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Weekly Roundup: A Political Science Symposium and Lots of Pot

December 18, 2015 - 9:30pm

Much of state government might be done for the year, but the judiciary spent the week still getting through the last bits of its 2015 workload.

The highest-profile case --- at least to those who work in the 10 square blocks surrounding the Florida Capitol --- was Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds' review of proposed redistricting plans for the state Senate.

But the highest case, in another sense, might have been a series of administrative and legal fights over the future of medical marijuana in Florida. The system for distributing buzz-free pot for some conditions remained ensnared in challenges to the nurseries that received licenses, while a measure that would provide for stronger grass cleared a key hurdle.

It wasn't all about the courts, though. Gov. Rick Scott planned a campaign-style tour to tout the fact that the state has added 1 million new jobs since he took office.


Very little of what the Legislature has done when it comes to the state's redistricting process --- which has been going on for 4 1/2 years, all told --- has worked. So maybe it's time to give someone else a chance at drawing the lines.

This week, that's basically what lawyers for the state Senate proposed during their closing arguments at a four-day trial. If Reynolds doesn't accept the Senate's plan for its 40 districts, the attorneys said, he shouldn't choose one of four plans offered by voting-rights groups. Instead, he should sit down with a couple of experts and craft his own map.

"He seems like a very hands-on type judge," Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told reporters after closing arguments. "And I'd much prefer him really looking at the map versus just reaching over and pulling out one of the (voting-rights groups') maps."

A lawyer for those groups, which include the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida, said he didn't think that was likely.

"That's a very daunting prospect, so I would kind of think he would choose one of the maps," attorney David King said.

For the most part, the trial had all the drama of an extraordinarily dry political science symposium. Lawyers and experts clashed over Reock scores --- a measure of how compact districts are --- how many counties were split by different proposals and just how many minority voters are needed in a district to make sure racial or ethnic groups have a chance to elect a candidate of their choice.

About the closest the trial came to a Perry Mason-type moment was when a lawyer for the voting-rights groups dramatically revealed that the Senate's expert witness had included in his analysis a case where an African-American candidate lost --- except that, in the real world, the candidate won.

Galvano was also called to testify about his role in producing the map that the Senate put forward for Reynolds to consider. But he brushed off suggestions that there was anything amiss about the fact that the Senate's current proposal is among the most favorable for Republicans that has been produced.

"Call it what you want; it was not anything that was engineered," Galvano said under questioning from King.

King zeroed in on the fact that, unlike several other maps produced during the redistricting process, the plan put forward by Galvano would not pair any Republican incumbents. Other maps would have led to GOP lawmakers, including some legislative leaders, running against each other.

"Once again, it's just pure luck of the draw that this keeps happening?" King asked "You keep rolling sevens on unpairing of incumbents?"

Reynolds will make a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court, which will have the final say on which map is used. The current Senate plan has been set aside under a legal settlement in which lawmakers conceded districts would likely be struck down by the courts under a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering.


If supporters thought pushing a bill through the Legislature to allow limited types of medical marijuana was the hard part, they've been proven wrong. The process for actually getting that pot into the hands of patients has turned into a bureaucratic morass.

The latest obstacle? More than a dozen challenges to the medical-marijuana licenses granted by Florida health officials, with some asking that the licensing process be put on hold until their petitions are heard in court.

As of Monday's 5 p.m. deadline to challenge the licenses, the Department of Health had received 13 petitions, according to agency spokeswoman Mara Gambineri.

A three-member panel --- comprised of the health department's Office of Compassionate Use Executive Director Christian Bax; his predecessor, Patricia Nelson; and agency accountant Ellyn Hutson --- late last month named the winners of the licenses, one in each of five regions of the state. The winners were chosen from more than two dozen applications.

But the challenges question the panel's scoring and also accuse the department of failing to give due process by not allowing the competitors to defend their presentations before the licenses were awarded.

The challenges are likely to inject yet another delay into the drawn-out attempt to get non-euphoric marijuana products, authorized by lawmakers last year, to families of children with rare forms of epilepsy. Under the law, pushed by those families, doctors can order the treatment for individuals with severe muscle spasms or cancer.

Gambineri said the department "will review each challenge and determine the best path forward to get this product to children with intractable epilepsy and people with advanced cancer. We remain focused on moving forward."

The law authorized five dispensing organizations to grow, process and distribute marijuana that is low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD. Nurseries that have been in business for at least 30 continuous years in Florida and grow a minimum of 400,000 plants were eligible to apply for one of the five coveted licenses.

Whether it would be any easier to allow users to get stronger marijuana is a different question, but it's one that could be answered soon. The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously approved a proposed constitutional amendment for more robust pharmacological pot that would go on the November 2016 ballot.

Justices said the proposal, spearheaded by the group People United for Medical Marijuana, meets legal tests that include dealing with a single subject and having a clearly worded ballot title and summary. The Supreme Court does not consider the merits of proposed constitutional amendments but reviews them, in part, to make sure voters would not be misled.

"(The) ballot title and summary fairly inform voters of the purpose of the proposed amendment --- the state authorization of medical marijuana for patients with debilitating medical conditions,'' the 15-page opinion said. "The language is clear and does not mislead voters regarding the actual content of the proposed amendment."

People United for Medical Marijuana, which is led and heavily financed by Orlando lawyer John Morgan, still needs to submit 683,149 valid petition signatures to the state by a Feb. 1 deadline. As of Friday evening, it had submitted 423,242, according to the state Division of Elections website.

"The unanimous decision by the Florida Supreme Court to approve the new medical marijuana constitutional amendment is a huge victory for hundreds of thousands of sick and suffering Floridians who could benefit from the passage of such a law," campaign manager Ben Pollara said in a text message. "While we still must collect the required number of petitions before officially being placed on the 2016 ballot, we are confident that we will and that Florida voters will approve this amendment in the general election."

The group, also known as United for Care, tried to pass a similar constitutional amendment in 2014 but fell short of getting approval from 60 percent of voters, as is required by law. About 58 percent of voters supported the measure.


Gov. Rick Scott, who campaigned on a promise to bring hundreds of thousands of jobs to Florida --- whether it was 700,000 or 1.7 million depends on which of his pledges you listen to --- was able to celebrate Friday the passing of a milestone: the addition of a million positions to Florida payrolls.

He quickly used the news to launch another of the tours that have become a hallmark of his administration, this one dubbed the "Million Miles for a Million Jobs" bus tour. The total refers to how many miles Scott's administration has traveled to bring in jobs, though there's no word on whether the mileage total accounts for normal economic growth.

Stops on the tour will include Jacksonville, Melbourne, Miami, Naples, Orlando, Sarasota, Tampa, The Villages and West Palm Beach.

In a more substantive development, Scott announced Thursday that he is appointing Cissy Proctor to run the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Proctor will replace Jesse Panuccio, the department's executive director who two weeks ago announced he will leave Jan. 8 to pursue unspecified endeavors.

Scott, who is pushing lawmakers to boost incentives for business recruitment from $43 million this year to $250 million next fiscal year, praised Proctor for having a strong background in legislative affairs.

"Her great work to support job growth for Florida families is a strong testament to the work she will do as executive director," Scott said in a prepared statement. "She will provide leadership and help make Florida first for jobs."

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Senate and a coalition of voting-rights groups urged a Leon County judge to select one of a slate of competing maps for state Senate districts. The map selected by Circuit Judge George Reynolds will go to the Florida Supreme Court.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I wouldn't consider myself very lucky. I'm sitting here today, on Dec. 16."---Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, during his testimony in a redistricting trial. An attorney for opponents of the Senate's proposed map had sarcastically suggested that changes making the map more favorable for Republican were lucky coincidences.

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