Vern Buchanan on Florida panther: "They face extinction"

They’re the official state animal, yet the Florida panther is one of the most endangered species on Earth, with fewer than 180 of the big cats alive today. The breeding population of Florida panthers now exists only on the southern tip of the Sunshine State.

Noting the record number of panther deaths in 2015, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of the state’s 16th Congressional District says he’s calling on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate a “critical habitat” for the endangered animal. Wildlife officials said last week a 1-year-old Florida panther was killed by a vehicle, raising to 30 the number of automobile-related deaths in 2015. Roadkills are the leading cause of death for the animal.

“Each year, the Florida panther population continues to shrink in size as more big cats are hit and killed by cars because they lack a safe habitat,” Buchanan said in an email. “Although these panthers are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, they face extinction because they have no protected area to live and repopulate.”

This month Buchanan and several other Florida congressmen sent a letter to President Obama requesting a safe habitat for the Florida panther. The letter highlighted the need for a safe environment that would preserve valuable environmental resources, such as wetlands, aquifer recharge areas, and drinking water supplies.

“We should not stand by and do nothing as yet another endangered species is wiped off the earth,” Buchanan said. “We don’t get a second chance once a species becomes extinct.”

The panther was one of the original 14 mammals named to the endangered species list in 1967, but a critical habitat has never been established, even though one is required by the Endangered Species Act.

The Florida panther once roamed nearly all of the Southeastern United States. However, avid hunters and development whittled the species down to its endangered status. Under the current federal panther recovery plan, there must be three separate populations of 240 individuals before the animal can be removed from the Endangered Species list.

What’s next after Florida Senate narrowly approves new Senate map

Amid an ugly political brawl in which one senator publicly accused another of being a bully, the Florida Senate on Wednesday narrowly approved a new map for the state’s 40 senate districts.

But some senators predicted shortly after the 22-18 vote that the proposal may not pass the Republican-controlled Florida House. That’s because the Senate made last minute changes to a handful of districts in Miami-Dade County that some Democrats said were aimed at helping an incumbent GOP senator from Miami.

“There is not a magic solution to anything,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner. “Today was the first inning. We have a long way to go.”

Florida legislators are holding a 19-day special session to redraw Senate districts after the Florida Senate admitted in court filings this summer that it violated the constitution when it drew the current Senate seats back in 2012.

Voters in 2010 approved the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendment that requires compact political districts that don’t benefit parties or incumbents. A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, filed a lawsuit contending the existing state senate districts violated those standards.

The Senate has struggled so far to come up with a replacement map. At the last minute, they altered the lines in Miami-Dade at the urging of Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. Diaz de la Portilla insisted the change was needed to boost the chance that three senators from Miami-Dade would remain Hispanic. He also said his proposal would keep the well-known Cuban community of Little Havana intact.

But 14 Democrats sided with four Republicans in opposition to the new map. Several senators predicted that the same groups that challenged the existing map would prevail in court if they decided to oppose the new one. A lawyer representing the coalition of groups that sued lawmakers sent a letter this week to legislative leaders contending the Senate map violated the “Fair Districts” amendment.

“The people who elect us, the people who pay our salary, said we need to do districts a new way,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican. “As we take this vote today I think we need to ask ourselves, ‘Is the vote we are taking today a vote to uphold the constitution of the state of Florida?’”

Part of the problem in reaching an agreement on a new map is an ongoing contest over the Senate presidency between two veteran Republicans. Both State Sen. Joe Negron and Latvala are both vying to succeed Gardiner and a vote is expected to come this December. Some observers have contended that the Senate map has been shaped in a way to aid those senators pledged to Negron.

“It’s been polarizing. It’s debilitating the caucus,” conceded Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican.

The bad blood building up flowed onto the Senate floor on Wednesday. After the close vote, Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, took time on the floor to chastise Latvala for comments his fellow Republican had made to reporters.

Latvala said that Gaetz owed Floridians an apology because he oversaw the redistricting plans that wound up getting challenged in court. The Supreme Court at one point said legislators had allowed GOP consultants to taint the process.

Gaetz, who is backing Negron in the leadership battle, asserted that Latvala also had a role in the Senate map that came under fire. “I’m sorry for my mistakes; Senator Latvala should be sorry for his,” Gaetz said. “I take no satisfaction from this exchange, but when a bully throws a sucker punch you hit back and never give in.”

Latvala, who wasn’t on the floor when Gaetz criticized him, later stood by his previous comments. He said the court files showed the extent of Gaetz’s involement.

“He’s just trying to deflect some of the blame on other people,” Latvala said.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

10 big questions facing Florida politics in the wake of the redistricting decision

As has been widely reported, the Florida Supreme Court ruled last week that the state’s congressional maps don’t meet the requirements of a voter-approved constitutional amendment that prohibits political lines from being drawn to favor incumbents or a political party. The court ordered the Legislature to try drawing the maps again.

Here are 10 big questions looming over Florida politics in the wake of the court’s redistricting decision.

1. Will the Legislature appeal the decision?

USFSP political science emeritus professor Darryl Paulson says the Legislature should appeal.

“The Voting Rights Act was passed to expand majority-minority districts and then to preserve and protect them,” says Paulson. “Now you have the Florida Supreme Court challenging four of the majority-minority districts that exist in the state of Florida, which to me seems a blatantly unwise policy.”

“This to me is just a very bad decision on the part of the court,” he contends. “I understand the rationale of people wanted them to do when they passed that constitutional amendment (the Florida Fair District amendments in 2010). But I am adamantly opposed to African-Americans and Hispanics having to face the brunt of this, and (are) likely in the greatest jeopardy of losing their seats after holding those seats for such a short amount of time.”

Paulson thinks that Corrine Brown would seem to have grounds to challenge the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling violating the Voting Rights Act.

2. What’s the timetable for the Legislature to redraw the lines?

The Florida Supreme Court gave the Legislature 100 days to submit a new map. Normally, that would be enough time to resolve the numerous issues at hand, but, remember, the House and Senate are slated to start committee meetings in the middle of September. One would assume lawmakers would like to have a new map in the can before then. To accomplish that, they’d need to get started yesterday.

3. Who is driving the redistricting train?

It’s almost difficult to believe Speaker Designate Richard Corcoran could become more powerful, but now that he, as the chair of the Select Committee on Redistricting, has the fate of dozens of Florida politicians in his hands, Corcoran is arguably the most powerful pol in Florida not named Rick Scott. Likewise, Bill Galvano, Corcoran’s counterpart in the Senate, is a force to be reckoned with. There is even the suggestion that he is the de facto Senate president designate.

4. Who is hurt more by the redistricting decision, Gwen Graham or David Jolly?

The Tampa Bay Times’ Adam Smith labeled Graham and Jolly the losers of the week in Florida politics because both U.S. representatives would have trouble winning re-election in redrawn seats. But who is the bigger loser of the two? Probably Graham because she has fewer options than Jolly, even if she has a brighter future. Graham can enter the race for the U.S. Senate, but what is her intellectual argument for doing so? That Patrick Murphy isn’t a good enough Democrat? Would she really get into the race, split the moderate vote with Murphy and give Alan Grayson a genuine shot at the nomination? Then again, Graham cannot lose her CD 2 race and turn around and run for governor in 2018.

Jolly, meanwhile, has a better case for jumping to the Senate race — he’d be the sensible moderate in a field of conservatives, he’s from the state’s largest media market, he knows D.C. — but he can also do nothing. That’s right, Jolly could just not run again, return to the private sector and probably make seven figures a year. What he can’t do is be the sacrificial lamb for the GOP and lose in CD 13. It’s the Senate or bust.

5. So Jolly for the U.S. Senate?

Yes. There’s probably a 90 percent chance of him running. Although his camp says he’s still only at the “seriously considering” phase, he’s also locked up his major donors for a Senate bid.

(For the hardcore political junkies, think about how exciting the invisible primary on the GOP side of the U.S. Senate race is: If Jolly does enter the U.S. race, you will have the Pat Bainter/Data Targeting/Marc Reichelderfer/Sarah Bascom/Adam Goodman juggernaut on his side versus the On Message team, which guided Rick Scott to re-election and will likely help prospective candidate Jeff Miller versus John Konkus, and Jamestown Associates ((helping Ron DeSantis)) versus Rick Wilson, who is allied with Carlos Lopez Cantera.)

6. And Charlie Crist is in?

Redrawing CD 13 as the Supreme Court envisions turns a seat that has been held by the GOP for four decades into a lay-up for the Democrats. As POLITICO’s Marc Caputo reports, Crist won 81-15 percent over Rick Scott in the Pinellas County corner that CD 13 will likely get from CD 14. And while the number of votes cast in that corner amounts to just 12 percent of the votes cast in CD 13, Crist’s win margin over Scott in those mostly African American precincts was bigger than his overall margin in all of CD 13. In other words, the mountain is coming to Mohammed.

So Crist would be crazy not to run, right? Doesn’t he want to return to public office? Caputo is the one really driving the train on this story and there’s no doubt he has well-placed sources telling him that Crist is thinking about running. However, at the end of the day, I do not think Crist pulls the trigger.

For one, I know Crist longs to return to the Governor’s Mansion. If he runs for Congress — even if he wins — he can’t turn around in 2018 and run for governor. Bob Buckhorn would have a field day. So, too, would the Florida GOP. Crist can get away with a lot, but not that. Second, serving in Congress is a young man’s (or woman’s) game. It’s about seniority. Of course no one expects Crist to go to Washington and do much of anything, except prepare for when Bill Nelson retires, but even Crist’s ambition is made of sterner stuff. Third, Charlie Crist in D.C. during the winter? Maybe for the White House Christmas party, but for extended period of time? Puh-leeze.

7. What about Dan Webster? 

Webster’s fate depends on several scenarios for Orange County. With District 5 no longer allowed to go to Orlando, the Legislature must do something about the African-Americans of Orange County.  Right now the African-American population is in District 5. However, with District 5 now likely to go east-west, the African-American voters of Orange will have to go somewhere.

The Legislature will find little compelling reason to not put them in a district based out of Orange. One Republican-friendly idea would be for them to get put in District 9, the Hispanic-access, and safe-Democratic, seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson. However, doing so would dilute the Hispanic population, which the court could see as having clear partisan intent (packing all minorities to keep the other districts white).

The Legislature could try to split the black vote between the 10th, held by Webster, and the 7th, held by Mica, but that would also fall under judicial scrutiny. If either Mica or Webster had to bite the bullet, I would bet on Webster, who has been a congressman less time and has angered Speaker John Boehner.

If Webster were to take in the African-American voters, he would have to lose other population centers. The Legislature would probably remove the area south of Orange County, which narrowly backed Obama, to take a little Democratic punch out of the seat. Some other regions would also need to go to keep the population centered. Either way, taking in such a large number of African-American voters would change the partisan nature of the district dramatically.

8. If the congressional maps are unconstitutional, what does that say about the state Senate district maps?

Need proof that the state Senate maps are as obsolete as your MySpace account? Then look no further than Jack Latvala’s decision to file for re-election in 2016. Think about that: Latvala believes so much that the maps will be tossed that he has filed to run for a seat not actually up for election in 2016 based on a court ruling that has yet to be written in a case that has not been heard.

Comparing the congressional map to the state Senate map is not exactly apples to apples, but when the Florida Supreme Court says it has problems with congressional districts jumping bodies of water, one can assume it will think the same way about the state Senate map.

9. Does the redistricting ruling impact the race for Senate president? 

Imagine the race for Senate president between Jack Latvala and Joe Negron is a game of Monopoly, one in which Latvala is essentially losing because Negron owns the railroads, Boardwalk, Park Place and Marvin Gardens. How does Latvala turn this around? Sure he can roll double sixes again and again and run the table during the next round of state Senate primaries OR he can throw the board in the air and force everyone else to scramble over the thimble.

10. What does the redistricting ruling say about Will Weatherford’s legacy?

As I read through the ruling last Thursday, I couldn’t help but think of my friend, Will Weatherford, and how Barbara Pariente was dismantling part of his impressive legacy. Weatherford and Don Gaetz, as the chairs of the redistricting committees and as legislative leaders really, really, really went out of their way to avoid injecting partisanship into the map-making. Sure, the consultants who worked near them ended up injecting partisanship into the process, but Weatherford had no part of that. Remember, this congressional map that is being thrown out led to a handful of Republicans losing in 2014. The map for the state House districts — the only one Weatherford really had complete say-so over and the only one of the three maps that has not been repudiated — saw several GOP incumbents drawn into the same district.

Weatherford has not publicly commented about the redistricting ruling, but I can imagine he’s very angry at the decision. He may even believe that this was going to be the outcome all along once Amendment 5 6 passed.

Reporting from Mitch Perry, Matthew Isbell, and The Associated Press contributed to this post.



Sunburn – The morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics – June 11

Sunburn – The morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics.

With apologies to the writers of Mad Max: Fury Road, yesterday was not a very lovely day for Governor Rick Scott…

There could be some court room drama next week in Gov. Rick Scott’s lawsuit against the federal government over the fate of $2 billion in supplemental Medicaid money known as Low Income Pool.

It was expected that oral arguments would be held on June 19 in the fast-moving lawsuit. But Chief Judge M. Casey Rodgers in an order issued on Wednesday, said he would hold an evidentiary hearing on the governor’s motion for a preliminary injunction that, if approved, could force the federal government to continue Low Income Pool funding at the current $2 billion-plus level.

An evidentiary hearing means that both the state and federal government will have to present witness testimony in court. The could mean heavy hitters like Scott, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell could be required to appear in federal court.

Scott met with Burwell May 6 to discuss the Low Income Pool program.

The change on the docket came in an order Rodgers issued denying Scott’s recent motion to compel the federal government to enter mediation with the state. Rodgers ruled that court-ordered mediation as Scott’s attorneys sought does not guarantee a resolution and that it would not “advance the process any faster than the expedited proceeding currently scheduled.”

But Rodgers is moving ahead with another of Scott’s requests.

Acknowledging the short time frame before the end of the state fiscal year and the “voluminous materials” submitted for the upcoming oral arguments the judge said in the ruling he’d use the June 19 date to consider Florida’s request for a preliminary injunction and told the parties to be prepared to bring witness testimony to court.

“The court needs to have a thorough understanding of the LIP extension or amendment process and the history of the negotiations between the parties in order to resolve the questions rasied. It is also important that the Court be able to timely resolve any evidentiary conflicts or credibility questions that may arise during the hearing,” wrote the judge.

Until then, Judge Rodgers told the parties that they are “encouraged to continue their negotiations and to promptly notify the court if a resolution is reached prior to the hearing.”

Scott is slated to leave the country this weekend for the 2015 Paris Air Show. The governor told reporters in Tampa on Tuesday that the legislative special session had altered his plans and that he would shorten his trip and leave the country on Friday, June 19 and return Monday, June 22.

“I will be going to the air show in Paris, I’ll go Friday night and I’ll come back Monday, so I’ve shortened my trip, It’s an important trip,” Scott told Tampa Tribune reporter Jerome Stockfish.

The governor’s press office later told the paper that the trip would be a “game time decision.”

Scott spokesperson Jackie Schutz did not return emails asking whether Scott would appear at the courthouse in Pensacola. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Benjamin Wakana referred questions on the suit to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Scott has been wrangling with the federal government over Low Income Pool since the spring. After receiving a letter from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services advising “the future of the (low-income pool), sufficient provider rates and Medicaid expansion are linked,” the governor filed a lawsuit against HHS claiming that the federal government was trying to pressure Florida into expanding Medicaid which is unconstitutional.

The federal government advised Florida last April it would continue Low Income Pool funding June 30, 2015. Scott assumed the program would continue at its $2 billion level when he developed his proposed budget for the 2015-16 year.

The federal government advised Florida it could expect to receive $1 billion in LIP for 2015-16 and another $600,000 for 2016-17. In his request for mediation Scott’s attorneys said the uncertainty regarding LIP has prevented the Legislature from being able to build a budget.


Women will have to wait 24 hours before having an abortion under a bill Gov. Scott signed into law today, a reflective period supporters said they hoped would change some women’s minds before ending their pregnancies.

Scott signed the abortion measure along with 54 other bills, including legislation that would allow terminally ill patients to take experimental medicines. Scott also signed into law a measure that revises the rules for the panel that regulates Florida electric rates. He vetoed a bill dealing with home medical equipment providers.

Abortion was the subject of emotional debate during the Legislature’s regular session. Democrats complained the bill was simply an effort to put up roadblocks to infringe on women’s rights to an abortion while Republicans said women should have to wait before making such a major decision.

“One day to reflect upon the risks of abortion, one day to view an image of the unborn child’s ultrasound image, and one day to consult with friends, family and faith are minimal considering the effects that will remain for a lifetime beyond that irreversible decision,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican and one of the bill sponsors.

Florida will be the 27th state to have a waiting period for abortions when the law takes effect July 1.


U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy: “A woman’s right to choose is just that — her right. Politicians like Rick Scott have no business interfering in medical decisions that should be between a woman and her doctor.  I’m extremely disappointed that Gov. Scott refuses to let Florida’s women decide what’s best for themselves, and I am more committed than ever to protect a woman’s right to choose.”

Florida Democratic Party: “Yet again, the Florida GOP has shown that they are willing to check their small government rhetoric at the door when it comes to relitigating culture wars they lost long ago. The women of Florida will not forget this come 2016.”

Florida ACLU: “We have warned Governor Scott that this law violates the state constitution. This law was created solely to put in place needless hurdles that impose financial, professional and personal burdens on Florida women whose right to access safe and timely abortion care is protected by the Florida Constitution. As with every law passed by Florida politicians that undermines people’s guaranteed rights and freedoms, we are examining every option for protecting women against this dangerous legislation.”

Florida Catholic bishops: “When we recall major life decisions, we recognize that we find it prudent to gather all the necessary information and take some time to think. Rather than ask what the cost will be for women to make a second visit to terminate a pregnancy, we should be concerned with the human costs of not having a reflection period.”


Scott signed HB 7109 into law Wednesday, a bill that makes modest reforms at the state Public Service Commission.

The law limits future Public Service Commission members to three consecutive four-year terms and requires commissioners to undergo annual ethics training. The bill was weakened when the House refused to accept a Senate amendment that would require the PSC to hold customer service meetings every other year in the service area of the utilities they regulate.

It also requires that specified commission meetings be streamed live on the Internet and a recorded copy of the meeting be made available on the commission’s website. The requirement applies to:

  • each internal affairs meeting, workshop, hearing, or other proceeding attended by two or more commissioners; and
  • each meeting, workshop, hearing, or other proceeding where a decision that concerns the rights or obligations of any person is made.

The bill also affects public utilities.

It allows Duke Energy Florida to issue bonds for the $1.4 billion Crystal River nuclear plant shutdown, a move that Pinellas County Sen. Jack Latvala said would save an estimated $600 million for customers. The Crystal River facility was shuttered much earlier than expected because of damage to a containment building during a botched repair attempt. The plant was permanently shut down in 2013, though it had not generated electricity since 2009.


Gov. Scott’s chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, could get an unfriendly welcome Wednesday when he appears before the annual mid-year conference of state election supervisors in Kissimmee.

Tensions are still high between Detzner and the supervisors after he spent the regular legislative session unsuccessfully trying to defeat their top priority: creation of an online system for voters to register and update their voting information by 2017.

To complicate matters for Detzner, the new president of the supervisors’ group is one of his toughest critics, Pasco Supervisor Brian Corley, the outspoken son of a former New York City police officer and a tenacious advocate of making it easier to vote in Florida.

Detzner has been working to repair the damage from the regular session, in which senators were so dissatisfied with him they refused to confirm him, forcing Scott to reappoint him.

On Sunday, after a budget conference committee, he was seen engaged in an animated conversation with Sens. Jack Latvala and Jeff Clemens, who was the sponsor of the online voter registration bill that Scott recently signed into law. Clemens declined to discuss their conversation, but he said during the session that he was offended that Detzner didn’t tell him to his face that he was trying to kill his legislation.


An ethics panel concluded that former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll likely broke the state’s ethics law after failing to disclose money paid to a company she controlled.

Carroll was forced to resign in March 2013 after state investigators questioned the work she did for Allied Veterans of the World before she ran with Gov. Scott. The veterans charity was accused of running an $300 million illegal gambling operation.

State investigators eventually concluded that Carroll, a Republican, did not break any criminal laws, but last year they asked the Florida Commission on Ethics to review the case.

The commission announced Wednesday that it had found probable cause that Carroll broke the law because she did not disclose all of her income on mandatory financial disclosure forms.

Carroll was cleared of any wrongdoing on two other ethics charges, including whether she accepted payment to influence her work as a legislator.

Carroll said she does not plan to challenge the findings, but maintained it was a mistake and not intentional. She also said that Scott was wrong to force her to resign when the Allied Veterans investigation became public.

“If they find a reason to fine me for that, so be it,” said Carroll in an email. “What I would like is a public apology from Governor Scott for his knee jerk reaction to ask for my resignation where no probable cause or evidence presented itself to implicate me to the issues with Allied Veterans.”

Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Scott, said that the governor appreciated her service but that she “made the right decision for her family by resigning.”


The Great Recession is now far in the rearview mirror, especially for Florida, which is driving toward an annual expansion rate of 3.1 percent, University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith says in a second-quarter economic forecast released Tuesday.

“With every new jobs report and economic data release, Florida puts greater distance between its economy today and the economy that was crippled by recession, housing and financial crises,” said Snaith, director of UCF’s Institute for Economic Competitiveness.

But now, labor-force growth in the state is expected to average 2 percent through 2018, Snaith said. The faster pace of payroll job creation has invigorated Florida’s labor market, with the improved prospect of finding a job resulting in more residents back on the job hunt.

The sectors expected to have the strongest average job growth during the next three years are construction, professional and business services; trade, transportation and utilities, which incudes retail; education and health services; and leisure and hospitality.



Gardiner announced a few programming notes following a more or less pro forma floor Session late Wednesday morning.

Among them:

  • The 6 o’clock rule — which has been broken a handful of times this conference season, including an 8:45 meeting of the Education budget panel — remains in effect whether budget chiefs Richard Corcoran and Tom Lee come to agreement today or not. Gardiner final offers were more likely to emerge tomorrow.
  • There will be a brief 9 a.m. floor Session, in order to comply with “some changes in the interpretation” of the state Constitution.
  • The final budget “bump” — to presiding officers Gardiner and Speaker Steve Crisafulli — will also occur Friday. He says a final budget will be hammered out by the two by Monday.
  • Health Policy will meet Tuesday, June 16 at 9 a.m. Appropriations will meet at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
  • Chambers will vote on the final budget on Friday, June 19.


With work on finalizing a state budget pushed behind closed doors, House and Senate committees Wednesday began tackling a host of regulations on the health care industry.

House budget chief, Rep. Richard Corcoran and Senate counterpart, Sen. Tom Lee held no public meetings as they began sifting through dozens of unsettled spending differences between the two chambers.

… Still, economic development dollars, money for environmental land-buying efforts and college and university construction are among the budget areas up in the air, with funding at stake for major projects at Palm Beach State College and Florida Atlantic University.

More than $1 billion in water project requests, including provisions for the Lake Worth Lagoon and Loxahatchee River, are also subject to Corcoran and Lee’s deal-making.

The spate of water projects is purportedly being funneled through what budget leaders say is an available $50 million in financing, suggesting most will come up dry.


The Florida School Boards Association is dropping out of a lawsuit that contends the state’s largest private school voucher program is unconstitutional.

The group’s board of directors voted Wednesday against pursuing the lawsuit any further. A circuit judge in May ruled the groups filing the lawsuit did not have a legal right or “standing” to challenge the program.

The deadline to file an appeal is next week. The Florida Education Association has not yet decided whether it will challenge the ruling by Circuit Judge George Reynolds.

The legal battle has been closely watched as supporters have mounted an advertising and public relations campaign that called for the lawsuit to be dropped because of its potential impacts to families using the vouchers.

Nearly 70,000 children attend private schools through the tax credit scholarship program. The program currently serves low-income families but the program will expand to middle-income families starting in 2016.

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CNN announced Wednesday that it has scheduled a Republican presidential debate to take place March 10 in Florida, five days before the state’s 2016 primary.

The debate had previously been listed as “pending.” CNN is hosting two GOP debates this year, in September and December. Six others have been sanctioned by the party, hosted by others.

“Given the size and competitiveness of the GOP primary field, at this time it does not appear as though the party will have chosen its presidential nominee by March 10,” CNN said.

“This ensures that all presidential campaigns will have to spend a considerable amount of time in Florida speaking to Republicans from Pensacola to Key West and everywhere in between,” Florida GOP Chairman Blaise Ingoglia said in a statement.


The biggest guessing game in the presidential race these days is just how massive a war chest Bush will announce on July 15, the first official deadline for candidates to disclose their financial position.

The answer: It will be massive and very likely over $100 million, though the exact figure remains unclear. And we probably won’t know even then precisely how much the Bush juggernaut actually has.

That’s because Bush Inc. has at least four vehicles for campaign contributors: the Right to Rise super PAC, a hard-dollar campaign committee (which only recently started raising money), a leadership PAC and a nonprofit entity dedicated to funding policy formation.

The eye-popper will be the super PAC, which has vacuumed up huge checks from Wall Street titans and other captains of industry over the past six months. The campaign at one point capped donations at $1 million because money was pouring in so fast from events with minimum price tags of $100,000 or often even more.

A person with direct knowledge of the matter said the super PAC had raised around $87.3 million by earlier this spring. The pace slowed after an initial burst. But not enough to throw the Bush money machine off course. “I can’t imagine it won’t be over $100 million, probably from the super PAC alone,” this person said.

HERE’S THE REAL ISSUE WITH MARCO RUBIO’S FINANCES via Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post

It’s been 24 hours (or so) since the New York Times popped its big report on Sen. Marco Rubio‘s “financial struggles” over the course of the Florida Republican’s lightning-quick rise through the political stratosphere. In that time, it’s become clear how the Rubio team will respond. And it’s this way: Rubio struggled with his finances and his debts. Just like almost every average American does.

“The attack from the Times is just the latest in their continued hits against Marco and his family,” said Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Rubio presidential campaign. “What the Times misses is that getting rich is not what has driven Senator Rubio’s financial decisions.”

That’s a smart response — particularly given that one of Rubio’s main opponents in the GOP primaries is Jeb Bush, a scion of a very wealthy and well-connected family, and that his general election opponent would likely be someone who has lots and lots of money questions already surrounding her campaign.

Smart, but not entirely to the point the story raised. The Times story, at its heart, is not about how Rubio doesn’t have a lot of money. It’s about the decisions he has made given that financial reality. Here are the second and third paragraphs of the Times piece:

“In speeches, Mr. Rubio, a Florida Republican, spoke of his prudent plan for using the cash to finally pay off his law school loans, expressing relief that he no longer owed ‘a lady named Sallie Mae,’ as he once called the lender.”


The Bush-Rubio mano-a-mano duel for the Republican nomination has certainly split Florida Republicans, though a majority of the establishment GOP has tended to side with Team Jeb.

Then there are those who choose to remain neutral, such as John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, one of the leading social conservative organizations in the Sunshine State.

But a report in the National Journal indicates that maybe Stemberger isn’t so neutral after all.

The NJ’s Tim Alberta reports that Rubio was one of six Republican presidential hopefuls spoke for a half-hour each last month to the Council for National Policy – a group identified as a “secretive nonprofit  populated by hundreds of right-wing activists and donors,” at a Ritz-Carlton in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia.


Spain, who lost a 2014 bid to unseat Rep. Lois Frankel in a Democrat-leaning district, is moving north to run for the open, more GOP-friendly congressional seat of Rep. Patrick Murphy

Spain is the sixth Republican to enter the race for the Palm Beach-Treasure Coast District 18 seat, which Murphy is leaving to run for Senate.

Retired financial planner Spain got 42 percent of the vote last year against Frankel in Palm Beach-Broward District 22. Considering Dems had a 40-to-31 percent registration edge in that district, Spain’s showing was more impressive than that of the GOP’s District 18 nominee, Carl Domino, who got 40.8 percent against Murphy in a district where Republicans had a 37-to-35 percent registration edge.


When a little-known tea-party candidate ran for Congress in Miami in 2010, Democrats mailed two campaign fliers depicting Roly Arrojo as “too conservative” — a strategy intended to attract conservative voters to the unknown contender and siphon votes away from Republican rival David Rivera.

But Arrojo, as was suspected at the time, turned out to be a straw candidate put up to run by the campaign of Democrat Joe Garcia. Arrojo and Garcia’s whose former manager, Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, have been charged with violating federal law. (Rivera issuspected of orchestrating a far more extensive straw-candidate campaign in 2012, but he has not yet been charged.)

Democrats’ support of Arrojo has not been forgotten by the Republican Party of Florida, which on Tuesday drafted a letter calling on the party to “apologize” for its role in the 2010 race.

“The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s efforts to bolster a candidate, who was illegally funded and recruited, with tens of thousands of dollars in campaign mailers is a direct disregard and harm to the democracy that voters in South Florida value,” reads the short letter signed by RPOF Chairman Blaise Ingoglia and the heads of the Miami-Dade and Monroe local parties, Nelson Diaz and Debby Goodman. The district as it’s drawn now stretches from Westchester to Key West.

The letter was addressed to Annette Taddeo, the Democrat challenging incumbent GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo, and Ben Ray Luján, the chairman of the DCCC who will be in Coral Gables on Friday to raise funds for her.

In an announcement statement, Spain said: “I believe I have the right background to be an effective and sensitive representative for District 18 residents. I’m a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and a successful businessman with a lifetime of community service. That service includes Chambers of Commerce, Kiwanis Club, a current member of the College of Financial Planning with Advanced Planning Certifications (AAMS, CRPS), and a member of Maggie’s List, which promotes and supports efforts by women to hold public office.”


Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, Charlie Crist, Alex Sink and state party Chair Allison Tant are slated to be on hand at an evening fête at the home of Aubie Ribeiro and Dr. Sarah Lind Ribeiro in Saint Petersburg, on 146 4th Avenue Northeast. The June 20 shindig lists just four hosts so far donating $1,000 or more, though the committee is still in formation. Tickets are $250.


As legislators convene the third week of a three-week session with a budget vote pending, Senate Democrats have scheduled a fundraiser Monday night at the Governor’s Club in Tallahassee.

Senate rules prohibit fundraisers during session, including the special session, with one exception. If the fundraiser was previously planned before the special session was scheduled, an exemption is allowed.

“The rules say it’s allowed if it was planned before the call of the session,” said Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa who is hosting the event with Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami.

Joyner, however, said Wednesday if the fundraiser was scheduled, she hasn’t been thinking about it.

“Nothing rings a bell but the budget right now,” she said.


Leslie DughiFred Karlinsky, Greenberg Traurig: West Point Underwriters

Michael Lawton: United Healthcare Services

***Conversa is a women- and minority-owned, full-service public affairs, public relations, design and research firm, specializing in the development of campaigns that help you listen, understand, engage, and interact with local and global audiences. We’ve helped organizations ranging from Fortune 500 clients and national nonprofits to small businesses and international associations define messages, protect interests, influence opinion leaders, and create the conditions necessary for social change. To learn more about how we get people talking, visit***


Former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford recently returned from a tour of Israel, where he met with former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Weatherford, who led the Florida House from 2012-2014, visited the Holy Land in early May. There he visited many of the country’s holiest sites, including the Masada Desert Fortress (where the last Jewish stronghold against Roman invasion stood) and the Garden of Gethsemane (most famous as the place where Jesus prayed and his disciples slept the night before Jesus’ crucifixion).

Weatherford said he was struck by the dichotomy of the modernity of Israeli cities, such as Tel Aviv, and the history and “spiritual component” throughout the country.

Weatherford shared details of his tour of the Holy Land with this writer over lunch at Tampa’s Ocean Prime restaurant.


– “Dara Kam pisses off the Governors Club” via Peter Schorsch of

– On POLITICO’s forthcoming arrival in Tallahassee – Part 2” via Peter Schorsch of


Authorities say a shark was killed in a traffic accident when a truck carrying four of the big fish blew a tire and ran off the highway.

The Florida Highway Patrol says the four sharks were being driven to an aquarium in New York City from Marathon, Florida, when the tractor-trailer transporting them ran off of Interstate 95 near Oak Hill on Wednesday afternoon.

The sharks had been placed in separate tanks in the trailer. One tank was damaged, leading to the animal’s death. The three people in the vehicle were not hurt.

A SeaWorld rescue team from Orlando moved the remaining sharks to its facility until transportation arrangements can be made. Team member Jim Kinsler says the remaining sharks are in good condition.


For its 25th anniversary of Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Orlando is pitting Hollywood’s grisliest icons against each other, and park visitors.

Universal announced Wednesday that Freddy Krueger of theNightmare of Elm Street franchise, and Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees will go scarred face to hockey mask in their own haunted house. The attraction is titled Freddy vs. Jason, echoing their lone screen collaboration.

That 2003 battle ended in a draw of sorts, with Jason cheating death yet again, and Freddy’s decapitated head winking at the camera.

Michael Aiello, director of creative development for entertainment at Universal Orlando Resort, said Tuesday that park visitors could see the fight go either way.

“We’re actually doing two different endings,” Aiello said. “Depending on when you go in, you’re going to see Jason being victorious, or you’re going to see Freddy being victorious. … The fans of Freddy and the fans of Jason are definitely divided camps in the horror community.”

Freddy and Jason were featured before at Hollywood Horror Nights, in separate exhibits during Jack’s Carnival of Carnage in 2007.

“It just felt like this year is a perfect opportunity to do some things that have been successful in the past, but presented in a new, unique way,” Aiello said.



Medical marijuana to go to ballot, Florida Supreme Court rules

Floridians will vote on medical marijuana come November, after a divided Florida Supreme Court ruled Monday that ballot language for a proposed constitutional amendment meets all legal requirements.

If at least 60 percent of voters agree, Florida could become the first Southern state to legalize use of marijuana for health-related reasons.

The ballot measure could also affect the governor’s race, with Republican Gov. Rick Scott opposed to the measure and Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist in favor.

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The amendment, which would allow marijuana use with a doctor’s recommendation and allow sale through state-regulated dispensaries, was proposed by United for Care, an advocacy group headed by Orlando attorney John Morgan, who employs Crist.

After a recent flurry of petition gathering, the group turned in enough valid signatures last week to force a vote. Court approval of the ballot — barely achieved with the 4-3 decision — was the final hurdle.

“I’m grateful that the court listened to our arguments,” Morgan said. “Next we will begin the campaign stage. You are going to see people rise up who are the parents and siblings and spouses of really sick people who know this works and you are going to see a grass roots movement like you have never seen before in Florida.”

Scott said he would oppose the amendment.

“I have a great deal of empathy for people battling difficult diseases and I understand arguments in favor of this initiative,” Scott said in a news release. “But, having seen the terrible effects of alcohol and drug abuse first-hand, I cannot endorse sending Florida down this path.”

Attorney General Pam Bondi and other opponents have argued that the amendment’s ballot summary is confusing and deceptive. The summary describes limited use only for diseases, they argued, but in fact virtually any condition approved by a doctor would qualify.

Chief Justice Ricky Polston made the same point in a dissent, writing that even someone with a sore back or test anxiety could qualify.

But the majority disagreed. The ballot summary gives voters “fair notice as to the chief purpose and scope of the proposed amendment, which is to allow a restricted use of marijuana for certain debilitating medical conditions.”

Bondi also argued that the ballot language violated Florida’s single subject rule, because it made broad legislative policy determinations, established a complex regulatory system and provided so much immunity to physicians that people could not sue for fraud or malpractice.

If the measure passes, the Legislature would work out details such as how much marijuana someone could possess and how growers would be regulated.

But the court majority rejected the idea that the amendment was too complex. “It has a logical and natural oneness of purpose — namely, whether Floridians want a provision in the state constitution authorizing the medical use of marijuana as determined by a licensed physician.”

The court emphasized that citizen initiatives should enjoy broad leeway, and only language that is “clearly and conclusively defective” should be thrown out.

Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James Perry voted in favor. Justices Charles Canady, Jorge Labarga and Polston dissented.

The concept of medical marijuana has spread to 20 states and the District of Columbia since California first legalized it in 1996. People with cancer, multiple sclerosis and other serious diseases say marijuana eases their plight in ways that prescription medicine cannot. An increasing body of science shows that chemical substances found in pot can, indeed, be beneficial.

Opponents, wary of substance abuse, say that FDA-approved, dosage-controlled prescription drugs could use those same chemicals without risking the potential for societal damage.

Though recent opinion polls indicate strong support for medical marijuana, the Republican-dominated Legislature has rejected attempts to authorize widespread medical use.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he “respectfully” disagreed with the court ruling and said he hoped voters would reject “this truly radical” amendment.

“Make no mistake: This is not about compassionate medical marijuana,” Weatherford said. “This is about the Coloradofication of Florida, where the end game is a pot shop on every street corner.”

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Destin, called the amendment “a combination of cynical politics and cynical science” designed to push Crist’s prospects. “You don’t have to have a doctorate in political science to figure out that John Morgan is Charlie Crist’s boss and paymaster,” Gaetz said. “The marijuana campaign is liable to bring out voters who would be more likely to vote for Charlie Crist. This is all about politics.”

Crist was quick to issue a statement: “This is an issue of compassion, trusting doctors, and trusting the people of Florida.”

Former state Sen. Nan Rich, also running as a Democrat, followed on Twitter: “I endorsed med. marijuana initiative signed petition. Glad voters will have a chance to end suffering bring hope to families.”

Calvina Fay, executive director of St. Petersburg’s Save Our Society from Drugs, said the amendment “makes a mockery out of our nation’s approval process for determining safe and effective medications.”

Bondi was more subdued: “Today’s ruling leaves the issue of medical marijuana in the hands of Florida’s voters. I encourage every Floridian to read the full amendment in order to understand the impact it could have on Floridians.”

Morgan, who said he spent about $4 million on the petition campaign, predicted that thousands of people would contribute to winning the vote.

The big push on TV and other forms of advertising would likely begin in August or September, he said.

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Tia Mitchell contributed to this report. Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at

Florida Politics Week in Review: The Cocaine Congressman

There’s nothing better than a Congressional cocaine bust to remind us that politics is back in full swing in the state of Florida! Here is a roundup of this week’s winners and losers as we start barreling toward the 2014 campaign season.

Let’s start by contrasting two races that most of the state will be watching: the governor’s race and the special election to fill late Congressman Bill Young’s seat.

Alex Sink, who served as Florida’s CFO and ran for governor against Gov. Rick Scott, has had a good week as she began launching her bid for Young’s seat. Prior to Sink entering the race, the idea of a Democrat being a front-runner for a seat that was Republican-held since Nixon was president sounded far-fetched. However, in a matter of weeks, Sink put together an ad-hoc exploratory team, put some feelers out to the Donors-That-Be and firmly planted her flag in the ground as the presumptive Democratic nominee.

On the other hand, Congressman Young’s passing sent the GOP into a bit of a scramble mode in a search for a candidate. Three competitors have filed their papers on the “R” side so far: Mark Bircher ( who hasn’t received much press), Kathleen Peters (a State Representative) and David Jolly (a former Congressional Aide and lobbyist). This is the best scenario Sink could have hoped for.

While Peters and Jolly are vying for endorsements and splitting the party, Sink is running exactly the type of campaign she enjoys, where she can remain fairly quiet and raise money while her opponents tear each other to pieces. Sink does not like throwing mud and she certainly doesn’t need to enter the primary fray simply to get more name recognition. With the special election scheduled for early March, Republicans just made this her race to lose.

On the other hand, Florida Democrats have their own problems. Their candidate of choice, Former Governor and Former Republican Charlie Crist, isn’t being welcomed into the flock as widely as they had anticipated. At best, fundraising and enthusiasm for this race is stalled. At worst, the party is risking a replay of the same bad strategy they adopted in 2010, which can be summarized as, “No need to make adjustments to our campaign. Who else are they going to vote for? Rick Scott?!?”

Crist is being criticized on all sides. Republicans are calling him a “traitor” and are vowing to turn out in droves if his name is on the ballot for the general election. Cautious Democrats are worried that his newly-donned blue jersey will be ripped off the second he gets back into the Governor’s mansion. Die-hard Progressives are angry that State Senator Nan Rich’s campaign was not given full support by the Democratic Party and are vowing to organize against him or sit this one out.

All of that could be overcome or overshadowed in time if Crist were able to energize average voters and enter the race with positive momentum. Unfortunately, so far it appears that all he has galvanized is a larger group of Monday morning quarterbacks. When he makes a strong statement, such as when he compared Rick Scott to Al Capone, he is told he is out of character and shouldn’t throw punches. When he plays the role of likeable Floridian, he is labeled as weak (or as one op-ed scathingly put it, “…it’s just not in his DNA to fight for anything beyond his own political destiny.” No matter what he says or does, someone is there to pounce, and that will wear both him and his donor base out quickly.

Now Crist is in a corner. He has to formulate a strategy that says, “I’m here and I’m going to do the right thing for Florida no matter what you say…now please like me and vote for me.” His race just became an uphill battle.

And of course I promised to address the utter disaster that is…

CONGRESSIONAL SEAT 19: The Cocaine Congressman
Ah, Rep. Trey Radel. You certainly threw a grenade into your own camp this week, didn’t you?

To summarize this debacle, a Congressman was arrested and charged for cocaine possession. He was sentenced to a year of probation and a couple of hundred bucks for a fine…you know, the same exact punishment that you or I or any other regular person would have received in this situation!

He then announced that he would be taking a “leave of absence” and entering a treatment facility. Why? Because according to a statement he released via the somber medium of Facebook, he “struggles with the disease of alcoholism.” Ummm…yeah.

Let’s just breeze right past the very critical conversations that this has started about unfair sentencing practices, the ineffectiveness of the drug war and just what a big fat hypocrite Radel is for voting for drug testing on food stamp recipients. Instead let’s focus on the conundrum of whether or not Republicans will stand by their man since the ball is firmly in their court.

First, Congressional Republicans will have to decide in less than 30 days whether or not to investigate Radel for ethics violations. One would think that being charged successfully for cocaine possession would be a no-brainer in the ethics department, but not so fast! Some members of the GOP are already saying that this is a “private and personal matter” — unlike, say, investigating whether or not a President had an affair and lied about it.

At the same time, State Republicans will need to decide whether or not to field a challenger against Radel if he somehow keeps his job. (The possibility of which makes my head hurt.)
Radel’s district is rated as R+12 by the Cook Partisan Voting Index, making it one of the top five most Republican-y Republican districts in the entire state. If the GOP doesn’t try to oust him, realistically nobody can. Most likely they will take the “nothing to see here” approach to this problem unless or until it seems like Radel is hurting other people on the ticket, but maybe we can hope for more. Will they practice what we all preach and insist on a leader people can respect and be proud of? Or is that too much like effort?

Speaking of effort, that’s enough of a summary for this week. Whew! Tune in next time for more stuff I couldn’t make up if I tried in Florida politics.

Shawna Vercher is the Executive Director of Move Florida Forward, a political organization working to engage people in their government and elections. She is a political pundit and media strategist and welcomes your discussion on social media and in the comments below.

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As High Court Takes On Medical Marijuana Proposal in Florida, Politics Muddy …

As High Court Takes On Medical Marijuana Proposal in Florida, Politics Muddy Merits

| November 14, 2013

May it please the high court. (Blind Nomad)

To supporters, the wording of a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana in Florida is clear.

“The proposed medical marijuana amendment poses a single and unified question to Florida voters,” attorneys for a group backing the measure said in a legal brief Friday. “Should an individual with a debilitating disease or medical condition, who has been so diagnosed by a licensed Florida physician, be lawfully allowed to use marijuana for medical purposes so long as they meet a number of conditions?”

But to Attorney General Pam Bondi, Republican legislative leaders and some politically powerful opponents, the proposal isn’t clear enough — and should not be allowed on the November 2014 ballot.

“The proposal hides the fact that the amendment would make Florida one of the most lenient medical-marijuana states, allowing use for limitless ‘other conditions’ specified by any physician,” Bondi’s office said in another brief Friday. “With no ‘condition’ off limits, physicians could authorize marijuana for anything, any time, to anyone, of any age. But rather than tell voters of this extraordinary scope, the summary uses language to prey on voters’ understandable sympathies for Florida’s most vulnerable patients — those suffering ‘debilitating diseases.’ ”

The Florida Supreme Court will try to sort through the conflicting arguments during a hearing Dec. 5, a key step in deciding whether voters will see the issue next fall.

Justices are not supposed to consider the merits of constitutional amendments, such as whether decriminalizing medical marijuana would be a good thing for the state. Instead, they look at the ballot title and summary — the wording that voters see at the polls — to determine whether the proposed constitutional changes are accurately described. Also, justices look to make sure the proposals deal with single subjects.

Even if the Supreme Court signs off on the proposal, that does not mean the medical-marijuana amendment will go on the ballot. The group spearheading the proposal, People United for Medical Marijuana, still would need to get 683,149 valid petition signatures.

Bondi and Republican legislative leaders gained more legal firepower Friday when a coalition of influential groups filed a brief with the Supreme Court seeking to keep the measure off the ballot. Those groups include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Medical Association, the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Sheriffs Association.

The briefs outline the key issues in the legal battle. Perhaps the biggest issue focuses on whether the wording accurately describes the breadth of the proposed changes.

The summary says, in part, that the amendment would allow the “medical use of marijuana for individuals with debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician.” The full text of the proposed amendment defines a debilitating medical condition by specifying diseases such as cancer, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis and also includes “other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient.”

Bondi’s office has focused on that final part of the definition, contending that it would open up “unfettered” authority for physicians to approve the use of marijuana. The attorney general’s brief Friday said voters would not know that from the wording of the ballot title and summary.

“Although Florida’s Constitution allows sponsors to propose such an expansive and permissive marijuana law, it also requires that they inform voters of the proposal’s ‘true meaning and ramifications.’ … This summary does not do that,” the brief said. “Instead, it promises a narrow and limited marijuana program — the precise opposite of what the amendment would deliver.”

But attorneys for People United for Medical Marijuana wrote that the attorney general’s office has a “flawed interpretation of the initiative” that does not take into consideration a series of requirements that a patient would have to meet before receiving medical marijuana. Along with having a debilitating medical condition, those requirements would include undergoing a physical examination, getting a written certification from a physician and obtaining an identification card from the Florida Department of Health before being able to buy marijuana from a “registered treatment facility.”

“(The) medical marijuana amendment does not attempt to define all possible debilitating conditions, nor should it because the Constitution is a document for now and the future,” the group’s brief said. “The text of the Constitution should not try to list all debilitating diseases and conditions, but should and does allow proper scope for medical judgment.”

Another potentially important issue before the Supreme Court could be wording related to federal law. The ballot summary says the amendment “applies only to Florida law” and does “not authorize violations of federal law.”

Bondi’s office contends that the language is misleading because it suggests that federal law allows medical marijuana.

“For decades, marijuana use — including for medical purposes — has been a federal criminal offense,” the attorney general’s brief said.

But supporters of the amendment have a completely different interpretation of the language, saying it places voters “on notice” that the proposal does not authorize violation of federal marijuana laws.

“The nature of federal interaction with state laws allowing medical marijuana, especially in the enforcement area, is evolving at this time,” the supporters’ brief said. “However, Florida citizens are entitled to change Florida law, as many other states have done. The title and summary for the medical marijuana amendment place voters on notice that any change provided by this amendment affects only Florida law, and that federal laws are unaffected by this change.”

–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida

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