Florida Senate – Page 5 – Florida Politics

House readies ‘across the board’ tax package

Farmers, nursing homes and property owners impacted by Hurricane Irma could receive tax relief as part of a $332.7 million package that will be introduced Wednesday in the Florida House.

The package (PCB WMC 18-03), which will be rolled out in the House Ways & Means Committee, will be built on education-related tax credits, a reduction in a commercial-lease tax and sales tax “holidays’ on back-to-school items and hurricane supplies.

Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, said Tuesday the goal is to offer “across the board” savings, without hurting the budget.

“There are many people that are interested in tax cuts, tax credits, but we tried to look at what is the most effective way from a public policy standpoint to benefit Floridians,” Renner said.

A Senate tax-cut proposal is still in the works.

Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, said the Senate has not set a “bottom-line number” for its package.

Stargel said the package might include a number of the House proposals, from hurricane relief for agriculture to the sales tax holidays. But she said the numbers might not exactly align.

“There are several things that they’ve included that I think that we can agree on, that we like that they’re doing,” Stargel said. “There’s a couple of things we’re not really sure. It’s ambiguous. We’re having to look into a little more detail as to how it’s supposed to work out.”

Stargel said she’d like to support a further reduction in the commercial-lease tax, while she needs more information about the educational tax credits.

With a hit to local government revenue accounting for $37.6 million of the House package, the overall proposal tops the $180 million in cuts approved last year and a $180 million request by Gov. Rick Scott for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Scott’s proposal includes shopping tax “holidays” and a request to cut fees on driver’s licenses.

But the House package differs, proposing an 18 percent reduction on civil penalties for non-criminal traffic infractions — such as speeding within 30 mph over the posted limit — if motorists attend driver-improvement school.

The House package also includes a $6.7 million cut by providing a sales-tax exemption for generator purchases by nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Scott’s administration has pushed for nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have generators after the deaths of residents of a Broward County nursing home that lost its air-conditioning system in Hurricane Irma.

The largest part of the House package, an estimated $154 million a year reduction in state revenue, would come through sales-tax credits that businesses could take to fund voucher-like scholarships in the Gardiner Scholarship Program and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

Stargel said her committee may workshop the proposal.

“It’s something different that we’ve not ever seen,” Stargel said. “The proposal has not run through any of our discussions.”

Another $34.1 million next year in the House package would come from reducing the commercial lease tax from 5.8 percent to 5.5 percent starting Jan. 1. That reduction would affect half of the state’s 2018-2019 fiscal year, and the savings to businesses would grow to $81.1 million when implemented for a full fiscal year.

Long a target for elimination by business-lobbying groups, lawmakers dropped the lease tax from 6 percent to 5.8 percent a year ago.

The House would offer a 10-day back-to-school tax holiday in August that would allow families to avoid paying sales taxes on school supplies, clothes costing $60 or less and personal computers and accessories up to $1,000. The package also would offer three separate seven-day periods in May, June and July when Floridians could buy hurricane supplies without paying sales taxes. The holidays are collectively projected to total $74.5 million.

The package also would offer post-Irma tax refunds on agricultural building materials, which would be a projected $8.8 million savings for farmers; on agricultural fencing, $2.7 million; and fuel used to transport agricultural products, $3.7 million.

Another $13.1 million would be available to cover losses when citrus processing equipment went idle because of Irma or because of the industry’s decade-long battle against citrus greening disease.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has estimated farmers and ranchers incurred $2.5 billion in losses from Hurricane Irma.

Most of the losses are expected to be covered through a federal spending plan signed by President Donald Trump that included $2.36 billion for agricultural impacts from Irma and hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Maria in Puerto Rico.

Among other proposals, the package also would provide a property-tax abatement for homeowners forced out of their residences for at least 30 days due to damages from hurricanes Hermine, Matthew and Irma in 2016 and 2017.

Darren Soto: State lawmakers need to unite on policy

After contentious weeks at the U.S. Capitol, Congressman Darren Soto has turned his attention toward Tallahassee, where he believes legislators face “big challenges” and should seize the opportunity to unite on major issues facing the state.

The Orlando-area Democrat gave his take on the state’s Session on Monday during a press conference with several Hispanic Democratic state lawmakers.

Soto told Florida Politics that his time in Tallahassee will be spent advocating on “issues that are critical for not only the Hispanic community, but all Floridians.” He said he hopes his experience as both a state senator and representative will lend him credibility as he attempts to guide legislators through “key issues that may get caught in the noise right now.”

According to Soto, there are a number of hurdles ahead in the wakes of hurricanes Irma and Maria. He suggested state legislators should model the Session with Congress in mind.

“With these major challenges, [Congress] saw a historic budget, where Democrats and Republicans came together in Washington to pass real solutions,” Soto said. “Tallahassee needs to take a page from that book and work together on issues that unite us, rather than divide us.”

Soto ran through line items on the newly approved federal spending bill that are expected to aid institutions and individuals affected by the hurricanes.

Some of those remedial allocations include $2.7 billion for schools and $2.3 billion for Florida citrus. Both spends are being praised by Florida politicians.

Soto, who has been a consistent voice on addressing the disaster in Puerto Rico, also indicated he was happy with the $2 billion secured for rebuilding power systems on the island and the $4.9 billion in Medicaid funding heading to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

But with the midway point of Session behind lawmakers, Soto’s main message on Monday was that there needs to be bipartisan support at the state level in order to follow through on aid from Washington. 

Soto gave the example of the Sadowski Trust Fund, which sets aside funding for affordable housing but has historically had dollars swept out of it. Several state lawmakers claim Florida faces a housing crisis as a result of years of sweeps to the fund. Many also expect the crisis to be exacerbated by the influx of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria.

Budget proposals from the House and Governor this year suggest sweeping dollars from the Sadowski Trust — though much less than in previous years — and a proposal from the Senate suggests fully funding the trust.

Soto said the intake of Puerto Rican migrants has led to a “tipping point” in the state’s affordable housing crisis and that it will be “one of the biggest issues” facing the state. He implored the House to take the Senate’s position.

Soto also brought up the issue of sanctuary cities, which has grabbed attention after the House ushered a bill that would penalize local officials who engage in sanctuary city practices. House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum will debate the issue Tuesday night.

But no local ordinances in the state have formally adopted sanctuary city policies, and Soto said talk of the issue only leads to divisiveness.

“Nothing characterizes the senseless division that we face here than this non-debate over non-issue sanctuary cities,” Soto said. He said the House bill was a “solution in search of a problem.”

“We are a state of diversity, of immigrants. This is our strongest attribute,” Soto said. “And this debate only poisons the well.”

Vacation rentals bill approved by Senate Regulated Industries Committee

A bill to once again roll back local regulation of vacation rental homes got approval Thursday from the Florida Senate Committee on Regulated Industries, its second committee success.

The bill, a committee substitute that combined Senate Bills 1400 and 1640 introduced by Republican state Sens. Greg Steube and David Simmons, drew a long list of opponents Thursday among representatives of cities, counties and hotel interests, who do not want to see the state pre-empting local laws and regulations. But it also drew strong statements of support from proponents of vacation rental homes who want them open for business anywhere, including the big vacation rental marketing firms Airbnb and HomeAway, and also a bipartisan cross-section of senators.

At issue is whether the cities and counties that have tried to regulate vacation rental homes in the past six or seven years will be able to enforce anything, a concern that centered most on local governments’ desire to conduct safety and building-code inspections prior to state licensure.

The bill would allow local regulations on vacation rental homes that apply to all other homes, a position Steube and other proponents have argued should take care of the most significant concerns many opponents raised, about houses converted into a vacation rental that turn into party houses, in the middle of otherwise residential neighborhoods.

“We’re pre-empting back to 2011, so if you had an ordinance in place prior to 2011, this bill is not going to affect you,” Steube said. “This bill allows counties and cities to do anything they want to do to regulate noise, to regulate traffic, to regulate parking, to regulate trash, to regulate how many people you want in a home. So if you want to limit occupancy, if you want to limit how big the houses are in a certain community, you can do that. You just have to pass the law so it applies uniformly to the entire jurisdiction.”

That led Steube, the Republican from Sarasota, to recount how when he was growing up, his family couldn’t afford the expensive hotels along the beach, but could afford to rent out a portion of someone’s house for a vacation.

“There are a lot of families out there that are blue-collar families, families that live in Florida, that look forward to being able to take advantages of places like Airbnb,” Steube said.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, the Democrat from Jacksonville, said something similar before committing her vote for the bill. “I look at … the opportunity of families to be able to go to places where they may not ever have an opportunity to go, and at a cost they could actually afford,” she said.

There was opposition. Sen. Dorothy Hukill, a Republican from Port Orange, expressed concern that cities and counties, trying to bring order to what some said were chaotic situations with vacation rental homes, have been pushed back and forth in recent years, as the Florida Legislature has pre-empted local control before, and then partially restored it, and now is pre-empting it again.

Gibson and two other Democrats, Sens. Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale and Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, were particularly interested in seeing that the bill addressed potential discrimination by vacation rental home operators. Thurston offered an amendment that would require vacation rental home operators to maintain a log of potential guests who’d been turned away for whatever reasons, as hotels do. However, after opposition to that amendment, and contentions that federal and state law already strongly prohibit discrimination, he withdrew it, saying he would pursue the concerns later.

The bill still must go through the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Rob Bradley

House, Senate tee up differing budget plans

The House and Senate on Wednesday advanced separate versions of an $87 billion-plus state budget, with the two chambers taking different courses on health-care spending and a plan to link education policy to the budget process.

After initial debate on the bills, the Senate is poised to pass its $87.3 billion bill (SB 2500) on Thursday, and the House is expected to pass its $87.2 billion spending plan (HB 5001). After the floor votes, the chambers will be able to begin negotiating the 2018-2019 budget, facing a March 9 end-of-Session deadline.

Although the two bills are only $100 million apart overall, details differ. One major hurdle facing negotiators is a House plan to directly link the $21 billion public-school portion of the budget to passage of a separate 198-page “conforming” bill (HB 7055), which contains dozens of education policy changes, including voucher-like scholarships to let bullied students transfer to private schools.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who leads the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, acknowledged that if the House budget bill passed, but the separate policy bill failed, lawmakers would have to return to Tallahassee to pass a budget to fund Florida’s 67 school districts for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat, offered an amendment seeking to sever the link between the education-policy bill and the budget.

“I think this is a bad precedent,” he said, saying there has not been enough public review of the massive education conforming bill, which was only heard by one committee.

But his proposal was defeated in a 72-39 vote, along party lines, with the Republican majority opposing the effort.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said the Senate is taking the position that major policy bills should be handled through the normal committee process and not included in a budget-linked bill. A conforming bill cannot be amended and would only be subject to an up-or-down vote if it is approved in the House-Senate negotiating process.

“Our conforming bills this year are skinny, for the lack of a better word,” Bradley said. “They do only what is a bare necessity to make sure the budget is done in a legal manner.”

But Bradley also said many House education proposals would likely receive Senate support if the measures are handled through the normal bill process.

“Our objections are on procedure, not policy,” Bradley said. “I think as those issues move through the Senate process that they will be receiving favorable votes because there are many of us who are supporters of the parental-empowerment, school-choice movement.”

Another potential sticking point in budget negotiations is a Senate plan revamping the way Medicaid payments are distributed to Florida hospitals. It would replace an existing system that favors facilities that serve a greater percentage of poor and disabled patients with a plan that would increase base Medicaid payments for all hospitals.

House leaders say they favor the current system, noting major hospitals like Jackson Memorial in Miami would face a funding cut in excess of $59 million. House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican, said he supports helping major not-for-profit hospitals, like Jackson, while he is more skeptical of for-profit hospitals.

Bradley acknowledged the Senate and House plans “are wildly opposite,” but the Senate proposal is designed to spur a policy debate.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Bradley said. “But this is a debate that is long overdue in this building. Don’t fear the debate, we look forward to the debate over how we handle Medicaid payments for our medical providers moving forward.”

In floor action Wednesday, the Senate adopted dozens of amendments to its budget bill, most related to funding local projects across the state.

One of the amendments, sponsored by Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and several other senators, would boost operational funding for Florida A&M University by $6 million. FAMU lost some $11.5 million in state performance funding this year because it finished near the bottom of annual rankings for the 12 state universities.

The House and Senate budgets would boost state and local funding for public schools by more than $500 million. The House has a $100 increase in per-student funding, while the Senate has a $110 increase.

Neither budget has a general pay raise for state workers. But the Senate bill would increase pay for state law enforcement officers by at least 7 percent, if the officers have 10 or more years of experience. The Senate also would provide a $2,500 pay raise for state firefighters.

The Senate bill would increase salaries for state Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges by 10 percent.

Senator’s proposal to boost funding for clemency case backlog withdrawn

As the Senate motored through a long list of budget amendments on Wednesday, a proposal to boost funding to deal with the mounting clemency case backlog was tossed.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Pinellas County Democrat, withdrew his own amendment, which would have given the Florida Commission on Offender Review $500,000 in ongoing state funds to tackle its 10,000-plus clemency case backlog. The Senate is proposing the same amount in its 2018-19 spending plan, but as a one-time, nonrecurring sum.

“If anyone of these citizens wants to earn back their fundamental right to express themselves in government, they must plod through a gauntlet of constitutionally infirm hurdles,” Rouson said. “The federal court said no more.”

Rouson’s proposal comes after a federal court ruled last week that the state’s voter-restoration process for ex-felons is unconstitutional.

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration has helped shape the system in which political bias usually determines whether an ex-felon can have their voting rights restored, according to the court ruling prompted by a lawsuit against the state.

Since Scott was elected in 2011, there have been 2,976 felons granted clemency. Rouson told senators that number has “plummeted” since Scott took office.

“As the body of the Senate we should make a strong statement before November that we care about restoring the rights of those who have paid their debt, done their time and deserve through redemption an opportunity to participate in the process,” he said.

In November, Floridians will have the chance to vote on a ballot initiative that could automatically restore the voting rights of 1.5 million citizens, a move that could impact the political climate in the nation’s largest swing state.

“I cannot tell you the number of times I have campaigned, like you have, knocked on doors and met people in community halls who said ‘I wish I could vote but my rights have not been restored,” Rouson said.

Senate leaders press for change in hospital funding

A proposal to redistribute hundreds of millions of dollars away from safety-net hospitals and toward increasing base Medicaid payments at all hospitals drew opposition Wednesday in the Florida Senate.

But Senate Republican leaders were able to beat back a proposed amendment by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, that would have scrapped the plan and maintained current law, which directs upward of $318 million in enhanced Medicaid payments to 28 hospitals with Medicaid caseloads of 25 percent or greater.

Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairwoman Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, said the budget plan is a fair redistribution of what she called “special project funds” and said it’s something the Legislature should have done years ago.

“I am very hopeful that this is the year we pass a budget that actually does this,” Flores said of the Senate’s plan.  “Where we actually say, “Hospitals thank you for opening your doors, for not asking questions.”

Flores said every hospital in the state provides Medicaid care and charity care.

“The fact remains that under today’s system that there are hospitals across the entire state that we represent that don’t ask (about ability to pay), that don’t get any of that money and still provide the care,” she said.

Specifically, the Senate plan would eliminate automatic rate enhancements paid to the 28 hospitals and use the money, instead, to beef up base Medicaid rates for all hospitals.

The Senate budget plan also would provide $50 million in general revenue, which, when matched with federal Medicaid dollars, would total $130 million. The plan would redirect that funding to base rates. As a result, the Senate plan would increase Medicaid base rates from $3,426 to $4,049 for each hospital admission.

Because the base rates would be increased, the Senate plan would benefit any system that owns more than one hospital, such as HCA, Tenet, Community Health Systems, BayCare, and Adventist Health System. HCA, which owns 43 facilities in the state, could see nearly $40.5 million in Medicaid increases under the Senate plan.

Conversely, Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami faces more than a $59 million reduction, UF Health Shands in Gainesville faces more than a $20 million hit and Tampa General Hospital could lose nearly $14.7 million.

The Senate is expected Thursday to approve its proposed budget, setting the stage for negotiations with the House in the coming weeks on a final spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The Senate’s proposed changes in hospital funding could be a key issue in negotiations.

House budget chairman Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican, already has indicated that the Senate’s proposal could face an uphill battle in the House, telling reporters last week that Jackson Memorial and other facilities are “essential to the well-being of our residents. As for some of the for-profits, we’re much less sympathetic.’’

Before the floor debate Wednesday, staff members from the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida met with members of the Senate Democratic caucus to discuss the impact of the redistribution plan on its members. The alliance represents public, teaching and children’s hospitals.

Lindy Kennedy, executive vice president of the alliance, told Senate Democrats that it’s been long-standing policy to give additional payments to hospitals that provide large amounts of charity care. The policy, she said, is a recognition that Medicaid pays just 60 cents of every dollar hospitals spend caring for Medicaid patients and that hospitals treating large numbers of Medicaid patients can’t afford the loss.

Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida President Tony Carvalho said three of the four largest teaching hospitals would be cut $94 million under the Senate plan.

But Senate Minority Leader Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat, reminded his members and the Safety Net Hospital of Florida lobbyists that the Senate has stood behind the industry for the last four years.

In 2015, for example, the Senate championed a Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, which would have increased the amount of federal funding flowing to the state. The Senate also was able to secure additional state funding for hospitals after the federal government reduced the amount of supplemental Medicaid dollars coming to the state.

“It’s amazing now that all of a sudden the House is a hero after they cut you all for almost half a decade,” Braynon said during the meeting. “I want to keep it in that frame of mind. That the people that we seem to have a slight problem with … are the people that have been for the most part trying to fight to keep hospitals” from getting cut.

His comments may have resonated with some Democratic members. Sen. Kevin Rader, a Delray Beach Democrat, and Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St Petersburg, opposed Rodriguez’s amendment.

The hospital financing issue isn’t the only difference between the Senate and House budgets, but it is one of the larger differences. During debate on the Rodriguez amendment, Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Rob Bradley, an Orange Park Republican, told senators that it was “is an important issue as we move into conference.”

Among other health-care spending differences, the Senate has included $130 million in additional funding for nursing homes and it also has proposed cuts to Medicaid HMOs, reducing the amount of premiums paid to the health plans from $312 per member per month to $304 per member per month.

Plans sought for hurricane fuel reserve

After runs on gas stations as people tried to flee Hurricane Irma, a Senate committee Thursday approved creation of a task force to develop plans for stockpiling fuel across the state.

The proposal (SB 700) would set up the Florida Strategic Fuel Reserve Task Force within the Florida Division of Emergency Management. The task force would recommend a strategic fuel reserve plan to meet private and public needs during emergencies and disasters.

Sen. Victor Torres, an Orlando Democrat co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said the proposal came from people who couldn’t get away from areas that were expected to be hit by Hurricane Irma in September.

“You remember how during Irma drivers were stranded and coming up from the Keys and other areas in the state from where fuel was running out,” Torres said. “I think this bill gives an opportunity now for the state to prepare better in the future so we can have those fuel locations up and ready in case a disaster comes.”

Florida strained to keep up with fuel demand as Hurricane Irma neared the state. As 6.5 million people were ordered to evacuate their homes, others scrambled for last-minute hurricane supplies. Motorists reported spending up to 12 hours on routes that typically are covered in six or seven hours.

The situation grew worse as ports, where fuel is delivered to the state, were closed due to storm winds.

Rushing fuel to South Florida before the storm, the Florida Highway Patrol served as escorts for tanker trucks.

A month later, when Hurricane Nate threatened the Gulf Coast, Gov. Rick Scott acknowledged that Florida was better prepared for Nate than Irma because there weren’t concerns about fuel shortages.

In October, Scott directed the Florida Department of Transportation to work with other state agencies, ports, law enforcement and fuel retailers to determine how to increase fuel capacity during emergencies.

The agency was supposed to produce recommendations by last month for fuel distribution and availability to consumers. Neither the agency nor Scott’s office responded by 5 p.m. Thursday when asked about the status of the report.

The nine-member task force, appointed by the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker, would be required to make recommendations by April 30, 2019. The proposal has a one-time cost of $569,000 for contractor and staff expenses.

The Senate bill doesn’t have a House version, but it is similar to a recommendation from the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness. That recommendation called for the Department of Transportation to contract for an independent study on the feasibility of establishing strategically located petroleum distribution centers.

Other select-committee recommendations included considering the use of railroads to speed fuel delivery into areas affected by storms.

The Senate bill drew unanimous support Thursday from the Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee. It would need to get approved by two more committees before it could go to the full Senate.

House alters child marriage bill to allow some minors to wed

A proposed change to a House bill that would have made it legal for some adults to have sex with children as young as 14 was tossed on Thursday after it drew criticism from a top senator.

But a House panel still pushed forward a proposal that would allow certain minors to wed, moving away from the strict ban on all child marriages it had originally.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, who championed the companion bill in the Senate, said it was “appalling” that state Rep. Kimberly Daniels filed an amendment that would have changed the House bill to “give a non-criminal violation to any adult having sexual relations with a 14 or 15-year-old.”

Hours after Daniels filed her amendment, she asked to withdraw it because it was “not germane to the bill,” state Rep. Chris Sprowls said.

“We are going to show the amendment by Rep. Daniels — we have spoken to her —we are going to show that amendment withdrawn,” Chair Sprowls told members of the Judiciary Committee.

The criminal statute Daniels wanted to tweak was the same one that makes it a criminal act for adults to entice “any person less than 16 years of age to engage in sadomasochistic abuse, sexual bestiality, prostitution, or any other act involving sexual activity.”

After tossing that proposal, the House panel adopted a change to the bill that would permit certain minors to wed under the law. Under the modified House bill, a 16-year-old who gets pregnant would be able to marry the father if he is 18 or younger. A written statement by a licensed physician would be required for a marriage license to be issued.

Despite the change, Republican state Reps. Julio Gonzalez and George Moraitis voted against the bill. Moraitis suggested changing existing law would encourage minors who get pregnant to get abortions if they can’t get married and Gonzalez said banning all minors from marrying would be an “overreach of legislative authority.”

Current state law permits minors ages 16 and 17 to marry with parental consent. But if a child of any age is pregnant, a county judge can use their discretion to authorize the marriage.

More than 16,000 children — one as young as 13 –have been granted marriage licenses in the state between 2000 and 2015. Supporters of the bill said the passage of legislation prohibiting all child marriages is a “victory for the thousands of Florida women who were forced and coerced into marriage as girls.”

The woman who inspired the legislation this year, Sherry Johnson, was forced to marry her rapist when she was 11. Her representative, Ryan Wiggins, said they were “thankful” for state Rep. Jeanette Nunez‘s leadership in the House, but “disappointed” that House Judiciary passed an amendment that “may be well-intentioned, but is equally ill-informed and based on assumptions.”

Nunez’ bill (HB 335) now heads to the full floor for consideration.

Senate approves $100 million for Florida Forever land-buying program

In an effort that would comply with voters’ wishes, the Florida Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved a proposal that would direct $100 million to the Florida Forever land-buying program every year.

“This is one of the things we can be proud of not just when we go back home, but for many years to come,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, the sponsor of the bill.

The measure is a top priority for Bradley this legislative session and said lawmakers have a responsibility to make sure the state’s “amazing ecosystems” are preserved for future generations. The measure passed on a 37-0 vote.

Now that the measure has been pushed through the Senate, all eyes are on the House, which has yet to hear its companion bill in committee. The measure has three stops before it can head to the House floor for a vote.

Bradley’s proposal would comply with the wishes of voters who approved a constitutional amendment back in 2014 that would set money aside for land and water conservation efforts. The Fleming Island Republican says his bill will ensure the constitutional amendment money is used for conservation efforts and not administrative and technical costs at agencies.

Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, questioned how the state would make sure the land is maintained and not just acquired.

“How are we going to keep our commitment to those amendment 1 dollars to keep the environment pristine?” Garcia said. “At the end of the day, for all of us in the chamber, it is not just about purchasing land, but maintaining it.”

Bradley agreed with Garcia and assured him the money for the program should also go toward land maintenance.

The environmental appropriations committee chaired by Bradley has also proposed an additional one-time $50 million for the Florida Forever Trust Fund, which would be a $150 million total for the 2018-19 budget.

The Legislature last session approved $0 in funding for the trust fund.

Florida Senate unanimously votes to ban child marriages in state

Inspired by the story of a woman who was forced to marry her rapist at 11 years old, the Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill that would ban the marriage of all minors in the state.

“It closes a loophole so that children can’t be used and abused by persons who under normal circumstances would go to jail,” said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, the sponsor of the bill.

Under state law, minors age 16 and 17 can marry with parental permission. But if a child of any age is pregnant, a county judge can use their discretion in authorizing the marriage.

Sherry Johnson, who Benacquisto said is the “spirit” of the legislation, was 10 years old when she was raped and 11 when her religious parents forced her to marry her abuser. Johnson was present in the chamber with her six children as senators voted 37-0 to pass the legislation.

“Ms. Johnson has struggled her entire life because her parents forced her into a marriage as a child,” the Fort Myers Republican said.

More than 16,000 children — one as young as 13 —were granted marriage licenses in Florida between 2000 and 2015, according to state Vital Statistics data. Overall, state data shows 80 percent of minor who marry are girls wed to adult men.

Benacquisto championed the measure in the Senate, which rocketed through committee assignments. The effort in the House has one more committee stop before it can head to the full floor for consideration.

The Tahirih Justice Center, a national advocacy group that fights violence against women and girl, applauded the Senate on passing the bill.

“The passage of this legislation today is a victory for the thousands of Florida women who were forced and coerced into marriage as girls, whose ‘marriages’ were cover-ups for heinous crimes,” said Jeanne Smoot, a senior counsel for policy and strategy for the advocacy group.

Smoot urged the House to do the same as the Senate, saying the Legislature would “set an example for the rest of the country.”

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons