Politics

Weekly Roundup: Signed, Sealed, Delivered

By: Brandon Larrabee News Service of Florida | Posted: August 16, 2014 3:55 AM
Florida Capitol

It might not have been the shortest special session in history -- that honor likely goes to an hours-long offshore drilling session that then-Gov. Charlie Crist called in 2010 -- but lawmakers who gathered in Tallahassee to address a redistricting mess didn't stay long.

In fact, the session ended a little more than 102 hours after the opening gavel. And 48 of those hours were part of the weekend.

With that, Tallahassee returned to its usual summer slumber. Crist swung by, campaigning to get his old job back, as part of a bus tour to tout his plan for education spending. The monthly jobs numbers were released, but largely remained flat, prompting relatively tepid responses from both sides of the aisle despite a looming November election.


BATTLE LINES:

By the time the week opened, there wasn't even that much suspense left about what would happen in the special redistricting session prompted by a court ruling on the old lines. A map released by GOP lawmakers was going to pass, and the only question would be how many Democrats would vote for it.

The answer, it turns out, was relatively few.

The plan (SB 2A) passed on nearly party-line votes in both chambers. The Senate voted 25-12 to approve a new map for seven congressional districts, with Democratic Sens. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville and Bill Montford of Tallahassee voting with Republicans. In the House, Reps. Mia Jones and Reggie Fullwood, both of Jacksonville, were the only Democrats to support the bill as part of the 71-38 vote in favor of it.

"I certainly hope that litigation time is over and that fair voting time has started," said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

That was more wishful thinking than anything else.

Prior to the vote, Democrats pounded the map, saying the process wasn't any better in 2014 than it was in 2012, when the last lines were drawn and when, according to a ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, Republican consultants found a way to influence the map-making.

"Such behind-the-scenes collusions violated the Constitution as well as the public's trust. ... Nothing really changed in this process this time around which would restore the integrity called into question the first time around," said Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland.

Lewis ruled the original map unconstitutional last month after voting-rights organizations and some individual voters filed a lawsuit saying the plan didn't follow the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts amendments. In his decision, Lewis said lawmakers put too many African-American voters in Congressional District 5, currently represented by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, in an apparent effort to channel those Democratic-leaning voters away from surrounding districts.

The judge also found fault with an appendage of white voters added to Congressional District 10, now represented by Republican Congressman Dan Webster; Lewis said the voters were placed in Webster's district to try to help the incumbent hold onto his seat.

The Republican response could more or less be found in a brief the Legislature filed with Lewis on Friday, defending the new plan.

"The Legislature acted promptly and in good faith not only to correct the deficiencies identified by this court but also to enact a plan that dramatically enhances both the visual and numerical compactness of the entire region, while protecting from diminishment the ability of minorities to elect their preferred candidates," lawyers for the House and Senate wrote.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Ken Detzner's office told the court in a separate filing that any special general election to fill the seven seats couldn't take place until May 26, 2015, if Lewis decided to delay the voting to allow the lines to take effect.

Voting-rights groups that challenged the districts, such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, signaled that Gaetz's hopes for the litigation to be over wouldn't be fulfilled.

"We do not agree with the positions taken by the legislative defendants, the secretary of state or the supervisors of elections in their filings today," attorney Thomas Zehnder said. "We will be filing our response with the court by noon on Monday."


CRIST: GREEN FOR SCHOOLS, GREEN LIGHT FOR LEAFY SUBSTANCE:

Ignoring the primary opponent that he'll face Aug. 26, Crist embarked on a three-day tour of the state, boarding a yellow school bus in an effort to school Gov. Rick Scott on education funding.

Crist, a former Republican governor who is running as a Democrat, said more of the state's surplus should be devoted to schools.

"We don't have a revenue problem, we have a priority problem in Florida," Crist said during a Tallahassee stop. "The priority needs to be education. It needs to be our hard-working schoolteachers."

But Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, pointed to a decline in school spending during the tail end of Crist's term and said Scott had revived the economy to allow more funding for education.

"The reason that we're able to invest more in education is because we finally have an actual leader in the governor's mansion, not somebody that can't figure out where he lives, can't figure out what party he wants to be a member of and is generally, I think, someone who's rudderless," Gaetz said.

By the end of the week, Crist was talking about something more closely related to after-school specials than school spending: marijuana. He took Scott's administration to task Friday for using a lottery to select five organizations to grow, manufacture and dispense a now-legal type of marijuana that purportedly does not get users high but can reduce or eliminate life-threatening seizures in children with epilepsy.

"The best way to award any contract is to have a good, open, honest, competitive process," Crist said when asked about the issue Friday. "I don't know that a lottery is the right way to go, frankly. It seems to me that people ought to submit their applications. They ought to be reviewed, thoroughly reviewed in a comprehensive fashion, and those that are determined to be the best are the ones that should get the contracts."

The rule including the lottery provision is far from a done deal, however. After holding two workshops on the rule, health officials will hold another hearing Sept. 5 and could modify the proposal after that.

Lawmakers gave the state's "Office of Compassionate Use" until Jan. 1 to come up with a regulatory framework for getting into the hands of patients a strain of marijuana that is low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD.

Meanwhile, former Gov. Jeb Bush, a national Republican star reportedly considering a run for president in 2016, joined Scott on the campaign trail for the first time this season at the Homestead event.

On Thursday, Bush came out against a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow doctors to order "traditional" medical marijuana for critically ill patients. That amendment will appear on the November ballot.

Scott has said he personally opposes Amendment 2, which has been heavily bankrolled by Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who also is Crist's Morgan & Morgan law firm boss.

But Crist on Friday called medical marijuana "the right thing to do," reiterating his support for the amendment.

"I think it's compassionate. I think that if a doctor prescribes medical marijuana to somebody who's truly suffering and in need of help, I think it's a lot better than prescribing something powerful like oxycontin that's so harmful," Crist said.


JOBS NUMBERS FLAT:

State unemployment numbers issued Friday didn't necessarily give Scott a lift in his bid for re-election, but they didn't hurt him either. Florida's jobless mark continued its steady run through 2014, holding at 6.2 percent from June to July, the state Department of Economic Opportunity announced.

But the numbers indicate there were about 1,600 fewer people employed in July in Florida than a month earlier.

Scott accentuated the positive Friday, focusing on private-sector job growth.

“Florida’s private sector created more than 2,000 jobs for Florida families in July, bringing total private-sector job creation since December 2010 to 620,300," Scott said in a prepared statement. "Every new job positively impacts a family, and today’s announcement is more great news for Florida families looking to live the American dream in the Sunshine State."

That drew a rebuke from the Florida Democratic Party.

Democratic Party spokesman Max Steele tweeted that Gov. Scott's "email touts FL gaining 2.1k jobs in July. Only problem? FL lost ~3.7k in the same month, for net of -1.6k."

The state's unemployment rate, which stood at 7.3 percent a year ago, has been mostly flat this year, wavering between 6.2 percent and 6.3 percent.


STORY OF THE WEEK: Lawmakers approve a new set of congressional districts, ending a special session that began last week.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I think it's going to be the biggest yawner, and the only thing really to look for is, what is the margin for Crist? This is not the first, second or third thing on anybody's mind." -- Screven Watson, a political consultant and former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, on the primary between Crist and former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, a heavy underdog.

 

 


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