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Shelter Pets Could Become Florida’s Official State Pet

January 21st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Shelter and rescue animals could become the official state pet of Florida if a bill moving through the Legislature becomes law.

Bill sponsor Senator Kevin Rader said while the designation would only be symbolic, it would send a strong message to Floridians that the state supports adoption.

“It just creates some public awareness and if it can save dozens or hundreds of animals and make more awareness for adoption I’m all for it,” said Rader.

The designation applies to all shelter animals, not just cats and dogs.

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Hundreds Rally to Clear Gardiner Scholarship Backlog

January 21st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Hundreds of parents and special needs children rallied at the Capitol Tuesday afternoon hoping to get more money from state lawmakers for the Gardiner Scholarship.

There’s currently a backlog of 3,500 special needs kids waiting to receive the scholarship, which helps pay for them to attend private schools that can better serve their needs.

Governor Ron DeSantis cleared a backlog of 1,700 students last year, but says he and lawmakers are committed to increase funding again this year.\

“I didn’t think it was going to be quite as big, but you know we’re going to take it one step at a time because we know this is an important choice for people to be able to make,” said DeSantis.

The estimated cost to clear the backlog is $42 million.

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Lawmakers Look to Protect Bus Drivers

January 21st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

After two high profile attacks Florida lawmakers are hoping to create more protections for public bus drivers.

New legislation would make assaulting a public bus driver a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

It would also require public transit providers to develop risk reduction programs and drivers to take conflict de-escalation training courses.

The issue has gained particular notoriety in Hillsborough County.

“Their lives in some cases are being threatened. They’re being threatened that someone is going to assault them and we take that very, very serious. And it rings really true at our agency because we have experienced tragic events both in May and recently in November we have another very serious event that has brought that issue to the forefront,” said Colin Mulloy with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

The bill also calls for the deployment of safety measures to protect bus drivers like barriers around drivers.

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Multiple Bills Could Threaten LGBTQ Protections

January 20th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

On a day that is all about celebrating equality, Florida’s LGBTQ community feels like it is under fire from state lawmakers.

Four pending bills could abolish local right to work ordinances, override bans on conversion therapy and more according to Equality Florida.

John Harris Maurer with Equality Florida said the bills could set back advances made at the local level.

“These are either open and hostile attacks on the LGBTQ community or that our local protections are collateral damage,” said Maurer.

Only one of the four bills directly targets transgender minors.

It makes it a felony for doctors to operate on genitals or perform a mastectomy if its for the purpose of a sex change.

Others could overturn local conversion therapy bans, or allow it at home based businesses.

Rep. Bob Rommel is under fire for repealing repealing local employment ordinances, but he said targeting the LGBTQ community is not his intent.

“This has nothing to do with anti-discrimination at all,” said Rommel.

But Equality Florida believes there are unintended consequences that could lead to the repeal of about 20 local anti-discrimination ordinances.

“What we are really focused on here is the impact of the bills, not the intent,” said Maurer.

But Rommel said that’s not the case.

“The bill doesn’t do that and they are wrong!” said Rommel.

The lone statewide-elected Democrat, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, said lawmakers have better things to do than wave read meat in an election year.

“It is 2020. There are so may issues that are impacting our state, whether its our environment or our health care,” said Fried.

While there is debate about the actual intent of the legislation, lawmakers have refused to enact statewide LGBTQ hiring and housing protections for the last decade.

One of three openly gay state legislators tweeted the legislation was like being kicked in the gut by his colleagues.

The tweet has since been deleted, but not before being retweeted by Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

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Felons Voting Rights Front and Center at MLK Day March

January 20th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Hundreds marched to the State Capitol Monday morning in honor of Martin Luther King Jr Day.

The march comes days after the Florida Supreme Court ruled a voter approved constitutional amendment does require felons to pay all fines, fees and restitution before getting their right to vote restored.

The march is an opportunity to recognize the achievements of late civil rights leader and also to highlight ongoing injustices.

Many in attendance, like State Representative Loranne Ausley, said the most pressing issue is the legal battle over the restoration of felons voting rights.

“Our Legislature is making this impossible for some by requiring payment of all fines, fees and restitution,” said Ausley.

Lawmakers included the financial requirements when implementing Amendment 4 last year.

While the Supreme Court ruling upheld lawmakers decision to include the payment of financial obligations for voting rights restoration, civil rights activists like Adner Marcelin, President of the Tallahassee Branch of the NAACP, believe the fight isn’t over.

“We have to stand up and say that it’s not right. Everybody deserves a second chance,” said Marcelin.

Former Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho is hopeful a challenge at the Federal level will strike down the financial requirements.

“Fortunately we do have federal courts which look at the constitutional issues, which the Florida Supreme Court chose not to address at all,” said Sancho.

But some like Representative Jamie Grant, who sponsored the initial Amendment 4 implementing bill, argue if financial obligations are part of the amendment, the whole amendment could be struck down.

“They have threatened the very existence of Amendment 4 because if in fact any financial obligation prior to the ability to vote for a felon is a violation of the 24th Amendment, then Amendment 4 on its face is a poll tax,” said Grant.

The case is set for trial in April.

The Federal Judge has asked the Florida Legislature to act to ensure anyone unable to pay their financial obligations can still vote.

It’s not clear how lawmakers intend to address the issue.

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Lawmakers Poised to Block Local Sunscreen Bans

January 17th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Legislation that would block local governments from banning sunscreens is speeding through the state Legislature.

The bill is opposed by environmental groups who hope the Governor will veto the legislation if it makes it to his desk.

Florida’s designation as the Sunshine State comes at a cost.

“Florida ranks second in the nation for the highest rate of new melanoma cases,” said State Senator Rob Bradley.

Senator Bradley is sponsoring the bill that would prevent local governments from banning sunscreens.

“Sunscreen is the first line of defense against skin cancer,” said Bradley.

It comes in response to a ban set to go into effect in Key West starting in 2021.

Environmental activists like Holly Parker Curry with the Surfrider Foundation argue studies have shown certain chemicals used in some sunscreens are are harmful to coral reefs, a vital tourist attraction for the Keys.

“Why wouldn’t we allow a community to regulate that when their entire economy and way of life based on the health of their coral reefs?” said Parker Curry.

But Senator Bradley called the studies ‘junk science’.

“Local governments should not be picking and choosing which types of sunscreens are available based on junk science,” said Bradley.

Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed a bill last year that would have blocked local governments from banning plastic straws.

Environmental groups are optimistic he might do the same if this bill reaches his desk.

“Almost verbatim it would apply. If you don’t like it, then vote them out,” said Parker Curry.

But Bradley believes the Governor will see beyond the local control argument in this case.

“I think the Governor will agree with the purpose of this bill, which is to encourage Floridians and people who visit Florida to use sunscreen,” said Bradley.

The bill will be the first one heard by the full Senate when it meets this coming Wednesday.

The bill is also moving in the House.

It has two more committee stops before it will be ready for a floor vote.

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State Supreme Court Rules Financial Obligations Included in Amendment 4

January 17th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s Supreme Court has validated the Legislature’s efforts to require felons to pay all legal financial obligations such as fines, fees, and restitution, but a federal court will likely have the last word.

Federal District Judge Robert Hinkle has put lawmakers on notice to come up with a plan to make sure those too poor to pay can still vote before an April trial.

Human rights attorney Mark Schlakman said the amendment could be in jeopardy.

“Unless he is satisfied that there adequate provisions in the statute, he could conceivably declare the constitutional amendment for the state of Florida constitution unconstitutional under the U.S. constitution. But then you have questions as to whether and what extent,” said Schlakman. “Is it the whole amendment or just part of the amendment?”

The current law does allow felons to seek a waiver of the financial obligations or perform community service, but there is no statewide standard for how that is carried out.

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Lawmakers Seek to Block Insurance Companies from Access to DNA Tests

January 16th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

More than 26 million Americans have voluntarily submitted their DNA for analysis, but a loophole in federal law could allow some insurance companies to get the genetic information.

State lawmakers took the first step Wednesday to close the loophole.

Hundreds of DNA testing kits are on the market and getting more popular everyday.

An analysis by a state legislative committee reports nearly six percent of Americans have had the tests run.

A federal law stops most insurance companies from getting their hands on the results.

“There is a massive loophole for life, disability and long term care,” said Representative Chris Sprowls.

Sprowls is leading the charge to make sure insurers are barred from asking for the tests and then using them against people.

“They’re gonna take genetic information that can be weaponized by an insurance company who’s gonna take it to set rates or exclude somebody from coverage,” said Sprowls.

The insurance industry has nine high powered lobbyists working against the bill, hoping to short circuit if for the second year in a row.

None of the lobbyists would talk with us on the record about their opposition before or after the bills first hearing.

The insurers worry someone who isn’t in the market for insurance might learn of a potential illness, purchase that policy and then drive up losses and rates.

“What they want to do is have nor risks. They want to spin the roulette wheel and know exactly where the ball is gonna land and that’s unacceptable,” said Sprowls.

Senate sponsor Kelli Stargel of Lakeland said the fears are misplaced.

“I think they’re putting a higher weight on some of these genetic tests. More than just a propensity as well,” said Stargel.

The bill cleared its first committee unanimously.

The AARP and Johns Hopkins Childrens Hospital both supported the legislation.

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Senate Advances Criminal Justice Reform Package

January 16th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Legislation allowing judges to hand out lower sentences in many drug cases is now ready for a vote in the full State Senate after clearing its final committee stop Wednesday afternoon.

Florida has made a number of criminal justice reforms in recent years, but there’s one area lawmakers say has been left out.

“Sentencing reform has been somewhat elusive,” said Senate Sponsor Rob Bradley.

If the bill becomes law, it would make some of the first major sentencing reforms in decades.

It would allow in certain drug trafficking cases, for judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences.

“We could all agree that we could do better when it comes to dealing with the scourge of drugs in our society,” said Bradley.

The idea is facing opposition from law enforcement.

“Drug traffickers are killing people in our state with the poison that they’re pumping,” said Gary Hester with the Florida Police Chiefs Association.

Also prosecutors.

“When you get to the 15 and 25 year level of trafficking that is a lot of drugs. That is not a personal possession amount,” said Philip Archer, President of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

But lawmakers were quick to refute concerns raised by opponents.

“Many of these people are girlfriends of drug dealers that get caught up in the whole thing and they’re facing the exact same charge or similar charges the drug dealer’s facing,” said State Senate Jeff Brandes.

While Sen. Bradley said the main purpose of the bill isn’t about cutting costs, he does estimate it could potentially save $50 million.

It’s money that could go a long way in a severely underfunded prison system.

“We have too much turnover in the Department of Corrections and we need to pay our corrections officers more,” said Bradley.

The bill also allows for people who have been wrongfully incarcerated, but have a previous criminal record, to receive compensation from the state.

It still has a long way to go.

The House is often more conservative on criminal justice issues.

The two sides will likely spend the next few weeks working on a compromise.

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Controversial Abortion Bill Advances in Senate

January 15th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A bill that would mandate parental consent for minors seeking abortions has cleared another pivotal hurdle in the State Capitol.

Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary committee focused heavily on whether the legislation would pass constitutional muster.

The State Supreme Court struck down a law in 1989 that required minors to get their parents’ consent before having an abortion.

Now, more than 30 years later, lawmakers believe they’ve come up with a new version that can be upheld.
“This bill also provides a judicial waiver process and a medical emergency exception in accordance with the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in In Re: T.W.” said Senate Sponsor Kelli Stargel.

Before clearing its second senate committee lawmakers heard from both sides of the debate.

Passions were high.

“I’m a 62-year-old woman who had an abortion at 16 and have not been able to have a child since,” said Brandon Resident Megan Petty.

“The implementation of this bill will not lead to stronger families, it will lead to more girls dying of sepsis in the emergency room after attempting a self administered abortion,” said FSU Medical student Rachael Sabra.

Supporters pointed to US Supreme Court rulings that put an emphasis on the rights of parents to make decisions for their children.

“The Supreme Court of the United States in 2000 declared that the liberty interests of the parents in the care, custody and control of their children is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by the court,” said Constitutional Attorney KrisAnne Hall.

Opponents argued the legislation violates the state constitution’s privacy clause the same as the law struck down in 1989.

“It is an undo burden on a young woman’s constitutional right to determine for herself whether and when to become a parent,” said Kara Gross with the ACLU.

The bill needs to clear one more Senate committee before it’s ready for a floor vote.

The Governor throwing his weight behind the bill during his State of the State address sends a strong message to senators.

Senator Stargel said public opinion is also on her side.

“It’s not a partisan issue, it’s more about having the family have the opportunity to have a discussion with their minor daughter when she’s pregnant,” said Stragel.

Opponents did score a minor victory Wednesday.

Democrats on the committee were able to force an amendment that would have brought the Senate version inline with the House’s to be withdrawn over procedural objections.

But Executive Director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates Laura Goodhue argues, the real battle will be in the courts.

“This really is the end game, is to open up the privacy clause in Florida’s constitution to expand upon and pass more abortion restrictions,” said Goodhue.

Opponents worry the State Supreme Court’s newly conservative leaning may increase the likelihood the legislation could stand this time around.

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Legal Holiday Fireworks Bill Ready for Senate Floor Vote

January 15th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Holiday fireworks are one step closer to being legal twice a year after a senate committee passed a bill Wednesday morning.

Initially the bill would have legalized fireworks on Independence Day, New Year’s Eve and day and Memorial Day, but Senators approved an amendment removing Memorial Day from the list.

Senate sponsor Travis Hutson said the decision to remove Memorial Day came from concerns over elevated fire risks.

“The AG Commissioner called and there were some other individuals as well that spoke and said that is typically the high point of the dry season, so Memorial Day coming out would alleviate some of those concerns,” said Hutson.

The bill is now ready for a vote on the Senate floor.

It still needs to pass one more committee in the House before a floor vote.

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Sunscreen Preemption Passes Final Senate Committee

January 15th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A bill that would prohibit local governments from banning certain types of sunscreen passed its final Senate committee Wednesday morning.

The bill comes in response to an ordinance passed by Key West that banned sunscreens containing certain chemicals believed to be harmful to coral reefs.

Senate Sponsor Rob Bradley argued banning sun screen discourages the public from protecting themselves from the sun and that the studies suggesting sunscreen can be harmful to corals are ‘junk science’.

“The science I’m concerned about is the dermatologists who tell me that when you live in Florida or you visit Florida and you don’t use sunscreen you can get sunburn and that can potentially develop into serious conditions like skin cancer. And Florida has the second highest rate in the country of new melanoma cases,” said Bradley.

Environmental groups opposed to the bill argued the science behind certain sunscreens’ impact on corals is not debatable.

They also noted there are effective sunscreens available that are not harmful to sea life.

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Background Check Legislation Facing Staunch Opposition

January 15th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Senate is pushing expanded background checks for private sellers of guns.

Only ten counties in Florida require private sellers to perform background checks at gun shows.

A Senate bill on the move would make the checks mandatory in all 67 counties.

“We’re gonna ban the sale of weapons in any public place unless there is a background check conducted at the time of the sale,” said Senator Tom Lee.

But the bill does more.

It also requires private sellers to create their own version of the federal firearms sales form and have it signed and notarized by the buyer.

“It’s a complicated for with a series of questions,”” said former NRA President Marion Hammer.

Hammer calls the legislation ‘gun control on steroids’.

“It’s a trap for law abiding gun owners,” said Hammer.

The idea is also running into a brick wall in the House.

“We are always very careful when we in any way start to infringe on those things that people consider their constitutional rights,” said House Speaker Jose Oliva.

If it were to make it through the Legislature, it would likely find a cold shoulder in the Governor’s Office.

“There’s no exemption for gun shows. I mean if you look at a gun show, anyone selling firearms there at any of those tables, they do background checks,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

But Tom Lee said he will keep trying.

“All I am asking for is a chance to bring something to the floor of the Senate,” said Lee.

The legislation also adds medical personnel to the list of people required to report people making credible threats under the state’s Red Flag law, which allows guns to be temporarily taken away from those who are considered dangerous.

Lawmakers will spend the next five or six weeks in search of a compromise.

Something that has eluded the Legislature for the last two decades.

If the legislation were to gain traction, it will likely be March before any deal could be worked out.

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Keep Our Graduates Working Act Clears Final Senate Committee

January 15th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Medical professionals who fall behind on student loan debt may no longer have to fear having their license suspended by the state of a bill passed by a Senate committee Wednesday morning becomes law.

The bill dubbed the ‘Keep our graduates working act’ would prohibit state agencies for suspending licenses based on failure to pay student debt alone.

The average Florida graduate leaves college more than $24,000 in debt.

Senate Sponsor Travis Hutson said it will ensure medical workers can keep earning a living and not fall further into financial turmoil.

“We found this to be a little draconian and we’re going to repeal that and make sure that those can continue to have a job, continue to work as they pay off those debts,” said Hutson.

The bill is now teed up for a floor vote in the Senate.

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Tampa Takes Over the Capitol

January 15th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

From pirates on stilts to a 30-year-old Macaw from Zoo Tampa, Wednesday was Tampa day in the State Capitol.

Traditional cuban sandwiches were being handed out from a pirate ship and there were beads galore.

The annual event is a chance for the Chamber to showcase Tampa and State Representative Jackie Toledo said the awareness will help her convince fellow legislators to approve her 35 different budget requests for the area.

“We have so may requests from the Aquarium, the Straz Center. We have funding requests from flooding. We have New Life Village which you should come by and visit. Definitely, we have varying different appropriations requests in our area and I’m gonna be fighting for all of them,” said Toledo.

The Moffitt Cancer center also had displays in and outside the Capitol.

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