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Panhandle, Still Recovering, Braces for Another Storm

July 9th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Wednesday marks the nine-month anniversary of Hurricane Michael’s landfall in the Panhandle. 
 
As of Monday, there were still 21,669 open insurance claims and many are concerned about a tropical storm that could dump inches of rain later this week.
At the start of July a tarp was still covering part Art Kimbrough’s Marianna home.
 
The damage caused to his neighbor’s roof had just been repaired the previous week.
 
Blocks away, the floor of Kimbrough’s downtown art store and office was covered in plastic.
“Every time it rains, water is coming in,” said Kimbrough. “We have buckets over here.”
Kimbrough estimates he’ll have to empty buckets every two or three hours if the tropical storm expected to form over Georgia produces the three to five inches of rain that has been forecasted.
“Water comes down the wall, we try to steer it into buckets and keep it from doing any more damage than it can,” said Kimbrough.
Panhandle residents are still facing multiple roadblocks to recovery.
The first: Settling with their insurance companies.
Just under 15 percent of the more than 147,000 claims from Michael remain outstanding. 
“Well, on our house the initial claim came in at $27,000 and grew to a hundred and $72,000,” said Kimbrough. “On this building [the art store], initially it was $85,000. Now it’s a $186,000.”
Even when a company settles, labor is in short supply, which is why nine months later, Kimbrough’s roof is still leaking.
“Because there’s no brickmasons anywhere to be had. There’s a shortage of them to begin with. They have so much work to do in all the communities around here,” said Kimbrough.
Labor in high demand like brick layers and roofers are commanding as much as 25 to 50 percent more than they were making before Michael hit the Panhandle.
Given all the other struggles Panhandle residents have faced, the last thing they want is more rain. 

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Appellate Court Rules State’s Medical Marijuana Law Unconstitutional

July 9th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
In a major ruling with big consequences, an appellate court has upheld a judge’s ruling declaring the state’s medical marijuana law unconstitutional.
The First District Court of Appeal ruled that requiring marijuana licensee’s to control all aspects of production, from seeds in the ground to selling medical marijuana, violated the amendment approved by voters.
Jeff Sharkey of the Medical Marijuana Business Association said it will now be up to the Department of Health to draft new regulations.
“So if you want to be a grower, if you want to be a processor, if you want to be a distributor those options appear to be what the court is saying should be consistent with the amendment,” said Sharkey.

Sharkey said that would likely increase competition.

“It should yes. I think there’s a balance here,” said Sharkey. “I think on one hand, the court said that vertically integrated system is unconstitutional. On the other hand they said registering anybody who wants to get a license for cultivation or dispensing is really not in the public interest.”
Earlier in 2019, the Governor criticized the vertical integration of the marijuana business, but he has not yet weighed in on whether DOH will appeal the ruling.
Ultimately, state lawmakers will have to pass new legislation.

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More Local Governments Consider Plastic Straw Restrictions

July 8th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed five bills from the 2019 legislative session including one that would have temporarily blocked local governments from banning plastic straws. 
 
Since the bill was vetoed, more local governments in Florida are considering prohibitions on the single-use plastics.
Plastic straws are among the top five items collected off Florida beaches each year, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Nearly two dozen local governments in Florida have chosen to either limit or outright ban plastic straws.  

“It’s one tool in the tool box. It’s good to have a lot of tools available,” said Beth Alvi with Audubon Florida. “It helps with protection of water quality, restoring our water bodies.”

If not for the Governor vetoing the proposed legislation, local plastic straw bans would have been put on hold until at least 2024.

Across the street from the Capitol building, Leon County Commissioner Mary Ann Lindley saw the Governor’s veto as an opportunity.

“His veto to me said, no we want all hands on deck,” said Lindley. “We have problems and we would like to know what our communities around the state are doing.”

Lindley said the commission will consider a few different options for discouraging the use of plastic straws, but an outright ban isn’t the likely choice.

“One of them is to simply do kind of an educational outreach program, which I like,” said Lindley.

In the Governor’s veto letter, he said if people want to keep using plastic straws, they can elect local officials who feel the same way.

Aliki Moncrief, Executive Director of the Florida Conservation Voters, said she expects just the opposite.

“Constituents around the state are rising up saying, we actually don’t think single use plastics are as important to us as wildlife protection, as clean water,” said Moncrief.

That could put more pressure on state lawmakers to act on the issue.

 
While local governments are free to ban plastic straws for the time being, they are prohibited under state law from banning other single use plastics such as plastic shopping bags.

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FAMU Seeks to Educate Public About Medical Marijuana

July 8th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida now has more than 240,000 registered medical marijuana patients and they’ve all helped pay for dozens of initiatives helping people know more about the do’s and don’ts of the once illegal medication.
Becoming a medical marijuana patient takes a doctor’s recommendation and a valid state issued patient ID. 
 
The card costs $75 dollars, $10 of which goes toward education and research
Peter Harris runs the Florida A&M Medical Marijuana Educational and Research Initiative that’s charged with educating minority communities.
“The Department of Health is funding us to look into educating the public on the value of medical marijuana, but at the same time, educating the public on consequences of illicit use,” said Harris.
FAMU has already held more than a dozen forums and a dozen more are scheduled.
The main message of these forums is that medical marijuana can be useful.
“We’re basically changing the landscape on how you look at marijuana,” said Harris.
Each participant is asked to take a survey afterwards. 
Educators said they’ve found the intersection of legal and illegal marijuana causes confusion in many cases.
 
“You have to have a card and a product from a dispensary for it to be legal,” said Harris.
Even though doctors may give medical marijuana the okay, it faces resistance in some communities because it has been illegal for so long.
 
“There is definitely a stigma. The use of marijuana as a medicine in most communities,” said Harris. “It varies on how they accept what they accept, what they do and what they don’t do. ”
The research being done at FAMU is behavioral and 14 projects involving professors and students have been funded. 
 
The data is expected over the next 12 months.

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Felony Theft Limit Raised

July 5th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

New changes to the state’s criminal justice system took effect Monday.
The new laws are the result of  a multi-year effort by criminal justice advocates to reform what they’ve described as outdated laws in Florida.
One of the biggest victories scored by reformers in the 2019 session raises the felony theft threshold from $300 to $750.
“So that the punishment matches the crime more appropriately for modern times,” said Scott McCoy with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “That hadn’t been raised since the 80’s.”
While reformers are happy to see the threshold raised, they initially wanted to see it set at $1,000 or even $1,500.
The $750 limit was a compromise reached with retailers who worried raising the threshold would encourage thieves to steal higher priced items.
“Criminals are very smart,” said James Miller with the Florida Retail Federation. “They know what that theft threshold is and they steal just up to that limit, that way they’re quickly back out on the streets.”
Reform groups push back against that concept.
“If you steal something $750 and below you’re still committing a misdemeanor. It’s still a crime. You can still go to jail for up to a year,” said McCoy.
The Florida Retail Federation says part of the reason it supported the final bill is because it also extends the aggregation period for felony theft from 48 hours to 30 days.
That means if a thief steals $750 over a one month period, they’ll still be charged with a felony.
“We’re hopeful and confident this will help eliminate a lot of the organized retail crime rings,” said Miller.
Criminal justice reform groups hope the new law is only the first step.
Even at $750, Florida’s felony theft threshold remains the lowest in the South Eastern United States.
Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia all have felony theft thresholds set at more than $1,200.

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CFO Under Fire from Accused and Accuser

July 3rd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is taking fire from both the state’s suspended top financial regulator who has been accused of harassment and the state employee who filed the complaint. 
 
The CFO made the employee’s complaint public, which may have violated state law.
 
Following the harassment allegation filed by a state employee against Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Ronald Rubin, Patronis was quick to suspend the Commissioner and call for his permanent removal.
“If I could remove him unilaterally, I would, but it takes a cabinet effort to do that,” said Patronis in May.
Soon after, Patronis released a copy of the complaint, which sparked backlash from the employee who filed it.
The complaint form guarantees confidentiality while the investigation is ongoing.
“The reasons that you’ve got the protections that you do is to protect a victim, like this woman,” said Marie Mattox, and employment attorney. “Why would he do it? What would his motive be?”
The employee’s lawyer, Tiffany Cruz asked the Attorney General to investigate Patronis for the breach.
The AG instead passed the complaint to the Inspector General in charge of investigating the case against Rubin.
Employment attorney Richard Johnson said the Attorney General should be the one to take action.
“But she doesn’t want to mess with a fellow cabinet member,” said Johnson. “It would be very awkward for them at cabinet meetings I’m sure.”  
Rubin is also calling for an investigation into Patronis’ office. 
 
The Commissioner has accused the CFO of extorting campaign contributions in a pay-to-play scheme.
FDLE has confirmed it has received information regarding the allegations, but would not said from who or what it was.
Rubin’s accusations aside, Patronis could face up to a year in prison if found guilty of violating the public record law, although attorneys we spoke with said it would be unlikely outcome.
 
We reached out to the CFO for comment on this story, but didn’t receive a response.

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Jackson County Still Dealing with Hurricane Michael Aftermath

July 3rd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Hard hit Florida Panhandle residents have said they feel like they’ve been forgotten by the rest of the state. 
 
Many are still without a permanent place to live, but those with a home are thankful.
Victims Billy and Robin O’Bryan still feel Hurricane Michael’s impacts.
 
Two trees brought down by winds hit their mobile home. 
“It only took about a week and a half to get out here. And thats when I found the trees on the house,” said Billy.
They spent more than four months in a pop-up camper with their adult son.
“We made do with what we had and we are thankful for it,” said Robin. “Was it hard? Oh yeah! Oh yeah. It’s hard when you didn’t have a bathroom.” 
When asked how they shower, Billy said it’s good to have friends.
“At the friends’ house where we had the camper set up, we used their shower and bathroom,” said Billy. 
The O’Bryan’s are among the lucky in Jackson County.
 
 Blue tarps on roofs remain plentiful there.
“There’s still a lot of people still without homes around the area and a lot of people can use some help,” said Billy.
Billy quit his job as a correctional officer to work with heavy equipment in order to afford the new mortgage.
The pay at the Department of Corrections simply wasnt enough.
 
“No. No. No sir. It might’ve, could’ve made it, but that would have been it. You’d been struggling every week,” said Billy.
The O’Bryan’s said that the downed trees that destroyed their mobile home will remain in place for some time.
 
For now, no one can afford to pick them up. 
Robin said she is ready to celebrate the 4th of July.
“More than just that, celebrate that I can celebrate, said Robin. “I’ve got a home.” 
They are also thankful there hasn’t been another storm in the Gulf this hurricane season.
 
Billy and his wife Robin O’Bryan said they are blessed. 

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FDLE’s “Decision Pending” Response Challenged

July 2nd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The success of a case aimed at preventing delays in firearm background checks is in jeopardy because the state is destroying records vital to the plaintiffs. 
 
The debate played out in a Tallahassee courtroom Tuesday. 
 
As many as 25,000 people may have been temporarily denied the right to purchase a gun. 
 
They haven’t been told no, but have been told the decision is pending, which prompted the lawsuit.
The 53 page filing by Florida Carry argued not getting a solid yes or no within 24 hours has deprived people of their constitutional right to own a gun. 
“FDLE has put these people in a position of they have no rights,” said Eric Friday with Florida Carry. “They have no due process. They have no way to challenge FDLE’s non action.” 
The state argued a provision of the school safety law passed last year, superseded the 24 hour timeframe to get a background check done. 
 
The state’s lawyers said the provision makes sure people don’t fall through the cracks.
“Do what it needed to do in terms of the background check process to make sure it got it right,” said Rob Sniffen, a FDLE Attorney.
 
Under Florida law, the Department of Law Enforcement is required to destroy all records of a background check within 48 hours. 
 
That’s a problem for the plaintiffs because they need the records to prove their case.
The judge gave lawyers until July 12th to work out a compromise. 
 
Florida Carry said the problem is that every time it named a defendant, the state makes a final decision on the background check.
“They’ve said, ‘The case is moot, we’ve satisfied these people now. So there’s no case’,” said Friday. 
Florida Carry said it will keep adding new defendants, until as they put it, the state stops playing games.
 
The state has an appeal pending at the First District Court of Appeal, questioning whether it can legally not destroy the records from the plaintiffs’ background checks that show delays.

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Amendment 4 Supporters Take to the Courts and Private Donners to Tackle Fines, Fees and Restitution

July 2nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The group responsible for getting the felons voting rights amendment on the ballot announced an initiative Tuesday to help pay off the fines, fees and restitution owed by an estimated 500,000 felons in the state. 
 
The outstanding financial obligations are required to be paid under the new law that took effect Monday before felons are eligible for voting rights restoration under Amendment 4.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) announced the new initiative via Facebook Live, which would use private donations to help felons who can’t afford what they owe.
“While others might see obstacles, what FRRC sees is opportunities,” said Demond Meade, President of the FRRC.
So far, the FRRC has raised more than $700,000.
The initial goal is to collect $3 million, but it’s estimated billions of dollars are owed across the state.
While the FRRC is looking to the private sector for help with the financial requirements, groups like the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have turned to the courts.
The SPLC filed the most recent of four suits on behalf of two Jacksonville women.
“This law that was passed risks them being kicked off the rolls,” said Scott McCoy with the SPLC.
The suit alleges the payment requirements disproportionately impact women of color.
“Just because you’re poor and you can’t afford to pay your fine or fee you are denied the right to vote. That’s unconstitutional,” said McCoy.
However, clemency lawyer Reggie Garcia noted debts can be converted to community service or waived altogether by a judge under the current law.
“Remember the alternative to the amendment is waiting years and years and years to get your clemency case heard,” said Garcia. “So even though this may have and additional speed bump or hurdle, for maybe a third of the convicted felons, it’s something they can resolve in three to six months rather than six or eight or ten years.”
 
FRRC said it will also be working to help felons get their financial obligations converted or waived through the courts as part of its campaign.
Even with the financial obligations, it’s estimated more than 800,000 felons have become eligible to vote thanks to Amendment 4.

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FHP Plans Slow Rollout of No Texting Enforcement

July 1st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Monday was the first day drivers in the state could be pulled over and ticketed for texting while driving alone, but the Florida Highway Patrol says its officers will focus on educating the public on the new law.

That means there’s a good chance those caught won’t receive the $30 ticket that comes with the offense.

“Really what we want to do is express how important it is that they are putting that phone down, that they’re taking this new law to heart and that they’re changing their behavior on the road way,” said Captain Thomas Pikul with FHP.

FHP will primarily be handing out warnings until the start of 2020.
FHP isn’t completely taking its officers ability to write tickets for texting while driving off the table.
The agency says in dangerous situations and incidents involving crashes tickets will be written.

Amy Mercer with the Florida Police Chief’s Association said many local law enforcement agencies are also going to take the first few months to educate the public on the dangers of texting and driving.

“It gives our police officers the opportunity to educate and speak with drivers on really the dangers of distracted driving, because the last thing we want them to do is learn the hard way,” said Mercer.

Demetrius Branca, a long time proponent of strengthening the state’s distracted driving laws, lost his son in an accident caused by a driver who was suspected to have been driving distracted.
Branca said he’s confused by the decision to delay full enforcement.

“The time for warning is over. We’ve known for years that this is a deadly behavior. We’ve know for years that it’s costing people lives,” said Branca.

Safe driving advocates have also questioned how enforceable the new law will really be even when tickets start being issued.
Warrants must be obtained for police to search phones and drivers are still allowed to use their phones for GPS purposes.

Law enforcement says there are ways to distinguish texting from other phone uses, but they agree the law could be strengthened going forward.

“I think down the road we’ll all be seeking hands free legislation,” said Mercer.

Starting October 1st, school and work zones will be designated as hands free, but no tickets can be issued to violators until the start of 2020.

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Counties Save Welcome Station

July 1st, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

VisitFlorida, the state’s primary tourism marketing arm begins the new budget year with $26 million less in funding.
It came after a bitter fight to kill the agency.
One casualty of the cut was the closing of a rural welcome center on the state line in the panhandle.

Three hundred thousand vehicles a year cross the Alabama-Florida state line on US 231 in Jackson County.
The welcome center there is he least visited in the state.

That’s why the agency put the center on the chopping block. 

It was set to have closed Sunday night. 

“We’ll be assuming operations of this welcome center,” said Jennifer Adams with the North West Florida Tourism Council.

Keeping the center open will cost the eight rural counties at least $500,000 a year. 

They worried that the major tourist destinations the south would lose business if the center closed.

“Many travelers come in and not knowing where they are going to end up, if we can capture them and direct them to any of the 8 counties in Northwest Florida. That certainly is the vision,” said Adams.

At the heart of the budget cuts was a feud between the agency and the House Speak, Jose Oliva, who has called the agency useless.

The $26 million cut was a compromise to keep VisitFlorida running for another year, but it begs the question: Do the counties taping up to run the welcome center prove that VisitFlorida isn’t needed?


“No, we are not proving to the Speaker of the House that Visit Florida isn’t needed,” said Dan Rowe with the Panama City Beach Visitor Bureau. “We’re showing that the tourism industry is very resliient and we are working together to tell our story.”

The local funding means six employees working at the center will get to keep their jobs, but if the Speaker or the House has his way, every other center along the state line could be fair game to close a year from now, unless locals step in.
VisitFlorida only got a reprieve from lawmakers after the Governor stepped in and asked for another year so he could see firsthand if the agency provides and value.
We reached out to the Speaker of the House’s office, seeking a response to the counties’ action.
We have not heard back.

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State Likely to Face Difficulties Vetting Felons for Voting Eligibility

June 28th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis has until the end of the day Saturday to either sign, veto or let legislation implementing the felons’ rights amendment become law without his signature.

The most controversial aspect of the Amendment Four implementing bill is that felons must first pay outstanding court fines and fees along with restitution before they become eligible for voting rights restoration, but there’s a problem.

There is currently no unified database documenting who has paid what.

The lack of a database is a concern for Election Supervisors who are responsible for registering newly eligible voters, like Leon County Supervisor Mark Earley.

“Some counties don’t even really even have databases, it seems to be more of a paper trail kind of thing where you have to go back into filing cabinets,” said Earley, who doubles as the Secretary of Florida State Association of Supervisor of Elections. “We’re trying to evaluate and make it very effective and efficient, but it’s certainly difficult.”

After the legislation passed, the Governor said the fines, fees and restitution requirement has his support.

“As a prosecutor, there were times when restitution was more important than incarceration,” said DeSantis.

The Governor has even gone as far as making the payment of outstanding financial obligations a condition when granting pardons through the Board of Executive Clemency.

“I just think that when you pay your debt that includes whatever you were sentenced to so if you’re willing to do that I’ll move to grant you a pardon,” said DeSantis.

Supervisors said those unsure of their status shouldn’t be afraid of registering at this point.

Generally, if an honest mistake was made, the likely repercussion would be removal from the rolls.

“If it’s an uncertainty, they can go ahead and get registered because they think they’re qualified, they’re eligible again, they’re not going to be prosecuted,” said Earley.

Felons who have already registered improperly after the amendment took effect January 8th and before the bill’s effective date of July 1st are immune from prosecution altogether.

After July 1st, ineligible felons who intentionally register could face a 3rd degree felony.

The bill does task the Department of State with creating a database to track fines and fees, but until that’s complete, determining eligibility will be an ongoing issue.

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State Says Sunpass Contractor Nearing Compliance

June 28th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The company with the contract to bill and collect tolls in Florida has so far been fined millions and more fines could be on the way.

The state said the company, Conduent, is close to being in compliance with its contract.

It has been just over a year since a new toll collection system was put in place by the state’s contractor Conduent.

It was expected to be fully functional by June 11th last year.

It’s still facing problems, but Department of Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault said the company is closer to living up to its obligations.

“Some of the metrics that they have, even thought the customer response has been a lot better than it has been, it’s still not always up to the metrics,” said Thibault.

Conduent has already been fined $8.3 million and Thibault said more could be on the way.

“When they are sending an invoice, we are asking that we withhold the maximum penalty allowed by the contract, so when they get paid, it is the result of that withholding,” said Thibault.

The maximum the state can withhold is 25 percent, and there’s no limit to how long the state can keep up the pressure.

“As long as they are not meeting their performance expectations,” said Thibault.

The Secretary did say the company is getting very close to meeting all the requirements in its contract, but he wouldn’t put a percentage on their performance.

Thibault said he only spoke to the company once.

“It was very short conversation,” said Thibault. “It was meeting the expectations of the contract and meeting the expectations of our customers. And I made it very clear to the senior leadership of that company that that is out expectation.”

An investigation is ongoing by the state Inspector General to help understand what went wrong and whether there was any wrongdoing by the company or the state.

Prior to June 1st, the state was waiving an administrative fee of $2.50 or more for late fees and penalties, but that waiver has now ended.

At no time were tolls owed ever waived.

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Elections Changes Awaiting Governor’s Signature

June 28th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Amendment Four implementing language is part of a larger elections bill that makes extensive changes to Florida’s election laws.

The changes were recommended by Supervisors of Elections to correct some of the problems seen in the 2018 election.

Voters will have more time to cure mismatched signatures on vote by mail ballots and some election dates have been changed.

Secretary of the Florida State Association of Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said one big change is that voter will now have to request vote by mail ballots at least 10 days before an election.

“It used to be six days, but for years now the postal service has been advising supervisors that we should not be mailing these ballots out this late, or this close to an election because it’s unrealistic to believe that the voter will have time to receive it,” said Earley.

Voter will also be allowed to take a photograph of their ballot while voting and the non-solicitation zone around polling places will increase from 100 to 150 feet.

The bill has not yet been signed by the Governor, who has until the end of the day Saturday to sign it, veto it or do nothing and allow it to become law automatically.

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Florida Cracks Down on Human Trafficking Ahead of 2020 Super Bowl

June 27th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Just a few days after a human trafficking sting in Tampa yielded 85 arrests, Governor Ron DeSantis has approved a law that seeks to crack down on the illicit trade.

Florida ranks third in the nation for the number of reports human trafficking cases, but lawmakers wanted to let traffickers to know that Florida is closed for business this past legislative session.

Senate sponsor Lauren Book fought for the creation of a Soliciting for Prostitution Registry.

It will allow FDLE to track pimps and johns.

“In a 2011 study that interviewed hundreds of sex buyers it was asked, ‘What would deter you from purchasing sex?’ And the highest deterrent at 89 percent was this public database,” said Book.

In addition, the law requires law enforcement, certain healthcare workers and hospitality staff to under go training to better identify and report possible trafficking victims.

“This activity is unfortunately is taking place in hotels and motels in the state of Florida. We don’t want to be part of that industry,” said Samantha Padgett with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The law will also make it easier for the Department of Health to shut down and revoke licenses of massage parlors and strip clubs that are caught trafficking, or employ people with histories of trafficking.

The changes come as the state gears up to host the 2020 Super Bowl.

Large sporting events are often hotspots for trafficking and Attorney General Ashley Moody is making her own preparations.

Moody’s Office will be partnering with Uber to train drivers in Miami ahead of the game.

“They can help us be the eyes and ears on the ground to prevent human trafficking. One of the things the bill does is it does encourage a private-public partnership,” said Moody.

In the week of last year’s Super Bowl in Atlanta, more than 160 people were arrested on human trafficking charges.

Many of the changes the law makes won’t take effect immediately.

For example, the training requirements for healthcare workers and hospitality staff doesn’t become mandatory until 2021.

Training for all law enforcement isn’t required to be completed until 2022.

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