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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Courts Get Busy as Lawmakers Leave

May 10, 2013 - 6:00pm

The party circuit has slowed, there are fewer lights burning into the night at the Capitol and the traffic is (a little bit) better.

And with the Legislature heading out of town after the two-month session's largely successful conclusion, news in Tallahassee has slowed to a trickle.

Not that there's nothing going on in the world of politics and government. The Florida Supreme Court heard the latest legal spat growing out of the Fair Districts amendments. In the farthest northwestern corner of the state -- a few hours' drive from the Capitol -- candidates in the House District 2 special election are vying for the seat held by the late Rep. Clay Ford, who died in March.

And a former governor continues to make noises that lead many to speculate that he will run for his old job with a different label and a different outlook.

But things have quieted down for the time being. And aside from the scribes of the Tallahassee press corps, there aren't too many complaints about that.

THE COURTS KEEP HOPPING:

It was a busy week for the courts, starting Monday with a ruling by an administrative law judge that horse barrel racing shouldn't have been approved by a state agency for wagering in Florida.

The issue stems from a decision by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, to approve a license in October 2011 for Gretna Racing, in Gadsden County, to run the contests.

But Division of Administrative Hearings Judge John Van Laningham said that because the Legislature has not approved barrel racing as a form of pari-mutuel horse racing, the license violated state law.

"The Division's issuance of an operating license to Gretna Racing unmistakably implemented and unambiguously communicated a significant new policy, which is that (barrel match racing) is a licensable pari-mutuel wagering activity," Division of Administrative Hearings Judge John Van Laningham wrote in an order signed Monday.

Wesley Cox, chairman of the North Florida Horsemens Association, which races horses at Gretna, said that only technical changes will be needed to acquire future licenses.

Meanwhile, a three-judge federal panel said Florida can't have its own rules restricting business with Cuba. That ruling upheld a preliminary injunction barring the state from enforcing additional restrictions approved in 2012 on business with Cuba.

Writing for the three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Stanley Marcus said the state had overstepped its authority. The Florida legislation conflicts with U.S. law, which Marcus said is already sending a message to Cuba.

"When the state of Florida promulgated the Cuba Amendment, it plainly was not operating in an area where the federal government has been asleep at the switch," Marcus wrote.

The Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two cases -- including one on whether lawmakers can face another lawsuit over the state Senate districts drawn in 2012, and one on an infamous murder.

The first case involved the "Fair Districts" amendments aimed at stopping political gerrymandering. The Supreme Court upheld a second draft of the Senate map in 2012, but a coalition of citizens and voting-rights groups want to gather more evidence and sue again.

Lawmakers and some justices are worried that allowing that will drag out the process of settling maps with repeated lawsuits.

"This just never ends," said Chief Justice Ricky Polston, who could just as easily be speaking about the battle over the state's political boundaries.

Meanwhile, nearly nine years after the grisly discovery of six bodies in a Central Florida home, an attorney for one of the convicted murderers told the court that a mistrial should have been sought in the case.

Christopher Anderson, an appellate attorney for death row inmate Troy Victorino, told the Florida Supreme Court that another defendant in what became known as the "Xbox murders" refused to be cross-examined while testifying during the trial.

But justices seemed skeptical. Justice Peggy Quince scoffed at the suggestion that Victorino might have only gone to the Deltona home with the intent to "rough people up" and get belongings he thought were there.

"So he went in to rough up people with a baseball bat?'' she asked.

SPEAKING OF HORSE RACES:

Perhaps no Florida politician has evolved over the last few years as much as former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican turned independent turned Democrat. And Crist, now a potential candidate for his old job in 2014, appears to be following President Barack Obama's famous "evolution" on gay marriage.

In a message posted on his Facebook page, Crist described as "great news" a decision by Delaware officials to become the 11th state to allow same-sex marriage.

"I most certainly support marriage equality in Florida and look forward to the day it happens here,'' Crist said in the message, initially reported by the political site SaintPetersblog.

Crist, of course, had already signed a petition supporting a 2008 ballot initiative that put a ban on same-sex marriage in the state Constitution.

Meanwhile, the man Crist might try to bookend, Gov. Rick Scott, was busy touting the decision by the Hertz Corp. to relocate from Park Ridge, N.J., to Estero in Lee County. State, local and utility performance-based incentives start around $19 million for the project, but could hit $84 million in all.

"Every project like this we've got to get a return on investment, it's no different than a return for shareholders, I've got to get a return for the taxpayers," Scott said on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

The benefit for Florida? A $60 million headquarters, 700 high-paying jobs and a boost to Scott's drive to beat Texas as the most business-friendly state in the nation.

The Hertz package includes:

-- $3.4 million a year, for up to 20 years, through the Capital Investment Tax Credit.
-- $945,000, Quick Response Training program, reimbursement for training costs.
-- $7 million, Quick Action Closing fund, paid out based on specific performance-based criteria.
-- $3 million, Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund, once the company meets job and salary criteria.
-- $4.6 million, Lee County incentives. Enterprise Florida estimates the local incentives could top $5 million.
-- $125,000 a year, for four years, through an economic development rate reduction from Florida Power & Light Co.

A slightly more overtly political question for Scott is who will serve as lieutenant governor after Jennifer Carroll resigned earlier this year. Scott said he would consider the question after the session, and he told WFLA in an interview broadcast Friday that he still hasn't made up his mind.

And he said creating one new job wasn't all he was considering.

"I'm going to find somebody that can do a great job and help make sure that we're the No. 1 state for job creation and the No. 1 state to get an education," Scott said.

ALL HE EVER GETS IS BILLS:

Scott was also beginning to consider a slate of bills that the Legislature began sending him, including the $74.5 billion budget (SB 1500), elections bill (HB 7013) and a manufacturing tax cut measure that was one of Scott's top priorities (HB 7007).

Scott has tipped his hands on very few bills this year, but he's almost certain to sign the elections and tax-cut bill. The question is what he might ax from the budget using his line-item veto pen. But he could target a 3 percent boost in tuition at the state's colleges and universities.

"Tuition in our state has gone up close to 70 percent over the last five years," Scott told WFLA. "I'm very concerned about tuition increases."

STORY OF THE WEEK: Rental car company Hertz announces it will move its headquarters to Florida.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I hope everybody rents more Hertz cars so we can add more jobs in Florida." -- Gov. Rick Scott, on the rental giant moving its headquarters to the state.

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