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Weekly Roundup: Weddings, Water and Maybe Weed

January 23, 2014 - 6:00pm

There seemed, at times this week, to be a bit of the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in Florida politics.

A wedding guest? Gay-marriage advocates looked to seize on recent momentum in other states to pave the way for similar rights in Florida. "Water, water, every where?" Gov. Rick Scott's latest batch of budget pitches included funding for water projects. An albatross around the neck? Scott's Department of Economic Opportunity was still trying to untangle the knot of technology issues surrounding its new unemployment computer system.

As for the more supernaturally tinged parts of the poem? Well, John Morgan's drive for medical marijuana will head to the ballot barring intervention by the Florida Supreme Court. So who knows what some Floridians might see if the measure becomes law.


The last two years, in particular, have seen gay-rights groups secure victory after victory in the drive for what supporters call "marriage equality." President Barack Obama endorsed the idea of gay marriage in 2012, and a succession of Democratic politicians quickly did the same.

State after state has also followed suit, with the number of states where gay marriage is allowed or has been approved by the courts jumping from 12 to 17 since the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the federal "Defense of Marriage Act" on the basis that it violated due-process rights. Among those states are Utah and Oklahoma, states not exactly known for unchecked liberalism.

The legal fight has now moved to Florida, with six gay couples challenging Florida's ban on same-sex marriage in state court, saying the prohibition violates U.S. Constitution protections against discrimination and denies them "equal dignity and respect."

The six couples and the Equality Florida Institute filed the lawsuit Tuesday against Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin, four days after his office refused to grant them marriage licenses.

Florida is one of more than two-dozen states with amendments in the state Constitution that ban same-sex marriage, and the lawsuit filed Tuesday is one of 40 throughout the country.

The suit could set up a Florida Supreme Court showdown over the "Florida Marriage Protection" constitutional amendment approved by nearly 62 percent of voters five years ago. At least, arguments before the seven justices -- several of whom are more left-leaning than legislative leaders -- are what plaintiffs' lawyer Elizabeth Schwartz said she was hoping for.

"We decided that the time has come. Let's bring it here and let's give the judges the same opportunity," Schwartz said.

Social conservatives pushed back. John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council and author of the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, called the lawsuit "a publicity stunt" timed to coincide with the onset of the legislative session, which begins in March.

"To me, they're constantly trying to create political momentum just by asserting things that are not true. This would be another kind of political momentum stunt as we go into the legislative session," Stemberger said.


But even if gay marriage gains political momentum, it would be only one of myriad issues facing lawmakers. Gov. Rick Scott, approaching his re-election bid, will be looking for action on his budget requests, the latest of which were rolled out this week. After years of becoming something of a be noir to the environmental movement, thanks to efforts to dismantle what was left of the state's growth-management laws, Scott is turning over a greener leaf in 2014.

The governor announced that he would include $130 million for Everglades and South Florida waterway projects in his 2014-15 budget proposal -- $60 million more than what Florida is currently spending on the River of Grass. Also included in the measure: a message to Obama, who has become a frequent Scott foil as the governor eyes what could be a GOP-friendly midterm electorate.

"I hope the federal government will do the right thing and continue to provide the funding we need," Scott said Wednesday during a state Cabinet meeting at the Osceola County Administration Building in Kissimmee.

But it wasn't just the Everglades that would benefit from Scott as an environmental rainmaker.

The governor also proposed letting $55 million flow to restoring and maintaining the state's natural springs, as state lawmakers continue to focus on water quality and quantity.

Charles Pattison, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, was encouraged by the recent proposals from Scott, who was criticized after taking office for his environmental actions.

"He is putting forward a budget that is about five times larger for springs restoration than we've seen in the past few years. We think that's a good step," Pattison said.

But not everyone was quite as eager to shower the proposals with praise.

John Moran, co-director of the Springs Eternal Project, a collaborative of researchers and artists focused on the state's springs as part of the Alachua Conservation Trust, said Scott needs to provide leadership by stressing a reduction in the use of water and "springs-killing" fertilizer.

"What ails our springs cannot be fixed just by throwing a few million dollars at the problem," Moran said in an email.

Scott, who has also allowed budget details on child-protection, public safety, economic development and tax cuts to trickle out in recent weeks, will unveil his full spending plan during an Associated Press meeting Wednesday with editors and reporters from across the state.


The state's new unemployment website continues to have problems, but the bright side is that fewer people are landing on the unemployment rolls.

Given the fact that the new "Connect" system isn't fully living up to its name, the federal government said it will allow the state to pay unemployment claims in cases that have been in dispute for more than a week, as officials look to ease a backlog created by the troubled $63 million unemployment assistance website.

The announcement from the Department of Economic Opportunity actually came Saturday, buried amid the three-day weekend that included Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

"This step should serve as a great relief for claimants who have faced hardships due to technical problems with the system," Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Jesse Panuccio said in a prepared statement. "Some claimants have suffered and DEO and USDOL (the U.S. Department of Labor) are committed to helping them through all legal and available means."

Connect has been in the works since 2009 to replace a 30-year-old system jobless Floridians used to claim their weekly benefits, monitor accounts and request information. The department provides up to $275 weekly to more than 200,000 Floridians.

Democrats, meanwhile, took the opportunity to hammer Scott about the system, which was built by Minnesota-based Deloitte Consulting.

"In over three months, Rick Scott has failed to make fixing the system a priority," said House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, in a conference call Thursday with reporters. "Rick Scott has never set a deadline or a goal for fixing the system."

Maybe he's hoping for full employment to fix the problem on its own. The state's jobless rate dropped to 6.2 percent in December, down 0.2 percent from November, according to numbers released Friday, a further boost to Scott's hopes of holding onto his job in November despite his low popularity.

"For nine months in a row now we've been below the national average," Scott said in a video. "Private companies they've added 13,000 jobs, in three years 462,000 jobs. Unemployment 6.2 percent. This is a great news day."


Two proposed constitutional amendments look poised to appear on Floridians' ballots this November, both of them dealing with various shades of green.

Voters will be asked if funding for land conservation should be cemented into the Florida Constitution when they vote on Amendment No. 1, which got final approval this week from the Department of State. Legislative leaders did not seem overly pleased with the prospect.

"Legislating via constitutional amendments doesn't work in California and it won't work here!" House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said via email, less than two years after lawmakers put 11 proposed amendments of their own on the 2012 ballot.

Meanwhile, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, contends the amendment will shift too much land into state control.

The proposed amendment, backed by a group called "Florida's Water and Land Legacy Inc.," seeks to set aside 33 percent of the state's documentary stamp tax revenues -- fees paid when real estate is sold -- for 20 years to acquire conservation and recreation lands, manage existing lands, protect lands that are critical for water supply and restore degraded natural systems.

Will Abberger, the group's campaign chairman, said the intent of the amendment is to provide a dedicated and sustainable source of money to protect Florida's water resources.

"Having a source of clean drinking water, ensuring that the quality of our rivers, lakes and streams is good, and protecting our beaches, is something that is important enough that it shouldn't be subject to whatever political winds are blowing in Tallahassee," Abberger said.

The case for medical marijuana seems a bit murkier. Backers of a proposed amendment that would allow pharmacological joints have submitted enough valid petition signatures to get on the November ballot, according to the state Division of Elections website.

"People United for Medical Marijuana,'' the group behind the amendment drive, reached 710,508 valid signatures as of early afternoon Friday, topping the 683,149 needed to get on the ballot. Also, the group had met legally required petition thresholds in 14 congressional districts.

However, the Florida Supreme Court is still weighing a challenge from Attorney General Pam Bondi and legislative leaders who say the ballot language is misleading.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Six gay couples challenge Florida's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Heres the nice thing: People want to come to our state. Weve had record tourism numbers it looks like again last year. So people want to come to our state, basically they like all parts of our state. But if you come here youve got to comply with the law." -- Gov. Rick Scott on Justin Bieber's traffic arrest in Miami Beach, according to the Palm Beach Post.

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