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Weekly Roundup: The Plot Thickens

December 9, 2016 - 11:00pm

If the Florida legislative session were a television series --- one of the serial types that have taken over in the last several years --- this week would serve as the season premiere, where all of the plot lines were being put into motion.

Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran worked to sell their top priorities for the 2017 session. The perennial skirmishes over gun bills and capital punishment started to boil. And there were those subplots that might play a role later, in ways that are still unclear: Attorney General Pam Bondi's role in the Trump Administration, for example.

Meanwhile, lawmakers began their training for when the curtain officially rises in March, as the House held "Legislator University" and the Senate geared up for its first week of committee meetings. Soon enough, all of the plot lines that have started up will come together in May. Unless, of course, the show gets an extension that no one wants.


Associated Industries of Florida's annual conference offers a chance for state leaders to get the powerful lobbying group behind their top priorities for the legislative session. There was never a doubt that a priority for Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, was an overhaul of the state's judicial branch. And he argued that it should be one of Associated Industries' top priorities as well.

Business groups need to realize that the courts --- not the Legislature and not Scott --- are the main obstacle to free-market reforms, the speaker told the conference, held in Tallahassee.

"If you don't wrap your heads around the problem that we're having with the Supreme Court, you're just going to be doing this over and over again, and at some point you're going to run out of a good run of conservative leaders in the (legislative) chambers that are willing to work with you," he warned.

Corcoran also laid out his wish list for the Constitution Revision Commission, which is set to begin working in April to propose changes to the state Constitution for voters to consider in the 2018 elections. As speaker, Corcoran gets to name nine of the 37 members.

In addition to a judicial term-limits proposal, Corcoran said he would like the commission to consider trying to overrule a Supreme Court decision that struck down private-school vouchers funded directly by public money and seek to roll back the courts' involvement in redistricting under anti-gerrymandering amendments approved by voters in 2010. Corcoran suggested a redistricting commission --- an idea favored by Democrats --- could be one way to go.

Scott told the conference that more tax and fee cuts could be coming in his budget proposal, which will be unveiled in piecemeal fashion between now and the beginning of the session. Scott has already proposed pay raises for state law-enforcement officers, which he pitched during an appearance the same day in Tampa.

"It's the right thing to do," said Scott, whose $11.7 million proposal would boost the salaries of some 4,000 officers such as state troopers, Capitol police and wildlife law-enforcement officers.

Citing a 45-year low in Florida's crime rate and a rash of recent police killings nationally, Scott said a raise for sworn law-enforcement officers ---- whose last raise came in 2014, when all state workers received increases --- was overdue.

Scott also refused to rule out granting Florida Department of Corrections officers a similar raise.

"They're hard workers, correctional officers. State workers work really hard," said Scott, adding he would consider further proposed raises as he rolls out additional aspects of his budget plan

Florida State University President John Thrasher didn't waste any time this week staking out the same position he and other college presidents have held in the past about guns on campus: They're not necessary.

While he was a Republican legislator, Thrasher also worked against a bill that would have allowed gun owners with concealed-weapons licenses to bring their firearms to state colleges and universities.

"I opposed it. I killed it. I have worked against it since then," Thrasher told the FSU faculty this week during his "state of the university" address. "And you have my promise that I will work against it this year also."

The so-called "campus carry" bill, which in the past has been approved by the House, has already re-emerged as an issue for the 2017 session. Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, filed a new version of the bill (HB 6005) on Wednesday.

A companion bill to that measure --- which also contains several other items off the National Rifle Association's legislative wish list --- was filed Friday by Senate Judiciary Chairman Greg Steube, R-Sarasota.

Meanwhile, another hot-button issue drew renewed attention this week when word emerged that the state decided to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit a landmark case in which the justices struck down a death-penalty sentencing process because it gave too much power to judges instead of juries.

Bondi's office will appeal a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, according to a motion asking a judge to put on hold a resentencing hearing for Hurst. That resentencing hearing was ordered by the Florida Supreme Court in October.

The state is objecting to the Florida court's interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in January in the Hurst case, according to the document filed last week in Escambia County.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Hurst's case found that Florida's system of allowing judges, instead of juries, to find the facts necessary to impose the death penalty was an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. The court sent Hurst's case back to the Florida high court.

Amid all the legal battling about the death penalty, executions have been on hold.

But records obtained by The News Service of Florida suggest that, whenever resumption of executions happens, state officials could be planning a dramatic change.

The Department of Corrections has spent more than $12,000 this year stockpiling three drugs likely to be used to kill condemned prisoners, according to the records.

The state has never previously used any of the three drugs it has been purchasing since last year, even as Florida's death penalty remains in limbo after a series of rulings from the courts. The new triple-drug cocktail would be the only one of its kind among the states that rely on similar procedures to kill prisoners.

One of the drugs that Florida could be planning to use as the critical first dosage, used to anesthetize condemned inmates, has never before been used as part of the three-drug execution procedure in the U.S., according to a death-penalty expert at the University of California, Berkeley Law School.

Department of Corrections officials would not comment on whether the agency is considering a change to the lethal-injection protocol or whether the state was forced to seek new drugs due to some pharmaceutical manufacturers in recent years banning the use of their products for executions.

"The death penalty is our most solemn duty. Our foremost objective of the lethal injection process is a humane and dignified process," agency spokeswoman Michelle Glady said in an email.


Whether the legal strategy of the state will remain in the same hands next year wasn't at all clear this week. There were rumors that Bondi, who is barred by term limits from running for re-election in 2018, might be headed to the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.

Bondi gave few indications about whether she was really a candidate to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a position informally known as the drug czar. That speculation is in part fueled by her work as attorney general in trying to crack down on pill mills and synthetic drugs.

"I'm not going to confirm or deny anything right now. I went to New York at the request of the president of the United States-elect," Bondi told reporters Tuesday after a state Cabinet meeting. She met with Trump the previous week. "I was up there meeting with him, and frankly I don't think anyone should come out of those meetings and talk about anything that was said in those meetings."

Scott, asked if he's considered the type of candidate he'd consider as a replacement for Bondi if she were to resign, also indicated he wasn't into the speculating.

"I have a total of about 2,900 appointments to boards and commissions. I focus on the things that are in front of me," Scott said after the Cabinet meeting. "I hope that Attorney General Bondi stays."

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott and other state leaders outlined their legislative priorities as preparations for the spring legislative session began.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "We don't want this to turn into Lord of the Flies. But at the same time, we have to be cognizant of that."---House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, explaining to House lawmakers that any proposed local projects in the budget will have to be paid for by cutting spending somewhere else.

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