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Weekly Roundup: Thank Goodness for Friday

July 31, 2014 - 6:00pm

It looked like one of those lazy, hazy midsummer weeks in Tallahassee, when the news cycle joins the residents of the capital city in being stifled by the heat.

The biggest news was -- what? The first of many campaign promises that former Gov. Charlie Crist will make as he tries to reclaim his old job? Incumbent Gov. Rick Scott's inquiries into the traveling habits of Citizens Property Insurance Corp.'s board members?

Then came Friday.

That's when Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ordered the Legislature to draw new congressional districts by Aug. 15, something that will probably require lawmakers to return to the Capitol for a special session. And there are few things lawmakers would like to do less in the middle of campaign season than go to Tallahassee.

Add to that the latest fuel in the always-burning fire between Scott's office and the Obama administration and a hearing on how the state should regulate a limited form of medical marijuana, and Friday proved to be a bit of a boost to an otherwise lackluster week.


The last 15 years would seem to prove that Florida doesn't need anything too complicated to produce a bit of election chaos. A close presidential election or unexpected surge of voters is enough to do the trick.

But Lewis looks to be on the edge of turning the state's electoral checkers into three-dimensional chess, raising the prospect of a special election that would affect some (but not all) of Florida's congressional districts. The special election could be announced less than a week before the date of the Aug. 26 primary elections.

In addition to telling lawmakers Friday to come up with a new congressional map after he earlier declared two of the districts unconstitutional, Lewis ordered Secretary of State Ken Detzner and local elections supervisors to propose a new voting schedule for any districts that lawmakers would have to redraw.

Lewis didn't actually order a new election for the seats, and might not until after Aug. 20, when he could hear oral arguments if they are needed.

"It is necessary to get a revised map in place and for me to consider additional evidence as to the legal and logistical obstacles to holding delayed elections for affected districts in 2014," Lewis wrote. "Time is of the essence."

Legislators running for office could say the same, given that they need all the time they can get to raise money, and soliciting campaign cash during a session is banned. And that doesn't even get into the logistical gymnastics that local supervisors say would be required to pull off another election.

Still, the League of Women Voters of Florida, part of a group of organizations and voters that challenged the map, praised Lewis' ruling.

"This is a champagne moment for Florida voters, who have waited too long for fairly drawn congressional districts," Deirdre Macnab, the group's president, said in a statement issued after the ruling. " ... We believe that the restoration of legitimate, representative democracy is well worth one extra trip to the polls."

Some elections officials were more worried about what might happen to absentee ballots that have already been cast and early votes that will be submitted before and even during the arguments before Lewis.

"It would cause massive voter confusion, and that's not fair to voters," said Brian Corley, the supervisor of elections in Pasco County.

Lewis' decision wasn't the only election-related kerfuffle making headlines Friday. Scott's office and campaign slammed as "blatantly political" a letter from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announcing that the Justice Department is monitoring changes to Florida's election laws.

Scott's campaign manager, Melissa Sellers, in a statement, said the White House is trying to bolster the efforts of Democratic challenger Charlie Crist.

"Attorney General Eric Holders letter is just more politics from President Obama -- as the White House desperately tries to prop up the sagging campaign of their candidate, Charlie Crist," Sellers said in her statement. "It isnt surprising that the same president who used the IRS to persecute his political opponents is now using his attorney general to try the same tactic."


Like a gateway drug that leads to harder stuff, it seems that the Legislature's decision to allow limited forms of medical marijuana is merely a precursor to more widespread pharmacological uses of the green, leafy substance.

But first, the state has to set up rules for a form of marijuana that purportedly doesn't get users high but can dramatically reduce or eliminate life-threatening seizures for children with a rare form of epilepsy. Lawmakers approved that form this spring, as a proposed constitutional amendment looms on the November ballot that could lead to legalizing more-traditional pot for medical purposes.

The Department of Health held a workshop on a draft rule Friday as it races to meet a Jan. 1 deadline to implement the new law. Prospective pot business owners are griping about being forced to haul their product across the state instead of being able to sell it at multiple storefronts as part of the draft regulations for the new industry.

Also at the top of the list of complaints: health officials' plan to use a lottery system to pick who will be granted one of five highly sought-after licenses to grow, process and distribute the low-THC cannabis.

Lawyers for Costa Farms, one of the state's biggest nurseries, implied that the rule might be challenged if the lottery provision is not dropped. Health officials have indicated they want to keep the lottery system intact, in part to avoid drawn-out legal fights.

Department of Health General Counsel Jennifer Tschetter said the draft rule includes a "heightened standard with qualitative analysis, but ultimately a lottery" would remain in the final proposal.

"Our goal is to get this product to patients as soon as possible," she said. "We want to get a rule in place that can be in effect 20 days after it's adopted."

The hearing came just a few days after a new poll found that almost 90 percent of Florida voters want doctors to be able to order marijuana for patients.

Young and old Floridians overwhelmingly support letting sick patients get high for medical reasons, according to the poll, but getting voters to put medical marijuana into the state Constitution is still not a guarantee.

The poll by Quinnipiac University, released Monday, found that 88 percent of Florida voters -- including 83 percent of voters age 65 and older and 95 percent of those between 18 and 29 -- approve of medical marijuana

But even supporters of the proposed constitutional amendment acknowledged that the poll results may overestimate Floridians' support.

"The poll is just another demonstration that support for this is broad," said Ben Pollara, executive director of United We Care, the group responsible for getting the proposal on the November ballot and working to get it passed.

But critics of the proposal, who've pumped at least $3 million into efforts to kill it and are prepared to spend more, blasted the semantics of the poll, as well as its findings. The proposal that will appear before voters in November, bankrolled by Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, would allow doctors to decide whether patients who have debilitating medical conditions could receive medical marijuana. Doctors could not "prescribe" the substance, which would be distributed by state-licensed operators.

"This poll has been, and continues to be, a complete outlier in support of medical marijuana because it asks a question that wont be on the ballot. Amendment 2 doesnt require a doctor's prescription," said Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for the "Vote No on 2" campaign.


In one of Scott's few activities this week not connected to his campaign -- at least not on the surface -- the governor's office indicated it wants the head of state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. to explain why Scott's requested ban on foreign travel hasn't been followed.

Karl Rasmussen, Scott's director of Cabinet affairs, sent a sharply worded letter Thursday to Citizens President Barry Gilway advising him to attend the Aug. 19 Cabinet meeting to discuss why Citizens board members continue to take international business trips.

"Gov. Scott previously called on Citizens board members to change their travel policy so it prohibited international travel and permitted only essential employees to attend board meetings," Rasmussen wrote. "Recent media stories report that not only have these requests been rebuffed, but Citizens board members have continued international travel, sometimes at excessive costs to state taxpayers."

The Palm Beach Post reported Sunday that Citizens Chairman Chris Gardner was given approval to spend two nights in a $425 per night resort in Bermuda in April.

Gardner was working on a multimillion-dollar reinsurance issue for Citizens. The hotel rate exceeded Citizens' $373 per night cap on Bermuda travel.

Gardner repaid the difference in May after the Post asked for the travel records.

Gilway, who said this week only that he would attend the Cabinet meeting, has previously defended some of the travel, noting that international travel sometimes comes with high costs that are hard to avoid.

STORY OF THE WEEK: A Leon County judge orders the Legislature to redraw congressional districts by Aug. 15, a requirement that will likely lead to a special session.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "It sounds a little cozy to be staying at your daughter's apartment." -- George Collins, an Orlando Republican and tea party member challenging Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville, on questions about the incumbent's residency.

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