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Jeff Vasilinda becomes the Vasilinda Family’s first published author!

State of the State: Growth, Prosperity, Freedom

March 2nd, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

For the 123rd time since statehood, Florida lawmakers opened their annual session Tuesday, in what the Senate President called an opening like no other.

For the Governor, his State of the State address was mostly a victory lap.

Florida lawmakers have kept a hands off approach since the pandemic and for 28 and a half minutes, the Governor told them it worked on everything from keeping schools open to allowing people to work.

“We are one of only a handful of states in which a parent has the right to send their child to school in person,” said Governor Ron DeSantis. “And our citizens are employed at higher rates than those in the nation as a whole.”

He also attributed the openness to the creation of an influx of new businesses.

“We are one of the top destinations for business relocation,” said DeSantis.

Looking ahead, the Governor again called for record school funding.

“And I just want to make it very clear. I reject and reductions in funding for K-12 education,” said DeSantis.

He also wants a billion over four years to fight climate change.

“It will help our communities adapt to the threats posed by flooding from intensified storms and sea level rise,” said DeSantis.

Legislative leaders said if there’s any federal stimulus money coming, it will be for one time expenses.

“Our priorities should be to reinvigorate this economy, we can do that with one time investments in our shovel ready road projects,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

As a rebuke to local governments who fought against not requiring masks, the Governor is proposing limiting local emergency powers.

Democrats argue the Governor isn’t looking out for average Floridians, only his political career.

“He’s no longer focusing on the state of Florida, but he’s focusing on his popularity as he’s getting ready for a Presidential run,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.

As the only statewide elected Democrat, Fried is considered a top challenger to the Governor in 2022.

Asked Tuesday, she said she has not announced for Governor, “yet”.

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Florida Democrats Push Back on State of the State Address

March 2nd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Each year following the Governor’s State of the State address, the party in the minority responds with a counter vision of where they see the state headed.

This year some of the Governor’s top priorities are the top points of opposition from the Democratic Party.

While the Governor painted a rosy picture of Florida besting other states in pandemic response during his State of the State address, Florida Democrats immediately responded with a different take.

“We’ve lost loved ones, jobs and income,” said Rep. Andrew Learned. “Instead of helping hardworking Floridians with common sense solutions, we heard an agenda that was driven by pettiness, imaginary threats and settling partisan political scores. This is a time for leadership, a plan to get COVID-19 under control, to deliver relief for Florida’s families and build back our economy better.”

In a pre-recorded video, Democrats and progressive activists delivered what they call the ‘People’s Response’.

In it, they demanded changes to the state’s unemployment system.

“As hundreds and thousands of Floridians were personally devastated with the loss of their job at no fault of their own, with bills bearing down on them, they were left to deal with a horribly broken unemployment system,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani.

In another video, Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer took aim directly at the Governor’s top agenda items.

“Our Republican Governor has made the dissolution of your First Amendment rights his top priority and protecting violence inciting hate speech on the internet as his second,” said Farmer.

The lone statewide elected Democrat, Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, suggested the Governor’s priorities are aimed at delivering red meat to his base rather than addressing the everyday needs of Floridians.

“We should not be dividing our state and dividing our country. If we work on issues that are impacting everybody across the board, that’s when we make progress,” said Fried.

Democrats’ key agenda items this year include expanding Medicaid, increasing unemployment benefits, police reform and expanding access to the ballot.

While Democrats are voicing their objections, they don’t have the votes to stop anything the Governor and Republican-led legislature want to do.

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Protestors Take to State Capitol In Opposition of Anti-Rioting Legislation

March 2nd, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

About a hundred people arrived at the State Capitol Tuesday afternoon to make known their displeasure over proposed anti-rioting legislation.

The measure would increase penalties for non peaceful protests when police are attacked, temporarily deny bail, and punish cities that cut law enforcement funding.

Newly elected St. Petersburg State Representative Michele Rayner called the legislation discriminatory.

“You can’t really lobby the way that you want to, but you’re driving from Sarasota, Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando. All of these places. You are doing the work. You are making your voice heard.And I love that you are protesting an anti protesting bill,” said Rayner.

The legislation is a top priority of the Governor and GOP leaders.

It has a hearing in its second of three committees late Wednesday afternoon.

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Florida Lawmakers Take Aim at China

March 1st, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The Governor and legislative leaders are adding China to the growing list of targets for the 2021 Legislative Session beginning Tuesday.

Newly filed bills seek to limit intellectual property theft by the Communist regime and crack down on Chinese influence in colleges and universities.

“The growing presence of the Chinese Communist Party influence in domestic and international affairs is one of the most pervasive threats to American security and prosperity,” said Governor Ron DeSantis in a press conference Monday.

The Governor and House Speaker are backing two proposals.

The first seeks to limit Chinese influence in academia by requiring transparency for donations from foreign governments over $50,000 and creating penalties for institutions that don’t comply.

“Florida is known for our sunshine and transparency. No longer will foreign interests be able to hide payments through subsidiaries and front companies,” said House Speaker Chris Sprowls.

The legislation comes after indictments of professors at UF and UCF alleged to have ties to the Chinese communist party.

“I too believe we are just scratching the surface of what is out there. Florida is taking bold steps to protect our institutions from countries that do us harm,” said Rep Erin Grall, who is sponsoring the legislation in the House.

A second bill would increase penalties for cooperate espionage, raising theft of trade secrets to a second degree felony and trafficking trade secrets to a first degree felony.

“The theft of trade secrets and intellectual property must stop and these laws will place Florida in a position to end it,” said Senate sponsor Jennifer Bradley.

The Governor and lawmakers left without taking questions, but the legislation isn’t unexpected.

The Governor has promised retribution against the Chinese Government through the pandemic.

Also filed this year is legislation blaming China for the economic meltdown caused by COVID.

It would prevent state and local governments from purchasing products wholly made in China or products assembled outside the US containing less than 25 percent US-made parts.

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A Session Unlike Any Before

March 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida lawmakers begin their annual 60-day session Tuesday.

It is the 123rd session since statehood, but it will be different than any ever held before, as the Capitol remains closed to most visitors over COVID concerns.

The flowers are freshly planted and the grounds newly pressure washed, but little else will be the same in the first full legislative session of the pandemic.

In years past, sessions would bring a thousand or more people a day to the Capitol, but this year, the building remains closed to most of the public.

Senate Committee rooms remain off limits.

In-person testimony is now remote via video from a mile away, but you still have to be in the capital city.

Even long-time lobbyists find it unnerving.

“It’s surreal. I don’t even feel like I am talking to anyone,” said insurance lobbyist Mark DeLegal.

The House is allowing a limited number of people on a first come basis to testify before committees.

Opening day Tuesday will be off limits to all visitors.

A coalition of groups is calling on both chambers to allow live remote testimony from anyone anywhere in Florida.

“Public testimony is not working,” said Carol Boyd with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The idea that you would open it up to any person that wanted to testimony anywhere in the world is pretty ridiculous,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Florida’s Constitution doesn’t allow lawmakers to meet virtually, but there will be an effort to change that this year.

Legislators, staff and reporters are tested each week before being allowed inside the Capitol.

With all the precautions, the 2021 session will be different from the past; except fo the politics that will permeate every discussion.

Two pandemic related committees are examining how to keep the state safe and open if a future pandemic were to hit.

A Senate Committee voted Monday to put a time limit on how long a Governor’s executive order can remain in place.

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DEO Testifies on Unemployment

March 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

For the first time since the pandemic, the Director of Department of Economic Opportunity was in a legislative hot seat answering questions about the state’s unemployment system Monday.

A 104-page report released Friday night calls for spending more than $32 million on system upgrades and the hiring of 435 people.

Director Dane Eagle said the current system was never prepared to handle the pandemic.

“You can see the great recession there about the middle of the graph, and it pales in comparison to the amount of claims we have dealt with this past year. The good news is that you can see that spike was very sharp. It went up quickly, and it’s come down very quickly as well. Now, on a nation level, those claims we are experiencing on a weekly level are close to that great recession level, but we continue to see them coming down,” said Eagle.

A bill filed for the 2021 session would raise weekly unemployment payments from $275 to $375.

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Legislation Would Ban ‘Disability Abortions’

February 26th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

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

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

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

For Ryan Sprague, the issue is personal.

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

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

He hopes the legislation sparks a conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bipartisan Florida Coalition Pushes for State and Federal Immigration Reform

February 25th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None have yet been scheduled for a hearing.

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Effort to Ban Confederate Holidays Back Again

February 25th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida recognizes 18 holidays.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An estimated 4,000 died.

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

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

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

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

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

Confederate supporters say its adding insult to injury.

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

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

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Activists Bash Florida Capitol COVID Restrictions

February 25th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Capitol Flags Lowered Amid Controversy

February 24th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Florida Making Progress on School Safety

February 24th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s expected to be published sometime this year.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Anti-Riot Bill Protest Planned

February 23rd, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

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

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

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

There was no permit for the event.

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

Nineteen were arrested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Report: Legislature Continuing Attack on Home Rule

February 23rd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lawmakers Pitch More Privacy for Voters… and Themselves

February 22nd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s one notable exception in the bill.

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

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

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

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

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