Christie: Will Gov. Scott tear down Florida’s ‘liquor wall’?

Little package stores like The Beer & Liquor Store in western Lake Worth could be run out of buinsess by a controversial “liquor wall” bill if it’s not vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott today. (Kevin D. Thompson/The Palm Beach Post)

UPDATE: Pointing to concerns about preserving small-business jobs, Gov. Rick Scott late Wednesday vetoed the so called “liquor wall” law, which requires hard spirits to be sold in separate facilities from most retail goods. The veto was a victory for independent liquor-store owners, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits and Publix Super Markets, which fought the bill during the legislative session that ended May 8.

Would you be okay buying your Johnnie Walker Black whiskey in the same Target store as your Wheaties cereal?

How about the convenience of picking up your Don Julio tequila while you grab your diabetes medicine?

Does the thought of BOGO-ing your bourbon raise your, ahem, spirits?

Or does the thought of mixing hard liquor with family food shopping make you a bit queasy?

These questions will be settled for you today. Because today is the deadline for Gov. Rick Scott to sign a controversial “liquor wall” bill (SB 106) passed by the legislature that would a repeal a decades-old law requiring hard spirits to be sold in separate facilities from groceries and other goods.

It’s anyone guess whether Scott will sign, veto or let the measure become law without his signature; the bill is backed by retailers such as Target and Walmart.

Members of the Florida Independent Spirits Association, which, along with Publix Super Markets and ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, opposed the repeal, have stepped up the pro-veto movement since the House narrowly signed off of the measure — in a 58-57 vote — on April 26.

Meanwhile, Floridians For Fair Business Practices, which includes Walmart and Target, has urged to urge Scott to sign the bill.

The governor’s office as of last Friday had received 2,674 emails, 570 letters and 235 calls in opposition to the bill since lawmakers gave approval, according to Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone. Another 3,245 names were submitted via petitions collected at independent liquor stores.

The governor’s office during the same period had also received 434 phone calls, 320 emails and seven letters that voiced support for the bill.

PALM BEACH GARDENS — In recent years, supermarkets like Publix have been opening up separate liquor stores next to their grocery stores. (Taylor Jones/The Palm Beach Post).

Here’s the skinny: Opponents argue the change would hurt small liquor stores (also called “package stores”), eliminate jobs, result in a greater ability for minors to get liquor and lead to more impulse-buying of alcohol.

You can see that argument. After all, Walmart has a competitive edge because they buy in big quantities. How can a little mom-and-pop franchise of one or two stores liquor stores compete with them price-wise.

On the other side, proponents counter that the policy promotes a free market and provide more convenience to shoppers. They also dispute the argument about minors getting access to liquor, saying minors are more likely to get alcohol at home.

That may be true, also, as studies have shown that kids raid their parents liquor and medicine cabinets for alcohol and drugs, respectively.

Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who sponsored the bill, said the existing law is “antiquated.”

“The current alcohol separation law in the state of Florida is outdated and creates an uneven playing field for retailers,” Flores said in a statement earlier this month.

The measure got through the Senate in a 21-17 vote on March 23.

The issue has been heavily lobbied in the Capitol in recent years. If approved by Scott, the bill would affect the business models of retailers on both sides of the debate.

Along with the independent liquor stores and ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, Publix has been involved because it operates stand-alone liquor stores in many of the same shopping centers as its grocery stores. Meanwhile, retailers such as Target, Walmart and Costco want to be able to sell liquor in the same stores where shoppers pick up groceries and other goods.

Tell us what you think by taking our poll here.

Christie: HS graduations, evening rush hour a bad traffic mix on on Southern

Southern, on a good day, can slow to a crawl at the slightest hint of a fender bender during evening rush hour. Imagine throwing in several thousand more cars — all trying to get to the same place at the same time — and, well, you get the picture. (Photo by Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post)

These weeks of the school year, thousands of parents and loved ones of Palm Beach County high school graduates are swelling with pride.

Unfortunately, however, that also means that Southern Boulevard (and to a lesser extent, Belvedere Road) from Florida’s Turnpike to State Road 7 is swelling — with traffic.

And I can tell from the amount of near-misses and drivers leaning on their horns, that I’m not the only commuter who’s noticed.

Jasmine Morales hugs a classmate before the start of the Boynton Beach High School graduation on Saturday at the South Florida Fairgrounds. (Taylor Jones / The Palm Beach Post)

Since May 10, graduations for 30-plus high schools and other programs have churned through the ample South Florida Fairgrounds. (The final four graduations are scheduled for Thursday.) The result: westbound traffic in 2-3 of the four lanes on the above-mentioned stretch, from 4-7 p.m., are nothing short of traffic nightmare during rush hour.

Southern, on a good day, can slow to a crawl at the slightest hint of a fender bender during that time. Imagine throwing in several thousand more cars — all trying to get to the same place at the same time — and, well, you get the picture.

And before I forget, these aren’t all “more experienced, careful” adult drivers. Many are said high school grads — some driving their first car — who are not so used to handling the frustration of navigating such heavy traffic and the subsequent “road rage” that accompanies it.

Speaking of which, drivers need to keep these emotions in check. We don’t want anyone hurt, especially at such a celebratory time.

But I passed by at least one major accident last week that, I’m sure, caused more than a few graduation attendees to be late.

Palm Beach Gardens Spanish teacher Francia Lamus takes a selfie with student Romario Gardner before the start of the school’s graduation on Thursday. (Taylor Jones / The Palm Beach Post)

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that this is one of those temporary but unfortunate necessities in life. I gladly participated in two at the Fairgrounds myself. It is a great venue for these events.

But in the future — maybe even today — it would be nice if our Palm Beach County Schools and government officials offer some alternate routes to us western commuters, so that we all aren’t crashing the grad festivities.

For example, would it be better to take Forest Hill Boulevard into Wellington?

Would it be better to take Okeechobee Boulevard into Royal Palm Beach and the Acreage, or to SR 7 for Loxahatchee Groves, Wellington or heaven help you, the Glades?

And can the Town of Haverhill handle Belvedere as an alternate traffic route?

Congratulations to all of the high school grads; but Thursday can’t get here fast enough.

Christie: Tough questions may signal tough re-election for Mast

Suzanne Reynolds of Jupiter plans to work to defeat Brian Mast in next election over his support of repealing and replacing Obamacare. (Photo/Bill DiPaolo)

Are U.S. Congressional District 18 voters having some buyer’s remorse when it comes to Rep. Brian Mast?

You can bet the Florida Democratic Party hopes so; especially after last month’s House vote for the controversial American Health Care Act — or Trumpcare

Mast, like other GOP House members (and some senators) around the country, has faced down some tough questioning from constituents at town halls the last few weeks. To the freshman congressman’s credit, he did not back down from his vote to essentially back President Donald J. Trump’s pledge to “repeal and replace” the troubled Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Before Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, met with constituents earlier this month, some protesters stood along PGA Boulevard to criticize his vote for a Republican health care bill. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

Take this exchange with a voter, according to the Post’s George Bennett earlier this month:

“I am ‘pre-existing’ along with my family,” one woman told Mast at Tuesday’s meeting. “If they pull the ACA and they pull the pre-existing, what are we going to do?”

Said Mast: “This bill has my support because I absolutely do not believe that it will be pulling coverage from people with pre-existing conditions.”

Many in the crowd groaned, but Mast continued, saying “This is the reality. It is in word, written in the law, that you cannot do this. You cannot pull it away from people.”

“If they pull my pre-existing, can I come to your office and ask for your help to get insurance?” the woman asked Mast.

“I hope you do so, ma’am,” Mast replied.

Mast, who in 2010 lost both legs after stepping on a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, also told an occasionally raucous town hall meeting  in April:

“There are positives and negatives” in the health law known as Obamacare, said Rep. Brian Mast, who noted he gets his health care from the Veterans Health Administration. “I’m not going to pretend this is the easiest thing to work through.”

Indeed. And Dems are relishing that Florida’s 18th Congressional District, which includes Stuart, Port St. Lucie and part of northern Palm Beach County, an opening despite Mast winning last fall with 53.6 percent of the vote.

Politico reports that retired Army Major Corinna Robinson is talking to state and national Democrats about getting in, and she confirmed her interest. She has run unsuccessfully for Congress once before, but in South Dakota. In 2014, Robinson challenged GOP Rep. Kristi Noem in a campaign that generated very little outside attention, and lost 67-33. Robinson relocated to Florida in January for what Politico describes as “via a Pentagon job and Brookings congressional fellowship to support the counter-terrorism program at Joint Special Operations University at U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa.” (On the other side of the state.) One enthusiastic unnamed Democratic strategist praised Robinson as a “fucking unicorn.”

Worth mentioning: Another military veteran Pam Keith, who took 15 percent of the vote in the 2016 Senate primary, recently formed an exploratory committee.

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, smiles as he greets supporters during his successful campaign last fall. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Not sure what other Dems are interested in challenging Mast. But a pushover, he won’t be.

Despite taking hits at three town hall this year, he hasn’t backed down from meeting with constituents (like some of his congressional brethren).

Also while those town halls have been noticeably packed with Democrats, party leaders shouldn’t forget that his district leans to the right.

In April, attendee Rhonda Giacomelli of Palm Beach Gardens said the gathering didn’t provide an accurate picture of Mast’s Palm Beach County-Treasure Coast district.

“They are passionate Democrats and I applaud their enthusiasm,” Giacomelli said of Mast’s critics, “but they don’t represent this district.”

Will Mast be able to hold on to his seat in 2018? Take our poll here.

Goodman: Answer Comey’s firing with an independent probe into alleged Trump-Russia ties

In this Wednesday, May 3, 2017, photo, then-FBI Director James Comey pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. President Donald Trump abruptly fired Comey on May 9, ousting the nation’s top law enforcement official in the midst of an investigation into whether Trump’s campaign had ties to Russia’s election meddling.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

UPDATE 12:34 p.m.

The New York Times and others are reporting that just days ago Comey asked Justice Department officials for a significant increase in money and personnel to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The Times attributes its information to three congressional sources briefed on the request.

The timing of Mr. Comey’s request is not clear-cut evidence that his firing was related to the Russia investigation. But it is certain to fuel bipartisan criticism that President Trump appeared to be meddling in an investigation that had the potential to damage his presidency.

The F.B.I. declined to comment. But Sarah Isgur Flores, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said “the idea that he asked for more funding” for the Russia investigation was “totally false.” She did not elaborate. (New York Times)

****

President Donald J. Trump’s surprise firing of FBI Director James Comey instantly brings back the sick-to-the-stomach feeling of former President Richard Nixon’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre.

Once again, a president under investigation for suspected illegalities in his election has fired the man leading the investigation against him.

Once again, an existential question hovers over Washington and the nation at-large: Can the president be above the law? And if not, how is he to be held to account?

Trump’s stated reasons for firing Comey, as expressed in a memo prepared by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — that Comey was unfair to Hillary Clinton by discussing her mishandling of emails in a press conference, though he declined to recommend her prosecution — makes no sense. If that were the reason, why now, 100-plus days into Trump’s presidency? And why should Trump, who led avid crowds in choruses of “Lock her up!” fire anyone for any lack of kindness to Hillary Clinton?

On the other hand, Trump gave Comey the boot on Tuesday afternoon just hours after CNN learned that federal prosecutors had issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of  former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn as part of the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Comey publicly confirmed the existence of that probe at a Senate hearing last week, disclosing that the investigation was being led jointly by the Alexandria U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

The subpoenas represent the first sign of a significant escalation of activity in the FBI’s broader investigation begun last July into possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia.
The subpoenas issued in recent weeks by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alexandria, Virginia, were received by associates who worked with Flynn on contracts after he was forced out as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, according to the people familiar with the investigation. (CNN.com)

The worry now, by some Republicans in Congress as well as Democrats, is whether a Justice Department headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who concurred in Comey’s firing despite saying he would recuse himself from the both the Russia meddling and Clinton email matters, can be trusted to continue this investigation.

The investigation is crucial not for the purpose of damaging the president for partisan purposes, but to understand the depth of a foreign adversary’s interference in the exercise of American democracy.

It is imperative now that Congress regain its bearing as a co-equal branch of government and authorize or organize an independent investigation of Russia’s meddling in the election, and the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with those efforts.

Anyone out there disagree? Take our poll …

 

Goodman: Up in smoke: Florida Legislature chokes on medical pot

With staggering ineptitude, the Florida Legislature managed to let down millions of Floridians — yet again — by failing to pass a bill to reasonably regulate medical marijuana.

After hammering out almost all the disagreements between them, the House and Senate failed on Friday to bridge their differences over the number of dispensaries the state should have as time ran out on the 2017 legislative session.

This leaves implementation of Amendment 2, passed by an overwhelming 71 percent of Florida voters last November, in the hands of state Department of Health. This is the same bureaucracy that took more than two years to make a low-THC version of medical marijuana, called Charlotte’s Web, available to the small, qualifying number of people with seizures after the Florida Legislature OK’d that very limited use in 2014.

Or as the News Service of Florida put it, they’re the same bunch “who have been harshly criticized by legislators, patients, vendors — and judges — for their handling of the state’s current medical marijuana regulations.”

“The Florida Legislature chose political gamesmanship over the will of 71 percent of voters,” said Ben Pollara, executive director of the group Florida for Care, who also served as campaign manager for the political committee that backed the amendment. “The will of the people was thwarted again today by Tallahassee politicians, but they can’t deny us forever. Florida for Care will continue fighting to implement the Constitution and bring a compassionate medical marijuana law to this state’s patients.”

The House and Senate had started the legislative session with quite different approaches toward regulating medical marijuana for the much wider number of patients for whom November’s vote’s vote is supposed to benefit.

The House took a much more restrictive approach, but in recent conferences with the Senate, the two chambers came much closer — except on the subject of dispensaries.

The Senate on Thursday modified its proposal to limit each marijuana operator a maximum of 10 retail locations. The number would have increased as the number of eligible patients registered in a statewide database grew.

But, while the House originally wanted fewer licensed marijuana operators in the state, the House’s bill would have allowed the purveyors to have an unlimited number of storefronts.

Critics maintained that an unlimited number of dispensaries would give an unfair advantage to the seven operators currently licensed by the state. (News Service of Florida)

In other words, the politicians squabbled about the potential for a few operators to claim monopolies on the prospective marijuana market, rather than act with the urgency that the amendment requires.

Under the language of the amendment, which went into effect Jan. 3, key regulations are supposed to be in place by early June. That includes the rules for issuing patient I.D. cards; establishing laws and standards for caregivers and growers/distributors/dispensaries (now known as “medical marijuana treatment centers” or MMTCs); and defining the amounts of the drug that can be allotted to patients.

And by early September, the Health Department “shall begin issuing qualifying patient and caregiver identification cards, and registering MMTCs.”

If the deadlines aren’t met, “any Florida citizen shall have standing to seek judicial relief” to force the department to meet its now-constitutional duty.

Is it too early to start drafting the lawsuits?

UPDATE 9;45 a.m.

In the wake of the defeat, the man who bankrolled the medical marijuana campaign, trial lawyer John Morgan, has turned on Pollara, the political consultant who shepherded the bill, blaming him for the legislation’s failure. Politico reports:

Morgan called Pollara a “sellout” for his involvement in lobbying over capping the number of medical marijuana retail distribution centers in Florida. The issue of caps ultimately led to the death of the bill.

“It had nothing to do with patients, but had to do with profits,” Morgan said, accusing Pollara’s Florida for Care group of representing potential medical marijuana distributors who wanted a foothold in the Sunshine State.

But Pollara said he pushed for the caps because he didn’t want the limited number of current medical-marijuana providers to monopolize the market and jack up prices for patients.

“This is painful for me. I love John. I looked up to him as a mentor, but he’s just wrong on this,” Pollara said. “At the end of the day, I didn’t kill this bill. I didn’t want it to die. I told our lobbying team to do whatever they could to get a deal cut. But ultimately we weren’t the ones with the ability to cut a deal.”

Morgan isn’t hearing it. He said his split with Pollara is final, a once-unthinkable schism that’s akin to Batman and Robin going separate ways.

But Politico writers Daniel Ducassi and Marc Caputo go on to put the matter in perspective:

In refusing to cut Pollara any slack, Morgan pays relatively short shrift to the idea that, in the waning days of the legislative session — which had to go into overtime because House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President John Negron disagreed on so much — any small dispute over a bill in the final days would be its death knell. Since the caps issue killed the bill, those who fought for them are to blame for the bill’s failure.

The fate of medical marijuana in the Florida Legislature was always iffy. The GOP-controlled Legislature, where rank-and-file conservatives don’t want to appear soft on drugs, only began approving medical marijuana laws when it looked as if voters would do it without legislative input.

UPDATE 1 p.m.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham is asking for the Legislature to convene a special session to enact the medical marijuana amendment.

The former congresswoman and daughter of former Florida Gov. Bob Graham issued a press release, stating:

“I watched my husband battle cancer and the sickening effects of chemotherapy. So many patients with cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other debilitating diseases could use medical marijuana as a way to treat their pain,” Graham said. “Floridians spent years begging the legislature to take action before taking their case to the voters, but once again, the legislature is ignoring them. If the people of Florida give me the honor of serving as governor, their voices will be heard.”

Failure to enact Amendment Two to legalize medical marijuana, which passed with 71.32 percent approval in 2016, is just the latest example of the legislature ignoring Florida voters.

“Go back to the lottery, or even more recently, Forever Florida, and all you see is the legislature playing shell games with voters. Sadly, no one should be shocked they’ve turned a blind eye to Floridians facing chronic diseases,” Graham said.

For the third year in a row, the legislature is misappropriating funds for Florida Forever, a land and water conservation program supported by 74.96 percent of Florida voters in 2014.

“If my kids acted like the legislature when I told them to clean their rooms, they’d still be grounded,” Graham said. “As governor, I will force the legislature to fulfill their responsibilities, including calling them into special session if needed, to enact medical marijuana legalization.”

 

 

Goodman: Florida House loosens up on medical marijuana, but not to smoking it

The Florida House has overwhelmingly passed a bill setting out rules for medical marijuana that’s much less restrictive than before, but the legislators are being picky about how patients take the substance.

A vaporizer or a brownie? No problem. A pipe or cigarette? No way.

The House bill, passed by a 105-9 vote on Tuesday, settles most of the differences with the more relaxed Senate bill, but it still doesn’t go far enough to please the backers of the constitutional amendment that legalizes medical marijuana in Florida.

“This is still a fatally flawed piece of legislation,” Ben Pollara, policy director for United for Care, the group that pushed the amendment, told Miami New Times.

The details are important because, although Floridians approved Amendment 2 in November by more than 71 percent, it’s up to the Republican-led Legislature to hammer out rules for how medical pot will be grown, distributed, prescribed and used. It’s all supposed to be ready for patients in September — and will be in effect for years.

Related stories from the Palm Beach Post:

Advocates want medical marijuana in Florida, but not like California

How did weed win in a landslide? Credit the white rural voters who gave Florida to Trump

Florida doctors have mixed opinions about medical marijuana

Amendment 2 passes in landslide: What’s next for legal pot?

Under the House’s proposal (HB 1397), patients with one of about a dozen “qualifying conditions” — including cancer, HIV/AIDS and epilepsy — could be certified to obtain medical marijuana by a doctor. But not all chronic pains will be equal under this law.

“The bill also says that patients with chronic pain can access the drug, but only if that pain is directly linked to a debilitating condition that would have qualified them regardless,” the Herald/Times reports.

The House made a number of notable improvements after negotiating with the Senate. As the Sun Sentinel reports:

  • Noneuphoric forms of marijuana can now be used in public. Public use of full-strength medical marijuana remains a misdemeanor.
  • Pregnant patients can now get noneuphoric, low-THC marijuana. Previously, they were banned from using marijuana at all.
  • The number of medical marijuana growing licenses will increase by 10 before July of next year. (There are currently seven licensed growers.) Then, four new licenses will be available for every 100,000 patients.

The Senate is expected to take up its bill (SB 406) on the floor for the first time today.

By allowing patients to use vaporizers or edibles but not to smoke marijuana products, the House is violating the spirit of Amendment 2, critics say.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, pointed out that marijuana is safer than prescription drugs that have caused a statewide crisis in addictions and overdoses:

“Would we rather have them use dangerous prescription drugs … or would we prefer that they smoke a bowl and go to sleep and actually wake up the next morning?” Smith asked. “Who are we to tell legitimate patients that they can’t smoke their cannabis? That is not our business, members. It’s not our business to infringe upon their personal freedoms; it’s not our business to infringe on the sacred patient-doctor relationship.”

Critics also worry that by capping the number of growers and distributors too strictly, the state will create cartels that will jack up prices and limit choices. “Patients will be driven to the black market,” Pollara said.

But House Majority Ray Rodigues, the sponsor of his chamber’s bill, noted that marijuana is still an illegal Schedule 1 drug in the eyes of the federal government. He said it’s a balancing act to fulfill the wishes of Florida voters while not violating federal law. There’s also a strong desire among legislators to prevent medical pot from becoming a back-door way of condoning recreational marijuana.