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The Buzz

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Court rules drug testing of welfare recipients unconstitutional

A federal judge on Tuesday struck down a law requiring Florida cash welfare recipients first pass a drug test. The law, enacted in 2011, had been temporarily blocked by a federal judge under grounds that it might constitute an illegal search and seizure.

Tuesday's ruling confirmed that earlier interpretation.

Gov. Rick Scott, who campaigned on a promise to require drug tests, said he would appeal.

"Any illegal drug use in a family is harmful and even abusive to a child," Scott said. "We should have a zero tolerance policy for illegal drug use in families – especially those families who struggle to make ends meet and need welfare assistance to provide for their children. We will continue to fight for Florida children who deserve to live in drug-free homes by appealing this judge's decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals."

Read more here.

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Tampa Bay residents show tepid support for Obamacare in new poll

From the Times' Letetia Stein:

President Barack Obama's signature health care law is drawing tepid support in the Tampa Bay region, a new poll shows, with a majority of residents saying they basically like it or are at least willing to let it play out.

But the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News poll also found that 35 percent of residents in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties would like to repeal the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. Support among the rest was marginal.

While 48 percent of residents surveyed said they supported the law, most thought it needed improvements. Another 13 percent said they didn't like it but didn't want it repealed because they have not seen a better idea proposed.

Story here.

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From Dunk City to Debate City: FGCU wants to host 2014 debate

The fledgling Florida university whose overachieving basketball team gained national attention as "Dunk City" wants to seize a new spotlight, this time in statewide politics.

Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers is one of six state higher education institutions bidding to host a live statewide debate between the candidates for governor in 2014, the Naples Daily News reports.

The debate sponsors, Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association, plan to announce the selection Jan. 29. The groups will form a statewide hookup of TV stations in Florida's major TV markets to carry the one-hour showdown, likely between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, next October.

FGCU would consider it a great privilege to host the debate and would embrace it as an exciting opportunity to allow its students to witness the political process in action,” University President Wilson Bradshaw wrote in the school's application. “The university would welcome the opportunity to host this prestigious and important debate that will serve to inform the state’s voting citizenry.” …

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Movers & Shakers

Some Floridians will be celebrating new positions or continued appointments in 2014. If you know of any movers and shakers in the world of politics or state government, please send them to Rochelle Koff at rkoff@tampabay.com

Three picked for Florida Women's Hall of Fame

Dottie Berger MacKinnon, Sheriff Susan Benton and Louise Jones Gopher have all been selected for the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame. Gov. Rick Scott chose the three women from a list of 10 nominees chosen by the Florida Commission on the Status of Women.

MacKinnon, a former Tampa resident who died April 12, 2012, was a founder of Joshua House, a haven for children removed from their families, and she chaired the Friends of Joshua House Foundation board from 2003 to 2006. Most recently, MacKinnon founded A Kid’s Place, a group home in Brandon where siblings can live together after being taken from their homes over abuse or neglect.

Benton, 64, of Sebring, is the sheriff of Highlands County. In 2004, she became the first woman elected sheriff in Florida’s history. In 2012, Benton was named the first female president of the Florida Sheriffs Association in the organization’s 118-year history.

Gopher, 68, of Okeechobee, is a longtime educator. From 2003 to 2007, she served as the director of education for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Gopher was the first female Seminole Indian to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Executive director of Guardian ad Litem Program reappointed

Alan Abramowitz has been reappointed by Scott as the executive director of the statewide Guardian ad Litem Program.

Abramowitz, 51, of Tallahassee, has been the program’s executive director since 2010 -- his new term ends Dec. 29, 2016.

Abramowitz previously served as DCF’s state director for family safety, and as the chief legal counsel for DCF’s Central Florida region. He also served as the assistant general counsel for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

Other appointments

Jonathan Toppe, of St. Petersburg, has been reappointed to the Board of Architecture and Interior Design. Toppe, 67, an architect at Toppe Consultants.

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In Pinellas congressional race, a Republican forum and a Democratic's campaign office

   Candidates in the Pinellas congressional race are in a fast-paced effort to meet the voters before the Jan. 14 Republican primary and the March 11 general election.

   * The Pinellas County Young Republicans have scheduled a forum and invited the three Republican candidates, Mark Bircher, David Jolly and Kathleen Peters. The forum will be from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the City of Pinellas Park Auditorium, 7690 59 Street North. It is free and open to the public, but seating is limited.

   * Democrat Alex Sink has opened a second campaign office at 8940 Seminole Blvd., in Seminole. Her other campaign office is at 2325 Ulmerton Rd. Suite 23, Clearwater.

   The winner in the Jan. 14 primary will go on to face Democrat Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby in the general election.

    They are running for the congressional seat left vacant by the death of longtime republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young. All are candidates in the 13th Congressional District, which runs from south Pinellas to Dunedin, with portions of downtown and southern St. Petersburg cut out.

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Florida's population grows, but not enough to edge out New York

New York will hang onto its claim of being the third most-populous state in the nation — for now, at least.

Some demographers had predicted that rapidly growing Florida would sail into the third-place spot in 2013. But the figures released Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau put the Empire State ahead of Florida by 98,267 people.

That isn’t to say that Florida won’t eclipse New York soon.

The Sunshine State has been growing at a rate of 3.75 percent since 2010, according to the latest Census data.

New York’s rate of growth over the same time period: 1.3 percent.

Stan Smith, director of the Population Program in the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, said both New York and Florida have received immigrants from abroad.

“But in terms of [domestic] migration, more people leave New York than move into New York,” Smith said.

Florida, meanwhile, has long received a steady stream of transplants from other states, including New York State.

The latest population estimate for Florida was 19,552,860.

The states with the largest figures were California (38,332,521) and Texas (26,448,193).

Wyoming claimed the title of least-populous state with just 582,658 people.

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73,000 Floridians lose unemployment benefits as Congress lets program expire

About 73,000 Florida residents lost unemployment benefits on Saturday as the safety net program expired due as Congress left for the holidays.

In addition, 3,665 additional people will lost benefits each week during the first half of the year, according to numbers provided Monday by Democrats on the House Ways & Means Committee.

The extension of benefits was excluded from the budget deal worked out between Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., but the issue is likely to resurface on Capitol Hill next week.

This summary is from the Associated Press:

"The end to the five-year program that extended benefits for the long-term jobless affected 1.3 million people immediately and will affect hundreds of thousands more who remain jobless in the months ahead. Under the program, the federal government provided an average monthly stipend of $1,166.

"While the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress want to continue the program, the extensions were dropped from a budget deal struck earlier this month and Republican lawmakers have balked at its $26 billion annual cost. …

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Golf's 'Golden Bear' will raise campaign gold for Gov. Rick Scott

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus, the "Golden Bear," will soon open his substantial checkbook to support Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign, and he's asking others to do the same. The invitations to a Jan. 15 evening event at Jack and Barbara Nicklaus' home in North Palm Beach ask for $10,000 donations to Scott's campaign organization, www.letsgettowork.net.

Nicklaus is a long-time Floridian and a dedicated Republican, and he and Scott have an interesting history.

They hit it off soon after Scott's election in 2010, and after conversations on how to promote tourism in Florida, Scott threw his support behind a legislation in the 2011 session that would have allowed Nicklaus-designed golf courses in state parks, as Nicklaus' lobbyist, Jim Smith, recalled. But the sponsor of the proposal in the House, Rep. Patrick Rooney, R-Palm Beach Gardens, dropped the idea following an avalanche of opposition as the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman reported at the time. Environmental groups were wary of the proposal, and GolfWeek magazine did not think much of the Nicklaus golf trail proposal at the time, either.

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PolitiFact Florida: David Jolly, Kathleen Peters trade barbs in 13th District primary race

Republican candidates David Jolly and Kathleen Peters are trading attacks in mailers being sent to prospective voters ahead of the Jan. 14 primary for the 13th Congressional District nomination. PolitiFact Florida is in primary mode, too, looking into whether a couple of these claims are true.

First is Jolly's assertion that Peters "refuses to 'take a stand' to repeal Obamacare." Read the ruling here.

Next is Peters' claim that former lobbyist Jolly "has given almost $30,000 to keep Democrats in Congress." That ruling can be read here.

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Political Connections Sun: Meet the top conservative running to succeed C.W. Bill Young

Unquestionably, Mark Bircher is the most accomplished Republican running for the nomination to succeed the late C.W. Bill Young in Congressional District 13. He's a commercial airline pilot, a former Blue Angel, a retired Brigadier General in the Marine Corps Reserves, a lawyer, and a passionate student of America's founders. He is also the most conservative candidate running, which is usually a plus in a low-turnout special primary election. But Bircher is a political rookie without paid consultants guiding him, without electoral experience, without a fundraising network, which makes him an undedog against Republicans David Jolly and Kathleen Peters.

Bircher, 60, appears Sunday on Political Connections on Bay News 9 in Tampa Bay. The full interview airs at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m., but here's a clip.

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CD 13 House race: 'As close to a bellwether district as there is'

Today's New York Times includes a story about the special election to fill the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's Pinellas congressional seat. The Republican primary (with David JollyKathleen Peters and Mark Bircher) is Jan. 14. The general election is March 11 and will include Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby. An excerpt from the NYT piece:

Mr. Young’s personal dominance kept the seat frozen in place for four decades. But beneath the surface, changes in the area’s electoral map including an influx of Democrats — some of them gay voters and young people — have diluted the share of moderate Republicans, turning it into one of the rare commodities in American politics: a true swing district. Now, his absence has set off a contest in the first race of the 2014 battle for control of Congress, with both parties hoping for a victory and watching carefully how President Obama’s health care law may affect the outcome. …

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Al Lawson makes it official, applies for top job at FAMU

We broke the story last week that he would be applying but it's official now. Former state legislator Al Lawson is a candidate for the Florida A&M University presidency.

But he's not alone. There are 43 others in the running. And there could be more between now and when the candidates will be vetted on Jan. 6 and 7. The Board of Trustees hopes to select FAMU's next president on Jan. 9.

The Gradebook has more about all of the candidates, including those who applied before the search was suspended in March but asked for their names to be removed from consideration.

Read more here.

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Pinellas Congressional news: An issues breakdown and a new website

   In Pinellas County's open congressional seat, Democratic candidate Alex Sink has a redesigned web site. See it here.

   And in case you missed it, check out our side-by-side comparison of the three Republican candidates on several issues. It's here, but make sure you scroll all the way down to the chart.

   Sink is running for the congressional seat left vacant by the death of longtime republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.

   There is a Jan. 14 primary on the Republican side with candidates Mark Bircher, Kathleen Peters and David Jolly. The GOP winner will go on to face Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby in the March 11 general election.

 The 13th Congressional District runs from south Pinellas to Dunedin, with portions of downtown and southern St. Petersburg cut out.

  

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Deloitte defends its work on state unemployment website

Florida hired Deloitte to overhaul its unemployment-benefits website, and the roll out has been a disaster resulting in a multi-million dollar penalty for the contractor. The company issued an official response to the widespread criticism of its work late Friday.

Here is the full statement from Deloitte spokesman Jonathan Gandal:

"Throughout this project, Deloitte has worked in good faith to meet or exceed DEO’s criteria for acceptance of our work. We have successfully completed the tasks and activities outlined in our contract and all subsequent amendments. In just 60 days, the new system has surpassed the performance of the unsustainable systems it replaced, meeting or exceeding longer term key performance indicators by reducing average time to adjudicate separation issues, reducing the number of claims requiring staff intervention, and decreasing average time to implement lower authority appeals.  Performance will continue to improve as the system matures and as both departmental users and claimants become acclimated to its new functions. …

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Next governor could leave legacy on Supreme Court for years

Florida's 2014 governor's race may become an expensive popularity contest over who steers the state in the next four years but one little-discussed job — the power to appoint — could give the next governor a legacy that lasts much longer.

Four members of the seven-member state Supreme Court reach mandatory retirement age during the next four years and, depending on how the retirements play out, the next governor may have the power to pick their replacements.

The prospect of choosing the men and women who serve as a powerful check on legislative and executive power is so potent it has already become a significant fundraising draw in the governor's race for both Democrat Charlie Crist and Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

But, in addition to the power of the pick, there is palace intrigue: Florida law is so unsettled about the exact timing of judicial retirement that some suggest three of the justices could wait out the next governor until the last day of his term in January 2019, and it could take a lawsuit to resolve it­ — which could be decided by the retiring justices. …

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