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Weekly Roundup: Politics Dominates, But Reality Breaks Through

October 2, 2014 - 6:00pm

With Gov. Rick Scott, the entire Cabinet and many of the state's 160 lawmakers out on the stump campaigning for re-election, the news about government in Florida has largely moved elsewhere.

There's some work being done by the courts, which, at least in theory, comprise the least political branch. And the Public Service Commission, with members whose jobs are only indirectly on the line this fall, is still keeping an eye on utilities.

But even those tasks seem to be infused with campaign implications in an overly political season. A lawsuit against the state's voucher system could cause some headaches for former Gov. Charlie Crist, whose base is divided over the issue. And politicians are sensitive to any PSC decision that could hit consumers -- also known as voters -- in the wallet.

Meanwhile, the campaign chugs on, with Scott and Crist trading blows over everything from lagoons to wedding dresses. Even as a tragic case in the Gilchrist County town of Bell served as a painful reminder of the real-life decisions that the winners will face when the campaigns end and the work of governing begins.


Ironically, one of the most politically combustible cases working its way through the courts made the quietest progress this week, with the 1st District Court of Appeal deciding to send a challenge to the state's congressional districts straight to the Florida Supreme Court.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court, in a 2-1 decision, agreed to the relatively unusual move, which is known as "certification." It marked a victory for voting-rights groups fighting the congressional map, the latest chapter of a long-running battle between opponents of the lines and legislative Republicans. The organizations opposed to the congressional districts argue that they violate a state constitutional ban on political gerrymandering.

The lengthy battle over the lines was one reason that the appeals-court majority said the case should get fast-tracked.

"In this case, any doubts about the need for immediate review by the Supreme Court should be resolved in favor of certification,'' said the opinion, written by Judge Philip Padovano and joined by Judge Simone Marstiller.

But in a dissent, Judge Scott Makar disputed the need to quickly send the case to the Supreme Court because the new districts won't take effect until 2016.

"Certification amounts to a 9-1-1 call to the Florida Supreme Court: 'Youre needed now!' " Makar wrote. "That call is not justified in this case; ample time existing for the normal appellate process to be followed over the next two years. This (appeals) court can handle the matter expeditiously, leaving more than adequate time for Supreme Court review, if it deems it necessary."

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled this summer that two of the state's congressional districts were unconstitutional, but later found that a revised map approved by the Legislature couldn't be implemented in time for this year's elections. Voting-rights organizations object to the revised map and have laid the groundwork to appeal Lewis' approval of some of the original districts that he didn't strike down.

Meanwhile, a group calling itself the Save Our Scholarships Coalition pushed for the Florida Education Association to drop a lawsuit challenging the state's de-facto voucher program. The coalition, which emphasized the benefits of the program to lower-income students, provided the latest reminder of how the battle over vouchers divides the Democratic base in Florida.

The organization consists largely of African-American, Hispanic and Jewish leaders -- some of whom have constituents who are parts of key Democratic voting blocs. But the coalition is at odds with the state's largest teachers' union, which often provides resources and organizational muscle for Democratic candidates.

"I cannot, for the life of me, fathom why these educators are willing to jeopardize the well-being of the state's poorest students," civil-rights leader H.K. Matthews said.

At the same time, the fact that the lawsuit challenging the voucher program is also supported by the Florida NAACP and a Jewish rabbi, shows how complicated the fissures within Democratic voting blocs really are.


There are a few groups that politicians will rarely lose points for bashing during a campaign. Bureaucrats are near the top of the list. So are insurance companies. And somewhere in the mix are utility companies, which make a profit from something that is a necessity in everyday life.

So with pressure mounting from Tampa Bay-area politicians, many up for re-election, the Florida Public Service Commission unanimously rejected a staff recommendation to wait, and instead moved ahead with approval of a $54 million credit for Duke Energy Florida customers because of payments made toward a nuclear power plant that won't be built.

The PSC's staff wanted the panel to hold off until Duke completes a legal battle with Westinghouse Electric Co.

Duke's 1.7 million customers in Central and North Florida won't actually see the money. Instead the credit will be used to shave a few months off an ongoing monthly charge on residential customers of $3.45 per 1,000 kilowatt hours that is imposed for the scuttled nuclear plant in Levy County.

"In my book, I view that (the PSC's decision) as a credit," Commissioner Ronald Brise said after the vote. "If I had to pay 'X' amount over two or three years and ultimately I'm paying less, I'm receiving a credit. That's the way I perceive it, and I think that is the way our customers are going to view it."

In 2012, the utility regulators agreed in a settlement to impose the $3.45-a-month charge to cover previously approved costs and equipment already purchased for the Levy County plant. The fee was set to run into 2017.

Staff noted it could be a year or two before Duke's legal issues with Westinghouse are settled.

But political currents have been battering utilities lately.

This week, a number of legislators announced plans to push bills during the 2015 session aimed at Duke and other power companies, with the proposals ranging from imposing state lobbying requirements on utility representatives hired to sway the commission, to prohibiting a utility from being able to charge customers at a higher rate due to an extended billing cycle.

Prior to the commission meeting, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Attorney General Pam Bondi were among those questioning the PSC staff recommendation that would have allowed Duke to hold onto the $54 million pending the outcome of the Westinghouse litigation.

Bondi sent a letter to Commission Chairman Art Graham before the meeting urging the money be refunded.

"The commission staff's recent recommendation fails to consider the reality that these customers have been left on the hook for a failed project through no fault of their own," Bondi wrote Monday. "Duke needs to do the right thing and credit its ratepayers now."


Meanwhile, the Department of Children and Families released its first effort this week at piecing together what led up to a Gilchrist County man murdering his daughter and six grandchildren before committing suicide, the latest incident in what has become a wave of tragic headlines about the agency.

DCF said Wednesday that it would undertake increased staff training and other reforms in response to the incident, but concluded the rampage could not have been foreseen.

A preliminary report released by the department said the family was involved in 18 child-protective investigations from February 2006 to last month, with the grandfather, Don Spirit, involved in six of the investigations and alleged to be the perpetrator in three of the cases. In one instance, for example, investigators confirmed that Spirit physically abused his then-pregnant daughter, Sarah. She became one of his murder victims Sept. 18 and was the mother of the six dead children.

But the report said investigators could not have known that Spirit would ultimately go on the killing spree.

"The events that unfolded in Bell, Florida, on September 18, 2014, were an incredible tragedy that cuts to the heart of DCF's mission,'' the report said. "The senseless murder of these innocent children and their mother is an extreme outlier. There is no evidence to suggest that anyone, at any time, could have known that Don Spirit was capable of the premeditated and intentional massacre of his six grandchildren, his daughter, and then himself."

The murders drew national attention to the small town of Bell and led to questions about whether the agency could have done more to protect the children. The department and the Gilchrist County sheriff's office visited the family's home as recently as Sept. 2, but the report said a case note indicated that the children were not "in imminent danger of illness or injury from abuse, neglect or abandonment."

Spirit, 51, used a .45-caliber handgun to shoot his 28-year-old daughter, Sarah, and her children, 11-year-old Kaleb Kuhlmann, 9-year-old Kylie Kuhlmann, 8-year-old Johnathan Kuhlmann, 5-year-old Destiny Stewart, 4-year-old Brandon Stewart, and 2-month-old Alanna Stewart. He then called authorities, waited for them to arrive and shot himself.

In an email accompanying the report, department Interim Secretary Mike Carroll announced a series of actions the agency will take, including immediate retraining for Chiefland-based investigative staff members who handled the Spirit case. Also, Carroll said the department will require statewide training for all child-protective investigators on fact-gathering before the start of investigations.

STORY OF THE WEEK: State utility regulators approve a $54 million credit for Duke Energy Florida customers because of payments made toward a nuclear power plant that won't be built

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I have been with the department for 25 years. And I thought I had seen it all until this tragedy occurred." -- Interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, on a murder-suicide that left eight people dead in Bell.

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