Stories about Florida

Noah Valenstein resigns as secretary of Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein stepped down from his position on June 4. He had led the agency for over four years since former Gov. Rick Scott (R) appointed him on May 23, 2017. Shawn Hamilton, the department’s deputy secretary for land and recreation, will take over as interim secretary. 

In his resignation letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Valenstein said, “it has been an honor to head Florida’s lead environmental agency during a time where natural resource protection has been a top priority, with unprecedented support and advancements.”

Before he was appointed secretary, Valenstein worked as the executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District. He has also worked on environmental policy in the Florida House of Representatives and for Gov. Scott. 

The secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection heads the agency responsible for protecting the state’s natural resources and enforcing its environmental laws. The department also oversees Florida’s state parks and trails system, among other duties. The governor appoints the secretary with the agreement of three or more members of the governor’s cabinet.

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Florida governor signs bill limiting contributions to ballot initiative petition drive campaigns to $3,000

On May 7, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill—Senate Bill 1890—to set $3,000 limits on campaign contributions to committees in support of or opposition to ballot initiatives until the secretary of state certifies the measure for the ballot and assigns it a ballot position and number designation. The bill was designed to lift the contribution limits after a measure is put on the ballot.

On April 14, the Florida Senate passed the bill 23-17. Twenty-three Republicans were in favor, and 16 Democrats and one Republican were opposed. On April 26, the Florida House of Representatives passed the bill 75-40. All 75 voting Republicans were in favor, and all 40 voting Democrats were opposed.

In Florida, initiative proponents must collect signatures equal to 8% of votes cast at the previous presidential election. The requirement to put an initiative on the 2022 ballot is 891,589 valid signatures. Florida also has a signature distribution requirement, which requires that signatures equaling at least 8% of the district-wide vote in the last presidential election be collected from at least half (14) of the state’s 27 congressional districts. In 2020, four initiatives qualified for the ballot in Florida. The petition drives to put those measures on the ballot cost an average of $6.7 million each, ranging from $4 million to $8.8 million. From 2016 through 2020, the average total cost of an initiative petition drive that successfully qualified an initiative for the ballot in Florida was about $5.1 million. 

Nationwide, the average total cost of a successful initiative petition drive was $2.1 million in 2020. It was $1.2 million in 2018.

In Florida, the petition drives that put the four initiatives that were on the ballot in 2020 were each funded by one donor or entities that were all associated.

MeasureCommitteeDonorPetition drive cost
Amendment 1Florida Citizen VotersCitizen Voters Inc.$7,864,029.60
Amendment 2Florida for a Fair WageThe Morgan Firm PAC$4,007,182.47
Amendment 3All Voters Vote, Inc.MBF (Miguel B. Fernandez) Family Investments LTD, Miguel B. Fernandez, and Miguel B. Fernandez Revocable Trust$6,315,623.86
Amendment 4Keep Our Constitution Clean PCKeep Our Constitution Clean, Inc.$8,798,870.70

On May 8, the ACLU of Florida filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida arguing that SB 1890 violates First Amendment freedom of speech rights and that the state has “no significant state or public interest in curtailing debate and discussion of a ballot measure.” The lawsuit cited previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings that overturned limitations on campaign contributions for ballot measure committees, including Citizens Against Rent Control v. City of Berkeley (1981), First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978), and Buckley v. Valeo (1976). The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in previous cases that political contributions constitute freedom of speech and cannot be limited without a compelling state interest, such as to prevent corruption and bribery. The court has also ruled that “referenda are held on issues, not candidates for public office. The risk of corruption perceived in cases involving candidate elections simply is not present in a popular vote on a public issue.”

As of May 3, 2021, Ballotpedia had tracked 197 legislative proposals concerning ballot initiatives, veto referendums, referrals, local ballot measures, and recall in 39 states in 2021 legislative sessions. At least 18 had been approved, and 20 had been defeated or had died.

Notable topics among bills introduced in 2021 sessions include supermajority requirement increases, signature requirement and distribution requirement increases, single-subject rules, pay-per-signature bans, residency requirements and other circulator restrictions, fiscal impact statement and funding source requirements, and ballot measure campaign contribution restrictions.

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Florida State Legislature sends constitutional amendment to 2022 ballot concerning flood resistance improvements and property taxes

On April 26, 2021, the Florida State Legislature gave final approval to House Joint Resolution 1377. Voters will decide the constitutional amendment in November 2022.

The measure would authorize the state legislature to pass laws prohibiting flood resistance improvements to a home from being taken into consideration when determining a property’s assessed value for property tax purposes.

To put a legislatively referred constitutional amendment before voters, a 60% supermajority vote is required in both the Florida State Senate and the Florida House of Representatives.

The amendment was introduced by Rep. Linda Chaney (R) on February 26, 2021. The amendment was passed by the House on April 21, 2021, by a vote of 118-0 with two Republican representatives absent or not voting and in the Senate by a vote of 40-0 on April 26, 2021.

In November 2022, 60% supermajority voter approval is required for the amendment to be added to the state constitution.

A total of 78 measures appeared on the Florida ballot between 2000 and 2020, including six measures that appeared on the statewide ballot in odd-numbered years. From 2000 to 2020, an average of about seven measures appeared on the ballot during even-numbered years in Florida. Between 2000 and 2020, 71.79% (65 of 78) of statewide measures were approved by voters, and 28.21% (22 of 56) were defeated.

New apportionment data released – six states gain congressional seats, seven states lose seats

On April 26, 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau released it post-2020 census apportionment counts. Six states—Texas (two seats), Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon—gained seats. Seven states—California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia—each lost a seat.

Of the six states that gained congressional seats, three are Republican trifectas (Texas, Florida, and Montana), meaning Republicans control the governorship and majorities in both state legislative chambers in each. Two (Colorado and Oregon) are Democratic trifectas, and one (North Carolina) is a divided government.

Of the seven states that lost congressional seats, three (California, Illinois, and New York) are Democratic trifectas, two (Ohio and West Virginia) are Republican trifectas, and two (Michigan and Pennsylvania) are divided governments.

What is apportionment, and how does it work? Every ten years, the nation conducts the census, a complete count of the U.S. population. The data gleaned from the census determines congressional apportionment. Apportionment is the process by which the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are allotted to the states on the basis of population, as required under Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution. A state can gain seats in the House if its population grows – or lose seats if its population decreases – relative to populations in other states.

After the first census (1790), the 105 members of U.S. House represented about 34,000 residents each. Now, the 435 members of the House will represent an average of 761,169 residents each.

The 2020 census: According to the 2020 census, the resident population of the United States, as of April 1, 2020, was 331,449,281, representing a 7.4 percent increase over the 2010 population. California remained the most populous state with 39,538,223 residents. The population of Texas, the only state to gain multiple congressional seats from apportionment, grew by nearly 4 million residents between 2010 and 2020, reaching 29,145,505. Utah was the fastest-growing state: its population increased by 18.4 percent between 2010 and 2020, reaching 3,271,616.

The census is a complex undertaking. First, the Census Bureau collects data. This involves making a list of every residence (including houses, apartments, dorms, etc.) in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the five U.S. territories; asking members of each household in the country to complete the census survey; and following up with those households that did not submit surveys. The Census Bureau then must process the data. This involves making a final list of residential addresses, cross-checking for duplicate responses, and processing write-in responses. The Census Bureau also uses imputation, a statistical method applied “in rare instances” that enables the Census Bureau “to fill in missing information using what we already know about an address and its nearest, similar neighbor.” Typically, upon final processing of the data, the Census Bureau delivers state population and apportionment counts by December 31 in the year of the census. Detailed redistricting data follows by April 1 of the next year.

On November 19, 2020, Census Bureau Director Steve Dillingham announced that, “during post-collection processing, certain processing anomalies [had] been discovered.” Dillingham said that he had directed the bureau “to utilize all resources available to resolve this as expeditiously as possible.” On January 27, 2021, Kathleen Styles, a Census Bureau official, announced that the final apportionment report would be delivered by April 30, 2021.

What comes next: The Census Bureau has not yet delivered redistricting data to the states. Upon announcing the 2020 apportionment counts, Acting Census Bureau Director Ron Jarmin said, “Our work doesn’t stop here. Now that the apportionment counts are delivered, we will begin the additional activities needed to create and deliver the redistricting data that were previously delayed due to COVID-19.” The Census Bureau expects to deliver the raw data to the states by August 16. The “full redistricting data with toolkits for ease of us” will be delivered by September 30.

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Representative Alcee Hastings dies from pancreatic cancer

U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) died from pancreatic cancer on April 6. He was first elected to Florida’s 23rd Congressional District in 1992 and represented it until it was redistricted as District 20 in 2012. Hastings was first elected from the 20th District in 2012. In last year’s general elections, Hastings defeated Greg Musselwhite (R), 79% to 21%.

Before being elected to Congress, Hastings was a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida from 1979 until 1989. In 1989, the U.S. Senate tried Hastings on 17 counts of perjury and bribery, finding him guilty on eight counts. The Senate voted to remove Hastings from that judgeship, but he was not disqualified from holding office in the future.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) will set a date for a special election to fill this vacancy. As of April 6, five special elections to the 117th Congress have been scheduled in the following districts:

  1. Louisiana’s 2nd and 5th Districts,
  2. New Mexico’s 1st District,
  3. Texas’ 6th District, and
  4. Ohio’s 11th District.

With Hastings’ death, the current partisan breakdown of the U.S. House is 218 Democrats, 211 Republicans, and six vacancies.   

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Florida Administrative Commission appoints new chief administrative law judge

On December 15, the Florida Administrative Commission, composed of the governor and cabinet, appointed Pete Antonacci to serve as chief administrative law judge (ALJ) of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH).

As chief administrative law judge, Antonacci will manage 31 administrative law judges within the DOAH as they oversee challenges to state agency rules. 

State ALJ operations vary by state. While some states mirror the federal ALJ structure by allowing state agencies to maintain a roster of state ALJs, 28 states, including Florida, operate a central panel of ALJs who are assigned to agencies as needed. 

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U.S. Senate confirms Cannon to federal district court judgeship

The U.S. Senate confirmed Aileen Cannon to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida by a 56-21 vote on November 12, 2020. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida is one of 94 U.S. District Courts. They are the general trial courts of the United States federal courts.

After Cannon receives her federal judicial commission and takes her judicial oath, the 18-member court will have ten Republican-appointed judges, seven Democrat-appointed judges, and one vacancy. Cannon will join four other judges appointed by President Trump.

The U.S. Senate has confirmed 222 of President Trump’s Article III judicial nominees—three Supreme Court justices, 53 appellate court judges, 164 district court judges, and two U.S. Court of International Trade judges—since January 2017.

Cannon was an assistant attorney for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida from 2013 to 2020. Before that, she worked in private practice and as a law clerk to the  United States Court of Appeals for 8th Circuit Judge Steven Colloton. Cannon earned her bachelor of arts degree from Duke University in 2003 and her J.D., magna cum laude, from the University of Michigan Law School in 2007.

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Burgess defeats Lewis in special election for Florida State Senate District 20

Daniel Burgess (R) defeated Kathy Lewis (D) in the special general election for Florida State Senate District 20 on November 3. Burgess secured 54.9% of the vote to Lewis’s 45.1%. 

The special election was called after Tom Lee (R) announced his retirement, effective Nov. 3. Lee served from 2016 to 2020. 

Ballotpedia identified the Florida State Senate as a battleground chamber in the 2020 election. Democrats needed to gain four seats to overcome the 23-17 Republican majority. As of November 6, Democrats had not gained any seats, with one race remaining to be called in the chamber.

Florida has a Republican state government trifecta. A trifecta exists when one political party simultaneously holds the governor’s office and majorities in both state legislative chambers. 

As of November, 59 state legislative special elections have been scheduled for 2020 in 27 states. Between 2011 and 2019, an average of 77 special elections took place each year. Florida held 24 state legislative special elections from 2010 to 2019.

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Republicans flip two U.S. House seats in Florida

Two Democratic U.S. representatives lost re-election bids in Florida, bringing the count of defeated incumbents to seven as of Nov. 5. All seven defeated incumbents are Democrats.

In Florida’s 26th Congressional District, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D) lost to Carlos Gimenez (R). In the 27th District, Donna Shalala (D) lost to Maria Elvira Salazar (R). Both incumbents were first elected in 2018.

Other incumbents defeated in 2020 are Abby Finkenauer (IA-01), Collin Peterson (MN-07), Xochitl Torres Small (NM-02), Kendra Horn (OK-05), and Joe Cunningham (SC-01).

Two other congressional districts have switched party hands. Democrats won open-seat races for North Carolina’s 2nd and 6th Congressional Districts, where Republican incumbents George Holding and Mark Walker did not seek re-election. They announced they would not run after court-ordered redistricting in 2019 changed the partisan composition of the districts.

In 2020, Ballotpedia is calling congressional races once there is a consensus projection from five outlets: ABC News, CNN, FOX News, NBC, and the New York Times. As of 8:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 5, we called 379 of 435 House races. Democrats had won 192, and Republicans had won 187. Democrats currently hold a 232-197 majority.

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Esteban Bovo Jr., Daniella Levine Cava running in Miami-Dade County’s mayoral election

Esteban Bovo Jr. and Daniella Levine Cava are running in the nonpartisan general election for Mayor of Miami-Dade County on November 3, 2020. In the August nonpartisan primary, Bovo and Levine Cava advanced with 29.5% and 28.6% of the vote, respectively.

Though the race is nonpartisan, the candidates have received partisan support, with Republican organizations endorsing Bovo and Democratic organizations endorsing Levine Cava. The office was last held by a Democratic-aligned candidate in 2004. In 2016, incumbent Carlos Gimenez, a Republican, won re-election 48% to 32%.

Both candidates currently serve as Miami-Dade County commissioners. Bovo said his priorities include supporting small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, investing in law enforcement, and investing in infrastructure and transportation projects. Levine Cava said her priorities include supporting working people during the coronavirus pandemic, addressing climate change, and investing in infrastructure.

According to the Miami-Dade County website, the mayor “is Miami-Dade’s highest-ranking elected official and chief administrator, who oversees a metropolitan government with 28,417 employees, an annual budget of approximately $8.9 billion, and serving 2.7 million residents.” The seat of the county is Miami.

Additional reading:
Mayoral election in Miami-Dade County, Florida (2020)
Municipal elections in Miami-Dade County, Florida (2020)