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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.”

Tearful Senate honors late Larcenia Bullard

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013 by Dara Kam

An emotional Florida Senate stood for a moment of silence to honor the late Larcenia Bullard, a long-time legislator who died Saturday at age 65.

Bullard’s son, Dwight, took her place in the Senate last year after Bullard, a Miami Democrat who served in the Legislature for nearly two decades, left office due to term limits.

A tearful Bullard encouraged his colleagues to emulate his mother, known for her sense of humor, compassion and inquisitiveness.

“She walked the halls smiling, hugging, speaking to everyone. Her place in history is set. My challenge to you is to take a piece of her spirit with you and learn to love the people,” Bullard said.

The Senate will hold a memorial service in Tallahassee on Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. in the chamber, followed by a reception in the Senate Democratic Office, Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith said on the floor.

“I guarantee you there will be key lime pie,” said Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. Bullard was responsible for the pie becoming the state’s state pie, and annually distributed slices of the South Florida treat to the members.

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.”

‘The biggest heart in the Senate’ Larcenia Bullard dies at age 65

Saturday, March 16th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Larcenia Bullard, a warm-hearted and outspoken veteran lawmaker who spawned a family legislative dynasty, has died. The Miami Democrat was 65.

whowho served nearly two decades in the Florida Legislature

Bullard served nearly two decades in the Florida Legislature and left office last year due to term limits. The one-time schoolteacher represented a Senate district that spanned six counties from the Keys north to Palm Beach County. Her son Dwight replaced her last year.

Bullard was known for giving long, impassioned floor speeches and a sunny spirit. She, her husband Ed, and her son Dwight all served in the Florida House.

Bullard was beloved by both Republican and Democrat leaders and was considered a Senate institution. She appeared this week in a Senate video leading the chamber in the “Harlem Shake” for the annual Capitol press skits.

In 2004, Bullard shocked and moved members when she spoke of being sexually abused by her father at a young age during Senate floor debate.

Bullard suffered two heart attacks before the 2010 legislative session. She was responsible for the Key lime pie becoming the official state pie, and lobbied for the cause by serving pie to the members on the Senate floor.

Gov. Rick Scott issued a statement saying Bullard served the state with “honor and integrity,” and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, characterized the veteran lawmaker as having “the biggest heart in the Senate.” Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, called her a “woman many loved for her outspoken ways and selfless devotion to the people she represented.”

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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.

Florida Senate unanimously approves President Gaetz priority ethics reform

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Calling it the most comprehensive reform in Florida in three decades, the state Senate unanimously approved a sweeping ethics package, a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Gaetz said he skipped the traditional president’s speech to take up and pass the bill.

“You have made your mothers and fathers proud of you today,” Gaetz said after the bill passed. “You have brought by your vote today honor to this Senate and to the people who you serve with. You have changed the code of public conduct in Florida forever and for the better and I thank you.”

The measure (SB 2) would give the ethics commission more teeth to the Commission on Ethics, bar legislators from voting on bills that would inure to a special private gain for them and ban lawmakers from getting special jobs at public institutions such as universities just because of their position.

The plan would also close the “revolving door” that allows lawmakers to lobby after they leave office. An amendment approved on the floor Tuesday afternoon would make that provision apply to all lawmakers instead of the original version that only applied to those elected after 2014.

“You can look any constituent in the eye with conviction and tell them that you have taken a firm stand for improved ethics in government,” Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said while explaining the bill on the floor.

The Senate bill also includes something not in the House’s companion measure: Closing the loophole in the lobbying gift ban.

The measure would ban lawmakers from accepting contributions from lobbyists in their political committees, or CCEs, and using the money for swank dinners or parties.

Latvala urged his colleagues to convince the House “that we want real, meaningful ethics reform in the Florida Senate and we don’t want it watered down.”

‘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.

Senate ethics package ready for floor vote

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 by Dara Kam

A sweeping ethics overhaul is headed to the Florida Senate for a floor vote, possibly on the first day of the legislative session that begins on March 5.

The Senate Rules Committee unanimously approved the plan, a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, Tuesday afternoon.

The omnibus measure (SB 2) would impose new restrictions on legislators who become lobbyists; on state and local officials who take jobs with universities or other public agencies; and on candidates who dip into political committees for what require Gaetz calls a “filet mignon lifestyle.”

Lawmakers would also be required to disclose when voting on bills that would result in a special benefit for them, their business partners or their immediate family members.

Constitutional officers including sheriffs and elections supervisors would have to undergo four hours of ethics training. The proposed ethics code would also require candidates or officeholders to set up “blind trusts.”

And the measure gives more teeth to the state’s Commission on Ethics by allowing the authority to initiate investigations and impose liens or garnish wages of wrongdoers who don’t pay fines.

The commission would also be required to update its financial disclosure system by putting all the forms online in a searchable database.

The employment restriction is designed to keep public agencies from creating jobs for powerful politicians. The proposal would allow elected officials or qualified candidates to get public employment if the job is publicly advertised, the position was already created and if they are subject to the same requirements as other candidates.

“They can basically apply for any job that’s out there advertised in government as long as they’re qualified for the job, as long as it’s an open application period. We just want to discourage those kinds of things that happened with Ray Sansom” or in a Panhandle county where a commissioner got a special job with the city, Senate bill sponsor Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said.

Former House Speaker Ray Sansom was hired by Northwest Florida State College for a $110,000-a-year job on the day he became speaker. The Destin Republican was forced to resign as speaker in 2009 after he was charged with conspiracy and grand theft for spending that benefited the college that onetime appropriations chairman Sansom tucked into the state budget. Prosecutors later dropped the charges against Sansom.

Latvala called the ethics overhaul “a significant piece of legislation” aimed at improving the public’s confidence in elected officials.

Senate field trip: Behind-the-scenes look at Leon County elections

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 by Dara Kam

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Leon County elections office Tuesday morning as the panel mulls voting changes.

The trip to Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho’s office gave the bipartisan panel a glimpse of the entire voting process from early voting to absentee ballot canvassing. Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said he wanted the members to make the site visit to see what elections operations are all about. Sancho, a veteran elections supervisor and an independent, has been a harsh critic of the 2011 election law (HB 1355) that shortened early voting and required more voters to cast provisional ballots if they move.

“I thought it would be helpful for some of the members of the committee of actually seeing what goes on to process the ballots both outgoing and incoming. So it was very interesting. A very good experience,” Latvala said.

But the tour didn’t appear to change Latvala’s proposed election law changes. He still favors making it easier for absentee ballots to be counted by loosening the requirement that absentee ballot signatures must match a voter’s registration application. Many voters don’t update their applications but their signatures change, and once an absentee ballot is rejected, voters don’t have an opportunity to change it.

Supervisors should be able to verify signatures using precinct registers, Latvala said.

“The example they showed us today was a lady that registered to vote in 1974 and so that’s almost 40 years ago. her signature was not the same in 1974 as it is now. Well I bet mine’s not either. So it’s just a learning experience. We want to try to do the best job we can and we just need to have all the facts at our disposal.”

The panel is unlikely to undo the part of the 2011 election law that required voters moving within a county to cast provisional ballots if they are not at their correct precinct and banned voters who move from one county to another from casting ballots at all.

Sancho said that while the number of provisional ballots grew in Leon County after the 2011 election law change, the percentage of rejected provisional ballots – between 30 and 40 percent – remained about the same.

Pink peeps prohibition back on tap

Thursday, February 7th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, has filed a bill (SB 650) that would reinstate a ban on dying animals – including bunnies, chicks and ducklings – after the legislature stripped the 50-year-old prohibition last year.

Animal rights groups asked Gov. Rick Scott to veto the measure, included in an omnibus agriculture bill, last year.

The repeal of the ban on dying animals, including bunnies and baby chickens, was pushed by Sachs’s one-time foe, former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. Sachs defeated Bogdanoff in one of the state’s most expensive and hotly-contested legislative races in November.

Bogdanoff contended that dog groomers wanted the prohibition lifted so they could colorize pets in competitions or parades.

The Animal Rights Foundation of Florida praised Sachs for sponsoring the ban, which would also make it illegal to sell or give away baby chickens, ducklings or rabbits.

A statement from ARFF posits that Bogdanoff’s defeat was “an outcome perhaps impacted by Bogdanoff’s ill-conceived amendment.”

“ARFF is very happy that Senator Sachs has introduced legislation to reinstate the protections afforded animals in the 1967 law that was repealed,” said ARFF spokesman Don Anthony wrote. “We urge Florida legislators to pass this important bill.”

Senate committee to workshop Clemens’s elections bills on Tuesday

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013 by Dara Kam

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee will workshop two voting-related bills sponsored by Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens on Tuesday.

One of Clemens’s proposals would automatically register voters when they get a driver’s license or state ID card (they could opt out if they choose). The second would restrict legislators to putting three constitutional amendments on the ballot at any one time.

They’ll be the first official pieces of legislation heard by the committee, tasked by Senate President Don Gaetz to figure out what went wrong with the 2012 election and propose legislative fixes.

Elections supervisors told the committee earlier this month that the number one problem – even in areas that didn’t have six hour waits like Palm Beach County – was the length of the ballot.

The GOP-controlled legislature placed 11 lengthy, and according to the supervisors confusing, constitutional questions on the 2012 ballot. Three of them passed, and the rest did not even get a majority approval from voters. Constitutional amendments require 60 percent approval by voters to pass.

Limiting the number of constitutional questions lawmakers can place on the ballot requires a change to the constitution, which means Clemens’s proposal would have to go before voters.

“The irony of this is yes, I filed a constitutional amendment to limit constitutitonal amendments,” Clemens said. “That’s the only way to accomplish it. I think it’s a legitimate constitutional issue as opposed to many of the items placed on the ballot in November which were purely political.”

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.

Gaetz’ ‘Shoot and hang the nullifiers’ history lesson riles tea partiers

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has raised the hackles of Florida tea party activists on the warpath about Gaetz and other GOP leaders’ apparent willingness to go along with the once-reviled “Obamacare.”

With more than a dozen supporters backing her up, tea party lawyer KrisAnne Hall heatedly told a Senate committee exploring implementation of the federal health care act they should nullify the law because it is unconstitutional. The raucous crowd repeatedly burst into applaud and even booed one senator who refuted their position.

Hall had a short confrontation with Gaetz after the meeting and apparently sent him an e-mail explaining “the Founders’ position on State Sovereignty and nullification,” according to her blog.

Gaetz, a sharp-tongued history buff who often punctuates his arguments with sarcasm, replied to Hall and others with a history lesson about Andrew Jackson. First, Gaetz reminds Hall that he opposes the law and also believes it’s unconstitutional.

“As to nullification, I tend to favor the approach used by Florida’s first Governor, Andrew Jackson:

It is said that one evening, while he was president, General Jackson was interrupted in his reading in his bedroom by an alarmed military aide who breathlessly reported, “Mr. President, the “nullifiers” are in front of the Executive Mansion with torches and guns. They are screaming that each state has the right to decide for itself which federal laws to follow. They threaten to burn us down if you will not agree with them.”

Without lifting his head from his reading, Andrew Jackson said, “Shoot the first nullifier who touches the Flag. And hang the rest.”

I have sworn an oath on my father’s Bible before Almighty God to preserve, protect and defend the constitution and government of the United States. And that’s exactly what I intend to do. Count me with Andrew Jackson.

Senator Don Gaetz

The e-mail sparked a firestorm in the tea party community, including on Hall’s Facebook page.

“After sending Senator Don Gaetz my letter explaining the positions of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton on State Sovereignty, Mr. Gaetz says that citizens who agree with the writer of the Declaration of Independence should be summarily shot and hanged. Does that means Don Gaetz is in favor of shooting the many Catholic Bishops and other religious leaders who have said that they will not comply with this mandate? Notice the double-speak in his email below. He affirms his support for the Constitution and then demonstrates his utter ignorance of its meaning and purpose,” Hall wrote on her blog.

Caught outside the Senate Democratic suite where Gaetz lunched with Democratic Leader Chris Smith and others, Gaetz downplayed the brewing battle between the “nullifiers” and the president and clarified that he was not advocating shooting tea partiers.

“No. I’d have to shoot my son,” Gaetz said. Rep. Matt Gaetz is an even more conservative Panhandle lawmaker than his father.

Gaetz explained the use of the Jackson anecdote.

“That’s just an old tale of what was said about what Andrew Jackson said. I simply sent it to her as a way to try to let her know that you can still be civil about these issues and you don’t have to be outraged about every single thing. You can disagree without being uncivil,” he said.

Gaetz completes Senate committee assignments

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has finalized the make-up of his chamber for the next two years, tapping five Democrats to head committees and appointing Sen. Joe Negron as the head of a select committee on the federal health care law. Negron, R-Stuart, is also chairman of the Senate’s budget committee.

Some of the key positions include two new committees set up by Gaetz:

Gaming Committee: Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples; Vice Chairwoman Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach.
Select Committee on Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart; Vice Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

Other high-profile committee assignments:
Judiciary Committee: Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon; Vice Chairman Darren Soto, D-Orlando.
Budget subcommittees:
Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations: Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island; Vice Chairwoman Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
Education Appropriations: Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton ; Vice Chairman Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.
Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development: Chairman Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando; Vice Chairwoman Gwen Margolis, D-Miami.
Health and Human Services Appropriations: Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring; Vice Chairwoman Anitere Flores, R-Miami.

Several freshmen senators, who also served in the state House, will also serve as chairmen.

Gaetz also boosted Democrats’ clout in the chamber, appointing five Dems to head committees compared to just two last year. And nearly every committee is co-chaired by a Democrat. Democrats picked up two Senate seats this year, breaking the GOP’s supermajority hold and winding up with a 26-14 split.

Gaetz’s bipartisan approach earned kudos from Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.

“I am grateful to Senate President Gaetz for listening to the interests and desires of my Caucus members to serve on various Senate Committees. By appointing them as Chairs of five of them, President Gaetz underscored his commitment to bipartisan cooperation for the good of the people of Florida. And I applaud him for his actions,” Smith wrote in a press release.

Read Gaetz’s memo after the jump.
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Gaetz taps Senate leadership team

Monday, November 26th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Don Gaetz announced his top lieutenants for the next two legislative session, tapping Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Ft. Myers, as Majority Leader and picking Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, as budget chief, a position he also held in the Florida House.

And in a possible nod to President Lincoln, who staffed his Cabinet with one-time adversaries, Gaetz named Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, as chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. Gaetz has made ethics reforms one of his top priorities and lawmakers are being pressured to address a contentious elections overhaul passed last year (HB 1355) that some blame for long lines and other problems during this year ‘s presidential election. Latvala was in a leadership battle against Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, earlier this year. Gardiner is expected to take over the Senate in two years but whether his successor will be Latvala or Negron (or someone else) remains undecided.

As expected, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, will keep his post as head of the powerful Rules Committee. Thrasher is a former House speaker and also served as chairman of the state GOP.

Returning Sen. Tom Lee, R- Brandon, will be Deputy Majority Leader and Whip, also not a surprise since Lee is a former Senate president.

Negron served as chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee for the past two years and has represented Gaetz in talks with the Obama administration recently over how to handle the federally-mandated health care exchanges.

Gaetz is also setting up a special committee to deal with the health care law but hasn’t yet named its chairman.

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.”

House Dems select new leaders, too

Monday, November 19th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Rep. Perry Thurston officially took over as House Democratic Leader for the next two years in a ceremony in the Old Capitol, finalizing the minority caucus’s leadership switch before tomorrow’s organizational session.

Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, welcomed 24 new state representatives to the 44-member caucus, a five-seat gain in part due to newly-drawn legislative districts.

“I like to refer to us as…the heart and soul of the legislature,” Thurston said.

Echoing President Obama’s emphasis on the middle-class, Thurston said the outnumbered Democrats will continue as “the voice of opposition” but with new-found strength since breaking the GOP supermajority stronghold in the House as well as the Senate. If Democrats hold together, they would be able to block procedures or legislation that require a two-thirds vote, including proposed constitutional amendments.

Thurston said Democrats should take a lesson from the GOP to make their numbers even stronger.

“The way the other side did it, they did it by sticking together,” he said. “We’re going to be here and we’re going to be ready to fight.”

Speaking of the November election, Thurston said that Democrats predicted that a sweeping election law (HB 1355) passed last year would create problems.

“We understood it was going to be disastrous,” Thurston said. “That disastrous vote, with people standing in line eight, nine, ten hours, we argued against that. And we’re going to continue to advocate against issues that are going to affect our state.”

Thurston and his counterpart Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith are both black lawyers from Fort Lauderdale. Smith also served as the head of the House Democrats in 2005 and 2006.

Smith said the site of the ceremony, typically a brief event held on the House and Senate floors, was significant.

“We both decided to have our events here in the Old Capitol, a place that wouldn’t welcome us a few years ago. But now we’re both taking our leadership positions tonight in this building,” Smith said.

The House Dems also selected Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, as the leader pro tempore, and named other representatives to leadership positions, including Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, who is the caucus’s policy lead.

Senate Dems elect new leaders

Monday, November 19th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Florida Senate Democrats, up by two after November’s elections, elected Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale as their leader for the next two years.

And the 14 members of the Democratic caucus selected Maria Sachs of Delray Beach as Smith’s second-in-command as Senate Democratic Leader Pro Tempore.

Smith and his House counterpart, House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, are the second pair of black Democratic leaders since Smith served as House caucus leader with former Sen. Les Miller of Tampa in 2005-2006. Both Thurston and Smith, who once ran against each other for a state House seat, are Fort Lauderdale lawyers. Smith’s

Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and his second-in-charge, Sen. Garrett Richter along with former Senate president and now CFO Jeff Atwater attended the break with tradition. Today’s ceremony event was held in Old Capitol but generally a brief affair conducted on the chamber floors.

Facing Gaetz who sat in the front row, Smith called on the lawmakers to implement the federal health care law, something the GOP-controlled legislature has refused to do since the law was passed in 2010.

“The election’s over. It’s been debated…litigated and proscrastinated,” Smith said. “It’s time to implement Obamacare and show our citizens that Florida cares.”

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