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House OK’s mashup of state and local pension plan rewrites

Friday, April 25th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A sweeping overhaul of state and local pension plans was approved 74-44 Friday by the state House, but faces long odds of clearing a Senate showing little support for changing the Florida Retirement System.

The House has mashed-up two proposals — a generally popular bill which makes changes to municipal police and fire pensions, and a controversial FRS revamp. House Republican leaders are clearly trying to get the Senate to accept the FRS change as the only way to enact the local pension change.

House Democrats blasted the tactic — and the FRS move.

“The bill is a patchwork of ideas and should be voted down,” said Rep. Carl Zimmerman, D-Palm Harbor.

But Republicans defended the move.

“This bill is about the future,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, noting the FRS change will only effect new hires. “This bill keeps the promise, but it secures the future.”

The FRS proposal is aimed at reducing the number of government workers joining the state’s traditional pension – pushing more into a 401(k)-style investment plan that is cheaper for the state to offer.

Over fierce opposition from public employees’ unions, House Republicans have been intent on overhauling the $144 billion FRS, used by 622,000 government workers and another 300,000 retirees. The largest share of those covered are teachers and county school board employees.

But enough Senate Republicans have refused to go along with earlier proposals that House leaders are now turning to a new approach.

Under the House bill, everyone hired in the elected officer or senior manager category beginning in July 2015 could only join the investment plan. All employees who fail to select a plan eight months after being hired would be put into the investment plan, not the pension as current law allows.

The measure also would increase the pension vesting period for all new employees to 10 years, up from the current 8-year standard.

The local proposal gives cities more flexibility to use the state’s insurance premium tax to bolster police and fire pension funds. The bill relaxes a 1999 law that required cities to offer new benefits with insurance tax dollars, a move that has increasingly destabilized many funds.

In a rare moment of harmony, after years of hostility over changing the 1999 law, unions and local governments have agreed on the police and fire pension change that is advancing as a stand-alone bill in the Senate.

House Republicans float late-hour pension overhaul

Friday, April 4th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The state’s traditional pension plan would be closed to senior managers and other new workers would have to wait longer to be eligible for the plan under legislation that cleared a House panel Friday on a partyline vote.

With a more aggressive overhaul of the Florida Retirement System looking dead this session, the House State Affairs Committee floated a more modest approach as the Legislature lurches into the session’s final month.

While ruling Republicans in recent years demanded changes because they viewed the $144.4 billion pension as financially unstable, the rhetoric has changed with the new proposal. The proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said the new approach is a “modernization” of the FRS.

Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, endorsed the change while acknowledging the current pension is on solid financial footing.

“Pensions are a 20th century dinosaur in a 21st century world,” Caldwell said. “We may have the strongest dinosaur out there, but it’s still a dinosaur.”

Democrats and public employees’ unions, however,  joined in opposing the change, saying it is unwarranted.

“We are playing fast and loose with public policy,” said Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, have made changing the FRS one of their priority proposals this spring.

But an earlier proposed change centered on offering new employees a so-called ‘cash balance’ option instead of the traditional pension barely cleared a Senate committee and stalled in the House while a financial study was being prepared.

The late-hour plan taking shape Friday is similar to a proposal backed by the Senate last year. So there is some possibility that it may gain strength. But it looms as a potentially divisive homestretch issue in a session where ruling Republicans appear uninterested in conflicts that could damage Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election prospects this fall.

Supporters of the proposal say that a majority of public employees currently fail to stay in the system long enough to qualify for the traditional pension. They also said that the current 622,000 active members of the FRS and 348,000 retirees wouldn’t be affected by the change in the plan.

Opponents disagreed, saying that limiting some new employees from joining the traditional pension will hurt it financially in coming years.

“The defined benefit plan is going to be weaker,” said Ron Silver, a former legislator now representing the Teamsters Joint Council, whose union includes state correctional officers. “It’ll be less than what it is today.”

Senate approves elections overhaul, sends back to House

Thursday, May 5th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Civic groups like the Boy Scouts of America could find it harder to register voters under a sweeping elections bill (HB 1355) approved by the Senate and sent back to the House this afternoon.

The elections overhaul would, among other things, create tight restrictions on third-party voter organizations – such as the League of Women Voters, unions and the NAACP – and require them to hand over voter registration forms to elections supervisors within 48 hours or face $1,000 fines.

The bill would also shorten the number of days voters can cast their ballots early before Election Day.

Democrats argue the changes are aimed at suppressing Democratic voter turnout in 2012 because Democrats tend to use early voting more than Republicans and relied heavily on third-party groups to register voters in the 2008 presidential election.

“Maybe some people didn’t like the outcome of our last presidential election or the outcome of the ballot initiatives that have passed in recent years,” Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston said before the 25-13 vote. Republican Sens. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and Paula Dockery of Lakeland joined Democrats in opposition.

Earlier today, union leaders urged Democrats to ask questions about the measure to lay the groundwork for lawsuits later this summer.

Democrats also complained that the changes would make it more difficult to voters to cast their ballots and have them counted.

But Sen. Mike Bennett, a Vietnam vet, said that maybe voting shouldn’t be so easy. He compared Floridians’ voting experiences with voters in new democracies in Africa who have to “walk 200 or 300 miles” to cast their ballots.

“How much more convenient do you want to make it? You want to go to the house? Take the polling booth with us?” Bennett, R-Bradenton, wanted to know. “For the guy who died to give you that right to vote it was not inconvenient…I wouldn’t have any problem making it harder. I would want them to vote as badly as I want to vote. I want the people of the state of Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who’s willing to walk 200 miles…This should not be easy.”

Elections rewrite taking shape in Senate

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011 by John Kennedy

A rewrite of elections law in the nation’s largest presidential toss-up state edged closer to completion Wednesday, with the Senate moving closer to the House on a package derided by Democrats and vote-gathering organizations.

The Senate positioned the legislation (CS/HB 1355) by adding some of its early voting priorities to a measure that puts tight restrictions on so-called third party voter organizations — making the League of Women Voters, unions, the NAACP and others submit lists of prospective new voters to elections supervisors within 48 hours, or face $1,000 fines.

The Senate had earlier proposed shortening the time allowed for early voting. But Wednesday, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, came up with what he cast as a compromise that would maintain the current 96-hours of early voting allowed, but shorten the number of days available to vote before Election Day.

Gaetz’s provision — adopted by the Senate — would reduce the current two-week early voting period to 10 days, but extend the daily hours. The full measure still awaits a Senate vote — and must return to the House, which is likely to accept the changes.

County elections supervisors have questioned the change. Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher estimated the changes could cost county taxpayers $941,000, by forcing officials to open more early voting locations and pay poll-worker overtime costs.

The measure coming out of the Senate coincides with the House approach on allowing only voters who’ve moved within a county to cast regular ballots at their new precincts on Election Day. Voters who’ve relocated from another county, but haven’t changed their registrations, could cast only provisional ballots in their new counties.

Democrats argue the change will make it harder for Democratic-leaning college students to cast ballots.   Some counties also tend to eliminate substantial numbers of provisional ballots because voters cannot submit proof that they’re eligible voters, opponents said.

Ruling Republicans, however, have argued that the changes are only designed to stamp out voter fraud and assure that only eligible voters cast ballots.

Scott promises more change to come in Florida schools

Friday, March 25th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott reenacted Friday his signing into law legislation restricting teacher tenure and introducing merit pay — steps fiercely fought by the state’s teachers’ union.

“The big winner here is all our kids,” Scott assured in a brief ceremony at the Capitol, flanked by House and Senate sponsors of the measure, approved last week by the Republican-ruled Legislature.

It’s the first state law enacted by the rookie governor. “Good start, governor,” shouted Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, after Scott put down his pen.

Scott formally signed the legislation Thursday at a Jacksonville school, capping a long political march by Republican leaders. Florida GOP lawmakers have been pushing back against the Florida Education Association for years and got close last year to enacting the merit pay bill – only to have then-Gov. Charlie Crist veto it.

Scott indicated Friday that he’s got plenty more to change in Florida schools.

“We’ve got to get charter schools expanded, we’ve go to give our public schools the opportunity to be run by third parties and be way more innovative,” said Scott — who declined to take questions following the ceremony.

House OK’s teacher pay rewrite

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011 by John Kennedy

House members wrangled for hours Wednesday before the powerful Republican majority drove through legislation revamping how Florida teachers are paid, defying union officials who now may renew their fight in court.

The 80-39 vote divided strictly along party lines — with Democrats on the losing end.

“This is unquestionably a footprint in the sand moment,” said House sponsor Erik Fresen, R-Miami. “You will regret this 20 years from now if you vote against it.”

But Democrats argued fiercely against the measure (CS/SB 736) which now goes to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it into law.

Democrats blistered the proposal for outlining a merit-pay plan for teachers, but not providing any money for the new system. They also warned that with student performance key to teacher salaries, county school boards will have to divert dwindling school dollars toward more testing.

“This is the mother of all unfunded mandates,” said Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando.

Union bill limps through Senate panel

Monday, March 14th, 2011 by John Kennedy

A measure pushed by the state’s former Republican Party chairman which creates major roadblocks on the political activity of Democratic-allied unions, was narrowly approved Monday by a Senate committee.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who last year led the state’s GOP in campaigns which tightened the party’s grip on power in Florida, said the measure is designed to “empower unions,” while also severing the role of state and local governments in collecting union payroll deductions.

“I frankly don’t understand the concerns,” Thrasher said, after a parade of union representatives testified before the Senate Community Affairs Committee against the bill (CS/SB 830).

The panel approve the meaure 5-4, with Republican Sens. Paula Dockery of Lakeland and Jim Norman of Tampa joining a pair of Democrats in opposition.

“This is nothing more than an attempt to eradicate the voice of union members,” said Jeff McAdams, a union representative for the Gainesville Police Department and Alachua  County Sheriff’s Office.


Senate OK’s merit pay for teachers

Thursday, March 10th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The Florida Senate approved legislation Thursday that would end tenure and tie teacher pay to student performance — the latest round in a long clash between Republican lawmakers and the state teachers union.

The 26-12 vote split on party lines, with Democrats opposed.

 Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, was the lone Democrat to crossover and support the measure; Republican Sens. Dennis Jones of Seminole and Paula Dockery of Lakeland joined Democratic opponents.

The measure (CS/SB 736) is similar to legislation that convulsed Florida last spring, before then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed it following demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns by the Florida Education Association.

 Crist broke with the Republican Party following his veto; and the FEA endorsed Democrat Alex Sink over the GOP’s Rick Scott in last fall’s governor’s race.

Scott campaigned in favor of the legislation.

“This bill ought to be a teacher’s dream – to be paid for a student’s success,” said Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, sponsor of the bill.

Senate prez on protests: ‘Welcome to America’

Monday, March 7th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Protests planned on tomorrow’s opening day of the 2011 legislative session by unions and tea party activists are “exciting,” Senate President Mike Haridopolos told reporters this morning.

“This is America. People have every right to protest, positively or negatively. I think it’s exciting that people are taking such an interest in their government and they want to be vocal about where they stand,” the Merritt Island Republican, running for U.S. Senate, said. “If there are protests on either side, welcome to America.”

Asked if the protests might reach the heated level as Wisconsin, where union activists have camped out for weeks in the Capitol, Haridopolos shrugged.

“It might happen. If I was a protester and I had the choice of going to Wisconsin or Florida, I’d probably come here too,” he quipped.


Scott and GOP’s plans fire Dems for ’12 campaigns

Sunday, February 27th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature’s ruling Republicans have kicked over a political hornet’s nest by promoting budget cuts, pension overhauls and civil justice changes, which are now emerging as targets for statewide rallies by Democratic-allied organizations.

The GOP’s tough medicine for a state pocked by foreclosures and almost 12 percent unemployment may be breathing life into a Florida Democratic Party, virtually left for dead after wholesale election defeats last fall. It also may effectively prove the opening round of the 2012 presidential contest in the nation’s biggest battleground state.

“Democrats last fall were down and outspent,” said Susannah Randolph, campaign manager for defeated Orlando Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson and now an organizer of the March 8 rallies.

“Now we’re seeing that we have to respond to a threat level like DEFCON 1,” said Randolph, who also is a leader of Florida Watch Action. “And sure, we want to keep this energy going.”

Using a Facebook page, “Awake The State,” organizers are planning events in most major Florida cities on the legislature’s opening day. Although locations are still being determined, teachers and public employees’ unions, including police and firefighters, are forming the core of those protesting expected cuts in education, pensions and government workforces.

Counter-punching, tea party supporters are rallying behind Scott, and looking to converge on the state Capitol for the session’s launch, which coincides with the new governor’s first State of the State address.

Florida’s spring training season goes beyond baseball.  The parties are gearing up for the 2012 campaigns by energizing their political bases around Scott and the Legislature’s plans.

Bondi talks about her FOXNews pals, Sarah Palin and those controversial card check comments

Thursday, August 19th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Pam Bondi nailed down about $50,000 at a last-minute fundraiser in Jacksonville this evening hosted by business biggies Steve Halverson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and Ericka Alba, head of Associated Industries of Florida. Both business groups are backing Bondi in the primary.

Bondi, in a tight GOP primary for attorney general against Holly Benson and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, made her last in-person pitch for campaign funds before the midnight deadline tonight after which candidates are barred from collecting cash until after the primary election on Tuesday.

The event took place at Halverson’s posh home overlooking the St. John’s River, a far cry from the tiny store front in downtown Lake City where she shook hands with about a dozen locals eager to meet the political neophyte in person.

At both events on Bondi’s four-day sweep of the state before Tuesday, Bondi spoke about comments she made during a radio call-in program this weekend that fired up Kottkamp’s campaign.

“With the unions, I am totally against the secret ballot. We cannot have the secret ballot. Everything has to be public. The votes have to be public. We have to have transparency to make sure that everything is on the up and up. We have to protect our businesses in this economy more than ever,” she said on Tico Perez’ WDBO radio show this weekend.

What she said meant she supports the union-backed card check included in the Employee Free Choice Act that would allow unions to organize if 50 percent of workers check a card in public. Under existing law, workers can vote for or against unionization in federally supervised, private-ballot elections.

“By forcing workers to sign a card in public–instead of vote in private–Card Check opens the door to intimidation and coercion,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the Employee Free Choice Act, says on its website.

Kottkamp’s camp immediately jumped on Bondi, who since said she misunderstood the question and repeatedly insisted she opposes the unions’ card check program.

Here Bondi talks about her FOXNews pals Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren and her endorsement from conservative darling Sarah Palin before clarifying her position on card check.

Halverson, who said Bondi collected about $50,000 in donations at his soiree, also backed up Bondi on where she stands on the issue that he said is ‘virtually a litmus test” for candidates.

“Obviously, card check is virtually a litmus test. I can absolutely assure you that what Pam said – that’s she’s been opposed to card check from the very beginning. If anybody heard that or heard comments from her desperate opponent to the contrary, rest assured that isn’t the case,” Halverson said.

Teacher union files lawsuit to keep class size amendment off ballot

Friday, July 23rd, 2010 by Dara Kam

The Florida teachers’ union filed a lawsuit today to keep a constitutional amendment watering down class size restrictions off the ballot in November.

The GOP-dominated legislature put Amendment 8 on the ballot to allow school districts flexibility with constitutionally-mandated class size restrictions voters approved in 2002.

The class sizes have been eased in over time and this year are set to go from school-level averages to individual classroom pupil/teacher limits.

The proposed amendment, if approved by voters in November, would keep the averages at the school level.

But Ron Meyer, the lawyer representing the Florida Education Association and who filed the lawsuit this morning, contends that the amendment is really about stiffing taxpayers by not adequately funding education as the state constitution requires.

Lawmakers failed to put $354 million needed to comply with the class sizes into the budget this year, Meyer said.

The ballot title and summary don’t tell voters that the real aim of the amendment is to cut back on education spending, he accused.

“The failure of the legislature to be honest with parents – to tell them that Amendment 8 cuts funding to public schools which will result in crowded classrooms once again – is what makes this lawsuit necessary,” Meyer said in a press release.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat running for governor, said she supports the amendment because it gives flexibility to school districts.

Read the lawsuit here.

Deal struck on private prisons

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010 by Dara Kam

After intense opposition to a prison privatization plan linked to disgraced former House Speaker Ray Sansom and slipped into the budget late last week, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander has apparently backed off his proposal to shut down up to three prisons and outsource another.

Alexander’s plan drew allegations of foul play from the Police Benevolent Association, the powerful union that represents prison guards and frequently backs GOP candidates, and Gov. Charlie Crist’s Secretary of Corrections Walt McNeil.

The privatization plan would have shut down enough prisons to fill the Blackwater facility in the Panhandle that the state hired Boca Raton-based Geo Group Inc. to build and operate. But the prison population hasn’t grown as anticipated and there aren’t enough inmates to fill the 2,224-bed Blackwater without shutting down other state-run prisons and putting guards out of work.

McNeil said Friday he would have to shut down five prisons and let inmates out early to comply with a federal court order under the Senate’s proposal that would cut about $60 million in salaries.

Under the new plan, expected to be introduced as a budget amendment today by Democratic Leader Al Lawson, the department would gradually fill Blackwater by closing 17 dorms in other prisons, something McNeil favors.

Critics of the proposal also filed complaints with State Attorney Willie Meggs and U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirwin, both in Leon County, alleging that the Blackwater deal was done in secrecy and questioning Sansom’s association with it. Sansom put the original $110 million to the build the prison into the 2008 budget in a floor amendment and tried to guarantee that it would be built as an annex to the Graceville prison that Geo operates.

McCollum blames teachers for Fla losing out on federal education funds

Monday, March 29th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Attorney General and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Bill McCollum blamed the teachers’ union for Florida’s failure to win out on the first round of federal “Race to the Top” education funds.

The Florida Education Association, that opposed the stimulus funds, is “now responsible for the loss of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars for Sunshine State students, teachers and schools,” McCollum campaign manager Matt Williams said in a press release.

“Today’s announcement by the U.S. Department of Education that Florida was not selected as a first round winner of the Race to the Top competition is a disappointing reminder the unions will continue to put the interests of bureaucracy over the best interests of Florida’s children,” Williams accuses.

Sen. John Thrasher, who also serves as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, joined in the teacher-bashing chorus although Gov. Charlie Crist said he remained hopeful that the state could ultimately win some of the $4 billion in federal funds.

Critics accuse lawmakers of hiding behind bad economy to bust up unions

Friday, March 26th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Hundreds of thousands of Florida workers – including teachers and cops – say they are under assault by lawmakers using the state’s flopping finances as a way to bust up the unions.

Measures that would cut salaries, do away with teacher tenure and impose pension reductions are speeding through the legislature this session.

“The legislature’s taking advantage of the bad economy to force their opinions of anti-unionism down the throats of the rest of the people. If they had their way, we’d be working weekends, and there would be 13-year-olds on the production lines,” said Paul Brewer, a Department of Transportation printer who is head of his local union comprised mainly of blue-collar workers in Tallahassee.

Read the full story here.

Senate does away with teacher tenure after angry debate

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010 by Dara Kam

The Senate passed a measure that would have a far-reaching impact on teachers’ salaries and job security after a heated debate by Democratic opponents and an angry defense of the bill by Republicans.

Four Republicans – Sens. Charlie Dean of Inverness, Paula Dockery of Lakeland, Dennis Jones of Seminole and Alex Villalobos of Miami – joined Democrats on the losing side of the 21-17 vote.


Pizza pitches cause heartburn in House

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010 by Dara Kam

House members are going after bands of rogue pizza pitchmen that they say are targeting tourists in Central Florida by posing as pizza purveyors to gain entree into hotels.

The criminals hand out flyers with phony phone numbers and rape or steal from the unsuspecting tourists once they arrive at their hotel rooms to make their “deliveries,” Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association President Richard Maladecki told the House Domestic Security and Public Safety Committee this morning.

The proposal (PCB PSDS 10-03) would enhance penalties already on the books restricting people from putting flyers on cars in hotel or motel parking lots.

It would give law enforcement the ability to seize the cars, weapons or computers of repeat offenders who distribute the “handbills” without written permission of the owner.

And it would allow law enforcement officers to arrest potential offenders without probable cause.

The unions are up in arms over the measure because they fear it’s a way for hoteliers to keep workers from unionizing.

“There’s something else going on here other than pizza flyers. That has us very concerned,” Florida AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Templin told the committee.

And an Orlando pizzeria owner told the committee the proposal is a way for the large pizza chains to shut out small business owners like himself.

“I think that what this boils down to is that you want people to have permission to come into your facility.
At the end of the day these are private properties,” said Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami. “Would you not agree that it would be a good idea that before you walk into any private property you would have some consent before you pass out flyers?”

The measure would enhance penalties for a new law approved by lawmakers now requiring that people handing out flyers on private property get permission from the owners.

The committee approved the bill, which has several more stops before getting to the House floor.

Handing out flyers could get you handcuffed

Monday, March 15th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Free speech advocates are up in arms about a House bill that would harshly penalize individuals handing out flyers on property owned by hoteliers.

The bill (PCB PSDS 10-03) would allow the seizure of cars, computers or items in cars if a person has been caught more than three times handing out fliers, such as those organizing unions.

The bill would also permit those handing out the fliers to be arrested without probable cause unless they have the written permission of the company that owns the property.

The proposal is slated to be heard in the House Public Safety and Domestic Security Policy Committee tomorrow morning at 8 a.m.

Supporters, opponents eye Aug. 20 health care forum with Wexler; other congressmen uncertain

Monday, August 10th, 2009 by George Bennett



Supporters and opponents of a Democratic health care overhaul bill and at least one member of Palm Beach County’s congressional delegation will converge next week for a public forum sponsored by a labor-backed retiree group.

U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, plans to attend the Aug. 20 event at 1 p.m. at the South County Civic Center west of Delray Beach. The event is sponsored by the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO and supports the Democratic bill.

Other local members of Congress were invited but it wasn’t immediately clear today whether any others would attend.

Opponents of the legislation plan to show up as well.

“We’ll be there with signs but, more importantly, we’ll be there with questions,” said Everett Wilkinson, the state coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots group.


Local AFL-CIO backs Bernard in special District 84 House race

Friday, July 24th, 2009 by George Bennett

Palm Beach-Treasure Coast AFL-CIO President Pat Emmert says that, after interviewing candidates this week, the local union is recommending that the state AFL-CIO back Delray Beach Commissioner Mack Bernard in the special District 84 state House election to replace former Rep. Priscilla Taylor, who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to the Palm Beach County commission.



Bernard, Riviera Beach Councilman Cedrick Thomas and former state Rep. James Henry “Hank” Harper Jr. — all Democrats — have opened campaigns for the minority-dominated, overwhelmingly Democratic seat.

The Democratic primary is Aug. 25. A general election, if needed, has been set for Sept. 22, but so far no Republicans have entered the race. The candidate qualifying deadline is noon Tuesday.

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