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Week 8 in Tally: First coronavirus cases in Florida, seeing no evil at domestic violence agency, and the emergence of late-session deal-making

Greetings! There’s only two weeks left in the legislative session and, if you’re keeping track of these things, last week was a historic one . On Sunday, after a Manatee County resident and a Hillsborough County resident tested “presumptively positive” for the the novel coronavirus, Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a 14-day quarantine for people suspected of having been exposed to respiratory ailment.

Meanwhile, history was made when a House committee interrogated officials from a domestic violence coalition under oath. And, as we watch 14 states vote tomorrow on Super Tuesday, Florida voters will start heading to the polls for early voting in our presidential primary.

Let’s start with the nerve-wracking: The governor issued an executive order late Sunday directing Surgeon General Scott Rivkees to follow the guidelines established by the CDC to control the spread of COVID-19. The first cases involve a Manatee resident ”without travel history to countries identified for restricted travel by the CDC” and a Hillsborough resident who has a history of travel to Italy. More here.

Blind trust and see-no-evil oversight: The Florida House made rare use of its subpoena powers last week and managed to extract telling testimony from three board members and two staff at the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In a stunning display of ignorance from people whose primary job was oversight and fiduciary responsibility, the board chairs claimed they didn’t know former CEO Tiffany Carr had used them to pad paid time off and then cash out millions. Two of her top deputies said they knew she did it, attributed the decision to the board, and admitted they didn’t say anything when they were directed to use state grant money for more than $4 million in payouts to Carr.

The revelation was made only more stark by the affidavit of a former board member who was demanding answers, only to be silenced by Carr and others. Adding to the drama was the emerging evidence that there may have been a cover-up.

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Readers have told us this story has resonated with them because it confirms a suspicion that many people getting government money aren’t held to proper account. We’ve already established that Carr rewarded loyalty and capitalized on her political ties to the powerful. Is this a pattern anywhere else in government? We’re pretty sure, there will be more to come.

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Viral accounting: The week ended with the announcement that Florida Department of Health labs will now test for the novel coronavirus, giving state health officials the ability to confirm cases within 24 to 48 hours, instead of three to five days as has been the case. The state also ended a mistake that, had it stood, would have been historic.

DeSantis held a press conference on Thursday touting the state’s readiness for the novel coronavirus. But the governor refused to produce some simple facts: How many people had been tested for the virus in Florida, and how many others were under observation. “I don’t think I’m allowed to go into the numbers,” he said, incorrectly blaming a state statute.

By Friday, Rivkees corrected the bizarre self-censorship call, and announced health officials are “investigating” four people who may have been infected and are monitoring 152 more. Two days later, the state confirmed two apparent cases.

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WHAT WE’RE READING

School in the shadows: If you read one thing this week, please read this. The Herald’s Monique Madan explored the role Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho played in getting children from a secret migrant camp into school. It’s a heartwarming story of good people, and compassion meeting a desperate need.

WHAT WE’RE WATCHING

Senate pulls a weed deal: A sure sign that a legislative deal is in the works is when a bill that is a priority for one chamber moves in the other chamber late in session. That appeared to happen Friday as Sen. Gayle Harrell filed an amendment to a healthcare package before the Senate Rules Committee. The amendment advances the priority of House Speaker José Oliva who wants a cap on the psychoactive compound in all medical marijuana, THC. Harrell’s amendment stops short of a House proposal that caps THC at 10% potency for all patients and limits the cap to just patients under 21 years old, with exceptions for those who are terminally ill and patients whose doctors allow it. (For more on all marijuana-related developments, check out Samantha Gross’ weekly newsletter, In the Weeds.)

Targeting those pesky initiatives: Florida Republicans are in their 22nd year of holding a majority in both the governor’s office and the Legislature, but that doesn’t mean they don’t fear competition — and we’re not talking about Democrats.

Citizen-backed initiatives, most of them organized by progressives and liberal advocacy groups, have forced Republicans to accept policies through constitutional amendments that they have spent years refusing to pass. Among them were amendments limiting class size, restricting gerrymandering, investing in environmental preservation, limiting gambling, and restoring felons’ voting rights. So it should come as no surprise that Republicans have also mounted a steady march toward restricting citizen initiatives.

This year’s version looks particularly restrictive: SB 1794 and HB 7037 require citizen initiatives to collect more than three times as many signatures before being deemed eligible for a Supreme Court review. The bills are ready for votes in both chambers. Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, tried and failed to rename the bill the “Direct Democracy Limitation Act.”

Merger March: Talk is cheap but legislative action could get very expensive for Florida’s two smallest state universities. The tough-talk proposal to merge New College and Florida Polytechnic into the University of Florida now seems to be facing little legislative resistance, increasing the odds that it could pass. How did we get here? Herald/Times Tallahassee Reporter Emily Mahoney has this very helpful explainer.

Doctor doubts: Scott Rivkees, the pediatrician in charge of leading Florida’s fight against the coronavirus, is likely to be confirmed by the Senate as the state’s surgeon general. But a Herald/Times look into his record, revealed a vindictive management style and other allegations.

WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT

Early voting opens: Florida’s presidential primary is two weeks away and voting begins today. In person early voting begins in Miami-Dade County as well as Duval, Hillsborough, Orange and Monroe. Broward and Palm Beach counties open their early voting centers on March 7.

Polls show state Dems are showing their age, as the contest here appears to be between three old white men. Former Vice President Joe Biden has picked up steam from his win in South Carolina and we know that Mike Bloomberg believes he needs to do well in Florida on March 17. Bloomberg has planned a rally in West Palm Beach Super Tuesday night as election results come in from 14 states.

So what is Bernie Sanders’ Florida strategy? Last week his campaign calculated that he could walk away from the ”60 Minutes” interview in which he says “ it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad” about Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution, draw condemnation from Miami Democrats and a scold from the state party and, instead of apologizing, he doubled down. More from David Smiley on that here.

Forget the printouts: The Florida House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee has taken to printing out our stories on the scandal at the domestic violence coalition and including them in their information packets. How about saving some paper and just subscribe? It’s a good deal for unlimited digital access - only $1 a month here.

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