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Politics

Weekly Roundup: In with the New

December 2, 2016 - 11:00pm
Chris Hart
Chris Hart

The calendar turned this week to the last month of the year, but many in Florida seemed to be getting a jump on new beginnings.

The state's main business-recruiting agency finally hired a new president. The Florida Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing for a convicted murderer. Gov. Rick Scott could officially consider appointing a new justice to the Supreme Court. And a newly elected senator moved toward restarting one of the more divisive Republican battles of Scott's tenure.

There was one notable ending this week: Hurricane season officially drew to a close, after two hurricanes caused damage in a state that had avoided the big storms for a decade. The only start anyone in Florida wanted to see on that count was perhaps the start to a new stretch of quiet skies.

NEW BOSS OF JOBS

Chris Hart is taking a job advertised as paying around $175,000 to $200,000 a year. He might want to look into the possibility of combat pay.

Hart, a former state lawmaker, was unanimously chosen by the Enterprise Florida Board of Directors to take over as president and CEO of the job-hunting organization. Along with the titles and the office comes a place in an ongoing fight between Scott and some conservative lawmakers who have taken aim at spending on business incentives. Hart is expected to start work with the public-private Enterprise Florida on Jan. 3.

Hart's knowledge of the Legislature, through the CareerSource Florida leadership position he's held since 2007 and as a former two-term House member from Tampa, was considered a valuable selling point by members of an Enterprise Florida executive committee that recommended him for the new job.

Enterprise Florida Vice Chairman Alan Becker, also a member of the executive committee, said Hart's legislative knowledge "might come in handy this year."

That's because while Scott and allies are looking for $85 million for business incentives in 2017, new House Speaker Richard Corcoran is not a fan of "corporate welfare."

"When you're taking money out of the masses' pockets and then giving it literally --- to the Democrats' argument --- to the top 1 percent, to the detriment of everybody else, that is de facto socialism," Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, said in October during a panel discussion hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit conservative think tank.

Hart said his job is to establish "trust" between the House speaker and Enterprise Florida, something he said may be a little easier as he believes they have common goals.

"What he's doing, which I think --- appropriately so --- in his role, is he's asking a lot of questions and interjecting a lot of his opinions, but we all do that," Hart said of Corcoran. "He's looking at having a prosperous Florida. We're looking at a prosperous Florida. He wants to ensure that it's for all Floridians."

BACK TO THE BATTLEFIELD

The fight over incentives was a notable intraparty battle for Republicans in recent years. Another was a 2014 scuffle over in-state tuition for some undocumented immigrant students, an issue that pitted Scott and a different House speaker against the Senate.

Now, a new senator wants to repeal the outcome of that confrontation, which led to the Legislature approving a law authorizing the lower, in-state rates for immigrants who have attended secondary school in Florida for three years before graduating from high school.

Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican who voted against the 2014 bill during his time in the House, said that in seeking a repeal during the 2017 session, he is following through on a campaign promise after hearing concerns from constituents.

"It was quite frankly a big issue with a lot of people during my election, especially during the primary," said Steube, who was appointed this week to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But Steube's legislation drew a sharp rejoinder from Rep. Jeanette Nunez, the No. 2 Republican in the House and the sponsor of the bill that extended in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants.

"Clearly, it seems to me that Senator Steube is still in campaign mode and has not transitioned to governing mode," said Nunez, R-Miami.

The dynamics around the issue are complicated: Corcoran and new Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, both opposed the 2014 measure. But the House and Senate presiding officers have also stocked their leadership teams with lawmakers from Miami-Dade County, where the tuition measure tends to be more popular.

"In some ways, this is going to be a test of their leadership," said Elbert Garcia, state director of Florida's Voice, an immigrant advocacy organization.

A SIGNAL ON THE DEATH PENALTY?

As lawmakers and judges struggle to come to terms with the new realities of Florida's death penalty, they are looking at capital-punishment cases before the state Supreme Court to try to decipher what the future holds. This week, justices threw out a death sentence and ordered a new penalty proceeding for a convicted triple-murderer, which some took as an indication of where things are headed.

The 4-1 decision in the Polk County case of Paul Beasley Johnson --- who already has twice avoided execution --- is the latest in a series of death penalty rulings since the state high court struck down a new Florida law as unconstitutional because it did not require unanimous jury recommendations for the sentence to be imposed.

Public defenders maintain that the Johnson decision and another recent ruling mean that scores of condemned inmates will likely be given a chance to avoid the possibility of execution through new sentencing hearings. But prosecutors, and even some defense lawyers, cautioned against overstating the significance of the decisions, saying they expect the Supreme Court to handle similar direct appeals on a case-by-case basis.

Thursday's majority opinion in the Johnson case offered insight into the Florida court's application of a January U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, that struck down the state's death-penalty sentencing system as unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled in October that part of a new state law passed in response to the Hurst decision was unconstitutional. That part of the law did not require unanimous jury recommendations before inmates could be sentenced to death, an issue not addressed in the U.S. Supreme Court's Hurst decision.

Thursday's ruling in the Johnson case focused on the issues of aggravators and mitigating circumstances, which was a key issue in the Hurst decision. Justices vacated Johnson's death sentence and ordered a lower court to hold a new penalty proceeding because a jury did not weigh the aggravators and mitigating circumstances in his case.

The majority included Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and James E.C. Perry, who dissented in part. Justices Charles Canady and Peggy Quince were recused, and Justice Ricky Polston dissented.

Perry will soon be replaced by a justice appointed by Scott. On Monday, the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission sent three potential picks to Scott, including a lawyer who once worked to keep David Duke off the presidential ballot in Florida and two appellate judges who pledged to use judicial restraint.

The three names --- Fifth District Court of Appeal Chief Judge C. Alan Lawson, appellate Judge Wendy Berger and Orlando lawyer Dan Gerber --- weren't a surprise to anyone who's followed the legal gossip about the open position. All three have links to the Federalist Society, a prominent conservative legal group that formed in the 1980s.

HURRICANES, HURRICANES, GO AWAY

There was some unquestioned good news for Florida residents hit by two hurricanes this year: There's no more watching the skies for one of the storms, at least until the season comes back around. The 2016 warning period ended Wednesday.

When Hurricane Hermine came on shore near St. Marks, a coastal community south of Tallahassee, in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, it ended a record string of 3,966 days, or 10.87 years, without a hurricane making landfall in the state most prone to being hit by tropical storms, according to a new analysis by Colorado State University.

Prior to Hermine, a Category 1 storm, Florida was last hit by Hurricane Wilma, a 120-mph, Category 3 storm, which struck Southwest Florida on Oct. 24, 2005.

Florida also came close this year to a direct hit by a major hurricane, as Hurricane Matthew, which was the first Category 5 storm in the Atlantic basin since 2007, came within 50 miles of Florida's East Coast, raking the state Oct. 6 and Oct. 7 before making landfall Oct. 8 in South Carolina as a 75 mph Category 1 hurricane. Matthew did damage along Florida's coast despite technically missing.

With data reflected through October, the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation said Hermine resulted in $95 million in property-damage claims. Hurricane Matthew has resulted in more than 100,000 property-damage claims, representing $606 million in value.

Citizens Property Insurance, the state-backed insurer, said it has paid out $10.7 million in claims related to Hermine and Matthew, with 84 percent of the 4,000 claims closed. The impact was relatively light for the insurer, which has more than 472,000 policies representing $128 billion in exposure. But Barry Gilway, the Citizens president and CEO, said the 2016 storm season tested the insurer's ability to handle hurricane claims.

"We clearly showed that Citizens is ready as we received excellent feedback for our claims handling from our customers," Gilway said. "That said, we will continue to look for ways to improve."

STORY OF THE WEEK: Enterprise Florida has a new leader, setting the stage for a clash in the 2017 legislative session about spending on business incentives.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Politically, the challenge in this really kind of crude environment is to go beyond being against what's not working and being for things that will work, that will lift people up. And I tried that and totally failed, miserably. I mean, like, belly flop --- bam."---Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, on his presidential bid.

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