GOP cracks emerge, voter fraud suspected, awaiting court rulings
It’s Monday, Feb. 7, and mark this as the week the distance between the Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-led Legislature widened.
The examples include: The budget, in which the House and Senate rejected significant pieces of the governor’s budget proposal — such as the election-year $1 billion gas tax cut — and the Senate scaled back his proposal for an election fraud office, from 52 employees, including 20 sworn law enforcement officers, to 25 employees and no sworn officers.
And although the governor has endorsed giving parents the right to sue school districts if students have been exposed to the influence of “critical race theory,” neither chamber is has included a legal cause of action in their bills. Then there is the big question of redistricting.
WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT
Real voter fraud? Just as Republicans were calling for a new election fraud office, a story emerged last week of another kind of fraud. Several Miami voters alleged that volunteers with the Republican Party of Florida had changed the voter registration without their consent. Miami-Dade Mayor Levine Cava, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, and Sen. Annette Taddeo, all Democrats, are now calling for an investigation into the complaints from residents of Haley Sofge Towers, a county-managed public housing complex in Little Havana.
Dark money drama: The political consultants who created the funding structure for the 2020 ghost candidate scandal are in the midst of another election controversy over possibly thousands of faked signatures submitted by the campaign that is trying to bring a casino to Jacksonville.
By Tuesday’s deadline for verifying petitions, the casino amendment effort had fallen short but an investigation into the signature-gathering process had begun. Consultants involved are Tallahassee-based Abigail MacIver, Dan Newman and Jeff Pitts and Tallahassee pollster and political consultant Ryan Tyson. The petition effort was financed by casino giant Las Vegas Sands.
Redistricting, round one: Legislators finished work on their legislative redistricting maps on Thursday as a unanimous Senate approved a Florida House map and gave final approval to a Senate map. The new configurations position Republicans to be able to remain in control of the Legislature for the next decade.
The attorney general must petition the Florida Supreme Court to review and approve them before they become law for the 2022 election cycle. But the once-a-decade process of redistricting rarely concludes with a legislative vote as the maps have been historically challenged in court.
DeSantis asks court for map help: The governor was the first to ask the court to intervene this time. Last week, he asked the state Supreme Court for an advisory opinion about the legality of changing the configuration of a North Florida congressional district that has elected Al Lawson, a Black Democrat.
The request came in response to the Legislature’s reluctance to adopt a congressional redistricting map the governor’s staff submitted to the Legislature in mid January. It gives Republicans in Congress an eight-seat advantage in Florida, two more seats than a map proposed by the state Senate, and it slashes the number of Black congressional districts from four to two. The plan not only dismantles Lawton’s district, it eliminates the district now held by Democrat Val Demings in the Orlando area.
Briefs due Monday: The court has asked for briefs filed by noon on Monday but the issue will be decided by only 5 of the 7 justices. Chief Justice Charles Canady, whose wife is a candidate for the state House, recused himself as did Justice Alan Lawson, who is not related to the congressman. Canady had written the dissenting opinion that rejected the Legislature’s 2015 attempt at redrawing its congressional map.
What’s the gov’s issue? Senate and House Republicans so far have rejected the governor’s map-drawing approach, arguing that they must adhere to the “benchmark” districts from the last redistricting cycle to avoid diminishing minority voting strength, as required by the Fair Districts provisions of the Florida Constitution.
The governor asked the court if the law protecting minority voting strength “requires that congressional districts be drawn to connect minority populations from distant and distinct geographic areas” or can it be a more “cohesive geographic area”? He seems to be arguing that his proposed map operates the same way as the current map by allowing districts without a majority black population to elect candidates of its choice. But the courts in the 2010 cycle were pretty firm about what those standards should look like.
SCOTUS ahead? Many observers say they think the DeSantis appeal is an effort to pass a map that sets up a legal challenge at the federal level to put a Voting Rights Act case before the U.S. Supreme Court — just as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, another 2024 presidential hopeful, has done for his state.
Is this a test of checks and balances? Between the Legislature’s budget and the court’s redistricting review, the next few weeks should be a demonstration of whether the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine is at work in Florida or not.
Interesting footnote: The governor’s self-published 2011 book described the checks and balance of the three branches of government as designed to blunt one branch from trying to “aggrandize their own authority at the expense of the other departments of the government -- and ultimately at the expense of the people.”
Consolidating power: There are signs however, that the Legislature is willing to let the governor consolidate more power in the executive branch. A proposal that would allow the governor to bypass the state Cabinet in appointing the secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, SB 1658, is ready for a vote of the full Senate.
Citizen initiatives: The Legislature also wants to consolidate its control over statewide policy. The latest effort by Republican lawmakers to place restrictions on proposed constitutional amendments is ready to go to the full House.
HJR 1127 would limit citizens’ initiatives to “matters relating to procedural subjects or to the structure of the government or of this Constitution.” That effectively prohibits things voters have had to put on the ballot because the GOP-led legislature would not take up — such as legalizing marijuana, allowing sports betting and raising the minimum wage.
WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
No-vax truckers: The governor inserted himself into another vaccine skirmish over the weekend, announcing he would work with Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody to investigate GoFundMe for “deceptive practices” after the company blocked $10 million in donations that were meant to go to a protest by Canadian truckers. They were raising funds for truckers working across the US-Canada border who opposed the requirement that they be vaccinated.
Voting rights on trial: The federal trial over the most recent changes to Florida’s voting laws began last week with a focus on what advocates say is one of the lesser-discussed changes to the state’s voting laws: voter registration.
GOP lawmakers passed Senate Bill 90 last year at the urging of DeSantis. It targeted the state’s vote-by-mail process and the use of ballot drop boxes, which have been the basis of some of former President Donald Trump’s claims of voter fraud. But the legislation also required third-party groups to issue a warning when trying to register voters by telling people their application may not make it before the voter registration deadline.
Legislators said the provisions were a reaction to groups not submitting registration forms in time but advocates testified that the warning has had a chilling effect on both potential voters and the people trying to register them, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.
Net metering keeps ticking: Despite efforts by the state’s solar industry to derail a bill that would slash financial incentives and add fees for new home rooftop solar systems in Florida, the bill written by Florida Power & Light continues to advance. House sponsor Lawrence McClure last week attempted to offer a compromise amending the bill to allow current solar users to retain their financial incentives for 20 years, instead of 10 years in the original bill.
But it was not enough to stop the parade of opposition and McClure promised to keep working. The measure gets its second hearing in the Senate on Tuesday.
Budget as weapon: The House dropped a bombshell Thursday when Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, proposed taking $200 million from a dozen school districts that defied the governor last fall when they enacted mask mandates for students.
Fine said he wants money to come from the salaries of more than 1,600 non-school administrators — such as grant directors, budget managers and chief financial officers — making more than $100,000 per year in those school districts, including Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The money would be redistributed to schools across the state that never adopted student masking policies. Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna called Fine “a childish, immature bully who simply hates public schools.”
Will this be more than a threat? The proposal was not in the Senate’s recommended budget, nor in the governor’s, so we won’t know for a couple of weeks if the idea sticks.
Disappearing gas tax cut: Since November, the governor has vowed to cut the state gas tax by 25 cents a gallon in the five months leading up to the November election. It looks like they’re going to make the governor work for it.
Neither the House nor Senate included the $1 billion expenditure in their draft budgets released last week. They both weren’t big fans of his proposal for a $100 million grant fund for infrastructure and job training projects, either. The Senate nixed it and the House included only to $25 million.
Data on NFL and discrimination: In a lawsuit rocking the NFL, fired Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores accused the league of widespread racial discrimination in its hiring process. Here’s what a Miami Herald analysis found: the NFL’s Rooney Rule has gotten Black coaches more interviews for head coaching positions but it hasn’t increased the number who get hired.
$5 million aid to district: As the state ends its experiment privatizing an entire school system — Jefferson County— the Senate is proposing helping the rural, majority Black district by giving it an extra $5 million to ensure its success.
Targeting accrediting agencies: After the agency that sets standards for state universities questioned the state’s two flagship universities over allowing politics to play a role in policy, legislators proposed a bill would prohibit Florida universities and colleges from being accredited by the same body for consecutive cycles.
Fining kids: While other states move to reduce or end juvenile court fees, Florida legislators aren’t moving bills that would stop courts from fining kids when they enter the juvenile justice system.
Ransomware ban: A bill moving through the House of Representatives would ban local governments from paying attackers in ransomware cases, a growing form of hacking that uses malware intended to extort money or other ransom by encrypting files on a victim’s computer or network.
Fed $ for climate change: The federal American Rescue Plan is sending $404 million to Florida to fund 113 projects that will install new storm water pumps and drains in flood-prone cities, convert leaky septic tanks to sewer lines, elevate and flood-proof critical buildings and restore wetlands over the next three years. Combined with the $270 million three-year funding announced by Florida late last year for 76 similar projects, it’s the most significant investment in resilience in Florida. With local matching funds, the total investment tops $1.2 billion.
Shielding COVID data: The DeSantis administration is appealing a lower court ruling requiring the Department of Health to release COVID-19 data. The data would have provided county and demographic information about COVID-19 cases.
Pushaw’s Nazi Tweet: The governor’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, came under fire last week after she suggested in a deleted Tweet that neo-Nazi demonstrators in Orlando, who had been doing Nazi salutes and holding a banner with swastikas, could be Democratic operatives. DeSantis deflected criticism for not immediately condemning the demonstrations, or her comments, and said the criticism was an attempt to “smear” his record.
Ladapo’s supervisor, not a fan: While the University of Florida appeared eager to hire Joseph Ladapo after he was named the state’s new surgeon general last year, a former supervisor in California seemed less enthused about his qualifications, according to records that surfaced last week.
“Would you recommend the applicant as Surgeon General of Florida and (have) confidence in his ability, honesty and integrity to perform related duties?” The answer: “No. In my opinion, the people of Florida would be better served by a Surgeon General who grounds his policy decisions and recommendations in the best scientific evidence rather than opinions.”
Appeal for immigrant kids: A group of Florida business leaders and immigration advocates, including some who came to the U.S. from Cuba as unaccompanied children under “Operation Pedro Pan,” sent a letter to DeSantis last week urging him to reverse a new rule that targets shelters licensed to house unaccompanied migrant children.
Sheriff lied: Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony lied about his past on law enforcement job applications, state investigators found after an 18-month investigation into allegations raised during a vicious election campaign in 2020.
But the sheriff won’t be charged because a case involving the shooting death of a man in Philadelphia was too long ago and the records were too difficult to find, Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators and the Fort Myers state attorney concluded.
Follow us for weekly updates. Miami Herald Capitol Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas curates the Politics and Policy in the Sunshine State newsletter. If you have any ideas or suggestions, please drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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