Politics

Weekly Roundup: Courts Flexed, Drug Tests Hexed

By: Michael Peltier News Service of Florida | Posted: April 28, 2012 3:55 AM
Gov. Rick Scott and the courts took center stage this week, as the chief executive vetoed a controversial tuition bill while judges struck down a state-employee drug testing plan and approved Senate redistricting maps and a possible expansion of slot machines.

The actions came as Scott approved another flurry of bills, including measures dealing with youth athletes, disabled parking, recycled metals and water storage, as well as a slew of local bills affecting different parts of the state.

SCOTT VETOES TUITION CARTE BLANCHE:

Ending weeks of speculation, Scott drove a spike into efforts by the University of Florida and Florida State University to leapfrog a legislative cap on tuition increases in an effort, university officials pledged, to join the ranks of the nation's top public colleges.

Instead, Scott said that the state's pre-eminent research universities need to first do their homework and provide a systemic, methodical work plan before he'll give the authority to raise tuition above a 15 percent cap.

"While this decision has not been easy, I do not feel that I can sign this bill into law without a more detailed plan to ensure the increased tuition requirements on Florida students will provide the return they and other Floridians need on their additional investment," Scott wrote in a letter announcing the veto of HB 7129.

While the measure would have initially allowed only UF and FSU to offer plans for raising tuition beyond the 15 percent annual increase allowed by state law, eventually any institution that met 11 of 14 standards enumerated in the law could submit proposals to do so. The Board of Governors would still have to approve the plans.

University officials expressed frustration with the decision, especially at a time when state funds for higher education have been dwindling and Florida students continue to pay some of the lowest tuition rates in the country.

"Hopefully, someday soon, the state will decide to provide our universities with the tools they need to compete on a national stage," Board of Governors Chairman Dean Colson said in a statement issued late Friday.


HIGH COURT APPROVES SENATE MAPS/UPHOLDS SLOTS:

The second time was the charm for Republican-led efforts to redraw political boundaries for the 40-member state Senate, as the Florida Supreme Court upheld a second draft of new maps over the objections of two justices who said the proposal, in one instance, dilutes the clout of black voters.

The court's ruling removes the chance that justices would draw the map themselves as part of the state's once-a-decade redistricting process. Earlier this year, the court struck down the first attempt to draw Senate lines but allowed the House map to stand.

Three justices who helped form the 5-2 majority scrapping the first Senate plan -- Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Jorge Labarga -- fully supported the latest decision. Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston, who approved of the earlier Senate version, supported the majority in result only.

In a partial dissent, Justices James E.C. Perry and Peggy Quince, the court's two black members, criticized their colleagues for allowing Northeast Florida districts to stand while splitting in two a largely black area of Daytona Beach.

"This ruling sends a signal that it is permissible under the provisions of our Constitution to divide and conquer a racial or language minority group before they are able to reach a majority voting bloc," Perry wrote in an opinion joined by Quince. There are still hurdles. Portions of maps for the House, Senate and the state's congressional delegation still have to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act because of a history of racial or language discrimination in five Florida counties.

The maps could also be challenged in court under the Voting Rights Act, something Cuban-American lawmakers have suggested is likely because of the lack of a fourth strongly-Hispanic Senate district in Miami-Dade County.


SLOTS:

In another ruling Friday, the high court upheld a lower-court ruling that says lawmakers can allow slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities in various parts of the state.

Justices declined to take up a challenge to a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling that stems from a plan by Hialeah Park horse track in Miami-Dade County to add potentially lucrative slot machines.

But the lower-court ruling has ramifications across the state.

Voters in Gadsden, Washington and Hamilton counties in recent months have approved referendums to allow slot machines. Attorney General Pam Bondi has issued an opinion arguing the referendums are not legitimate.


DRUG TEST GETS FEDERAL SNUB:

While the state courts spent time on center stage, the federal courts also were in the limelight. A Miami federal judge ruled this week that random drug testing for tens of thousands of state workers is unconstitutional -- a blow to Gov. Rick Scott who has called the process a "common-sense" approach to addressing drug use in the workplace.

The ink had barely dried on U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro's ruling when the governor announced he would appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "As I have repeatedly explained, I believe that drug testing state employees is a common-sense means of ensuring a safe, efficient and productive work force,'' Scott said in a statement. "That is why so many private employers drug test and why the public and Florida's taxpayers overwhelmingly support this policy."
Scott issued the executive order last year to require drug testing at agencies under his control. But the order was placed on hold because of a legal challenge filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Ungaro's 37-page ruling found that Scott's order violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches. The judge also wrote that Scott did not justify a need for the tests.

"The (executive order) does not identify a concrete danger that must be addressed by suspicionless drug testing of state employees, and the governor shows no evidence of a drug use problem at the covered agencies," Ungaro wrote.

CITIZENS BOARD DELAYS RATE HIKE CHAT:

A proposal to raise rates for future Citizens Property Insurance Corp. policyholders was shot down this week by the company's board of governors, which decided instead to take a step back and explore options to depopulate the state-backed insurer without causing too much pain.

The board is in the untenable position of being required by law to bolster the financial stability of the fund, which now holds nearly 1.5 million policies for some of the riskiest properties in the state, while not raising the ire of powerful political groups and coastal lawmakers who count many Citizens customers as constituents.

Following debate and public testimony, Citizens' board of governors, meeting in Tampa, directed staff to work up a package of proposed rates for 2013 that includes allowing the state-backed insurer to charge new customer premiums that more closely meet actuarially sound rates.

The board had initially been slated to vote on a proposal to allow the company after Jan. 1 to charge rates for new customers that were more than 10 percent higher than existing rates in some cases.

Under whatever scenario the company moves forward, existing policyholders will continue to be protected by a 10 percent cap on annual premium increases.

CIRCUIT JUDGE SIDES WITH ONLINE-TRAVEL COMPANIES:

Backers of online-travel companies declared victory this week after Leon County Circuit Judge James Shelfer sided with the industry in a long-running legal battle about whether companies such as Expedia and Orbitz owe disputed county hotel taxes.

In a much watched case in travel circles, Shelfer found the online-travel companies were not obligated to collect and pass along the money.

"The case is over, '' said Orbitz lead attorney Beth Herrington, who argued on behalf of the industry.

The core question in the case comes down to this: Should county tourist-development taxes apply to the total cost of a customer's bill when booking through an online-travel company? Or only to the portion that goes for the room rental? The industry and its supporters argue that trying to impose the tax on online-travel company fees would amount to a services tax, which is not allowed in Florida. But counties say the tax should apply to the total price that travelers pay for rooms and that the online-travel companies are involved in renting rooms.

The counties that have been involved in the lawsuit are Alachua, Charlotte, Escambia, Flagler, Hillsborough, Lee, Leon, Manatee, Nassau, Okaloosa, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, St. Johns, Seminole, Wakulla and Walton. They plan to appeal.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Supreme Court upholds the state Senate seats.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Florida leaders appear to have a hard time understanding that the government can’t search people just because a politician thinks it will be popular.” -- Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU of Florida, on a federal judge's ruling striking Florida's employee drug testing program.


Comments (0)

Leave a Comment on This Story

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.