Weekly Roundup: A Week on the Battlefields of the Past
Around the State
You could be forgiven for looking around and wondering whether you've stepped back in time a year or two -- or even further.
The gambling discussions that have tied the Florida Legislature in knots over the last several years keep coming up. Gov. Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner are still tangling with elections supervisors over voting procedures.
And, at least in one corner of the state, Union soldiers are still the least popular people around.
On most of the issues, there at least appears to be some movement. Suggestions by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, on how to move gambling legislation forward might help prod his reluctant chamber to action. And Detzner and Pinellas County Superintendent Deborah Clark have defused their conflict over where absentee ballots can be returned in an upcoming congressional special election.
As for the Civil War? In some ways, it's still raging 150 years after it was fought for the first time. Why would it end now?
PLUGGING THE 'DRIP, DRIP, DRIP' OF EXPANDED GAMBLING:
With the Senate seeming to gear up for gambling legislation next session and some House members reluctant to expand gambling, Weatherford suggested a new idea this week that could provide cover to some lawmakers: a constitutional amendment.
In an interview Monday with The News Service of Florida, Weatherford said he wants to put a proposal on the 2014 ballot that would let voters decide if they should weigh in on future expansion of gambling.
While the details are still being crafted, the amendment would set in stone any changes lawmakers agree to during the 2014 session and require statewide approval of any future gambling expansion. Like other constitutional amendments, the proposal would require 60 percent approval by voters to pass.
Weatherford said it's part of the "holistic look at gaming" the Legislature is undertaking that includes a swath of issues from casino-style resorts to blackjack at South Florida tracks to getting rid of greyhound racing altogether.
"I have become over the years very concerned with the drip, drip, drip expansion of gaming that's taken place in the state of Florida. I am certainly warming up to the idea of having a constitutional amendment that would require all future expansion to go before the voters. I'm very, very intrigued by that concept," Weatherford said.
Weatherford's proposal would be linked in theory to a comprehensive gambling bill that could include a rewrite of the state's gambling laws and regulations, the creation of a gambling commission and, possibly, a kitchen-sink of elements sought by existing race tracks and frontons as well as destination resorts coveted by out-of-state casino operators.
The idea could also spark a lobbying frenzy, given the increasing difficulty of getting any expansion of gambling through if the amendment passed.
"There's no question that if everyone believed any future expansion after the 2014 session required a statewide vote, all the gaming interests would do whatever they could to try to include anything they could in the comprehensive legislation," said lobbyist Nick Iarossi, who represents Las Vegas Sands, one of the casino operators pushing lawmakers to approve at least one convention-style hotel and casino in Broward or Miami-Dade counties.
But enshrining the new laws so quickly into the Constitution could be problematic. Any mistakes would leave lawmakers scrambling to get a fix through the Legislature -- and hoping that voters would approve it.
Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said he has heard of Weatherford's constitutional amendment idea but not spoken with his House counterpart about it yet. Richter said the constitutional amendment should remain separate from the overall gambling package.
"I don't think that initiative should draw the attention away from or to the objective to come up with something responsible for the state of Florida in the gaming arena," he said.
DON'T CRITICIZE IT, LEGALIZE IT?
Of course, a constitutional amendment also has to gain the approval of the Supreme Court to get on the ballot -- a bar that supporters of an initiative to legalize medical marijuana are trying to clear. Justices considered on Thursday whether the proposal would make it too easy to get one's hands on weed.
"The way I read it, it would seem to be if a student's just stressed over exams, and they go in and see a doctor, and they said, 'I'm really stressed out.' (The doctor says,) 'Well, I've got something I can help you with,' and prescribes marijuana. Wouldn't that be included in this?" said Chief Justice Ricky Polston.
Supporters disagreed and said some open-ended language was meant to leave the ultimate decision of what could be treated with marijuana to doctors.
"The sponsors were focused on two things: the patient and how best to make that determination for a patient, which is very much focused on physician decision," said Jon Mills, representing the amendment's backers. "So a list (of conditions) alone would not be adequate."
Whatever happens at the court, Orlando attorney John Morgan -- who has shelled out more than $1 million so that his "army of angels" could bring pot to ill Floridians -- said his side would eventually win the battle.
"Everybody here knows that one day medical marijuana is going to be legal in Florida," he told reporters after the court heard oral arguments. "We all know that. ... Is it going to be 2014 or '24? It's going to happen."
BALLOT BOX BATTLE
The relationship between Scott and local elections supervisors has been rocky at best ever since an election overhaul approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed into law in 2011.
Detzner was ranking elections supervisors, but later dropped the idea after the independent-minded officials complained. There was the flawed attempt to purge suspected noncitizens from the voting rolls, abandoned last year after more outrage from supervisors but revived by Detzner this year.
And added to that list was a Nov. 25 directive by Detzner essentially ordering supervisors to stop providing secure boxes at early voting sites where voters could drop off completed absentee ballots.
"Supervisors should not solicit return of absentee ballots at any place other than a supervisor's office, except for the purpose of having the absentee ballots cancelled if the voter wants to vote in person," Detzner wrote in the directive.
One supervisor overseeing an important special election said, in so many words: No.
Clark, the Pinellas County supervisor, said this week she didn't plan to follow Detzner's order in the special election to choose a successor for the late Congressman C.W. Bill Young. The primary is scheduled Jan. 14, while the general election is set for March 11.
In a letter to Detzner, Clark laid out the security procedures that her office uses at the locations where voters can drop their ballots.
"They are specifically directed at ensuring the sanctity and integrity of both the ballots and the election," Clark wrote. "Given my firm belief that my use of drop-off locations for absentee ballots as set forth herein is in full compliance with the law, I plan to continue using them, including in the impending special primary election."
Eventually, Detzner agreed not to go to court in an effort to force Clark to follow the directive.
"Again, as we discussed earlier, we believe that your quick work to amend your voting security procedures is essential prior to a single-county special election for Congressional District 13," Detzner wrote in a letter to Clark dated Tuesday. "I do not see the need for any further legal action at this time."
OLD TIMES THERE ARE NOT FORGOTTEN:
Meanwhile, the state parks system was taking fire over a proposal to add a Union monument to the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park near Lake City. A public meeting at the Columbia County School District Auditorium drew a rousing rendition of "Dixie," the waving of a large Confederate flag by an African-American opponent of the monument and at least one call for the Legislature to intervene.
The chorus of the song about the land of cotton was led by H.K. Edgerton, the black man who called Union soldiers rapists and wielded the Stars and Bars like a conductor's baton as the audience sang.
Speakers blasted the proposal as disturbing hallowed ground in a rural community where most families stay for generations.
"Men died there. Let their spirits rest in peace," said Nansea Marham Miller, who is descended from a Confederate soldier who died at Olustee. "Let my grandfather rest in peace."
The park -- in the Osceola National Forest, 50 miles west of Jacksonville -- was the site of a four-hour battle on Feb. 20, 1864, in which Union forces were routed by Confederate troops.
Last February, the Department of Environmental Protection received a proposal from the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War to add a memorial specifically for Union officers and soldiers. The agency vetted the proposal and scheduled Monday's public hearing to discuss possible locations at the park for the memorial.
Residents were not in a talking mood.
House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, suggested getting the matter "off the table" by means of a bill that he would sponsor.
"I can do a very simple proposal to the Legislature that we protect all monument sites," Baxley said to cheers and applause.
But Mike Farrell, a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and a descendant of a soldier who died at Olustee, said he's been a historical exhibitor at the park for years and proposed the new memorial as a result.
"I always have the visiting public approach me and ask me where the Union monument is on the battlefield, and I often tell them, 'There isn't any,'" Farrell said.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments about whether voters should be able to cast ballots next year on a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Putting a Union monument at Olustee would be like placing a memorial to Jane Fonda at the entrance to the Vietnam memorial." -- Leon Duke, who spoke at a public hearing on a proposal to place a monument to Union soldiers at the site of the biggest Civil War battle fought in Florida.