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Rick Scott updates lawmakers on Zika outbreak

Gov. Rick Scott told state lawmakers Friday he will continue to take steps to protect its residents and visitors from the Zika virus, but said he was unsure whether their federal counterparts would step up to the plate.

The Naples Republican updated lawmakers on the Zika crisis during a conference call Friday. During the 20-minute call, Scott told lawmakers what the state is doing to combat the spread of the virus and what they can do to help.

The call comes one week after Scott announced the first cases of locally acquired Zika virus were discovered in Florida. The virus is believed to have been transmitted in the Wynwood neighborhood, a trendy arts district in Miami.

Scott visited the area Thursday, and said the state was able to clear a 10-block area in the northwest corner of the zone. The state Department of Health, he said, determined there was no local transmission occurring in the area.

In June, the governor used his executive authority to allocate $26.2 million in state funds for Zika preparedness, prevention and response. The money was to be used for mosquito surveillance and abatement, training mosquito control technicians, and purchasing more prevention kits from the CDC.

But that isn’t enough, and Scott said President Barack Obama and Congress must provide more money to Florida. The president has said he would send $5.6 million to Florida to help combat the spread.

The Senate failed to act on a $1.1 billion Zika spending plan before they left for their summer recess. Senate Democrats blocked the House-approved bill, which, among other things, included provisions to defund Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico.

“We don’t know if the federal government will be our partner and provide the resources they should,” said Scott. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep (residents and visitors) safe.”

Dozier School task force schedules meetings

A new task force on the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys will meet in August.

The panel will meet on Aug. 3 and Aug. 19, according to a Wednesday press release from the Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources. (A membership list is here.)

Under legislation (SB 708) passed this year, the panel was set up “to submit recommendations regarding the creation and maintenance of a memorial honoring the children who lived and died” at the school in Marianna, Jackson County.

The school, opened in 1900 about 60 miles west of Tallahassee, was shuttered in 2011. It began as a home for children convicted of serious crimes. But the covered offenses were expanded to include minor offenses including truancy.

Some former students have accused school officials of physical and sexual abuse, especially in the 1950s and ’60s. Many former Dozier inmates call themselves “The White House Boys” after the white building where they say the worst abuse took place.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement looked into the allegations, concluding it couldn’t substantiate or dispute the claims because too much time had passed.

University of South Florida researchers concluded a multi-year investigation of the campus and exhumed dozens of bodies buried there. Their final report says nearly 100 people, including two adult staff members, died at Dozier between 1900 and 1973.

“The task force is also charged with recommending the location of a site for the re-interment of unidentified or unclaimed remains that were part of a forensic investigation conducted by the University of South Florida at the school,” the release said.

The task force has to turn in a written report of its findings by Oct. 1.

Both meetings will start 9 a.m. Central time/10 a.m. Eastern time at Marianna City Hall, 2898 Green St.

The first meeting will be organizational, beginning with a vote by task force members to approve an agenda and then focusing on reviewing the task force’s responsibilities under the law, the release said.

“The meeting on Aug. 19 will include an opportunity for public comment,” it added. “At this meeting, the task force members will also vote on their recommendations to be included in the final report to the Legislature.”

For more information on the task force, send an email to flheritage@dos.myflorida.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this post, reprinted with permission.

Florida’s jobs agency gives checks to departing employees

Amid a major shakeup pushed by Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida agency responsible for luring jobs to the state is paying nearly a half-million dollars to departing employees.

Florida taxpayers are picking up the majority of the cost for severance payments and payouts for unused leave. Records requested by The Associated Press show that 10 departing employees at Enterprise Florida are receiving more than $430,000.

Rank-and-file state workers are not allowed to receive severance payments, but employees at Enterprise Florida aren’t considered state workers even though taxpayers pick up most of the tab for the economic development organization.

Many Enterprise Florida employees — including the president and CEO — have resigned or were forced out as part of an overhaul initiated by Scott, who also serves as the chairman of the Enterprise Florida board.

Scott and the board agreed earlier this month to streamline the operations of the 20-year outfit, including eliminating jobs, shuttering international offices and canceling contracts with outside consultants. The cuts are expected to save about $6 million.

“EFI is current undergoing a restructuring of its core functions to ensure our personnel contacts are the most cost effective,” said Mike Grissom, a senior vice president with Enterprise Florida.

But those employees who are leaving had contracts that guaranteed them severance payments.

Bill Johnson, the head of the organization who appears to have been forced to resign earlier this year, received a severance check of $132,500 and he also was paid more than $14,000 for unused leave. Grissom said that private donations were used to pay Johnson.

Johnson took over the post in 2015 at the start of Scott’s second term. But he wound up clashing several times with the Florida Legislature over the amount of money needed to lure new companies to the state.

Scott wanted legislators this year to set aside $250 million for a new fund that would be used for business incentives. But legislators rejected the entire request and some top Republicans such as incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran contend that the incentives are a form of “corporate welfare.”

Nine other employees at Enterprise Florida — ranging from an office manager to a senior vice president — received severance payments paid from public money that ranged from $5,000 to $60,000. Two senior vice presidents were given nearly $30,000 in lump sum payments for unused leave.

So far, Scott and Enterprise Florida officials have not said what they will do with the roughly $6 million cut from the budget of the organization. Enterprise Florida can’t legally direct it to the programs that the Legislature refused to fund. Grissom said the board will discuss in September what it plans to do with the savings generated from the cuts.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

New report suggests ways government efficiency can save Florida taxpayers billions

The Florida Government Efficiency Task Force released a 29-point report Thursday that it said could produce billions in annual savings for Florida taxpayers.

“These 29 recommendations, if implemented, will lead to over $2 billion in cost-savings for the taxpayers of Florida as well as improving the functions of our state government,” said Task Force Chairman John Alexander. “I strongly urge the Florida Legislature to enact these recommendations and Governor Scott to approve them so that together we can ensure that our state remains the best state in the Union to live, work and play.”

According to the report, the biggest savings — between $269 million and $448 million a year — would come from the state paying a lower percentage of public employee health insurance premiums.

Currently, public employees receiving single health insurance coverage pay $25 biweekly for health insurance while the state pays about $300 biweekly. Employees pay a slightly higher share of spousal and family plans, though the state is on the hook for more money as well, GETF said.

GETF also recommended reinstituting matching funds programs for large donations to state colleges and universities which it said would save $179 million a year, and added that the Legislature opening up telehealth services in the state could save private businesses more than $13 billion while sidestepping future costs for the state.

Nonpartisan watchdog Florida TaxWatch praised the report in a Friday email, with the group’s president and GETF board member Dominic Calabro saying “the implementation of these recommendations would markedly improve the way government works and should save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“The savings realized by implementing these recommendations could be reinvested in our children’s education, reforming our justice system, improving health care outcomes for those in need, economic development and a myriad of other crucial policy issues that need attention,” he said.

The report also includes a half dozen criminal justice recommendations which mostly align with a report put out by Taxwatch in May, including amending sentencing laws, expanding work release programs and diverting low-level nonviolent offenders. GETF estimates the state could save at least $111 million a year by following its criminal justice recommendations.

The full list of recommendations, which GETF said could save the state between $2 billion and $12 billion a year, is available here.

Abortion, budget, tax cuts among new Florida laws

Florida legislators passed 279 bills during this year’s session three months ago, and 162 of them take effect on Friday with the start of the state’s fiscal year, affecting school choice, abortion, tax cuts and many more aspects of life in the Sunshine State.

Here’s a roundup of some of the measures taking effect:

BUDGET: The $82.3 billion budget was passed by a combined vote of 159-1. It includes more than $700 million for school construction and $203.8 million for Everglades restoration.

TAX CUTS: Two will benefit most Floridians. Property taxes should drop along with a reduction in local millage rates, and a three-day sales tax holiday Aug. 5-7 should help back-to-school shoppers. Other highlights include a permanent sales tax exemption for manufacturing equipment and machinery, beverage tax-reductions on pear cider, and a drop in the tax rate on aviation fuel.

ABORTION: A law redefining when abortions can be performed and requiring that clinic doctors have admitting privileges or can transfer patients with nearby hospitals may be blocked after Monday’s Supreme Court ruling that a related Texas law is unconstitutional. A federal judge is considering arguments against the law, which also eliminates funding to clinic affiliates such as Planned Parenthood.

BULLYING: School districts must review their anti-bullying and harassment policies every three years, and integrate rules on dating violence and abuse into discipline policies.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: Persons convicted of aggravated assault or attempted aggravated assault are no longer subject to “10-20-Life” mandatory-minimum sentences.

DIGITAL ASSETS: Guardians or trustees of estates gain legal authority to manage digital assets and electronic communications as they would tangible assets and financial accounts. Digital companies are provided legal authority to interact with these representatives, revealing such things as passwords to accounts.

FESTIVALS: Any food contests or cook-offs lasting no more than three days and hosted by a school, church, religious organization or nonprofit will not be defined as “public food service establishments.” That means they don’t have to pay licensing fees or are subject to an inspection by the Division of Hotels and Restaurants.

JURY DUTY: Individuals permanently incapable of caring for themselves may request a permanent exemption from jury duty by submitting a written statement from a doctor verifying the disability.

MARRIAGE: Clergy with religious objections don’t have to marry same-sex couples.

NEEDLE EXCHANGE: The Miami-Dade Infectious Disease Elimination Act (IDEA) provides for the University of Miami and affiliates to establish a pilot needle exchange program to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV, AIDS, or viral hepatitis in the county, which has the nation’s highest rate of new HIV cases.

OUTDOORS: Fines for illegally killing, taking or selling game or fur-bearing animals while committing burglary or trespass increase from $250 to $500. It becomes a third-degree felony to knowingly possess marine turtles or their eggs or nests.

PUBLIC RECORDS: Recorded matches regulated by the Florida Boxing Commission may be kept private until they are aired in an exemption requested by Ultimate Fighting Championship for its “Ultimate Fighter” reality show when it is taped in South Florida.

RAPE KITS: Law enforcement agencies must submit rape kits within 30 days of the start of their investigations to a state crime lab, which must test them within 120 days.

SAFETY: Elevators installed in private residences must have clearing requirements and be equipped with a sensor device that prevents their operation if certain objects are detected.

SCHOOL CHOICE: Children can transfer to any state school with available space, and student athletes are immediately eligible to play if they haven’t joined practices in the same sport at their previous school. Children of military parents or those who transfer due to economic or legal reasons are immediately eligible in season if they haven’t been suspended or expelled from their prior school.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

No help from DC? Florida to spend millions on Zika fight

Saying he was “profoundly disappointed” with the ongoing federal stalemate over the Zika virus, Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday ordered the state to spend millions in an effort to stop its potential spread.

Scott used his emergency powers to authorize spending up to $26.2 million on everything from killing mosquitoes, training mosquito technicians and purchasing Zika prevention kits.

The Republican governor has been calling on the federal government for weeks to approve money to fight the Zika virus, which can cause grave birth defects and can be transmitted by mosquitoes and sexual contact. The U.S. House this week approved a $1.1 billion measure. But President Barack Obama is threatening to veto the legislation, saying it provides too little money and contains too many partisan provisions.

“We are in the middle of hot, rainy weather which is when mosquitoes are most prevalent,” Scott said in a statement. “It is clear that allocating this funding is necessary if we are going to stay ahead of the spread of this virus. I am profoundly disappointed that Washington does not share in our commitment and has continued to play politics with the health and safety of our families.”

Florida currently has more than 200 cases of Zika virus, including 40 pregnant women. All of the cases involve residents infected outside the country, but Scott has predicted that it would be a “disaster” if mosquitoes in the state started transmitting the disease.

The Scott administration says that so far the federal government has only allocated $153,844 for epidemiology and lab support, $500,000 for seven counties for mosquito control and $40,856 in lab supplies and personnel.

Scott said that more than 40 counties, cities and mosquito control districts have asked for $19 million in assistance. He has declared a state of emergency in 23 counties because of the virus, a move that allows Scott to bypass the Florida Legislature and take money from the state’s main bank account.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

How state officials decided who made the cut for new statue

As interesting as who’s on the list to be the subject of Florida’s next statue in the U.S. Capitol may be who’s not on the list.

Last week, the Department of State released 129 names submitted by the public as recommendations for a new statue in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. State lawmakers will make the final decision.

Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of what is now Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, is the top public choice.

Every state has two statues. Florida is seeking to replace the one of Confederate Army Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. Lawmakers passed and Gov. Rick Scott approved the change this past session.

But that’s exactly who some people nominated as a protest vote, according to emails to FloridaPolitics.com. Another commenter said he voted for NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, killed in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. Neither was on the list of public recommendations.

Which raises the question of just who didn’t make the cut, and why. A special committee of the state’s Great Floridians Program is scheduled to meet Wednesday at the R.A. Gray Building in Tallahassee to select three finalists to pass along to the Legislature.

“This is a dynamic process, but we wanted an opportunity for the public to be involved,” said Meredith Beatrice, the department’s spokeswoman. “We made a good-faith effort to compile a list for the committee’s review, but names must meet the eligibility criteria.”

That includes being a “citizen of the State of Florida, either by birth or residence” and being “deceased for 10 years or more, as of January 1, 2017.” That knocks out Earnhardt, who was from North Carolina.

Beatrice said she would provide another list of the names from the public that were not included on the official list from last week. Meantime, it’s not immediately clear whether all on the public list meet the criteria.

For example, naturalist and artist John James Audubon, who received one vote, did spend time in the state in 1831-32 working on illustrations for a volume of his great work, Birds of America, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History website.

But it’s not apparent he was a “resident.” He “explored the east coast of Florida and the Florida Keys,” the site said, complaining about the mosquitoes. “Reader,” he wrote, “if you have not been in such a place, you cannot easily conceive the torments we endured.”

The eligibility requirements aren’t in the law passed this year but are “guidelines prescribed by the Department of State,” which adds there will be “no recommendations of fictional characters, animals, plants, structures, or other non-human entities or beings.”

Other “suggested criteria,” according to the department, include “significant contributions … to Florida history, economy, culture, arts, education, infrastructure, and/or environment,” “distinguished military or civil service,” and “length of time the (person) was a resident of the State of Florida.”

Beatrice noted committee members “may also recommend individuals for consideration that have not been previously submitted.”

The effort to take down Smith’s statue started after a church shooting last year in Charleston, South Carolina, left nine people dead. The gunman had photographed himself holding a Confederate flag and made clear he was motivated by racism.

Earlier this year, the Florida Senate changed its official seal to remove a representation of a Confederate flag.

Florida’s other statue in the U.S. Capitol, of scientist-inventor Dr. John Gorrie of Apalachicola, a pivotal figure in the invention of air conditioning, will remain.

Cory Booker keynotes Florida Democratic Party summer gala

Although party unity was the theme of the Florida Democratic Party’s annual Leadership Blue Gala, bashing Donald Trump played second fiddle to remembering the tragic murders of 49 Americans in Orlando last weekend, and what might be done about it.

Saturday night’s event at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood began with a video scroll of the names of the 49 people killed in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando a week ago, the worst mass shooting in American history.

“I am so tired, and I know you are tired, we are all tired,” said Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was speaking in her own home 23rd Congressional District. “We are tired of trying to put into words how this happened again. Tired of politicians who will observe a minute of silence, and stop there … tired of the hurt which aches in a place deeper than flesh and blood and bone. We are tired in our souls, because one mass slaughter is already too much to bear, yet we have suffered this again and again and again and again.”

Senator Bill Nelson gave praise to his fellow Democratic Senators who participated in the nearly 15-hour filibuster that won them the chance to get a vote on gun control legislation this coming week in Washington.

“Don’t we want to know if a person with a criminal record is purchasing a weapon?” he asked, referring to the fact that suspected or known terrorists can still buy guns, a loophole that Democrats want to change in Congress. “Isn’t that common sense? This isn’t asking for much. If you are on a terrorist watch list, you cannot buy a gun.”

Nelson has proposed legislation that would ensure that any individual who is, or has been, investigated for possible ties to terrorism is entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which gun shop owners use to run background checks on prospective gun buyers.

And, if a background check is conducted for a potential gun buyer who is, or has been, investigated for potential ties to terrorism, Nelson’s bill would require that the NICS system automatically notifies the appropriate division of the FBI.

There was some Donald Trump bashing.

“The Republican Party has nominated a reckless, racist, rambling bigot, “said FDP Chair Allison Tant. “It’s going to be up to every single one of us to stop him. It’s our job, and unlike Jeb or Marco, we in Florida are ready and willing to take him down.”

Tampa Representative Janet Cruz will be the House Minority Leader next year. With only 39 members in the 120-member body, she admitted it wasn’t always easy to be a House Democrat in the Florida Legislature.

“Do you have any idea the battle scars that are on these 39 members? We are fierce, and we are warriors!” she proclaimed. Her priority as incoming leader, she said, was to stop the “seesaw nature of our campaign cycles,” though whether their candidates are better this year won’t be determined until this November’s election.

Cruz also gave out some love to Wasserman Schultz, who has been under fire from progressives — especially Bernie Sanders supporters — over the last year. “I want to apologize for how you’ve been treated,” she said, as the crowd gave a mighty cheer.

All of that was the warm-up to the main event, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who gave an impassioned, at times hilarious and intensely personal 52-minute speech.

Booker brought the crowd to its feet when he talked about empathy.

“How you see a Muslim American says more about you than it does them. How you see a gay American says more about you than about them. How you see an immigrant says more about you than it does about them! You can see them with love! You can see them as your brother and your sister!”

Booker also called this fall’s election between Trump and Clinton as “an inflection point” for the country.

More caucus meetings will be held on Sunday before the Florida Democrats call it a weekend, with many meeting up next month at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Business lobby upset over worker’s comp decision

The state’s business lobbying groups called for legislative action Thursday after a Florida Supreme Court decision earlier that day on the worker’s compensation law.

The court’s 5-2 ruling for injured St. Petersburg firefighter Bradley Westphal strikes down a provision in the law limiting the time that injured workers can get temporary disability benefits. (Story here.)

Three justices, however, suggested the Legislature needs to overhaul the worker’s comp law.

Thursday’s decision comes six weeks after the court invalidated the law’s legal fee schedule as unconstitutional, saying it was a violation of due process. Both decisions were authored by Justice Barbara Pariente.

Shortly afterward, an umbrella organization representing worker’s comp insurers filed a request for a 17-percent rate hike, directly attributed the increase to the court’s decision in Castellanos v. Next Door Company.

“With job creators already facing a 17.1 percent workers’ comp rate increase, today’s ruling causes even more uncertainty, and is a further sign that Florida’s workers’ comp system is under attack,” said Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

“A legislative solution for both cases will help bring certainty back to Florida’s job creators and injured workers that Florida’s workers’ comp system is working,” he added.

Spokespeople for the Florida House of Representatives and state Senate had no immediate comment other than saying their legal counsel were “reviewing” the latest decision.

Bill Herrle, executive director of National Federation of Independent Business/Florida, called the Westphal decision “one more blow from the Supreme Court that poses a very real threat to small business owners’ ability to employ Floridians.”

“Legislative action will be required to maintain a stable workers’ compensation market for Florida businesses,” he added, saying he hoped the Office of Insurance Regulation “acts as quickly as possible so that Florida business owners have a chance to do whatever they can to meet these unexpected costs.”

Logan McFaddin, regional manager for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI), said the decision “could significantly destabilize Florida’s business environment.”

“The Florida worker’s compensation system provides essential benefits to injured workers in a timely, efficient, and economically sound manner and the wage-replacement benefit system balances the interests of employees and employers,” McFaddin said. “We continue to support the 2003 Florida workers compensation reforms that were put in place to protect the interests of employees, as well as help control costs for business owners.”

In 2003, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature enacted changes to the worker’s comp system, though critics say they favored employers at the cost of injured employees. Companies said the changes cut costs to employers, which helps businesses grow jobs

“The impact of both decisions will likely motivate legislative action either through a special session in 2016 or in the regular session in 2017,” McFaddin added in a text message.

Sand, surf and gun? Florida’s highest court may say yes

Months after Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature rejected the idea, the state’s highest court was urged Wednesday to throw out the three-decade-old law that prohibits openly carrying guns in public.

Dale Norman, who had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, was arrested by Fort Pierce police in 2012 because his gun was in a holster as he walked down a sidewalk. He was convicted of a second-degree misdemeanor but appealed his conviction to the Florida Supreme Court with the help of Florida Carry, a gun rights organization that has filed several lawsuits against gun regulations imposed by local governments and state universities.

Eric Friday, the lead attorney for Florida Carry, told justices it was a violation of 2nd Amendment rights for the state to ban people from carrying their guns in public.

“There is a core constitutional right, your honor, to bear arms inside and outside of the home,” Friday said.

Despite Friday’s assertion, justices sounded skeptical about overturning the law, wondering if its removal would lead to a “Wild West” scenario where residents could walk down the street carrying a gun in their hands.

After Friday said the state would never place limits on cameras used by journalists because of 1st Amendment rights, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga retorted: “I don’t think journalists’ cameras kill people.”

But justices also had some sharp words for the lawyer representing Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in the case and were critical of the logic used to defend the law. Justice Charles Canady asked how the public was safer by allowing people to carry concealed weapons while banning open carry. Florida has nearly 1.8 million people with permits to carry a concealed weapon.

The Legislature has been sharply debating many of the state’s gun laws the past few years, including the ban on open carry that passed the full House this spring but was not considered by the Senate. Gun right advocates, noting that many other states allow open carry, have vowed to push for the legislation again in 2017.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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