President Donald Trump acted as maestro of a military extravaganza and delivered a message of unity to a country whose citizens appear more divided than ever as the United States celebrated its 243rd birthday this week.
“As long as we stay true to our cause, as long as we remember our great history, as long as we never, ever stop fighting for a better future, then there will be nothing that America cannot do,” Trump told a crowd of thousands gathered under rainy skies on the National Mall in Washington.
“Together, we are part of one of the greatest stories ever told --- the story of America,” he said. “To this day, that spirit runs through the veins of every American patriot.”
Reaction to the president’s remarks was more tepid than the criticism leading up to the Fourth of July spectacle, which came a little more than two weeks after part-time Floridian Trump formally launched his re-election bid in Orlando.
Trump’s selection of the I-4 corridor for his campaign announcement exhibited the Sunshine State’s significance in next year’s presidential contest, a fact also demonstrated last week when the crowded field of Democratic contenders took the stage in Miami for their first debates.
But while Trump delivered a message of unity Thursday, next year’s elections are sure to be full of conflict. Florida already is grappling with court battles that could determine who is able to cast ballots and where they can exercise that privilege.
Gov. Ron DeSantis late last week signed into law an omnibus package that the Legislature intended to resolve problems that arose in recent elections. But the new law has given birth to legal controversies and intensified a partisan schism over implementation of a constitutional amendment designed to expand voting rights in Florida.
OBSTACLES OR OPPORTUNITIES?
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker held an initial telephone hearing Friday in what could be a drawn-out legal battle over a portion of the new elections law aimed at carrying out what appeared on the November ballot as Amendment 4.
The amendment was designed to restore voting rights for felons who have completed terms of their sentences. But under the elections package signed by DeSantis, felons will have to pay financial obligations related to their crimes before they are eligible to vote.
Lawyers for civil-rights groups, voting-rights advocates, and people convicted of felonies allege the legislation unconstitutionally “creates two classes of citizens,” depending on their ability to pay financial obligations that many felons don’t even know about.
The law, which went into effect Monday, is a throwback to Jim Crow-era policies aimed at preventing black Floridians from voting, argued lawyers for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The amendment, approved by more than 64 percent of Florida voters in November, granted restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The amendment excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”
The meaning of “all terms of sentence” became a flashpoint during this spring’s legislative session, sparking an emotionally charged divide over whether the amendment required payment of court-ordered fees, fines and restitution when the financial obligations are part of a sentence, as is almost always the case.
The new law, meanwhile, appears to have resolved a separate lawsuit about ballot signatures that don’t match those on file with elections offices. Both sides in the case this week asked Walker to toss the lawsuit, filed in November by former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s campaign and state and national Democrats.
Attorneys say the new law fixes the disputed issues by establishing a uniform process for canvassing boards to compare signatures and by extending deadlines for voters to “cure” ballots.
The new law also creates a way for voters who cast provisional ballots to cure signatures that don’t match those on file with elections officials.
NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT
More than a month after DeSantis, the Florida Cabinet and aides returned from a trade mission to Israel, it’s still not clear how much the trip cost state taxpayers.
Some state employees who traveled at taxpayer expense stayed in a more than $400-a-night luxury hotel in Jerusalem, where a Cabinet meeting was held, The News Service of Florida reported this week.
The governor’s office has not released expense records from the week-long trip. And Enterprise Florida, an economic-development agency that receives state and private money and helped plan the trip, said on its website that “total mission expenses are compiled approximately 45-60 days” after the trip ends, suggesting it could still be about a month before a total tally will be made public.
But records obtained by the News Service detailing travel expenses of Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Cabinet staff members show taxpayers footed the bill for nearly $30,000 in hotel rooms, airfare, “registration” fees for Enterprise Florida, baggage fees and per-diem costs, which can include meals. That total covered expenses for Fried, three of her staff members, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis’ chief of staff and Attorney General Ashley Moody’s general counsel.
Records show Fried and the five staff members spent $15,663 for hotel rooms, which included nights at the David Citadel Hotel, a luxury five-star hotel in Jerusalem that charges $425 a night with the promise of a “majestic Jerusalem experience facing the Old City wall.”
The records show, in part, that two of Fried’s employees each stayed at the David Citadel for two nights, totaling $1,700. Moody's general counsel also stayed there for two nights for a total of $850. A report for Patronis’ chief of staff, Ryan West, did not provide detailed information about hotel stays, but his lodging expenses for the trip totaled $2,400.
The tab for the lodging, picked up by taxpayers, “starts to sound more like a junket than a real trade mission,” said Ben Wilcox, director of Integrity Florida, a nonprofit group that does research on ethics-related issues.
Kathleen Keenan, a spokeswoman for Enterprise Florida, said the hotel was picked after taking security concerns and room capacity into consideration. She said more than 90 hotel rooms needed to be reserved for the delegation of about 200 people. Along with state leaders, the delegation included top-tier lobbyists, business officials such as the president and CEO of Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility company, and 24 people representing Florida universities.
STORY OF THE WEEK: A May trade mission to Israel by DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet cost state taxpayers at least $30,000, including $425-a-night luxury lodging for high-ranking aides.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Florida has a long, troubling history with voter suppression tactics, many explicitly motivated by racial discrimination --- including the very felony disenfranchisement provision revised by Amendment 4.” --- Attorneys representing plaintiffs challenging part of a new elections law that carries out a constitutional amendment passed in November.