• Tampa-area legislators try to carve out money from state budget

    From medical schools to marine labs, millions of dollars in local projects are on the table as the House and Senate leaders reconcile a $1 billion difference in their spending plans for the state before the end of their 60-day session in two weeks.

    These local appropriations, which government spending watchdogs like to call “turkeys,” are scattered throughout the 413-page Senate and 406-page House appropriations bills. The people requesting them see as worthy projects and enlist legislative allies on their behalf.

    What happens as the two chambers go into conference committees to reach a deal will determine whether any of the projects get funded. Even if they make it into the budget, there is no guarantee any is safe from the veto pen of Gov. Rick Scott.

    Budget turkeys are “individual appropriations that circumvent a thoughtful and thorough budget process,” according to Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan budget watchdog organization.

    These projects circumvent established review and are funded before higher priority projects, then inserted without going through the regular committee process.

    Here is a summary of requests for state money from the Tampa area.

    Hillsborough County/Tampa

    ♦ Tampa Theatre has come back this year to ask for $2 million to renovate its historic 90-year-old building and concert hall. Last year, the Legislature approved $1 million for the project, but the governor vetoed it.

    It will cost more than $10 million to restore and modernize the ornate 38,000-square foot theatre.

    “The money from the state will be a terrific addition to our efforts and will help us move much more quickly on some of the critical upgrades,” said Jill Witecki, the theatre’s marketing director.

    Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said she’s committed to get the full $2 million requested.

    “It’s very special and we need to make sure it stays a part of the downtown experience,” said Young, who got a behind-scenes tour of the building. “It could easily not be here in 15 years. It is in horrible shape.”

    ♦ Young also requested $2 million for the Florida Conservation and Technology Center, a joint project between the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, TECO Energy, and the Florida Aquarium.

    The center would be built next to TECO’s manatee viewing center in Apollo Beach in southwest Hillsborough County.

    This would be the third and final installment of a $5 million appropriation, and would pay for the construction of a 10,000-square-foot conservation and research center, with space for large animals, and three self-sustaining greenhouses to grow coral and other marine life.

    ♦ Young’s top priority, though, is the $22.5 million to build USF Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute downtown. “This is a transformational project” for the downtown neighborhood, Young said. “You will have students living and eating and going to school at the Channelside development.”

    ♦ The Lowry Park Zoo has asked for $2 million to renovate and upgrade its manatee hospital pool and filtration system.

    “This pool and filtration system is ancient and in disrepair, and is the only one like it in the state,” Young said.

    ♦ Democratic Rep. Ed Narain of Tampa has requested $1.2 million on behalf of the Tampa Heights Jr. Civic Association to save the Tampa Heights Youth Development and Community Center from the wrecking ball.

    The youth center is in the landmark Old Faith Temple Church on Lamar Street, and has been open for about eight months after years of negotiations to lease the building and make renovations so it is usable, said Lena Young-Green, a community leader.

    The association leased the building from the Department of Transportation in 2008 and spent five years renovating it with volunteer contributions, donations and sweat equity, Young-Green said.

    But the center stands in the way of the proposed $2.5 billion Tampa Bay Express project.

    “We are asking the Legislature to provide funds so we could assume ownership and shift it across the street,” Young-Green said. “We have to protect this beautiful old building that thousands of volunteers have committed to. This is one of our treasures in Tampa Heights.”

    ♦ Republican Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon and Republican Rep. Ross Spano of Dover are supporting a request for $850,000 to expand the Brandon Sports and Aquatics Center’s program for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, in partnership with Pepin Academies.

    The money would build a second-floor, 5,000-square-foot classroom on an existing building.

    “They’ve done incredible job here in Hillsborough,” Spano said.

    The expanded program would serve up to 200 young adults and help them transition from school to adult life through job training and placement and development of social interaction skills, Spano said.

    ♦ Spano has also asked for $600,000 for the research and development of a fixed guideway transit system to connect growing Brandon and south Hillsborough County with downtown Tampa.

    According to the request, Brandon will grow by more than 94,500 people by 2040 and the south county will grow by 121,700. Planners want to identify the need for a bus rapid transit system — a dedicated highway lane to make better time — to ease congestion from population growth.

    Such a “premium” connection among these areas is envisioned in Hillsborough County’s GoHillsborough transportation plan.

    “In east Hillsborough County here, the east-west thoroughfares into Tampa are a challenge to get into town,” Spano said. “With the incredibly unbelievable growth we have, I have serious concerns how we are going to accommodate that commute.”

    St. Petersburg Clearwater Pinellas County

    ♦ The Clearwater Marine Aquarium has asked for $1.5 million toward a $13 million dolphin habitat for the two dolphins — Winter and Hope — whose stories were the basis for the movies “Dolphin Tale” and “Dolphin Tale 2.”

    The movies “caused massive tourism increase and overall economic impact,” said David Yates, the aquarium’s CEO. The figure is an estimated $2 billion, according to a study released this month.

    The dolphin pool is part of a larger $40 million expansion plan brought on by visitor demand, Yates said.

    “The money we are requesting is going to go toward the expansion plan we announced a month ago for our animals,” he said.

    Increase in attendance from the two movies, documentaries and other projects has “created a demand for both increased guest space as well as expanded space to fulfill our mission of rescue, rehabilitation and release of marine mammals,” he said.

     Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater has requested $2 million for expansion plans that include adding 5,000 square feet to the main lobby, building a new cabaret stage and building a 250-seat dinner theater.

    ♦ Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, has sponsored a request of $6 million to build the Tampa Bay Business Incubator on city land leased by the Pinellas County Industrial Development Authority, under contract with the Tampa Bay Innovation Center.

    The plan is to build a 50,000 square foot building on leased city of St. Petersburg property that would house either a life science and marine science cluster or an advanced manufacturing and rapid prototyping cluster, with high-speed Internet and other equipment to support research, innovation and entrepreneurship, the request stated.

    Pasco County

    ♦ The Pasco County School District has requested $750,000 to continue its aeronautics/STEM program.

    This would be the third year of funding a program that has reached thousands of students from elementary school through high school in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, said Terry Aunchman, director of career and technical education for Pasco County Schools.

    “I am fairly confident it will continue to get funded,” said Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity. “The governor is very supportive of that program, and this just continues the dollars we already have.”

    The program integrates science, technology, engineering and math while engaging students in aviation sciences.

    Students learn how to fly planes on flight simulators, build and fly drones, and learn aircraft mechanics.

    ♦ Legg said he also supports a $2.5 million request for the Pasco-Hernando State College to provide industry certifications and training for students who aren’t planning to get a bachelor’s degree.

    “In Pasco County it’s either college or nothing, college or work at Chili’s,” Legg said. “We need a middle ground that requires a year or two of training.”

     

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  • Legislative report card: What have (or haven’t) Florida lawmakers done?

    You elected them to do a job. They’ve been at it long enough now to see how they’re doing.

    “As you might expect, defining an effective legislator is tough,” said Carol S. Weissert, director of the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University.

    Just over halfway through the 2016 regular session of the Florida Legislature, the two dozen men and women elected to represent Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties have shown an ability to get bills passed — one common measure of effectiveness, Weissert said.

    Another measure is achieving leadership roles to advance an agenda — something the local delegation can claim with Brandon Republican Tom Lee running the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and Land O’ Lakes Republican Richard Corcoran serving as his counterpart in the House.

    Their job is to make sure the Legislature completes its only constitutional duty during the session: pass a balanced budget before June 30.

    Starting Monday, Lee and Corcoran will work side by side in the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to figure out how to close a $1 billion spending gap between their chambers’ two spending plans in time to give it to Gov. Rick Scott by the session’s scheduled close on March 11.

    As chairman of the Senate Education Committee Pre-K —12, John Legg, a Republican from Trinity, decides which bills get a hearing and which ones die. Simply by not scheduling hearings this week, Legg in effect killed several education bills approved by the House.

    March 1 is the last day for committee hearings.

    “He may not be passing a hundred bills of his own, but he is able to stop some bad legislation as chair of education committee and able to push certain bills,” said Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a Republican who served in both the House and Senate.

    The same can be said of Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who helms the Committee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development. Latvala has been instrumental in shepherding a $250 million economic incentive package favored by Gov. Scott.

    Working behind the scenes in their respective leadership positions are Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, of Bradenton, Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, and House Majority Leader Dana Young, of Tampa.

    “What’s great for Tampa Bay is the outstanding experience,” Fasano said. “You can’t ask for a better delegation when you include the entire Tampa Bay, compared to anywhere else in Florida.”

    Of the thousands of bills filed each year, he said, a small percentage will make it to the governor’s desk.

    More than the number of bills you pass or how much money you bring home, Fasano said, how a lawmaker makes improvements statewide is an important measure of effectiveness.

    The most successful legislator is a “woman or man who embodies what is best for their community,” said Dominic Calabro, executive director of Florida TaxWatch — the ones who “work behind the scenes to make sure schools are well run, the proper infrastructure is in place for a healthy growing economy, constituent service.”

    Lobbyists measure a legislator’s effectiveness by the number of bills that get a committee hearing or first reading. “They often get paid contingent on a bill making it to the floor and for a vote,” said Lance DeHaven-Smith, a professor in the Reubin Askew School of Public Administration at FSU. The goal is to get a first reading, he said.

    Whether it’s tax reform, building a college or overhauling social services, lawmakers need two to three years to see their goals accomplished, DeHaven-Smith said. And they have to work against term limits.

    “If you don’t hustle, you are not going to get anything done before it’s time for you to go,” DeHaven-Smith said.

    Ultimately, success is measured by getting something done, said Ron Sachs, president of Sachs Communications and a longtime political consultant.

    “You have to show you have the chops to be in the game, to be a player and be on the prevailing side on policy issues in which there are at least two different perspectives,” Sachs said.

    “It is serious, laborious and exhausting for anyone in the process, most of all for those 160 who represent us all.”

    With that in mind, here’s a progress report.

    Senate

    Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. A senator and de facto head of the informal “disruptive technology caucus,” Brandes runs the transportation committee. He is pushing for statewide regulation of ride-hailing companies as well as bills of his own banning red-light camera programs, stopping the practice of suspending driver licenses for nonpayment of fines, and reforming civil asset forfeiture laws to require a conviction before seizing property. None has made it to a floor vote, so passage is doubtful.

    Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. The Senate majority leader has sponsored only two bills of his own. SB 1602 would create the Maxwell Erik “Max” Grablin Act, increasing residential elevator safety by requiring additional measures to prevent children from being injured or killed. The bill is named after a 12-year-old Bradenton boy who climbed into the family home elevator shaft to get his pet hamster, only to have the elevator car lowered on him. It is advancing.

    Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. This is Minority Leader Joyner’s last session, since term limits prohibit her from seeking another term. She is co-sponsor of SB 1686 to create a telehealth task force, a bill to give state workers a raise, and a bill to create a pilot program for long-term reversible contraception. All are still in committee, so passage is doubtful. Joyner’s bill to finance the reburial of the missing bodies found at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and to build a memorial at the former Marianna juvenile facility, SB 708, is up for a Senate vote Tuesday. Passage is likely. Her bill to disqualify a person convicted of a violent felony from receiving money for a wrongful incarceration, SB 122, has been placed on the Senate calendar for a floor vote.

    Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. Latvala has negotiated a fix of a 10-year dispute between counties and the Department of Juvenile Justice over detention costs. That bill, SB 1322, was still sitting in the Appropriations Committee and passage is doubtful. His bill SB 456, which would make an automatic presumption that cancer is a job-related risk for firefighters, was sitting in the Appropriations Committee.

    Tom Lee, R-Brandon. Lee’s SB 250, creating a presumption that both parents in a divorce are equally entitled to 50 percent of the time with their children, would put parents on equal footing at the outset of a divorce case. The bill was assigned to the Senate calendar for a third reading and passage is likely.

    John Legg, R-Trinity. Legg’s education committee bill, SB 1076, to prohibit school districts from limiting the number of students who can enroll in a credit acceleration program, was stuck in Appropriations. Another bill, SB 666, to expand the list of acceptable forms of ID for voter registration applicants — to include veteran health ID cards, concealed-weapons permits and government ID — was approved 36-0 by the Senate and sent to the House.

    Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. Simpson has received a lot of attention for bills that would allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry their guns into an airport and deny refugees from the Middle East access to Florida. The measures are all but dead because they are in a committee whose chairman, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, won’t give them a hearing. A bill by Simpson to make changes to the state workers’ compensation regulations, SB 968, is still in Appropriations. Simpson’s overnight boat anchoring ban, SB 1260, is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday 

    House

    Larry Ahern, R-Seminole. Ahern, chairman of the business and professions subcommittee, has a guardianship bill on the second reading calendar and is moving forward.

    Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills. Burgess’ HB 585, requiring school districts to provide instruction to homebound or hospitalized students, won unanimous approval in the House and was sent to the Senate.

    Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes. The House appropriations chairman has no bills of his own.

    Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. Ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, Cruz is a co-sponsor with Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, of a bill to crack down on skimming devices on gas pumps. CS/HB 761 was approved by its last committee but hasn’t been scheduled for a House vote.

    Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg. The ranking member of the energy and utilities subcommittee hasn’t seen any of his bills move beyond committee.

    James Grant, R-Tampa. Grant is co-sponsor with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, of a ride-hailing regulation bill approved by the House and sent to the Senate, where it faces a tough road given the differences between the versions in the two chambers.

    Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa. Harrison’s HB 869 provides exceptions to public records exemptions for security systems. It’s stalled in the State Affairs Committee. His bill to revise fire safety standards for assisted-living facilities and provide exemptions in some cases, HB 965, was placed on the House calendar for a vote.

    Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater. HB 1279, the House version of his father’s bill was not taken up in committee because it had an $8 million recurring annual cost not included in the House budget.

    Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey. Democratic ranking member of the health care subcommittee, Murphy is a co-sponsor of a bill to expand the forms of identification that can be used for voter registration applicants and identification at the polls, HB 505. It passed out of committee and is progressing.

    Ed Narain, D-Tampa. The ranking Democratic member of the government operations subcommittee, Narain is co-sponsor of a bill to replace the statues of the two individuals representing Florida in the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol in Washington. Narain’s version of Joyner’s Dozier School for Boys bill was still in the State Affairs Committee.

    Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island. The vice chairwoman of the children, families and seniors subcommittee, Peters has two bills that are progressing: CS/HB 977, to expand who can prescribe medications, and CS/HB 1245, dealing with Medicaid overpayments.

    Jake Raburn, R-Lithia. Rayburn’s bill providing postsecondary education for military veterans, CS/HB 1157, was approved 114-0 by the House. Another bill of Raburn’s, CS/HB 381, making revisions to the Boxing Commission revisions, was approved by the House and ordered enrolled into law on Thursday. Raburn’s proposal for a $3 million career and adult education program, HB 7017, was approved 111-0. Its aim is to increase opportunities for students to earn credentials to help them succeed in the workplace.

    Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. The ranking Democrat on the justice appropriations subcommittee, Rouson’s version of a bill to prohibit suspension of licenses over nonpayment of fees, CS/HB 207, is on the Appropriations Committee agenda for Monday.

    Ross Spano, R-Dover. Spano, the justice appropriations subcommittee chairman, sponsored HB 7101, the House attempt to fix the state’s death penalty sentencing procedures, which were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The bill would require a 10-2 jury verdict to impose the death penalty. It passed by a vote of 93-20. Spano’s bill HB 719, to make changes to the Educational Practices Commission, was approved by a vote of 91-22 on Thursday.

    Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor. His bill allowing open public school enrollment, HB 669, would allow parents to enroll their children in any below-capacity public school, as measured by the school districts. The bill passed 79-34.

    Dana Young, R-Tampa. The majority leader’s bill CS/CS HB 131, which provides immunity from civil action for damage caused to a motor vehicle while rescuing a person or animal, was passed by the House and Senate and enrolled into law.

     

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  • Lawmakers find fix for death-penalty law

    TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers think they have found a way to fix Florida’s death-penalty law and allow the state to resume executions.

    The House voted 93-20 Thursday for a compromise bill aimed at restoring the law, which was struck down last month by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate is expected to follow suit soon and send the measure to Gov. Rick Scott.

    The bill (HB 7101) requires juries to unanimously find an aggravating factor that warrants death and then to vote by at least 10-2 to impose the sentence. Some lawmakers wanted to require all 12 jurors to approve the death sentence, but a compromise was reached on the 10-2 vote.

    The current Florida law requires only a simple majority of jurors to vote for the death penalty.

    The bill also addresses the reason why the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s law. In its ruling, the court said the law was unconstitutional because it gave judges the power to impose the death penalty regardless of a jury recommendation.

    The measure approved Thursday leaves the decision in the hands of the jury.

    Alabama and Delaware are the only other states that require a less than unanimous death penalty vote from a jury, but Republicans pointed out high-profile serial killers such as Ted Bundy and Aileen Wournos didn’t receive unanimous jury recommendations for the death penalty.

    “I don’t care what 47 states do, this is the right public policy for the state of Florida,” said Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover.

    Many members who debated the bill said they were conflicted about the vote and cited numerous cases of heinous crimes. Rep. Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, spoke of the murder of his sister when he was 24 and his desire for revenge, which dissipated over time. He voted no.

    “I wanted to kill that guy,” Lee said of his sister’s killer. “I am understanding of how someone would feel if someone they loved was murdered.”

    Republicans, though, said they were voting to give closure and justice to victims’ families.

    “I am pro-life. I want to be pro-life from life to death, but I’m not a hypocrite. If somebody raped and cut off the head of someone in my family I’d want to kill him. I’m just being honest,” said Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach.

    The billif approved by the Senate and signed by Scott, could have a profound impact on ongoing murder trials where the courts were unsure of how to proceed in light of the Supreme Court ruling.

    There are still 393 people on Death Row, however, and the ruling has already inspired a series of new appeals. Scott has signed the death warrants of killers Mark Asay and Michael Ray Lambrix, but both of whose executions have been postponed by the Florida Supreme Court in light of the ruling.

    The Florida court already has heard arguments in the Lambrix case, but hasn’t yet decided on whether the latest U.S. Supreme Court decision applies retroactively. If it does, nearly every Death Row inmate would have a new avenue for appeal.

    Asay was convicted of two 1987 Jacksonville murders and sentenced to death by a 9-3 jury recommendation vote. Lambrix was convicted of murdering two people in Glades County in 1983, and sentenced to death by a 10-2 vote for one of the murders and an 8-4 vote for the other.

     

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  • State Lawmakers Contine Crackdown On Human Trafficking, Support Victims

    State officials continue to battle human trafficking in the state of Florida. This Session, lawmakers are offering multiple bills that could protect victims and penalize traffickers.

    “It was Abraham Lincoln who once said that the one way to move a nation, in fact the only way to move a nation was through a common idea. That common idea back in 1862 was that slavery was wrong. That the United States needed to rethink its own identity in going forward in a slave-free society. 150 years later we actually in the state of Florida, and throughout the rest of the United States, face that same challenge: how it is that we can eliminate human trafficking, modern slavery,” Coonan said.

    Brook Bello is a survivor of human trafficking. She now works with other victims to overcome their abuse. Here she is sharing her story.

    “Straight A student, come from a very educated family. Mother was a victim of domestic violence, so it can happen to anyone. I ran away from home and I was picked off the streets, unknowingly, by two pimps: a female and a male. I was taken to a dirty hotel room, beaten up, injected with drugs, and that became my life for several years,” she said.

    Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has made combatting human trafficking a personal mission and a state priority. Under Bondi’s guidance, lawmakers are changing the way the State handles the issue. Namely, the state now recognizes victims as just that, victims, and focuses on targeting the traffickers. Now state lawmakers are working on a suite of bills to crackdown on human trafficking. Here’s Bondi speaking at a summit last fall.

    “But it’s bringing, it’s wrapping our arms around this tremendous problem. We know we have a long way to go, we know we have so much to do, but we have got to save these victims,” Bondi said.

    Nonetheless, children can still be charged with prostitution in the state of Florida, along with adults. A bill sponsored by Miami Senator Anitere Flores and Representative Ross Spano of Riverview would change that.

    “Children should not be prosecuted for prostitution, but instead should be channeled into the dependency system, the child welfare system to receive care and instead of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately we’ve found out that in Florida in the past year alone, 39 children have been arrested for prostitution, notwithstanding our clear legislative intent,” Spano said.

    The bill would also increase penalties for human trafficking, and crackdown on massage parlors used for prostitution. The bill is headed for a floor vote in both chambers.

    Senator Jack Latvala of Clearwater wants to empower people who might interact with victims. Under Latvala’s bill, doctors, midwives, and psychologists would receive training on how to identify victims, and how to help them. Attorney General Pam Bondi says emergency room physicians are already on board.

    “The emergency room physicians came to me and said we think we’re seeing victims in the ER, with men that they don’t belong with. And some of these monsters are women, of course, who they don’t belong with. And we need to know what to do. And we are now training our Emergency Room physicians,” she said.

    Latvala’s bill passed its final committee Thursday, and it’s now ready for the Senate floor.

  • Lawmakers strike political compromise to fix Florida’s death penalty law

    Florida lawmakers have struck a compromise to rewrite the death penalty law in hopes of avoiding more legal attacks and to allow executions to resume in a state with nearly 400 Death Row inmates.

    Under the deal, a Florida jury could no longer recommend a death sentence by a simple majority. At least 10 of 12 jurors would have to agree to impose a death sentence under a plan that surfaced in the House on Wednesday. The proposal requires approval in both chambers and Gov. Rick Scott’s signature.

    “The Senate offered that as a solution, and we’re agreeable to that,” said Rep. Charles McBurney, a Jacksonville Republican who brokered the compromise with a fellow ex-prosecutor, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. “We need to provide a remedy to the court’s ruling.”

    Scott has signed more death warrants than has any other governor since the death penalty was reactivated in 1976, but executions have been on hold for more than a month.

    Not since 2006, after a botched execution prompted then-Gov. Jeb Bush to suspend the death penalty, has the system been shrouded by so much uncertainty.

    The Florida Supreme Court indefinitely delayed one execution and is considering delaying another, and two judges in Tampa Bay have ruled that the state can’t seek the death penalty against two accused murderers.

    Those actions followed a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court’s narrow legal review of a Pensacola murder case. The court struck down the death penalty sentencing law because a jury’s role in Florida is advisory and the judge makes all critical findings, which the court said violates the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.

    The death penalty is still legal in Florida. But in response to the court’s decision, the Legislature went a step further to address its status as an “outlier” — the only state using capital punishment in which as few as seven of 12 jurors can recommend death.

    The U.S. Supreme Court did not address that issue in Hurst v. Florida. But other states changed their laws years ago to require unanimous juries in response to a similar decision in Arizona, and legal experts have told the Senate that Florida should follow suit to avoid new constitutional challenges.

    Florida prosecutors, families of murder victims and House leaders all wanted as few as nine jurors to be able to recommend death.

    Public defenders, death penalty critics and most senators wanted a requirement for unanimous juries, mirroring the law in most states.

    The compromise result of 10 jurors is the same sentencing system used by only one other state, Alabama. Delaware, like Florida, allows juries to recommend death by a simple majority, but its system is inactive and under review by the state Supreme Court.

    Robert Dunham, director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said that with the legislative change, Florida would remain an outlier as a so-called 10 to 2 state.

    Dunham predicted more legal problems for Florida because of evolving legal standards in which split juries that recommend death sentences are under increasing attack in the courts.

    “Compromise is an important element of any legislative solution,” Dunham said. “The problem is that you can’t compromise constitutional protections.”

    McBurney disagreed. “Unique is not unconstitutional,” he said in a Herald/Times interview.

    Karen Gottlieb, co-director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University’s College of Law, called the Legislature’s compromise “a huge mistake.”

    Gottlieb said a 10-2 system will bring more legal battles. “It’s essentially an invitation for death penalty litigation,” she said.

    The FIU center recently conducted a statewide poll that showed 73 percent of Florida voters favoring unanimous jury recommendations on death sentences.

    Public Defender Rex Dimmig in Polk County called it “illogical” that a jury’s finding of guilt must be unanimous but imposing the ultimate punishment isn’t.

    “We have always relied upon citizens to serve as jurors and to render justice, and in all instances we have required them to reach their decision unanimously,” he said. “It is just illogical on this important issue of life imprisonment versus death that we would not trust citizens to do their civic duty.”

    On the House floor Wednesday, Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, a co-sponsor of the death penalty bill, defended the compromise and noted that one of Florida’s most notorious serial killers, Ted Bundy, was sentenced on a 10-2 recommendation.

    “There has to be balance,” Spano said.

    Prosecutor Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties, said he agreed with the 10-2 scheme, but hopes the Legislature acts quickly.

    “It’s starting to cause a lot of problems here,” Bartlett said. “Some of the defense lawyers have demanded speedy trial to try to push it to the wire.”

    In Tampa, the Hillsborough public defender is filing notices to preclude use of the death penalty on a case-by-case basis.

    In Pinellas, Circuit Judge Michael Andrews ruled last month that the state could not seek the death penalty in the case of Steven Cecil Dykes, a Pinellas Park father accused of killing his infant daughter. Andrews reasoned at the time: “There currently exists no death penalty in the state of Florida in that there is no procedure in place.”

    Last week, Andrews rescinded his order after the state challenged his initial decision, and Dykes’ trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 29.

    Under the compromise bill (HB 7101) awaiting floor votes in Tallahassee, juries must unanimously agree on a finding of aggravating factors that outweigh mitigating factors to justify a death sentence. The House is expected to pass the bill Thursday and the Senate could vote on it as early as next week.

    Prosecutors also must notify defendants within 45 days of all aggravating factors that it intends to prove at trial.

    A review by the Florida Supreme Court of all 320 death sentences from 2000 to 2012 found that nearly half of the time —140 cases, or 47 percent — fewer than 10 jurors recommended death. In only one-fifth of the cases, or 60, were jury recommendations unanimous.

    Florida leads the nation with 26 cases in which defendants were sentenced to death and later exonerated, a point that Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, emphasized Wednesday.

  • Supreme Court Ruling Has Florida Scrambling to Fix Death Penalty Law

    MIAMI — In the wake of a United States Supreme Court decision that struck down part of Florida’s capital punishment law, the State Legislature and courts are grappling with proposals that could significantly change sentencing in a state with one of the nation’s most crowded death rows.

    For now, the ruling has closed the state’s pathway to the death penalty: Prosecutions in capital punishment cases are stalled, and lawmakers are rushing to write and pass a new statute before their session ends in six weeks. It is also uncertain whether the 390 inmates awaiting execution in Florida will remain on death row or be resentenced to life in prison. As of last week, more than 40 of those inmates had appeals pending.

    On Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to Cary Michael Lambrix, who was to die by lethal injection on Feb. 11 but received a reprieve until the court rules on an argument from his lawyers. They argued Tuesday that the decision from the United States Supreme Courtlast month should apply retroactively to all of Florida’s death row inmates.

    Already, one Pinellas County judge has told prosecutors that they cannot pursue capital punishment in a first-degree murder trial because Florida currently has no death penalty.

    In the State Capitol, the Republican-controlled Legislature is debating how best to change Florida’s unorthodox law, with some pushing for a thorough overhaul to blunt future legal challenges and others vying for an easy fix that would simply address the court’s narrow ruling.

    The Legislature has refused for years to address the law’s constitutional frailties — primarily that it requires only a simple majority of a 12-person jury to recommend a death sentence to a judge — despite the urging of the Florida Supreme Court to do so a decade ago, said Raoul G. Cantero, a former state justice who has called for change.

    Florida is second only to California in the number of death row inmates, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The Florida governor, Rick Scott, issues death warrants routinely. But the state leads the country in death-row exonerations with 26, and critics of Florida’s law said that number could be traced to the statute’s flaws.

    In all, 31 states have capital punishment.

    In its ruling, the United States Supreme Court found that Florida’s death penalty system gave too much power to judges and not enough to juries, a violation of the Sixth Amendment.

    To recommend a death sentence, a jury must agree on at least one aggravating factor, a circumstance that makes a murder so horrific that it merits ending a killer’s life rather than imposing a prison sentence. The aggravating factor could be that the crime was especially heinous or that it was committed after substantial premeditation.

    Florida is the only state that does not require a jury to unanimously agree on aggravating factors. Jurors in the state also do not tell the judge which factors they chose. So after a jury makes its recommendation, the judge can hand down a death sentence based on different aggravating factors altogether, an anomaly that the Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional.

    In the court’s majority opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.” She added that allowing judges to find aggravating factors “independent of a jury’s fact-finding” made the system in Florida unconstitutional. It is one provision the State Legislature must fix if it is to reinstate the death penalty.

    “This is the issue most observers of the capital system saw as unconstitutional for a number of years,” said Scott E. Sundby, a University of Miami law professor who is an authority on capital punishment.

    Even with that fix, Florida would still provide the country’s easiest procedural path to a death sentence, Mr. Sundby said. Under Florida’s system, the jury provides only a recommendation of death to the judge, and the recommendation does not have to be unanimous.

    Alabama and Delaware are the only other states that do not require a unanimous jury verdict on death sentences. Delaware and Florida require a simple majority; Alabama requires a supermajority, a vote of at least 10 to 2. Those states are also the only ones that allow judges to override recommendations for life in prison and impose the death penalty.

    The Supreme Court decision on Florida’s law did not consider the issues of unanimous or advisory juries. But they also make the law vulnerable to constitutional challenge, legal experts said.

    “This is your opportunity,” said O. H. Eaton Jr., a retired Florida judge and a death penalty expert. “If you fix those problems, then you will have as good a death penalty law as any in the country.”

    If not, Mr. Eaton warned, “a different problem but the same song comes up again, and we would end up clearing out death row.”

    A recent investigation by The Villages Daily Sun newspaper found that Florida juries had failed to agree unanimously on death sentences in 75 percent of the cases against the prisoners now on death row. It also found that only 43 percent of the prisoners would have been sentenced to death under a 10-to-2 supermajority vote.

    Lawmakers are arguing passionately about how far to go in rewriting the law, with the Senate leaning toward requiring unanimous verdicts from juries for death sentences and the more conservative House moving forward with a bill that would require a jury vote of at least 9 to 3 for a death sentence recommendation but a unanimous decision on aggravating factors.

    The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association favors the House bill, which cleared its first subcommittee vote on Tuesday.

    “Remember Ted Bundy,” warned Representative Ross Spano, a Republican on the committee, referring to the serial killer who was executed in 1989. “That was not a unanimous recommendation for the death penalty.”

    Some, though, said that political motives were preventing a more thorough overhaul that would require unanimous jury verdicts for death sentences. State Senator Thad Altman, a Republican who has tried for years to change the law, said unanimity demanded greater deliberation by jurors, which was only fitting for a death sentence. Convicting criminals in Florida requires a unanimous jury, so condemning them to death should be no different, he said.

    “The Legislature here is very pro-death penalty,” Mr. Altman said. “They don’t want to be perceived as being soft on crime in any way and make it more difficult to sentence someone to death.”

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  • Bill to combat gas pump “skimmers” passes Senate panel

    A bill that requires gas stations to toughen up security and increases penalties for fuel pump fraudsters cleared its first Senate panel Monday.

    Senate Bill 912 would require gas stations to secure fuel pump credit card readers to defend against data theft devices, known as “skimmers,” that capture credit and debit card information. The bill also ups the punishment for credit card theft to a second-degree felony, which carries up to a 15-year prison sentence and $10,000 fine, and lowers the threshold from 10 stolen cards to five.

    The bill, sponsored by Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, is a priority of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose department inspects pumps at Florida gas stations.

    “We estimate that $1,000 is stolen from each victim of a skimmer, and this legislation will better protect consumers from identity theft at gas pumps,” Putnam said. “I thank Senator Anitere Flores and the Criminal Justice Committee for their support of legislation to better protect consumers.”

    Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Police Chiefs Association, and the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association are also backing the bill.

    The bill passed with slight changes from Sen. Rob Bradley to clarify compliance requirements for gas station owners and operators. The bill now moves to the Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government, chaired by Umatilla Republican Sen. Alan Hays.

    The House companion, sponsored by Rep. Dana Young, cleared its first panel last week with a unanimous vote. That version received a similar amendment, offered by Republican Rep. Ross Spano. House Bill 761 now heads to the House Appropriations Committee.

     

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  • Lawmakers weigh FHSAA changes

    — The battle between lawmakers and the Florida High School Athletic Association started again Thursday, with House and Senate committees approving measures that the organization says would hurt it financially.

    The House Education Committee unanimously approved one version (HB 31), clearing the way for that bill to move to the House floor. In what was arguably a bigger defeat for the association, the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee overwhelmingly approved the Senate counterpart (SB 1026) in a 9-1 vote.

    The Senate’s bill still has two committee stops to go, and a fierce fight over the legislation is expected to take place. The FHSAA did not address the bill before the House committee.

    “It appears as if the efforts are being focused on the Senate side,” said House sponsor Ross Spano, R-Dover.

    The proposals would allow schools to join the FHSAA on a per-sport basis and limit how much can be charged for some association-sponsored competitions. Currently, a school that joins the FHSAA in any sport has to be a member in every sport.

    “The practical effect of (the association’s rule) is that smaller schools who just can’t field competitive teams for the larger sports end up suffering,” Spano said.

    The legislation would allow those schools to “have a choice of where their kids belong,” in the words of Stuart Weiss, president of the Sunshine State Athletic Conference. Schools in Weiss’ organization play football separately from the FHSAA but have to be members and honor the larger association’s rules.

    “We believe that schools should have choice and control of their sports,” Weiss said.

    But Roger Dearing, executive director of the FHSAA, said the proposal could undermine the association financially. Much like college athletics, high school sports use revenues from major programs such as football and basketball to offset losses in less-popular sports.

    “Our concern is, it’s the revenues from those postseason games that go to pay for all the sports,” Dearing told the Senate committee. “So if they’re not going to contribute any money on the postseason games but still expect us to oversee the expenses for tennis and golf and soccer and all those, that’s where that part comes in.”

    The association is going along for now with a separate Senate bill (SB 684), by Sens. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, that has a per-sport membership provision for private schools. An amendment approved by the Senate panel on Thursday removed language from Gaetz and Stargel’s bill that would have allowed that provision to apply to public schools as well.

    That measure would ease some restrictions on student-athletes who transfer while strengthening penalties for recruiting, which is banned under FHSAA guidelines. It was approved unanimously by the Senate committee.

     

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  • High school athletics bill moves in House

    One of several bills that would overhaul the state’s oversight body for high school athletics was approved again by a House panel Thursday.

    The Education Committee OK’d the measure (HB 31) by state Rep. Ross Spano, a Dover Republican, without objection. It had been cleared earlier by the Education Appropriations Subcommittee in December during a committee week.

    Its main provision is that it would allow schools to join the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) on a per-sport basis, rather than signing up for a full membership that would require a school to play by the group’s strict rules in all athletics.

    It would also ensure that FHSAA is “revenue neutral” each year, meaning it takes in as much income as it has in expenses.

    This will make the fifth year in a row that lawmakers have challenged the organization, which oversees 32 male and female high-school sports, including player eligibility in each.

    Bills filed last session would have done away with the group altogether.

    Conservative lawmakers have targeted the Association in recent years after constituents complained about their children not being able to play certain sports because of strict transfer rules, especially when youngsters change schools but don’t move to another district.

    Spano’s bill is now cleared for the House floor. A number of related bills have been filed for the 2016 Legislative Session, including two (SB 684, SB 1026) that will be heard later Thursday.

     

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  • Strip clubs among businesses required to post human trafficking signs

    TALLAHASSEE — The signs are already posted in the dressing rooms at the Mons Venus gentleman’s club on Dale Mabry Highway, urging people to be on the lookout for the warning signs of human trafficking.

    Starting Jan. 1, all strip clubs, massage parlors and other adult entertainment business in Florida must post public awareness signs, with a toll-free hotline number to call. The law, introduced by Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, gives county commissions the power to pursue noncriminal citations and fines.

    “We put them up immediately after they passed the law,” said Joe Redner, longtime owner of the Mons Venus.

    Strip club owners and managers forged an alliance three years ago to and partnered with the Department of Homeland Security to train their staff on what to look for.

    “We go to all the government adult business meetings where we learn what to do and what to look for,” Redner said. “If it stops people from being slaves, we’re for it.”

    Tampa has a reputation as a Florida center for human trafficking, according to Terry Coonan, director of the Florida State University Center for Advancement of Human Rights. The region’s combination of a large immigrant population and businesses serving as fronts for brothels provide opportunities for all sorts of human bondage, Coonan said.

    “It is one of the top destination spots in Florida,” said Dotti Skipper, a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader who is the statewide anti-trafficking coordinator for the Salvation Army and member of a statewide council created by Attorney General Pam Bondi.

    “As a person who goes around communities raising awareness and training folks on this issue, I am finding a tremendous amount of people still don’t know about human trafficking,” Skipper said. “Women come up to me crying, a lot of them elderly, saying that happened to them years and years ago and didn’t realize they were victims.”

    The problem is statewide, she said. Florida is third in the nation in number of tips to the national trafficking hotline, she said — consistent with its status as the third most-populous state.

    Bondi has made wiping out human trafficking and helping its victims a priority. She went to the Legislature in 2012 to rewrite Florida laws on human trafficking, Coonan said at a statewide anti-trafficking summit in Tampa on Oct. 29, “and as a result, those laws now have tremendous teeth.”

    The new sign law is one of several measures approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott this year to combat human trafficking and slavery and raise public awareness about the problem. The law also requires posting human trafficking awareness signs at turnpike service plazas, weigh stations and highway rest areas, major airports and train stations, and hospital emergency rooms.

    Other new laws increase the punishment for those convicted and protect victims by making confidential their personal information.

    More laws may be coming during the legislative session opening Jan. 12.

    A measure introduced by state Rep. Ross Spano, the Brandon Republican, would further restrict who can be prosecuted for human trafficking to people 18 or older — a move to ensure that minors are viewed as victims not criminals.

    The measure also would classify human trafficking as an offense that can trigger a felony murder charge, prohibit forced permanent branding, and prevent massage therapists or establishments from renewing their licenses if they were connected with prostitution.

    The public awareness sign instructs anyone who forced to engage in an activity and being held against their will to call or text the National Human Trafficking Awareness Center.

    The bill authorizes county commissions to adopt ordinances enforcing the law by issuing noncriminal citations and fines not to exceed $500.

    The Pinellas County Commission has directed its lawyer to draft an ordinance enforcing the posting of the signs and will have a first hearing on the proposal Jan. 12.

    Collier County, with a large number of adult entertainment clubs and massage parlors, passed a “human trafficking awareness” sign ordinance that also takes effect Jan. 1. It gives code enforcement officers and law enforcement officers the power to issue noncriminal citations and fines up to $500.

    “It’s essential to inform the public as to how to report human trafficking when they identify it,” Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller said. “This statute is a start. The scope needs to expand to additional locations. Human trafficking will not be tolerated in Collier County.”

    The Martin County Commission has passed a similar ordinance giving the Sheriff’s Office the authority to issue citations and fines.

    “Obviously, this is not a comprehensive solution to this problem, but those of us in government and leadership must do everything we can to push back against the evil of human trafficking,” said Sheriff William D. Snyder, who helped write the state’s original anti-trafficking legislation when he served in the Legislature and sits on the statewide task force.

    “One of these signs in the right place may get someone’s attention. If we rescue one woman it would be worth it.”

    The Hillsborough County Commission has not given its staff direction or taken action of its own related to the sign ordinance.

    Skipper said she found it interesting that lawmakers left that up to each county to decide.

    “The Tampa bay area is world-renowned for its large adult entertainment industry,” said Skipper with the Salvation Army, who visits strip clubs every weekend to minister to the dancers.

    She said she has counted 63 strip clubs in Hillsborough County alone, not all of them as professional as the Mons Venus.

    “The higher end clubs seem more supportive,” Skipper said. “The more-well-run, higher clubs wouldn’t mind having signs. Some of the clubs my ministry teams go into already have posters up.”

    But some low-end clubs are a different ball game, she said.

    “I believe that a sign educating people what to do is going to be amazing to help awareness to victims that might not even know they are victims.”

     

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