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The Buzz

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Florida high court seeks direction as it weighs redistricting maps

Faced with writing a precedent-setting ruling that could shape the state’s political lines for decades, the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday aggressively grilled lawyers representing Democrats and Republicans, asking them how to interpret the state’s new redistricting rules.

“We need help,’’ said Justice Barbara Pariente, who dominated the questioning during the three-hour hearing into the Legislature’s reapportionment plans.

The court has until March 9 to decide if the maps comply with the Fair Districts anti-gerrymandering standards approved by voters in 2010. It has three options: Send the maps back to the Legislature to try again; validate the maps as compliant, validate the maps, but acknowledge that a lawsuit could be brought through the trial court to sort out flaws.

“You are the ultimate authority,’’ said

Jon Mills

, a University of Florida law professor and former House speaker arguing for the Florida Democratic Party. The Legislature’s interpretation “may be interesting but your interpretation is binding.” Read

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House ready for vote on abortion bill requiring 24-hour waiting period, fetal pain description

House members saved discussion of an abortion bill until 10 p.m. Wednesday, readying it for a likely Thursday vote in the chamber.

Its scope is wide. HB 277 would require pregnant women to wait 24 hours before receiving an abortion, among many other things.

Democrats grilled sponsor Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, for close to an hour about her bill, questioning its restrictions on new abortion clinics, a requirement that physicians who perform the procedure undergo yearly ethics training, and making the state report demographic information about each abortion to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other elements of the bill.

They asked about the bill's newest requirement of doctors to describe "which steps could be painful to the fetus." According to the bill, "there is evidence that, by 20 weeks of gestational age, fetuses seek to evade certain stimuli in a manner that, in an infant or an adult, would be interpreted as a response to pain."

"I think this bill goes in the right direction in letting the mother know that babies can feel pain in five months," said Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville, who sponsored a bill this session banning abortions after 20 weeks on this premise. Elements of his proposal, though not the 20-week ban, were added to Burgin's bill.

House analysis notes that the capacity of the fetus to feel pain is the subject of "ongoing research and significant debate." Here's how committee staff put it:

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Foreign law ban poised for House vote

Court or other rulings that uphold foreign law would be void under a widely-criticized measure poised for its final House vote Thursday.

Rep. Larry Metz, R-Eustis, the bill's sponsor, first denied HB 1209 targets a specific group or case. But Democrats eventually pushed him to say the bill stems from a Pakistani case, and "several others throughout the United States."  

Critics contend the measure is unnecessary, perpetuates racism and is aimed at preventing Sharia Law, a Koran-based code used in some Islamic countries.

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As state universities brace for $300 million one-time cut, they're on their own with tuition

The Senate and House completed Round 3 of higher education budget negotiations tonight, and have agreed on many of the most nettlesome issues.

Heading into Round 4 during an 8:30 a.m. meeting tomorrow, here's what the two chambers have agreed on so far.

* A $300 million one-time cut from the general revenue funds of the state's 11 universities. Although neither chamber has specified how those cuts will be spread across the system, the expectation is that universities would use reserve funds to cover the loss. It's unclear if that means the cuts will be comensurate in size to each reserve fund, meaning some schools will take more of a cut than others. Sen. JD Alexander sold the idea by depicting those reserves as uncommitted savings accounts. But representatives from universities say while money in reserves may not be committed to a specific line item, they are used for routine expenses such as summer school and ongoing research funding included in faculty hiring packages. The Senate has suggested $400 million in cuts. The House had suggested $200 million that would recur every year. The House agreed to one-time cuts, and the Senate agreed to a lower amount. …

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Medicaid bill fight could cost Florida counties

Florida counties stand to lose nearly $300 million in state revenue over the next few years, a punishment of sorts for what the state says are unpaid Medicaid bills.

But counties say much of what the state categorizes as delinquent bills are actually erroneous charges created by a faulty state billing system, and that the state's decision to collect is masking a ploy to shift additional costs to local governments.

Under the controversial proposal, the state would withhold revenue sharing dollars from counties equal to a portion of the delinquent bills as well as any future payments counties owe under the Medicaid program. Currently, counties are allowed to dispute the amounts they owe and pay what they think is fair.

Miami-Dade could lose an estimated $31 million in revenue sharing in the upcoming fiscal year with the new system and Pinellas could see an $8.6 million decrease, according to the Association of Counties.

Calling the new process an "unfair, unfunded mandate," Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala noted that the policy shift comes on top of a proposal to require counties to pay a bigger share of overall Medicaid costs. …

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Senate's 'decorum memo' urges members to be considerate

A week after the dust-up over the 2014 Senate presidency fight that provoked teeth-clenching anger and charges of betrayal within the normally subdued Repubican caucus, Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher has sent out a "Decorum Memo" to his fellow colleagues.

The gentle reminder from Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who provoked some of the anger, describes how senators should refer to each other with their honorary titles when on the floor, how they should inform each other when they plan to offer an amendment to their bills and how they should give each other a heads up when they will be speaking against each others' bills.

"These small acts of personal considerations will hellp make it possible to handle the foreseeable conflicts and heavy workload ahead with a decorum benefitting the Senate," he writes. Download Decorum Memo

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Bills would "dismantle" early learning programs, advocates say

Early learning advocates came to Tallahassee on Wednesday to oppose several bills moving through the Florida House.

Their chief concern: HB 7119, which would revise the School Readiness Act. They say the proposal would water down the state's high standards for school readiness providers -- and prescribe a one-size-fits-all model to Early Learning Coalitions across Florida.

"What is at stake here is making genuine progress in helping children to succeed in school and life," said David Lawrence Jr., chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida.

Evelio C. Torres, the president and CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, said the coalitions need flexibility to meet the unique needs of their communities. He noted that even Miami-Dade and Monroe have different needs.

"This is an all-out attack from Tallahassee on local communities," Torres said.

HB 7119 and several other bills were filed in response to an audit of the state's Office of Early Learning that found possible instances of fraud and waste. …

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Senate PIP legislation ready for floor

After hours of debate stretching over two days, the Senate's Budget Committee approved reforms to the no-fault car insurance system. Massage therapists and accupunturist are still left out of the personal injury protection, or PIP, program as senators rejected several amendments related to these two professions.

The committee approved SB 1860 on a 15-5 vote in which Republican Sen. Mike Bennett of Bradenton joined four Democrats voting "no." Before the vote, Bennett said the measure was destroying companies and costing people their jobs without getting at the core issue of ending fraudulent claims.

"I want to clean up PIP, too, but what we're doing here is absolutely wrong," he said.

The Senate legislation had been unanimously approved at its two previous committee stops, but heavily lobbying by interest groups has caused it to lose support in recent days. After the vote, Committee Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, cited the heavy role of special interests in Tallahassee. …

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Students to protest tuition hikes, higher ed cuts on Thursday

Students from public universities across the state on Thursday will protest what they see as "aggressive attacks" on higher education in Florida. That includes tuition hikes and cuts to universities' funding -- both of which are currently being considered by the House and Senate as they work out a final budget.

The Florida Alliance for Student Action is advertising events on seven university campuses:

Students from the University of Florida will rally outside Senate President Mike Haridopolos's office on the UF campus, where he teaches a political science course. Florida State University and Florida A&M University students will march from their Tallahassee campuses to the Capitol. University of South Florida students will stage a walkout from classes then walk across campuses. Florida Atlantic University students and teachers will hold a joint teach-in. University of West Florida students will gather on the campuses' main lawn, and at the University of Central Florida, students will construct a "Wall of Debt" out of bricks representing individual students' loan burdens. 


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Scott gets a warm welcome from visiting 'conchs'

A relaxed Gov. Rick Scott welcomed Keys residents to Tallahassee Wednesday on Florida Keys Day and the governor got a warm welcome from the visiting Conchs when he spoke the magic words: "Wastewater treatment." The top legislative priority for Monroe County in this legislative session is getting money and a bill to complete the island chain's sewer system by 2015. "I know that's a project we need to do," Scott said.

KeysAs Democratic Rep. Ron Saunders of Key West sat nearby, Scott told the group that Keys representatives "are doing a great job." He added: "I've been shocked. I've been up here for 14 months, and some people, they just don't create great relationships."

Mayor Norman Anderson of the tiny Keys community of Layton introduced himself, Scott said: "Layton? What mile marker?" The crowd roared with approving laughter. Later, Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers said the mile marker comment "shows that he understands. He knows our county." -- Steve Bousquet

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USF Pharmacy dean: cuts would decimate program

With the House and Senate still hammering out the final budget cuts coming to the state university system, the University of South Florida continues to lobby for an additional $3 million for its pharmacy program still on the chopping block. 

The fledgling program was formerly funded through the USF Polytechnic budget, but a bill slipped into the Senate's budget a couple weeks ago would immediately break off that Lakeland branch campus from USF -- taking its money with it.  The school says it needs $6 million to continue operating in Tampa. An amendment negotiated by Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, would give back the school $3 million of that.

If the school doesn't get back that additional money, it could "totally decimate everything we've been able to accomplish," said Kevin Sneed, dean of the program.

Sneed held a news conference Wednesday to highlight those dismal implications. But he would not give specifics, instead saying, "I don't even want to consider what could happen." …

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Video: Funeral protest ban moving along

A bill to ban funeral protests passed in the House a few days ago, and is close to a potential vote in the Senate. The Senate version narrows the ban on protests to funerals only for military personnel, EMT, minors and elected officials. The Times has published stories about this issue before.

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Joe Biden raising money in St Pete March 7

Vice President Joe Biden will headline a fundraising reception at the Renaissance Vinoy hotel in St. Petersburg next week. A $2,500 donation gets you on the host committee, $1000 gets you in the photo line reception, $500 gets you front row seats, and $100 gets you in the door.

More info here

No word yet on whether the vice president will do some official events as well.

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Greer lawsuits will be heard in Tallahassee, judge rules

Sanford -- Former Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer must take his lawsuit against the Republican Party of Florida to Tallahassee. That’s the decision made Wednesday by Circuit Judge Alan A. Dickey. Noting that many of the witnesses live in and around Tallahassee, the judge overruled efforts by Greer’s lawyer to keep the case in Seminole County where he lives.

Greer filed suit against the party and Senate President Mike Haridopolos and former party chairman Sen. John Thrasher, R-St Augustine, last year after the party refused to honor a 2009 agreement to pay Greer $124,000 severance to leave.

Greer has since been indicted by a statewide grand jury on multiple counts of fraud related to the creation of Victory Strategies, a corporation that was paid more than $300,000 by the party. He is accused of secretly funneling money to the firm with the help of Delmar Johnson, former executive director of the party. Johnson has become a witness against Greer and is helping prosecutors in return for immunity from prosecution.
Tallahassee lawyer Steve Dobson urged the judge to transfer the case to the state Capital where party offices and many witnesses are located.

Lake Mary lawyer Damon Chase objected, saying Greer was entitled to keep the case in home county.
“I’m making the ruling to save everyone time,’’ the judge said.

A new judge will take over the case once lawyers for the state party pay the necessary filing fees in Leon County. …

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Video: JD Alexander And Mike Haridopolos Discuss Budget Negotiations

Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander and Senate President Mike Haridopolos talk about the temporary stall and progress Tuesday on Senate-House budget negotiations.


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