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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

National backlash over LGBT laws doesn't stretch to Florida

When Gov. Rick Scott signed a law three weeks ago allowing pastors to religiously object to gay weddings, there was no national outcry. Disney didn't threaten to pull out of Orlando. The NFL didn't say it would refuse to hold the Super Bowl in Miami or Tampa.

But elsewhere across the South, that kind of high-profile reaction is exactly what's happening, as states pass sweeping changes that activists and business groups say could lead to discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

With same-sex marriage legalized nationwide, this is the new battleground for LGBT rights. In state capitols across the country, conservative lawmakers have proposed bills seeking to balance religious freedom with the Supreme Court's summer ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges that every couple has a right to get married — regardless of their sex or gender.

"Where do one person's rights begin and another one's end?" said Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, a sponsor of one such bill in Florida this year. "This opened up a sort of Pandora's Box of religious liberty issues that I suspect for many years are going to be debated in statehouses across the country." …

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State doesn't have to pay legal fees for botched congressional map

The League of Women Voters was successful in suing the state and forcing a redrawing of the state's congressional districts, but they will have to bear their own costs for attorney fees, the Florida Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

In a 4-3 decision, the court denied the League of Women Voters of Florida's request to be compensated for years of attorney fees in their effort to uncover evidence that the Florida Legislature had violated the state Constitution barring them from drawing Congressional districts in a way to benefit incumbents or political parties.

Attorneys for the League of Women Voters of Florida argued that for years, the Legislature engaged in a "war of attrition" and employed a "scorched-earth policy" that erected costly barriers for them as the sought to uncover critical evidence that ultimately led the Florida Supreme Court last year to rule that the Legislature's redistricting was "tainted" by illegal partisan intent." …

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Dem U.S. House Super PAC targets Florida

The Hill reports that Florida is among the first TV buys for a super PAC, House Majority PAC, helping elect Democrats to the U.S. House. Presumably this particular slice of the overall $7.5 million buy is aimed at holding onto the South Florida House seat now held by Patrick Murphy. That may prove to be a tall order.

From The Hill:

...Seven of the eight states in which House Majority PAC made its initial reservations have competitive Senate races. It has reserved approximately $1 million in Denver, $900,000 in West Palm Beach, Fla., $316,000 in Cedar Rapids and $313,000 in Des Moines, Iowa, $3 million in Las Vegas, $472,000 in Manchester, N.H., and $730,000 in Philadelphia.

Many of those markets are also competitive at the presidential level, meaning air time for next fall will be even more expensive. House Majority PAC also bought $545,000 worth of time in New York City. All reservations are both broadcast and cable.

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Utility-backed solar initiative approved for ballot

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday approved a constitutional amendment backed by utility companies that would maintain the status quo in how solar energy is regulated.

It will appear on the ballot in November's election as "Amendment 1," and 60 percent of voters must approve it in order for it to go into effect.

Under the proposed amendment -- called Consumers for Smart Solar -- local and state regulators would maintain control over solar energy.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court will allow the people of Florida to have a voice on our amendment to advance solar energy in the Sunshine State," Consumers for Smart Solar co-chair Dick Batchelor said in a written statement. "We look forward to making our case to the people of Florida – that we must advance solar energy – and do it the right way – a way that protects all consumers, whether they choose solar or not."

The solar issue has been a hot one, though.

The utility-backed group launched after another ballot item was proposed that would have allowed property owners to sign lease agreements with solar companies to finance and install equipment. That could have threatened monopolies heald by the utilities. …

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Kendall Coffey's ties to Trump deeper than dispute with reporter

Donald Trump tees off at his Trump National Doral in January 2015

Carl Juste | Miami Herald

Donald Trump tees off at his Trump National Doral in January 2015

Miami defense attorney Kendall Coffey made national news this week for signing on to represent Donald Trump’s campaign manager in an altercation with a reporter, but the ties are deeper.

Trump hired Coffey in February to represent him in a fight with neighbors of Trump National Golf Club in Doral, which the presidential candidate bought in 2012. Trump’s organization has filed lawsuits against eight residents claiming they cut down trees that blocked views of the course.

The suits seek $15,000 in damages from each neighbor.

“It's very upsetting because we paid a premium price for the golf course view, and now it's being taken away from us,” Morgan Levy, 92, told the Miami Herald. He is not one of those being sued. “I think it was very inconsiderate and very bully-ish of Mr. Trump, and it follows his pattern of doing what he wants, regardless of how it affects neighbors and other people.”

Trump’s organization accuses neighbors of disturbing the tranquility with loud music, “wearing inappropriate, hanging underwear on clotheslines and drinking too much alcohol,” the Herald reported.

Lawsuits were a last resort, the “environmental expert” working for Trump said. …

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State hurricane fund 'strongest' it has ever been, official tells Florida Cabinet

With hurricane season just 60 days away, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet got welcome news this week.

The state's insurance catastrophe fund is essentially "fully funded' for hurricane season and could cover the state even if it were hit with a powerful storm, the state's chief investments strategist told Scott and the Cabinet at a meeting earlier this week.

Ash Williams, the executive director of the State Board of Administration, said the state has $13.8 billion in cash and another $2.7 billion in bonds for the Cat Fund. That gives the state nearly $17 billion to handle the damage from a hurricane even if all of the state's private insurers were maxed out.

"We're in the strongest financial position we've ever been in," Williams said.

Williams said in present day dollars, when Hurricane Andrew hit the state in 1992, it cost the state over $26 billion. He said between what the insurance industry has in reserves - $7 billion - and what the Cat Fund has access to, Florida could easily cover the damage.

"We could literally write a check from where we are," Williams said. …

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Romano: Surprise! Flood insurance still a mess, so rates are going up again

Think the Great Flood Insurance Rate Crisis of 2013-14 had been fixed?

Think again.

Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano warns that some political maneuvering only muted and delayed the impact of the rate hikes. Now it's time to pay up:

Two years later, the flood insurance frenzy has died down. No one is shouting about inexplicable rate hikes or a real estate apocalypse. Private insurers are slowly entering the marketplace, and FEMA is keeping a low profile.

If you were the optimistic sort, you might even suggest the problem was solved.

And you would be dead wrong.

Starting Friday, the National Flood Insurance Program will embark on another round of rate increases. For primary home­owners in high-risk zones, experts expect the average increase to be in the 9 percent range. For businesses, the increase will be even higher.

Sadly, this isn't unexpected. In some ways, it may have been inevitable.

Read more here


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Dave Aronberg to play critical role in case involving Trump campaign manager

The following is by George Bennett of the Palm Beach Post:

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, whose office will decide whether to pursue misdemeanor battery charges against Donald Trump’s campaign manager, is a Democratic Hillary Clinton donor who knew Ted Cruz in law school and has close ties to Republican Attorney General and Trump endorser Pam Bondi.

Politics won’t be a factor in deciding whether to prosecute Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Aronberg said Wednesday, and some prominent local Republicans have given Aronberg high marks for the way he’s run his office since his 2012 election.

But theorizing about political motives has already begun, with some conservative outlets drawing attention to the Clinton campaign’s November rollout of a 150-member “Florida Leadership Council” that includes Aronberg. Aronberg also contributed $1,000 to Clinton in January. …

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In state Senate race, a potential finance problem emerges for Greg Steube

Folks who donated to Greg Steube's state House campaign received letters this week letting them know that now he is running for the Senate instead, and they can either get a refund or let him shift it to his new campaign. He hopes to roll over more than $200,000 from his House campaign to his Senate campaign.

The problem? Steube filed paperwork with the Division of Elections on Feb. 11 changing from a state House candidate to the state Senate, and Florida requires campaigns to inform donors in writing of such a switch within 15 days. Those voters then have 30 days to request a refund.

Rep. Steube, R-Bradenton, brushed off the issue, noting that anyone who wants a refund will get one and that he left it to his campaign team to handle the paperwork.

His treasurer Joe Gruters similarly dismissed the prospect of a challenge over the timing of Steube's refund letters.

"I signed them on the date of the letter and they were timely mailed. Not sure why there was any delay if any with the mail delivery," said Gruters, who is also vice chairman of the state GOP and co-chairman of Donald Trump's Florida campaign. …

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After underage romance led to 'sex offender' tag, harsh sentence, Florida man freed early from prison

Carlos Manuel Delgado, 37, stands outside Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City, Fla., after his release Wednesday on a commuted sentence.

Courtesy of Gonzalo Delgado

Carlos Manuel Delgado, 37, stands outside Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City, Fla., after his release Wednesday on a commuted sentence.

Carlos Manuel Delgado was released from Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City on Wednesday afternoon — 13 years, 4 months and 24 days before the end of his sentence.

Or, from the perspective of Republican Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Florida Cabinet: Delgado spent 11 years, 2 months and 17 days in prison because of what they call a miscarriage of justice that branded Delgado a “sex offender” for an atypical crime.

In a rare action, Florida’s top elected officials voted Tuesday to commute Delgado’s sentence and allow him to go free. This is only the fourth sentence commuted in the last five years, according to state records.

They described his case as an unjust consequence of a “stupid decision” and “mistake” Delgado made in 2000 that didn’t align with the truly abhorrent crimes that Florida’s sex offender laws are intended to punish.

Absorbing his first taste of freedom in more than a decade, Delgado on Wednesday afternoon was still trying to take in his changed circumstances.

“From the point that the police came to get me, it was surreal,” he told the Times/Herald in a phone interview. “It’s been really crazy. It’s been super unbelievable.”

More here.

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Patrick Murphy: I hate super PACs but here's some video they can use

A screen grab from "b-roll" posted on Patrick Murphy's campaign website.

A screen grab from "b-roll" posted on Patrick Murphy's campaign website.

There’s Patrick Murphy strolling on a beach with a young man. They appear to be engaged in serious talk, and Murphy points to the horizon, but the video is silent.

There he is on the same beach holding a child’s hand. And another beach shot, this time with an older man and a woman, her arm locked in Murphy’s.

Now Murphy's in an orange grove with an old guy in a hat. But again, viewers have no idea what he and the man are talking about.

Murphy visits a diner. Traverses hallways. Works the phones in a darkened office. Tours a mapping business. Pops into a welding garage.

The 5 minute 42 second video posted on the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate’s campaign website isn’t for the public. It’s “b-roll” to be used by super PACs or another outside group that wants to make a positive ad on Murphy’s behalf.

This is how candidates in both parties get around the law barring direct coordination with super PACs. Murphy's tactic is notable given his public opposition to the super PAC era. He calls it “gross.”

As we reported last year: …

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Safety net hospitals raise concerns about trauma center recommendation

There are more trauma centers than needed in South Florida, according to state regulators who say Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties need just three centers in total.

But the state’s safety net hospitals — which include 14 of the existing trauma centers — have concerns.

In a March 18 letter to interim Surgeon General Dr. Celeste Philip, the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida raised concerns about the number of trauma centers the Department of Health has proposed authorizing for each of 19 regions across the state.

Saying the department failed to address “the important issue of what actions are needed when the number of allocated trauma centers … is less than the number of operating verified trauma centers,” the alliance’s vice president Lindy Kennedy wrote in the letter.

DOH spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said in a statement that no trauma centers would shut down as a result of the updated rules. …

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Who is polling Rick Baker vs Charlie Crist?

Somebody is paying for a robo poll this week testing support for former Republican St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker against Democrat Charlie Crist in the soon-to-be open race for Congressional District 13 in southern Pinellas County.The mystery is who.

What we do know is that Baker is probably the only Republican with a shot at winning that district, now represented by Republican David Jolly but re-drawn to heavily favor Democrats. We know that Baker, currently working for businessman Bill Edwards, is seriously considering running for the seat, is talking with a lot of people, is hearing lots of encouragement from the likes for U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, and is likely to make a decision within the next few weeks.

A new fundraising quarter starts Friday, which means Baker had no incentive to announce before then (He would report very little money on his first financial report, if he did), but he can't wait much longer if he wants to mount a serious campaign. We hear Baker is leaning toward running, but he is still talking to people and nothing has been decided. …

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How will Florida's delegates be selected? We explain

Unlike in most years, the delegates to the national conventions may play a bigger role in the presidential nominations in 2016. So PolitiFact National took a look at the nuts and bolts of the process.

Here’s how it’ll unfold in the Sunshine State.

Florida will send 99 delegates to the Republican convention and 246 to the Democratic gathering in July. Beyond the three party leader delegates on the GOP side and 32 superdelegates on the Democratic side, voters, candidates and the party all have a say in who will represent the state.

Following the March primary, Republican presidential candidates submitted lists of supporters to be considered for delegate slots. Aspiring GOP delegates can also file aform with the state party.

Between March 22 and June 3, Republicans in each of Florida’s 27 congressional districts will caucus to choose three delegates a piece.

Tampa Bay’s 12th, 13th and 14th district elections all take place April 16 in Clearwater.

Keep reading Linda Qiu's article from PolitiFact Florida.

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Election supervisors' pay raise, public record shields among new laws

It’s a good day for county supervisors of elections and a bad day for open-government advocates after Gov. Rick Scott signed more than a dozen bills into law Wednesday.

Supervisors in every conty except Miami-Dade won a pay raise that is expected to average 19 percent, putting their salaries in line with other county elected officials. The actual increases will range from $18,000 to $20,000 and cost $1.2 million statewide.

Among those who could benefit from the bump are former lawmakers like former state Sen. Mike Bennett, now the Manatee County election supervisor, and two sitting state legislators running for the job in their counties: Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, and Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla.

Scott said Tuesday that he supports the pay raise because “they’ve done a good job.”

"I think it’s the right thing to do," he said.

The governor also signed new exemptions to the state’s public record laws, shielding the home addresses of EMTs, paramedics, non-sworn investigators at the Department of Financial Services and current or formal employees of inspector generals’ offices. …

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