For decades, the orange has been as important to Florida’s self-image as sunshine, the beach and perhaps even Disney World.
One of the several college football bowl games held in the state every year is the Orange Bowl — not to be confused with the separate Citrus Bowl. The fruit is center-stage on state license plates. A few years ago, questions about the origin of orange juice in the Capitol cafeteria sparked a minor kerfuffle.
But the state’s citrus industry has fallen on hard times in recent years, and this week brought more reminders of it, as a forecast showed crop numbers falling further. Another attempt to pry money out of the state in a dispute over chopping down homeowners’ citrus trees, meanwhile, came up short.
Elsewhere, an attorney for a Death Row inmate tried to get Gov. Rick Scott to postpone what would be the state’s first execution since early 2016. And the state’s new economic-development infrastructure started rumbling to life.
IT’S NOT EASY BEING ORANGE
The state’s orange crop was already at a half-century low before the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday issued its final forecast of the 2016-17 season for the citrus industry. That estimate showed the crop falling 16 percent from the prior year. Grapefruit production dropped 28 percent.
Agriculture Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, who grew up on a farm in Polk County, expressed a need to keep fighting the disease citrus greening, which he equated to being “like a biblical plague” spreading across the state’s groves.
“The future of Florida citrus, and the tens of thousands of jobs it supports, is wholly dependent on the discovery of a silver bullet in the fight against greening,” Putnam said in a prepared statement. “Florida’s brightest minds are making progress toward a solution, but until then, we must continue to support our growers and provide them every tool available to combat this devastating disease.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Wednesday, in the final forecast for the 2016-2017 season, that Florida growers have harvested enough oranges to fill 68.7 million 90-pound boxes. The figure was up slightly from a June forecast, but down from the 70 million boxes growers were originally predicted to fill this season.
The Florida Department of Citrus went with the silver-lining approach, focusing on the monthly uptick.
“Ending the season on a positive note is a big deal because it shows there is still investment in Florida’s signature crop,” Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Department of Citrus, said in a prepared statement. “It takes quite serious effort to produce every single piece of fruit. Every additional box shows promise for Florida citrus.”
Growers produced 81.6 million boxes of oranges in the 2015-16 season.
While citrus greening has been devastating, the industry has also grappled over the years with the disease citrus canker.
The citrus-canker fight was at the heart of a ruling Thursday from the Florida Supreme Court, which declined to invalidate Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of $37.4 million that lawmakers approved to compensate homeowners whose healthy citrus trees were cut down by the state more than a decade ago.
The ruling pointed to circuit-court cases in Broward and Lee counties aimed at forcing the state to pay judgments in class-action lawsuits won by homeowners. The healthy trees were cut down amid a state effort to combat citrus canker.
In going to the Supreme Court, attorneys for the homeowners argued, in part, that quick legal action was needed because of the July 1 start of the state’s fiscal year. Lawmakers included the money in the state budget for the new fiscal year, but Scott vetoed it.
“The petitioners do not provide any support for an immediate need for this (Supreme) Court to resolve the issue,” said the majority opinion fully shared by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson. “Nothing about the start of the new fiscal year prevents the respective circuit courts from issuing the relief requested, if those courts determine that relief is commanded by the facts and law.”
In a scathing dissent, Justice R. Fred Lewis called Thursday’s ruling a “sad day for Florida citizens” and pointed to a constitutional obligation for the state to make payments for taking property.
“This is not a game and our citizens should not be toyed with as if a yo-yo, and yet that is exactly what this veto accomplishes,” Lewis wrote. “Now, with the opportunity to stop this 10-year game of yo-yo, this (Supreme) Court abdicates its responsibility when it allows state actors to disregard their constitutional obligation by playing further games of delay and obfuscation. Justice demands that it stop now.”
DEATH AND DELAY
Previewing the pitched legal battle that is likely to surround the state’s first attempt to carry out the death penalty since January 2016, a lawyer for the inmate scheduled to be executed next month essentially accused Attorney General Pam Bondi of hoodwinking him.
Marty McClain, the lawyer, said the situation could make it more difficult for Death Row inmate Mark James Asay to get his case reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gov. Rick Scott last week rescheduled Asay’s execution for Aug. 24, more than a year after originally signing a death warrant in the case.
But in a letter, McClain asked Scott to put a temporary hold on the execution of Asay, arguing that Bondi had misrepresented the status of the case when she gave the governor a go-ahead for scheduling the execution.
After McClain filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court this spring, Bondi sought a 30-day extension in the case.
McClain said he interpreted Bondi’s request for a postponement, to which he agreed, to mean that the state would not seek a new execution date for Asay until after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the appeal this fall.
Without the 30-day extension, the justices could have taken up Asay’s appeal before their summer break, which started on June 28 and lasts until October, McClain argued.
Instead, the court gave Bondi until July 5 to file her response to Asay.
Two days before the deadline, Bondi certified to Scott that Asay was eligible for execution. After Scott signed Asay’s death warrant on July 3, setting the execution date for Aug. 24, Bondi quickly filed an objection to Asay’s appeal in the U.S. court.
Since a death warrant has been issued in Asay’s case, it would take five Supreme Court justices to order a review, instead of the four that would have been necessary to grant a petition in the absence of a pending execution date, McClain wrote to Scott.
“I think that you should have been fully advised of the pending litigation in the U.S. Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office request for an extension of time,” McClain, who has represented more than 200 Death Row inmates, wrote to Scott. “That would have allowed you to be more fully informed when deciding to reset Mr. Asay’s execution.”
Asay was convicted in 1988 of the murders of Robert Lee Booker and Robert McDowell in downtown Jacksonville. Asay allegedly shot Booker, who was black, after calling him a racial epithet. He then killed McDowell, who was dressed as a woman, after agreeing to pay him for oral sex. According to court documents, Asay later told a friend that McDowell had previously cheated him out of money in a drug deal.
Bondi’s request for an extension from the federal court followed by her office’s certification of Asay as being what is known as “death-eligible” appeared to be a bait-and-switch, McClain told The News Service of Florida.
“That’s what it feels like,” McClain said.
OPEN FOR JOB GROWTH
The new economic development fund born out of a legislative fight between Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, has started accepting pitches for $85 million, the governor announced Wednesday.
The state Department of Economic Opportunity and Enterprise Florida are accepting proposals for money in the “Florida Job Growth Grant Fund,” which was created during a June special legislative session after Corcoran blocked funding for more direct business incentives in the spring regular session.
“We are competing against other states and countries for new jobs, and we must aggressively fight to make Florida the best destination for business,” Scott said in a prepared statement.
Rather than providing direct incentives to individual companies that expand or relocate to Florida, money from the new fund must go toward infrastructure projects or job training. The Department of Economic Opportunity and Enterprise Florida will recommend projects to Scott for approval.
“This fund will free up the governor to cut through unnecessary bureaucracy, regulation, and red tape to improve infrastructure and education leading to greater job growth and opportunity for all Floridians,” Corcoran said in a prepared statement Wednesday.
As part of infrastructure proposals, for example, government entities must detail anticipated economic impacts and “how the public infrastructure improvements will connect to a broader economic development vision for the community and benefit current or future businesses.”
Applications for job-training money are required to describe how the proposals support state college and university programs, as well as providing sustainable workforce skills to more than a single employer.
Applicants must also predict the number of jobs that will be created from the job training.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge to Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of funds lawmakers approved to compensate homeowners whose healthy citrus trees were cut down by the state more than a decade ago.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I often feel it’s part of my job to be a cheerleader for participating in our democracy, by registering to vote and voting. Lately, my job has been to sell voters on not leaving the voting rolls.” — Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, on efforts to prevent voters from unregistering in response to a White House commission’s request for voter information.