Florida Legislature – Page 4 – Florida Politics

Budget remarks don’t bode well for Sadowski Trust

As many speculate that Florida’s affordable housing issues will be exacerbated by the influx of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria, the state Legislature intends to sweep millions from the Sadowski Trust, which funds the state’s affordable housing programs.

Speaking with reporters late Tuesday night following an organizational meeting of the newly announced budget conference, Senate Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley said his chamber reversed its position on the fund and will have to sweep dollars for initiatives that surfaced in light of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County.

“Because of Parkland, we swept a lot of trust funds,” Bradley said. “There just isn’t enough money there to maintain the Senate’s position of not sweeping the fund — we are going to be sweeping that fund.”

The Legislature’s post-Parkland proposal included $263 million for school safety improvements and $102 million for mental health services.

The proposed Senate budget released in late January did not include any sweeps to the Sadowski Trust, leaving an estimated $308 million to $322 million for affordable housing programs in the state. The House’s proposed budget in January included a $182 million sweep to the fund.

This year there was a bipartisan push to prevent future sweeps from the Sadowski fund. SB 874, sponsored by Naples Republican Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, and HB 191, sponsored by Tampa Democrat Sean Shaw, sought to prevent the Trust’s dollars from being swept, or repurposed, into unrelated projects or items.

Passidomo’s bill was factored into the Senate’s initial budget proposal. Shaw’s bill was never heard in committee.

House budget chief Carlos Trujillo said a final version of the budget should be released Tuesday morning. The 2018-19 budget is expected to allocate $32 billion in state funds and, with federal funds, is likely to top $87 billion.

Pre-arrest diversion program proposals head to House, Senate floors

With three minutes left in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, a bill mandating each judicial district in the state to implement pre-arrest diversion programs headed to the Senate floor.

There was no debate on the bill (SB 1392) that would set up diversion programs with the intent of giving local law enforcement agencies a tool that can serve between a warning and an arrest for low-level offenders. The goal: to spare primarily first-time offenders who commit minor crimes from the consequences of entering the criminal justice system.

The bill does not set up a blanket set of rules for jurisdictions and provides language that gives them latitude on the fees each can charge to program participants. The program is voluntary for qualifying offenders and the bill would not get rid of diversion programs that are already operating in Florida.

While proposals in the Senate and the House (HB 1197) have moved ahead in the Legislature, they have come under fire by some in the bail bond industry who say diversion programs are “flawed” without uniformity statewide.

“There is no uniformity in the program,” said Matthew Jones, the president of  A Way Out Bail Bonds II Inc. “You could possibly end up with 67 different qualification programs around the state.”

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes said he is aware of the bail bond industry’s criticism of his bill, but added he is “not in the business of making bail bondsman money.”

Budget conference begins tonight, state allocations unveiled

With two weeks left in Session, the Florida Legislature on Tuesday agreed to the outline of the 2018-19 state budget that will use roughly $32 billion in state funds.

At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Conference Chairs Sen. Rob Bradley and state Rep. Carlos Trujillo will hold an organization meeting in 212 Knott Building.

Conference subcommittees have until Friday to complete negotiations on their policy-specific areas and anything left unresolved will go to Chairs Bradley and Trujillo. Any controversies still unresolved by 10:30 a.m. on Sunday will go to the presiding officers.

“I am grateful to Speaker Corcoran, Chairs Bradley and Trujillo, and the many senators, representatives and members of our professional staff, who have dedicated significant time to the budget process so far,” Senate President Joe Negron said.

The House-Senate budget conference will iron out details on how to spend $32.2 billion. The biggest pot is for PreK-12 education, at $12.1 billion; higher education, at $4.4 billion; health care, at $9.8 billion; and civil and criminal justice; at $4.2 billion.

Other issues like agriculture, the environment and natural resources are at $434 million and general government operations, at $317 million.

The total 2018-19 budget, including state and federal trust funds, is likely to top 87 billion for the next fiscal year.

Here are the appointees to the Conference Committee Assignments: 2018 Regular Session CONFERENCE Committees

Florida cops could soon have more power to investigate social media threats

As the Florida Legislature on Tuesday turned its focus to proposals crafted in the wake of the state’s deadliest school mass shooting in Parkland, a measure that would give law enforcement officers more power to investigate deadly threats made on social media cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube, who on Monday announced he will be running for Congress, said his bill would make it a third-degree felony for a person to make a threat to kill or do great bodily injury to another person on any social media platform. This would include school shooting threats, but the threat would have to be specific, Steube said.

Amy Mercer, the head of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, which represents police chiefs in airports, university campuses and police departments, said the bill is a top priority for the organization. She said the legislation would help law enforcement keep up with the fast-paced growth in technology.

“It would give law enforcement the chance to assess the situation,” Mercer said. “It may be a situation when law enforcement can go assist and give an individual help and prevent a tragedy like the one we saw in Parkland.”

In order for someone who threatens to kill or injure someone to be criminally investigated, the threat needs to be directly sent in a “letter, inscribed communication, or electronic communication,” whether signed or anonymous, to the person who is being targeted. Steube wants to broaden the scope to include social media threats and “great bodily injury.”

“The change to include social media threats to kill or do great bodily injury is to ensure we are only picking up those serious threats,” Mercer said.

On Tuesday, the bill was amended to clear internet and service providers from any liability if a threat is made and it results in tragedy.

The Senate measure (SB 310) now heads to its last committee stop in Senate Rules and an identical House companion bill is ready for the floor in the lower chamber.

If the Legislature passes the proposal, changes would take effect Oct. 1 and could result in the state prison population increasing, according to staff analysis.

Are risk assessment tools — justice by algorithm — best for criminal justice reform?

With increasingly crowded courts and jails, few will disagree that Florida’s justice system needs improvement.

Nevertheless, are statistics — and removing the human element — really the best path to reform?

Among the sweeping measures moving through the Florida Legislature is a proposal for a “pretrial risk assessment” tool, which is designed to give an objective, third-party analysis of whether a person under arrest is likely to appear in court and does not pose a risk of rearrest if released before trial.

Risk assessment typically involves a questionnaire (or some other form) to categorize defendants as either low, medium or elevated risk for pretrial failure.

The underlying idea is that most individuals under arrest will fall in the lower and medium risk categories. Risk assessment weeds out those “low risk” offenders to save the state billions in taxpayer money.

But release decisions by an algorithm are far from foolproof.

Such was the case of Peter Yeager, a 59-year-old New Jersey resident arrested Feb. 21 for the possession of images of children engaged in sexual acts.

One day later, Yeager was free after the state’s “Pretrial Risk Assessment” — developed by the foundation of hedge fund manager John Arnold — found he was not a danger to the community or a flight risk. He was not subject to any accountable release — just a “promise” to appear.

Yeager was just one of the thousands of pretrial releases under the NJ Bail Reform Act, enacted in January, which largely eliminated bail for minor crimes. The goal is to significantly reduce the state’s jail population — the same aim as Florida’s current push for justice reform.

But for many in criminal justice, including the bail bond industry, allowing someone like Yeager to go free raises considerable doubts about the accuracy of risk assessment tools.

What if a person under arrest is lying, refuses to answer or neglects to disclose factors like drug use? Will mental health be considered? What about defendants’ rights? Will lawyers be present? How does it protect the community when people under arrest — a person accused possessing child pornography — are set free?

Another factor in risk assessment, discussed in depth in a 2016 CityLab profile, is the possibility of reinforcing existing racial bias.

All considered, if the human element (such as bail bonds) is removed from these decisions, there is a risk of the system failing those people the criminal justice system is supposed to protect — the people of Florida.

Workers’ comp bill aiding injured immigrant workers likely dead, sponsor says

A bill intended to stop companies from dodging worker’s compensation benefit payouts to undocumented workers who are injured on the job is likely dead, state Sen. Gary Farmer, the bill sponsor, said Tuesday.

“I hate to wave the white flag, but it looks like I will,” the Fort Lauderdale Democrat said.

The effort was born in the wake of two news investigations last year that showed how a 2003 change to workers’ comp law in the state enabled some companies to deny benefits to undocumented workers after they were hired and injured at work. The injured workers would be reported to state law enforcement for using fake IDs or Social Security numbers.

Under current state law, workers who are injured on the job and use a fake ID face felony workers’ comp fraud charges. Farmer’s bill (SB 1568) would have changed that. But on Tuesday,  he said the effort may have to wait until next year.

State workers’ comp law has also led the state’s Division of Investigative and Forensic Services to refer five cases to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for further investigation after it received a complaint. Once referred to ICE, the individuals were deported. The division does not have the authority to serve in any immigration-related capacity, but it handles a variety of workers comp-related cases that have involved undocumented immigrants because of the way the law is written.

The proposal does not have a companion bill in the House, and Farmer said he is “not a fan” of the chamber’s workers’ comp bill to which he could potentially add his language.

Once stalled in the Senate, Farmer’s bill cleared its first committee stop earlier this month and was placed for first reading on the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, chaired by Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat.

Montford told both Florida Politics and Farmer that his committee is likely done meeting for the 2018 Legislative Session, which has a little over a week more to go.

Senate pushes gun, school safety proposals without assault weapon ban

Following a chaotic and emotional two-hour debate at the Senate Rules Committee on Monday, dozens of gun control advocates left the meeting angry and disappointed when senators voted down a ban on assault weapons.

“Vote them out! Vote them out!” protesters chanted after Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto announced the failure of on an amendment filed by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez that would have barred the sale and transfer of all assault weapons in the state.

Sen. Anitere Flores was the only Republican who voted with Democrats in support of the ban. Republicans on the panel did not debate their reasons for voting against the ban of weapons such as the AR-15 rifle, which 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz used to gun down 16 of his classmates and two of his teachers at a Parkland high school.

NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer and Eric Friday, the president of Florida Carry, did go before the panel to express their opposition though, arguing that it would punish “law-abiding citizens” for the actions of “one criminal.”

“They don’t like how a criminal used the weapon,” Friday said in reference to the protesters, “but that’s not how they are widely used.”

“It is time for the Legislature to realize this is an attempt to punish law-abiding citizens for the actions of one citizen,” he said.

The assault weapon ban amendment was one of several amendments filed by Democrats that were batted out of a Senate package that would have a wide range of impact on school safety, gun regulations and mental health services in the state.

The Senate package is similar to the one proposed in the House, and would allow for local government to choose whether to arm their teachers with weapons and train them to respond in case of an active shooting on campus.

The package passed the Senate Rules Committee on a 9-4 vote, with Democratic Sens. Lauren Book and Bill Montford voting with Republicans.

Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky told senators that it was not a “perfect bill,” but that at least it was action by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, which has for years been against passing gun control measures. This package includes provisions to raise the legal age to purchase an assault weapon to 21 years old and a three-day waiting period for gun purchases.

Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon said he could not vote for the package because the “marshal program” that would give guns to trained teachers was a “step too far.”

“I cannot support a bill that puts guns in the hands of the people that are supposed to be educating,” Braynon said.

The package now heads to the Appropriations Committee for its final stop before it can hit the Senate floor.

Senate President-designate Bill Galvano said an appropriations amendment will be ready Tuesday that will explain how the proposal, with a $400 million price tag, will be paid.

Protest erupts in Senate Rules Committee as gun proposals are considered

A sit-in protest over gun-control legislation erupted inside and outside the Senate Rules Committee on Monday as senators considered three contentious proposals rolled out in the wake of the deadly Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

Clad in bright orange shirts, gun control advocates wielded signs slamming the National Rifle Association. They yelled, “this is what democracy looks like” as the Rules Committee convened.

Chaos and emotion soon ensued in the jam-packed committee room and nearby hallways.

Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto struggled to keep protesters in order as they booed NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer and Florida Carry President Eric Friday when each testified against amendments filed by Democrats to ban assault weapons in Florida.

“They don’t like how a criminal used the weapon,” Friday said, “but that’s not how they are widely used. It is time for the Legislature to realize this is an attempt to punish law-abiding citizens for the actions of one citizen.”

The amendments were filed on a package that merged three proposals that would arm teachers with weapons and train them to react in active shooter situations, raise the legal age to buy all firearms to 21 and increase funding for mental health in schools.

With two weeks left in the 2018 Legislative Session, this package hijacked the three-hour meeting. There were 25 other bills on the agenda, mostly on their final committee stop, but Benacquisto said the committee would likely not get to hear them as the focus would be on the recently filed proposals.

Bail bond industry, Jeff Brandes spar over sweeping justice reform bill

The Florida Legislature is considering sweeping criminal justice reform measures that have come under fire by the bail bond industry, but the sponsor of one of the bills said Sunday that he is “not in the business of making bail bondsmen money.”

“They are in the business of writing bonds, and their business will go down if more people get diverted to civil citations,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican who is sponsoring SB 1392 and SB 1218, the duo of bills at the heart of the fight.

One of the bills (SB 1218) would require the state to invest in a computer program that uses algorithms to determine the risk of each offender for flight risk and their overall danger level. The bail bonds industry opposes it, arguing it is safer to rely on their expertise than on a computer.

The other bill (SB 1392) would require each judicial district in the state to create diversion programs for adults and juveniles, with the intent of giving local law enforcement agencies a tool that can serve between a warning and an arrest for low-level offenders.

But some in the bail bond industry say there will be no “uniformity” in the state and that some programs pushed by jurisdictions, like the one in Pinellas County, are “flawed.”

“There is no uniformity in the program,” said Matthew Jones, the president of A Way Out Bail Bonds II Inc. “You could possible end up with 67 different qualification programs around the state.”

Jones said he is also concerned about public safety and slammed the program in Pinellas County for allowing those arrested for certain battery misdemeanor charges to participate.

According to data provided by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the top five offenses for those who participated in its program included, possession of marijuana, retail theft, battery, petit theft and possession of marijuana paraphernalia.

If the legislation passes, each judicial district would have the flexibility to implement its own rules and criteria for qualifying offenders, as well as their own fees. Brandes’ bill does not set a blanket fee for the program.

In Florida’ 18th Judicial Court, for example, participants are normally supervised between six months to a year and are required to pay between $370 and $720, plus a $50 prosecution fee.

“Pretrial diversion is a voluntary program,” the website announced in all caps, “therefore, fees are not eligible for reduction or waiver.”

Programs that are currently in place would go not away under the proposal.

To complete a program, participants may have to go through drug treatment, community service, counseling or a combination of all those, at their expense. Those who do not fulfill the program’s requirements could be rearrested.

Advocates say the program has proven to reduce recidivism and in the long run allows adults and juveniles to tumble down employment barriers that would otherwise be there as a result of having a criminal record.

The implementation of these programs statewide would also likely save local governments money since booking and arrest-processing costs are expected to be down, Senate staff wrote in an analysis of the bill. As a result, this could cost the bail bond industry money.

Brandes’ proposal will go before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. It is its last committee stop before it can hit the Senate floor.

The House is also considering a similar diversion program bill, HB 1197 by Pinellas County Republican Rep. Larry Ahern, that is now in its last committee stop.

Fla. Democrats hammer Adam Putnam, Ron DeSantis over gun proposal silence

A day after Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature unveiled their plans to back unprecedented new restrictions on guns in the state, the Florida Democratic Party started taking note of the Republican gubernatorial candidates who have stayed silent on the issue.

Citing their “significant backing from the gun lobby,” the state party is pointing its finger at two candidates: Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who has dubbed himself an “NRA sellout,” and Congressman Ron DeSantis.

Over the span of their political careers, both have received more than $10,000 in NRA donations, according to a POLITICO report. And before the deadliest school shooting in the state took place last week, they touted that backing.

“The Tampa Bay Times recently called me a sellout to the NRA,” Putnam once said. “As someone who believed the Second Amendment is an inalienable right, I’ll wear that comment like a badge of honor. I’m a proud NRA Sellout.”

Now, facing massive protests, the candidates are keeping quiet on whether they support the plan rolled out by Gov. Scott and the Florida House and Senate, which includes raising the age limit to buy guns to 21 and banning bump stocks. Their proposals also include millions of dollars in funding to harden schools and mental health services.

“The two gov candidates’ silence seems to reflect a larger failure by the GOP to answer the demands of the #NeverAgain movement,” FDP spokesman Kevin Donohoe said in an email.

Donohoe then linked to a screenshot of an email sent by Florida GOP leadership telling members to not answer comments on the proposals.

“We understand the media is reaching out for comments on the plan; however, we ask you do not answer any questions because the RPOF does not take positions on legislation until all three branches of government agree,” Chairman Blaise Ingoglia wrote to members.

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