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Legislation Would Ban ‘Disability Abortions’

February 26th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

New legislation filed at the State Capitol would ban so-called ‘disability abortions’, making it illegal to terminate a pregnancy because a child is likely to be born mentally or physically impaired.

In the US, 65 percent of fetuses diagnosed with down syndrome are terminated.

In countries like Iceland and Denmark it’s nearly 100 percent.

For Ryan Sprague, the issue is personal.

“My oldest son who just recently turned 17, has cerebral palsy,” said Sprague.

Sprague runs a pregnancy information and help center in the state’s capital.

He hopes the legislation sparks a conversation.

“I don’t think it says a good thing for our society if we’re choosing who gets to live and who doesn’t get to live based on a quality of life issue that we determine is unworthy of life,” said Sprague.

The legislation would not make a mother criminally liable for having a disability abortion, but the physician would face a third degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Opponents like Laura Goodhue with Planned Parenthood argue it is blatantly unconstitutional.

“Families that are facing these very deeply personal decisions don’t want the State of Florida or politicians interfering. And it should really be decisions that are made between doctors and pregnant people themselves,” said Goodhue.

Pro-choice advocates call the legislation yet another attempt to bring a case before the US Supreme Court and overturn Roe V. Wade.

“Roe V. Wade has been the law of the land for 48 years, but opponents to safe and legal abortion are not lacking in Florida,” said Goodhue.

Even Sprague doubts the legislation would hold up in court, but he believes the fact it was filed at all sends a strong message.

“I think it is good for us to protect those who are in most need of protection,” said Sprague.

Last year the disability abortion legislation didn’t get a hearing.

It’s yet to be seen if the Legislature has a greater appetite to take on such a controversial topic this year.

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Bipartisan Florida Coalition Pushes for State and Federal Immigration Reform

February 25th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

A coalition of business groups, activists and former and current elected Florida officials are pushing state and federal lawmakers to find common ground on immigration reform.

They hope some change may even come out of the state legislative session that begins next week.

Bipartisan solutions were the focus of the virtual summit on immigration.

“More than 75 percent of Americans approve of immigration reform,” said Immigration Partnership and Coalition Fund Chairman Mike Fernandez.

Florida’s Democratic Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried is pushing for a more compassionate way of dealing with those who arrive in the country.

“What we need are common sense immigration solutions. What we don’t need are detention centers holding immigrant children in Homestead or anywhere else,” said Fried.

One in five Floridians weren’t born in the United States, and immigrants make up more than a fourth of the state’s workforce.

Former Republican Governor Jeb Bush believes there’s common ground to be found in helping those who are already here.

“That if you came here many years ago and you are American in every way and you’re making a contribution to our great country, that you ought to be able to get citizenship and do that in a very rapid way,” said Bush.

Immigration policy is largely in the hands of the federal government, but some reforms have been made at the state level in the past.

Former Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford went to battle with his own party and successfully pushed for in-state tuition rates for any resident, regardless of their immigration status.

“Facing your own party and convincing them to challenge their own fears is the hardest part of this process, but it can be done,” said Weatherford.

Despite the hopes of the bipartisan coalition, only three bills dealing with immigration have been filed for the 2021 session.

Of the bills filed, one would revoke in-state tuition rates for non-US citizens.

Another would tighten requirements for businesses to check the immigration status of potential new hires.

The third would make all Floridian students eligible for state financial aid, regardless of their immigration status.

None have yet been scheduled for a hearing.

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Effort to Ban Confederate Holidays Back Again

February 25th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida recognizes 18 holidays.

Not all of them are celebrated, or get you the day off.

They range from the usual holidays, to the birthdays of Susan B, Anthony and Martin Luther King.

Three celebrate the confederacy, but legislation has been filed to eliminate them.

Florida is one of five states that still recognizes General Robert E Lee’s birthday, Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ birthday, and Confederate Memorial Day.

State Senator Lauren Book is for the second time, filing legislation to strip the holidays from state statutes.

“With all of the hate and divisiveness we see today, it’s more important than ever to condemn racism,” said Book.

Confederate supporters came out in droves in 2018 when Book first filed the bill.

It passed just one of three committees and never came up again.

“I hear from across the state. People say they are infuriated and are going to want to go to Tallahassee,” said David McAllister with the Sons of the Confederacy.

As many as 15,000 from Florida served in the Confederate Army.

An estimated 4,000 died.

McAllister said one in six Floridians have an ancestor who fought in the civil war.

State Senator Dennis Baxley’s great, great, great grandfather fought for the confederacy.

“I always have a bit of pain in my heart when I realize people don’t want to respect each other’s history. The good, the bad, and the ugly,” said Baxley.

In addition to erasing the holidays from law books, the legislation also removes penalties for defacing the confederate flag.

“Why would we have particular protects for the Confederate flag? We shouldn’t stand for that in our state,” said Book.

Confederate supporters say its adding insult to injury.

“It’s so controversial, it’s going to take up a lot of time that could be put to better use,” said McAllister.

Because of COVID restrictions the number of those who want to speak for or against the legislation will be limited, but it is not likely to curb anyone’s enthusiasm.

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Activists Bash Florida Capitol COVID Restrictions

February 25th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Grassroots activists are crying foul over COVID restrictions at the State Capitol on the eve the annual Florida legislative session.

Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and others argue lawmakers aren’t doing enough to accommodate testimony from the public during the pandemic.

Florida Rising Senior Director of Advocacy & Programs Moné Holder said the limits are by design.

“Under the cover of COVID-19, this Legislature is restricting the public access to the legislative process, and that is indeed a problem. Hard working Floridians, taxpayers, they all have a right to be heard and be safe. They have a right to support and oppose legislation. They have a right to transparency and accountability and access to taxpayer-funded buildings,” said Holder.

The COVID policies for the session, which begins Tuesday, were developed in consultation with the University of South Florida.

Access by the public is restricted to testifying from a remote site near the Capitol, or limited in-person appearances.

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Capitol Flags Lowered Amid Controversy

February 24th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Flags were at half staff at the State Capitol Wednesday, honoring talk show host Rush Limbaugh, but not on any other state building.

This may be the first time honoring some who has died by lowering flags has taken a political turn.

Flags have been lowered 56 times since Ron DeSantis took office.

None though, has been as controversial as the honor for talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

In a tweet, the lone statewide elected Democrat objected to Limbaugh.

Nikki Fried had vowed to ignore the Governor’s order on buildings and state agricultural areas under her control.

“To lower the flag for an individual who spent his entire life talking hate speech, bigotry, racism, demeaning women, conspiracy theories. That is not what we want to teach the next generation to idolize,” said Fried.

This is the first notable incident where a flag order has spurred such criticism, but some say it may not only be about flags.

Last week Fried posted a video highly critical of the Governor.

“You won’t here this from Governor DeSantis,” said Fried in the video. “We feel your hurt. Florida can and will do better.”

“I think what you’re really seeing is the opening shot in the Democratic primary,” said former GOP political strategist Mac Stipanovich.

Stipanovich, a longtime GOP Political insider turned independent, believes Fried has her sights on 2022.

“I think what Nikki’s doing is to signal unequivocally to her potential opponents that she’s going to make the race, and they need to take that into their calculations,” said Stipanovich.

The Flag Protocol posted on the Governor’s Office website mentions only former officials and people considered heroes, but nothing in the protocol prohibits the Governor from honoring someone else.

In addition to Limbaugh, the flags have been lowered four separate times this year for fallen law enforcement officers, Parkland and Holocaust victims, and a deceased mayor.

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Florida Making Progress on School Safety

February 24th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida schools are significantly safer today according to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission established in the aftermath of the parkland shooting, where since 17 lives were lost.

The commission met Wednesday and was told most districts, but not all, have made great strides.

More than 3,000 law enforcement officers and 1,300 armed guardians are assigned to 3,700 Florida public schools.

A total of 44 districts have utilized armed school staff through the guardian program.

“Some of the districts that said they don’t have a guardian program currently are actively pursuing a program,” said Tim Hay, Executive Director of the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Safe Schools.

According to a survey presented at the meeting, eight districts reported their guardians don’t have access to a law enforcement radio, which raised concerns among commissioners like Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

“If you have a guardian that’s got somebody at gunpoint and they can’t communicate with the responding cops, it has potential adverse consequences and also can hinder the most effective response,” said Gualtieri.

Twenty schools districts also said staff can’t receive communications of threats on campus and 24 lack the ability for all staff to communicate threats.

That will that change by the start of the next school year, thanks to legislation mandating mobile panic alert systems in all schools passed last year.

“Systems will ensure real-time coordination among first responders and transmit 911 calls and mobile activations,” said Hay.

Despite some of the concerns raised commissioners agreed, the state has made significant strides to improve school safety since the Parkland shooting.

“Despite COVID and despite everything else that they’re dealing with and going through this past year, I’m seeing progress,” said Ryan Petty, commissioner and father of Parkland Victim Alania Petty.

Last year’s comprehensive school safety package failed to pass.

Commissioners expect a new package in the upcoming session, but nothing has been filed yet.

None of the districts listed as not fully compliant were named to avoid making them potential targets.

The commission is also awaiting the release of a statewide grad jury report looking into the Parkland shooting.

It’s expected to be published sometime this year.

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Anti-Riot Bill Protest Planned

February 23rd, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Nineteen people arrested for a protest at the State Capitol last September are taking a stand against anti-rioting legislation being pushed by the Governor and legislative leaders.

The 19 contend they were part of a peaceful protest and said the legislation would only give police more power to shut down free speech.

It was a clear September Saturday when 100 protestors were met by an estimated 300 police at the Capitol.

There was no permit for the event.

Protestors were angry over the deaths of three people at the hands of police over two months.

Nineteen were arrested.

Nearly six months later, those arrested worry anti-riot legislation will shut down future protests.

“That legislation would just give them further power to do the same thing to even more people. To ruin the lives of people who decide to speak out,” said Ben Grant, who was charged with a felony during the ordeal.

Passing the tough anti-riot legislation remains a top priority of the Governor and Legislative leaders, so there will likely be no backing down.

“I think we have to strong law enforcement, and I think we need to have strong laws that protect them to do their job,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

The bill would not allow bond for suspects until they’ve seen a judge, imposes tough penalties for crimes during mob action, and takes away damage recovery from someone participating in a riot.

Grant said he would still be in jail six months later if the bill were already law.

“They did not need that legislation. They got exactly what they wanted. They arrested a bunch of people, they successfully shut down out protests that day and have stifled us since,” said Grant.

Protesters said they will be back at the Capitol next Tuesday, the first day of the legislative session, to protest the anti-riot, pro-police legislation.

The bill also has provisions to punish local governments for defunding police or interfering with their ability to uphold the law.

The House bill has already cleared one of its three committees.

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Report: Legislature Continuing Attack on Home Rule

February 23rd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Last year, Florida lawmakers proposed 42 bills prohibiting local governments from taking action on issues in their communities.

Preemption is a tool being used by lawmakers to remove local authority.

A new report by Integrity Florida examines some of the new ways lawmakers are looking to supersede local governments.

Research Director Ben Wilcox said the state saw a new type of preemption during the pandemic via executive action.

“To block fines imposed by local governments for mask violations,” said Wilcox.

And lawmakers are continuing a trend of stripping away local powers in 2021.

The anti-rioting bill would create a pathway for the Governor and Cabinet to reverse local decisions to reduce police budgets.

“A lot of the preemptions that are being proposed are politically and ideologically motivated,” said Wilcox.

There’s also a bill that would essentially remove local governments’ ability to regulate ports.

“There really is no state level agency that oversees the ports,” said Wilcox.

And a bill that would reverse efforts to reduce campaign contributions in local races.

“In some cases, those local campaign contribution limit reductions were adopted by voters,” said Wilcox.

Integrity Florida fears if lawmakers continue to turn to preemption, it will strip away local governments’ ability to experiment with innovative policies.

“Local governments will not be able to take action to respond to things that their citizenry is concerned about,” said Wilcox.

The report recommends a higher vote threshold for passing preemptions, a single subject rule for preemption bills and implementing sunset dates so any preemption would have to be renewed by future legislatures.

The report also suggests removing fines and punitive liabilities for local officials who violate state preemptions. Currently, local officials who pass gun restrictions stronger than the state’s are subject to punishment, although that policy is currently being litigated in the courts.

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Lawmakers Pitch More Privacy for Voters… and Themselves

February 22nd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Protecting privacy from big tech is high on legislative priorities this year, but lawmakers are also pushing legislation that would shield voter registration data and their own personal information from the public record.

This is the second year legislation to shield state lawmakers’ and cabinet members’ home address, phone number and date of birth from the public record has been filed.

Sponsor Kelli Stargel couldn’t be reached, but last year she said the legislation was aimed at protecting elected officials’ families from danger.

“What I’m trying to solve the problem, is someone who’s in the heat of a moment, of an anger, of a frustration, get online, Google and the first thing that pops up is my home address,” said Senator Stargel in an interview in January of 2020.

The First Amendment Foundation argues shielding lawmakers’ addresses from the public eye would make it harder to ensure officials live in the districts they represent.

The Foundation also takes issue with an exemption in the bill for the employer of elected officials’ spouses.

“It’s impossible for the public to really know if there’s any conflicts of interest,” said Virginia Hamrick, an attorney with FAF.

Another bill filed this year would shield registered voters’ emails, addresses, date of birth and phone numbers.

Mark Earley, Vice President of the Association representing Florida’s election supervisors supports the effort.

“We need to have better protections. Our voters are trusting us with their data. If they can’t trust that they can get registered to vote and still maintain some kind of personal privacy that’s a bad statement about where we are,” said Earley.

There’s one notable exception in the bill.

Political parties and candidates could still access the voter registration data.

“So it’s just available to some and not the public,” said Hamrick.

Whether the records exemption proposals will fare better this year than in previous sessions might depend on how successful the Governor and legislative leaders are in their push for privacy from big tech.

Any public records expeditions must be passed by a two thirds vote in each chamber.

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Legislation Would Stop Trust Fund Raid

February 22nd, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

For the first time in almost 20 years, the Governor is recommending the state spend every dollar in the affordable housing trust fund for just that, affordable housing.

There is also pending legislation that would keep the money from being used for something else except in emergencies.

Funding for Florida’s Affordable Housing Trust fund comes from the tax on documents when someone buys a home.

The problem housing advocates have been fighting since 2001, is the money is often used for something else.

“We have high housing prices, not enough inventory,” said Jamie Ross, CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition.

For every $48 the Legislature has spent from the trust fund on housing, $52 has gone to something else.

“There is a mindset that this trust fund isn’t just for housing, but guess what? It is! It was created just for housing,” said Ross.

State Senator Ed Hooper wants to stop future raids on the trust fund.

“There will no sweep of this trust fund,” said Hooper.

His legislation would classify the housing fund as untouchable except in emergencies.

“Eviction and foreclosure protections are going to go away and folks are going to lose their home. And they have to go somewhere, and they have to be able to provide at least a roof over their heads for them and their families,” said Hooper.

Technically, this year’s legislature can’t bind one in the future, but the sponsor told us he hopes his legislation will make lawmakers think twice.

An estimated one million Floridians now pay more than half their income for housing.

“They are one crisis, you know, a broken car, away from homelessness,” said Ross.

This year the Governor is recommending all $423 million in the trust fund, go to its intended purpose, housing.

A new study done for the Affordable Housing Coalition suggests Florida will see $157 million in increased economic activity if it spends all $423 million on housing this year.

In most cases, the money is distributed through local housing coalitions.

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Supreme Court Hears ‘Water Wars’ Case

February 22nd, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

A 2013 lawsuit filed by the State of Florida against Georgia in what has become know as the “water wars” got its day in court before the US Supreme Court Monday.

Georgia accused the state of doing a poor job regulating oyster harvesting in the state, but Florida countered that Georgia’s water use has been unreasonable and unrestrained.

Apalachicola River Keeper Georgia Ackerman said the future of Apalachicola Bay and every bay is at stake.

“Ultimately how we share the water in the Apalachicola, Chatahoochie, flint system is really important, so it has ramifications for all states, frankly. The Apalachicola river and bay has suffered due to decreased flow from upstream reservoirs and the oysters are a poster child for healthy estuaries. If you oyster population aren’t doing well, it’s typically indicative of challenges across all species,” said Ackerman.

The state has closed oyster harvesting in Apalachicola through 2025.

The bay once accounted for 90 percent of the oysters served in Florida and ten percent of the nation’s supply.

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Lawmakers Eying Punishments for Parents of Truant Kids

February 19th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

More than 87,000 students didn’t show up for this school year and lawmakers are working to find out why and where they are.

While some students likely moved to virtual or home schooling, others simply were not participating at all last year and some lawmakers are pushing for more accountability from parents.

There are a lot of reasons why 87,000 Florida students were unaccounted for this school year.

Senate President Wilton Simpson believes a large chunk were so-called ‘redshirt kindergarteners’, who delayed starting school for a year.

“So I’m hoping that we discover that we have 65,000 redshirt freshmen going into kindergarten next year,” said Simpson.

But Representative Randy Fine believes a substantial number of students didn’t receive any education at all.

“I believe it’s a five figure number,” said Fine.

He said superintendents have done their best to try and get kids back in the system, but they need more tools to hold parents accountable.

“Parents know their kids are supposed to go to school. So if their kids aren’t going to school, they’re abusing them. And so maybe we need this to be a form of child abuse and yeah, maybe we do need to put parents in jail,” said Fine.

Regardless of why the students are unaccounted for, their presence or absence will impact state funding.

The amount funding received by school districts is directly tied to the number of students who actually show up in classrooms.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls sent a letter to superintendents urging them to do whatever it takes to find the missing students.

“Both from a moral obligation to make sure that those kids have an opportunity to learn, as well as from a budgetary standpoint as we build our K-12 budget, we need to be as accurate as humanly possible about how many kids we can expect to come back,” said Sprowls.

And while most districts saw a decline in enrollment last year, three counties actually saw more students than they’d anticipated.

Florida virtual school also saw more than 14,000 additional students.

 

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Collecting Internet Taxes Has a New Twist

February 18th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Senate Finance and Tax Committee approved a bill requiring out-of-state retailers to collect sales tax on internet purchases Thursday.

Economists estimate it will bring in more than $1 billion a year, but a new twist being added means the extra cash won’t go toward solving the pandemic created budget shortfall.

Florida is one of only two states that don’t require out of state retailers to collect the sales tax due from on line purchases.

“We’re down to Missouri and Florida,” said Grace Lovett with the Florida Retain Federation.

Instead, Floridians are supposed to fill out a form four times a year and pay what they owe.

A Senate committee was told that’s not happening.

“We only have about three percent compliance right now, and really what we are doing is putting consumers in a position where they are not following the law,” said Senate sponsor Joe Gruters.

Under the bill most retailers selling more than a $100,000 a year online will have to start collecting Florida’s six percent sales tax at the point of sale, starting July first.

“We are voting here to force people what they owe us, and that is it. This is not an increase,” said Senator Janet Cruz.

But the Governor has shaken things up.

He wants any added revenue from the collection of internet sales tax to be offset back tax cuts elsewhere.

The Governor didn’t include that money in his budget announcement last month.

“Well, look. If they want to do internet sales, what’s the revenue increase? Just reduce the overall sales tax and make it revenue neutral if they think that’s something that will help mom and pop stores. I just don’t want them to use that as a way to try and raise taxes on Floridians,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

The likely recipient, businesses who rent space, but Democrats on the committee questioned the logic of a tax break during a pandemic.

“We have a lot of social services that we’re talking about having to make cuts to,” said Senator Lori Berman.

But without an offsetting tax break, the idea could die on the Governor’s desk.

Florida is the only state that collects a sales tax on commercial rent payments.

Tenants currently pay 5.5 percent.

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Liquor to Go Making Gains in Legislature

February 18th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Floridians have enjoyed alcohol to go and delivery from restaurants for the past year.

It’s a result of executive action taken by the Governor at the start of the pandemic, and lawmakers are now looking to make the change permanent.

The Governor first allowed restaurants to deliver and sell alcohol to go on March 20th, 2020.

It appears the policy will likely stay around for good.

“Due to government-mandated closures they have had to adapt to serve the needs of their customers. The Governor’s executive order has helped restaurants accomplish this goal, while also providing a convenience to customers,” said Rep. Josie Tomkow, who is sponsoring a bill that would make the change permanent.

The legislation came up in it’s first House committee Thursday.

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association told lawmakers extra sales have been a life line for many eateries.

“Some restaurants have closed and will never come back and for those that are hanging on and hanging in there, this is one of the things that’s helping them do that,” said Samantha Padgett, General Counsel for the association.

Rep. Scott Plakon expressed some hesitancy, questioning whether liquor should be included.

“I’ve always kind of put those in separate piles, the hard liquor versus beer and wine so I’m voting yes today, but that could change,” said Plakon.

Previous efforts to permit liquor to go have fallen short, but this year making the case against the bill will be more difficult, since it’s been allowed for almost a year now.

“We’ve proven that it can be done, that it can be done safely,” said Carol Dover, President of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Dover believes the continuation of liquor to go will help restaurants as they face the long recovery ahead.

“It’s helped people stay alive. It has helped people have a job. Don’t take it away. No sense in going backwards,” said Dover.

The bill received unanimous approval in its first House and Senate committees.

It has two more stops in the Senate and one more in the House before it’s ready for a floor vote.

Pending legislative approval, alcohol to go will continue in Florida, so long as the Governor’s state of emergency for COVID-19 remains in effect.

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Senate President Looks to Reign in Executive Powers

February 18th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Legislature wants to look into curbing some of the Governor’s powers when it comes to issuing emergency orders that can override state law.

Senate President Wilton Simpson said it has nothing to do with the current chief executive, but he worries about the future.

“Nothing’s perfect, but this Governor’s done an above average job, an excellent job, of handling the executive orders that he has put out. But you have no idea what other Governors may do in the future, right? And there are many examples around this country of lockdowns having less, having worse outcomes,” said Simpson.

One idea being debated would create an easier path for legislative review of future executive orders.

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