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Ag Commissioner Hits DEP Over Piney Point Disaster

May 4th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried on Tuesday asked tough questions of the man who runs the State Department of Environmental Protection.

She wanted to know why decisions were made a decade ago not to close the former phosphate mine that leaked more than a quarter million gallons of nutrient rich contaminated water into Tampa Bay.

“Piney Point has been a ticking time bomb. And we know that there were letters and communications sent to DEP with the gravity of the upcoming situation. We are not going to allow Noah or this administration to push it under the rug and say everything is going to be okay. We’re throwing hundreds of millions of dollars, taxpayers dollars, to an environmental disaster with no, hey what happened? How did we get here?” said Fried.

Fried also asked what the state is doing to protect 27 other phosphate stacks located throughout the state.

She was offered a private briefing on the matter, but did not get a public response.

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Property Insurance Savings Delayed

May 3rd, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Homeowners are experiencing sticker shock as home insurance rates are rising rapidly in Florida.

New reforms designed to lower rates take effect July 1st, unless vetoed by the Governor, but it could be more than a year before rates stabilize.

Florida’s 6.2 million property insurance customers are seeing double digit hikes for homeowners insurance, and reform legislation doesn’t deal with one of the biggest cost drivers.

“Roofs are covered under the amendment, just like they have been in the past in your homeowners policy,” said Senate sponsor Jim Boyd.

Co-sponsor Senator Jeff Brandes explained lawmakers couldn’t agree on a sliding scale to replace a roof based on its age.

“What they see as roofs are getting older, they are having to replace these roofs that are 20 years old that were frankly at the end of their useful life anyway,” said Brandes.

The legislation also makes significant changes to the way attorneys are paid.

“If everybody’s reasonable, then everybody pays for their own attorneys fees. Before it was if you got one dollar more, then the insurance company had to pay all the legal fees,” said Brandes.

Even supporters have said it’s going to take 18 to 24 months for the legislation to make a dent in rates.

Democrats tried freezing current rates while the changes take place.

“And lets make sure it saves consumers money and doesn’t create more profit for an industry,” said State Senator Janet Cruz.

It failed.

House Democrats told us they believe the rejection makes the legislation one sided.

“It’s a bill that’s really meant to put as much money into an insurance companies pockets as is humanly possible,” said Representative Evan Jenne.

Under the legislation, homeowners have to accept a quote from a private insurer, even if it is up to 20 percent more than the state’s insurer of last resort.

The legislation also prohibits third party adjustors from offering incentives to inspect your roof, and provides penalties for those who skirt the law.

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Battle Lines Drawn Ahead of Gaming Session

May 3rd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Lawmakers may have left for home after wrapping up the 2021 legislative session, but they are already planning to be back in the Capitol in two weeks.

They’ll spend up to a week debating a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe.

Already, campaigns for and against the gaming deal are underway.

On the final day of session, the Governor teased the deal while touting the record $101.5 billion state budget.

“Our budget looks great, but why not get more in the kitty, right?” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

The Governor has said the deal will bring in $6 billion to the state by 2030.

A new ad by the tribe also pitches the deal as a win for the economy.

One of the biggest items in the compact is the legalization of sports betting.

“The parimutuels can contract with out-of-state clients to run the back end, but everything goes back to the tribe. The tribe can also contract with out of state to get that done,” sad State Senator Travis Hutson, who has spent years working on gambling legislation.

The deal also allows the tribe to offer craps and roulette.

Any product lawmakers agree on is sure to be challenged by anti-gabling groups, who are already arguing the new compact constitutes an expansion of gaming and has to be approved by voters.

“If Amendment 3 wasn’t designed to stop something like this, the biggest expansion of gambling in Florida history, then what did voters mean by it exactly?” said John Sowinski, who authored the Voter Approval of Casino Gambling constitutional amendment.

Lawmakers believe because any new gaming will run through the sovereign Seminole Nation, the 2018 constitutional amendment doesn’t apply.

“I hear there’s an Oklahoma case that’s very similar that has gone through the federal process. So I think we’re on solid ground,” said Hutson.

Lawmakers have slated five days to work on the gaming issue and it’s possible they’ll finish even sooner.

However, any legal challenges to the Gaming Compact aren’t likely to be resolved with such haste.

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Legislators Go Home, For Now

April 30th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s legislative 2021 session is now in the history books.

Lawmakers started the week with just 77 bills headed for the Governor’s desk out of more than 3,000 filed.

The number topped 260 when they adjourned at mid afternoon Friday, and the session was controversial right up to the final hankie drop.

Florida lawmakers start their sessions with a prayer and legislation on its way to the Governor will require two minutes of silence at the beginning of the school day.

Republicans in control give the session high marks.

“I think we did some tough votes, but I think we did it in a way that showed respect for all 120 members in the chamber, so I give it an A,” said Representative Sam Garrison.

Democrats, who tried to raise unemployment benefits were not so kind.

“We can’t even get an agreement to raise the unemployment benefits in our state, but yet we can talk about children playing in sports. We are trying to restrict people’s right to vote,” said Representative Michele Rayner.

The session was controversial right up to its final moments.

Democrats are still mad about a ban on transgender women playing girls sports.

“It would expel and humiliate the current transgender athletes that are playing on school teams right now,” said Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith.

And although watered down, the election bill still limits drop boxes.

Mail ballot requests also remain a sticking point.

“This is what it looks like when 22 million people have a conversation,” said Senator Dennis Baxley.

And there was a bit of an upset right before adjournment when an amendment aimed at the NCAA was put into a bill.

It says organizations that boycott Florida can not have their dues paid with taxpayer money.

In the case of FSU, it is an $1,800 a year cost that will have come from private funds in the NCAA pulls championships out of the state.

After the hankie drop, key legislators and the Governor took a victory lap.

“What the Senate and House did this year was take long term structural views of what we were doing,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

“If a local government gets hold of defund police, and someone wants to do that. We are protecting people from that, even if your local government goes off the deep end,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

Lawmakers will be back in mid May for a week long special session to consider ratify a gaming compact with the Seminole tribe.

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Florida Lawmakers Pass Historic $101.5 Billion Budget

April 30th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

State Lawmakers have wrapped up their work for the 2021 legislative session agreeing on a historic $101.5 billion budget.

Both parties say they’re happy with where the budget landed, after initially fearing drastic cuts.

This is the first time in state history the budget has topped $100 billion.

Legislative leaders say the spending plan this year was crafted with the future in mind.

“I believe this session we have created a framework that will benefit our state for generations to come,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

The eye popping overall price tag seemed unimaginable at the start of session, when lawmakers were looking at massive cuts to health care, prisons and more.

But those cuts were avoided thanks to higher than expected state revenues and billions in federal stimulus.

“I think every time we came back the estimates got better and better about revenue coming back in the state, which wasn’t happening, which made our budget choices a lot easier,” said House Speaker Chris Sprowls.

Even Democrats are happy with the overall product, despite not seeing the direct relief to Floridians they had hoped the extra federal cash would go towards.

“$10 billion goes a long way into any budget and it’ll make it a lot better,” said House Democratic Co-Leader Bobby DuBose.

Some highlights of the budget include half a billion for coastal resiliency projects, a ten month expansion of postpartum Medicaid coverage, a raise for minimum wage state employees to $13 an hour and one time teacher and principle bonuses of $1,000.

One area seeing a huge boost from the feds, the $20 billion k-12 budget.

“We now have more money than they can even consider what to do with. We’re awash in funding. COVID turned out to be the greatest stimulus for education spending in public education history,” said House K-12 Appropriations Chair Randy Fine.

The budget is now in the hands of the Governor, but the Senate President isn’t fearing the veto pen this year.

“Wildlife corridors, the environment, sea level rise. All of the things that are in this budget, I believe the Governor will fair in his application of the veto pen,” said Simpson.

Facing the uncertainty around the pandemic, the Governor vetoed a billion from the budget last year.

He has a month to decide what stay and what goes for this year.

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Advocates Call on Governor to Veto Tans Athlete Ban

April 29th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

During some last minute maneuvering Florida lawmakers revived, then passed legislation prohibiting transgender women from competing in women’s only sports.

Advocates in the LGBTQ community are now calling for the Governor to veto the bill.

With little warning, the prohibition on trans women competing in women’s only sports was tagged on to a must pass charter schools bill and rushed through both chambers in a matter of hours Wednesday night.

“It caught us totally off guard,” said Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith.

Smith has been one of the most vocal opponents of the legislation.

He argues the bill is discriminatory on its face, despite the ban now only applying to high school and college athletics and the removal of language that would have allowed for challenging the biological sex of student athletes.

“Transgender kids who were playing in team sports in Florida across the state right now, will be expelled and humiliated in front of their peers. They did nothing wrong,” said Smith. “We need to support trans youth and love trans youth, not use them as political pawns.”

LGBTQ Activists held a virtual press conference Thursday, calling for the Governor to use his veto pen.

“Laws like these are intended for one thing. To legislate trans people out of existence and society. To expel us from public spaces, block our access to basic human dignities,” said Willow Leech with the Florida Coalition for Transgender Liberation.

Adding pressure on the Governor, the NCAA has promised to boycott states that implement trans athlete bans.

“It’s up to the Governor to figure out whether or not attacking trans youth is worth losing $75 million in economic activity, jobs and tournaments from NCAA here in Florida,” said Smith.

The Governor has so far been silent on the legislation.

At least one Republican Governor in North Dakota vetoed a similar bill, although others in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee have been signed into law.

And even if the Governor signs the bill into law, legal challenges are all but guaranteed.

A similar law in Idaho has been put on hold by a federal court.

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Historic Police Reform Headed to Governor

April 29th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The most sweeping police reform bill in decades is on its way to the Governor.

The legislation bans chokeholds in most scenarios, requires data collection on the use of force and requires independent investigations when an officer discharges their weapon or causes bodily harm.

The legislation was inspired by the death of George Floyd.

“And we should tell the world to keep watching,” said State Senator Darryl Rouson.

At its center, the legislation creates new training criteria for new officers and recertification of those on the force.

“Not even within agencies do they believe that every single officer is perfect. Training and standards can help that,” said State Senator Audrey Gibson.

But even supporters say it doesn’t go far enough.

“There’s no penalties in this bill, but it is a great step forward,” said Rouson.

“What we don’t see in here today is ending qualified immunity, banning no knock warrants, banning racial and religious profiling and creating a national database of police misconduct,” said State Senator Shevrin Jones.

The support of police agencies helped the legislation pass, including the Florida Sheriffs Association.

No GOP Senators spoke as the bill was passing, but the vote was unanimous

Afterwards, Gibson told us the data collection required in the bill would show where more work is needed.

“It will show you communities, neighborhoods, blocks, zip codes, incidents, all those kinds of things and what police response was. Did somebody die? Were they severely injured?” said Gibson.

And after a six year old was hand cuffed at her school last year for a temper tantrum, the legislation bans the arrest of children under the age of seven, except for forcible felonies.

The legislation also requires outside reviews of the use of weapons or extreme force, and requires agencies and officers to disclose if someone was under investigation when they leave an agency.

The Legislative Black Caucus met with the Governor Thursday and told us afterward they are hopeful he will sign the legislation.

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African American Cemeteries Taskforce Bill Headed to Governor

April 29th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation creating a task force to identify unmarked Black cemeteries and come up with plans for their restoration or relocation is on its way to the Governor.

The legislation was first introduced last year after several abandoned cemeteries were found in the Tampa area.

“Five have been discovered in my area by the archeologists over the last few years. State and Federal estimates tells us that some 3,000 of these cemeteries exist in our state. These African American cemeteries were intentionally abandoned and they are a dark remnant of a ghastly time in our state’s history,” said State Senator Janet Cruz.

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Last Minute Push for Insurance Reform at the State Capitol

April 29th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation reforming property insurance in Florida is in trouble at the Capitol, and Thursday a plane circled the Capitol with a message for the Governor, asking him to intervene in the legislative debate.

Lawmakers have been arguing over a formula over roof replacements, but can’t agree on what the formula should be.

There is also an effort to reduce attorneys fees in the bill, but it is also a sticking point.

It comes as most homeowners are seeing 20 to 40 percent increases this year.

Sponsors say if the issue isn’t resolved by tomorrow, lawmakers will have to come back this summer to deal with rising rates.

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Data Privacy Legislation in Limbo

April 29th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation giving Floridians control over their data was bouncing back and forth between the House and Senate Thursday, as time continued to run out in the legislative session.

The measure requires companies to ask for your permission to sell the data and give you a chance to opt out.

Senator Gary Farmer called it a meaningful consumer protection.

“All we’re talking about is when you get that thing that says I agree, they have to tell you what they are going to do with your information and give you a chance to opt out. That’s a good thing. That’s a good thing for consumers,” said Farmer.

Senate Sponsor Jennifer Bradley told Senators she was surprised by the depth and volume of data being sold.

“And I will tell you that the scale of this surveillance economy that’s happening on the internet now an din our e-commerce, is truly staggering. I really didn’t appreciate the scope of that surveillance until I dug into the details of this bill,” said Bradley.

The bill was approved by the Senate over the objections of Florida’s large businesses, who fear they could be sued.

The legislation says it only applies to companies who collect data on a 100,000 people or more and make 50 percent or more of their profits from selling or sharing the data.

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Privacy Protection Act Nears Final Passage

April 28th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

In the waning days of session lawmakers are making a final dash to pass new privacy protections for Floridians.

The bill sponsors say the legislation is aimed at giving Floridians more say in how their data is used, but opponents say the bill would be much further reaching.

The Florida Privacy Protection Act would require companies that handle the data of 100,000 or more people and make 50 percent or more of their profits from selling or sharing that data to let consumers know what data is being collected and sold and give them the option of opting out entirely.

According to House sponsor Fiona McFarland, companies couldn’t deny you service if you opt to not share your data.

That means companies would have to find another way to make up the lost revenue, likely by offering paid subscriptions.

“If your streaming music service has decided that the value of your data is worth $5 a month to them, and by you opting out of them using your data, they can then charge you that $5 per month,” said McFarland.

The obvious targets are big tech companies, but State Senator Jeff Brandes told us he’s worried they wouldn’t be the only ones impacted.

“You’re going to catch businesses like Publix and Walt Disney,” said Brandes.

He said a similar law in California is estimated to have cost businesses $65 billion.

“We can’t be piecemealing, like a patchwork quilt, privacy laws around this country and expecting businesses to try to comply,” said Brandes.

But the McFarland argues the cost of doing nothing outweighs the risks.

“Our right to liberty, to make the decisions for ourselves as informed consumers, is just not happening when it comes to how our data is treated online,” said McFarland.

The House and Senate still have to agree on a final product.

The House version allows individuals to sue companies if their privacy rights are violated, while the Senate version leaves compliance enforcement to the Attorney General.

The Senate amended the bill Wednesday, which means both chambers still have to vote on a final product before session ends Friday.

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Negotiations Continue on Homeowners Fix

April 28th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Lawmakers in the State Capitol continue bouncing an insurance bill back and forth between the House and Senate as homeowners across the state face double digit increases.

Key provisions on roof replacements and attorneys fees continue to be sticking points.

The legislation sets limits on roof replacements.

The older the roof, the less the policy will pay, unless you opt for more expensive coverage.

“Ultimately, you are paying for your neighbors roof through higher premiums,” said State Senator Jeff Brandes.

The exact formula is still being worked out, but both chambers are working with a sense of urgency.

“There’s a problem with insurance rates rising at 25 to 35 percent a year,” said Representative Bob Rommel.

Lawsuits must be filed with in two years of the damage instead of the current three.

Lawmakers say the time frame allows unscrupulous contractors to make up claims, so it bans gift cards as incentives.

“Let me up on your roof. I’ll give you five hundred bucks. I’ll get you a free roof and you won’t even have to pay your deductible,” said Rommel.

But opponents argued there’s no guarantee any savings will be passed on to homeowners.

“This chamber also rejected at least six point two percent rate saving per year,” said Representative Emily Slosberg, referring to an amendment rejected offered and rejected Tuesday.

The legislation also allows Citizens Insurance, which is now growing at 5,000 homeowners a week, to raise its rates more than the current ten percent.

The bill would allow one percent more a year more until it reaches 15 percent.

“Why are we depriving property owners of vital protections, just when they need them most,” said Representative Yvonne Hisnon.

Senate Co-Sponsor Jeff Brandes calls the legislation the most important thing lawmakers must do this year.

“Rate increases of 30 or 40 percent a year are going to become common in the next two years if we do nothing,” said Brandes.

And if all the details can’t be worked out before the end of the week, Brandes and others said there will have to be a special session by the end of the summer.

Lawmakers are also negotiating a cap on attorneys fees, basing them on the percentage of their initial claim they are eventually awarded, if any, by a court.

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Sales Tax Holidays Near Passage

April 27th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida will have three weeks of sales tax free merchandise that includes hurricane and back to school supplies this year

There is also a third week of tax free sales on recreational supplies and entertainment tickets beginning July first.

Florida’s sales tax free holidays are bigger and better this year.

Under legislation expected to be approved Wednesday, hurricane supplies go tax free the Friday before Memorial Day.

Generators under $750 dollars, coolers, batteries, weather radios and more are tax exempt.

The state’s outgoing Director of Emergency Management Jared Moskowitz said the tax free days serve as a reminder.

“I think its very important that the government do everything we can to incentivize people being prepared and increasing their resiliency for hurricane season,” said Moskowitz.

In July there is a new tax free holiday called Freedom Week.

It includes camping fishing gear including tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves and more.

Even folding camping chairs costing less than $40 are on the list.

During the week you can also buy tickets to sporting events or movies tax free.

Tickets to music venues are also tax exempt during the July Freedom Week.

House sponsor Bobby Payne said the tickets will have to be used by the end of the year.

“We have an opportunity to turn some taxes back to consumers who have been shut in for a year, or six months, or whatever, and they want to get outside and enjoy the outdoors,” said Payne.

And finally, there is a tax free week of school supplies.

It includes clothing and shoes up to $60.

Backpacks are included and the big one, computers costing less than $1,000.

“It’s a shot in the arm that’s needed very much by the retail industry,” said Scott Shalley with the Florida Retail Federation.

Amid a host of other technical changes, the legislation also permanently removes the sales tax from independent living items including bed rails, grab bars and shower seats.

The legislation also allows tourism taxes to be used to mitigate flood risks.

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Bill Allowing Guns in Churches With Schools Attached Heads to the Governor’s Desk

April 27th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

A multi-year effort to close a loophole preventing churches with schools on their grounds from allowing firearms on their premises is headed to the Governor’s desk.

Republicans believe it will make the churches safer, while Democrats argue it will do just the opposite.

Places of worship can already allow guns on their property, but if they have a school on their grounds they can’t.

Senate sponsor Joe Gruters said all this legislation does is close that loophole.

“It’s not up to the individual. The religious institution can still determine time, place, where, when, how, who,” said Gruters.

But Democrats argued more guns equals more danger.

“I believe there are other ways to make those institutions safe, and we all know basically nowhere is safe, and that’s because there’s just too many guns in America,” said Senator Tina Polsky.

The legislation only applies to concealed carry permit holders, which according to a 2016 report conducted by the Crime Prevention Research Center are the most law abiding demographic in the Country.

Gruters also pointed to a case in 2019, where a gunman was stopped by an armed churchgoer at the West Freeway Church of Christ in Texas.

“Six seconds it took them to secure that location,” said Gruters. “This gives schools the needed safety they need, it gives churches the additional security that they need.”

Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer expressed concerns that if a church doesn’t allow firearms the legislation could open them up to lawsuits.

“We’ve seen that the NRA is voracious in their ability and their willingness to go to court and try to block any kind of common sense gun safety precaution,” said Farmer.

But Gruters rejected that suggestion, arguing the institution has the option of allowing or not allowing guns.

He also pushed back against an argument made by opponents who suggested if a church is on leased property, the property owner would have no say as to whether firearms are allowed.

“Property owners ultimately still have the ultimate control. They get to decide. If the leases are silent, I would say that this is a change of terms of the agreement and they can go back and address that,” said Gruters.

The legislation will take effect upon the Governor’s signature.

Chances of a veto are slim to none.

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Legislation Punishing Big Tech Clears Senate

April 26th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Senate passed legislation requiring social media companies to publish standards for use and abide by them when it comes to de-platforming users Monday.

The legislation carries heavy fines and the threat of lawsuits.

Big Tech platforms would face $100,000 a day fines if they de-platform a statewide candidates and $10,000 a day for other candidates.

In 2018, Matt Caldwell, the losing candidate for Florida Agriculture Commissioner was de-platformed for his pro NRA ad which YouTube removed for almost a day.

“They were able to take a whole segment of free press away, saying we don’t want to hear those words; we don’t want top hear that speech. And we’re going to de-platform you. This bill fixes that,” said Senator Kelli Stargel.

The Senate version allows the state or individuals to sue.

Democrats voted no.

“We’re not going to allow social media platforms to block offensive, hate mongering, insurrection supporting messaging,” said Senator Gary Farmer.

The minority was joined by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes.

“This is a bill we could see in countries we don’t want to talk about,” said Senator Brandes. “We can’t have 50 different states with 50 different laws on what you can post. It isn’t going to work.”

But in the end, the sponsor said the bill is about one thing.

“The bill requires the companies to define the behavior that will lead to you being de-platformed. And that’s it,” said Senator Ray Rodrigues.

Under the legislation, companies could only change their terms of service every 30 days.

The House isn’t likely to accept the bill passed by the Senate as-is, but what changes the House wants isn’t clear.

The Sponsor is playing his cards close to the vest.

“You know, we may make some edits to it and send it back to the Senate. I think that’s the plan right now,” said Representative Blaise Ingoglia.

There’s little doubt the legislation will pass in some form, but the question is how strong will it be as lawmakers enter the final week of the session.

Under the legislation, companies could only change their terms of service every 30 days.

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