By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
As football season finally has arrived, politicians, special interests and others are setting up plays in Florida’s sports-crazed capital city and the hilltop establishment that calls it home.
The Legislature and critics who challenged congressional districts drawn by lawmakers during the 2012 redistricting process prepared this week for what many hope will be the final drive of the lengthy lawsuit over the state’s U.S. House delegation. Taxi companies, meanwhile, tried to go on offense to fight the mileage being picked up by ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft.
And football itself drew the spotlight in the form of a legal challenge to Florida State University over whether and how guns should be allowed on campus during the Seminoles’ home games. In way, that was a dry run — call it practice — for a legislative showdown over whether firearms should be allowed on campuses in a more-permanent fashion.
Of course, any football fan knows that a team’s game plan is only as good as the results it gets. There was an early (if unsatisfactory) victory by those who wanted to have their guns nearby at real football games, but most of the other players were still waiting to see if the plans set in motion this week would lead to a win or a loss.
REDISTRICTING KICKOFF SET FOR NEXT WEEK
For those who doubted the litigation over the state’s congressional districts was ever going to end, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. At least for this phase of the fight. And it only took 3 Â½ years.
Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis on Friday gave everyone involved in the complicated legal battle until Monday to file maps they believe should be used in the looming 2016 congressional elections. Lewis will then select which one he believes should replace a version of the map drawn by the Legislature and thrown out in July by the Florida Supreme Court. Justices ruled the Legislature’s original plan violated the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” standards approved by voters in 2010.
Under the schedule approved by Lewis, he will hear arguments starting Sept. 24 on what could be as many as four maps. The House and Senate are each expected to submit plans. Also, a coalition of voting-rights organizations and a group of voters that filed lawsuits challenging an initial version of the map drawn by lawmakers in 2012 could each submit a set of districts to Lewis.
Some plaintiffs — perhaps ironically — said that they didn’t think they should be required to disclose who helps draw their maps. But during a trial last year over the map drawn by the Legislature in 2012, those same plaintiffs harped on the revelation that lawmakers relied on plans that GOP political operatives secretly funneled through a public comment process.
Lewis’ ruling came a few days after the state House foreclosed, once and for all, the possibility of a second special session to try to redraw the districts. The first effort collapsed after a bitter fight between the House and Senate over how far lawmakers could go in amending a “base map” drawn by aides and intended to answer the Supreme Court’s objections.
“It is possible that the Senate will agree to another special session to pass the map that the House adopted with overwhelming and bipartisan support,” House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, wrote in a memo Tuesday to his members. “However, if the Senate continues to maintain its position that the Florida Constitution … gives members more leeway to influence regions of the map for community interests, then we can bring our maps to the court for further guidance.”
That wasn’t precisely what the Senate had in mind, and so the talk quickly died down. Meanwhile, both sides of a lawsuit by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown challenging potential changes to her district have asked a federal judge to delay that trial. Sometimes, the light at the end of the tunnel is another train.
CAB COMPANIES THROW A FLAG ON UBER, LYFT
The rapid growth of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft has caught state law and taxi businesses off guard. But this week, the taxi industry decided that it was time to fight back in court.
Taxi companies in Tallahassee and Broward County sued the state Tuesday over app-based transportation services, alleging that Florida officials aren’t requiring Uber and Lyft to prove that the way they calculate trip distances — and charges — is accurate.
The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services certifies taxi drivers’ meters — which measure distances, and, consequently, charges — but doesn’t do anything to ensure that the GPS-based systems on Uber and Lyft drivers’ cell phones, also used to calculate charges, are correct, according to the lawsuit.
That puts the taxi drivers at an economic disadvantage, alleges the lawsuit, filed by Tallahassee lawyers Steven Andrews; his son, Ryan Andrews, and Brian Finnerty.
The lawyers want Uber and Lyft to have to submit their software systems for tracking drivers — as well as the drivers’ cell phones — to the agriculture department for inspection. They’re also asking the court to order the department to immediately begin collecting fees from the transportation network companies, called TNCs.
Companies like Uber and Lyft, which are not defendants in the lawsuit, use cell-phone apps to connect customers searching for rides with drivers. The companies then use the same technology, connected with GPS on the drivers’ phones, to measure the time and distance of the rides and calculate the customers’ fares.
The lawsuit points to an example of an Uber driver who charged a Brooklyn woman more than $16,000 for a seven-mile ride to Manhattan in March.
“There could be no clearer example for the need for Uber’s platform, technology, and each Uber driver’s GPS to be measured, tested, and certified by the state of Florida utilizing the standards promulgated by the Department of Agriculture in conformity with National Institute of Standards and Technology,” wrote the lawyers.
Uber officials said the charge was a mistake and apologized to the rider a month later. A company spokesman declined to comment on the Florida lawsuit.
The cab companies followed up Wednesday with another lawsuit, this one accusing services like Uber and Lyft of operating without proper insurance in Florida.
The cab companies alleged in the lawsuit that the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is allowing drivers for the transportation services to operate without the kind of insurance required by law for commercial drivers.
The type of insurance that Uber provides for its drivers, who own or lease their cars, does not meet the requirements of for-hire vehicles, the lawsuit alleges.
Lawmakers earlier this year grappled with proposals to impose a new layer of insurance on the technology companies in an effort to close a coverage “gap” between when a driver is notified about having a customer to pick up and the “on-call” time when the passenger gets in the vehicle. The proposals failed to pass.
But there might be hope for the new services. House Rules Chairman Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, works as an Uber driver while in Tallahassee, raising questions about whether his chamber might view Uber-friendly legislation in a more positive light in the future.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF GUNNER
Florida State University officials probably never imagined that their “Game Day Plan 2015,” a 28-page information packet about the rules for the Seminoles’ home contests, would land them in the middle of the gun-rights fight. But Florida Carry Inc. announced Tuesday that it and FSU graduate student Bekah Hargrove were seeking an injunction against university officials over the game-day guide.
Hargrove, a member of Florida Students for Concealed Carry, and Florida Carry Inc. filed the suit against FSU President John Thrasher and university Police Chief David Perry. They argued the guide failed to follow a 2013 ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal that said the University of North Florida cannot prevent firearms from being stowed in cars.
Under a section titled “weapons,” the FSU packet stated that weapons are prohibited on campus and that a “fan may not store firearms or other weapons in their vehicles parked on campus while attending the game.”
The school quickly backed down, updating information in the guide about fans keeping firearms in their vehicles.
But that won’t holster the legal challenge. Florida Carry Executive Director Sean Caranna said the group would continue seeking an injunction against Thrasher and Perry.
In updating the guide Wednesday, the university removed references to weapons from a section regarding parking. In another area of the guide, the school noted that while weapons and firearms are permitted in vehicles on campus, the items must be “securely encased in the vehicle.”
But Caranna said only handguns must “meet the definition of being securely encased.”
“The new policy and the statements in their press release are insufficient and factually wrong,” Caranna said. “They could have saved us all a lot of trouble by giving us a call asking us and our attorneys to help them update the policy and come in compliance.”
In a way, both sides could be warming up for next week, when House and Senate panels consider controversial proposals (HB 4001 and SB 68) that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry firearms at colleges and universities. The idea stalled during this spring’s legislative session, but gun-rights supporters are bringing it back for the 2016 session.
Thrasher, a former powerful lawmaker, has been a key opponent of legislative proposals that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on college campuses.
“While we fully intend to continue complying with Florida law, I nevertheless reiterate my strenuous opposition to the recent initiatives to permit the carrying of guns on university campuses,” he said in a prepared statement. “I do not believe that arming students increases campus safety.”
STORY OF THE WEEK: The battle over Florida’s congressional lines continued, following a Florida Supreme Court ruling that returned the case to a Leon County judge.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Robe color also could be seen as a reflection of a judge’s mood or attitude that day. Should a defendant facing the death penalty feel trepidation when the presiding judge appears in a red robe or feel more at ease when the robe is green?”—The Florida Supreme Court, in a ruling ordering that all judges should wear black robes on the bench.