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Dems Push Nursing Home Reform

January 13th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida Democrats today unveiled a plan to put more accountability behind the four bill the state sends to nursing homes each year. The legislation would require that 75 percent of the cash would be required to do to direct patient care. Zayne Smith of AARP praised the effort.

“This legislation would guarantee that seventy-five percent of Medicaid funding would go to direct patient care.  It’s a win for the residents. Its a win for the most vulnerable residents in Florida, It’s a win for the workforce, and frankly, its a win for the nursing homes to do the right thing, and place the emphasis on care.”

The legislation also seeks to stop nursing homes from using inflated staff leasing companies that are often owned by the parent companies of the homes. 

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Parkland Inspired Mental Health Legislation

January 13th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation providing expanded mental health services to not just school students but their families as well cleared a House sub-committee after near tearful testimony from the father of Gina Montalto, who died in the massacre. Afterwards her father Tony Montalto, said he and other families will continue trying to make schools and society safer.

“We believe that Gina would have gone out there and changed the world, so we need to make sure that she still does. She was a very helpful kid and this is her way of helping others.  Myself and all the spouses involved with parkland try every Day to honor the loss of our loved ones by making sure no other family has to suffer again.“

Sponsor Christine Hunschofsky (D-Broward County) made clear the legislation is also for families.

“And this bill is not just for the mental health of the students and the care they’re receiving, but for the care the people in their household are receiving, and making sure its available to them” said Rep. Hunschofsky.

The legislation has three more committee stops before heading to the full House.

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New Effort to Curb Human Trafficking

January 12th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is recruiting businesses to train their employees on recognizing the signs of human trafficking. Her goal is to train a hundred thousand people by the end of the year. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, Florida is among the top states when it comes to calls to a  national hotline to report trafficking.

On Tuesday, police conducted random stops, looking for human trafficking victims at the state line between Florida and Alabama.

Florida ranks third in the nation in calls to to the national Human Trafficking hotline. Only  Texas and California have more. Now, Attorney General Ashley Moody is asking businesses to get involved.

“We need partners in the community” says Moody.

Moody is calling on businesses to train their employees to help spot the signs…and take action.

“We know first hand accounts where a trucker at a rest stop, knew the signs. was trained on the signs of human trafficking and rescued a victim, so we know this will work” says the Attorney General.  

Jeff Jackson is the CEO of PGT Industries, the states largest maker of windows and doors. He’s the first business to step up and train 100 percent of his employees.

“It’s an incredible blight on society, and in the US we actually have human trafficking slavery in this economy and environment” says Jackson.

The Attorney General’s goal: Train a hundred thousand people in Florida to recognize  human trafficking this year.

Jackson says once companies education themselves, it will be a no brainer.

“We drove over four point three million miles last year alone. So think about the mileage we cover and the locations we see with just that” the CEO told us.

The Attorney General says human trafficking is the number two illegal activity in the state behind drug trafficking.

If you want to know more or take a one hour training course, you can reach out to the Florida Coalition to End Human Trafficking at www.FloridaAllianceEndHT.com.

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Abortion Proponents Call Newly Filed Legislation a Ban

January 12th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

About two dozen people representing the Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice took to the steps of the old Capitol this afternoon to protest the filing of a bill that would shorten the time a woman could legally obtain an abortion from twenty-four to fifteen weeks. Bills were filed Tuesday, the last day for legislators to file bills. Democrat Representative Felicia Robinson pointed out the legislation does not make an exception for rape or incest.

“Imagine being a rape victim and finding out you are pregnant with the attackers child. You do not want to carry the pregnancy to term, but you have no options.So you are forced to have a child conceived through violence and violation” says Robinson.

If the bills are approved, organizers of today’s event say the closest place someone get get an abortion after fifteen weeks would be North Carolina, where there is a 72 hour waiting period before an abortion can be preformed.

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State of the State: Freedom

January 11th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis declared Flordia to be the freest state in America during his annual state of the state address to open the 2022 legislative session. The Governor vowed to continue on the path to more freedom, with more policies to attract and support business and jobs., As Mike Vasilinda tells us, outnumber Florida Democrats vowed to put up a fierce fight, especially when it comes to a woman’s right to choose. 

Governor Ron DeSantis used the word freedom more than a half dozen times, comparing Florida to other states during his state of the state address.

“While so many around the country have consigned the peoples rights to the graveyard, Florida has stood a freedom’s vanguard” the Governor told lawmakers.

That freedom has produced record revenue for the state

“I’m proposing a one billion dollar gas tax holiday,” a plan he has previously released.

The Governor also vowed never to embrace a soft on crime agenda.

“We will not allow law enforcement to be defunded, bail to be eliminated, criminals to prematurely released from prison, or prosecutors to ignore the law’ says the Governor.

DeSantis is pushing for up to a twenty five percent raise for police, asked for money to deport illegal immigrants, He wants election laws tightened.

“Ballot harvesting  has no place in the state of Florida”

Republicans, including Rep. Sam garrison of Fleming Island in Northeast Florida were joyful afterward. 

“I think the Governor hit a home run. You know where he stands on everything” Garrison told us. 

But Democrat Nikki Fried, who is running for Governor, said Ron DeSantis had failed.

“This governor couldn’t lead Florida out of a paper bag” said the Democratic hopeful.

Afterwards, the Governor told reporters there is no reason for lawmakers  to wait for an abortion decision from the US Supreme Court.

The comment came just hours after Sen. Kelli Stargel introduced a bill limiting abortions to the first 15 weeks.

“I think the decision should be made early in your pregnancy, not later” Stargel told us.

Senate Democrat leader Lauren Book said out numbered Democrats will over come their lack of numbers.

“We are a fierce, fierce bunch of people who want to fight for every day Floridians.”

Democrats are down three members as the session began. One Senator and two House members were required to resign when they decided to run in a special congressional election. 

The session runs through March eleventh. 

 

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For the 124th Time Since Statehood, Lawmakers Meet in Regular Session

January 10th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

When lawmakers begin their annual session tomorrow, the 124th since statehood, they are required to do just two things..redraw the states legislative and congressional districts and pass a balanced budget. But as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the GOP majority has a long list of election year priorities.

 

The Governor has laid out a long list of requests that include bonuses for teachers and first responders, giving parents the right to sue school boards that violate state laws.

He hit hit some of the high points on national TV over the weekend on Fox News.

“We’re going after critical race theory. We’re fighting back against Biden’s

mandates. We’re fighting back against illegal immigration” he told host Mark Levin.

Republican State Senator Jeff Brandes believes it will be a slam dunk for the Governor.

“I think Governor will get most of what he wants. The strategy around here right now is to kind of  draft behind the Governor. He’s doing a lot of good things in a lot of areas” says the term limited Senator.

And for now anyway, the legislative session is going to be completely open to the public, with no covid restrictions what so ever.

Lobbyists were already walking the halls Monday. 74 year old Charles Fudge was sent to a state reform school when he was 12. He and hundreds of other wards of the school are seeking compensation for the beatings and abuse.

“Had I never gone there, I probably would have been a very good football player. I’m sure I would have served our country in the military.” Futch says more White House Boys will be at the Capitol Tuesday for opening day.

During a morning virtual event, Democrats, including Representative Fentrice Driskell of Tampa,  criticized much of the Governor’s agenda.

“What we can expect from this Governor is consistency in terms of doubling down on his failed approach to the pandemic” says Driskell.

Brandes calls it the wrong approach.

“I think its the wrong message for them. That’s not the right message at all. He’s getting kids back in school, he’s keeping the state open.” 

And in his first three sessions Ron DeSantis has gotten virtually everything he asked from lawmakers and more. 2022 isn’t likely to break his streak.

Two pressing problems not high on lawmakers agenda is a crumbling prison system and property insurance bills increasing by as much as thirty percent or more a year.

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Union Dues Collection Under Attack

January 6th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Public employee unions in Florida will be facing scrutiny from lawmakers when they return to the Capitol next week for their annual session. For at least the last three years, lawmakers have been trying to take the state out of the business of collecting union dues. But the ban on collecting dues would not apply to every public employer union.

 

Under the proposed legislation, the state would no longer collect dues for a long list of public employee unions. Sponsor Dennis Baxley argues the state shouldn’t be in the middle of a relationship between the employee and employer.

“Rather than having the school system collecting those dues and going through the legwork of working for the unions and making their collections for them, it would be much more appropriate if that were a direct relationship” Baxley told us while traveling.

The legislation also requires employees to sign a membership authorization form that must include language telling the employee that Florida is a right to work state and joining a union is voluntary. 

Teacher Union President Andrew Sparr calls the legislation a distraction.

“So everything this legislature should focus on right now is what are we doing to recruit people and keep people in the profession, working in our public schools so that every child gets the education they deserve,” says Sparr.

Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO says passage would be a disruption for the staff who worked thru the pandemic.

“This bill makes it difficult for them to remain in their union” says Templin, because they may lose benefits if they forget to mail a timely check.

But he legislation doesn’t apply to every public sector union. Police officers, firefighters, and correctional employees could still have heir dues deducted from their state check.

Rich Templin says that is just one of the bills inconsistencies.

“Some university personnel, for example, they have a paycheck deduction for their football tickets. That will still be allowed” says Templin.

Under the legislation, unions would also face decertification if their membership fell below at least 50 percent of those eligible to join.

In previous years, law enforcement were included in drafts of the legislation, but after complaining loudly, they were removed from the bill.

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Election Recounts Soon to Be Faster, Easier

January 5th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

The Presidency was won in 2000 by 537 votes cast in Florida, and a recent Special Election for Congress here was won by just five votes. State law sets standards for recounts, and as Mike Vasilinda tells us, new technology could make recounts in 2022 and beyond quicker and more accurate.

Voters in Florida sometimes select two candidates in the same race, or color outside the lines on their ballot, making it difficult for their choice to be known.

Mark Earley is the President Elect of the Florida Supervisors of Elections Association..

“Sometime, people circle the name and that’s not a fill in oval, so voting machines sometimes miss that” says Earley.

 

 

The state is now in the process of drafting rules for new technology that will make the recount process more accurate, faster, and more transparent.

“And then we can go to this vote visualization and we immediately see those ballots where voter intent was missed” said Earley as he demonstrated how the system works.

They systems already capture images of every ballot scanned. Allowing the scans to be used to review over and under votes instead having to re-feed every ballot through the system again will save time and manpower the next time a recount is ordered.

Earley says it makes sense to not trust the same machines that did the original count.

“If you are really trying to prove the results of an election, it makes sense not to use the same equipment you used the first time. You use a competitors piece of equipment. So that’s what we’re doing and I think its very transparent.”

The systems are already used to audit whether voting machines counted accurately.  A 2020 law allows them to be used for recounts.

When this legislation passed, it went all the way from committee to the Governors desk without a single no vote. So we asked the Supervisor “Any doubt in your mind there will be a recount in the next election?”

After he finished laughing, he joked: “Where’s the wood I need to knock on?”

Adopting the new system is voluntary for the states 67 elections supervisors, but at least 22 are already on board to use the systems for the upcoming 2022 election.

The technology was developed in Leon County, where it has been in use since 2009, but only for audits, not recounts.

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Florida Revenue Picture Bright

January 4th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

When Florida lawmakers return to the Capitol next week to begin their annual session, they will have more money than anticipated. State tax collections, buoyed by rising consumer spending, were up almost 400 million dollars in November. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, state economists, even with inflation, are cautiously optimistic about the future.

Florida’s November revenue collections were 398.8 million higher than economists predicted. It follows a nearly year long trend of larger than expected tax collections. 

“We had a lot of stimulus money. Some of that is starting to fade out”

Amy Baker is the coordinator at the office of Economic and Demographic Research.

“We’re continuing to recover from the worst effects of the pandemic. We’re continuing to grow says Baker.”

Florida businesses remain weary of national policies, but they are also seeing a rising tide, even with staffing and supply chain shortages.

 

Bill Herrle is the executive Director of the Florida Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

“Forty-four percent of small business owners have reported increasing wages in the last quarter. We’re doing what we can to bring workers back. But of course, that could mean higher prices too” says Herrle. 

Even the Governor noted the upswing when he announced his 99 point 7 billion dollar Freedom First budget.

“Florida is clicking on all cylinders” the Governor told reporters when he announced the budget on December ninth.

The governor also doubled down on the states economic freedom Monday, after reports that one of his biggest critics, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez vacationed maskless in Miami.

“If I had a dollar for every lock down politician who decided to escape to Florida over the last two years, I’d be a pretty dog gone wealthy man” Said DeSantis.

State economists tell us the rising inflation we’re now seeing is a double edged sword.

Inflation will initially bring more money to the state before damaging consumers purchasing power.

And as lawmakers begin writing the state budget next week, they are better able to say yes to new spending than perhaps anytime in the states history, with as much as seventeen billion in reserves.

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Businesses May be Able to Sue Governments for Losses

January 3rd, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Business owners may soon have a new tool to fight City Hall. Legislation being pushed for the coming legislative session would allow businesses to sue if a city or county ordinance causes their profits to drop. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the legislation has local governments calling foul.

 

Senate Bill 620 would allow businesses to sue local governments if the governments actions…like changing the hours a restaurant or bar can be open, causes a 15 percent drop in the businesses income or profit. Cities and Counties hate the idea.

“This bill is very broad.” Says Ralph Thomas, the President of the Florida Association of Counties

“My fear is the unintended consequences and It would be easy for anyone to just say, hey, I think you’ve impacted my business , and the cost of my business, and I want a check. I want you to compensate me for my losses. And then we’re going to be in a situation where it’ll probable be cheaper to settle that than fighting it our in court.” Says Thomas.

 

 

The legislation raised more questions than sponsor Travis Hutson could answer at its first hearing in November. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville asked..

“Can you give me an example of how the government, counties or cities, causes a loss? 

“The possibilities are endless of what they could do” responded Hutson.

 

More than a dozen spoke against it at that hearing. Ida Eskamani of Florida Rising told the committee “Members, we ask that you please stop this long list of state interference that we’ve seen in this body by protecting our local freedoms.”

John Harris Mauer, representing Equality Florida told Senators local governments need all their tools. “What we know is that local governments should be able to enact ordinances that serve and protect their communities” said Harris Mauer.

All four Democrats on the Judiciary Committee voted no.

So far, this legislation has gotten more traction in the Senate, where its supported by the Senate President. 

State Lawmakers begin their annual sixty day session a week from Tuesday on January 11th, and if SB 620 becomes law, businesses will have to have been in operation for at least three years to be eligible to sue. They must also provide 180 days notice before filing suit.

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Florida Surgeon General Pushes for More Monoclonal Antibodies

December 30th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s Surgeon General is calling on the US Department of Health and Human Services to get out of the way and allow states to acquire more monoclonal antibody treatments.

The move comes as daily COVID cases reach record highs across the country.

In a letter to the HHS Secretary, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo ripped the agency’s recent decision to pause allocations of two monoclonal antibody treatments.

“This shortsightedness is especially evident given that the federal government effectively prohibited states from purchasing these monoclonal antibodies and serving their populations directly,” wrote Ladapo.

The decision was made after some evidence suggested the treatments are ineffective against the Omicron variant.

“What our Surgeon General is doing is asking for potential treatments that don’t work,” said Democratic State Representative Anna Eskamani.

Eskamani noted there is one treatment that seems to hold up against Omicron.

“There is a third treatment that we do need to see an expansion of and I know the federal government is working on that,” said Eskamani.

But CDC data shows more than 20 percent of cases in the South are still from the Delta variant.

Ladapo argued in his letter the other two treatments shouldn’t be completely off the table.

“Florida can expand treatment options for patients by distributing therapeutics to providers working in areas with a low prevalence of Omicron or clinics capable of variant screening,” Ladapo wrote.

An HHS spokesperson told us in a statement that the federal government never stopped shipping antibody treatments to Florida. The state received 22,000 treatments last week alone.

“That’s in addition to the approximately 28,000 doses of product that they have on hand from their previous orders. In other words, Florida should have strong supply of product on hand – and more than most other states,” said HHS spokesperson Kristen Allen.

But considering the state just racked up nearly 47,000 new cases in a single day, there’s an apparent imbalance between supply and demand.

“[Governor DeSantis] has consistently urged the Biden Administration to ramp up supplies of these lifesaving therapeutics, and several months ago, he warned of a possible “winter surge” of COVID throughout the country. It is disappointing that the federal government has not heeded this advice and has neglected to promote treatment options at every turn,” said DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw in an Emailed statement.

Eskamani acknowledged more could be done by the federal government, but argued the Surgeon General’s letter won’t solve anything.

“It doesn’t help to point fingers at this moment. We need to work together to get out of this and keep our people safe,” said Eskamani.

Instead, Eskamani urged the state to put its focus on promoting vaccines, boosters and increasing testing.

“But none of that is happening. Instead the Governor is blaming Biden on antibody treatments and we don’t even know if they’re effective on Omicron,” said Eskamani.

If you are seeking monoclonal antibody treatment you can find a provider near you at floridahealth.gov.

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Nikki Fried Gets Boosted, Calls for More Testing

December 29th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

As COVID cases surge in Florida, so too do the number of people seeking testing, which in some cases has resulted in multiple hour wait times.

Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner and Democratic Gubernatorial hopeful Nikki Fried is calling on the Governor to do more to meet the rising demand.

A testing site near the State Capitol saw a steady flow of cars all day Wednesday.

Many, like Tony Lasseter and his family, are coming as a post-holiday precaution.

“We were exposed around some people at Christmas, so we just wanted to make sure that we’re all good,” said Lasseter.

Thankfully wait times are at the site were low, but in some parts of the state Floridians are having to wait hours to get tested.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried came to the site get her booster shot and encourage others to do the same.

“Certainly if you’ve got family members in nursing homes and ALFs, unfortunately those numbers are really low as far as the boosters. So encourage those nursing homes to have the vaccine boosters available,” said Fried.

She has also called on the Governor to make testing more readily available.

“To please make sure that he’s coordinating with local officials, getting the resources. We know the Department of Emergency Management has financial resources that can be deployed to our local governments. Unfortunately that’s just not being done right now,” said Fried.

She said with the President recently declaring COVID response would have to be handled by the states, it’s incumbent on state leadership to step up to the plate.

“This is on us. So let’s show this leadership, let’s step up, let’s make sure that people aren’t waiting in line for hours. Let’s get some additional testing sites located,” said Fried.

Unlike Fried, who has received all of her vaccinations in the public eye, the Governor privately received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in April.

His Office said it was unable to speak on the Governor’s private medical decisions when asked if he has or plans to receive a booster.

We also asked the Governor’s Office if the Governor intends to increase testing.

We were directed to the Department of Health, but didn’t receive a response in time for this story.

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State Lawmakers Looking to Crack Down on Cross-County Burglaries

December 28th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

State lawmakers are hoping to make it easier for prosecutors to apply stiffer penalties to criminals who cross county lines to commit burglaries.

Heightened sentences have been in place for cross-county burglaries since 2014, but a bill moving through the Florida Legislature would lower the burden of proof required to make the enhanced penalties stick.

Currently, prosecutors must not only prove a burglar intended to cross county lines to enhance their sentence by one degree, but they also must prove the burglar did so with the intent of making it harder for law enforcement to track the stolen items.

“What burglar do you know goes up to the police and says, hey by the way, this is stolen?” said State Senator Gayle Harrell.

Harrell’s legislation would lower the burden of proof necessary to apply a stiffer sentence, requiring prosecutors only prove county lines were crossed intentionally.

“So that this statute that was put in place in 2014 can be enforced,” said Harrell.

Harrell said that in some counties like Martin and Pasco, more than 40 percent of burglaries are committed by people who traveled across county lines.

Criminal justice reform advocates argued in the bill’s first committee hearing imaginary lines shouldn’t dictate the severity of a crime.

“Burglary should carry the same sentence no matter where it occurs,” said Kim White, who came from Orlando to testify.

But Committee Chair Senator Jason Pizzo noted the law isn’t aimed at unsophisticated criminals.

“We can do things that result in people going, I had no idea that was the case. This is not to trap unsophisticated individuals. This is for people who are organizing, planning and scheming,” said Pizzo.

Notably absent from the bill’s first committee hearing were criminal defense attorneys.

It was a point highlighted by the chair, who suggested even if this change passes, proving a burglar intentionally crossed county lines will still be an incredibly difficult task.

The legislation has already cleared its first committees in the House and Senate ahead of the official start of session on January 11th.

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New Legislation Would Allow Military Service in Lieu of Prison Time

December 27th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

State lawmakers are looking for creative alternatives to prison time for certain first time low level offenders.

One bill filed for the 2021 legislative session would provide the option of serving in the military instead of behind bars, but even if passed, the idea is likely to run into obstacles.

A first time offender, 25 or younger, who is facing convictions carrying up to four years in prison would have the option of serving in the military in lieu of prison time under the legislation.

Vietnam veteran Joe West told us back during the war, military service instead of jail was a fairly common option for judges to provide.

“And they were not any different than my other brothers,” said West.

He said in his experience, those who took military service were better off than those who didn’t.

“It made a lot of good people out of people that may have gone a different path had they not had that option,” said West.

Barney Bishop with the Florida Smart Justice Alliance told us he believes the idea has merit, especially for non-violent offenders.

“Even though it is a violent profession, because we’re trying to help nonviolent offenders have another alternative,” said Bishop.

The legislation would still require those who opt for military service to pay back and fines or fees tied to their sentence within the first term of their enlistment.

But even if the legislation passes the option might not work in practice.

That’s because most branches of the military now explicitly prohibit service as an alternative to criminal conviction.

“The military has much higher standards now for entry than we had in the late 60’s, early 70’s. I mean back then if you had a pulse you’re physically capable of being in the military,” said West.

But supporters of the military option said congress would have more authority to make the idea a reality.

West said he thinks it would be in the best interest of the country.

“I think it would help them understand our country better and I think it would give them a love of country that a lot of them these days are lacking,” said West.

The bill has been filed in both the Florida House and Senate. Lawmakers begin their annual session January 11th.

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Pet Store Wars

December 23rd, 2021 by Jake Stofan
The battle over pet stores is heating up in the State Capitol with two competing bills up for consideration, but as the Humane Society warns one is a Trojan horse.

If you’re planing to buy a cat or a dog for a loved one this Christmas, the Humane Society recommends adoption or purchasing from a trusted breeder. 
One thing it doesn’t recommend is buying from a pet store.
“Because we know that puppies and kittens that are for sale in retail stores come from puppy mills,” said Kate MacFall, the Florida Director of the Humane Society.
MacFall told us the group’s number one legislative priority in the upcoming session is a bill that would outright ban the sale of cats and dogs in retail pet stores.
“This issue is becoming more and more popular and more talked about,” said MacFall.
But MacFall said they’re competing against a bill filed in the Senate, which sells itself as protecting animal welfare.
“It’s truly disguised as trying to be an animal welfare bill and in fact it does just the opposite,” said MacFall.
MacFall says the devil is in the details.
The bill includes a preemption that would undo local policies banning retail pet stores.
“It would remove two ordinances that were passed this summer, strong ordinances here in Florida, and then prohibit any future ordinance prohibiting the retail sale of dogs and cats,” said MacFall.
The preemption bill has come up many times in the past, but advocates have successfully quashed it. 
 
They expect this year will be no different.
“The pet store preemption bills just ensure that the puppy mill to pet store pipeline stays intact and they’re harmful to animals and harmful to consumers as well,” said MacFall.
Neither bill has secured both a House and Senate sponsor, but MacFall told us she does expect a Senator to sign onto the pet store ban in the coming weeks.
 
MacFall also noted that the pet store ban legislation wouldn’t prevent people from purchasing cats and dogs from breeders.

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