Election notes

With election qualifying having closed last Friday, voters in Boca Raton and Delray now know that they will be among the minority in Florida whose voices will matter at almost at every level in November.

Statewide, of course, there’s the race for governor between Rick Scott and Charlie Crist. It’s competitive, even if the Democrats had to make it competitive by running a former Republican. I am assuming, of course, that Crist defeats Nan Rich in the primary, which is a fairly safe assumption. Scott also has a an opponent in the GOP primary, but expect Scott and Crist to attack each other far more than their primary foes.

When it comes to the 120 Florida House and 40 Florida Senate seats, though, competitive races are an endangered species. Three straight Republican-led redrawings of legislative lines have packed Democrats into a few districts and spread Republican voters into as many districts as possible, to maximize their influence. Republican legislators craftily cut deals with minority Democrats to preserve minority-majority districts. That strategy has kept the number of minority Democrats in office high—six of the party’s 14 senators are—but kept the overall number of Democrats in the Legislature low. The GOP has controlled both the House and Senate for two decades.

But Boca and Delray will get two of those rare competitive races. In Florida House District 89, incumbent Bill Hager faces Democrat David Ryan Silvers. In what one might call the Rich White Folks District—along with Boca Raton and Delray Beach, it includes the affluent coastal area all the way to Palm Beach and Singer Island—Republicans outnumber Democrats by only about 3,000. That’s according to registration figures for the 2012 election. New numbers will be out in about a month.

Because the Republican Party of Florida has to worry about just a few state House races, Hager can expect plenty of financial support, and he’s already raised about $135,000. But Silvers works for a subsidiary of Hollywood Media, which was co-founded by his mother, Laurie Silvers. Laurie and her husband also started and sold the Syfy Channel, as it is now known. So David Silvers will have his own source of money.

As for issues, few legislators identify more closely with the insurance industry than Hager, who once ran the Boca-based National Council on Compensation Insurance. Crist intends to criticize Scott’s views on property insurance, which remains an unsolved crisis and a threat to the real estate industry. Expect Silvers to do the same.

An even bigger fight will take place over Florida Senate District 34, which includes southeast Palm Beach County and northeast Broward, south to Fort Lauderdale. Two years ago, Maria Sachs defeated Ellyn Bogdanoff. Bogdanoff was the incumbent, but the district had to be redrawn according to the newly passed Amendments 5 and 6, which made it harder for Republicans to favor their candidates in large counties. Sachs gave up another seat to challenge Bogdanoff in the new district.

Sachs’ victory helped give Democrats 14 seats in the Senate. District 34 may be just one of those seats, but both parties know how important it is.

Let’s assume Crist beats Scott and the Democrats keep those 14 Senate seats. If Crist wants to veto a big Republican bill, the Democrats can block a Republican override. It would need a two-thirds vote, and the GOP would be one vote short. Flip the Sachs seat, though, while holding onto at least 26 others and Crist would have to find at least one Republican to block an override.

In a second term, Scott wouldn’t have to worry about facing the voters again. Democrats fear that he and the GOP then would push through all manner of partisan legislation. The only check on them could be potential backlash in the 2016 presidential election that fires up Democrats and independents.

So if you are a registered voter in Boca Raton and Delray Beach, expect many nasty mailers and many recorded phone calls in the state Senate and House races. You also can expect some for the Palm Beach County Commission District 4 race. Incumbent Steven Abrams is on the ballot for the first time since 2005, when he ran successfully for mayor of Boca Raton. Crist, then a Republican, appointed Abrams to the commission in 2009, and he ran unopposed in 2010. Abrams faces Democrat Andy O’Brien. More about that race in a future post.

Traffic problems—the human kind

We can take away two things from the arrest two weeks ago of a woman who is accused of running a prostitution ring based in an office suite across Glades Road from Town Center Mall.

One takeaway is a reminder of how comparatively little Boca Raton has in the way of serious crime. We remember the robbery-murder at Josephine’s Restaurant in January 2013, of course, but the city’s major ongoing focus remains prevention of burglaries committed by outsiders who target certain neighborhoods. Based on the police department’s Crime Watch alerts, too many residents still become victims by leaving cars unlocked in driveways. Worse, they leave money, IDs and valuables in the cars.

But there is something different about the arrest of the woman who ran O’Asian Wellness Massage and Spa, and something more substantial than jokes about the establishment’s promise of “happy endings.”

Although Boca Raton police made the arrest, running the investigation is the Office of the Statewide Prosecution, not the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, though county prosecutors are part of the investigation. The statewide prosecutor works for the Florida attorney general. A spokesman for the state attorney’s office did not want to comment, but a logical assumption is that if the investigation is multi-jurisdictional, as this one is, the investigation is checking into human trafficking.

For years, some have characterized prostitution as a “victimless crime.” Hey, if some men want to pay women for sex, what’s the harm, except perhaps to the family of the man? Prostitution in Nevada is legal. Regulate it, have the women undergo regular health exams, and keep it off the street, where prostitution at the low end—far from what movies like “Irma La Duce” and Never On Sunday” portray—can degrade neighborhoods.

More recently, though, agencies have come to consider the women as the victims, either coerced into the trade by drug addiction or forced into it by rings of organized crime. Just last week, Gov. Scott signed two bills to help Florida fight human trafficking and the sex trade. We don’t know yet if that happened in the Boca case, but I would bet that the state is checking.

And highways from hell

In Washington, there’s the usual gridlock on what to do about a potential crisis. In South Florida, you already can see the effects of the problem, and you will see more.

The nation is running out of money for highway construction and maintenance. For years, the federal gas tax —now 18.4 cents per gallon—financed work like the widening and repaving of Interstate 95. But the flip side of increased fuel efficiency and conservation is that Americans are buying far fewer gallons of gas per driver than we were 40 years ago. In addition, Americans have been driving less in the years since the recession. More young Americans are shunning cars.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the highway trust fund could hit a zero balance by August without action by Congress. If the fund goes into negative territory, the federal government must stop giving money from the trust fund to states. Two senators—Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee—have proposed raising the gas tax, but there is pushback from opponents of any and all tax increases.

Florida’s response several years ago, when the potential crisis was a problem, was to create another source of highway revenue: tolls on I-95. The state’s preferred term is “express lanes,” separated from the rest of the highway by barricades. The toll price depends on when someone is driving. Highest rates are for rush hour. The state calls this “dynamic tolling.” Carpoolers can get special decals and use the lanes free. Or you can refuse to pay and take your chances in traffic.

The first lanes were installed at the Golden Glades interchange and run south past downtown Miami. Tolls also are in place on westbound 595, the main commuter route from western Broward County. But the state is pushing farther north. The plan at this time is for “express lanes” all the way to Linton Boulevard in Delray Beach. The stretch from the Palm Beach-Broward line to Linton also will go from eight lanes to 10 lanes. The state expects that the “express lanes” from Broward to Atlantic boulevards in Broward will begin in early 2016. There is no timetable for the work into Palm Beach County.

The state argues that the tolls “offers a means of relieving congestion without building new roads or widening existing roads” and are the “cost of increased mobility in the I-95 corridor without the adverse construction impacts.” Further, the state says, tolls will encourage carpooling and flextime employee scheduling.

Perhaps that will happen. Even better, the coming tolls may help the campaign to get commuter rail on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. Maybe South Florida will enter an age of “dynamic commuting.” Even in the best case, however, some drivers after paying at the pump also will be paying with a SunPass, and not just on the turnpike.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.