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Wide Array of Gun Bills Filed Ahead of 2022 Legislative Session

September 27th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Thirteen bills seeking to either increase or loosen gun restrictions in the state have already been filed for the 2022 legislative session, but whether the Legislature actually plans on hearing any gun legislation is yet to be seen.

Ten of the 13 bills would add additional firearm restrictions.

They include a repeal of stand your ground, implementing universal background checks for firearms and ammo as well as banning those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning a firearm.

“There’s no single solution to the epidemic of gun violence,” said Democratic Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith.

Smith has filed a bill banning assault weapons for the 5th year in a row.

“Because it’s important for me to stay focused to honor the 49 who were taken at Pulse nightclub with action,” said Smith.

Other gun restrictions filed for the 2022 session include strict safe storage requirements and repealing a prohibition on record keeping of firearms and firearm owners

On the other hand, Republican Representative Anthony Sabatini has filed three bills, all aimed at loosening gun restrictions.

Among his proposals is legislation that would make Florida a ‘constitutional carry’ state.

“It allows you to actually open carry a firearm in the State of Florida. I think that’s really important because you know, you have the right to defend yourself and you shouldn’t have the duty to hide your firearm if you’ve done nothing wrong,” said Sabatini.

It’s no secret Democrats don’t have the votes to push gun restrictions through the Republican controlled Legislature, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an appetite for loosening gun restrictions.

“We don’t have Republican officials right now, a lot of them anyways, who are standing up for the Second Amendment sadly,” said Sabatini.

Rep. Smith fears that because 2022 is an election year, Republican leadership might entertain the easing of some gun laws.

“In election years Republicans, who are in the majority of the Florida Legislature, often like to throw red meat at their conservative base,” said Smith.

Marion Hammer with the NRA was unavailable for an interview Monday, but told us the organization’s goal in 2022 is the same as always: “Protect the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners”.

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Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Now a Scrutinized Company

September 27th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The clock is ticking for the parent company of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

The state has given Unilever until October 26 to reverse Ben and Jerry’s plans to stop selling in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank.

If the policy isn’t reversed, the company faces economic consequences.

On July 19, Ben and Jerry’s announced it would no longer sell its ice cream in the West Bank after 2022, saying “We believe it is inconsistent with our values for our product to be present within an internationally recognized illegal occupation”.

“I have not seen any meaningful response from Unilever, period,” said Executive Director of Florida’s State Board of Administration Ash Williams at the September cabinet meeting.

At the meeting, the cabinet gave the go ahead for the state to divest all Unilever stock if the company doesn’t reverse its West Bank policy within 90 days.

“It’s a small part of our overall portfolio as you might imagine,” said Williams.

Those investments now total about $139 million.

“If 90 days tolls from the notice they are given, then we are barred by law from making any additional investments in the securities of that firm, so that’s exactly what we’ll do,” said Williams.

The state won’t just be selling its shares in Unilever.

Once the 90-day period is over, no government agency in Florida can buy its products.

The clock runs out on Unilever October 26th.

“I would guess there are probably a fair number of public institutions that are buying those products. I don’t think they will be after the 26th of October unless Unilever is responsive on this issue,” said Williams.

In 2019, the state put Airbnb on the scrutinized list after it said it would refuse to offer listings in the West Bank.

The company relented just days before the penalties would have kicked in.

In a statement, Unilever told us that while they will not sell Ben and Jerry’s in the occupied zone, it will remain in Israel, where it employs 2,000 people in four factories.

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New State Mask Rule Shuts Down Challenge Brought by School Boards

September 24th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida school boards bucking the state’s mask mandate ban were supposed to have their day before an administrative judge Friday, but that didn’t happen.

The case was rendered moot because the Department of Health rescinded the rule being challenged and replaced it with another.

The new Department of Health rule is nearly identical to the original mask mandate ban.

Now school boards who had challenged the original rule are experiencing deja vu.

“Same problem, different rule,” said Alachua Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon.

Dr. Simon said the school boards are likely to file another administrative challenge in hopes of striking down the new mask mandate ban.

And with federal dollars now backfilling pay check sanctions from the state, the school board isn’t likely to reverse course on its masking policy.

“If anything progresses further, we will still be able to lean on their support,” said Dr. Simon.

The Governor has justified the masking policy by saying case rates in mask mandatory and mask optional districts have been the same.

More troubling to school districts, is that the new DOH rule also includes new quarantine protocols that allow parents to decide whether to leave their children in school after an exposure if they have no symptoms.

“This new rule, unfortunately I believe is more risky and problematic than the first rule because this removal of quarantining for asymptomatic individuals and having this be a parental choice,” said Dr. Simon.

Dr. Simon is concerned some parents may abuse their new discretion.

“Easily we could have parents who have decided that their child is asymptomatic, or they’re going to mask it and make them appear asymptomatic, and they’re going to send a child who is shedding the virus into our schools,” said Dr. Simon.

The quarantine changes prompted Congressman and Gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Crist to call for the removal of Florida’s new Surgeon General.

“This is a reckless and baseless endangerment of our entire classrooms and schools across the state,” said Crist.

The Governor has said it’s rare a quarantined student actually ends up testing positive and the harms of missing school outweigh the risks.

A state appeals court also rejected a request for a lawsuit brought by parents challenging the mask mandate ban to be expedited to the Florida Supreme Court on Friday.

Instead the Appellate Court will rule on the case, which could be months away.

 

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Students Protest Climate Change at State Capitol

September 24th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Dozens of middle and high school students gathered outside the State Capitol Friday afternoon to demand lawmakers take action to address climate change.

They’re alarmed by a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found global temperatures could rise as much as seven degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century if drastic action isn’t taken to reduce carbon emissions.

16-year-old Charlotte Stuart-Tilley helped organize the protest.

“We are out here demanding climate action. Right now we are in an unprecedented crisis. We are in the verge of a mass extinction and we are out here asking our lawmakers, our politicians to do something about this crisis,” said Stuart-Tilley.

Stuart-Tilley told us she hopes lawmakers will put a higher emphasis on solar energy and that any climate action taken also takes into consideration social justice.

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September 23rd, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida lawmakers haves begun the once-a-decade process of redrawing their own district boundaries, as well as those of Congress.

Two million more residents got the state an additional congressional district that will likely be in Central Florida.

From 2010 to 2020, 13 Florida counties grew more than 20%, while 17 lost population.

“Districts, where feasible, will utilize existing political and geographic boundaries,” said Representative Tyler Siros.

Redistricting has never been easy.

Then-Republican leader Bill James said this in 1982.

“The existing system has been more concerned with protecting incumbents than in protecting the rights of the citizens of Florida,” said James.

Even former Governor Bob Graham likened it to operating on oneself.

“Reapportionment is a lot like doing open heart surgery on yourself. It’s a very difficult political job for the Legislature,” said Graham in 1982.

Back then, maps were drawn by hand.

Now, residents have access to the same map making tools as lawmakers.

Sixty three percent of those who voted in 2010 approved the Fair District Amendments providing guidance on how redistricting must be carried out.

After the last map drawing session, lawmakers admitted they drew maps favoring incumbents.

That’s prohibited by the fair districts amendment.

But lawmakers said they now have case law telling them what they can and can’t do.

“So, we have a better understanding today then the legislature did ten years ago about how we implement these standards,” said Siros.

Jonathan Webber of FL Conservation voters is taking lawmakers at their word.

“The constitution is extremely clear on what the requirements are of the Legislature during this process, and, I am looking forward to them following that. They promised that. They said that,” said Webber.

The Fair Districts Amendments also requires the map drawing to get done by the end of the 60-day session, which starts in mid-March of 2022.

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Still No Medical Marijuana License for Black Farmers

September 23rd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The Department of Health is under fire because it has still not issued a medical marijuana license to a Black farmer.

Lawmakers grilled the department to find out what is responsible for the delay on Thursday.

When the Legislature passed its medical marijuana law in 2017, one growers license was reserved for a Black farmer.

“So that the medical marijuana licenses in our state would have equity,” said State Senator Darryl Rouson.

Senator Rouson called the Department of Health before the Senate Agriculture Committee to explain why the Black farmer’s license isn’t among the 22 that have already been issued.

“Years have passed since this Legislature spoke,” said Rouson.

The department blamed the delay on a lawsuit challenging the state’s seed to sale requirement for license holders.

The State Supreme Court finally ruled in the State’s favor in May of this year.

“We are working quickly and anticipate moving forward with the Pigford MMTC licensing process in the coming weeks,” said Christopher Ferguson, Director of the Office of Medical Marijuana Use.

Senator Perry Thurston wasn’t satisfied with the excuse.

“The one entity that we designated to participate has been denied the ability to participate and the denial has nothing to do with them,” said Thurston.

Thurston and Rouson both said they worry that because of the delay, when a license is finally issued, the Black farmer who gets it will be starting off with a severe disadvantage.

“Talk about insult to injury,” said Thurston.

Senator Rouson is hopeful the department will move hastily going forward.

“And we’re going to stay on top of this. I’m going to work with leadership to make sure this gets done,” said Rouson.

The department’s timeline of weeks to months is just to get an application process in place.

Nothing was mentioned about a timeline to actually get a license issued in Thursday’s meeting.

The department did tell lawmakers that the license meant for a Black farmer would be issued before the other 18 that are currently available.

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School Districts Leave $112 Million on the Table, Despite Nearly 19,000 Students Still Missing from the Classroom

September 22nd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida lawmakers continued looking for answers to why students went missing from the school system after the pandemic hit during a House committee meeting Wednesday.

They’re displeased with progress made so far, and they say more than $100 million meant to help find the kids has been left on the table.

Last fall there were 88,000 students missing from the classroom.

The number was down to just shy of 19,000 students as of September first.

Of the missing students, 2,432 were identified as truant, while the remaining 16,463 have not yet been tracked down.

“We went from 70,000 down to 16,000 or 19,000, which is a pretty good number,” said Representative Matt Willhite.

But Representative Randy Fine argued with the amount of money thrown at the problem the number should be much lower.

“Every student who is not going to school is a life destroyed,” said Fine.

Of the $112 million allocated to find and help missing students, only two districts requested a combined total of $4,000.

“I think that is a disconcerting notion that all of us should have questions about,” said Fine.

Democratic Representative Susan Valdes argued districts may have been hesitant to spent the one-time dollars on reoccurring costs.

“Being able to hire more of these professionals to do this work, I can see why school districts maybe did not go that route,” said Valdes.

It’s not just the money allocated to find missing kids that has been left on the table.

$1.2 billion in available Federal emergency funds has yet to be spent by school districts.

“On average school districts have only spent 48 percent of the money they have access to today,” said Fine.

But Democratic Representative Robin Bartleman suggested bureaucracy at the Department of Education could be bottlenecking the flow of funds.

“Ask your personal school districts how many times they go back with the DOE until their plan is accepted,” said Bartleman.

Both Democrats and Republicans on the committee do agreed, more needs to be done to get to the bottom of why the money isn’t being spent.

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Ag Commissioner Celebrates 12 Million Vaccinated, Jabs New Surgeon General

September 22nd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Agriculture Nikki Fried held a press conference to celebrate Florida reaching more than 12 million fully vaccinated residents Wednesday.

Of those eligible to receive the vaccine, 64.6 percent have been fully immunized, which is slightly higher than the national rate of 64.1 percent.

Fried attributed the recent decline in cases to the rising vaccination rate.

She also expressed concerns about the Governor’s new pick for Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo, who has faced criticism from the Florida Democratic Party for not pushing vaccinations hard enough.

“We as elected leaders need to be doing everything possible to be encouraging the people of our state to be getting the vaccines and that is leadership. And to make anybody doubt the vaccines or to downplay them I believe is irresponsible,” said Fried.

Dr. Ladapo in a press conference Tuesday said he supported vaccines, but noted he didn’t believe they were the only measure to deal with COVID.

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Florida Heartbeat Bill Sponsor: ‘No Comments at This Time’

September 22nd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

A Republican Florida lawmaker has officially filed a Texas-style abortion prohibition in the State Capitol.

The legislation would grant citizens a private cause of action to sue anyone who performs or helps facilitate an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is usually around six weeks of gestation.

When confronted by reporters to answer questions about the legislation, Sponsor Webster Barnaby repeatedly declined to comment.

“No comments at this time. Thank you,” said Representative Webster.

It’s not clear ion the Republican-led Legislature actually plans to entertain a heartbeat bill this year, although the House Speaker and Senate President have expressed general interest in pursuing some form of abortion legislation this year.

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Workers Comp COVID Protections Proposed for First Responders

September 21st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida Firefighters who lost their lives last year were honored at the state Capitol this morning as part of an annual state ceremony.some of those deaths were attributed to COVID. As Jake Stofan tells us, legislation filed at the state Capitol would make it easier for first responders to receive workers comp for COVID infections acquired on the job.

Among the 18 firefighters honored in this year’s ceremony, we’re told three died from COVID infections, acquired in the line of duty.

“This marks their final call” said Florida Chief Financial Officer & State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis. 

Top Florida fire officials tell us the bar to qualify as a line of duty COVID death is high.

“It’s a tough process and it’s heartbreaking. It’s truly heartbreaking” says Rick Butcher, Chairman, Florida Joint Council of Fire & Emergency Services

Representative Elizabeth Fetterhoff has seen first hand in her community how high the bar truly is.

And unfortunately, families of first responders who have died from COVID are facing obstacles collecting the benefits they believe they’re owed.

“We’ve actually had two officers that have passed away from COVID-19 recently, one leaving behind a wife and four kids and they’re being denied his death benefits” says Representative Fetterhoff.

It’s why she’s sponsoring legislation that would ensure first responders who acquire COVID in the field will qualify for compensation.

“COVID is a direct – something that they’re dealing with directly, and they need to be taken care of” she continues.

Under the Governor’s previous emergency order first responders had these protections, but they lapsed when the order expired.

Fetterhoff’s bill has already garnered the support of Florida’s Fire Marshal.

“Wouldn’t be even opposed if they wanted to make it retroactive to January one 2020” Patronis told us. 

Fetterhoff had this message for any group thinking of standing in the way of her legislation.

“Anybody that puts themselves out there as being against this, you know, they’re in the line of fire then.”

It’s unclear exactly how many first responders have died of COVID since the start of the pandemic in Florida, but scattered reports suggest the number is likely in the hundreds.

Under the legislation first responders would still have to show some evidence that they acquired COVID during their time on the job.

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Surgeon General: Vaccinations Not End All for Covid

September 21st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida has a new Surgeon General. Governor Ron DeSantis today named Dr. Joseph A. Ladapo, MD, PhD to be the states top health officer. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the new Surgeon General is calling vaccines just one tool to fight the virus.

 

Dr. Joseph Ladapo is a physician and health policy researcher at UCLA. His MD and Phd are both from Harvard.

“Joe has had a remarkable academic and medical career. He was also a great athlete in college” says the Governor as a way of introduction.

The doctor says he rejects fear over positive approaches to fighting diseases. He acknowledges some do fear Covid vaccines, and calls them one tool to fight a virus.

“Vaccination is not the only way, so we support measures for good health. That’s vaccination, losing weight. It’s exercising more” responded Ladapo, when asked by a repoter.

It is also clear he won’t be recommending any lockdowns to the Governor.

“After local downs, overall mortality increased. Lockdowns are bad. Lots of reasons why, that’s just one really good one.”

The Governor continues to attack the Biden Administration over its limiting of antibody shipments to the state of Florida. He says there is no shortage, so there should be no change in supply.

The Governor was quick to point out that hospitalizations are falling quickly.

“The census was down eight percent today, on a Tuesday, which is usually an increase because of the way they do discharges” says DeSantis.

And he reiterated his vow to fight to get the antibody treatments that Florida needs.

“To be so obsessed to kneecap Florida any way you can that you would take away life saving treatments” decried the Governor.

The Governor and Surgeon General today described schools imposing mask mandates as rogues. He also said sending healthy kids home because they might have been exposed in school deprives them of valuable learning time.

Dr. Ladapo will be under contract with the University of Florida. The contract is limited to two years. 

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Speaker Designate Named for 2022-2024 Term

September 21st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The son of a preacher and school teacher, State Representative Paul Renner of Palm Coast was today officially named Speaker Designate of the Florida House. He is an attorney and retired from US Navy after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Renner is guided by faith and believes god exerts his will in many ways. 

“I realized as a child there is no real freedom in a society that suppresses dissenting views. I ran for office like you in a deep belief that our county and its founding principles have provided more freedom, and more opportunity to more people than any other governing philosophy in history” Renner told colleagues after accepting the nomination.

Renner will take the helm of the House following the 2022 elections, providing Republicans remain in control. His term as Speaker runs through the 2024 election.

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Planned Parenthood Fears Texas Style Abortion Legislation in Florida

September 21st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

A hundred abortion rights activists joined Democratic lawmakers to rally at the State Capitol against the possibility the Florida Legislature will be considering a Texas-style abortion ban.

An identical bill to the one in Texas has already been filed and both the House Speaker and Senate President have indicated they’d be interested in considering some form of abortion legislation this year.

Representative Angie Nixon joined other speakers condemning the proposal and vowing to fight back.

“Safe, legal abortion is a right and it should be a decision kept between us and our doctors, not Republicans. Bringing this type of legislation to Florida is not about upholding the value of human life. It’s about devaluing the lives of individuals that rely on abortion as an essential medical service” says Nixon.

The Texas legislation allows private citizens to sue abortion doctors in civil court along with anyone else who helps facilitate an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. If successful, they could be awarded $10,000.

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School Board Races Could Become Partisan

September 20th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

By a two to one margin in 1998, Florida voters chose to make School Board elections nonpartisan, but two GOP lawmakers want to go back to school board candidates declaring their party affiliation.

When voters approved the switch to nonpartisan school board races in 1998, Democrats held a registration advantage of over 400,000 voters.

At the time, the change was seen as a way for the GOP to make inroads and develop a bench.

Today Democrats’ registration advantage is just over 23,000.

“It will bring transparency to the system,” said State Senator Joe Gruters, who is sponsoring the legislation seeking to return to partisan school board races.

Gruters argued mask mandates have already polarized voters.

“You’ll understand that if there is a Democrat or a Republican running for school board, they are likely to support issues that party generally agrees with,” said Gruters.

In a statement, the Florida School Boards Association told us: “…Education should be one issue where people all across the political spectrum could come together”.

With registrations now almost even, Democrats call this a horrible idea.

“It gives more of that rallying cry, I f you will, to their base. Rather than focusing on what is the best method to make sure our public schools are fully funded,” said State Representative Fentrice Driskell.

But Sponsor Gruters counters that local parties already make party affiliation an issue.

“You’re basically living under a rock if you think these races are nonpartisan. If you look at the parties in almost every single area, they will help identify, to their voters, which candidate represents their interests,” said Gruters.

If lawmakers are able to pass the change, six out of every ten voters next year would still have to approve, a tough hill to climb in a divided state.

Voters approved the non partisan races in 1998 with over 64 percent of the vote, but Gruters said the times were far less partisan.

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COVID Front and Center in the State Capitol for Second Year

September 20th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

For the second year in a row, COVID policy will be front and center in the State Capitol.

Bills are already rolling in ahead of the 2022 session and some are more controversial than others.

Of the COVID bills already filed, two are likely to garner bipartisan support.

The first would make it easier for first responders to receive workers comp if they get COVID on the job.

While it was filed by a Republican, Democratic Representative Fentrice Driskell supports the idea.

“These are folks who didn’t have the luxury of working from home,” said Driskell.

Representative Ardian Zika also filed a bill that would require insurers to cover the full price of at-home COVID tests.

“I think this is a first step in the right direction,” said Zika.

But Representative Anthony Sabatini’s legislation banning government mask mandates and prohibiting all employers, private and public, from imposing vaccine mandates is likely to draw sharp opposition.

“Allow all people to make their own mask and vaccine decisions. I think that’s just common sense,” said Sabatini.

While the Governor has expressed support for banning vaccine mandates for public sector employees, he hasn’t been as vocal about banning mandates for the private sector.

We reached out to the Governor’s Office and asked whether he would support baring private sector employers from mandating vaccinations for their employees, but did not hear back in time for this story.

Democratic Representative Evan Jenne argued local governments should make the public health decisions in their communities.

“There are certain instances where there needs to be state preemption. When it comes to keeping their communities safe, that’s just not one,” said Jenne.

House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Chair Daniel Perez told us it’s too early to predict how far lawmakers will go on vaccine mandate prohibitions.

“Making sure each individual has an opportunity to make their own decision is something that we will continue to do,” said Perez.

Another bill likely to divide lawmakers would limit when government can order religious institutions to close in a lockdown.

Since it doesn’t ban church closures outright, it may face some opposition from both parties.

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