News from Tallahassee for 12/19/14

Change in Policy, Like Shift in Demographics, Could Alter Florida’s Political Map posted on 12/18/14

by ASHLEY PARKER and JONATHAN MARTIN | NY Times

Flag of CubaWASHINGTON — The surprise announcement by President Obama on Wednesday that the United States and Cuba will move to restore full diplomatic relations could complicate one of the most enduring fault lines in American politics and reshape the fight to win the presidential battleground state of Florida.

For more than a generation, Republicans have offered a consistent hard-line anthem against the Communist nation, endearing themselves to the politically potent bloc of Cuban-Americans who have been crucial in deciding elections in the state. But those animosities have given way as younger voters with family ties to Cuba but no direct memories of the island under Fidel Castro have been more willing to support Democrats.

“Each day that passes, the proportion of the Hispanic electorate that comes from embargo-era Cubans shrinks, and they are now vastly outnumbered by an explosion of new Puerto Rican voters,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist in Florida who worked on Mr. Obama’s campaigns there in 2008 and 2012. “Moreover, the grandchildren and now great-grandchildren of those embargo-era Cubans have a more open view toward the Cuban question.”

That is not the way some Republicans considering a run for president in 2016 see it. They harshly criticized Mr. Obama, even as they praised the release of the imprisoned American Alan P. Gross.

“This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people,” said Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who called the president “the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime.”

“All this is going to do is give the Castro regime, which controls every aspect of Cuban life, the opportunity to manipulate these changes to perpetuate itself in power,” added Mr. Rubio, a Cuban-American.

He also promised to use his perch in the next Congress as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere to try to prevent the policy from moving forward, with a veiled warning to the White House. “We’re going to have a very interesting couple of years, discussing how you’re going to get an ambassador nominated and how you’re going to get an embassy funded,” Mr. Rubio said.

Wednesday’s news also offered an early glimpse into the challenges facing Jeb Bush, the former Republican governor of Florida, who announced Tuesday that he would explore a 2016 presidential run. Mr. Bush, in a Facebook post, called the moved toward normalized relations “the latest foreign policy misstep by this president and another dramatic overreach of his executive authority.”...

The question for Republicans is how well that sentiment resonates, most notably in Florida. A poll of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County conducted this year by Florida International University found that 68 percent were open to the possibility of restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries, a number that rises to 88 percent among those younger than 30.

But the Hispanic population of Florida is increasingly multidimensional, with a large number of former residents of Puerto Rico and others from Latin and South America, for whom the issue of Cuba is not paramount. This has been particularly true in the growing Orlando area; Mr. Obama’s victory in Florida in 2012 was powered in part by his sizable margins in two heavily Hispanic counties.

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Lawyer: Scott broke law with private emails posted on 12/9/14

by GARY FINEOUT | AP

FL Gov Rick ScottTALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott's disclosure of nearly 200 pages of emails from a private Google account could become key evidence in an ongoing lawsuit that charges that the governor flouted the state's public records law.

The Scott administration released documents late last month that showed Scott, using a private account, exchanged emails with top aides and others on topics including vetoes, the state budget and his speeches. Scott has previously said he used a Google email account to communicate with his family and not for state business.

During a Monday hearing, a circuit judge agreed to let Tallahassee attorney Steven Andrews amend an existing public records lawsuit he is pursuing against Scott. Andrews' lawsuit contended that the governor's office either did not give him records connected to a dispute over land near the governor's mansion or needlessly delayed, giving him the records.

Andrews said the sudden decision to turn over the emails came after state officials previously denied to him that any such emails existed.

"It's a violation of the public records laws (that) when you ask for the email accounts of the governor, they don't give you the email accounts and then two years after we ask for the emails they suddenly provide them to us," Andrews told Chief Circuit Judge Charles Francis.

It is not a violation of law to have a private email account, but it would be a violation if someone asked for emails and the governor's office failed to turn them over. Andrews has cited past letters from the Scott administration and from Scott's attorney contending that they had previously turned over all records.

Thomas Bishop, a private attorney hired by the Scott administration, argued unsuccessfully that Andrews should not be allowed to amend his ongoing lawsuit to include new charges against the governor. He maintained that the governor's office has turned over all records requested by Andrews.

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Lawsuit Drives Local Officials To Consider Charging Fire Fees Through Property Taxes posted on 12/9/14

by regan mccarthy | wfsu

Tallahassee is facing a lawsuit over the way it collects funds to pay for the area’s fire protection services. The city and county are considering a plan to change that collection policy during two public hearings scheduled for this week, but the lawyers bringing the case argue the city’s tenants would still deserve a reimbursement.

Right now, the city collects a fire services protection fee though citizens’ utility bills. But Miami Attorney Matthew Lines calls that fee an unconstitutional tax.

“The way that taxes are supposed to work in Florida is that you get taxed on the value of your real-estate and the government is supposed to use those taxes to pay all the various things it has to pay like for police services and everything else,” Lines says.

Lines is working to address the assessment with a group of attorneys including Tallahassee lawyer and Florida State University professor Steve Bailey. Bailey says when the city imposes that fee through utility bills it’s especially difficult for low income renters.

“You know, you don’t put people’s street camera or traffic tickets on utility bills. You don’t put their parking ticket on utility bills," Bailey says. "You don’t put all these things on utility bills because when you cut off somebody’s utilities, they don’t have utilities!”

Bailey’s group is pushing for a class action lawsuit, a move Assistant City Attorney Cassandra Jackson says the city plans to fight. She maintains there’s no problem with the city’s current collection method.

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With Senate redistricting lawsuit pending, court releases disputed documents posted on 12/9/14

by Mary Ellen Klas | Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court on Monday thrust into the limelight yet another secret email that reveals the role of political consultants in the redistricting process that could have bearing on the pending lawsuit over Senate redistricting.

Tom Hofeller of the Republican National Committee wrote to Rich Heffley, a consultant to the Republican Party of Florida, which appeared to underscore the consultants' role in the redistricting process.

"Congratulations on guiding the Senate through the thicket," Hofeller wrote on April 27, 2012, after the Senate maps were complete. "Looks as if, so far, the Democrats have not realized the gains they think were [sic] going to get. Tom."

While the email won't affect the congressional districts, which the Legislature revised and the courts have upheld, it could play a role in the lawsuit over Senate redistricting.

Heffley responded: "Thanks. Big win." He then correctly predicted the Senate composition after the 2012 elections: "Worse case minus 2. 26-14."

Lawyers for the voters groups obtained the email as the result of a subpoena in the now-completed lawsuit over congressional districts, in which they alleged that Republican political consultants conducted a "shadow" process to manipulate redistricting maps in violation of the Fair District amendments to the Florida Constitution.

But they were unable to get the email into the record in the congressional redistricting lawsuit after attorneys for the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee argued that its release would violate their First Amendment right to associate.

Several hearings and rulings later, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia ruled on June 3 — a day before the end of the redistricting trial — that the document should be released.

The emails "arguably support plaintiff's main contention in the underlying litigation, that Mr. Heffley made 'efforts' on behalf of the respondents and other Republicans to improperly influence the redistricting process,'' the court concluded.

Although there may be a "benign interpretation of the email," the court said, it also could directly support the plaintiff's allegations and should be released because it could "tip the balancing test heavily in favor of disclosure."

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Email ‘attaboy’ may point to illegal work by Republican consultant posted on 12/9/14

by john kennedy | Palm Beach Post

Hundreds of pages of documents ordered made public by the Florida Supreme Court in the state’s redistricting fight now include an email congratulations to a top Tallahassee consultant from a national Republican Party official.

Tom Hofeller, a Republican National Committee consultant who also works for the party’s congressional campaign committee, sent an April 2012 email to Rich Heffley, a Florida GOP consultant praising his work on redrawing state Senate district boundaries.

“Congratulations on guiding the Senate through the thicket,” Hofeller wrote in the document released Monday by justices.

Heffley responded, “Thanks. Big win.”

The email goes on to underscore the advantage the new Senate map maintained for the Republican Party over the Democratic Party.

But Heffley’s role “guiding the Senate” violated the Florida Constitution, according to the state’s League of Women Voters and other groups suing the Legislature over its redrawing of political boundaries two years ago.

Voter-approved amendments to the constitution prohibit district lines from being drawn that help or hurt incumbents or political parties. The Legislature’s initial attempt at casting congressional boundaries was thrown out by a court, forcing lawmakers into a special session last summer to redraw boundaries.

An appeal of the latest version of the congressional map is scheduled to go before justices March 4, the day after the 2015 Legislature reconvenes.

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