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News Service Of Florida

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

Gun control could become key issue in November

An aversion to gun-rights restrictions has been a bedrock of Republican campaigns in Florida — a testing ground for model NRA-backed legislation — for years.

But a 19-year-old killer, armed with a semi-automatic rifle he purchased legally and used to fatally gun down 14 students and three faculty members at a Broward County high school, may have changed that.

Major political donors on both sides of the aisle say they plan to use support for what one called “common-sense” legislation as a litmus test for candidates during the 2018 midterm elections, and possibly beyond.

The metamorphosis comes less than a week after gunman Nikolas Cruz shot dead 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Al Hoffman, a prominent Republican donor and former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, has pledged to shut off the money spigot for Republicans who don’t support laws restricting access to semi-automatic rifles like the one Cruz used — and purchased legally a year before, with no waiting period — in Wednesday’s shooting spree.

“I hope it becomes a wedge issue,” Hoffman, who founded WCI Communities, a company that built much of Parkland, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Monday.

Hoffman, whose two teenage children attend high school, said he asked other GOP donors to join his effort to shut down contributions to candidates who don’t support a ban on assault-style rifles, the weapon of choice for mass shooters in Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, and, now, Parkland. At least one, Jacksonville’s Peter Rummell, has reportedly signed on.

“That’s all I know to do. What else are we going to do? How do we create a movement? How do we create a wedge issue for these candidates who are going to run in November?” Hoffman, who lives in North Palm Beach, said. “Get rid of these assault weapons. They’re military design, military use, and now they’ve been adapted into our society for fun, but they’re not.”

State lawmakers aren’t considering a flat-out ban on the weapons.

But a proposal rolled out Monday by state Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who has served more than a decade in the Legislature, includes gun control measures that even a week ago would have been taboo, at least for the GOP.

Galvano, who will take over as Senate president after the November elections, is floating a ban on the sale of assault-style weapons to people under the age of 18, as well as a potential three-day waiting period before the weapons can be purchased, two things now required before people can buy handguns in Florida. The Senate leader also wants to ban the sale of “bump stocks” and is exploring loopholes in the current background screening process.

Galvano said his plan, which also includes elements focused on mental health services, school security and law enforcement, isn’t motivated by this fall’s elections.

Instead, the Parkland massacre has become an “enough is enough” moment for politicians in Florida — who ignored demands for gun control in the wake of other mass shootings — as well as their critics.

“You mention other incidents that have taken place. While there is significant motivation to revisit all aspects of school and human security in the wake of Parkland, it’s also a result of the aggregate of these type of events are occurring on a far too regular basis. That is drawing our attention back to issues that in the past didn’t get attention,” Galvano said. “We never want to see this type of violence occur in another school anywhere, let alone in the state of Florida.”

Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political consultant, called the Parkland disaster “a wakeup call for the state and the nation.”

“I think this time is different,” Ulvert, an adviser to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine, said in an interview. “When you hear prominent Republican donors like Mr. Hoffman lay down a firm position on where he’s going to be in supporting future candidates, it says that we’re finally making a breakthrough. It’s not only Democrats asking for swift change, it’s also Republicans. And in this case, it’s a Republican putting his money where his mouth is.”

Florida, which gun-control advocates have disparaged as the “The Gunshine State,” has been a stronghold for the National Rifle Association. The NRA’s Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, a former president of the national organization, pushed the country’s first “stand your ground” law in 2005. Also, more than 1.84 million Floridians have concealed-weapons licenses.

Republican legislators covet the “A-plus” grades given by Hammer on an annual report card that evaluates lawmakers’ performances and is distributed to the organization’s members. Most Democratic members consider a failing grade a badge of honor.

Hammer, long viewed as one of the Capitol’s most-powerful lobbyists, declined to comment when asked for an interview Monday.

Gov. Rick Scott, who demanded last week that FBI Director Christopher Wray resign after the federal agency admitted it had not followed up on a tip that Cruz posed a threat to the community, has organized workshops Tuesday to hear from law-enforcement, mental-health and education leaders regarding possible solutions.

Scott and lawmakers have just less than three weeks to address the issue before the Legislative Session ends on March 9.

Mike Moskowitz, a major Democratic donor who lives in Parkland, predicted politicians will face “monumental public pressure at the voter’s booth” later this year if they don’t accomplish something, and quickly.

“That is a nonpartisan statement. Forget about Democrat and Republican. I know that people like to portray this as a Democratic or Republican issue. Forget it,” Moskowitz, whose son, Jared, serves in the state House, told the News Service.

In his last term as governor, Scott is mulling a run against veteran U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who is among Democrats demanding that a lapsed federal ban on assault weapons be reinstated.

“If Scott does not support reasonable and fair gun legislation, right now in the Legislature, right now, he can kiss his chances goodbye,” Moskowitz said.

Brian Ballard, a powerful lobbyist who was a major fundraiser for President Donald Trump’s campaign and is close to Trump and Scott, downplayed the impact of the shooting — and potential legislation — on the elections.

But he admitted politicians are under pressure to act.

“These things seem to have a moment in time and then things fade,” he said. “It’s always easy to throw out the gun issue if you want to demagogue. I do think politicians are going to be in trouble if they don’t react to make sure schools are safe and to make sure our criminal justice authorities are talking to each other.”

Busloads of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students are headed to Tallahassee to meet with legislators Wednesday and to hold a rally. Many of the students became overnight media sensations following their eloquent and impassioned pleas for gun-control legislation.

The young people could make the difference for candidates in November, Ulvert predicted.

“If they’re going to ignore the cries of students, that’s going to be a campaign issue. And we’re not going to make it a campaign issue. It’s going to be 17- and 18-year-olds who had to flee for their lives who will make it a campaign issue,” he said.

The shooting in Parkland, an affluent enclave in heavily Democratic Broward County, could help drive to the polls Democrats, whose turnout rates drop off in midterm elections.

“It’s going to boost turnout in South Florida as a whole, and it’s going to motivate people to put their sneakers on and to go into districts and to advocate against the person who won’t discuss fair and reasonable legislation and for the person who will,” Moskowitz said. “These kids … are going to put their sneakers on and make their voices heard with their feet.

Galvano

Lawmakers, Rick Scott weigh options after mass shooting

A second gun-related bill has been postponed in the Florida Senate in the wake of last week’s mass shooting at a Parkland high school, as legislative leaders craft a multi-pronged response to the massacre and Gov. Rick Scott plans a series of workshops about school safety and ways to keep guns away from people struggling with mental illnesses.

The scramble by lawmakers to react to the deaths of 17 people Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School comes with less than three weeks remaining in the annual Legislative Session and as students from Parkland, along with their counterparts from Leon County, are expected to flood the Capitol this week demanding gun control.

Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, expressed confidence Monday that measures under consideration — including raising the age to 21 for the purchase of “assault” rifles by people not in law enforcement or the military, establishing a waiting period for the purchase of such weapons and reviewing background screening requirements — can be completed before the 60-day Session ends March 9.

“I actually am confident because there seems to be a real commitment to address the issues we’ve discussed, and the level of importance attributed to them is very high,” said Galvano, who is slated to become Senate president in November.

The Senate has already proposed a $13 million spending increase, to $78.1 million, for school safety and another $100 million as part of a new category of K-12 school funding specifically to assess and treat mental health (SB 1434).

Asked if the House was working on similar measures, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, issued a statement Monday that said he looks forward to “working with the governor and Senate to find solutions that fulfill the most fundamental mission of government — to keep our citizens — our children — safe.”

Other measures under consideration by Galvano include seeking to improve school safety by identifying gaps in security and potentially expanding a program under Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd that enables authorized and trained employees at the private Southeastern University in Lakeland to carry concealed firearms to respond to assailants on campus.

The program comes as Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican, said lawmakers weren’t ready for “that conversation” on his proposal (SB 1236) that was slated to go to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The proposal, which would allow designated people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns at schools, was removed from the committee agenda.

“All these prevention things that we can do could be wonderful, but at the end of the day, we still have to deal with that first five minutes (of an actual incident),” Baxley said. “You can restrict the instrument of violence, and they’ll choose other instruments.”

Baxley added that he could see the proposal being considered as part of a larger package that Galvano and Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican, roll out.

Judiciary Chairman Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, advised Republican senators late Friday that he was taking the bill off the agenda.

A day earlier, a proposal (SB 740) that would allow some concealed-weapons license applications to be approved when background checks have not been completed was postponed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The proposal is part of a wide-ranging bill for the Department of Agriculture that has been rescheduled for Thursday. Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican sponsoring the bill, filed an amendment on Monday that would remove the language regarding the concealed-weapons applications.

Meanwhile, a separate bill (SB 1048) by Baxley that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on the grounds of churches and other religious institutions that share property with schools is set to appear Wednesday before the full Senate.

“I think we reached a pretty good place on that,” Baxley said.

The proposal isn’t as far-reaching as a House version (HB 1419). Under current law, people with concealed-weapons licenses can carry guns at churches and other religious institutions, but they are barred from doing so if schools are on the property.

Crafted with an eye on a church massacre in Texas last November, Baxley’s version includes restrictions, such as a prohibition on carrying guns during school hours or when school extracurricular activities take place.

The restrictions were needed to get Baxley’s bill through the Judiciary Committee, where Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, and Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, have joined with Democrats to block bills backed by Second Amendment advocates the past two years.

After the Parkland shooting, Garcia and Flores requested Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, establish a task force to look into issues such as mental-health treatment, hardening soft targets such as schools and the possibility of hiring former military members and police officers to patrol school grounds.

For his part, Scott has organized workshops Tuesday in Tallahassee that will include education officials, child welfare advocates and law-enforcement officials. The workshops will not be open to the public but will be streamed live on The Florida Channel. Scott will hold a roundtable discussion at the end of the day.

“While there are only three weeks left of the legislative session, we must make changes to keep students safe,” Scott said in a prepared statement. “A tragedy like what occurred in Broward County must never happen again, and swift action is needed now.”

Democrats have used the shooting to renew efforts to seek a hearing on a proposal (SB 530 and HB 231) intended to prevent people at high risk of harming themselves or others from accessing firearms.

“This legislation will not solve all of the problems in our state, but it is a step in the right direction and will help save lives,” said Rep. Richard Stark, a Weston Democrat.

Slavery memorial could be poised for approval

After the proposal received unanimous support in the House, the Senate this week is expected to take up a bill that would lead to the creation of a slavery memorial at the Capitol.

The Senate on Monday released a list of bills that it will consider during a floor session Wednesday, including a bill (SB 286), filed by Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, that proposes the slavery memorial.

The House in January approved a similar measure (HB 67), filed by Rep. Kionne McGhee, a Miami Democrat, and Rep. Larry Lee Jr., a Port St. Lucie Democrat.

Under the proposals, the Department of Management Services, after receiving recommendations from the Florida Historical Commission, would develop a plan for the memorial. The plan would then be submitted to the governor and legislative leaders.

Greg Evers retirement dispute goes to judge

Nearly six months after former Sen. Greg Evers died in a traffic accident, the State Board of Administration filed a court document Friday that said his wife and children are in a dispute about who should receive his state retirement money.

The State Board of Administration filed what is known as a “complaint of interpleader” in Leon County circuit court that indicated Evers’ wife, Lori Weems Evers, and his children, Jennifer J. Evers, Robert S. Evers and Stephanie E. Barlow, are battling about Evers’ Florida Investment Plan account.

Greg Evers named his wife as beneficiary but then subsequently named his children as beneficiaries, with each child to receive an equal third share, the document said.

The State Board of Administration, which administers the retirement system, said it can continue to hold the money if directed by a judge while the dispute plays out.

“Each defendant (Lori Weems Evers and the children) has demanded plaintiff (the State Board of Administration) pay the entire FRS Investment Plan account to her/them,” the document said. “Plaintiff has no interest in the FRS Investment Plan account and did not cause the conflicting claims between defendants. Plaintiff cannot determine which defendant is entitled to the FRS Investment Plan account and runs the risk of paying the account twice if it decides between defendants.”

Greg Evers, a 62-year-old Republican who served in the state House and Senate, died Aug. 22 when his truck ran off a road near his home in Baker in Northwest Florida. The court document did not indicate how much money is in the retirement account, only that the amount is more than $15,000.

Major education issues hold Session key

Florida lawmakers will use the last three weeks of the 2018 Session to decide the fate of a number of major education bills that address everything from school bullying to teachers to university tuition.

The decisions will begin unfolding Tuesday when the Senate Education Committee takes up a nearly 200-page bill (HB 7055) that is important to House leaders. The legislation includes provisions that are in more than a half-dozen other education bills pending in the Legislature.

Late Friday, Senate Education Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, a Port Orange Republican, filed a 115-page “strike all” amendment that would replace the House version of the bill with a Senate proposal.

It’s a sign of how Senate-House negotiations will begin on a bill that will be one of the keys to lawmakers reaching a series of agreements, including approval of a new $87 billion-plus budget, and ending the 2018 Session on time March 9.

The Senate already rejected the House’s request to have the education bill considered as part of formal budget negotiations. Instead, the measure will be treated as a regular bill subject to committee review and amendments as it moves to a vote on the Senate floor.

The Senate proposal embraces some of the key provisions in the House bill.

Among them, it would establish a “Hope Scholarship” program that would allow public-school students who are bullied or who are “substantiated” victims of other violence or harassment to receive scholarships to attend private schools. The measure is a top priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican.

However, the Senate measure diverges from the House in funding for the new program. The Senate amendment would let Florida motorists voluntarily agree to contribute $20 to the program when they buy or register vehicles. The donation would act as a credit against the sales tax they would normally pay in a vehicle transaction.

The House wants a $105 tax credit for each transaction, which would generate $41.5 million for the scholarships, compared to $7.9 million in the Senate proposal.

The Senate proposal. meanwhile, agrees with the House on a controversial requirement that could force teachers’ unions to disband if their membership falls below half of the employees they represent. The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, has been running a media campaign slamming House Bill 7055 as an “assault on our local public schools.”

Both chambers have plans to strengthen state oversight and requirements for publicly funded private-school scholarship programs, including the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

The new Senate proposal incorporates some of the provisions in legislation (SB 1756), sponsored by Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican, including a requirement that teachers in the private schools that educate scholarship students have at least a baccalaureate degree.

Hukill’s amendment is 83 pages shorter than the House bill, reflecting the fact that the Senate is not embracing a number of measures in the legislation.

Among them is the House’s plan for a $9.7 million program that would allow low-performing readers in second- through fifth- grades to obtain private services, like tutors.

The Senate is injecting some of its own initiatives, including a proposed requirement that students entering high school beginning in the fall of 2018 would have to take a financial literacy course sometime in their four years.

Another important meeting this week will be the House Education Committee, which as of Monday morning had not released the agenda for its Wednesday meeting.

However, the committee has a key bill (HB 423), sponsored by Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, an Estero Republican, that reflects the higher-education priorities of Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican. In the first week of the Session, the Senate unanimously backed its version of the legislation (SB 4).

The bills would make permanent an expansion of Bright Futures merit scholarships to cover full tuition and fees for students who qualify as “academic scholars.” The legislation would expand the aid for “medallion” scholars to cover 75 percent of their tuition and fees.

The measures would also require state universities to develop a “block” tuition plan, where students would pay a flat rate each semester, rather than paying for classes on a per-credit hour basis.

The House bill includes a proposal to change the way performance funding is awarded to the 12 universities, switching to an evaluation based on individual school performance rather than comparing the schools to each other. The Senate bill retains the current evaluation system.

At rally, Parkland shooting survivors rail against NRA and Donald Trump

Chants of “Enough is enough!” reverberated down the street as hundreds of people gathered for a gun-control rally on the steps of the federal courthouse in Ft. Lauderdale, in response to a mass shooting at a Broward County high school on Wednesday.

Saturday’s speakers included students and teachers who survived the horrific event at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland — the second-deadliest mass school shooting in the nation’s history — along with state and local elected officials and others.

“I am not here as a candidate for governor, I am here as a mom,” Democratic gubernatorial Gwen Graham said. “And I have had it. I have had it. As a mom I am crushed. Enough. Enough. Enough.”

The League of Women Voters of Florida organized the rally to call for stricter gun control laws after gunman Nikolas Cruz shot dead 17 individuals — including 14 teenagers— using an assault weapon-style rifle.

Cruz, who was expelled from the high school, had such a troubled history that some of those who knew him weren’t surprised by his violent outburst. Authorities have charged the 19-year-old with 17 counts of premeditated murder.

“Sadly, my sister lost four of her friends and so many other friends and parents were lost that day, and it’s a terrible event,” said David Hogg, a student at the Parkland high school. “Now is the time that we say, ‘thank you for your prayers and condolences, but that is not enough.”

On Friday afternoon, the FBI acknowledged that it had failed to act on a tip about Cruz expressing concern about his erratic behavior.

Hogg was among the students and teachers who criticized Florida’s gun laws, questioning how individuals like Cruz are able to purchase semi-automatic weapons despite alerts to the FBI.

“Teachers should not fear for the lives of their children,” said Melissa Falkowski, the school’s journalism teacher who hid students inside a closet during the shooting.

Student Emma Gonzalez said shooting drills at schools could be stopped “when we have had our say with the government.”

“Maybe the adults have gotten used to saying, ‘it is what it is,’ but if us students have learned anything, it’s that if you don’t study, you will fail.  And in this case, if you actively do nothing, people continually will end up dead,” an impassioned Gonzalez said.

Congressman Ted Deutch, whose district includes Parkland, pledged to continue to fight for common-sense gun-control laws in Washington.

“Five years ago, elementary school kids were slaughtered at Sandy Hook, and there is silence out of Washington,” Deutch, a Democrat, said. “After the horrific mass shooting here in our community, that silence will not continue.”

Like others in the crowd, Western High School junior Isabella Wood and Tara Callahan, a teacher at Lyons Creek Middle School, expressed optimism after attending the rally.

But, they said, change needs to occur for schools to feel safe again.

“It makes me sad. I shouldn’t have to come out here today,” Callahan said, holding back tears. “I shouldn’t have to see small children here today. I shouldn’t have had to come here to see teenagers here today who don’t know (if) they’re going to be able to return to their parents.”

Senate President: Pictures ‘did not prepare us for the horrendous sight’

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Florida Senate leaders visited Broward County on Friday as the community continued to reel from a mass shooting this week that killed 17 people at a Parkland high school.

Senate President Joe Negron, Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, Sen. Lauren Book, and Sen. Gary Farmer went to Broward Health, where they met with medical workers who treated victims of Wednesday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, according to Negron’s office.

They also met with family members, hospitalized victims and Broward County schools Superintendent Robert Runcie and saw parts of the high school.

“I cannot imagine the fear our students and teachers were facing on Wednesday afternoon. The pictures and video I viewed previously did not prepare us for the horrendous sight we viewed today at Stoneman Douglas,” Negron said.

Speaker Richard Corcoran, Sen. Lauren Book, Reps. Kristin Jacobs and Jared Moskowitz seen here at MSD High School on the scene with Broward Sheriff’s Office. (Not pictured is Senate President Joe Negron, and future Senate leaders Bill Galvano and Wilton Simpson who were also in attendance.)

Nikolas Cruz, 19, who was expelled from the school last year because of disciplinary issues, was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder after entering the high school with an AR-15 rifle and going on a shooting spree. The shooter pulled a fire alarm and was dressed to blend in with the crowd of students. He then opened fire for seven minutes close to dismissal time.

A football coach, an athletic director, a social studies teacher and 14 students were killed. At least 14 people were wounded, with five suffering life-threatening injuries.

Nelson, talking with reporters Friday, expressed concerns about how Cruz, despite having mental-health issues, purchased the semi-automatic rifle.

“I grew up here in Florida on a ranch. I have always had guns as a boy growing up on a ranch,” Nelson, a Democrat, said. “I have hunted all my life and still hunt with my son, but an AR-15 is not for hunting. It’s for killing.”

On Friday afternoon, the FBI acknowledged that it had failed to act on a tip last month about Cruz. That led Governor Rick Scott to issue a statement calling for FBI Director Christopher Wray to resign.

“The FBI’s failure to take action against this killer is unacceptable,” Scott said. “The FBI has admitted that they were contacted last month by a person who called to inform them of Cruz’s ‘desire to kill people,’ and ‘the potential of him conducting a school shooting.’ ”

The attack Wednesday was the second-worst mass school shooting in U.S. history.

Charlotte Dwyer, a junior at the high school, told The News Service of Florida that she was in Spanish class, across campus from where the shooting took place, when her class heard the fire drill. Dwyer and her classmates walked 10 to 15 feet from their building when they saw students running for their lives.

“Everyone started screaming, ‘Stop! Please, go back inside! Code Red! Code Red! Active shooter!.’ ” Dwyer said. She and her classmates ran into the auditorium, which was the nearest place for shelter and hid in the seat aisles.

“We didn’t know what was happening. Some people thought it was a drill, we were discussing new safety procedures,” she said. “We went on Twitter and saw tweets that people were actually shot, and that was heartbreaking because we just thought maybe it was a kid who came in with a gun and not that anybody was actually hurt. About two hours later, we were evacuated, and that was a really good feeling because just sitting there, waiting, wondering whether somebody was going to come in or not, was terrifying.”

Scott traveled to Parkland on Wednesday to be briefed by law enforcement officials and to visit the wounded in area hospitals. He attended memorial services and vigils on Thursday.

Nelson on Friday talked with reporters about the difficulty in passing gun-control measures.

“It’s very hard to pass legislation unless the president will support it,” Nelson said. “What I would say to the president is, please change your position on assault weapons. Please, change your position, Mr. President, on background checks. These are two common-sense things that we need to etch into law right now.”

President Donald Trump signed a proclamation in honor of the shooting victims and issued a statement Thursday about the shooting.

“Today we mourn for all of those who lost their lives,” he said. “We comfort the grieving and the wounded and we hurt for the entire community of Parkland, Florida, that is now in shock and pain and searching for answers.”

Annika Dean an elementary school teacher, wrapped up her day when she received a text message from her son about an active-shooter drill. A few moments later, Dean got a text message from her son notifying her that it was not a drill. Dean was a survivor of a mass shooting last year at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. Now, her son is also a mass shooting survivor.

“In the airport, I was pretty calm. I was scared. I wasn’t sure if I was going to live or die,” she said. “Mostly, I was concerned about being able to continue to be my son’s mother. With this incident, I just felt helpless. I was worried for him. I knew exactly what he was going through.”

Funerals for the victims began Friday morning, with attendees including U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat whose district includes Parkland. Deutch has worked on a bill, called “The ‘Students, Teachers and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence Act” to try to improve local early intervention programs to prevent future school violence.

Dwyer urged local and national lawmakers to act and implement gun-control laws.

“So many of these things have happened,” she said. “We’ve had Sandy Hook, other school shootings and movie theater shootings. When is it going to be enough for them to say, ‘You know what? It’s time we need to put different laws down.’ ’”

Nelson was taken aback by how vocal students have been in the aftermath of the shooting in calling for changes.

“The students are terrific,” he said. “The fact that they are speaking up as boldly as they are, maybe that is the turning point. You haven’t heard students speak up one after another, after another, after they witnessed this carnage and speaking with conviction.”

Josie Tomkow dominates fundraising in HD 39 primary

Preparing for a special primary election Tuesday in a seat vacated by former state Rep. Neil Combee, Polk City Republican Josie Tomkow has dominated fundraising in her race against Bartow Republican Jennifer Spath.

Tomkow raised $44,025 from Dec. 29 through Thursday for the campaign in House District 39, which includes parts of Polk and Osceola counties, according to a report posted Friday on the state Division of Elections website. That brought Tomkow’s overall total raised to $119,180.

Spath, meanwhile, raised $23,325 during the most-recent period, bringing her overall total to $27,325, her report shows. Spath has also loaned $31,500 to her campaign.

The seat became open when Combee resigned to take a federal agriculture job.

The winner of Tuesday’s primary will face Democrat Ricky Shirah in the May 1 special general election.

FPL power plant proposal gets boost

The state Public Service Commission should give a key approval to a plan by Florida Power & Light to build a power plant in Broward County, the commission’s staff recommended Friday.

The commission is scheduled March 1 to decide whether to grant what is known as a “determination of need” for the proposed $888 million project in Dania Beach. The 1,163-megawatt natural gas plant would replace two old generating units at the Dania Beach site and begin operating in 2022.

But it has drawn objections from the Sierra Club and the state Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in utility issues. They contend FPL has not shown the new plant is needed to meet customers’ projected energy usage in 2022.

The Public Service Commission staff, in a 25-page recommendation, said the parties agreed about the need to retire the older generating units in 2018 and said the primary issue in the case is about timing of a new plant.

The staff recommendation said the proposal would help ensure the reliability of the power system in Southeast Florida.

“FPL’ s decision to retire the (old) units in 2018 results in a significant impact on the Southeastern Florida region’s reliability, and FPL is responsible for ensuring that the reliability and integrity of Southeastern Florida is maintained,” part of the recommendation said. “Once completed, the proposed (plant) will enhance FPL’s system reliability.”

House eyes plan for health care during hurricanes

During the next major storm, Florida may turn to university faculty and even students enrolled in health-care programs to help work with some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

Sparked by shortages in special-needs shelters during Hurricane Irma, a House panel on Thursday approved a bill that would expand the list of people who could help out in the facilities during emergencies.

The legislation, which will be led by Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican, also would require home health-care providers and nurses to develop emergency management plans for their patients. It also calls on hospitals to enter into contracts with local emergency management agencies to provide shelter for people who require more medical attention than is available at special-needs shelters.

Many of the proposals included in the bill stem from a Jan. 16 report issued by the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.

The select committee heard more than 20 hours of testimony on a variety of issues, from shelters to evacuation routes to mitigating future storm damage.

As Irma barreled toward the state last year, 6.8 million people evacuated their homes to flee the storm’s path. Nearly 700 shelters were opened throughout the state, housing 191,764 people. There were 113 special-needs shelters in 53 counties. Those shelters served 10,452 people with special needs and 4,490 caregivers.

Legislators heard testimony that the shelters were inadequately staffed. To that end, the bill requires the Florida Department of Health to establish a statewide special-needs shelter registry form by October.

Currently, the Division of Emergency Management maintains a special-needs registry, and local emergency management agencies also have their own registries. The differing lists, plus a surge of last-minute registrations, made it difficult for local agencies to find enough people to staff the shelters.

The Arc of Florida is one of the organizations that will work on the form with the Department of Health. In testimony before the House Health & Human Services Committee, Arc of Florida Executive Director Deborah Linton said several recommendations from her group are in the bill, including allowing flexibility for health-care professionals during mandatory curfews.

Despite the mandate on hospitals to have agreements with local emergency-management agencies — and the possibility of facing fines for not doing so — Florida Hospital Association CEO Bruce Rueben said the proposal provides a “comprehensive approach to managing care for the special needs population during emergencies.”

“We support efforts that improve Florida’s emergency management plans and coordination with providers,” Rueben said in a statement to The News Service of Florida.

Not all recommendations in the bill are new, though. Some just put teeth into existing law. For example, health care facilities are required to have comprehensive emergency-management plans. The bill would amend the existing law to make clear that they could face $500 fines if they don’t have plans and could be subject to disciplinary action for not abiding by details of the plans.

The House select committee made several recommendations that weren’t ultimately included in the bill (PCB HHS 18-02) approved on Thursday. For instance, the select committee recommended that the state provide funding so 42 domestic violence shelters could qualify for a federal grant that would allow them to buy generators. The bill didn’t include that proposal.

The select committee also recommended that nursing homes be required to have adequate emergency power to protect residents from unsafe temperatures. The recommendation also was for additional requirements on assisted living facilities, but nothing specific was enumerated.

The bill is silent on those issues, though Health & Human Services Chairman Rep. Travis Cummings, a Fleming Island Republican, told the News Service that his panel will consider a bill next week about the ratification of a pair of emergency generator rules for nursing homes and ALFs. Cummings said the House has concerns with the potential fiscal impact of requiring ALFs to have generators.

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