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New School Safety Law Doesn’t Only Arm Teachers

May 9th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis has followed through with his promise to sign this year’s school safety legislation.It allows for classroom teachers to be armed, and increases funding for mental health and school hardening.

On Tuesday, students and members of Moms Demand Action delivered 13,000 petitions to the Governor, calling for him to veto the school safety bill.

“If my teacher chooses to be armed it’s not a choice for me and I still have to face the consequences of that,” said Tallahassee high schooler and member of Students Demand Action Quinn Holden-Schrock.

But Governor Ron DeSantis put pen to paper the very next day, signing the bill into law as soon as it officially arrived on his desk.

Starting October 1st, districts will have the option to arm teachers who volunteer and have undergone a psychological evaluation, background check and completed 144 hours of training.

“We have some districts that are planning to implement it. We have other districts that have passed resolutions saying they will not implement it,” said Andrea Messina, Executive Director of the Florida School Boards Association.

The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has staunchly opposed the change and says their focus now shifts to the local level.

“We want to put the pressure on our school board members and make sure that our super superintendents understand what the position of our educators is and that position is not to have a gun in school and we don’t want to carry,” said FEA President, Fedrick Ingram.

But the law goes beyond arming teachers.

It also establishes the School Hardening and Harm Mitigation Workgroup, which will review best practices for school hardening to inform how the $50 million allocated for school hardening in the budget can be best spent.

There’s also $17 million for increased mental health services throughout the state.

While appreciative of the extra funds, Messina says part of the challenge now will be finding enough staff for mental health positions.

“And not just people who can provide those services, but we want high quality people. People who are certainly experienced,” said Messina.

Lawmakers like Senator Bill Montford, who doubles as the Executive Director of the Florida Association of District School Super Intendants, say those are issues that will continue to need to be addressed in future years.

“The number of children who come to our schools with significant issues is almost overwhelming and it’s getting worse,” said Montford.

The law also requires schools to establish threat assessment teams made up law enforcement and counselors.

They’ll be tasked with stepping in when a student has been identified as posing a possible threat.

Districts will likely be taking the summer to prepare, so they can roll out some of the changes once the October 1st effective date arrives.

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Federal Suit Filed to End Solitary Confinement in Florida

May 8th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

One out of seven prisoners in solitary confinement throughout the nation are housed in Florida prisons according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The organization has filed a class action lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections, alleging the state’s overuse of solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Laurette Philipsen spent 28 days in solitary confinement in a Florida prison.

She describes the experience as one of the worst in her life.

“You start contemplating… how to end this,” said Philipsen.

She’s been out of the system for a year now, but says she’s still haunted by her days in isolation.

“The maximum amount I sleep at a time is three hours,” said Philipsen.

Philipsen’s experience isn’t unique.

The Southern poverty law Center says 10% of Florida prisoners are housed in solitary confinement at any given time.

That’s about 10,000 inmates.

“There’s a lot of self mutilation that happens. There’s attempts at suicide,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal an Attorney with SPLC. “Even more mildly there’s hallucinations, anxiety, withdrawal, depression.”

The group has filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of inmates currently housed in isolation.

One plaintiff named in the suit, Jac’Quann (Admire) Harvard, has been in solitary for more than 10 years.

Their goal is to end the use of solitary confinement in the state in its entirety.

The Department of Corrections says it has not been served the lawsuit yet.

In a statement the Department said, “The Florida Department of Corrections is committed to providing for the safety and wellbeing of all inmates in our custody. Inmates who cause harm to those around them are placed in restrictive housing settings for the safety of other inmates and our officers.”

But Philipsen says there are more ethical ways of punishing bad behavior.

“It’s the same as raising your child,” said Philipsen. “When you feel that they’ve misbehaved, do you lock them in a box? Do you lock them in a closet? Is that what you do? And then just leave them there?”

Similar lawsuits have been filed in both Virginia and Illinois.

The Department of Corrections also said in its statement, “Protections are in place to ensure all medical and mental health needs of these inmates are being met. Mandatory visits from security officers, chaplaincy and medical are made routinely to inmates in this level of housing. There are processes in place to evaluate these inmates and transition them back into general population.”

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2019: The Best Session or the Worst?

May 7th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

From felons voting rights to restrictions on citizens initiatives, and allowing teachers to carry guns a coalition of progressive groups is calling the 2019 legislative session the worst in state history.

While Republican leaders have touted 2019 as one of the most productive sessions, progressive groups like the League of Women Voters, ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center say it was one of the most destructive.

“The 2019 session was a dark day for Florida’s democracy,” said Scott McCoy with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Police must cooperate with federal authorities under the sanctuary cities legislation and teachers will be allowed to carry guns in some counties under this year’s school safety expansion.

Citizens initiatives will no longer be allowed to pay by the petition under a last minute amendment tagged on to an elections bill and felons will have to pay restitution, fines and court fees before voting if the Governor signs the Legislature’s Amendment 4 implementing bill.

Progressives hope the Governor will break out his veto pen.

“We hope sincerely that he will take a step back, take a deep breath and really understand that he represents the people of Florida and that these things are not good policy,” said McCoy.

Governor Ron DeSantis supports most if not all of the bills in question, and asserts the 2019 session crossed political affiliations.

“The environment stuff that appeals to a lot of Democrats. We did a big increase in affordable housing, which is important to a lot of liberals,” said DeSantis.

While big policy items were heavily Republican leaning, some Democratic lawmakers say on issues like the budget, they were given a seat at the table.

Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat, was most excited about scoring funding for a memorial at the site of the Pulse Night Club Shooting and increased funding for arts and culture.

“That’s only a reflection of the collegiality and the respect we have for one another though we disagree on much policy,” said Eskamani.

However, for many progressives the policy disagreements outweigh bipartisan victories.

McCoy says if the Governor chooses to sign the legislation, the SPLC and ACLU plan on taking the fight to the courts.

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Despite Sweeping Healthcare Legislation, Nurse Practitioner Reform Didn’t Make the Cut

May 7th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

From importing lower cost prescription drugs to allowing more out patient surgeries, and creating telehealth legislation, Florida lawmakers took significant steps to lower the cost of health care ion 2019, but one of the biggest cost savers didn’t make it across the legislative finish line.

Elizabeth Markovich has been working as an Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner for 30 years.

ARNP have either masters or doctors degrees, but are not medical doctors.

Markovich says regulations, which require a doctor to sign on just about everything they do, ends up hurting patients in the end.

“When we want someone to even show up and do physicals at a school for free and volunteer, we need a physician to provide so called supervision, even though they are not there,” said Markovich.

A doctor may supervise ten or more practitioners, charging them each a $1,000 a month, just for his signature.

The Nurse practitioners have been fighting for more than a decade to practice with less supervision.

It was a top priority of House Speaker Jose Oliva.

“I think there a problem with perception on that issue,” said Oliva. “People believe that we want Nurse Practitioners to be doctors, and we don’t. We want them to be able to practice to the full extent of their training.”

The Florida Medial Association fought back, and their opposition swayed both the Senate President and Governor.

“You go through all that training to become a doctor,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

In the Hurricane ravaged panhandle, Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner Stan Whittaker believes having the authority to practice within their training would have meant quicker care for injured residents.

“This protocol is antiquated and outdated,” said Whittaker.

22 other states offer ARNP’s full practice authority.

Florida remains one of the most restrictive states for Advanced Registered Nurse Practioners.

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13,000 Petitions Delivered to Governor, Calling for Arming Teachers Veto

May 7th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Members of Moms Demand Action delivered more than 13,000 signed petitions calling for Governor Ron DeSantis to veto this year’s schools safety expansion to his office Tuesday afternoon.

The legislation would allow school districts who opt in to the guardian program the option of also arming teachers who volunteer.

Tallahassee high school student and member of Students Demand Action Quinn Holden-Schrock was among the group delivering the petitions.

She says while the program might be optional for districts, students would have no say.

“They say that it’s like an option for students. They say it’s an option for teachers, for districts, but it’s really not an option. If my teacher chooses to be armed it’s not a choice for me and I still have to face the consequences of that no matter what,” said Holden-Schrock.

Governor Ron DeSantis has said he plans to sign the legislation.

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Florida Officials Hope Presidential Visit Comes With Hurricane Relief

May 6th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

President Donald Trump will be in the Florida Panhandle for a political rally on Wednesday.

It comes as residents of the hurricane ravaged area are still waiting for federal relief dollars, but Florida leaders hope the President will come bearing good news.

Florida legislators included nearly $2 billion in their 2019 budget towards helping the panhandle recover from Hurricane Michael, but Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley say it’s not nearly enough.

“The panhandle was devastated and the federal government has not done its job, D.C. needs to step up,” said Bradley. “So we stepped up because D.C. was not stepping up.”

President Trump visited the Panhandle just five days after Hurricane Michael made landfall.

Trump’s latest trip to Panama City will be for a political rally.

Bay County voted overwhelming for Trump in 2016, with 71 percent support.

Governor Ron DeSantis says he intends to be at the rally in Panama City with the President on Wednesday.

DeSantis says he’s hoping the President wont be arriving empty handed.

“Why would you want to come unless you’re going to announce more good news,” said DeSantis.

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis feels the same way, and points out securing relief dollars is in the national interest.

“The visit to Northwest Florida would really be extra special if it came with a relief package from Congress,” said Patronis. “Most importantly is Tyndall Air Force Base and the whole roll that it plays in the national security of of our nation. So it’s critical that Congress address it.”

In April, the President announced the federal government would be picking up the full tab for the first 45 days of Hurricane recovery.

Even if Congress isn’t able to come to an agreement on a relief package, Governor DeSantis says there are things the President can do on his own to help.

“I had two asks. One was 45 days of 100 percent reimbursement. He gave us that,” said DeSantis. “The other was up the cost share for all reimbursement from 75 percent to 90 percent. So we’re asking him to do that.”

Arriving with no news might impact President Trump’s bid for reelection in 2020.

The conservative leaning panhandle is crucial to a Republican victory in the country’s largest swing state.

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Lawmakers Close Out the 2019 Session, Governor Promises Vetos

May 4th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Legislature adjourned Saturday, 14 hours into over time.

The $91.1 billion dollar budget is the largest in the state’s history, but the Governor says it will likely be lower after he signs it.

After passing the Senate unanimously the nearly 18 inch thick budget was shuttled over to the House where it was approved minutes later.

The traditional hanky drop officially closed the 2019 session.

“From hurricane relief, to the environment, to education, to healthcare, to infrastructure; I can’t remember in my time in the Legislature where we’ve had a more productive and bold, bold session,” said Senate President Bill Galvano.

But the excitement over the largest budget in state history was cut short with a promise from Governor Ron DeSantis.

“It’s going to be under 91 when I get through with the budget don’t worry about that,” said DeSantis.

In the end, 192 bills passed this year, but DeSantis mentioned they won’t all make the cut.

“There’s certain things the government just shouldn’t be doing in any level. If that’s in there it’s going to be a candidate. There’s somethings that maybe government should do, but should be local and not state government,” said DeSantis. “Then there’s other things that you know what may have some merit, but I have to weigh would it be better to put that money into reserves?”

And that’s welcome news to some lawmakers.

“The veto pen has always been like kryptonite to the legislature and so we react pretty viscerally to it, but the truth is we put a lot of pork in this budget,” said Senator Tom Lee.

Lawmakers will find out some of what the Governor plans to veto as early as next week.

But some of the most controversial legislation this year like arming teachers, banning sanctuary cities and the implementation of Amendment 4 will become law with the governor promising his signature.

192 bills passing in a session is the fewest in modern memory, and possibly the fewest in the state’s history.

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Hemp Legalization Clears Florida Legislature

May 3rd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

If the Governor agrees with lawmakers, hemp will soon be legal in Florida.

It has been in a gray area of the law since hemp was legalized at the Federal level, and the legalization could bring billions to the state economy.

So strong is hemp’s promise, it passed both the House and Senate unanimously.

“This is a lifeline. This an emerging agricultural product that can make all the difference,” said Senate Sponsor Rob Bradley.

Hemp is a cousin to marijuana and was banned 70 years ago, despite having no psychoactive effect.

House Sponsor Dr. Ralph Massullo calls legislation legalizing hemp, ‘A game changer’.

“For CBD and the industrial applications for our state. It will help our farmers, our children get more jobs,” said Massullo.

“I believe CBD alone is a $22 billion industry and the hemp plant is probably a $100 to $200 billion industry,” said Jeff Greene with the Florida Hemp and Retail Trade Association.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried calls hemp’s potential nearly limitless.

“I think this is historic for the state of Florida. And I absolutely believe is is something that will revolutionize agriculture,” said Fried. “We’ve never seen an excitement for a new kind of profit commodity that we have for hemp.”

Without this legislation, products using hemp or CBD likely would have been pulled from the market.

The legislation removes hemp from what has been a legally grey area, and opens the door for standardized inspection of products on the shelf.

“My biggest priority is making sure the consumer is protected, and a lot of the products on the shelf, I mean, none of them are regulated,” said Fried. “And a lot of them have other things in there that are harmful to consumers. One, there is no CBD in it, two, some have TCH.”

Now, hemp’s future is in the Governor’s hands.

Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the legislation.

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Amendment 4 Implementation Passes: Fines, Fees and Restitution Included

May 3rd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Felons will have to pay fines, fees and restitution ordered by a judge before they can have their voting rights restored under legislation now headed to the Governor’s desk.

The bill is less restrictive than originally proposed, but Amendment 4 supporters say it still has too many pitfalls for failure.

The bill provides that felons can petition a court to waive fines and fees, or convert them to community service hours.

“We do believe in restoration, we do believe in second chances. We also believe in debts being paid,” said House Sponsor Rep. James Grant. “I think the product that you’re seeing has been an effort to reconcile those two things and make sure that when somebody has paid their debt to society they are able to return to vote.”

But democrats like Senator Oscar Braynon say putting a financial obligation on voting rights restoration wasn’t the intent of voters and creates an unequal system.

“People who have money will get the right to vote and people who don’t will not get the right to vote,” said Braynon. “You end up getting I’m going to say unintended consequences. “

Under a criminal justice reform bill also sent to the Governor’s desk Friday, all those released from prison going forward will be given a checklist outlining everything they need to do in order to fully complete their sentence.

Sponsor Rep. Paul Renner says it will help felons understand where they stand with regard to Amendment 4.

“Someone that finishes a 20-year sentence literally does not have anything on their iPhone or on a piece of paper that says my debt is paid to society. We want to get to that point,” said Renner.

As part of the Amendment 4 bill, any felon who improperly registered to vote between January 8th and the effective date of the bill on July 1st would be immune from prosecution.

Even with attempts to find middle ground, lawsuits are almost guaranteed.

Florida’s Attorney General Ashley Moody is playing it safe, choosing not to answer any questions regarding Amendment 4.

“Our office will likely be involved in spearheading defense of whatever litigation ends up coming out,” said Moody.

Lawmakers say they don’t anticipate this legislation will be the end of the Amendment 4 debate.

They say streamlining the registration and notification process are issues likely to be revisited next year.

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Human Trafficking Bill Bouncing Back and Fourth Between Chambers

May 3rd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation designed to crack down on massage parlors offering sex bounced back and forth between the House and Senate Friday.

Both chambers agree on measures revoking a massage parlors license if they are caught engaging in prostitution.

It requires posters urging people to call if they suspect human trafficking.

The Senate version also includes a public prostitution database, which sponsor Lauren Book calls important.

“It is the fastest growing crime in the world, and it will outpace drug trafficking soon. Its reported to be a 32 billion dollar industry. And I just want to cover one other point. A 2011 study that interviewed hundreds of sex buyers,” said Book. “I was asked, what would deter you from buying sex, and the highest deterrent, an 89 percent was a public database.”

The House removed the database early on in the committee process, citing privacy concerns.

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Legislation to Aid Opioid Lawsuit Heads to Governor

May 3rd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s Attorney General Ashley Moody scored a major victory Friday in the state’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.

The Legislature has sent a bill to the Governor that would allow her office access to information in the prescription drug monitoring data base as tool to show that the drugs have been overprescribed in the state.

Privacy concerns threatened the legislation early on, but Moody says the proper safeguards are in place.

“I believe one of the experts said we have a greater likelihood of being struck by a meteor than we did being able to identify a patient,” said Moody. “We’ve also build in safeguards in terms of seeking protective orders and orders by the court and then destroying the information after we’ve used it.”

Under the bill the Attorney General will be able to access the age and zip code of patients along with the amount of medication the were prescribed.

The authority to access the database will also sunset after two years.

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Florida Lawmakers Approve Massive Criminal Justice Reform Package

May 3rd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The first criminal justice reform in more than two decades is on its way to the Governor.

It raises the felony theft threshold to $750 over a thirty day period, from $300.

“At least when it comes to the felony theft threshold, that has not been updated since 1984. We think that’s a meaningful piece, the other meaningful piece is that the third suspended drivers license offense, moving that from a felony to a misdemeanor. It’s incredible important,” said Senate Sponsor Jeff Brandes. “Probably one of the most common felonies a poor person gets. They don’t have the means to pay for fines and fees, and they’ll get caught driving to work on suspended drivers licenses, and that generally wraps them into the system and things snowball from there.”

In lieu of reducing mandatory prison terms, the legislation creates a task force to study sentencing and best practices with a report due before the next legislative session.

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Lawmakers Poised to Approve Budget With Bipartisan Support

May 3rd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Both Democrats and Republicans are celebrating the Florida Legislature’s proposed 2019 budget.

Highlights of the $91.1 billion budget include a $243 bump in per student funding for schools, $680 million for the environment, and $220 million for hurricane recovery.

Republicans touted the ability for the state to increase spending, while still cutting taxes.

”With this organically growing budget we’ve been able to put more money into infrastructure, education, healthcare. The needs of our constituents,” said Rep. Dane Eagle.

Democrats, while unhappy with some aspects of the budget, were positive overall during debate in the House Friday.

“I stand in good faith and I choose to look at this particular budget not as half empty, but as half full,” said Rep. Ramon Alexander.

Lawmakers will return to the Capitol Saturday to take a final vote on the 2019 budget, bringing this year’s legislative session to an end.

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Governor Signs Cancer Benefits for Firefighters

May 3rd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

With firefighters by his side, Governor Rob DeSantis has signed legislation providing greater benefits for firefighters who get cancer on the job.

The legislation provides a one time $25,000 cash payment to cover out of pocket expenses and provides options to use less leave time while being treated.

Sponsor Senator Anitere Flores calls it long overdue.

“There’s a series of protections in there just to really make sure that when a firefighter and his or her family are in this terrible time of need, they know that their employers are going to be there for them,” said Flores. “That they don’t have to be worried about missing work, or missing a paycheck, or not having the cash to meet their financial obligations.

The Florida League of Cities opposed the legislation fo more than a decade.

They had urged the Governor to veto the bill.

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Legislature Approves Mandatory Financial Literacy Classes in Honor of Late Senator

May 2nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Legislation to require financial literacy be taught in all high schools is on it’s way to the Governor.

It ends a six year struggle for a a State Senator who didn’t live to see the bills passage.

The fight to require financial literacy education in Florida schools championed by Senator Dorothy Hukill.

“They’re going to be faced with these issues immediately,” said Hukill in 2014. “You know, how do I sign a lease? What does it mean?”

Senator Hukill passed away in 2018.

She never got to see her legislation, which would have would mandated the courses be taught in high schools become a reality.

But her colleague Senator Travis Hutson didn’t give up.

“We have one angel looking over us, who would like us to vote for this bill. So lets do it for Dorothy,” said Hutson addressing the Senate Chamber Thursday.

The bill carrying the language Hukill pushed for year’s passed in a 40-0 vote.

“Senator Hukill is looking down smiling, and she loves that 40-0,” said Senate President Bill Galvano.

Only a few hors later the Florida House also voted unanimously to approve the bill.

The legislation will require every high school offer a half credit financial literacy course starting in the 2019 school year.

“People are getting some serious life lessons as they take on debt,” said Hutson. “This is going to put that in their hands at an early age and hopefully they’ll make some better long term decisions.”

The bill goes beyond financial literacy.

It also sets a goal for the state to get 60% of working age adults educated beyond a high school level by 2030.

Part of that initiative creates an alternative 18 credit hour pathway to high school graduation focusing on vocational and technical training.

Hutson says it’s a win win.

“There’s a lot of things in there that’s just a big win for the curriculum,” said Hutson. “She was a dear friend and happy to get it done for her in her honor.”

The Legislation now heads to the Governor, to sign the bill into law.

The Florida Commissioner of Education and Florida Chief Financial Officer will work hand in hand to develop the curriculum for the financial literacy course.

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