Florida’s first round of qualifying for the November elections played out this week. But it was, well, kind of anticlimactic.
Sure, Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson formally entered the battle royale for Nelson’s Senate seat. And that’s a big deal --- both in Florida and nationally.
But despite Scott’s attempts during the past year to be coy or to build suspense, everybody knew long before his April 10 campaign announcement that he was running against Nelson. Qualifying this week was just signing on the dotted line.
Probably the biggest splash this week came from former Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson, a master of political splash. Grayson announced that he was launching a primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Darren Soto in an Orlando-area district.
There’s little chance the Democratic primary fight will open the door to Republicans winning in Congressional District 9, which is Democratic turf. But still, this could get messy.
This week’s qualifying period involved U.S. Senate, U.S. House and judicial-system races. Among the inside-Tallahassee crowd, one question was answered when state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, announced he would not run in a free-for-all for a Central Florida congressional seat that became open when Republican Dennis Ross decided against seeking re-election.
“The outreach and encouragement from across the district has been truly humbling,” Lee, a former Senate president, said in a prepared statement. “Unfortunately, this is simply not the right time for me to go to Washington.”
Lee didn’t say whether he will run this fall for another term in the Senate. But that will become clear in June, when candidates qualify for state races.
GIVING A GREEN LIGHT
Florida lawmakers each year debate whether they should ban red-light cameras. Critics deride cameras as money-making ploys for local governments and private contractors, while camera supporters say the devices improve traffic safety.
Supporters have repeatedly fended off proposed bans and this week got a boost from the Florida Supreme Court.
Justices unanimously rejected a motorist’s challenge to the way the city of Aventura has handled potential red-light camera traffic violations, resolving legal questions that have also popped up in other areas of the state.
Motorist Luis Torres Jimenez, who was ticketed in Aventura, argued that the Miami-Dade County community had given too much authority to a red-light camera company in reviewing potential violations. Aventura contracted with American Traffic Solutions, Inc. --- a major player in the industry --- to help in operating its system.
But justices, upholding a decision by the 3rd District Court of Appeal, said Aventura could use a private contractor to review images --- so long as a city officer makes the ultimate decision about whether motorists are ticketed.
“The Legislature has expressly authorized local governments to allow traffic enforcement officers to issue citations for traffic infractions captured by red light cameras,” said a main opinion, written by Justice Barbara Pariente and joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justice Peggy Quince. “As part of this express authorization, the Legislature has permitted a local government’s agent to review information from red light cameras for any purpose short of making the probable cause determination as to whether a traffic infraction was committed. We thus hold that (a section of state law) authorizes a local government to contract with a private third-party vendor to review and sort information from red light cameras, in accordance with written guidelines provided by the local government, before sending that information to a trained traffic enforcement officer, who determines whether probable cause exists and a citation should be issued.”
Justice Charles Canady, in a concurring opinion joined by justices Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson, came to a similar conclusion.
“The statute in no way precludes a local government from contracting with a third-party vendor to provide assistance in screening images from red light cameras in any way the local government sees fit other than authorizing the vendor to issue citations,” Canady wrote. “On this point, the critical issue is not the details of the relationship between the local government and the vendor. Rather, the dispositive point is that the local government conforms to the requirement that only law enforcement officers and traffic infraction enforcement officers --- rather than employees of a vendor --- may issue traffic citations.”
STUCK IN A HOLE
When state agencies release information after hours, you usually know it won’t be good news.
That was clearly the case Tuesday night when the Department of Corrections announced that it was cutting substance-abuse services, transitional housing and re-entry programs --- services and programs aimed at keeping inmates from returning to life behind bars --- in an attempt to fill a $28 million budget hole.
The cuts are primarily focused on covering a deficit in health-care spending.
Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, in a statement announcing the cuts, said she hopes they are temporary. The announcement came as she prepares to sign a new contract with a private vendor to provide health services to about 87,000 inmates in state-run prisons.
“In order to secure a health services contractor, fund the increased pharmaceutical budget, and adjust for reductions, we’ve unfortunately had to make some very difficult decisions. At the start of the next fiscal year, we will be reducing some of our current contracts with community providers. Additionally, we are reducing operating costs to include maintenance, repair, utilities, and working to find every possible internal solution to reduce costs in order to maximize services for inmates and offenders,” Jones said.
Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, told The News Service of Florida that he has repeatedly warned his colleagues they were shortchanging the prison system.
Brandes said the funding crisis has “been festering for years” and called the cuts unacceptable.
“In the short term, we’re going to have to fund the shortfalls in unconventional ways. But they must be funded. Period. These are not options. You must fund them,” he said.
Brandes said substance-abuse treatment and re-entry programs have been shown to reduce recidivism and to aid prisoners as they transition to the community.
“These are the very programs that have been proven to work. You can’t have an opioid crisis and cut opioid funding. You can’t just let people out of prison without some type of transition back into society. These are the types of programs that the research shows provide the best outcomes,” he said.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the way a red-light camera program is operated in the city of Aventura, giving a victory to local governments and red-light camera companies.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “This is different. This is totally different. The intensity, the filth, the vile nature. We’ve never had anything like this before.” --- Longtime National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, describing the messages she has received since a gunman killed 17 people at Broward County’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February.