Politics

Florida Political Roundup: Scott Signs Bills as Summer Doldrums Near

By: Brandon Larrabee News Service of Florida | Posted: June 1, 2013 3:55 AM
Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott | Credit: Corinne Hanna - News 965

As summertime approaches in Florida, the temperature isn't the only thing heating up.

Gov. Rick Scott's pen for signing bills is also warming as he signs measures at a torrid pace, at one point putting his name on 38 laws in a single day. A court case about the Legislature's attempt to redraw congressional maps has been inflamed by a battle over the right to certain documents. And the Republican Party of Florida has kept up the heat on the Florida Democratic Party for not including former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich on the speaker's list for an annual fundraising gala, hoping a clash between activists and FDP leaders will boil over.

The lazy days of summer will likely still prove as languid as ever, as more and more attention turns to barbecues and fireworks. But for now, there's still just enough heat to keep things interesting.


SIGNS OF SUMMER:

From text messages to property insurance, Scott's busy bill-signing schedule altered dozens of laws, even with the governor having just four working days to ink legislation.

On Tuesday, he signed a pair of bills, one that could lead to $30 tickets for motorists who are texting while driving. The measure (SB 52), which comes after years of fighting on the issue, would only allow citations to be given as "secondary" offenses when drivers are pulled over for other reasons. It also still allows people to text while stopped. But advocates treated even the limited ban as a victory.

Scott also approved a bill (HB 7065) that brought the state's plan for Everglades restoration into line with an agreement with the federal government and continues a flow of money from an agricultural tax used to repair and maintain the River of Grass.

"This is a long-term commitment," Scott said after signing the bill at Florida Atlantic University's Pine Jog Environmental Education Center in West Palm Beach. "We have a long-term plan and this is going to do the right thing for the Everglades."

But Thursday brought a flood of new laws, as Scott attached his signature to more than three dozen pieces of legislation, including a proposal to crack down on "cyberbullying" (HB 609), a bill allowing the Department of Environmental Protection to set water quality standards in Florida (SB 1808), and legislation (HB 701) making it illegal to use state-issued EBT cards at strip clubs, liquor stores and gambling establishments.

Scott also gave his approval to a pair of bills (HB 1325 and HB 1327) creating a legal process for human-trafficking victims to get their criminal records expunged -- typically for prostitution charges. The new laws, which take effect Jan. 1, would only apply to crimes committed while the victims were being forced, threatened or coerced.

"They need to have their criminal records expunged and removed so they can move on and have gainful employment," said Robin Hassler Thompson, senior policy analyst at Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.


CITIZENS STILL FACES SOME STORM CLOUDS:

By the time Scott unleashed his bill-a-palooza on Thursday, he had already signed off on changes at Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which is drawing scrutiny for a deal it reached with a politically-connected property insurance company.

The bill signed Wednesday (SB 1770) includes a series of steps aimed at reducing the number of homeowners getting coverage from Citizens, such as setting up what is described as a "clearinghouse" where private insurers could intercept policies that otherwise would wind up with Citizens.

The bill would also require Scott and the Cabinet to appoint an inspector general for the beleaguered, state-backed insurer.

“This legislation will bring much needed reforms to better protect the taxpayers who support Citizens Property Insurance,'' Scott said in a prepared statement.

Meanwhile, Citizens tried to manage the fallout of a controversial deal approved last week that could funnel up to $52 million to St. Petersburg-based Heritage Property and Casualty Insurance, which would take out as many as 60,000 policies from Citizens. "Depopulation" has become the buzzword when it comes to how to fix Citizens, but this form of depopulation has raised concerns, including from House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Even Scott said Citizens should give at least seven days notice of such issues.

Citizens President and Chief Executive Officer Barry Gilway agreed with Scott that the state-backed insurer needs to do a better job of communicating about major initiatives, though he said staff members in the past have struggled with how early to present information about potential deals.

At the same time, officials said this week that they have confidence in the fiscal strength of Citizens and the state-backed Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, essentially a pool that provides insurance for insurance companies.

"I don't think anybody is claiming perfection at this point, but for the first time in a few years anyway the bonding capacity appears to be adequate to cover the claims in the fund," said Dennis MacKee, spokesman for the State Board of Administration, which oversees the catastrophe fund.


FAST-TRACK LAWMAKERS?

It's not quite Fast and Furious 6, but the lead feet of several legislators became an issue in the case of a fired Florida Highway Patrol trooper who challenged the decision to dismiss him.

A state hearing officer rejected arguments by the fired trooper's attorney that he should be allowed to force testimony from Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth; Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness; Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart; and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. Also, the ex-trooper sought testimony from Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa; Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater; Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland; Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville; and Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee.

But the hearing nonetheless shone a spotlight on a handful of current and former troopers who say they were told to practice "discretion" when making traffic stops of lawmakers who control the agency's budget.

Not surprisingly, an attorney for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles contended such a quid-pro-quo between law enforcement and lawmakers doesn’t exist.

Ex-trooper Charles Swindle said he was shown the door for writing a $10 ticket to Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, instead of a more-costly speeding ticket. But the state says he was fired because he ticketed McBurney and Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary, for not having proof of insurance and, in Clelland's case, proof of registration.

Both lawmakers said they had the documents when they were stopped.

"This is about falsification, not about whether the drivers were legislators or not," said Sandra Coulter, who represented the highway safety department.

But Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell, who appeared at the hearing but wasn't allowed to speak, told reporters it's a "common practice" that legislators have been given leniency on state highways, the same as law enforcement officers regularly waive rules for other law enforcement officers as a "professional courtesy."

"I wouldn't think about giving a trooper a ticket as I would give my wife one," Campbell said.


CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?

For his part, Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry tried to take an extra job as event planner for the Florida Democratic Party, insisting that Rich, the former Senate minority leader, be allowed to speak at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in South Florida next month.

Rich, who's from nearby Weston, is the only major party figure who has announced a run for governor, though former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and other figures are also eying the Democratic nomination to challenge Scott in 2014.

Curry even went so far as sending a letter to South Florida Democrats, asking them to join him to make sure Rich gets a spot despite the decision by FDP Chairwoman Allison Tant.

"It might be the fact that she is just out of touch with Democrat activists like many of you, and takes her orders from Washington," Curry said of his counterpart. "But it also may be that Tant is working with Charlie Crist to set up a possible gubernatorial candidacy announcement at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Who knows."

On the other hand, a company hired to help lawmakers redraw the state's congressional districts last year seems eager not to talk. Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis held consultant Pat Bainter and Gainesville-based Data Targeting in contempt for withholding documents, of which 1,900 pages remain under wraps.

Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Major B. Harding will conduct a review next week to determine which of the still unreleased documents should remain out of public view.


STORY OF THE WEEK: Scott signed a bill making changes to Citizens Property Insurance Corp., as the company tried to explain a deal that could pay a company up to $52 million to take 60,000 policies off the hands of the state-backed insurer.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "The first thing that Tallahassee politicians probably need to reflect upon is that nobody knows who they are, nobody knows why they think they are so important. Only in Tallahassee, inside the echo chamber here where people talk to each other and think they're hearing the voice of God, are politicians that important." -- Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, in an interview with The Florida Channel's "Florida Face to Face" program.

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