner of education and have it confirmed,” he said.

Gaetz blamed Scott for the delay.

“We simply followed the governor’s proposal as to the timing of the pay increase…But I’m sure that the governor didn’t mean to unnecessarily delay the pay increase,” he said. “My hope is we ought to go forward and give Florida teachers the pay increase that they deserve especially because we have a pay increase…which is based on performance.”

Senate tie vote kills parent trigger for the second year

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013 by Dara Kam

For the second year in a row, the Florida Senate killed a controversial “parent trigger” measure that would have given parents of students at failing schools a greater say in turning the schools around.

Six Republicans joined with the 14 Senate Democrats in the 20-20 tie vote after more than an hour of heated debate on the measure (HB 867).

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and former school superintendent, said parents already have the ability to make their voices heard.

“The issue is how do we get parents interested in the options already available to them. This bill will not help that,” Montford said. “I hope a year form now…we’ll spend this much time and energy trying to find a way to get our parents meaningfully involved.”

The bill voted down on Tuesday was a watered-down version of a similar measure that died on a tie vote in the Senate last year.

The proposal would have allowed parents to sign a petition supporting specific turnaround options for schools that received an “F” grade two years in a row. But the Senate amended the bill yesterday afternoon, giving the school board the final say the turnaround options. A companion bill approved by the House, similar to last year’s plan, would have given the state Bpard of Education to choose the options, which include turning the school over to a private management company or for-profit charter school.

The state’s teachers unions and PTA groups opposed the bill.

“The second time around is just as sweet as the first,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said his city turned an “F” school into a “B” school while was Lake Worth mayor.

“Never once…did we think we should…hand it over to a corporation to run,” he said. The school’s grade improved not by “turning it over to some corporation,” Clemens said. “It was by getting involved.”

But Sen. David Simmons, who sponsored the amendment giving the school board the ultimate decision in what happens to the failing school, said Democrats were arguing against a bill that didn’t exist.

The bill was changed to “eviscerate the argument” that the measure “was a Trojan horse where the corporate organizations are going to take over.,” Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said. “That’s just simply not true.”

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, argued that the bill is about “one word – trust,” saying “we ought to trust the parents, the parents who are directly involved in these schools.”

But Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican, objected that Florida already has more choices to turn around the failing schools and the bill does not create any new ones.

“Not one parent ever called me to support this bill. And if it’s the “Parent Empowerment Act” then why is the PTA lobbying so heavily against this bill? I don’t know who these parents are…Why are we doing this?
I don’t know. Who benefits? I don’t know.”

GOP Sens. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami; Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah; Charlie Dean, R-Inverness; Greg Evers, R-Baker; and Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, joined Detert in voting against the measure.

Visitors in the public gallery erupted in cheers after the tie vote, eliciting a stern rebuke from Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

“If there are any more outbursts for or against any bill I will clear those galleries. You understand? Thank you,” Gaetz said.

NFL commish, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross watch as Senate approves stadium deal

Monday, April 29th, 2013 by Dara Kam

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross

National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and team CEO Mike Dee looked on from the public gallery as the Florida Senate signed off on a plan to help the team get taxpayer money to renovate the stadium with just days left in the 2013 legislative session.

The power players worked the Capitol in behind-closed-doors meetings with House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel; Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville; and Gov. Rick Scott before the Senate’s 35-4 vote, the last thing the Senate did before adjourning for the evening. Gaetz voted against the measure (SB 306).

Goodell said he came to Tallahassee to “demonstrate my support” for the deal, which would make the stadium eligible for tax breaks for the $350 million upgrade if Miami-Dade County voters approve. Early voting on the referendum began today.

“This is important for the NFL,” Goodell told reporters after the vote. “We all are working hard to get the stadiums improved. I think the deal that’s structured here is very intelligent and I wanted to demonstrate my support.”

The taxpayer-backed upgrades could boost Miami’s shot at hosting the Super Bowl, Goodell said.

“When you have a better facility, that’s an important element and going to improve your chances,” he said.

During debate on the measure, Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, argued against the plan, saying it “allows millionaires and billionaires to tap into taxpayer dollars.”

Goodell said he disagrees.

“This bill is structured in such a way as to creative investment in communities and create additional revenue going forward. I think that’s a very positive thing. I think this is a very intelligently structured deal,” he said.

The stadium upgrade doesn’t guarantee a future Super Bowl because the site is selected by the 32 NFL team owners, Goodell said.

But, he said, the stadium is a major part of the application.

“That’s a big element. And this is going to clearly improve that application, which improves the chances dramatically,” Goodell said.

Under the proposal, professional sports franchises that meet certain criteria would be eligible for up to $13 million a year in tax breaks if they can demonstrate that they can generate at least that much in sales taxes and if local voters first approve. The state Department of Economic Opportunity would have to first sign off on the plan, which would then require legislative approval. Teams have to show that they will attract out-of-state tourists, and the plan would have to be reviewed every five years.

“If you don’t raise the money in the time period…you have to pay it back,” said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. “This is not giving anyone anything. This is telling someone you have to make money with this money and you have to give it back to the state of Florida. So I don’t see this as welfare to billionaires.”

The Dolphins stadium tax break is far from a done deal, however. The House has to also agree to the plan before the session ends on Friday, and Weatherford has expressed doubt about it. Scott has also said he wants strict safeguards included to protect taxpayers’ money.

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.

Senate rolls back vehicle fees, nixes insurance industry tax break

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida vehicle registration renewal fees would be rolled back – a savings of about $12 for drivers – under a measure unanimously approved by the state Senate this morning.

The state would make up the lost money – between $220 million and $230 million – by doing away with a decades-old tax break to insurance companies. Insurers who pay a state tax on insurance premiums get a rebate worth 15 percent of the salary paid to their workers.

Senate budget chief Joe Negron, who hatched the plan, told the chamber that insurance companies have prospered in Florida since the 1987 tax break went into effect. Lawmakers hiked the vehicle fees in 2009 as part of a budget-cutting exercise prompted by a prolonged dip in the state’s revenue collections. But the state’s financial situation is more robust this year, and lawmakers for the first time in several years have more money to spend.

The proposal makes a number of reductions in fees or taxes on vehicles, including:
_ Cuts $5 tax on new vehicle registrations in half to $2.50;
_ Decreases from $1.50 to $.50 fee charged for reflective material on tags and stickers;
_ Cuts in half the $4 “surcharge” on licenses.

Negron’s proposal, which doesn’t have a House companion yet, reduces the fee increases by 55 percent and would result in about $250 million going from insurance companies “into the pockets of hardworking Floridians,” he said.

The tax break has saved insurance companies more than $3.4 billion since it went into effect, Negron argued.

“I want them to be prosperous so they can collect premiums and pay claims,” Negron, R-Stuart, said. “But in looking at this tax break, from 1989 through today that has been worth $3.34 billion that we have subsidized the labor costs of the insurance industry…But as we sit here in 2013, I personally believe…we should take this opportunity..to do something for the men and women we represent.”

Insurance and business lobbyists opposed the measure, suggesting that doing away with the tax break could chase companies away or keep others from relocating in the state.

But Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat, who described lobbyists’ rhetoric as “there’d be Armageddon if this passed,” said “it’s nice to finally call a bluff.”

But Sam Miller, executive director of the Florida Insurance Council, said the tax credit has helped produce jobs.

“It is not clear that repeal of the credit won’t endanger job creation. The state should move cautiously and be sure,” Miller said.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Deal on campaign finance, ethics doubles contributions

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida House and Senate leaders have reached a deal on campaign finance and ethics reforms, Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala announced on the floor this morning.

The agreement doubles the current $500-per-election cycle campaign contribution limit for local and legislative candidates and hikes the limit to $3,000 for statewide candidates and Supreme Court justices up for merit retention.

The bill (HB 569) also does away with committees of continuous existence, or “CCEs,” and replaces them political committees that can accept unlimited contributions.

The ethics and campaign finance reforms are the top priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who wanted the campaign changes, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

The Senate had balked at raising the contribution limits after Gov. Rick Scott, who spent more than $70 million of his own money financing his 2010 campaign for governor, indicated he did not support lifting the caps.

But Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said Wednesday his chamber agreed to the changes to get the House to pass the ethics proposal.

The new campaign limits put back caps in place before lawmakers imposed the lower amounts at the urging of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1992.

Latvala called the deal far better than the original House plan, which would have hiked the contribution limits to $10,000.

“You’re not going to be able to take money out of politics,” he said.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing corporate money to flood campaigns with cash means that “we are heading in the direction of unlimited money in politics,” Latvala, a veteran campaign consultant, said. “So the best we’re going to be able to do in the long run is provide the transparency to go with that, to have good reporting.”

The measure would also require more reporting of campaign finances, including daily reporting in the final week leading up to an election “where a lot of the monkey shines go on,” Latvala said.

The proposal would also allow candidates to “rollover” $20,000 after a campaign ends and hold onto that amount for up to two years.

Palm Beach County Democratic Sens. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Joseph Abruzzo of Wellington cast the only “no” votes in the 37-2 tally.

“I couldn’t see myself going back to Palm Beach County and telling people that I voted to double the campaign contribution limits. I think that puts more money in the system and that’s the opposite direction that people want us to move in,” Clemens said.

And, he said, the allowing candidates to carry over $20,000 “puts challengers at a tremendous disadvantage.”

Lawmakers are expected to take final votes on both measures today and send them to Scott, meaning he would have just seven days to act on the bills. Scott has 15 days to act on bills received after the legislative session ends.

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.

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.”

Post-Easter bunny relief

Monday, April 8th, 2013 by Dara Kam

For decades, it was against Florida law to dye animals, including bunnies, chicks and ducklings. The law was intended to put an end to pink peeps (and other baby fowl) at one time sold for Easter basket treats but then grew up into unwanted barnyard birds.

The law, however, also got in the way of pet groomers who wanted to dye dogs for parades and competitions. So the legislature did away with the law last year, prompting protests from animal rights organizations and some Democratic lawmakers.

Now Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, is backing a move to repeal the repeal of the law and once again make it illegal to dye animals or sell colorized creatures. Sachs’ one-time opponent, former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, included the dog-dying amendment in an omnibus agriculture bill this year.

Sachs garnered the groomer’s support by adding an exception that would allow pet owners to pamper their pets with special colors. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved the measure (SB 650) unanimously this morning, and a similar proposal (851), with the support of several GOP members, is ready for a House vote.

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.

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.”

Senate celebrates ‘bigger than life’ late Larcenia Bullard

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013 by Dara Kam

The Florida Senate remembered their colleague Larcenia Bullard, a long-time lawmaker who died March 16, with what Democratic Leader Chris Smith called a celebration instead of a memorial service in homage to a woman whose sense of humor and distinctive style drew praise from members of both parties.

The hour-and-a-half long event in the Senate chamber concluded with video excerpts from her farewell speech delivered last year after Bullard left office due to term limits.

“I loved everybody and nobody can take that away from me,” Bullard said in the video.

Former Senate Democratic leaders and former Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith, who also served in the Senate, shared stories of Bullard, known for delivering lengthy speeches, asking frequent questions and “the Larcenia hug.”

“Larcenia Bullard was different. She was bigger than life. Her smile was wider her mind was freer… and I think she will live longer because she was real. She was genuine,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Smith recalled the pressure on Bullard during a contentious battle over Terri Schiavo that drew national attention. Bullard, a swing vote, first voted against the GOP-dominated legislature’s efforts to try to prevent the death of the brain-damaged Clearwater woman. In a tie vote, the bill did not pass. But Bullard later reconsidered her vote and made a motion to have the bill heard again, creating panic for Democrats and a bloc of Republicans who opposed intervening in Schiavo’s case.

Smith said Bullard asked him to pray with her in her office.

“She just wanted to do the right thing. She was personally connected to both sides,” Smith said, saying they prayed for a “long time.”

“At the conclusion she said she was comfortable. I believe Sen. Bullard made history in stopping what I thought would have been a horrible intrusion” into Schiavo’s life, Smith said.

He ended by quoting what Bullard said on the floor during debate on the issue:

“Let her die in peace. I know that is exactly what happened for my friend Sen. Bullard.”

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.

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