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Senate, House reach compromise on controversial child marriage bill

The Florida Senate gave initial approval Monday to a compromise with the House on the controversial child marriage bill, which would allow 17-year-old to wed in the state.

The Republican-controlled House initially wanted to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry in cases where there is a pregnancy and the older partner is no more than two years older than the minor.

A new amendment filed by Republican Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, the sponsor of SB 140, was adopted on a voice vote. With that the Senate moved from an outright ban on minor marriage, to allow minors who are 17 to wed if there is parental consent and the partner is no more than two years older. Benacquisto wanted to get rid of the pregnancy requirement added by the House.

With the amendment, the bill passed the Senate unanimously.

“Proud that our bill to have the strongest #EndChildMarriage laws in the nation passes unanimously in the Senate and I look forward to the House taking it up and passing!” Benacquisto tweeted.

The Senate bill now repeals a state law that allows a court to issue a marriage license to a girl or boy under the age of 18 if both parties swear under oath that they are the parents of a child. This loophole in the law has led to some children, as young as 13, to be forced into marriage.

Florida Senate narrowly passes watered-down school safety proposal

In a bipartisan effort, the Florida House narrowly passed a watered-down school safety proposal with a $400 million price tag that will provide students with more access to mental health services and allow school districts to participate in a program that arms school staff.

“This bill will make a difference, and when it becomes law, things will start changing,” Sen. Bill Galvano said.

SB 7026 passed on a 20-18 vote with the help of Democratic Sens. Lauren Book and Kevin Rader.

Republicans who voted against the measure, most notably Sens. Greg Steube and Dennis Baxley, were against provisions with gun restrictions such as a ban on bump stock and raising the age to buy an assault rifle from 18 to 21.

Before the final vote, senators debated the bill for more than two hours and approved an amendment that scaled back a controversial program that would have allowed teachers to carry concealed weapons on campus to fight off active shooters.

The change better aligns the Senate’s proposal to what Parkland students and Gov. Rick Scott want: Not arming teachers.

But even with the tweak, Democrats argued the bill still allows teachers who also work as librarians, coaches or psychologists to sign up for the program.

The amendment filed by Republican Sen. Rene Garcia, who admits to not being the biggest fan of the school safety package, said the intent is to make sure the “instructional personnel who are in the classroom cannot participate in the program.”

Garcia’s amendment also changed the name of the contentious program to the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program in honor of a beloved coach who died trying to protect students from a hail of bullets on Valentine’s Day. He said Feis’ wife was “very supportive” of naming the program after him.

The measure now heads to the House for consideration.

“I don’t know if they’re going to continue to work on this in the House,” said Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who voted against the bill. “I can’t imagine them bouncing this back and we have to go thru this all over again … God help us if they send it back.”

The latest summary of the legislation, provided by the Senate communications team, is below.

Tax supermajority proposal heads to voters for approval

Despite concerns raised by Senate Democrats that it would “tie the hands” of future legislators facing emergencies, the Florida Senate passed a measure Monday that would make it harder for the Legislature to increase taxes and fees in the future.

“This can tie the hands of future legislators in difficult times,” said Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez in reference to the costs that climate change and rising sea levels could bring in the coming years.

The legislation would mandate a two-thirds vote in both chambers before any tax and fee hike can be imposed on Floridians. Because the change would amend the Florida Constitution, it will need 60-percent voter-approval to take effect. They will vote on it in November.

“It’s the people’s money, not ours. Yes, two-thirds is hard to get. It should be hard to raise taxes because it is the people’s money, not ours,” Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley said.

The upper chamber pushed through the proposal on a 25-13 vote, with three Democrats — Sens. Lauren Book, Linda Stewart and Bobby Powell — voting with Republicans. Republican Sen. Tom Lee voted with Democrats.

The proposal has been a big priority of Gov. Rick Scott, who has also tried to push the supermajority vote mandate through the Florida Constitution Revision Commission.

Upon passage of the bill, Scott praised the Legislature.

“We have cut taxes more than 80 times since I’ve been in office because we know that Florida families and businesses succeed when we put their tax dollars back in their pockets,” the governor said.

“I look forward to this important amendment being on the ballot to protect families from unfair tax increases.

The Senate had originally been at odds with the House and Scott by proposing a three-fifths vote to pass tax increases, but later took the House version of the bill.

Post-Parkland Senate bill primed for floor vote

The Florida Senate took the better part of eight hours during a rare Saturday session to work through 128 amendments — only one of which passed the floor — on a single bill.

And even with the amendment’s approval, partisan spirits haven’t changed on the proposal designed to address issues unearthed in the wake of the recent school shooting in Broward County.

Dubbed the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act,” or SB 7026, the sweeping proposal provides for stricter gun control laws, including a three-day waiting period to buy any firearm, and a new age limit — 21 (up from 18) —  for firearms purchases, along with an all-out ban on bump stocks.

It also creates a commission to make recommendations on school safety and invests millions in mental-health and school safety initiatives, which include a program that would train and arm teachers on a voluntary basis.

Of course, not everyone is happy.

Democrats, along with Parkland survivors and victims’ families have criticized the proposal for its lack of an assault-weapons ban. The charged Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was equipped with an assault rifle when he killed 17 people at the school on Feb. 14. Gov. Rick Scott also has come out strongly against the idea of arming teachers.

These points of criticism set the stage for the Senate’s eight-hour floor session on Saturday. Members of both parties filed hundreds of amendments, withdrawing some and heavily debating others. Arguments over an outright ban on assault weapons took an entire hour in the chamber. Other Democratic-backed amendments lent to lengthy discussions, but the Senate refrained from adopting anything that would fundamentally change the legislation. 

At one point, Democrats experienced something particularly Sisyphean. Senate President Joe Negron had approved through a voice vote the adoption of an amendment providing a two-year moratorium on assault weapons sales. After a few minutes, a motion to reconsider brought the language to a failing board vote.

Pro-gun Republicans filed their fair share of amendments, too.

Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs argued for an amendment that would’ve changed the firearms age requirement to only apply to assault weapons sales. In other words, the age limit for purchasing rifles would remain at its current level, 18. 

“It’s a rational solution to a significant problem,” Simmons said. He said he feared that raising the age limit on gun purchases could bring constitutional challenges in court.

Galvano, who sponsored the strike-all amendment approved by the chamber on Saturday, often had to explain to members that law enforcement would iron out the details of the plan to arm teachers. At one point it was asked whether teachers would be able to carry assault rifles and display them in classrooms, to which Galvano said would be up to the sheriff’s design of the plan.

“The sheriffs will describe the protocols,” Galvano said. Referencing the possibility of teachers having assault rifles, he added: “That’s, in my opinion, a far-fetched hypothetical.” He said someone from the Office of School Safety likely would not approve such a policy, as they can exert judgment on program designs.

The Senate will vote on SB 7026 on Monday. 

Final budget items start getting ‘bumped’

Budget conference chairs are now ironing out funding differences between the House and Senate dealing with a wide-range of policy issues.

Chairs Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Carlos Trujillo are figuring out funding for beach restoration, land acquisition and water projects. Currently, the state Legislature is split over nearly $172 million on appropriations for programs funded through Florida Forever.

In the higher education arena, most of the issues sent to budget chairs relate to member projects and implementing bill issues that amount to about $70 million. There are also other money differences revolving around PreK-12 bills that are tied to the budget.

In criminal justice, some issues that have yet to sail through deal with private prison operations and whether a reentry program at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office should get $200,000 in funding.

Bradley and Trujillo have until 10:30 a.m. Sunday to resolve the ‘bumped’ issues before they head to Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Bill Hager’s battle with Broward Sheriff spills over into Florida budget talks

After leading the charge to oust Broward Sheriff Scott Israel in the wake of Florida’s worst school shooting, Republican state Rep. Bill Hager tried to gut funding from a program run by the Sheriff’s Office.

Hager oversees the House’s criminal justice budget, which gives him large sway over funding for law enforcement-related projects and issues. This year, that included an inmate re-entry program at the Broward Sheriff’s Office with an initial $521,000 price tag.

The Palm Beach County Republican was the first lawmaker to call for Israel’s suspension, citing the Sheriff’s “neglect of duty and incompetence” when responding to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in which a 19-year-old gunman shot down 17 people. Soon after, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and 73 other Republican House members followed suit and sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott asking to remove Israel from office.

Democrats quickly defended Israel, who is the top cop in a predominantly Democratic county. The clash set a partisan tone around the mass shooting involving a former troubled student armed with an AR-15 rifle, an assault-style weapon that Hager voted to ban along with Democrats in the House.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office program that was zeroed out by the House would fund salaries of those who help offenders with counseling, mental health and substance abuse treatment, as well as assistance when trying to find a job or housing upon finishing their sentences.

“I don’t know if it is political or not, but if it is political I am not here to punish addicts for the actions of the sheriff in that county,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who was tasked with negotiating the criminal justice budget with Hager.

The sheriff’s office last November requested a one-time $521,000 payment for the program, but on Wednesday when criminal justice budget talks started both the House and the Senate agreed on giving the department $200,000.

A day later things changed: the Senate kept its offer and the House removed all funding, bumping the item to the budget chairs.

Hager through his aide declined requests for comment on his reasons for cutting the program, but House Budget Chair Carlos Trujillo said that while he is not familiar with the issue, slashing a project is sometimes part of the budget process.

“Once we start trading priorities, 50 or 60 percent of the projects fall out,” Trujillo said.

Some Democrats, however, see it as a clear sign that GOP lawmakers are trying to attack a high-profile Democrat after staggering rounds of bad national headlines.

“If that’s the case, they should be ashamed of harming a county in their quest to publicly ruin one person,” state Rep. Evan Jenne.

Governor would have sole discretion over FDOT head appointment under proposal

A quiet change proposed Thursday under a wide-ranging commercial motor vehicle bill would strip the power of a transportation panel and give the governor sole discretion over the appointment of the state’s top transportation official.

State law tasks the Florida Transportation Commission to recommend three names to the governor when it comes to choosing the next Secretary of Transportation. The governor then decides from that short-list.

But a “strike-all” amendment filed under SB 1104 by the bill sponsor, Sen. Jeff Brandes, would delete the role of the FTC, whose members are appointed by the governor. Whether that change is approved is up to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where the bill is now sitting.

If the languages moves on to become law, the governor’s choice would still be subject to confirmation by the Senate.

Aside from that change, the sweeping transportation bill would rewrite statute that governs the Department of Transportation in several ways. That includes creating a first-degree grand theft crime for an offender who commits cargo theft and authorized the Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise to fund, construct and operate test facilities to advance autonomous vehicle technology.

Senate, House at odds over $4m to pay for private prison operations

Private-prison giant GEO Group wants $4 million in taxpayer money to pay for correctional officers’ salaries at seven of its state-contracted facilities — but the House won’t budge.

The House’s top criminal justice budget-writer, state Rep. Bill Hager, said his chamber has taken the stance to zero out the private prison’s request because the Florida-based company decided to enter into contracts and therefore, it should have that money in place.

For the Senate, however, it is a “fairness issue.”

“The issue here is that a couple of years ago we raised salaries for correctional officers in our public facilities, but we never extended that pay increase to correctional officers in private facilities,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, who is the Senate’s criminal justice budget chair.

The one-time payment request by the private prison falls under HB 3745, sponsored by state Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican. Because the allocation is non-recurring, the prison company would have to lobby for the money again next year.

According to the appropriations project request, The Geo Group will be seeking $10 million over the next three years for the project.

In 2016, the private prison group gave nearly $2 million in political contributions, most notably $40,000 to Senate President Joe Negron and $100,000 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Committee. The company also gave $43,000 to the failed congressional bid of his wife, Rebecca.

As the Legislature began final budget negotiations this week, the House and Senate are only $238,422 apart in the criminal justice arena as of Thursday, a big improvement from a day before when they were more than $20 million apart.

In impromptu Capitol visit, Rick Scott reiterates: don’t arm teachers

In a rare political move, Gov. Rick Scott and the father of a 14-year-old Parkland shooting victim jointly addressed the House and Senate floors on Thursday and asked legislators to set aside differences and ensure schools are safe sans armed teachers.

“I want to make sure there is law enforcement in our schools,” Scott told reporters upon exiting the chambers. “I don’t believe in arming teachers.”

While talking to each chamber, Ryan Petty, the father of Alaina Petty, who was gunned down on Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, told legislators he is in support of the governor’s proposal, which does not include training and arming teachers with guns.

“I’m here to speak in favor of what the governor is proposing,” Petty said. “My ask of you is: let’s set aside our differences and make sure our schools are safe. With your help, Florida can lead.”

The governor has been clear on his stance: he is not in support of arming teachers, a proposal the Legislature is pushing for in spite of opposition from Parkland students and parents.

Even with home rule as an option, Scott said does not believe in training teachers and arming them with guns to protect student in case of an active shooting situation.

When asking if he would like to see an assault weapon ban in Scott’s proposal, Petty said his goal is to get something done in the Republican-controlled Legislature in honor of his daughter.

“If this evolves into a gun control debate we are going to miss our opportunity to get something done,” Petty said. “What is different of the governor’s plan is we are focusing on securing our schools and that is what we need to do.”

The House and Senate costly initiative that would include more funding for mental health services in school and school “hardening” are ready for the full floors for a final vote.

“Our message is simple, this time must be different we have an opportunity to get our schools secure,” Petty said. “We want to make sure other families don’t go through what our family has gone through.”

“We owe it to our students.”

Ron DeSantis calls Parkland massacre a failure of FBI, sheriff; denounces state gun proposals

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis on Thursday denounced Florida Legislature efforts to tighten gun restrictions and said the mass shooting two weeks ago at the Parkland high school should be seen as “a catastrophic failure” by the Broward County sheriff and the FBI.

DeSantis, a congressman from Ponte Vedra Beach, has made similar comments in television appearances on Fox News in the past two weeks, but otherwise has been largely silent within Florida about his response to the massacre, drawing heat from other gubernatorial candidates, particularly Democrats. On Thursday he broke that, taking a hard line against any gun measures, and condemning those being considered now in the Florida Legislature.

He also called for the resignation of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel for not having responded to numerous reports, prior to the Feb. 14 mass shooting, that suggested Nikolas Cruz was dangerous; and for the firing of anyone in the FBI who might have failed to pick up in advance on the shooter’s intentions.

And while DeSantis called on the Florida Legislature to back off proposed gun restrictions, presumably such as one to raise the minimum age for firearms purchases to 21, he was not specific in his statement.

DeSantis said he supported much in Gov. Rick Scott‘s proposed school safety package to “harden schools” and also supports one idea Scott rejected: arming teachers. He also said the state should enlist the help of veterans and law enforcement officers to help protect schools.

DeSantis faces Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam of Bartow in the contest for the Aug. 28 Florida primary nomination to run for Governor. The leading Democrats are former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Winter Park developer Chris King, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, DeSantis contended, was the result of law enforcement failures and mental illness, and should be addressed as such.

“Given that the issues of bureaucratic incompetence, school safety and mental health demand immediate attention, I’m disappointed that the Florida Legislature is rushing to restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens,” DeSantis said in his statement.

“When dealing with a right that is specifically enumerated in the Constitution, blanket restrictions that diminish individual rights are suspect. Better to focus on denying firearms to dangerous individuals, which avoids infringing on constitutional rights and is also more likely to be effective. The goal should be to keep our students safe, bring accountability to the officials and institutions that failed, and protect the rights of Floridians,” DeSantis continued.

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